Midweek Blog: Phoebe Palmer and the Ocean of God

Phoebe Palmer

This week’s blog continues our series on American Church History. This week we are looking at the life and writings of Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). She was a well-known Methodist leader who taught that personal, “inward holiness” was what one ought to strive for in his or her faith (Gaustad and Noll, 405). She was a leader of the holiness movement and was very well-known as a speaker. She wrote The Way of Holiness and delivered many public addresses. We will examine The Way of Holiness in today’s blog.

Palmer wrote the book in the third person, describing her own life (Gaustad and Noll, 415). Palmer describes, “And now, realizing that she was engaged in a transaction eternal in its consequences… said, ‘O, Lord, I call heaven and earth to witness that I now lay body, soul, and spirit, with all these redeemed powers, upon thine altar, to be forever Thine! ‘Tis done! Thou has promised to receive me! Thou canst not be unfaithful!'” (Gaustad and Noll, 415-16, emphasis present).

The teaching of internal sanctification comes through Palmer’s writing here. One can see that she views a sacrifice of her entire body, soul, and spirit upon God’s altar. She notes that God promises to receive such a gift and further states that “I am thine–wholly thine!” (416). I wonder when reading Palmer’s own words whether or not many Christians today see faith in a similar manner. I am not necessarily talking about the holiness tradition here. I mean that Palmer’s enthusiasm and trust in God demonstrate just how fervently she believed in her faith. When we go to church, or pray, or serve, or share the Gospel, are we engaging our body, soul, and spirit together? Are we “laying them down upon God’s altar?” Or are we simply doing these things because we think we have to? I know I have been guilty in the past of “going through the motions” in my own faith.

While I do like Palmer’s wording above, I want to focus the rest of the blog on an image she uses. Palmer writes, “She felt in experimental verity that it was not in vain she had believed; her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God; she plunged, as it were into an immeasurable ocean of love, light, and power, and realized that she was encompassed with the ‘favor of the Almighty as with a shield; and felt assured, while she continued thus, to rest her entire being on the faithfulness of God'” (416).

There are a few phrases that are key here. The first being that “her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God.” Such a statement links up with what many of us would state; that our lives after giving them over to God have been entirely transformed and redeemed. Put another way, we can’t really remember what life was like before we gave ourselves over to God (unless yours is a very recent conversion). I think that is the power of God’s message: that God’s work is so transformative that we begin a new type of God-life in which we exist and cannot remember our old life apart from God.

The second key phrase that I wanted to focus on is that God should be seen as an “ocean of love, light, and power.” I love such a picture. It arrives on the tail of the previous phrase that one is “swallowed up in God.” One can use the image of putting a drop of vinegar into the ocean; i.e that such a small amount does not change the make-up of the ocean itself. It is still salt water despite the addition of a new substance. Going further, the vastness of the ocean (one of the most daunting, intimidating, and fear-inspiring things on earth is the perfect image to use for God. The ocean’s depths and power and magnitude are how one can visualize God’s love, light, and power. God’s love runs so deep that it seems one cannot find the bottom to it. God’s light is as vast as the endless horizon on the surface of the ocean. God’s power is akin to the power of the ocean; which can bring life and also bring terrifying destruction.

Phoebe Palmer’s understanding of holiness and sanctification thus is two-fold. The first requires a submission of one’s body, soul, and spirit. The second is that one must allow him or herself to be swallowed up in God’s ocean of love, light, and power. The continual practice of such a faith can ultimately lead to us being found as true children of God. One can see why Palmer would be so popular and successful as a teacher in the 19th century. Her message of God’s love spoke to people in a turbulent time: on the eve of the Civil War and during many of the slavery debates in the United States. The turbulent nature of this country unfortunately has not yet yielded to peaceful, tranquil times. Palmer’s teaching could still address many issues in our country today. How many of our troubles could be solved if we simply dove in to the ocean of God? No one can know for sure, but it could be a great start.

Midweek Augustine Blog: Is There Time for God?

hour-glass

Well, I thought about doing a bonus blog last week, but it never happened. I could blame my daughter for taking up all my time and attention, but the reality is I just didn’t feel like it. Oh well. Onward! This week’s blog in our series on Augustine examines my favorite “book” of the Confessions, Book XI. Augustine opens Book XI with a question: “O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity, are you unaware of the things that I tell you? Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?” (XI.1). Augustine poses a tough question that is not easily answered. He proceeds to discuss this issue throughout Book XI, and since trying to elaborate on it would fill up pages and pages of a blog, I will seek instead to hone in on a couple of key passages. I invite and recommend all of you to read Confessions in general, and particularly Book XI.

Section 13 of Book XI contains a couple of poignant statements to which I want to devote space here. Augustine notes, “It is not in time that you precede [time]. If this were so, you would not be before all time. It is in eternity, which is supreme over time because it is a never-ending present, that you are at once before all past time and after all future time. For what is now the future, once it comes, will become the past, whereas you are unchanging, your years can never fail. Your years neither go nor come, but our years pass and others come after them” (XI.13).

Trying to grasp just how God’s place in eternity lies outside of time is a heavy concept. The idea that God exists in a “never-ending present” is helpful but also difficult. For example, God is not affected by time, does not grow old, etc. However, does this mean that God is somehow limited? Think of what we know as “present.” It means that we know what is past, and do not know the future (no matter what doomsday prophets will tell you). Does God’s “never-ending present” also mean that God does not know the future. Augustine would certainly disagree with such a conclusion. In the above quotation he notes that God is “before all past time and after all future time.” Does that mean that God is simply outside of time? It would seem to suggest that. But what about Jesus (God in human flesh), who enters into time? He was born and He died. He also rose from the dead. Did Jesus know everything that was to happen? Was Jesus surprised by events in His lifetime, even if He knew His ultimate fate?

