14 December 2011

1 Out of 7 Is Bad

TWO MISTAKES accompany most discussions on gluttony. The first is that it only pertains to those with a less than shapely waistline; the second is that it always involves food. In reality, it can apply to toys, television, entertainment, sex, or relationships. It is about an excess of anything.

The ancient pagans got this right. At Delphi (in lower central Greece), the sanctuary of Apollo had inscribed upon it, wisely, “Nothing in Extremes.” The problem with this, of course, was that the judge of such excessiveness was the individual, whereas for followers of Christ it is the Creator God Himself. And we know His thoughts on this subject not because we fall into some kind of trance and speak his words—as the oracle at Delphi supposedly did—but because we have his Word to us. See, for example, Proverbs 23:1–3: “When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies for they are deceptive food.” This is basically a warning to exercise self-control when faced with the extravagance of the ungodly rich who may seek to lure you into their way of thinking.

Sound familiar? Whose life, before Jesus was born, best illustrates this for us? Daniel was the one who sat at the opulent table and “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food” (Dan. 1:8). Again, this same principle applies to any good thing that God has created. Surely we are to enjoy them (this is no call to rigid self-denial), but we are not to consume them with ravenous gluttony, demanding more from these simple pleasures than Spirit-filled prudence allows.

Prudence, by the way, is the opposite of gluttony. Prudence, in the sense of wise frugality or temperance, is the heavenly virtue that, according to the church fathers Chrysostom and Jerome, was severely lacking in Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden; indeed, so much so that due to their wild appetite they were cast out of Paradise, for they exalted themselves as the judges (much like the ancient Greeks and Romans) of what was excessive.

Gluttony, or a lack of moderation, also leads many of us to demand all things to be exactly the way we want them. A more subtle form of gluttony, this vice is not merely tolerated in churches today but acclaimed. It has become respectable. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who, as the old Romans did, desired so much pleasure that after eating a meal they purged themselves in order to eat some more. But a keen eye will notice in many quarters what we may call a gluttony of delicacy.

In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes this vice as it inflicts “the patient’s mother.” She is a “positive terror to hostesses and servants . . . always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’” Lewis points out that because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. She will, in fact, “be astonished to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality.” And it is this kind of gluttonous sensuality, Wormwood instructs Screwtape, that has as its chief use “a kind of artillery preparation for attacks on chastity.” On the battlefield, the artillery bombarded the enemy’s defenses to prepare the way for an incisive attack. As long as we are deadened to this in us (and the fact that this is seldom discussed among us doesn’t help), we will continue on our merry way and in the end be as astonished as the patient’s mother.

Along with this gluttony of delicacy is often found a tendency to demand too much from others, thus exasperating them to the point of withdrawal or anger. Friendships (to say nothing of the marital relationship) are true gifts from God, yet they too can be objects of gluttony. Having high expectations is one thing; having unrealistic expectations—demanding more from others (like from a child) than is appropriate—for the gluttonous pursuance of pleasure is another thing entirely.

But there’s good news. Gluttony, which is admittedly a matter of the heart, is nonetheless often limited by our bodies. If we eat in excess, many times our bodies let us know. If we are too fussy about having everything just so, we’ll be told to do it ourselves. If we demand too much from others, they will not want to be around us. And all these can serve as catalysts to change.

Thanks be to God, change is possible. By the power of his Spirit, we are enabled to pursue such changes, to practice self-control and a healthy dose of self-denial (hard for us Americans, to be sure).

We Christians have unthinkingly embraced our society’s desire “for just a little more” as we pursue our supposed main objective in life — upward mobility. But these are little more than the sanctified vice of gluttony; indeed, they are respectable sins.

{Part of this originally appeared in Tabletalk 32.5 (May 2008): 12–13}

07 December 2011

Out of Africa?

THOMAS C. ODEN'S How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity made its way across my desk more than two years ago, and I have been meaning to publish this short response to it. I remember at the time having my own personal list of books I wanted to read that year already "set in stone," so I resisted the urge. But it just sat there staring me, all short and interesting looking.

So I picked it up.

And I'm glad I did—though not because Oden makes an open-and-shut case for his thesis, which is, in a nutshell, stated in the title of the book itself. The book has indeed given me much to consider and remember when it comes to the magnanimous influence African churchmen have had on Western Christianity. Now, I'm not too familiar with Oden, only by way of his Justification Reader and a few of the Ancient Christian commentaries. He's not above sometimes chipping away the corners of a square peg, as a few  reviewers of his Reader have noted. This short book is no different in that regard; one gets the sneaking suspicion that some conclusions have been slightly exaggerated. But Oden anticipates all this, which does his argument service.

The evidence for the thesis itself apparently became manifest to him (and others) during the course of his many years of work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. "We were not prepared for the breadth and power of this evidence," Oden writes. "Nowhere in the literature could we find this influence explained. Everywhere in the literature it seemed to be either ignored or resisted. It came only from decades of experience with African texts and ideas. Finally we learned to trace the path back from Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Nisibis and Rome to its origins in Africa" (p. 29). From this good report comes one of the more annoying features of the book, however. And that is Oden's penchant for seeming somewhat shrill in his brief and scattered diatribes against the neglect of his thesis over the past few generations of historical scholarship. But once you get used to those jarring interruptions, the easier it is to tune them out.

At its best, this short book does serve as an exhortation to be on the lookout for "European chauvinism" (p. 23), when the evidences for the history of the transmission of African Christian traditions have been largely ignored, when the movement of Christian thought headed north out of Africa instead of south into Africa.

16 November 2011

Closer to Fine

IF SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHIES disgust or madden or bore you, then you'll want to visit here another time. I usually don't read them, so I understand. It's well-nigh narcissistic to think others would want to read these kinds of details about one's own life.

Life. Nice segue. I'm trying to tell you something about my life / Maybe give me insight between black and white.

During that angst-ridden era of flannels, Camels, and Reality Bites, I found myself barely hanging on to some semblance of spirituality. This guy Jesus really existed a long time ago, but we couldn't be much surer about anything else. It took a few years after my "conversion experience" to get to this place, but it had been moving in that direction since the very night I wept at the end of the aisle. (The reason being, overemphasis on the experience of conversion by nature sets people up for failure—unless you're on the road to Damascus, I suppose.)

If I could put my finger on one particular moment I began noticeably to unravel, it was after saturating myself with the Renaissance humanists. Or, rather, it was after misconstruing the entire movement that we now call Christian humanism. In short, my puerile understanding and attempt to put into practice the ideals of this movement quickly devolved: the Christian part fell by the wayside and I was left with the humanist part alone. But the wages of humanism is death. (In a moment of perfect confluence, "Imagine" just came on the radio as I write this.)

Literature and music. Both play a key role in my spiritual development, which gets me to the point of this post.

