December 27, 2013

Would you worship a God who...?

Here's a gem from F.F. Bruce in his commentary on Hebrews 2:10:
There are many who are ready to tell us confidently what would and would not be worthy of God; but in fact the only way to discover what is a worthy thing for God to do is to consider what God has actually done. The person who says, "I could not have a high opinion of a God who would (or would not) do this or that," is not adding anything to our knowledge of God; he is simply telling us something about himself.
Having told us all about ourselves, Bruce goes on to talk about God:
We may be sure that all that God does is worthy of himself, but here our author singles out one of God's actions and tells us that it was a fitting thing for him to do. And what was that? It was his making Jesus, through his sufferings, perfectly qualified to be the Savior of his people. It is in the passion of our Lord that we see that we see very heart of God laid bare; nowhere is God more fully or more worthily revealed as God than when we see him "in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT).

December 16, 2013

Around the Links: The Virgin Birth (@LarryWHurtado @triablogue @ScotMcKnight @DouglasWils)

The doctrine of the virgin birth (or, more properly, the virginal conception) has had a little extra attention around the web in recent weeks. There are at least two reasons for this. First, it's nearly Christmas, which usually brings various posts defending or attacking the creedal claim that Jesus of Nazareth was "born of the Virgin Mary". Second, New Testament scholar (and my doctoral supervisor) Andrew T. Lincoln has just published his newest book, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Eerdmans, 2013). The book is already getting a lot of attention and, I suspect, will get even more in the weeks and months to come. Here are few interesting links to fill you in on what's being said about the virginal conception of Jesus in these days leading up to Christmas.
  • Heath Bradley has a favorable review of Lincoln's Born of a Virgin?, in which he summarizes the book's argument that multiple documents in the New Testament (Acts and Paul in particular) claim that Jesus' Davidic descent must have come through his father's line. Or, more briefly, if Jesus is not Joseph's son, neither is he descended from King David. The book further argues that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke were never intended by their authors to make historical claims and are, instead, examples of conventional literary devices in ancient Greco-Roman biographies intended to communicate theological truth about Jesus. The most interesting part of Bradley's review was his discussion of the claim that, "one could arguably even be an 'inerrantist' and still embrace Lincoln's proposal." Also check out Bradley's follow-up post titled, "Why I Believe in the Virgin Birth".
  • As we expect, Larry Hurtado provides a thoughtful and judicious review.
  • Jason Engwer at Triablogue is unpersuaded. Here's his six-part review of Lincoln's book in which he explains why the evidence for the virgin birth outweighs the evidence against it.
  • Scot McKnight asks, "How Important is the Virginal Conception?"
  • Douglas Wilson raises the "Why?" question and argues that you need a virgin conception to have a sinless Savior.
If there's a good post that I've left off the list, be sure to share the link in a comment. Happy reading.

December 13, 2013

If Jesus isn't white, what does he look like?

You've probably heard by now that Fox News host Megyn Kelly has gotten herself into a bit of a racial controversy for claiming that Santa Claus and Jesus were both white. The comment came in an interview in which she was responding to this post by Aisha Harris at Slate. Check out the video above. You can hear Kelly's regrettable comment about Jesus shortly after the 1:45 mark.

Santa Must...?
Let's begin by getting the Santa nonsense out of the way. Who cares how Santa Claus is portrayed? He's imaginary, not real. So imagine him however you want - black, white, penguin, puppy - it doesn't matter. Sure he's loosely based on the 4th century figure of St. Nicholas, but let's not pretend that the the jolly ol' fellow doing photo sessions down at the local mall bears much resemblance to the heretic punching Nicholas of Nicaea. 

More Importantly
Much, much, much more importantly is the question of Jesus' ethnicity. Let me say emphatically that if there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain, it is that Jesus of Nazareth - who ministered by the waters of the Sea of Galilee and traveled around Judea proclaiming the inauguration of the reign of God - was not white. He was a Semite, a Jew, a native of the Middle East. Like others in that region he would have had a dark or olive complexion. 

Back in 2002, Popular Mechanics ran a piece called "The Real Face of Jesus", in which they reported how they fed a lot of data on the physical characteristics of first century Jewish men (based on some well-preserved remains) into a computer in order to produce the image of what Jesus may have looked like. The result is the picture to the left. We do not, of course, know for sure what Jesus looked like, but this guy would have probably fit in nicely in Jerusalem in the first century. And I guarantee you that Jesus looked more like this than the weird illustrations in my kids' Bible story books. 

Jesus Then and Now
Now you may have noticed that the title of this post doesn't put the question of Jesus' skin color in the past tense, and this is what I'm really interested to get to. The question is not what did Jesus look like, but what does Jesus look like. The question of Jesus ethnicity is important not only because Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century, but also because Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God and is alive even now. The Semitic Jesus who was born of Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus is the same Jesus who now reigns over all creation. The question of Jesus' ethnicity matters not only for the sake of historical accuracy, but more importantly for the sake of knowing the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the one who even now makes intercession for us, the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead and whose kingdom will have no end. Jesus is a real person, and we need to do the best we can to think of him rightly. We don't get to remake him in whatever image suits our preferences. We need to reckon with the reality that right now, at this very moment, the one who is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and who reigns over heaven and earth has Jewish skin, a Jewish body, and a Jewish face. 

It's almost Christmas, and the point of Christmas is not so much that Jesus is another year older. The point is the Incarnation, the reality that the eternal God who made all things has come down from heaven and taken on human flesh for us and for our salvation. The Jesus we worship and who reigns over all is the King of the Jews, the Son of David, the seed of Abraham. To borrow language that Paul picked up from Isaiah, he is the Root of Jesse sprung up, who has risen to rule over all the nations. In him the Gentiles will hope, and we do. 

November 19, 2013

The Desire of God

"For God so loved the world" may be the most well-known and oft memorized verse of scripture ever. And rightly so. It summarizes the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news that God's passionate love is revealed in the presence of Christ. I came across an article last week, of which the title alone caused me to think afresh about the nature of God's love for us. The article was called, "God Desires You far More than You Desire Him," and it got me to thinking: We know God loves us, but how often do we remember that he also desires us?

