December 31, 2009

Burger King, Western Culture, and the Lordship of Christ

I thought about calling this post "The importance of studying Greek mythology for Christian parenting and discipleship."  But that would be a bit wordy for a blog title.  So, let's call it the subtitle and move on.

Yesterday, I ate lunch at Burger King with my father-in-law, my son, and my four nephews.  While we were eating, I noticed that the lettering on the side of the small cups was encouraging the children to "Take Care of Mother Earth."  This might seem rather harmless to many a parent; however, I submit that it is part of a larger cultural and pagan onslaught that has become so normalized that we do not realize we are being attacked and, thus, cannot defend our children nor teach them to defend themselves against the ambush that comes on the side of their kid's meal cups.  "What's the big deal?" you ask.  Well, the big deal is that Mother Earth comes to us from the writings of an ancient Greek poet named Hesiod and his work on the birth of the Greek gods entitled Theogony.  In short, Burger King is pummeling our children with pagan theology under our very noses, and we know it not. 

In the Theogony, Earth and Sky are two gods who come together to have children.  One of those children is Chronos (or Father Time) who overthrows his father by mutilating him with a sicle and who is honored to this day by many unknowing celebrants annually on New Year's Eve.  After overthrowing his oppressive father, Chronos has offspring with his mother, among whom is numbered Zeus, who ultimately overthrows his father Chronos and becomes king of the gods. 

The point is that Greek thought is so ingrained into the culture of the West that it shows up on fast food restaurant cups, and the problem is that most Christian parents don't know Greek mythology well enough to spot it when it shows up in Burger King.  So, our kids grow up with a general cultural framework in which earth or nature is said to have some sort of motherly relation to them, and they were taught by the disposable cups at BK. 

The problem is compounded when we consider that the biblical vocation of human beings is to image God's glory into the world and consecrate the earth to his glory by excersizing godly and Christlike dominion therein.  The earth is not our mother.  God is our Father, and he has designed us to oversee and steward the earth not to think we were born from her.  Greek mythology (and Burger King) teaches that we are derived from earth and that she is higher than we.  The Bible teaches us that all creation culminates in the making of mankind in the image of God to rule over the earth as kings and priests. 

Of course, if we don't understand what is being done to us and our kids, we will not know how to disciple them into mature people who can discern when pop culture is trying to hit them with a little pagan idolatry.  This is why an understanding of the Greeks and the culture of the west is important for Christian discipleship in general and Christian parenting in particular.  Like everything else, the ideology on the cups at Burger King must be considered in light of the universal Lordship of Christ, lest we be unknowingly subsumed into paganism and idolatry.

December 22, 2009

The Importance of Recognizing Metaphor and Analogy

Once again, I find myself compelled to respond to something Douglas Wilson has said on his Twitter page.  Once again, let me say up front that I like Doug, think a lot of him, appreciate much of his work, disagree vehemently with his Calvinism.  So here goes.  Doug said, "Some reject the idea that regenerating grace is irresistible. But nobody objects to the fact that our physical birth was irresistible."  I would of course be one of those people.  Yes, regenerating grace is resistible.  No, physical birth is not.  This matter comes up frequently in Calvinist/Arminian discussion and is worthy of attention.  The issue is that, like other Calvinists, Wilson fails to appropriate the metaphorical relationship between physical birth and spiritual birth.  Physical birth is a metaphor for spiritual birth; physical death is a metaphor for spiritual death.  If one thing is a metaphor for another, then they have some characteristics in common and others not in common.  They have both similarities and differences, and, in that sense, they are analogous and not identical.
A particularly illustrative text comes in the opening verses of Ephesians 2.  There Paul says that Ephesian Chrsitians were once dead through tresspasses and sins.  Here he is speaking of spiritual deadness, and the idea of physical death, with which most of us have come in contact, informs our thinking of the spiritual death of which Paul speaks.  That Paul is using metaphor is indicated by his saying that these tresspasses and sins are something in which the Ephesians formerly walked.  Now physically dead people don't normally walk in anything not least tresspasses and sin.  In contrast, spiritual death does involve some activity in tresspassing.  They are similar in that both are undesirable states, but the similarity does not extend to every characteristic of death.  Thus, the analogical and metaphorical nature of Paul's claim.  You were dead in your sins and that is both similar and different from being dead in the ground.  Paul goes on to declare that God has made the Ephesians alive by grace through faith.  Like spiritual death, spiritual life should be informed by what we know of physical life.  Both are indeed desirable and good.  This most certainly does not mean that both are alike in every respect.  And one of the ways in which they are not alike seems to be the matter of the resistibility of the one, namely spiritual life, and the irresistibility of the other, namely physical life.  Spiritual life is received through faith, according to Paul, which is an active response to grace.  So, the spiritually dead, by preceding grace, can evidently do something that conditions their regeneration, that is respond with faith. 

It is important to remember that metaphors and analogies are metaphors and analogies precisely because they are not the things to which they are metaphorical and analogous.  This distinction must be rightly appropriated if we are to understand biblical soteriology aright.

December 21, 2009

Christian Humanism: Getting a Handle on the Term

In chapter 1 of The Christian Criticism of Life, Hough lays out the uses and misuses of the term humanism.  He concludes that the only true humanist is the Christian humanist.  This is because the Christian humanist studies human life as a valuable gift from God.  The so-called secular humanist inconsistently attributes value to the life of man apart from understanding man as created in the image of God.  He fails to see that it is the imago dei that gives human beings their value.  Thus the secular humanist strips humanity of that which makes it valuable and undermines his own task.  I think it was C. S. Lewis who once said that Christians need to reclaim their language.  I think he would agree with Hough that the language of humanism must be reclaimed by the Christian.  It has been illegitimately co-opted by the secularist and, as a result, is something of a dirty word for many Christians.  In response, Hough would say that, to be a true humanist, a true student of humanity and the humanities, one must consider humanity through the mind of God as communicated in the scriptures.  One must say with the Psalmist, "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet" (8:4-6).

Moving Forward by Reclaiming the Past - The Christian Criticism of Life

In the introduction to his book The Christian Criticism of Life (Abingdon-Cokesbury 1941), Lynn Harold Hough argues that, if we are to regain the meaning of a civilized life for the future, then we must recover the past.  To this end, Hough proposes a thorough study the great thinkers of the past through the lens of the Christian religion. He sees it as the business of the Christian, "to keep the mind of the world alive" (17).  Another way of putting it, he claims, is to say "that civilization is Christian, and that when it ceases to be Christian it ceases to be civilization" (17).  This is really quite revolutionary given some recent varieties of so-called Christian anti-intellectualism.  Hough's call is for Christians to embrace the life of the mind as a part of a life that honors God.  He expects Christians to be cultural leaders in the humanities, and thinks that, to be a true cultural leader, one must be Christian, a daring and invigorating claim to say the least. I dare say there is only a minority of Christians who see it as their vocation to keep the world thinking on its toes. 

Deep Comedy by Leithart

From time to time, you read a book of which you are certain is more important and more profound than you are presently able to grasp. You are also certain that you will have to read that book several more times before you begin to grasp its importance. Peter Leithart’s Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature (Canon 2006) is one such book.

In this book, Leithart argues that ancient, modern, and postmodern literature is all characterized by a tragic view of history. For Leithart, such a view of history has characters that generally begin well but inescapably descend to a bad end. History is seen as tragic when it moves from good to bad with no hope of rescue.

In contrast, Leithart argues that Christianity uniquely advances a comic view of history. Such a view acknowledges human depravity yet holds out hope for redemption and restoration, not only of the human race but of all things. The Christian view of history claims that the world is the good creation of a good God who has good plans for what he has made.