During my early-to-mid 20s, the liner notes to Moby's Everything Is Wrong (Mute, 1995) became my manifesto. It had all the right mix of disdain for the Christian Right, support for environmentalist causes, social justice (for the poor and hungry), universalism, and syndicalism. This was the kind of stuff that preached to me. I rarely rolled out of bed on the Lord's Day. Music and literature, especially that which employed biblical allusions, remained my primary source of inspiration and discipleship.

Enter the Indigo Girls. While I haven't kept up with them that much since, nor did I rush out to buy everything they ever produced at the time, one particular album remained my daily bread in the mid 90s: the self-titled Indigo Girls (Epic Records, 1989).

Each track, in some way or another, seemed to describe my journey: "Secure Yourself"—choose your identity wisely, this world is dark, and the journey is long; "Kid Fears"—the juxtaposition of normal childhood fears versus those tragedies we sometimes hear about on the news; "Prince of Darkness"—a testament to family, friends and support systems in the face of diabolical forces that threaten to pull you under; "Blood and Fire"—all about the obsessive-compulsive, and thus dangerous, kind of love; "Tried to Be True"—faithfulness and compromise in the little choices you make everyday; "Love's Recovery"—the redemptive power of selfless love; "Land of Canaan"—the shame and pain and loneliness of unrequited love; "Center Stage"—through several allusions to historic nursery rhymes, we are given the exhortation to make our actions sure and to accept the consequences; and "History of Us"—a double entendre: make certain your story tells the tale of one who was present in every moment, who entered into the often pain-filled messiness of other's lives, who answered the call of the living God, before time makes history of you.

How did they do it? How did they sound so naturally a part of my world? Come to find out later that Amy Ray graduated Emory with a degree in English and religion, and Emily Saliers, who also went to Emory, is the daughter of Don Saliers, professor emeritus of theology and worship at Candler School.

My favorite was the album's opening song, "Closer to Fine" (read the lyrics). It struck all the right chords. It also became a favorite cover for the folk band I started (as a ploy to get my now wife to fall in love with me). In the first line (quoted in the second paragraph above), the singer sets the tone: seeing the world in blacks and whites alone avoids the issue. She needs help to see all the shades of gray (in order to realize that the answer lies in the seeking), and coming to grips with this leads "me [to] take my life less seriously" because "it's only life after all." In other words, relax. You're not expected to find all the answers.

Analyzing every lyric from this tune would turn this already long blog post into an unbearably long one. But at its core, this song sings of gaining stability through the awareness of instability—becoming "closer to fine"—in the face of the vertigo-like symptoms that result from the apparent relativity and confusion of life that appears in response to the search for something definitive, something black and white, from one source. Add to this the realization that that search is couched in an everyday life clearly dependent on its social construction, and seeking "solace in a bottle or possibly a friend" sounds about right.

These days, I've learned to be more critical—less gullible—when listening or reading. And I've certainly learned to cling to God's Word (enfleshed and spoken/written/tasted in the bread and wine and passed through in the waters of baptism) and thus seek more from this "source for some definitive." Nevertheless, I'm still a recovering progressive; I'm still a humanist ever-seeking for the Christian to gain ground. I'm still walking that "crooked line."

09 November 2011

God Is Against Us, After All

[This is part five in what I'm thinking will be an eight-part series.]

God is indeed against us. And how could it be other? In the face of genocide in Europe, Russia, Africa, the Balkans, or the south side of Chicago (for that matter), of child prostitution in southeast Asia, of the killing of untold millions on various battlefields of this earth — just in the last century, one cannot forever presume upon the kindness and mercy of God (once again, see Rom. 2:4).

One hardly needs to make the case that God is holy and just, that is, perfect and fair. His holiness is incomparable—no other gods even come close (Ex. 15:11). His throne room occupies the highest penthouse one can imagine (Isa. 57:15). And just like anything else that can be said about God, he doesn’t simply act holy or just, he is himself holy and just (Deut. 32:4). Given all this, surely he couldn’t be considered perfect and fair if he turned a blind eye to all the atrocities mentioned above. His faithfulness depends on it.

But it’s all too easy to point the finger at the likes of Auschwitz or Hiroshima. We’d do well to remember that we’ve all added to this mess. From the time of the disobedience and fall of Adam and Eve, sinfulness has been bequeathed to all their heirs (however that was done), and all their heirs have contributed their own share to it (Rom. 5:12). None of us escape this problem, at least not on our own.

We all reenact the same sin of the first pair too. In the garden, an open, honest and loving relationship with the creator was rejected for the supposed pleasure of making their own rules. It was a failed grasp at autonomy, to do things according to their own agenda, not God’s. In so doing, Adam and Eve betrayed their confusion: they thought they were God himself, rulers and sustainers of all that is. Being the pinnacle of God’s creation, they clung to that status and, indeed, became intoxicated with it.

We all do the same.

The result of this fall was that God cursed the serpent who deceived them (Gen. 3:14–15). He then cursed Eve, and thus all women, to suffer during childbirth (which childbirth, ironically, paved the way for the history of God’s unfolding plan of redemption) and to become profoundly alienated from her husband, especially through tedious power struggles in their relationship. Adam, of course, also receives these curses, along with every man related to him and who acts like him; there is indeed a cosmic significance attached to his sin (see, for example, Rom. 5:15–19). The earth, too, faced God’s judgment (Gen. 3:17–19):
You listened to your wife and ate the fruit which I told you not to eat. Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse. You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil, and you will become soil again.
And finally, they were both kicked out of Paradise (Gen. 3:23–24). God’s temple-garden had to be cleansed, protected—both acts that Adam failed to do. Upon seeing that old dragon he should’ve throttled it and wrestled it out of the garden. But in that crucial moment, he sat back, all lazy and careless like we men are wont to do.

11 October 2011

Kahnweiler's Boon

AS I MENTIONED in the last post, one painting in particular jumped out at me when I was last at the Institute. A little lie. Another one did too, but not as boldly. They're totally different from each other, though stylistically Chagall's White Crucifixion follows the trajectory of this one.

Picasso's Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) was the first to grab my attention. Kahnweiler was an important person in Picasso's life, not least because as an art dealer (he's also an under-appreciated art historian) he championed Pablo's new, 'radical' style (Cubism) and thus worked tirelessly to promote his and other's (almost always those who had no audience or collectors) works in his gallery in Montparnasse.

23 September 2011

The Painter & the Painted

AS I LEARN MY WAY around Chicagoland, one spot has become a semi-regular stop—the Art Institute of Chicago.

The last time I was there, one painting in particular jumped out at me—Chagall's White Crucifixion (1938). There's a couple of elements in this painting that have kept me thinking about it:

The first is the juxtaposition of the central figure—Jesus on the cross—with the surrounding images of Jewish oppression (from all over: Nazi Germany, Lithuania, and communists in Russia). Jesus the suffering Jew is thus shown to be in solidarity with the suffering Jews of history.