God's Desire for Us
The word "love" has come to mean different things to different people. From sports to books and food to friends, we "love" all sorts of things. People fall in "love" and out of "love". I remember once hearing a comedian point out that you have to love your family, but you don't have to like them. Everyone knows that we don't mean the same thing in each instance. We also know that none of these examples really get at what scripture means when it speaks of God's "love" for us. This whirlwind of contemporary meanings and uses makes it difficult sometimes to reflect on the profound reality of God's love for us, which means we sometimes need fresh language to energize our understanding of God's self-revelation. 

That's why I like the word "desire". It's a word that gets at a person's deepest motivations and longings. We do what we desire most to do, for good or ill. The language of desire communicates something about our affections and our passions. I find it a helpful term when I reflect on John 3:16 and the surrounding verses. You don't give your only son for people that you love in the same way you love a slice of pizza. You don't descend from heaven for people that you might fall out of love with. You do those things because they are motivated by desires that are at the heart of your identity. 

Desire and Descent
In John's gospel, this self-giving desire of God for us is understood in terms of incarnation and crucifixion. If we read John 3:16 closely, we will find that the love of God is the cause that results in the incarnation and the crucifixion. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has descended from heaven and that he will be lifted up (on the cross) for the purpose of granting eternal life to those who believe. John wants his readers to know that these two events (and everything in between) are the demonstration of God's desire to rescue the world from perishing. The birth of Christ and the death of Christ are the revelation and demonstration of the desire of the triune God for us, a desire that is infinite in intensity and stronger than we can possible conceive or imagine. 

Desire and Disbelief
That God so desires us is striking. What is even more striking is that he desires us despite our disbelief. Whether they are the words of Jesus or the narrator's commentary, the following verses make this point: Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but to a world that is condemned already (3:18). He came to a world lost in the darkness of unbelief, "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). Remarkably, Jesus doesn't look at the unbelieving world and say with arms crossed and face scowled, "You'll get what's coming to you." To the contrary, he descends to us in order to take up our humanity, redeem it, and provide a way to escape the condemnation under which we naturally stand. He desires us despite our disbelief. 

Desire and Darkness
Most of us don't think of ourselves as those who desire darkness, but John likes to paint things in stark contrast to make a strong point. So, for John, there is light and there is dark. Jesus is light. Everything else is dark. We do well to indulge the gospel writer and do a little diagnostic self-analysis. Are there times when we choose to walk away from the light of Christ and toward darkness. What about when we go all day (or multiple days) without taking time to engage in private worship? Are we desiring light or darkness? What about intentionally harmful words to a spouse or unnecessarily harsh attitudes towards our children? Are we choosing light or darkness? A little white lie? Light or darkness? Derogatory comments about our boss behind his or her back? You get the picture. Sometimes diagnostics can be a little depressing. Thanks be to God that at the heart of the good news is the truth that God's desire for us does not depend on how much we desire him. To borrow the language of the creed, Christ came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, and he did it not because we desired him but because we didn't. 

Desire and Worship
One of the most common questions I've received since the start of my pastoral ministry is this: If God knew that human beings would sin and bring all this hurt and pain and brokenness and damage into the world, why did he still choose to create the world with us in it? It's a hard question, but I think we can get toward an answer by reflecting on the depth of God's desire for us. To do so we need to remember that the cross is not Plan B. Our sin did not take God by surprise; he was not wringing his hands in desperation wondering what to do next. No, when God chose to bring the world into existence, he did so with the full knowledge that he would take on human flesh and die a gruesome death to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. And he still chose to to make the world. And he still chose to make us. 

We always do what we most desire. Apparently, God desires us more than he desires avoiding the exceeding pain of a whip on his back, thorns in his brow, nails in his wrists, and the weight of the world's sin on his shoulders. A friend and colleague recently observed that when we begin to realize that, the only thing to do is to worship him and give ourselves to him for whatever he wants. God's desire for us gives birth to our desire for him. 

November 14, 2013

Is #UMC Conversation Still Possible?

Prominent United Methodist polity expert Dr. Thomas E. Frank has called upon the Council of Bishops to put a stop to church trials for clergy who disobey The Book of Discipline by blessing same-sex unions. Frank would prefer to see the Bishops lead the Church in "open conversation" with the aim of preserving the unity of the Church, which he believes is in peril if the trials continue to be prosecuted. I offered a response to Dr. Frank yesterday, and since then I've been thinking more about the call for conversation and the deep divide over human sexuality in the UMC. Here are a couple of reasons for why I wonder whether further fruitful conversation is a real possibility. 

We've already done it
The call for open conversation about human sexuality seems to imply that this is a new route aimed at solving our problem. However, we've been having this conversation for over forty years. The conversation has taken place in our local churches, on the floors of our Annual Conferences, in our seminaries, in social media, blogs, and denominational publications. At the last General Conference, Adam Hamilton, Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, and others stood and engaged in open conversation. Like previous General Conferences, the variety of perspectives were put on the table. Suggestions for compromise were made. And, in the end, the authoritative body made a decision. The decision is not satisfying to all, but it is, nevertheless, a decision. And it is a decision not made without conversation. Frankly, it's been a very, very long conversation. Given our history, do we really think that further "open conversation" is going to produce something that four decades of dialogue has not already produced? 

Conversation is for non-essentials
One of the things we've learned in our extended dialogue over human sexuality is that both sides take their own view to be essential to their identity as followers of Christ. Advocates of changing the UMC incompatibility language are convinced their view is the faithful view; proponents of keeping the language think their view is the faithful view. Regardless of where we stand on the issue of human sexuality, surely we can agree that the both sides think their conviction is not only right but essential. In light of that we need to understand and agree that conversation is for secondary and peripheral matters, not essentials. If both sides think their view is essential to faithful ministry, further attempts to engage in dialogue are likely to lead only to more frustration, hurt, and damage to the people and the mission of the United Methodist Church. We need to be discerning and mature enough to recognize and admit when we come to an impasse. 

