08 December 2009

Our Renewed Image

For John Calvin, the suffering and atoning death of Jesus the Messiah is the locus of God's reconciliatory plan for his creation (cf. Institutes 2.16.5; 3.11.23). He writes in his commentary on 1 Peter 2:24 that “the death of Christ is efficacious…for the mortification of the flesh.” What, in practical terms, might this look like in everyday life? Maybe 
the primary question is, how does the death of one actually give life to another? To understand this first may help us to see more easily how the mortified or sanctified life goes.

In Saint Peter’s own words: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). “Living to righteousness” means the same thing that Calvin meant when he wrote “mortification of the flesh.” To mortify, or destroy, the flesh (not the body, of course, but the sinful corruptions therein) is to live righteously (or with justice) and faithfully as God’s people (see Col. 3:1–11). This kind of life, as the apostles affirm and Calvin wisely concurs, finds its cause in the death of Jesus the Christ. Still, it is 
not any clearer as to how that is so.

Going back to Colossians 3, verses 9–10, the apostle Paul wrote that those who have been raised with Christ “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed…after the image of its creator” (see also Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:22ff.). Something real, according to this apostle, has the power to affect our lives and the way we live them. That something, both Peter and Paul argue, is the crucifixion of our Lord (bearing our sins “in his body on the tree”).

This is possible because in reality, we humans have one of two people representing us. Thomas Goodwin, seventeenth-century puritan and president of Magdalen College, Oxford, once said, “In God’s sight there are two men — Adam and Christ — and these two men have all other men hanging at their girdle strings” (quoted in F.F. Bruce’s Tyndale commentary on Romans, p. 120). Or, to use Saint Paul’s own words in Romans: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (5:18). The two men and their actions are universal: Adam’s led to condemnation for all; Christ’s, justification and life for all. Now, this is not an argument for universal salvation by the apostle; rather, his point is that Christ, and Christ alone, is the man in whom salvation is the way for all. Nor must we, at this point, discuss exactly the way in which Adam’s disobedience involves us, for the simple fact is, according to the apostle in Romans 5:12, that it does.

Thus, both the first Adam and the second Adam are unified with their own particular groups of people. They share the same interests with them, the same purposes, and the same sympathies. 
Even further, they share in the same personality, so that, by virtue of the relationship in which they stand with either Adam or Christ, they can be identified as one or the other — the “old” self or the “new” self. For this reason, the apostle Paul refers to Jesus and his people as the one seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), or, “though many,” as “one body of Christ” (Rom. 12:5). In fact, they are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Now, how does being one with Jesus and his death actually enable us to live faithfully? It does so because the “old self” was cast aside at Golgotha, on the cross (see again Col. 3:1ff). At an actual point in time and history, the old man, the way of Adam, was judged, cursed, and defeated. Each of us who were in Adam but are now in Christ had that old self crucified in the first century (see Rom. 6:6). While the benefits of this are not realized in us until we actually are given the gift of faith (read the Westminster Confession, 11.4), we nonetheless can look at the death of Jesus as the precise moment when his group of people put off the old man and put on the new one. Even though Jesus was sinless, we are told that he was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” unified with those of us who constitute his elect, that elect then being freed from the old self, which was condemned in his flesh (see Rom 8:3–4 and 7:4).

We can bear fruit for God because that old, hell-bent way of doing things was crucified in the flesh of Jesus, the Messiah. Life now has a new order, for the old chaos of Adam’s way has lost control. Only from and with this grace can our efforts of living rightly before God (or, crucifying the flesh, Gal. 5:24) meet with any success. Thus Calvin said, the death of Christ really does produce a desired effect, namely, the laying aside of a life riddled with a sinful, corrupted nature for the grandeur of being renewed after the image of God. In death, we are raised to life, because Jesus really was raised to life about two-thousand years ago.

We Christians, his group, his people, have been set free to live for righteousness, and thus we must actively pursue it. And pursuing it is simply this: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:3). If to live is Christ, the new covenant mediator, then that life must endeavor to mediate his justice and mercy to all, without distinction. The Word must be preached; the sacraments administered; compassion and forgiveness must be extended to those in need, if for no other reason than we ourselves have been shown it. This life, in short, knows “nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2.2).

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 29.5 (May 2005): 25–26.}

16 November 2009

Husk and Kernel: The Assembly at Westminster

I've been perusing Bob Letham's new book on the Westminster Assembly, reading portions here and there as items catch my eye. There's all kinds of helpful discussions in it, but I wanted to highlight a few criticisms he makes, mostly because I think they symbolize how helpful this book can be in demythologizing the Westminster Confession. Sometimes one gets the impression that certain confessionalists think the writing simply fell from the sky. This almost always leads to unfortunate hermeneutics.

Yet it is proper, Letham writes, "to attempt to interpret a text in its original context. A striking example of carelessness, of failure to do basic homework, that renders a contextual reading improbable is this extract from the introduction to a recent popular treatment…" (p. 48; Letham then goes on to quote a paragraph from John Gerstner's Guide followed up with a succinct correction). These kinds of correctives are scattered throughout the work. Consider the following about WCF 6 (on humanity and sin) as exegeted by A.A. Hodge in his well-known Handbook: "…neither the Confession nor the Catechisms speak of our first parents being placed on probation…nonetheless, [Hodge] goes to great lengths to expound the idea in his comments on this very point" (198–99). Letham does think, however, that the doctrine can be defended from the Assembly's documents; he's just pointing out sloppy exegesis—"Hodge ignores the text of the Confession at this point and instead expounds his own theology ["Princeton doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin on the ground of a federal relationship"] as if these words in this section did not exist" (p. 199).

