Friday, December 4, 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Future of Jesus, Part 5

The Future of Jesus 5: So if Jesus Rules Why Isn’t Life Better?

--by Mark Horne

One of the reason people are susceptible to wrong ideas about Jesus and the future, is that human nature is prone to think about how things could be better rather than realizing they could be much worse. But the history of pessimistic eschatology should itself show us how the idea that life has gotten worse is a delusion. Even before Hal Lindsey, there were masses of Christians, century by century and sometimes decade by decade who knew that human history was stuck and had reached its final moments. Everyone has “known” over and over again that Jesus was about to return because the state of the world was at such a low point and could never get better.

If you think our age is especially worse, you are participating in an ancient tradition. And you are right, in a sense. Since the troubles of this age are your troubles and are much worse than the times so far distant. In fact, all the general troubles that beset previous generations now have a romantic haze about them because you know that generation triumphed and moved on.

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Ecclesiastes 7.10).

Of course, maybe we would see Jesus gracious and righteous reign if we realized that every generation has been right. They should have been the end; progress should have stopped, the world should have slipped away into self-destruction. Maybe Jesus rescued us over and over. Maybe he’s like Buffy and has saved the world a lot. Still does.

Because the fact is, however bad things are now, they are not worse than when Jesus stood on the mountain, having risen from the dead but having nothing obvious to show for it, and told a few people that he was king and they were to go conquer the nations (re-read the Great Commission some time). If you think about it, they were the ones who had every reason to question Jesus’ rule. Sure, they witnessed the resurrection. They also all got persecuted, imprisoned, and killed. The paradox of “ambassador in chains” simply does not register with us because we are so accustomed to the contradiction in the New Testament, but they had not become numb to it.

I think there is also an assumption that, if Jesus is now conquering all his enemies until the resurrection, we should expect to see history be a straight upward slope: better and better. But if Jesus is now ruling in that way, he may feel compelled to actually enforce a downward curve from time to time. Consider this from Second Chronicles 15:

The Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded, and he went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law, but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them. In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces. Nation was crushed by nation and city by city, for God troubled them with every sort of distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.”

Asa responds to this message by getting rid of public idols and restoring worship (along with many other things, I’m sure). But the point here is that when the Church does not teach everything Christ has commanded we should expect him to withdraw peace and prosperity from the world. This does not disprove that he reigns and has a plan for future victory; it proves that he does.

The Future of Jesus, Part 4

The Future of Jesus, 4: Will He Make a Difference in the World?

--by Mark Horne

The Great Commission tells Christians to persuade people to become disciples of Jesus and train them to obey everything that Jesus commands because he has won all authority in Heaven and on Earth. Yet somehow we are supposed to believe that God wants some kind of minority of Christians throughout world history and is content to allow the majority of the Human race to manage its own affairs independently. This brings out a weirdly paradoxical attitude in which “the world” is looked down upon as sinful and yet is also seen as having the ability to live without God or his son.

Would this view make any sense in Athens that served under a Roman Emperor who claimed to be divine and in which the city civic ceremonies were to other gods? Paul preached,

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

No one could have possibly heard in this a call for people to have a new private religious experience. Paul was talking to the residents of a city named after one of those imaginary divinities. He was calling Athens to become Christopolis.

So we see the same in Ephesus where, though the city is not named for Artemis, she is still the civic deity:

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

The consistent portrayal in Acts is that the Apostles are constantly in danger of a) being accused of treason for “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” and for disrupting the economy. One of those disruptions involved a slave girl who was demon possessed. While in the gospels this would be an “unclean spirit,” Luke uses a different description: she has a “spirit of divination,” or literally, a spirit of Pythia. This is a reference to the spiritualist center of the Classical Roman world. “Pythian” means “Of or relating to Delphi, the temple of Apollo at Delphi, or its oracle.“ Clearly, the way the healing power of the Gospel disrupted an economy of slavery and demonic possession is meant to be understood as the threat that Christianity represented to the entire Classical world.

It is worth noting that Paul not only preached against the idols in Athens, but preached in the synagogues because of the idols in Athens:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned [1] in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and [2] in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

Taking this sentence at face value, Paul saw the predominance of idolatry in the public square and in private to be a sign that something was lacking in the synagogue.

What seems to have happened is that there has been incomplete but widespread discipleship of the nations. Now that we have fallen into an era of unbelief, no one wants to credit Jesus with the things that work about the world. So we have been encouraged to believe that such culture is “natural” and “neutral” and properly belongs to an alleged “secular” space.

But this isn’t a rational perspective on the way the world really is. Jesus has made the difference and Jesus will do even more in the future. Jesus expects disciples to recruit other disciples personally, and to live as disciples in every aspect of life. The great abuses and misunderstandings that can result can never justify disregarding Jesus’ orders to those who claim to follow him.

If there was ever a time when God allowed human societies to exist apart from loyalty to him, that time is over. God now expects everyone to acknowledge the Lordship of His Son and to obey Him.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Future of Jesus, Part 3

The Future of Jesus, 3: Are there earthly blessings to be expected in the future?

--- by Mark Horne

To recap, I’ve argued that a straightforward reading of the Bible shows us that Jesus wants, expects, and promises the world will be converted to Christ. I’ve also argued that a passage about one generation’s failure to embrace the Gospel is getting mistakenly transferred to our future (in my opinion this is a representative example of a mistake made in many passages; that will require more arguments in the future).

In this post, I argue that there are promises about the future that cannot refer to reality after the Resurrection of the righteous, but have to be fulfilled in our own era. Consider, for example, this passage from Isaiah 65:

For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.

People can argue about what in this passage is meant to be taken “literally” and what is not. But it does refer to blessings of some kind. And those blessing cannot be relegated to either a purely “spiritual” state, nor to life after the “Second Coming.”

Why not? This prophecy could have been delivered without any mention of death at all. If these were either blessings describing a “spiritual” reality in Christ or a post-Judgment-Day reality after the general resurrection, then death should not be part of the description at all.

But death is there in the promise that dying at the age of a hundred will be considered dying young. Immortality is not promised, merely increased longevity.

Why? There was no need to bring it up if it wasn’t intended to inform us that there will still be death, just not in the worse form that people have experienced before (or now?).

If we take Genesis 3 seriously, then not only is death a result of the Fall, but so are various aspects of the world that we take for granted: painful labor both in a man’s work and in a mother’s giving birth, for example. And we can extrapolate also disease and all the other bad things that cause unnecessary suffering and scarcity.

As I pointed out, Paul refers to our future resurrection as being the defeat of the last enemy (First Corinthians 15.26). For that reason alone, we should expect God to deliver us from plagues and famines before that time. We should expect that, as the Great Commission is fulfilled, that life expectancies will increase. This prophecy in Isaiah 65 fits well with that expectation.

By the way, how does one “spiritualize” salvation without “spiritualizing” Genesis 3? It seems to me that amillennialism demands afallism too. (No Christian believes that, of course, but I’m just saying it should give us pause.)