Not an end in itself
Finally, we need to recognize that conversation serves the purpose of finding direction and making decisions. Once we have listened to the other side and articulated our own view, it's time to decide how to move forward. Conversation is not an end in itself. It is a tool, an instrument, a means to the end of discerning what to do next. We've had the conversation. Our authoritative body has made decision after decision. Some are persuaded that those decisions are wrong and unjust. So, what do we do next? Do we expect further conversation to bring real results that will satisfy all the concerned parties? Or will further conversation be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on the deep, deep wound of division in the UMC?

Let me conclude by saying that I'm all for fruitful conversation. If we can find a way to engage one another and authentically preserve the unity of the United Methodist Church, then, by all means, let's do that. The problem is that I find it difficult to imagine both sides coming to the table and working out a mutually satisfying arrangement, because preserving authentic unity means that one side will have to yield what they take to be essential. 

What do you think? Is there a way for forward for the United Methodist Church? Can we have a fruitful dialogue at this point? 

November 13, 2013

If Trials Stop, Likelihood of Schism Grows (#UMC, @UMReporter)

The United Methodist Reporter has published an open letter from United Methodist polity expert Thomas E. Frank asking the Council of Bishops to halt further church trials for clergy who officiate same-sex unions. Several such trials are pending, and Frank believes the the Bishops have the authority to put a stop to these trials by opting not to refer complaints to the counsel for the Church. Frank's appeal rests on his conviction that the trials put the unity of the UMC in peril. The Bishops, he argues, have the pastoral responsibility and authority to preserve the unity of the Church, even if it means acting in opposition to the will of the General Conference. As an alternative to church trials, Frank calls for open conversation and serious engagement with each other's views. The letter comes at a crucial time as the Council of Bishops are meeting at Lake Junaluska this week. 

I appreciate Dr. Frank's concern for the unity of the Church. It is a concern that I share, which is why I find his argument somewhat shortsighted. Two observations are in order that will hopefully shed light on why his proposal will neither solve our problem nor preserve our unity.

First, if the Bishops heed Frank's call to halt the trials going forward, it is likely to lead to schism, which is what Frank wants to avoid. Those who hold a traditional view of human sexuality are likely to perceive such a move as the Council's intentional leading of our Church down the path taken by other mainline denominations who have adopted attitudes toward human sexuality contrary to that of historic Christian orthodoxy. Such a move could be perceived as a functional, if not an official, change in our denominational stance that would easily result in increased calls for schism. Ironically, following Frank's advice is likely to lead to the very thing he is desperately trying to avoid.  

Second, Frank calls for open conversation as an alternative to church trials, but it is difficult to imagine how this is possible. Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert recently refused to abide by the requests of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and entered her episcopal area to conduct a ceremony of blessing for a same-sex union. Bishop Wallace-Padgett insisted that such action would not only be an act of disobedience to The Book of Discipline but would also undermine the ministry that she superintends in the North Alabama Annual Conference. It seems unlikely that the Council of Bishops will be able to model and oversee the sort of conversation that Frank would like to see when one Bishop forego conversation and undermine the ministry of another Bishop. It's hard to see how Frank's suggested alternative would result in healthy resolution of our rather critical situation. 

In the end, the Council of Bishops is in an exceedingly difficult place as our pastors and as the leaders of our Church. Let's not underestimate the weight of the burden of their responsibility, and let's cover them with much prayer. Frank is probably right. Continuing to bring clergy up on charges is likely to dissolve any semblance of unity we may still have. But the alternative of stopping the trials makes schism seem almost inevitable. It is sobering to consider that we may have come to the place in which we discover just how deeply divided the United Methodist Church really is.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this post Good News has published a response to Dr. Frank that substantiates the first observation above by saying, "Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage." Read the rest of their statement here.

Why Pray?

From the Forward to Winfield Bevins' Our Common Prayer (paper, Kindle), this is Ashley Null:
Constant prayer, then, is the key to the Christian life. Of course, that is the whole point of the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). We do not pray to God day and night because he is an unjust judge that needs to be prompted. We pray to him day and night because we need to be prompted. We struggle so much with injustice - the wrongs that others do to us, and the wrongs that we do to others. We pray to God day and night so that his love might renew a right spirit in us. We pray to God day and night for him to work in us so that we can forgive others their wrongs and give ourselves away in godly service. In short, we pray day and night, not to move the heart of God to want to do our will, but for God to continually move our hearts to want to do his will (16).
That about sums it up.  

November 7, 2013

Alister McGrath Returning to Oxford

That's the big news in academia this week. Here's the announcement from Oxford's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion:
The Faculty of Theology and Religion has announced with great pleasure that Professor Alister McGrath, currently Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, and head of its Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture has accepted the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion at Oxford and will take up his new post on 1 April 2014.
McGrath is a distinguished scholar with expertise in a variety of fields whose works have been influential at both scholarly and popular levels. Having spent a significant portion of his academic life in Oxford, this move may not come as a big surprise. McGrath was Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford until 2008 when he took a professorship at King's College London. Their loss is certainly Oxford's gain. 

November 5, 2013

Eucharist and Presence: Embracing Mystery, Finding Joy

I used to spend time wrestling with the different formulations proposed through Church history for how we should understand the nature of Christ's Presence in Holy Communion. There was a time when I found it helpful to compare and contrast the competing concepts of Thomistic Transubstantiation, Lutheran Consubstantiation, and Calvinism's Spiritual Presence. To some extent, I still think those sorts of formulations have their place, though I put less stock in them now. Instead, I've come to embrace the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This attitude is captured well by Charles Wesley in his hymn, "O the Depth of Love Divine". He writes:
O the depth of love divine,
Th'unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits his blood,
Fills his faithful people's hearts
With all the life of God!
How is Christ present in bread and wine? I don't know. And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that Christ is present, really present. He said that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. That's all. He didn't explain it. He didn't fill in the details. And now, finally, that's enough for me. If we are going to say something about Christ's Eucharistic Presence, we should learn from Wesley that sometimes it's better to sing a hymn than write a treatise.