Maybe most importantly, Letham notes on more than one occasion that "Reformed theology was a relatively broad stream, and differences among those swimming in it were recognized and accepted" (p. 84). Indeed, even on the subject of hypothetical universal atonement (!), its "supporters continued to play their part in the Assembly…and were not blackballed for their views. The Assembly was not a partisan body within the boundaries of its generic Calvinism, but allowed differing views to coexist" (182). It seems to me, in light of this, that the authors of the somewhat recent spate of blog posts about what it means to be "truly Reformed" should take note. That is, they should be mindful that subscription to the Confession as is currently understood in contemporary Presbyterianism is just that—contemporary. The Confession was not fashioned for a particular denomination within a societal context of church-state separation; rather, it was intended to unite the realm (England, Scotland and Ireland) and her church. As such, it's a lowest-common-denominator Reformed document with the specific purpose of uniting a bunch of different people, and thus various views on a host of subjects (e.g., covenant of works and hypothetical universal atonement) were tolerated. Now, it may be a non-sequitur to suggest that Reformed folk today ought to follow suit, but at least the burden of proof lies with the strict subscriptionist.

Still, poor assumptions persist. On the one hand, we've got those who continue to suffer under the impression that it's Calvin versus the Calvinists when it comes to the Confession. Letham picks on Torrance a little bit to this end (who regarded the development of covenant theology in the seventeenth century "as a distortion of the earlier, pristine theology of Calvin, Knox, and the Scots Confession"): "Furthermore, [Torrance] imposes on the the Assembly the idea of a controlling central dogma—the dual framework of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace—whereas the idea of central dogmas only emerged in the nineteenth century, among German scholars, and was far from the minds of the Westminster divines" (p. 85).

"On the other hand," Letham writes, "many right-wing Presbyterians today interpret the Westminster Confession in detachment from the history of the Reformed church and its classic confessions. The militant adherents of the hypothesis that the days of creation were of twenty-fours duration are a prime example [Letham footnotes his "In the Space of Six Days," WTJ 61 (1999): 149–74]. Neglect of this context is a barrier to understanding" (p. 85).
At any rate, with the forthcoming publication of the mulitvolume critical edition of the Assembly's minutes (of which Letham had in advance, in the form of Van Dixhoorn's seven-volume Cambridge thesis on this subject), I suppose other works about this will start popping up across the landscape (as perspectives on the Assembly will no doubt be reassessed). If The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context is any indication, this bodes well for those churches who consider themselves heirs of the Assembly and its Confession today.

09 November 2009

O day most calm, most bright

Heads up on my recent article over at Ref21, which discusses the seventeenth-century Welsh poet George Herbert's poem “Sunday,” with hopes of being led through a contemplation of the joys of worship toward doxology itself. The thing about Herbert is that he embodies the fact that one can be both evangelical and sacramental, biblical and liturgical, reformational and catholic. So, why is he all but unknown?

06 November 2009

Epistemological Modesty

In response to this great article on Keith Mathison’s Shape of Sola Scriptura over at Called to Communion, an interesting discussion has emerged revolving around the tu quoque—certain folks are arguing back that Catholics are in no way on better ground epistemologically. That is to say, the Catholic position and subsequent argument against the non-Catholic positions can be applied equally to the Catholic making the argument. Slightly related to this issue, in my opinion, is the question of epistemological certitude, which I perceive has deep roots within the Called to Communion crowd. After all, once having swum the Tiber (or any conversion, for that matter), who wouldn’t want to consider those newly held beliefs with 100 percent certainty?

In this modern age, we all face the so-called “heretical imperative.” As Peter Berger put it in his book with the same title (and I paraphrase): Plurality of alternatives is the core of the modern experience. If there are no options, then what is can be interpreted as what must be; in the modern condition, there’s less and less of what must be. Fate becomes choice. Destiny becomes decision. In short, we are all forced to choose.

And this is why, in nuce, the argument proffered in the review of Mathison’s book suffers from the tu quoque fallacy. But it suffers from something else too. A pinch of hubris, or, rather, an overextension of what can be known with certainty, for the sake of cognitive rest. It seems to me all too convenient for the Catholic to suggest that his own private judgment led him to accept the authority of the Magisterium, which authority then grants him the knowledge that “there are no options" (or, in the words of Bryan Cross [comment #46]: "he discovers a living divinely-appointed authority, and that discovery then shapes his theology"). But once that leap has been made “what is can be interpreted as what must be.”

This is tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand, so far as I can tell.

Now, this line of reasoning might not be useful at all, but for the sake of argument, let’s say I become Catholic in the next five years or so. In no way could I in good faith speak of my journey to Rome in the same manner that those folks (or at least a few of them) over at Called to Communion do (for the very reasons proffered above). It presumes a kind of epistemic certainty that to my mind is impossible to achieve before the return of the King.
Berger sums up nicely what I'm getting at here:
As Christians we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in his glorious return. But that glory is not yet. The triumphant Christ is still coming; we are still in the aeon of the kenotic Jesus—the self-emptying Jesus, who humbles himself by taking human form. The church, while it announces the coming triumph (indeed, that is the core of its message), still bears the marks of Jesus’ kenosis.
Epistemological modesty, he suggests, is part and parcel of bearing the marks of Christ's kenosis. I'll conclude with a final thought from Berger in an interview published in The Christian Century (29 October 1997, pp. 972–78):
The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude. There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism. I can convey values to my children without pretending a fanatical certitude about them. And you can build a community with people who are neither fanatics nor relativists.
My colleague Adam Seligman uses the term "epistemological modesty." Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you're modest about these claims. You can be a believer and yet say, I'm not really sure. I think that is a fundamental fault line.
So, here we are: a mellow synthesis of skepticism and faith. I realize the epistemic can of worms this may open for some—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But this defines the religious affirmations of my journey for most of my life, and yet I believe—more strongly and exclusively Christain than Berger allows for himself. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night otherwise, flailing between the fact of modern pluralism, hyper-rationalistic solipsism and epistemological immodesty.

