November 23, 2012

some thoughts on mental illness, from reading and experience

"The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits."

- GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

In this book, or a similar one, Chesteron also spoke about how a sane person had a larger world than an insane one. And I do believe it was thinking about the great mysteries of Trinity, Incarnation, and the Creation that helped keep me sane in my hospitalizations, especially the most recent.

I was lucid, even when I lost my memory, or got too agitated to feel in control.

And I would say that this type of meds (in my case, Zyprexa) is definitely better than the earlier kind, from my personal experience. Basically, the older ones I felt like didn't just modulate dopamine; they messed with my limbic system. And Limbo is not a place I want to be.

September 2, 2012

More wisdom from Catholic moral theology

I've been reading a lot of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict's writings this weekend, and deeply appreciating the measured, reflective, and multi-faceted approach he takes to contentious issues. I've also appreciated that he is catholic in the best sense of the world, aware of the history of the church, the development of doctrine, and the broader cultural and social context in which we find ourselves. Though it may just be a coincidence, I haven't yet run across many passages where he mentioned specifically Catholic doctrines with which I would have to take issue.

I particularly appreciate the pastoral tone he uses in discussing homosexuality in the letter he wrote in the mid-80s in his capacity as doctrinal watchdog for the Catholic Church: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfhomop.htm. Evangelicals could learn from the approach he takes here.

Key quotes:

"Providing a basic plan for understanding [the] entire discussion of homosexuality is the theology of creation we find in Genesis. God, by his infinite wisdom and love, brings into existence all of reality as a reflection of his goodness. He fashions mankind, male and female, in his own image and likeness. Human beings, therefore, are nothing less than the work of God himself; and in the complementarity of the sexes, they are called to reflect the inner unity of the Creator. They do this in a striking way in their cooperation with him in the transmission of life by a mutual donation of the self to the other."

"To chose someone of the same sex for one's sexual activity is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator's sexual design. Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.

As in every moral disorder, homosexual activity prevents one's own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God. The Church, in rejecting erroneous opinions regarding homosexuality, does not limit but rather defends personal freedom and dignity realistically and authentically understood."

"...[T]he Church's wise moral tradition is necessary since it warns against generalizations in judging individual cases. In fact, circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance; or other circumstances may increase it. What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behaviour of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable. What is essential is that the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well. As in every conversion from evil, the abandonment of homosexual activity will require a profound collaboration of the individual with God's liberating grace."

"No authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin."

"The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a "heterosexual" or a "homosexual" and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life."

"Christians who are homosexual are called, as all of us are, to a chaste life. As they dedicate their lives to understanding the nature of God's personal call to them, they will be able to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance more faithfully and receive the Lord's grace so freely offered there in order to convert their lives more fully to his Way."

May 25, 2012

On Just War Theory and the Church's Relation to the Military

Someone recently raised the question, "Does the close association of conservative American evangelical Christians with the American military betray our eagerness to fight the Lord's battles with the world's resources?"

Without further explanation on his part, I'm not sure entirely what he means by that, or what his position on the justness of war in general, the relationship of church to state (i.e., two kingdoms), or the application to our American context is. But I'll do my best to give my views about all three issues below.

I'm conflicted here, in the sense that I have a lot of good friends who are Christians who are anti-war in nearly all circumstances since they are from an Anabaptist/peace church tradition. On the other hand, I also have a lot of Christian friends with military backgrounds from both Colorado Springs (where my wife is from) and Lancaster County (where I'm from).

I have a great deal of respect for the people of the military since they believe in values like honor and loyalty which most of the country has forgotten. In fact Nicolas Kristof cited an interesting study showing that liberals like him didn't really view honor and loyalty as part of morality - for them morality was almost entirely about concern for the weak, which is vital but not a total picture of morality as the Bible, and traditional culture, depict it.

On the other hand, I think that some of the wars that we've been in recently were unwise, leaving the question of Christian morality aside for the moment.


Afghanistan at the time we went in was justified to my mind, since they were harboring Bin Laden and essentially aligned with him. Now we should probably leave though, since our mission has lost legitimacy with the Afghan people, and it's becoming a repeat of the Soviet Union's involvement there, where the culture of Afghanistan eventually wore them down till then had to cut their losses and exit.

Iraq we went in based on faulty intelligence, if not outright deception, and without a good exit strategy. I may have supported it at the time though - I'm probably too ready to trust the calls that our government makes about military involvement. I certainly hope we don't feel like we have to wage war against Iran, though, since that is almost certainly unwinnable at a reasonable cost to our lives and economic resources.

The assessment above isn't really addressing the question that you hinted at though, which I assume is whether wars like these can be supported by Christians at all, since the reasoning I've offered so far is pragmatic.

To answer that, I think, would require articulating a view of how the two kingdoms of the Church and the state properly relate. I wouldn't want to draw the strict dichotomy that is the traditional Lutheran view, but I do believe that, insofar as we still live in this world, it is justified for us to support the state in its role of bearing the sword, and that includes supporting military action abroad as well as administering justice within its borders.

I would want us to evaluate our support for the wars of our nation by the standards of just war theory, however, and in that regard I believe that many fall short. I don't believe just war theory in and of itself is divinely inspired, but it did arise in a Christian context, and, I believe provides a good set of criteria for judging the morality of war. The criteria are stringent enough, though, that no war could measure up to them perfectly, so the question then becomes whether war is justifiable considering that there will always be errors and abuses in execution, even if not in intent.

Wikipedia's article on just war theory is quite good and offers the following set of criteria:

Criteria for going to war (Jus ad bellum):

  1. Just cause - The reason for going to war must be just. The nation's self-interest is not sufficient cause; innocent lives must be in imminent danger.
  2. Comparative justice - There is a presumption against the use of force, since it is an evil if not justified. Therefore the wrongs suffered by one party must significantly outweigh those suffered by the other.
  3. Competent authority - Only duly consituted public authorities may wage war.
  4. Right intention - As described by Wikipedia, this sounds identical to criterion #1.
  5. Probability of success - Arms may not be used in a futile cause or where disproportionate measures would be required to achieve success.
  6. Last resort - Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical.

Criteria for waging war (Jus in bello):

  1. Distinction - War should be waged against enemy combatants, not toward non-combatants.
  2. Proportionality An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that civilian injuries would be execssive in relation to anticipated military advantage.
  3. Military necessity As described by Wikipedia, this seems identical to criteria 1 & 2.
  4. Fair treatment of prisoners of war - Enemy soldiers should not be tortured or mistreated.
  5. No means malum in se Militaries may not use weapons or means of warfare that are considered evil. (I could see some room for debate on what would fall into this category, however.)

Criteria for ending war (Jus post bello):

  1. Just cause for termination - A state may end a war if has been a reasonable vindication of the rights that were violated, and the aggressor is willing to negotiate terms of surrender. Alternatively, a state may end a war if it becomes clear that the just goals of the war cannot be reached at all or cannot be reached without using excessive force.
  2. Right intention - A state must only terminate a war under the conditions agreed upon in criterion #1. Revenge is not permitted. The victor state must be willing to investigate its own possible war crimes objectively.
  3. Public declaration and authority - The terms of peace must be made by a legitimate authority and must be accepted by one. (I'm not sure about the feasibility of the latter part of this criterion.)
  4. Discrimination - The victor state is to differentiate in the terms of peace between the leaders, combatants, and civilians. Punititve measures are to be limited to those directly responsible for the conflict. Truth and reconciliation may sometimes be more important than punishing war crimes.
  5. Proportionality - Any terms of surrender must be proportional to the rights that were initially violated.

Based on these criteria, I think we could come to some interesting conclusions about the wars which the US has waged over the past 200 or so years. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so some of these were not as obvious at the time.

  • American Revolution - violates jus ad bellum criteria #1, since the primary motivation of the war was self-interest (no taxation without representation).
  • War of 1812 - since this was a defensive action, it is more likely justifiable, but I'm not that knowledgeable about it. Having lost the colonies, I don't think Britain's attempt to regain them would meet jus ad bellum criterion #1.
  • Civil War - only meets jus ad bellum criterion #1 if it is relaxed to include where lives are being oppressed (i.e., by slavery). I think there is a legitimate argument that could be made for the South's constitutional right to secede, while still recognizing Southern slavery as grossly immoral. As for the jus in bello criteria, to my knowledge most generals adhered to them, but Sherman grossly violated them. Finally, in regard to the jus post bello criteria, historians still debate whether Reconstruction was overall handled in a just manner.
  • Indian Wars, Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War - All clear violations of jus ad bellum criterion #1, since motivated almost entirely by self-interest (manifest destiny, i.e., the desire for more territory).
  • World War I - The war was unjustified on the part of the European nations, since it was a disproportionate response to the event that triggered it, and most of the combatants were not directly affected, only bound by alliance. However, the US involvement arguably helped bring the war to a close more quickly, so that might be just on our part.
  • World War II - Stopping Hitler and his allies seems like a textbook case of a just war by the jus ad bellum criteria. However, there were some egregious violations of the jus in bello rules of war by the Allies (firebombing of Dresden, dropping of the atomic bombs). In the case of Dresden, at least there was a legitimate military target, but the number of civilians who died seems unjustifiable. The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, was not even on a military target. The only defense is to say that invading Japan would've been worse, for both sides. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't have to make that call. The jus post bello criteria seem to have been well-followed here, considering the later rise of Japan and the success of the Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe.
  • Korea - I don't know anything about this war, sadly, so I will have to recuse myself.
  • Vietnam - I don't feel like I know enough about the causes or conduct of the war (other than the containment doctrine) to evaluate it by these criteria. I would be inclined to say unjustified, but that might just be repeating others' prejudices.
  • Iraq War I - I was very young when it happened, so, again, hard for me to evaluate. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was definitely horrible, and the people of Kuwait were in imminent danger. The question becomes whether the US should have been involved since our lives were not directly threatened. Just war criteria don't appear to address the issue of whether one nation can serve as the protector of others.
  • Bosnia & Various Humanitarian Interventions - Is it a legitimate use of the US military to intervene to prevent genocide, or to stop one from continuing, when there is a reasonable chance of success? I am not sure, and the just war criteria don't specifically address this point.
  • Afghanistan - I believe that the criteria for jus ad bellum were satisfied, if the objective of the war was viewed as simply removing the Taliban regime, which was a dictatorship harboring a terrorist that posed an imminent threat to the US. Negotiations had proven futile, if I recall correctly. For the most part, the jus in bello criteria were satisfied as well, with the exception of the drone strikes, which might be viewed as causing too many civilian casualities. I'm conflicted on those. The main problem, as I said briefly above, is the jus post bello criteria - we are still in Afghanistan now, even though we don't have any real expectation of eradicating the Taliban. What is our objective now?
  • Iraq War II - If Iraq had nuclear weapons, and was aligned with al Qaeda, I believe the jus ad bellum criteria might have been satisfied, as long as we also had a reasonable expectation of success (an "exit strategy"). But as we found out, neither were the case, nor did our leaders have a plan for how to end the war. Were they lying to us, or were they honestly deceived? That would matter in assessing the morality of the war. As for the jus in bello criteria, the abuses of private contractors (i.e., mercenaries) and Abu Ghraib show they were not satisfied.

I hope this shows how just war theory can be a helpful framework for assessing the morality of wars, and not just a means of justifying every war, as its critics assert. In fact, just war theory, by my reading of it, is idealistic enough that few wars actually meet its criteria. But it is not equivalent to pacifism, which I think is a Biblical principle for dealing with personal offenses, but not a way to handle the affairs of nations.

As private individuals, Christians are not to use force on others, even to punish actual offenses against them. However, in the defense of others, and in the role as public persons (rulers, law enforcement, or the military), they are permitted the use of force in a just cause.

In conclusion, then, I don't believe that we should "fight the Lord's battles with the world's resources", but I don't think that we are doing that. The wars which our military wages, if they are just, are to defend the lives of Americans and our allies, not some kind of Old Testament holy war. As I've said above, I don't support all the wars that we've fought, though I support the people who have fought in them (except for people like those who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib).

I don't think Christians should have a "my country, my military, right or wrong" attitude, as some evangelicals do. They definitely shouldn't view the military as a way to transform cultures, since both reason and the Bible say that doesn't work. I don't even think churches should have American flags in them or that we should sing songs about America in church on national holidays.

But Christians, when not engaged in corporate worship, can have a legitimate appreciation for the history of freedom in our country, which comes from a Christian base, even if not all the founders were Christians, and we can appreciate the military for preserving our freedom. If we are called to serve in it, we can consider that an honor. If we are called to make decisions on when to go to war, we should consider it a great responsibility, and do so according to principles stemming from Christian morality, such as the principles of just war I've outlined above.

February 18, 2012

"Working on Our Relationship with God" - Is It Important?

In a word: yes.

Jesus is clear that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-33). And He is also clear about the order of this commands. Love of God must be the root and ground for all other love.

For us to do the "work of God" - to love our neighbors as ourselves; yes, even to love them as God loves them - we must have God working in us. And how can we do this if we do not receive from Him according to the ordinary means of grace - reading the Scripture, prayer, Church fellowship, and receiving the sacraments (see Westminster Confession of Faith XIV.1)?

To those who were interested only in their earthly betterment - the ability to feed the five thousand - Jesus' response is startling:

"Therefore they said to Him, 'What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.'" (John 6:28-29)

"This is the work of God", Jesus says - to Him, faith in Himself is so all-encompassing that is in itself the totality of the work of God.

How can this be? Only because faith in Christ is inseparable from following Christ, and for Him, as I said in my previous post, there is no divide between heart attitude and outward action.

For us, there is a divide in the Christian life, but only one of time - it is that between justification and sanctification, between an instantaneous once-for-all declaration of us as righteous, and an ongoing re-constitution of us as righteous. We know that there is a conflict in all of us where the spirit wars against the flesh and we do not do as we ought (see Rom. 7:7-25). But we know for us who are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18), that we are already seated in the heavenly realms in Christ (Eph. 2:6). And we know, and can have hope because, He who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it (Phil. 1:6).

This post, and the previous one in fact, both were partially inspired by a recent blog post in Sojourners' God's Politics blog called "The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity", so I feel like I ought to make the connection explicit, now I've laid the necessary theological groundwork, which I feel the author of that post failing to do.

At this point, I'd recommend that you go read the post, so you can give the author a fair hearing. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Basically, his contention is that we (meaning evangelicals, presumably - whatever that means now) talk too much about "working on our relationship with God," when really we should be focusing on more practical matters, like being decent non-jerkish people, tipping at restaurants,

All well and good. We should care about those things, and, as I hope I've made clear at this point, we should care enough to actually do them, and to be specific about how we are doing them.

What really bothers me about this article though is the sense of either/or. It seems the author seems a legitimate problem (Christians' frequently jerkish behavior, "head in the cloud" attitude, and general disrepute in the world at large) and thinks we need to address it by lurching from one extreme to the other.

This can be seen especially in the following quotes:

"Well, why don't you give them a call today and ask for their forgiveness. That might be a better use of your time than working on your relationship with God."

"Rather than pouring our efforts into two hours of worship, bible study and Christian fellowship on Sunday why don't we just take a moment and a few extra bucks to act like a decent human being when we go to lunch afterwards?"

"I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them."

But, as I said earlier, this is not how it was supposed to be. This is not how the Hebrews would've looked at it - they loved and did the Law as part of their worship to God; they viewed it as an expression of His righteous character. For them the heart was the root of a person's being, from which flowed all their desires and actions, not something divorced from the nitty-gritty of everyday life. And, unsurprisingly, since Jesus was a Jew, this wasn't how He looked at it either.

If we've gotten a different view of the relationship between heart and life, between spirituality and service, that's not the Scripture's fault. And whatever is the cause - Greco-Roman ideals corrupting Christianity, the Enlightenment privatization of faith ("the problem of the excluded middle") - we've not well-served by making Christianity a purely public faith. By doing so, we've just embracing a new form of legalism, where holiness is defined by right social action, not what immoral things we've abstained from this week. We've cut ourselves off from the One who gives us life in the Law, and we're in danger of forgetting the Gospel that gives us power to do it.

The world would like us to define holiness solely in terms of good works, since that's not threatening to them. That can be done without supernatural grace.

In actuality, holiness is being set apart to God, and orthodoxy is giving God right worship. If we actually read our whole Bibles - and see that God not only commands us to love justice, but makes us just by His Word and Spirit, then we will be in a place to say that revival has come to American Christianity.

How then could we rewrite Beck's quotes to recover a Biblical balance? Let's try something like this:

"Why don't you reflect on what you've done this week and confess your sins to God? Then, if you know of sins that you committed against specific people, why don't you go ask for their forgiveness."

"Why don't we have a meal after our worship on Sunday so that we can express God's hospitality to His people and to those who are still outside His Kingdom. (After all, it's what the early Christians did.)"

"I want people to spend time working on their relationship with God: asking Him how specifically they can care about the person standing right in front of them, and asking Him how He can give them the strength to do it."

Reflections on Discipleship

We want to separate our outward actions from our heart attitudes. Jesus doesn't give us that option.

I've been considering the words of Christ a great deal lately, and I think we too often write them out of the Scriptures, simply because they would inconvenience us and force us to change. But faith means yielding obedience to all the words of Scripture, not just those that are comfortable for us (Westminister Confession of Faith XIV.2). And, ultimately, we have Christ's promise that His plans for us are for good and not for evil.

In the words of Dallas Willard, "Jesus is smart." Surely the One who brought us into being and who numbers all the hairs of our head knows how we should live?

In light of that, let's consider words like the following:

"The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart." (Luke 6:45)

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21)

"By their fruits you will know them." (Matthew 7:20)

"For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does." (James 1:23-25)

"If one of you says to [a needy person], 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?" (James 2:16)

God wants us to be devoted to Him wholeheartedly - body, mind, and soul. To know Him fully, to experience His provision for us in the day to day, we must surrender to Him not merely with a mental act - "God, I surrender it to you, whatever it is" - but with the concrete planning of our days, with the budgeting of our resources, and with the willingness to make amends, personally and practically, to all those whom we know that we have offended. This is what it means to present ourselves to God as a "living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1).

How can we do this and not be more overwhelmed than we already are? We can only do this knowing that it is His strength not ours, that He is in us a fountain of living water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). In our self-giving to God, we receive God's Holy Spirit who is continually being poured out for us, by virtue of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross.

We can only follow God knowing that He is worthy, that He is love, and that His kingdom is better. Truly it is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field for which one would sell everything that he has (Matt. 13:46).

I hope to write more on this in the days to come; I want to get specific with what God is teaching me, not so that I may bind others' consciences and get them to commit to precisely the same path of discipleship that I am following. I recognize that Jesus called the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, but that He called Zaccheus to remain a tax collector; that He called some to give up all and follow Him, and others to return to their community to tell of the works that He had done for them; that He fed the five thousand with a loaf, yet honored the woman who poured oil from an alabaster jar on His feet.

But fundamentally, I don't think we have a problem with God not having given us words for how we should follow Him; I think we have a problem with listening.

September 23, 2011

On Truth

If all truth is God's truth, that means it is not ours, or at least ours only by gift.

There are three sins of the mind:

1) Refusal to ask hard questions.
2) Denial that hard questions can be answered.
3) Over-confidence in one's own answers to them.

Before we go speaking the truth in love, we must go seeking the truth in love.

I view God's truth like the limit of a function. I pray that I am on an asymptotic approach.

September 26, 2010

a confession

I am ever prone to think
        that worship is a concert,
        that serving in ministry is volunteering for a club,
        that a sermon is a lecture,
        that prayer is thinking happy thoughts,
that church is about myself.

God save me from my need to be the one who chooses You,
        the one who determines when You are relevant,
        the one who decides how You can meet my needs.

Return me to the freedom that comes only
from utter dependence on You.

March 29, 2010

can we help Africa?

A friend of mine from work linked this photo of a starving child from the Sudan on Facebook this morning, and commented "Ask me how to help kids in Africa. Or pray - that's the best thing actually." Here was my reply:

pemiway's comment on that photo is shocking, but I think there's truth to it. As a species, we are very good at using knowledge of other people's suffering to distract us from our own. Sarah & I watched a play last night that speaks to that.

Of course, I know that you are far from doing nothing. And prayer is not "doing nothing" either, though it is often hard for me to believe it does anything.

The main thing I wonder is how we can send money to Africa or other parts of the world without doing harm. So much foreign aid ends up in the hands of the elites and never ends up improving conditions for the masses. In other cases, foreign aid wipes out local industry.

Really, forces like globalization and political/ethnic conflict are the main drivers of poverty, at least as I see it. The West has a responsibility to act against these things, since they are largely a legacy of colonialism. However, we don't exactly have a good track record of positive interventions.

That's why prayer is necessary. But for me prayer will begin, as it always does when I face the evil of this world, "Lord, I believe you want to change this situation. Help my unbelief."

March 28, 2010

the story of my life in Christ

The other day, I needed to write out a version of my testimony. At first I struggled to do so, but soon I found the sentences flowing into a familiar pattern. I remembered this is a story I have been learning to tell all my life, the story of my life in Christ. Here is the story, as I told it:

I've been a Christian for as long as I can remember. My mom says she remembers that when I was four I said to her, "Jesus died for our boo-boos." I don't remember this, though.

I do remember that every year at VBS, I was one of the first people to pray to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. I thought maybe God needed to do something He hadn't already done. Later on, I realized it was more important to know that I trusted in Christ than to be able to say when I first trusted in Him.

When I was in elementary school, it seemed easy to trust in Jesus. I trusted my earthly parents implicitly, so why not God? I just wanted other children on the playground to get to know Him.

Once I got to high school, things became more complicated. I wanted my friends to think I was cool, and being outspoken about my faith didn't help with that.

By the later years of high school, my intellectual curiosity had led me to doubt God's goodness. I was reading many apologetic books in order to become an effective witness, but often I found that they raised more questions than I had thought to ask. Life became less about trusting God daily, and more about trying to understand God's purposes for the whole world. The more I tried to understand, the more angry I got at God for the state of the world. All the while, though, I was losing sight of my own problems - most of all, my sin.

It was a great blessing to go to Covenant College after I graduated from high school in 2002. Still, it took some serious personal struggles before God brought me to a point where I realized that He had not called me to understand, so much as He called me to love, and to accept love. As someone who usually has great confidence in his own abilities to succeed, accepting love and recognizing my weakness was much harder than seeking knowledge had been.

My life hasn't always been easy since college, but overall I am encouraged by the work I see God doing in me. Coming to Dorchester to participate in the work of community development has re-focused my life and renewed my sense of purpose. Increasingly, I see how, in God's economy, the talent that is buried is lost, while that which is used for His glory multiplies for your joy. Sarah's love for me has taken me totally by surprise, and humbled me in many ways. Finally, helping to start Christ the King Dorchester has caused me to realize how vital the work of church planting is to the expansion of God's Kingdom.

I don't know what the future holds for Sarah and me, but I know that "the Lord will perfect that which concerns me."

March 24, 2010

meditation

What does that strange comment of Christ's mean when He says that those who followed Him would do greater works than He?

Possibly it means that, while Christ, in His earthly ministry, was rejected by most of His hearers, now that He is lifted up and has given His Spirit to the Church, He has committed to us the "ministry of reconciliation." Thus, we are empowered by Christ to reconcile whole cultures unto God.

March 23, 2010

the prismatic view of Christ's redemption

On this dark Tuesday, as we seem to retreat away from spring,
I am pulled back to the Chattanooga sunlight:
Four years ago, I stopped in Greyfriar's and saw Aimee Wilson
and said, "I see our salvation like a shining crystal,
Many lights diffracting from the one Christ -
His holy halo, His pure flame."

Our gifts to God are given back, perfect,
each time we turn our wills toward Him.
His image echoes in our bodies' weakness
and we are saved to show His likeness.
The Word became flesh, the flesh became Spirit,
the Spirit fills the Church.

March 16, 2010

three truths

  1. Knowledge is power. ~Francis Bacon
  2. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. ~Lord Acton
  3. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. ~Proverbs 9:10

March 13, 2010

thanks, Glenn Beck, for pushing me to launch a social justice website

Ever since last fall, I've had the thought of creating a site called LiveYourFaith.net as a kind of gathering point for resourced evangelicals, like myself, who either have recognized or are starting to recognize that the Bible's message is not only about getting to heaven, but about working for God's will to done on earth. Working at TechMission has definitely helped flesh out my view of the Gospel, as has living in Dorchester, attending CCDA, volunteering with the EGC, and participating in the Christ the King Dorchester church plant. But my initial interest in Christian community development was awakened at Covenant College, where I met people like Randy Nabors of New City Fellowship, Drs. Fikkert, Corbett, and Mask of the Chalmers Center, and all those who lived at the Alton Park House. Through their example, I learned that God's plan for the people He saves is much bigger than anything we could have imagined for ourselves.

God wants us to give ourselves to Him, not only so we can be saved from Hell, certainly not only for our financial well-being (our "personal peace and happiness", in the words of Francis Schaeffer), but for His glory. And He is most glorified in us when we are so full of joy in Him that we can freely serve others, laying down our rights so that others may have theirs. This is what Martin Luther meant by the "Freedom of the Christian" - not freedom to sin, but freedom from our need for self-justification, that we may love others for who they are in themselves.

God is so great that He cannot be served. "If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness" (Ps. 50:12). Yet He desires that we would seek Him. "Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will glorify Me" (Ps. 50:15). And when we seek, we seek to serve, knowing that God will give the greatest gift - His Spirit - to all who ask (see the progression from Matt. 6:7-11 to 6:12 - the Golden Rule follows on Jesus' command to pray with faith).

Now I see all my life coming together around one central aim - to glorify God through the "ministry of reconcilation" (2 Cor. 5:18). That is a "big C" calling that I can follow whatever my "little C" callings are - as a web developer (and perhaps someday a mental health caseworker), a volunteer at church, a neighbor, a husband-to-be. And it is a calling that is inseparable from the pursuit of social justice. For, as Bob Lupton says, we can teach the poor to fish, but in the end, we need to make it possible for them to buy the lake.

That is why Glenn Beck's recent comments about social justice being equivalent to Communism and Nazism are so irritating to me. Normally, I would just ignore Beck, treating him as the opportunistic attention-seeker that he is. But since Jim Wallis is using what Beck meant for evil to promote the good cause of Christian involvement in social reform, I thought I would add my voice, small though it may be.

Thus, I have launched LiveYourFaith.net now, without a real plan of how it will be developed, or with more than the most rudimentary site design. I hope to further the conversation among evangelicals among whether social justice is integral to the Gospel, and, if so, how we should go about promoting it.

Social justice certainly means more than individual acts of charity, important as those are, for the structures of society need to change. Yet it does not mean top-down redistributive justice, of the kind many conservatives fear. The progressive income tax is not inherently immoral (contra libertarians), but neither should the State take on the role of determining how much wealth is "enough" for individuals to possess. There is much room left in the "radical middle" to recognize the system is broken and neither right-wing ideologues, with their politics of fear, or left-wing ideologues, with their politics of envy, have the power to save us. Only if we can bring the State under the Lordship of Jesus Christ - who "did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but took on the nature of a servant" - can we bring about the justice for which everyone longs.

We will never be able to attain equality of outcomes in society, but we should not let that grim fact stop us from pursuing it. Today we would be fortunate even to attain equality of opportunity. I fear that those who listen to Beck are completely unaware of the structures of privilege that have helped them to achieve. We all should be advocates of freedom, but only when freedom is available for all, not simply for those of a privileged race or class or gender. Until that day comes when freedom is available for all alike, I will work for social justice, and in this work, I will be glorifying God.

February 19, 2010

in defense of theology (8 propositions)

Many people these days say, "We need less theology and more discipleship." Here is why I think that their well-intentioned words are misguided.

  1. Good theology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for discipleship.
  2. To say less theology will help us serve God better is like saying less mathematics will help us build safer bridges.
  3. Orthodoxy, in its original and proper sense, means to give the right glory to God.
  4. If Athanasius had joined Antony in the desert rather than sully himself with theological dispute, we might all be Arians now.
  5. In studying the Scriptures, nothing is tangential, though some teachings are more central. All must be understood in relationship to Christ, according to the classic Reformation principle: "Scripture interprets Scripture."
  6. Since at this time, God cannot be seen by human eyes, His written revelation is a principal means by which the Spirit reveals Him to us, and the objective standard of judgment for all the means of grace. We are thus obliged to study the Scriptures, in order for God to take command of our lives and our affections.
  7. If the Christian life is reduced to obedience only, the moralists have won. We would be reduced to despair, since no one can keep His commands perfectly. Christ came, first and foremost, to institute the forgiveness of sins. In so doing, He created a new holy community of reconciled relationships, but He could not have done so without first reconciling us to God. "We love because He first loved us."
  8. The life of eternity is not work, but praise. "We shall know as we are known."