There has been one particularly pleasant surprise on this journey of embracing in faith the Real Presence of Christ. I have found that I am more free to simply worship and adore him, and to receive that which he offers, namely himself, his own physical presence. This freedom to worship has resulted in the discovery that Christ's gift of himself at the Table is not a matter of magic, not about saying the right words as if we could manipulate Christ to manifest his Presence. To the contrary, the gift of himself is an expression of Christ's sovereign pleasure to minister to us physical creatures in just the way we need, with his own tangible, touchable, taste-able presence. And it is his joy to offer himself in this way - O the depth of love divine! And because it is his joy to make me the object of his self-giving love by filling my belly and quenching my thirst with his very life, I have found increasing joy when I go to the Lord's table. Indeed, in embracing the mystery I have found joy like never before. Thanks be to God.    

October 30, 2013

3 Ways Christ is Present in the Eucharist (@KreeftQuotes)

How is Christ present in the sacrament of Holy Communion? Here's Peter Kreeft in his book Catholic Christianity (paper, Kindle), which is an exposition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the chapter on the Eucharist, he writes:
Here the three meanings of "present" come together: Christ in the Eucharist is (a) present, not absent, but really here; (b) present, not past, but happening now; and (c) presented as a gift (a "present"), really given, offered, not withheld (326).
I'm happy to affirm and deeply grateful for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though I'm hesitant to attempt to parse that out too far (e.g. transubstantiation, consubstantiation). Somehow Christ mysteriously ministers his presence to his people in the bread and wine. This three-pronged comment from Kreeft is quite helpful, though, as we reflect on the character of Christ's presence. In the consecrated elements, Christ is really present right now to give himself to his people in love and with joy. 

October 8, 2013

The Liturgy and the Gospel (@OfficialSeedbed)

The team at was kind enough to publish an essay in which I recount three key reasons I am increasingly drawn to liturgical worship. Here's an excerpt:
I’ve often thought of my life as having been lived on the edge of the liturgy. I suspect that perspective will resonate with many in the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition. We observe Advent and Lent. The colors on the pulpit and the communion table change with the season. We usually celebrate All Saints Sunday, and sometimes our pastors even preach the lectionary. Elements of liturgical worship are sprinkled throughout our worship life. Many suspect there is more going on, that there is a deeper coherence to the liturgical form of worship, even if we are unsure of what holds it together. We stick close to the side, hesitant to jump out into the middle of the stream, cautious lest we are carried off by a current that we cannot control and do not fully understand. We are unsure of where it will take us. Nevertheless, and despite our caution, some are captured by the inescapable inclination that we stand on the edge of something great, simultaneously terrible and beautiful, and we begin to take small steps forward into deeper water in order that we might drink more fully of the riches of the mystery before us. I offer here a few reflections on the early stages of my own journey from the edge of the liturgical stream into deeper waters. Perhaps these reflections will encourage those who read to join this exploration of the beauty and mystery of the liturgy.
You can read the rest of the post at the Seedbed blog. Here I'd like to point to a couple of resources and add a comment or two as a follow-up to that piece.

The article mentions Bryan Chapell's book, Christ-Centered Worship, and I want to emphasize how extremely influential this book has been in my understanding of the liturgy. Chapell sets side-by-side the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant traditions and, without overlooking the differences, shows how the form and structure of the liturgy in these various traditions is shaped by the gospel. This was eye-opening for me. I've long understood that the gospel should fill the content of Christian worship; it never occurred to me that the very form and order of worship should be governed by the gospel also, though having now encountered this idea, I can't imagine a better way. It seems so obvious, so clear, so excellent. How could anyone who loves the good news not desire that the gospel set the pattern and form of the Church's worship?

Another key book that was recommended to me is Mark Galli's Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy. If you have little or no experience with liturgical worship, then this is the book to read first. Galli's style is accessible and engaging. You don't have to hold a theology degree to get what he has to say. He will not only introduce you to the most basic structure of the liturgy, he will also help you begin to appreciate its beauty, relevance, mystery, and majesty.

I'll finish by saying that it is precisely that which I take to be central to my evangelical identity that drives me toward liturgical worship. The liturgy is all about Christ and him crucified. It goes to work in us by faith to draw us to Christ and to renew us in his image. It is saturated with scripture and, above all, aims ultimately to exalt the holiness, the majesty, and the glory of God. 

What is your experience with liturgical worship? Are there any books or other resources you've found particularly helpful? 

October 2, 2013

3 Books to Introduce Arminian Theology

More and more people are interested in Arminian theology, which is is an account of the Bible's teaching on salvation that is named for the 16th century Dutch Reformer Jacob Arminius. This increased attention to Arminius is due in part to presently rising interest in Calvinism and Reformed theology. Some people are interested in Arminian thought because they are deeply concerned by the inherent problems with Calvinism and go looking for an alternative. Others take an interest in Arminianism because they are Calvinists and they desire to refute the alternative perspectives. If you consider yourself an Arminian, it's a good idea to read a few books so that you know what it means to adopt that label. If you are a Calvinist interested in arguing against Arminianism, you need to read enough to level a fair and informed critique. 

A careful reading of the right three books on a given topic should give you a basic introduction to the major issues and their general implications. You need to pick the right three books, though. They will, of course, cover some of the same material; repetition is good for getting the basics. But they should also come at their common topic from somewhat different angles to give you a sense of the nuance involved.  So, here are three books - one constructive, one corrective, one polemical - that will complement each another and give you a solid and well-rounded introduction to Arminius and the theological tradition that bears his name. 
Keith D. Stanglin & Thomas H. McCall
Oxford University Press, 2013, 240 pages

If you are going to be an Arminian, it's a good idea to know a little bit about Arminius himself and the origin of his thought. This book will do just that. One major strength of this volume is its careful attention to the historical circumstances in which Arminius' views developed. The first chapter introduces Arminius' life. Then three remaining chapters are devoted to the Dutch reformer's views on "God and Creation" (chap. 2), "Providence and Predestination" (chap. 3), and "Sin and Salvation" (chap. 4). I was particularly interested in the way Stanglin and McCall present the controversies over election and predestination as an in-house debate within the Reformation. Arminius died a minister in good standing in the Dutch Reformed Church. I'm inclined to think the present day debate between Calvinists and Arminians would benefit from the perspective of it being an in-house debate.

