23 December 2010

'He that Cometh' Maketh the Church (2)

Henri de Lubac (1896–1991)
IN THE FIRST POST ON THIS TOPIC, I briefly covered Hans Boersma's three reasons for recapturing Henri de Lubac's views on Holy Communion. The first two were glanced at there; some preliminary work as we gear up for the third reason will occupy us here.

Picking up where we left off, the Counter-Reformation scholastics kind of mutilated St. Augustine when it came to the Eucharist (as did their twentieth-century heirs). Case in point, for Boersma, was the way these folks handled the bishop's well-known Sermon 227 on the unity of the body of Christ that resulted from the celebration of Communion. In it, St. Augustine allegorizes the grains that join together to form one loaf, comparing that to individual believers coming together to form one body. There's no talk of real presence, let alone transubstantiation, notes Boersma: "All the focus seems to be on the unity of believers, on their fellowship or communion, which resulted from the many grains being joined together in a loaf of bread." In short, the Eucharist makes the church.

12 December 2010

Bénédictions sur Vous, mon Frère

A MOST BLESSED BROTHER AND FATHER in the faith died yesterday. There will be many places that one can find words on the contours of his life and the arc and trajectory of the ministry God gave him. But here you will find only a reflection.

Brother Roger Nicole (his title of preference) last wrote for Tabletalk this past February (we had hoped to have him interviewed for an upcoming issue—the request was out, but I don't think it was completed). Back in August 2009, he called me a few times regarding his February 2010 article; and a couple of times he left voicemails. I saved them, first, because the Roger Nicole was calling (and how often does one get such a thing from a theologian of his caliber?), and, second, I thought to myself, who knows how long he'll be around? So I wanted an audio record of him and his unforgettable thick accent (which grew thicker with age).

09 December 2010

2K or Not 2K?

. . . so wonders my colleague. Read his review of David VanDrunen's Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and wonder with him (for me, the answer is yes, but not exactly in the [minority] fashion proposed by VanDrunen and others).

08 December 2010

'He that Cometh' Maketh the Church (1)

Henri de Lubac (1896–1991)
IN THE NOV/DEC ISSUE of Books & Culture, Hans Boersma wrote an article, "The Eucharist Makes the Church," in which he uses Henri de Lubac's views on the Supper as a grand moderating position that ought to do three things: (1) help us recapture the pre-modern, sacramental view of the world (over against the rationalism of the High Middle Ages and the neo-scholastic theology of the early 20th century); (2) reappropriate a pre-modern "sacramental" hermeneutic with respect to Scripture (here Boersma has in mind St. Augustine's exegetical approach of literal meaning pointing beyond itself to spiritual meaning); and (3) apply the genuine ecumenical potential inherent in de Lubac's sacramental outlook.

It is the last area that interests me most here. With respect to the other two, simply note that Boersma's narrative (which he implies is de Lubac's) goes something like this: Postmodernity is little more than modernity coming home to roost. These, kicked off, as it were, by the rationalism of the High Middle Ages . . . 

. . . are predicated on the abandonment of a pre-modern sacramental mindset in which the realities of this-worldly existence pointed to greater, eternal realities, in which they sacramentally shared. Once modernity abandoned a participatory or sacramental view of reality, the created order became unhinged from its origin in God, and the material cosmos began its precarious drift on the flux of nihilistic waves.
Recovering de Lubac is of particular importance, therefore, because he fought the same battles many of us are fighting, according to Boersma. What battles? Why, the ones precipitated by the neo-scholastics, of course! They are (1) the strict separation between nature and the supernatural and (2) the rationalist apologetic approach to the Bible and the history of Christian thought.

So, in short, "the pre-critical sacramental outlook of the medieval tradition," good; High Middle Ages, not so good. The Catholic renwal movement of nouvelle théologie
, good; Pope Leo XIII's neo-scholastic love affair with St. Thomas, not so good. Leo's encyclical, Aeterni Patris, and policies "entrenched Thomist philosophy and theology as the normative system of Catholic thought."

With respect to the Eucharist, Boersma casts de Lubac (or, rather, de Lubac casts himself—I need a historical theology expert of this era to confirm or deny) as situated between two extremes: Protestantism on the one hand, and Catholic neo-scholasticism on the other. De Lubac mentions John Calvin by name as one who "watered down" both the reality of Christ's presence in Holy Communion and the traditional idea of the church as the body of Christ. The two go hand in hand, he argues, because with only a "virtual presence" of Christ in the sacrament, one would end up with only a "virtual presence" of Christ in the church, too (I know my friend Keith Mathison would take serious umbrage with this charge of "virtual presence." I am glad to see that Calvin was de Lubac's Protestant target, however—probably because his view is the only Protestant one worth holding; if anyone can figure out Luther's, let me know).

But de Lubac's main antagonist, writes Boersma, was his Catholic compatriot (both his contemporary neo-scholastics and their 17th-century predecessors). All of them were unable to find transubstantiation in the early church, most notably in St. Augustine, and "this difficulty led them to engage in mental gymnastics in their interpretation" of the North African bishop.

Coming up next: We'll look at de Lubac's recapturing of St. Augustine's sacramental outlook and Boersma's attempt to push it in an ecumenical direction. And I'll clear up the title for this post too.

18 November 2010

Survey Says?!