The difference is the Christian doctrine of the God who is triune. The point can be illustrated by considering that the god of Plato was ultimately and perfectly One. Thus, any creative departure necessarily meant imperfection. That which is supplemental to the One is necessarily incomplete. The Christian doctrine of God, though, has a God who is a unity of persons in relation. The Son has his origin in the Father but he is no less perfect and no less divine than the Father because they share the same essence. The Spirit issues from the Father and the Son and, once again, is no less perfect than his origin. Christianity, thus, has a doctrine of God where the supplement is in no way ontologically inferior to the origin. This yields a view of creation and history in which the triune God creates, but the creation is not necessarily a departure from the goodness of the perfect creator. Christianity has a metaphysic in which there is hope of perfection for that which is supplemental to the origin, thus the Christian comic view of history in which things end well despite human rebellion and sin. Ultimately, Leithart argues that any comic view of history and positive eschatology must be grounded in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Much more could be said about this book, and the issues it raises create manifold opportunities for further study. Let me conclude by saying that this is a deeply satisfying book that comes with my highest recommendation.

December 16, 2009

Our Trinitarian Faith (2): God and with God

When considering the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, we cannot skip over the evidence of John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Logos (Word), and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God."  The importance of this verse for our doctrine of God cannot be overestimated.  At least three observations ought to be noted. 

1. The use of Genesis 1:1 ought to be glaringly obvious to readers of John's gospel.  The famous first verse of scripture reads, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  John's use of this verse indicates that he sees himself as writing a narrative of new creation and that he is going to tell his readers something about the creator God.  The chief thing John wants to say about God is that God cannot be known or understood apart from the revelation of the Logos enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  If you want to know God, you must know Jesus because Jesus reveals God.  John is giving us a Christocentric presentation of his Hebrew understanding of the creator God of Israel. 

2. John understands there to be a fundamental unity between the Logos and God.  The Logos was God (theos ēn ho logos).  This should not surprise us given the fact that, as a Hebrew, John was a thoroughgoing monotheist.  He believed there was one God.  If the Logos is a divine being for John, then the Logos must be God.  There is unity of being between them.  Some have argued that the verse ought to be translated: The Logos was a God.  The rationale is that since Greek has no indefinite article, and since John does not identify the God to whom he is here referring with a definite article, and since we know its nonsense for God to be both one and more than one all at the same time, then the Logos must be a god rather than the God.  For reasons noted above, this argument doesn't hold water.  John is Hebrew, remember, and a monotheist.  Further, plenty of definite Greek nouns show up without the article.  For example, when John writes that those who saw Jesus beheld "glory as of the only born from the Father" (1:14), there is no definite article in front of Father in the Greek text.  Surely John didn't mean "glory as the only born of a father."  His point is Jesus' unique relation to the God of Israel.  It wouldn't help his argument if he were referring to any old undefined father.  No, John means the Father in v. 14, and he means the only God in v. 1.  The Logos is God.

3.  But John does not merely affirm unity between the Logos and the creator God.  If he had only affirmed as much, we wouldn't be all that shocked.  The surprising thing is that John also says, "the Logos was with God."  If John introduces unity between the Logos and God by saying, "the Logos was God," then he introduces diversity by saying, "the Logos was with God."  And here is the key issue for John.  If we are to understand the true God, we must understand that his nature includes both unity and distinction.  He is one and he is more than one (specifically three, as we learn later in the gospel). 

The importance of all this for Trinitarian theology is to see that a unitarian approach cannot reckon with this langauge. If God is one being and not three persons, then we have to convieniently ignore John's declaration that the Logos who is God was also with God in the beginning.  Neither can one claim exclusive diversity between God and the Logos (and the Spirit for that matter).  A tritheistic approach cannot reckon with the langauge of unity between the Logos and the creator God.  It is this sort of language that led the Church to adopt the language of "Trinity" to describe the unity and diversity of God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the scriptures.  Without the doctrine of the Trinity, there is no account for the biblical language about God.  Christianity is a religion of triune theism.

NB: I have avoided the common rendering of "word" for the Greek "logos."  "Logos" means much more than the English "word."  In order to keep the concept fresh and unrestricted, I've used the transliteration instead. 

December 15, 2009

Our Trinitarian Faith (1)


In the last year, I have been presented with several professing Christians who deny that God is indeed a Trinity, one unified being in three distinct persons. This has raised the question: Can one reject the doctrine of the Trinity and consistently present oneself as a Christian? My answer to this question will not surprise regular readers or those who know me well. My answer is a resounding “no!” To deny that God is triune is to deny a doctrine essential and fundamental to the Christian faith. Scriptural language about God, Jesus, and the Spirit is unintelligible without a Trinitarian framework. Early Christian churchmen and theologians recognized this reality and struggled to creedalize the unique scriptural language on the relationship between the God of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit to preserve for all true Christian fellowships a scriptural and historical doctrine. This doctrine has been affirmed by all major historic branches of the Church – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Any person who denies the Trinitarian nature of God ought to realize, and be honest enough to confess, that they are parting ways with the way Christianity has historically articulated the doctrine of God. Such persons may think the Church has gotten it wrong when it comes to theology proper; however, they should be truthful enough to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity and the meaning of “Christianity” are so entwined that to deny the former while retaining the latter is inconsistent and misleading.

So, must one believe in the Trinity to be a Christian? Absolutely! I should be clear, though, that mere assent to the doctrine of the Trinity does not make one a Christian. One can believe that God is triune and yet hate him. In contrast, one who has placed his full confidence for salvation in the Jesus revealed in the Bible will also be placing his faith in the God Jesus has definitively revealed, namely the God who is triune. So, it should be understood that believing in the Trinity does not necessarily make one a Christian, but Christian faith is always Trinitarian faith.

December 9, 2009

unChristian

"Christianity has an image problem," according to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (11).  In demonstrating this claim, the authors of unChristian (Baker, 2007) present extensive research on the perceptions of outsiders (their term) with regard to Christianity.  Their conclusion: Outsiders perceive Christians as hypocritical and overly sheltered judgmental homophobes who are primarily concerned with conversion as they foist their political agenda on the nation and world.  With these perceptions in mind, the authors propose an image overhaul that is characterized by listening and engaging Christlike compassion.  Without engaging in a full dress review, here are two thoughts that were constantly on my mind as I read this book. 

1. Any program that suggests charting a course for Christianity based on the perceptions of outsiders ought to be approached with caution.  It is hardly the case that those who walk according to the flesh who do not have the indwelling Spirit of God can be expected to have accurate perceptions about what Christianity is and what our mission is about.  Our vision of the church's future should be driven by God's revelation of himself in the person of Christ and in the writings of scripture.  Our vision of the future should not be primarily driven by outsider perception. 

2. That said, outsider perception might be telling.  The prophet Ezekiel chastised ancient Israel for profaning God's name among the nations.  The prophet declared the word of the Lord saying, "But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that it was said of them, 'These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.'  But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations to which they came" (36:20-21 NRSV).  As I read this book, I couldn't help but wonder if the prophet would say to the modern church, "But when they came to the outsiders, they profaned my holy name, in that it was said of them, 'These are the people of the Lord, and yet they do not manifest his holy character of self-giving love and righteousness.'"  If this is the case, then the Holy One will, of course, once again be concerend for his sacred name, and his people ought once again be wary of his judgment and welcoming of his discipline.

December 4, 2009

Don't Blame Me for Being Arminian

Let me say first that I have a great deal of appreciation and resepect for Douglas Wilson.  Though I disagree with his Calvinism, I think his work in the area of education and family are incredibly valuable.  His debates with the new atheists are outstanding.  Indeed, I am very close to him in terms of the overall covenantal structure of his theology, as would have been Wesley and Arminius.  Now for a very brief critique.  Wilson recently wrote, "Don't blame me for becoming a Calvinist.  I couldn't help it."  Now it certainly is not fair to levy a full-scale critique of an all to brief status update on Twitter.  There is not enough context to really deal with the issues.  For all I know he could have intended this comment in jest or jokingly.  However, the post raises precisely the question which concerns Arminians about the Calvinistic view of freedom and responsibility.  If God indeed determines our actions and beliefs ahead of time, then how can we be held responsible for them?  With Wilson's logic and in his worldview I can equally say, "Don't blame me for being Arminian.  I couldn't help it."

