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Archive for the ‘Theologians’ Category

How We Know What We Know

In Arts, Books, Humanity, Theologians on September 18, 2008 at 2:00 am

I've been reading some really good stuff of late on epistemology (that is, "how we know what we know"). With regard to truth, most people feel the pull of the Enlightenment's demand for proof, as well as postmodernism's questioning that truth can even exist. Many people (kids especially) feel caught in the middle between what they assume are their only too options – objectivity or subjectivity; that is, truth must either meet the requirements of science or it's time to check one's brain at the door in the name of faith.

What most folks fail to understand is that the supposed objective knowledge of science that they take for granted is really little different from the presumed subjective testimony of religion that they hold as suspect. Most helpful in thinking through this are some thoughts from the second chapter of A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman, entitled "Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past." They write:

"A general tendency in modern times…has been to downplay the importance of testimony about the past which has come down to us via a chain of human carriers of tradition, and in contrast, to emphasize the importance of empirical research in leading us into knowledge." (p. 36)

But:

"That the universe as a whole is rational and intelligible is a presupposition, not a scientific finding. Clearly, too, science of itself cannot properly tell us what to do with its findings. The ends to which science provides the means must be (and always are) chosen according to what is believed and valued by the people doing the choosing, which is a matter of religion, ethics, and politics, not a matter of science as such." (p. 39)

In other words, what we have received and pass on as science today is made up over time of just as much subjective interpretation as any religious oral tradition passed down. They continue, this time focusing more on historical studies:

"We are, in short, intellectually reliant upon what others tell us when it comes to what we call knowledge…As R.G. Collingwood once put it (albeit only to take issue with the statement), 'history is…the believing of someone else when he says that he remembers something. The believer is the historian; the person believed is called his authority." (p. 45-46)

Here's a good illustration of the idea involving the science (and art) of archaeology:

"Archaeological remains (when this phrase is taken to exclude written testimony from the past) are of themselves mute. They do not speak for themselves, they have no story to tell and no truth to communicate. It is archaeologists who speak about them, testifying to what they have found and placing the finds within an interpretive framework that bestows upon them meaning and significance." (p. 46)

"All knowledge of the past is in fact more accurately described as faith in the interpretion of the past offered by others, through which we make these interpretations (in part of as a whole) our own)…Modern historians, like their precursors, in fact depend on testimony, interpret the past, and possess just as much faith as their precursors, whether religious or not." (p. 49-50)

In sum, the idea that anything is "objective" – as if we could somehow sit in grandstands orbitting Earth and merely take notes – is a delusion. We cannot observe and pass on meaning (scientific, religious) without using subjective testimony to describe it. We are in the petri dish; we are not absent from it. The question then becomes, what testimony (again, scientific, religious – it doesn't matter) best explains reality, and what seems reasonable as truth?

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Eating (and Experiencing) God

In Church, Theologians on August 10, 2008 at 7:35 pm

“One’s position on the Supper is an accurate index of one’s understanding of the Christian faith as a whole.” The Lord’s Supper by Robert Letham (23)

Previous to embracing Reformed doctrine, I lived a majority of my Christian life with a Zwinglian understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; that is, communion is a memorial – a remembrance – of Christ’s death and resurrection, and little more.

In my small town Methodist church, our congregation’s practice of this same perspective manifested itself in communion once a month, open to everyone regardless of evaluation, and with no warning to anyone as to eating and drinking judgment on oneself. Children of all ages were as readily permitted as adults, and I – as a teenager just come to faith – was given the opportunity multiple times by my well-meaning pastor to not only serve the bread and the cup (in the form of wafers and juice) to the congregants, but also to share anecdotes (which I made up on the spot) of God’s grace and his forgiveness of sin.

Being on staff with a parachurch organization for twelve years did not elevate my (low) view of the sacrament of communion. While I did my best to attend church on Sunday mornings (mostly as part of non-denominational fellowships), there was little doubt my primary ministry was more as part of the organization than of the church; as a result of these blurred ecclesiological lines, I recall a few misuses of communion in the context of ministry – our summer camp staff orientation, or a closing Sunday morning of a conference – none of which I thought twice about, as I had studied and experienced so little of what I now understand to be a more orthodox view of the sacrament.

Deconstructing my past appreciation (or lack thereof) of this means of grace is helpful in recognizing my need now to build a more sound (and meaningful) theology of communion. In the past, I combined the memorial mentality of my youth with my leadership role’s need for team-building and camaraderie; now I recognize that true team-building and camaraderie come not from observing a memorial together, but rather by being united with and ministered to by Christ on his terms, not mine. As Letham writes:

“This (communion) is a sacrament of the church, the body of Christ. It is decisively not to be understood as an individual, private experience…It is corporate first, and individual only within that clearly understood and defined context” (Letham, 42).

