27 May 2010

Photography Friday (5)

"Knowing glances passed around the Palace bar on Lake Lucerne."

So goes the single-line entry for 14 June 2004 in my oft-neglected journal. After traveling eastward overseas, usually on the second night, the lag hits me hard. I find myself not merely awake, but energized—and strongly desiring smoke and drink. So, around 2:45 in the morning I made my way downstairs in the
Hotel Palace to the Palace bar and found a dark corner. It wasn't dark enough. That's when the knowing glances began among the lounge lizards.

If you've traveled much at all, you'd know to be distrusting of the over-friendly native. An older man stumbled over to my table and asked, in surprisingly good English, if I'd like to buy the middle-aged lady at the bar a drink. She swiped me furtively with her eyes. I imagined she was a classy whore and he her pimp, hoping to end the soirée with a last-ditch effort to pick up a young American and drain him of his spending cash. Usually I'm game for an anonymous drink or two, but not this time. It wasn't the seediness of the whole thing as much as the fact that I just wasn't in the mood to talk, but rather drink and smoke, which is serious business. I politely declined with a firm, bugger-off look in my eye.

(Just in case your wondering, no, I'm not wealthy. In the early 2000s, my wife and I had the privilege of going overseas a few times, mostly to Europe, to work on a history project. Basically, I served as her
grip, while she shot tons of B-roll.)

In this photographic series I've included a few pictures from Lucerne and a couple from Bavaria. As usual, all of them were taken on a Canon AE-1 with E100VS (slide film). Click on an image to get a closer look.

Lake Lucerne. In Photoshop I gave it a tilt-shift feel. Behind the foreground 
bridge you can see the famous Chapel Bridge (the tower on the left), 
and behind that the exterior of the Jesuitenkirche (see next pic).

The interior of the Lucerne Jesuit Church, which above almost every other
building I've seen drives the traveler to contemplate the majesty of God. 
Note in the description how this church served as an architectural 
Catholic counter-reformation to Protestant theology and practice.

An interior of a church apparently in or around Lucerne.
The composition of this photo is just okay, but particularly I 
like the baptismal font. One of the best I've seen.

Hohenschwangau Castle, located in southwest Bavaria (see some
interior shots here). It was the childhood residence of King Ludwig II.
Not too shabby. My summer residence as a kid was a big hole entangled in
large roots next to a huge oak tree in our backyard. Mine was better.

Look familiar? No, it's not Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle, but it
did serve as its inspiration. Neuschwanstein Castle, also situated in southwest 
Bavaria, was commissioned by the aforementioned Ludwig II, in homage 
of Richard Wagner (and inevitably I think of Larry David whistling 
Wagner's Siegfried Idyll—note also the connection to Lucerne).

20 May 2010

What RTS Believes . . .

"What RTS Believes: An Affirmation." That's the title of the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Reformed Theological Seminary's quarterly magazine, Ministry & Leadership. When I reflexively rolled my eyes upon seeing it, the light hit the cover at just the right angle and I noticed a textual hologram embedded just underneath the subtitle. It read, "In Contradistinction to What Bruce Waltke Said Last Month."

As you can see, the cover depicts, maybe a tad piously, an open Bible, suggesting that the "Affirmation" will have something to do with RTS taking the Bible seriously. And so it should. The other, somewhat ironic, thing you'll notice is that the "Affirmation" coming from this Reformed seminary is taking place within the walls of a rather ornate sanctuary. Folks, if that's not traditional Anglican, it's Roman Catholic. Nevermind that the writers of the Confession this seminary confesses would roll over in their graves at the sight of all those "idolatrous images."