November 12, 2009

From Death to Life

The interview below features former director for Planned Parenthood Abby Johnson, who became a strong pro-life advocate after assisting with an abortion which she also watched on an ultrasound monitor.  All the material in the interview is important, but at least three items are worth special mention here.
  • Ms. Johnson points out that one of the goals of Planned Parenthood is "to make money, and the way they make money is to increase the number of abortions they do."
  • She watched the unborn baby fight for her life.
  • Planned Parenthood does not want their employees to see what happens in an abortion and has placed a restraining order on Ms. Johnson.

November 9, 2009

The Ugliness of Sin and the Beauty of Christ

In many corners of Western Christianity it has become very unpopular to speak candidly of sin and transgression. Critics of sin-talk remind us that it is, of course, an offensive topic that reminds people how bad off they really are. Thinking about sin makes people uncomfortable and depressed. Therefore, they say, we shouldn't bring it up. Instead, let's simply talk about how sweet Jesus is and how important it is for us to be like him. The problem with such treacle is that it is not much Christian. It is sentimental moralism that sees humanity's biggest problem as not following Jesus' example. It fails to recognize that we do not need mere example; we need redemption.

Further, such talk fails to comprehend the relationship between the ugliness of sin and the sweetness of Christ. Only with a growing understanding of our own depravity can we gain a deeper and more profound appreciation for the beauty of Christ. The scriptures remind us that one who will die for a good man is a rare find. If you are looking for someone who will offer himself for an evil man, well, don't hold your breath. The great glory and grace of the cross comes with a deeper recognition of just how opposed to God the guilty sinner really is. Scripture describes us as "enemies" of God and "children of wrath." When we begin to see how deeply we have offended God and how much we deserve his righteous wrath, then we will see the beauty of Christ in new and deeper ways. He is the one who bore his own just wrath in our place. The offended took the place of the guilty. He is the one who died for bad men and women. And he is all the more glorious and beautiful for it. We do speak of sin for its own sake. We acknowledge its reality to the end of having a deeper grasp of the majesty, of the magnificence, of the splendor, of the wonder, of the grandeur, of the glory, of the grace of the person of Christ.

November 4, 2009

Politics, News, and Biases: What's the Big Deal?

I've been quite intrigued by the ongoing battle between the White House and Fox News. As I understand it, Fox is playing the role of the watchdog with the current administration and said administration doesn't much like being watched by that sort of dog. They would rather be watched by one of those nice dogs that doesn't make much noise and just sort of lays around all day. You know, one of those dogs that would just lay there and watch when someone breaks in your house and steals everything you own. Those kinds of dogs don't cause a stir or draw attention to what your doing. So, the administration comes back with attempts to discredit Fox's watchdogging by claiming that they are not really legitimate news organizations because they have a clearly Republican-conservative bias.

Now I'm no fan of Fox News. I wish Bill O'Reilly had a different last name. That guy makes me want to pull whats left of my hair right out. What interests me in this matter is the fact that the administration's accusation of bias carries any weight what so ever in the whole debate. So what is Fox News has a conservative bias. The current White House has a liberal bias. The NRA is biased, as are PETA, Hollywood, the ACLU, and the folks out at Focus on the Family. If there is one thing that postmodernism is supposed to have taught us, it is that everyone in the world is biased in one way or another, including news agencies. Since when does bias discredit a news agency. Every newspaper in America has an opinion page upon which they publish their views on certain issues. Yes, that's right, where they publish their biases.

In the field of theology, everyone knows that everyone is biased about everything. Conservatives and biased and so are liberals. Everybody thinks their view is the right one and they all know that they hold their view as a result of a complicated combination of circumstances, experiences, influences, mentors, antagonism, etc. The key is not trying to provide an unbiased view. The key is understanding your own bias and how it shapes what you think.

Christians ought to be honest about our biases. I'm biased. I am 100% pro-life and in favor of traditional marriage precisely because I think it is part of what it means to be a faithful Christ-follower. I do what I do and say what I say as a result of what I think it means to be biased toward Jesus. That doesn't mean I always get it right. It just means I'm being honest about what I think and why I think it.

The White House's attack on the credibility of Fox News falls to the charge that it is an elementary attempt to take the public attention off of what they are really up to. They are throwing mud at the watchdog hoping that it will back off or change its tune to be like that quiet dog in the corner that is really an accomplice to the thieves. The national debate will only be productive when all parties confess that they all have biases and get on to talk about the issues instead. By the way, the more liberal leaning media is not jumping on with the administration in this one because they don't want to come across as the quiet looter-accomplice dog on its bed in the corner.

What Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?

When I first encountered the term "theological interpretation," I was a bit confused about its meaning. As far as I could tell, all the interpretation of scripture to which I had been exposed had been theological. So, I wasn't sure what the big deal was. It should, of course, be understood that this thing called theological interpretation is quite a big deal. It has become a major movement in the world of academic biblical studies as indicated by a very significant amount of literature recently and currently being published. So, what is it? I've done a little reading in the area lately and, as best as I can discern, theological interpretation is the practice or discipline of reading and interpreting the Bible as holy scripture with something to say for the life and practice of the Church. "What?" you say. "What is so novel about that? Have we not been reading the Bible as holy scripture with something to say for the life and practice of the church for millennia?" This was my initial reaction to the matter as well. As a pastor, I do theological interpretation of scripture on a daily and weekly basis. I read scripture for the Church as part of my vocation. So, why all the fuss?

The reason this is a big deal is because it is catching on as a valid discipline in academic circles. A bit of history is always helpful. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, what has become known as higher critical scholarship was on the rise in the academic field of biblical studies. This movement dismissed the notion of a transcendent God who had made himself known through special revelation. These scholars did not read the Bible as scripture with something to say to the Church; they read the Bible purely as critics of history. These men were highly influenced by the German philosophers of the period and discounted all biblical accounts of supernatural activity like miracles and divine revelation. The Bible was read as a purely human book. Scholars sought to understand the historically authentic world that was allegedly behind the religiously embellished text. Thus, a massive wedge was driven between the Bible of history and the scriptures of faith. The Bible was seen as telling us about the beliefs of the early Christ-followers; it was seen as telling us nothing from God.

This historical context should shed some light on the importance of the current rise of theological readings of scripture in academia. Theological interpretation should be seen as a response to those who would strip the Bible from the devotional life of the Church. It is an attempt to recover the scriptures as the word of God for his people and the larger world. The movement is still young and a great deal of energy is being spent on issues of method and how exactly this practice should be done. The thing for which we can be thankful is that theological reading of the Bible is coming to be seen as a very exciting, valid, and scholarly approach to the scriptures.

October 26, 2009

Around the Links

October 13, 2009

Holy Abortion? by Gorman and Brooks

Can abortion ever be considered holy? New Testament scholar Michael J. Gorman and educator Ann Loar Brooks say, "No!" In Holy Abortion? A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Gorman and Brooks evaluate the position of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) by analyzing their published material and resources. The authors then proceed to critically compare the position of RCRC with official statements of its member Christian groups, among which two United Methodist agencies are numbered - the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries: Women's Division. The authors aim to demonstrate that principles and values of RCRC are in fundamental contradiction with the principles and values of their Christian member groups.

RCRC is self-described as "the interfaith movement for choice" whose primary work is in education and advocacy for the pro-choice position on abortion. The authors' critique of RCRC takes into account a number of their published resources but focuses primarily on a worship resource entitled Prayerfully Pro-Choice: Resources for Worship. The thorough critique of RCRC focuses on six themes prevalent in RCRC literature:
  • Absolute God-given Sexual and Reproductive Freedom, including Abortion Rights (12)
  • The Isolation of the Woman or Teen as Sovereign Moral Agent (16)
  • The Trivialization of the Moral Status of Unborn Human Life (19)
  • The Legitimacy of Abortion as Birth Control (22)
  • The Holiness of Abortion (26)
  • A Pro-Choice God, Attested in Scripture, Who Blesses All Decisions (28).
Gorman and Brooks conclude their critique by evaluating RCRC through the lens of the historic Christian debate on how to approach war. Three positions have been held: the non-violence tradition, the just-war tradition, and the holy-war tradition. The authors argue that these traditions developed chronologically and that Christianity has generally but not entirely been purged of the holy-war tradition. The authors use this lens to demonstrate that RCRC shares in principle the values of the holy-war tradition which include:
  • the absence of external moral or legal restraints
  • the isolation and sovereignty of the moral agent
  • the lack of concern for the moral status of the targets
  • the absence of criteria to justify the action
  • the holiness of the act
  • the blessing of God (31).
The authors charge that the presence of anything like a holy-war attitude or ethic in any organization ought to raise very serious and grave concerns among its members (31).