But unity is not the only outcome I gain from the Eucharist; a more accurate perspective of God comes as well. As Letham points out:

“Since Christ has gone up to the right hand of God, he cannot, according to his humanity, be physically present here. As a consequence, in the Lord’s Supper, Christ is not brought down to us, but we are lifted up to him” (Letham, 35).

Partaking in communion – preferably on a weekly basis – is a good and constant reminder of the vast ontological difference between God and myself. It’s also a way of acknowledging the difference, both publicly and (hopefully) privately in worship.

Finally, in addition to unity and perspective, I gain greater appreciation for the requisite qualifications of those serving and partaking in communion. Again, Letham rightly stresses the importance that the Word accompanies the sacrament, and that it be through a “minister of the Word properly ordained” (Letham, 50). He also clarifies “definite qualifications for taking the Lord’s Supper” – faith, repentance, and self-examination – as illustrated historically in the forms of baptism, public profession of faith, and active (and orthodox) church membership (Letham, 56).

In sum (and returning to Letham’s opening quote), one’s position on the Supper is indeed an accurate index of one’s understanding of the Christian faith as a whole. I’ve learned much from my past, but have more still to learn about this means of grace from Christ.

How about you?

Some Thoughts on the Holy Spirit

In Books, Church, Theologians on July 8, 2008 at 2:00 am

When I was on staff with The Navigators, I used to joke that we in the organization thought of the Holy Spirit as being the member of the Trinity dressed in a three-piece suit sitting quietly in the corner of the boardroom. As a member of the PCA, I sometimes make the same joke (except now the Spirit’s sporting a bow-tie and tuxedo at Presbytery).

Lest my tongue-in-cheek critiques cause one to assume I know more of and about the Holy Spirit than others, rest assured I am as clueless as anyone – certainly with regard to the nuances of what we can know about the Spirit, but especially with regard to my experience of the Spirit.

I suppose I’m very much a product of my environment(s): I have always thought of the Spirit as the shy member of the Trinity Who seems too distant and overdressed for me to really get to know. This realization likely explains much of my poor and seemingly-powerless prayer life, as well as the lack of intimacy I often feel with God (and others) as a result.

Sinclair Ferguson alludes to this perceived (and probably widely-shared) reality in his excellent book, The Holy Spirit – part of the Contours of Christian Theology series:

“The expression ‘communion of the Holy Spirit’, if understood to include communion with him, further implies a bond of fellowship within a context of mutual knowledge. Here we come to a significant hiatus in discussions of the Spirit. It is commonplace to discuss the question of his divine personhood, his work in the application of redemption and in the fruit he produces, or the nature of his gifts and their role in the contemporary church; but communion with him in a developing knowledge of him is much less frequently explored.”

Ferguson’s focus on understanding the work of the Spirit from the perspective (and with the purpose) of being in union with Christ is both elementary and revolutionary to my thinking. Experiencing the Spirit not just as the bringer of gifts or as the sealer of salvation but as the co-crier of my soul is meaningful to me. With regard to Paul’s teaching on the idea in Romans 8:16-17 and Galatians 4:1-7, Ferguson writes:

“There is one cry, but that cry has two sources: the consciousness of the believer and the ministry of the Spirit…Just as no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), in a similar way no one can say, ‘Abba, Father’ except by the same Spirit.”

Mine is not a cry to the Father while a formally-attired Spirit quietly sits nearby; rather, as B.B. Warfield wrote, “Distinct in source, it is yet delivered confluently with the testimony of our own consciousness.” I have tended toward a “me or He” thinking (i.e. either I’m crying out or the Spirit is – probably because of His environs!), but it is actually “we.”

In addition to Ferguson’s wise teaching on the difference between revelation and inspiration (“Denial of divine experience is not necessary; only the interpretation of it.”), I very much appreciate his counsel concerning the debate on the gifts of the Spirit. I have always been a cautious continuationist rather than a strict cessationist; that is, I believe all the gifts of the Spirit are in play even after the closing of the canon of Scripture.

While many (mis)read 1 Corinthians 13:12, placing it in an epistemological rather than its true eschatological context, Ferguson warns of the abuses of extreme continuationism but does not knee-jerk into cessationism, refusing to go beyond what the Scriptures say (or don’t) on the matter. His mature example encourages me to both consider and follow the Person of the Spirit not as a cosmic, remote taskmaster, but as a personal, loving friend still at full work in the world…and in me to be and become a better servant of Christ.