I don’t know that everything in Isaiah 65 is intended literally. And even if the promise about animals not eating each other is literal, I’m not sure that represents a return to Eden or a transformation that is even greater than the original state of creation. But what I do know is that the prophecy will be fulfilled when the whole world is converted. A promise made, among other places, in Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

In fact, Habbakuk prophesies that the wicked will not last, not by predicting the coming of Judgment Day, but rather predicting that the rise of worldwide godliness will bring about the destruction of those who attempt to build their kingdoms upon murder. In Chapter 2, which contains the same passage that the Apostle Paul uses to prove justification by faith alone, Habbakuk writes:

Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity!
Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts
that peoples labor merely for fire,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

There is our hope: Not only the return of Jesus, but the victory of His Spirit and His Gospel giving the whole world true knowledge of him and of his Word, bringing about the end of wickedness and an end to the weariness of frustrated labor.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Future of Jesus Part 2

Few to be saved throughout (future) human history? --by Mark Horne

Someone asked why more people don’t see the plain and straightforward claims of the Bible about the future. I doubt I have much more to add to what I have already presented. As far as I can tell it is rarely even admitted that these passages exist. Instead, other passages are used to claim a different teaching.

The rest of my posts on this subject will probably be devoted to removing such obstructions. (In this case, I’m mostly re-using a post from October 16, 2006).

One such passage comes from Luke 13 and is used to support the proposition that only a few will be saved in human history. This is what the text says:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13.22-29)

This is what the text does not say:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And a really small number of people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”

Jesus doesn’t say only a few will be saved; he says only a few of his countrymen will be saved. And even here he is only referring to his own generation. He is talking about those who owned the streets on which he preached.

So there is nothing in this passage to make us pessimistic about the future or impute to God a stingy plan for the human race as a whole. In fact, Jesus rhetoric of all those gathering from all compass points indicates the very opposite: that most people will be eventually brought into salvation.

That doesn’t mean I think Luke 13.29 is some sort of absolute proof for “postmillennialism.” No, as I have already written, I give that honor to Isaiah 49.1-7:

Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” [1]
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

It is too small a thing to God for him to show mercy on and bring salvation to a minority of humanity.

So there is no excuse for us to be stingy about the Great Commission.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Future of Jesus

This is the first of a series on eschatology

The Future of Jesus, 1
--- by Mark Horne

What does Jesus expect to happen in world history? We know what he told his disciples to make happen:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28.18-20).

This is quite clear. The disciples are to bring all national/ethnic groups (ethnoi) into submission to Jesus by teaching them everything Jesus commands so that they observe it. This involves not just teaching a moral code, but initiation into a new society through baptism.

With these marching orders come two assurances: First, that Jesus has gained cosmic authority and, second, that he will be with his disciples as they carry out his commands.

The claim to have now gained all authority was and is immediately recognizable as an appeal to a prophecy in Daniel’s visions:

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

Daniel is immediately told what his vision of “one like a son of man” being enthroned, means. It means that “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Jesus is claiming that the prophecy has now come true. It is made all the more specific in that the next thing the twelve disciples witness is Jesus ascending into heaven in a cloud.

This kingdom is not intended to stay hidden in heaven with Jesus, nor is it a grand name for a few scattered disciples. This is plain from Jesus’ own orders. It is also clear in Daniel where the prophecy of Daniel 7 is a complement to prophesies given in Daniel 2 in which Nebuchadnezzar sees a vision,

As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

The rock, Daniel explains, is the Kingdom of God. Both in Daniel 7 and in Daniel 2 a timeline is given in which there are four empires until God intervenes. The four empires are the Babylonian, the Medo-Persian, the Macedonian, and the Roman. Jesus came under the Caesars and he was exalted over them. He told his disciples to preach a new king.

The Apostle Paul later refers to the Great Commission of Matthew 28, saying that it is his calling as an Apostle to bring about “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1.5; 16.26). He spells out the future course of world history in 1 Corinthians 15, writing:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”

Here in addition to the prophecies of Daniel, we should also mention Psalm 110, the most quoted passage in the “New Testament”:

The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This is related to Psalm 2:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Paul preached that the LORD’s begetting a son was a prophecy of the resurrection:

And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”

Paul uses this Psalm and its relation to the resurrection to begin his letter to the Romans, showing Jesus to have been born again by the Spirit to be King of all:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,…

There is a parallelism here, as many scholars have noticed, between Jesus’ first birth from the line of David and his second by the resurrection of the dead. Thus Jesus royal stature involves the title “Firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1.18; Revelation 1.5). Jesus is now a new king and he is taking possession of what he has won by his death and resurrection. That is the story of world history from his ascension until the resurrection when “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Of course, Jesus didn’t win this kingdom for his own sake, nor does he call us to work towards its realization for his own sake. Jesus wants to save the world. That was the whole point of Israel, going back to the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And God makes it clear that he hates the idea of only ultimately saving a small remnant out of the world:

Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”

And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

So amid all the power grabs of world leaders, God’s objective in Jesus is the release of the human race from slavery—not just slavery from death but slavery from every other tyrant as well.

That is the future Jesus wants, expects, and orders us to promote.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


We remember the sacrifices of all of you
who have put on the uniform to serve
in the United States military.

We honor you, our veterans, who have proven your heroism
and love of country time and time again.
You have consistently defended our ideals across the globe;
and you are an inspiration to those who defend America today.

More than a million of you have died in service to America;
and more than a million and a half have been wounded.
Some of you have sustained serious injuries in combat
and now some of you also live with disabilities.

We in the United States of America, will always be grateful
for the noble sacrifices made by you
and we honor and respect you for your service.

We can never adequately repay you.

our veterans, are living examples
of the timeless truth that freedom is not free.
Thank you!

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Spiritual Drive Train

by Doug Wilson
from BLOG and MABLOG

This might be the medieval equivalent of an urban legend, I don't know. I read it somewhere, but can't recall the source, but here goes anyhow. Somebody, Thomas Aquinas maybe, was being shown around some opulent palace by the pope. "You see, Thomas, no longer can Peter say 'silver and gold have I none.'" To which Thomas, if it was Thomas, replied in the affirmative, adding only that neither can the Church anymore say, "Rise up and walk."

In my ongoing protestations against dualism, the subsequent discussions make it plain that all of us still need to do some more spadework before the garden is ready for planting. Knowing what we ought not to be doing anymore, which I am pretty clear on, is not the same thing as knowing exactly what we should be doing instead, and what order the steps should be. Reformations are messy.

The reformation of worship is the central issue of our day, but not the only issue. It is the engine, not the car. But an engine without a car is just as immobile as a car without an engine, and we are called to drive to the Celestial City. So we have to know how the reformation of worship might connect with everything else. What is the spiritual drive train?

In order to connect everything properly, I want to argue that we must make a clear and formal distinction between the Church and the Kingdom. The Church is formal worship, the cultus. The Kingdom is the culture that surrounds the Church, having grown out of it. The reformational work of reclaiming education or the fine arts is Kingdom work, done by Christians, to be distinguished from the formal work of the Church, done by ministers, elders, deacons, and congregants. The task of the Church is Word and sacrament, period. Other tasks taken up by the Church should be auxiliary works, subordinate to those central tasks, and directly related to them (e.g. building a facility in which to preach the Word and administer the sacraments, trying diligently to keep that building from looking like your local CostCo warehouse).

Rightly established, the Church equips the saints for works of service, and these works include all the things that men and women are lawfully called to do -- merchandizing and mining, poetry and policework, and education and eggplant farming. The Church's task is to equip and inspire -- not to supplant. When this understanding is gummed up, then an ecclesiocentric vision goes bad, and metasticizes into one where the Church becomes the only real thing that matters, and we are back to Thomas's, if it was Thomas's, bon mot. Rich nobles start leaving all their holdings to monasteries so that monks with their heads bobbing might pray for the soul of Sir Herbert Leslie Throckmorton for the next five hundred years. That's not good. The nucleus is not the cell, and the Church is not the Kingdom. The Church is not supposed to be the Death Star.