I TOOK PART IN A SURVEY the other day as suggested by the Cathedral Church of St. Luke. It revolved around music, with an eye on revising the hymnal currently in use. What follows are a few of my thoughts I wrote down in the "Got Anything Else to Say" section:
  1. I'm not opposed at all to new music, provided it's beautiful (according to what I say is beautiful, of course) and theologically sound—by which I mean orthodox, according to the Scriptures and the tradition of the Christian church and her seven ecumenical councils.
  2. I cannot stand sappy music, and much of what came out of Western revivalism is just that. I'd excise those portions from the hymnbook right now, if I could.
  3. All Anglican churches, including my own, ought to devote more time to the singing of the Psalter.
  4. I do not trust a revision of the hymnal, unless those revisions include: (1) the removal of revivalistic Americana [and its attendant civil religion]; (2) the inclusion of ancient hymns both Western and Eastern; and (3) the absence of any modern hymns one may find in a Unitarian-Universalist's hymnbook.
Let me know your thoughts on these thoughts, if you care so to do.

The survey also ended with the ridiculous question, "If you were stuck on a desert island, which eight songs would you want to have with you?" It's ridiculous, of course, because who can pick just eight songs? Everytime I look at this, I want to change it, but here's what I wrote:

  1. "Across the Universe" —the Beatles
  2. "Blackbird" —the Beatles
  3. "With or Without You" —U2
  4. "Until the End of the World" —U2
  5. "Song Remains the Same" —Led Zeppelin
  6. "Ramble On" —Led Zeppelin
  7. "All I Want" —Joni Mitchell
  8. "St. Matthew's Passion" —Bach (it has two movements, but it's broken up in several parts on youtube)
 This time, tell me which eight you'd want with you.

10 November 2010

The Four Beasties Met Their Match

"I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”
(Dan. 7:13–14)

IT'S ADMITTEDLY DIFFICULT to come down hard on the details of certain texts that have to do with eschatology ("end times"), but the pastoral points remain the same—the Messiah is now enthroned. He has an eternal rule over the whole earth (Dan. 7:14; Luke 1:32–33). King Jesus, the fully divine and fully human Son of God and son of David, will judge all things before the very throne of the Almighty, the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:10; Matt. 25:32). For those in union with this King, the Christ of God, the verdict will be “not guilty” (Rom. 8:1; 1 John 2:1–2). Not so for the four beasts—and especially for the fourth beast: his “dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end” (Dan. 7:26). This is good news, indeed!

The panmillennialist’s mantra—“It’ll all pan out in the end!”—is surely agreeable at this point. But we needn’t be content with just that. There’s always more to say, not least with respect to eschatology, and not least with respect to Daniel 7, a magnificent portion of God’s Word. Daniel’s vision climaxes with the installation of one like the son of man as the eternal king in 7:13–14. Contrary to popular opinion, this scene has to do with the Messiah’s first coming, not his second, final coming (and I’m no
postmillennialist). Clearly, the vantage point of Daniel's vision is from the heavenly court—not earth—and one like a human being ascending toward it. John Calvin picked up on this long ago when he argued that this passage is best understood as a vision of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father after his resurrection (see Acts 1:9–11; 2:33; 5:31).

Thus, Christ is enthroned
now. But much like when David the shepherd boy was anointed by Samuel and spent the following several years waiting and fighting to see that kingship manifest itself fully, “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Christ Jesus, complete with its own set of marching orders that are to be carried out while we await, and fight for, the full manifestation of that heavenly kingship: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matt. 28:18–19). We couldn’t even begin to do the latter if the former were not true.

Keith Mathison argues convincingly in
From Age to Age that the “coming Son of Man” sections of Matthew’s gospel that are often understood as pointing to Christ’s second coming actually refer to Jesus’ installation as the eternal king and judge during the entirety of his first advent, but most notably at his ascension (e.g., Matt. 10:22–24; 13:40–42; 16:26–28; 19:27–29; 24; 26:63–65, and parallels). In other words, all of these sayings are fulfillments of Daniel 7:13–14, when Jesus receives the kingdom from his Father, the Ancient of Days.

Let us praise the Lord this day that the linchpin of history has already been banged into place. The promised restoration of creation, including the blessing of all nations, is well underway. “Despite resistance, tribulation, and suffering, all the forces of hell will not be able to stand against the church, for Jesus has overcome the powers of death and hell, and nothing will ever be the same” (Mathison, p. 387).

25 October 2010

When You're Strange

“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to be with him: I beg you, my friends, not to be so easily confused in your thinking or upset by the claim that the Day of the Lord has come. . . . So then, our friends, stand firm and hold on to those truths which we taught you, both in our preaching and in our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:1–2a, 15)
The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple
by Titus in AD 70.
People are strange. Jim Morrison was just singing the obvious. High on my list of strange these days, besides those who use the Bible to push tee totaling, are those caught up in a particular sort of millennial madness. The cream that has risen to the top of that crop are those who print T-shirts to bring attention to their cause.

The one T-shirt I’ve seen lacking the most creativity is also the one that helpfully marks its wearer out as having succumbed to an egregious error. It reads: “Jesus came back in 70 AD” in big, white type on a black shirt. The apostle Paul would have a few choice words for that fellow, no doubt, and, love it or hate it, Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrases him well enough: “Now, friends, read these next words carefully. Slow down and don't go jumping to conclusions regarding the day when our Master, Jesus Christ, will come back and we assemble to welcome him. Don't let anyone shake you up or get you excited over some breathless report or rumored letter from me that the day of the Master's arrival has come and gone. Don't fall for any line like that” (2 Thess. 2:1–3).

“Slow down and don’t go jumping to conclusions. . . . Don’t fall for any line like that.” And yet so many still do. I’m not suggesting here that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 wasn’t a major event in the history of Israel after their return from exile. But it was only an initial fulfillment of the “day of the Lord” that foreshadowed that final day of the Lord, when Jesus returns—literally, not “spiritually”—like the emperor he is, triumphantly marching through town after having defeated his enemies once and for all.

