December 14, 2015

Moltmann on the Immortal Soul vs. Bodily Resurrection

The immortality of the soul is an opinion - the resurrection of the dead is a hope. The first is a trust in something immortal in the human being, the second a trust in the God who calls into being the things that are not, and makes the dead live. In trust in the immortal soul we accept death, and in a sense anticipate it. In trust in the life-creating God we await the conquest of death - 'death is swallowed up in victory' (I Cor. 15.54) - and an eternal life in which 'death shall be no more' (Rev. 21.4). The immortal soul may welcome death as a friend, because death releases it from the earthly body; but for the resurrection hope, death is 'the last enemy' (I Cor. 15.26) of the living God and the creations of his love (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 65-66).
In short, the immortality of the soul is not a Christian doctrine. Resurrection of the body is. 

December 1, 2015

Initial Thoughts on Paul and the Gift by John Barclay #PTG @eerdmansbooks

I've recently begun working through John Barclay's highly anticipated new book Paul and the Gift. And at 582 pages (not counting bibliography and indices), it is quite a tome. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK. He has given a decade to researching and writing this book, and the quality of his research and argumentation is evident from the first page. Rather than waiting till I've finished to review it here, I thought I'd offer impressions and reflections along the way. After all, a full review would likely be somewhat lengthy for a single blog post. Instead, think of the series as a travelogue for a long journey. That said, let's be off.

First, the book is a study on the concept of grace in the letters of Paul. It is titled Paul and the Gift because the Greek word for "grace" is charis, which was the typical way to speak of a gift in the Greco-Roman world. Barclay argues that any Pauline theology of grace should be understood in light of the ancient context of gift-giving. That argument is rather straightforward and not all that surprising; that is, until we dig deeply into context of gift-giving in the ancient Mediterranean world, which takes us to the next reflection.

Second, the giving of gifts in the Greco-Roman period was radically different than the giving of gifts in the modern period. This is the argument that Barclay makes in chapter 1. We tend to think of gift-giving as something that is done out of sheer gratuity with no (or at least very few) strings attached. We often think in terms of "pure gift" or "free gift." Giving a gift to another person places no obligation on that person to reciprocate the gift. And when we come to the language of gift/grace in the New Testament, we read that language in light of our present day understanding of gifts - freely given, freely received. The problem, Barclay argues, is that our contemporary attitude toward gifts is substantially different than the attitudes toward gift-giving in the world of Paul and his contemporaries. In Paul's day, gifts were part of a culture-wide system of reciprocity and came with many a string attached. To give a gift was to place the recipient under obligation. This, of course, has implications for choosing the recipient of a gift, because you would want to make a gift to someone who could fulfill the obligation placed upon them. Typically, then, gifts were given to people in relatively similar social situations. To receive a gift was to receive the message that the giver considered you a person able to reciprocate the gift. Such a gift creates a social bond, because it is a way of recognizing the value or worth of the recipient.

Some implications of this should be clear even before getting to the exegetical portions of the book. What would it do to our theology of grace if the gift of God in Christ comes with strings attached? What if receiving the gift of grace puts us under obligation both to honor God and to obey him? There are implications for pastoral ministry, too. How many sermons have we heard that declare grace to be a "free gift" or a "pure gift" that depends on nothing in us and requires nothing from us? Working out the particulars of these questions will have to wait, but you see the importance of reading Paul's language of grace/gift within the context of Greco-Roman gift-giving.

Third, the scope of this book is remarkable. It is not merely a study of Paul in his context; it is also a reception history of Paul's theology of grace beginning with Marcion and proceeding through Augustine and the Reformers before moving to modern interpreters including Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and those associated with the New Perspective on Paul, E.P. Sanders not least. This reception history is followed by an extended section on "Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism," in which the diversity of Jewish views on grace are considered. At this point, you are 300 pages into the book, and you are just getting the New Testament exegetical portions which focus primarily on Galatians and Romans. Here's the point: Barclay has produced a methodologically robust study that deals with Paul in his context, through history, and in our contemporary context. And he is only focusing in depth on two letters. Imagine the possibilities of digging into the other Pauline epistles. Might there be a follow-up volume in the works?

Fourth, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I'll be brief here because I've only thus far read the introductory and concluding statements on Barclay's interaction with the NPP. Here's what he says to expect: E.P. Sanders and other advocates of the NPP argue that Judaism in Paul's day was a religion of grace. Barclay responds by arguing that "Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same" (6). His point is that the NPP has given us a picture of Judaism that is insufficiently diverse. Paul was one voice in the middle of a debate on the nature of grace. Sanders made the mistake of reading different attitudes toward grace onto the Pauline texts without considering the extent to which Paul and his contemporaries might agree that God acts graciously toward his covenant people even though they disagree on the particulars of that grace. If this argument turns out to be successful, it will be a big problem for the NPP. I'm eager to dig into the details of that one, and I'll be interested to hear responses from NPP advocates.

I'll finish by saying it is very tempting to skip ahead to certain parts of this book that relate directly to my current research. And I may very well do that in order to keep my work moving at a good pace. Nevertheless, the quality of this volume makes me what to read it carefully cover to cover. So, even if I skip ahead, I'll be certain to go back and catch up anything I may have skipped over. There is much to be learned here.  

November 18, 2015

Would #PopeFrancis welcome Protestants to the Eucharist?

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for his fresh take on some long-standing Roman Catholic traditions. The debate between Ross Douthat and a number of Catholic theologians illustrates the range of reactions to the Pope's revisions. You can now add another controversy to the list. It isn't altogether clear, but the Pope appears to have encouraged a Lutheran woman to go forward to take the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. The issue arose as Pope Francis was addressing a group of Evangelical Lutherans in Rome. One woman asked: 
My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many women in our community, I am married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We have lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?
The Pope's off-the-cuff reply did not explicitly permit the woman to receive the Eucharist with her husband, but neither was it forbidden. Here's the most important part of what the Pope said (read the rest here):
To your question, I can only respond with a question: What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path? It is a problem that everyone has to answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?”—“Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.
Always refer back to baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and from there take the consequences.
I would never dare to give permission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. “One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
Four questions come to mind. 
  1. Does the Pope see substantial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies of the Eucharist? In my reading, the Pope's recollection (and affirmation?) of his pastor-friend's comments at best muddles the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the various Protestant understandings of what happens at the Lord's Table. Without getting into the particulars, it is remarkable that a Pope would make a remark that could be interpreted as disregarding the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies. To suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of interpretation and that the really important thing is that "the Lord is present" regardless of how you parse it out seems to me to strike at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and worship. Definitely not the sort of thing you would expect the Pope to say. 
  2. Would Francis permit this Lutheran woman to go forward and receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass? He certainly doesn't forbid it, which seems to me to imply permission. It's almost as if he's saying, "This one is above my pay grade. Who am I to bar one who has faith in Christ from the Lord's table?" Again, this is a stunning thing for a Pope to say.
  3. What are the implications for global Christian unity? For centuries, Catholic refusal to admit Protestants to the Lord's Table symbolized the division of the global Church. The Pope's answer seems to imply a radical change in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the view of this Protestant pastor, it is a welcome change. Christ prayed fervently for the unity of his Church. The Lord's Table is central to that unity. This move by Francis has potential to be highly significant as a step toward global Christian unity. 
  4. What exactly did he mean? As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has the responsibility to clarify his muddled comments. He should take the time to reflect and make a clear pastoral statement on the issue. Would he admit Protestants to the Eucharist? The lack of clarity is not helpful. He needs to say what he thinks about this matter. 