Christ the Center

I FAILED TO POINT THIS OUT when it hit the podcast shelf back in August, so here's the link to Christ the Center's interview with me, Camden Bucey, and Jeff Waddington discussing Perspectives on the Sabbath.

As one commenter noted, "Doesn’t sound like you cleaned up the audio very much," to which Mr. Bucy replied, "You should hear the original recording." The moment provided some challenges, technology such as it is. But it was thoroughly enjoyable, and I hope you may find it the same.

08 August 2011

New Job, Cut Me Some Slack

I'll be around, but as I've just begun a new gig at Trinity International University (director of communications), things will be quiet here for a couple more weeks.


25 July 2011

Uncommon Grace: the Rain God

Baal statuette
14-12th cent. BCE
I ONCE HAD A PROFESSOR who repeated a particular mantra throughout the course of his class on the first five books of the Bible: “Rain + Grain = Life.” His point was simple enough: in the tribal atmosphere of Canaan, the Israelite’s loyalty to the true God alone (see Deut. 6:4–5) would have constantly been challenged. But they needed to remember that their God (not Baal), was also the creator God. As such, he was the one who brought rain needed for grain, which, of course, was needed for sustaining life itself. Here we see how creation and promise-keeping are bound together: if God promised to Abraham that through him all the nations would be blessed (Gen. 26:4), then God was determined to sustain the family (Israel) through which that would happen (in other words, praying for rain was to 'remind' God of his promise).

20 July 2011

Uncommon Grace: Good God

IT SHOULD GO without saying that the creator of the universe exercises control over that universe. To be sure, he exercises that control in ways that are not so evident to the naked eye. Now, I don’t intend to suggest that “control” here means something close to “puppeteering,” but it ought to come as no surprise that the creator God has created the world with principles and laws that reflect his rule. Freedom may abound, but not outside the order with which he himself has gifted his universe. Consider the care of the earth, the rain that is needed for growth, the grain that is needed for life—we needn’t hesitate to ask such things from God and to give him credit when such things occur:

06 July 2011

Uncommon Grace: Creative Love

WHEN GOD LOVINGLY and self-sacrificially assigned functions1 to the cosmos, to the satellites, to the earth, its creatures, and its vice-regents in Genesis 1, he saw that it reflected his glory, that it was made for him and that therefore it was “very good.”

The act of creation was loving and self-sacrificial because God didn’t have to do it. This means that he was not coerced, either from without or within, to do so. It’s not the same as saying that God can still be God and not be faithful, for faithfulness is characteristic of who God is. He does what he says he’s going to do (he doesn’t have to say he’s going to do anything, of course) precisely because he is himself faithful. If he did not, then he would not be the God revealed to us in the Scriptures (Isa. 49:7; 1 Cor. 1:9; 1 Thess. 5:24).

27 June 2011

Uncommon Grace

“Don't you have better things to do than pick on me?” —Job

Job's Complaint, William Blake (1793)
Some time ago, a well-established middle-aged man entered into what seemed to everybody around him like a curse. He was known for being an honest man, filled with integrity in all his dealings. His investments portfolio was strong; he had many resources, and much capital besides. Even more striking, he was a man of God. He was truly committed to him, so much so that he was not only mindful of his own holiness but for the holiness of others as well. In fact, he was known to intercede on behalf of his family, so concerned was he for their right standing before God.

20 June 2011

10-Minute Spill

Fr. Henri tapped on my window earlier
than usual this morning, which means he
probably skipped or kept short his intercessions.
Just as the dawn broke light on the world
and reached the sharpened pencil on my study table,
the old prior shuffled inside, wearing,
oddly enough, an orange waistcoat.

“But it’s St. Patty’s Day!”
My laughter was met with a mutter:
“I lost a bet.”

15 June 2011

There's No Turning Back?

YOU KNOW THAT OLD CLICHÉ, "There's no turning back"? You know how in almost every circumstance when it's employed that it's not exactly true? More often than not, it's a cop-out, used when we've stepped in a steaming pile and subsequently refuse—out of pride and stubbornness—to clean off our shoe and turn around.

It has its origins in the "die is cast" metaphor/cliché, which was apparently coined by Julius Caesar in 49 BC to describe a military move into Italy across the river Rubicon, which he knew would give rise to a conflict that he must then win.

I faced such a conflict once—in the middle of the High Peaks Region of the Adirondack Mountains. Turning back was as equally dangerous as going forward, but with the added displeasure of defeat. In October 2007 I was playing the best man in a cousin's wedding in the Cascades, after which a small group of moderate hikers (myself included) made our way west to Phelp's trailhead from the small town of Keene Valley. What follows are a few journal entries from that trip.
18 October 2007
Camp. Shoulder of Mts. Basin and Saddleback,
Adirondack, New York.

I've seen the most spectacular vistas this day; I've also accomplished the most challenging hike of my life. From Slant Rock, we hiked up Mt. Marcy. It was a moderate hike, and it took most of the morning. After lunch, we then caught a spur up Little Haystack (overlooking Panther Gorge) and then on to Mt. Haystack, ascending some 400 feet with a few near vertical pitches (the so-called "Devil's Half Mile"). We climbed with our packs on (average weight about 40 lbs.). I don't recommend this (turns out, neither does the guidebook).

After reaching the summit, we immediately began our descent to the foot of Mt. Basin via the State Range Trail, with hopes of finding some water, since we were running out of both it and light. This descent (part of which we had just ascended) was the hardest and dangerous hike of my life, not least because of the burden on my back. The most nerve-racking part was the single-foot width path along a ledge that simply . . . vanished. Mt. Basin's peak was our third for the day, which I also don't recommend attempting, what with the shape we were in. By the final descent to the pocket below my legs were shaking from the strain. Finally, we entered the shoulder—battered, bruised and exhausted, and with no water!

For now: Sleep. Tomorrow: Saddleback, and then on to child's play.
It wasn't until we set up camp and I consulted the trail book, however, that I realized what was "comin' round the mountain." The next entry, which I wrote on the flight home, chronicles our final day.
As expected, we awoke around 6:45 on the 19th. All night the wind had been howling, spitting constantly with a rattle above our heads on the tent roof. I wondered how it was that our tent wasn't lifted up, the wind as furious as it was. That, coupled with my fear of climbing in such weather and the guidebook's warning: "Turning L at the end of the ledge, the trail descends [we ascended, coming from the west] precipitously over ledges where extreme caution is needed"—made for a restless night. To be honest, it bordered on anxiety with intermittent fits of panic. I worried about someone in the group getting hurt; I worried about myself; I worried about slick, iced-over rock; I worried about the paralyzing fear that can overtake someone on a precipitous ledge; I just worried.

