July 28, 2010

Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God by Gordon Fee

To many Christians, the Holy Spirit is a fuzzy figure about whom they can say little with confidence.  Unfamiliar with his person and work, believers often move through their Christian life with very little lively experience of the Spirit.  This problem is compounded by a significant neglect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in both academic and church settings.  In Pauline studies specifically, the Holy Spirit has been much neglected.  The present book by Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, aims to fill the gaping hole in the life of the church by working through Paul's presuppositions and teaching on the Spirit as presented in his thirteen canonical letters.  The book is intended for interested laypersons and is quite accessible.  Those with knowledge of current scholarship on Paul will notice Fee's interaction with various takes on Paul, but readers with little or no background in Pauline studies will not be hindered as they work through this book.  A number of features make this book beneficial and, as a result, are worthy of note.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Fee writes with the hope of nurturing the church in the Spirit.  His is no mere academic exercise, but an effort in leading the church to know God as he has revealed himself in scripture.  The book regularly provides practical implications of the material for the life of the church, and, in this sense, this book is for the church and a model for doing theology.

Second, while Fee strongly emphasizes the experiential aspect of the Spirit, he never presents that experience as being inconsistent with the Spirit of God as revealed in scripture.  All too often, Spirit movements have an "anything goes" attitude with regard to the experience and manifestation of the Spirit.  Fee does not espouse such an attitude.  The reader comes away from this book rightly feeling that the author would have him experience the Holy Spirit in a vibrant and fresh way, but the experience is always of the Spirit as made known in the Bible.

Third, many Christians find the language of the Trinity to be challenging and difficult and, as a result, never seek to understand this sine qua non of the Christian religion.  Fee, however, presents the person of the Spirit in a very accessible way.  He explains the trinitarian language of the church in clear terms and shows how Paul presupposed the later trinitarian formulations even if he did not use their exact language.  Worth special note is Fee's presentation of the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity.  When the Holy Spirit is written or spoken of, impersonal terminology is often used (e.g., wind, fire).  Fee helpfully highlights the way Paul uses verbs of personal action with regard to the Spirit, as he also does with regard to the Father and the Son.  This emphasis on the personal nature of the Spirit is especially important for understanding how the Spirit intends to be at work in the life of the church.

Fourth, Fee manages to balance a number of issues which are often over emphasized either one way or the other.  He maintains a good balance between the individual and corporate dimensions of the Holy Spirit's work. He also maintains a good balance between the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit.  This balance is referred to by Fee as "the radical middle."  He generally does a fine job of walking the line between various extremes.

Fifth, Fee's understanding of Paul's theology is thoroughly eschatological, which is important because Paul's theology was thoroughly eschatological.  Paul's thought and mission were shaped by his perception of living in the unique period of time between the first and second comings of Christ.  Fee well represents Paul's understanding of the Spirit in the life of the church as especially shaped by this eschatological orientation. 

All in all, this is a fine book that will serve as a good introduction to the study of the Holy Spirit.  Looking closely at the Pauline material as Fee presents it may well whet the appetite for further study as presented by other biblical authors.  Fee's work will lead you to desire the experience of the Spirit for yourself, your local church, and the church universal.

July 21, 2010

A Love for Life: Christianity's Consistent Protection of the Unborn by Dennis Di Mauro

Many Americans likely think that abortion is a modern issue over which Christians are rather evenly divided.  With A Love for Life, Dennis Di Mauro overturns this notion by demonstrating that Christianity has historically taken a very strong pro-life stance with regard to abortion.  As a doctoral student in church history, Secretary of the National Pro-life Religious Council, and President of Northern Virginia Lutherans for Life, the author is well-qualified to write this book.

Many will be surprised to discover that abortion is nothing new.  Ancient peoples knew very well how to destroy the life of a human being while still in the womb.  Ancient doctors had chemicals or drugs that could be given a woman to end the life of a pre-birth baby.  Di Mauro shows that the earliest Christians maintained the deep reverence for the sanctity of human life as articulated in the Old Testament and, as a result, prohibited the use of such life-destroying drugs.  The biblical authors believed that God was personally involved in the shaping of life in the womb, and that even before birth, God had specific plans and purposes for those little human beings made in his image. 