28 October 2009

Land of the Lost, part 7

As we start in on Propositions 11–13, Walton begins to wrap up his exegetical arguments on how to read the creation narrative of Genesis 1. In so doing, he moves on to discuss a few things that many people like to spend time arguing about (age of the earth, etc.). This brings to mind a recent post over at Bring the Books on this very subject. Its content doesn't bear on our current discussion so much, but I thought it interesting nonetheless. Adam does a good job succintly setting out the epistemological reasons for affirming an old earth. On to the props:

Proposition 11: “Functional cosmic temple” offers face-value exegesis
  • This is the most “literal” reading, for the ancient author intended the ancient text, Gen 1, to be read as his own view, the view that God created—assigned functions to—the cosmic temple during a seven-day inauguration period.
  • Theology, polemic and literary shape all are important facets of Gen 1, but they are not main; this is reductionistic and unnecessary anyway.
  • Concordist approaches (young earth, old earth, whatever) are ruled right out. They read modern ideas back into the ancient text, thereby doing violence to its face-value meaning. Confessing that God is the ultimate author leads them to look for scientific theory in the text, because they (rightly) deem all truth to be God’s truth. So, if some scientific theory or another (e.g., big bang) is held to be viable, then it “must” be in the text somewhere (presupposing that the text is about material origins). Others simply rewrite science to make it fit with the biblical picture cobbled together (again presupposing material origins, i.e., young-earth creationists).
  • This, ironically, elevates scientific theory (which is always subject to change) to inspiration, binding the Word to it. Rather, the author’s words in Gen 1 are inspired and carry authority and cannot be just cast aside. If “divine intention” is to be found in the text, then only another authoritative source can back that up (i.e., another author of scriptural work).
  • Yet there’s not a single instance in the biblical text where God gives “scientific information that transcended the understanding of the…audience” (106).
Proposition 12: Other theories of Gen 1 either go too far or not far enough
  • Young Earth Creationism: goes too far in (1) its belief that the Bible is to be read scientifically and (2) too far in its attempt to provide an alternative science
  • Old Earth Creationism: goes too far, same as (1) above
  • Literary/Theological Framework: doesn’t go far enough, but the “functional origins” reading comports with it easily
  • Gap Theory is simply exegetically and theologically untenable
Proposition 13: The difference between origin accounts in scripture and science is metaphysical in nature
  • Gaps in scientific knowledge are not proofs of God’s activity…(see Walton’s pie illustration, pp. 114–15). A distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” does not comport with the worldview of the biblical writers (see prop. 1).
  • Science, by its very nature (as is currently understood), must bracket the metaphysical (with apologies to all my presuppositional friends). It cannot explore divine causation, for it concerns itself only with empirical data. Thus it deals with the demonstrable and falsifiable, and not with divine activity (science, therefore, cannot prove or disprove the existence of God—hold on, questions and answers about ID are coming). This is the “lower layer” in Walton’s layer cake illustration (p. 115).
  • Divine activity is represented by the “top layer” of the cake, but, importantly, it covers the bottom layer “because everything that science discovers [and I’d have to place historical inquiry in here too, though it’s obviously not a hard science and thus its results cannot be measured with mathematical precision] is another step in understanding how God has worked or continues to work through the material world and its naturalistic processes” (p. 115).
  • Thus, lower layer = secondary causation; top layer = ultimate causation. Maybe a marble cake analogy would prove better, Walton quips, so as to not create the illusion that too much of a divide exists between the layers (n. 3, p. 184).
  • Still, empirical science is not designed or able to define or detect telos. It must remain silent on matters regarding purpose (and thus on ultimate causation). This is not to say that purpose cannot be deduced rationally as a logical explanation of a given artifact; it just cannot do so beyond reasonable doubt one way or the other.
  • Genesis clearly depicts a teleology of the cosmos, even as it leaves open the descriptive mechanism for material origins (p. 117). In other words, Genesis is almost exclusively a top-layer account. Thus whatever empirical science has to say about the mechanisms of material origins (secondary causation—bottom-layer account) can hardly contradict the Bible’s statements about ultimate causation.
  • So, it will come as no surprise to the reader that Walton thinks the functional orientation of Gen 1 comports with the teleological nature of the creation account. “Instead of offering a statement of causes, Genesis 1 is offering a statement of how everything will work according to God’s purposes” (p. 118; and note the emphasis on the future—the creation account is, in essence, eschatological).
Has any of this changed your mind? Confirmed anything? Speak up.

WAIT, there's a Part 8.

14 October 2009

Land of the Lost, part 6

On to Props 9–10. I realize this can be pretty boring stuff, at least the way I've presented it, so thanks for taking the time to read along. (I'm writing a lot of other stuff right now and am feeling a bit lazy.)

Proposition 9: The seven days of Genesis 1 relate to the cosmic temple inauguration
  • Confirmed by the divine rest on the 7th day (and divine rest only takes place in temples).
  • The number “7” is a predominant theme in ANE temple texts and in the Bible; in Gen 1, it implies temple inauguration
  • Creation, only if it’s an account of functional origins, fits like a hand in glove with temple inauguration (88). Just like a temple is made functional at an inauguration ceremony, so too was creation, the cosmic temple, made functional during its (7-day) inauguration ceremony and when God took up residence in his rest. This “creates” the temple (not its material construction).
  • Could Gen 1 have served as liturgy for the temple inauguration (or even used during a yearly reenactment of cultic worship)?
  • Whatever the case, we see that the nature of the days is not very significant if this is not an account of material origins. The days are obviously 7, 24-hour days. “This has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text” (91).
  • The day-age view or any other view that fools with the clear meaning of the days is on thin exegetical ground. Trying to resolve scientific evidence that the earth and the universe are very old with the creation account of Gen 1 is faulty from the start (“concordist”). Fancy interpretations result when this narrative is seen as an account of material origins, for literal 7, 24-hour days of material creation are obviously irreconcilable with scientific evidence.
Proposition 10: The seven days of Genesis 1 do not concern material origins

