Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Man's Awesome Destiny - a response to Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne is one of the most approachable and thoughtful advocates for Armstrongism today (he refers to it Reformed Armstrongism). I really appreciate his willingness to engage those of us who are of a more jaundiced disposition, something which is in my experience extremely rare. Even when the language on this side of the fence gets overly strident, Ian seems to maintain his composure. He serves in one of the more benign COGs, the Church of God International, a movement with which I was once briefly associated myself "in the high and far-off times". Moreover, Ian is widely read in a way that is quite exceptional for COG ministers.

Ian recently issued something of a challenge. The gist of it was - and I hope I'm getting this right - that the shining thread that inspires the followers of Herbert Armstrong today isn't BI, but the concept of human destiny in the family of God. Here we find purpose and direction for our lives.
"[Herbert Armstrong] taught the glorious truth not found in any New Covenant church that all saved human beings of ALL RACES would become, equally, God beings after the millennium and the Great White Throne judgment. If you want to see a robust defense of that doctrine, I invite you to read my short booklet online Man's Awesome Destiny... It was published by CGI [and it] does not regurgitate HWA's Why Were You Born. I would be gleeful if Byker Bob, Gavin or Gary would read and critique it. I would be over the moon!"
The booklet can be found in PDF format here. I don't intend to go through it in detail, so doubt Ian will get all the way to the moon on this trip, but am happy to offer a few comments. I confess that it was this WCG teaching, certainly not BI, that appealed most to my teenage self, a real contrast to the rather dry trinitarianism that was drummed in during Lutheran confirmation classes (using a text with the magnificent title Catechetical Helps).

Right at the outset let's put the idea of theosis on the table. "Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature" (Mark Shuttleworth). This is an entirely legitimate understanding of human destiny for those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. You could argue that Armstrong adopted this position, then ran off with it adding in his own unique spin, but I think it's more likely that he simply adapted parts of Mormon doctrine. But regardless, the idea that humans can become divine isn't in itself such a big issue.

Ian's booklet delves into apologetics quite quickly, discussing "the Anthropic Principle" (I'm not sure why he capitalises it). The idea is that everything in the universe is purpose-built for life. It's an expansion of "the Goldilocks principle" (that planet earth is designed to be "just right" for humanity). Ian states, "The evidence for it is simply overwhelming." Not so overwhelming, though, that it isn't highly contested. The relevance of this to the core argument Ian is proposing seems a bit tangential to me. I guess the reason for introducing it into the discussion is to demonstrate that a wonderful human destiny is indicated by intelligent design. I'm of the opinion that there is a certain circularity to this line of thinking, but what do I know? If you're interested, there's a much smarter discussion of the anthropic principle than I could ever offer over at the University of Oregon website.

Ian loses me, though, when he makes an impassioned call for his readers to drop to their knees: "Could you please, at this point, stop reading and pray... Conviction of truth comes through the Holy Spirit... Pray now for God's divine guidance on this subject." Well, okay, but I don't think this necessarily bolsters his case. We all know people who pray an awful lot but still believe all kinds of nonsense.

For some of us the statement "If Jesus is not God, then man cannot be God" rather ruins the argument. WCG always had a very mixed Christology, reaching a crescendo of confusion with Ted Armstrong's The Real Jesus, and I'd personally want to step away from any full-blown binitarianism. I'm not saying that Ian is wrong, only that this logic only works from a certain perspective. Former Ambassador College faculty member Sir Anthony Buzzard plays the game equally well and confidently arrives at a type of biblical unitarianism (see for example The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound, co-authored with former WCG evangelist Charles Hunting) .

Ian rolls out a selection of texts to bolster his case, as you'd expect. I note that he includes 1 Peter ("In 1 Peter 5:10 we have the unmistakable words from the pen of inspiration") and Colossians. The trouble is that Colossians is not counted among the authentic letters of Paul, nor 1 Peter regarded as from the hand of Peter. At best they form a second line of defense in any credible academic discussion. During my studies, I remember being assigned a very thick textbook on the Ephesian church (Paul Trebilco's The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius) in which the author studiously avoided using the book of Ephesians because of its contested authorship. Curated proof texts of this sort are inadequate to a serious discourse, something I expect Ian would agree with in discussing the Buzzard and Hunting book. I like the fact that Ian includes a short discussion of 'weak texts' which don't support the weight of the argument.

To summarise, Man's Awesome Destiny is an interesting and in some respects quite original defense of the God Family doctrine. Ian distances himself from the more extreme statements, but I'm of the view that he weakens his argument at several points exactly where he seeks to strengthen it. If we were discussing a non-trinitarian understanding of theosis, one not intermixed with extraneous elements and rhetorical flourishes, then I might be prepared to concede a point here and there.