So I don't want the Church to be everything, and I don't want the reformation of the Church to be the only item on the agenda -- just the first and most important item on the agenda. When that reformation begins to take shape, and numerous Christians are worshiping in the way Christians ought to be worshiping, those Christians -- who happen to be politicians, auto mechanics, teachers, film directors, news anchors, poets, and cafeteria workers -- will begin to live out the kind of Christian life that they learned about the previous Sunday. That will effect the transformation of society, but not by turning that society into a giant worship service.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The End of Materialism

"The upshot is that two of the most aggressive and exciting scientific projects of the last half century have revealed that science can’t explain the reality of things, especially of living things. It’s time, he suggests, to give up the modern notion that science gets at a level of reality that is somehow “more real” than our daily experience of the world."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why Obama is NOT a Christian

The rest are here:

Now if Obama wants to call himself a Christian, then he'd better find out what that means. Otherwise, he can believe what he wants to believe, but he is not a Christian.

Monday, October 12, 2009

“What kind of man is he?

I regularly tell our seminary students that if I happen to visit the church in which one of them serves, I will not ask first, “Is this man a good preacher?” Rather, first of all I will ask the secretaries, office staff, janitors, and cleaners what it is like to work for this pastor. I will ask, “What kind of man is he? Is he a servant? Is he demanding and harsh, or his he patient, kind, and forbearing as a man in authority?” One of our graduates may preach great sermons, but if he is a pain to work for, then you know he will cause major problems in any congregation. Leaders in the church are required by Scripture to set an example in the areas of love, kindness, gentleness, patience, and forbearance before they are appointed to preach, teach, and rule. If we obediently require these attitudes and character traits of our leaders, what will our “new community” look like? -- from "The Heart of Evangelism” by Jerram Barrs, professor at Covenant Seminary

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not a Crutch

"Christianity isn’t a crutch for the weak; it’s a stretcher for the dead. The gospel doesn’t claim to help the weak; it claims to make the dead live again. We reject the notion of the crutch of Christianity because we don’t need something to hel...p us walk along; we need something to make us truly alive." - Michael Kelley

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bob Kauflin hits on something we NEED to hear!

How seriously do we take the command to tell the coming generations what we know of God and worshiping God?

How many of our thoughts about music and worship revolve around what we like, what we prefer, what interests us, and what we find appealing? And how often is that attitude passed on to the next generation, who then focus on what appeals to them?

I suspect this may be one of the reasons churches develop separate meetings for different musical tastes. In the short run it may bring more people to your church. But in the long run it keeps us stuck in the mindset that musical styles have more power to divide us than the gospel has to unite us.

How do we pass on biblical values of worship to coming generations when we can’t even sing in the same room with them?

We have to look beyond our own generation, both past and future, if we’re to clearly understand what God wants us to do now. Otherwise we can be guilty of a chronological narcissism that always views our generation as the most important one. As Winston Churchill insightfully wrote, “The further back you can look, the further forward you can see.”

Enough thinking about ourselves and what kind of music we like to use to worship God. God wants us to have an eye on our children, our grandchildren, and even our great grandchildren. We have a message to proclaim: “God is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.”

Let’s not allow shortsightedness or selfish preferences keep us from proclaiming it together.

read the rest here:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


"Let's be honest: If you combine a charismatic speaker, a talented worship band, and some hip, creative events, people will attend your church. Yet this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of God is actively working and moving in the lives of the people who are coming." - Francis Chan

The Butterfly Circus

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Someone asked...

"In God's eyes, what are you worth?"

I say, "Nothing!"

Yup! And not just me...all of us put together are worthless.

"All have turned away, they have together become WORTHLESS; there is no one who does good, not even one." (Rom 3:12)

Outside of Christ there is NO worth.

"But I thought we were 'worth Jesus' to God"

Then you've missed the whole point of the Gospel and Grace! God didn't send Jesus because we were 'worth Jesus,' but because we were NOT! In fact, we were worse than worthless:

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us...when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son."

In other words we were disgusting and opposed to Him.

"But weren't we made in the Image of God?"

Yeah, and everyone of us trashed that image. The whole point of an image is to accurately reflect its Object, it has no substance of its own. So it's not a term to get egotistical about. It is not a point of pride!

Now before you get your psycho-babble, SELF-esteem knickers all in a twist, what you need to "develop in" is "Christ-esteem," NOT self-esteem. Only then will your life be a God-honoring expression of what He wants you to be. Because, "your life is now hidden with Christ in God."

Remember: Outside of Christ there is NO worth. Anything you have or are is only legitimate because of Him. You have no identity outside of Him. Everything good about your life is ONLY connected to Him.

So quit worrying about your worth, get your mind off yourself! And thank God that Jesus is Worth it all! It is ALL because of HIM!!!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Arminianism leads to...

Something my friend Bill Mallory posted on his blog:

Saturday, August 1, 2009

500 Year Legacy

He that will not honor the memory and respect the influence of John Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty. - Geroge Bancroft, Harvard historian

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Communion Hymn

A Communion Hymn

A shocking thing, this, that we should forget
The Savior who gave up his life –
To turn from the cross, indifferent, and let
Our minds veer toward self-love and strife.
The table, this rite, is habit – and yet
Christ’s words pierce our shame like a knife:

While breaking the bread, the Lord Jesus said,
“Do this in remembrance of me.”

Enamored with power, surrounded with praise,
We set out our ecclesial plans.
Efficiency hums, and we spend our days
Defending, promoting our stands.
Techniques multiply, our structures amaze –
The gospel slips out of our hands.

While breaking the bread, the Lord Jesus said,
“Do this in remembrance of me.
O remember, remember the cross.
From my side issued water and blood,
This was no accident,
I bore the wrath of my God.”

“Remember my bed, the dank cattle shed,
Though glory was all my domain.
Remember the years of service and tears
That climaxed in lashings of pain.
By God’s own decree, your guilt fell on me,
And all of my loss is your gain.”

While breaking the bread, the Lord Jesus said,
“Do this in remembrance of me.”

“Remember my tears, Gethsemene’s fears;
Recall that my followers fled,
That I was betrayed, disowned and arraigned –
The Prince of Life crucified, dead.
Remember your shame, your sin and your blame;
Remember the blood that I shed.”

While lifting the cup, the Savior spoke up,
“Do this in remembrance of me.”

So now when we eat this feast simply spread
I blush I forget to recall.
For this quiet rite means once more I have fed
On bread that gave life once for all;
Memorial feast—just wine, broken bread—
And time to reflect on Christ’s call:

While breaking the bread, the Lord Jesus said,
“Do this in remembrance of me.”

- D.A. Carson

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Problem with Vision

from Parchment and Pen by Lisa Robinson

Recently, I was at a small social gathering and engaged in some good discussion with a most delightful couple. Now they are members of a very popular megachurch here in Dallas and the husband had just attended the men’s conference that this church hosts annually. As he recalled the highlights of this conference, he spoke most insistently of the importance of having a vision – a vision for ministry, a vision for home and family, a vision for calling, and the need to engage his wife in the vision. This seemed to be the theme of instruction for this conference.