Some Thoughts on the Holy Spirit

In Books, Church, Theologians on July 7, 2008 at 8:08 pm

When I was on staff with The Navigators, I used to joke that we in the organization thought of the Holy Spirit as being the member of the Trinity dressed in a three-piece suit sitting quietly in the corner of the boardroom. As a member of the PCA, I sometimes make the same joke (except now the Spirit’s sporting a bow-tie and tuxedo at Presbytery).

Lest my tongue-in-cheek critiques cause one to assume I know more of and about the Holy Spirit than others, rest assured I am as clueless as anyone – certainly with regard to the nuances of what we can know about the Spirit, but especially with regard to my experience of the Spirit.

I suppose I’m very much a product of my environment(s): I have always thought of the Spirit as the shy member of the Trinity Who seems too distant and overdressed for me to really get to know. This realization likely explains much of my poor and seemingly-powerless prayer life, as well as the lack of intimacy I often feel with God (and others) as a result.

Sinclair Ferguson alludes to this perceived (and probably widely-shared) reality in his excellent book, The Holy Spirit – part of the Contours of Christian Theology series:

“The expression ‘communion of the Holy Spirit’, if understood to include communion with him, further implies a bond of fellowship within a context of mutual knowledge. Here we come to a significant hiatus in discussions of the Spirit. It is commonplace to discuss the question of his divine personhood, his work in the application of redemption and in the fruit he produces, or the nature of his gifts and their role in the contemporary church; but communion with him in a developing knowledge of him is much less frequently explored.”

Ferguson’s focus on understanding the work of the Spirit from the perspective (and with the purpose) of being in union with Christ is both elementary and revolutionary to my thinking. Experiencing the Spirit not just as the bringer of gifts or as the sealer of salvation but as the co-crier of my soul is meaningful to me. With regard to Paul’s teaching on the idea in Romans 8:16-17 and Galatians 4:1-7, Ferguson writes:

“There is one cry, but that cry has two sources: the consciousness of the believer and the ministry of the Spirit…Just as no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), in a similar way no one can say, ‘Abba, Father’ except by the same Spirit.”

Mine is not a cry to the Father while a formally-attired Spirit quietly sits nearby; rather, as B.B. Warfield wrote, “Distinct in source, it is yet delivered confluently with the testimony of our own consciousness.” I have tended toward a “me or He” thinking (i.e. either I’m crying out or the Spirit is – probably because of His environs!), but it is actually “we.”

In addition to Ferguson’s wise teaching on the difference between revelation and inspiration (“Denial of divine experience is not necessary; only the interpretation of it.”), I very much appreciate his counsel concerning the debate on the gifts of the Spirit. I have always been a cautious continuationist rather than a strict cessationist; that is, I believe all the gifts of the Spirit are in play even after the closing of the canon of Scripture.

While many (mis)read 1 Corinthians 13:12, placing it in an epistemological rather than its true eschatological context, Ferguson warns of the abuses of extreme continuationism but does not knee-jerk into cessationism, refusing to go beyond what the Scriptures say (or don’t) on the matter. His mature example encourages me to both consider and follow the Person of the Spirit not as a cosmic, remote taskmaster, but as a personal, loving friend still at full work in the world…and in me to be and become a better servant of Christ.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Interpretation

In Movies, Theologians, Thought, Writers on June 3, 2008 at 11:40 am

A few weeks ago, a post in which I wrote on gay marriage got quite a bit of traffic and discussion. In the midst of the interactions, some important questions came up pertaining to my use of the Bible as the basis for my thinking.

For instance, escapethedrain wrote in comment #2:

“If you are using the bible to prove your point that homosexuality is wrong, then you also have to include the scripture that says:

(1 Tim. 2:12)
‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.’

(Lev 19.18b)
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.’

Do you believe in this as well? I am interested in your response.”

In addition, transientreporter wrote in comment #3:

“Mull over this:

(Deuteronomy 13:7-11)
‘If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or your intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known,gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the LORD, your God…’

The bible is a deeply ugly book.”

I summed up the tensions (see comment #5) as being 1) the use of ancient Scripture (Old and New Testaments) to address modern issues, and 2) the brutality of the Bible. While I’m not sure if the two readers who asked the questions are still reading (thanks for sticking around if you are), I promised to try to address their questions, so I will (though it’s going to take a couple of posts to do it – hang with me).