February 12, 2010

mysteries of atheism, pt. i 1/2

(A response to a friend of mine whose comment got eaten by my blog. I will try to get this resolved soon.)

I don't necessarily think that atheists in general are negative people, just because their belief system is based on a negative proposition. But in our world, the negative atheists are the vocal ones -- probably because the other ones have more important things to do. The "One Body of Christ" group would have its problems even if all the atheists decided to leave -- and some of the atheists and agnostics are actually great contributors to group discussion. That's why I ended my post by saying "Christians can always debate other Christians" - because having a belief system of positive propositions doesn't necessarily make you a positive person. It can just mean you're negative about more minor things.

I certainly don't believe that the key thing is for people to have belief in something. I'm not a big fan of having faith in faith. The *object* of faith is more important than the subject who has faith. For example, if I were in a river, and I had faith that the rope that I had tied to the dock were secure, what would keep me safe is whether or not the rope were actually secure, not the mere fact that I had faith.

Faith, in the Biblical sense, is really better called "trust," since the word "faith" itself has been so abused. Faith is trust in the God who has revealed Himself to us - through the Scriptures, in Christ's redemptive work, and to us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is not *blind* faith, since it is faith in a God who reveals Himself objectively, and who can be known to a greater and greater extent, though never perfectly. Yet it is not merely assent to facts, either, since even the demons believe in God and tremble, as the book of James says.

As for the exclusivity of Christian faith, I can see how it causes offense. I also definitely admit that much of the time Christians are arrogant and seek to enforce their values on others. I don't see how a Scripture calendar could be an example of that though, except as a reminder that the owner of the calendar would likely have other views, such as political views, that an atheist would find offensive.

I think atheists come in for such attack from Christians because many Christians view their religion principally as the safeguard for morality. This, however, is not an adequate view of the Christian faith. Many people can be quite moral, in the sense of civic morality, without sharing my theological convictions. Not many people who believe "God is dead" truly acts as if "everything is permitted." Of course, I believe that the reason that they do not is because the image of God remains in everyone, despite the radical corruption of sin.

Because of sin's radical corruption of our nature, we are all under God's judgment, apart from Christ and the grace that God provides through the means of redemption. So there should be no place for moral superiority among Christians.
Instead, we should seek to evangelize humbly, as people who want others to share in the insight that we have found.

Of course, that still presumes that we have received an insight that others have not - even if it is by grace alone - and thus it is still an exclusionary belief, and necessarily causes offense in a pluralistic society. But the question then becomes one of truth. If we in fact have the truth, then we would be uncharitable *not* to bring our message to others. But if we do not have the truth, then we are simply another interest group in the modern political arena. Ultimately, in postmodern thought, all truth claims are merely assertions of power, and thus *any* hope of epistemological certainty dissolves, and we really are left in the state of Hobbes' "war of all versus all."

I think John 18:28-40 is the key Biblical commentary on the issue of truth versus power. The world says power is greater than truth, and often Christians act as if it were also, when they try to enforce their understanding of the truth by force. But Christ says His Kingdom is not "of this world": it is of a higher order, and in fact casts the ultimate judgment on all earthly kingdoms. He testifies to the truth, even to the power of death on the Cross. Thus the humility of His truth is greater than political power, and calls it into question. Of course, at the end of time He will come again to "rule the nations with a rod of iron," but for now He rules spiritually as people are transformed by His Word. And so Christians should act as bearers of good news, of a message of deliverance from all our self-justification and cultural myth-making. Only when we see that in the light of God we are all wrong, can our world be made right. The exclusivity of Christ is the precondition for inclusiveness of humanity.

Hopefully, in a world where America was largely secular after the style of Europe, instead of ostensibly Christian, Christian discussion forums would be more about proclaiming the implications of the Gospel, rather than arguing for the existence of God. And, at its best, that is what groups like the "One Body of Christ" do. At least, however, it has something positive to claim as its raison d'etre - a distinction which the Atheists, Agnostics, and Non-Religious group does not possess, and which, I believe, is why that group is so trivial when it is not on the attack against theists.

February 5, 2010

mysteries of atheism, pt. i

I spent some time this evening on the "One Body of Christ" discussion board, of which I am an (erstwhile) admin. Once again, I was struck by the large number of atheists and agnostics who hang out on the board and set up logical traps for unsuspecting evangelicals.

At first this puzzled me: Why would atheists join a group called the "One Body of Christ," which clearly targets Christians, when there were plenty of atheist groups out there? Then I realized: the atheists need theists, in a way that theists don't need atheists. Debate-loving atheists need theists to debate; otherwise, their (ostensibly) ontologically parsimonious worldview could simply be taken for granted.

A brief look at the Facebook "Atheists, Agnostics, and Non-Religious" board bore this theory out. All the posts that weren't attacking or ridiculing theists were incredibly trivial, things like "Post your status messages here." The group defined itself strictly negatively - as opposing belief in a god or gods, not as advocating anything else in particular. Thus, if theists all vanished in the night, debates would get boring rather quickly.

Atheist #1: I don't believe in God.
Atheist #2: I don't either.
Atheist #1: Yay! Let's go get ice cream.

Christians, of course, don't need atheists in order to have good debates. We do just fine debating other Christians :)

January 19, 2010

thought-provoking

"This is why political attempts to resolve the problem of social injustice are bound to fail: they all operate by trying to make the poor richer, instead of trying to help the rich to recognize their poverty" (Stephen Palmquist, "Basic Guidelines for Implementing Kingdom Politics")

January 10, 2010

the danger of names

I was blessed tonight by reading Rose Marie Miller's book From Fear to Freedom, in which she shares how she learned to move beyond moralistic law-keeping to the liberty of her Father's love for her in Christ. After that, I went online to see if I could find out more about her husband Jack's life, since my father went to his church but didn't really keep up with what happened after he left New Life OPC to move to Quarryville in the early '80s.

Of course, in doing so, I mainly stumbled upon critiques of Sonship, some of which may have truth to them, but which fail to see the real value in the Millers' work. It seems like because some have taken the truths of the Sonship teaching to extremes, others feel like it is necessary to condemn it wholesale.


There is a danger, I think, in names - in creating movements and institutions based around the teachings of individual people, even when those people were powerfully used of God to transform others. Yet it is impossible for us to live this life without names. Even the Restoration Christian movement of the 19th century, which sought to revive apostolic Christianity, ended with the creation of denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ. And when I am asked by people what I am, in a religious sense, I have to use words such as evangelical or Presbyterian. Even if I were of the emergent church persuasion, and wanted to drop all "religious" words to simply call myself a follower of Christ, I would still have leaders to venerate - Rob Bell or Brian McLaren.

And so we are left, as we often are, in tension and paradox: On the one hand, we can have no ultimate allegiance to any "saint" or any teaching but that of Christ and His Cross. Paul says, "Was Apollos crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?...May I never boast except in the cross of Jesus Christ." In these words, he condemns much of the disputes over party loyalities and names which divide the Church. Yet, on the other, we all have received the Gospel, in part, at least, through the agency of other believers. The Spirit alone illuminates, but He illuminates us where we are. And I must forever be grateful to my father, to his pastor Jack Miller, to the framers of the Reformed creeds, and to all who have been faithful in handing down the "deposit of faith" with which the apostles were entrusted. My own freedom in grace is, in a providential sense, dependent upon their faithfulness - in word and deed - to the Gospel of grace by faith in Christ alone.

Therefore, Christians cannot escape history. There is no easy reconciliation for us all, though there is no excuse for the bitterness of our conflicts. The tree of the kingdom has spread its branches wide, and all kinds of birds have found a nest within it - yet in so doing, some branches have spread so far apart that they cannot recognize their common root in Christ's Word.

Of course, some branches, in self-willed growth, have cut themselves off from the sap of God's grace. They will be broken off in time, and we must use discernment in dealing with them. But it saddens me to see how many times Christians find the flaws in the work of someone like Jack Miller, or those who have been blessed by his ministry, and then rush to condemn it entirely. Jack and Rose Marie Miller, I believe, did not write their books or give their talks or take others into their home to glorify Sonship, but to glorify Christ. We should do the same.

December 24, 2009

Eight Looks at the Christ: A Liturgical Cycle from Advent to Epiphany

For a long time, I've wanted to put together a cycle of readings from Isaiah for the Advent season. May you be blessed by it as I have been preparing it:

Week OneBlue: HeavenIs. 9:1-7John 1:1-5
Is. 62:1-7,10-12Matt. 1-17
"For unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given."
Week TwoGreen: LifeIs. 11:1-10Luke 1:5-38
Is. 61:1-3Mark 1:1-8
"The Lord has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor."
Week ThreePurple: RuleIs. 42:1-4Luke 1:39-56
Is. 60:1-7Mark 1:9-13
"Behold My Servant whom I uphold...He will bring forth justice for truth."
Week FourRed: RedemptionIs. 49:1-7Luke 1:57-80
Is. 52:13-53:12Matt. 1:18-25
"Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows."
Christmas EveWhite: PurityIs. 40:3-5, 9-11Luke 2:1-7
"The glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
Christmas DayWhite: PurityIs. 33:17a, 20-22John 1:14-18
 Luke 2:13-19
"Your eyes shall see the King in His beauty."
1st Sunday after ChristmasWhite: PurityIs. 64:1-5Luke 2:22-40
"My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared."
2nd Sunday after Christmas (Epiphany)Yellow: LightIs. 42:5-9Matt. 2:1-12
"I will give you as a light unto the Gentiles."

December 19, 2009

the heart of God (isaiah 66:1-2)

Thus says the LORD: 
         "Heaven is My throne, 
And earth My footstool. 
Where is the house that you will build Me? 
And where is the place of My rest?
	For all those things My hand has made, 
And all those things exist," says the LORD. 
"But on this one will I look: 
On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, 
and who trembles at My word."

December 17, 2009

on theological balance

Predestination without justification is a yoke of burden. Justification without predestination is licentious and proud.

December 1, 2009

thoughts on the Manhattan Declaration: a response to Brian McLaren

I may be the only person in the world who follows both World Magazine and Sojourners on Twitter, but that is because I'm not satisfied with simply shifting from the traditional Christian Right agenda to a Christian Left one. I have seen the narrowness of the Christian Right agenda, and its captivity to the Republican party, but I don't think simply going over to more socially acceptable causes, such as the environment or opposing corporate greed, is really the way forward.

When I first heard about the Manhattan Declaration, it was from Brian McLaren's post on what it gets wrong. From reading that, I thought, "Well, maybe McLaren is right - maybe this is simply another attempt by the Christian Right to impose their morality on everyone else." But then I read the actual declaration, and I saw that McLaren has completely misunderstood it.

Those who signed the Declaration appear particularly concerned to ensure that Christians in today's society will continue to have the liberty to follow their conscience in the face of the prevailing social attitude that abortion is a necessary option for women and homosexual relationships are on equal footing with heterosexual marriage. The third point of religious liberty, which McLaren thinks they "[define] rather oddly in relation to the first two", is actually central to the Declaration. Liberty of conscience is not a theoretical matter - as the Declaration states, Catholic Charities has stopped providing adoption services in the state of Massachusetts because they would not place children in the homes of homosexuals in civil union. And, as World magazine reports, soon they may be forced out of Washington, D.C. entirely.

Some may call this a sign of Catholic Charities' "intolerance" - but what we really see here is a fundamental conflict of values. Christians traditionally have believed that marriage is an institution of God, in which a man and a woman unite to reflect His character and, typically, to give birth to children. Christians traditionally have also believed that God is the Lord and giver of life, from conception until the natural time of death. These are basic realities of the universe which God has made, and human autonomy, while a true moral value, cannot be privileged over them.

McLaren makes a good effort at identifying three evil cultures more basic than the "culture of death" that the Manhattan Declaration warns against - his "culture of lust", especially, is insightful. However, in his effort to see the best in everyone, he fails to see that Christians stand in antithesis to the ways of life that characterize this world. No one may be saying, "Yes, we want a culture of death," but as long as our society is characterized by the choice of self over God, then death is what we will have. The essence of sin is to say, "I have the right to choose what I want regardless of God's Law," and the wages of sin is death.

In supporting the Manhattan Declaration, am I saying that Christians can only focus on the three issues it highlights? I don't believe so. Like McLaren, I say "everything must change" in light of Christ's proclamation of the Kingdom, and I believe that the Word of God has as much to say about the environment, global conflict, international development, and economic policy as it does about the issues that the Declaration highlights. Yet, at the same time, I don't believe that you can coerce compassion, and I question whether the State can play a leading role in the revelation of the Kingdom.

For Christ to be glorified in the world, His people must take the lead in fighting the evils of our time. That requires standing in opposition of the government-imposed freedom that leads to death, and also working constructively to restore the marginalized in our society and around the world. We should work to ensure that our government provides an adequate social safety net, but we shouldn't expect that the government can transform individuals, culture, or other nations. For that work, the Church must rely on the Holy Spirit's power.

I pray that we may have an increasingly broader vision of how we - as individuals in the Body of Christ - are called to fulfill Christ's commission to "preach good news to the poor." I pray that more and more Christians might be willing to give our lives to walk with the poor He loves, to practice the "ministry of reconciliation" that no government program can accomplish. Though it may hardly be imaginable, I pray that for all the conferences on the end times that Christians now attend, there might be ten times more on Christian community development, and that for all those Christians who stand on their constitutional rights as defined by Glenn Beck, there might be a hundred times more who lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters. If the Church were categorized by such radical and personal love, there would be no need for an activist State. I hope that this vision might be the middle ground for which the Christian Right and Christian Left are searching.

November 24, 2009

fragment from an Easter sermon I haven't written

In fiction, Christ figures rarely rise again. But in fact, Christ is risen. And because He lives, those who die imitating Him will be vindicated.

November 4, 2009

confession

Like many people, I have wanted the world to listen to me.
I have wanted to prove I was smarter than everyone else.
I have wanted to change things - 
but especially in a way where I would get the credit.

I am still struggling to believe
that Your gift is prior to my giving,
that Your Word is beyond my understanding,
that Your love is the measure of my worth.

Keep on telling me to give up
so that I can learn to rest in You.
Convince me, Lord, that there is safety
in the space between Your wings.

October 28, 2009

"Care" (insp. by CCDA 2009)

He who loses his mind will save it -
 "In this world, you will have trouble,
but take heart, I have overcome the world."

While we hope in ourselves, 
our hope is hopeless,
our comfort is crushed.
But when death has fully conquered,
Christ bears us on His Cross.

His weakness then becomes our strength -
As our strength has brought Him into weakness.

Love said the word that laid the nails
Cut cross-wise, pierced that we might see
His grace as greater than our hate
And, by His horror, be justified.

Now in His debt we live in peace -
Remade as selves, one family.
Distinct in wants yet one in grace,
His gifting flows out, multiplies.

We live apart to save the world -
To save in Christ, who draws us all.
We save in love, spirit and truth,
Reconciling, loving the Other.

And in all this, we have one hope - 
The reign of Christ, for He has won.
We make His victory our own,
Join in the Sabbath of the Son.

October 7, 2009

political wisdom from my roommate

In a conversation with my roommate tonight about the ever contentious and ill-defined ideal of "social justice", he said something quite insightful: "I actually agree with Ronald Reagan that government is not the solution. But I don't believe that government is the problem." I would add to his statement: "People are the problem."

In my understanding of Reformed social thought, church, state, business, the family are all distinct spheres which all have their own role to play. Just as we have different branches within government, so we have the different spheres within society as a whole, so that balance may be maintained.

Advocates of unregulated capitalism, which would create an ostensible "free market", are not reckoning with the fact that human sinfulness can express itself in economic transactions just as easily as in excessive regulation.

There is no such as thing as a free market, for several reasons. One of the most obvious of these is that we live in a world of imperfect information. When I go to the grocery store, I don't know enough about the products that I purchase to ensure that I am making a healthy choice. Therefore, government regulation is necessary, to a point. This illustrates the broader principle that no one sphere should have rule over all the others.

We live in an increasingly complex society, one in which the rights of individuals & families are threatened just as much by corporate interests as by government corruption. I believe that if our society is to flourish, we must increasingly cultivate partnerships between the public & private sector, such as the health care cooperatives currently being discussed in the Senate, or the social services nonprofits like my own, TechMission, which receive government funding through AmeriCorps. Only then can we combine the innovation of the private sector with the public sector's concern to promote non-monetary forms of value.

January 7, 2009

we need more than a "once and done" faith

I remember walking with a friend in England by a canal in Kent and talking about the role of sanctification in the Christian life. He said that when he was growing up as a fundamentalist, they emphasized "making a decision" for Christ but were sadly unclear on what came next. My own upbringing has served me better, but I still wish I had a clearer sense of what it means to live as a Christian. Every day I must remind myself that we are not only saved, but we are being saved: God will be faithful to complete His work in us, but that work takes place through the daily minutiae of our lives.

Calls for discipleship easily become legalism. As Dostoevsky said, we fear freedom and so seek our salvation in rules. Yet, in the end, neither scrupulous rule-keeping or excessive license will satisfy.

Some Christian traditions picture salvation as a "once and done" deal - as if you prayed the prayer and then all your problems were solved. This message, however, can only bring despair to those of us who still sin and suffer. We need an alternative image of the Christian life - one that recognizes us as justified and yet sinners, as those who have left Egypt but are not yet in the Promised Land.

and if you want to be completely disgusted...

Here's a little bit on the power of the Cross from Joel Osteen. I knew he was a heretic, but I never realized it was this bad.

January 6, 2009

love is the test

The hard part is not believing God exists. The hard part is believing that He cares. Believing that, with all the pain in the world, there is One who has a plan for good, and not for evil. Believing that "all things must work together for my salvation," as Paul says.

Perhaps it is my blindness to my own sin that causes me to doubt the love of God so much. A few days before the new year began, I walked along a dark country road singing "All My Heart This Night Rejoices" and prayed that God would help me to see my need of Him. As it is, I feel as if He were obligated to love me and get upset when He doesn't seem to love me in the way I would expect.

Still, for all my lack of faith, my coldness toward God, my neglect of prayer, and inconstancy in devotion, I know that God has a hold on me that I cannot shake. The words of Scripture and the hymns of the Christian faith are deeply rooted in my thought. Even in despair, I find myself singing. "If we are faithless, He remains faithful. He cannot deny Himself."

January 4, 2009

truth from Philip K. Dick

"There is no punishment greater than to have known God and no longer to know him" (from The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick).

That was how I felt after leaving the hospital this fall. For a few weeks, after I'd regained my mental equilibrium, I felt closer to God than I had ever been. I felt certain of His plan and presence in my life. I found myself crying over the sin and suffering of the world at night, and I longed to leave this "region of dissimilarity" (Augustine), this "dark night" (John of the Cross) in which we find our souls separated, in some measure, from God.

And then this feeling of closeness vanished, not (as yet) to retain. Spirituality became a discipline again, instead of a delight. God's Providence retreated behind a cloud. And now I suffer "Desolation in the World," as Jack Kerouac described it, though I am not frantic to avoid my own self, as he was.

I have made many resolutions this year intended to help me savor this life more. But I know, in the end, nothing satisfies but the presence of Christ. "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you." That is my hope for the New Year.

December 6, 2008

suffering and the will of God

Process and openness-of-God theologians believe there is such a thing as meaningless suffering, suffering which is outside the will of God. While I can see the reasons why one would hold this view, I cannot embrace it myself. In the end, it is infinitely more comforting to know that my suffering is ordained for my good and for God's glory, that all things work together for good for those who love God. If God were not present in our suffering, how could He be present in our redemption?

August 14, 2008

C.S. Lewis and St. Bernard on human love (a follow-up)

After writing my post on Thomas Aquinas and the forms of love, I thought I should follow up with one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves, that, while not rigorous, expresses some key distinctions between types of human love:

Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: "We give thanks to thee for thy great glory."
Need-love says of a woman, "I cannot live without her"; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection - if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.

I would like to re-write the quote so that it would speak of a woman's love for a man also, but that is not easily done in this case.

It is interesting to note, however, that Lewis does not seem to speak of agape in this passage, since agape is, by nature, self-giving and works by its own power a change in the one who is loved.

With reference to human love for God, it is not surprising that Lewis does not mention agape, since God is, in His essence, impassible, and thus our love for Him cannot work a change in His nature. As it is written, "He has loved us with an everlasting love." Furthermore, God possesses all perfection in Himself, and thus has no need of any love which one could give Him. As Isaiah writes, "'Heaven is My throne and earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist,' says the Lord." As John Piper (and his teacher, Daniel Fuller) have said, it is because God delights completely, and is fully satisified, in Himself, that He is free to be gracious to us, both in the work of creation and redemption. To finish the quote from Isaiah: "'But on this one will who I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.'" God, as the Psalmist writes, "Though the LORD is on high, yet He regards the lowly; but the proud He knows from afar."

With reference to human romantic love, I believe it is possible to speak of agape. Again, I would reference the analogy of the bridegroom which I quoted from Luther. Insofar as marriage is a mirror of God's love, it is possible to wish the other's good simply for their sake, and, by faithful expression of this love, to actually grant them good. Humans can only do so imperfectly, since we are inconstant in our affections, even the best of our actions have mixed motivations, and we have imperfect knowledge of what another's good would be. However, I believe I have felt at times the faintest breath of self-giving love for another, and I desire to do so more.

If I had more time, I would go on to fully describe the four degrees of human love for God which St. Bernard of Clairvaux defines in his On Loving God. As it is, I will leave you with only their names and a brief description of each: 1) When Man Loves Himself for His Own Sake (natural love before God's working in the soul, in which common grace and the civil order serves to curb our desires sufficiently that society may continue), 2) When Man Loves God for His Own Good (most love for God is of this kind, even (I would say) perhaps in some conversions), 3) When Man Loves God for God's Sake (described best earlier in the text, when St. Bernard says, "Lord, you are good to the soul which seeks You. What are you then to the soul which finds?"), and 4) When Man Loves Himself for the Sake of God.

This last is a mystic love for God, and it is rarely to be encountered in this life, though it will be the fullness of eternity. Paul wrote under its impulse when he said, "I have been crucified with Christ, such that I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."

St. Bernard describes this love as follows:

[S]ince Scripture says that God made everything for Himself (Prv. 16:4; Rv. 4:11) there will be a time when He will cause everything to conform to its Maker and be in harmony with Him. In the meantime, we must make this our desire: that as God Himself willing that everything should be for Himself, so we, too, will that nothing, not even ourselves, may be or have been except for Him, that is, according to His will, not ours...This is what we ask every day in prayer when we say, 'Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.' (Mt. 6:10)

But this love is a hard lesson for us to learn, and we will be on learning it until we die. Reformed preaching, with its focus on absolute goods, I fear has often led us to preach the good of the fourth degree of love, while deprecating the previous degrees. If we practiced discipleship and spiritual formation as we ought, or even as it was done by St. Bernard and his like, perhaps we would not fall so easily into this error, and thus shut up the Kingdom of God to those to whom God would wish it to be open. There is a reason why people often convert to Christianity in other branches of the church besides the Reformed one, and then later, as they grow deeper in the knowledge and (hopefully, the love) of God, join the Reformed church. Let us never be prideful in the experience of God's goodness, or the knowledge of God's character. In doing so, we sin against the example of Christ, who was not ashamed to minister to the earthly good of sinners, and thus to show that "His yoke is easy and His burden is light."

Thomas Aquinas, relative good, and the love of God

Thomas Aquinas may have been the greatest Christian moral philosopher.

Why do I say that? Here are just two passages (which I found while writing about the public school issue, but which were not the one I was looking for):

Now the good of man is of two kinds, absolute and relative. The good of man which is absolute is his final end, according to Ps. 73:28, "It is good for me to draw near unto God," together with all that is ordained to lead him to it...The good of man which is relative, and not absolute, is what is good for him at the present time, or what is good for him in certain circumstances. (Nature and Grace, Q. 114, Art. 10

We who are Calvinists are strong on absolute good - "What is the chief end of man?" But I appreciate the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms, because it enables us to pursue relative goods with a clear conscience, knowing that in so doing we are fulfilling the commandment to love our neighbors.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that the parenthesis in my quote above is hiding Thomas' statement that absolute good is merited, since it is through "virtuous works" that "we are brought to eternal life." But a great moral philosopher is not necessarily a great theologian. If Thomas had a stronger doctrine of predestination, he would have been able to see that God's saving action does not have ultimate reference to virtuous works, though it would be unjust (and thus impossible) for God to grant eternal life to those whom He did not make righteous. God is the One who "calls the things that are not as those they were," in the words of the Apostle Paul, and thus creates virtue in us without reference to any prior disposition of virtue on our part.

That being said, Thomas approached the true doctrines of grace at points, such as in his discussion of divine love.

As the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii. 4), to love is to wish good to someone. Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone - to himself or to another - and towards that [one] to [whom] he wishes some good. Accordingly, man has love of concupisicence [desire] towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship, towards him to whom he wishes good.
Now the members of this division are related as primary and secondary: since that which is loved with the love of friendship is loved simply and for itself; whereas that which is loved with the concupiscence, is loved, not simply and for itself, but for something else. For just as that which has existence, is a being simply, while that which exists in another is a relative being; so, because good is convertible with being, the good, which itself has goodness, is good simply; but that which is another's good, is a relative good. Consequently the love with which a thing is loved, that it may have some good, is love simply; while the love, with which a thing is loved, that it may be another's good [or the good of the one who loves - ead] , is relative love... (Ethics I-II, 26, 4)

Now I believe the translation does us a disservice here because both concupiscence and desire are such loaded terms that is hard to think of a Christian moral philosopher called this kind of love a "relative good." But I believe that which Thomas is alluding to here is really the distinction between eros and agape which Anders Nygren describes in his book by that title. Eros, as the Greeks spoke of it, was not evil - in fact, it was the highest good to which humans could attain. The Neo-Platonic philosopher made it the very pathway to God. It was only with the coming of the Christian revelation - that "while we still sinners, Christ loved us" - that philosophers could put eros in its rightful place as a servant to agape.

For God, as I would say in light of Thomas' distinction here, is the perfect Friend, who loves us not for the good that we are in ourselves (in our fallen state) but for the good that we will become by His grace, that "we might be to the praise of His glory."

Martin Luther is particularly good on this point in his Treatise on Christian Liberty:

The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the Soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage - indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage - it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The Soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul's; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride's and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?

Thus we see that righteousness for Luther is not merely something external, which God by a "legal fiction" (in the sneering phrase used by some Catholics) deigns to see in believers (and thus tolerates their unrighteousness), but something which is living and active within the soul of the believer, by virtue of the believer's union with Christ. The courtroom analogy of the substitutionary atonement is necessary to show that salvation is unmerited (that God does not first constitute the soul as virtuous, and then love it, but, rather, the reverse). Yet the courtroom analogy is not a sufficient account of salvation (or even of the substitutionary atonement) in itself. We need more preaching of the bridegroom analogy - not just with reference to the Church as a whole, but with reference to individual believers. Only then will we come close to plumbing the depths of God's love, and do justice to God's character as the perfect Friend, who loves simply because He wishes us good, not because there is any good which we could possibly bestow upon Him. It is only in the person of Christ, being both perfect God and perfect man, that God has love of desire, since Christ endured the Cross for the sake of the "joy set before Him, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren."

And thus, in the wisdom of the divine economy, God is the ultimate example of both forms of love which Thomas describes. Insofar as He is divine, God's love is perfectly self-giving, since it is secondarily directed toward our glorification, and yet perfectly just, since it is primarily directed toward the highest good, which is His glory. Insofar as Christ is human, God's love is the perfect love of desire, since it is secondarily directed toward the highest of relative goods, the enjoyment of perfect communion with the saints ("that He might be the firstborn among many brethren"), and primarily directed toward the highest of absolute goods, the enjoyment of perfect communion with God ("that in all things He might have the pre-eminence", yet in the end "the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all").

Now to "the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see...be honor and everlasting power. Amen." (1 Tim. 6:15-16)

August 11, 2008

reconstructionism/theonomy: a fair-minded secular account

This is something I wouldn't have expected to find: a secular account of the origins of Christian Reconstructionism and its variants which isn't glaringly inaccurate, and which shows a surprising level of comprehension of theonomic epistemology.