Roger B. Olson
IVP Academic, 2006, 250 pages

If the above book by Stanglin and McCall explains what Arminian theology is, this book by Roger Olson explains what it is not. Mis-information about Arminianism abounds. Far too many people erroneously think that Arminian theology means believing in free will or entails a denial of the sovereignty of God. Like Stanglin and McCall, Olson attends closely to the primary sources, and he demonstrates that many presently popular portrayals of Arminian thought simply fall short of accurately representing classical Arminian theology. Arminians should read this book to avoid misunderstanding the view they claim to hold. Calvinists should read this book to avoid critiquing false portrayals of Arminianism.

Jerry L. Walls & Joseph R. Dongell
IVP, 2004, 230 pages

Once you've got the basics of Arminian theology and cleared up some of the common misconceptions, you are ready for a polemical work that takes on the opposing views. Why I Am Not a Calvinist by Walls and Dongell does just that. The real strength of this book is that it is co-authored by a philosopher and a biblical scholar. So, the critique of Calvinism is fairly comprehensive. The first two chapters focus on how we approach and engage the Bible with regard to the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. The remaining chapters take up the more philosophical issues in Calvinism like the nature of human freedom and divine sovereignty, among others. The real strength of this book is the way it shows that Calvinism does not simply depend on scriptural exegesis but on philosophical commitments also. Arminians will appreciate its thoughtful arguments against Calvinism, and prudent Calvinists will take seriously the critique.

September 16, 2013

Esler Begins New Testament Professorship at @UniofGlos

I'm excited to pass along the news that Philip Esler is beginning his appointment as Portland Professor of New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. Here's the announcement from the Theoglos blog:
We are delighted to welcome the new Portland Professor of New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire following the (semi) retirement of the previous incumbent, Professor Andrew Lincoln.  Philip has pioneered the use of social sciences in biblical studies and has published extensively in this area. Philip’s interests are wide-ranging: he has also published a New Testament Theology and work on visual representations of biblical texts.  He was the inaugural Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and also currently serves on the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature. Philip’s appointment now means there are no less than six biblical scholars on staff at UoG.  Although the chair is primarily a research post, Philip has made it clear that he would like to teach undergraduates and will indeed be teaching our new first years on the Social World of the Old and New Testaments.
Professor Esler will be an excellent addition to the Gloucestershire faculty. Glad to have him on board.  Be sure to click through and find out more about the new program in Theology and Religious Studies at Gloucestershire Uni. 

September 4, 2013

The Jovial Sabbath: C.S. Lewis on Rest and Joy

My understanding of the Sabbath was transformed last year when I read John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One. He argues that the creation account in the opening chapters of scripture is intended to be read as an ancient Near Eastern description of a deity constructing his temple and setting up its functions. This temple focus then shapes Walton's interpretation of God's rest on the seventh day. He says that we need to know
the piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most moderns are mostly oblivious. Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say this is what a temple is - a place for divine rest (71).
What does divine rest entail? Most of us think of rest as disengagement from the cares, worries and tasks of life. What comes to mind is sleeping in or taking an afternoon nap. But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have "settled down." Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles than disengagement without responsibilities (71-72).
So, rather than giving us an image of God kicking back in a Lazy Boy for his day off after a long week at work, Genesis provides an image of God as king dwelling in his temple as the place from which he rules the cosmos. Thus, the Psalmist:
Let us go to his dwelling place;
let us worship at his footstool-
arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place,
you and the ark of your might.
For the Lord has chosen Zion,
he has desired it for his dwelling:
"This is my resting place for ever and ever;
here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it (132:7-8, 13-14).
God rests in his temple and from their he reigns over and governs all that he has made. Indeed, God's rest is his unhindered and uninterrupted rule over the cosmos. Thus, according to Walton, human beings properly observe the Sabbath when we recognize that God is on his throne. It is God whose reign sustains us and provides for us. So, the Sabbath is a time to "Do whatever will reflect your love, appreciation, respect and awe of the God of all the cosmos" (146). While Sabbath is not a call to think ourselves sovereign over the cosmic order, it is our participation in God's rightful reign. 

These reflections came rushing back over the weekend as I read Michael Ward's Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, a fascinating study in which he argues that Lewis deployed the medieval characters of the planets as the unifying element in the overall structure of The Chronicles of Narnia. In chapter three on Lewis' use of Jupiter, or Jove, the king of the planets. Ward cites this excerpt from Lewis' The Discarded Image:
The character [Jupiter] produces in men would now be imperfectly expressed by the word 'jovial,' and is not very easy to grasp; it is no longer, like the saturnine character, one of our archetypes. We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous. When this planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity.
Lewis himself stood in a long line of Christian authors and poets who employed Jupiter's place in the Medieval cosmology to image the joy and beauty of the reign of God in their literary works. Lewis does this best in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which leads Ward to remark, 
Aslan's bodily presence is the concentration of the Jovial supra-personality in one place, one character. That kingship which cannot be seen in the transcendent Emperor (Aslan's Father)...or in the broader Narnian cosmos...becomes focused in the King of the Wood. Peter and his siblings can hear the name of this manifestation of Jupiter. Better, they can actually observe him: 'they saw what they had come to see.' Better still, they can touch him and even stroke him...As the children come to know Aslan they find themselves living increasingly in his spirit (72).
Walton's interpretation of Sabbath and Lewis' comments on the character of Jove clearly have much in common. Three reflections come to mind with this intersection of the Hebrew Sabbath and pre-Copernican cosmology. First, when the Jovial Aslan comes to liberate Narnia from the wintry spell of the White Witch, Narnia comes into the Lion's rest. This does not mean that the Narnians disengage from life and work and play. To the contrary, only in the leonine liberty are they able to rightly engage life and work and play in a realm that is, at last, rightly ordered. As Walton put it, crisis is resolved and stability is achieved. In this way, Lewis' depiction of the Golden Age of Narnia gives us a powerful image of the biblical Sabbath, an image in which the people of God are fully engaged in the rightly ordered work of God as image-bearers and vice-regents of the Jovial King himself.

