29 March 2010

The Wolf in White-Man's Burden

It's common knowledge that Bob Dylan never desired to write politically charged protest songs:
I never set out to write politics. I didn't want to be a political moralist. There were people who just did that. Phil Ochs focused on political things, but there are many sides to us, and I wanted to follow them all. We can feel very generous one day and very selfish the next hour.
I'm equally ambivalent about political folk songs. Even more so with respect to poetry. Poetry, it seems to me, can be didactic, but not heavy handed, or it ceases to be poetry, strictly speaking. The same could be said about a song, too. This is hard to avoid when writing about politics—as with any moralizing. But I'm not ambivalent at all about sermonizing politics from the pulpit. Just preach the gospel, okay? Good teaching will lead me to connect the dots for myself. But, then, how can two people who walk away from the same building on a Sunday morning differ so dramatically on political issues? I suppose the short answer is that biblical theology implies principles, not policies.

At any rate, here's a "poem" I wrote back in 2004 that was published in Poets Against the War the next year. The funny thing is, I'm not so sure the moniker "poet" is apt, nor is this piece really a poem, laden as it is with uppity progressive, self-loathing moralism. They were apparently publishing anything back then (just peruse the archives, if you can stomach it).
"The Wolf in White-man's Burden"

The wolf in white-man's burden
takes new guise, all to con
and colonialize the sudden
'terror', the Persian son.
What is it, wolf, that you have done?

Why is it, sheep, that we have followed?
For fear of hounding in the fold,
and for black riches—thus we've sowed
in deceit the burden of another's gold,
to seek the other's gain, to spread the Western mold.

* Update: For those interested, this was written in the form of an English quintet, yet I don't remember why.

21 March 2010

Reading with Whom?

A long-dead guy named Robert Murray M'Cheyne, that's who. I've never read him, and I've barely heard of him, but apparently he wrote a popular "Daily Bread," a "calendar for reading through the Word of God in a year." The following comes from Jeremy Smith, executive minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and managing editor of reformation21:
M’Cheyne's reading plan averages about four chapters a day, but it rewards the follower with reading through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and the Psalms twice in one calendar year. M’Cheyne envisioned two chapters to be read as part of a daily family time of devotion and two chapters were designated for private reading.
This year we have enlisted the help of several friends of reformation21 throughout the English-speaking world to provide brief, daily, devotional reflections and comments that mirror M’Cheyne’s reading schedule.

The authors have taken different approaches in their comments. Some have focused on one or two verses at a time from one of M’Cheyne’s suggested daily readings; others have traced the week chapter by chapter through a particular book of the Bible; still others have weaved a narrative of some theme that has appeared in all of the daily readings.
Not being given to such reading schedules as M'Cheyne's original (for the life of me, I have a hard time reading anything so rigorously planned out), I nonetheless think riffing off of his schedule, as Ref21 has done beginning this past January, sounds like a good idea.

When I've had the chance, the daily devotionals have been largely fun to read as well as edifying. But that's all about to come to an end. I was asked to take part, and my first post starts tomorrow (March 22), with a new post coming each day until this Friday (March 26). I will update this post each time a new reading of mine is up (What? Were you expecting something less self-aggrandizing?).

17 March 2010

You Will Read This (barring any intervening historical contingencies)

To gain a clearer perspective on the idea that the fulfillment of at least some unqualified predictions were subject to the contingency of human response (i.e., conditions did not have to be stated explicitly to be operative), let's look more closely at a few canonical predictions or prophecies. According to Pratt (see the first post about that), they generally fall into three categories:

1. Predictions qualified by conditions: while the qualification was communicated in many different ways, I will simply list the passages with the surface grammar of conditional sentences (note that in the Hebrew language, conditional sentences are not marked as they are in English).
  • Isa 1:19–20; Jer 22:4–5. It is important to see at this point that prophets did not necessarily refer to what the future would be, but what it might be. In other words, they were attempting to illicit certain responses in the community by making their predictions explicitly conditional. The future they spoke of was potential not necessary.
  • Isa 7:9; Jer 7:5–7. These texts show us that prophets did not always spell out all the possible conditions related to their predictions. In these predictions, only one side is stated. We should not be surprised if in other biblical predictions not all the conditions are explicitly stated. It is therefore an appropriate contention that considering unexpressed conditions is vital to a proper interpretation of prophecy.
2. Predictions qualified by assurances: that is, guarantees of different sorts accompanied prophetic oracles. For example, in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet opposed those who hoped for Jerusalem's deliverance from Babylon by stating that Yahweh forbade intercession for the city (Jer 7:15–16). There are others that portray the same qualifications (Jer 11:11–14; 14:10–12, 15:1).
  • Another example of a qualification by assurance comes by Amos' popular formula: "For three sins of [name the country], even four, I will not turn back" (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). The idea of "turning back" would have been well-known as Yahweh's change of divine disposition toward a course of action (Deut 30:3; 2 Chron 12:12; 30:8; Job 42:10, etc.). Amos' audience would have been pleased to know that Yahweh's threat was not empty. On the other hand, the prophet also makes it plain that Yahweh would not reverse himself regarding their judgment either (Amos 2:4, 6). See also Isa. 45:23; Jer 23:20, 30:24; 4:28. Divine oaths also signified qualification by assurance (Amos 4:2; 6:8; 8:7; Isa 14:24; Jer. 49:13). The point is that these predictions are qualified by an assurance. Why?
  • The whole point here is twofold regarding biblical prophecy: 1) on the one hand, some predictions make plain that their predicted events were inevitable. Yahweh would not listen to prayers, violate his oaths, etc. But it is important to keep in mind that these type of predictions are few in number and almost always not very specific about their descriptions of the future. While they assure that some events will happen, they do not guarantee how, to what extent, when, and so on. In other words, they are subject to intervening historical contingencies. 2) On the other hand, this class of prophecies indicates that not all predictions shared this heightened certainty. Possibly, Yahweh forbade prayers in response to certain oracles precisely because it has the potential of effecting outcomes (see Jer 26:19; Jonah 3:10; Amos 7:1–9).
3. Predictions without qualifications: such are these that do not contain explicit conditions or assurances. It is important to affirm at this point that historical contingencies have bearing on this class of predictions. The story of Jonah is proof enough. He proclaims an unqualified prediction (Jonah 3:4), but Yahweh spared the city (3:10). The examples are substantive (2 Chron 12:5, then see 12:7–8; 2 Kgs 22:16, then 22:18–20; Micah 3:12 (Jer. 26:18), then 2 Kgs 19:20–35). In each of these examples, the predicted future did not take place. What caused these turn of events? Each text explicitly cites human responses as the grounds for the deviations. The people of Ninevah (Jonah 3:6), the leaders of Judah (2 Chron 12:6), Josiah (2 Kgs 22:18–19) and Hezekiah (Jer 26:19) repented or prayed upon hearing the prophetic word.

What this indicates is that the fulfillment of at least some unqualified predictions were subject to the contingency of human response. Conditions did not have to be stated explicitly to be operative.

15 March 2010

Lamentations: A Canonical Response

For all the readers of this blog (like four out of the five) who are not Presbyterian, take a look at these two posts (first and second) from Jason Stellman, minister in the PCA, who has been engaged in disciplinary issues (on the prosecutorial side) for last two years or so. Say what you want about the PCA, but this guy embodies exactly the kind of demeanor one ought to have in the midst of church discipline.

