13 December 2013

The Covenantal Contours of Limborch's Compleat System

The efforts of self-identified Arminian (or Wesleyan) theologians in recent decades who debate over the heart of “Arminianism” have mostly aimed to undermine the mischaracterizations prevalent among those with whom they disagree on important soteriological issues but who nevertheless share with them in the communion of saints (read: Young, Restless & Reformed).1 The church at large ought to be grateful for this work to that end, for it has ably shown that Arminius is rightly to be distinguished (but perhaps not separated) from, say, Philip van Limborch (1633–1712), the subject of this brief descriptive summary. While no discernible difference exists, for example, in the way Limborch lays out the order of God’s eternal decrees as compared to Arminius,2 there are a few when it comes to other matters related to the accomplishment and application of God’s redemption in time. Any comparisons on this score, however, are beyond the scope of this post.3

In what follows, I will quickly cover the historical-covenantal contours of Limborch’s theology as they appear in the Compleat System, Book 3, starting with his discussion of the relationship between Adam and his Creator in the garden, then moving on to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and ending with the new covenant of Christ Jesus. It is worth mentioning at the outset that as a Dutch theologian, Limborch, by the time of his appointment in 1668 as professor of theology at the Remonstrant seminary in Amsterdam, had inherited a robust, if not one-sided, federal-covenantal theological tradition (whether scholastic or narratival), one in which he could find many examples that were to his mind worth challenging (e.g., Gomarus, Trelcatius, Cloppenburg, or Cocceius).

Before the specific chapters that deal with the history of redemption, Limborch remarks in passing during his discussion on providence that God’s first act of governance is “legislation, or making a law, whereby God prescribes bounds to the will of man” (157), without which humans would will unrestrained to their detriment. There is a history to this legislation, as Limborch notes (158):
This law was prescribed to man at the very creation: And tho afterwards the more especial revelations of the divine will were made to Abraham and his posterity, and a particular law enacted upon promises and threatnings was given to the Jews by the hands of Moses; yet still the rest of mankind had the law of nature written in their hearts, to inform them of the difference between good and evil. But the most perfect law which God prescribed to mankind, was that which he made by his Son Jesus Christ.
Here we see a glimpse of Limborch’s entire system as it relates to the unfurling covenantal narrative of Scripture: humanity was (and is) endowed with a law of nature, and then along came the more revealing covenants of Abraham and Moses, all of which culminate in “the most perfect law” of the new covenant.4 For Limborch, there is no entertaining the idea that a covenant can be unilateral or unconditional; it is, by definition, a pact—what God promises to another party if she carries out the conditions of that covenant (bilateral and contractual). With respect to prelapsarian man, God did not make a covenant in any federal sense with Adam (e.g., 187, 197–98). Rather, he was endowed with natural law, an innate knowledge of his creator’s will, and on that basis was given one positive command, with only a threat attached to it (and thus no covenant).

As a result of Adam’s fall, humanity lost this actual knowledge of the divine will, being born with a tabula rasa (144); nevertheless, God still left them the “light of right reason, whereby to discern betwixt good and evil” (210). Even those who exist outside of God’s later covenants are still potentially included in the prospect of eternal life because of this residual law of nature (219).5

Upon the arrival of Abraham on the scene, we begin to see God engaging humanity in terms of covenant, clearer than natural law in its precepts, promises, and curses. The Mosaic covenant (though temporary and for Israel alone) was simply a greater and sharper revelation than the Abrahamic. Both were conditional, and both promised blessing and threatened condemnation (temporal and spiritual) based squarely on obedience or disobedience. As with natural law, so too were those living under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, for the sake of Christ (whose future sacrifice permits a less demanding application of the law to humanity), justified on the condition of sincere obedience to the precepts under (not by) which they lived (214–15, 229–30). But in the end, natural religion and the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants show themselves to be ineffectual in restoring humanity and delivering them from sin and death (e.g., 230–31). Only the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ accomplishes this.

In short, Limborch argues that the gospel of the new covenant in Christ Jesus is a new law—but of faith not works (298–99). Like the previous covenants, the new covenant also promises salvation depending on one’s meeting the covenantal stipulations; but now, however, the demands are easier to meet because of the appeasement of the Son (via perfect obedience) to his Father (195). God has decided in his mercy and because of the Messiah’s work to accept imperfect faithful obedience for righteousness rather than perfect law-keeping. To be sure, such faithful obedience finds acceptance through grace, but the legal principle remains, albeit less strict and applied with less rigor (270–71; see also 5.74.7). The new covenant, in other words, is little more than a relaxed old covenant, a little less law and a lot more grace.

1 There’s a similar battle among the Reformed, couched in terms of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists,” that has raged for a few centuries. With the publication of R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (OUP, 1979) and Paul Helm’s response, Calvin & the Calvinists (Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), the debate received renewed popular attention, and has shown little signs of going away (even if with finality debunked through the ongoing work of Richard Muller, the sentiment is nevertheless sticking around).

2 See Compleat System 4.1, pp. 343–44. Earlier in the treatise, Limborch takes umbrage with the ordo decretorum as delineated by theologians who most raise his ire—all forms of unconditional election that tell us “God by one, single act of his will has at once decreed all things, and that there is no prius or posterius in the divine decrees.” But they are also those who posit—in response to Limborch’s doctrine of conditional predestination—that God has necessarily decreed salvation “prior to his foreseeing their faith and obedience” (118). Instead of belaboring the problems he sees with such thinking at this point, he decides to move on from this “nice subject” (119). Note that nice in its seventeenth-century context could have meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless” just as much as “precise, careful, or agreeable.”

All quotations are taken from Philip Limborch, A Compleat System, or, Body of Divinity, both Speculative and Practical, founded on Scripture and Reason (London: William Jones, 1702). Subsequent citations will be noted in parentheses in the text.

3 A good place to start on some of those differences is with Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP Academic, 2006). A more exhaustive (but perhaps overstated) treatment can be found in John Mark Hicks, “The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism,” PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985.

4 This could be little more than what the pre-Reformation church had taught for some time with respect to the history of redemption: the triplex model of natural law, old law, new law. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiœ I–II.91.2, 5. At the very least, it is in opposition to the “decretal” and bi-covenantal perspective of the federal theologians.

5 The imago Dei, however, remains intact, because for Limborch, that image only consists in the “power and dominion which God has given to man over all the works of his hands” (2.7.6, p. 142). Traditionally (at the time, at least), the image of God was defined in terms of faculties and nature of the soul (reason, emotions, etc).

18 October 2013

When Teleology Trumps Soteriology

I delivered this rant a few weeks ago in a doctoral seminar I'm taking from Tom McCall (co-author of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace). It's basically a riff on Newbigin's doctrine of election and how it completely subverts the ordo decretorum (logical order of God's decrees) debates of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries between supras, infras, conditional infras, etc., etc. Due to the required length of the paper, I had to leave a whole lot of thoughts on the floor, so it definitely runs the risk of presenting a lopsided view of the matter. I also focus criticisms on Arminian arguments because, well, it's a seminar on that very subject.

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

Mercutio: I am hurt.
A plague a’ both your houses! I am sped.
Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.86–871

The church has been hurt, indeed, “sped” throughout the years whenever she finds herself caught in the crossfire of battles over the logical order of things about which we know next to nothing. This is not to suggest that one view with respect to the ordo decretorum is as good as any other; some truly do, however inadvertently, commit blasphemy: some “logical” orders make God the author of sin, while others make man the author of himself.