But in the end, it was for naught. It's hard to describe—climbing ledges where a single slip meant death; climbing such ledges as an inexperienced climber with a backpack on—but it was every bit as precipitous as you'd imagine. The wind continued to push and the rain pelted our faces and made the rock slippery. It was stupid or brave. Perhaps both?
Of course, all this blather is relative to my experience. Were I a seasoned climber, I'd probably laugh at the drama. But it's drama we all experienced—together. We learned very little at the top of each summit; the mountainsides taught us the most. The hike ended thus:
Reaching Saddleback's summit in about an hour and a half, we saw nothing but fog and mist and decided to move on quickly before the weather worsened. Our descent took about the same time, but it was mostly hiking with less climbing involved. We had been out of water since the previous night. I spared a gulp for everyone when we reached the summit, as B.P_____ had done for us that morning. Every muddy puddle looked delicious. At around 10:45 a.m., we hiked down to the headwaters of the Orebed (now on the Orebed Brook Trail), and gorged ourselves with water and Ramen Noodles. From there, we made our way to Johns Brook and stuck close to it on the Southside Trail, one that offered magnificent views of the rapids and popping yellow and auburn leaves that lined its banks. After hopping a few rocks (thankfully, the water wasn't too high), we walked out of the woods earlier than expected—Friday evening instead of Saturday midday—on account of foregoing the climb up Gothics and putting our LORD God to the test.

So, that night we hobbled into the Ausable Pub & Inn, and, enjoying the food and ale, we decided to stay at this trustworthy establishment for the night. Therewith we proceeded with much mirth and merriment.
I'm sure there's a few devotional points embedded in this story somewhere, but I'll let the reader figure those out. All of these photos were taken with a junky point-and-shoot Sony Cypershot. Click on an image to get up close and personal.

Atop Mt. Marcy

Marcy Men: B.P., K.S., C.D., C.O.

A fairly typical climb—but not one of the steepest by a long shot

Random barn

Our walk out, flanked by the rushing brook on our left
and wrapped in golden yellow

10 June 2011

Photography Friday (7)

MAYBE IT WAS OUR VENTURE onto the island of Mykonos that led me to tack on a few visual escapades from a couple of other Greek isles next: Santorini and Rhodes. My usual intent is to mix it up a little more than this, say, from a paradaisical island to the horrors of Buchenwald. Perhaps subconsciously (and now quite consciously) I don't want to go anywhere near that stuff today.

We'll start with Rhodes, as I only have two from our stop there. There's a remarkable acropolis atop the ancient city of Lindos that has a killer vista of the coastline and the sea beyond (facing east). From there I offer five more photos from the eye-candy isle of Santorini (notably revealing my obsession with doors and facades).

One of the more memorable bits of tid about Santorini was the fact that water is a precious commodity on the island, and so they conserve it religiously. A glass of Vin Santo is often poured in its stead. I suppose it could be worse. As is typical, all of these photos were taken on a Canon AE-1 with E100VS (slide film). Click on an image to get a closer look.

07 June 2011

This Pornographic Life

YOU'VE DONE IT AGAIN. Once more, you find yourself looking where you ought not. And this you have willfully done. You’ve begged God to remove this blight, these gross desires. You even made some headway. But you’ve gone off and done it again. Forget confession, God doesn’t want to hear that same old prayer, especially not when you know you’ll be breaking your commitment before long. But wait, maybe God doesn’t care that much about all this? After all, he made you; he knows your natural desires, he knows what you need. Why would he make you this way and get all worked up when you act on it? It’s not that big of a deal if done in moderation; he doesn’t think you need to confess.

31 May 2011

Two Cheers for Existentialism

ONCE UPON A TIME, I was reading Jürgen Moltmann (I believe it was God in Creation) wherein he wrote in passing on his way to some point or another how the only serious atheists were the likes of Sartre and Camus. I remember being somewhat surprised at this, mainly because the two folks mentioned were also the most enthusiastic and consistent existentialists; I daresay they have no competition even today. At any rate, I decided to re-read The Stranger, as well as portions of Being and Nothingness (though I can only read philosophy in small chunks separated by periods of both being and nothingness), and I was quickly reminded of why atheists such as these ought to be taken seriously: they almost got it right.

23 May 2011

The Logical Order of Things About Which We Know Next to Nothing

Augustine (6th c. fresco)
THERE HAVE BEEN, at times, moments of expected flack since I’ve outed myself as a single predestinarian. At worst it’s deemed a belligerent betrayal, at best with a wink and a nod it’s seen as a defect—often in intelligence. Not too long ago, a dear friend approached me quite concerned about not having vocalized my thoughts on this subject to him or others near to me (he did this for all the right reasons; we all should be so lucky to have at least one friend who cares to this extent), also suggesting my thinking has changed on this issue. With my typical smug chuckle, I didn’t offer any explanation one way or the other—but I thought there wasn’t much of a point when it’s a presumed fact that the breadth of the Reformed tradition excludes single predestination.

19 May 2011

Land of the Lost: Nutshell

"Fish with Legs" by Ellen Marcus © 2011
THE TIME HAS COME for the last post about John Walton's Lost World of Genesis One. [update: Walton's expanded edition on this subject hits the shelf this October—Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology.]

According to Walton, a responsible reading of Genesis 1:1-2:3 will approach the text as ancient literature, not modern science. In so doing, we will understand that the author's original intent was "far different from what has been traditionally understood" (p. 162)—not least since the days of flood geology. The original intent has to do with the functions of the cosmos (why it was created) as opposed to the material structure of the cosmos (how it was created). Walton calls the ancient view of creation the "cosmic temple inauguration view." This means that the events of Genesis 1 describe how "the cosmos was given its functions as God's temple, where he has taken up his residence and from where he runs the cosmos. This world is his headquarters" (ibid.).

13 May 2011

Review of Perspectives on the Sabbath

Andy Naselli provides a brief review of Perspectives on the Sabbath, wherein he highlights some of the elements that make the book "an excellent example of how different views use different hermeneutical approaches and theological methods." Check it out.

11 May 2011

Land of the Lost, part 11

"ON THE BASIS OF THE VIEW THAT Genesis 1 is a discussion of functional origins," Walton writes, "we may now tackle the question of what is appropriate in the classroom" (p. 153). If you've been following along, you'll remember that Walton removes from the interpretation of Genesis 1 the possibility that it says anything about material origins (i.e., how the cosmos was created); it instead speaks of the world's functional origins (i.e., why the cosmos was created). As such, and as we saw in part 9 of this series, "whatever explanation scientists offer in their attempts to explain origins, we could theoretically adopt it as a description of God's handiwork" (p. 132). One important question thus remains for Walton: What is acceptable to teach regarding the purpose of the universe in a public school science class? Answer: nothing. Why? Because teleology is beyond the scope of science (see part 7, Prop. 13, for more on this).

Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose
  • Empirical science is, by definition, based on methodological naturalism (i.e., it necessarily brackets the metaphysical, because such is not verifiable one way or the other with the tools of empirical science).
  • Empirical science is focused on descriptions of the world's origins that are falsifiable, and thus their strengths and weaknesses are to be acknowledged (evolution, as well as any other origins theories, included).
  • Empirical science is, by definition, agnostic (i.e., neutral) regarding purpose. It is not designed to be able to define purpose (or no purpose), even though (theoretically) it may be able to deduce rationally that purpose is logically the best explanation. This therefore precludes Genesis 1, metaphysical naturalism (atheism), and design theories from empirical science classes.
According to Walton, the answer to the fact that many biology teachers (for example) teach as fact dysteleology (i.e., no purpose, metaphysical naturalism) is not to introduce metaphysical supernaturalism or a teleological description of origins into the science class. Young-earth, old-earth, and Intelligent Design theory posit precisely this, and are thus outside the scope of empirical science, which science is supposed to be taught in such classes.

The answer to the problem of science teachers overstepping their bounds is to call them and their administrators to the mat, by (1) demanding they maintain teleological neutrality to the best of their ability; (2) demanding that publishers of curricula maintain the same and that administrators select curricula based on this demand; (3) demanding that administrators introduce philosophical curricula—in which various metaphysical options can be considered—to the lineup.

Christian too have to come to terms with a few things, namely, (1) Quit trying to impose their own teleological views on public science education; and (2) thus quit pressing the Scriptures into service in public education (especially since it doesn't offer a description of how God created the material world).

This raises one final issue, which serves as a supplement to Walton's views here regarding the nature of science and what is or is not helpful to teach, by definition, in a classroom that purports to teach one of the empirical sciences. It has to do also with the nature of the kingdom of God, and whether or not it's to be construed as two kingdoms or one. If the latter, as theonomists are wont to do, then the first point in the above paragraph will be abhorrent (as is the very idea of public schools, of course). Imposing their particular beliefs on society at large is precisely what many of them advocate. If one holds to the former (a two-kingdoms construct), then these suggestions will come as no surprise; the kingdom of man, understood to be under the rule of the kingdom of God and his Christ, is nevertheless not equivalent to the kingdom of God. The two will remain at odds until the king's return (how much at odds, I believe, is up to the church and its commitment to God's mission, i.e., the Great Commission).

One more thought: if a person holds to both (1) a two-kingdoms model of this age and the Commission and (2) any kind of creationism that thinks the Bible teaches something about material origins isn't an inconsistency immediately brought to fore? I mean, if a two-kingdomite agrees that you got to keep 'em separated (church & state, and thus teleological theories & empirical science), what does that person do if she believes that the Bible mandates certain scientific views about material origins? Wouldn't said views therefore necessarily need to be included in any discussion regarding origins taking place in the public school science class?

Looking for a way out of this hell? Here's the series in a nutshell.

04 May 2011

Land of the Lost, part 10

IF MAKING SENSE of the creation narrative in light of other portions of Scripture, ancient Near-Eastern contexts, and the relationship between science and faith isn't enough, Walton further argues, in his next proposition, that the theology produced in this construct is formidable—less shallow—than the resulting theology in competing views (not sure exactly which view he has in mind here, but my guess is young-earth creationism). It does nothing to weaken the picture of God (particularly his sovereignty and glory) laid out in Scripture.

02 May 2011

Remembering God's Grace

FOR MANY OF US, at the beginning of our Christian journeys, we thought of and spoke often about the radical forgiveness of a God who has been greatly sinned against. I remember myself going on and on about God’s longsuffering and patience, and how grateful I was for it. I also recall having conversations with friends who did not convert out of a debauched past, who had never known a time they didn’t consider themselves Christian.

27 April 2011

Land of the Lost, part 9

Homo Habilis
THE RUMBLINGS CONTINUE around the topic of the historicity of Adam and Eve. It so happens that today's Proposition from John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One nudges up against that question. Suffice to say, not everyone associated with BioLogos can be accused of denying the actual existence of a single first pair (see, e.g., Tim Keller's somewhat recent paper).

25 April 2011

In the Service of the King

Haymaking, Julien Dupré (1880)
OUR STORY BEGINS in the thick of the action: a middle-aged Martin Luther is busy at work reforming the doctrine of the provincial German churches. He soon settles on issues surrounding the Christian life. In response to the medieval church’s insistence that the only truly Christian calling necessarily involved a withdrawal or retreat from society (by becoming a monk), Luther began arguing that calling can and ought to affirm the spiritual value of work in this world. In other words, ordinary, everyday work has significant religious value. It may seem silly to us, but this was a reinterpretation of calling in Luther’s day—and it was radical at that.

18 April 2011

Land of the Lost, part 8

SO, HERE WE GO, part 8 of my review of John Walton's Lost World of Genesis One. I can't remember why I took such a long hiatus from posting this material (I think I just got sick of the subject around the time of last year's hoopla revolving around Bruce Waltke). It was the good discussion / series going on over at Jesus Creed, however, that served as the impetus to finish what I started.

As as an aside, on the day I began writing this post (about a year ago), I found myself sitting in the corner of Ligonier's studio listening to a live interview with Stephen Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell. He helpfully clarified a few misgivings that I've shared with others about Intelligent Design, the main one being his explanation that ID does not attempt to say anything about the Christian God, for it cannot. Its cumulative case for design simply shows that the design itself is not "apparent"; rather, it demands something intelligent standing behind it. That's as far as it purports to go. Thus ID is not religion masked as science.

I'm sure I could find something to disagree with there, but Dr. Meyer did a great job articulating the differences between ID as a scientific endeavor and the subsequent philosophical/theological speculations that come after the theory of design is established. I'm still left wondering about the observable chaos of the cosmos and how that relates to all this, but I suspect that will be my lot in this life (i.e., wondering) since, after all, I've no intention of becoming a molecular biologist or physicist.

PROPOSITION 14: God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought.
  • Two extremes are to be avoided in this construct that Walton has presented: (1) that God's work as creator is simply a finished act of the past; and (2) that his work as creator is an eternally repeating present.

    The potential deism of #1 is the most popular notion among Christians today (creation and providence are often unnecessarily bifurcated). Both young-earth creationists and certain theistic evolutionists can be guilty of this kind of thinking. It can further break down between those who see God simply winding up the clock and letting the natural laws he put in place to wind themselves out and those who see God intervening at critical junctures to accomplish major jumps in evolution. But they both betray the assumption that God is either irrelevant to natural history or that natural history is due to direct interventions. There is a middle way, writes Walton: "That God might be working alongside or through physical and biological processes in a way that science cannot detect" (p. 120).
  • The other extreme is that creation is a constantly recurring process. But one immediate objection to this view is that it destroys the telos of creation. In order for there to be a goal and a purpose, there must be a beginning and an end.