Having demonstrated the position of RCRC, Gorman and Brooks turn to the statements on abortion of its Christian member groups (The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church). In its social principles, the United Methodist Church, "in contrast to RCRC, affirms its reluctance to approve abortion, its belief in the 'sanctity of unborn human life,' and the necessity of assistance in decision making. It explicitly rejects abortion as birth control and places restrictions on its being considered at all ('tragic conflicts of life with life'). Partial-birth abortion is permitted only in extreme cases" (36).

The authors argue that member bodies, like the two United Methodist agencies listed above, approach abortion through the lens of the just-war tradition, in which abortion is considered a lamentable last resort to be considered only in the case of tragic conflicts of life with life precisely because the unborn human life is held in sanctity. This, of course, is in contrast to the holy-war approach of RCRC where abortion is seen as an always available sacred and free choice sanctioned and blessed by god.
The authors, therefore, call for Christian groups to disassociate themselves from RCRC. Gorman and Brooks also seek to advance the conversation by considering abortion theologically and calling for abortion to be seen as, "a war of the powerful against the weak" (49, italics original). The authors also call for the conversation to be advanced through the articulation of a Christian and biblical theology of freedom, in which freedom is not the freedom to choose whatever one wishes but the freedom to sacrifice oneself in Christ likeness for the sake of the other (48-49).

This is a much needed volume that is an invaluable resources for pastors and laypersons. The authors provide a strong and thorough critique of RCRC and unmask its attempts to appear consistent with the historic and biblical Christian faith. I join the authors in calling for Christian groups to cut all ties with RCRC and to think more biblically and Christianly about the truly horrifying problem of abortion and the culture of death it perpetuates.

For further reading:
Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Pagan, and Jewish Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Wipf & Stock, 1998) by Michael J. Gorman

October 12, 2009

Part of the Problem

I got a call today from a salesman for a company called Bluefish TV. Among other things, they sell DVDs and video downloads of illustrations for pastors to use in sermons. I listened to the gentleman make his sales pitch which went something like this: Americans today have short attention spans because they are over-saturated with visual media. And though this is unfortunate, it means that you, as a preacher, are going to have a hard time getting people to listen to you for very long. Therefore, you should buy our video clips of illustrations and sprinkle them in your sermons because that's the sort of media to which people in our society have been conditioned, and it's the only way they're going to pay attention to you. Oh and, by the way, we are better than our competition because we give you more clips for less cash!

Now the obvious problem here is that the folks at Bluefish TV and their competition are part of the problem, not the solution. They are part of the problem because they are contributing to the over-saturation of society with visual media. Rather than encouraging pastors to be counter-cultural and preach the pure Word, they are calling for pastors to buy their clips and contribute to the lamentable reality that people won't listen unless there is a digital image rolling in the background.

The solution is for preachers to refuse to use video clips in their sermons. Preachers must remember that God has promised to save through the foolishness of preaching the gospel, which is God's power for salvation. God has not promised to work through our video clips. If he had, there would be more revivals breaking out in movie theaters. Yes, this is against the tide of the culture, but so is the gospel. We need to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of extending our attention spans and careful listening to biblical teaching. We have a limited amount of time to address our people with the Word of God on a weekly basis; we must not abdicate that time to Hollywood!

September 14, 2009

Translation Matters

It's always fascinating to me when theological questions usually reserved for the seminary classroom find their way into popular discourse. One current example is the matter of Bible translation theory, which has recently received a significant amount of attention with the announcement that the current edition of the New International Version (NIV) is undergoing a significant revision. Indeed, a website has been created to explain the translation committee's decision to revise the translation - NIV Bible 2011. This decision has raised questions in popular circles that are usually reserved for graduate theological education. Such questions are: What makes for a good translation? What makes one translation superior to another? What makes each translation different? And why do we have so many translations anyway?

A translation's quality can be considered in whether it is faithful to the meaning of the original text. The problem here is how we determine faithfulness. Is faithfulness to the original best achieved by strict adherence to the original form in an attempt to reproduce the syntactical elements as closely as possible. Or is faithfulness best achieved by rendering the original into the best colloquial language? Different translators would give different answers.

So, what is the average churchgoer to do when considering which translation to buy? Some use the translation that their parents used. Others choose to use the translation that their preacher uses because it's easier to follow on Sundays. I would say that you are safe with any translation that has the word "standard" in the title. Beyond that, the NIV is a very popular (best-selling) choice as well. For serious Bible study, it is wise to consult several translations including representatives from different translation philosophies. For example, one might study a passage in the NASB, NIV, and NLT. This selection would provide a "standard" translation that attempts to capture the grammatical form of the original (NASB). It would also provide a very dynamic translation which moves entirely away from the grammatical form to idiomatic expressions (NLT). Some balance is achieved in this selection by the NIV which comes down somewhere in between formal and dynamic equivalence. A word of caution is order though. One should never, never, never use only a paraphrase (e.g., The Message, The Living Bible) for serious Bible study. These are not translations and they are not done by a committee of scholars. They are usually one person's take on how biblical passages could be interpreted or applied to the present day. They are helpful more along the lines of a commentary. They should not be used solo for serious study. No matter what!

I preach from the New Revised Standard Version, not because it's the best translation but because I developed a strong familiarity with it in seminary where it was required in a number of classes. I used to use the NIV and appreciated a fresh and unfamiliar rendering of many texts when reading them in the NRSV. The switch caused me to go back and think about some things a bit more closely. I'm not committed to the NRSV for life by any means. In fact, as I've been preaching through Philippians lately, I've noticed a number of places where it seems to take some liberty with the original Greek text. Also, the language is becoming a bit dated for contemporary readers. It may not be a bad idea to switch from time to time just to keep things fresh. I'm interested in looking more closely at the English Standard Version, which has developed quite a good reputation as of late and uses a translation philosophy similar to the NRSV.

All that to say, there are some good translations out there. Never before have so many translation options been available to the masses. This is really quite a historical achievement when we consider that as recently as 600 years ago people did not have personal copies of the Bible. When taken together, several translations can cast a great deal of light on some difficult passages. Familiarity with different translations keeps us thinking afresh about the Bible, which is a good thing. Thanks to the NIV translation committee for their interest in keeping their translation up-to-date and for bringing these important translation matters into popular purview.

September 12, 2009

The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will

"For God is the one who works in you both to will and to work for the sake of his good pleasure." Philippians 2:13

Arminians often tout the importance of the freedom of the will while often forgetting the importance of understanding the bondage of the will. I've met seminarians who did not understand that we are not born with the freedom to will rightly and to will in such a way that is pleasing to God. Philippians 2:13 is instructive in this situation.

First, the will, and any freedom it might have, is understood as a gift in this passage. Paul has just exhorted the Philippians to live out the salvation that Christ has secured through his obedient life, death, and resurrection. Paul's command to work out, or live out the implications of, our common salvation is grounded in the fact that God is already at work in us enabling our wills. This, of course, means that our wills lack ability in their natural state. If God has to do the work so that we can will, then we do not have freedom of will when we come into the world. It's all gift. This means that when we reject this gift, we are rejecting freedom of the will. To resist grace is to run to slavery.