Nevertheless, the church suffers every time its leaders and laypersons obsess over the reasons for an individual’s election by probing backwards toward the secret counsel of God instead of pressing forward from one’s election (in both individual and corporate terms) to the purpose of that election.2 This obsession most notably plagued the Reformed churches in the late sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century. The Arminian and Remonstrant response, unfortunately, faired little better, precisely because they too shared in their compatriot’s assumptions regarding the final destiny of individuals flowing from decrees made in eternity “past.” Despite the appropriate Arminian allergic reaction to certain Reformed articulations of election that lead to churches thinking of themselves as exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving love, the biblical fact and fundamental truth of election is that it is made according to God’s sovereign and unconditional choice. Keeping the center of the doctrine of election away from any consigning of individuals to either eternal life or death ought to remove the edges with which it is unnecessarily laden. In so doing, we can see the highly speculative and unedifying nature of the ordo decretorum for what it is, a less-than-robust expression of the purpose of election itself—expressions that Arminians and Remonstrants only recapitulated in their protests.

Taking my cue from St. Thomas, as many others often have, election appears to be primarily teleological—it is all about where we are sent, rather than from where we have come. And by invoking destiny, I do not mean so much individual or corporate salvation as individual and corporate purpose, not so much related to the salvific outcome of absolute decrees among the Godhead as to the purpose for which those decrees were made: Like an arrow directed by the archer towards its mark, the movement of predestination “gets its specific character from what it is a motion to, not a motion from.”3 And it is with that motion to in mind that the mission of God in the election of his people becomes most robustly realized. When members of Christ’s church consider their election as a calling to die to self for the salvation of the world, not as God’s way simply to secure for himself an elite group of chosen individuals, or as a pronouncement upon people he foresees who employ grace just enough to work out their salvation to the end of their lives, the pastoral objections (that the Reformed ordo causes despair or presumption) to God’s sovereign choice in election fall away. In other words, properly emphasizing the individual and corporate teleology, rather than the individual soteriology, of election renders both the Reformed and Remonstrant ordo constructions moot.

When looked at in this way, arguments over whether God elects unbelievers and predestines them to become believers or whether he elects foreseen believers and predestines them to become his children are out of place. This is not to deny a cause or basis of God’s election, because, as stated above, it is biblically obvious that election stems from the elector’s good pleasure. Yet this need not make the Arminian interlocutor anxious, as if her argument that the cause of God’s election instead centers on the free will act of an individual fulfilling the conditions of salvation suffers from incoherence. If the purpose of election was primarily the salvific destiny of individuals, then the Arminian rebuttal to the majority of Reformed expressions merits serious attention. That is to say, in the context of early seventeenth-century debates revolving around the ordo decretorum, Arminius’ opposition to deterministic supra- and infralapsarianism was raised for all the right reasons.

Still, relegating predestination merely to a function of divine foreknowledge is less than satisfactory. Whatever else can be said of the differences between Arminius and subsequent generations of seventeenth-century Remonstrants on redemption, there’s no difference among them on the subordination of God’s decree to predestinate and reprobate certain individuals to his foreseeing their completion or rejection of salvation’s conditions. If, again, the ordo decretorum primarily has to do with how an individual comes to be elected rather than the missiological why that individual was elected, then the Arminian construction finds itself rightly critiqued for reviving something akin to late medieval works-righteousness—perhaps worse, depending on how anemic its ecclesiology is.4

Thus, the Remonstrant critique could be seen as a recapitulation of the covenantal nomism that Saint Paul challenged so long ago. Arminius’ confession that he “ascribes to God’s grace the origin, the continuance, and the fulfillment of all good”5 may excuse him from the sharpest points of this criticism, but it may also be that his remonstration lead to the unintended consequence of making too much of human performance as a condition of God’s mercy. E. P. Sanders’ summary of second-temple Judaism as “getting in by grace, staying in by obedience”6 parallels in significant ways the Remonstrant view that any move toward God is by (prevenient) grace alone while increase in grace and final justification depends ultimately on human cooperation. Not even the most strident Remonstrant has argued that one can be saved by works alone, as human works are not seen to be meritorious in and of themselves (and thus always insufficient to gain God's forgiveness). Yet according to the Remonstrants in particular, in God’s new covenant in Christ Jesus, he promises to accept as righteousness the believer’s obedience of faith. The implication is that the law we humans have always transgressed has been softened to the point that people who make good use of grace can now do it and live, provided they continue to perform.7 What is this if not the principle of “getting in by grace, and staying in by obedience”? But this is the very principle that the apostle opposed when he wrote, “You began by God’s Spirit; do you now want to finish by your own power?” (Gal 3:3). If indeed the gospel is a new law, then Augustine’s prayer to a sovereignly electing God to “grant what you command, and command what you will” becomes ever the more necessary.8

In short, the debates revolving around the ordo decretorum simply miss the point. What God commands, and what he grants to that end, is encapsulated most succinctly in the motion to of the Great Commission. Herein lies the purpose of election, the telos of which the church forgets at her peril. Lesslie Newbigin summed it up best:
And we can also see that wherever the missionary character of the doctrine of election is forgotten; wherever it is forgotten that we are chosen in order to be sent; . . . wherever men think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world; then God’s people have betrayed their trust.9
The salvation of the world with which the elect of God have been entrusted, the called-out ones commissioned to enact God’s kingdom will on earth as it is in heaven, must leave this old debate in the old books where it belongs if it will ever get down to doing its “best to make [the day of God] come soon . . . where righteousness will be at home” (2 Peter 3:12–13).

1 From The Yale Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), 918.

2 St. Augustine’s warning comes to mind: “Wherefore he draws this one and not that one, seek not to decide if you wish not to err.” From Tractates on the Gospel of John, 26.2 (NPNF1 7).

3 Thomas Aquinas, ST, I, Q. 23, Art. 1, Reply Obj. 3. Quoted from Summa Theologica, “God’s Will and Providence” (1a. 19–26), eds. Thomas Gilby and T. C. O’Brien, Blackfriars, vol. 5 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 111. See also Thomas’ ordo in Art. 4: particular love→election→predestination. “Therefore all the predestined are picked loved ones” (121). God creates the lovely through his electing love; it’s in no way based on the created’s loveliness (cf. Art. 5).

4 It's beyond the scope of this post to defend this here, but suffice to say that where baptism and the Eucharist are largely removed from the equation of election, the theologian is left to over-emphasize—and thus truncate—the means ordained in Scripture by God to actualize his elect.

5 W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Baylor University Press, 2012), 141.

6 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 93, 178, 371.

7 See, e.g., John Mark Hicks, “The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism” (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 103–11, esp. at 110. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (OUP, 2013), 167–68.

