God Is Love

Yesterday I read through the first half of Gerald Bray’s systematic theology, God Is Love. It’s a rollicking stem winder (if that phrase means what I think it means) that is a lot of fun and includes many asides that you wouldn’t normally find in a systematic theology. I felt as if I was listening to Hemingway after a few beers, as sometimes his authoritative tone masked non sequiturs or other puzzling statements. Here’s a few:

“If natural death is the result of sin, why does an oak tree live far longer than a rose, or some kinds of tortoise survive ten or even twenty times as long as a dog?” (p. 377).

“Giving material help and comfort, valuable and necessary as it is, cannot meet the spiritual needs of the human race. If it could, then the rich would go to heaven and the poor would be left behind—a monstrous idea that is explicitly condemned in the Bible” (p. 265).

“We like to think that a sinless world would not suffer natural calamities, but if something like congenital blindness is not the result of sin, how do we know that it would not have occurred without the fall?” (p. 275).

“This is very evident in education, where some mothers have started to express alarm that their sons are being demasculinized by a system in which they are exposed to all-female teachers and are forced to engage in activities deemed suitable to both sexes, just so that the principle of equality is observed. In practice, of course, this almost always means forcing boys to do ‘girlie’ things like drawing or making cardboard cutouts because boys tend to be more aggressive and harder to control” (p. 318).

I was most surprised to find Bray making a distinction between physical and spiritual death. He says that physical death—even for humans, is “a natural part of the time-and space-bound universe” (p. 234). He explains that, “The Bible makes it clear that death entered the world because of sin, but this must be interpreted in context. Sin is a spiritual rebellion against God, which means that the death it brings is also spiritual” (p. 234). So Bray seems to believe that Adam’s sin brought spiritual rather than physical death.

He nuances this later, saying that Adam and Eve’s physical death became a certainty when God expelled them from Eden and access to the tree of life (p.377), but he thinks they still may have died physically even if they had never sinned. He writes, “If they had lived a normal physical life and had children, there would have been a process of growth and decay, at the end of which their earthly life would have been terminated. Whether this would have been by death as we know it or by some kind of transmutation into another life, such as happened to Enoch and Elijah, we cannot say” (p. 376).

While it is common to hear this view expressed today, it is surprising to read this in a book by a theologically conservative publisher and endorsed by several conservative theologians. Take it as a sign that the ground is shifting beneath us.

I realize that I’ve only highlighted what struck me as odd or dangerous in God Is Love, so I do want to add that it’s well worth reading. There are many insightful comments that you won’t read in any other systematic theology, such as Bray’s observation that the early church wrote commentaries on every Old Testament book in the Hebrew Bible but did not write one on any books of the Apocrypha (thereby attesting to the secondary status of the Apocrypha, p. 49).

The book reveals the wide breadth of Bray’s knowledge. He may well be a genius, though this work may have benefited from an editor who reined in some of its eccentricities.

6 Comments

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  1. Half way through a book of 768 pages! Not sure how many of those pages make up the bibliography, end notes, etc. How many pages per hour do you read?

  2. Jonathan Shelley January 31, 2013 — 9:22 pm

    Mike,
    Bray’s distinction between spiritual death and physical death is well within the tradition. Augustine makes this distinction explicitly in City of God, and it is reiterated repeatedly through the Western church, including Luther. Even John Gill follows Augustine on this point.

  3. Jonathan: Obviously it’s easy to make the distinction, but are you saying that Augustine, Luther, and Gill said that Adam’s sin might have only brought spiritual rather than physical death upon him and the human race?

  4. Jonathan Shelley February 1, 2013 — 9:50 pm

    Mike,
    I would direct you to my first book, where I discuss this in great detail. It’s a very interesting and nuanced philosophical discussion.

  5. It is just a bit pricey.

  6. Jonathan,
    First, no one will read, let alone buy, your book.
    Secondly, you are right. There needs to be a distinction between the physical and spiritual death for Christianity and Judaism to make sense.

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