Friday, December 27, 2013

Phil Robertson...Clearing Up Stuff

Okay, so that's an exaggeration. But as I have read the many commentaries offered by various evangelicals on the Phil Robertson flap I cannot help but wonder if some of the discussion confuses categories. Some, while in sympathy with Robertson's view that homosexuality is sin, are scandalized by his, shall we say, "earthy language." Same sex attraction requires more sensitivity and nuance, we are told. It is a complicated matter. And indeed it is. But same sex attraction is not what Mr. Robertson was addressing. He was addressing the specific sin of homosexual acts which is a related but different category from same sex attraction. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who, while struggling with same sex attraction, persevere faithfully in God-honoring chastity recognizing that homosexuality is a sin. The church ought to be a place where these saints can be honest about their particular area of temptation so that they can be spurred on toward love and good deeds. You know, just like those saints who struggle with lustful thoughts, dishonesty, pride, disobedience to parents, greed, anger, gluttony, etc.

Homosexual acts, however, do not merit such sensitivity and nuance (nor does lying, coveting, murder, etc). The Scripture's condemnation of such acts is clear. But God's book of nature is just as clear. Paul appeals to natural revelation in Romans one where homosexual acts are described as self-evidently unnatural. We live among people who reject outright the Biblical prohibition against such acts. That much is clear. But, as Paul points out, these same folks have exchanged in favor of a lie God's truth revealed in the natural world as well. It is a knowledge that is clear enough to render them without excuse. Is this not what Phil Robertson was pointing out? Could it be that his words were just too clear for the more sophisticated among us?

There is an inescapable "yuck factor" to homosexual acts that ought not be diminished by Christians. I'm not talking about juvenile snickering. I'm talking about a mature disgust generated by acts that have gone desperately awry of what is natural. Any medical doctor worth his salt will tell you the sorts of destruction done to the bodies of homosexuals. I would suggest that the greater ignorance is to be silent to such physical realities rather than pointing them out.

It seems to me that some of the condemnation of Phil Robertson coming from evangelicals has the aroma of cultural elitism. That is, a faith that is expressed in very ordinary and "un-nuanced" ways tends be sneered at by those Christians who prefer their cappuccinos be crafted by free range baristas (Okay, that was just a little cheap shot but I've got to keep your interest). My point is that those of us who have attended seminary and enjoy coffee from independent coffee shops need to remember that the Faith we embrace goes to the unschooled and uncouth. It is a faith for duck hunters, children, stock brokers, middle school dropouts, physicists and those who love the pancakes at Cracker Barrel. If that is embarrassing to some of my fellow evangelicals then perhaps Christian Science may provide a bit more insulation from the ruffians of Munroe, Louisiana.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Are you a good person?

Race, homosexuality and historical confusion
S. Donald Fortson, IIII, Professor of Church History, Reformed Theological Seminary

One approach of gay-affirming scholarship has been to claim the church has modified its interpretations over the centuries. This includes not only change in views and practice from the Old Testament to the New Testament but also modifications in Biblical interpretation during the Christian centuries. Presbyterian theologian Jack Rogers asserts, “Christian people for centuries assumed that their Bibles condoned slavery and the subordination of women to men.  Yet, over time and often reluctantly, people came to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading to accept people of African origin and women as full and equal members of the church … the Holy Spirit is once again working to change our church – making us restless, challenging us to give up culturally conditioned prejudices against people of homosexual orientation.” (1)

This supposed parallel between Christians in the past using the Bible to justify slavery and the contemporary Church using Scripture to condemn homosexuality is both misleading and confused in its account of church history. Historically, there is no connection between Christian attitudes towards slavery and homosexuality. But, there does appear to be a historical resemblance between present-day attempts to re-interpret the Bible to support homosexuality and past misuse of the Bible in order to prop up race-based slavery. In both cases Biblical teaching has been co-opted to support a politically-popular position enabling Christians to comfortably fit into the cultural values of their times.