God has promised to judge the world’s systems that set themselves up over against his sovereignty, whether it be at the end of history as we know it, or even occasionally during that history. The catastrophe that took place in AD 70 qualifies as one of these days of the Lord. But it is not the final return to which Jesus and the prophets pointed.

For starters, such apocalyptic events like the revelation of the man of lawlessness and the great apostasy have yet to take place (to be sure, men of lawlessness and apostasy within the church have come and gone). Paul warns the Thessalonians, and us, not to be misled regarding the royal return of Christ, that the “day of the Lord” has already come. We must be on guard against such deception, and one of the surest ways to protect ourselves is also one of most mundane (so we think): attending to the Word and sacraments and prayer in the communion of saints. These are what God has decided will empower his people to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” taught to us by Christ and the apostles (v. 15).

In the end, it’s about God and what he has promised to do: he remains sovereign over all, and he has chosen a people, “the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Here is our assurance, not least in the midst of strange people caught up millennial and heretical madness: God’s election guarantees the elect’s salvation. It depends on him alone. He will overthrow all men of lawlessness, all antichrists, all false teachers, and he will keep his church steadfast in the beliefs and practices passed down through the apostles from the divine Master himself.

22 October 2010

Waiting for Godot?

“For you yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come as a thief comes at night. . . . But you, friends, are not in the darkness, and the Day should not take you by surprise like a thief.” (1 Thess. 5:2, 4)

Vladimir and Estragon
The church in Thessalonica had a good reputation. The gospel had an immediate effect on the lives of those who came to life in Christ in that city: their hospitality to Paul and his companions, to the message they brought, their turning to God from idols, and their waiting for God’s Son, who they now know to be their deliverer from the coming fury (1 Thess. 1:6, 9–10).

Remarkably, people were talking about this new church without even being asked—their fame echoed throughout the land. But the exciting news wasn’t just about them; it was about the way in which this church had come to be. The gospel, not the people who believed it or preached it, was the hero (may that be true of us in the midst of evangelicalism’s celebrity syndrome!). And it was that gospel that wrenched those dead idols from the hands of the Thessalonian Christians, causing them to wait for God and his coming wrath
with confidence.

It may seem commonplace to us, but eschewing idols was simply unheard of in the first century. “It would be like asking people in a modern city to give up using motor cars, computers and telephones,” notes one commentator.

Embracing the living God meant embracing his resurrected Son and his way of doing things. It meant living with one of the most unique characteristics of Christianity—hope. This hope, as is often said, was no weak desire for something that may or may not happen. Rather, it was a confident anticipation of the royal coming (
parousia) of the Messiah from the throne room of God. This coming marks both condemnation and reconciliation. On the one hand, God, through his Christ, will condemn all that distorts and defaces his creation; on the other hand, through this condemnation, his people will be delivered and he will restore all things. Such is the stuff that Christian hope is made of (to paraphrase Bogey, not Shakespeare).

But it’s not a passive waiting, like we do in a doctor’s waiting room or at home when waiting for a loved one to arrive. It’s an active life of holiness and witness to God’s righteousness. It’s a confident anticipation that God will show mercy to his people, returning them from exile to the Promised Land—a new heaven and earth. So, we are not in darkness and the Day of the Lord shouldn’t take us by surprise like a thief (1 Thess. 5:4). May we strive this day to recognize that a future day is coming when God will deal with every form of evil, and may we take comfort in our only defense—the work and righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ.

19 October 2010

Syncretism, the great American temptation

I'm over at Ref21 this week (again), "Reading with M'Cheyne" (see earlier posts here and here), and have decided to repost the blog entries a day later over here, since there are probably some of you who don't (or won't!) venture over to Ref21. Here's my first entry from yesterday:
“There are some Jews whom you put in charge of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who are disobeying Your Majesty's orders. They do not worship your god or bow down to the statue you set up.” (Dan. 3:12)
If there’s a simple gospel call to the nations that hasn’t changed in two millennia, it’s this: put away your idols and worship the true God revealed in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. This refrain came constantly from the lips of the Apostle to the Gentiles, who enjoined people everywhere to hear the announcement of the good news, which will “turn you away from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven, earth, sea, and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).

Not much has changed since then. Syncretism is the great American Temptation (along with french fries, of course) among Christians as much as in the surrounding culture. But “how can God's temple come to terms with pagan idols?” asks Saint Paul. “For we are the temple of the living God!” (2 Cor. 6:16a).

It's important to note at this point that we confessionalists aren’t, historically at least, fundamentalists (I use the word in its post-Scopes Trial sense): the dangers of syncretism don’t undo the radical freedom that is ours in Christ. Christians have always been, rightly, a synchronistic bunch (that whole “being in the world” bit) while nonetheless being warned to guard against the syncretistic temptations that come along with that synchronistic life (“but not of the world”). We are in essence called to live deliberate lives in this time between the times, but we are not to do it, even if it were possible, with a separatist posture. While we need to be cautious to avoid unchristian syncretistic practices, we also need to uphold the freedom to practice wise dominion in this earth as we await our Lord’s return. This goes for eating meat offered to idols (which is nothing, if you know the one and only God created the food and you are not eating it as a symbolic gesture of worship of the idols, so the apostle in 1 Cor. 8) or practicing yoga. We can boldly, yet humbly and with gratitude toward the triune God, eat that halal gyro and then attempt to work it off with a tuladandasana or utkatasana pose.