Admittedly, it's from a self-proclaimed progressive watchdog group, but it's actually less scathing in tone than what I would write myself. Guess it's more important for me to try to distance myself from the theonomists.

I am particularly grateful that the authors recognize that theonomists aren't lurking behind Bush's shoulders - that, in fact, most of them would find Bush's statist ideology repugnant. The political landscape is far more complex than a simple opposition between Left and Right; both authoritarianism and libertarianism can make for strange bedfellows.

August 3, 2008

i repent of ever having supported Obama

When I said I supported Obama several months ago, I was not aware of this: Obama's opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, which even NARAL did not oppose.

I could never support a politician who would not oppose infanticide.

His logic speaks for itself:

... I just want to suggest... that this is probably not going to survive constitutional scrutiny. Number one, whenever we define a previable fetus as a person that is protected by the equal protection clause or the other elements in the Constitution, what we're really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that would be provided to a - child, a nine-month-old - child that was delivered to term. That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place.

I mean, it - it would essentially bar abortions, because the equal protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an antiabortion statute. For that purpose, I think it would probably be found unconstitutional. [Barack Obama - IL Senate floor on March 30, 2001]

There he is - so committed to "protecting a women's right to choose" that he sees a law intended to protect live births as the start of a dangerous slippery slope.

UPDATE: I just read Obama's Call to Renewal speech from earlier this year. While it is insightful in parts, and certainly nuanced, it doesn't say that he would actually be willing to moderate his position on abortion. It just says that he'll speak nicely about it. But when people are dying, I'm afraid that can't be enough.

June 21, 2008

the only Biblical command we succeeded in obeying

Genesis 1:28.

When humans were few in number and lacking in technological skill, the language of ruling over nature was appropriate. God's calling upon us now is different. If we are to rule over nature, we are to rule as Christ rules over the Church. "The one who is greatest must be servant of all." Otherwise, we are constructing a biotechnological Tower of Babel.

April 12, 2008

why i am a presbyterian

Hypnotist and skeptic Darren Brown demonstrates the power of the "instant conversion."

I went up to the front at a charismatic church once. They tried to push me over, but I wouldn't go. Guess I'm not as susceptible to hypnotic suggestion.

Some might say my faith is overly intellectual. But better that, I say, than for it to be indistinguishable from a magic act.

March 31, 2008

quoted in the new conspirators

"Christians will have nothing to say to the world if they can't learn to throw better parties." ~Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis

That's one of the things that keeps me coming back to CtK Dorchester. Not because our theology is Reformed, our services are in our good order, or that we have community ministry all figured out. Sound doctrine, faithful liturgy, and culturally sensitive ministry are all fine things, and such should be our goal - however, it would all seem hollow if we didn't have the joy of the Lord, and the joy of life together.

March 22, 2008

if i have learned anything this lent...

...it is that until you have been scandalized by the Cross, you have failed to grasp its meaning. Sometimes we who believe are the last to recognize the offense of the Cross. The whole Gospel narrative can become routine; the Cross merely a necessary stage on the way to resurrection. But Christ's suffering bears more sustained reflection than this.

This year, I am struck by how much more the Gospels stress the what than the why of Christ's death. As my confidence in knowing the one true atonement theory wanes, I find the concreteness of the Gospels comforting.

March 19, 2008

fresh discovery

I just read J.R. Caines' blog for the first time tonight. Some good thoughts there - particularly what he says about how Jesus confronted the "powers" during Holy Week.

We make the faith far too individualistic. Christianity is growing in the global South because they recognize Jesus has power over social structures, not merely individual sins.

February 5, 2008

ash wednesday approaches

As some of my regular readers may know, each year for Lent I try to add rather than to subtract. I heard a sermon once that said "If you are sinning, you shouldn't wait until Lent to stop. You should stop now." That sounded reasonable to me. And I was never good at coming up with arbitrary things to deny myself. Fasting is another matter, although I can't say that I've practiced it much in my life. I'm certainly still learning how to engage in spiritual discipline without falling victim to spiritual pride.

For Lent two years ago, I planned to read more Scripture, but I ended up falling into deep spiritual doubt instead. That was beneficial, however - at least it couldn't be turned into an intellectual exercise. Last year I tried to learn the Heidelberg Catechism. I read it, but I can't say I have much more than the first half of the first question committed to memory.

This year I'm not yet certain what I will do. I know that if there is anything lacking in my relation to God, it is a spirit of prayer. Yet I want to be specific in my commitment - that way, even if I do not follow through with it, at least I will know where I have failed.

January 4, 2008

when will i get the message?

It's not about my possessions, my skills, or my performance. It's about my relationship to a Person.

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

I will always fall back into works and worry until I learn to sit at the feet of Christ. Being sick of my self-focused life is not enough; he must show me a better way.

December 22, 2007

a home for liturgy lovers

For all that I love simple church movements, I also love the spiritual depth of the traditional liturgy. If you're like me, you might enjoy exploring the Anglican liturgy, lectionary, and spirituality resources available at liturgy.co.nz. I think it will take me days to look at all the articles and reviews that are available....

December 21, 2007

do we believe in the grace of God?

I think often we don't. We may say we do, but we don't.

Why else do we run to streams that will not satisfy? It is not enough to know what wells are dry; without knowledge of an alternative, we will go to them again and again in desperation. We must experience God in order to deny sin.

"My soul will bless the Lord: His praise will continually be upon my lips."

December 6, 2007

waking thought

"Consider others better than yourself." Difficult as that is, it is more difficult still to recognize others as better than yourself. The one is magnanimity, a sign of your greatness. The other is simply admitting the truth.

December 4, 2007

a few more days till I start the one-year Bible plan

I realized tonight that the reading plan I picked up from the Barnabas Ministries table at the ILC starts on a Monday. So, to keep things simple, I have a few days left before I will begin.

It is harder for me to read the Bible now than when I was young. When I could approach it academically, I read it ritualistically. Now that I recognize it more deeply as God's voice, it troubles me.

I don't want to worship a God of my own making, who suits my own desires. And yet I don't want to read into the Scripture all that 2000 years' worth of commentators, sinners all, have read out of it. I want to find the truth as it was first given. And yet I recognize that our understanding of God always comes within and through community.

What is this Light, that delights to shine through fractured glass? Your longsuffering, O Lord, leads to repentance - or to despair, for those who struggle with Your silence. I am waiting for the Day.

December 3, 2007

"write the vision so that they may run who read it"

I have gone too long without regularly reading the Scriptures. Sometimes I feel a burning desire for the Word within me, and yet as the night passes, I find ways to avoid study, and, even more so, to avoid prayer. I trust in God, but do not speak with Him.

I have resolved to put an end to this cycle, using the best means I know how. I am going to attempt to read the Bible in a year, writing about each night's passage.

Experience has shown me that teaching is the best way to learn. May God bring me new insights as I seek to bring His message to others.

November 15, 2007

thought after reading luther on the sacraments

Circumcision is to baptism as conception is to birth.

November 13, 2007

i put my hope in no other

I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
    God of Israel
    who will be angry
    and yet become again gracious
    and who forgives all the sins of suffering man.
    Lord God,
    Creator of Heaven and Earth,
    look upon our lowliness.
             -Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium

November 12, 2007

reminded of this in late fall darkness

It is hard sometimes to drag ourselves
back to the love of morning
after we've lain in the dark crying out
O God, save us from the horror . . . .

God has saved the world one more day
even with its leaden burden of human evil;
we wake to birdsong.
And if sunlight's gossamer lifts in its net
the weight of all that is solid,
our hearts, too, are lifted,
swung like laughing infants;

but on gray mornings,
all incident - our own hunger,
the dear tasks of continuance,
the footsteps before us in the earth's
beloved dust, leading the way - all,
is hard to love again
for we resent a summons
that disregards our sloth, and this
calls us, calls us.
     - Denise Levertov, "The Love of Morning"

Faith does not make the world comprehensible, but it makes it bearable. As I was saying to Bob the other week, internal conflict does not cease when you become a Christian. If anything, it becomes more intense, because, while resignation is appropriate for the Stoic, the Christian is called to something higher: faith that Christ has reconciled the world, and participation in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:12-21).

When we wake in the night crying, "O God, save us from the horror," we must struggle with His silence. It is a fearful thing to be angry at the living God. And yet sometimes we must be angry, if we are to stay sane. When God appears as our enemy, and the horrors of the world surround, the only thing that keeps us faithful is the memory of Jacob, who wrestled with God and with man and prevailed (Gen. 32:22-32).

November 10, 2007

why did i call this blog "Out of Egypt"?

I have never been to Egypt, nor do I know as much about it as one might wish. When I named this blog, I was not thinking of a literal journey out of Egypt, but rather of the exodus from sin to freedom in Christ. No believer has yet arrived at perfection, but rather we press on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us (Phil. 3:12-14). We are still in the desert, rather than glory (Heb. 11:13-16). Yet it is sufficient to have Christ's presence as our cloud and pillar of fire, to have His Word as our manna, to have His Spirit as the water coming from the Rock, and to have His Cross as the sign on which we look for salvation (John 3:14-15).

We are bound for the Promised Land, but we aren't there yet. The "theology of glory" would have us enjoy the riches of Egypt - but we could not enjoy them purely until both we and they have been refined by fire. Then, at the Last Day, we may say to the Lord, "You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance" (Ps. 66:12).

November 4, 2007

thoughts on the mission of Christ

"I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!"

And what is the baptism of Christ, if not a baptism into His death? For the word "baptism" means does not simply mean a washing from sin, but a full destruction of the "body of sin," even as the pre-Noahic world was destroyed by water. For we are not dirty, and in need of cleansing; we are dead, and must be buried and brought to life.

This is the sentence under which all humanity suffers. This is the sword, which brings division; the Word of power which breaks our hearts. This is the offense of the Gospel, and the foolishness of the Cross.

True knowledge of our depravity leaves no ground for boasting, whether in our virtue, our ethnic distinctives, our history, or our natural gifts. All these things must be passed as through fire, so that which is gold may remain.

The Word of the Lord comes to the prophet, and he is undone. We see this in the life of Moses, of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, of Ezekiel. The prophet does not stand apart from the community, rejoicing in its judgment; the prophet weeps over the sin of the people. The prophetic spirit of vindication is, "Let God be true, and every man a liar."

At times I have been distressed with anger, but rarely at the sins of the world. Rather, I have been distressed at the devilish pride which passes for spirituality in the realm of the Church. And I am left with no hope but to call on Christ the Word - the One in whom power and humility meet, who binds up the broken-hearted and strikes the rock of pride, the Prince of Peace who is our God at war.

I am fully convinced that if the Gospel was believed and proclaimed today with the clarity and vehemence that it was preached by Jonathan Edwards, or Samuel Rutherford, or Robert Murray M'Cheyne, or Martin Luther, then we would see revival such as we have never seen. It is the Church's pride in its own choice of Christ, in its own divine mission, that keeps it from knowing the riches which He offers to His elect.

We in the ostensibly evangelical church have confused sanctification with justification; we have confused proper righteousness with alien righteousness. We no longer believe that God alone is the author and perfecter of faith, because that leaves us no ground to boast. We need to acknowledge that, as Luther said, proper righteousness (our own righteousness) is ours only by virtue of that power by which God works in us as we make the alien righteousness of Christ our own. Merely believing the Word is not enough; outside of us, the Word is Law, and we stand condemned. The Word must enter into us, in that spiritual marriage of which both Calvin and St. Bernard of Clairvaux speak, giving us His account of righteousness as the holy Bridegroom sharing His wealth with the Bride.

Once we know that God is ours in Christ, we have no need to seek after anything else. In God we find the peace of creation rather than the restlessness of acquisition. As Meister Eckhardt says, "God is near us, but we are far from Him; He is within, we are without; He is at home, we are in the far country."

Lord, teach us to have a holy vehemence in our love for You, laying aside every weight of sin, every desire which is not stirred up by Your love for us, every fragment of self-image that does not measure up to how You see us in Christ. Let us be violent in one thing only: our desire to set up a Kingdom of peace - where all possess, and all freely give. May the strong exercise their strength on behalf of the weak, and may the weak not envy the strong, but, in serving them, serve their true Master. In the Spirit, let us judge all things, but let judgment begin at the house of God. In Christ's name, Amen.

November 3, 2007

Christians: if you only read one book this year...

Read Jim & Casper Go to Church. My roommate can tell you why.

I don't agree with all of Jim & Casper's observations. But if I only read books where I agreed with everything that was said, then I might as well not read books at all.

I agree with their main point, though: Jesus didn't come to this earth, live, die, and rise again so that we could have awesome church services. He came to reconcile us to God, and He has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. So let's get out there and get started. The church service should be the fueling station for believers in their lives of service, not the rock concert that makes outsiders wish they could be as cool or as saved as we are.

Casper (the friendly atheist) had one profound question which could transform our lives if we let it: "Is this really what Jesus told you guys to do?" He is absolutely right that, though Christians often "do church" in similar ways, we are all over the map in regard to how we live out our faith. Sometimes it seems like our worship is not an expression of true faith, but a substitute for it, a pleasant routine.

At the end of Jim & Casper's journey, Jim asks: "What do you think about Christianity?" Casper's response is dead-on:

"I don't think I can answer that question because Christianity takes so many forms. It's like asking me, 'What do you think about people named Dave?' Each denomination, each church, each Christian basically has a version of Christianity."

So where did we go wrong? How can we all confess the Nicene Creed - that the God who made us is the very same God who became one of us, to bring us to Himself - and yet have such vastly different ideas of our mission in the world? Perhaps we need to recapture what orthodoxy means - for the word, simply translated means "right glory." Being orthodox is not about merely knowing the right things, or saying the right words, but about giving the proper glory to God. And how do we glorify God? I would point to the words of Christ Himself as He went out to death on the Cross:

"'Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him." We are called to live sacrificial lives; prosperity teaching or grasping after political power and influence have no place in the Church's witness. All that is a temptation of the Devil, just as it was when he showed Christ all the kingdoms of the earth. All that is the "theology of glory," which, impressive as it seems to us, will never finally last and will never win people to Christ. God's weakness is stronger than our strength, and His foolishness wiser than our wisdom. If we let our lives be shaped by the Cross, then we will see change in our churches and in our culture.

October 28, 2007

one of the more sensible things on gender i've read in a while

"...[S]setting up templates and saying this is what a man should be strikes me as an attempt to use a mist as a focal point. If you are a man and want to be “Biblically masculine” then here is what you must do.

Trust in Jesus and obey Him. Period.

You see, real men don’t waste a minute of their time or any portion of their energy worrying about their manliness. "

It's just like "whiteness." Since I have a good self-image (sometimes too good), I don't have to think about how great it is to be white. And insofar as I am leading, I don't have to worry about whether my leading is manly enough.

There are times to act, and times to be passive. The truest power is power under control.

And God is so masculine that we are all feminine before Him; yet He fights in order to nurture. It is good to rest under the shadow of His wings.

October 27, 2007

gender and the call to overseas missions (response in a blog discussion)

For context for the following, read Sarah Moermen's blog entry (& at least the last comment by A_A_Plewes). I was getting a little fired up here, but I believe these issues are worthy of further exploration, which I may do this weekend:

To A_A_Plewes:
Who is being "yanked" out of their "proper role" to go overseas? Sarah, because of her particular giftings, desires to serve in this way. Who are you to judge her motives?

There are reasons of prudential judgment why one might not want to go to the Congo as a single woman. But this is about discernment, not hard-and-fast rules. I would hope that the missions board would be willing to exercise flexibility, but at the same time I can appreciate them not wanting to put people at risk for victimization.

In a Muslim nation like Morocco, men would probably be better suited for missions than women. But that's not about proper roles, it's about cultural awareness - being "all things to all people," as Paul would say.

And why shouldn't a single man be "willing to structure his life around his wife's career goals"? Of course, no one should go to the Congo simply for the sake of marriage. If Sarah were being serious, rather than facetious, about wanting to find a husband so she can go overseas, she would be looking for someone who had giftings that would be suitable in another area of ministry. That way the two of them could compliment each other.

The callings of married and single people are different. I myself, though I am a man, will have to reassess my lifestyle in the city once, Lord willing, I have children. Not necessarily leave the city, but at least give my situation some thought. But, as Paul said, both unmarried men and women "care about the things of the Lord" - how they may be pleasing to Him (1 Cor. 7:32-35). That is our place. I believe that there are both single men and women who are called to be pleasing to Him in Africa. I can't speak about the Congo particularly; I can understand why there would be a concern about women being raped or otherwise exploited. My concern, however, is to defend the principle that single women are not in the same status as children. Rather, in most respects at least, they are in the same status as single men. Paul's contrast in 1 Cor. 7 between the reciprocal concern that married individuals have for each other and the focused vertical concern that single individuals have to be faithful to the Lord is illuminating here, I believe.

Was Amy Carmichael motivated by guilt and pity?

Though I strongly disagree with you, A_A_Plewes, especially with regard to singleness and gender, you raise issues worthy of discussion. There are many people out there who seek to motivate us by guilt and pity, and we need to watch out for such. I would like to discuss with you the role of the local vs. universal church further at some point, as it's something that has been on my heart lately.

the humbling of evangelicalism?

The Mystery Worshipper reports on New Life Church before and after Ted Haggard left. The first report seems to exemplify everything I find distasteful or flat out wrong with American evangelicalism, but the second report gives cause for hope. Hopefully, the Lord will not always have to use such dramatic means to teach humility.

I was talking with Bob the other night about Christian nationalism, and what it should look like in a world where the Great Commission is actually being realized: a world in which Christianity is no longer the property of the West. I am cautiously hopeful about the future - someday soon, American Christians may realize we are not the source of all missions efforts. Someday soon, we may realize that Christendom is dead, and bid good riddance to it.

But we can only renounce our "theology of glory"-like aspirations to power and respectability insofar as we have something to put in their place. Thankfully, God has not left us without a witness. The Christian community development movement offers to us an alternative model of church life, a model in which stewardship does not pertain simply to our money, but to our entire way of life.

What would change if we stopped being the church for the sake of the church and started being the church for the sake of the world?

These are the issues I believe we need to be talking about, and, by God's grace, these are the ones I plan to continue to raise. I'm wondering if I should start a small group to discuss them, with the aim of moving from theory to practice. I spend my days posting resources on community development to the UrbanMinistry.org wiki. So far, though, I haven't gotten much of a chance to read them, much less put them into practice.

I miss the after-school program. I miss service. May God grant me the strength to make a place for it in my life, even as I know He calls me to do.

October 24, 2007

moved by this

But God has chosen 
the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, 
and God has chosen
the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 
and the base things of the world
and the things which are despised...
and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 
that no flesh should glory in His presence.

But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, 
who became for us wisdom from God
and righteousness and sanctification and redemption
that, as it is written, "He who glories, 
let him glory in the LORD."

-1 Corinthians 1:27-31

October 21, 2007

what revival would not look like

Knowing that true revival is a work of repentance and renewal in which the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin and awareness of God's holiness, here's what revival does not look like.

So sad that Christianity Today, a "magazine of evangelical conviction," did not cast a critical eye on these events at the Crystal Cathedral. Even sadder that Richard Mouw would be quoted in support of what had happened.

Evangelicalism is not what it used to be. But, despite all its faults, I realize I cannot run away into a confessionally Reformed enclave. I believe God still wants to renew evangelicals' and Pentecostals' focus on Christ, who "for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross, despising the shame." We must renounce everything that diminishes the scandal of the Cross - that is, the infinite cost of human sin. We must replace the cheap grace of "God loves you as you are" with the costly grace of "God died for you, so that He would make you like Himself." As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "What has cost God dearly can never be cheap for us."

Baptism is not simply a response to a moving testimony, a way to rededicate your life to Christ. We are baptized into Christ's death, so that the life we live in the body by faith may no longer be ours, but His. We are baptized once, but live out our baptismal vows day by day.

why dr. elijah kim is in boston

"Cast your bread upon the waters, and it will return to you after many days."

I have to admit, as a Reformed person, Pentecostalism troubles me at times. But having heard Dr. Kim speak at the conference, I trust that, whatever other people from his tradition may believe, he knows that revival is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, bringing about repentance and changed lives, not something from a "fourth dimension" that we can tap into by our own will.

i remember this

Currently listening to: Reckoner

From the Leadership Session of the EGC's 2007 Intercultural Leadership Consultation: "Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, 'It is a dangerous thing for a preacher to experience success too early.' And that was my experience. So the Lord decided that my wife and I needed to go to school. We spent the next few years in the school of Baca, the valley of weeping."

From the Youth Ministry Session: "Teaching creates a space where obedience to truth is possible."

From the Going Deeper session on Social Justice: "The people of my generation are not looking for programs, but for role models."

October 19, 2007

our purposes vs. God's plan

"God often has to go to extreme measures, taking away our props, in order to get us off of our own glory-trail (thinking we’re “in control”) in order to give us the deeper happiness that he calls joy."

This seems to be a particularly appropriate quote considering some of the realizations that I've come to in the past few weeks. I've learned that God doesn't need to change your outward circumstances to shake you up; He has other ways of getting His message across.

October 7, 2007

FVers: your position on sola fide is unclear and problematic

Chris McCartney shows why.

The following quote is probably the key to his critique: "In the Covenant of Life, there was no monergistic act of God that guaranteed the reception of the blessings. If Adam had remained faithful to the Covenant, this would have been through the synergistic activity (which, like our sanctification, and like everything else that comes to pass, would have been forordained by God, but would also have involved Adam's genuine moral activity) by which Adam would have had the graciously promised blessings."

I've felt vaguely uneasy about the FV stance on the role of faith in Adam's pre-Fall relationship to God for some time, but couldn't articulate it so clearly. While I don't think that the FV are flaming heretics, their flashy claims to revise federal/covenant theology certainly haven't been a service to the Church.

Probably the saddest thing is that some of the statements of Rich Lusk, Steve Wilkins, James Jordan, and even Peter Leithart have helped to make N.T. Wright even more suspect within the Reformed world. And that is truly a tragedy, for, while the FVers are but a small faction within their tradition, N.T. Wright is one of the greatest contemporary Bible scholars, recognized as such by orthodox and unorthodox alike. If we ignore him because his statements contradict the WCF at a few points, we are placing ourselves even further on the road to irrelevance.

It may seem inconsistent to some that I'm harder on the FV than I am on Wright. But I think this makes perfect sense. After all, the FV proponents claim to be orthodox representations of the Reformed tradition, while also at times claim to be revising it. N.T. Wright is not part of the Reformed tradition, at least as that tradition is understood in America (OPC, PCA, etc.). His theological program has clearly defined ends - he wishes to overthrow Bultmannian existentialist readings of sola fide through use of the "New Perspective on Paul."

To condemn propositions from his writings in the same document which condemns FV teachings, as both the PCA and OPC have done, is a failure of discernment and of scholarship. Because of their different ecclesiastical status, Wright and the FVers affect American Reformed churches differently. As an outsider, Wright can be studied with profit by our church leaders, just as theologians like Alexander Schemann can be. By contrast, the FVers are insiders trying to change the rules of the game, at least subtly, by means of rhetoric.

If they were calling for a revision of the confession, I might be more willing to consider what they have to say. I too am uncomfortable with the way the sovereignty of God and the decrees seem to control the presentation of the material in the WCF, although I would revise the text in a more "Lutheran," rather than FV, direction. But if they want to keep the confession we have, while changing the way it is taught to the lay people (as Section V suggests), then I become deeply uneasy.

As I have said before, the PCA has treated FV proponents horribly, and the GA-approved statement is a shoddy piece of work - rehashed Southern Presbyterianism, rather than serious Biblical theology. The general failure of the PCA to critique its accretion of traditions is a profound problem, and once which will only become more damaging as time passes. However, the FV do not present a real alternative to the PCA's "preserve the status quo" stance. Their preference for rhetoric over "scholastic distinction" runs the risk of confusing things that should never be confused. If their statement actually makes Adam's faith in God before the Fall, in a condition of innocence, univocal with our faith in Christ as Redeemer, then they are promulgating a new form of predestinarian semi-Pelagianism, in which we are justified not by the imputed righteousness of Christ but by the works of righteousness which God has decreed that we perform.

October 5, 2007

St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Word of God

"For who dare compare the sayings of men with what God is said to have said? The Word of God is living and effective (Heb 4:12). His voice is a voice of magnificence and power (Ps 28:4). "He spoke and they were made" (Ps 148:5). He said, "Let there be light, and there was light" (Gn 1:3). He said, "Be converted" (Ps. 89:3), and the sons of men have been converted. So the conversion of souls is clearly the work of the divine voice, not of any human voice. Even Simon son of John (Jn 21:15), called and appointed by the Lord to be a fisher of men, will toil in vain all night and catch nothing until he casts his net at the Lord's word. Then he can catch a vast multitude (Jn 21:15ff.; Mt 4:19).

Would that we, too, might cast our net at this word today and experience what is written, "Behold he will give his voice the sound of power" (Ps 67:34). If I lie (Jn 8:44), that is my own fault. It will perhaps be judged to be my own voice and not the voice of the Lord if I seek what is my own and not what is Jesus Christ's (Phil 2:21). For the rest, even if I speak of the righteousness of God (Ps 57:2) and seek God's glory (Jn 8:50, 5:44), I can hope that what I say will be effective only if he makes it so. I must ask him to make this voice of mine a voice of power.

I admonish you, therefore, to lift up the ears of your heart to hear this inner voice, so that you may strive to hear inwardly what is said to the outward man. For this is the voice of magnificence and power (Ps 28:4), rolling through the desert (Ps 28:8), revealing secrets, shaking souls free of sluggishness."

"I was not disobedient to the divine vision."

These words, from Paul's testimony before King Agrippa, came to mind tonight as I was thinking about what the Lord has been doing to direct the path of my life. Acts 26 - read the whole chapter.

Prophets - whether Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Paul - all have a call from the Lord, in which He gives them three things that are needful for their ministry: a profound sense of their own sin, a deep burden for the people to whom they will speak, and a firm conviction that the Spirit will give them the resources necessary to speak the Word of the Lord into those people's situation.

And, of course, in the New Covenant, all God's people are prophets (Num. 11:29). This doesn't mean that we condemn the world, as if they were being sent off into exile, but that we tell them how they can be redeemed from exile and reconciled in Christ.