This is nothing new. I have heard it before. Vision is a highly touted concept that is common in most evangelical, megachurch type circles, especially those with Charismatic leanings. Basically, it is about having insight into how your gifts and callings will play out in life. It is having a divinely inspired picture of your life painted for you so that you will know your direction and how to proceed. It is knowing how God will use you as an individual and corporately as a ministry. In fact, if you go to many non-denominational church web-sites, especially Charismatic based ones, the idea of vision is typically embedded in both the mission statement and specific ministry endeavors.

I think this is an interesting concept and one that preaches quite well. It makes sense, I think, that for whatever God has given us, then he would give us direction of how that will be played out. I do not have an issue with vision per se. But I do get concerned when highly popularized terms become buzzwords for establishing our Christian mission. I get concerned when mass appeal leaps onto concepts that may sound really dynamic but may not be loosely rooted in a Scriptural mandate for Christian living and God’s desires for us concerning kingdom pursuits. I personally think that vision has taken on a life of its own as it has ridden the wave of mass appeal in the same way that purpose and destiny became popularized with Rick Warren’s A Purpose Driven Life. The concepts, I think, begin to overshadow and can even substitute for a Scriptural prescription for direction for life’s activities and more importantly, how we carry out the missions in our local assemblies.

Now I am not saying that vision is insignificant and that we should just toss the whole idea out. I believe that leadership of churches structure their specific mission on the direction of a church based on a particular vision. I’m sure vision played in some way into the development of the Credo House, which has now come to fruition. I am reminded of a former church that was founded on the vision of a multi-cultural congregation in the midst of historically segregated ones and that vision has actualized as the ministry has grown. My own church indeed has a page devoted to a vision statement, which essentially describes the churches’ mission.

So while I do agree in part of the concept of vision, I think there is also a problem with the hyper-utilization of concept. I also have some difficulty reconciling its current and popular usage as applicable to individuals as well as churches, with the foundation for Christian living in context of the complete witness of Scripture. Moreover, I find formulation for mandating the need for vision built on a somewhat troubling grounds, as follows:

Problem #1: Troubled Hermeneutics
Some have built the concept of vision around Old Testament concepts and Scriptural formulation. Prophets continually were given a vision by God for direction for His people. Predominantly, passages such as Habakkuk 2:2-3, are promoted as giving credence to the Lord providing visions to us so that we will make record of it and move towards that goal. This demonstrates that God wants for His people to have a vision and be able to move into that direction. Another verse commonly used to support the idea of vision is Proverbs 29:18. Promoters of the vision concept have pointed to this particular passage indicating that we would be lost without a vision and therefore, having an idea of what picture God would paint for our lives becomes necessary.

The problem is that the vision that God gave to prophets has no meaningful basis for the New Testament Christian nor does it relate in anyway to how we should proceed with a kingdom agenda in the church age. The visions that were given to prophets were part and parcel of how God related to His people and revealed Himself to them. Consider Hebrews 1:1, that God spoke through prophets and in various ways. This is how God made Himself known authoritatively and the desires that He had for His people Israel, as a redeemed nation. This is equally applicable to the passage in Proverbs. The vision really means revelation and refers to God’s revelatory word such as we now have through the 66 books of inspired texts. So the passage is really saying where there is no word of the Lord present, the people cast off restraints. It would be the same as saying in the present day context, where there are no Bibles or Biblical instruction, the people cast off restraints. So the vision spoken about in the Old Testament was synonymous with God’s authoritative word concerning His people and is not synonymous with God painting a picture so they would know which direction to run their everyday lives.

Problem #2: New Testament Inconsistency
When God made Himself known through His son, Jesus Christ, He introduced a new way of how His people would relate to Him through the internal working of the Spirit bearing the presence of God and the testimony of Christ within each believer. Previous to Christ, the mechanics of divine relationship of God with His people was centripetal in that the nation of Israel would draw focus on God. The mechanics were changed under the new covenant reversing the movement to centrifugal action, consummated in these words from Jesus to His disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

This became the church’s mission. Not just to go out and gather people for the sake of adding numbers but to make disciples, which are followers and learners of Christ. The church comprising the body of believers, now becomes the means by which discipleship is accomplished. The mystery of Christ, previously hidden, is now revealed through His faithful apostolic and prophetic witnesses (Ephesians 3:5) who provide the foundation by which this revelation is conveyed to a lost and dying world (Ephesians 2:19-22). The body of Christ, comprises many members (1 Corinthians 12:12-13) and each member contributes significantly to the growth of the body, as Christ is formed and reflected, and the body is built up in love, building on the apostolic and prophetic foundation. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

Because it is one body but many members, so each believer is to utilize His gift for the work of ministry, as I Peter 4:10 indicates ‘as each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. I love what that says, utilizing our gifts in harmony not only serves one another, but essentially becomes a marker of the grace provided to us. That’s why I think its pretty significant for each believer to be cognizant of how they are gifted and how they will contribute to carrying the missio Dei, as prescribed in Matthew 28:19. That, I believe and see in Scripture, is the New Testament prescription for carrying out God’s kingdom agenda.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that God’s picture of how His plan unfolds is carried out through the body of Christ, each member utilizing their gifting effectively for the work of the kingdom. Our contribution to this work is centered around gifts not vision. I also have reason to believe that since gifting is provided to us through the Spirit’s workings, it is quite possible that the gifting can shift as God deems necessary. After all, it is His plan that is unfolding, not ours, as he brings all together according to the council of His will (Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:11).

I further am convinced that since it is His plan and not ours, that He can orchestrate events as He sees fit. Therefore, while we can have a picture about how our life will square out, even according to the gifting, I believe God can disrupt our plans and appropriate our gifting towards scenarios we may not even have envisioned. I am reminded of James words in his epistle,

Come now, you who say, ‘today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit. Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’ (James 4:13-15)

In conclusion, the problem with vision is not that we should not have it but that we keep it in its proper perspective. For it is not the vision that is to be promoted but Christ, as Paul identifies in Colossians 1:28. And everything given to the body of believers, individually and corporately, is to serve that purpose, as His body grows up in Him, contributing to each other needs, so that we accomplish the very work initiated under the New Covenant, to reconcile God’s creation with Himself. To be sure, our local assemblies will address this mission in varied ways in context of the communities and their specific needs. This will take a certain foresight and program design. But care should be taken so that the lines of vision don’t get blurred with the church’s actual mission, lest vision become more important than Christ and instruction be consumed with vision instead of Christian doctrine. That would be a huge problem.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Church Discipline

Where Extraordinary Grace and Celestial Joy Meet
Tonight, I participated in something that I have never been a part of in the 22 years that I have known Jesus Christ. The reason for this is twofold: I have never been in a church before that took seriously the biblical practice of church discipline, and I have never been in a church where the pastor has faithful discharged his duties of gospel preaching and pastoral ministry for over two decades. So what happened, you might ask?

In 1988, God saved a man named Steve who soon became a baptized member of Grace Baptist Church (where I serve). A few years after his conversion, Steve fell into sin and came under the discipline of the church which he refused to accept. As a result, the most severe decision a church body could ever make was practiced as Steve was excommunicated from the membership of Grace. For the next 14 years, Steve spent his life committing immoral acts, including drugs and alcohol. At one point in his life, Steve said he spent an entire month in seclusion drinking alcohol with the jaded hopes that he could die in his own misery and insanity.