Let me start with an illustration. As part of the recent build-up to the new Indiana Jones movie (which I’ve still yet to see), Slate ran a review that started with this:

“If some 32nd-century archeologist were to unearth a DVD copy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount), her first task—after converting the barbaric early digital technology to a more current brain-wave-based viewing system—would be to understand what this object meant to the culture that created it…Though it’s a scholar’s job to shed her 32nd-century prejudices and understand the belief systems of those long dead, our archeologist will have to ask herself: What were these scribes thinking?”

When I read this, I thought immediately of our recent discussion. It’s true: many aspects of the Bible can seem foreign to us because of where we are (or aren’t) historically in relation to them. However, we aren’t being fair to the Scripture (or to any ancient text) if we approach it with our 21st-century prejudices.

For instance, I just finished reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Make no mistake, Dawkins is a good writer, but listen for the modern bias in his take (found on page 269 in case anyone’s following along) on the beginning of the Old Testament:

“Begin in Genesis with the well-loved story of Noah, derived from the Babylonian myth of Uta-Napisthim and known from the older mythologies of several cultures. The legend of the animals going into the ark two by two is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure, the rest of the (presumably blameless) animals as well.”

Dawkins continues:

“Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the athiest’s decision, without an absolute foundation.”

Dawkins then dismisses the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19 and the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 before starting in on the New Testament and questioning Jesus’ “somewhat dodgy family values” (page 284).

For the record, I agree with Dawkins that, unfortunately, there are plenty of theologians who don’t take Genesis literally any more, but I am not one of them. This doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make me a flaming fundamentalist by default; I do not read Genesis as a science book anymore than I read Song of Songs as a recipe. I read Genesis as narrative and Song of Songs as poetry, for reading either as something they’re not does not respect their genres as literature, which, in my mind, is as big a problem for fundamentalists as a figurative-only reading.

But I digress.

My point is that Dawkins (an evolutionary biologist) gives little to no consideration to the first basic rule of hermeneutics (interpretation) – that is, we have to understand an author’s intent as well as the needs of the author’s first readers to rightly understand the text. Dawkins seems only interested in picking apart the text; likewise, if any reader does not interact with ancient writings beyond their words, then she is not playing by the rules of good exegesis.

So, getting back to the questions above, what was the Apostle Paul’s intent and his audience’s needs that caused him to write about women and submission? What were Moses’ purposes and the needs of the nation (not the state) of Israel that led him to encourage loving one’s neighbor in Leviticus and, at the same time, punish his neighbor so violently if he enticed him to forsake God? We have to try to get as close to these original intents and audiences before we can begin figuring out what (if any) meaning these passages have now.

And that’s where we’ll start tomorrow…

Linky, Linky

In Books, Church, Pop Culture, Theologians, Thought on May 2, 2008 at 6:11 am

It’s usually feast or famine for me with links; today, I happen to be eating well. Here are some particularly inspiring links that I hope fill your creative cup and stick to your spiritual ribs:

Have a great weekend.

On Reading, Thinking, Learning

In Books, Church, Education, Seminary, Theologians, Westminster on January 26, 2008 at 12:32 pm

The best part about education is the worst part about education: the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to learn. And then comes the worst realization of all: there’s no way or time to learn it all. And that stinks.

I experience this sensation everytime I walk into a library or bookstore and remind myself again that, if I manage to average reading 60 books a year and even live to be 100, I’ll only have read 6,000 books in my lifetime (and that’s counting younger years of my life when I didn’t read 60 books a year, so it would be less). This thought makes me very sad.

All that said, of late I’ve been reading a few books on some challenging topics, namely Islam and evolution; the title of the former is Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t by Robert Spencer, and the latter is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I’m still working through them, intrigued by the arguments, perspectives, and applications of each.

In addition, I read The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal, a memoir of a Jewish concentration camp prisoner asked by a dying Nazi soldier for forgiveness. The last half of the book is a compendium of short essay responses from 53 “distinguished” men and women (theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust surivovrs, and victims of attempted genocide) and their opinions on what Wisenthal should have done (he did nothing). Interesting to think through.

This weekend, I need to begin immersing myself in the world of Ancient and Medieval Church History, as I’m taking my first Access class through Covenant. I’m supposed to work through thirty-six recorded lectures by Dr. David Calhoun and volume 1 of Justo L. Gonzalez‘s book, The Story of Christianity, no later than May 15th. There are also quizzes, tests, and a project. Even then, I’ll just be scratching the surface of all that went on from the time of the early church until the Reformation. Nuts.

I’m taking two other classes at Covenant this spring (Children’s Ministry and Youth Ministry Across Culture), but those are each a weekend class, so they shouldn’t be too bad. This is good, as I still need to help my own students make sense of all the letters of the New Testament and the last four of the Ten Commandments (like there’s any way to cover any of those to the depth I want to in the course of a semester).