But why can’t it be both? Functional and material? Well, does the text allow for it?
  • (1) Days 1, 3, 7 don’t mention the creation of any material component;
  • (2) The firmament in day 2 potentially mentions a material component, but no one actually believes today there’s a solid construction up in the sky to hold back the waters. If this was to be taken as a description of material creation, we’d then be forced to explain the material creation of something that does not exist. But the Hebrew word for it had a very specific meaning in Israel’s cosmic geography. This component of “Old World science addresses the function of weather, described in terms that they would understand” (95);
  • (3) Days 4 and 6 have material components, but they’re discussed only on a functional level;
  • (4) Day 5 again only speaks of functions (let them swarm); thus, nothing is left in the text to imply material origins
  • Genesis 1 as a whole has nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. “This is not a conclusion drawn to accommodate science—it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment” (95, and see the next few sentences too).
  • It’s important to note that all this isn’t to say that God wasn’t involved in material origins; it’s rather to say that Gen 1 isn’t that story (96).
So, then, the 7 days: before and after.
  • Before: Like rehearsals for a play. Material phase of the cosmos could have been underway. Long eras where life developed. Sun shining. Plants growing. Animals living. Etc.
  • After: The curtain rises; the play begins. Now the sun shines in a different context—the context of the cosmic temple. The cosmos is now God’s place of rest, his temple. “People have been granted the image of God and now serve him as vice regents in the world that has been made for them” (98; clearly this suggests pre-existing “people”; did they not die? did they not have the imago dei?). Each day of the seven days the world was being prepared to do for people what it had been designed to do.
  • But what about Rom 5:12 and death? The verse only talks about how death came to humanity, not death in general, but to us (100). But death in general was all over before the fall (insects eating plants; birds eating insects; seeds dying and sprouting; skin cells dying, etc.).
  • Humans were not subject to death b/c the tree of life gave them life—an antidote to their natural mortality. The punishment for disobedience was to be “doomed to death” (Gen 2:17, being kept from the tree of life). Without access to the tree, humans would be subject to the mortality of their bodies—from dust we were made and to dust we shall return. And so it was that “death came through sin.”

Part 7—almost heaven (but not quite West Virginia).

07 October 2009

Land of the Lost, part 5

Here we go, continuing our walkthrough of Walton's Lost World. I think what follows (unlike the previous post on the days of creation) is fairly non-controversial. My only hope is that it's taken seriously, because this cosmic-temple theme is seriously embedded in the ancient text itself (and, indeed, I think it runs throughout the canon).

Proposition 7: Divine rest is in a temple
  • The true climax: a temple text w/o which the creation would have no meaning.
  • The work of separating and subduing and assigning functions is done; the day of “rest” is the day on which the creator God can begin his providential sustenance of the ordered system w/o any obstacles. Stability is here. From such rest he rules. The temple is his headquarters. This is typical temple theology for the ANE.
Proposition 8: The cosmos is a temple
  • In many ANE texts, the temple is built as a conclusion to cosmic creation; they are distinct but related acts
  • In like manner, Genesis depicts this close relationship; we see how the tabernacle/temple serves as a symbol of the cosmos (and particularly the garden). The courtyard represented the cosmic spheres outside of the organized cosmos (cosmic waters and pillars of the earth); the antechamber held the representations of light (Menorah) and food (bread of presence); the veil separated the heavens and earth (the place of God’s presence from the place of human habitation). pp. 81–82 (see fn. 12 about how “heaven and earth” could be a metonymy referring to the cosmic temple).
  • Tabernacle/Temple share many affinities with the Garden of Eden: the garden in Genesis is viewed as an archetypal sanctuary (82).
  • “The temple is a microcosm, and Eden is represented in the antechamber that serves as sacred space adjoining the presence of God as an archetypal sanctuary” (83). So the cosmos can be likened to a temple (cf. Isa 66:1–2).
  • Thus the premise of Genesis 1: “that it should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple” with God dwelling in its midst (84).
  • Day 7 is thus so significant because if God didn’t take up his restful residence in the cosmic temple, then the cosmic temple does not exist. This world is a place for God’s presence. While the functions given are anthropocentric, the cosmic temple is theocentric. Prior to Day 1, God was active but not resident; by Day 7 he is, which effectuates the establishment of the functional cosmic temple (85).

Throw Part 6 into the mix.

01 October 2009


Kirk Demarais of JBU ROCK writes:
"A special era in John Brown University music-making took place decades after Sound Generation, and years after Joysong (but prior to the Apocalypse). Students of the early 1990s, inspired by the do-it-yourself garage rock mentality of the time, gathered instruments and assembled in dorm rooms, rented houses and otherwise to create an alternate soundtrack for our college years. The results of our musical endeavors were mixed, but often memorable, and usually fun.

This is a place for collecting, archiving and sharing our music and our memories for all the ages (at least until the Apocalypse). The initial collection of memorabilia featured here is quite Demarais-centric, but I hope this batch of videos and mp3s will inspire you to hunt down more exhibits for this online museum, be it audio, video, photos, etc. …So turn up your speakers and peer into the past by way of cheap camcorders and pathetic microphones. Best do it now because the Apocalypse will soon be upon us."

I highlight this because I was part of this past, and I wanted to link to one of my favorite shows—the Theta Tau Frat House, when a group of angst-ridden grungy Christian kids descended upon an unsuspecting bunch of drunken frat-daddies from the University of Arkansas (note that the first ten minutes have us sifting through some technical difficulites—in fact, fast forward to the 25th minute, to the song titled "Grindy"). Also, I feel my youth and thus coolness slipping away, so I'd like the wider world to know that I wasn't always such a geek. Incidentally, I'm the guy on the drums.

26 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 4

On to propositions 5–6 and the six days of creation . . .