It was during this time that he found an old Bible as he was reminded of what Tom had told him when he first came to Christ, “Read the Gospel of John.” After six months of prayer, Bible reading, and personal repentance, Steve emailed Tom because he struggled to believe that there would be a church who would accept him. The first person he knew he could to turn to, the person whom he said he trusted the most, was the very person who 14 years ago committed the most severe act of discipline–his former pastor, Tom Ascol.

Through a series of emails, Tom helped Steve get plugged into a gospel-centered church where he is living (which happens to also be a Grace Baptist) and shepherded him in gospel reconciliation that culminated this evening when we were able to fly Steve down to be with us in our bi-lingual Lord’s Supper service. This evening I listening to a brother’s confession of prodigal repentance saturated with tears mingled with the joys of heaven. It was extraordinary grace on display as the Great Shepherd pursued and captured one that had strayed, fallen, and wallowed in the pit of emptiness.

So many thoughts were going through my head as this was all taking place. For instance, how many pastors minister long enough to every see an excommunicated member restored in the same tenure? Given that there are so few churches today that practice church discipline, how many fewer ever see the most extreme (and painful) measures come full circle in the restoration and reconciliation of an excommunicated church member? Why was it that the person Steve wanted help and trusted the most was the pastor who 14 years ago would not let his blatant sin go unaddressed?

So many churches today do miss out on experiencing the kiss of extraordinary grace and celestial joy when the gospel not only reconciles sinners to God but also to one another in the context of a repenting and believing community who is covenanted to be a pure witness as the bride of Christ. So many pastors miss out on one of the greatest blessings of seeing Christ rescue fallen sheep because they do not hang around long enough, or aren’t willing to do love deep enough, to embrace fallen sheep and see Christ rescue them from their prodigal ways. So many wayward sinners wander into the hidden paths of prolonged rebellion without the legitimate discipline of a loving church because there is no commitment either on the part of the member to pursue holiness or the church to pursue those who fall in trespass and sin.

When I hear reports of God-moments in churches, I often hear of x number of people professing Christ, being baptized, etc., and they are all praiseworthy. But how often to we hear church members walk away from the gathered congregation with a God-moment where shameful acts of sinful rebellion is renounced in humble hearts of repentance and the forgiveness of Christ is communicated with joy and gratitude to God?

There was a time when experiences like the one tonight were not uncommon, but I have a strange feeling that this God-moment is one of which I would have a hard time sharing, except with brothers of yesteryear. But it does not have to be that way. We do not have to have undisciplined churches, meaningless membership, and cowardly pastors who are unwilling or afraid to do what Christ has commanded. I would not have had the privilege of joining angels in heaven with shouts of joy were it no for a pastor 20+ years ago committed himself to the biblical principles of regenerate church membership, church discipline, and faithful gospel preaching–marks all of which should make us Baptist. Unfortunately, my experiences leads me to believe that are marked as being weird.

As I consider myself on the beginning chapters of my pastoral ministry, I am reminded of how blessed I am to serve under the leadership of Tom Ascol whose love for church members causes even the excommunicated to call upon him first, and whose love for the church causes the angels in heaven to rejoice over the warrior shepherd that refuses to let one wayward sheep go their own way. It’s a love that does the hardest things and receives the sweetest expressions of reconciliation this side of heaven. It’s a love that is not always reporting the 99 to the church growth department but is radically pursuing for the 1 because each member counts in the church health department.

There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned about pastoral ministry and being a true church, but this one is just too good not to pass along.

of course it's not just for Baptists... ;-)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Yup. Been There....

Where We Live

from Parchment and Pen by Lisa Robinson

I came across this article in Christianity Today on ending homelessness in 10 years. I mused considering that for the past several years, this is the professional field I have been involved in. In fact, in my position back in Rhode Island, I was responsible for managing one of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homeless funding program for the state, worked with most of the homeless service agencies statewide and coordinated and packaged the annual funding application to HUD for the state. As noted in the article, every geographic region that receives these funds has to include in their funding application to HUD, a description on how they are going to end homelessness in 10 years through a coordinated effort with major public-private stakeholders.

More specifically, HUD has been focused on ending chronic homelessness, which comprises approximately 15% of the homeless population roughly. These are the more severe cases of homelessness - folks that have been continually homeless for at least a year or experienced continual cycles of homelessness (at least 4 episodes in the past 3 years) and suffer from some type of disabling condition, including mental illness and substance abuse. The idea is that since these are the high end users of emergency services, it is more cost efficient to put them into permanent supportive housing, which provides a team of licensed professionals to address the barriers to independent living. In other words, stabilize them in housing first, then provide intensive services so they will stay there. So the person who has lived ensconced in a particular state of existence for an extended period of time will now be moved to a different state of existence and expected to succeed.

I think this is a great theory in concept. I don’t think anyone reading this post, especially me, wants to see people homeless. But I had a major philosophical conflict in that I recognize, no matter how attractive you make housing, no matter how much you demonstrate that this would be something beneficial, there will be some, who for whatever reason are more comfortable on the streets. It’s not that they want to be homeless but they don’t want to be uprooted from a way of living that they have become comfortable with. The comfort of where they are supersedes the discomfort of being uprooted. Now some of my professional colleagues might disagree, but information that I have received from front line workers would suggest otherwise, not to mention, the human nature factor.

I cannot but help consider this application pertinent to where we live doctrinally and theologically. We have learned. We have studied. We have drawn conclusions. We find our nest and settle in. And it is great, isn’t it, when we draw conclusions about what the Biblical text says and perchance take sides with notable theologians who have gone before us, especially considering the effort they put forth? Or maybe, we have found comfort in that fact that we have followed no man but instead have relied on our own interpretations of Scripture, guided of course by the Spirit. Or perhaps we have allowed our particular church denomination or tradition to influence and shape the body of facts we call truth. Whatever our course of action has been, there is a certain degree of comfort that we can rest it.

I suppose that our comfort has very much to do with our epistomology, how we have come to know and understand what we consider truth. There has been a determination made on the best avenue to discover what truth is, and we have followed that. And whatever that path is, whether through “academic” study, experience, tradition or a particular hermeneutic (yes everyone has one but not everyone uses the same hermeneutic), following that course can in and of itself, transition us into an ease of understanding. After a while, we can proudly say that we have arrived at truth. However, it does beg the question, ‘is it that we have arrived at truth OR that we have satisfied the mechanics of whatever epistomology we have used to arrive at truth? The latter will certainly not guarantee the former but probably will make us more comfortable about the process.

The truth is that nobody likes tension. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable and definitely, nobody wants to be wrong. The guy on the street doesn’t resist moving from his abode because he loves waddling in the mire. He won’t move because he doesn’t want the tension. Nor do we. It is uncomfortable to wrestle with ideas and the internal conflict that ensues when our sense of satisfactory knowledge has been disrupted. It is far easier to stay in the bed we’ve made than to rip the sheets off and move it; it is far easier to rely on the truth we know than the contradiction we don’t know, or rather, don’t really want to know. So we set up our fortresses, load the arsenal known as proof-texts, strawmen and maybe even historical data and throw them to protect our fiefdoms of knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there are some truths that are absolutely essential to Christianity, truths that have been tested and stamped with the historical seal of approval of which Christianity would not exist without. I also believe that within the mysteries of God, what He has revealed is meant to be understood (Deuteronomy 29:29), not cumbersome or burdensome and maybe even a little logical.