October 4, 2007

sovereignty & responsibility

Thy people shall be willing
                 in the day of Thy power."

~~~~~~

Lord, in the dance,
I am pleased
that I should follow
and You should lead.

Your Spirit prompts my steps
and gives me grace with which to move.
My heart is caught up in Your pulse;
my need fulfilled within Your joy.

"God's word does not need any help"

Here's the kind of Bible I want - not as a substitute for my current Bible, but as a supplement:

A Bible with no chapter or verse divisions, no study helps, preferably in single column, thus with enough whitespace for me to write my own notes in the margin.

As for translation, I'm torn between the NKJV (which sounds better), the NASB (which is most "literal"), and the ESV (which uses good texts while sounding better than the NASB, but which is very conservative on women's roles). The RSV would be a good choice, except for its liberal interpretive decisions at several points.

Maybe if we had a Bible that was sort of like McLuhan Unbound - a bunch of separate little books (or pamphlets) kept together in a box. And, like McLuhan Unbound, they could be color-coded.

That would actually be a substantiative addition to the overcrowded Bible market.
So tell me: does something like that already exist?

[Post inspired in part by High Fructose Scripture at Out of Ur.]

September 29, 2007

before the night closes on my eyes

What I love about knowing Christ is that it is not the work of a moment, but of a life. Always when I think I know what it means to be justified, to leave off my idea of whom I am & accept God's declaration of me as a restored sinner, beloved son, I am struck once again with how little I know. Always I am struck by how much I still hold on to.

Lord, I would break myself
to let your grace fall like rain.

September 8, 2007

another thing I wish I had known....

The Shekhinah Presence of God is referenced using feminine pronouns.

James Jordan is surely right to view woman's role in the created order as that of glorification. However, the kind of glory we are talking about is not frills, not merely the icing on the cake, something we could as well do with. This glory is weight; it is both beautiful and terrifying. If we see an analogy between the role of woman and the that of the Holy Spirit, we must remember that the role of the Spirit is no small thing: for the Spirit glorifies the Son by taking what is His and giving it to God's people (John 16:14), convicting the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).

In thinking of the glory of woman, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' statement in That Hideous Strength: "The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god."

Later: when I have time, I hope to write something about what I have been learning about the meaning of the word "helper" in Gen. 2, as it is in Hebrew.

the Reformed aren't the only people who believe in covenants, you know...

Fortuitously, I'm not the only one who's been thinking lately about covenant theology and the Jerusalem Council.

I don't believe the rise of Messianic Judaism in recent decades is an accident. While we Gentiles may fear that some of their formulations stray close to Judaizing, we can no longer ignore the question that they raise: What portions of the Law remain binding on Jews who come to faith in Christ? Is there a distinction between Jew and Gentile, not in the matter of how they are saved (for all are saved by faith in the Messiah), but in how they show this faith to the world?

I cannot believe that the Mosaic Law was given as a test or a trap, or as a hypothetical job description under a "Covenant of Works" which only the God-Man could fulfill. If it was such, then why was there provision made within the covenant for the forgiveness of sins? Of course, as the book of Hebrews states, that provision (through sacrifice) was proleptic, only effective because the Messiah would sacrifice Himself for His people - and for the whole world that would believe upon Him.

I find much to love in Martin Luther's thought - his insistence upon the merit of Christ alone as our righteousness, his firm distinction between the theology of glory and the theology of the Cross, his wonderful meditation on the "Freedom of a Christian." However, I recoil from his animosity toward the Mosaic Law, and toward the NT passages which seem to echo its spirit, like the book of James. It almost seems as if he plays God off against God - the unknown God of predestination vs. the God of the Gospel who is the justifier of all, the God of Mt. Sinai vs. the God of Calvary.

From the Jewish perspective, the Law is a gift, a sign of God's favor. It does not structure the lives of those who follow it simply in order to burden them, but to impart a kind of poetry to ordinary life. The attitude that all of life is worship was Jewish before it was Reformed.

Of course, the Law can become a burden, when it is abused. This is Paul's argument in Romans 10. That which is good, because it reveals the righteousness of God in the face of human sinfulness, can become evil when it is used to "establish one's own righteousness" (Romans 10:2). People created to be faithful servants believe themselves to be wage earners, and so lose their reward.

Paul never says the Mosaic Law is in itself sinful. On the contrary, he says it is righteous and good. In passages like that discussed above he shows the dynamic of human depravity by which one of God's good gifts (like the trees in the garden were one of His good gifts) can be used for evil, for exclusion and the furtherance of pride. And in other passages he, like the writer of Hebrews, shows that the Mosaic Law is incomplete. It serves a pedagogical function - it is, he says, "a tutor to lead us to Christ." And the typological manner in which it does so is clear.

We in the Reformed community believe that since the Mosaic Law serves a pedagogical function, it has ceased to be binding on us in the New Covenant. However, this becomes problematic the more we study the Mosaic Law, since close study of it shows that the moral, ceremonial, and civil are all interwoven together. We see this especially with regard to the Sabbath, and Christians throughout the ages have split churches over differences in observance of the fourth commandment.

To the Messianic Jews, the mitzvot (613 commands of the Torah, as explicated in the past 2000 years of Jewish tradition) are still binding, at least in part, on people who are Jewish by birth. I, as a Reformed person, react negatively to this contention as soon as I hear it. But now that I'm more aware of the distinction that Jewish tradition makes between Jew and Gentile, as with the concept of the Noahide laws, I am less certain of my stance. If they separated themselves from Gentiles on the grounds of ritual purity, then they would be guilty of Judaizing. But if they find the mitzvot to be helpful in their worship of God, a valuable part of "the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship" of which Paul speaks (Romans 9:4), then I want to be careful not to condemn them too quickly.

As more Jews come to a faith in Jesus as their Messiah, our thoughts must turn to Paul's outlining of redemptive history in Romans 10-11. "For if their rejection mean[t] the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" (Rom. 11:15) I believe, as many have before me, that this age will end with the conversion of the Jews. If this is true, we need to make sure our covenant theology can handle the event.

I am waiting for the Day.

September 7, 2007

request as i head for sleep

...pray for the peace of the city, and those whom I know within it.

September 5, 2007

prayer, 9.1.07

Lord, I pray that You would make me
                  more mindful of You,
                  more thankful for Your mercy,
                  more grateful for Your provision.
    Let me learn grace: that what cost You dearly
                  can never be cheap to us.

I thank You that when we are faithful, you remain
                          faithful:
                     You cannot deny Yourself.
I thank You that Your Word is true,
                   Your mercies are new every morning,
                   You have provided us with everything
                     necessary for life and godliness.

I pray that I would learn to live within Your Word,
                   to rely upon Your grace,
                   to welcome Your Spirit in.
When I speak, let my words be leavened
                   with the Word of God.
Let me be humble in my knowledge
    and gentle in my judgment:
    slow to speak, and quick to listen.
Let me share my heart with others
    as You have Yours with me.

Lord, I pray that you would free me from
             all fear of Hell,
             all questioning of Your justice,
             all ingratitude in the face of providence.
Let me see You as You are:
    wholly just and wholly merciful.
Let me trust in the mystery of salvation - 
     that You call all sinners to repent,
        and yet are the author of repentance;
     that You have made sufficient pardon for all,
        and yet apply pardon to Your elect;
     that You ordain all things,
        but are not the author of evil.
And if, in my weakness, it is Your will
     that I should continue
        for a time yet with this lack of light,
      do not let my flesh use it as a barrier to fellowship,
and do not let Satan have reason to boast.

Give me strength for the day,
      that I may stand firm, even in loss,
      that I may speak a word in season to the needy,
      that I may be a comfort to the discouraged.

All things are Yours, Lord, and You give them freely;
teach me to hold my possessions rightly,
that I may represent You to the world.

Righteous Father! that the world may know You, come
     to us in Christ newly each day,
strengthen us in Your Spirit.

I am a stranger in this world; 
    help me teach people Your hope,
      Your promise of the world's remaking:
    And guide us into Your church,
    and bind us into one,
and bring our love to perfection.

I want change now; teach me Your patience,
to bear with the bruised reed,
    the mustard seed, the tiny cloud -
until we flourish in Your reign of grace.
I am waiting for the Day.
                            Amen.

September 2, 2007

scripture, 9.1.07

UPDATE: I originally wrote this entry on waking up in the middle of the night, and so made a hopeless hash of the pronouns. Hopefully, it makes more sense now.

This was both encouraging and convicting:

"'Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;
Let not the mighty man glory in his might;
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and 
righteousness in the earth.
For in these I delight,' says the Lord" 
     (Jeremiah 9:23-24)
"'Do not learn the way of the Gentiles;
Do not be dismayed by the signs of heaven,
For the Gentiles are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are futile...
A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine...
But the Lord God is the true God;
He is the living God and the everlasting King.
At His wrath the earth will tremble,
And the nations will not be able to endure His indignation.'"
      (Jer. 10:2-3a, 8, 10)

August 12, 2007

prayer

O God, Maker of breath and blood
And all Your gifts, to You I call - 
As You are called my Father,
so may I be Your son.

On earth as it is now in heaven,
in Your image work Your will:
Let Your reign be visible,
let our works now testify.

Provide for us all that is needful
for this day's labor alone.
We will not worry for tomorrow
knowing it comes from Your hand.

In our trials, do not leave us;
let the testing prove us strong.
Keep us separate from all evil
as we confront it with Your truth.
May we not fall to despair;
in Christ, we overcome the world.

Our Provider, You are holy - 
Your full contentment makes You gracious.
Let us give as we are given,
and forgive as we stand in Christ.
Grant that we may see Your glory;
seal us for the Day You come.

July 26, 2007

Being Evangelical - The Centrality of the Word, pt. V: Beginning the Dialogue

Not only the Church's task of interpretation, but also its task of proclamation, must be carried on in community. What I have said therefore, is not the end of discussion, but its beginning. Now I give the floor to my readers:

Where should we begin in teaching about the Bible - what stories, what truths, what persons, what promises, and what laws should every believer be familiar with in our society? Which of these should we use in our witnessing? Which of these are particularly relevant to encourage those of us called to ministry (of any kind)?

March 20, 2007

yesterday, i gave thanks for justification

Because, as Dr. Peter Leithart said once, justification means we don't have to fear the past. And, I would add, it also gives us hope for the future - knowing that we are already seated in the heavenly realms with Christ.

This has been the most difficult year of my life yet, in some ways. (Counting this year as having begun last May, when I graduated from college.) But I recognize that there is a special joy in being finally an adult, despite adulthood's challenges.

Sometimes lately my prayers feel like they've been hitting the ceiling, but today I've been encouraged by the knowledge that I am united to Christ - that my life is hidden with Christ, and that it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me. I need to remember that all the time; then perhaps my feeling of obligation toward God, as if He were a begrudging master, will turn into the delight of love.

We have more students - significantly more - and I struggle to find simple activities for them all to do that don't require much supervision or materials. I am continually thankful for people's prayers and sorry that I don't pray for others as frequently as I ought. I should say that my attitude toward my work (or service, as we are to call it) has changed greatly and I believed I have learned and grown a great deal during my time here. I don't feel upset anymore that I'm not doing what I thought I would be doing; I only wish I could do a better job at what I am called to be doing now.

That's why my greatest request is for more energy, more strength, more patience, and more grace (but especially more energy). Some people are energized by teaching, I think; I just feel drained. If I had known what I was getting myself into here, I never would have done it. Yet that's how the Lord's plan works - I don't think any of us would make the choices which we make did we know their immediate consequences. But to bring this post full circle, that's why we need to keep our faith in God's justification - the knowledge that He has already approved our works, as Ecclesiastes says - and so the "golden chain" will not be broken. He who has begun a good work will be faithful to complete it, and our labor is not vain in the Lord.

February 19, 2007

the error of paedocommunion occurs...

...because people have so greatly delayed catechization and admission to the Lord's Supper. Admission to "church membership," sadly, has become like a second sacrament of confirmation in many orthodox Presbyterian churches.

I agree with the advocates of paedocommunion that baptism is the sacrament of entrance into the church, incorporation into the mystical Body. However, I contest that all the baptized are to partake of the Lord's Supper by virtue of their baptism alone. The two sacraments are not identical; each has its own distinct properties. Whereas we do not act in our baptism, but are acted upon, the Lord's Supper has the property t
Ihat the Baptists would give to baptism - it is a public declaration of our faith, as well as a reception of Christ, enabling us to continue in His fellowship. As such, one must be able to give a profession of faith before admission to the Table.

This said, yet I do not want the nature of faith to be intellectualized. Even relatively young children should be able to make a credible profession of trust in Christ before the church and the elders. In this way they make the grace signified and offered in baptism their own. John Calvin thought this could be done at the age of ten - I believe that if the catechism was simple enough, and focused enough on the free grace of Christ as offered in the Gospel, than children younger than ten (I wouldn't want to set a particular age as the limit) would be able to do so as well.

Two final clarifications of my position: As to the exegetical question of how one reads 1 Cor. 11, I agree that the examination required is a matter of seeing whether one is in union with fellow believers, not the introspective scrutiny of one's worthiness into which it has often degenerated. Such introspection turns the Supper into a work of duty rather than of gladness, and changes its focus from God's act for us to our own moral state. From such, the paedocommunionists rightfully turn away. However, their proposed solution goes too far - Michael Horton, as quoted on this blog, presents a more balanced view.

Finally, I recognize that, in this fallen world, some - the mentally ill and handicapped - may never be able to make a public profession of their faith. They, if baptized, should not be excluded from the grace of the Lord's Table. However, efforts should be made to see that they profess faith to the best of their ability; often they are capable of confessing Christ more clearly than the educated, since they lack our ability to dissimulate. Though I would urge the Church to admit such people to table fellowship, I would not want this arrangement to be made the pretext for admitting infants generally, just as our faith that people (such as the thief on the Cross) can be saved without baptism in no way causes us to deny the sacrament's necessity in ordinary circumstances.

February 17, 2007

more on election

(A response to the comments on Xon's Eph. 1:4 discussion.)

So, to use your example, God's foreordaining of the time when you would marry your wife is an expression of His love for you - but it is in the realm of common grace, whereas His election of you to salvation is special grace. Furthermore, I might want to distinguish His decree that you would be saved from His decree of the manner in which you would be saved (the circumstances) - the former decree makes you a member of that body for whom Christ died (particular redemption - though you are not justified until the time at which you actually come to faith in Christ), while the latter decree is enacted through the agency of second causes (though the Spirit must be working within the preached Word, the sacraments, etc. for them to be made effectual to salvation).

My concern with all of this is that the doctrine of election, as confessionally formulated, has the purpose, not of rendering our system logically consistent, but of removing the possibility that we could boast it was something "in us" that caused us to be saved. Theoretically, you could believe that God foreordained everything and not believe in effectual calling or regenerating grace at all. You could believe that God had foreordained that some people would go to a church or be born in it, receive baptism, hear the Word, and in their own strength believe it. The doctrine of election needs to be distinguished from God's general decrees in order to make the proper distinction between the fourfold states of man, specifically the second and third states: the will's bondage before regeneration, and its freedom, though still struggling against the "body of sin", afterward. God foreordains the acts of all people in both states; however, people in the former state cannot transition on their own strength into the latter. They must have been individually elected to hear the Word and receive it gladly for that to happen.

on baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and related matters

Thanks for the comments on my FoC post. I am less uncomfortable with linking baptism and the forgiveness of sins than I am with linking to the renewal of the will. That isn't as "metaphysical," because it's about a change in God's attitude toward individuals rather than a change in their nature, like the freeing of the will would be.

Dr. Garver, your third paragraph is interesting to me - it shows how the Lutheran and Calvinist confessional systems have a different "flow" to them. We confess many of the same things, but since we lay the accent in different places, we end up with some significant points of disagreement. Justification and the removal of God's wrath is important, of course, but I don't see it as being what effects the change in the nature of the will. I believe Calvinist orthodoxy would say that the renewal of the will flows from union with Christ, as does justification itself.

Here's how I see baptism, at least right now:

it is an enacted Word, a proclamation of the Gospel, just as the Word preached is. As such, it proclaims the forgiveness of sins, but one must have faith in this proclamation. Apart from faith, neither the preached Word nor the sacraments are effective. Of course, one who knows that faith is a gift of God alone, seeking to be self-justified, could ask why God did not "automatically" give him or her faith at the time of baptism. But to ask this goes against the command of God, and the economy of salvation - for, as it says in the FoC Epitome under the head of Election, we are not to pry into the secret things of God. Though we are utterly dead in transgressions and sins, such that God must act upon us to be saved, He acts upon us in such a manner that we ourselves are acting, cooperating with grace temporally though not logically. Thus, we are called to have faith that the Word proclaimed in baptism (or in passages of the Gospel (in the Lutheran sense) such as Eph. 1:3-14) is true of us particularly - that we have an interest in Christ. If we fail in this faith, than we will be held culpable.

This, of course, is only possible because our inability to believe the Gospel is a sin like our inability to keep the Law; it is a sin of moral inability, not metaphysical inability. We cannot blame God for not exercising the invisible operations of the Spirit to such an extent that any individual is regenerated (in the Calvinistic, not the Lutheran sense). The spiritual blessings which such reprobate individuals receive simply by having been baptized and incorporated into the visible church should be enough to save them - since, outwardly, they have heard the same Word preached and received the same sacraments as the elect, who infallibly persevere.

It seems to me the dispute between Lutherans and Calvinists (and within Calvinist circles - as in the FV controversy) is not over whether God saves using means. We are all in agreement that He does. The dispute is over whether there is a different intra-personal phenomenological quality to the experience of the elect as opposed to the experience of those who will not finally be saved. I assume Lutherans, since they talk about people losing a true faith (and thus believe perseverance is not of the essence of true faith), believe that there is not.

FV proponents, such as Wilkins, come close to agreeing to this, it seems. I really question how they can sustain the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints in their system - at least as that doctrine is formulated in the Calvinistic confessions. I don't think that they believe it possible to have true assurance of salvation, since all the things to which they point people for assurance are things which both the elect and the non-elect within the church have in common.

I remain convinced that there is, at least for some of the elect, a phenomenological difference in their experience of Christ and of grace - that they have been given a true gift of assurance. This, of course, does not come apart from means - as the "enthusiasts" mentioned in the FoC would say - but it comes when the Spirit works through means in such a way that they are given a vision of the glory of Christ in the Gospel from which comes a firm conviction of their own interest in His redemption. This, I believe, is what someone like Edwards would say. However, it is important, as Ryle said at the end of his book on Holiness, to state that not all those who are truly saved have such assurance, nor, for reasons known only to God, will all of them have it in their lifetimes.

Thus, the border between the elect and the non-elect in the church is stark from God's perspective, but hazy from ours. This is what makes a "judgment of charity" necessary in our dealings with others, even if we can have full confidence in the words of the Gospel as they are directed toward ourselves. We are not called to judge other people's election - to make the church one of "visible saints" only.

I believe the classic Reformed view is the best way to preserve the tensions between God's economy of salvation, as made visible in the covenant (using the word in the sense most common in Scripture, not that of classical federal theology), and His hidden decrees (which still must be distinguished in kind - election is in Christ, and thus is a gracious act toward sinners, whereas He foreordains the reprobate to become such according to second causes).

The FV is salutary insofar as it stresses a side of the classic Reformed view which may be de-emphasized today. However, its proponents do so improperly, removing distinctions (Law/Gospel, the pre-Adamic covenant (not necessarily a covenant of works), Christ's merit, the visible/invisible church) which will ultimately prove necessary to preserve the graciousness of the Gospel.

The Lutherans, like the FV proponents, also lack distinctions present in classical Reformed theology. However, God be praised, their doctrine developed in such a way that the graciousness of the Gospel - as proclaimed by Luther - has been preserved. The cost for them has been that their system is in conflict with itself, as I said in the post below - what they say about Election contradicts in part what they say about Free Will. (This problem seems quite similar to that encountered by Augustinian groups within the Catholic tradition, such as the Jansenists. They want to preserve monergism, but also say that God is gracious to all in the church in the same manner.) I am more comfortable with the Lutheran system than I am with the FV; however, I find their statements at several points, intended to absolve God of all responsibility for the non-salvation of some, to undermine the doctrine of divine sovereignty.

February 15, 2007

one more theology post for the night

A response to this quote: (You may need the context)

3. Wilkens and his supporters argue that this is a both-and situation; what he is saying is true of church members who will not inherit glory, and what the Confession says of church members who will inherit glory is also true. I am arguing that it is in fact an either-or situation. When Paul wrote the Book of Ephesians, he spoke of election with reference either to those who are destined to glory only (the WCF position) or to all church members, regardless of their end. Surely we will all agree that in Eph. 1:4 (and similar passages), Paul is relating divine election to salvation, so Eph. 1:4 is not a use of election that belongs to a different doctrinal context. Either Paul is saying that those who are "saints" and "faithful in Christ" are chosen unto glory, or he is saying that church members are elected into the covenant, some to be saved through perseverance and others to be lost via apostasy. You cannot have it both ways, as if Eph. 1:4 is directed to two different kinds of readers. Is Eph. 1:4 is directed, as Wilkens says, to church members who enter into glory and to those who will not, or is written only with reference to true believers who can thus be assured of glory? This question yields two different doctrines of election. I maintain that the Westminster Standards teach one doctrine -- Paul is telling true believers that God elected them unto glory -- and Wilkens teaches another doctrine -- Paul is telling true and false believers that they are elected into covenant membership and privilege. We might go on to debate the correct interpretation of Eph. 1:4, but my point is that Wilkens' doctrine and the Confession's doctrine are fundamentally different. If one is correct, the other is in error, since Paul is making either one point or the other. As I indicated above, this is true not merely of Eph. 1:4, but of Paul's use of election throughout his epistles.

Well, in fact, I think the Apostle Paul writes his letters the same way you or I write them in ordinary life; he does not write them only to a select group out of the larger group he mentions in his greeting. He writes to them all, of facts that are generally true, but with one proviso - one which is in not true in general discourse, but which is implicit in all the language of Scripture. This is the condition of faith on the part of the hearer.

And this of course is a deep mystery for it is faith by which we are justified - such that, if you have faith (in the Biblical sense, which embraces the whole Christ, not merely His benefits), then you are elect...and yet it is that election which means you are able to have faith in the first place. However, one cannot know of God's election beforehand; one must have a vital encounter with the grace of God as revealed in the Gospel, and then it will become clear. As it says in the hymn, "I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew...that He was seeking me." That is the only way out of the infinite regress.

Again, it does not surprise me that it is so difficult for orthodoxy to be maintained on these points of doctrine. Just as in the realm of Christology, we are treading on the borders of the mysteries of God. Any attempt to "simplify" things either way (such as I believe I see in both the TR and FV approaches) will eventually lead to error.

I only hope that I'm representing the truth correctly myself, though I know I'm not yet able to express it clearly. Consider this my own effort to continue my theological education in public - though in my case, the endeavor is less dangerous, since I can't be thrown out of a church office for it.

UPDATE after the jump; I thought I needed to clarify my position from a few other angles.

Clarification One: (a response to Sarah F., who said she hadn't thought before about the context of the Apostle Paul's statement here, more specifically how there would be non-believers in the audience) I do think that he intended to teach about things that were [only] true for believers [in the ultimate sense], but he wasn't writing only to believers. The funny thing is, though, of course, the thing that makes the difference between believers and unbelievers is that believers, well, believe it when Paul writes such things to them and unbelievers don't, though they may seem to for a time. [Thus, we don't have to interpret this passage through the grid of either corporate election or the "judgment of charity." Like all Gospel statements, it describes things which are objectively true of those who believe in them but which are only believed by those who have been effectually called. The problem we see here is seen in all the Scripture passages where spiritual benefits are described - it just seems more acute in this case since those benefits are explicitly linked to election. But since election cannot be separated from the work of Christ (and, in fact, this passage states that election is "in Christ"), the problem is the same in any case.]

Clarification Two: (a response to the commenters on the post I linked above who thought that Eph. 1:4 was referring to "corporate election," (in which I do believe, but which I cannot believe is being taught in this passage) and, in fact, did not think it would be necessary to have any texts teaching individual election) I actually think it is a tremendously bad thing to view individual election to glory as a "good and necessary consequence" of divine sovereignty. After all, Catholics could regard election in such a way - they just would view it as working itself out in time through the means of the Catholic sacramental system.

The Reformation doctrine of election is of an election "in Christ," an election which can also be described as knowledge, in the Biblical sense. It is something intimate, something directed toward individuals since "before the foundation of the world" (as Eph. 1:4 (in the classical reading, which I believe to be correct) teaches.

I get deeply uncomfortable when people say that God predestines people to salvation in the same manner in which He foreordains all events. The latter does not have to be a gracious process at all - it generally employs only second causes, whereas the former is gracious from first to last, since that redemption which is decreed by the Father is effected by the Son and applied by the Spirit.

So, yes, it does matter how you read Eph. 1:4, and I think it is a confessional issue, though I wouldn't have argued it as Phillips did. But then again, I suppose I'm more "Lutheran" than the FV proponents who are generally supralapsarian, it seems.

December 16, 2006

Israel is Egypt

So lately Peter Leithart's been elaborating on how Israel is Egypt in at least some parts of the NT, and what this means for our interpretation of Luke's Gospel: i.e., "Out of Egypt I called my Son." I never thought of it this way before, but it makes sense. As he said in an earlier post, Egypt was in fact the place of safety for Jesus and his family, because national Israel was led at the time by one of the worthless shepherds of which Ezekiel speaks.

Furthermore, this usage of "Egypt" for Israel was perhaps not unique to Luke, since Paul also uses a foreign nation to represent national Israel in Galatians 4.

I imagine this identification of Israel with Egypt began after Christians were first excluded from Temple worship, and began to see the continuation of Temple practice as inconsistent with the finality of Christ's sacrifice (an understanding reflected in the details mentioned in the Gospel accounts of His death - i.e., the veil of the Temple being torn in two). In this light, Christ's death could be understood as an exodus (the word is, in fact, used in this way in th NT): an exodus not only from bondage to sin, as it is often individualistically understood within the Protestant tradition (particularly its revivalist elements), but an exodus from the types and shadows of Temple worship (which keep people under bondage to the elements - in the case, the recurring seasons (Gal. 4:3-5, 10) into the new Kingdom of God.

Of course, we shouldn't spiritualize this Kingdom:

it was understood by the early Christian to interpenetrate this world, to exist in tension between the already and the not-yet. It was, to a large part, constituted by the liturgical practice of the Church, which, it has been argued, owes a great deal to the symbolism of the Temple liturgy. The striking difference, however, is that the worship of the Church centers upon the Eucharist - upon participation in Christ's sacrifice, which is both final and effectual in a way that the OT sacrifices could not be. It is not only effectual for the remission of sins, but for the renewal of humanity - as Irenaeus said, it is the "medicine of immortality."

Of course, a persecuted church could understand the NT in a way which is hardly comprehensible to us here in the West (though our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have often found it strikingly appropriate to their situation). They have no problem applying the perspective of the Book of Revelation to their situation - no problem seeing how it shows the Church continually being renewed and reconstituted through the Eucharistic affirmation of its eschatological hope, which is sustained in the midst of persecution. I would argue that only a church which has become comfortable in the present can read Revelation largely as a prediction of the future.

For us moderns, whose context is so different (so much better from a worldly perspective) than that of the early Christians, reading the NT in its 1st-century context is infinitely rewarding, but difficult. This is why we need people like Leithart and Wright, who use their scholarly expertise in the service of the orthodox Church. In this way, we take steps toward what I called recently "theology on the offensive" - using the insights of the historical-critical approach without its corrosive modernist skepticism.

Historical-critical approaches must be taken seriously by orthodox Christians not simply as an apologetic threat, but as a potential source of insight (once their arguments are recast in a context where the composition of the Biblical books is not simply a matter of individuals and their flawed judgment/will to power). To deny this is practically to deny the human authorship of the Bible, as if it came down from heaven fully formed. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that God intended the Bible to be "more than the sum of its parts": more than a collection of propositions which can be atomized, analyzed, and then systematized. The Scripture is a true Word of God, and is the ultimate ground for any true knowledge of God; however, it is not the Word of God in the same sense that Christ is the Word of God. We know of God what He has deemed it needful for us to know, and this He has revealed to us over time. The result is a heterogenous mixture of texts - to advance in understanding of them, and thus in understanding of God, is one of the Church's chief tasks until Christ returns. It is understandable if we can learn more from a contextual reading of the books of Scripture than we could learn from a simple word study on any given topic. I have a feeling it'll be a while before a systematic theology can be written that really does justice to the insights of Biblical theology. Of course, it is unfortunate that in Reformed circles, practically speaking, we need such a theology today - or all the people, like Leithart, who are willing to look at things "from below" (the perspective of Biblical theology) will get called heretics, and there will be calls to run them out of the confessional denominations.