November 9, 2015

New @SoWhat_Podcast: Mary, the Creed, and the Virgin Birth

Be sure to take a listen to the latest edition of the So What? Podcast. We are continuing our movement through the Apostles' Creed, and this episode is devoted to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus. What's the point? What's at stake? Why does it matter? So what? Take a listen and let us know what you think. And be sure to follow, we've got a great interview with a special guest coming up soon.

October 20, 2015

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I'm excited to share with readers that I've recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles' Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God's only Son and our Lord. I'm grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I'm very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here's the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

October 15, 2015

Here's My New 7 Minute Seminary: Is Sin Essential? #UMC @OfficialSeedbed

Is sin essential to human experience? What if it's not? What if Jesus died so we could stop sinning? What if full human life is a fully holy life? What if becoming human means becoming holy?

October 13, 2015

Turn Up the Heat: #PlannedParenthood is on the Ropes (#DefundPP #ProtestPP)

The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Planned Parenthood has decided to stop "taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue." For those who need a translation of this "newspeak" into the language of everyday folk, they plan to stop selling baby parts. Here's the report: 
Planned Parenthood Federation of America said it is immediately stopping taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue for medical research, an attempt to tamp down controversy that has led to Republican investigations in Congress and efforts to end federal funding.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a letter Tuesday to the National Institutes of Health that the organization’s affiliates will no longer accept any reimbursements for costs associated with procuring tissue from abortions. Fetal tissue has been provided by affiliates in California and Washington state, and the Washington clinics haven’t been taking any money for it, she said. The Oregon affiliate has been providing placental tissue for reimbursement. Planned Parenthood didn’t disclose the amount it will forgo with its new policy.
What this means, of course, is that Planned Parenthood is on the ropes. The investigative videos released by The Center for Medical Progress have hit the nation's largest abortion provider. They've hit them hard. So hard that the abortion giant appears willing to give up a rather lucrative aspect of their business in order to survive. Planned Parenthood is doing this in an effort to satisfy critics and get the public and Congress off their backs. 

We must remember, however, that selling baby bodies is not Planned Parenthood's greatest sin. Their greatest sin is killing babies. Their unjust business model is a murderous one, and it involves the murder of the most vulnerable people in our society at that. The fact that they intend to stop taking money from selling the pieces of their victims does not mean that they are off the hook. They are still treacherous. We must continue to stand against their slaughter of the innocents

This is a good time to remember the principle of pursuit. In battle, when your opponent retreats, you don't give them time to regroup, replenish, and gather new strength. Instead, you give chase. Pursue. Go after them. Strike harder and with increasing intensity. Finish the job. Win the battle. Planned Parenthood is trying to put out the fire, which means it's time to turn up the heat. 

September 25, 2015

Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace: What's the Difference?

The question was put to me over lunch earlier this week and not for the first time. So I thought it worthwhile to post here a few reflections on the difference between the Reformed doctrine of common grace and the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.

What is Common Grace?

The easiest way to clarify the difference between common and prevenient grace is to consider them both in relation to salvation. Common grace does not lead to salvation; prevenient grace does. In Reformed theology, common grace is not saving grace and is not regarded as part of soteriology (i.e., theology of salvation) or the order of salvation. Instead, according to Berkhof, it was developed in response to questions like these:
How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles? How can we account for it that sinful man still "retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior"?...How can the unregenerate still speak truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives? (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.1.).
In short, how can sinful people who live in a fallen world do anything good or virtuous? The answer, from the perspective of Reformed theology, is common grace. Here's Berkhof again, common grace 
curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men" (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.4.)
So we might say that common grace is that which keeps the effects of sin in check to some degree and makes possible human culture and civilization.

It is essential, however, to understand  that in Reformed thinking common grace is distinct from special (or particular and saving) grace. Common grace does not save people from condemnation; special grace necessarily effects the salvation of the elect to whom it is given. Berkhof points to several further distinctions between common and special grace Common grace is given indiscriminately to all people; special grace is limited to the number of the elect. Common grace never removes the guilt incurred by sin; special grace always does. Common grace doesn't renew human nature; special grace changes the inner person. Common grace is resistible; special grace never is.

What is Prevenient Grace?

While common grace is not considered saving grace, prevenient grace may very well lead to salvation, though not necessarily so. In Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, prevenient grace is simply the work of God in a person's life that precedes conversion and prepares that person to freely receive the gospel. In Reformed thinking, common grace is not part of the order of salvation; in Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, it is. At the risk of oversimplifying the order of salvation, prevenient grace leads to justifying grace, which leads to sanctifying grace and then glorifying grace. I'll hasten to add that since we Arminians see grace as resistible, it follows that prevenient grace need not always lead to justification and final salvation. Prevenient grace is not effectual. It does not effect salvation as the Reformed understand special grace to effect salvation. Rather, prevenient grace prepares the human heart to believe the gospel and be saved, but prevenient grace can be resisted. To summarize, if you can look back and see the work of God drawing you to Christ prior to your conversion, that is prevenient grace. 

I should add that Wesley and Arminius had somewhat different views of the extent of prevenient grace. Wesley thought prevenient grace extended to all people in some degree in order to mitigate the effects of original sin. If I understand correctly, Arminius thought prevenient grace came specifically through the preaching of the gospel to free the hearts of those who hear to respond freely to the good news. Both saw prevenient grace as part of the order of salvation. Both understood it to be resistible. They differed on the scope and perhaps the means. 

One more point of clarification is necessary. Prevenient grace is not substantially different from justifying or sanctifying grace. They emphasize different points in the same journey of salvation by grace through faith. The terms have to do with process and chronology; they are not different sorts of grace. 