At any rate, mixing Christianity with idolatry happens even among us confessional types. Where are those points of syncretism in our own lives? What beliefs and practices do we take for granted this very day that give accord between Christ and Belial (1 Cor. 6:15)? Pray with me and ask that the true God would root out the idolatry within our own hearts, from which will spring beliefs and practices that delight our Father in heaven.

07 October 2010

Deliberate unhealthiness poses dangers to genuine Christian faith

{a parody for your (dis)pleasure, regarding a subject I have no business writing about}

Should Christians Practice Lethargy and a Poor Diet?

Some questions we ask today would simply baffle our ancestors. When Christians ask whether believers should live sedentary lifestyles, while eating poorly, they are asking a question that betrays the strangeness of our current cultural moment—a time in which being deliberately apathetic about such matters seems almost mainstream in America

It was not always so (see Michael Powers and Jay Schulkin's The Evolution of Obesity for a good discussion on the morphing of humanity's activity into inactivity and its results). No one tells the millions-of-years-old story better than Powers and Schulkin, whose recent book is a masterpiece of evolutionary history as it relates to our expanding waistlines.

Childhood obesity, diabetes, and related illnesses are becoming major health problems in America, who are the second-flabbiest people in the world (the South Sea Islanders are larger). Parents' reluctance to monitor their children's eating habits; the marketing tactics of fast-food companies, which influence us to overeat; the preponderance of fad diets; the phasing out of physical education programs in schools; and the sale of fast foods at schools to save money on dining facilities all factor in to this mess. And, no surprise, lower-income families have higher rates of unhealthy weight regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender

To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, especially among evangelical Christians, points to the retreat of wholistic thinking among believers, and indeed, a retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Deliberate apathy with respect to health begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding of a human being as a whole person—body and spirit—made in the image of God. Christians are not called to think with their stomachs or see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know one's hedonistic threshhold. Believers are called to act like their bodies are parts of Christ's body—not to treat it like it doesn't matter, to join it with all kinds of fat-inducing processed foods, to let it sit sedentary throughout the day.

Clearly, today's dilemma cannot be extricated from its evolutionary roots (see Powers and Schulkin above), but, still, most Christians seem unaware that lack of exercise and a poor diet cannot be separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in such a lifestyle, and its practice is meant to do little else than assuage the systemic narcissism and ravenous consumption in the name of Amorica, America's indigenious pagan deity (whose most common manifestation is the Self).

When Christians live lives like this, they must either deny the reality of what such a lifestyle represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of such a way of life. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that sedentary ways and a poor diet are vices by which its adherents are trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving one primary goal—the fulfillment of their own pleasure (I do realize that the same could be said for those who are overly health conscious). Christians are called to consider themselves as very members incorporate in the mystical body of God's Son. We are not called to escape whatever it is we're trying to escape by overeating and remaining sedentary but to follow Christ in the way of treating our bodies as temples of the Most High.

There is nothing wrong with eating fast foods occasionally and not exercising everyday, and, besides, such isolated actions in themselves are not the main issue. But when these actions become the defintion of one's lifestyle, consider this—if you have to take medications to alleviate or avoid problems associated with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high chloresterol, coronary artery disease, stroke, among other conditions, it is no longer merely something for which excuses can be made.

The embrace of deliberate obesity is a symptom of the systemic narcissism embodied by Amorica, and, to our shame, this exaltation of the sedentary lifestyle reaches into the church. Christians who practice this way of life are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a physical and spiritual practice that threatens to enslave their own lives to Amorica. What? Don't you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, that you are slaves of the one whom you obey? Should any Christian willingly risk that?

"So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants. Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right. Sin will have no power over you, because you aren’t under Law but under grace" (Rom. 6:12–14).

23 September 2010

Keep Yourselves in the Love of God

It’s easy to miss the fact that Isaac strove with God for twenty years over his wife’s infertility before seeing a positive answer. His son, Jacob, showed similar persistence when he wrestled with the angel at Peniel. This is not to be confused with stubbornness; rather, Jacob's striving is synonymous with brokenness. His long night of wrestling is described by the prophet Hosea as follows: “He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor” (12:4). In other words, he threw himself upon the mercy and grace of the one, true God upon whom the blessing to Abraham rested in its entirety. It would have been the same for Isaac, which leads us to see his twenty-year prayer as an extraordinary act of faith during a time that is one of the most difficult trials a married couple will ever face. They had known the promise of God, and they, like Abraham and Sarah, were brushing up against old age without that promise fulfilled. So their challenge wasn’t solely infertility; it was: Will God be true to his word? Has it failed?

We know he was, and we know his word didn’t fail. But during those twenty years, their distress must have been great. No doctors, no advanced medicine, no other alternatives—only waiting. Yet just because there are so many more medical options today with respect to infertility doesn’t make facing infertility any easier for us. It may in fact make it harder, since the first assumption we moderns make is that we can fix any situation—given the proper treatment. But God’s arm is no more twisted now than it was back then. Isaac and Rebekah’s challenge was great, and their story, especially that of Isaac’s twenty-year prayer, serves to instruct us (see 1 Cor. 10:11). In what way? In faithfulness, particularly in prayer.

Not a few Christian couples, potentially great parents, ever experience the blessing of children. It is a sad reality in this fallen world. Faced with what feels like the inexplicable judgment of God, the infertile couple might move from anger to depression to practical atheism—just giving up, as if God won’t hear the plea because he doesn’t care; or worse, that he can’t, because he doesn’t seem to exist. What if Isaac had played the atheist during this trial? It is safe to assume that God’s plan would not be thwarted, but it is also safe to assume that Isaac would have grieved and displeased his covenant Lord. Some folks shy away from such talk, that one of God’s people might displease him. But Jude warns us clearly: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (v. 21). Hard times are no excuse to play the atheist or to grumble against the living God.