A topic to return to: Paul's polemic against Second Temple Judaism, and how the different strata of the Pauline corpus (i.e. Galatians (which I think early) vs. Romans (late)) may show increasing subtlety in the Old Covenant/New Covenant contrast he draws. Also a further question - is the book of Hebrews earlier or later in apostolic thought than the contrast which is one of the primary foci of the book of Romans? Right now, I'd say earlier, although the author of Hebrews shows more awareness of Hellenistic Jewish thought than does Paul in his writings, and thus adds a different dimension to the picture.

November 19, 2006

reflections after reading "the secret message of Jesus"

I remember a conversation I had at the beginning of my time in Boston with Aaron from Azuza Pacific. At that time I laid out my expectation of greater doctrinal unity among Christians before Christ returns, and he questioned it, saying that action would come before we got everything figured out, if such a thing is even possible, or in God's will. And I argued back, quoting the passage about the Spirit guiding the Church into all truth, but now I think I see his point.

I sense that the next hundred years - if Christ does not return first - will be a time of necessary danger for our faith. Our foundations have already been shaken (since the 1700s, etc., etc.) Now I sense we're gathering for a countercharge, even as the world seems blackest. And I anticipate that the countercharge will make itself known in ethics and in Body life prior to any great doctrinal reconciliation. This movement will be from the bottom up, not the top down, and it'll be messy, even as the Reformation was. God willing, though, we live in a different age than the Reformers, and fellow Christians can dispute without bloodshed.

Perhaps Athanasius once again will save the world. I'm currently re-reading his On the Incarnation, and, as always, it's provoking me to rethink fundamentally how I understand the Faith.

I think his vision of reconciliation between God and humanity - his account of what Christ came to do - is deeper, broader, and richer than the typical account given in both Protestant and Catholic circles (and, I would guess, than the modern Orthodox account, despite their veneration of Athanasius as one of the chief saints. After all, all Christians claim to honor Jesus, yet we've done a fair amount to diminish the power of His teachings.)

Have we in the Church (all branches of it, though I speak mostly to Protestants, since I know them best, being one myself) unwittingly buried one of our greatest treasures - a reading of Paul's reading of what Christ came to accomplish that is more subtle and comprehensive in scope than the narrowly logical approach taken by Anselm? For Athanasius, like the Bible itself (as McLaren points out), deals mainly in images, but we Protestants have all too frequently thought with only one, and that one rationalized into a system of exchange.

I'm beginning to think that the judicial-economic metaphor Anselm developed, which has become nearly the only metaphor used by many Protestants today (such that many wouldn't even call it a metaphor, but rather the plain truth of what Christ did), is not the most important metaphor in the Bible, and not even the one on which the NT authors lay the most stress. Rather, I think the most important metaphor is the one expressed in such Pauline statements as "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." Behind justification lies union with Christ.

(Excursus: Union with Christ is unobservable, and is on the side of the 100% God - it is the outworking of regeneration, which God initiates. Justification comes with confession of sin and faith in Christ - the actions of the 100% man, which are inseparable from the 100% God. The two go together, even as do the natures of Christ or the divine/human character of Scripture - but, in all these areas, the divine element must be in the "first place" logically, even if chronologically and ontologically the two are simultaneous.)

What if the work of Christ is more importantly a work of renewal, restoration, reconciliation, and recreation than an abstracted quid pro quo?

Still, Anselm is not to be wholly rejected. His work is invaluable within its scope. It's just that our contemporary atonement theory was fleshed out largely within the polemic context of the Reformation, yet today the concerns and needs of the Church are different. We've won the battles of the Reformation, in a sense: yes, I know that the Catholics have never renounced Trent, but the Reformational confessions have been formulated and adopted by many Christians, and the ideas in them have even infiltrated Catholicism to a certain extent. (Thus, I have confidence that the Reformational solas can be preserved and can win the day even in the midst of the terminological rethinking that people like N.T. Wright - and the advent of Biblical theology - are forcing upon us. We can continue to articulate the truths of the Reformation, even if the language we have to do so in is different, and, as Wright would argue, truer to the language of the Bible, in its historical context.)

What the Reformers said was right and necessary in their day, but to preach the Gospel now exactly as they preached it then, is not to preach the Gospel in such a way that people now can hear it as "good news." In an age where people no longer have a conscious sense of God as a common cultural possession - much less a sense of God as righteous and terrible Judge - the burning question is not: "What must I do to be saved?" but rather "How do I find a love beyond myself?", or something similar. Our starting point with the modern pagans (those who have tried a form of Christianity, and found it wanting, and as such are the hardest to convert) must be much farther back than it was with the preachers of the 16-18th centuries, the original "Evangelicals." A desire for reconciliation still exists, and will always exist, within the human heart, but the cultural conception of underlying reality having shifted, this reconciliation is no longer seen by most as a real possibility, and certainly is not viewed as being reconciliation with a personal God.

Even more so, the onus is not seen as being upon ourselves - that we have become aliens and strangers in the world because of our own selfishness and neglect of God. Rather, people seem to think that if the Divine exists, its obligation is to come to us at our beck-and-call. And since they think of Christ as having come for the very limited purpose (in their conception) of forgiving our sins (understood by them as our offenses against an arbitrary and outmoded moral code), they can't see Him as a manifestation of the Divine taking the first initiative and coming to us. Perhaps if they had read Athanasius, or the other Fathers, (or if we had done a better job of proclaiming the apostolic teaching) they would understand Christ's work more comprehensively as both the reconciliation of the world (a return to God's original purpose for creation) and a restoration of the Image of God in humanity (a return to His original purpose for us, as His delegated representatives in that creation).

"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!"

April 3, 2006

prayer for the night

Listening to: "Mahgeeta," My Morning Jacket

I found out something that quite surprised me tonight. And in the process I found out something that surprised me about myself.

Some good conversations I think, though. Everyone has reasons for the things that they believe. It's more important, I find, if we're really to go about the task of loving people to find out what those reasons are than to defend the plots of ground that we've staked out with our intellect.

There's a scary balance between humility and pride in the Christian life, you know? For on the one hand, our ability to know and to act has been affected by the Fall so dramatically that we can't reach God at all apart from His reaching down to us and communicating Himself. Yet on the other, the spiritual person can judge all things and is judged by no one except God, or so Paul says in 1 Corinthians (ch. 2, I believe). How do you put those two statements together? How do I state things that seem heinously arrogant of me, like "You stand under the judgement of God" without setting myself up as a judge of the person to whom I speak? For my self is fallen and errant; only God knows. I cannot understand God or His ways at all apart from revelation - and my grasp on that knowledge seems tenuous at best sometimes. Yet "Let God be true and every man a liar."

I think one of the most disturbing scenes in Perelandra is the one where Ransom is literally having a dark night of the soul in the cavern after struggling with Weston in the boat. "What if water is the very thing you can't drink and home the very place you can't return to?" he asks - that is, what if the things we most cherish about God, His mercy and His love, that which we see in Christ, are not true of the cosmos in actuality. For one must confess that this world appears a pretty brutal place in itself. It's hard to imagine how the revelation of Scripture connects with what we see; it's hard, so hard, to live by faith.

Justification by faith alone doesn't mean we're justified on the account of faith, as if faith were of ourselves. No, it is itself the gift of God, as Paul says. Thus, I pray to God to believe for me and to unite me to Himself, since that I can't do on my own.

I'm so worried about getting things wrong, you know? I've wanted to be right all my life, and in lots of obvious, socially accepted ways, I have been. But when it comes to the big issues of ethics, theology, etc., that's when it becomes more difficult. I'm sorry I can't be more specific in this forum. You know I would be if I were talking to you right here right now, and we could just speak back and forth, and it wouldn't seem so cold.

I feel that blogging is too informationally promiscuous at times. I need to know I can trust the people to whom I speak. (Don't worry - what I found out tonight doesn't affect me directly; it only affects me insofar as I care about all the people that I know, particularly those I live with here at Crick Rd. (thanks for encouraging me to get involved, Tacy); I say a prayer for myself and for all of us - God forgive us all. I know I've been honest with God; I pray I can be forgiven for that. But if the story of Jacob means what I think it means, then I think I can.)

This has been an interesting Lent. Sometimes I feel like I have, in fact, been wandering through the desert. But God has provided the manna and the quail - struck a rock, and I have found a spring. Well up in me to eternal life.

February 11, 2006

then color me generic

"Presbyterianism, I believe, is not just a form of government, plus the Westminster Standards. It is a way of life, with a distinctive piety that orders not only the way we read the Bible and the way we worship God but also the way we order our week and live out our vocations. Presbyterianism is an identity, not an opinion. "
-quote from a debate on the Regulative Principle of Worship, which sort of sparked this line of thought, but which is too long to really be a required preliminary

I guess I always took a more "pick-a-mix" approach to Presbyterianism. After all, it's not like the tradition itself isn't divided. Reformed theology comes in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins these days: we've got preterists, postmils, Vossians, Klineans, Federal Vision folk, presuppositionalists, and various combinations of all that and more. Then, of course, there's the weird outliers: theonomists, of course, but also 'kinists' (anti-Semitic racists who Josiah ridiculed) and polygamists.

Perhaps the difference is that I was raised Presbyterian, and have lived my life following from that, rather than coming to Presbyterianism after a long journey and saying "Ah, now I understand!" I obviously read the Bible with a Reformed hermeneutic, seeing covenants in it and such, but I don't feel bound to assert that my theological ancestors got everything right when it came to the Bible. I consider myself an heir to the tradition of the whole Church, although my ideas about the bounds of the Church are necessarily idiosyncratic (because practically, we're all autonomous individuals even in our efforts to be traditional, since we find ourselves every minute presented with choice, and no one can act but us).

Wouldn't the former view be a narrow Presbyterian form of apostolic succession? Maybe I'm just too Protestant for the Protestants (even though at other times I feel myself being pulled toward Anglicanism, although people who have serious historical commitments to episcopacy puzzle me).

Reading the theologians of the past makes one realize that arguments from tradition are not any easier to make than arguments from Scripture alone. Everyone has their own idea of an ideal historical period which they set up as the standard against which to judge the rest. And even periods from the history of the Church before the East-West split are distinctly different from each other. You can have some kind of theory of doctrinal development to explain that, as Cardinal Newman tried to do, but I question how much that can really deal with the problem.

I'll tell you, if I'm skeptical about anything these days, it's the perspicacity of Scripture. And it scares me; it really does. I can only hope that things will get sorted out in some supernatural way, because I don't see any hope for us mere mortals to do it.

February 7, 2006

Extreme divine sovereignty: An idea for you to all go to bed thinking about

...in light of the writings of this man.

Extreme Calvinism is ultimately equivalent to pantheism.

Why? Since in their universe there is no concursus, no responsible human action running alongside divine action, and no cooperation between human and divine in the work of salvation (as we see wonderfully and paradoxically illustrated in Phil. 2:12-13), there can be no real way to say that creatures are distinct from the ordaining will who not only sustains the universe in existence (as all Christians affirm), but also, on this account, is the sole cause of their action. This conception of God, I would argue, leaves God nothing to do in glory but to contemplate Himself, since He created no true distinction - no difference from Himself - when He created humanity. Thus, we are left with the onto-theological God of Aristotle who is "thought thinking itself," who can inspire no true piety or devotion.

What are the practical consequences? Morally, such a view has already eliminated any analogy between human moral standards and God's - as in the theology of Gordon Clark, God is only preserved from the accusation of unrighteousness by emptying the categories of good and evil of all meaning that can be comprehended. But it gets worse even than this, since no bond of love can be formed with a God whose moral standards have no point of contact with our own. The distinction between regenerate and unregenerate can't come into play here, since the history of the Church has shown that Christians don't find themselves less repulsed by evil and more reconciled to it as they recognize the power of God, but rather they hate it more. "If our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God...Is God unjust who inflicts wrath?...Certainly not!" (Rom. 3:5-6a) As Christ says, "Offenses must come, but woe to the one by whom they come" (Matt. 18:7).

It's getting absurdly late, so I can't continue this line of thought much further. I'll simply end with the two passages from Scripture which exemplify Christ's attitude toward evil and the fallenness of the world, leaving to the side the more philosophical question of what extreme Calvinism does to our view of God in general. John 11 - Christ's raising of Lazarus from the tomb: He weeps, and, as Francis Schaeffer says, is actually angry at what sin has brought about. Then He commands Lazarus to come forth - "Unbind him and let him go." Matt. 23:36-38 - Jesus laments for Jerusalem despite the inevitable judgment that has been ordained against them, and, more shockingly, says that they were "not willing." We need to deal with this kind of passage in our theology, as well as the divine sovereignty passages; there's dangers in both directions.

One final thing: How would one pray to a God who is the sole Agent in the universe? By definition, that would seem to exclude relationship with Him. The Psalms and the faith of the OT saints show real dialogue going on between man and God; how different is Jacob wrestling the Angel of the Lord from the metaphysical abstractions of Vincent Cheung's deity!

January 30, 2006

A potporri of thoughts after an evening wasted browsing theology blogs online

I'm thankful for my friends. And all Christians who aren't utterly batty.

The Internet attracts batty people. (Wait, what does that say about me?)

Thinking too hard about theological problems has often led to problems. So, for that matter, has not thinking at all.

Schisms are disgraceful, and happen all too frequently. I could never be Catholic, but if I were to cross over, schism would be one of the main reasons.

I love the Anglicans I've met over here so far because they're wonderfully reasonable. They're not nuts in fundamentalist ways, or the multitudinous Reformed ways. They may be more liberal on issues of church practice and politics than I'm used to, but honestly that's a price I'm willing to pay for a balanced Christian faith. Now I haven't been following the crises in the Anglican Communion lately, but strangely I have a feeling that orthodox Anglicanism is going to pull through this. The center holds - tradition over here is strong enough to prevent a declension into the state of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

January 8, 2006

evangelical anglicanism (and other theological thoughts)

Yes, it exists. Some nice services today, both morning and evening - Book of Common Prayer (modern), Mission Praise (modern Anglican hymnal - no music printed in the book), and what I think was fairly typical (albeit with a certain amount of individual freedom) Eucharist in the morning; similar responses and a mix of hymns and praise songs on the projector screen in the evening. Good to see the church seeking to meet the needs of the congregation, mixing the old with the new in a way a little reminiscent of North Shore.

Both homilies I heard today (morning from associate pastor, evening from vicar) were good - focused on the text, pretty meaty and practical, and well-structured (though not quite to the extent of Andrewes or Donne). I think I might've found my church home here. As I said to an Oxford student who attends the church we went, St. Andrew's, I don't want to flit about, even if I'll only be here a little while. I do want to see some of the more "high church" Anglican services here, but I can't imagine the homilies being better and I don't see some of the distinctive practices (incense, elaborate vestments, processional) as fitting in with my conception of what's important in worship. I am word- and sacrament-centered in my theology of worship; not really in favor of ritual in general unless it helps us understand God better and worship Him as He has prescribed (though I'm not a strict regulative principle person). I love aesthetic worship though - beautiful (and meaningful, mostly derived from Scripture) words, music, art (images of Christ only), and architecture. I bought an old Book of Common Prayer today for 12 pounds - now that to me is what Anglicanism has done right. The idea of an Established Church, however... And some of the highest church practices seem to fit into that.

From a PCA perspective, it seems strange to see otherwise "conservative" (in the sense of Gospel-focused, what they call "evangelical" over here) people, both the church leaders where we went and some of the students in the program, who have no problem with women's ordination. I'll have to give this some thought. My never-too-strong (mostly inherited) commitment to an all-male ministry is coming into question. It always relied more on fear of overall theological liberalization than on my understanding of specific texts from the Apostle Paul, anyway.

I've been having quite a few theological conversations here overall. I'm not sure if I want to feel so academic about it the whole time I'm here though. My worst fears are that it will either turn into a kind of name-dropping, except with the names being those of famous scholars and systems of thought rather than celebrities I've met, or some kind of intellectual duel like that I fought (ill-informed as I was) on the blogs when I was a college freshman. At least that was online, rather than in "real life." Real life would be dreadful; face to face hurts more.

December 21, 2005

the four causes of salvation

Writing the sentence "one action - our belief in Christ - does bring us salvation, though it is not the ground of our salvation," made me want to think about how to express the Calvinist doctrine of salvation in terms of Aristotle's four causes. (For background on the four causes, look at this helpful lecture, which is pretty much necessary to make what I'm about to say make sense. After all, I'm thinking out loud here and so it doesn't necesarily make much sense anyway.)

So then, what is it that makes a saved soul? I can't say, what causes salvation, in the unambiguous Humean sense, because that's talking about an event rather than a substance; anyway, salvation is as much a process as it is a once-for-all event (though, I suppose, we Protestants would want to say that it is first and more fundamentally an event, a change of state (passage from a lost to a justified state) than a process).

Three of these (the last three) I'm pretty certain of how they match up, though I don't think Aristotle's categories were really intended to express what I'm trying to express here. The first one, material cause, is problematic - probably because it's hard to give a material account of immaterial substance.

Anyway, here goes:

Formal cause: possession of faith, the instrument of justification. Having faith is what it is to be a saved individual.

Efficient cause: God's effectual calling. The action of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is produces a saved individual - that is, one who possesses faith, and who is united to Christ by faith. (As an aside, the author of the lecture linked above, writes, and I agree, that this is the only sense Aristotle uses the word translated "cause" which is anything like our current usage.)

Final cause: Well, this would have to be twofold - our good and God's glory. Our good, since for God to love us He must have concern for us in ourselves, I believe, not simply as a means for advancing His own purposes, which are otherwise quite unrelated. (St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation is necessary reading on the subject of why God came to reclaim His creation, which was falling in ruin, and he says that God did it out of love for us, who bore His image, not simply to preserve His good name from potential insult. Also, when we confess the Nicene Creed, it states that Christ became Incarnate "for us men and for our salvation.") But of course, ultimately for God's glory, because His unmotivated love for us ("while we were still sinners") which led Him to die for us is the highest display of His righteous character ("that He might be just and the justifier of the ungodly").

Now as to the troublesome cause, the material cause. Some, like Kuyper, might say that the saved soul's regenerate character, as the righteous new man born from above, is what constitutes a saved individual. But I think the Lutheran criticism of this is on target: would this not make something within ourselves the ground of justification, and thus be a return to the Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness? Of course, it would be something given by God, but the Catholics say the same thing, though they talk about works (penitence, etc.) where the Reformed proponents of this view would talk about God-given faith. I like what someone said about Calvin: that he could, at times, speak of faith as the condition of regeneration and sometimes as the fruit of regeneration. Calvin was a great and careful exegete and this, I believe, shows his faithfulness to the text. We could all in Reformed circles learn from the balanced nature of his teaching.

Therefore, I would argue that an individual's union, body and soul, with Christ, a union effected by faith (which is a gift of the Spirit - concursus) is the material cause of salvation. Only if the matter is stated in this way can we avoid making salvation principally about introspection, looking to see what marks one has that evidence regeneration. Antinomianism is, of course, a concern, but I don't think the Puritan method of scientifically studying souls (as even Jonathan Edwards did to some extent) is the proper cure for it. Only looking on Christ, and be changed by Him into glory, as fruit drawing life from the One True Vine, can heal us.

December 10, 2005

I just wasted 2 1/2 hours...

...reading the Christian blogosphere, as it's called. Talk about the Web destroying the potential of individuals for civil discourse. I'll stand by what I stand in my oral defense of my SIP - electronic communication's principal function within the realm of the Church has been to disseminate theological controversy. And personal controversy, since people love ad hominem.

People really are deceitful and desperately wicked. There's not much hope for us. I'm finding silence is the only cure.

November 29, 2005

Stewardship, pt. II

In which I continue my endless saga to illuminate the void (since it's impossible to tell whether anyone is affected by these things, much less myself).

I was a little confused for a minute when I thought Erik was referencing Benny Hinn's lifestyle to bolster an argument. Of course, Hinn (I believe - someone more knowledgeable than I can correct) believes in "prosperity theology" so wealth is God's way of showing that Hinn is doing the right thing - something he can enjoy to its fullest, not something he might have to render back to God as a steward. It's like a hyped-up permed and cosmeticked version of Max Weber's (faulty) theory of the Protestant work ethic. I would hope that none of us in this community hold to a theology either explicitly or implicitly similar to Hinn's on the reason for which God gives us material blessings.

As I suggested in that long post that no one specifically replied to (either because it was impeccably argued or because it had too many long quotes - I suspect the latter), God primarily has blessed us - those of us who are fortunate enough to get a strong Christian education at this college, and, more broadly, those of us who live in the richest country in the history of the world - so that we might be a blessing to others. Our own entertainment and pleasure needs to be knocked down the list farther than I know that I, and the rest of this culture, put it.

Dr. Foreman's point about commitments that people make later in life is well taken. It would be foolish for those of us who have no financial assets and no authority in the church to call to account those who do have financial assets, questioning their stewardship in specific instances (read "I'm sick of the whole 'what cars can Christians drive' debate, which is really tangential").

Since most of us on this floor are college students, still with lots of "options open" in life (financially, vocationally, etc.), let's think more broadly - about how we spend the majority of our time and how we view God's call on our lives. Are we spending more of our time on entertaining and amusing ourselves (falling victim to the dangers of individualism and of simply distracting ourselves from eternal concerns) or on serving others, demonstrating compassion, joining in prayer and the worship of God, and studying the Scripture? What is our heart's desire?

In the realm of vocation, which we all are thinking about a good deal right now as we consider the future and which is somewhat of a buzzword here, are we thinking about what kind of job will make us the happiest as individuals (whether because of the monetary rewards or because of our enjoyment of the work itself) or are we considering the abilities, intellectual, relational, physical, etc. that we possess as gifts from God that we need to exercise in an effort to build His Kingdom on earth? I have faith that in many (perhaps most) cases our talents and our pleasures have been designed to line up nicely, and that often we will be able to make use of them in the economic realm (especially since we are in such a wealthy society). But even if they do not, we must be willing to serve God, perhaps making economic sacrifices so we can serve in other spheres, such as the family and the Church.

Fundamentally I believe that if we keep Christ foremost in our minds and structure our life choices around following Him, there will be economic consequences. People in the Church may end up buying less expensive cars. But it's foolish to try to get people to buy less expensive cars out of a sense that they're transgressing an isolated, seemingly arbitrary rule, like a provision in the oral Jewish law. Rather, as Piper writes, people need the desires of their heart to change: they need to see the glory of God for themselves, and realize that anything else that could make them happy is infinitely inferior to knowing Christ.

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil. 3:8-10)

How did Paul arrive at this attitude? How did he reach a state in which he could accept persecution gladly, could both be full and be hungry, to abound and to suffer need (4:12)? Only because he had seen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and, by use of all the means of grace and through obedience, he desired to see Him more, both at work in his earthly life (3:10) and at His appearance at the end of time (vss. 20-21). Too often we "set our minds on earthly things" (v. 19), forgetting "our citizenship is in Heaven" (v. 20).

For me, giving up my own desires and plans for the sake of knowing Christ and the kingdom of God means being willing to accept that I may never be a writer, as I desire to be, but may have another ministry instead. As college students especially, yielding our desires for vocation and residence after college up to God is a more pressing than deciding what kind of car people can and can't drive.

November 28, 2005

Stewardship (another one of those floor posts-cum-blog entries)

Same info about context applies as before.

I've been considering whether I should join this discussion (probably one of the more heated of a contentious semester) or not, but have decided to hold my peace until now. Christian's most recent post brings up a good point, though: debating specific models of cars is only the surface issue here. And God calls us to tithe 10%, yes, but he also calls us to give of ourselves completely. Christ says that we are to hate anything that keeps us from following Him and that anyone who puts hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God. If we at Covenant really mean what we say when we say Christ is Lord of all our lives and that He is pre-eminent in all things, then I think that has some serious implications for our material lifestyle.

I don't want to judge any particular individuals for any particular choices that they've made. Not everyone is in the same circumstances. But I believe that the "gift of generosity" is a responsibility of us all.

Remember, we live in a kind of "floating world" up here [at Covenant] - sheltered from much of the suffering and need of the rest of the world. Thank God that we have classes like Global Trends to remind us of what's going on. Karl Dortzbach, when he was here, reminded those who came to his evening lecture of the words of Jesus: from the one to whom much has been given, much will be required.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 of the values of the Kingdom of God, which stand in stark contrast to the consumeristic values of our culture:

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

As the author of Hebrews writes, we are pilgrims and strangers on this earth, seeking a better, that is, a heavenly city (Heb. 11:13-16). As pilgrims and strangers, then, Jesus urges us to use money primarily for others' sakes, not our own, making friends for ourselves with unrighteous mammon (Luke 16:9).

To those of us who, like myself, seek to make the words of Jesus about non-attachment to possessions have a purely spiritual significance, the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are particularly convicting.

When the rich young man was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty do you think the rich young man thought Jesus was posing a theological question or a very real challenge? Did Jesus want the rich young man to sell everything and follow Jesus?

If, as we read our Bibles we heard Jesus speaking to us in this way today, we should probably try to argue ourselves out of it like this: 'It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commandments legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words, I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possession.'…. All the way along the line, we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience. (The Cost of Discipleship, 87-88)

Bonhoeffer eventually concludes that the way of "inward detachment" is only possible for the Christian who has recognized it as actually harder than the way of external renunciation offered to the rich young ruler. Bonhoeffer makes a comparison between the external break with his previous life that Abraham made when he left Ur of the Chaldees and the internal crisis caused by the threat of his losing Isaac, the child of promise. The second was obviously harder, though the first was visible to the outside world.

I am aware that I am young and irresponsible and so cannot speak from a position of personal moral authority on these issues of stewardship. However, I think the Scripture references that have been brought up by myself and others such as Christian cannot be dismissed easily. I can't say what the calling of God in the realm of our money and possessions means for all Christians, or even for all Christians at Covenant, not knowing them or their circumstances. However, I believe pastorally this is something the Church needs to address more than it regularly does, and needs to address more on an individual level. There are other sins that God hates besides pornography and adultery.

November 15, 2005

The Inevitability of Marriage

Original source: Wittenberg Floor, in reference to Monday's chapel talk on women's roles in the church and re-prompted by J.D. Bell mentioning stereotypes of men and women's roles.

Dr. Kathleen Nielson's chapel talk on Monday was quite good; however, one part of it made me squirm a bit. At several points during her talk, she mentioned women's responsibility to prepare for marriage and family (I apologize if that's misconstruing what she said; I don't remember exact wording) and how that affects their calling in the Church and, in some cases, to post-college academic study.

Was anyone else reminded of these words from the Apostle Paul?

1Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband... Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. 8But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor. 7:1-2, 7-9, NASB)

Paul's words, I believe, apply by extension to women as well as to men.

This is supported by verse 8, which mentions widows specifically.

I would argue that both Jesus ("eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake," etc.) and the Apostles considered chastity and continued single life for the sake of the Lord's service to be an equally honorable alternative calling to marriage, for men and women. Now this doesn't mean that you can avoid marrying simply to fulfill your career ambitions. Paul further on in the passage I referenced above describes the situation better than I ever could:

32But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.

Passages like these mean that marriage isn't inevitable, something we can speak of as if it were in everyone's future, according to God's plan. I think they've been significantly overlooked in Protestantism, perhaps especially in modern evangelicalism. (And, of course, we at Covenant are quite influenced by evangelical culture as a whole, despite our connections with the historic Reformed tradition.) Just consider at the way people look at singles in the church who are over 30. I know I've wondered myself when people were going to get married, sometimes (embarassingly enough) out loud.

Part of this has to do with the sexualization of our culture and our (largely well-grounded) assumption that people who are of the age are not remaining abstinent. Part of it has to do with a justifiable fear of Catholicism, which made virginity appear to be a superior state to marriage (see the writings of Jerome for an example), which though it could be argued from this passage from 1 Corinthians it is, the order of creation (such as the command to be fruitful and multiply) would suggest that it is not.