Which brings me back to my original thought: the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and the more frustrating I become that I can’t learn it all, even in a hundred lifetimes. My hope for Heaven is that we don’t get to just download everything we don’t know in one fell swoop; I’d rather have to learn it, as at least then I’ll have plenty of time to do so.

Emerging Evangelicalism?

In Church, Theologians, Writers on December 10, 2007 at 10:26 pm

Rob Bell was featured in Time last week, causing somewhat of a stir among the evangelical faithful that perhaps an heir apparent to the fading Billy Graham is emerging. Bell, of course, is used to “emerging” – he’s founding pastor of Mars Hill Church (which I think I visited once back in the mid-90’s but can’t remember) in Grand Rapids, as well as part of a movement known as the “emerging church” or the “emerging conversation”.

I recently took a weekend class on all this, and one of the most helpful things the speaker (Darrin Patrick, lead pastor of The Journey here in St. Louis and member of the Acts 29 Network) did was identify three predominant streams within the emerging movement. (If you’re interested in any of this, you can hear the same opening session I did here.)

According to Patrick, Bell floats on the “emerging conversational stream,” which is “mainly after theological revision by challenging evangelical theology.” Patrick’s other two streams are “emerging attractional,” which is mainly after methodological revision,” and “emerging incarnational,” which is “mainly after structural revision” (think ‘house church’ here).

Patrick’s filling in of the proverbial “lineup cards” was helpful, as I was able to mentally organize some of the names I knew were in the conversation. Regardless of what you call it (or which stream you prefer to float on – I’d be an “emerging attractional” guy myself), the ultimate question is not what the “emergent church” is emerging from, but what is it emerging to?

This is where Bell’s latest press becomes interesting. I’ve not read Sex God, but I have recently read Velvet Elvis. While I know Bell is a dynamic speaker and communicator, I have not heard him speak, and this was the first writing of his I’ve read. I appreciated his tone in presenting his thoughts and ideas, as his writing voice is one of gentle passion and reasonable zeal. I liked the combination.

However, this attractive combination – whether intentionally or unintentionally – provides cover for some ideas that, though sounding good, are more problematic than Bell’s tone implies. It’s not that all of what he writes seems wrong; it’s just not all of it seems right.

I think the biggest problematic area involves Bell’s theology of what and for whom Jesus’ atonement was. In many ways, Bell comes off as a universalist when he states that, “…this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God’. All things, everywhere.” (146) Graham has been accused of similar universalist tendencies as well.

Without more qualification (and written in his gracious tone), Bell’s conclusion that, “Heaven is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for” and “Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for” (146) implies a soteriology having more do with us choosing well and less to do with a Sovereign God’s limited (but completely saving) atonement as taught per the Scriptures (and clarified by the Reformed systematic).

Another area of concern is Bell’s leveling of the authority of “binding and loosing.” In the course of a couple short paragraphs, Bell explains how in ancient times, “…a rabbi would bind certain practices and loose other practices,” and then give his disciples the authority to do the same. He goes on to explain that Jesus followed suit with his disciples, and how we can do the same today (that is, “giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible,” and “somehow God in heaven will be involved.” (50)

The authority Jesus gave the disciples he gave to the apostles (that is, to the twelve), and this authority does not automatically pass down to followers of Christ today, as it was an apostolic responsibility ending with the apostles and the closing of the canon of Scripture, rather than a license to reinterpret Scripture’s meaning over and over through time. I believe there was one meaning intended by the apostles, and it is our goal as disciples coming after them to affirm and adhere to it.

While these (and perhaps a few other smaller) areas were problematic for me, I did think Bell had some good things to say about a variety of things, particularly the unfortunate continuation of the sacred/secular split (85), the significance of the Sabbath (117-118), and true counter-cultural living (163). I wouldn’t say I trust all of his theological insights, but in terms of common sense observation, I think he makes some good points.

Anybody got thoughts on this?

Owen on the Non-Efficiency of the Bible

In Books, Theologians on December 6, 2007 at 10:03 am

Puritan John Owen on why God didn’t just “give us a list” of everything we need to know that we could use more easily than the “non-efficient” nature of the Bible:

“Such a systematical proposal of doctrines, truths, or articles of faith, as some require, would not have answered the great ends of the Scripture itself. All that can be supposed of benefit thereby is only that it would lead us more easily into a methodical comprehension of the truths so proposed; but this we may attain, and not be rendered one jot more like unto God thereby.