Those who argue that God doesn’t get angry at his children might treat such portions of Scripture as purely hypothetical: “Keep yourselves in the love of God (you can’t help but do otherwise) . . . .” But this won’t do, for it not only ignores the plain sense of the many texts on this subject, it cheapens the grace of God to the point of making him unable to sanctify or chasten his people (Rom. 8:18–25; James 1:2–3; 1 Peter 4:12–13). It also may lead to a church’s exalting preference and lawlessness under the guise of “freedom in Christ.”

But that freedom has obligations. Consider: “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . .” (John 15:9b–10a). Even the ancients were not unfamiliar with such conditions: “I the LORD your God am a jealous God . . . showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5–6).The psalmist agrees: “But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (103:17–18). While we may understand the motivation behind easing these demands—eschewing anything that smacks of legalism—we ignore these Scriptures at our peril. Yet they can also be misused, and indeed they are.

If the love of God is tied entirely to our obedience, or to our faithfulness to the covenant, we will find ourselves in an anxious tailspin. It’s one thing to combat lawless “freedom” with these injunctions, it’s quite another to make God’s covenant love conditioned solely upon them. Such notions would drive us away from the gospel and back to the vicious angst that characterized us before the Spirit’s gracious call and the freeing forgiveness of the cross of Christ.

The answer to this is: the “love” that Jude wrote about, for example, is different from the efficacious, electing love of God; it is the love that distinguishes our every-day relationship with him. This we can mess up. Badly. But in no way can we remove ourselves from God’s foreordaining love.

In John 6:37–40 we see that if Jesus were to lose one whom the Father has given him, then he would either be deliberately disobeying his Father’s will or finding himself unable to enact it. Denying this, then, does real violence to the doctrine of God and the Trinity. In short, God’s electing love is unconditional, steadfast, and gripping.

Yet we may still find ourselves under the displeasure of God insofar as disobedience defines our faithfulness, much like my dog, which has a propensity to run from my side in fits of frenetic activity, receives the pinch collar. I love the thing, and don’t want it to get hit by a car. And I assure you, that pinch collar feels like anything but love.

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 12.2 (Feb. 2007): 22–23}

08 September 2010

Where is the "Fun" in Fundamentalism?

"Grace" Christian School
I'm one of those who fall in the "[Christian] fundamentalism breeds atheism" camp. True, it may be better, at least it's more honest, to be an atheist than a functional one (i.e., a person who explicitly denies the existence of deities vs. a confessing Christian living as if God doesn't exist). But, still, my childhood experiences with fundamentalists, while standing in contrast to a few of my adult experiences with them, push me in the direction of using the moniker pejoratively. Put differently, Warfield's fundamentalism (with which I've come into contact in the past decade—the good kind) is not the kind of fundamentalism that arose during/after the modernist controversy of the early twentieth century.

I generally disdain fundamentalism, and I must confess this bias openly. It is a framework and a people with whom I feel little kinship, having experienced it firsthand in the realms of education and church in my formative years (and now only when it's unavoidable). I wasn't raised in a fundamentalist (a.k.a. "indy-fundy") home, but we lived down the street, out in the boondocks, from a private school that had a stellar reputation for teaching its kids the good stuff. Academically, this was true; spiritually, not so much. Although grace was in the name, the place hardly exhibited it. Even less so within its ecclesial life (not unlike Hawthorne's seventeenth-century Boston). After a couple of years of attending church there, my folks, thankfully, had had enough (though we stuck around the school for a year or so longer. Not surprisingly, it was the Lutherans that showed us what providing a decidedly Christian education in a healthy way looked like. I think there's some pretty interesting reasons for this, but that's another post.)

On the other hand, Meic Pearse writes in Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage that "by their constant, mindlessly inaccurate resort to the 'f-word'—fundamentalism—to describe the upsurge of religious fervor in much of the non-West, Western secularists are employing a boo-word that long ago lost its original meaning and has come to signify 'more-religious-than-I-happen-to-like'—and thus to say more about the speaker than about the persons, things, or phenomena described" (p. 27). For this reason alone, I've pretty much left off using fundamentalism pejoratively, for fear of accusing myself of disdaining others because they're "
more-religious-than-I-happen-to-like" and thus hold certain views and act certain ways, so I think, because of that super-religiosity. In other words, giving them such sleight of hand fails to take them seriously (and, incidentally, probably betrays a supercilious pattern in one's life). Recognizing the duty to show others dignity means treating them seriously, at least at first (i.e., giving them the benefit of the doubt).

Okay, so, John Piper called his readers some time ago to give fundamentalism the benefit of the doubt, to "feel a good breeze" from the wasteland (actually, he wrote, somewhat more nicely, "from the fevered landscape of controversy"). I don't remember how I came across this post recently, but I'm just now reading Kevin Bauder's article (warning: .pdf file). Piper pulls out the nuggets from the piece: that the best of the fundamentalism that Bauder knows comes from those who "refused to become giants," who were not trying to create or control empires; who revered the Word of God and delighted in expounding the scriptures; who fought the battles of their day, but did so without losing their gentleness and kindness.

Of course, it goes without saying that being popular has nothing to do with the desire to create one's own kingdom, however small. This is exactly the tendency I've seen and experienced during my tenure among the fundamentalists, and none of them were/are popular, being quite content to play God's unquestioned voicebox among their particular community. Bauder himself notes: "I have been watching this version of fundamentalism [the "hyper" type seen today—his word] for forty years or so. It is filled with demagogues and bullies. I want nothing to do with it" (p. 4). This goes for a good many of those raised in it, and, alas, they've chosen atheism as a higher road—and I don't blame them.