8 Saint Augustine, Confessions, X.xxix (40), trans. Henry Chadwick (OUP, 1998), 202. It may be that the historic triplex model of natural law→old law→new law best encapsulates the covenantal framework of God’s redemptive plan, but I do not concede that the necessary grace required to fulfill that new law has been imparted indiscriminately. Even the Remonstrant Limborch confessed as much when he wrote that while God’s general decree of salvation and damnation is not unclear, the other special decree regarding the means thereunto is mysterious, “upon the account of that disproportion wherein God is pleas’d to communicate the means of salvation to men. For he does not bestow an equal share of grace every where at all times and upon all men.” This depends “on the mere good pleasure of God,” and is unsearchable. Quoted from A Compleat System, or, Body of Divinity, both Speculative and Practical, Founded on Scripture and Reason (London: William Jones, 1702), 347.

9 Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (Wipf & Stock, 2008), 55.

14 October 2013

Fear Is (not) the Heart of Love

{A portion of what follows originally appeared in my introduction to Perspectives on the Sabbath, B&H Academic, 2011.}

If someone had it incessantly banged into his head, when it came to the practice of Christianity, that “fear is the heart of love,” then we might empathize with him if he “never went back.”1 But it would still be a shame, never going back because of such a blatantly false proposition, at least as it relates to being a follower of Jesus. Quite to the contrary, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). But how does love do this?

C. FitzSimons Allison argues that the answer is worship—“the means whereby we are opened to the love of God. . . . Worship is an immediate and present means of God’s love, making us new creatures and giving us the ever more abundant life now.”2 This comes as no surprise since worship of the one true God by humans fulfills the express purpose of our creation. “To say that God made us in his image is to say that God made us for himself, and that he made us to worship him.”3

Christian worship can, on one hand, be the most altruistic, God-centered moment in the church’s common life, or, on the other hand, it can be the most viciously narcissistic. Indeed, “sometimes our worship is more a hiding from God than allowing God to find us.”4 Bishop Allison goes on to argue that the parable of the talents offers a good depiction of our propensity to hide from God, even in the midst of attempting to worship him. In Matthew 25:24–25, the third servant, in response to his master, fearfully pleads, “Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours." Consequently, he meets his doom (vv. 26–30).

While the other two servants didn’t live in such fear, which enabled them to take the talents and invest them, the third servant disbelieved in the presence of love in his master. In a sense it didn’t matter what kind of person the master actually was; what mattered was what kind of person the third servant thought his master to be. And this paralyzed him. What the servant believed about him was wrong, and this affected his relationship with and service to him. So it is in Christ’s church. How we relate to God in worship is inextricably bound to what we believe about him. Is he a loveless taskmaster, a “difficult” deity?

What can keep us, as humans, from so paralyzing a thought? To be found in Christ, for the perfect love of God is shown to us in him. “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment. . . . [and] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Tim 1:7,9). This holy calling, which begins now and extends into the eschaton, has a transformative goal for the called—to share in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), to be as fully unified with God as creatures can be (see Eph 1:3–14). A purely theocentric existence—when God is all in all (1 Cor 15:28)—remains the destiny of those in Christ Jesus, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as Letham notes:
Every single aspect of salvation is seen “in Christ” or “in him" . . . . Our proper place is to share God’s glory; by sin we fell short and failed to participate in his glory, but in and through Christ we are restored to the glory of God as our ultimate destiny. Glory is what belongs distinctively and peculiarly to God. We are called to partake of what God is.5
Such union is the goal for all those who ingest God’s Word (Matt 4:4), feed on Christ in the Supper (John 6:47–51), and have been baptized into his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3–6)—in short, for those who have been given faith by grace (Eph 2:8). And this brings us back around to worship—arguably the most human thing we can do—the very act in this time between the times that develops and disciplines our union with Christ in God by his Spirit. Through the practice of praise, supplication, confession, and thanksgiving (in a word, prayer), hearing the Word, and receiving the sacraments, the final and full redemption and transformation of the church is anticipated as she gathers together in continued repentance, obedience to God’s commands, and participation in a common life, caring for the needy in her midst.6

But one day the reconciled, yet fallen, worship of the Christic community will no longer carry the burden of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator; the way of the cross will fade (even if its marks remain), and streets of pure gold will descend from the heavens. Wendell Berry depicts this thought poetically:
There is a day
when the road neither
comes nor goes, and the way
is not a way but a place.7
Indeed, all our work through worship (leitourgia) on the way to becoming sharers in the divine nature will cease. The road ends in the most holy place—the court of the Almighty. In the meantime we’re left to choose which of the three servants we will be. We Christians serve God directly in worship,8 and thus it behooves us to avoid the pride—the narcissism—to which it is always open; in brief, to engage wisely the question about which of its elements remain in perpetuity and which of them have become obsolete in order to honor the triune Lord. It won’t do to claim ignorance or hide behind tradition when seeking to resolve this question. If worship truly is “an immediate and present means of God’s love,” then may we be zealous to keep open to its sanctifying power, which necessarily means taking seriously questions about which elements, if any, God desires his people to enact in worship and, in that enactment, gather together as the called-out assembly, the body of which Christ is the head.

1 From the song “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie on their album, Plans (Atlantic, 2005).
2 C. F. Allison, Fear, Love & Worship (Regent College, 1962), 17, 19.
3 E. P. Clowney, The Church (InterVarsity, 1995), 118.
4 Allison, 14.
5 R. Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy, A Reformed Perspective (Christian Focus, 2007), 255, 257.
6 Ibid., 261–63. See also A. P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Kregel, 2006), 503–12, for a good list of “several principles that surface again and again and therefore seem . . . to be absolutely essential for developing the worship of God” (503). Noticeably absent from this list, however, is any reference to which particular day, if any, God’s people ought to gather.
7 W. Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Counterpoint, 1998), 216.
8 See Clowney, 117.

09 October 2013

Eden Raised

A CROWD GATHERED around Jesus of Nazareth and wondered: Could this person be the son of David, the one who, like David, wreaks havoc upon our enemies? A few of the local leaders standing by did not take kindly to the clear implications of what they witnessed and accused the man of beating up his own people by the power of the prince of demons. He responded with no ounce of timidity: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste. . . . How then will his [Satan's] kingdom stand? . . . But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (see Matt. 12:22–29).

What Jesus said in effect here was that paradise was in the process of being regained, that the power of God's kingdom and thus its presence was the only explanation needed for his dominion over the demons. The crowd wondered as much, and their question showed it. The Pharisees, knowing full well what this kind of ministry meant if it was indeed supported by the one, true God of Israel, decided to accuse Jesus of the only other option: He must really be the enemy, working for Beelzebul, the prince of demons.

As interesting as this story is, it is Jesus' allusion to the binding of the strong man that must hold our attention for a while. Because by it, he suggests that he has had an initial victory. Indeed, some kind of prior battle must have been won if he was going to wage subsequent battles—like exorcisms—with any success. In short, Jesus was claiming that he had already met the accuser, the prince of demons, and defeated him. But when?

John Milton wrote of it long ago. In 1671, Paradise Regained was published four years after his famous epic Paradise Lost. It deals with one major event in the life of Jesus, the one major event that Jesus himself considered his initial victory—his temptation by Satan in the wilderness.

Resting on the robust theology of Saint Paul about the parallels between Adam and the Messiah (Rom. 5:12–21), Milton wrote: “I who erewhile the happy garden sung, / By one man's disobedience lost, now sing / Recovered Paradise to all mankind, / By one man's firm obedience fully tried / Through all temptation, and the Tempter foiled / In all his wiles, defeated and repulsed, / And Eden raised in the waste of wilderness” (Paradise Regained, ll. 1–7). Thus begins his poetic rendition of the decisive initial victory of Jesus over the accuser.