    Here Walton also has an eye on Jürgen Moltmann (see his God in Creation). Contra Moltmann, creation work after Genesis 1, properly speaking, is basically "sustaining and maintaing work," and thus are not "creative acts." In short, it's a difference between originating and preserving.
  • In contrast to the first extreme, creation is not over and done with. In contrast, to the second extreme, origins is rightfully distinguished from God's sustaining work, but both could be considered in the larger category of creation.

    This shakes out practically in our weekly practices within the community of faith: "We recognize his role of Creator God by our observance of the sabbath . . . recogniz[ing] that he is in charge. . . . [And] even though God does not reside in geographical sacred space any longer, he is still in his cosmic temple, and he now resides in the temple that is his church (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19)" (p. 124).
PROPOSITION 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose.
  • Walton wants to state the obvious here—that his book is all about presenting a teleological view with respect to the material world; so all of it, by definition, is intelligent and therefore designed.
  • ID takes it in another direction, arguing that the appearance of design in the cosmos is not illusive, but is the result of an unidentified intelligent designer.
  • One of the primary ways ID-ers attempt to show this is through the identification (in nature) of what they call irreducible complexity. Since certain structures (an eye, for instance) need a multitude of parts that need to be functional all at once for the structure to continue to exist and do its job, it could not have evolved one piece at a time.

    They're not at the point where they're offering alternative scientific mechanisms; they're just challenging the reigning paradigm of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. ID does not offer a theory of origins.
  • And here's the point: while irreducible complexity or mathematical equations and probabilities may challenge the reigning paradigm, empirical science cannot embrace ID simply because science, by definition, is not capable of exploring the teleological (see the layer cake analogy, Proposition 13).

    Put differently, ID does not advance scientific understanding because it does not (cannot?) offer scientific observations to support its premise—the existence of an intelligent designer. Such is not testable or falsifiable. When you're simply promoting a negative ("natural mechanism cannot fully account for life as we know it") and then inferring from that an intelligent designer, our discussion has left the realm of science.
  • In short, even if ID-ers are simply content to claim that a principle of design is testable and falsifiable, they ultimately succumb to promulgating a "God of the gaps" theory. Proving a negative requires that all possibilities have been considered, which in turn requires that all possibilities are known. "As a result design cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt . . . and it can only fall back on the claim that the currently proposed naturalistic mechanisms do not suffice" (p. 129). In other words, to say that X structure is designed (as a matter of science) only works when there's a gap in our knowledge about what we know today about X structure. Tomorrow, we may uncover what's been missing in the equation, and so the design claim clearly becomes irrelevant.
  • Neo-Darwinists (materialists) offer nothing better. They presuppose anti-teleology, just as the ID-ers presuppose the opposite. Both presume a metaphysical premise, which is, again, by definition anathema to science.
  • And this is appropriate, writes Walton. The response to the proven inadequacies of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, if there are such, is not to admit the existence of an intelligent designer (again, that's outside the realm of science) but to work out the science and thus propose alternative naturalistic mechanisms.
As Christians we ought to be all about this pursuit of the truth. We ought to want to know exactly how the natural mechanisms of the cosmos work, which, as Christians, will only lead us to greater awe and thus deeper worship of our creator God.

So, you tell me, is it even possible to bracket the metaphysical (i.e., not to be neutral, but to be as neutral as possible) when doing science? Should it be bracketed?

The ever-popular Part 9 will blow your mind.

14 April 2011

Baptism: Death by Qualification?

And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 3:21)

Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. (Rom 6:3–4)

A baptism at the Church of Debre
Sina Maryam in Ethiopia 
Yet I must maintain that it's a non-saving and loseable identification. When one is baptized, she shares in Christ's verdict pronounced over her by the Father at the resurrection. But this may be lost. I think this rightly emphasizes the promises to which baptism points, and, in a certain sense, confers, though not indissolubly. Luther states it plainly enough:
We are not found in a state of perfection as soon as we have been baptized into Jesus Christ and his death. Having been baptized into his death, we merely strive to obtain (the blessings of) this death and to reach our goal of glory. Just so, when we are baptized into everlasting life and the kingdom of heaven, we do not at once fully possess its full wealth (of blessings). We have merely taken the first steps to seek after eternal life. Baptism has been instituted that it should lead usto the blessings (of his death) and through such death to eternal life. Therefore it is necessary that we should be baptized into Jesus Christ and his death. (Commentary on Romans, p. 101, Kregel 1976)

12 April 2011

'He that Cometh' Maketh the Church (3)

SHALL WE NOT CLOSE THIS SERIES? It's well past time. In the first and second posts on this topic, I briefly covered Hans Boersma's three reasons for recapturing Henri de Lubac's views on Holy Communion: (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.

In this (hopefully) final post, I want to look at the crux of de Lubac's objection against both mere sacramental symbolism and the complete identification between the sacramental symbol and the reality to which it points, which, according to Boersma, paves the way for authentic ecumenical action. As mentioned in part 2, de Lubac's church (not to mention the Protestants) had forgotten the very purpose of the Eucharistic body, thus suffering from a severly truncated ecclesiology.

05 April 2011

Perspectives on the Sabbath Interview

Today (Tuesday, 5 April 2011) at 1 p.m. on Knowing the Truth, I'm being interviewed about the book I've edited, Perspectives on the Sabbath (you can see a generous portion of it through the "Look Inside" feature at Amazon).

Update: Listen to or download the entire interview.

28 March 2011

Baxter's soup, Wright's soap, and Helm's in deep

[I wrote this entry about three years ago. Its introductory paragraph will explain why I haven't pressed the publish button until now—"now" being March 2011.]

IT IS WITH SOME trepidation that I post this. If you move within my circles, you'll know why. When writing and responding to the [former, et passim] Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, if you're not careful to distance yourself from him on certain points, you could find yourself in trouble. This is, of course, appropriate—we are, after all, a confessional bunch, and promoting doctrines that directly contradict the essential elements of one's confession (to be understood as conscience) is neither right nor safe (to borrow from Luther at Worms).

Too often among us, responses to him range from one extreme to the other—with the minority adoring everything the good bishop writes and many others offering only knee-jerk reactions as if everything he has written deserves being tossed in the waste bucket. But no thinker has gotten everything wrong (even Shelby Spong, as hard as that is to imagine), just as no thinker has gotten everything right. All deserve criticism and all deserve the benefit of the doubt. We would do well to blaze a middle way.

This post comes after having read Professor Helm's interesting thoughts on the supposed parallels between Baxter and Wright. Now, my own studies in seventeenth-century history and theology some years ago also heightened my sense of the possible parallels between Wright's "fresh" perspective and neonomianism. But the more I think on it, the more it seems that the similarities are incidental at best.