This consistent love for pre-born human life was maintained throughout the patristic, medieval, and Reformation periods.  Indeed, it was only in the middle of the 20th century that pro-choice Christian groups emerged.  Based on the historical evidence cited in earlier chapters, Di Mauro makes the case that such groups have made a strong break with the historic pro-life position of the Christian church.  He shows that Christians today are not as evenly divided over abortion as many may think by providing data which indicates that over 70% of Christians worship in pro-life denominations or churches.  Di Mauro rounds out the book by calling pro-choice Christian groups and denominations back to the historic pro-life position of the Christian faith.  This is an all-important book that will hopefully aid the church in strengthening its biblical and historical pro-life position. 

July 19, 2010

Theoblog Roundup

Here are a few interesting and recent posts from around the theoblogosphere:

Glory Revealed

"And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them" (Mark 9:2 ESV).

Have you ever taken a telescope out on a dark night to explore the sky?  With the right equipment, the heavenly bodies that only appear as specks of light to the naked eye take on a new brilliance.  Details emerge that had been previously invisible.  Colors appear where before there had been none.  What had only appeared as small dots of light are now seen to be intricate shapes and patterns.  The heavens take on a new radiance.  The glory that had always been there, but that was previously unseen, has now been made known. 

This is one way that we can begin to think about the experience had by Peter, James, and John as they saw Jesus transfigured before their very eyes.  He was the same Jesus they had always known.  But now, the veil was drawn back, and they saw his glory as they had never seen it before.  But what does it mean?  What would Mark have us learn of Christ by including this event at this point in his gospel?  What are we to understand about Jesus?  Indeed, how are we to respond as we peer through the lens of scripture to see the glory of Christ revealed?

Jesus is who he says he is.
This is precisely the point with which Peter and the others were struggling.  We are familiar with the idea of a suffering Messiah, but they certainly were not.  Peter had confessed Jesus as Messiah only six days earlier, and Jesus had responded by indicating that, as Messiah, he must suffer, be killed, and be raised from the dead.  The disciples had no category for a suffering Messiah.  The Messiah, so they thought, was to inflict suffering on their enemies, not be the recipient of it.  They needed a reason to believe that Jesus' understanding of himself as the suffering Messiah was right.

So, Jesus took them up the mountain to see the glory of God revealed in him in a unique way.  Peter indicates in his second letter that, at this moment, God bestowed glory and honor upon Christ (1:16-18).  His clothes were radiant and the purest white.  The gathering cloud echoes the symbol of the presence of God descending on Mt. Sinai to meet Moses and constitute his covenant people.  The voice of the Father confirms that Jesus is God's anointed, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him: (9:7).  Listen to him to learn what it means to be Messiah.  Let him teach you what it means to be my people. 

This whole scene should be a great comfort to us, because it means that we don't have to understand everything to believe in Christ.  Peter didn't understand what the Old Testament scriptures taught about the Messiah, but that did not mean that he could not rely on Jesus and obey the command to believe and repent.  Peter didn't have to understand everything to believe in Christ, and neither do we.  Understanding is, of course, important.  But it comes as we walk with Christ.  If we wait until we have it all figured out to come to him, we will never come.  Our acceptance before God in Christ does not depend on how bright we are.  If we are to learn of Christ, we must first come to him in faith.  Deeper understanding follows from there. 

Jesus is who the scriptures say he is.
The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Christ point to the reality that the Old Testament scriptures witness to him.  Moses was the great lawgiver of Israel, Elijah a prophet.  Together, they represent that the Law and the Prophets and that the Hebrew scriptures testify to Christ.  Only Jesus radiates the glory of God.  He is the unique fulfillment of all the scriptures spoke of.  Jesus is who the Bible says he is.  He is the great atoning sacrifice prefigured in the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).  He is the prophet foretold by Moses who would speak the word of God directly to God's people (Deuteronomy 18).  He is the king promised to sit on David's throne (2 Samuel 7).  And he is the one who suffers for his people (Isaiah 53). 

Again, the truth of this passage speaks comfort to those with ears to hear.  History is not random.  The Old Testament is not just a collection of odd stories and peculiar systems of sacrifice and outdated religious practices.  It is, rather, the story of God's providential work to bring about his purposes to redeem for himself a people.  All of history is orchestrated towards God's great work of salvation which climaxes in the cross of Christ and his substitionary death and resurrection.  God is at work to save you, to save me.  History is the stage on which the drama unfolds.  We can take great comfort in the reality that God is purposefully at work to bring us to himself, and the Law and the Prophets testify to this truth. 