The principal end of the Scriptures is of another nature. It is, to beget in the minds of men faith, fear, obedience, and reverence of God – to make them holy and righteous…Unto this end every truth is disposed of in the Scripture as it ought to be. If any expect that the Scripture should be written with respect unto opinions, notions, and speculations, to render men skillful and cunning in them, able to talk and dispute…they are mistaken.

It is given to make us humble, holy, wise in spiritual things; to direct us in our duties, to relieve us in our temptations, to comfort us under troubles, to make us to love God and live unto him. Unto this end there is a more glorious power and efficacy in one epistle, one psalm, one chapter, than in all the writings of men…He that hath not experience hereof is a stranger unto the power of God in the Scripture…sometimes an occasional passage in a story, a word or expressions, shall contribute more to excite faith and love in our souls than a volume of learned disputations.”

On Predestination

In Theologians on June 14, 2007 at 7:52 am

(I’m not sure if anyone’s interested enough to want more than this here, so I’ll just post my strengths/weaknesses lists for Arminianism and Calvinism, as well as my paper’s introduction comparing the books I read on each and we can go from there. If there’s interest, I may post more; if not, no big deal.)

Assignment
Read Why I Am Not a Calvinist and Why I Am Not an Arminian and write a 5-7 page paper evaluating the two books’ respective cases for predestination. At the top of the first page, produce two enumerated lists, giving the strengths and weaknesses of the two positions. Then, in the space that remains, discuss the 2 or 3 main strengths and weaknesses of each position.

Arminianism (as represented in Why I Am Not a Calvinist – WINC)
Strengths

  1. Argues more from philosophy and rationalism*
  2. Appeals to Western values of choice and equality
  3. Champions human freedom by emphasizing our response and responsibility

Weaknesses

  1. Argues more from philosophy and rationalism*
  2. Human choice trumps God’s sovereignty
  3. Diminishes view of the Fall and sin

Calvinism (as represented in Why I Am Not an Arminian – WINA)
Strengths

  1. Argues more from Scripture and mystery+
  2. Appeals to Western values of security and privilege
  3. Champions God’s sovereignty by emphasizing his love and will

Weaknesses

  1. Argues more from Scripture and mystery+
  2. Excuse for little evangelism initiative
  3. Given to fatalism in its extremes

*+ Cases in which Arminianism/Calvinism’s strength is a weakness

Same But Different: Arminianism and Calvinism

In reading and studying InterVarsity Press’s two companion books, Why I Am Not a Calvinist and Why I Am Not an Arminian, and their respective handlings of the doctrine of predestination, what first struck me was my need to clarify what the issues were and weren’t concerning the issue of “God’s predetermination of persons to a specific end.”1

For whatever reason, my initial assumption that Arminianism began in a different theological place than Calvinism with regard to God’s sovereignty and prevenient grace was misinformed. On the contrary, according to Arminian authors Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, “Arminians and Calvinists alike readily agree that the Bible is the supreme authority for our theology, that God is sovereign, that he is perfectly loving and that human beings are free and responsible for their actions. To the casual observer, it may appear that there is little if any real difference between the two positions” (WINC, 216).

Calvinist authors Robert Peterson and Michael Williams agree: “The Arminian Christian believes that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh to save sinners and that the saving work of Christ comes to the sinner by way of the grace of God received through faith. Whatever issues relevant to salvation we disagree upon, let us agree on this: the Calvinist and the Arminian are brothers in Christ.” (WINA, 13).

However, as both books contend, the belief in and reality of God’s sovereignty does not work itself out the same way in both theological systems. “Agreement at the level of broad claims about sovereignty, love, and freedom,” write Walls and Dongell, “masks profound disagreements about how these matters are understood in detail” (WINC, 216). And, say Peterson and Williams, “Calvinism and Arminianism do disagree regarding significant issues having to do with salvation, issues that we believe Calvinism rightly addresses and Arminianism does not” (WINA, 13).

Suffice it to say (and all four authors do), both theological parties affirm the other as spiritually seafaring by way of God’s same sovereign wind; however, these ships do so by different courses, depending on their particular turns of the rudder of predestination.

1 S.R. Spencer, “Predestination” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 950.

How We Know We Are Loved

In Theologians, Young Ones on April 15, 2007 at 7:23 pm

My kids are always amazing me with what they understand about life. Here’s an exchange my three-year-old and I had this evening while cuddling (a favorite activity for all involved):

Daddy: Do you know I love you?

#4: (smiles and laughs, almost embarrassed) Daddy…

Daddy: No, really. How do you know I love you?