The working of miracles, not least exorcisms, were evidences that the future kingdom of God had broken through into the present day. The coming of the kingdom was greatly anticipated by the people of Israel in the first century, and when it did come, it was thought that it would be filled with all the pomp and circumstance a complete overthrow of the world would entail. The whole redefinition that Jesus embodied—around himself as Israel's representative—was, however, mostly unexpected. But the world was being overthrown nonetheless, and the prince of the world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) was being challenged in the name of God.

At the outset of Jesus' public career we witness this fact (Matt. 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13). During his temptation in the wilderness nothing less than the messianic kingship of God's anointed was at stake. We see this especially with respect to the temptation involving “all the kingdoms of the world.” Who was the real prince? Jesus or Satan? Ultimately at stake, then, was victory over Satan's kingdom by the kingdom of God. This victory, however, was not to take place by raw power alone, for the Messiah's obedience to his Father was to be its primary feature. Jesus was not to gain all authority over heaven and earth in a capricious or violent manner (the only kind of authority Satan knew how to wield). Rather, he would have to obtain the authority Satan offered him in the wilderness only in the way ordained by God.

This he did, and Philippians 2:5–11 contains a good hymn all about it. The obedience of the Messiah figures prominently in the thought of the apostle not only in this passage but in Romans 5:12–21 as well. In Philippians, Jesus is the one who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross (2:8), and in Romans Jesus is the one whose obedience makes the many righteous (5:19). In contrast to the first Adam, this last Adam perfectly obeyed God's will, and in so doing, undid the disobedience of the first one, defeating sin and death in the process. And this victory was already underway by the time Jesus had rejected Satan's temptations in the wilderness, the event (as described in Matthew 4:1–11) to which we now turn.

After many days and nights of living in the wilderness alone, Jesus is confronted by the tempter. Each of the three temptations the devil throws at him is meant to undermine the very task to which he has been called as God's Messiah. He was to be precisely what the nation of Israel had failed to be: a light to the world. In response to the Babylonian judgment, the prophet Isaiah assured the Israelites that they are God's servant whom he has chosen and has not cut off (41:8–9). It is that servant in whom God will be glorified by restoring the tribes of Jacob and bringing back from exile the preserved of Israel. It is that servant who will be a light for the nations so that God's salvation will reach the ends of the earth (49:3–6). But Satan desired that Jesus, the servant, the true Israel, would doubt this mission and thus avail himself to become Lord of the world through some other means than the one spoken about by the prophets long ago (in, for example, Isa. 38–55).

When Jesus was baptized by John, his identity was confirmed by his Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). And what were the first words out of Satan's mouth in the wilderness? “If you are the Son of God . . .” (4:3). This reminds us right away of the serpent who confronted Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen. 3:1): “Did God actually say . . . ?" In both instances, the tempters call into question the veracity, and thus the faithfulness, of God.

In the first temptation, the devil takes aim at the hunger pains Jesus undoubtedly feels. Hunger is a cruel taskmaster, and many atrocities have been perpetrated in order to lift its oppressive weight. But Jesus refuses to succumb to the temptation to take by force what is his by right (see Phil. 2:6). His hunger would have to continue to gnaw at him, choosing as he does to do the will of his Father and endure suffering as his servant. Adam, in contrast, refused to go without, instead judging for himself—despite God's command—what he should and should not eat. So he ate and plunged the world into despair.

The tempter then takes Jesus to Jerusalem, to the very heights of the temple wall. Again, the devil tempts him, this time to throw himself down into the Kidron Valley, knowing full well that the covenant God would not allow his anointed to strike his foot against a stone. If he did so, and God saved him, then everyone around would immediately know and recognize his status as God's Son. But this was a shortcut, a cheap and shallow way to grasp at the titles Lord and Christ. Adam, in contrast, seized the moment for his own glory, and instead of going the way of humble obedience, exalted himself. In snatching the forbidden fruit, Adam intended to bypass the path of righteousness. He accepted the very shortcut Jesus refused.

Finally, Satan takes Jesus to the peak of a nearby mountain, where he says, “All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9). Undaunted, Jesus binds the strong man in a flurry of rebuke: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'" (v. 10). Contrarily, Adam bound himself in his pathetic attempt to show the world that he was its true lord. Adam's belly was full; the garden was magnificent and comforting. Jesus, on the other hand, was famished, and the wilderness was as unwelcoming as it was lonely.

There should be no doubt Jesus was tempted to bring about the kingdom through means other than the way of suffering and obedience to the will and covenant of God. He constantly saw the tyranny of Rome and of all the other empires that trod the Holy Land underfoot. The people wanted action, violent if necessary, to overthrow the yoke of their oppressors. But tempted as he was to answer his calling in that particular way, there was another way to which he was utterly faithful. He saw the temptation for what it was, an end around the plan and purpose of his Father.

Having defeated the accuser in this initial victory and confirming the tone of his mission, Jesus began his public ministry, putting into practice the results of this battle (exorcisms, healings, and so on). In this manner—through the faithfulness of Christ—paradise was beginning to be regained. And in time, all things will be restored (Acts 3:17–21). Until then, being in Christ means that we too have been called to take part in God's regaining of paradise.

{Part of this originally appeared in Tabletalk 32.12 (Dec. 2008): 18–21}

01 October 2013

A Little Lower Than God

“O LORD, what are human beings that you should notice them,

mere mortals that you should think about them?” (Ps. 144:3)

In certain circles, Christian Humanism gets a bad rap. But I think it may have to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it actually is—from both a theological and methodological perspective. Most of us realize that it has little to do with twenty-first century secular humanism, as it strives to affirm the dignity of humanity without any reference to God, an unthinkable prospect to the Christian humanist, since any talk about the dignity of humankind apart from the imago Dei is unintelligible.

In contrast, Christian Humanism argues that, precisely because Christ Jesus is Lord of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, individuals and their culture have value (this is what it brings to the table theologically). Of course, this notion isn’t foreign to Scripture or the early church (e.g., Justin Martyr’s Apology), but it had become somewhat eclipsed during the medieval period (i.e., humankind´s fundamental problem in relating to God is not sin, it is our finitude, our inferiority as such). Not surprisingly, this particular humanistic anthropological perspective trickled down to educational methodology, Christian Humanism’s other major contribution: devotion to studia humanitatis, or the liberal arts, including history, literary criticism, grammar, poetry, philology, and rhetoric, became a prominent feature of this movement. (It should be obvious by now that if not for the blossoming of Christian Humanism during the Renaissance, there would’ve been no Reformation—or Counter-Reformation—as there would’ve been no return to the sources of the original languages of Scripture, which in turn produced a critical barrage against late medieval scholastic methodology and, oftentimes, theology.)

It must be admitted that many Christian humanists tweaked their anthropology in the wrong direction. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man comes to mind, in which he stressed that men had the free will (apparently apart from prevenient grace) to travel up and down a moral scale. But this particular view isn’t necessary to Christian Humanism, as many of the Reformers had, as a dear friend often puts it, a high regard for the doctrine of depravity. This isn’t to suggest that theirs was all “worm theology,” however.