Proposition 5: Days 1–3 establish functions
  • Day 1: “light” (not a material thing) is not “day”; so what gives in v. 5? The obvious: the “light” spoken of is a “period of light,” i.e., “day”. Thus “light” is a metonymy (“God called the [period of] light Day, and the [period of] darkness he called Night.”)
  • So, working backward to v. 3 we see that God is here creating the basis for time. A function is given (a material is not created) to serve humans. “God said, ‘Let there be [a period of] light.’” But how could there have been light w/o Day 4’s sun? The order of events concerns function, not material creation.
  • Day 2: a solid expanse to hold the waters above the earth? Well, the Hebrew does literally mean firmament/expanse. But this question is beside the point, since the creation account (by deliberate intent) is not concerned with material origins but with functional origins. “[Their taken-for-granted] material cosmic geography is simply what was familiar to them as was used to communicate something that is functional in nature” (57).
  • Twofold role of the expanse: 1) created space for people to live; 2) ordered the weather. Rain=grain=life. Too little or too much meant disaster. How the original audience thought this was accomplished by God (a solid dome) is beside the point. It does not change the fact that the Creator “established the functions that serves as the basis for weather” (58). He created the basis for weather and sustains it.
  • Day 3: If an account of material creations, why is this day included? Nothing is materially created on this day. But if the account revolves around functions, we do see that functions were assigned on this day.
  • The act of separating continues: dry land is differentiated from the sea. Herein God creates the basis for food. Time, weather and food are the foundation of life. More important than the Creator’s building the material world is his bringing together all these materials in such a way that they work. In this lies wonder. Functions are far more important than materials.
  • It should be no surprise that other ANE literature highlights these 3 major functions: “The Old World science in the Bible offers the perspective of the earthbound observer. …God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography—he revealed his creator role through the cosmic geography that they had, because the shape of the material world did not matter” (61–62). He set up the functions and he keeps them going, regardless of how we envision the cosmos’ material shape (which changes, incidentally, from generation to generation).

Proposition 6: Days 4–6 install functionaries

These days are parallel to Days 1–3, but that framework is secondary. The real point is that God is installing items to carry out the functions he previously delineated.
  • Day 4: the functionaries are assigned to carry out the task of Day 1—functions that are pertinent only to humans. Note “seasons” refers to planting and harvesting, etc.
  • Important to recognize that the spoken words also are creative acts. The words/decrees of the creator God initiates the functions and gives the functionaries their roles.
  • Excursus on the Hebrew word translated “made” (‘āśâ), p. 65. It doesn’t refer inherently to material process; it can mean “do” as much as “make.” In this case, “doing” the work of establishing functions for the two great lights (v. 16) so that they would govern as intended.
  • “It was good” indicates that whatever God is creating (assigning functions to) is all prepared to function for the human beings that are about to be installed in their place.
  • Day 5: the functionaries simply fulfill their own functions—being fruitful and multiplying their respective realms (sea and air). Note that the sea creatures, which were antithetical if not enemies in the ANE (because the sea was itself antithetical to the ordered system), are here depicted as part and parcel of God’s ordered system; they are under his rule. There is no war here. God subdues all.
  • Day 6: As in Day 5, these functionaries carry out their own functions in their respective realms. God made them to also be fruitful and multiply.
  • v. 24 “land producing creatures”? Rather, “creature’s life comes from the land”; not to be taken as an indication of evolutionary process (a lá Morton), etc.
  • Humanity: the big difference here is not only do humans have their own functions to fill their respective sphere, they also are to function in relation to the rest of creation—subdue and rule. They function as God’s image bearers and to each other as male and female.
  • God’s image is central in this functional focus, though. All of creation serves in relation to humanity, and humanity serves in relation to God, as his vice regent. Simply put, this means that humanity is delegated a godlike function in the world in which they are placed.
  • Creation, in a sense, is therefore anthropocentric—set up to serve humanity, who represent God (imago Dei) to all of creation (68ff.). This is unlike ANE, where creation is all about serving the gods, supplying their needs. “The focus moves from the divine realm, through people, to the world around them” (69).
  • But doesn’t Gen. 2 give an account of material origins for humanity? ANE texts do give all kinds of accounts about what materials were used to create humans. Genesis follows suit, except that only one couple is in view here.
  • But the individual Adam’s being fashioned from clay is to be understood archetypically. All humans are from the dust (and to dust they will return, Gen. 3:19). It is not a statement of chemical composition; it is indicative of human destiny and mortality, and therefore is a functional comment, not a material one (70). The same holds true for the creation of the Woman.
  • Thus, they are primarily archetypal, which doesn’t preclude historical, of course (see n. 5, 179). The fact is, they are regularly treated as such by other writers of Scripture. “Humankind is connected to the ground from which it is drawn. Womankind is connected to mankind from whom she is drawn. [Both are] connected to God in whose image all are made. As such they have the privilege of procreation, the role of subduing and ruling, and a status in the garden serving sacred space.” All of these functions are for all humans. “Neither the materials nor the roles are descriptive only of the first individuals.” The creation account of Genesis therefore “gives people their identity and specifies their connectivity to everything around them” (71).

Thoughts? Concerns? Criticisms?

Survive. Read Part 5.

21 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 3

Here's Part 3 of this walkthrough of The Lost World. Note that by the end of this post my thoughts took on a more "outline" form, which will continue on through the remainder of this series. (Bah, prose. Who needs it?)

Proposition 3 takes a good look at the Hebrew word bārā’ (“create”), where Walton seeks to make the case that it concerns (primarily) functions. The verb is used about fifty times in the Old Testament and in every case, deity is always either the subject or the implied subject. Virtually all Hebraists agree on this point. Apparently few, however, discuss the objects of that verb. According to Walton, though some examples are ambiguous, a large percentage of the contexts require a functional understanding (he provides a helpful table on p. 42). Thus, “if the Israelites understood the word bārā’ to convey creation in functional terms, then that is the most ‘literal’ understanding that we can achieve” (p. 43). Walton does provide a caveat at this point: Just because he deems Genesis 1 to not be an account of material origins does not mean that he thinks God is not responsible for material origins. But that question is not in view here, so Walton.