Reformed folks worth their salt have always had a robust doctrine of sanctification. It is as integral to the equation of salvation (systematically understood) as justification. Indeed, the two are to be distinguished, but never separated. They are two sides of the same coin. Put differently, they are two distinct legs on the way to salvation—and none of us will be hopping into heaven. That said, one does indeed have priority, for the latter (sanctification) must needs flow from the former (justification). With this background, when I've read Wright on the future of justification, and then when I read Professor Helm's critique, I get the feeling that I've missed something. Maybe I've given Wright too much credit, too much benefit of the doubt. It is in this spirit, therefore, of seeking to learn that my response is posted. I'd like to know where I'm wrong on this score, and if my Reformed goggles have tainted my reading of Wright on this particular point.

In the professor's analysis, he quips that he's unable to “see neither Wright nor Baxter come close to saying anything about what is to be done at the judgment about the believer’s continuing shortcomings.” I’m not so sure about Baxter, but it seems to me that Wright deems such shortcomings to be entirely irrelevant (with respect to the sweeping picture of redemption). This is not to suggest that he finds no place for the continuing struggle and the confession of sin in the Christian life (see his commentary on Rom 6 in NIB); it is to say that I think he thinks that continued imperfections are simply not a problem for those who are in Christ—not a problem, that is, in the sense that they’re irrelevant to God.

Why? Because of Christ. He writes: “...Paul was a realist, about himself, about his fellow Christians, about suffering, pain, depression, fear and death itself. These were not enemies he took lightly. But his entire argument in this chapter [Rom. 6] so far...is that the Christian, facing these enemies, stands already on resurrection ground. This is ultimately a truth about the Christian’s Lord, the Messiah, but because of baptism it becomes a truth about the Christian himself or herself” (p. 541). I assume that when he writes that this is a truth about Jesus, he means that despite the fact we Christians still struggle with sin, the fact that the sinless Jesus was utterly faithful to God’s covenant to the point of death (and resurrection) means, insofar as we’ve been united to Christ, that our continuing imperfections, in the final analysis, are caught up and done away with as a result (arguably akin to what Helm termed “double justification” in his critique—which has no relation to Bucer’s or Regenburg’s formulation, as confusing as this [oversight?] might be). In short, quite precisely because the Christian is assured of this pardon and that his or her works will be pleasing to God on that final day, possibly, then, Wright thinks the continued imperfections are irrelevant.

And, whatever else can be said of Wright, in Augustinian (Calvinian?) fashion he does think sanctification to be definitive (“the Christian...stands already on resurrection ground”). In his commentary on Romans 8:29–30 he begins: “In order to show the branches that they are indeed to bear blossom and fruit, Paul...goes back behind justification itself to God’s purpose and call, and behind that again to God’s foreknowledge” (601). About foreknowledge, he writes, “Foreknowledge is a form of love or grace; to speak thus is to speak of God reaching out, in advance of anything the person may do or think, to reveal love and to solicit an answering love, to reveal a particular purpose and to call forth obedience to it. More particularly, this foreknowledge produces God’s foreordaining purpose” (p. 602). After going on a side trail about how God’s sovereignty does not render human actions insignificant, Wright argues that “all these things [predestined, called, justified, glorified] have happened already to and in Jesus, the Messiah; and what is true of the Messiah is true of his people” (p. 603). “The steady beat of the verbs within Paul’s solemn rhetoric underscores the steady beat of God’s unshakable purpose set forth in the Messiah and completed by the Spirit” (presumably, by the Spirit in God’s people, p. 604).

Because of this certainty with which Wright speaks of the presently justified’s glorification, it would seem that his point about being justified in the future on the basis of the whole life lived is a sure thing. In other words, Christians will certainly burst forth in spontaneous obedience to God (freely given according to God’s grace and empowered by God’s Spirit), which obedience plays a part in their final justification, and which obedience, however tainted by sin, is made acceptable because of the acceptable-ness of Christ himself. Thus, the continuing sins of Christians are ultimately irrelevant to the redemptive program of God (keeping in mind, of course, that confession of sins itself falls into that category of Spirit-led obedience). As I've written and thought about this post over several months now, I find yet again support for this in Wright's newest book on the subject Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision:
The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.
Finally, Professor Helm asks, “On Wright’s account is there any place, then, in the final judgment for God justifying the ungodliness of the godly? If so, how does it happen?”

Maybe the bishop's answer would be that “ungodliness,” for those who are in Christ, is that which is passed over by “sheer grace to any and all who, despite their ungodliness, trust in this God” (commentary on Rom. 4:4–5, p. 492). And given Wright’s commentary on Paul’s discussion of how Christians occupy, as it were, a different sphere or place than they did previously (see pp. 542–547 of NIB), Wright might add that “ungodliness” is not a proper word for describing the life of a Christian (one might consider the validity of their profession otherwise). Maybe now the question could be more forcefully asked: “Is there any place in the final judgment for God justifying even just one account of ungodliness of the godly?” I assume Wright would say that that has already been taken care of in Christ, so let’s not fixate on that which has been dealt with (indeed, exposed by the law, which brings no condemnation for those in union with Christ Jesus).

Update: May 2014

So, after seven years, Wright finally grants me the opportunity to update this post with a definitive statement on the subject. The following appears in his recently published Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 948–49:
In Paul’s theology all this means two tightly interconnected realities, both of which he urgently wants to stress. First, all those over whom that declaration is made are permanently "in the right." The status of dikaiosyne is not temporary. It truly anticipates the verdict which will be issued on the final day. This is why "justification" is the heart of what later generations would rightly see as Christian assurance. Properly speaking, "justification" is not "how someone becomes a Christian," but "how someone who becomes a Christian through believing the gospel and being baptized can be sure they will receive the verdict 'righteous' on the last day." The judge has already pronounced it, and his word will stand.

So, now I ask again, quid tibi est?

21 March 2011

Carl Trueman on Public Witness

My interview with Carl Trueman revolving around his new book,
Republocrat, has been posted on Q: Ideas blog. Check it out.

17 March 2011

What You Do vs. Who You Are

THIS IS A SNIPPET from an interview/testimony I delivered at the church of my youth—Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Florida. In this bit I was attempting to hammer home the notion that salvation isn't so much about what we do but about who we are and to whom we belong.

14 March 2011

Ramblings and Remorse

© Jeanne Freibert
THE CAREFUL READER will have noticed the subtitle of this blog—"ramblings and remorse." You get what you pay for here. After my last ramble ("Why I'm Not Young, Restless, & Reformed"), I have a little remorse for not being as clear as I should have been. Sacrificing clarity for the sake of pithy provocation is not the best way (accomplishing both at the same time may be, however).