Among the magisterial Reformers, John Calvin stands out as one such Christian humanist, at least in a few significant ways. I think especially of his grammatical-historical, literary-critical exegesis, his devoted attention to the church fathers, his love of the classics (his first complete published work being a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia), his somewhat tension-riddled acceptance of a kind of “Christian philosophy,” and the strongly ethical character of his teaching on the Christian life (see Bouwsma’s John Calvin, pp. 113–127 for more on this). Stressing the dignity of man, Calvin's social reforms included relief for the poor, construction of hospitals, schools (which were free), new prisons, laws protecting consumers, provisions for refugees, and a sanitation system that made Geneva one of the cleanest and healthiest cities in Europe.

In his Institutes, Calvin notes that humankind was bestowed with a certain status as the noblest of the works of God (1.15.1). Humans are the mirror of his divine glory, and the most distinguishing quality of humankind is its likeness to God, defined in terms of faculties and nature of the soul (reason, emotions, etc.; 1.15.4). Despite the fall of humanity, the imago has not been destroyed: “It is not the will of God, however that we should forget the primeval dignity which he bestowed on our first parents—a dignity which may well stimulate us to the pursuit of goodness and justice" (2.1.3). People maintain the dignity of their creation, and all the responsibilities flowing from this inherent dignity remain intact.

There may be something worth recapturing here, after all.

Consider also the oft-quoted psalm, which bespeaks, at the very least, the dignity of humankind in the economy of God’s creation:
What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
   human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
   and crowned them with glory and honor.

You gave them charge of everything you made,

   putting all things under their authority . . . . (Ps. 8:4–6)
In his typically reasonable fashion, Calvin comments on this passage: “[God’s] glory is beheld in a special manner, in the great favor which he bears to men, and in the goodness which he manifests towards them.” He goes on to ground this exaltation of man in the fact that he was created in the image of God. But to persuade his reader not to get carried away, Calvin quickly advises him to note the psalmist’s design here, “which is to enhance, by this comparison, the infinite goodness of God; for it is, indeed, a wonderful thing that the Creator of heaven, whose glory is so surpassingly great as to ravish us with the highest admiration, condescends so far as graciously to take upon him the care of the human race.”

Calvin’s final admonishment is as good as any: “Whoever, therefore, is not astonished and deeply affected at this miracle, is more than ungrateful and stupid.”

13 September 2013

Photography Friday (9)

Unlike previous incarnations, this time the photography below was not shot on film, but an iPhone. Perhaps you'll find this an affront, a break from something sacred. If so, let me know.

In short, some of my favorite shots have been caught on my phone. Today, I'll start with those taken in Chicago's downtown (proper). I'll follow up sometime soon with a Chicagoland neighborhoods selection—the sites, food, drink, and people are far more interesting in the neighborhoods.

Cityscape from Navy Pier

Navy Pier attractions

Commentary on city life?

The Bean

The world to him; the world to me

10 September 2013

Stop Counting

In light of the parable of the unforgiving slave (Matt. 18:21–35), which of us has heard, sometimes from the pulpit, that a Christian has no obligation to offer forgiveness to one who hasn’t asked for it, to one who doesn’t seek it? Such advice, however understandable the idea is that justice limits mercy, flies in the face of God’s call for us to reflect his grace, to extend, as Jesus teaches here, unlimited forgiveness.

We’re all pretty familiar with the parable: One day, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. The Lord responds with a little story about a king who forgave a servant’s ridiculous amount of debt (“10,000 talents” is equivalent to today’s “gazillion”—the largest single number Greek could express.) By first-century reckoning, the amount owed was approximately 200,000 years’ wages for one common laborer, but, being moved to compassion when the man begs for mercy, the king utterly cancels his debt (v. 26).

The debtor, unfortunately, doesn’t follow his master’s lead. When he left the king’s presence he found a fellow servant who owed him about four months wages (100 denarii). The ratio of the two debts was therefore immense—about 600,000 to 1. When his fellow laborer begged for mercy, he denied it and had him thrown in jail until the debt could be paid. The king then hears of it and summons the first, once-pardoned, debtor to his throne room. He calls out his evil deed, takes back both his forgiveness and cancellation, and sends him to the torturers—indefinitely (since there’s no way the slave would be able to pay off such an enormous debt, vv. 32–34).

The moral of the story? “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart” (v. 35). The implications are clear for us as we live our lives in this world, especially among the body of Christ—since we have been forgiven so much, how can we not forgive the other person, genuinely and without any guile?

If one were to respond that this parable speaks nothing about forgiving others regardless of whether or not they’ve asked for it, I’d first point them to Peter’s question (v. 21), which says nothing about the sinner seeking forgiveness, and second, I’d point them to how God has shown his grace to us in Christ: God so loved the world, despite our hate-filled, narcissistic ways (John 3:16); indeed, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8, emphasis added). Even more surprising, while the unspeakable act of murdering God’s Son was taking place, Jesus implores his Father: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In short, God forgives us without counting.

Such is our model of forgiveness. Imperfectly practiced? Yes, to be sure (thankfully, perfect human forgiveness is not a precondition for divine forgiveness!). Impossible to practice? No, for we have the Spirit of the living God within us, enabling us to follow his way (see Rom. 8).

16 August 2013

Ode to Ridderbos

Ode to Ridderbos
Or, contemplating the excellencies of the unfurling heilsgeschichte

Upon the lynchpin of history
hangs the murdered, yet risen, son.
When the time had come fully,
the herald proclaimed the battle was won.
The teacher then explained
the history of redemption:
The old age has passed away;
the new man, no more arraigned,
being-in-him, a creation
and aeon of spirit; the flesh now allayed.
“But congregation, Christ is risen from the dead. That is the new point of view. And it is with that point of view that the apostle Paul wants us to look at life, our own life and the life of the world. Indeed, also the latter. For if we can only see the world, as many Christians do, from the viewpoint of evil, then we are acting as if the devil is the boss in this world and as if Christ is not risen.”
~Herman Ridderbos, "The New Point of View," Kerux 4.3 (Dec 1989): 4–13


14 August 2013

The God Who Risks?

The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last Hero, illustrated by Paul Kidby
John Sanders landed a great title for his book The God Who Risks (1998), and it still enjoys a wide readership today. But does his definition of “risk” line up with what Scripture and tradition say about what God is like? For Sanders, God risks because he waits to see how we will respond to him; in fact, God’s not quite sure how we’ll respond to him. And, he himself forbid, God never forces a response out of us. He hopes for the best possible outcome—for us to love him in return—but more often than not, he ends up hurt, frustrated, and even surprised. He is the God who risks.

Well, to the title’s credit, Scripture does portray a God who risks, but that risk doesn’t contradict what the church-reading-Scripture also says (in its first seven councils) about God’s sovereign providence (and note that I'm no fan of the determinism touted under the friendlier label of "meticulous providence," which makes God out to be little more than a master of puppets). How can a sovereign deity take real risks? God risks precisely because he exposed his majesty—through the incarnation—to shame. He didn’t have to (just like he didn’t have to create). No one forced his hand.

Instead, God the Son, who always shared in the mutually indwelling love of the Godhead, of his own free will, did not consider his royal status, which was his by right, something to be grasped tenaciously (Phil 2:6). Rather, he became a servant and pitched his tent among us (v. 7; see John 1:14), washing the very feet of those who called him, rightly, “Lord and Master” (John 13:1–20).