Slavery was a reality of life in the ancient Mediterranean world including the Greco-Roman period when Christianity emerged. It was regulated in Old Testament Israel and within the New Testament community. In ancient cultures persons were forced into lifelong servitude as spoils of war or became slaves due to debts that had to be repaid. Ancient slavery was not limited to one’s racial identity nor did it always involve kidnapping to force people into servitude. Slaves were bought and sold in the ancient world.

Christ’s apostles attempted to regulate slavery among believers according to ethical principles consistent with Christian faith. The apostles gave no explicit directives for all Christians to immediately free slaves, however, the implications of the Christian message pointed to the equality of all men and women before God. The book of Philemon bears witness to the continuing reality of slavery among converts to Christianity. Paul exhorted believing slave owner Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus, who was also a convert, as a Christian brother (Philemon:1:16). To the church at Colossae, Paul wrote, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Col. 4:1). These were radical ideas for the first-century Roman world. One observes these same themes in the writings of the Church Fathers who continued to challenge the slave-holding Christian empire to live out the gospel implications of equality of all human beings. (2)

The New Testament unmistakably affirms the essential equality of all men and women, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God by faith” (Gal. 3:26). Due to this new reality, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28). Part of the apostolic ministry was to break down old existing relational barriers among Christians and one such barrier was master/slave relations which now must reflect the new reality of oneness in Christ.  The New Testament also reaffirmed the Old Testament prohibition of man-stealing and selling (Ex.21:16). In the list of those who live “contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” one finds these sinners: “murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers.” (1 Tim. 1:10). It is ironic that some want to support homosexuality with appeals to Biblical support for slavery when this text in fact places them side by side as sinful.

Slavery in the New World was of a different nature than much of slavery as practiced in the ancient world; not so much in terms of its cruelty, slavery in ancient times could be brutal. The primary difference had to do with the way slaves were brought to the Americas and the exclusive racial identity of the slaves themselves. Anyone in the ancient world could be a slave; one’s racial identity was not the key factor in ancient times. By contrast, only black slaves from Africa were sold by fellow Africans or kidnapped by slave traders and brought across the Atlantic to make a profit.

In the colonial era Christians spoke out against the slave trade, and it was outlawed in the United States by 1808 which was an implicit acknowledgement that American slavery was inherently wicked. The long journey to the final abolition of slavery in American is a well-known story; it is also well known that many leaders of the 19th-century abolitionist movement were Christians. Understanding that racial slavery as it was practiced in United States violated basic Biblical standards of conduct, Christians were consistently outspoken opponents of the evil institution of slavery.

The Christian influence in America was so strong in the early 19th century that even in the South the majority of the population and Southern legislatures were moving toward the amelioration and final abolition of slavery. (3)  Beginning in the 1830s things changed –  anti-Southern rhetoric escalated, abolitionist violence and burgeoning threats to the slave economy pushed some southern Christians to change their tunes. Where previously there had been more unanimity among Christians North and South that American slavery was inconsistent with the principles of the Gospel, some in the South began to push for maintaining the slave system by interpreting the Bible as supportive of American racial slavery.(4)  Multitudes of Christians found this reversal of views deplorable and continued their support for emancipation.

One cause for this variation of interpretation on the slavery question had to do with understanding the Biblical material.  While the New Testament appears on the surface to support all forms of slavery, in fact, the apostles were only concerned with regulating this social relation among Christians as it existed in the Roman world. They certainly were not offering an apology for the legitimacy of perpetual slavery. A careful understanding of the differences between the first century and the America context makes it clear that the Bible cannot legitimately be utilized to support race-based slavery of those kidnapped or sold into bondage against their wills; the Bible firmly denounces slave-trading and treating others as inferiors based upon race.
The story of Christianity and American slavery is an entirely different situation from the unequivocal Christian condemnation of homosexuality for two millennia. Where some in the past manipulated Biblical teaching on slavery to fit the American context, many Christians rejected this innovation. Homosexuality has never had any historic advocates in the Church. Homosexuality, like slavery, was common in the ancient world, but the apostles never countenanced trying to regulate homosexual practice but comprehensively repudiated homosexuality at every turn. There is not a shred of Biblical material that can be garnered to support any form of homosexual practice.