But it can be arduous to bridge the communication gap between God’s revelation, which is what He has made known and our understanding. It is no small task to engage in a process of grasping who is God, what has He accomplished, what He has planned and where do we fit into that picture, in a way that acknowledges our abilities to apprehend but denies our prejudices and presuppositions. There is tension. There is discomfort. Often, there are no easy answers. Yes, the Spirit is involved but so is our fallibility. This is not an easy place to live because it will always encourage running for cover and resorting to safe and tension free harbors.

So I think where we live doctrinally and theologically has so much to do with the level of resistance we can tolerate. If we’ve wrapped our arms around conclusions so tightly that no amount of historical or Biblical evidence could sway opinions, especially those that deviate from Christianity’s historical roots, then I fear intended truths might be missed for the sake of ease. And yes, I do think fear can be involved, fear of losing, fear of failure, fear of humility. Then where we live can become a prison rather than a place of freedom. It is no different for that chronically homeless individual who refuses to give up his abode for something better.

But just as the guy on the street must go through the tension of disruption for the greater goal of a warm and safe place of permenency, so must we. There is a prize at stake of knowing what God has so graciously revealed to that we can know Him, His plan and ourselves better. We’ll never arrive but must always learn and be willing to be a little disrupted in the process.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Look, It's Rubbish!

by Carl Trueman

A few years ago I was attending a conference on behalf of the Seminary arranged by an organization which includes in its membership institutions from a wide variety of theological and religious perspectives. As the conference stretched over a weekend, there was a worship service arranged for the Sunday morning. I had wondered whether to attend, not knowing how such a theologically diverse group might come together in such a setting; but I finally decided to do the polite thing and show up; and, I was not disappointed. Indeed, I have been retelling the story at dinner parties ever since.

The service kicked off OK, with a short call to worship. So far so good. Then we sang a hymn. Now, I have a preference for psalms, but the hymn was fine, as far as I remember. It was then that the real fun began.

The first Bible reading was from the book of Isaiah. The gentleman apologized at the outset saying that he had been unable to obtain an inclusive language translation of the Bible; but indicated that he would make the necessary changes himself as he read the passage. I confess that, personally, I was quite relieved about that since, for one horrible second, I had imagined I was about to witness the terrifying and distressing marginalization and oppression of over half the people present. But with the necessary substitutions, I was confident that the women around me would feel suitably enfranchised and affirmed.

That's when it all started to go wrong. I do not know if you have ever tried to `inclusivise,' `unmarginalise' or `deoppresionise' on the fly, so to speak, but it is not that easy, as the gentlemen was about to demonstrate in spades. Indeed, by half way through the passage his attempts had made such an aesthetic and grammatical mess of the passage that he abandoned his laudable, liberating ambitions and returned to oppressing the women present in a really quite unacceptable fashion.

Bad as it was, that was the high point of the service. It was all downhill from then on. Next, instead of a pulpit prayer, we all had to sit and listen to a tape recording of waves crashing on a beach. This was followed by the second scripture reading. Thankfully, this one was not from the oppressive Bible translation used by the previous reader. In fact, it was not from the Bible at all but taken from a collection of poems written by African American slaves. Now, the poem was moving and thoughtfully constructed, a piece of literature; and knowing its original context gave it a certain emotional power; but it was not scripture in any shape or form and had no obvious place within a church service.

Onward we went, and ever downward. Now came the sermon, which was a five minute homily on the end of slavery, full of platitudes about imperialism and oppression, all of which may have been true, and to much of which I was not actually unsympathetic, but God was conspicuous only by his absence, presumably having nothing to say about the subject in hand. And then finally, the pi├Ęce de resistance, the moment to which the whole service had been leading, the climactic moment when the congregation was taken to the very gates of heaven: the service ended, not with a benediction or even a prayer, but with another chance to meditate, this time not to waves crashing on a beach but to a recording of Kenny G playing `Amazing Grace.' Words almost fail me in the narrative at this point. After all, not being a Kenny G fan, I found myself oppressed, marginalized, and excluded all at once. The best I can say is that it was probably a better option than Barry Manilow singing `Copa Cabana.'

The service was, in many ways, a multifaceted microcosm of a lot that is wrong with the church at large today. I remember sitting in the room and looking around at the earnest faces as they concentrated on the crashing waves, or empathized with the linguistic struggles of the spontaneous inclusive language guy, or were carried heavenward by the mellifluous tone of Mr G's saxophone. Almost all of these people have PhDs, I thought; many have published subtle works from distinguished academic presses; most of them would no doubt despise me and my institution as somehow obscurantist and ignorant; and yet, when push comes to shove, they sit here mesmerized by this garbage. The sophisticated post-Kantian theology for which they stand comes to this -- sitting around on a Sunday morning, listening to PC Man mangling the Bible and Kenny G playing Amazing Grace. I mean, give me a break. Kenny G!?! It wasn't even John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.

Now, despite the embarrassment of scholarly riches at this service, I sat their thinking, I could not bring a non-Christian friend into this. It would be embarrassing for reasons that have nothing to do with the excess of cumulative scholarship represented; rather, for all of the doctorates in the congregation, this service would simply insult the intelligence of the typical non-Christian who, in my experience, assumes a certain correlation between the seriousness of content and the seriousness of form. Further - and ironically -- I also found it hard to believe that any of us there really felt included by this liturgical mishmash: a slag heap of subtheological fragments pulled from hither and yon into an incoherent and vacuous fiasco does not end up including everyone in general; more likely it ends up including nobody in particular. But that's liberal ecumenism for you: sophisticated on paper and in the classroom; moronic and exclusionary in practice. To coin a phrase: "Hey, it's rubbish. So let's just call it rubbish, shall we?"

The memory of this service leads me to two further reflections on the culture of theology. First, I have always been amazed at the infatuation of so many orthodox academics with their reputation in the secular universities and liberal departments. A few years back, I edited a book with Paul Helm on the doctrine of scripture. At the time I was on faculty at the University of Aberdeen. One colleague - a friend but one of distinctly liberal leanings -referred matter-of-factly in a public lecture to the upcoming book as representing the tradition of Warfield, of which he himself did not approve; but the comment was not a sneer; rather it was a simple statement of his impression of the book. Within a couple of days I received an email from one of the contributors, asking if this was the case and saying that, if so, he wanted to withdraw from participation. Now, it was not actually the case: the book addressed the issue of scripture from a different direction to the concerns of Warfield; but what puzzled me - no, what disappointed me, for I understood exactly what was going on - was that this person was so terrified of being associated with Warfield. I wonder to this day if he would have been so concerned if he had been invited to contribute to a collection of essays that someone said pointed in a Barthian or Bultmannian direction. Probably not - because those options would not be so embarrassing to mention to friends at cocktail parties in the Senior Common Room or at the next meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature.

Now I worked in secular universities long enough to know that liberal colleagues are bright enough to spot a conservative at five hundred feet. Just because you avoid contributing to certain volumes or using certain words, or because you choose to laugh when certain people to the right of you are mocked, does not win you respect from the secular academy. It is a sad fact but, as far as biblical studies and theology go, only giving up all that is distinctive about the Christian faith will ultimately do that for you.

The individual to whom I referred above no doubt liked to think he was taken seriously by mainstream colleagues, but I sat as a junior faculty in enough coffee room discussions to know the real thoughts of liberal colleagues about conservatives who try to fly under the radar. They despise them for their theology; and they despise them for the fact they try to hide or minimize it. A double whammy. Given the choice - and there is always a choice -- I'd rather just be despised for being a brazen conservative with looney theology, than a duplicitous conservative with looney theology. That way one can still be of use to the church and still look in the mirror with some degree of self-respect.