God knows what his children need before they ask.  He knows when his people need comfort.  Peter and the other disciples needed to be reassured that Jesus was indeed God's Messiah, the one chosen by God to be king of Israel and the world.  The transfiguration of Jesus is the revelation of the glory of God in Christ to comfort his people that they may have confidence that he is who he says he is, even if it does not yet make perfect sense to them.  The presence of Moses and Elijah reveal that God's great work of redemption has come to its fulfilment in Christ.  He is God's anointed one.

Mark gives us the opportunity to peer through the telescope of scripture and see Jesus, if only for a moment, in all his great glory, to hear the voice of the Father say, "This is my Son, my beloved; listen to him." The veil has been momentarily pulled back to reveal the glory of Christ that we may see it and take comfort in him.

Taking Up the Cross

For quite some time now I've been tossing around the idea of featuring brief sermon summaries here on the blog.  Here's the initial post:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34 ESV).

What does it mean to take up the cross?  We don't see Christians actually carrying big wooden cross beams up and down the street.  So, we clearly take Jesus to be speaking figuratively when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."  But what is he getting at?  What does it mean for a Christian to take up the cross and follow Jesus?

Taking up the cross means saying "no" to yourself.
The first thing Jesus says in parallel to taking up the cross is the exhortation to self-denial.  Taking up the cross mean saying "no" to yourself.  This is precisely what is at issue in the context of the passage.  Peter has been trying to tell Jesus what it really means to be Messiah.  For that, Jesus rebuked Peter and spoke harshly to him.  He then took the opportunity to teach his disciples that following him mean saying "no" to their own preferences and agendas. 

This is applicable to the Christian life in so many ways, not least as we consider the words of Christ in light of our cultural mandate for MORE.  We are surrounded by voices telling us we need more of this and more of that.  We constantly hear the cultural gospel of self-indulgence - "your way right away."  But this flies in the face of what it means to carry the cross.  Consider the words of John Wesley on the subject of self-denial:
It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practice it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or of the prince of the world, or of our own fleshly mind.
Wesley lays it out bare.  Being a Christian and taking up the cross means saying "no" to yourself.

Taking up the cross means becoming a follower.
Jesus borders on redudancy to make this point: "“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."  It's as if he's saying, "If your going to be my follower, you are actually going to have to follow me, and I'm the one who carries the cross."  Our natural inclinations are to set our own course and make our own way.  This is the idea captured in the final lines of the William Ernest Henley poem "Invictus":  "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."  Such a statement is profoundly unChristian.  To take up the cross means Jesus is the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.  It means relinquishing all control to Christ and following him.

Ultimately, this should be a great comfort to us.  We go nowhere that Christ has not already gone.  We tread no path that Christ has not already trod.  There is no path upon which his presence does not preceed us.  We are his followers; he is our waypaver. 

Taking up the cross means enduring shame.
The cross was a symbol of shame in the ancient world.  Those condemned to crucifixion were publicly beaten, stripped, and hung up on a cross for all to see.  The goal was to deter criminal activity through a publicly humiliating death.  The word "cross" was not spoken of in polite company.  It was a profane instrument of torture and shame.  Jesus said, "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).  Jesus knew that carrying the cross meant enduring shame.  Those who will not endure the shame of following Jesus, of them will he be ashamed when he comes in his glory. 

The world opposed to Christ heaps shame upon those who believe his gospel.  The world heaps shame on those who believe that sinful humanity is under the wrath of God.  The world heaps shame on the idea that Christ had to shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins, and that faith in his name is the exclusive way to enjoy his salvation.  The question for followers of Christ is whether we will endure the shame that Christ endured that we may one day share the glory that now belongs to him. 

There are two kinds of people in this world - those who belong to Christ and those who do not.  For those who do, the message of taking up the cross calls us to deeper reliance on Christ that his Spirit may renew us ever more in the image of the Son of God.  For those who know him not, the cross of Christ calls them to renounce self-reliance and place their full confidence in him alone.

July 16, 2010

Ecology and the Gospel: What's the Relationship?