Second, the convergence of Sabbath with the character of Jupiter fills the concept of rest with maturation in joy. Ward observes that when Aslan puts things to rights, "All four children grow up in the same spirit and mystically participate in its kingly life: 'So they lived in great joy and if ever they remembered their life in this world it was only as one remembers a dream.' They become saturated with Joviality: 'nothing is left over or outside the act' (72). Thus, the Jovial Sabbath is not about a legalistic and burdensome obsession with keeping all the right rules. It is about the enjoyment of the beauty of the reign of God in magnanimous glory. Such enjoyment will, of course, be accompanied by God-honoring behavior, but the behavior grows out of the enjoyment, not out of the burden. In scripture and in Lewis, the Sabbath rest is meant for enjoying God.

Third, to thoroughly orient our understanding of Sabbath around the Jovial influence of the reign of God would, I imagine, have good effect on the mission and ministry of the church. The shift in focus to God's reign from our own self-oriented disengagement will orient us to a life of embodying and extending that reign, a life of joy in self-giving love, a Sabbath life. Further, there is something about Joviality that is contagious. God will draw the nations to the jovial proclamation and embodiment of his reign of peace. 

We would do well to listen with care to the music of the spheres as we contemplate and enjoy God's jocund design for his rest and ours. 
Image: Paula Baynes' original cover art for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

August 26, 2013

Gordon McConville on "The Challenge of Being Human"

I was excited to learn last night that Professor Gordon McConville of my own University of Gloucestershire will deliver the annual lecture at the upcoming meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) later this year. My own research is in the area of Pauline anthropology and the question of what it means to be human particularly with regard to embodiment; so I was also excited to find that Professor McConville will be delivering a paper entitled, "'How like an angel!': The Challenge of Being Human." Here's the abstract:
Hamlet’s take on Psalm 8:5 (Act 2 Sc. 2) highlights the contradiction between the enormous potential of human beings and their mortality, ‘this quintessence of dust’. A biblical theology of humanity also moves between these poles. Human destiny is written in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. But what does this leave to be said about human potential in a fallen world, and related concepts such as creativity, excellence, professionalism, and power? The lecture explores what the divine ascription of ‘goodness’ might mean for the human being’s sense of purpose in the world (Gen. 1:31). It finds its resources mainly but not exclusively in the Old Testament, and aims to make a contribution to Christian thinking on the subject. Key words in the approach taken are ‘embodiment’ and ‘engagement’. 
I had the chance to meet Professor McConville during a visit to the University last fall, and I found him to be very kind and personable. He is certainly a world-class scholar of the Old Testament, and I'm confident that he will deliver a very stimulating lecture. Other IBR sessions are on also on the topic of "Biblical Conceptions of Humanity: The Image of God." So, if you are going to be at SBL, it looks like the IBR sessions will be well worth attending. 

August 14, 2013

Wesley Biblical Seminary Announces Full Ride for Majority World Pastors

If you know anyone serving as a pastor in a developing country, you may want to share this with them. Wesley Biblical Seminary is offering 50 full tuition scholarships to qualified Majority World pastors and church leaders. Here's the announcement from the seminary
As part of its Great Commission calling, Wesley Biblical Seminary is pleased to announce a pilot program to extend biblical and theological education to 50 pastor/leaders living in the two-thirds world. The Seminary will begin this fall to offer qualified applicants a totally online Master of Arts in Christian Studies degree with full tuition scholarship.
Over next several years, WBS will partner with mission agencies and national churches to identify and admit 50 qualified pastors and Christian leaders to join the vibrant WBS online learning community. The first cohort of this group will begin in the fall 2013 semester.
Rev. Reuben Lang’at, Seminary alumnus and board member of World Gospel Mission says, “With Christianity’s center of gravity having shifted, the church in the global south is experiencing tremendous growth. Africa alone is said to be getting 23,000 converts every day. This growth comes with challenge of making sure that these converts are properly discipled. This can only happen if the pastors are themselves trained to do so. There is need for these pastors to receive good training from qualified, experienced professors such as the ones we have at Wesley Biblical Seminary.”
Persons accepted into this online degree program must be qualified in these ways:
  • Be living and serving in the majority world. (This degree is not offered to internationals living in the United States.)
  • Possess a credible bachelor’s degree with at least a 2.5 (solid B) average
  • Be recommended and sponsored by a recognized mission agency or church
  • Have access to a computer and consistent internet service
  • Be able to learn in English at the graduate level
  • Be able to buy and obtain the texts necessary
  • Be able to pay the non-tuition fees, such as the technology fee and graduation fees.
Our new global outreach will draw in majority world students who are serving effectively in their own nations and enable these Christian leaders to have a quality biblical and theological education. The Master of Arts in Christian Studies (50 hours) is the most flexible degree the Seminary offers, giving the student the option to choose more elective courses.
If you are interested personally or know someone who should study with WBS in this strategic Great Commission outreach, please contact the Seminary registrar at this email address: or contact us by phone at 601.366.888.
I'm excited to be affiliated with an institution that has this kind of global vision. If you know someone who might be interested in the program, be sure to pass this info along to them.

August 12, 2013

Mere Lewis: A Review of McGrath's C.S. Lewis - a Life (@TyndaleHouse)

If you've been following the blog of late, you've probably noticed that I'm on something of a C.S. Lewis kick. A major part of that kick has been my reading of Alister McGrath's new biography C.S. Lewis - a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. And let me say, the book is outstanding! I really can't recommend it highly enough. It's a page-turner. Couldn't put it down.

Alister McGrath wrote this book for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lewis' 1963 death, and McGrath is just the right man for the job. He makes excellent use of his well-honed skills as an historian to master the primary and secondary literature and produce a thorough account of Lewis' life and work. McGrath is no second-rate wordsmith himself; I was constantly impressed by his literary ability and engaging style. 