And this is risky, not because God didn’t know the outcome (his Son, after all, was chosen for this before the creation of the world, 1 Pet 1:20; see also Rev 13:8), but because relationships are by nature risky, even the ones God initiates. They always run the risk of having the mutual love that’s supposed to be at the center of them trampled on. The strange and wonderful thing is, God sent his Son to run the risk of being trampled on for us. Of course, God knew this would happen. Jesus knew as well (see John 13:31–35). He knew Peter would deny him (vv. 36–38), just as he knew Judas would betray him (vv. 21–30). But he still washed his disciples’ feet, risking his dignity and status before them (vv. 4–13), challenging them (and us) to do what he did (v. 14–17), to risk shame and disgrace for the cause of his coming kingdom. What does it look like for us today to do the same?

26 July 2013

Photography Friday (8)

Photography Fridays have suffered a hiatus for long enough. So today we're going to Alaska—on a floater plane, to be exact. I don't remember which part of Alaska we were above, but, not being a huge fan of flying, I do recall being almost completely at peace during this ride. I think it may have something to do with being closer to the ground. Or maybe it was the just the sights.

Per the usual, all of these photos were taken on a Canon AE-1 with E100VS (slide film). Click on an image to get a closer look.

That's a mighty round hilltop, isn't it?

Glacial expanse

Glacial release

Yes, this exists.

Beautiful silt

The wifey shooting B-roll

19 July 2013

That Won’t Do, Pig. That Won’t Do.

When was the last time you went to a private social club? If you think that kind of thing is for the elite members of our society alone, guess again. The Yellow Pages are filled with lists of social clubs in which anyone in the neighborhood can become a member. They meet mainly on Sunday mornings—but don’t be foolish enough to wait for an invitation.

Unfortunately, like most other clubs, this one is designed to keep certain people in and other people out. You will find in it a decidedly internalized and individualized faith, complete with its own set of man-made regulations. You will find in it a group of folks who act as if they are enjoying life to the fullest, no matter where they are or what they are doing. And what do they do? They do exactly what they wish to do. In this Sunday club, then, it comes as no surprise that God Is One Who Exists for Me.

But in reality, this private social club has been called out of the world of clubs, not to be just another club—albeit a little cleaner (if not a lot less fun)—but to be the anti-club, the place where the mantra above is flipped: I Am He/She Who Exists for God. Apart from this, we would have no purpose, being left anchorless in a torrid sea, unable to know our worth as creatures among other creatures wrought and redeemed by a holy God. (I’m paraphrasing R. Clapp here, A Peculiar People, p. 42; see also Eph 4:14).

And this reminds me of what the apostle Paul wrote long ago. One word, among a few others, that sums up Ephesians 4 is this: friendship. I know that sounds trite to modern ears, but that might have more to do with how trite our friendships are in this shallow, isolated age (friendship in the classical period in which the apostle lived could be summed up as "the sharing of two selves," and, once cultivated in childhood, went on to form the basis of politics and the family of economic activity). St. Paul often exhorts the church in Ephesus to simply act like a community of friends. Chapter 4 of his letter is littered with such exhortations: support each other in love and preserve unity (vv. 2–3); use your gifts to knit the body together and strengthen it (vv. 12, 16); “speak truth to one another” (v. 25); don’t sin in your anger against a friend (vv. 26, 29, 31); and work an honest job in order to share with those in need (vv. 28, 32).

In short, practice friendship. For a church without friendship, just like a "beautiful woman who lacks discretion," who turns aside from her dignity, is like “a gold ring in a pig’s snout” (Prov. 11:22).1

1 I'm assuming, perhaps not unlike the trajectory laid out for us by the church fathers, that the primary interpretation of "women" when found in Jewish wisdom literature in this new covenant age often can refer allegorically to the church, original intent notwithstanding.

09 July 2013

Forgive or Die

Forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is not for the sake of moral purity;
it’s quite simply for the sake of a future.
~Fr. Richard Rohr

The above quote from Rohr is nagging at me. I think it may be profoundly true on a level we're happy to miss.

On the surface, it's a fine piece of rhetoric: by a simple use of antithesis, Rohr challenges a common assumption—that the letting go of one's offenses, as if they had never been committed, in the teachings of Jesus had as its primary objective the cleaning up of one's life (inside and out). Sure, that may be one means to the end, but it's the end—the future—that faces extinction without forgiveness.

This idea isn't original with Rohr, of course. I think most notably of former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu's book No Future Without Forgiveness (Image, 2000). Through his eyewitness account, Tutu focuses on how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired (pressed upon him by President Mandela, et al.) attempted to move beyond the various forms of institutionalized retribution taking place in post-apartheid South Africa. Calling out the unworkable "solution" of bringing perpetrators of apartheid to court, he describes the highs and lows of his commission's approach to justice: the granting of political amnesty to those who make a full confession of their crimes.

While Tutu's account centers on this world, it's deeply informed by the next. It's a working out of the blueprint Israel's god YHWH drew up so long ago. It's the imperfect attempt to follow the model that God in Christ lived out. It's God's way to approach justice that his Spirit continues to empower up to this very day.

While we are no doubt chosen "to be [God's] through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him" (Eph 1:4; see also Col 1:22), it's God's forgiveness that creates the biblical vision of his future—resurrected life on a renewed earth. The bit that gets so hard to grasp is the fact that the creator God bound himself to forgive. Without forgiveness, even his future goes. What else does the story of him walking through the animal halves alone when ratifying his covenant with Abraham mean (Gen 15:12–21)? That if the promise fails, YHWH himself will be like those shredded carcasses. This is why in the new covenant, ratified by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that if "we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing" (1 Jn 1:9). How striking that the writer includes that God will "do what is right"! Why is it "right" (or "just") for God to forgive sins when they're confessed? Because that's what he promised to do, precisely because of his promised future.

He binds himself to forgive. Remember that the next time you fall into the same old sinful patterns that betray his covenant.

As Tutu's example shows, this kind of forgiveness for the sake of the future, the kind that God himself enacts and ultimately embodied in Jesus by the power of his Spirit, easily applies to every relationship we experience. From the creator God to his created, to the rebuilding of nations, and (not least) to familial ties, withholding forgiveness murders the future—and it will kill you.

Forgive (and be reconciled) or die.

24 June 2013

Frustrating Kindness

“One who loves instruction is one who loves knowledge,
but one who hates correction is an ignoramus” (Prov 12:1).

It's nothing new: those who dare embrace the label Christian must be known by their love—indiscriminately to all, and especially to each other in the household of faith. They must practice, in a word, friendship. They must risk shame; they must wash feet. They must exclaim, at least in actions if not in words, “Hosanna!”

So, in the proverb quoted above, we see that they must “love instruction”; otherwise, they’re just ignoramuses—brutish, senseless creatures—indeed, less human than God desires. Enter the amazing grace of our triune Lord, without which our destiny, declared by the Creator to be a life centered around him, devolves into savage narcissism.

By his grace, those of us who confess that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9), no matter what his or her heritage, are ingrafted branches, stemming from the true vine (John 15:1–11). And yes, by his loving grace, those confessors who bear fruit are pruned, so that they bear more fruit (v. 2). Grace is being given the passion to love this, to love the instruction, the correction, that directs us toward knowledge, which knowledge paves the way toward the God-centered life. Hating this, in short, bears nothing, no fruit, and is thus heading toward being broken off (v. 2).