Second, God does this work for the sake of his own good pleasure. It pleases God to free our wills so that we can will what he wills. It pleases him that we would share his pleasures. It is a good and comforting thing to know that God is at work in us to give us freedom because he enjoys it.

Arminians need to strive for clarity with regard to the biblical teaching on freedom of the will. We need to acknowledge that, apart from grace, our wills are in bondage to sin. Only through the God's good pleasure to work in us to will as he wills are we able to experience the freedom of our will's natural bondage.

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 6: Responding to Objections

It may come as a surprise to some that the expositional preaching of scripture has met with objection in many quarters of the church. Despite the goal of the method to plainly expose the life-giving word, it has been met with resistance, at times, from both pastors and congregants. So, with this final post on the case for expositional preaching, I aim to respond to some common objections.

First, some have objected to expositional preaching on the grounds that the method is dated. In response, I would say: Absolutely! This objection is faulty because it assumes that anything old is irrelevant. The obvious answer here is that the scriptures themselves are quite dated. The most recent of them are 2000 years old. The fact that expositional preaching is dated and has historical precedent as the best way to preach the word of God is an argument in favor of the method.

Second, some have objected that expositional preaching is dull and boring. This objection is probably not so much evidence of a dull method but dull preachers. If a sermon that is intended to explain the scriptures is boring, then the preacher needs to do more work in preparation before preaching it. The word of God is life-giving, and if the preacher makes it boring, then he ought to work harder not to hinder the power of the word.

Third, and closely related to the second, it has been objected by some preachers that preaching through a whole book is not preferable because the congregation might get bogged down. Once again, it must be seen that the problem is not with the word but with either the preacher or the congregation. If the congregation gets bogged down by the word, then either the preacher is not doing his job or the congregation has an insufficient appreciation for the life-giving word.

In conclusion, my aim through this series of posts has been to make the case for expositional preaching. The argument for expositional preaching is based on scriptural authority and sufficiency, personal growth for the preacher, and the fear of God's judgment to make the word scarce. All objections fail when considered in light of power of the word. The problem is never with scripture; it is always with either the preacher or the hearer and is a manifestation of our common fallenness. Let us, therefore, be faithful to preach the whole counsel of God to the people of God that our faith might be increased and our God might be glorified.

September 10, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 5, The Fear of God

In Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser argues that, "continual neglect of [God's] word can lead to God himself making that word scarce so that few can find it and thus profit from applying its message" (18). I was shocked when I first read this statement. But Kaiser makes his case quoting Amos 8:11-12:

"'The days are coming,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'when I will send a famine through the land - not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.'"

Kaiser points out that possession of God's word is not enough. God's people must love God's word and give it central place in everything they do. If we do not, then the consequence (or judgment) is that we get what we asked for. If we neglect God's word, then he will make it scarce.

In light of this, we must renew the call for thoroughly biblical preaching, preaching that seeks to exposit God's word and explain it clearly to God's people. The pulpit must be a place where love of the scriptures is exemplified and communicated. The preacher must demonstrate through his preaching that the word of God is authoritative and valuable. By preaching expositionally, the focus is on what God has said. This is the best way to cultivate among our people a sense of the importance of what God has said and a deep love for the scriptures.

We might be tempted to think that the word of God could never become scarce in our own day. After all, we have new translations, paraphrases, and study bibles published on what sometimes seems to be a daily basis. We have bibles for doctors, farmers, teachers, Marines, students, hunters, fishermen, and others. We have study bibles, application bibles, green bibles, bibles for him, and bibles for her. Despite the commercial proliferation of variously marketable editions, we may not have a deep love for the word of God. Indeed, for all our many versions of the Bible, we live in a day of great biblical illiteracy. I fear this is because our people all too often receive from the pulpit the latest self-help-psycho-babble rather than the vigorous declaration of the whole counsel of God. We guard seekers from the word because we do not want to offend them. But we forget that we offend the one who alone is Holy God when we harness his word and cloak the uncomfortable parts. The consequence for such neglect is that God makes his word scarce.

Therefore, let us give the scriptures a central place in our churches and pulpits. Let us preach to expose the word to our people and our people to the word. Let it not be said of us that we neglected the life-giving word in our ministries. Let it not be said of our day as it was said in the days of Eli that, "in those days the word of the Lord was rare" (1 Sam 3:1).

September 2, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 4: Personal Growth

Up to this point in this series of reflections, my case for expositional preaching has been based primarily on biblical-theological argument. I turn now to a much more personal reason. An important reason for pastors to preach expositionally through whole books of the Bible is the opportunity it provides for personal spiritual growth and formation.

Many pastors face hectic schedules and often the thing that is neglected is time for personal study and formation. Preaching through a whole book of the Bible provides opportunity for me to immerse myself in the text of a single book for several months. It gives me the opportunity to really consider the flow of a single biblical document, and provides extended time to reflect on the meaning of the text for its original hearers and the application of the text for its modern hearers. Perhaps most importantly, such a method of preaching provides opportunity to be shaped by the text. If your congregation can see that the text has said something important to you, then they will be more likely to listen to what it says to them.

Weekly sermon prep time becomes continuing education for the pastor who takes seriously the task of preparing to preach an entire book of the Bible. By reading several reliable commentaries as he moves through the book, the preacher can integrate life long education into his daily work. A couple of good commentaries will introduce the attentive pastor to translation difficulties and possible interpretations of key texts. Also, consulting commentaries will provide accountability for what the pastor says in the pulpit on Sunday. Over the course of his ministry, the dedicated preacher can develop quite a handle on a significant amount of biblical text in its original cultural context. This will provide the preacher with a stronger ability to apply the text to his own contemporary cultural context.

This, for me, is one of the greatest benefits of preaching expositionally. I get to read, read, read. I get to study the Bible and about the Bible and about the world in which the Bible was written. This type of study gives me the chance make a habit of life long learning. If we preach only the texts we know, we will never grow. Preaching through whole books of the Bible forces us to wrestle with difficult and unfamiliar texts. It forces us to deal with hard issues. Such preaching provides outstanding opportunity to grow both as a Christian and as a preacher.

September 1, 2009

Preaching & Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church by Walter Kaiser

According to Walter Kaiser, the Old Testament (OT) has posed a significant problem for a lot of Christians. All too many Christians struggle with the significance of the OT particularly because so much of it is no longer in force and normative for the church (29). The result is that the OT has suffered serious neglect. Thus, Kaiser has written the present volume to give pastors and teachers some answers to the problems posed. For many pastors the OT remains strange and inaccessible. Kaiser's aim is to provide a guide to help pastors navigate the daunting texts of the OT.

The book is split into two main parts. In the first, the author makes the case for the need to preach and teach from the OT. The chapters are devoted to the value of the OT, the problems involved in teaching the OT, and the task of preaching and teaching the OT. In the final chapter of the first part, Kaiser argues that the expository preaching of the Bible (both testaments) is the solution to many ills facing the church today.

The second part of the book presents a practical guide for preparing sermons from the OT. Each of the seven chapters in this part takes a different OT genre and outlines a method for approaching the texts in that genre. The chapters include guides for preaching narratival, wisdom, prophetic, lament, praise, and apocalyptic literature. There is also a chapter on preaching from the Torah, though, as the author acknowledges, this really falls in the category of narrative. I found most helpful the chapters on narrative, the prophets, and wisdom literature. I found the chapter on laments least helpful in that it provided more example sermon outlines than it did specific method for approaching the laments. Of great value is that each of these chapters concludes with an example sermon from the genre dealt with in the chapter. These sermons are excellent models of expository messages from the OT.

Kaiser also proposes that the relationship between the testaments be thought of in terms of promise and fulfillment. He sees the OT as unified around the promise-plan of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 (32). The New Testament (NT) writers claimed that the fulfillment of the promise came in Jesus of Nazareth. I take this to be a particularly helpful lens for approaching the canon and for preaching the OT. The OT is always looking forward to something. Our sermons on the OT can highlight this and provide the answer that the NT authors provide, namely Jesus.