Two Different Graces?

I think people tend to confuse common grace and prevenient grace because both have the lost as their object. Otherwise, they have little else in common. They are fundamentally different concepts that address fundamentally different questions. Common grace answers the question of how fallen people can do anything that is not thoroughly wicked. Prevenient grace answers the question of how fallen people can be prepared to respond freely to the gospel. 

In the end, Reformed theology seems to posit two substantially different forms of grace - one effective to salvation and one not. The problem, as I see it, is that this divorces grace from the work of Christ, which Berkhof acknowledges with regard to common grace. To be fair, he rejects the suggestion that there are two substantially different forms of grace by arguing that common grace is not attribute of God while special grace is. But if this is the case, why create confusion by calling it grace? Arminian theology successfully provides a coherent understanding of God's grace: there is only one grace, and it leads to and finds its fulfillment in Jesus and union with him.

September 24, 2015

Here's My New 7 Minute Seminary: The Doctrine of Sin (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here's my latest contribution to the Seven Minute Seminary series at Seedbed.com. This one is on the Doctrine of Sin and touches on a variety of relevant issues. What is the difference between Original Sin and Total Depravity? Does Total Depravity mean we are as bad as we could be? What are the pastoral implications of the Doctrine of Sin? 



Check out my other Seven Minute Seminary contributions:

August 21, 2015

If We Do Not Repent (#PPSellsBabyParts)

Many of us thought it couldn't get worse than seeing a medical doctor swill her wine and crunch her croutons while speaking of "less crunchy" ways to dismember and murder a baby while still in utero. Then we saw video of Planned Parenthood employees digging through pie plates full of dead baby parts looking for the bits that would get the best price. Again, we believed it simply could not get worse. But we were wrong. Dead wrong. With the release of the seventh video exposing the barbarism of Planned Parenthood and its business partners, it got worse. Much worse. Now we know of the cruel violence done to a little boy with a beating heart outside the womb. They cut his face in half with a pair of scissors in order to harvest his brain and sell it for cold hard cash. His heart was beating. He had been born. He was alive. He was murdered. This cannot be denied. 

We know about this treachery because one of the guilty ones has come forward. In video #7, Holly O'Donnell, a licensed phlebotomist and former procurement tech for StemExpress, told us all the depraved and debased details. Make no mistake. She is no mere a witness or whistle blower telling us what she saw. As Doug Wilson observed, she is confessing her sins. She was a participant. She has blood on her hands. And yet she is seeking absolution. By confessing her sin to a global audience as part of the Planned Parenthood exposé, she is racing with all her might toward restitution. She wants to make it right. She wants to be clean. She wants it bad enough that she's willing to tell the world her greatest sin. The good news is that the blood of Jesus Christ is able to wash the blood of the unborn from her hands. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. 

My point here is simple: the confession and repentance of Holly O'Donnell stands as a model of the confession and repentance that we the people of the United States must humbly make. She is showing us what we as a nation have to do. We must confess our sin. We must acknowledge our guilt. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God. We must repent and turn from our wicked ways. We must do it, as a people, as a nation. And if we do not, we deserve every bit of judgment that God sees fit to pour upon us. To be sure, we already deserve it. But God, in his great mercy and love, is at this time giving us an opportunity to see the evil that our nation has legalized, funded, and executed. He is giving us an opportunity to repent and sin no more. What we do know is that even now the souls of more than 50,000,000 preborn slain surround the throne of the God and of the Lamb crying out, "How long, O Lord, until you avenge our blood?" What we do not know is how long they've been told to wait.  

July 27, 2015

Sales get negotiated. Reimbursements? Not so much. #PPSellsBabyParts

You've probably seen the second undercover video of a senior Planned Parenthood executive haggling over the price of aborted baby parts (if you haven't, scroll down). Word is there are more such videos yet to be made public. In the second video, Dr. Mary Gatter, President of Planned Parenthood's Medical Directors Council, is seen negotiating the price of pieces from aborted babies. During the conversation Gatter suggests $75 as an appropriate price for organs. The actor posing as a buyer responds that she would expect to pay $100. Not sure why this didn't tip Gatter off to something strange. How often does a buyer raise the asking price? Gatter must have been blinded by greed because she went for it and at the end of the conversation even suggested that, if $100 is too low, they could always bump it up. After all, as she said, "I want a Lamborghini." 

Here's the point. Planned Parenthood can say that this is about reimbursements all they want. But reimbursements happen when you get paid back for the actual and documented costs of whatever it is you are doing, which, of course, means that reimbursements are non-negotiable. If you want to be reimbursed, you present the receipts or vouchers that show your costs, then you get paid for those exact numbers. No bartering involved. What Dr. Gatter says in the video is different because it sounds like she is trying to find the market price for baby livers. She's haggling. And when haggling comes into the picture, it sounds a lot like a sale is being negotiated, which is why so many of us don't believe it when Cecile Richards tells us that Planned Parenthood is not profiting from the sale of organs from aborted babies. But who can blame them? Everyone knows a Lamborghini costs an arm and a leg.

July 22, 2015

An Open Letter to @UnitedWay #UnitedWayHelpsPP #PPSellsBabyParts

Planned Parenthood is on their heels in light of the recent videographic evidence that they are engaged in the illegal and ghoulish activities of selling baby parts. Douglas Wilson has pointed out the importance of keeping them on their heels and intensifying the pressure, and one way to do that is to call upon organizations that fund Planned Parenthood to defend Planned Parenthood's devilish actions. One of those organizations is United Way. The President and CEO of United Way is Brian A. Gallagher. The U.S. President is Stacey D. Stewart. And here are the members of the U.S. Board of Trustees. 
Dear Mr. Gallagher, Ms. Stewart, and United Way U.S.A Trustees,
I write this brief letter to express both appreciation and grave concern. I appreciate the positive impact that your work has had on communities in the United States and around the world. Unfortunately, I fear that your positive impact will be tarnished by your support of Planned Parenthood. It has come to my attention that United Way gives money to Planned Parenthood. As you are probably aware, allegations have arisen that Planned Parenthood is illegally engaged in receiving payment for the distribution and transportation of fetal organs and other body parts. Additionally, it is alleged that Planned Parenthood has illegally altered its abortion procedures in order to obtain intact organs from preborn babies and to distribute them for payment. 
My questions are simple: Does United Way endorse the distribution of baby parts by Planned Parenthood in exchange for cash? If so, how do you justify that position? If not, when will United Way cease giving funds to Planned Parenthood? 
Thank you for your attention to these all-important questions. 
Sincerely,
Matt O'Reilly
There are three things that readers can do: (1) Send this letter or one like it to United Way. You can copy and paste it straight to the contact form on the United Way website. (2) You can use this page to find your local United Way and send it to them. You can also Tweet it out using the hashtags #UnitedWayHelpsPP and #PPSellsBabyParts. United Way supports Planned Parenthood. They must defend or defund. You can make a difference.