With the above proverb in mind, another way of saying all this is that being a branch stemming from the real vine involves embodying what it means to be human in Christ Jesus (see 2 Cor 5:17). Meeting reproof with hatred (often disguised as incredulity), exposes the pride that goes before destruction (Prov 16:18). Even more, it betrays the place where such a person has made his stand—“outside the divine realm of sensible discourse [and in] the animal kingdom” (Waltke, Proverbs, vol. 1, p. 520). Following this trajectory leads only to one place—the broken-branch realm of stupidity, irrationality, and animal-like brutishness. In other words, the devolution of the image of God in man to the point of no return. Think of Nebuchadnezzar: driven out of human society, eating grass like an ox, sleeping outside with hair as long as eagle feathers and nails as long as bird claws (Dan 4:33).

But then, the unexpected: Grace. His sanity returned and he praised the supreme God (v. 34). Our Lord has a maddening tendency, doesn’t he? To bring back people (we’ve often written off) from the point of no return (see Rom 10:23–24). May we learn to love this frustrating kindness of Almighty God.

18 June 2013

You Don't Love Me Like I Love You

This past Lord's Day, I visited Mosaic Cincinnati as my wife sang in the band during the service. The pastor, as is typical in churches of this sort, preached topically (though exegetically at times) on a theme especially pertinent to fathers: discipline. It was a good word, and timely for a culture that not only belittles fatherhood, but in which fathers themselves eschew their fatherly responsibilities. At one point, the issue of unity among parents, husband and wife, was unpacked. It got me thinking about unity in marriages in general, about first loves, about long marriages, and about the church (because, unlike many evangelical churches, I am a "churchy" guy. Or, put differently, "He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.").

If your spouse were to confess to you that he/she feels as though you're competing for his or her love with . . . [fill in the blank], how would you respond? "That's just in your imagination"? Or, seeing some truth in it, would you then scroll through in your mind all the various ways that your spouse deserves such treatment? Perhaps you'd step back and think critically and deeply about your actions and strive to make sure that your spouse knew that he or she were first in line for your love?

That last response would make the most sense in a relationship of mutual love and respect. In this, I'm reminded of the letter Christ Jesus had John the Elder send to the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1–7).
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands. I know what you have done; I know how hard you have worked and how patient you have been. I know that you cannot tolerate evil people and that you have tested those who say they are apostles but are not, and have found out that they are liars. You are patient, you have suffered for my sake, and you have not given up. But this is what I have against you: you do not love me now as you did at first. Think how far you have fallen! Turn from your sins and do what you did at first. If you don't turn from your sins, I will come to you and take your lampstand from its place. But this is what you have in your favor: you hate what the Nicolaitans do, as much as I do.

If you have ears, then, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches!

To those who win the victory I will give the right to eat the fruit of the tree of life that grows in the Garden of God.
On the one hand, it's unfortunate that we don't know how these letters were received in those various churches back then. It'd be interesting to know—and it would satiate some serious historical curiosity. On the other hand, it's probably better that we don't know how they responded: each church had before them a call to action. And each church's call was free, contingent, and integral to their destiny (blessing or judgment, as described in the letter itself).

Like many commentators note, the entire book of Revelation was a circular letter, to make its rounds to the seven churches listed in chapters 2–3. Each of these letters serve as introductions to Revelation, and "in a sense the whole book is about the way the Christians of the seven churches may, by being victorious within the specific situations of their own churches, enter the new Jerusalem" (Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 14). The same holds true for us.

So, then, the call to respond with repentance—undivided love to Christ—faces us all, just as poignantly and jarring as it would be if expressed to our face by the one whom we chose to devote our lives with a wedding vow.

05 June 2013

A Sacred Place

A long time ago, as Genesis 1 recounts, God began naming, separating, and assigning functions and roles to his creation. In other words, he spoke purpose for his creation into existence (often when God speaks, reality changes). The garden that resulted—Eden, by name—was pervaded with the presence of God, not in the general sense of omnipresence but in a special, intimate way—a perpetual, ongoing presence. The garden was the temple of God Almighty.

Fast forward a good amount of time (but not too much, say, between 2,500 years and 2.2 million years), and we come to the building of God’s dwelling place among his people, Israel (see Exod 25:10–40:33). Clearly, the look and materials employed throughout are meant to symbolize the original creation described in Genesis 1, and thus further represent, to use what has become the old cliché, “heaven on earth.”

Just as the Creator didn’t seek council with his creatures when preparing the garden, so too did he initiate and dictate to Israel the building of his new dwelling place, the tabernacle (Exod 25:9). In fact, we see that God doesn't leave it to his people to define the parameters of worship they will offer him.

The same holds true today—God provides the grand playground in which we’ve been called to play. Yet he has also graciously provided a fence for our protection. We (the church) are not to invent alternative ways to worship the living God—ways that are outside the fence and thus leave behind the essentials God has instituted; nevertheless, we are free to express our God-given creativity when worshiping him in each passing age.

In our time and place, riddled as it is with hyper-individualism and the temptation to live as if God doesn’t exist, we need now more than ever to recapture the biblically defined idea of sacred place, not as a building so much as that which presupposes and points to a personal God. “For where two or three come together in my name,” Jesus said, “I am there with them” (Matt 18:20). Not one, but two or three. And then the Christ comes. What this assumes is that our growth as persons (that is, our development into more fully image-bearing humans) happens only in relation to others—first with God in Christ by the power of his Spirit, and second with the temple of the Most High, his people. Only through this do we have a ready-made resistance against “the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age” (Eph 6:12).

03 June 2013

The Stuff That Sticks: Ron Nash

Oftentimes, the best we can hope for (besides dying in our sleep) is that some of the good stuff we experience throughout life sticks. I know that those of us who mentor, teach, counsel, parent, and so on, hope the same for those in whom we invest.

First in my journal-like series about the stuff that sticks centers around a professor I had in graduate school at RTS-Orlando. He's not first in the series because he has priority of place or anything like that. He's just the first stuff that stuck I thought of when thinking through what this series would contain. His name is Ron Nash (1936-2006).