I am happy to give this book a high recommendation. It really is one of the most helpful books I've read lately. My guess is that most pastors are quite intimidated by the thought of preaching from the OT, not to mention preaching an entire book of the OT. But imagine the benefit of preaching through an entire OT book for both the pastor and the congregation. The church owes Kaiser a debt of gratitude. An excellent writer with the ability to make complex matters accessible to the non-specialist, Kaiser has provided an essential guide for preaching and teaching the OT. Every pastor should put this one on the list of must-reads. I intend to consult it again and again.

August 31, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 3: The Case for Preaching Whole Books

Continuing to consider the importance of expositional preaching for the church, we turn now to the preaching of books-as-wholes. This discipline, I fear, is not used widely in present day pulpits, though it appears to be making a comeback. It is lamentable that the preaching of whole books of scripture has fallen on hard times since, as I will argue, it is the best way to present the text in a way that is faithful to the form in which it was written and preserved.

The Bible is a collection of books the genres of which include epistolary, legal, prophetic, historical, narratival, apocalyptic, genealogical, psalmic, proverbial, and visionary literature, to name a few examples. When the triune God decided to reveal himself in written texts, he decided it would be best to do so in these various types of documents which we now commonly refer to as books. This is the form of scripture; it has come to us in books. Therefore, as preachers, we are most faithful to the form of scripture when we preach the books in their entirety. There are several reasons in favor of preaching whole books of the Bible.

First, the context of every verse of scripture is the book in which it is found, and every verse, if it is to be properly interpreted and applied, must be read in context. If we strip a verse from its context, then we have done an injustice to the text and have inclined ourselves toward the path of misinterpretation. It is unlikely that we will interpret a verse correctly and nearly impossible to plumb the depths of a passage when that passage is taken out of context. For example, in Philippians 2:19-30, Paul commends Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians and outlines his plans for the two men to travel to Philippi. At first glance, the passage seems to be merely one of logistics, but when read in light of the argument, which begins in 1:27 with the command to live worthy of the gospel and runs all the way through 2:30, we see that Paul is appealing to the exemplary lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus and holding them up to the Philippians as worthy of imitation. The passage is not merely about travel plans; it is about the character of a life lived worthy of the gospel. The passage needs to be read in the context of the whole book in order to have the hortatory force that Paul intends.

Second, the preaching of books-as-wholes allows both preacher and congregation to soak themselves in the grammar, language, theology, and ethics of an entire book for an extended period of time. By the time the series is finished both have had ample time to come to grips with the message of the book in question and to reflect on its themes for an extended period of time. The words of scripture are profound and significant, and they are worthy of our extended attention.

Third, both Old and New Testaments offer precedent for the discipline of taking books-as-wholes. In Exodus 19:7, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Moses set before the elders all the words that the Lord commanded. In Exodus 34:32, Moses spoke all that the Lord commanded to all the Israelites. In 2 Chronicles 34, Josiah commissioned the repair of the house of the Lord. During the course of this project, the book of the Law was found. When it was read to King Josiah, he tore his clothes and acknowledged the wrath of the Lord on the nation because their ancestors did not keep all that is written in the Law (19-21). In Nehemiah 8, the priest Ezra took the Law and read to to the whole assembly. These are only a few of the places where the whole Law was read to the people. The New Testament provides precedent as well. In Acts 20, Paul assembled the Ephesian elders and recounted his ministry to them saying, "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (27). Apparently, Paul thought it important to include the entirety of God's message in his ministry of proclamation.

It is for these reasons that I advocate the preaching of whole books of scripture. A ministry characterized by the long term preaching of books-as-wholes across the gamut of biblical genres will yield a church that is thoroughly exposed to the God revealed in the Christian scriptures. In the end, God gave us a collection of books. He did not give us a collection of how-to manuals. That is not to discredit a preaching series on marriage, discipleship, salvation or any other biblical topic, but I would make these secondary and supplemental to a strong diet of preaching whole books of scripture. When we give an account of our preaching ministry to the very One we proclaim, let us be able to say with Paul that we did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God.

August 29, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 2: The Sufficiency of Scripture

Continuing to consider reasons why preaching should be done expositionally, we turn now to the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. Protestants have always affirmed that, "The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." This is excerpted from Article V of the Articles of Religion which John Wesley adapted from the 39 Articles for the people called Methodists, and other Protestant confessions articulate similar understandings of this doctrine. The point that the article makes is that everything necessary for salvation has been revealed and preserved in the scriptures. Nothing exists outside the scriptures which must be believed in order to obtain eternal happiness and salvation. The Bible has everything we need to know God and experience his salvation to the utmost.

Neither is this doctrine foisted upon scripture from the outside. 2 Peter 1:3 declares, "His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (NRSV). That is, we have been given everything we need not only to experience birth into the new life that God has for us, but also to experience the the power of salvation to cleanse us from the power of sin in order that the character of God may be manifest in godliness in all aspects of life. The question is: how do we receive such blessing? Peter's answer is that we receive it through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord (cf. 1:1-2). And where do obtain this knowledge. God has revealed himself and preserved that revelation in the writings of the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, the scriptures are sufficient to provide everything we need for the salvation that consists in eternal life and living in holiness.

By the way, it's no small thing that at the end of the letter, Peter compares Paul's letters to the "other scriptures," by which he means the Hebrew scriptures (3:16). By the early second half of the first century, the writings of the Apostles were considered to have equal authority as the Old Testament.

In light of these considerations, what can we say about preaching? Well, if the Bible contains everything necessary to life and godliness and is entirely sufficient for salvation, then the preacher ought to do the best he can to make sure that his congregation is exposed to the scriptures and the scriptures are exposed to his congregation. This is the task of expositional preaching: to expose the scriptures by explaining them clearly and applying them to the life of the church. Thus, the systematic exposition of the biblical text is the most important thing a preacher can do in ministry to his people. He serves them best by serving them the Word.

The preacher who takes it as his aim to do otherwise necessarily undermines the sufficiency of the scriptures for salvation. By introducing biblically unfounded reflection or the latest self-help psychologizing, the preacher either says that there are other things out there that can lead to life and godliness or says that he doesn't much care whether his congregation receives what they need for life and godliness.

Why do I preach expositionally? Because the scriptures are sufficient to provide everything we need to know God and the fullness of his salvation. Expositional preaching is the best way, if not the only way, to make sure that our people receive the Word of life which they so desperately need.

August 26, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 1: The Authority of Scripture

I've been thinking a lot lately about preaching and, consequently, have reflected on the method I use to choose preaching texts. I am a strong proponent of expositional preaching, which is preaching that is intended to expose the meaning of the text. Expositional preaching seeks to take the central point of the passage as the main point of the sermon. It then goes on to make application of that point to the Church, the culture, and the lives of those present to hear. Expositional preaching is also generally taken to mean the preaching of books-as-wholes. That is, a preacher begins with the opening verse of a book and preaches through the entire book, paragraph-by-paragraph and verse-by-verse.

As I've said, I am a strong proponent of expositional preaching, and I want to take the next several posts to outline the reasons why I preach expositionally...and you should too.

The first reason I preach expositionally is nothing other than a resolute commitment to the authority of scripture. Scripture comes to us as the Word of God preserved and transmitted through his providential guidance. Scripture comes to us as that through which God gives life and mediates grace.

The apostles understood scripture to be given by the very breath of God and to be authoritative, good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training (2 Tim 3:16). The Old Testament writings, the Law and the Prophets, bear witness to the revelation of God's righteousness in Christ (Rom 3:21). Paul took his message of the gospel, which he preached in many cities and preserved in his letters, to be authoritative the extent that he called down curses on other so-called gospels and those who preached them (Gal 1:8-9). For two millenia, Christians have discerned the authority of scripture for their life, belief, and behavior. The Church has always looked to the scriptures, the Word of God, for instruction and training.