Further explanation is warranted with respect to a couple of the more theological points in that post:

02 March 2011

Why I’m Not Young, Restless, & Reformed: By One Guy Who Should Be

(With apologies to Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck for ripping off their title.)

[Update: See this clarifying follow-up.]

This can’t go the way of thesis/antithesis. I’m young (36, to be exact); I’m quite restless, often moving about; and I asked Calvin into my heart a long time ago. But here’s why I’m not really a part of the Young-Restless-and-Reformed-story (jungeruhelosundreformiert-geschichte), in no particular order:
  1. My pathway into the Reformed world was through infant baptism while studying the contours of covenantal theology in the scriptures and Calvin (note the -al at the end).
  2. John Piper has exacted virtually no influence on my theological formation, save to make me a more resolute paedobaptist.
  3. I’ve been a hipster since 1987 and have had a soul patch since 1992.
  4. I like hard rock more than indie music.
  5. I think the “five points of Calvinism,” or the “doctrines of grace,” comprise but one small facet of what it means to be Reformed.
  6. I’m basically a hypothetical universalist (no, not with respect to life after death [though I am a hopeful one] but regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement). This is not equivalent to being a “four-pointer,” for I do indeed affirm that Christ’s atonement is limited—efficaciously—to the elect alone. No, I will not define elect presently.
  7. I’m a single predestinarian, according to the Council of Orange.
  8. I’m not a huge fan of certain puritans, Turretin, and Edwards, though hands-down I’ll admit their brilliance and piety.
  9. I’m Anglican. I like the smells and the bells.

I'm therefore not so much Young-Restless-and-Reformed as Reformed Catholic.

22 February 2011

Photography Friday (6)

This next stop in my photography series takes us to Mykonos, tourist destination extraordinaire, and prized cosmopolitan member of the Cyclades, a Greek island group in the Aegean Sea (one of which is Ios, the supposed locale of Homer's gravesite).

Mykonos was just an eye-candy break for us as we were making our way through some of the ancient apostolic routes recorded in the New Testament. It made for some fun picture-taking, though. One memory I have of the place is blowing kisses to an elderly babushka standing on her balcony draped in black; she raised her face toward the sun and held her hands over her heart in response.

16 February 2011

God, the Master of Puppets?

I became comfortable with the moniker "Reformed" when I read this article by Robert Rayburn. That was back in 1997. Now, 13 years later, if one were to admit this publically, not a few Reformed folk would look at that person askance, thinking, Blasted Federal Visionist!

But the point to notice here is that it was not—emphatically—the idea of God's sovereign election that got me there. Anybody can adhere to the idea that sovereign grace envelops salvation, that is, procures it from beginning to end (as many did prior to Calvin's incarn—er, birth). For example, I came to the conclusion that God was indeed utterly sovereign with respect to salvation back in college ('92–'97). Admittedly, I also had serious issues with the notion that God withheld that grace from some people. So I was contented to think, like James Relly and John Murray (no, not that one; see also the Trinitarian universalists), that God, in his sovereignty, would indeed draw all men to himself through and because of Christ alone, by the power of his Spirit.

I'm not contented to think that any longer, of course, save to hope that all would (not must!) be saved (á la Balthasar). At any rate, it was baptism, specifically infant baptism and its relationship to God's covenant promises, that finally convinced me being called a Calvinist was okay. Since my journey, it seems, was not representative of a great many who consider themselves Calvinists (most often cite the so-called Five Points as the impetus for their "conversion"), this may explain why one particular aspect of that great Calvinist confession, Westminster, has always stuck in my craw. It's found in the very first sentence of chapter 3, section 1, "Of God's Eternal Decree":
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.
It's important to note from the outset that what I mean by "stuck in my craw" is not "I don't believe it" flat out; it's more like "I think this is sketchy," and that's probably due to my own lack of understanding. I had always thought (when I was working through these things over fifteen years ago) that when we're talking about God's sovereignty we were talking about his work of salvation among the mass of perdition (i.e., the world). I came to find out, however, especially among converts to Calvinism, that it also had to do with "whatsoever came to pass." There are a few points worth considering, however, that come to light when looking at this clause more closely.

Out of the scripture proofs offered by the Westminster Assembly after this sentence, all of which, incidentallly, were written when the authors were discussing election, only Ephesians 1:11 speaks to the idea articulated in the above quote. You'll see in this passage that God is he who "works all things according to the counsel of his will." But even here the "all things" the apostle is thinking of has to do specifically with the plan revolving around his people (even more specifically, the first Christians, i.e., the Jews, in this context) and the goal to which he has guided their history: to live for the praise of his glory (v. 12). Yes, eternally. But, again, it has to do with the elect being claimed by God as his portion, not "whatsoever comes to pass," not whether my dog will live to see tomorrow, or my last batch of brew will produce a rich, creamy head.

And, in contradistinction to the Confession on this point, the emphasis is hardly on everything being ordained "from all eternity" but on God's salvific purposes in time (no doubt anchored in his eternal election, the sum total of his design)—the purposes of a personal God active in this world, working out his will in wisdom and grace. This has little to do with the idea that God's purposes are a kind of blueprint of history that automatically take place as the years and centuries pass by. Such a notion would reduce God to a puppetmaster. Absolutely, God's unconditional freedom is highlighted here; whatever he has planned and decided to do will certainly come to pass. But that's a little different than stating God has "ordained whatsoever comes to pass."

Robert Letham unpacks WCF 3.1 thus (and I paraphrase): In short, if something happens, it happens because God ordained that it happen. In the case of humans, the thing that happens is of their own choosing. In the case of natural events, the thing that happens is in accordance with the laws of nature. "In other words, God has so created the universe as to maintain its own contingent freedom within the scope of his unchangeable purpose" (p. 184). I find this most aggreable, and if that's all the Confession was intending to say when using the word ordained on this point, then simply forget this post.

No other Reformed confession, or Reformed consensus document, that I have found articulates the equivalent of WCF 3.1, sentence 1 (The Canons of Dordt, First Point, Article 6 comes closest, but, like number 1 above, it doesn't stand alone as an abstract doctrine unhinged from election). For those of you who say you have a high ecclesiology (i.e., are confessionalists), this ought to carry significant weight. Why did Westminster go the extra mile in this matter? What did they gain by it? What did they lose?

In the end, how this active ordaining on God's part totally clears him from the charges that the Westiminster divines were eager to clear him of, I'm not so sure. Immediately after the clause quoted above, they wrote:
. . . yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
These are exactly the things that are called into question when we suggest that God (actively) ordains whatsoever comes to pass; merely saying it doesn't is of little comfort. I know that for the majority of Reformed folks, God is no master of puppets, and for that I am grateful. I can, along with Westminster, freely confess Romans 11:33, but, contrary to Westminster, only in the context of St. Paul's discussion of God's sovereign election of the unjust to life in him.

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