To get a glimpse of his life and work, follow that link attached to his name above. Professor Nash gets a spot here not because I'm a devotee—that I came to agree with his many views on Christianity and its relationship to culture or on philosophy in general (e.g., that almost the entire field can be boiled down to the fight between rationalism vs. empiricism—in other words, epistemology, as if that were the necessary starting point when doing philosophy). Nevertheless, a few moments during the time our paths crossed in the early 2000s have stuck with me:

  1. At an orientation dinner my first year, RTS staff and faculty were introducing themselves in no particular order. Nash happened to follow on the heels of the school's facility services staffer, who quipped, "I turn the lights off." He then immediately stood up and provided his title (professor of philosophy) with the pun, "And I turn the lights on." Nash clearly believed this to be his calling, and he took it very seriously, if not a little superciliously at times.
  2. His introduction to philosophy book, Life's Ultimate Questions, while by nature guilty of a little oversimplification, nevertheless serves as a great overview through a blatantly Christian lens, particularly at the college level, if not first-year graduate level.
  3. For my research paper in his "History of Philosophy and Christian Thought" class (first semester, first year), in which I attempted to give some credit to certain bits of "postmodern" thought then in vogue only to show how the so-called early church "logos doctrine" completed them, Professor Nash wrote on the back of page 5, "I believe you have no idea what you're talking about." (By the last page, however, he noted a couple positive remarks and so I managed a B grade.)
  4. Finally, during class one time, I began to raise a few concerns about this or that epistemological point he was promoting (apparent propositionalist that he was). Whatever the actual argument, I'm sure I was nudging the envelope toward something akin to skepticism (surprise, surprise), and after briefly berating me as relativist, he then held jazz hands up to either side of face, swished his hips from side to side, and at the same time asked, "What, are you a democrat?" Laughter.
So much for the stuff that sticks. I could go into further detail about how his apologetical method helped prepare me for future work on the manuscript of R.C. Sproul's Defending Your Faith, but that's best left for another sticky-stuff post. Suffice to say that despite his attitude in class, which endeared so many of us to him, he was the warmest man in his office. Truly caring. Truly hoping he had "turned on the lights." And he did, I think—or at least he played a significant role in my own quest to continue seeking the light.

04 April 2013

Book Review: Destiny of the Species

“We all know the same truth, and our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.”1

Lemme get the criticism out of the way: don't judge the book by its cover. Okay, moving on.

I don’t know Jason as a colleague. But I do know him as a friend, the sort that won’t always tell you what you want to hear but one that is primarily concerned with what’s true, the sort that will follow his convictions wherever they lead, even to his own detriment. That has to count for something in this seemingly God-forsaken short life.

It is to this life as “water spilled on the ground, which can’t be gathered again” (2 Sam 14:14), and its nagging absurdity before the face of . . . nothing—Deus absconditus, if you will—that Jason confronts in his new book, The Destiny of the Species: Man and the Future That Pulls Him. The title of it behooves me to attempt immediately to alleviate any fears that while Darwin and the question of the origin of our species sometimes serves as the foil throughout the following pages, this book is decidedly not another pathetic battle for the beginning. It is, in brief, to turn the heads of every reader toward last things first. No doubt, the question of human origins is important. But the destiny of our species—now, that’s something upon which to fix our gaze.

Even if we were to grant the neo-Darwinian synthesis its basic veracity (as I do), the point is still the same: Are we humans going to live down to our natural instincts? Or are we going to live up to the creator God’s goal, bearing his image, reflecting his glory? Saint Gregory of Nyssa frames it as follows: In discussing the creation of man, he starts with the premise that the cosmos depends upon the sustaining Word of God and that all things came into existence by this power. He’s quick, however, to maintain a Creator/creature distinction: the act of creation was no necessity. Rather, creation sprung out of the “abundant love” of God; his desire was to fashion a humanity with the express purpose to share in his divine goodness. This, for Gregory, remains part and parcel of what it means to be created in the image of God.2

The theme of a longing that “pulls” us toward our destiny (to use Jason’s language à la Peter Kreeft à la Aquinas) is not unique. Many others in times past have thought similar thoughts. But Jason does so for a generation in desperate need to hear them again, and he does so in such a way that this generation will hear them.

Starting with this theme of humanity being drawn toward its future, rather than driven by its past, Stellman confronts us with the challenge to live deliberately in light of this truth. And the only way to consistently live in such a way is to embrace, wholeheartedly, the destiny of the species as homo adorans—worshiping man. Otherwise, life as l’étranger in the face of the absurd is all that’s left. More than anybody else, those who say they already follow this way must resist storing up treasures that "moth and rust destroy." But damn that flesh, that old man—sin—ever seeking to throttle us from its grave. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The age to come dawns upon us; all that was accomplished and applied through the faithful life, the ignominy of the cross, the surprising resurrection, and the glorious ascension and rule of God’s messiah, has invaded our lives. Nothing can ever be the same. And the world—its people, plants, and animals—are aching and groaning toward that promised hope for the future, when the creator God, through his son Christ Jesus, by the power of his Spirit, will turn everything right-side up again (the felix culpa, as it turns out).

However, in the meantime, per Woody Allen, we do all know the same truth (that death comes for us all), and, indeed, how we live our lives—our thoughts, words, actions—the stuff that fills them up, is our way of coping with (distorting even) that reality. Which distortion, then, will you let have the final word? Death? Or eternal life on a renewed earth in renewed, resurrected bodies?

1 Woody Allen: A Documentary, directed by Robert B. Weide (2011; New York, NY: New Video, 2012), DVD.

2 From his Address on Religious Instruction, reprinted in Edward R. Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 275–77.

16 March 2013

Pope Francis, Carl Trueman & Protestant Reflection

Carl Trueman wrote recently, in the midst of a brief look at George Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism (see his distilled version in this month's First Things), on "what the point of reflecting on Rome is for a Protestant" at such a time as this. He offered three reasons, which you can read at the link provided above.

They're decent reasons, but they're also largely skin-deep. There's a more fundamental reason that Protestants ought to reflect on Rome when a pope is chosen, and it's teleological and twofold in nature. (Note my assumption: Catholic, Orthodox, and creedal Protestant communions are Christian communions. Each have their tares, their wolves, their covenanters who don't persevere.)

The first teleological fold is one major goal in which our hope as Christians is placed, a fixed post that our triune Lord promises throughout the various texts of sacred Scripture:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever.
(1 Thess. 4:16–17)
In short, we Christians are in this together, forever—whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, the resurrection to life on a new earth is our great hope. The election of a new overseer of the largest Christian communion in the world ought to promote Protestant reflection, precisely because we share the same destiny with the Christians in that communion.

The second teleological fold may be particularly distasteful to Protestant ears that don't share my ecclesiastical sentiments. It has to do with a more finite goal, one that is hardly fixed: the reconciliation and reunification of Protestants and Catholics in this time between the times. This is by no means a given, but it is a hope, and one I believe all Protestants should share. Caring about and reflecting upon Rome at such a time as this comes naturally if you think and hope that one day the pope himself will one day be a pastor under whom your pastor (and their pastors) ministers, at least in a collegiate sense (as primus inter pares).

Yet most Protestants don't even consider that their respective communions are not to be ends in themselves. They've forgotten that they're branches shooting off the one, mother trunk, and instead believe the lie that they are trees themselves, every bit as robust and as life-giving as the tree from which they sprang. It's not true. Much of Protestantism is wilted, particularly in those places where God's Word and Sacraments are neglected.

I hope this doesn't come across as a romanticized version of reality or flat-out naïve (or "young and cool," even though I am young-ish and definitely cool). It's just that I don't care about the things you do, or at least I don't think they're as important as you think they are. Put another way, I think it's far more important to reflect on Rome and her pope and our shared destiny than it is to continue, unfazed, in the work of building up your own little fiefdom.

Update: It has come to my attention that the "you" in the above paragraph may be misconstrued to refer to Carl Trueman. That is emphatically not the case. Carl is one of the last persons I'd suspect to be guilty of creating his own little fiefdom. Generally speaking, my antagonist around here is the autonomous, demagogic, second-degree separationist Christian leader. That's who I'm carrying on my make-believe conversation with in the concluding paragraph—whether or not he/she actually exists.

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