Late last month, Scot McKnight raised these questions: Do you think ecology and the environment are part of the concerns of the gospel? Or, do they belong somewhere else? Does preaching the gospel involve eco-care?  The questions were raised as McKnight pointed to a new collection of essays on the subject, Keeping God's Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (eds. Noah J. Toly & Daniel I. Block).  It's the first I've heard of the book, which means I've not read it.  But since McKnight raised the question, I thought I'd throw in my two cents.  That's what blogs are for, after all, right?

The short answer is: "No!"  The gospel is not about ecology.  The gospel is about what God has done in Christ through his death and resurrection to reconcile sinful human beings to himself.  The gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day, both in accordance with the scriptures.  The important thing to see here is that the gospel is Christocentric, not ecocentric.  The gospel is about Jesus and nothing else.  If you look to the New Testament, you do not find the apostles and the early church calling people to creation care as a part of the gospel.  Indeed, to say that the gospel requires you to do something to care for creation seems to come very close to importing some works into one's response to the gospel.  It seems to deny that the gospel calls for faith alone in the crucified and risen Christ alone.  The gospel is about Jesus, not ecology.

However, this does not mean that creation care is not an implication, or perhaps even an effect, of the gospel.  When people hear the gospel of Christ and are converted and reconciled to God, they are also immediately to begin bearing fruit for righteousness.  They are to be in the process of becoming what God always intended them to be, namely holy and morally righteous.  When we consider that God made the earth and called it good, and that God charged the first human beings with caring for the creation to make it bear fruit, then responsible stewardship of creation is clearly to be understood as living a life that accords with the gospel.  So, as McKnight highlights by quoting Doug Moo's essay in the book, evangelism and ecology are not an either-or.  The question is not whether we should do either the gospel or creation care.  Rather, as those who have been reconciled to God through the gospel of grace, we are responsible for being good stewards of the world which God has entrusted to us.  So, while creation care is not the gospel itself, it is an implication of the gospel for faithful Christian living.

We must remember here that it is of the utmost importance not to confuse the gospel itself with the many and various implications of the gospel.  The gospel of Christ is applied in every area of life whether social, political, ecological, ecclesiological, or other.  But these many spheres in which the gospel directs our living are not themselves the gospel.  We must continue to distinguish between the gospel and its implications, lest the gospel become so large and unmanageable that it is absolutely meaningless. 

To sum up, the gospel is not itself a message of creation care, but creation care is not mutually exclusive with the gospel.  The gospel is the message of God's reconciling work in Christ's substitutionary death and resurrection.  When we are reconciled to God, we begin to strive to live in such a way that God is honored.  Given that God entrusted the creation to his human creatures to be good stewards of it, creation care is an implication of the gospel and the responsibility of the Christian. 

Imputation: Why its not Legal Fiction

Critics of the Reformed doctrine of imputation regularly charge that it constitutes a legal fiction.  The argument basically argues that to say counting the righteousness of one, namely Christ, in the place of another, namely the guilty sinner, means that the verdict for the sinner does not reflect the sinner's character of life.  Thus, God's verdict on the sinner is a matter of fiction; it is not true.  He declares someone righteous when that one is actually a sinner.  At least three comments are worth making with regard to this charge.

First, critics are right to point out that the verdict does not reflect the sinner's moral quality of life, but this is precisely the point that the Reformed doctrine is making.  God justifies the ungodly.  If we were already godly and morally righteous, then we would not need to be justified.

Second, confusion comes in that the critics are using the term "righteous" with reference to the moral quality of the sinner.  That is, they want the language of righteousness to reflect the person's actual quality of life.  The problem is that in the Reformed tradition, the language of righteousness is purely forensic; that is, it does not refer to the individual's quality of life but to his legal status.  This happens all the time in courtrooms.  Judges and juries find criminals not-guilty.  We might respond that injustice has been done, but, at the end of the day, the court's verdict is true as a status.  In the eyes of the civic authority, the person is actually not guilty, even if they actually did commit the crime.  Again, the imputed righteousness was never intended to refer to the moral quality of the sinner.

Third, critics of the legal fiction variety seem to fail to grasp the covenantal nature of union between Christ and the sinner (perhaps they reject it outright).  "Justified" or "righteous" is a status before the divine court.  This status is received by virtue of being covenantally joined to Christ.  The covenantal nature of the sinner's relationship to Christ means that what is true of Christ is considered true of those who are covenantally related to him.  Because "righteous" is a status by virtue of covenantal union, it is not mere legal fiction.  The status reflects the verdict of the court as true on the basis of union and communion with Christ.  The status was never intended to refer to the moral righteousness of the sinner. 