He then applies this to Genesis 1:1 with the following results (after briefly looking at the adverb beginning, arguing that it typically introduces a period of time—in this case, the seven days—rather than a point in time—some time prior to the seven days): “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.” In short, verse one serves as the establishment upon which the subsequent eleven tôlědôt sections of Genesis rest. Genesis 1 therefore recounts the seven-day period in which God is “naming, separating and assigning functions and roles in an ordered system” (p. 46).

The beginning state in Genesis 1 is nonfunctional, Walton argues in Proposition 4. He does so by looking closely at the description of the earth in verse 2: tōhû and bōhû. After a brief word study through the Scriptures (see Table 2, p. 48) and taking into account the previous propositions about functional ontology, Walton concludes that the two words “convey the idea of nonexistence…that is, that the earth is described as not yet functioning in an ordered system. (Functional) creation has not yet taken place and therefore there is only (functional) nonexistence” (p. 49). A few glances at other ANE creation narratives back this up—that the ancient world conceived of existence in functional terms. Materiality is irrelevant at this point. Indeed, “the evidence of matter (the waters of the deep in Gen. 1:2) in the precreation state…supports this view” (p. 53). Thus the earth was without function and unproductive; its pre-creation state (primordial waters—“the deep”) opposed (“darkness”) the function-giving Spirit of God who hovered over it (v. 2).

“Function” was understood as "purpose" in ANE, 50 bottom; focused on the gods who created, but in the OT YHWH needs nothing, and his creation focuses on the needs of the crown of his creation—people. “Functionality cannot exist without people in the picture” (51).

More theological impetus for a Christian humanism?

Read more—Part 4.

11 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 2

I might have unnecessarily tainted these series of posts, revealing as I did in the previous post my general indifference to whatever theories scientists come up with to explain the material origins of the universe. This mindset does not drive Walton's book. His concern is, emphatically, hermeneutical and exegetical. To be sure, the reader may deduce certain motivations on his part that wag the exegetical dog, but the only one he explicitly reveals is a desire to handle God's Word rightly.

It just so happens that I appreciate the way he handles it because it frees me up to continue thinking as I always have throughout my adult life—that whatever theory the scientific community puts forth is worth entertaining precisely because it has no bearing, by definition, on what the creation narrative of Genesis 1 conveys.

There, I've shown my hand. Let's start surveying the eighteen propositions Walton proffers.

Proposition 1 discusses how the cultural ideas behind Genesis 1 exhibit an ancient cosmology. “That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions” (p. 16). Even though this book doesn’t purport to promote any one particular view of how God created the material universe, it’s clear that in this first proposition Walton intends to cut off at the knees any view that argues modern science is embedded in Genesis 1 or that the biblical text dictates what modern science should look like (ibid.). This approach to the text, called “concordism,” ends up changing the very meaning of the text itself, since it attempts to make the text say something it never intended for it to say. This view also suffers from the assumption “the text should be understood in reference to current scientific consensus, which would mean that it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century” (p. 17). But science, by its very nature, is in a constant state of flux. Thus, “if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would be unintelligible to people who live prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time” (ibid.). Rather, God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood. In short, God accommodated himself to the exact culture that received his revelation (incidentally, I know there's some kind of recent rowe "out there" that revolved around a guy named Peter Enns, but I'm fairly ignorant of the controversy, and so I'm not sure how connected this discussion is to it. When I read Prof. Poythress' review of Lost World, I did get the impression [in the last few lines of the article] that this book raises similar concerns for some readers—but more on that later).

As another biblical example of God accommodating himself to the exact culture that received his revelation, Walton mentions how the ancients thought “the seat of intelligence, emotion and personhood was in the internal organs, particularly the heart, but also the liver, kidneys and intestines” (consider too how our English Bibles render “entrails” as “mind,” etc., p. 18). This was not metaphor but physiology; thus, God didn’t see the need to revise his audience’s ideas of physiology when he talked to them about such things. “Instead, he adopted the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understood” (ibid.). Denying this, Walton suggests, would lead to folks trying to construct a physiology for our times that would explain how people think with their entrails.

I’ve spent the time and space explaining this first proposition in detail because of its foundational nature to the rest of Walton’s book. Those whose views lean in more “concordist” directions, then, can see how their presuppositions are at odds with Walton’s on a basic, hermeneutical level.

The rest of this chapter (prop. 1) attempts to challenge the tendency to read back into the text the modern dichotomy between natural and supernatural. It is not something most Christians will deny; still, it helps to be reminded of this so that they too can avoid assuming this dichotomy when engaging the text. Walton mainly does this to keep us asking the appropriate questions from the text (alas, he tells us, “we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today’s dialogues,” p. 21).

In Proposition 2, Walton simply argues that the ancient cosmology of Genesis 1 is “function oriented.” That is, the meaning of existence in the ancient world had less to do with material ontology and more to do with functional ontology. “Something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system” (emphasis original, p. 26). Walton contends that we know this from both the biblical text and from other literature of the ancient world, which he proceeds to unpack throughout the rest of this chapter. In short, to “create,” to cause something to exist, is to give that something a function, not material properties. According to Walton, “we tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom” (both of which are defined according to their functions, pp. 35–36). In other words, the ancient world defined existence in terms of having a function in an ordered system.

If not, why not?

Go on to Part 3.

04 September 2009

Land of the Lost, part 1

When I arrived at seminary on the cusp of a new century, the conservative Reformed world seemed abuzz with discussions about cosmology. In my partial ignorance, I found this odd, that churches would formulate opinions on things about which they were clearly not experts. Coming as I did from a home not too terribly concerned with how God created but that he simply did (which was only reinforced at my conservative Christian college and an evolutionist professor of biology), I found this doubly odd. But I soon recognized my blind spot and saw that the main issue revolved around hermeneutics—the meaning, in this case, of the creation narrative in Genesis, which of course lies well within the purview of the church.1

John H. Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, spends its space on essentially this task—how to read the story of creation—and it should find a welcome home, though not without qualification, in the church. The book is short and accessible, and is arranged in eighteen brief propositions (which I will walk through in the coming days), followed by a summary conclusion and a helpful FAQ.