What actually happened in the 19th-century American South was a bowing to social pressure to re-interpret the Bible in ways that supported race-based slavery. As a society, the South viewed itself as suffering injustice at the hands of a self-righteous North. This cultural ethos put enormous pressure on all southern Christians to conform to the norms of their culture. A similar pattern is being observed in American churches today that are succumbing to cultural demands to re-interpret the Bible to support homosexuality. The hermeneutical twists used to discredit the clear teaching of Holy Scripture on homosexuality is evidence of a desperate frenzy to re-interpret Christianity in order to make it palatable to the homosexual community. The current revisionist approach to the Bible and homosexuality is just as odious as the older attempts to support race-based slavery with Scripture.

(1) Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. 2nd edition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), 58. Methodist New Testament scholar Richard Hays rejects this theory of coupling homosexuality, subordination of women and slavery. Hays observes: “Though only a few Biblical texts speak of homoerotic activity, all of them express unqualified disapproval. In this respect, the issue of homosexuality differs significantly from matters such as slavery or the subordination of women, concerning which the Bible contains internal tensions and counterposed witnesses.” Richard B. Hays, “Awaiting the Redemption of our Bodies” in Homosexuality in the Church, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 9,10. See also chapter 16 “Homosexuality” in Hays’ book: The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (NY: Harper Collins, 1996).
(2) For a brief survey of the Church Fathers on slavery, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011); her discussion of St. Basil’s opposition to Christian slave holding is particularly noteworthy.  See also Glancy’s New Testament study, Slavery and Early Christianity (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).
(3) See Alice Dana Adams, The Neglected Period of Anti-Slavery in America, 1801-1831 (Williamston, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1973). Adams documents from the primary sources the prevalence of anti-slavery attitudes in the South prior to the 1830s.
(4) See Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Noll demonstrates from historical texts how nineteenth-century Southern Christians became tangled in the web of race-based slavery and then re-interpreted Scripture to support their racial prejudice.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Art, Nakedness, and Redemption

A few weeks ago I learned the distressing news that a couple I know is divorcing; the husband has pursued pornography, and beyond, for a decade.  His sin has not only ravaged his wife’s life, but in violating that covenant he orphaned four young children from a faithful fatherhood.  He stands as part of a devastating trend of infidelity leading to divorce in evangelical churches.

Not long after hearing that, I learned, chatting with a friend and his college student daughter, that her Bible and ethics professor had recently shown her college (an ostensibly conservative, Reformed institution) class pornographic clips from movies to teach the class that we can find “redemptive value” in all art.

Hearing this made me think back to the divorcing couple. The husband was a graduate of a Christian college that set a high premium on “engaging and redeeming culture”; it downplayed any sort of antithetical approach to culture as backwards moralism at best, anti-cultural bigotry at worst.  Professors soberly and enthusiastically argued that “film is both messy and redemptive, we need to grapple with the complexities of life in this world, including sin.”  The neo-Kuyperian project of “redeeming culture” (which itself raises some serious theological issues) is not confined to the halls of academia: David Taylor, an “arts pastor” recently featured at the Gospel Coalition, argues in Christianity Today that it is possible for mature Christians to “redemptively” portray and view nudity in film. [1]

These reflections connected to a lecture on art that I attended last spring. The speaker was a thoughtful Christian scholar. In her lecture she commented that Christian art should not be opposed to “nakedness” but rather to “nudity”. She argued that there was a distinction between tasteful nakedness in art and an objectifying nudity, referencing several examples of classical and Renaissance art in relation to the former, and pornography to the latter–a stance similar to H.R. Rookmaker’s. [2]  This fine distinction left me and many of my college students dubious; I remembered all too well my own teenage struggles with lust, and the fact that classical and Renaissance art of naked women had not been helpful in the pursuit of purity. But was that just me? Was I overly sensitive, or perverse beyond the ancients and my contemporaries?  Was I somehow missing a “redemptive understanding” of nakedness or nudity in art or film? These questions forced me to examine what Scripture has to say on nakedness and redemption and what a history of nakedness in art might reveal.