So, the justified status on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ is true in that it refers to the declaration of the court.  It refers to legal status not moral status, legal righteousness not moral righteousness.  If it were intended to refer to the moral quality of the sinner, then it would be legal fiction.  Since the verdict was never intended to function in that way, it is not actually fiction.  The declaration reflects the reality that the ungodly have been joined to Christ and are sharers in all that is his, including his righteous status before God.

July 14, 2010

How Reformed is Reformed?

Here is a question I've considered as of late:  What does it mean to be a "Reformed" Christian?  The question arose for me, a United Methodist, as I considered the theology of some of my Baptist brothers who have some Reformed beliefs but are not fully aligned with what the term has meant historically.  What is required to be Reformed?  Can there be degrees of Reformed thinking?

It seems best to start with a couple of semi-Reformed options.  Take, for example, someone who would identify himself as a "Reformed Baptist."  As I understand this descriptor, it refers to someone who holds a Calvinistic soteriology and a Baptistic understanding of church government, church ordinances (including adult-only baptism, of course), regenerate church membership, and, perhaps, an eschatology that wouldn't normally be identified with the Reformed tradition (e.g. premillenial).  On the other hand, you might take someone like myself.  I don't hold to a Calvinistic soteriology with regard to unconditional election.  I do, however, affirm justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ as well as Reformed understandings of the sacraments (infant baptism and spiritual presence), the covenantal scheme of redemption, and eschatology.  In light of these affirmations, it would seem that I have more theological commonality with the Reformed camp than my Reformed Baptist friend who uses the term in question in his own self-identification.  Which of us is more Reformed? Are either of us Reformed?  Is it an all or nothing package? How Reformed must one be in order to be truly Reformed?

History may shed some light on the question.  Jacob Arminius considered himself quite Reformed, though he disagreed with Beza on the matter of unconditional election.  Arminius and his disciples, the Remonstrants, considered the Calvinist-Arminian disagreement to be an in-house debate.  I'm quite close to Arminius, as far as I can tell.  This would seem to lend weight to the consideration that within the Reformed tradition there might be room for a charitable soteriological disagreement within the larger framework of Reformed thought.  Though many, I'm sure, would disagree. 

Labels can be abused, at times.  But they can also be helpful.  We need ways of summarizing belief systems so that we don't have to say something like, "I'm a justification-by-grace-on-the-condition-of-faith-infant-baptizing-sacramental-covenantal-postmillenarian."  It would be easier just to identify myself as a Reformed Methodist or a Reformed Arminian.  Such a descriptor might indicate an overall affirmation of the typical covenant theology of the Reformed tradition as well as an evangelical Methodist or Arminian soteriology. 

So, what shall it be?  Is this an all or nothing issue?  Can I be a Reformed Methodist? 

July 6, 2010

Not Mere Dialogue: Is Exchange Compatible with Evangelism?

The recent move by Claremont School of Theology to be part of an effort to train leaders of other religions alongside Christian pastors has sparked a great deal of conversation and debate on the nature of inter-religious dialogue and theological education.  This debate was further stimulated by Claremont President, Dr. Jerry Campbell, when he was reported as saying that "Christians who feel they need to evangelize persons of other faiths have 'an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.'”  My own contribution to the discussion has focused on the priority of the earliest church to evangelize within their own pluralistic context.  In that post I argued from Acts 17 that the Christian task was not primarily dialogue but declaration.  While I stand by that claim, I would like to offer a bit more specificity.

I do believe that Christians can enter into fruitful conversation with person of other religions.  I have engaged in such conversations and have benefited from them.  That said, I affirm that the Christian task is not to engage in mere dialogue.  Fruitful dialogue will carry with it the clear presentation of ideas.  As Christians interact charitably with persons from other religions, we ought also be aiming to clearly and persuasively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ with the hope that our dialogue partners will believe and be granted ultimate salvation in Christ.  Some would claim that dialogue necessarily excludes Christian witness.  However, I find it difficult to see how a Christian involved in authentic dialogue can avoid the clear presentation of his faith.  If the Christian is not faithful to present his views clearly and with conviction, then he is selling his dialogue partner short and robbing them of the opportunity to better understand the Christian faith, even if they are not there converted. 