You can judge the merits of Ian's booklet for yourself. As for me, I suspect that the real meaning of life lies in the meaning we bring to life.

(Update: clarification added in the paragraph about 1 Peter).


Miller Jones said...

I'm glad you took up Mr. Boyne's challenge. I agree with you about the uncertainty inherent to wading into the weeds of whether or not God can best be described as one, two, three or many personages. I did appreciate Mr. Boyne's acknowledgement that we will never be completely "equal" to God (a point that many Armstrogists don't get). I believe that Scripture (for those who see merit/value in the information presented there) and our own experiences propel one to the conclusion that God wants to share "His" life with us and make us a part of "His" family. However, in my opinion, we are getting into the high weeds when we start trying to pin down exactly what that means/entails to/for each of us. And, for those who are interested, you may want to check out my recent comments/musings on the nature of the Holy Spirit (and my metaphors should not be construed as any kind of commentary on whether or not the Holy Spirit is a personage - once again, I'm content to leave that discussion to braver souls than me).

Anonymous said...

"Ian rolls out a selection of texts to bolster his case, as you'd expect. I note that he includes 1 Peter ('In 1 Peter 5:10 we have the unmistakable words from the pen of inspiration') and Colossians. The trouble is that neither book is counted among the authentic letters of Paul."

Not even the most extreme fundamentalist thinks 1 Peter is counted among the authentic letters of Paul. But so what if many modern scholars have doubts about Paul's authorship of this letter? The booklet was not written to provide a defense of Pauline authorship, so I don't see how this is "trouble" for Ian's thesis. Some of those same scholars--not all of them, of course--still regard Colossians a part of "inspired" Scripture, however they may define "inspired."

It was my understanding that Ian was inviting readers to review his arguments within the boundaries of his presuppositions regarding the inspiration of NT documents. His challenge concerned whether or not his exegesis of the texts is valid, not whether the texts are valid.

But on the subject of scholarly opinions regarding authorship, it appears to be your opinion that the modern scholars who doubt Pauline authorship are the most learned, most serious, and least biased of the New Testament scholars. I'm not sure how much of your leaning is conditioned by your exposure to Armstrong fundamentalism--maybe less than I tend to think, but maybe not. In any case, I think it's only fair to point out that many other NT scholars favor Pauline authorship of Colossians, though their theological views do not depend on it. They point out that the epistle's style and language are well within the boundaries of typical Pauline style and language, and that the author's use of terms that are not typical of Paul may be due to his use of his opponents' language for the purpose of refuting them.

Anonymous said...

Was Ian trying to "bolster his case" by encouraging his readers to pray for guidance in understanding? Or was that merely an expression of his deeply held conviction? And does the fact that a lot of people who hold crazy ideas pray necessarily mean that prayer is always worthless? Ian presupposes that God exists and that He responds to sincere prayers. Whether that is true has nothing to do with Ian's challenge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Gavin, for the alacrity with which you took up my challenge to read and review my MAD booklet(Never thought of that acronym! LOL) Thanks, too, for your deep generosity of spirit which you displayed in your critique. I thank you most sincerely for your kind comments about me and for your charitableness. I think that the courtesies that you, Gary and Byker Bob in particular have extended toward me as a practising Armstrongite (and even ""worse" a minister) demonstrate your large-heartedness and show that there can be respectful, civil between those still n this movement and those who are among its critics--even its fiercest. Love after all--not rituals like Sabbath-keeping and feast days--is the greatest of all virtues. Ian Boyne

Anonymous said...

Gavin said, "I confess that it was this WCG teaching, certainly not BI, that appealed most to my teenage self, a real contrast to the rather dry trinitarianism that was drummed in during Lutheran confirmation classes."

That was the teaching that appealed most to me, as well. When I added that "awesome" doctrine the concept of the wideness of salvation (the view that everyone will be given a full opportunity for salvation, and most will ultimately be saved) and his teaching on the fate of the incorrigibly wicked (contrasted with eternal suffering in hell), my young mind FINALLY found something that made sense. It became the center of my small universe.

The only "gospel" I had heard in the church I grew up in was almost entirely one of rescue. God the Father sent His Son to rescue us from eternal torment in hell. But there was no clear purpose for human existence. God, for some reason, kept the soul factory going, knowing that most would spend eternity in torment, but He loves us so much He sent us a rescue line--His only-begotten Son. That made no sense to me. It didn't explain WHY. But when I came to an understanding of the concepts of God reproducing Himself, of no eternal suffering, and of a genuine plan for giving everyone a fair opportunity for fulfilling their proper destiny, that was it! Answers! Finally! THAT, not BI or prophetic sensationalism, was the heart and core of my "conversion" experience.