Walton starts in his Introduction laying down important hermeneutical groundwork. The book of Genesis was, obviously, written in a language that most do not understand, and therefore it is translated. But that’s not all that needs translation: “Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully” (p. 9). This is where other literature of the ancient world comes in, for it serves to help the reader enter into the culture of the biblical text by elucidating ancient categories, concepts, and perspectives. Walton is careful of course not to expect similarity at every point between Genesis and other ancient texts, but neither does he expect differences at every point (p. 12). In short, it ought not surprise us that Israel shared a common conceptual worldview with their neighbors. The point is decidedly not that they borrowed or copied from ancient, pagan myths, nor is it about discerning whether Israel was even influenced by them—“they were a part of that world” (p. 14), in much the same way we moderns are a part of our own (and thus take for granted a whole host of modern notions). Like many of the ancient myths (not unlike science for us today), which were deeply held beliefs in the cultures that gave rise to them, Genesis 1 offers explanations of Israel’s view of origins and the world’s operations. Most importantly, though, the beliefs represented in Genesis 1 are “not presented as [Israel’s] own ideas, but as revelation from God” (p. 15). And thus we who put our faith in the God revealed in Scripture today also receive this text as an explanation of origins and how the world operates.

1 Happily, the response from at least the PCA (of which I am not a member) did not choose the exclusionary path: “Since historically in Reformed theology there has been a diversity of views of the creation days among highly respected theologians, and, since the PCA has from its inception allowed a diversity, [the Creation Study Committee recommends] that the [28th] Assembly affirm that such diversity as covered in this report is acceptable as long as the full historicity of the creation account is accepted.” The report went on to discuss four (acceptable) views that the majority of folks in the PCA hold (it then lists six subsequent views “that are probably represented in the PCA”). See the full report.

28 August 2009

Photography Friday (3)

More often than not, I try to avoid WWII films. I mean, I've seen my share. So, naturally, for me to take the time (and expend the energy, because for obvious reasons, those kinds of movies can be exhausting) the movie must be top quality, must shed new light—not sentimental tripe.

A few have made it into my Netflix queue over the past couple of years (*update: Fateless, Downfall, Sophie Scholl, The Counterfeiters, Black Book — in order of appreciation, with the last title in a distant fifth), and so I figured I'd post this third round (see the first and second rounds) of photographs that are related to WWII. All shots were taken on a Canon AE-1 with Kodak E100VS (slide film). Click on an image to get a closer look.

The Reichstag building in Berlin. The burning of the building in 1933 served
as a major impetus for the Nazi party to suspend many rights and root out dissidents.

The New Synagogue in Berlin (built from 1859–66), site of the famous
standoff between a German police officer and a Nazi mob who were
attempting to destroy the building during the Novemberpogrom.

Shot of Buchenwald concetration camp, where the prisoner barracks
once stood, and, specifically, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer's barrack stood.
Most of the camp was demolished in 1950.

The ash containers of Buchenwald

The ovens of Buchenwald

Another angle

11 August 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto, final thoughts

I realized last week that I didn't have much more to say about Stellman's project than what I've said already (see parts 1, 2, 3 and 4). I was expecting a little pushback from folks on the points I raised about the sacraments (if not the Sabbath)….

So, one final word of caution might be in order: a healthy skepticism of the modern church, and especially evangelicalism, on a bad day slides easily into cynicism, which is just a hair’s breath away from devolving into hatred for fellow believers. This was one of the major sins of the leaders of Israel during Jesus’ day, as they held contemptuous what God himself had wept over. For us, it’d be like sitting through a Bible study about the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not as bad a sinner as the tax collector and then closing that Bible study with a prayer thanking God that we’re not like that self-righteous Pharisee. Embracing two-kingdoms doctrine and the subversion and disdain of modern, Western Christian worldliness that it produces must be motivated by a deep and lasting love for Christ and his church (inextricably bound together as the two are). Put differently, if you’re not dedicated to being a living witness among God’s people (one who has his “head in heaven, fingers in the mire,” to follow Stellman in quoting Bono, 135) to the truths you’ve come to believe as a result of this book (or other study), then kindly keep criticisms of this sort to yourself.

*UPDATE and final thought: As long as there's stuff like this (be sure to watch promo #2) being promulgated by and for 'Christians', books like Dual Citizens must continue to be written. "Sometimes history does repeat itself." Indeed.

03 August 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto, part 4

This fourth installment marks the end of my walkthrough of Jason J. Stellman's Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet. I appreciate your reading thus far, and I will follow this up with a few reflections in the coming days. Without further adieu:

Chapter 11 simply seeks to demonstrate how “Pilgrim Theology, driven as it is by the doctrine of the two kingdoms, actually carves out some valid space for creation and the goodness of earth and its blessings” (126). Using G.K. Chesterton’s delineation of the two poles that mess this up (“puritans” and “pagans,” broadly understood) as his point of departure, Stellman intends here to show how the two-kingdoms paradigm provides the needed balance between the pagans’ pursuit of earthly pleasure and the puritans’ avoidance of it. He argues, in short, that “if we desire to give authen­tic expression to our citizenship both of this age and the age to come, then we need to beware of enjoying earth too little, as well as enjoying it too much” (135).