But who should really be embarrassed, the liberals or the conservatives, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox? When you attend the churches of liberal colleagues, you will soon realize you have no reason to be ashamed. The embarrassment that is a liberal theological service has to be experienced to be truly believed; and almost any orthodox alternative is a better bet. After all, while I am no Eastern Orthodox, there is no comparison between a service conducted according to the hidebound, unchanged, reactionary, outdated, orthodox, creedal liturgy of St John Chrysostom and a service involving Kenny G, a tape recording of waves, some person stating the obvious about slavery, and a befuddled chap trying to avoid oppressing women by improvising a politically correct paraphrase of the Living Bible.

This, however, brings me to my second point: ironically, not all conservative services are much better than their liberal equivalents. Now, the difference is that liberal theology should inevitably lead to liturgical nonsense in a way that orthodoxy should not. After all, orthodox theology grew out of the worship and liturgy of the ancient church, so it should be no surprise that the collapse of that theology connects to the collapse of worship and liturgy. After all, it is hard to see the musical genius of Kenny G giving birth to the Nicene Creed, or, for that matter, providing an atmosphere in which the same might be sustained. When theology is, after all, merely the projection of human aspirations, church services become merely a collage of human artifacts (though the thought that Kenny G is a projection of humanity's deepest psychological aspirations is too worrying to contemplate for any length of time). When God is mere man (or woman, or both) writ large, transcendence vanishes and triviality can only be resisted by an immense act of the will.

What are surprising, therefore, are accounts of services where the theology is supposedly orthodox but the content is sheer trivia. If God is awesome, sovereign and holy; if human beings are small, sinful, and lost; if Christ died and rose again by a most miraculous and costly act of grace, then this should impact the way things happen in church. This is not to argue for a one-size-fits-all-my-way-or-the-highway approach to church. Context and culture are important; but what is expressed through the idioms of particular cultural manifestations of the church should be awe, reverence, and, above all seriousness - not a colourless and cold miserable seriousness but a fitting amazement at the greatness of God and his grace.

A church service involving clowns or fancy dress or skits or stand-up comedy does not reflect the seriousness of the gospel; and those who take the gospel seriously should know better. Frankly, it is more appropriate to liberal theology which does not take the gospel, or the God of the gospel, seriously. Serious things demand serious idioms. I heard recently of a church service involving dressing up in costume and music taken from a Tom Cruise movie. Now, if I go for my annual prostate examination, and the doctor comes into the consulting room dressed as Coco the Clown, with `Take my breath away' from Top Gun playing in the background, guess what? I'm going to take the doctor out with a left hook, flee the surgery, and probably file a complaint with the appropriate professional body. This is serious business; and if he looks like a twit and acts like a twit, then I can only conclude that he is a twit.

You can tell a lot about someone's theology from what they do in church. Involve Kenny G's music in your worship service, and I can tell not only that you have no taste in music but also that you have nothing to offer theologically to those who come through the church doors; indeed, what you do have can probably be found better elsewhere. Why certain academics hanker for the approval of the people who, when they leave the lecture theatre also abandon any semblance of adulthood or intelligence, beats me. More seriously, however, why certain orthodox churches strive to look like them, worries me intensely. Look, it's rubbish. So let's just call it rubbish, shall we?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Time to celebrate

from Steve Wilkins

N.T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope, refers to how the Church largely disregards Easter. Christmas is celebrated with a vengeance, but Easter? Nah, Easter gets a day, a morning. Some candy in a basket, maybe a new dress and shoes. And this is as true in so-called “liturgical” churches as it is in straight-down-the-center, Puritan-Reformed congregations. We hear about the Christmas “season” (the “twelve days”) but how much attention is given to the Easter “season” (40 days, from Easter to Ascension, or 50 days if we go to Pentecost). There are numerous Christmas hymns (plenty to fill up the two Sundays of the season) but I’ve about used up all the Easter hymns in our hymnal (the Trinity) after this Sunday. Yet, as Bishop Wright points out, without Easter, everything is lost:

This is our greatest festival. Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins. We shouldn’t allow the secular world, with its schedules and habits and parareligious events, its cute Easter bunnies, to blow us off course. This is our greatest day. We should put the flags out.

Bishop Wright suggests that we not only need more hymns but more energy given to celebrating the season of Easter and offers that we should at least celebrate it with an eight day festival:

But Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday. It ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.

One reason so many feel uncomfortable with the 40 days of Lent is just here: We ignore the 40 days of Easter. Thus, as Wright points out, “if Lent is a time to give things up, Easter ought to be a time to take things up. . . . The forty days of the Easter season, until the ascension, ought to be a time to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving.”
To which I says, “Amen and I like it.” And, there’s no time like the present to begin. Today is the first day of the Easter season. Time to celebrate. Rejoice, be glad, break out a little champagne for breakfast, shoot off a cannon (or two), and engage in all manner of jollification over the reality that Christ is risen and has conquered sin, death, and all the powers of hell.

[the quotes come from pp. 255-257 of Surprised by Hope -- thanks to Jarrod Richey for pointing me to Wright's remarks]

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Coming Evangelical Collapse and the New Calvinism

from Parchment and Pen by M. James Sawyer

Shortly after I posted my recent blog entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse?” Time Magazine featured as its cover story an article entitled “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” (Number three on Time’s list, was “The New Calvinism.”) On the surface, this appears to be a blatant contradiction to the thesis of The Christian Science Monitor article concerning “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” As strange as it may seem I would suggest is that it is not.

The reasons for this are several-fold. Evangelicalism as it has manifested itself in America, and as a subculture has historically been a tradition that is “heavenly minded.” Its roots are sunk deeply into pietistic spirituality arising from a post-Reformation reaction to cold doctrinal orthodoxy within confessional Lutheranism in Germany, as opposed to what can legitimately be called a Reformed or Puritan spirituality/worldview.

As such, evangelicalism has historically had a tremendous problem in being involved in “the world.” During the 19th century as revivalism was institutionalized in America, spiritual life was privatized and became unrelated to other areas of life. (What mattered was “my personal relationship with God/Jesus.” etc., gone were larger senses of responsibility to community and society.) In a real sense what happened in 19th century American Protestantism mirrored the emerging liberal theology in Germany which saw truth as derived from the feelings (German: Gefeuhl) as opposed to having a rational under-girding.

The divide between the sacred and the secular realm of existence that had characterized Roman Catholic Christianity throughout the Medieval period and, which had been rejected by the Reformers of the 16th century, was reintroduced into the larger American evangelical psyche.

In the Reformation and the following Puritan era there had been a very healthy integration of the spiritual with all other areas of life, because in the Reformed/Calvinistic tradition God had pronounced creation/ material order “very good.” (Leland Ryken has demonstrated the vital embrace of the created order by the Puritans in his excellent and very accessible study work Worldly Saints: the Puritans as They Really Were). As the nineteenth century progressed, Protestantism, which at this point was in some sense evangelical, progressively withdrew from cultural engagement in the world and society and abandoned that realm to the rising tide of secular studies and perspectives. American historian Richard Hofstadter notes that 19th century American evangelicals:

“withdrew from intellectual encounters with the secular world, gave up the idea that religion is a part of the whole life of intellectual experience, and often abandoned the field of rational studies on the assumption that they were the natural province of science alone.” (Anti-Intellectualism in America, 87)

What we see happening among evangelicals during this period is a slipping into a dualism characteristic of Plato, and adopted by later Gnostic teaching: “Spirit(ual) is good; Material is evil (or at best bad or something to be put up with and distracting from the really important- the spiritual). Added to this was the rise of Dispensational theology with its imminent apocalyptic expectation that involvement in the world, politics, and even society at large was “like polishing brass on a sinking ship.” Lest you think that this attitude has changed, one of my former colleagues preached a sermon on ecology about a dozen years ago in which he concluded that we don’t need to be involved in these issues because it’s all going to burn anyway! (I must admit that I find these attitudes theologically and exegetically bankrupt as well as crazy-making.)