July 20, 2015

Why is @StemExpress a Legal Company? #PPSellsBabyParts @EdStetzer

Before last week, I had never heard of a company called StemExpress. But with the revelation that Planned Parenthood sells the organs of aborted preborn babies, more of us know about this company that acquires parts from the victims of abortion, processes those parts in their lab, and then sells them on their website. Here's how they describe what they do:
StemExpress is a multi-million dollar company that supplies human blood, tissue products, primary cells and other clinical specimens to biomedical researchers around the world to fuel regenerative medicine and translational research. Founded in 2010, we offer the largest variety of raw material in the industry, as well as fresh, fixed and cryopreserved human primary cells.
Ed Stetzer helped spread the word about StemExpress by posting screen shots from the company website where they sell fetal liver cells. Stetzer also posted an image of the tiered payment schedule for people who work to obtain "specimens" for StemExpress. In other words, they pay bonuses to "procurement technicians" based on how many baby livers they can get their hands on. Then they chop those livers up in their labs and sell the cells, which is how they became a "multi-million dollar company." 

Here's the thing. In the United States, it is illegal to acquire or sell fetal tissue for profit. Take a look at the relevant section of the U.S. Code:
“for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce” 42 U.S.C. 282g-2(a).
So, here's my question. And let me emphasize that this is a legitimate question. If StemExpress transfers fetal cells for profit, why are they allowed to do business as a legal company in the United States? What's the loophole? Is it because the livers are "donated" and then processed in such a way that they are not considered "fetal tissue" before they are sold? Are the fetal cells from fetal tissue not themselves legally considered fetal tissue? If not, how many cells does it take to come up with something that can be considered tissue? And if company employees are paid wages and bonuses (i.e., "valuable consideration") for transferring the livers, heads, and hearts of aborted babies from Planned Parenthood to StemExpress, why are they not prosecuted under the law? I guess you can get paid "valuable consideration" to traffic preborn baby organs as long as you don't take "valuable consideration" in exchange for those same organs. Yep, that makes sense. Wait...what? 

Well that turned out to be more than one question. Funny how one thing leads to another. Seriously, though, someone help me.
_____
Image credit: Ed Stetzer


July 17, 2015

Animal Rights vs. Human Rights: An Unfortunate Juxtaposition #PPSellsBabyParts

I came across an article last night reporting on a letter from Brad Pitt to the CEO of Costco calling upon the company to stop selling eggs from caged hens. Pitt articulated his deep concern about the horror of keeping chickens in small cages for the duration of their lives, and he expressed his disappointment that Costco was a party to such cruelty to animals. I wouldn't have taken the time to write a post about such a letter had it not been reported only days after the videotaped release of a senior Planned Parenthood official callously discussing the way her company sells the body parts of aborted babies to companies like StemExpress. Consider these contrasts between excerpts from Pitt's letter and the sorts of things that happen in abortion:
"In these cruel cages, the animals' muscles and bones atrophy from years of immobilization" (Pitt)
In the cruel hands of the abortionists, the muscles and bones of preborn human beings are ripped from their bodies and crushed by the cold sharp teeth of the physician's forceps.
"As you know, these birds producing eggs for your shelves are crammed five or more into cages that are not large enough for even one hen to spread her wings" (Pitt).
As you know, these slaughtered children produce organs to sit on the shelves of companies which then sell them for "research." 
"In short, cramming hens into cages for their entire lives constitutes cruelty to animals, and animals deserve better" (Pitt).
In short, dismembering children so as to rob them of life constitutes cruelty to human beings, and these babies deserve better, much better.
"You've shown great courage and integrity on a range of issues. Won't you please extend that sensibility—and basic decency—to chickens?" (Pitt).
Won't you please extend that sensibility - and basic decency - to preborn human beings? Won't you?
Now don't think I'm advocating cruelty to animals. I've seen Food, Inc., and I eat eggs from humanely raised birds. However, when we expend more energy fighting for the rights of chickens than we do the preborn, then our priorities are very, very out of order. Our culture and our sensibilities are backwards. Our ethics are inverted. So, eat your cage free eggs, but be sure that you spend far more time fighting for the rights of the most vulnerable people in our society, the preborn. 

July 16, 2015

Does the Devil Blush? 5 Points on the #PlannedParenthood Video

You've probably seen the widely shared video of a Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Senior Medical Director at Planned Parenthood, nonchalantly discussing the way Planned Parenthood traffics the body parts of aborted preborn babies. If you haven't seen it, stop reading, scroll to the bottom of this post, and watch it. Then come back and finish reading. I've included both edited and full versions. In response, Planned Parenthood has defended themselves saying that (1) they are only being "reimbursed" for specimens donated for scientific research, and (2) the group that recorded Dr. Nucatola is really a dastardly and dishonest and you shouldn't believe them. Most people who see the video are horrified, as well they should be, as was I. So, here are five points characteristic of what's been rolling around my head since first seeing the video.
  1. It's worse than we thought. Let's begin with a reminder that selling preborn baby bodies is not the worst thing that Planned Parenthood does. The worst thing they do is kill preborn babies. That is their greater sin, and that is bad enough. This week we learned that it is not their only sin. They also turn around and exchange the organs and extremities of aborted babies for money, which means it's worse than we had previously known. So, let's be disgusted at what we've seen, but let's remember to keep perspective and not lose sight of the bigger issue. It's wrong to kill babies.
  2. You should be outraged, but not surprised. We should be horrified by the practice and the attitude of the power players at Planned Parenthood. What we should not be is surprised. These are the folks who make their living by ripping the arms and legs off the most vulnerable and defenseless people on the face of the planet. That their consciences are so seared as to be unbothered by the thought of selling the bits and pieces they've sliced, diced, hacked, and whacked is not much of a stretch. After all, they are in the business to make money, and they've found a way to make more of it. So, be angry. Be frustrated. Be horrified. Be furious. Be disgusted. But don't be surprised. Don't even begin to be surprised.
  3. Please pass the dressing. The cavalier attitude with which Dr. Nucatola discussed the harvesting and pricing of preborn baby bodies is stunningly reprehensible, not to mention alarmingly reproachable. What's that? How much is a head? That'll cost you $30. Lungs? Let's call it $50. If you want an intact heart, it'll run you a little more. Please pass the dressing. Oh, and how 'bout one more glass of Merlot. Callousness like that is enough to make the Devil blush, just before swelling with pride at the success of his merchants of death.
  4. Let's talk dollars. As indicated above, Planned Parenthood insists they are not making money off these preborn baby organs. They are simply being "reimbursed" for the shipping and handling costs incurred in the delivery of "tissue" donated for "research." My first thought upon reading their response was simply: how stupid do they think we are? Even if they post a loss or break even, they are still exchanging the pieces of infant corpses for cash. Make no mistake. They tinker with language in order to sanitize their sins, desensitize our consciences, and deflate our indignation. Don't fall prey to their Newspeak. Watch the video. They have "buyer(s)" whose demand they supply. There is a price range in which dollar amounts are set per "specimen". A menu is available. They are in the business of sales. 
  5. The idols of our age. I've long said that abortion is the child sacrifice demanded by the false gods of convenience and sex without consequence. This episode has allowed us to see that the pantheon is more crowded than we realized. There's another idol demanding not only allegiance but the lives of our children. This one has been around for a long time; that presence just became a little easier to perceive. What is its name? You can call it mammon. This new information is surprisingly beneficial, however, because if you want to tear down the high places, you need to know where they are. 