However well-founded our fears of continued singleness may be, one must remember errors exist on both sides of truth. Singleness and marriage should be considered complementary, as different gifts in the one Body. To elevate one over the other is to fall off the narrow path of Christian faithfulness. I would argue that insofar as we assume that every Christian, or at least every Christian woman, has a responsibility to get married we have fallen off that path.

October 20, 2005

Got a new quote at the top

Enjoy. Also there's something I've been prefacing many of my prayers with in recent months, as a little reminder - I think it's a paraphrase of a C.S. Lewis poem. If anyone could help me out, I'd much appreciate it.

"Not You, but our image of You" - a little phrase I use to remind myself that the God I address is never fully, and often hardly at all, like the God who hears, the God Who Is There in Schaefferian terms. Beware onto-theology.

October 18, 2005

the litmus paper self

This could be my philosophy for 2005-06 (see my philosophy for 2004-05, and, once again, of course, Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos).

In that previous entry, I spoke largely with reference to interpersonal one-on-one dialogue, especially between a man and a woman. This was quite appropriate, I think, since, on the horizontal level, the relationship between male and female is the primal relationship for which God created humanity - "But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female..." (Mark 10:6)
And, on the vertical level, this relationship is the metaphor for how Christ relates to the Church (Eph. 5:31-32). As C.S. Lewis, I believe, said (in Perelandra?) God is masculinity in relation to which we are all feminine by comparison.

However, I want to develop in this entry a different implication of Percy's contention, which I have seen echoed in both the sociological concept of the "looking-glass self" and in my own experience. I want to do this simply because it keeps coming up in conversation, and I think it's crucial for how we live our lives.

I argued in my previous entry that the self gains knowledge of itself through encounter with others, usually on an individual level, since then more honesty and transparency is made possible. However this does not settle the question of how others gain that knowledge which in dialogue they are able to give the one who asks. To answer this question, I must make use of a metaphor.

This is the metaphor of litmus paper. Litmus paper is paper that has been treated with some kind of stain, normally invisible, that becomes visible when it comes into contact with various chemical substances from the external environment. I argue that this is similar to what happens to the self when it comes into contact with external stimuli, such as products of material culture, media signals, ideas, or other selves.

The self, being unknowable in itself, in isolation exists in a state of neutrality - the stain, which is its soul, or deceptive heart, containing all one's preferences, whims, and aims, is invisible. However, the self, to be a self, can never exist in a state of isolation. Selves that do so are not selves; that is, they are not self-conscious: witness the wolf boy of France.

Therefore, the chemicals which are the external stimuli of the world, many of which are either directly or indirectly the product of other selves, are continually impinging upon us, causing us metaphorically to turn various colors in response. We can, to a certain extent, notice this change in ourselves - thus we think it is possible to know ourselves. However, we are only noticing a change that occurs on the outer layers of our being, while our inmost drives remain inaccessible. Those around us, as they change color in response to the stimuli we present to them, can help us better to understand the character of our changes, and thus the character of our selves.

To retreat from the active life of the world and from interaction with others is therefore in most cases a deceptive path. In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the stimuli needed to recognize the direction of our change - whether, to extend the metaphor, we are turning brighter or darker. What G.K. Chesterton said about the difference between Christian and Eastern mysticism is profoundly true: the Eastern mystic is pictured with his eyes shut, looking within and finding nothing, whereas the Christian mystic is picturing with his eyes open, often in action (preaching, holding Scripture, holding a staff, etc.), looking at God's world and finding it a book revelatory of himself and the eternal Word.

This is not to say, however, that all interiority is to be avoided. Since I do regard the Holy Spirit as a personal reality with whom there is the possibility of speech, principally through the mediation of the inspired text of Scripture, a time of retreat from transient and temporal stimuli can ground us in that stimulus which is eternal. In Him, we find, as James wrote, a mirror to reveal our true selves: the Word which calls, "Arise, shine, for your Light has come" and "Awake sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will give you light."

October 9, 2005

When dreams get theological

Perhaps because a truck blasted its horn, I woke up one morning at home a summer ago thinking I had heard the Last Trump. And my first thought was, "God, not yet. I'm not ready. There's so much I still want to do. So much yet I need to repent of." Not that I'd been sleeping with someone the night before, but just my sloth, my pride, my coldness toward God, and lack of love - all these things. Lord, prick me out of my indifference, the dreary cycle in which I always live.

I was telling someone about that dream tonight (I've decided to start protecting people's identities more on my blog; if this individual doesn't mind being mentioned in this context, I could put in the name), as I was reminded of it by the tremendous number of natural disasters that have been striking lately. She was wondering if we're living in the last days. I was wondering, even if we are, why it has it end this way. I never liked C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle - I don't tend to think of things getting worse and then God breaking in at the last minute, shattering all our dreams (the evil, yes, but also the good that is not as He wills). I want to see this groaning creation redeemed.

Anyway, as I was recounting my words to God at this imagined scene of last judgment, in terror before the purifying consuming fire I thought was about to come, I realized something about them. I realized that I had used the word "repent" in a way unusual to most of us, esp. Protestants. We typically think of repentance as a mental act, something one can do in a moment - one thought and the slate is wiped clean. And repentance may start that way, but that's not the deepest meaning of repentance for me.

Deathbed conversions are not normative conversions. Repentance, for most, is not the work of a moment. An inner change, by which we learn to hate sin and to despise ourselves insomuch as we find ourselves incapable of doing otherwise, finally leading to escape from the cycle of capitulation to our selfish wills - this to me is true repentance.

But do not despair. We serve because we have been adopted; the love of Christ constrains us. Leaning on Him and away from our self-will are inseperable acts, but we can only lean on Him as He has become present for us. The Cross is death for us as individuals (though we are each eternally known and sought, and shall be given a new name - more of who we are, not less), but life in Him.

October 3, 2005

yes, i know i should go to bed

And I am.

Anyway, off a blog that I never usually read, I found this:

3.The Christian's deeds of evangelical obedience are the occasion for the Spirit's work of assurance. Such good deeds are themselves a divine gift, and an inevitable result of faith. They are also a genuine act of the believer, done by the free consent of a regenerate heart. But not all believers grow in grace at the same rate... God usually witholds true assurance from those whose lives display a marked absense of practical holiness. Calvin says of the pious mind, “Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.” * But for less mature Christians, this kind of motive to righteousness is weak, inconstant, and often ineffective in restraining sinful desire. In his mercy, God frequently witholds assurance from them so that their knowledge of the reality of hell, and their lack of certainty that they will avoid its terrors, may spur them on to deeper obedience, with the end that more pious motives may eventually prevail. When that happens, if there is no other reason to withold it, God will mercifully grant the believer an assurance of his salvation. (emphasis mine)

I feel this is true to my experience, and probably why I don't have that kind of rock-solid unchanging assurance that some people, esp. Calvinists, claim to have. Of course, whether they actually have it, I'm not so sure. I'm not entirely sure that an unwavering state of assurance is really something that God gives believers, though I don't doubt that He could if He wished. The reason I'm not sure though that this grace exists is because the Apostle Paul doesn't seem to speak in such terms. He says such things as "If by any means I may attain...", etc. and I don't think the "If" is any more hypothetical than his calling himself the greatest of sinners. I think the shape of assurance is probably more complicated than just it exists or it doesn't.

Anyway, McCartney's post that I quoted above seems relevant to the Piper debate, simply because it's another person arguing that God has salvific dealings with people who are still motivated by a fear of Hell more than they are by a desire for His righteousness to be vindicated in their lives.

But the Calvin quote is the real important part of that post. We need to remember that God's glory is glorious because it is His, His Law is glorious because it is His, and insofar as Piper's trying to get at that truth, I support him 100%. We just need to be careful how we are saying that.

September 29, 2005

If I had to make one recommendation to you...

I'd say to take some time today to read Deuteronomy 4 through 11 - all at once. I don't think I'd ever done that before, and it really helps to understand OT theology. I did it last night because I'd been reading Jesus in the Old Testament for Christology (I think that's the book's title) and the author, after proving that Jesus' use of verses from that section of Scripture against Satan in the wilderness did not take them out of context, recommended that his readers stop and read through the whole section, since it would've been one of the main things on Jesus' mind as He was in the wilderness (being tried as the Israelites were tried, though He, by His faithfulness, entered the rest they could never fully enter).

In any case, I feel like I understand the foundation of OT theology and Jewish identity better now. That section, I'd say, is the OT equivalent of the book of Romans, to which, I suppose, Genesis and Exodus are like the Gospels.

We watched a video in Global Trends class the other day about Islam and how the oneness of God is not about numerical unity as much as it is unity of purpose. "One God," the commentator said, "means one aim in all of life." And that apparently is why they recite "No God but God" so often, a practice I never really understand. The bare fact of monotheism never seemed inspiring to me, at least by comparison with the Incarnation.

But it was inspiring to the Jews thousands of years before Islam. Look at the Shema: "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God: the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength." We, as Christians, should remember that confession more, since it's the foundation of our own.

Also read Deuteronomy 29, where the terms of the covenant are reviewed. Deut. 29:29 especially: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." Talk about an objective covenant. Now obviously the New Covenant is different, but we still need to look to what is revealed - Christ in the sacraments, His word to us - rather than trying to discern the secret will of God or identify the true elect.

September 28, 2005

Piper treads into dangerous waters?: a surprising parallel with Quietism (also a great quote from St. Bernard)

I know this post is long. I got carried away. Essentially it divides into three parts: I. Summary of the Original Post, II. My Reflections, including a Parallel with Quietism, and III. A Possible Solution: St. Bernard of Clarivaux's On Loving God If you just want to get past this whole post to see the rest of my blog, click here.

I. Summary of the Original Post

Michael Spencer (iMonk, as he's otherwise called) has a review of a new book by John Piper called God is the Gospel which sounds largely like its making an excellent point: evangelicalism today is way too focused on us and what we get out of God, how Christ is the answer to "felt needs," when really we need to focus on getting aligned with God's priorities and learning to see His glory as the purpose and delight of our lives. But it sounds like there are some problems here, too - pretty major ones.

Near the beginning of his review, Spencer notes that Christian hedonism has sometimes tended to underrate the value of vocations other than missionary work and the like. However, he says that this book "deals with the reflected value that come to us in our creation," giving value to "the 'ordinary' Christian life." If so, I like that, though I myself wonder sometimes whether if our commitment to Christ were stronger we wouldn't have a more explicitly missional focus reflected in the way we spend our time.

The real problem, for Spencer and myself, comes later, when Piper says, in essence, if someone comes to Christ wanting anything more than he wants Christ and His presence - salvation from Hell, deliverance from a particular sin, guilt, a sense of emotional well-being - that person has not believed the Gospel as Scripture presents it. And so, consequently, that person is not saved.

Spencer quotes Piper on this:

We are making it plain that there is no salvation through the Gospel where the best and highest and final good in the gospel is not seen and savored. That good is the glory, the worth, the beauty, the treasure of Christ himself who is true God and true man. (168)

That quote itself may not seem so bad, but it takes away the entire possibility of growth in grace, such that one could come to Christ truly for the wrong reasons and later grow into an appreciation of Him for who He is in Himself. Ultimately, it seems this would mean we have to be sanctified all at once - not in our patterns of life, perhaps, but in our minds. That's a concept of regeneration that some Calvinists might be OK with, but I doubt that Luther or the Lutherans would. As Spencer writes,

Does God not save those who come to him with some other benefit, besides God himself, at the forefront of their desires...even if they trust all they know of Christ? Do the Gospels, in their focus on healing and exorcism miracles particularly, underline Piper and Edwards, or do they suggest that God receives sinners graciously even if they are still on the way to treasuring Christ above all?

II. My Reflections

I'm worried, like Spencer is, about making salvation, and more specifically assurance of salvation, too inward, too much a matter for our speculation. All along in Calvinism - in the days of the Remonstrants and the Canons of Dordt and in the time of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, especially - this has been a danger. This is why we need to focus on the objective covenant - on seeking God's grace in the sacraments and on doing the works that flow from faith - not on wondering whether we really love Him for the right reasons and thus are really regenerate. Dare I say it, this is perhaps where Piper's Reformed Baptist tradition leads him astray? According to Spencer, "Piper believes that the seed of all true faith is an immediate and supernatural valuing of Christ." But this is the kind of thing that we can't really know about, so if we try to see if we have it, then we'll only run into trouble. Ultimately that introspection can lead us away from the sufficiency of Christ's grace, as we look instead to our own deceitful hearts whose depths we can never truly plumb.

The introspection to which Piper's teaching here would lead reminds me a little of what I've read on quietism, as it was practiced by Francois Fenelon and Mme. Guyon. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,

According to Fénelon, there is an habitual state of the love of God which is wholly pure and disinterested, without fear of punishment or desire of reward. In this state the soul loves God for His own sake -- not to gain merit, perfection, or happiness by loving Him; this is the contemplative or unitive life (props. 1, 2). In the state of holy indifference, the soul has no longer any voluntary deliberate desire in its own behalf except on those occasions in which it does not faithfully cooperate with all the grace vouchsafed to it. In that state we seek nothing for ourselves, all for God; we desire salvation, not as our deliverance or reward or supreme interest, but simply as something that God is pleased to will and that He would have us desire for His sake (4-6). The self-abandonment which Christ in the Gospel requires of us is simply the renunciation of our own interest, and the extreme trials that demand the exercise of this renunciation are temptations whereby God would purify our love, without holding out to us any hope even in regard to our eternal welfare. In such trials the soul, by a reflex conviction that does not reach its innermost depths, may have the invincible persuasion that it is justly reprobated by God. In this involuntary despair it accomplishes the absolute sacrifice of its own interest in regard to eternity and loses all interested hope; but in its higher and most inward acts it never loses perfect hope which is the disinterested desire of obtaining the Divine promises (7-12).
That's not the same thing as what Piper's talking about, or Edwards before him, primarily because of this teaching's Catholic-mystical coloration, but it does have some affinities. The problem with this is that it's a counsel of perfection, and a kind of perfection that one gets by retreating within, not by active participation in the sacramental life of the Church and in following the commands of Scripture. Indeed, it could even lead away from that insofar as one thinks that one is doing these things for the wrong reasons: i.e., to gain favor with God, and escape Hell, rather than for the sake of God's glory alone.

That's why I think we must focus on telling people to believe in Christ, yes, because of who He is, but to seek Him always to the best of their abilities, knowing that however much they are able to turn from the state of being "curved in on self" that Luther called the essence of sin, they know that that is the work of God in them. Perhaps it's not always good for us to consider our final end, as if salvation were the work of a day - rather we should seek more of Christ now.

III. A Possible Solution

I like what St. Bernard of Clairvaux says in his work On Loving God (the translation is not particularly good; if someone has a better online please tell me). He speaks of four stages of love: in the first, which is purely natural, one loves oneself for the self's sake. In the second, one loves God for the self's sake. In the third, one loves God for God's sake. In the fourth, one loves even the self for God's sake - but this, he says, is perhaps not found until the resurrection, except maybe in brief moments of spiritual communion. I like this idea of stages because, as also in his work The Steps of Humility and Pride, he shows how there is a progression in the spiritual life. Though St. Bernard knew the heights of love to which God calls us, he also knew the path by which we come.

This quote from earlier in On Loving God perhaps makes a good stopping point:

I have said already that the motive for loving God is God Himself. And I spoke truly, for He is as well the efficient cause as the final object of our love. He gives the occasion for love, He creates the affection, He brings the desire to good effect. He is such that love to Him is a natural due; and so hope in Him is natural, since our present love would be vain did we not hope to love Him perfectly some day. Our love is prepared and rewarded by His. He loves us first, out of His great tenderness; then we are bound to repay Him with love; and we are permitted to cherish exultant hopes in Him. 'He is rich unto all that call upon Him' (Rom. 10.12), yet He has no gift for them better than Himself. He gives Himself as prize and reward: He is the refreshment of holy soul, the ransom of those in captivity. 'The Lord is good unto them that wait for Him' (Lam. 3.25). What will He be then to those who gain His presence? But here is a paradox, that no one can seek the Lord who has not already found Him. It is Thy will, O God, to be found that Thou mayest be sought, to be sought that Thou mayest the more truly be found. But though Thou canst be sought and found, Thou canst not be forestalled. For if we say, 'Early shall my prayer come before Thee' (Ps. 88.13), yet doubtless all prayer would be lukewarm unless it was animated by Thine inspiration. (emphasis mine)
Truly it seems St. Bernard echoes Piper's concern (or should I say it the other way around?) for the glorification of God and the love of Him alone. But he seems to be saying also that God first gives us gifts, by which we come to love Him, first for the gifts' sake, then for the Giver's. His name be praised.


(This is a comment I posted over there, after I saw how discussion was proceeding. It kind of summarizes the epic post.)

As you all (Josh S. and Eric Phillips at least) were writing this, I wrote a rather long post on the subject on my blog. Now perhaps what I've said is a little out-of-date. Anyway, I think Josh's point is well-taken and much more succinct than my post is. "our tears need to be washed; we need to repent of our repenting" - as someone once said. After all, our affections are stained with sin even as our actions are, perhaps more so because of their very interiority and existence often beyond our awareness and control.

Eric's point develops that, and goes along with the quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux at the bottom of my post. We need knowledge of an objective work of God for us before we can know that He is God for us and love and have faith in Him. So we have the Cross - God in Christ saying, "This is how I love you." That, not a supernatural moment of regeneration, not our affections, should be our focus and our solid ground.

Ultimately, yes, God will be all in all. But we're not there yet. I like what you said, Michael, about Christ's interactions with sinners in the Gospels. We need, more and more, to learn how to let stories like that shape our theology, devotion, and ministry.

I can only hope we're all misreading Piper, and that people are not being misled by perfectionist teaching.

September 25, 2005

the iMonk is so on right now

He's on my linkbar, for those who actually look at it (not me, I admit). Anyway, he's a nicely open-minded (but not foolish) Reformed Baptist who has a great gift for concise, often entertaining (but not shallow) writing that gets to the heart of what he's talking about.

Anyway, the two recent posts: The Hyles, etc. Worldview Institute, a parodic interview centered around the idea of a new "worldview institute" starting at PBC. (This fits in with some earlier work he's done recently about the misuse of the "worldview" terminology (mainly overuse).) Also The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind, by James Jordan, a link to and brief commentary on an article by James Jordan about how Reformed people these days seem to be less open to new ideas and further thought than they were in recent memory. Jordan's a controversial figure, and I don't like theonomy one bit, but I think this is worth thinking about. I don't really self-identify as Reformed, for reasons related to the mindset which Jordan is apparently denouncing (as it's way too late, I haven't read the article...and probably won't tonight). I hold to the doctrines of grace, covenant theology (though not necessarily in the more static covenant of works/covenant of grace dualism that seems to be the WCF paradigm), and some other Reformed doctrines, but I'm really struck by how other Christians are saying similar things in different ways. I was talking to my housemate Jonathan Degenfelder about that a bit earlier tonight. I think to be too closely wedded to any particular paradigm or (perhaps even more so) denomination is ultimately to force the Scriptures and the Spirit's continued working in the Church - that we might be one as Christ and the Father are one - into a restrictive mold. Anyway, with that terse and seemingly dismissive statement, I leave you. Enjoy the links, and think about them well.

Prayer, walking at night up to campus, in song

Give me some word to break like water on my soul; [or "a Word"]
Give me someone to break like water on my soul.
Give me some light, Your Spirit all-restoring
My blade to sharpen, a reason thus to praise:
For in our life together we shall find You,
We know You in the breaking of the bread; [or "As You were found in the 
breaking of the bread"]
Burdens are borne, our faults find their correction -
In words which come from others we are fed. 

[I don't really like the last line, but I do want the end-rhyme of bread and fed; 
I'd still like to find a better way to express this.]

September 18, 2005

Sermon thoughts, North Shore 9.18

Repentance is waking to face the day - 
A consciousness of guilt made active by an experience of grace.
Speak, and this rock, holding water, bursts.

Not as a blow of judgment falls,
But as I see a world of light -
"Master us, make mercy of us all,
But be adored, but be adored, King."

To know I live curled up in self
When I could be standing as a son;
To be given a task and the joy to perform it,
"I will not leave you without a witness."

In the text from John on which the new pastor of North Shore preached today, I am most impressed with the confidence of Christ in His mission as He approached the Cross, "The ruler of this world is come and he has nothing in me." Out of those words, which only He, as the righteous one with true knowledge of the Father, sent to us as the Word of the Father, could speak comes the peace He leaves with His disciples. So now in that peace, that peace which passes understanding and which brings us understanding, out of this world-system I move, in thought, desire, action, will.

"Do not love the world or the things in this world." Enmeshed as I am from birth in this world's pattern of thought, in this world's pattern of behavior - a constant struggle to find a place - I cannot see an alternative. I need a vision of Christ - not a static image, but an active presence. As the pastor speaks, his words inspiring me and moving me yet passing from me, I ask God "Why am I formed in wickedness? What in my senselessness, in my sinful sleep, have I done to myself? It is as if I were to wake up and find deep gashes in my flesh where I had been itching, itching myself in the night without knowledge." But then as I hear the words of the text for today, I think of Christ's boldness before the Cross, "the ruler of this world is come and he has nothing in me." And I think that this Christ is the One who has promised to send His Spirit, whose Father has adopted us, who has come and made His home with us. And I can leave the past and leave my self-justification.

August 24, 2005

Pat Robertson and prominence

This news about Pat Robertson was so bizarre, I just had to link it. I don't know anything about the man really (I used to perpetually get him confused with Pat Buchanan), but this is really beyond the pale. Compared to this, Jerry Falwell calling the Teletubbies gay is the pinnacle of sanity.

The thing I don't understand is, why does the State Department have to apologize for Robertson's remarks? It's not like he's an official spokesman for Christianity. As someone said once (I wish I remembered who), "How did people like Falwell [or Robertson] become the face of conversative Christianity in America? People just started listening to them."

But that still doesn't explain why. How do some people get in the limelight while others, more reasonable and intelligent than they, never do? I suppose it can only be that certain people seek political prominence, probably to fulfill a deep-seated longing for recognition and power, whereas others are content to fill the lowest place. And if what Christ said about the relationship of spirituality to power is accurate, those who seek to be recognize in man's eyes are often the least worthy of recognition in God's.

Francis Schaeffer's sermon "No Little People, No Little Places" is great, but its advice rarely put into practice. I pray that I will find a calling from God that will satisfy me because it is significant to Him, not because it gains me respect or recognition in the wider world. "Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified." That's not my natural inclination. I want to write some earth-shattering book that will reshape Christian faith and practice, and I could devote my energies to that end, saying as justification that the world needs it. But inwardly I would be thinking about how much people would look up to me for writing it. I imagine that's what happened to people like Pat Robertson. That may have begun well, but because they were not willing to wait until God extruded them into a larger place, as Schaeffer puts it, they ended up in heresy and madness.

July 30, 2005

Thought I'd link this

Thanks to Martha - reminds me of what I read in Dag Hammerskjold's Markings recently, "In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action."

July 16, 2005

the one thing I liked about Josh Harris' church

...was the sermon. I liked it a lot.

Admittedly, at some points the pastor preaching that day (not Josh Harris) seemed to equivocate about what was necessary doctrine and what was the "quarrels over words" that Paul urges Timothy to avoid. "No creed but Christ" is a dangerous statement to make, at the very least. John Piper, in his sermon at the 2005 General Assembly, made it clear that to worship Christ without confessing specific things to be true about Christ is to worship a mere word. But the pastor's intention was good, and the books in their bookstore (which I was a little uncomfortable to see running on Sunday, but that's another story) show that they're not one of those "emerging" churches unconcerned with doctrine.

Anyway, there was (at least) one great line in his message: "You could spend all day on the Internet looking at nothing but worthless speculation and quarrels over words." So true. If anyone was wondering why I don't blog about my faith much, there it is. Most of what I could say on here would end up just causing controversy, certainly not edifying anyone. On a particular blog I read occasionally, there's a tremendous theological fight going on right now. But that's not what I'm about. If I have something beneficial to say to you all, I'll say it. Expect that sometime soon.

April 11, 2005

Hopkins' struggle and mine

Is human experience really communicable in words? What does it mean to "love the world and the things of the world?" When am I bound up in that which passes away?

Scott Laslo's SIP presentation today struck me deeply. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a strict ascetic. For a time, he believed that to publish, or even in fact to write, arrogating glory to himself that is due to Christ alone. How different is that attitude from mine! I cannot help but write, I cannot help but read, I am immersed in sound, I seek to dance.

Yet, as an ascetic, his poems show a profound joy, something more long-lasting than the chemical rush of a good song. The pleasures of the music I listen to, such as Elliott Smith, are often pleasure in despair. I know, somewhere deep within, this is not the world as it truly is. Yet my imagination and my reason are divided, and my imagination is divided against itself. Where can I find, and portray, the beauty of holiness?

"To what serves mortal beauty - dangerous; does set danc-/ing blood - the O-seal-that-so feature flung prouder form/Than Purcell tune lets tread to?...What do then? How meet beauty? Merely meet it; own,/Home at heart, heaven's sweet gift; then leave, let that alone/Yea, wish that though, wish all, God's better beauty, grace." (G.M.H. again, his more mature thoughts on the subject)

But as I wrote this morning, how to see that grace in this world, when the Word seems barren and runs in the same round?

April 8, 2005

some people's blogs draw controversy...

Mine does not. But apparently, for one Chattablogger, writing about the lead singer of Bright Eyes brought forth this exchange. I think the original poster acquitted himself well, with intelligence and grace. It's been a long time since I've encountered people with such relativistic value systems myself. I wonder what I'd say if I did.

And yes, I also pray for Conor Oberst, and for us all - not out of pride, but out of acknowledgement of the grace I have been given.

April 2, 2005

Why I'm not a Lutheran, in case anyone was wondering (plus my only statement on the Schiavo case)

Read this post, and see if it evinces utter despair and cynicism. Then see the comments, where people pick up on that, and see how the Lutherans say that anything else would be works-righteousness. I believe in sola fide, but not how it's construed here.

Also, here's all I have to say about Schiavo's case: if she had consciousness, then what just happened was legalized murder. However, things aren't as simple as 99% of the conservative Christian world makes them out to be. If she was brain dead, and it could be proven, then I don't think that's euthanasia, in any meaningful sense of the term, because I don't think that someone who is irredeemably brain-dead is a person in the same sense that you or I or even a comatose person is a person. I don't think that the "preserve life at all costs & use all heroic measures that you can" mentality of many evangelicals is actually the Christian mentality - after all, if death is a defeated enemy, why must we do whatever we can, using medical methods that never existed until recently to keep people when "naturally" they would die.

Notice what I am not saying. I don't think that withholding food and water if anyone is potentially capable of sensation is humane. Therefore, I think what happened to Schiavo is grotesque and barbaric. However, I don't want Christians to take their rightful opposition to what happened here and generalize it such that all advance directives and DNRs seem immoral. Because they're not. When I'm old, I plan to have one. I don't want to go through the old dance of having a series of heart attacks, be resuscitated over and over again, and end up losing most of my brain functioning. Better to die and be with the Lord, I say. It would be irresponsible of me, I believe, to ask my family to pay to have me kept alive in some kind of half-life state, when I could have simply had a heart attack and been done with it.

March 28, 2005

The Historicity of the Resurrection: a response to Tyler

(Tyler, this was originally going to be a comment on your blog, and it should be read as such. However, due to some MovableType weirdness, I couldn't get that to work. Anyway, it might have greater relevance than the strictly topical, anyway.)

"Do we, even as "Christians," have to completely suspend disbelief and subscribe to a mythical story about Jesus being raised from the dead and ascending to heaven?"

Well, yes. But if it helps you any, I don't think the Jews and Greeks of His day were in a essentially different situation, at least those who never saw Him face-to-face post-resurrection. People never believed that it was natural for people to raise from the dead, or else the miracle would be void of all its power. What makes it the defining moment of history, in its outward aspect, is its complete impossibility - in which, theologically speaking, the curse upon Adam, previously unbroken in its effect, is reversed.

Now you have a point regarding the modernist worldview. But I wouldn't want to stress it too strongly. The distinction between nature and supernature, in which the supernatural is automatically excluded or at least exiled to the realm of unseeable noumena (Geschichte opposed to Historie), is a modern invention. Finally, it all comes down to an issue of faith. If we believe in an omnipotent God, then there is no reason why we can't believe that God could raise someone from the dead. Of course the dead don't rise on their own - that is, naturally. I doubt there is any scientific explanation for the phenomenon of Christ's body being preserved and on the third day raised. But I don't need to look for one. "What is impossible with man is possible with God."

What Weinhold said re. 1 Cor. 15 is important too, for it's directly pertinent to your question. Yes, we have to believe in the resurrection or we can't legitimately be called Christians. We follow Him - whole, alive - not His ethical teachings, good as they may be. After all, He said Himself that no one would, on the strength of their own efforts, be able to keep them. Only those born of the Spirit can see the Kingdom of God, much less enter in it.

I'm not sure if this helps you at all. If nothing else, consider it a testament that some people's worldview still allows for a resurrection.

