I can’t remember who first taught me this axiom of Bible reading, but I have been forever grateful. When you come across a knotty passage in Scripture, don’t glide past it—untie it.
A confusing or confounding passage is an opportunity to learn. Sometimes knotty verses reveal our ignorance, or that we haven’t understood the passage—such as when we’re reading Hebrews 6 and the obscure figure of Melchizedek suddenly looms out of the mist and we wonder what’s he got to do with the price of fish.
But sometimes we come across Bible verses that are knotty and confounding not because they are obscure but because we find them objectionable. They tie us in knots. They cut across our assumptions or expectations about what God is like or we are like or the world is like. They expose our deepest, baseline attitudes and beliefs, and where they have gone astray.
We had one like this in church last Sunday. In Romans 9, after talking about how God will have mercy on some people and harden other people, and that it’s entirely up to him, Paul then asks the obvious rhetorical question:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (v 18)
Fair enough question, you might think. If God calls all the shots, then why are we to blame for finding ourselves on his bad side? And then comes this:
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? (vv 19-20)
Perhaps there are more objectionable verses in the Bible than these ones, but surely not by much.
Something deep within my Western soul rages against these ideas. Me, a lump of clay?! An object in the hands of a Supreme Being to do with what he wants? How utterly dehumanising and oppressive! Whatever happened to human dignity? Surely this is the poisonous spirit of primitive religion at its worst. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, They kill us for their sport” (King Lear, 4.1.36-37).
As the preacher on Sunday pointed out, these verses in Romans 9 are difficult for us because we are profoundly convinced that we are at the centre of the universe, not God. We can’t cope with the idea that we might be bit players in someone else’s drama, rather than the star of our own story.
This is old as Adam and Eve. But it’s a particularly virulent problem for modern, Western people like us. It’s part of what we used to call our ‘worldview’, and which some clever people these days call our ‘social imaginary’, and which (in the words of that philosophical treatise, The Castle) you could think of simply as ‘the Vibe’. It’s the complex, often unstated web of beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world, which our culture constantly reinforces and transmits to us, which we absorb and come to accept, and upon which we operate day by day.
For nearly three centuries, our Western culture has been steadily constructing a Vibe in which God is excluded, and man is the centre and measure of all things. We don’t even notice or articulate this any more. We just live as if it’s the case. The debates we have with each other on any issue (political, social, ethical) proceed on this basis. The stories we tell each other—in movies and TV shows and books—assume it and reinforce it constantly. It’s hard to imagine any Hollywood movie in which God is the potter and we are the clay, unless of course we are the plucky heroic figures of clay, who come to life, follow our hearts, destroy the evil oppressive potter, and go on to realise all our dreams.
It occurred to me again on Sunday how important the rejection of God as creator has been to our Vibe. The sovereignty of God over us is the sovereignty of a potter over his clay. To assert ourselves as the centre of all things, and to exclude him as sovereign, we must reject his claim over us as our Potter.
And of course, this is what we have done. It started in the 17th century with the semi-polite rejection called Deism, in which we decided that God had made us, once upon a time, but had since lost interest, and no longer really cared very much what we do. He was there (most likely) but he was not a factor, and certainly not knowable in any reliable sense. If we were going to figure out how to be and how to live, we would have to do so on our own terms, starting from scratch. This was essentially the program of the Enlightenment—to construct a worldview-vibe from the ground up, in which we could understand morality, the world and ourselves, without reference to an external divine authority or source of knowledge. It was a program that in most respects assumed that the Christian morality and worldview of the time was correct, but that we should be able to demonstrate and explore and explain it without reference to God.
And the sidelining of God as Creator was a critical aspect of this. This sidelining of course moved into overdrive in the late 19th century with the rise of Darwinism, particularly in the way that it was ideologically spun and argued by Thomas Huxley and others. Huxley was a militant atheist and wanted to deny the claim of any supreme God over our lives. He saw, with a clarity perhaps that Darwin didn’t, that if we could dispense with God as Creator we could dispense with any connection that God has with us and our world. His supremacy and authority would evaporate.
The consequences of all this have been cataclysmic, and many have traced them. I’m currently reading Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which essentially tells the story of how in our current Western cultural Vibe (or social imaginary), we have come to think of ourselves as psychological self-creators. We are lumps of clay who are convinced that our inner feelings and thoughts determine who we really are, and the reality of the world outside us. If we think and feel that we really are a woman, even though we are biologically a man, then so much the worse for biology. I am a woman trapped in a man’s body. In fact, the whole category of ‘woman’ is now problematic and potentially offensive. Bring on the ‘birthing persons’.
Ditto with morality. If there is no Creator, then there is no objective moral order to the world. Morality and ethics emanate outwards from us as human subjects. We value certain things; we come to feel that certain things are right or wrong (for whatever reason); and that’s about it. Morality becomes a framework that we have come up with for our own purposes, or that evolution has thrown up for various advantageous reasons—which sounds great if you want to do exactly what you want, but which is in fact a recipe for moral absurdity and chaos.
We can’t even talk to each other properly any more about moral issues, because there is nothing objective beyond ourselves and our feelings to talk about (as ethicists like Alasdair Macintyre and Oliver O’Donovan have sharply pointed out). Coherent moral discussion becomes impossible, because all we have to fall back on is the blunt assertion of our own values—whether they are expressed as ‘rights’ that we assert, or as unassailable moral sentiments that we personally hold.
Once we exclude the idea that reality is created and formed and objectively ordered in all its aspects by the true and living God, we descend into confusion and perversity. Or in the words of an ancient cultural critic, “They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …”
This is why the doctrine of creation is so foundational to the gospel itself, and presumably why it keeps cropping up in New Testament gospel presentations or expositions (e.g. in Acts 14 and 17, and in Romans 1-8). Without it, sin makes no sense, nor judgement, nor (therefore) the atoning work of Christ and his bodily resurrection as the God-man who rules all of creation.
If we dig down into the foundations of the gospel and the whole Bible, we find God as the mighty sovereign creator of all things. And the constant rejection of this idea by the Vibe of our culture gives us all sorts of problems. It means that we struggle to explain why we have such a different moral viewpoint on some issues—because we believe, for example, that God made men and women and human sexuality in a certain way, and that this is an objective aspect of the order of our world for us to come to terms with.
It also means that we struggle to explain why God has any claim over our lives, and why rejecting and rebelling against him is not only so wrong, but also so damaging to us and the world.
Among Christians, in the various debates that we have had about creation, creationism, theistic evolution and the like, this key point has sometimes been lost. The exact mechanism and timeframe within which God created all things is something we can debate, and something that people of good biblical faith will have different views on. You can be a young-earth creationist or an old-earth creationist or a God-used-some-evolutionary-mechanisms-creationist or (like me) a not-entirely-sure-how-creationist. We may differ on the adjective at the front, but not on the noun. We must be creationists.
God is the Potter and we are the clay. This is a crucial truth to affirm and fight for and proclaim to one another and to the world. We need to keep doing this until Romans 9 is not a difficult passage for us to read, and to preach to our world.
I thought it was very disciplined of me not to mention Two ways to live during this post, given that the new edition is due out any day. But I guess I’ve ruined that now! To find out more, here’s some info from Matthias Media on the new 2WTL.
This is a partner post, but as always feel free to share it around with friends, people at church, and and so on. (And if at the same time you want to encourage people to sign up, at least on the free list, then that wouldn’t do any harm either.)