July 10, 2015

Seneca's Tough Love for Book Lovers

If you are like me, and take great joy in curating your personal library, then this excerpt from Seneca's Epistle 2 may be a little disappointing. The translation is from Gummere's volume in the Loeb Classical Library: 
The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man's ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere...And in reading of many books is a distraction.
Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you possess, it is enough to posses only as many books as you can read...So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.
This reminds me of a critique I heard some time ago of the way we assign reading in University courses. The argument was made that by requiring lengthy reading lists in our classes, we condemn our students to remembering very little of what they hurriedly skim through. Instead, it was suggested, we should assign fewer books of great importance and have our students read them deeply and repeatedly over the course of the semester. Sounds like Seneca would agree. As would I suspect Dr. Bancroft, who taught me Great Books and a great deal more, not least the importance of reading a book slowly and more than once.

Which two or three books do you go back to over and over? Which authors do you tend to read more than others? How might digital media forms relate to Seneca's warning against disorderly reading? Do feed readers epitomize "discursive and unsteady" reading? 
_____
Photo credit: Yahoo! image search

July 1, 2015

Read This Book: Awakening Wonder by @DrTurleyTalks (@ClassicalAcadPr)

"There is no argument against beauty." -Peter Kreeft

It has become increasingly clear to me in recent years that North American evangelical Christianity suffers from a lack of confidence in and appreciation for Beauty. We pursue and call for the Good and the True, yet our strategy has centered primarily on syllogistic rationalism. We're not all that apt at aesthetics. We love Truth, but we've forgotten that whatever is true is also beautiful, and we've forgotten that Beauty itself is deeply persuasive. There is no argument against beauty. 

Given my growing interest in the role of theological aesthetics in pedagogy and apologetics, I was very excited to see Stephen Turley's new book from Classical Academic Press (CA), Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (2015). I've been following the work of CAP for several years now and have found their resources invaluable. This book is no different. 

Turley's book introduces the reader to the role of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in shaping human life through a distinctly Christian education. The book opens in dialogue with C.S. Lewis to survey the way contemporary Western culture has redefined what it means to be human by removing objective value from our common life (chapter 1). This is followed by a look at the birth and development of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as objective values in the classical world, and Plato's role in that development receives focused attention. (chapter 2). Turley then traces the development of these values by the Christian Church in the Greek East (chapter 3) and the Latin West (chapter 4). All of that then serves as the foundation for his argument that the recovery of objective aesthetics by classical Christian educators provides the necessary tools to redeem the senses (chapter 5), sanctify the imagination (chapter 6), and reform education (chapter 7) in order to provide an environment in which our children grow up to embody the objective values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The strength of the book is the author's ability to synthesize and communicate a significant amount of material across a variety of disciplines and apply it to the contemporary classical Christian education project. The coherence of the argument embodies the values it promotes.

The God who raised Jesus from the dead is perfectly beautiful, and his beauty beckons us. Turley has provided a framework for developing our ability to perceive the divine beauty which calls us with joy to himself. The result is the recovery of that which we have neglected in the modern period, and the rediscovery of full human life that faithfully incarnates the sacred vocation to shine forth the beauty of the glory of the triune God in whose image we are made. Take and read. 

May 19, 2015

In biblical theology, human life is embodied life.

No gnostic anthropology around here. A thoughtful reminder from Robert Gundry that full humanness requires embodiment:
The separation of spirit from body affects the spirit as well as the body. In the Biblical perspective, the physical body is just as essential to life which is life indeed as is the spirit. Barring the effects of sin (which touch the spirit, too), the body as such does not shackle the spirit. It provides the spirit with an organ of expression and action, just as the spirit provides the body with animation and direction. By total separation, then, body and spirit die together. The whole man dies. 
The Biblical touchstone for truly human life is not consciousness of the spirit, let alone the material being of a physical object such as the body. Rather, man is fully himself in the unity of his body and spirit in order that the body may be animated and the spirit may express itself in obedience to God. Both parts of the human constitution share in the dignity of the divine image. That dignity lies in man's service to God as a representative caretaker over the material creation. For such a task, man needs a physical medium of action. Neither spirit nor body gains precedence over the other. Each gains in unity with the other. Each loses separation from the other.
From Robert H. Gundry, Sōma in Biblical Theology: With Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology, (SNTSMS 29, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1976), 159-160. 

April 9, 2015

Easter Means Mission

Our celebrations of Christ's resurrection at Easter tend to be narrowly focused. The focus, all too often, drills down onto the individualistic issue that the resurrection makes personal salvation possible. Christ has been raised so that you can go to heaven. Now don't get me wrong. I happily affirm that the salvation of each person depends on the historical bodily resurrection of Christ: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor 15:17). The problem comes when we fail to consider how the implications of the resurrection extend beyond individual salvation. And in doing so we don't have to worry about overlooking or neglecting the personal saving power of the resurrection. To the contrary, we establish it. 

So, what is the resurrection about? If we turn to the Gospel of John, we soon discover that the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the Church's vocation in the world. Easter means mission. Consider the words of Jesus to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). The first thing Jesus does is set before his closest followers the task he intends them to fulfill. He is sending them out into the world with a mission, a mission that flows out of and is similar to the one for which Jesus himself was sent into the world. And what is this mission? John has at least two things in mind: reconciliation and new creation.

