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."