So, if the scriptures are authoritative, then the preacher ought to seek to submit his preaching ministry to the authority of the scriptures. The preacher should make it his goal to help the Church come under the authority of scripture as well. What better way to do this than the systematic exposition of the biblical books? What better way to do this than to expose the meaning of scripture in its original context and apply that to the life of the Church today? If we really believe that the Bible is authoritative, then we ought never step in the pulpit except to expound the authoritative text. The preacher carries authority only insomuch as he preaches the Word of God. The preacher, then, does not have license to insert his own pet theology or psychological musings. The preacher is faithful only when he preaches the text of scripture.

The way a preacher preaches reveals a great deal about his understanding of scripture. If the alleged sermon begins with a verse and then proceeds never to return to the text, the preacher reveals that he is not terribly concerned with the text and is not seeking to aid the Church in living under the authority of the text. One must wonder whether the preacher believes the text is authoritative at all. Whatever the preacher preaches, that is what he takes to be authoritative. If he preaches the latest self-help book, then he takes it to be authoritative. If he preaches his own motivational thoughts, then he elevates his own ideas above the precepts of scripture. You can tell a lot about what a preacher believes by the way he preaches.

So, why do I preach expositionally? Because scripture is universally authoritative. If I really believe that the text is authoritative, then I will do the best I can to understand it, to live under it, and to help the Church live under it as well. If I really believe that the text is authoritative, then I will not usurp the authority of the text with other competing authorities. If I believe the text is authoritative, then I will preach the text.

August 13, 2009

Jesus' Blood and Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Imputation by Vickers

With the present volume, Brian Vickers offers a biblical defense of the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine of imputation. The topic of imputation is not without controversy, and Vickers ably engages opponents with both charity and grace.

His method is biblical-theological and seeks to develop a comprehensive understanding of imputation by synthesizing the relevant Pauline texts. Vickers readily admits that no single passage in Paul provides a comprehensive articulation of imputation. Thus, he proceeds by dealing with three central passages: Romans 4, 5:18-19, and 1 Corinthians 5:21. Each passage brings a different piece of the puzzle. Romans 4 articulates how righteousness is reckoned. Romans 5 articulates the foundation of righteousness. 1 Corinthians 5 articulates the provision of righteousness. Drawing from each of these texts, Vickers provides a "Pauline synthesis" to support the classic Protestant understanding of imputation.

Worth noting is Vicker's emphasis on union with Christ as essential to understanding imputation. If one has a basic covenantal understanding of salvation history where everyone is either "in Adam" or "in Christ," then imputation follows quite easily. If one believes that salvation is found in being joined to Christ such that the benefits of his life, death, and resurrection are communicated to the believer, then imputation is the word that describes the communication of righteous standing before God. Approaching imputation through the concept of union with Christ is extremely helpful, and, I think, is an often neglected component of attacks on imputation.

Another strength of this book comes in its combination of detailed exegesis and systematic synthesis of the biblical evidence. It has become popular to criticize systematics in contemporary scholarly and popular discourse. The criticism is generally overstated. Though, at times, some systematicians do fudge on the exegesis. Vickers provides a model for a theological approach to scripture. His combination of detailed exegesis and a synthetic reading of Paul is a model for doing theology.

A possible weakness of the book might be the author's understanding of the place of faith in imputation. Vickers takes faith to be basically instrumental as that which joins the believer to Christ. However, his presentation of the evidence could lead one to understand faith as having not merely an instrumental function but a causal function as well. It's not clear that he follows the evidence to its logical conclusion. Perhaps more on that at another time.

All in all, this book was quite enjoyable. I found it to be quite enlightening, and based on Vicker's argument I find myself comfortable with the language of imputation as the basis of a believer's right standing before God. This is, for me, a development. Not only did I read a number of criticisms of imputation before reading this book, but was taught by critics of imputation as well. So, I was a rather cautious and skeptical at the outset. However, Vickers was persuasive and served to placate my reservations about the language of imputation. I am happy to recommend this volume as a fine defense of the doctrine of imputation.

August 5, 2009

The First Amendment and the Myth of Neutrality

I recently attended a First Amendment Forum which included a presentation called "Finding Common Ground: Religious Liberty in the Public Schools" by Dr. Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. The forum was held at Milton High School in Santa Rosa County, Florida, and was attended by school administrators, teachers, and local clergy. The forum followed a recent lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County schools by the ACLU on behalf of two students who charged that teachers were forcing religion upon them. The first amendment restricts the power of Congress to make a law "respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The fourteenth amendment extends these restrictions to the states and agencies of the states. Dr. Haynes' presentation advanced a reading of the first amendment which advocated a neutral position toward religion on the part of government and government schools. He advocated moving beyond two failed models which he termed: The Sacred Public School and the Naked Public School. The so-called sacred public school is one in which religious practices are mandatory (e.g. prayer and bible readings). The naked public school is one in which there is no presence of religion at all. Instead, Dr. Haynes proposed a "civil public school" in which the school does not "inculcate nor inhibit religion" and where "religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect." According to Dr. Haynes, such a school would be neutral with regard to religion. This "shared vision for religious liberty in public schools" has been accepted by such (allegedly) diverse organizations as People for the American Way and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The problem with this "shared vision" is that there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to religion. The central claim of the biblical and historical Christian religion is nothing less than the declaration that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord over everything including the Church, the governing authorities, the public schools, and every constituent of every religion in the world. Jesus is Lord over all people and every institution. The fact that many people and institutions do not acknowledge his lordship does not actually negate or alter his lordship. Jesus is Lord no matter what anyone thinks. That Jesus is Lord all the time and everywhere necessarily means that there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to him. He requires faith and obedience. Not to render faith and obedience is nothing other than disobedience and rebellion against his universal claim to universal lordship. Neutrality is a myth; there is no such thing.

In my view, Dr. Haynes’ proposal really advances a new civil religion. This new state religion which is being foisted upon our children is pluralistic acknowledging many deities and giving them all fair (?) hearing. The gods of this new state religion form a pantheon of pagan-like demigods which are merely projections of our own damaged and sinful human image. In attempting to combine all religions into one common meeting place where all are seen with equal validity misunderstands them all. Jesus Christ expects total and unqualified allegiance from everyone. The problem is that so do other deities, but only one can reign. If Dr. Haynes’ interpretation of the first amendment is correct (and it may not be), then it cannot be reconciled with the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Christians must not be persuaded by the myth of neutrality. That Christian groups like the National Association of Evangelicals have signed off on Dr. Haynes’ vision for public education only demonstrates that they do not actually understand the evangel itself. The gospel includes the news that Jesus is Lord over all, and we must understand that Jesus’ claims to lordship are total. To place him alongside other gods is to patronize him. Every institution which claims neutrality towards him is actually antagonistic to him. Christians should not be satisfied with simply gaining a hearing or getting a place at the table. We should only be satisfied when the Lordship of Christ is acknowledged at the table. If it is not, perhaps we should abandon the table. Jesus is Lord! We look forward to the day when this is the confession of every tongue.

August 4, 2009

An Introduction to the Study of Paul by David G. Horrell

The aim of this volume by David Horrell is to not to answer questions but to raise them. Horrell, Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Exeter, UK, provides a very brief survey of the major questions and debates in the scholarly study of Paul, his life, and his letters. He introduces briefly the three overlapping worlds in which Paul found himself - Roman, Hellenistic, and Jewish. The chapters deal with such matters as whether Paul was converted or called, the central elements in Paul's gospel, and Paul's understanding of the Jewish Law. He devotes some time to the extensive debate over whether the Greek phrase pistis Christou means "faith in Christ" or "faithfulness of Christ." And, of course, he devotes considerable time to the issue of "righteousness" language and the so-called New Perspective on Paul. Horrell even includes a chapter on some of the newer and influential approaches to Paul including: social-scientific, political, and feminist interpretations.

Horrell's central focus is to introduce interested readers to the major critical questions in the study of Paul, not to provide his own reading of Paul, though his views do find their way into the discussions at times. He is quite sympathetic to those readings of Paul which resist portraying Judaism as inferior to Christianity, a common trend in post-World War Two scholarship. Also, newcomers should be prepared for a book that does not take Paul to be the author of the disputed Paulines (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus).