Mission as Reconciliation

Twice during this first post-resurrection meeting, Jesus tells the disciples, "Peace be with you" (20:19, 21). His mission to them is a mission of reconciliation. And rightly so, for all human beings come into the world estranged from God. To draw on John's own language, "No one has ever seen God" (1:18). God is light. We stand in darkness. Jesus comes to make peace between God and us so that we can become the children of God, so that we can experience the pure and unqualified joy of seeing God's glory. 

And he does this reconciling work in his own body. This is why the incarnation is so important. This is central to the significance of the Word made flesh. Because he is fully God and fully human, he brings the two disparate parties together in his body. God and humanity are reconciled in the very body of Jesus that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Without the incarnation and bodily resurrection, there is no reconciliation between God and humanity. This is what the Father sent Jesus to do, and Jesus says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." If the Father sent the Son to work peace between God and the human race, then Christ sends his Church to be agents of that peace making mission to the rest of the world. 

Mission as New Creation

But the mission goes much deeper than any initial reconciliation between God and humanity. John also gives us a few clues to help us understand that our mission is to cultivate the new creation that God is working through Christ and the Spirit. We know John likes Genesis. No first-century Jewish writer starts out a book with the words, "In the beginning," and does it on accident. He is intentionally drawing on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 to inform our reading of the Gospel. And if Genesis 1 is telling the story of creation out of nothing, then John 1 is telling the story of new creation out of the old. John 20 offers a couple more clues that Jesus has been sent to work new creation. Ever notice that John is telling us about the most important day in the history of the world and never says a word about anything that happens while the sun is up? The story starts in the dark of early morning only to jump forward to the dark of evening. Morning, evening; evening, morning. That John is drawing on Genesis 1 ought to be clear. If it isn't, John repeatedly reminds his readers that this is the first day of the week. If Genesis 1 tells story of cosmic creation structured by seven days of evenings and mornings, John 20 sets up the story of the resurrection as the work of God on the first morning and evening of the new creation. And as the Spirit hovered in the darkness over the face of the primordial waters, so now the Spirit is at work in the darkness of that first Easter morn raising the dead as the first act of God's new creation. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." If Jesus has been sent by the Father to inaugurate the new creation, the Church has been sent by Jesus to cultivate it. 

The Whole Easter Package

If our job, then, is to be agents of reconciliation between God and the world and to cultivate the new creation everywhere we go, then personal salvation is obviously included in that along with much, much more. And our vision of salvation is enlarged way beyond the old "go to heaven when you die" sort of "fire insurance" that has so often characterized American Christianity. The mission is to facilitate peace between God and the nations. That peace is part and parcel to personal salvation, but it is neither a salvation of mere forgiveness nor is it a salvation of escape. Rather, it is salvation in which we are made new creatures for life in the new creation. It is incarnational. It is transformational. It's the whole package. Easter is mission.

April 1, 2015

Here's My New Seven Minute Seminary: Resurrection and the Christian Afterlife (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here's the latest installment of Seedbed's Seven Minute Seminary series in which I discuss several questions related to life after death, bodily resurrection, and the pastoral significance of the Christian hope. Watch to the end to discover why this doctrine is so very near and dear to my heart. Be sure also to check out this great little discussion guide that the Seedbed team has put together to accompany the video for use in a small group setting.


Check out my other contributions to the Seven Minute Seminary project:

March 18, 2015

Here's My New Seven Minute Seminary: Why Justification by Faith Matters (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here's my latest contribution to the Seven Minute Seminary project at Seedbed.com. This one is on the pastoral importance of the doctrine of justification by faith. The video starts with the meaning of justification language in scripture before turning to a couple of ways that justification by faith is good news for people who struggle with experiences of inadequacy, shame, guilt, condemnation, and brokenness - sexual brokenness not least. Check it out below. And you may want to look at the small group discussion guide that Seedbed has produced to accompany the video.



Check out my other Seven Minute Seminary on why the doctrine of the Trinity matters.

March 10, 2015

Thinking through Paul by Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still (@Zondervan)

If you are looking for a top notch introduction to the life and letters of Paul, you'll want to take a look at Thinking through Paul by Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still. Paul's impact on the world is hard to overstate. The goal of this volume is to dig into what drove Paul to do what he did and write what he wrote. This well-written and attractive textbook moves beyond a superficial reading of Paul in order to engage the apostle's thought in an exciting and transformative way.

What's in it?

Let's start with the overall structure of the book. It is organized into three major sections. The first section contains a single chapter that introduces the reader to Paul's life and ministry. The chapter covers Paul's life before Christ, his encounter with Christ, and his ministry.

The second major section is the longest and is devoted to the letters themselves. A single chapter is devoted to 1 and 2 Thessalonians. The "chief letters" all get a chapter to themselves: Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. Then comes the prison letters: Philippians, a single chapter on Philemon and Colossians, followed by Ephesians. The section concludes with a single chapter devoted to the pastoral letters: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. Each chapter in this section explains key historical matters that impact interpretation of the letter and introduces its basic content and thought flow. Each chapter concludes with questions for discussion and review, a few other questions to stimulate theological reflection, and suggestions for further reading.

The third major section devotes three chapters to theological issues in Paul's thought. These chapters represent the synthetic component of the book which give the reader a better sense of the patterns and concepts that run through all of Paul's thinking. In my view this section is one of the major highlights of the book. Readers get chapters on "The Apocalyptic Narrative of Paul's Theological Discourse" (chapter 11), "Paul's Theological Narrative and Other Macro-Narratives of His Day" (chapter 12), and "Paul's Theological Narrative and the Micro-Narratives of Jesus Groups" (chapter 14).

Each chapter has a number of inset pictures and text boxes with relevant artwork, pictures of archaeological discoveries, maps, and further information on key concepts related to the text and the background, 

Who is it for?

Thinking through Paul will be well-suited for college students and introductory classes at the graduate level. Interested and motivated lay persons should find the text accessible. Pastors and church teachers will find it helpful for getting acquainted with points relevant to preaching and teaching in a local church. It contains a few footnotes, but they certainly don't dominate the text. All of this is appropriate for a textbook. Advanced students and scholars will, of course, be interested in a variety of issues that do not (and should not) come up in this book. 

All in all, I'm really quite excited about this book. There are a lot of books on Paul out there, but few pull the pieces together in an interesting and accessible manner like this book does. 

*Thanks to the team at Zondervan for a complimentary review copy. 