When the subject is a man like Lewis, you may wonder whether a new biography is warranted. What could be said to advance the discussion by making an original contribution to our knowledge of Lewis' life. His life and his work have been scrutinized. Nevertheless, McGrath makes a fresh and compelling argument for why he thinks Lewis got the date of his own conversion to Christianity wrong in Surprised by Joy. McGrath suggests that Lewis was converted in 1930 rather than the 1929 date Lewis gives in his autobiography. What? You are shocked and amazed at the gall of a biographer who thinks he knows better than Lewis the date of such a major turning point in Lewis' own life? Well, you won't be surprised to find that not everyone agrees. I do find McGrath's argument very sensible and persuasive, though I won't repeat here. You'll just have to read the book (or this summary). 

Life and Literature
Alister McGrath
One feature of the book that I like very much is that is not only organized into key periods of Lewis' life, it is also organized around his key works of literature. Lewis was a major author; it only makes sense that his biography should be organized with a view to important writings. This is a real strength of the book. There are sections devoted to many of Lewis' numerous well-known works like Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters, to name only a few. So, if there's a particular work or works of Lewis in which you are especially interested, you can flip over to those sections and read them in whatever order you please. I read the first chapter and then, since I've also been reading the Chronicles or Narnia, skipped forward and read chapters 11 and 12, which are all about Lewis and Narnia, before going back to read the remaineder of the book straight through. This is a great feature of the book that means I will be consulting it in the future as a reference work on various of Lewis' writings. I anticipate turning to it again and again. 

A Real Man
It is very easy to idolize great writers. When you read only the sublime ideas of brilliant thinkers that have been revised, reworked, refined, and rewritten many times before publication, you may begin to think more highly of them than you ought. Lewis is one of those writers. You can read his work and come away wanting to think he can write no wrong, that he is perhaps more than a man. McGrath's biography is an excellent corrective to such idolizing tendencies. Lewis was a genius; there's no doubt. But he was also a real person. He had his struggles and his weaknesses. He was a sinner. He knew it. We should, too. When you read this biography, you will not find the mere Lewis that you encounter in the final published editions of his works. You will find instead a complex Lewis, one who sometimes devised elaborate deceptions of family members; you will find a Lewis who was sometimes treated unfairly; who was occasionally frustrated by his students; and who fled from God only to be finally overtaken. You will find a man who was not only exceptionally gifted but rigorously disciplined. You will find one whose gifts and discipline led him to see the big mystery that most of us miss. You will discover how his writings were shaped both by success and failure. You will find a real man, and you will find someone whose life is, for that very reason, inspiring.

As I said, I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you are interested in Lewis, you must read this book. If you don't normally read biographies, give this one a try. I'm not a big reader of biographies myself. This book made me want to read  more in the genre. It's that good. When you read the book, leave a comment and let me know what you thought of it.

August 8, 2013

C.S. Lewis on the Ground of Democracy

According to Lewis, there are two possible reasons for believing in democracy:
"You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power of his fellows."* 
I wonder whether our democracy has not, by and large, fallen prey to the first and false of these options. We take it as a supreme value that everyone should get their say. Your vote is your voice, your power. What we need instead is a good dose of humility. We need to acknowledge that, as fallen and sinful people, none of us can handle unchecked power, and the vote of all the others is accountability for the one. I suppose that the making of such a confession would, however, run contrary to nature for such fallen ones
* "Membership" in The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2001), 168.

August 7, 2013

C.S. Lewis on "Real Forgiveness"

He writes:
"Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who had done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it."
I'm not sure we often think of forgiveness like this; it would mean conceding that we are indeed dirty, mean, and malicious. We prefer excuses. But Lewis' definition of real forgiveness is worth extended reflection. We see most clearly the surprising beauty of the cross in those moments when we are most honest about the darkness of the filth of our rebel hearts. God will never excuse our offense against him; he will however forgive it. He doesn't look the other way. He takes it head on. In the cross he takes upon himself (himself!) the horror and pain of our transgression against him. The Holy One looks steadily at our sin and chooses not to hold it against us. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. 

This is what God has done for us in Christ, it is likewise what he calls upon us to do. Imitate him. So, Lewis: "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you." He continues:
"This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life - to keep forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son - how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.' We are offered forgiveness on no other terms."
It is nearly impossible to become a forgiving person until one finds himself a forgiven person. One cannot be like God without first being reconciled to God. 

July 31, 2013

Jerry Walls Responds to my Question on Hell (@rachelheldevans)

Jerry Walls is taking a turn in Rachel Held Evan's "Ask a..." series, and he is answering question on hell, free will, and possibility of postmortem repentance. I raised a question about a surprising, if not disturbing, passage in Revelation that portrays the torment of hell as taking place eternally in the very presence of Christ. Here's the passage from Revelation 14:9-11:
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, "Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name" (NRSV, the italics are, of course, mine).
Here's my question:
Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place "in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?
Here's Walls' response:
Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us. For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him. So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.
So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact. However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.
Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29). But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.
David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  
As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff). The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power. But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.” If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).
I'll begin by saying that Walls raises a couple of interesting points I've not considered before. First, he's right that fire is often an symbol of God's presence, which is fascinating (and troubling!) when applied to the image of "the lake of fire" (Rev 20:14). Might the lake of fire be the very consuming fire that is God himself? Should we be thinking of Hebrews 12:29? Second, I'm not read-up on the Eastern tradition that makes no distinction between the light of God's glory and the fire of hell, though it is initially both compelling and satisfying. It certainly resonates with all the Lewis I've been reading this year.