An example will help illustrate the point.  Within the first two years of my work as a pastor, I had opportunity to meet six times with a Jehovah's Witness.  The exchange at our weekly meetings was quite fruitful.  I learned a great deal about the Jehovah's Witnesses, and, I hope, he learned something about Christianity.  I read the material that he gave me not with the aim of being persuaded but of understanding his view.  We both attempted to present our views clearly and persuasively.  And there were no secrets.  We both declared our intention to evangelize the other.  The point is that the effort to evangelize did not conflict with our efforts to understand each other and gain mutual understanding of the other's point of view.  Both dialogue and evangelism were happening simultaneously.  This is what I mean by saying that Christian dialogue with other religions is not to be merely dialogue.

Let me conclude by saying that if a Christian never engages in dialogue with non-Christians, then he will not be able to be fully obedient to the Great Commission.  Most Christians never get the opportunity to address crowds of unbelievers.  So if they are to evangelize, they must find people of other or no religious affiliation.  The prerequisite of discipling the nations is actually meeting and engaging the nations.  The meeting, though, is never for the sake of mere dialogue, but dialogue in which the gospel is presented clearly and persuasively.

July 5, 2010

Reformation Now: Reviewing The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves

What was the Reformation about and is it over?  These are the central questions raised and answered by Michael Reeves in his recent book The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (B & H Academic, 2010).  As both an academic and a churchman, Reeves is well-suited to author this book, which introduces the Protestant Reformation in a lively, accessible, and often entertaining way. 

The bulk of the book addresses the first question: What was the Reformation all about?  To answer this question, Reeves begins the book with a chapter on state of medieval Roman Catholicism.  Particularly important to understanding the dawn of the Reformation was Rome's refusal to give common people access to the scriptures.  Such a reality is surprising in a day when Bibles are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and translations.  But this was not so in the period leading up to reform.  Bibles were only published in Latin, and the Roman mass was only said in Latin.  Indeed, many priests memorized the Latin mass without actually learning the language and, as a result, didn't really know what they were saying as they presided over the service.  This withholding of scripture allowed the Roman Church to perpetuate its own doctrine apart from scriptural oversight and government.  At the heart of the Roman error was the teaching that justification was the process of becoming more righteous in this life so as to merit ultimate heavenly salvation.  This was related to the Romish doctrine of purgatory, which was considered a way of becoming more worthy of salvation after death.  Time in purgatory could be shortened by the veneration of relics or the purchase of indulgences.  And therein lies a major problem.  Through the sale of indulgences, the Roman Church stood to gain a great deal financially.  This, of course, meant that those who could afford to buy more indulgences would be sooner worthy of heavenly bliss.

It was into this context that Martin Luther, or, according to Reeves, God's volcano, erupted onto the scene.  Luther, an Augustinian monk, was given the opportunity to study the scriptures in the original languages.  In doing so, he discovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.  He rejected the Catholic doctrine of progressive justification on the basis of works of merit, purgation, and the purchase of indulgences.  Reeves tells the story of Luther's great courage in the face of a violent, corrupt, and abusive Catholic Church.  Luther stood for biblical authority over the Pope at the risk of his life, and devoted himself to explaining the scriptures and providing access to them for the masses.

Reeves also devotes chapters to the work of Zwingli, Calvin, the British Reformation, and the Puritans.  His treatment demonstrates the various and distinct emphases of each reformer while revealing also the unity of the Protestant movement, chiefly seen in the reformational motto: sola scriptura - scripture alone is authoritative for the universal church. 

The characters of the Reformation were not bland, and neither is Reeves' telling of their story.  Luther was a brilliant thinker who also, at times, had a propensity for swearing at the devil.  Many involved in the Reformation lost their lives in the effort.  The book contains gripping stories of courage  in the face of adversity along with a number of humorous incidents.  Ever hear of the Lenten sausage rebellion of 1522 in Zurich? 

The final chapter is devoted to answering the second question: Is the Reformation over?  Reeves' answer is a resounding, "No!"  He criticizes efforts between Catholics and some Protestant groups to produce joint statements on justification, arguing that such statements are theologically ambiguous and misleading.  The Roman Catholic Church still officially states that justification is a process whereby a person becomes more righteous rather than a single declaration by God that a sinner has the status of righteous.  Roman Church doctrine still officially condemns all who believe that justification comes through faith alone in God's mercy which forgives sins for Christ's sake.  Romish dogma still curses all who believe that righteousness is not increased before God through good works. 