March 4, 2015

Announcement: Center for Pastor Theologians Third Fellowship (@CenPasTheo)

I'm excited about the opportunity to be a part of the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) Third Fellowship. What is the Center for Pastor Theologians? Here's an excerpt from the website: 
Our Identity
The CPT is an organization dedicated to assisting pastor-theologians in the study and written production of biblical and theological scholarship for the ecclesial renewal of theology and the theological renewal of the church.
Our Mission
Operating within the historic evangelical tradition, the CPT believes the contemporary bifurcation between the pastoral calling and theological formation has resulted in the loss of a distinctly ecclesial voice in orthodox theology. The CPT seeks to resurrect this voice. In an age that has rightly emphasized the relationship between social location and theological formation, our vision is to bring together a unique kind of pastor-theologian—not simply those particular pastors who desire to pursue a theologically informed parish ministry, but even more, pastors who feel called to function as writing theologians to the broader ecclesial community.
I'm looking forward to fruitful participation with other pastor-theologians. Be sure to click over and learn more about the CPT.  

February 25, 2015

Objectivity Redivivus? Holloway vs. N.T. Wright

If you live in the world of biblioblogs, you've heard about Paul Holloway's criticism of N.T. Wright and (Holloway's own) Sewanee, the University of the South, for giving Wright an honorary doctorate for his work in New Testament studies. Holloway's attack was met with surprise by many and hurrahs by others. In light of the many criticisms of his criticism, Holloway has attempted to further justify his insistence that Wright is a mere apologist and not a scholar. One of his claims struck me as particularly interesting: 
What I dared to say in my letter is that properly speaking Wright is not a “scholar” who comes to the evidence with honest questions to be puzzled out and whose conclusions are always subject to revision, but an “apologist” who comes with ideologically generated answers that he then seeks to defend.
Two points and a question are worth raising:
  1. If ideological motivation an apologist makes, then everyone is an apologist. I thought we had all learned this grand lesson of post-modernity. Neutrality is a myth. There's no such thing as objectivity. Everyone comes to the data with presuppositions, ideologies, perspectives, prejudices, and their own matrix of subjective experiences that drive the questions they ask and the answers at which they arrive. Does ideology somehow preclude honest questions? Is not the distrust implied in the historical critic's maxim to "doubt everything" not also ideologically driven? And if ideology has no place in scholarship, then why are so many sections at SBL focused on narrow ideological topics? That Holloway frames his criticism of Wright in terms of the contrast between honest (and supposedly objective) questions in contrast to Wright's ideologically driven research reveals Holloway's own attempt to resurrect modernistic ideological presuppositions. The trick is not somehow to achieve objectivity; the trick is to be clear on one's biases. And Holloway's attempt to justify his critique suggests he may not be altogether clear on his ideological motivations.
  2. Holloway criticizes Wright for holding to a sola scriptura presupposition. Very well. But it's not as if Wright has gone around defending the traditional Protestant readings of the New Testament. He's been roundly criticized by traditional Reformed folks for his work precisely because it shook up standard Protestant interpretation. They don't call it the New Perspective on Paul for nothing. 
  3. And the question: Why must one choose between scholarship and apologetics? Shouldn't we hope our apologists have done their research and submitted their findings to the wider world of New Testament scholarship as Wright has done? Perhaps Wright hasn't published in as many of the journals Holloway would have liked, but this does not mean that his work has not been evaluated by the scholarly community. In fact, entire journal issues have been devoted to evaluating Wright's work. Much of his work has been accepted while portions of it have been criticized more heavily. It seems to me that this is precisely how scholarship is supposed to work.
What do you think? Is defense of the faith mutually exclusive with scholarship?

February 19, 2015

Don't Just Give Up, Take Up: A Lenten Reflection #UMC

A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2015 at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama.

The invitation to observe a holy Lent is an invitation to sacrifice and self-denial. It is an invitation to give something up. This has been the common practice of Christians around the world century after century. Many of us have in recent days asked the question: What will I give up for Lent this year? And many have selected something and resolved to fast from it, to do without it for these forty days. For some it may be a particular sort of food or drink. For others it may have to do with the way they use their time. But whatever it is, the common theme is sacrifice. We give it up. As we enter this Lenten season, however, I want to suggest that giving something up is not enough. We must take something up as well. To put it succinctly: Don’t just give up, take up. 

The Means and the End

Here’s what I mean. When we give something up for Lent, we are committing ourselves to the spiritual discipline of fasting. But the purpose of fasting is not simply the act of giving up. The purpose of giving one thing up is to make room for something else. So, we might choose to fast from a meal in order to use that time for extra prayer. We might give up some luxury in order to give more resources to missions or to ministry with the poor perhaps. In each case, we deny ourselves in one way in order to grow in another way. The discipline of giving something up is a means that leads to a different end. We give up so that we can take up.

The Danger of Lent

But therein lies the danger. All too often we perilously allow the means to become the end. We give up chocolate or soft drinks or something and focus so much on the giving up that we neglect to take up. We neglect to devote our energy and resources and attention to growing in grace and faith and holiness. When that happens we have allowed the means to become the end, and we miss the point, and we miss the benefit of the Lenten sacrifice. Don’t just give up, take up. 

What do we take up?

This, of course, invites the question: what should we take up? We should not be surprised that one answer to our question can be found in the liturgy. The law of prayer is the law of faith, after all. When we receive the ashes on our forehead, we hear the minister call upon us to “repent and believe the gospel.” What do we take up during Lent? We first take up repentance. Whatever you elect to fast from during these forty days, take time to allow the Spirit of God to convict you of indwelling sin, and repent. Turn from it. Forsake it. Give it up! Sacrifice whatever you want during this season, but be sure, whatever you do, take up repentance. 

And take up faith. Not only are we exhorted to repent, the liturgy instructs us to believe the gospel. How well we would do to take the extra time we have from giving something up and use that time to meditate on and give thanks to God for the beauty of the gospel, the good news that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, that he was raised for us, that he lives and intercedes for us, and works within us by his Holy Spirit to make us new, and to make us holy. 

And take up holiness. By all means, take up holiness. Allow this season of giving up and clearing out to function as a means to the end of making room for holiness in your life. Let me be clear. I do not mean some sort of legalistic checking off of items on a list. I mean being set apart for what Christ wants to do in you and through you. I mean having a heart overflowing with love for God and for neighbor. Allow God to do what he wants to do, namely to fill you with his Spirit so that you consistently embody his character, with all its extravagance, with all its magnificence, with all its beauty, with all its joy. 