I think that's what Ian is talking about when he speaks of the superiority of Armstrongism. He will not allow the negative side of Armstrongism to cause him to throw it all away. Instead, he wants to reform it by correcting Armstrong's weak arguments and by adding scholarly support for key theological concepts. He has a point.

Anonymous said...

You got it, Anonymous!!!(Sorry about the Armstrongite trademark) But it's worth exclaiming .You have understood me perfectly! Those doctrines alone , especially for someone like me with a lifelong fascination with philosophical and theological scholarship and a deep immersion in comparative religions, are worth the myriad errors and obscurantism of Armstrongism. I actually believe that when we add it up, Armstrong might have taught more errors than truths, but the profundity of those truths he got right far outweigh the errors. Just last night I was reading some new books on justification by faith, including NT Wright's "Paul and His Recent Interpreters", a companion volume to his massive two-volume tome which I have, "Paul and the Faithfulness of God"; as well as Thomas Schreiner's "Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification", and it was again reinforced how this high school dropout Armstrong got it right about what was really at the heart of the Gospel. (It was not justification by faith as taught by Luther and the other Reformers The New Perspective on Paul has shattered that myth.) Recent studies on the Kingdom of God as well as important work on the Hebraic roots of the Gospels and the Epistles show Armstrong way ahead of his time. Armstrong was not bright enough to pull together the doctrines he did from disparate sources without divine guidance. But let's not even get off on that. Suffice it to say, serious works in philosophy of religion, epistemology , theodicy and religious pluralism have highlighted for me the gem of a doctrine that so-called second chance view of Armstrongism is, coupled with theosis. It is a pity that all that is truly wrong with classic Armstrongism and its derivatives has led thoughtful people like Byker Bob into the arms of a bankrupt "Christianity" and deeply reflective individuals like GG--Gary and Gavin-- away from the deep insights of Herbert Armstrong, when he really did get it right. Ian Boyne

Miller Jones said...

There are so many problems with the theology behind "The Incredible Human Potential" that I'd be very reluctant to put it in Herbert Armstrong's win column! In fact, the elements that he did get right are probably more correctly assigned to the category of dumb luck. Man's destiny is awesome, and God's mercy is spectacular; but Herbert Armstrong's doctrines/theology were/was fatally flawed. Moreover, although I think that both sides explanations of grace and law are imperfect, if I was pressed to choose which side I believe to be closer to the truth, I'd have to give the edge to the traditional side.

Gavin R said...

Of course, there's another option. You don't have to eat at Burger King with its limited menu (choosing an Armstrong whopper rather than a Southern Baptist cheeseburger). Down the road there are real cafes and restaurants serving healthier fare. Not just other Christian traditions, but different approaches and ways to understand life.

The "deep insights of Herbert Armstrong." No, sorry, not buying that. The man plumbed new depths of shallowness. At the end of the day, he was just another self-deluded preacher in the larger Adventist tradition.

BTW the verdict on N T Wright and the 'new approach to Paul' isn't in yet. Not that there's likely to be a return to a Lutheran understanding either. Gloating is premature. And I'd be prepared to go out on a very short limb and suggest that the good Bishop Wright would laugh at the suggestion that his work could be used to vindicate Herb.

Gavin R said...

@ Anon # 1 who said "Not even the most extreme fundamentalist thinks 1 Peter is counted among the authentic letters of Paul. But so what if many modern scholars have doubts about Paul's authorship of this letter? The booklet was not written to provide a defense of Pauline authorship, so I don't see how this is "trouble" for Ian's thesis."

There are fundamentalists aplenty, extreme, moderate or just conservative evangelical, who count 1 Peter as fully authentic. In fact, it'd be hard to be a fundamentalist without believing that.

Your second point is puzzling. Ian's argument uses deutero-Pauline literature in an uncritical way ("the unmistakable words from the pen of inspiration"). My point is that his sources aren't exactly rock-solid. How is this not "trouble" for Ian's thesis.

Anonymous said...