One main reason this balance must be maintained is simply because of what God’s Word teaches about this transitory life, which, under the new covenant, “is characterized by sweetness as well as bitterness, by possession as well as longing. In short, the presence of the Spirit within the believer means that the future has intruded into the here and now, and the saint has been granted some ‘already’ to go with the ‘not yet’” (138). If we are to give expression to this “pilgrim dynamic,” understanding this principle is absolutely crucial, according to Stellman. Thus he spends the entirety of the chapter backing it up biblically—mainly through a redemptive-historical reading of Romans 6–8, a lá Ridderbos, Fee, and Moo (if not Wright). If you’re likely to hold this book in less esteem because of Stellman’s exegesis here, then you can skip this chapter with no real loss, so long as you take his main point to heart: “The ever-present sense of ‘not yet’ that frustrates us throughout this age does not negate the dynamic ‘already’ that was inaugurated as our risen and ascended Lord bestowed on His church the gift of the Spirit as an engagement ring, assur­ing us of our future glorification. Because the cross was followed by an empty tomb, we must not fail to incorporate the resurrection into our understanding of Christian living” (149–50). One gets the sense that Stellman has been carefully loading both barrels of a sawn shotgun.

As it turns out, the bullets are rather benign—or are they? The next chapter makes the case for new covenant boasting—“not in the things we achieve, but in the entitlements we sacrifice for the sake of Christ’s kingdom and the cross-bearing lives Jesus challenges us to live” (155). Why might this prove scandalous? Because, Stellman contends, despite the fact that we’ve outgrown the old law (like a young adult does a babysitter), “the new covenant affords us the freedom not simply to do less than the law requires, but to do more. This freedom opens up a new—and largely unfamiliar—avenue of Christian growth for God’s people (though it might not exactly be welcomed with open minds or hearts)” (158–59). Suffering is this avenue, and it’s not to be understood by us Americans primarily in its extreme forms (e.g., torture or imprisonment), which serves to help us “make peace with the concept of suffering [because] we can be cer­tain that we never will have to do it” (ibid.). Taking Saint Paul as our example (if not Jesus), Stellman exhorts us to engage “in a kind of active, rather than passive, suffering,” which means that it’d be “in some sense voluntary and therefore boast worthy” (159–60).

Thus, the whole point of the previous chapter comes into view: being freed in the new covenant by the power of God’s Spirit to fulfill the law of Christ rather than laboring under the law of Moses, it’s now “possible for the Christian under the new covenant to voluntarily suffer by going above and beyond the call of duty and relinquishing his right to enjoy certain blessings to which he is entitled” (160).

And how can I not recount Stellman’s refreshing challenge to his fellow pastors?

Likewise in the spiritual realm, when the pulpit is used as a means of meticu­lous legislation, it may engender conformity driven by fear, but if that were the goal for the Christian life, would not the law have sufficed without needing to give way to the gospel? A minister who turns the pulpit into a bully pulpit from which to micromanage the flock rather than tend it will only retard the natural process by which lambs mature into full-grown sheep. To put it simply, when the pastor never stops telling his people what to do, he is not only failing as a leader by giving his congregants what they want (law) rather than what they need (gospel), he is also making it virtually impossible for them to mature. And only a mature saint will seek the opportunity to boast in willingly forfeiting his right to enjoy perfectly legitimate blessings. (161)

Stellman goes on to offer several other encouragements and challenges to the lay reader, like this: “If you feel that you are wronged, ignored at times, or occasionally taken advantage of, you can demand to be treated fairly and with appropriate sensitivity, or you can look past such things and offer your suffering as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the God who suffered so much for you” (162).

Well, where would you expect a book like this to end? An exhaustive concordance of all the secular pursuits worthy of Christian participation (like, for example, a guide through the best beers from all over the globe)? Think again; the topic is assurance, and the role of the “absolutely central” person of the new covenant, the Holy Spirit (165). What’s the connection? The believer’s life, that one leg he has in the earthly kingdom, is fraught with chaos and tragedy even in the midst of the anticipated return of the king. Thus assurance is a precious commodity. And under the new covenant, Stellman argues, the church’s assurance “should be much stronger than it would have been under the old. This is because the witness of the Holy Spirit is to be under­stood as an authenticating work whereby He gives the believer assurance of salvation not only by directing us to the objective promises of the gospel, but also by means of appeal to the evidence of His own handiwork in the believer’s life” (166).

Stellman does this oft-discussed subject justice, which elevates it from the simply redundant to being actually helpful. As seen in the quote above, he refuses to separate the witness of the Spirit from either the objective promises of God in Christ or the evidence in our lives with which we find that love for God has been poured into our hearts. It’s helpful because it steers clear of divorcing “Word from Spirit, making assurance possible by Word alone without the Spirit’s witness, by Spirit alone without the Word’s promise, or by works alone without either” (170). So many books and sermons about assurance have suffered from precisely this.

But there’s still something missing here, even if Stellman gave it the appropriate attention elsewhere (e.g., xi, xxvii, 5, 8, 12ff., 20, etc.). In a word, it’s the sacraments. Not even an allusion. The best of classical Protestant theology has always held that the regular and ordinary means of grace do provide us with the assurance of God’s favor. How? Because they are graceful signs (not mere witnesses or memorials) of (in Stellman’s words) the “objective promises of the gospel.” That is to say, baptism and Holy Communion, as the visible Word, convey the finished work of Christ. This is why Luther could answer “I am baptized” when faced with doubt; he understood that through the sign of baptism the objective, completed faithfulness of Jesus was promised to him (no doubt authenticated by God’s Spirit). All this might be barely underneath the surface in this final chapter. But the reader wouldn’t know it.

At any rate, Stellman wonderfully ends with a good word about works in the new covenant and how the Spirit’s enabling grace and thus the believer’s foretaste of the future means that the “new covenant saint derive[s] comfort from his works rather than fear” (175). In other words, “the believer’s giving practical expression, by faith, to his heavenly identity in his day-to-day life on earth is anything but a legalistic activity” precisely because “the Spirit’s role is to bring the future into the present” (174). The point of all this talk about assurance at the end of a discourse on Christian life in this time between the times? So that we may have a “measure of certainty in our sighs as we long for the full attainment of what has been promised to us. The gap we feel between what awaits us and what we presently experience—so often heightened by our own sin and shortcomings—in no way threatens our certainty that the God who has made such great and precious promises, and has confirmed them with an oath, will be faithful to keep them” (176).

* Here are parts one, two, and three of this review.

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