Finally, take up the cross. If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about that. We receive on our bodies a smudge of ash in the shape of the cross as a declaration that we are followers of the crucified Christ, the one who denied himself and took up his cross. And he calls to us and says, “If any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So don’t just give up, take up. And remember, as you take upon your body the sign of the cross, that all of life is to be lived in the shape of that cross. In this way, Ash Wednesday informs the whole year and our whole lives. This is what it means to be people of the cross. It is to carry the cross on our bodies as a continual declaration that we are a people set apart for Christ and his kingdom. 

So, during this Lenten season, give something up. But don’t just give something up. Take something up. Take up repentance. Take up faith. Take up holy love. And take up the cross. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

February 9, 2015

5 Benefits of Baptism according to John Wesley #UMC

What happens when someone is baptized? The question is important not only because baptism is the ritual that marks entrance into the Christian Church, but also because because different strands of the larger Christian tradition have come to different conclusions with regard to the meaning of baptism. Is it primarily a sign of faith? Is it an instrument of God's grace to us? Should it be given to adult believers only? Or are the children of believers proper candidates for baptism? Well, we won't answer all these questions today, but since a couple of recent posts (here and here) have dealt with John Wesley's "Treatise on Baptism," I thought I'd keep the topic going and share Wesley's account of the benefits of baptism. One question you may want to ask along the way is this: Who, for Wesley, is the primary actor in baptism? God? Or the baptized? 

1. Guilt Cleared

For Wesley, baptism clears the guilt of original sin, a doctrine Wesley believed wholeheartedly and which asserts that every person comes into the world in a state of brokenness and guilt. No one starts off in a right relationship with God. Baptism deals with that handicap and paves the way for further workings of grace. Wesley points to scripture, the baptismal liturgy, and the ancient fathers to make his case.

2. New Covenant Status

Baptism brings us into covenant with God. Whether infant or adult, baptism marks a person's
entrance into the the new covenant. It is God's everlasting commitment, Wesley says, "to be their God, as he promised to Abraham, in the evangelical covenant which he made with him and all his spiritual offspring" (II.2.). Wesley here sees baptism as analogous to circumcision in that it is a covenant sign, but also surpassing circumcision as the sign of the realized new covenant.

3. Church Entrance

Baptism also marks a person's entrance into the Church. For Wesley, the sacrament incorporates a person into the body of Christ, who is the head of the Church. He points here to Galatians 3:27, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ." This is one of the key ways that Wesley understands baptism as a means of grace. Grace is nothing more or less than Jesus. To be baptized is to be connected to the Church, which is to be connected to Christ, which is to be worked on by his grace as we participate in its privileges and the promises Christ has made to it. 

4. Made a Child of God

Now this one will make evangelical types squirm a little (or a lot!). I should know. It does me, at least a little. But Wesley believed that "By baptism, we who were 'by nature children of wrath' are made children of God" (II.4). Wesley was apparently quite comfortable using the language of baptism alongside the language of regeneration: "By water then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again" (II.2). He was comfortable with this because he found it in the Bible. Check out Titus 3:5, to which Wesley appeals along with John 3:5. He was, after all, homo unius libri. Now if you believe that salvation, once given, cannot be lost, this is going to feel a lot like some sort of legalistic works righteousness, where you do something to gain God's favor. Remember, though, that Wesley didn't have a "once saved, always saved" theology. Grace must always be responded to with faith; otherwise salvation can be lost. Note the conditional statement he makes later in the treatise, "Baptism doth now save us, if we live answerable thereto; if we repent, believe, and obey the gospel" (II.4., emphasis added). To put it differently, the means of grace are only effective for salvation when received through faith in Christ. So, his theology of baptismal regeneration does not mean that a person will necessarily be fully and finally saved. It simply means that God is working in them by grace to renew them in a substantial way that must be received by faith, lest they fall away and lose this benefit of their baptism.

5. Heirs of the Kingdom

If baptism makes us children of God, then it also makes us heirs of the kingdom of God. Wesley turns to Romans 8:17 to make this point: "if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." But again, don't make the mistake of thinking Wesley believed that inheritance could not be forfeited. 

Well, there you go. Baptism according Wesley. Grounded in scripture. Shaped by worship. Striving to hold fast the ancient faith. What do you think? Does Wesley's attitude toward baptism make you feel uncomfortable? Has he missed the mark? Or does it shed light on a mysterious means of God's good grace?  

February 5, 2015

New Name for this Blog: Incarnatio is now Orthodoxy for Everyone


I've been toying with the idea of changing the title of this blog for a long while now and have finally decided to go for it. So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Orthodoxy for Everyone. The new title reflects a double desire that has been growing in me for years to be aligned as fully as possible with the historic Christian faith and to make that faith intelligible, available, and credible to as many as possible. Or to put it more briefly: orthodoxy for everyone. I will, of course, still write with a Wesleyan accent. I wouldn't know how to stop. But that shouldn't be a problem because, as far as I can tell, Wesley simply wanted to be an orthodox Christian. Even his distinct emphasis on holiness should be seen as a recovery of the ancient faith not innovation. I'll try to make the transition as painless as possible. The only thing that readers will need to update is the feed address, which is now: http://feeds.feedburner.com/mattoreilly. So, be sure to update your reader. Thanks for being a part of the conversation. Now on to the next chapter. 

February 2, 2015

United Methodists deserve more from Mefford, GBCS (@umreporter, #UMC)

You may have heard about a United Methodist leader mocking participants in the recent March for Life. Bill Mefford, who is the Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society, tweeted a picture of himself in front of marchers holding a sign that read, "I march for sandwiches." An article at First Things picked up the story and got a fair bit of circulation on social media, and the picture showed up on a variety of other websites that were highly critical of Mefford's unwise photo. A friend and fellow clergy person suggested that I write a piece for the United Methodist Reporter in response, which I did. I'm grateful to the UMR team for publishing the article. You can read the whole thing at their site. Here's an excerpt:
Given the negative attitude of Mefford and the GBCS toward the lives of the preborn, many might be surprised to learn the United Methodist Social Principles affirm, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life” (2012 Book of Discipline, 161J). And while our Social Principles could certainly take a stronger stand for justice for preborn girls and boys, our Church is committed to reducing the number of abortions and opposes late term abortions. We also oppose the use of abortion as a means of birth control, which is by far the most common reason given by women for choosing abortion according to a Guttmacher Institute poll. According to the Book of Discipline, the GBCS is responsible for implementing the Church’s Social Principles, but there is no evidence whatsoever that it has worked to advance the United Methodist belief in the sanctity of unborn human life. In fact, Mefford’s mockery of pro-life marchers is symptomatic of the larger GBCS opposition to preborn human life. United Methodists deserve more.