Two points worth highlighting:
  1. Stellman rightly suggests that it is with tears that such discipline is to be undertaken. Or, less sentimentally, in his own words, "I have absolutely no desire to prosecute a case against a good man and godly scholar simply to prove a point and set legal precedent for other NAPARC churches to follow," and " I just can’t seem to shake the feeling of emptiness—not to mention the bitter taste in my mouth—that this whole process has occasioned."
  2. He also states what should be obvious to everybody, but doesn't come across often enough when speaking to certain Westminsterians (and other strict subscriptionists, to be sure): "While I believe that the mechanics of that salvation are most biblically set forth in the Westminster Standards, to insist that all who reject our system of doctrine are therefore preaching a false gospel is patently ridiculous."
Another matter entirely is the issue of church discipline itself, a non-existent mark of the church today. Would that all churches practice discipline with exactly the same attitude set forth here by Stellman.

11 March 2010

You Will Read This (part 1)

Millennial madness isn't anything new. Folks have been arguing since the apostolic era about what the prophetic literature of the Scriptures means and how it's to be applied—if at all—to various events of the past through to the present and into the future. Seldom, however, is the first hermeneutical step ever discussed (on the street, at least). How is this stuff supposed to be read?

I sat under Professor Richard Pratt as a seminarian, and he had some suggestions worth entertaining. I had a few "aha" moments in his Prophets class, but the principles of reading he lays out are not without their potentially unintended negative consequences. You can read his address, where a lot of the following material was taken, over here.

First, Pratt argued, we need to stop flattening biblical prophecy into the entirely modern notion of "a prophet made a prediction, so it must therefore come true." Scripture does not portray prophecy in this way (implicit conditions are attached everywhere). That is, the prophets of old were fully aware that any intervening historical contingency could radically change the direction of their prediction. Failing to understand this is a failure to understand the very nature and motivation of the prophets themselves. This leads to not only multiple and contradictory interpretations (e.g., dispensationalists versus the rest of the church's dogmaticians throughout history), it also feeds the skeptics' fire, giving them ample cause to fault the biblical texts, however wrongly they may be in so doing.

Consider the following passage, which is obviously conditional, and (Pratt thought) paradigmatic: "'If you have a willing attitude and obey, then you will again eat the good crops of the land. But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.' Know for certain that Yahweh has spoken" (Isa 1:19–20).
The challenge Pratt wanted to lay before us was simply this: to see that the Old and New Testament predictions are latent with conditions—expressly implied or no. Once we come to terms with how to read the prophets, Christians may no longer misuse them to bolster their arguments for the legitimacy of the New Testament writings—thus inadvertently perpetuating disbelief (e.g., McDowell), and skeptics might no longer waste their breath picking at the text with faulty assumptions. It's give and take, to be sure. But until fervor for Hal Lindsey sags, along with his Left Behind, I suppose that we'll have to practice patience.

Prophecy was often God's way to incite his people to repent (to change the direction they're heading and to follow his way). In the case of a bad omen (i.e., destruction's coming your way), repentance was the condition that had to be met in order for that prediction to be staid. The opposite is equally true: in the case of a good omen, unrepenant wickedness would result in a forfeit of the predicted blessing.

Sound familiar? Let's look at Jeremiah 18:1–10:

"Yahweh said to Jeremiah: 'Go down at once to the potter’s house. I will speak to you further there.' So I went down to the potter’s house and found him working at his wheel. Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. Then he would rework the clay into another pot as he saw fit. Then Yahweh said to me, 'I, Yahweh, say, "O nation of Israel, can I not deal with you as this potter deals with the clay? In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter’s hand." There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or a kingdom. But if that nation that I threatened stops doing wrong, I will forgo the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or a kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will forgo the good I promised to do to it.'"

According to this text, Yahweh, Israel's covenant Lord, has intentions for the prophecies his prophets utter. The point of them doesn't allow for this static notion that pictures prophets walking around uttering absolute statements about the future. Prophets were emissaries from the heavenly court; their job was to prosecute the covenant. The people knew well enough that if the demanded stipulations were (or were not) met, then the word of the prophet would come to pass accordingly. But what about Deuteronomy 18:17–22? That text refers to the prophets' hearers and their need to discern the intentions of the prophet so they can determine the validity or the falsity of the prophet themselves (more on this to come in part 3).