Overall, the book is well written and provides a decent survey of important matters in Pauline studies. Readers familiar with the discipline will immediately realize, though, that the debates are much more complex than the present book has room to address. Such readers will find little new information. The book would serve well as a college text book. It's primary strength lies in the fact that most introductions to Paul are really theologies of Paul as understood by the authors. This book is more interested in introducing the issues. The bibliographies and suggestions for further reading are quite valuable. Unfortunately, the author and publishers decided to place all the notes at the end of each chapter. This is somewhat frustrating especially in a work that intends to point the reader beyond itself to the books it discusses.

I recommend this book to anyone planning to do work in Paul as a volume that provides a nice glimpse at the lay of the scholarly land. I will certainly keep it around as a reference for who said what and where to find it.

July 22, 2009

Persecution and the Confirmation of the Gospel

This is Chrysostom on Philippians 1:7 from his first homily on that letter:

"So then his bonds were a confirmation of the Gospel, and a defense. And most truly so. How? For if he had shunned bonds, he might have been thought a deceiver; but he that endures every thing, both bonds and affliction, shows that he suffers this for no human reason, but for God, who rewards. For no one would have been willing to die, or to incur such great risks, no one would have chosen to come into collision with such a king, I mean Nero, unless he looked to another far greater King. Truly a 'confirmation of the Gospel' were his bonds" (NPNF 1 13:186).

June 18, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon

With Why Johnny Can't Preach, T. David Gordon levels a crushing indictment against the current state of the American pulpit. The book is interested in two media-ecological questions. First, how has the the move from language based media to image based and electronic media changed our sensibilities? Second, how has this change in sensibilities changed today's preaching (16)? Having served as both a pastor and professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Grove City College, Gordon is well qualified to examine the present state of preaching. This examination is what happens when a seminary professor reads Jacques Ellul.

The first chapter makes the case that there is indeed a problem in American preaching. Gordon not only draws on his own experience of bad preaching in various church settings, he cites members of pulpit committees who have given up hope of finding a pastor who can also preach well. In terms of method, Gordon uses Robert Lewis Dabney's "Cardinal Requisites" as an evaluative tool and argues that these "Cardinal Requisites are Manifestly Absent" from today's preaching.

What then is the problem? If preaching does indeed largely lack coherence, form, and point, why is it so lacking? Gordon uses chapters 2 and 3 to answer these questions. His answer: Johnny can't preach because Johnny can't read texts (chapter 2), and Johnny can't preach because Johnny can't write (chapter 3).

Now many will object saying that preachers can, of course, read (usually). But Gordon responds arguing that there is a difference between reading for information and really reading a text. There is a difference between reading what a text says and reading how it is written. Gordon claims that present day readers almost always read for information or content and almost never for "the pleasure obtained by reading an author whose command of language is exceptional" (44). The problem is that when preachers try to read the Bible the way they read everything else, then they are bound to misunderstand the nuances of the text failing to see what is really going on. Gordon claims that those unaccustomed to reading a text closely often just look for important words and the concepts associated with them only then giving a talk on that concept. This sort of study will not yield preaching that is grounded in the text and which understands how the grammatical and syntactical elements in the text contribute to the text as a whole. Exposition is grounded in the preacher's ability to read a text closely and appreciate its nuance and shape. If the preacher only scans for information, then he will not be able to faithfully exposit the text.

This inability to read texts, Gordon argues, is a direct result of the media culture in which we live (50). The quick paced nature of electronic media necessarily undermines the slow and laborious task of close reading. Significant things take time to communicate, but the quick pace of electronic media and the 7-9 minutes between commercials is hardly capable of conveying anything of significance. The shift in media from word to image has caused our culture to move from the significant to the trivial. Basically, Gordon says that Johnny can't preach because Johnny lives in a TV saturated society which has fried his brain and made him unable to fathom the great significance and richness of God's manifold and great glory which is to be the content of authentic and faithful Christian preaching. The result, according to Gordon, is mindless how-to preaching which absolutely fails to convey the significant things in the mind of God.

The second and briefer part of Gordon's critique is the claim that Johnny can't preach because Johnny can't write (chapter 3). In short, in this fast-paced culture, we babble on telephones rather than taking time to carefully compose our thoughts. Gordon points out that, in the past, people had to communicate by letter. This caused them to think carefully about what they had to say and to compose it with thoughtfulness. People don't write letters anymore. Instead, we talk on the phone and do not think carefully about that which we speak. Thus, the telephone robs us of composition skills (65). What is the impact on preaching? Gordon says, "Today, we have become a culture of telephone babblers, unskilled at the most basic questions of composition; and it is simply too much to expect that a typical member of such a culture can be quickly trained to deliver well-composed, thoughtful sermons" (67).

What then are we to do? How shall we reclaim the pulpit for thoughtful and enlivened exposition of the Word of God? One of the first things Gordon suggests is to cultivate pre-homiletic sensibilities. This means study of language and literature. One learns to read well by reading well. That is, one learns to read and think by reading great writers and thinkers. If you want to be a preacher, Gordon recommends studying literature first. This will equip you to think well. Also, study a highly inflected language like Latin or Greek. This will teach you how language works and develop your ability to read and compose.

All in all, this is an outstanding and timely book. Much more could be said about this brief book (not least with regard to Gordon's chapter on the importance of Christological content in preaching). One of the most important impressions one takes away from this book is the weightiness of the task of preaching. Yes, the author advocates the study of literature and classical languages as a preparation for the task of preaching. We, however, in our fast paced culture, want to rush straight off to the preaching without adequate preparation. We think that the study of Greek is a waste of time that keeps us from getting on to the real ministry that awaits forgetting that if we cannot read Greek, we cannot read the New Testament but only translations of it (not to mention Hebrew and Aramaic). Preaching is a great responsibility. The preacher should be well trained and well prepared. An essential part of that training now includes the reading of Why Johnny Can't Preach. Every preacher should read this book...at least twice.

June 3, 2009

Hindrances to Evangelism

Evangelism is a central part of faithful Christian living. We are commanded to make disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18-20). This necessarily includes clear communication of the gospel which is God's power for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16-17). When faced with the opportunity to talk with someone about Jesus, we often shy away. There might be any number of reasons for this, but I think one of the central reasons is fear. We don't share the gospel with people because we are afraid. This is not necessarily unfounded fear either. Just read Acts. The Apostles were threatened with severe punishment for speaking about God's action in Jesus. Declaring the universal claims of the sovereign God is risky business. It will even get you killed in some parts of the world. Most Americans never face that kind of risk when doing the work of evangelism, though. For us, its mainly fear of rejection. What will this person say? How will they receive what I want to say? Will I be seen as a religious fanatic? Will I be looked down upon socially? These are all valid and genuine feelings. But their validity does not mean that we should allow them to hinder our doing what our Lord has expressly commanded us to do. I found myself experiencing these types of feelings just last week. I was having a discussion with a lady when she asked me what denomination I was a part of. I replied that I was United Methodist and felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit to continue the conversation by asking what denomination she belonged to. Here was the opportunity I had longed for. Here was a golden opportunity to get into a discussion on Christianity and the gospel. Immediately, hesitation set in, and I asked myself the kinds of questions outlined above. I sat silently feeling shame that I had not taken the opportunity to talk to this lady about Jesus. Fortunately, God is gracious and provided another opportunity later in the conversation. We went on to have a great discussion about the claims of Christ and the significance of his death and resurrection. She was not a follower of Jesus when I left, but by the grace of God she will be one day. One sows and another reaps.

The thing that I am having to learn, and that all Christians need to learn, is that evangelism is about caring more about others that I do myself (Phil 2:4). Do I care more about my fears and insecurities or the eternal destiny of the person in front of me? Do I care more about my social reputation or about obeying the commands of my Lord? Do I care more about my needs to cater to my fear or about the need of the other for a savior? Evangelism means loving others more than I love myself and not being hindered by fear of what others may think about me.