At any rate, the article, written by Chancellor Ric Cannada, covers the suspected ground—"The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides an excellent summary of biblical truth" (p. 4). And what biblical truth would he/they like to highlight? Unsurprisingly, questions 9 and 16 (question 33 is also included, but it's more of an appendix in this article), both of which deal specifically with the work of creation and the doctrine of original sin and its relationship to the covenant of works. There is no way that those two questions would have been chosen (if such an "Affirmation" would have even been undertaken) had not the Waltke row erupted last month. After quoting WSC 9, Cannada writes:

Among our RTS constituency and also among RTS faculty members we have different understandings of the length of those "days" and such things as the age of the earth, but everyone at RTS clearly affirms God as creator and also the special creation and historical reality of Adam and Eve, including their fall into sin that affected us directly as their descendents. (pp. 4–5)
Of course, as I've written elsewhere, Waltke also appears to affirm these points, though admittedly Cannada's emphasis on the "special creation" of Adam and Eve is meant to preclude, I assume, an evolutionary process, instead of an act of sudden creation in time and space. If that's the case, then I guess theistic evolutionists are flat-out precluded from teaching at RTS.

This isn't a criticism, however. RTS can and should restate its commitments to certain doctrines in light of circumstances that could have been perceived by its constituents (and potential seminarians) to be undermining those doctrines. It's simply interesting to me to see the extent to which this institution has gone to counteract this particular episode revolving around Waltke and evolution.

18 May 2010

Holy Grief

In the Holy Scriptures, we see the holiness of God everywhere assumed. We see how this holiness informs both his love and his wrath. No doubt, too, we will recognize that God isn’t more loving than holy, or more holy than loving, or, for that matter, more wrathful toward the ungodly than just, or more just than wrathful toward the ungodly, or more powerful than good, or more good than powerful, or more blessed than faithful, or, well, you get the picture. God is all God, all of the time. He lacks in nothing. He is the great I AM, the Lord of the covenant, and he is jealous of his lordship. He doesn’t take kindly to rulers who pretend they can rule apart from his authority (see John 19:10–11), nor does he like it when his children attempt to do the same. It grieves him.

To be sure, it is a holy grief. It is a just grief. But it is also a joyful grief—joyful, that is, because he knows his children will repent. Indeed, they will “follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4). Thus, God always grieves with the joy of his glorious plan of a glorious end in sight. Since we know that God is perfect (Matt. 5:48; see also Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:31; Isa. 25:1), we know that when he grieves he does so perfectly and without sin. In Scripture, we see that just as God does not shift this way and that, as a ship might with no anchor (see Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Heb. 13:8), so too does our sin and suffering grieve him (see Isa. 1:11–14; 59:15; Hos. 12:14; Eph. 4:30). But we must be careful in two ways at this point:

First, we must not assume that his grieving over sin and suffering is exactly like ours, for in our grief, we are prone to despair and the capricious changing of our minds about things we have resolved not to do.

Second, we must not think that there is no point of relation between our thoughts and emotions and God’s thoughts and emotions. We are, after all, made in his image.

Thomas Aquinas, while at the University of Paris, borrowed from the early church fathers a helpful way of speaking about this called the analogia entis, or the “analogy of being.” Part and parcel of this idea is that the relationship God and all men share allows for us, finite man, to speak about the infinite God. Aquinas went on to distinguish between three types or uses of language: univocal, equivocal, and analogical.

For example, if two parents are grieving the loss of their child, we would consider their grief to be univocal. They are identical. One simply cannot say who is grieving more. If we said, however, that “the parents are grieving,” and compared it to the exclamation, “good grief!” then we would see how the two uses of “grief” here do not share a similarity at all. They are equivocal, not related. Finally, if we said again, “the parent is grieving for his child,” and, “the child is grieving for her goldfish,” then clearly both are grieving, just not in the same way. They share something similar, but they are not identical. They are analogical. The same holds true for our grief and God’s. While they are in some sense similar, there exists one, major dissimilarity: his grief is perfect. And again, our only confidence that this is true is the fact that Scripture portrays a holy God who deeply cares for his children. Indeed, the very use of the words Father and children in Scripture would be meaningless if God were unable to care as a father does.

This, of course, cannot justify speaking about God in any way we feel. We are bound by Scripture. We cannot say, “we sin, therefore, God sins, just analogically, that is, just not in the same way.” No, the various authors of Scripture won’t allow that, for the unified testimony of their writings is that God is righteous and holy. Not a single one alludes to the possibility that evil is in God, or that he created or authored sin. While we can learn about God outside of Scripture (through our observations of the natural world), we must not go against Scripture. We must not attribute God with something that Scripture contradicts. And it would be a contradiction to deny God’s grief.