In the end, I think Walls' suggestion that we need to understand God's presence in two ways is on target. This surprising passage appears to mean that, while a person can be spatially near to Christ, physical proximity is not joyful intimacy. Two people can be in one another's presence and still a rift stand between them. In fact, the physical nearness of those against whom we are opposed may even cause our anger and frustration to burn with heightened fury. Lewis holds this tension in balance in many of his works. For those who love Aslan, his presence is unspeakable joy; for those who hate him, it is a terror. Nearness to Christ is not necessarily love for him. Nearness can inflame antagonism. As Orual, who stood unseeing on the threshold of heaven, blind though she had entered the gates of the home of the gods, full of fiery hatred, for him. 
NB: You may be interested in Robert Mulholland's assessment of this passage in Revelation, which sets it in a Jewish context and resonates with Walls' reflections. Also, be sure to head over to Rachel's blog and read the rest of the questions and Walls' answers.

July 15, 2013

Flames of Holy Love: Or, Why I'm a Methodist (#AndCanItBe)

This is John Wesley. And this vision of Christianity is why I am, and will remain, a Methodist.
"Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.' It is not only `the first and great' command, but all the commandments in one. `Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise,' they are all comprised in this one word, love. In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: The royal law of heaven and earth is this, `Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.' The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end. One thing shall ye desire for its own sake, -- the fruition of Him who is all in all. One happiness shall ye propose to your souls, even an union with Him that made them, the having `fellowship with the Father and the Son,' the being `joined to the Lord in one spirit.' One design ye are to pursue to the end of time, -- the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity. Desire other things so far as they tend to this; love the creature, as it leads to the Creator. But in every step you take, be this the glorious point that terminates your view. Let every affection, and thought and word, and action, be subordinate to this. Whatever ye desire or fear, whatever ye seek or shun, whatever ye think speak, or do, be it in order to your happiness in God, the sole end, as well as source, of your being."
"Here is the sum of the perfect law, the circumcision of the heart. Let the spirit return to God that gave it, with the whole train of its affections. -- Other sacrifices from us he would not, but the living sacrifice of the heart hath he chosen. Let it be continually offered up to God through Christ, in flames of holy love. And let no creature be suffered to share with him; for he is a jealous God. His throne will he not divide with another; he will reign without a rival. Be no design, no desire admitted there, but what has Him for its ultimate object. This is the way wherein those children of God once walked, who being dead still speak to us: `Desire not to live but to praise his name; let all your thoughts, words, and works tend to his glory.' `Let your soul be filled with so entire a love to Him that you may love nothing but for his sake.' `Have a pure intention of heart, a steadfast regard to his glory in all you actions.' For then, and not till then, is that `mind in us, which was also in Christ Jesus,' when in every motion of our heart, in every word of our tongue, in every work of our hands, we `pursue nothing but in relation to him, and in subordination to his pleasure;' when we too neither think, nor speak, nor act, to fulfil `our own will, but the will of Him that sent us;' when, `whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do,' we do it all `to the glory of God."' 
These sublime words are excerpts from Wesley's sermon, "The Circumcision of the Heart" cited in this form by Wesley himself in his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (6). We often think about sanctification and growth in holiness in negative terms, but Wesley gives us such a magnificently positive vision of the holy life. For Wesley, holiness is not about checking off the commandments; it is nothing more or less than the enjoyment of God. The essence of holiness is enjoying God. Holiness is a heart full of God's love, a heart that aims to do nothing except for God's sake and for his pleasure. When our hearts are so consumed with the beauty and glory of the holiness of God, everything else will be in its proper place. May the God of all grace grant us this: that we may love nothing but for his sake and that our hearts may burn with the flame of his holy love. 

July 12, 2013

Entire Sanctification in the Early Church (#AndCanItBe)

I've often heard that John Wesley's emphasis on Entire Sanctification (or Christian Perfection) was not only the result of his reading of scripture (it was!) but of his reading of the early Church fathers also. I've not had opportunity to research that claim in detail, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I was reading Polycarp's letter to the Philippians and discovered a quote that sounded like it was straight of a sermon by John Wesley. Here's what the second century Bishop of Smyrna wrote: "For if one be in this company he has fulfilled all righteousness, for he who has love is far from all sin" (III:3, emphasis added). The company of which he speaks are those who have faith and love for God, Christ, and neighbor, and this folks, says Polycarp, are far from all sin, not most, all.

There are any number of passages by Wesley in which we could find similar themes; this quote from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection sums it up nicely: "Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin" (18). There are at least three observations to be made as we compare Polycarp and Wesley.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is that both Polycarp and Wesley are happy to describe the believer's deliverance from sin in terms of "all sin". They both, of course, get this from 1 John 1:7, "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

Second, both Polycarp and Wesley understand love and sin as mutually exclusive. A heart full of love for God and neighbor cannot also be a heart in sin against God or neighbor. If we are actively loving and pursuing Christ, then we will not, at the same time, be sinning against him. For both men distance from sin must begins with love for God. This is why true holiness is never simply a matter of behavior modification. We could presumably go through the motions and do the right sorts of things and still not have a heart of love for God and others. Love is the both the foundation and the fount of authentic holiness, the beginning and the cause. Holiness is not mere obedience; the life of holiness must issue forth from love. 

Third, lest we think such holy love means anything goes, Polycarp and Wesley would agree that holy love produces a life that honors God. We've already seen that for Polycarp the love that is far from all sin is also love that fulfills all righteousness. Likewise, Wesley insists that, "Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.' It is not only `the first and great' command, but all the commandments in one" (Plain Account, 6). For neither of these men does love mean lawlessness. To the contrary, love means holiness. Those who love God will love God's law and keep his commands. So, holiness is not primarily about what we do; it is about who we love. But if we love God, we will do what pleases him. Holiness does not consist in obedience, but obedience always accompanies holiness.

I'll conclude by saying that while Entire Sanctification is often treated as distinctive to Wesley, it should be plain that this is not the case. The core themes of Wesley's doctrine of sanctification were present in early church, and Wesley saw his emphasis on the doctrine of Christian Perfection as a recovery of that biblical truth taught by the apostles and the fathers. This brief comparison of his views with those of Polycarp expressed in his letter to the Philippians is part, though certainly not all, of the evidence that Wesley was right to see his work as standing in continuity with the ancient Church.
N.B. Thomas A Noble's recent book, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfection, devotes a chapter to the topic of Christian Perfection as taught by the Greek and Latin fathers (chapter 3).