As you can see, such a discourse can open up a whole can of worms. Augustine further elaborates on God’s place in eternity: “Your years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor does it take the place of any yesterday. Your today is eternity. And this is how the Son, to whom you said, ‘I have begotten you this day,’ was begotten co-eternal with yourself. You made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time,’ if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all” (XI.13).

This is one of my favorite passages of the entire Confessions. I love how succinctly Augustine phrases such a difficult concept. He clearly uses “time” language to show just how God is eternal. Augustine demonstrates how we as humans strain to comprehend God’s existence. Since we think in terms of time, we ought to use time language in order to show just how God is greater than us. We have to think of God in an eternal present, an eternal today. In addition to that, God is the creator of time and is before and after all time. What causes us trouble is the idea of eternity. It is easy to flippantly say, “Oh God is outside of time, so God is not surprised by the future.” Well, what about when someone presses you on the matter. For example, can God truly hear our prayers (especially those that are time-sensitive, like healing or job opportunities) if God is outside of time?

This gets back to Augustine’s opening question, how can human prayer requests bridge the gap between the temporal and the eternal realms? Well I would argue that Jesus’s entering into the temporal realm facilitates that, as does the gifted Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Is such an argument helpful though? What about skeptics? Does this help us answer their tough questions about God’s nature and God’s seeming detachment from our world?

I want to bring this blog to a “timely” close before it gets too long-winded. A Bible study I was once a part of took on some of these topics. It was a great experience digging into passages and commentaries and often getting really confused. At the end of it, however, we did come to some conclusions. A question that was posed went something like this: if God is eternal and outside of time, does God know if I will go to the gym two weeks from today? Now, you might think this a rather mundane detail for God to be concerned with, but I assure you it caused a furious debate. The point was if God knows for sure (or even predestines it, which was the purpose of the question), then how does free will work? The conclusion was that we do have free will, God can just see both outcomes of whether or not we decide to go to the gym two Thursdays from now.

And this is one of the problems with calling God’s place in the universe a “never-ending present.” It makes God seem limited or restricted in some way. If we think of God as outside of time, God sees the past, present, and future all at once. God sees all possibilities of actions (and their consequences) at once. This is so much greater and more profound than an eternal present. Time is too small of a construct to contain God.

The Nye/ Ham Debate and Why Christians Should be Disappointed

Image

The Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate last night has been viewed over 740,000 times so far on YouTube, so clearly people have a dog in this fight. Asserting that the creation/ evolution debate stirs people up is quite the understatement, but this debate brings two well-known individuals together. Bill Nye really needs no introduction if you were around in the 1990s, since his show “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was shown in classrooms all across the country. Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, has a strong following as well.

So, when I heard these two were going to debate creation and evolution, I was disappointed -disappointed because of the lack of perspectives present. Nye advocates a science-first position, one that diametrically opposes creationism; especially young-earth creationism. Ham, on the other hand, forwards a position that the earth is 6,000 years old and teaches a Genesis-as-history position. While I am glad to have Bill Nye as a part of this debate, I wish that there would have been a scientific expert present. I feel as though an astrophysicist with a PhD would have been a stronger choice (though his/ her mainstream appeal would be greatly less that of Nye). Similarly, having Ken Ham there is all fine, but I would have also preferred a Christian who believes in evolution or at least an old-earth creationist.

The viewpoint presented by the “token Christian guy” in this debate is regrettably the minority position amongst Christian intellectuals. Having a theistic evolutionist, or someone with a PhD in biblical archeology would have been more enlightening than simply Ham. Ham is a seasoned debater and someone who has devoted his life to seeking to provide a biblically-based response to many of science’s critiques of Christianity. However, as Nye rightly points out, there are many Christians that have a strong faith that do not share Ham’s chronology of the universe. Having their perspectives present in this debate would have contributed greatly to the question of whether or not creation can function in a scientific world.

Now, I must state that I wanted to applaud Ham for his position that the scientific community at large serves a belief system of naturalism. There is a strong power dynamic within the scientific community to safeguard and monopolize scientific reasoning by saying that religion and science cannot co-exist (religion is also equally culpable in this regard). However, Ham’s attacks against “scientism” are exaggerated as well. To say that only young-earth creationists should be teaching science to our young people is just irresponsible. Overall this debate engages many of the major disputes of creationists-evolutionists, but there remains a decided lack of representation by other viewpoints.

I must weigh-in personally now. As one who is working on a PhD in Theology while having a bachelor’s in biology from Ohio State, I have heard many of the arguments from this debate before. I will say that while I personally am not convinced that a young earth model of creation lines up with scientific data, I do hold to creationism. I feel that God created the cosmos. I also feel that it’s possible that God allowed evolution to happen. I think at the end of the day, however, it doesn’t really matter because the message to Christians in the Bible is Jesus and the salvation He brings, not the minutiae of species variegation. I think that when people wish to engage in the creation/ evolution or religion/science debate, they need to remember that science and religion are not necessarily opposites.

For a great perspective on the Nye/ Ham debate, see Peter Enns’s blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2014/01/bill-nye-vs-ken-ham-giving-credibility-to-nonsense-or-walking-into-an-apologetic-war-machine/