Clearly, God is portrayed throughout Scripture as grieving over certain affairs. We rejoice when we hear of the amazing, salvific grace of God call one sinner from death to life, as do the angels in God’s presence (Luke 15:10). This joy that fills the heavenly court is made possible because God is triune. The same goes for love. If God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have not always enjoyed an intimate union with each other, then how could he have created creatures that enjoy similar things? How could he have created creatures who mourn, righteously, over sin and suffering?

He created us this way because he intimately knows grief, as the father of any prodigal son would. When Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37), he did so as the Son of God. In this, he reflected his Father’s lament over Judah centuries before (Ezek. 18:30–32), and not only the Father’s, but the Spirit’s too (Isa. 63:10). Indeed, the triune God grieves over sin and its wages. He self-sacrificially condescended (a
foremost attribute of God if ever there was one) to know man, and thus in knowing man, he freely invited the grief that such an imbalanced relationship would bring. Yet such kindness is not meant to keep us laden with guilt but with God’s forgiveness—through our repentance (Rom. 2:4).

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 30.4 (March 2006): 43–44}

11 May 2010

Unreal City

I'M NOT EXACTLY SURE WHY, as I've not read T.S. Eliot's Waste Land with an eye on analysis (even though I've read it many times), but the following few lines have haunted me for years (ll. 60–63):
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The modern "city," with all its complex features as a topos (a standardized setting, an archetypal place), figures prominently in modernist literature. It appears that upon further inspection, what has struck me about these four lines lies somewhat close to the poet's intention. The city is an empty shill, symbolizing all that modernity has driven us toward—isolation, disconnection, sterility, devoid of the divine, and thus the breakdown of reality. The passage over London Bridge becomes a snippet of that meaningless half-life, the kind that simply goes through the motions. How could it be otherwise in such an aseptic, tedious, and monotonous state?

Nothing much happens in this city. There's motion but no dynamism; dialogue but no real communication; sex but not love. Reduced to unreality, the city itself devolves into a blooming corpse (see ll. 69–75). Death has undone so many (Dante saw this years ago). Under the incessant rambling of industrialization comes the polluting smog on a short winter day. Desolate and disrespectful of nature, the city whored itself out to the commercialization of its very soul.

Is this not why, dear reader (or should I say, as Eliot does in l. 76, "You! Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblablemon frère!), we look forward to that other city? Or are you content to aim simply for what's on offer under that "brown fog of a winter dawn"?

For those interested, one can listen to Eliot himself read the entire poem. He sounds a bit unnatural, stilted, but given the poem's content, I suppose it matches. Notice too how his tone changes when he starts reading the strophe that begins with the above four lines. Eery and prophetic.

07 May 2010

You Will Read This (unless, of course, you don't)

So, can an attempt even be made to apply the hermeneutic laid out in the previous posts (parts 1, 2, and 3) to certain predictions found in the New Testament? This may be where the discussion gets heated for some, given our millennial madness in the church. It's one thing to suggest that one of Amos' prophecies didn't come about the way he described it because of some intervening historical contingency; it's another thing (some may say) to apply that principle to the words Jesus and the apostles spoke concerning the "end times."

Unsurprisingly, Richard Pratt, in
When Shall These Things Be? A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism, does just that. But not much. He spends about seven pages on "historical contingencies and New Testament Eschatology," while the previous twenty-six pages are basically a distillation of the work I linked to in the first part of this series. No doubt, Pratt had to lay the groundwork for what he eventually wanted to say about New Testament (NT) prophecy, given the context in a book that seeks to challenge hyper-preterist arguments about eschatology.

According to Pratt, the claims so central to hyper-preterist thought—that the second coming of Christ was imminent (within a generation) and that "all biblical predictions must be fulfilled just as they are stated"—can be challenged and thus significantly weaken the hyper-preterist position (p. 121). He leaves the first claim for others and moves on to discuss the second.