Bauder thinks there's a fundamentalism "worth saving" (p. 2–3). I demur; unless there's a wholesale realignment with the old Princetonians, to my mind, there's little hope of salvaging it. Nevertheless, I totally understand his tenacity. The idea of jumping from the fundamentalist ship and sinking into the vast evangelical sea is probably scarier than being associated with people whose demagoguery is at least easy to spot (yes, I'm biting my lip here).

19 August 2010

On the Pathological Reliance on Medicine

I witnessed a convergence of ideas the other day when reading Rob Moll’s The Art of Dying: Living Fully in to the Life to Come. (A book, incidentally, that I think ought to be read, along with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' classic On Death and Dying.)

A few months ago I came across (again) Gilbert Meilaender's brief article
"I Want to Burden My Loved Ones" (first published in 1991 in First Things—back when it was less of a rag). Moll then brought it up in The Art of Dying and unpacks it a bit: 
"Meilander gently argues against the application of living wills or advance directives as the modern fix-all to the tendency of doctors to rely too heavily on medicine. We say we don't want to burden our families with making difficult choices when we cannot make medical decisions on our own, so we turn to legal documents that outline what we would and would not want should we ever be unable to tell a doctor ourselves. . . .
[But] this appeal to a piece of paper overturns what families are supposed to do—carry each other's burdens. When we allow someone else to care for us, make decisions for us, Meilander says, we most often discover that they are willing and eager to pick up our burdens." (p. 90)
Advance directives are, of course, not inherently wrong, but "it is best when a range of people . . . are part of the conversation about what medical care a patient desires." The main benefit of advance directives is getting the conversation started.

Moll also writes early on in the book about what he alludes to in the above quote—relying too heavily on modern medicine. "Our hope in medicine can lead to an unrealistic expection that medicine can cure whatever disease we or our loved ones might have. Such expectations tempt us to believe we need not contemplate and prepare for our death or that of our family members." He goes on: "Aggressive medical care may always be our first option, but by pursuing powerful medicine until there is 'nothing left to do' we likely forgo time with loved ones, final pursuits or perhaps a spiritual deepening in anticipation of life with God" (p. 35). Such is the irony of certain Christians' proclivities toward being "so pro-life [that] we're anti-death" (in the words of one Christian gerontologist, p. 33).

Then along came Hauerwas. In
"America's God Is Dying," he writes (among other things that are actually the piece's focus):

"The fear of death is necessary to insure a level of cooperation between people who otherwise share nothing in common. In other words, they share nothing in common other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.
That is why in America hospitals have become our cathedrals and physicians are our priests. I'd even argue that America's almost pathological reliance on medicine is but a domestic manifestation of its foreign policy. America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. And thus 'freedom' comes to stand for the attempt to live as though we will not die."
The point about foreign policy aside, think how this same culture (of triumphalism and glory) has gripped the American church—the very place where the cross ought to be rooted. Christians here cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. And so American Christians, just as much if not more than non-Christians, die poorly, precisely because they have forgotten how to die well, which means they've forgotten how to live. 

29 July 2010

Left Behind—by the Grace of God!

THE STORY OF LOT isn’t particularly nice. It is, in fact, one of the more gross stories in the Old Testament. A recalcitrant man of faith, a self-centered wife, two incestuous daughters, obstinate daughters and sons-in-law, and a city full of violence and perversion—great characters all—for a tragedy. Yet it is not without hope. For despite his depressing mistakes, Lot was a righteous man whose faithful soul was tormented over the lawless deeds of the Sodomites (2 Peter 2:7–8). God, ever utterly faithful to his covenant, did not abandon Lot (for Abraham’s sake, Gen. 19:29); rather, he repeatedly delivered him, providing ample opportunities for him to return to the covenant community. Our continual prayer ought to be that God would do the same for us when judgment strikes, lest we be caught vacillating like Lot’s wife.

The comment in the narrative about his wife in turning into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26) serves one major purpose: to show what becomes of those who identify themselves with the objects of God’s wrath. In looking back, Lot’s wife directly violates the command in verse 17 (“Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley.”). She therefore shows her solidarity with the evil city and forfeits her salvation (see Matt. 6:24; 13:22). Before we stand on our own self-constructed pedestals, however, consider some of the reasons why Lot’s wife would have looked back: her husband was a judge in that city (Gen. 19:1), and she undoubtedly enjoyed riches and respect; her home and all her possessions collected over a lifetime were destroyed; and, not least, her other two daughters, who stayed behind with their husbands, were suffering a horrific, burning death. Would you not linger?

So great is the temptation to become identified with the luxuries given by God’s grace that Jesus Himself warned his disciples to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). Lot’s wife, not surprisingly, had become something of an omen in the stories of Israel. She represented the one who, faced with the reality that life and luxury were slipping away, clung tightly to what this world offered, thereby rejecting the salvation of Israel’s covenant Lord. The context in which this warning appears should provide further light on its application for us today.

Readers familiar with Luke 17 know that it’s not easy to understand. As the Pharisees grill Jesus about the coming of God’s kingdom (they in no way consider Jesus’ ministry to be a sign that the kingdom has come), he responds that it is within their grasp—if they weren’t blind to the fact that standing before them was God’s Anointed One. He further remarks that despite the present reality of God’s kingdom in and through his life’s work, judgment is coming. And it will be swift.