  • Part 2: You Will Read This (barring any intervening historical contingencies)
  • Part 3: Yet 40 Days and You Will Read This
  • Conclusion: You Will Read This (unless, of course, you don't)

03 March 2010

Reformed Anglicanism

On the second Sunday in Lent, during the Dean's Hour at St. Luke's Cathedral, Richard Turnbull (author of Anglican and Evangelical? and Shaftesbury: the Great Reformer) delivered a lecture on the reformation of the English church. He did so by focusing on two major players in its reformation: John Wycliffe and Nicholas Ridley.

But this was no detached presentation of a few tidbits of history; ulterior motives lay just beneath the surface. Turnbull clued us in on them during his very first sentence of the lecture: "I commend St. Luke's Cathedral as living examples of Reformed Anglicanism." Indeed, he went on, it couples the best of historic, orthodox worship with "Reformed theology."

Now, it may be wrong of me to read too much into this, but, as a student of Reformed theology (broadly conceived) and Reformation history, I wondered what he was thinking when he used the phrases "Reformed Anglicanism" and "Reformed theology." There's a lot of one-sided discussions on theoblogs about this precise point: What does it mean to be "Reformed"?

But most, if not all, of this buzz comes from a particular corner of the Reformed world—American Reformed folks, the Truly Reformed™. For them, and rightly so, "predestination is not enough" (to borrow the title of Clark's epilogue). It is argued that Reformed theology just is covenant theology—as understood by the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This argument often comes in response to the common assumption that to be "Reformed" is to hold simply to the so-called five points of Calvinism. No doubt, an argument is needed against this misconstrual of what it means to be "Reformed." But then throw into the mix a polarizing evangelical figure in the Church of England like Richard Turnbull who flings around the moniker "Reformed" (and, indeed, "Reformed Anglicanism"), and the waters start getting muddy again. Surely, Turnbull didn't have the "five points" in mind when he opened his lecture; and just as certainly, he didn't have the system of doctrine encapsulated in the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (he is Anglican after all).

On second thought, however, when I look at that which the remainder of his lecture focused—the high points of Wycliffe's and Ridley's reforms—we see a pattern of "Reformed theology" begin to emerge, and, it ought to be noted, that pattern doesn't contradict any portion of the Reformed confessions (except maybe for those bits about the "regulative principle of worship").

In brief, Turnbull chose to highlight the following reforms of the two reformers:
  1. the authoritative nature of Holy Scripture (i.e., an authority greater than church tradition);
  2. the fallibility of the pope;
  3. the perpiscuity of Scripture (i.e., the clarity of the gospel message in particular);
  4. the necessity (therefore) of Scripture being translated in the vernacular, so all people—ploughboys and priests—could have access to the clear message of salvation, and are thus equal readers and hearers coram Deo;
  5. the necessity of denouncing corruption found within the church;
  6. the necessity of academic theology being used to serve the church, along with its underlying impetus—that the Spirit-filled laity, and the mobilizaton thereof, lies at the heart of the church's common life;
  7. the reformation of the doctrine of the Eucharist away from transubstantiation, which, it was argued, has more to do with philosophical sophistry than biblical theology;
  8. liturgical reformation (the meticulous retaining of the best of the church's traditions, while tweaking the doctrinal content to reflect a theology that, of course, the reformers thought was little more than a recapitulation of the apostles and the early Church Fathers).
So, then, we begin to see a picture of what "Reformed theology" looks like, at least according to Wycliffe and Ridley, and thus, presumably, Turnbull. All this doesn't quite fit into the other lists of what it means to be "Reformed" that have floated around these parts. It seems the word Reformed could have a broader meaning than some may be willing to entertain, and historical inquiry, at the very least, bolsters that point.

But make no mistake: Turnbull was challenging his listeners to follow this trajectory, to embody this list of reforms, not least as witnesses—who metaphorically must "be of good comfort and play the man" (said Latimer to Ridley while they both were burning at the stake)—in a denomination like the ECUSA.

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