Since hyper-preterists argue that the NT posits an imminent return of Christ, they revise their understanding of the nature of this return (cataclysmic, physical, and renewal of the cosmos) in order to maintain the integrity of the NT writings (i.e., if Christ didn't return within a generation of his ascension, then the NT is fallible, etc.). Here's where Pratt's hermeneutic (outlined in the previous thre
e posts of this series) comes in: "Even if the New Testament does predict an imminent return of Christ, intervening historical contingencies make it unnecessary that an imminent return take place" (p. 149). Indeed, a first-century expectant Israelite would know that such an imminent return was not "set in stone." Why? 
  1. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of an imminent eschaton upon the assumption of repentance (and this was only partially realized); 
  2. Daniel came to realize that the fullness of the eschaton was delayed due to lack of repentance; 
  3. and Haggai and Zechariah called for repentance during the delay period, to hasten the coming of the fullness of the eschaton
So goes the perspective of the NT authors, according to Pratt:
  1. The blessings of the eschaton were underway, and the imminent return of Christ was offered as a benefit of repentance;
  2. the lack of repentance among the Christic community delayed the return indefinitely;
  3. "Nevertheless, the hope and prayer of every true believer is that through their repentance and faithful living the return of Christ may be hastened" (p. 149).
Three examples of this come from Saint Peter's mouth: (1) Acts 2:15–17; (2) Acts 3:19–21; and (3) 2 Peter 3:4–7, 9.

The first example has the apostle declaring the arrival of the eschaton (as spelled out by the prophet Joel). In the second example, we see Peter including an imminent return of Christ on the condition of repentance ("Repent…turn…so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come…and that [the Lord] may send the Christ…."). There's no doubt the parousia—the return of the king, the second advent of Christ—was in view here: "He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything…" (Acts 3:21). The fullness of the return is on offer here, even if its blessings have already begun.

The third example is a little trickier. According to Peter, the final return will be cataclysmic, whatever it actually looks like in space and time. How, then, did he understand the fact that it had not yet occurred by the time he was nearing his own demise? Was Christ shown to be a liar, a false prophet? Enter 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent." Ah, the Lord God was showing great patience to the church in not sending the Messiah back to judge. He did not want "anyone to be destroyed," but wanted "everyone to repent." Just like Daniel came to see, "the lack of repentance was the reason for the delay of eschatological blessings" (p. 152).

Kind of a convenient hermeneutic, isn't it? The interlocutor might say that we're just moving the goalposts (because of intervening historical contingencies) whenever we're faced with a prediction in Scripture that doesn't come to pass in the way that it is stated. But this isn't intended to be m
uch of an apologetic anyway. That's not what Saint Peter brought it up for. He said what he said for the same reason the latter prophets said what they said—to motivate the people, in the face of the delay of the eschaton, toward faithful Christian living, in order to hasten the coming of the Christ. Yes, hasten. "Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames (2 Peter 3:11–12, emphasis mine).

Thus Pratt concludes: 
Peter contended that the knowledge that Christ will return one day in cosmic judgment and blessing should lead to a godly way of life for believers. …Peter also made an astounding offer. When God's people repent and live in holiness, they "speed" (speudontas) the coming of the day of God. (p. 153)
And just to make sure everybody knows about his Reformed creds, Pratt goes on to add the caveat: "Peter had understood that the time of Christ's return had been immutably fixed by God's eternal decree, but in terms of God's providential involvement in history, he also knew that it could be delayed or hastened" (ibid.).

I'm not exactly sure how an event can be both immutably fixed and contingent, but whatever.

The thing is, I think this exegesis comports with the biblical data; it provides an "a-ha" moment. However, it remains to be seen how it comports with typical Reformed orthodoxy and its understanding of God's decrees. It doesn't seem to me that the doctrine of secondary causes (cf.
WCF 3.1) can be stretched to cover it.

Beyond this, the hermeneutic opens up a few other interesting questions regarding other New Testament predictions: Could it have been otherwise that Jerusalem or the temple was destroyed (Olivet Discourse)? What about Peter's denial? Judgment upon Capernaum, Korizan, and Bethsaida? Jesus' betrayal by Judas Iscariot? And what about his death on the cross? These are just a few of Jesus' predictions found in the Gospels. Many more can be found throughout the apostolic writings. What do we gain by embracing this hermeneutic? What do we lose?

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