Evangelicalism is a “big tent” description for early twenty-first century Protestantism. But such has not always been the case. As used in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the U.S., the term referred to the mildly Calvinistic theological descendents of the New School Presbyterians in the mid-nineteenth century; it incorporated the arising dispensational movement in the early days of the twentieth century during the era of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist debates. The key doctrine for Evangelical identity during the decades of the early to mid- twentieth century was that of the inerrancy of Scripture. This was the sole doctrinal plank of the Evangelical Theological Society when it was founded in 1948. A central mark of the Fundamentalist/Evangelical tradition was its devotion to and knowledge of the Bible, not only by pastors and scholars, but also on the lay level. Originally the designation did not include those of the Holiness tradition nor of the emerging Pentecostal tradition nor the Southern Baptists. Each of these traditions maintained their own separate identities.

While there was some movement in the ensuing decades, “The Jesus Movement” of the late 60s and 70s with its Pentecostal roots was the catalyst that broke down the barriers between the traditions just mentioned. By the mid-1970’s Evangelicalism was in the process of shedding its fundamentalist-separatist roots and begun to think about engaging society on the scholarly level as well as embracing culture on a popular level. While as I mentioned in the previous blog the scholarly engagement has been fairly successful, on the popular level the engaging of culture has been a disaster. Knowledge of scripture and theology has ceased to be an identifying factor of our tradition. In seeking to embrace culture evangelicalism was squeezed into the contemporary cultural ethos.

Today theological and biblical knowledge is at a nadir (at least I hope it won’t get any worse!). The upshot of this is that contemporary evangelicalism is intellectually vacuous and largely impotent. Hence the predicted collapse.

But what does this have to do with Calvinism? Much in every way—but I will get to this in a moment. First I quote a couple of paragraphs out of The Survivor’s Guide to Theology.

We can illustrate the importance of theology by means of the skeleton and the jellyfish. When we look at a skeleton, we can be reasonably sure it is dead. The life that once held these bones together is gone, and these bones are now held together with pins and wires. This is how many people view theology: lifeless and a collection of ideas that are held together by the artificial means of complex rationalizations and arguments. Then there is the jellyfish. A jellyfish can live for a time on the beach but cannot do anything. It lies on the sand in a pulsating blob, unable to do anything except possibly sting a passerby. The jellyfish, like the skeleton, has a problem. While the skeleton has structure without life, the jellyfish has life without structure. The lack of structure, or a skeletal system, causes it to be ineffective at doing anything on land.

A structure such as a skeleton will allow us to accomplish the task of living life, but this does not mean that just any structure will do, that one structure is as good as another. Years ago I worked with a person who as a child had fallen from a tree and broken his arm. The physician who attended to him was drunk and set the arm improperly so that in the healing process a deformity developed. My colleague could still use his arm, but it was not fully functional because the structure that supported his arm inhibited his movement. (18)

When I gave this illustration in class a number of years ago, one of my students who was a chiropractor became so excited he blurted out excitedly, “That’s right! Function follows form!” Function follows form.

Improper [or inadequate] theological structures may give the illusion of being intellectually and spiritually harmonious and in line with Scripture, but the reality shows otherwise. In the pilot episode of the original Star Trek series, broadcast as “The Menagerie,” Captain Christopher Pike (Captain Kirk’s predecessor) is imprisoned on the planet Talos 4. The inhabitants of the planet exhibit him and a beautiful young woman in their zoo. The plan is for them to mate and ultimately populate the planet. Pike learns that the Talosians are experts at illusion and that this is why his escape attempts keep failing. When he is finally successful and is about to leave the planet, he tries to take the young woman as well, but she refuses to leave. He discovers that she, like everything else he has experienced, is not as she appears. She is human, but she is not young and beautiful. She is the sole survivor of a scientific expedition stranded on the planet years before. Badly injured in the crash of her spaceship, she had been nursed back to health by the Talosians. But they had never seen a human before and consequently did not properly set her broken bones, and she ended up hunched over with twisted limbs. In this ugly condition, she could not face other humans. She could live a functional life, but the underlying structure of her body could not support normal existence. Her twisted structure cut her off from contact with normal humans. (19)

Evangelicalism has become a movement without a true underlying structure or true worldview. Those of the true Reformed theological persuasion have never been an integral part of Evangelicalism. While numerous Reformed scholars and theologians contributed to The Fundamentals which were published in the second decade of the twentieth century in opposition to the rising tide of Liberal Theology which was crashing like a Tsunami over the Protestant theological landscape, they declined to identify themselves with the movement because they viewed it as reductionistic and a compromise not only of Calvinism but of Historic Christian Orthodoxy.

The theological and intellectual poverty and vacuity of evangelicalism was vividly pointed out to me many years ago by Dr. Dan Allender (now President of Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle) in a presentation he was giving. Dan, as an aside in his lecture pointed out that the Evangelical tradition has never been able to produce great works of art or literature. Other Christian traditions, the Orthodox, the Catholic, the Anglican, the Reformed have all produced great masterpieces but you cannot name one great Evangelical artist or author of literature—our worldview does not allow us to. (neither Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins nor William P. Young (The Shack) nor even Thomas Kincade qualify here!)

The great late nineteenth and early twentieth century Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper demonstrates the sweeping vision of the Reformed faith in his Lectures on Calvinism, delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898. He delivered six lectures that demonstrated the intellectual, theological and spiritual vigor of world and life view of the Reformed faith:

Lecture 1: Calvinism as a Life System
Lecture 2: Calvinism and Religion
Lecture 3: Calvinism and Politics
Lecture 4: Calvinism and Science
Lecture 5: Calvinism and Art
Lecture 6: Calvinism and the Future

Those unfamiliar with Kuyper will need an introduction to him to appreciate the power of his position. He was not just an academic theologian who built castles in the clouds. Throughout his career he edited a daily newspaper. He was the founder of Amsterdam Free University. He was a member of the Dutch Parliament, and served for four years as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Last, but not least, he was one of the two leading Dutch theologians of his generation. (The other was Herman Bavinck.) Kuyper stridently advocated the Reformed concept of bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ and backed up that insistence in his own life story.

To most within our circles when someone mentions Calvinism, the image that comes to mine is the TULIP, or the doctrine of divine sovereignty, or of predestination. Such thoughts betray our profound ignorance of the vitality of its theocentric worldview and all encompassing vision of reality.

In the midst of an age of anthropocentric theology and postmodern abdication of truth, it makes perfect sense to me to see the reemergence of historic Reformed Theology/Calvinism (not simply the popular bumper sticker caricature Calvinism as the TULIP).

If Evangelicalism collapses as the sociologists and pollsters are predicting, will a new incarnation of Reformed theology arise out of the ashes?