24 February 2017

The God who stays the course.

James 1.16-18.

In verse 15, James used a pregnancy metaphor to describe how one’s own desires conceives and gives birth to sin. In these verses, he kept up the metaphors. God’s like the planets and moon, only unlike them, he doesn’t go through phases and retrogrades. And we’re like the firstfruits, the crops the Hebrews took their tithes from.

James 1.16-18 KWL
16 Don’t be led astray, my beloved fellow Christians: 17 Every good gift,
every perfect present from above, came down from the Father of heavenly lights.
There’s no phase, no seasonal shadows, with him.
18 His will birthed us by his truthful word, for us to be one of the firstfruits of his creation.

“Don’t be led astray” connects with the previous idea: God isn’t the source of temptation and sin. We are. Determinists regularly make that mistake, figuring if they were almighty like God, they’d let nothing out of their control, and project that view upon God. Even though God clearly, regularly objects to sin throughout the bible, and states he had nothing to do with it. Jr 7.31, 19.5, 32.35 But determinists insist he does so have something to do with it, for not even birds fall out of trees without God’s knowledge. Mt 10.29

Since a lot of determinists profess they’re only following John Calvin’s lead, just for fun let’s have Calvin correct ’em.

Do not err. This is an argument from what is opposite; for as God is the author of all good, it is absurd to suppose him to be the author of evil. To do good is what properly belongs to him, and according to his nature; and from him all good things come to us. Then, whatever evil he does, is not agreeable to his nature. But as it sometimes happens, that he who quits himself well through life, yet in some things fails, he meets this doubt by denying that God is mutable like men. But if God is in all things and always like himself, it hence follows that well-doing is his perpetual work. Calvin at James 1.16-18 

By “whatever evil he does,” Calvin explained in his next paragraph: Sometimes God’s gotta punish sinners with acts we might prima facie call “evil,” but aren’t really. It’s not at all in God’s nature to do evil. Not accidentally, not passively, not intentionally, not ever. There’s no dark side to him. 1Jn 1.5 No secret evil plan. What he revealed of himself to us, is who he legitimately is.

And if we wanna compare God with the heavenly lights he created… well, for this interpretation we need to learn a little ancient astronomy.

“There is no shadow of turning with thee.”

Y’might’ve heard that line from Thomas Chisholm’s hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and of course Chisholm took the “shadow of turning” phrase from the King James Version of James 1.17. The assumption your average interpreter makes, is these shadows are the ones cast by the heavenly lights which God created.

Genesis 1.16 KWL
God made two great lights:
The great light for ruling the day, and the small light for ruling the night. And the stars.

They’d be right, but they’re thinking in short-term instead of the more appropriate long term.

See, they imagine the turning shadows are the ones the sun makes—or the moon makes at night—over the course of the day. As the earth spins, the shadows cast by the sun at 5 a.m. are hardly the same as the shadows cast at 5 p.m. In the morning all the shade is on the west side of the house; in the evening, the east side. In the morning the trees are shading the swimming pool; in the evening the trees are shading the neighbor’s yard. These would be the shadows “of turning.”

Um… what’s turning, again? Well the earth, of course.

But did the ancients know the earth was turning? No. Most of ’em believed, as Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria had written in his Almagest, our earth holds still (do you feel it spinning?) and everything in the cosmos rotates around us. A bit human-centric, but we get like that. Since the ancients figured the earth doesn’t spin—and, from their perspective, the moon doesn’t spin, ’cause we always see the same side—it never occurred to them any of the planets and stars turned. Nothing turned.

Then what’s this tropís/“turn” refer to? Wasn’t the earth’s rotation, nor the sun’s. It had to do with the turn of the seasons. Over the course of a year, the sun’s “orbit round the earth” wobbles. Really, it’s the fact the earth is tilted 23.4°, which means on 21 June the north half of the planet faces the sun most (and from our viewpoint the sun’s gonna be as far north in the sky as it gets), and on 21 December the reverse (with the sun way south).

So if you have a sundial, don’t live near the equator, and compare the noon sundial shadow on 21 December and 21 June, you get very different shadows. It’s not a subtle difference. And yeah, this is where our solstices come from. The ancients started celebrating these days ’cause they figured the sun in the sky gradually moved from north to south… then turned round and went south to north. That’s the “turn” James meant.

It’s kinda obvious God doesn’t have wildly varying mood swings throughout the day. But James was trying to make the point God doesn’t have long-term mood swings either. He’s not gonna be gracious in spring, vengeful in fall.

Likewise a parallagí/“phase.” Yep, James was speaking of lunar phases. (And planetary phases. It’s actually possible—though really difficult—to see with the naked eye how Venus goes through phases just like the moon. Telescopes help.) God’s love for us doesn’t vary week to week either. Not year to year; not week to week. He’s consistent. He’s dependable. And never evil.

We’re not random either.

James had just pointed out:

James 1.14-15 KWL
14 Each person is tempted, lured away, baited, by their own desires.
15 Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin; the full-grown sin produces death.

But in verse 18, he wrote,

James 1.18 KWL
His will birthed us by his truthful word, for us to be one of the firstfruits of his creation.

Our out-of-control fixations produce sin, which produces death. But our fully-in-control-of-himself God created us. Not by accident nor circumstance. It was a definite decision on his part. God has free will, same as we do, and chose to create us.

More: God chose to make us a special holy batch, intended for his specific purposes. His people, James wrote, are his firstfruits. Firstfruits were the first of the crops to ripen, or the first animals to be born. Like most cultures, the Hebrews celebrated when the firstfruits showed up—hey, fresh produce for once!—and had several harvest festivals throughout the year. But God had instructed the Hebrews to set aside a tenth of their harvest, namely the firstfruits, and use it as tithing and offerings. Dt 14.22-29 Go ahead and enjoy it, but remember to keep God in mind—and remember to be generous with it, and bless others.

Likewise we Christians are God’s firstfruits. We’re his offering to the world. We’re what he shares with humanity. Our blessings affect the rest of the world. Our generosity and goodness is meant to win ’em over to God’s side. And when we don’t bother with generosity and goodness, they’re not won over, and rightly figure us hypocrites.

So, back to James’s “Don’t be led astray” idea. Jm 1.16 Don’t get the idea God is winging it. That sometimes he’s good, sometimes evil, and has no purpose for our existence other than to entertain himself. You know, like the Greco-Roman gods. God’s not developing us by trial and error: He knows what he’s doing. He’s leading us where he wants us. If trials appear, and they will, it’s not because God’s tormenting us for fun: He’s right here, helping us through them, and frequently saving us from worse.

God’s not a dispassionate, manipulative barbarian like the pagan gods, nor like humans. He’s always with us, always here for us, and always gonna do good.

So keep reading the gospels. Pay attention to how Jesus describes his Father. Don’t start deducing false ideas from nature, experience, wishful thinking, what we’d do in his cosmic shoes, pessimism, cynicism, or worst of all, nihilism. Follow Jesus, and stick to his God. The real God.