#4: Because I said ‘yes’.

The theology here is profound.

Learning from My Methodist Roots

In Church, Theologians on March 28, 2007 at 11:41 am

My Reformation and Modern Church History class readings took a somewhat familiar turn today, focusing on the person and teaching of John Wesley, founder of Methodism.

I grew up Methodist, but experienced few intentional and traditional characteristics of Methodism to really know what it was. The small town church of my youth was not (nor is) a church of denominational distinctives, which was both good and bad: doctrine was never a source of division in the church, but that was largely because of the general lack thereof. Coming out of this kind of theological vacuum, I suppose it’s no surprise I warmed to the tenets of Reformed theology in college, and now attend a Reformed seminary and church 15 years later.

That said, I confess there’s a part of me that really resonates with certain aspects of Methodism, and (especially) Wesley himself. Historically, the Methodist movement appealed to the middle- and lower-class folk, particularly those settlers whose uprooted population lacked traditional ecclesiastical links, and whom the older churches seldom reached. Wesley’s use of “connections” and “circuits” in an effort to provide and foster community was cutting edge for the time, and the Methodists’ passion for those on the new frontiers – combined with the administration and organization to support it – has always been something I’ve admired about early Methodism, as it appeals to both my zeal and my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

While I don’t agree with all of Wesley’s theology (in particular his Arminian leanings), nor some of his overly-pragmatic practices of utilizing lay preachers beyond the need of the hour (though this was more his mother’s idea than his), the Reformed tradition could learn much from his perspective of ecumenism and fellowship across denominational lines. From The Works of John Wesley, pages 340-347:

“The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort…as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.

I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity – the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.

By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labor to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained.

Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.”

Now there’s a message we Reformed folk could stand hearing a few (thousand) more times…

Something to Think About for Lent

In Church, Theologians on February 21, 2007 at 12:12 pm

Lent is upon us, and, rather than spend the rest of my day (and this post) trying to figure out what one thing I should give up for the next 40 days, I thought I’d focus a bit on why to consider giving up anything at all.

John Calvin taught that original sin “seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19).” What he was saying was, if depravity is in us at all, it is all in us throughout:

“The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.”

But just as the depravity of original sin is all in us, “If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it (salvation) is ‘of him’ (1 Cor. 1:30):

  • gifts of the Spirit in his anointing
  • strength in his dominion
  • purity in his conception
  • gentleness in his birth
  • empathy in his humanity
  • redemption in his passion
  • acquittal in his condemnation
  • remission of curse in his cross
  • satisfaction in his sacrifice
  • purification in his blood
  • reconciliation in his descent
  • mortification of the flesh in his tomb
  • newness of life and immortality in his resurrection
  • inheritance of the kingdom in his entrance into heaven
  • protection, security, and supply in his kingdom
  • and peace in his judgment

“In short,” wrote Calvin,” since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other…” Calvin’s solution to our sin and depravity was not merely a physical restraining of sin (though there is need and grace for that), but a spiritual transfusion through blood and faith – that is, Christ’s for ours.

In other words (and to apply Calvin’s thought to the meaning of today), giving something up for Lent can be good, but giving in to Christ is the goal – certainly of Lent, even more so of life.

Suddenly, the idea of foregoing salt, chocolate, or Coke Zero for the next 40 days just got really, really trite…or really, really meaningful. I can’t decide which.

On Teachers and Teaching

In Seminary, Theologians, Wildwood on January 13, 2007 at 9:29 am

My kind of weekend: intensive January term class on prophecy with visiting prof, Dr. Richard Pratt of Third Millennium Ministries (check out the website – way cool vision); teaching tomorrow morning at Memorial on leadership (specifically how being a good follower is key to being a good leader); and digging into Proverbs to prep for class with my high schoolers.

Combine all this with a nice, dreary drizzle forecasted for most of the weekend, and it might as well be heaven (minus, of course, the still-obvious presence of sin, not to mention the periodic on/off flickering lights due to ice on the power lines). But I digress…

Dr. Pratt is a pretty amazing teacher who makes good use of audio/visual media without overdoing it. It’s obvious he also know his stuff on the prophets, and I was encouraged by both his scholarship and his biblical commitments trumping his solid Reformed perspectives.

Don’t get me wrong: for my two cents, Reformed theology is and always has been far and away the superior systematic in so many ways, but every man-made system has its limits, and Dr. Pratt is not only unafraid to say so, but seems bent on teaching it as part of his pedagogy.