March 20, 2005

March 19, 2005

Spiritual Reading - some better than others

I was looking over The Orthodox Way again last night, thinking about why it's probably my favorite book of theology. As I said to some friends after reading my poetry, if I'm Eastern Orthodox ten years from now, don't be terribly surprised. I prefer the Church Fathers to anything modern Reformed writers are putting out. Frankly, it seems to me that the Reformed paradigm, what with the problems posed by proponents of the "Federal Vision" and all, is starting to look like a labored logical imposition on the structure of Scripture. I mean, they have good intentions - giving people assurance of faith, restoring a higher view of the sacraments, preventing people from scrutinizing the "hidden things of God" - but in the process they're doing a lot of fancy footwork with theories about covenant and election and sacramental union, etc. and it seems that the simplicity of the faith is being lost.

Yeah, I know this is off-the-cuff and I'm probably going to be attacked for it, but these debates in the PCA and wider Reformed circles are really getting to me. I'm more at home with the Formula of Concord than I am with the WCF, and more at home with Sts. Bernard and Athanasius than I am with any of the Reformed theologians writing today (at least the ones that I know of). Some books by Reformed folk, such as Robert Murray M'Cheyne and J.C. Ryle, have been truly beautiful and breathe out a real odor of devotion, to use the old-fashioned language. But all this New Perspective stuff, it's just too polemical and complex for me.

I would say, however, that those Orthodox people from whom I have heard denials of inherited corruption from Adam and of wrath as an attribute of God are denying things that are in their tradition as well as in mine. Perhaps not stressed the way we Reformed stress them, but present. And I honestly cannot understand how one can have read the Apostle Paul and believe in synergism. The debate Clifton's currently having on Christology as anthropology is honestly beyond me. It's things like these that keep me Reformed, even if I'm feeling, like Josh S., that the word "covenant" is being overused.

In further contrast to what I've said about Reformed writers, I offer to you the Puritan Quote Generator. Now that's the benefit of the doctrine of election.

So what do you all recommend that I read?

March 18, 2005

March 14, 2005

Uses of the Law - clarification for Jared

Sorry, miscommunication on my part. I didn't intend for the phrase the "law of nature" to be understood as some kind of law that we ascertain through the use of natural reason. That's not a concept that even occurred to me which is why I used that perhaps unfortunate turn of phrase.

The Law of God is found in Scripture. In our fallen state, and in a world that no longer behaves as it would if we had remained unfallen, we cannot come to an understanding of right conduct through either examination of our own consciences or study of creation in an attempt to define creational norms. I don't believe in "natural theology" as the phrase is typically meant.

However, the Law of God is a fundamental part of the structure of reality. We shouldn't cordon it off into a realm of God's dealing with man's soul, as opposed to his body, or his redemption, as opposed to his creation. Jesus Christ is the Word of God - to a Jew, that would mean Torah, some have argued, I believe correctly. So as we meet Christ in His enscripturated Word, we learn from Him, not merely a rule that was given in the post-Fall salvation economy, but the same Word that made the world to begin with. And as we live according to that Word, as that Word lives in us, that we begin to see how God's Law is not extinsic to our being, but becomes our very way of being, a way apart from which there is no life.

If man had not fallen, we would, presumably, have known God's will in a more immediate, more relational (?) way than we do now, and so would have obeyed spontaneously and freely. In this remedial state, that is not so. It takes study of the Scripture, prayer, self-denial, use of the means of grace. Still, we shouldn't take that to mean that the Law is unnatural. Rather, it is we are unnatural and need metanoia, a change of mind.

John Warwick Montgomery wrote a good brief article on the uses of the law that I found in a vain attempt to find the section of the Formula of Concord that Josh S. referenced. (Note that I don't endorse the views as a whole of the site on which I found that article. They take an eclectic view of proper Reformation doctrine, to say the least.)

March 13, 2005

Is this normal in Reformed circles today?

In four semesters of education in Biblical studies and theology at Covenant, I never (to my knowledge) heard the phrase "Covenant of Works." I heard a good bit of talk about covenants, including a pre-Fall covenant with Adam, but not the two-covenant Works/Grace opposition that used to be what people meant by covenant theology. Is covenant theology different than it used to be? I kind of hope so, because I never knew what to think about the Covenant of Works anyway. Obviously, Adam's state before the Fall was radically different, since he had no sin nature to struggle with, but I don't like the idea of him being asked to earn God's favor. Once again, I think the relationship should be viewed in, well, relational terms rather than strictly legal.
Btw, the book that was central to my education in covenant theology at Covenant was Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson. How does that fit in with what older systematicians (like Berkhof, who, due to my keeping company with theologically-inclined Lutherans online, I rarely hear mentioned in a positive context) said about the covenants?

What I'll Tackle Next

Oh, and just to give you a preview: the next issue that I'll take on will be to expand on the perspective at which I've hinted below and its implications for the doctrine of election. I had an idea that seemed helpful and not heterodox the other day; I just have to remember it.

The Uses of the Law

(Hopefully, the first of a (hopefully) clarifying series of posts on "issues that Christians get mad about" - at least that the Christians I encounter online (a mixed crew of Federal Vision Presbyterians, non-FV Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Orthodox) get mad about.)

Something I think that gets lost whenever we start debating the "third use of the Law" - how God intends us to obey it, and so walk in the newness of life he has given us - is that God's law is not arbitrary. Therefore, it's to our own benefit to obey.

God's law is the law of nature, since He is the author of nature. Let's not oppose Law and Gospel in a way that makes Law "this-worldly" and Gospel "other-worldly"; nature vs. supernature is a false dualism. The Gospel is the news that God has in Christ reconciled the world - this material realm of decay and death - to Himself.

Sexual immorality, etc. is against the order of nature. Sin leads to death, not because God chooses for some reason to give death to those who pursue it (as if He took pleasure in the death of the wicked), but because it is in itself a death - a corruption of the nature which God gave man at creation. That's what the book of Proverbs is all about - how, because God is the kind of God that He is, and cannot be anything else, He has created a world in which there is one way of dealing with love and power and wealth and speech that is according to His nature and one way that is not. As St. Athanasius said, Christ came to restore us to the Image - by His example, by His gift: by union with Him. If we view the Christian life purely in juridical categories, then our obedience to God can only be out of one of two motives: either to gain favor with Him, or out of gratefulness for His favor. The first is obviously excluded. But the second isn't the whole story.

I don't want to view the substitutionary atonement as solely a legal exchange. Christ stands in for us as a Person, in totality. When we die to ourselves, we live in Him. Then we can begin to live according to the Law, the Word, by which He made the world. His commands are not burdensome - yes, they are burdensome as we struggle daily in the flesh, with the body of death that we still bear. But insomuch as we have faith, we do not have faith simply in Christ's death as a historical fact, or as a sign that God has "good feelings" for us. That could still be delusion. God has good feelings for us when we admit we are not our own, that His way is life. In this, we trust God at His Word and the sin of Adam is reversed.

Perhaps this statement will but stir up more controversy. I fear that outcome, but if we can discuss these matters in a spirit of charity and grace, not seeking to "find the error" in each other's theological formulations, but to submit to the judgment of the Scriptures as we are guided by the Spirit, then it will not be in vain.

February 28, 2005

Hyperbolic? I hope...

"We have grown so used to losing our children to unbelief that we have begun to expect it. We expect apostasy so much that we grow skeptical of children who do not abandon the faith."

- Ben Merkle, in Credenda/Agenda

Is this really true? I hope not. I never expected that I would lose my faith, nor that my friends from church would. And neither has happened, nor (Lord willing) will happen. Is my church just that much better than the average? Or is Credenda using hyperbole?

As an aside: I just started reading Credenda again, since I've been looking at Leithart's blog recently, and thought it was the next logical step :) I've been impressed and have agreed with more than I thought possible. If it can be said, I think they're doing a good work except for their "Federal Vision" opposition to the Law/Gospel hermeneutic, their support of paedocommunion (though after today's communion service at North Shore I'm beginning to wonder about my own views on that subject), their heads-of-household voting scheme, and their separation from any Reformed denominational bodies. Is it possible to support a group of people in any meaningful sense when you think they're doing so much wrong? I suppose so; after all, I support myself, and I can only guess how much wrong I'm doing.

How can I teach and confess the paradox?

Though recently I have felt a desire to go into the ministry and I long to see this desire confirmed by God by the grace of His giving me gifts, I still have doubts. And it is true that if I did not have doubts, then I would be a man of pride, not worthy of any office, not worthy to speak on behalf of Another. Only on bowing may I rise.

This is both questioning and confession. Now it is true that God is sovereign over everything and all things work together for good. But is it not also true that, as my dad said, "Without freedom, love is meaningless?" This is the struggle brought out in my recent poem "Signifying Freedom" (which is good enough, I think, that I won't post it on here and risk it being "stolen").

What kind of meaning can we give to God's words to Joshua and the tribes of Israel, "Behold, I set before this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life?" In what sense is choice real? In what sense was it real for Adam and Eve when they fell? I am not satisfied with the answer that they could only choose according to their nature, for, since they made an evil choice, that would mean their nature in itself was evil. There would have been a Fall before the Fall.

Dr. Krabbendam's book Sovereignty & Responsibility, with its "100% + 100%" non-linear logic appeals that resolves paradoxes. Are their demands wholly unreasonable? Is Tertullian's "I believe because it is absurd" the only confession I can offer? If I were a minister, could I believe and confess the paradox or would its mystery drive my hearers away to someone who did not think so deeply about it or struggle with it? It seems to me that the only people who can speak easily of the reasonableness of Christianity are those who don't think too hard about it. To bring up only one more issue, what about the state of the world before the Fall? Was there such a thing as predation, entropy, parasites, death? If so, what does this say about the nature of God? Deus absconditus - I look, I reach, for apparent absence.

Pastor Novenson spoke about the substitutionary atonement today - that to which everything comes back. And I want to believe, my affections desire that Form, that Face, my will seeks to be bound to His (or does it? so contradictory is my flesh), but I am dulled by intellect. I cannot see the logic of that exchange. Can I accept it anyway? Can I believe and confess the paradox? Is the Word enough? It seems to separate the Trinity - how could a being utterly simple have relation in itself such that the Father could sacrifice the Son?

If I am not careful my Christianity would degenerate into moralism and aestheticism. "I am not skilled to understand/What God hath willed, what God hath planned."

February 26, 2005

Worldviews are trendy

And some people's idea of a Christian worldview makes me look liberal. Overall, I was a "Moderate Christian Worldview Thinker," but on Government issues I was a "Secular Humanist Worldview Thinker." Just because I don't believe that the Founding Fathers all had Biblical reasons for making America what it was; in fact, I believe America-firstism is one of the predominant sins of the conservative evangelical/fundamental church today.

To see how you measure up, go to: Worldview Weekend's site.

February 16, 2005

An outsider's look at the hermeneutical spiral

I just thought this was interesting.

Belief and nonbelief are two giant planets, the orbits of which don't touch. Everything about Christianity can be justified within the context of Christian belief. That is, if you accept its terms. Once you do, your belief starts modifying the data (in ways that are themselves defensible, see?), until eventually the data begin to reinforce belief. The precise moment of illogic can never be isolated and may not exist. Like holding a magnifying glass at arm's length and bringing it toward your eye: Things are upside down, they're upside down, they're right side up. What lay between? If there was something, it passed too quickly to be observed. This is why you can never reason true Christians out of the faith. It's not, as the adage has it, because they were never reasoned into it—many were—it's that faith is a logical door which locks behind you. What looks like a line of thought is steadily warping into a circle, one that closes with you inside. If this seems to imply that no apostate was ever a true Christian and that therefore, I was never one, I think I'd stand by both of those statements. Doesn't the fact that I can't write about my old friends without an apologetic tone just show that I never deserved to be one of them?

-An article from GQ linked on Jeremy Huggins' blog


I don't know if I can, or should, disagree with him. Does that make me a fideist?

This, from the same article, is thought-provoking:

Statistically speaking, my bout with Evangelicalism was probably unremarkable. For white Americans with my socioeconomic background (middle to upper-middle class), it's an experience commonly linked to one's teens and moved beyond before one reaches 20. These kids around me at Creation—a lot of them were like that. How many even knew who Darwin was? They'd learn. At least once a year since college, I'll be getting to know someone, and it comes out that we have in common a high school "Jesus phase." That's always an excellent laugh.
So what marks the difference? What makes some of us stay on? I suppose the spiritual answer would be to say the power of God that works in accordance with His will. But, from an earthly perspective, I think it has something to do with the relative shallowness (intellectual, relational, esthetic/worship-oriented, and otherwise) of the form of Christianity which one encounters. I know if I'd stuck with the CIA (Christians in Action - the charismatic-run Christian club at my public high school) and was a regular attendee at the Lord's House of Prayer, I could've gone off to college, lost my faith, and never looked back. Bohemia would've eaten me alive.
[Jesus'] breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what's fragile and what suffers—there lies sanity. And salvation. "Let anyone who has power renounce it," he said. "Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be." That's how He talked, to those who knew Him.
The author of this article, apparently, likes precisely that about Jesus which Nietzsche thought morally degenerate. And I like that he likes that. Should I regard him and N. as on an equal moral plane, the former Christian (if that's a category available to me at all, as a Calvinist) and the unrepentant preacher of the death of God? I suppose, but it's hard. Theological systems would make life simpler...if life looked like it matched up with theological systems.

Finally, this part of the article is just good writing. And it reminds me of my childhood - yeah, that's how we read the weather in Lancaster County, too.

"Hey, Darius," I said.

He got up. "It's fixin' to shower here in about ten minutes," he said.

I went and stood beside him, tried to look where he was looking.

"You want to know how I know?" he said.

He explained it to me, the wind, the face of the sky, how the leaves on the tops of the sycamores would curl and go white when they felt the rain coming, how the light would turn a certain "dead" color. He read the landscape to me like a children's book. "See over there," he said, "how that valley's all misty? It hasn't poured there yet. But the one in back is clear—that means it's coming our way."


Here's how he ends the thing:
I was shown, in a moment of time, the ring of their faces around the fire, each one separate, each one radiant with what Paul called, strangely, "assurance of hope." It seemed wrong of reality not to reward such souls.

These are lines from a Czeslaw Milosz poem:

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms, millions, billions of them, ended together with their illusion? I shall never agree. I will give them the crown. The human mind is splendid; lips powerful, and the summons so great it must open Paradise.

That's so exquisite. If you could just mean it. If one could only say it and mean it.


Another one to pray for.

February 14, 2005

St. John Chrysostom on Justification

I thought this was interesting. More than interesting - excellent, but what more do you expect from the man who is often called the best preacher of Christianity ever? Apparently the originator of the analogy that I have used myself a few times in explaining the Christian faith that compares Christ's justifying work to a reprieve from prison. Well, I suppose the ultimate source of that analogy is the description in Scripture of Christ's work as setting the captives free, but this is an elaboration of that.

(Link from a Lutheran theology site, on Angelfire, of all places. [I don't understand. It's too bad that much great content on the Internet is in effect lost because it's in subdirectories of free hosting providers' sites. That's an issue I wanted to address in my SIP, but I think I'm refocusing it, so unfortunately I won't.] Found link on Metalutheran's linkbar.)

151st Psalm - yea or nay?

Seems a little too much of a simple narrative of David's life, more like a commemoration written after his death, say. Well, here it is...what do you think?

February 13, 2005

Words of wisdom from Josh S.

Lesson #1: Never speak with a female about anything pertaining to religion unless it is to affirm every word she says. You can be disagreeable and semi-cocky the rest of the time, but if she wants to believe Jesus forbade us to eat pudding, you nod in vigorous affirmation. Otherwise, she won't speak to you again.

In my experience, I'll have to say that I've found this to be false. As you said yourself Josh, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." Then again, I go to a Reformed college, so my experience with theologically astute women is probably different than most...

February 2, 2005

Things I could complain about, but I'm not

We complain too much - about our lives, our culture, our churches. I'm going to try to cut back. I could take my two posts of yesterday and run with them, spending the next 10 weeks criticizing evangelicalism's compromising the Gospel or Reformed people's intellectualizing it. But it would be too easy - it would give me too much pleasure. The chief danger in criticism is pride: "Because I see your error, therefore I am above it."

The spiritual man judges all things and yet judge not, lest you be judged. A paradox? How do we live in this dialectic? Let judgement begin with ourselves. For with whatever measure we mete out judgement, with that measure it will be measured unto us.

Discernment is necessary to the Christian life. Holiness is a narrow road, and you can fall off the cliff on either side. Our criticism, then, when we give it, should be personal and pastoral. It should be, "Watch out! There's a slope you could slide off there. I know, because I've been there too." And we should, as James says, confess our sins to one another. That way we'll be kept appropriately humble.

Have we lost reverence, pt. II (in reply to Bob)

(Read the original post and comment below for context.)

I didn't realize Carman grew up in the inner city. That makes a little better I suppose. Furthermore, I haven't actually heard/seen his work for a long time. I just remember it rubbing me the wrong way when I did.

"Maybe it wouldn't sound blasphemous in the ears of an American urban Christian." Maybe it wouldn't. Blasphemy is Terry's word. I'd tone it down and say "irreverent." I suppose my point is that the language we use about God, and, even more so, the language we use to address God, conditions our view of God. A God whom we feel comfortable addressing as "baby," or a Jesus who we call our "homeboy" is not One before whom we're likely to say "Woe is me! I am undone!"

I don't know where the author of this article is coming from generally (it was just one of the top Google hits when I typed in the words "worship" and "comfortable"), but I agree with what he's saying here. Carman's music is not "worship music" so this doesn't quite apply. However, the author of that article argues quite well against the mindset that makes us compromise the language by which we talk about God. "Worship is a holy expression before a holy God. To invite nonbelievers into such a holy process is a precarious thing, and to design worship in such a way as to accommodate their secular mindset is not only ineffective evangelism but also severely compromised worship." It's difficult to balance relevance and reverence: we need to speak the language that people understand, but we need to subvert it so that the assumptions on which it is based are not allowed to persist.

But, as I wrote in the first post, this isn't even the worst problem. When people are seeking to serve God but speak too lightly of him in the process, that, I would hope, is forgivable. (Although the examples of Cain, Nadab and Abihu, etc. with which the article I linked opens give us pause even here.) But when we ourselves spend most of our days not thinking of God, and then, when we do think of Him, we think only of humor, that indicates a serious problem. Our attitudes need changing before anyone else. The example of Carman was only what got me starting thinking about it.

February 1, 2005

Apologetics: He said it best

This is for Chris Jones, an old blogging acquaintance and one of the participants in a discussion we've been having at Clifton Healy's blog.

Someone asked Chris (on his blog, not in the current discussion), "How would you convince someone, using non-religious language of the reliability of the Scriptures?" He replied, "Belief in the reliability of the Bible (in whatever way one regards it as reliable) is a consequence, not the basis, of belief in the Gospel. Faith in Christ comes by the gift of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church, not by an individual's intellectual assessment of the reliability of the Bible."

And I said (or, anyway, I'm saying now) yes. That's absolutely right. All those apologetic books I read in high school like The Case for Christ, etc. did more than anything else to make me question my faith. Why? Because it became so abstract.

The focus was taken off of God commanding me to believe His Word and respond in faith and put on me, not as part of the Church, but as an atomized entity, deciding whether a series of propositions were reliable or not - or, even worse, decided whether they make sense to me.

I may be in an irrationalist mood lately, but Tertullian's statement is appealing to me more and more, "I believe because it is impossible." If our evangelism makes it seem like people have a choice whether or not to believe, like, "Oh, well it just doesn't seem probable to me, so I won't repent, I won't start living a life of holiness. That's too hard to do, if I'm not even sure the Savior I'd be following exists," then we're going about it all wrong. Of course it's not probable. Dead men don't rise - they knew that in the first century just as much as today. It's not like modern science taught people how things worked in the course of nature.

Does the innate offensiveness of our faith to the reason of the natural man cripple our evangelism? I'm not sure, but I hope not. I think if we proclaim the Gospel clearly enough, then God will work through His Word even as He has promised. I hold out hope that somehow, sinners though we remain, our lives together as a redeemed community will provide a witness so compelling that people will look on and think, "Hmm...there's something going on there. Absurd as their faith seems, I, at least, must give it a look."

Have we lost reverence before God?

Well, yes. Some days on this campus I hear more jokes that mention God, Christ, and spiritual things than I do serious conversation. Something is wrong with that.

This is a widespread problem in our Christian culture. Something I read today on John Totten's blog reminded me of a scene from my childhood.

I was a typical middle school Christian kid, which meant I was a bit of a rebel, but not much. I watched MTV, I knew a bit about secular music. I thought Christian music was often derivative and the lyrics lame. (In fact, I still think that's often true.)

One of my best friends and I went to a Christian camp every summer called Black Rock Retreat. Our counselors there were good upright Christian kids from the high school, real role models (and I'm not being sarcastic). But, as I eventually realized, they weren't right about everything.

My friend had a picture he'd made in paint of the singers from DC Talk's heads on a stake. This was a total joke, since he actually liked DC Talk. Still, he got reamed out for it pretty good when our head counselor saw it.

He said something roughly to the effect of, "These guys are out there serving the Lord day after day. How dare you do this to them?" And, in DC Talk's case, that might've have been true; I know little about them. I only have fond memories of singing "In the Light," like when I went to YoWaW at Ridgehaven.

But, in some cases, his favorite artists were a little more questionable. Carman, for one. Even then, I didn't like him. Something about his songs made me uncomfortable. Later, I realized it was the flippant way that he treated his Lord, in stories and skits, etc.

I was reading the Pitchfork article today that I mentioned above when I came across these words:

"Webster dictionary defines "blasphemy" as "lack of reverence for God." Blasphemy saturates Christian rock, such as the blasphemous "humor" of Carman Dominic Licciardello, better known as Carman. His blasphemous, street-jive, dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ as teenagers on his video "Live...Radically Saved" is disgusting ! Here's a sample of Carman's blasphemy: JOHN: "Hey man, Hey cuz, Whatchoo doin man? I ain't seen you in a long time. HEY, BABY." (John calling Jesus baby!) Jesus turns and says, "Hey, what's up, John?" See, Jesus is always cool; he's always together. He's got his thing together, y' know, Then Carman blasphemously imitates the Lord Jesus Christ walking hip-jive doing what Carman calls "THE MESSIAH WALK". UNGODLY! BLASPHEMY!"

I thought, "Well, 'blasphemy' might be a little strong, but I see the man's point." Later, I realized that was a quote from Terry Watkins. And then I thought, "What of it?" He may be an extreme fundamentalist, but at least he has reverence for the Lord.

More than I can say for some Christian rock artists. And for the rest of us. Pray for us.

Reading: Isaiah 6:1-5; 1 Tim. 6:16; Zech. 3: 1-4

January 24, 2005

Grace is offensive

The sermon at North Shore was great today. Though the text was John 1:33-57 (?), we spent most of our time in Genesis looking at the story of Jacob. And the pastor, whom I'd never met before, said something that made something click like it hadn't before.

He went over how Jacob had deceived his father to get the blessing, even to the point of taking the Lord's name in vain, and then fled from him so Esau wouldn't kill him. Then he told us about how he was teaching the story to a group of kids in Alton Park and he had asked them what the Lord did after declaring His Name to Jacob in the wilderness. He said one of the little girls answered, "God took that rock and smashed his head." And I never thought of it before, but that is what he deserved.

We in the church have gotten used to grace. But that grace, that's what offensive to the world. The world wants justice, and they'll be surprised when they get it. I am reminded of the character in Flannery O'Connor who prayed, "Lord let your rain wash this scum from the earth," and then it came down hard on his car like tin can tops. This is the Gospel that we believe in and this is the God that makes it worth coming to church on Sunday.

On the other hand, there's Unitarianism. Here's a great little article I was reading this evening. Some of the highlights:
A few years ago Holly Nadler gave a talk here about growing up Unitarian in Hollywood. She said — I'm paraphrasing from memory--“We had a Sunday school book that had all the usual religious symbols on it — the cross, the star of David, — and the name of the book was ”People who believe in Stuff.“ We used to go on field trips to churches and temples and synagogues,” Holly said, “Because as Unitarians, of course, we don't actually believe in anything. But we are endlessly fascinated by people who do believe in things. We find religious belief almost unbearably quaint.”

Holly hit the nail on the head.

...[E]very year at our big December service we appropriate the Christian hymn Silent Night. Now, that hymn is a concise and beautiful statement about the significance, to Christians, of birth of the Christ child.

This is elegant, powerful poetry. But of course it implies that Jesus is God, and since we're Unitarians we can't have any of that. So we water the hymn down; we vandalize it. Instead of singing “Christ the Saviour is born” we sing “sleep in heavenly peace” Instead of singing “Jesus, Lord at thy birth”, we sing “sleep in heavenly peace.”

It's insipid.

...[I]f we're willing to look at the religious significance of Christmas--and we certainly pretend to-- then why don't we really look at it-- and sing the real words? And if we're NOT willing to really look at it, why are we singing the damn song? Why don't we sing about Santa Claus or Tom Brady and the New England Patriots? They're seasonal too!

...I’ll never forget how Father Hessberg hollered out from the white marble pulpit, “I HATE devotional religion!”

In a church of that size, with ceilings five stories high and lots of old statues up there that probably haven’t been dusted in two hundred years, it’s quite dramatic when somebody hollers from the pulpit at the top of his lungs. The echoes last about a minute.

And then he said, “but I love sacramental religion.” And he went on to give a sermon on the difference between devotional and sacramental religion and why sacramental religion was necessary but devotional religion was bullshit.

....Do we talk about things of consequence? Generally speaking, we do not. In my various churches I've been to services themed on Winnie Mandela, Island history, why it's OK to turn down requests for your time, stories from childhood in Oak Bluffs. Any of these things may be interesting in their own rights — but they're hardly religious topics. So, we don't talk about matters of consequence. What about difficulty?

Wow, I find myself quoting the whole thing. It's good writing. Look it up. And pray for the guy; sometime he may realize that it's real religion, warts and all, for which he's been searching all these years.

January 9, 2005

On the Quote

It's actually by Lancelot Andrewes, an early Anglican divine. I got it wrong because Lancelot is such a bizarre name.

The reference, of course, is to Christ. As to what he's saying "never but found" is a classy 17th-century way of saying "always found," in case that wasn't clear. I suppose I should've expected confusion since I found the quote in a Stanley Fish essay, of all places, in which it was used as an example of a sentence that defeated the reader's initial expectations: immediately dissatisfying, but ultimately satisfying.

If anyone wants to read the sermon, it's online. It's a great example of homilectics, although I can see why the Puritans would regard it as a showy piece of verbal virtuosity. Modern preachers who are all about application and illustration wouldn't find much to like about it.

November 30, 2004

Music, running, pleasure/pain, Pt. II

(A response to Bob that grew larger than I intended)
Don't worry, I'm not thinking of apostatizing :) Remember, I wrote a response to that poem, an attempt to argue with it. But I'm not sure if I agree wholeheartedly with myself. Like Paul, I have a divided mind. We need to baptize our imaginations; mine often seeks after the waters of the world.

I think [Stevens' poem] is one of the strongest arguments the atheists have, because it relies on proclivities of the imagination, something (I argue) more primal than logic. Even when our reason tends toward God, our imagination may tend toward sin. That's what temptation works on.

Pastor Tim Keller, quoting St. Augustine, said in his sermon (that I heard while we were at the Bowery) that all the sins we commit come from disordered love. That seems reasonable to me. I wish I could diagnose myself and find out what this pleasure I find in alienation (which I'm not doing a good job of conveying I think - there's hardly even a word for it) comes from.

And as for how to cure it? Some of our writers, like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis, have been good at portraying the banality and ultimate futility of evil. But it seems harder still to portray the diversity of good. I think the only answer that we can offer to his work is also from literature: "Farther up and farther in." And, as Alyosha of The Brothers Karamazov said in response to a young and prideful thinker, "Yes, we shall see each other again and we shall joyfully tell each other all that has happened."

But...again...the problem recurs. I can see why the medievals talked about the "fortunate fall," troubling as that is for those of us who look at the evils of this world as they present themselves to us now. If there had been no fall, there would have been no healing, no reconciliation necessary. And that, at least to our fallen minds, seems like it would have been dull, like playing on golden harps for eternity.

C.S. Lewis must have struggled with this issue significantly, since it shows up in Perelandra as well: Ransom's dialgoue with the Un-man. I can't quote it now off-hand but he definitely gives the Devil his due. Ultimately, the only thing Ransom can say to silence the Un-man is "How have you [Satan] benefited since [God] became a man?"

Something about divine sovereignty and human freedom should be said here, if I knew what to say. Could Adam and Eve have done otherwise than eat of the fruit? Is it better for mankind to have learned, through "the knowledge of good and evil," the "terrible freedom" of post-Fall life and then to be reconciled, to have humanity raised up into divinity in Christ, so that we might be "partakers of the divine nature?"

It bothers me. Consider my thoughts phenomenological rather than theological.

November 4, 2004

Deus absconditus

A problem (perhaps the greatest problem of my life): If God is all-encompassing, then adjectives run off of Him. If He is something definite and defined then whence comes all that is not what He is?

Perhaps this is the real problem of evil.

To make it more concrete, we say that God is holy, God is good, etc. This is fundamental to our worship of Him, yet all these statements have been massively problematic for me. How is God holy, how is God good, when the world which He created shows so much that is not holy and not good? Of course, one can say that evil is a result of the Fall, but this means that we, as post-Fall creatures, find it inescapable. For us to find perfect goodness is like looking for green in a world that is all red.

The Lutherans, with their Deus absconditus/Deus revelatus distinction, have perhaps the most coherent answer to this question that I have found. Deus absconditus means God is hidden behind creation, at least in a salvific manner. Deus revelatus means God reveals Himself in Christ. Christ is definite, concrete - one specific Man to whom the people of His day could point.