The matter of how a person can be right with God was and continues to be the heart of the Protestant Reformation.  The Roman Church continues to mix the work of man with the work of Christ.  Thus, Reeves rightly argues that the Reformation, which asserts the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is ongoing and, in the midst of ambiguous and misleading attempts to patch the rift, as necessary as ever. 

The Unquenchable Flame will give any reader an excellent and readable introduction to the heart of the Reformation in the 16th century and its ongoing importance for today.  It comes with my highest recommendation.

NB: Audio resources, links, and suggestions for further reading are available at http://www.theunquenchableflame.org/.

July 1, 2010

Theological Education in a Pluralistic World

The record of Paul's visit to Athens in Acts 17 provides an informative glimpse into the religious culture of the first century Greco-Roman world.  Paul's time in Athens was marked by deep distress at the extensive idolatry which he observed there.  The city, Luke indicates, was full of idols (16).  Beyond all the temples for devotees of the various false gods, there were the philosophers of the Areopagus, who worshipped reason and exalted it as authoritative.  Make no mistake; Athens was a city of religious and philosophical plurality. 

The interesting thing is that Paul did not see his time in Athens as an opportunity to seek deeper understanding of and improved cooperation with the Greek religions.  Rather, he saw a different opportunity; he saw a mission.  Paul was not interested in discussion for mutual understanding.  He was interested in the declaration of the gospel, the good news "about Jesus and the resurrection" (18).  During his hearing on the Areopagus, he was not sympathetic to the varied religion of the first century.  He charged that their shrines were basically a waste of space.  The God who made the world and all that is in it does not live in buildings made by human hands (24).  The God who raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as judge of all is not like their statues of gold or silver or stone.  Paul charged the Athenians with creating divinities made in their own image and concocted with their own imaginations (29).  Evidently, he was not all that interested in sympathetic dialogue to gain a deeper mutual understanding of the religiously pluralistic society.  Instead, he warned them of the coming judgment. 

Paul's feelings toward "different doctrine" are presented with clarity in his first letter to Timothy.  Timothy received this first letter while in Ephesus, a site for the worship of the goddess Diana. In this pluralistic environment, Paul charged Timothy not to allow the teaching of different doctrine nor the continued study of myths and other speculations (1:3-4).  He did not want Timothy studying the alternatives.  He wanted Timothy to spend his time guarding the deposit of truth entrusted to him and ensuring its transmission to the next generation.  When the church finds itself in a religiously pluralistic society, it is all the more important to be sure the truth is not watered down nor syncretized with false religion. 

There are those in our day who seem to think religious diversity and plurality is a new thing.  Recent moves by some theological schools to create institutions for multiple and simultaneous religious training is touted as the cutting edge of theological education that is necessary to meet the demands of a religiously pluralistic society.  These folks appear to be afflicted with a bad case of historical myopia, though.  As we have seen, the church, from its inception, has found itself at work in mission in the midst of  extensive religious pluralism.  The response of the early church to its pluralistic milieu was not dialogue but declaration.  The mission was not collaboration but conversion.  Devotees of other religions were not partners in mission; they were themselves the mission. 

Let me be clear.  I'm not saying that Christians ought never converse with people from other religions.  Paul certainly engaged the Greeks on the Areopagus.  We can never be faithful to the evangelistic mission of the church if we never converse with devotees of other religions.  My point is that we must not lose sight of our mission, which is not collaboration but evangelistic discipleship.

The church must not now be duped into thinking that pluralism is something new.  Neither should pluralism be thought of as a good opportunity to uncritically come alongside other religions to work for a brighter future.  Pluralism is, for the church, the reason for mission.  It is precisely because there are non-Christian religions that our Lord has commissioned us to disciple the nations.  We must stand firm in the conviction that there can be no bright future that is not built solidly on the foundation of Christ alone.  There can be no lasting and righteous change unless it is the change that comes with faith in the gospel and full-reliance on Christ.  Our pluralistic society is nothing new, and it is not opportunity for deeper mutual understanding but for faithful Christian preaching of the one truth in the gospel of Jesus Christ.