Perhaps the other encouragement for me last night was how helpful and affirming his review of Old Testament history was, especially having just taught so much of it last semester at Wildwood. There are few things worse than realizing after the fact that something you taught someone else was actually wrong (or perhaps even worse – not quite right); thus, going into the class, I was somewhat prepared to have to revise some of my notes afterward, not so much for having wrong data, but for botching the interpretation of it in some way.

Thankfully (at least so far), my study and teaching seem to be lining up with Dr. Pratt’s take on things. Granted, there were a couple of important aspects that I did not emphasize as much as I perhaps should have, but there also was no real heresy I was guilty of either. For that, I was and am very thankful.

Of course, I was only in class three hours last night. We’ll see how my notes stand up after seven hours today.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1

Freaks me out every time I read it…

Humorous, Ludicrous

In Theologians on November 9, 2006 at 2:00 am

I'm usually not one for quizzes and the like, but this one seemed interesting enough. While I don't know all that much about Anselm (yet), Calvin and Edwards are heroes, so it was nice to see them in the top three. I would have liked to have seen Augustine and Marty Luther round out the top five, but it's not like I really compare to any of them to begin with, so no big deal.

Anyway, it's only a quiz, right? God doesn't give quizzes; he's more into tests. For posterity:

"You scored as John Calvin. Much of what is now called Calvinism had more to do with his followers than Calvin himself, and so you may or may not be committed to TULIP, though God's sovereignty is all important."

John Calvin

 

100%
Anselm

 

80%
Jonathan Edwards

 

67%
Jorgen Moltmann

 

40%
Augustine

 

33%
Charles Finney

 

27%
Friedrich Schleiermacher

 

27%
Karl Barth

 

27%
Martin Luther

 

20%
Paul Tillich

 

7%

Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

Possibly In Need of a Little Persecution?

In Church, Theologians on October 4, 2006 at 9:12 pm

As part of my Pastoral and General Epistles class with Dr. Dan Doriani, I’m studying the book of Hebrews, which essentially means doing some Greek translation, following along in the lecture notes, and reading William Lane’s excellent commentary, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment. Lane does an amazing job of analyzing and understanding the structure and ideas of the author of Hebrews (possibly Luke or Barnabas, or perhaps even Clement, but certainly not Paul – the Greek’s too different), and Dr. D. is top-notch as a New Testament scholar/teacher.

Hebrews was written as a sermon, not as a letter (though it probably was passed around later as such) to a group of Christians in Rome around the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64 A.D.; thus, the particular style and surrounding events give the book a personal, urgent flavor that is fascinating from both a theological and pastoral perspective.

Here are a few choice highlights from Lane:

“The ‘adult’ is the mature Christian who will recognize the moral claim of God upon his life, even if it exposes him to martyrdom. Those who remain infantile and who refuse to exercise their faculties daily by making decisions in a Christian manner will be unable to exercise the proper moral discrimination between good and evil when they stand before the interrogation of a Roman magistrate. In that case, they will be unprepared for the ultimate moral choice between confessing and denying Christ, when the cost of confession and identification with Christ is the loss of one’s life.” (89)

“Pastoral concern for his friends is evident in every line…The writer makes use of biting irony, confident assurance, sharp warning, and warm encouragement to coax the community into recgonizing that they cannot turn back the clock and deny the reality fo the salvation they have experienced.” (100)

“Christ came into the world in order to model committed obedience to the will of God. As the obedient one, he came to do the will of God. The sacrifice of his body on the Cross was the obedient response to the divine will, and this sacrifice secured for his people the benefits of the new covenant…We prove that we are the new people of God precisely as the obedience which Christ displayed when he entered the world becomes the hallmark of our lives.” (143)

“The formulation used by the preacher to express the pilgrim’s disposition is descriptive of an active seeking: ‘we seek after the city which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14). Here is the litmus test of spirituality: are you actively looking forward to the appeearance of the City of God? What do you care about profoundly? What do you think about when you are caught day-dreaming? Do you display a pilgrim’s dispostion, actively seeking the City of God?” (161)

All that to say, one of the reasons that I (along with most of the American evangelical church) really don’t understand the depth of Hebrews is not because the message is unclear; rather, we have not experienced the kind of hostility Jesus (and those to whom Hebrews was written) did.

To understand the will of God to the same (or at least similar) degree, I wonder if we are possibly in need of a little persecution? I’m not saying I’m asking for it, but I do wonder sometimes: if it came, how would I/we respond? Obviously, this is what the Church in China, North Korea, and other such places of tyranny could teach us, as I bet they understand Hebrews a lot better than I do, not because they choose to, but because they have to as Christians.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-4)

Nope. Sure haven’t. How about you?