Gavin, I did cringe when I wrote, "the deep insights of Herbert Armstrong", anticipating, correctly it turns out, how offensive that would sound to trained ears like yours. But I maintain his theological system, minus the garbage,( which equals Reformed Armstrongism) is still the best thing on offer in conservative Christianity.Which brings me to your point about authorship. I am a professional communicator(A journalist and a communications/public relations specialist) Remember I wrote for a conservative, Fundamentalist audience Inspiration is assumed in that audience. They proof-text to disprove Armstrong's God Family doctrine. How best to engage them but to show that by using a conservative approach to Scripture that Armstrong's doctrine is ,in fact, established? Gavin, when you critique something you have to do so understanding the paradigm within it is written. There is no trouble for my thesis, therefore, on that basis.
I am well acquainted with the objections(including yours!) to NT Wright's work and the critique of the New Perspective. I have read a lot of it. I think Westerholm, Seifrid and even Piper have offered some good counter-points or clarifications, but the New Perspective fellows, as well as Douglas Campbell in his magisterial work "The Deliverance of God", have cast enough doubts on traditional Reformation soteriology to be signal caution. Ian Boyne

Anonymous said...

Gavin: Anon #1 here. As I attempted to explain, your point about Colossians belongs to a different discussion, as it lies outside Ian's presuppositions and the boundaries of his challenge. That's a good discussion to have, but it doesn't belong here, as this discussion presupposes that Colossians is inspired of God. Besides, whether or not Paul wrote it doesn't matter.

And you missed my point about 1 Peter. I don't know of any fundamentalist, or anyone else, for that matter, who thinks 1 Peter is among the authentic letters OF PAUL. Peter...Paul.... Get it? I was actually dropping in a little humor there.

Gavin R said...

Okay, point taken re. 1 Peter. Sloppy writing on my part. I don't accept that this discussion presupposes anything about traditional ascriptions, nor what is or isn't inspired. Again, I ask that you provide us with some form of identification - a pen name would be fine.

Anonymous said...

Where in the world is Byker Bob???Ian Boyne

Byker Bob said...

The Hebrew and Greek of 2-3,000 years ago were relatively simple and imprecise languages. There are passages in the Old Testament which use such verbiage as "all", and "slay them utterly" and then several paragraphs or chapters following compliance, one finds some of the objects of the destruction still walking around, eating, sleeping, and breathing. Likewise, "forever" was understood by the Jews to mean for so long as certain conditions existed. Otherwise, Paul would not have been able to declare that circumcision was no longer required for those who had committed to follow God, and Jesus Christ. Circumcision was the lynchpin of multiple covenants, and was an integral part of temple worship. Likewise, when Jews used statements describing a number of days or nights, partial days or nights could have been included in those numbers. We know these things from Bart Ehrman, and other scholars, many of whom have more advanced understanding of the nuances of ancient languages than was available even short decades ago. Such concepts as percentages were seemingly unexpressed amongst the ancients.

Therefore, a strictly literalist meaning, rooted in our own understandings of today, is not able to be reliably extrapolated from verses lifted "precept upon precept" style from different books of the Bible. Humans are described in the Bible as being in the image of God. Yet, we know that percentages of restriction are imposed. There are filters, such as the limitations of the five senses imposed, and the limited lifespan of mankind, and the time-space continuum. Can we really extrapolate that "glory" means man's ultimate destiny is to have this glory or power at 100% level? Will glorified humans be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent as members of the God "species" would need to be? How would omnipresent beings dwell in the New Jerusalem? I don't know that such superlatives could be extrapolated from the verbiage of the Bible. Doesn't it make sense that instead of going full throttle, God would still impose limitations on His children, that there would be additional stages of development, that entry into the Kingdom of Heaven would be somewhat of an equivalent of commencement exercise? I am sure that the next stage will be glorious, however, the exact nature of this is unfathomable to man at this point in time, given our limited understanding. In fact, one can imagine other alternatives possible well within the framework of the basic language.

I do not believe that such precision as offered up by Ian and others before him can be derived from or inferred from the paucity and limitations of the verbiage in the Bible. Basically his conclusion presumes fulfillment at 100%. God seems to have designed a certain level of mystery into the origins of mankind, and his ultimate destiny. Those who partook of the Armstrong experience seem to have a compulsion towards having every single answer, in precise detail, a sort of gnosticism advertised as being unavailable to those outside the movement. This was always part of the "hook" and much of it is based on leaps and speculation.

I liked the general tone and style of the booklet. It appeared to be geared towards a relatively intelligent audience.


Byker Bob said...

Immediately after posting, I noticed Ian's question at 18:25. I've got a business to run. I drive many miles, and disposable time is frequently at a premium. I'm also planning some sort of new Harley Davidson project which may be based on a Dyna Glide, or a trike with NASCAR style independent rear suspension. The sort of responses being sought in the current discussion require a bit more thought than typical comments one would normally make regarding the latest antics of the ACOG leaders. I'll always contribute, but there may be some time lags.