However, this too is not without its problems, because Christ is not present today, at least in the way that He was present to the people of His day. His reign from Heaven is in danger of becoming a purely noumenal reign, something that passes beyond our speech and knowledge.

So, now that I've shocked you all with my heresy, what do you think? How can we lead our God-talk out of this difficulty? How can we make it apply?

October 29, 2004

captured as the moment fades

as with Proust's madelines,
a symbol is sign of what passes beyond speech
and God is a voice within a dream of vision.

perhaps He calls us in those still hours before dawn
and we stir, quickened by His light
perhaps He shapes us before dawn
as we lie silent in the night.

Are there some experiences too personal, too rich in implication to discuss in a medium such as a blog? I think so. What do you think?

[Just so no one worries that I've been continuing to get next-to-no sleep, this entry was written after a dream awoke me, hence the title. The content of the dream is what I feel too personal to discuss, though I feel it can be safely hinted at in verse.]

October 25, 2004

Psalm 45:16 and a Sunday proposal

"Instead of your fathers shall be Your sons,
Whom You shall make princes in all the earth. "

Talk about Messianic Psalms. Now that the Bowery trip has got me going, I'd like to preach on this text (and the rest of Psalm 45) sometime. Something about Christ, the consummate Davidic king, communicating His kingship to all those who are joined to Him in faith.

Words like these make me excited about the day when I will be able to speak face-to-face to those who prayed and sung these words for generations, those who are not made perfect apart from us. What was it like to see only the shadows? What depths of faith inspired these words?

An idea I had today, which I suggest publicly for the first time on this blog: a gathering, probably on Sundays, in which the focus is not on prayer or singing, though those are fine things, but on something that I think we don't do often enough - just talking with each other about passages of Scripture that we particularly love and which have most profoundly formed our lives and faith. This talking could take any shape from a sermon to a roundtable discussion - so as long as it remains centered on Scripture, and the reading of Scripture.

So, would anyone be interested in this (out of my 10-odd readers who actually could attend)? If it doesn't catch your fancy yet, come find me and I'll try to light you with my fire.

October 24, 2004

"God is beyond the law"?

A phrase taken out of context from Dr. K's apologetics notes.

I disagree, though I imagine more explanation would be necessary on both sides. [Imagine an essay written here about the "teleological suspension of the ethical."] What do you all think?

Exposure (Re: About Time)

So I've been back since Wednesday evening now, and I haven't written a word. Do I need more discipline in my life? Perhaps. Or perhaps I simply need something worthwhile to say.

The mere act of putting words on a page (or screen) is discipline. So many of our words are idle words, tossed off upon the breeze, spoken casually without regard for deeper meaning. Words upon the page return to us, for good or ill. They provoke an ongoing conversation.

I find myself in an odd situation, wanting and yet not wanting to write about my experience at the Bowery. I don't know whether people want to know how the experience changed me; I certainly don't want to impose on people, like that egotistical, solipsistic person who believes everyone wants to know his feelings. I think "sharing" is overvalued in evangelical culture.

So, enough of the not-wanting: I wouldn't be writing this at all, except that people ask me how it was, and I want something more to say than a one-sentence response. "It was good." What thoughts, what stresses, what experiences lies behind that phrase? If I don't write something, I'll never know.

This post wouldn't have come into existence except for these words from Bob:

New York was...incredibly relaxing for me. It seemed like every little piece of me was accepted and affirmed. I could just be. And serve. And laugh. And observe the passage of my little stream of consciousness, without fear.

Relaxing? I found it stressful. But not because of the difficulty of serving (the work was easy; often there was too little for us to do, since the group was too large) and not because I saw people in need (they were surprisingly respectful in chapel, and more gracious, friendly, and sincere than many of us more "privileged" folk; not to mention that I've seen mental illness before; people are people no matter what, all children of the same Father, all made in His image). Not even because I had to give a sermon - preaching on Isaiah 6 and hearing the disciples (as the people in the program are called) say "Amen" in response was one of the most joyful experiences I've had...ever. I'll put the text of my sermon up here sometime, if I have a chance.

No, what made it stressful for me was the group dynamics, both with people inside the group and people outside. I was tremendously blessed to discover how many great people there were on our team whom I probably never would have met otherwise and I was often encouraged in my faith by the people in the program.

Still, it was draining. I am an introvert by nature; I need time to get away, recharge, and reflect. I didn't find much of that. I was always with other people, striving to relate to them as they desired to be related to. And sometimes I felt like I was being scrutinized.

One man from the program in particular kept looking into my eyes and asking why he saw sadness there. I don't think he saw sadness there; I was just thinking. But who knows? As it ended up, I was benching and he was spotting me, all the while encouraging me to give my life to Christ one hundred percent, body and soul. And I was saying, "I do believe. I do desire Him. I just have these struggles [with my bipolar, etc.] still, and I think that's part of life."

Christianity is a miracle, but it's not a miracle cure; it doesn't work over night. It hasn't saved my mom from depression, or my sister from Down's syndrome. It won't bring all those people out of homelessness, necessarily. God wants to makes us holy before He makes us happy. He will make us happy, yes, but only once we learn that His holiness is the only true happiness. We can't escape that holiness, as I said in my sermon - "Even if I make my bed in the depths of Hell, Lord, You are there." And the Garden of Eden became a Hell when You were not there.

So for me, the Bowery trip was a time of serious reflection. Some of the things I learned about myself I don't feel comfortable sharing in such a public medium. It was those things, though, that I felt compelled to speak to people about while I was there, often. The one-on-one exchange, face to face, is the highest and the most basic of all human relationships. May we seek it out when we can, but don't expect it to be easy. The eyes of the other are a refiner's fire.

September 27, 2004

Mystical Theology?

So I had another one of those long discussions about the sacraments, and how I don't think people take them seriously enough. Of course, it always ends up coming around to how logically incoherent my own view of the sacraments is. There, I said it.

But, dang it all, I like the Church Fathers. Even more, I respect them. I don't want to be that Protestant, sweeping aside all of Christian history with an exegetical yardstick and a flick of my wrist. Reformation yes, but Reformation ad fontes - respect for Chesterton's "democracy of the dead."

Union with Christ - what does that mean? I like what Bonhoeffer said: Christ is the Mediator, not just between man and God, but between man and everything else - ourselves, our fellow humans, and the creation. The theology of the Cross, of descent - no knowledge of God apart from what He has given to us in Christ, in His Word. Against metaphysics, against reason, if need be, in order to be faithful to that revelation.

I cannot understand "This is My Body," "This is My Blood," except in terms of some kind of presence. I neither need nor want to understand how it works, only let it be.

John Gregor is probably right. This is my imaginative bent coming out in my theology. Creativity and mysticism, however you define that term, are neighboring countries, if not more. Yet if the tradition and the piety of the Church was against me then I would have to resign my views. I don't want to create out of whole cloth; I'm not Philo making the OT into a Platonic allegory.

So, to close this rather bizarre (since conversation-inspired) entry, a hymn:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness;
Come into the daylight’s splendor,
There with joy thy praises render
Unto Christ Whose grace unbounded
Hath this wondrous banquet founded.
Higher o’er all the heav’ns He reigneth,
Yet to dwell with thee He deigneth.

Hasten as a bride to meet Him
And with loving reverence greet Him;
For with words of life immortal
Now He knocketh at thy portal.
Haste to ope the gates before Him,
Saying, while thou dost adore Him,
Suffer, Lord, that I receive Thee,
And I nevermore will leave Thee.

He who craves a precious treasure
Neither cost nor pain will measure;
But the priceless gifts of heaven
God to us hath freely given.
Though the wealth of earth were offered,
Naught would buy the gifts here offered:
Christ’s true body, for thee riven,
And His blood, for thee once given.

Ah, how hungers all my spirit
For the love I do not merit!
Oft have I, with sighs fast thronging,
Thought upon this food with longing,
In the battle well nigh worsted,
For this cup of life have thirsted,
For the Friend Who here invites us
And to God Himself unites us.

In my heart I find ascending
Holy awe, with rapture blending,
As this mystery I ponder,
Filling all my soul with wonder,
Bearing witness at this hour
Of the greatness of God’s power;
Far beyond all human telling
Is the power within Him dwelling.

Human reason, though it ponder,
Cannot fathom this great wonder
That Christ’s body e’er remaineth
Though it countless souls sustaineth
And that He His blood is giving
With the wine we are receiving.
These great mysteries unsounded
Are by God alone expounded.

Sun, Who all my life dost brighten,
Light, Who dost my soul enlighten;
Joy the best that any knoweth;
Fount, whence all my being floweth;
At Thy feet I cry, my Maker,
Let me be a fit partaker
Of this blessèd food from heaven,
For our good, Thy glory, given.

Lord, by love and mercy driven
Thou hast left Thy throne in heaven
On the cross for me to languish
And to die in bitter anguish,
To forego all joy and gladness
And to shed Thy blood in sadness.
By this blood redeemed and living,
Lord, I praise Thee with thanksgiving.

Jesus, Bread of Life, I pray Thee,
Let me gladly here obey Thee.
By Thy love I am invited,
Be Thy love with love requited;
From this supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure.
Through the gifts Thou here dost give me
As Thy guest in heaven receive me.

That's what I believe about the Lord's Supper. And it's in the Trinity Hymnal. So if the rule of faith is the rule of prayer, then I guess we're all sacramentalists in the PCA.

September 10, 2004

"The desires of God are offensive."

I think it was Justin Borger who said this the other day. It made me think.

April 23, 2004

Josh S., all you theology gurus, have a ball with this

My second paper of the semester for Doctrine II (a required class here at Covenant, so the standards aren't too high). Also my last paper for Doctrine II.

Also I wrote in one night, but I think it transcends that.

Anyway, it's my foray into the realm of Eucharistic theology. I use a lot of Leithart (Garver will love me?) and talk some about the Real Presence. (Though not nearly as much as I would've if I had had more time, read more of the sources I planned to use, and generally cared more. I like the topic, but I'd already written three papers this week, so I really didn't want to write anymore. And I still have one to go.)

Without further ado, here it is: "The Shape of the Eucharist: The Real Presence Controversy and What It Obscures"

The Shape of the Eucharist:
The Real Presence Controversy and What It Obscures

Judging simply by the divisions that it has caused within the Christian Church, the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is one of the most obscure and misunderstood doctrines in all of theology. How ironic that the sacrament which was intended to proclaim the unity of the Church and to establish all her members in the faith has instead become a stumbling block for faith and the cause of schism. One can only hope that Christ’s presence remains with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), though we may never agree on how the Eucharist proclaims that presence.

There are many debates about the theology of the Lord’s Supper; however, most would regard the question of Christ’s presence in the sacrament as of foremost importance. Mainstream evangelicalism denies the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This Zwinglian view of the sacrament is increasingly dominant in the Reformed churches as well, presumably because of influence from the wider Christian culture. Perhaps as a consequence, the Lord’s Supper is not that important to most Protestants in America. It is often celebrated infrequently in churches, both evangelical and Reformed, and plays little part in personal piety.

The Eucharist is portrayed in liturgy as simply a commemoration of Christ’s death. Thus, the emphasis is placed on the human action rather than the divine, and the sacrament is made subjective. In this way, the Reformers’ emphasis on the necessity of faith for proper receipt of the sacrament has been carried too far. Participants feel as though they must stir up the proper thoughts and feelings in themselves or else the sacrament will be ineffective. In the Reformed churches, an overemphasis on introspection is often another result of this subjective view of the sacrament. Individuals may feel shut out of table fellowship because they have been made to dwell on their guilt before God, rather than the grace which He offers at the table to all who come in repentance.

The Lord’s Supper is undeniably a commemoration of Christ’s death. The Apostle Paul states that in their celebration of the sacrament, the Church “proclaim[s] the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Jesus Himself commanded His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19b). However, the Lord’s Supper is not simply a commemorative meal. To say so fails to do justice to the framework in which the Bible places it, which speaks not only of past commemoration, but of present participation and future anticipation.

The One who said “…[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53) was not speaking simply of the necessity of faith for salvation. He was speaking of an act, by which that faith is expressed and made visible.

The Lord’s Supper, like salvation itself, works in several time frames at once. It is fundamental to Christian living to understand that Christians not only are saved (regeneration, adoption and justification by faith), but are being saved (sanctification), and will be saved (the final justification, which is according to works, and followed by glorification). Similarly, the Lord’s Supper points back to Christ’s death and resurrection, making a memorial of those events before the Father; presently, it conveys the benefits of that redemptive event to all who partake in faith; it points forward to the eschatological feast at the end of time, the marriage supper of the Lamb, of which it is a foretaste.

Max Thurian makes a startling statement in the introduction to his book The Mystery of the Eucharist. “For all Christians, Christ, according to His promise, is made really present in His Body and Blood in the celebration of the Eucharist” (Thurian 9). From Thurian’s perspective in a French monastic community, this statement may appear true. However, in America, it reads as though he is denying that those who believe in a strictly memorial or symbolic view of the Supper, such as the Zwinglians and Anabaptists, are truly Christians.

This is not the case. Those who deny the Real Presence do so in response to the Catholic doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which that presence is viewed through the distorted lens of Aristotelian philosophical categories. Thomas Merton, in his book The Living Bread, seeks to make the Catholic teaching appealing to a broad audience, ranging all the way from Catholic priests to those who, in his words, are “completely unacquainted with this great mystery” (xxxi). However, he has inherited a legacy of philosophical explanations of the Eucharist which make this impossible.

Merton’s book, though it is meditative in tone, begins with a dogmatic definition. “…[I]n this most Holy Sacrament, Jesus Christ Himself is truly and substantially present and remains present as long as the consecrated species of bread and wine continue in existence.” With this statement, the Protestant tradition has at least three points of disagreement. The first of these is the substantial presence, if that is defined in the terms of transubstantiation. The second is the presence due to the words of consecration, insofar as that makes the work of God in the Eucharist dependant on the action of a particular man – the priest. The third is the continued presence of Christ in the sacrament, which could lead to various superstitions since the consecrated bread and wine will not continue in the same state of existence. Against this third assertion, Calvin states that Christ is present in the act of eating itself, that as the bread is received by the physical mouth so His Body is received by the “mouth of faith.”

Other difficulties arise on further reading in Merton’s book. In his view, a priest is “a man set aside by God to offer sacrifice.” However, the book of Hebrews is clear that Christ has put an end to both Old Testament priesthood and sacrifice, since He is the antitype of which they spoke. Additionally, Merton speaks about the need, especially for priests, for “meditation and adoration before the tabernacle” in which the Host is kept. This is objectionable for two reasons. The first of these has already been mentioned – there is no presence of Christ in the sacramental elements apart from the actual sacramental action. Thus, when the elements are external to oneself, they cannot be worshipped. The second is that, as Peter Leithart says, Christ’s tearing of the temple veil in two indicates that the old distinctions of holiness no longer apply. When the Church celebrates communion, she is “furthering Christ’s work of rezoning the world” (38).

Merton’s book makes it clear that Catholic teaching on the Eucharist has, at the very least, obscured the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and encouraged idolatry through the practice of Eucharistic adoration. G.I. Williamson stresses both of these points in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Following the Reformers, he cites both Hebrews 10:10 and 10:12 to prove that one sacrifice was sufficient to sanctify all God’s elect and, that having been completed, Christ suffers no more (129). He also argues that Eucharistic adoration is idolatrous because “it gives to a created thing the worship that belongs to the Creator alone” (137). Catholics, however, find perfectly proper since, according to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood truly subsists under the accidents of bread and wine.

Since Williamson treats their doctrine as if it were the only way to take Christ’s words of institution literally, he sees no way to avoid idolatry other than to make the elements mere symbols of spiritual realities. Thus, he says that Christ when Christ said, “Take, eat; this is My Body,” He “simply meant that the bread…He held in His hand represented His Body” (133, emphasis his). Even so, Williamson desires to say that Christ is really present in the Lord’s Supper and that this presence is one “mediated by the Holy Spirit,” even as Calvin taught that it was (129). However, it later becomes apparent that Williamson means by “spiritual presence” that only the Spirit is present in the sacrament. “…[T]he same Holy Spirit…that dwells in Christ (without measure) also dwells in [the believer], so that [they] united, the one with the other” (129). The sacrament is essentially a picture – by faith the believer eats and so both desires and receives salvation in Christ (133).

Williamson’s criticisms of the Catholic position are essentially valid. Disregarding his faulty metaphysical foundations, however, Merton offers a fuller theology of the sacrament than Williamson.

Merton almost could be a covenant theologian when he writes that the Eucharist is “the sign that we belong to God, that we are His possession…and for that reason He comes to us and gives Himself to us as our possession” (101). He quotes St. Augustine on the Church’s action in celebrating the Eucharist: “In what she offers she herself is offered” (79). If only this conception had taken firmer hold of Merton, it might have crowded out his insistence, based on Catholic dogma, that the purpose of the Eucharist is to make Christ “present on the altar in a state of sacrifice” (20). The pure offering prophesied by Malachi, which he mentions on page 19, is the praises of the saints, not an action of a priest. The meaning of the word “Eucharist” is thanksgiving – when the Church sits down at the Table, she gives thanks for Christ’s completed work. The Eucharist is God’s gift to us, not the act of divine appeasement that the practice of private masses would suggest.

Merton himself recognizes this, to some extent. He calls the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality,” quoting St. Ignatius (116). Communion, in his view, is an act by which believers participate in the life of the Trinity and are given the power to resist sin. The Eucharist is “a convivium, a sacred banquet” (129) in which believers are “not only performing a supremely pure act of adoration of the divine Being, but much more…are entering into the plan of God’s will to ‘re-establish all things in Christ’” (102). Thus, Merton recognizes the present and future referents of the sacrament, which have largely been ignored by evangelicalism in its focus on commemoration. The Lord’s Supper is pre-eminently a feast of joy, not of looking back on Christ’s death, as if He were still in the tomb. Indeed, as Leithart writes, the Supper is the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 26:29 that He would not drink wine again until that day He would drink it anew in His Father’s Kingdom (167).

Merton’s insights into the nature of the Eucharist, as expressed in these last couple paragraphs, have been suggested independently by several Reformed theologians, Leithart being one of them. Leithart’s “lens,” as he calls it, for viewing the Eucharist allows him to place these insights within a much broader and more Scripturally faithful context than Merton could have. His basis contention, as stated in the introduction to his book Blessed are the Hungry, is that “a typological framework for sacramental theology is as rich and, in its way, as precise...as a philosophical framework” (13). Against the attempt, seen both in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Protestant polemics against it, to move beyond “the ‘naïve outlook of Scripture’ to ‘the fundamental reality of the sacrament’” he holds up the “Scriptural descriptions of the Supper” – and these, as his book indicates are often typological and impressionistic – “are the most fundamental possible” (12). Against the evangelicals’ individualistic notion of faith, he stresses the collective reality of faith – it is “not only trusting God to save me, but trusting [Him] to do what He has promised to do in the world” (23).

Since St. Augustine’s time, at least, the sacraments have been called “visible words.” Leithart suggests that it might be more appropriate to call the Lord’s Supper an “edible word,” to indicate that its significance is as a communal act, not as an object for contemplation, philosophical or otherwise (69). It is only through the Church’s outward action that a visible renewal is made of the new covenant in Christ’s blood (33). Traditionally in Eucharistic theology, questions of substance – metaphysical questions – have been privileged over questions of how the Church and her members are shaped by their participation in the Eucharist (157). Though Leithart seems to affirm at several points the literal meaning of Jesus’ words in John 6 and at the Last Supper, that, he suggests, is not the main point. Often, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist has been hotly debated without either side having a clear understanding of what that presence – or the lack of it – would effect. Against this, Leithart writes, “The operative command in connection with the Supper is not ‘Reflect on this’ but ‘Do this’” (186).

In the traditional terms of Eucharistic theology, perhaps Leithart could best be categorized in the traditional terms as a literalist. The words Thurian applied to Luther could apply to Leithart as well: “For him, there is only the mystery, stated purely and simply by the…words of Christ.” It is this mystery, understood not in its essence but its effects, that is to shape the life of the Church. “As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.”

Works Cited

Merton, Thomas. The Living Bread. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956.

Leithart, Peter. Blessed are the Hungry. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000.

Thurian, Max. The Mystery of the Eucharist. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.

Williamson, G.I. The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide. Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1993.

April 9, 2004

In the beginning the Word was...

...He lived in God
and possessed in Him
His infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
He was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was Himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
He was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived Him,
giving of His substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father's glory,
and the Father possessed
all His glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all Three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
Him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

-St. John of the Cross

St. Gregory of Nazianzen has made me realize why I don't blog about theology anymore

Contention, pretention, the desire to make a name for oneself. All these enter in to my occasional desire to philosophize about God.

So I quit.

There's a reason why I call this category "Faith," and not "Theology." I may have gotten a 98% on my doctrine test, but that doesn't make me a theologian.

I like the EO view: to them, a new theologian comes along about once a millenium.

April 5, 2004

Images, Again

I put a new background on my laptop today. It's an icon of Christ the Word. I appreciate Eastern Orthodox iconography, though I can't imagine myself lighting candles before the icons or such.

I suppose this is just another one of those ways I'm not really Reformed.

I was just thinking, though, as I put that image up there that if we don't have images of one kind, then we'll have images of another kind. Have we as Protestants done so well at making sure God is not misrepresented that God has disappeared altogether? Have we, in destroying the icons of Christ, have only made room for the icons of Star Trek, or Lord of the Rings, or (as hangs by my bed) Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground banana?

I remember last year a little before this time, a little before the crazy times, reading an article by an Orthodox priest that shook me up a bit. Basically, he said the Orthodox have a different ontology of image than we do in the secularized West. To them, an image is a window into a spiritual realm. What I hang on the walls of my room is what enters the windows of my mind.

I had a friend back home who was not a believer, though (or perhaps because) he was my pastor's son. His room was filled with occult symbolism that had been misappropriated by the rock culture. How hard it was for me, after reading that article, even to enter that room! It was almost as if I could feel the breath of demons upon me. How can people, but through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, break the bonds of such images?

February 29, 2004

I must in a mood to be irritated today...

...because this really irritated me. OK, so the Reformed may not celebrate Lent, by and large, but do we have to rag on those that do? Remember, Christ said, "When you fast" not "If you fast."

Now I'm not exactly fasting from anything during the Lenten season since I kinda missed the start of it and since I'd really like to do it, if I were going to, as part of the life of the Church and not as some solo spiritual exercise. I know how my mind works - if I did that, I'd either end up doing it just out of novelty value, or as a badge of superiority as the Pharisees did. Eventually, I'd quit, since I don't think God would give the strength to do something that I was doing for such poor motives.

That said, I would never ask others to give up the Lenten season. By Willis' line of argument, then we'd have to give up Christmas and Easter as well. But that would be practicing solo Scriptura rather than sola Scriptura, to borrow a line from Douglas Wilson (betcha never thought I'd say that).

As for Mardi Gras, it's like Halloween. It grew up in a Catholic culture, but it's not exactly "church-sanctioned." Nor does it last for weeks, unless I'm totally ignorant.

February 28, 2004

Onesimus Became a Bishop

I just thought that was cool.

And a somewhat related, somewhat controversial, thought:

Anyone who says that presbyterian church government was the initial form is just making stuff up. If the episcopacy is not the original form (though certainly not as practiced by Rome today), then the Church fell away awfully quick. You might as well say that the earliest Christians didn't believe Jesus was God. Wait - some people do say that.

So what am I saying? Basically that despite the the witness of Fathers you say it is possible the early Church looked the way lots of evangelicals (and even us Reformed, to some extent) would like it to look, then you've opened the door for people like Hans Kung to say (as he did in his magnum opus, Christianity) that it was originally just an apocalyptic Jewish sect. The Fathers may not be inspired as Scripture is, but I can't believe that they did not preserve the teaching of the apostles. I mean, they gave us our Trinitarian and Christological formulations, for heaven's sake.

I'm not just saying this to irritate my more strictly Reformed brothers and sisters. It's just always annoyed me when people make presbyterian church government out to be the only proper form. I think that the pastoral epistles are deliberately written generally enough as to admit that at least episcopal and presbyterian government are acceptable. If we are to choose between them, then we do so on prudential considerations.

There we go - now I've potentially irritated those on both sides of the issue, since I obviously believe in apostolic succession in doctrine, not as another sacrament beside the Lord's Supper and Baptism.

Speaking of other sacraments, I agree with whoever said that, for some Reformed these days, joining the church in your teens is almost like what confirmation was to the Roman Catholics. Almost makes me believe in paedocommunion...

The Last Supper?

Since The Passion (which I promise never to mention again on this blog, though I do plan to see it, just to see what all the fuss is about) is supposedly based on the visions of an obscure Catholic nun, I'm just glad Gibson didn't include this scene:

He then drew a species of shelf with grooves from the board on which the jars stood, and taking a piece of white linen with which the chalice was covered, spread it over the board and shelf. I then saw him lift a round plate, which he placed on this same shelf, off the top of the chalice. He next took the azymous loaves from beneath the linen with which they were covered, and placed them before him on the board; then he took out of the chalice a smaller vase, and arranged the six little glasses on each side of it. Then he blessed the bread and also the oil, to the best of my belief, after which he lifted up the paten with the loaves upon it, in his two hands, raised his eyes, prayed offered, and replaced the paten on the table, covering it up again. He then took the chalice, had some wine poured into it by Peter, and some water, which he first blessed, by John, adding to it a little more water, which he poured into a small spoon, and after this he blessed the chalice, raised it up with a prayer, made the oblation, and replaced it on the table. (The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ)

Talk about projecting future doctrinal developments back on the NT situation; I don't even know what an "oblation" is. Somehow I doubt this is a historical account.

As for the question of the Real Presence, since it's come up lately, all I have to say is: I don't know what to think. I'm not a Lutheran, but I'm not a Zwinglian either.

Strangely enough, Ash Wednesday may help make my view clearer. I hope we can all agree that putting ashes on one's forehead is not a sacrament; it is not one of God's means of giving grace. Rather, it is an action we perform (or if you're in my church, do not perform, unfortunately); it works subjectively inasmuch as it helps bring one into a state of penitence. The Lord's Supper - the Eucharist - is the opposite. It works objectively, though not automatically (since those who do not believe receive a curse instead of a blessing). There is a metaphysical action taking place. I just don't know how to define that action, although, in faithfulness to the words of Christ, it must be said that it involves His presence and that this presence cannot be merely spiritual, unless we are going to divide the natures.

That's where I'm at right now; say what you will. As for open vs. closed communion, another of Josh's hot topics, that's an issue I won't even touch. I think these blogging discussions produce a great deal more heat than light anyway.

As regards that, if you want to see where Josh really created a ruckus, just check out the Boar's Head Tavern. I don't tag his blog as "Josh the Angry Lutheran" for nothing, folks. He doesn't ever make me that angry, though. The only people who can make me angry are atheists. And blame-America-first liberals. And, uh, atheistic blame-America-first liberals? Well, and people who make fun of retarded people. Or fail to understand mental illness. Or who have their minds in the gutter all the time. Or who treat women as objects. Wow - actually there are several significant classes of people who can make me angry. Thankfully, I don't run into a lot of them in day to day life. That's the advantage of living inside the bubble :) ..."Convent College - is that a Catholic school?" - I'll always cherish that question, and especially the sincerity with which it was asked.

February 20, 2004

I Liked This

A post by one of Josh's, Chris' readers on the icon controversy and its relationship to the already/not yet tension. In being sympathetic to this line of thought, I know I'm placing myself at odds with the Westminster Divines. But that's all right; I think they can handle it.

February 18, 2004

One of those rare theological posts

I agreed with this comment by Christopher Jones, avowed "Luthodox":

...Scaer's [a conservative Lutheran theologian] monergism is so thorough-going that it amounts to saying that we are still all peccator and no justus - even after baptism.

In other words, regeneration does not automatically make us fully restored, but it does restore the possibility of cooperation. Before regeneration we not only do not cooperate, but cannot cooperate; after regeneration we can cooperate, but (being still fallen) do not always do so.

Perhaps the whole story is not being told here, since we can only thank Christ for our ability to cooperate even now, yet there is real cooperation going on. And if confessional Lutheranism disputes that, then I have at least one reason to stay Reformed.

January 24, 2004

"Can it be true what's taught us in religion?..."

It's a beautiful day today, hardly wintry. And neither are my thoughts. And neither was that supposed father of the modern, existential, angst-ridden novel, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Jeremy shows this with a quote from Crime and Punishment, which is good.

But perhaps my favorite quote, one that could almost summarize my life is this, from The Brothers Karamazov:

“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “can it be true what’s taught us in religion, that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, all, Ilusha too?”

“Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!” Alyosha answered, half laughing, half enthusiastic.

“Ah, how splendid it will be!” broke from Kolya.

Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.

January 15, 2004

Wisdom

One of my favorite passages from Scripture: "I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor - it is the gift of God" (Ecc. 3:10-13).

I'm feeling excessively lazy this semester and need a good kick in the pants. But I'm also feeling a tremendous sense of pleasure just with myself and the world God has created, in which I live. I feel like I'm on the cusp (great word, I think) of something, I'm not sure what.