Just as in the days of Noah and Lot (vv. 27–29), so too will devastating judgment fall upon those who fail to heed the divine warning. Jesus did not want his disciples falling prey to this destruction, for this destruction would not be preceded by any supernatural signs of imminent danger (vv. 20–21). Therefore, they must be alert. They must not be swayed by false messiahs (see Luke 21:8–9), for the “days of the Son of Man” will be clear to all, like lightning flashing in the sky (17:22–24). When that happens, Jesus warned, flee: “On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back” (v. 31).

Well, on what day would this occur? Presumably, “wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together” (v. 37, NKJV). This answer, to us now probably cryptic, may not have been so to His hearers. It is a point of fact that when Rome marched, their imperial standard bore the eagle. Possibly this whole discourse, then, is about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the once-great city that rejected her Messiah and Lord.

It is in this context that our Savior exhorted his disciples to remember Lot’s wife. When the judgment of God through the legions of Rome began, they were not to look back. Nostalgia is not worth facing God’s wrath. As the Roman army swept through the city, the chaotic and seemingly random sword of death took one and left another—whether in bed or in the field (vv. 34–35). Ironically, in this situation, being “left behind” is a good thing, for it is those who are left, who are saved from being taken in judgment, that are rescued by God (with apologies to Tim and Jerry).

If we too are to be left behind, receiving the justice of God reserved for his elect (18:7–8), then we must pay heed to the divine warning. And that warning is the gospel itself. The Messiah has come, vanquishing sin and death through suffering and rejection (17:25; see John 5:24–25 and Rom. 8:3). God’s wrath has been turned from his people (1 Thess. 1:10), and their sins have received atonement (1 John 1:7). To ignore God’s way of peace, to exalt oneself, is to lose the very life so tenaciously grasped (Luke 17:33). Has our generation given itself up to worldly, godless living, just like in the days of Noah and Lot? Will we, too, be taken up by surprise in divine judgment and destruction? With which city do we identify?

True, life and luxury are slipping away, but the word of our God stands forever (Isa. 40:8). And that Word, now come in the flesh, whose Spirit fills every believer, enables us to endure patiently, whatever the cost in self-sacrifice, and to be instantly ready for the return of our King. Remember Lot’s wife!

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 11.6 (Nov. 2006): 23–24}

16 July 2010

Who Cares About the Sabbath?

That's the question my introduction of this Perspectives volume on the Sabbath seeks to answer. In so doing, it sets up the rest of the book, which presents in point-counterpoint form the four most common views of the Sabbath commandment that have arisen throughout church history, representing the major positions held among Christians today (and despite their absence, Catholics and Orthodox can also be found on the continuum this project articulates). The publisher summarizes the book as follows:
Skip MacCarty (Andrews University, Pioneer Memorial Church) defends the Seventh-day view, which argues the Sabbath commandment is a moral law of God requiring us to keep the seventh day (Saturday) holy. It must therefore remain the day of rest and worship for Christians. Jospeh A. Pipa (Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) backs the Christian Sabbath view, which reasons that ever since the resurrection of Christ, the one day in seven to be kept holy is the first day of the week. Craig L. Blomberg (Denver Seminary) supports the Fulfillment view, which says that since Christ has brought the true Sabbath rest into the present, the Sabbath commands of the Old Testament are no longer binding on believers. Charles P. Arand (Concordia Seminary) upholds the Lutheran view that the Sabbath commandment was given as Torah to the Israelites alone and does not concern Christians. Rest and worship are still required but not tied to a particular day.
It doesn't hit the shelf until April 2011, but this project, from its acceptance to final manuscript, has taken about 2.5 years. And I've been talking about it for about four. Glad that it's done on this end, and hoping that it serves the church well.  

05 July 2010

Reading with Whom, Again?

Once again I've taken the plunge and contributed a second installment of devotionals over at Reformation 21's "Reading with M'Cheyne." My first set appeared back in March (see this post for links to those and for some helpful background information about M'Cheyne); this next set starts today (July 5), with a new post coming each day until this Friday (July 9). I'll update this post with links to each as they are posted over there.

 Who Will Put Security for Me?
The Inexhaustible Grace of God
Getting Our Dirty Hands Dirty
 Unlimited Forgiveness
Recovering Christian Humanism

That's all, folks. Thanks for reading.

30 June 2010

Vanhoozer's Decahedral

In the July/August 2010 Modern Reformation, Kevin J. Vanhoozer contributes a short article where he lays down "a ten-point checklist for fledgling theological interpreters of Scripture." It basically articulates a way of reading the Bible as Scripture—as God's self-communication—in a canonical and ecclesial context (pp. 16–19).

This is nothing new, of course. But it's still unwelcome among large swaths of religious academia. I'll just reprint the theses here; Vanhoozer provides commentary under each one in the article. Here's how he describes his decahedral: "The ten theses are arranged in five parts: the first term in each pair is properly theological, focusing on some aspect of God's communicative agency; the second draws out its implications for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation." Without further adieu:

  1. The nature and function of the Bible are insufficiently grasped unless and until we see the Bible as an element in the economy of triune discourse.
  2. An appreciation of the theological nature of the Bible entails a rejection of a methodological atheism that treats the texts as having a "natural history" only.
  3. The message of the Bible is "finally" about the loving power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16), the definitive or final gospel Word of God that comes to brightest light in the Word's final form.
  4. Because God acts in space-time (Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church), theological interpretation requires thick descriptions that plumb the height and depth of history, not only its length.
  5. Theological interpreters view the historical events recounted in Scripture as ingredients in a unified story ordered by an economy of triune providence.
  6. The Old Testament testifies to the same drama of redemption as the New Testament, hence the church rightly reads both testaments together, two parts of a single authoritative script.
  7. The Spirit who speaks with magisterial authority in the Scriptures speaks with ministerial authority in church tradition.
  8. In an era marked by the conflict of interpretations, there is good reason provisionally to acknowledge the superiority of catholic interpretation.
  9. The end of biblical interpretation is not simply communication—the sharing of information—but communion, a sharing in the light, life, and love of God.
  10. The church is that community where good habits of theological interpretation are best formed and where the fruit of these habits are best exhibited.
Vanhoozer sums it up:
Scholars know deep down that they can and should do better than stay within the confines of their specializations: "For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the interpretive good I want, but the historical-criticism or proof-texting I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but interpretive habits that have been drilled into me. Wretched reader that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of secondary literature?" Thanks be to God, there is a way forward: the way, truth, and life of collaboration in Christ, where sainthood and scholarship coexist, and where theological exegesis and exegetical theology are mutually supportive and equally important.
Now, I'll admit to being blinded by a slight infatuation with Vanhoozer, especially after reading books like Is There Meaning in This Text? I've not much to say here by way of criticism. I'm hoping some others can pick that up, not least the "apocalyptic" bunch floating around out there, as I'm not quite sure what view, if any, they might have with respect to hermeneutics (if "they" even have a "view"). I'd also like to see some discussion about how Vanhoozer's implicit criticisms here cut to the quick of a lot of modern confessional Reformed exegesis and theology.

Also, this touches upon what I've grown increasingly comfortable saying publicly as of late: Theology done without an eye on (i.e., in service of) the church is useless. But on second thought, it might be best to break off this subsequent and tangential discussion from this post and deal with it later. For now, I'll leave the Decahedral to stand alone for the reader to digest.

14 June 2010

Father Abraham Had Many Sons

AT THE PRECISE MOMENT we’re introduced to the pagans from Ur of the Chaldeans in the book of Genesis, we meet the one whom the God of creation called to start fixing the evil mess Adam and his children made. Through Abraham and his children and grand-children, God eventually sent his Son to fulfill finally and faithfully the vocation to which his ancestors were called. And Abraham was the one who left everything behind, walking by faith, even when he didn’t know where he was going (Heb. 11:8). For this, he was revered by the people of Israel as a model of true piety. Such was their reverence that the anonymous Jewish priest who wrote Jubilees thought, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life” (23:10). Indeed, Abraham was thought to have not even sinned against God (see The Prayer of Manasseh). He was their father, one in whom they could be proud.

This may bring to mind that elementary school Bible song:
“Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had father Abraham;
I am one of them and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord!”
We’d then scream something about our right arms and left arms, and by the end of the song we all looked like we were marching in place (with the added, though inexplicable, nodding of the head). It must have been quite a scene to behold—a sanctuary full of pre-pubescent adolescents awkwardly lurching about. (I couldn't link to just one version—see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, from all different peoples around the world.)

Well, the song serves it purpose—to expend energy. But what about it? Just who are the sons of Abraham? Can we modern, Western children really be Abraham’s sons?

One portion in particular of Saint Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome gives us the answer. In chapters 3:27–4:25, the apostle begins to unpack one central theme he discussed in 3:21–26, namely, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (v. 22). The obedience of Jesus is everywhere drawn out in this portion of the letter as the sole ground of God’s free justification, with faith its sole means.

After he contests the importance of the Mosaic law as a means to justify oneself, the apostle Paul appeals to the story of Abraham to bolster his claim that righteousness is credited only by faith. The reasons he does so should interest us. As we just saw above, Abraham was widely revered throughout Israelite history. It is probable that Paul wanted to show the largely Gentile Roman churches that those he had had arguments with (certain Jews and Jewish Christians) were not understanding Abraham rightly according to the Scriptures. Thus he argues, contrary to Jubilees and The Prayer of Manasseh, that Abraham was not so much “perfect in all his deeds with the Lord” but was justified by faith: for “to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Because Abraham is an exemplar of faith in God’s promises — not “perfect in all his deeds”—he is truly the father “of all who believe without being circumcised” (v. 11; see also Gal. 3:7, 29). By the way, those “who believe without being circumcised” are those modern, Western children, giddily stomping and swinging their arms to the tune of “Father Abraham Had Many Sons.”

It is no surprise that Abraham held such a prominent position in Israelite history; after all, the Old Testament gives him that place. He is the father of the chosen nation and the one in whom the promise of God was sent forth, and we mustn’t miss the fact that God’s plan all along was to include Gentiles in his promise—the promise of adoption and reconciliation (Gal. 3:8). Now we can see one reason why Abraham is given so much space in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans: if his gospel is “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1), the very same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then the apostle needed to show how his gospel stood in continuity with the Word of God given to the prophets, while at the same time showing, for the Gentile Christians’ sake in Rome, that there is a certain amount of discontinuity, especially with respect to the Mosaic law. In short, they didn’t need to be circumcised, because righteousness is credited by faith (apart from Torah) in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which draws “all people” to him (John 12:32).

In this way, we Christians today, who are so far removed from the world in which Abraham lived, can call him our father. We didn’t deserve this, of course, but God obligated himself to do it on the day he walked the gauntlet of animal carcasses while Abraham was sleeping (Gen. 15). Moreover, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches that our ability to call Abraham father is proof that God has kept the promise he made way back in Genesis 15. This promise is grasped by faith and rests on grace alone, and it is “guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). So Abraham, the father of the faithful, kept on believing God, and any person, if he or she believes like him, will also be reckoned righteous (see Rom. 4:11, 23–24).

Finally, all of this depends on the character of the life-giving creator God who made such promises. And we can be sure, as Saint Paul was, that this God will keep them, because he is the only one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17).

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 30.6 (June 2006): 22–23}

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