God created man and woman in his own image.  He created them beautiful in their whole being, including physical form. He declared this aspect of man’s being, “good, very good”, along with the rest of creation. Adam and Eve were naked, without sin.  Yet in the Garden, after their sinful rebellion, Adam and Eve realized their nakedness, creating fig leaf coverings for themselves.  This awareness is unique to the humans, as animals continued in their “naked” state unperturbed. God declared the fig leaves insufficient, and in an act which theologians see as a picture of redemptive history, killed animals, providing Adam and Eve with adequate coverings of skin through a bloody act. After this point, Scripture’s testimony over and over again is that nakedness in contexts outside of marriage and necessity is shameful, spiritually destructive, a denial of the reality of sin and God’s holiness.

Where God displays His redemptive activity in contexts of extra-marital nakedness He clothes His people. Ezekiel 16 exemplifies this pattern in Scripture: God graciously redeems and clothes His bride, covering her nakedness and making her beautiful.  Her God-given covering is not a denial of beauty, but rather a redemptive rescue and restoration to appropriate, glorious, public beauty, after she had been an object of abandoned, uncovered shame. The bride, however, turns to play the whore, prostituting herself, taking off her beautiful clothes, giving her naked beauty, now rebel, distorted and cheap, to any passer-by. Her disrobing outside of marriage is an outward expression of her inner rejection of God’s redemption. She calls men to join her in violating God’s perfect law.

The disrobing, redemption-rejecting woman of Ezekiel stands in stark contrast to the bride of the Song of Solomon, whose nakedness is truly beautiful. It is reserved for her husband, given to him alone–a “step that does not establish deep intimacy, but one which presupposes it.” [3]  Even in the literary description of the marital sweetness and joy of the inspired Song a poetic modesty remains. [4]  There is also a glorious foreshadowing here of the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the church, who is clothed as well–by His redemption.

When we come to the New Testament, we see our Incarnate Lord ministering to prostitutes, freely offering His all-sufficient grace for their redemption and restoration to true, covered, clothed, and ordered beauty.  When Christ, as the King of glory, takes His bride, the church, to Himself, even in the heavenly glory of paradise restored (Rev. 19), we see the saints clothed in the white robes of His righteousness, their clothing illustrative of the necessary covering for redeemed mortals.

In contrast to both the positive testimony of Scripture to being clothed and its warnings against nakedness, ancient near eastern literature, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, reveals a promiscuous culture which often moved in the direction of celebrating an increasingly naked display of the human form. In the midst of, and in response to the surrounding near eastern cultures, God repeatedly warns His covenant people against intermarrying with surrounding unbelievers. But, why would they? Why would young Hebrew men be drawn to the fertility cults?  What was going on in the sacred groves, and around the pole statues of the naked goddess Asherah?  Why were the sons of God drawn to the daughters of men at these cultural festivities?

The more I study ancient near eastern art and culture, the more it appears the cultural and artistic ethos tied to nakedness was very similar to the neighboring Greek culture which produced all that fine naked sculpture. Andrew Stewart, Chancellor’s Research Professor of Greek Art and Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the aims of Greek nude sculpture:

…if one had asked a Greek sculptor what he really aimed at, he would probably have replied beauty… perfect beauty can only come about through the exact commensurability (symmetria) of every limb and feature to every other… They served his own and his immediate client’s fantasy of “the most beautiful.” This fantasy was no disinterested Apolline affair.  Projected upon the naked male body, the canon represented the first step towards the sculptor’s ultimate goal: to seduce the eye of the normative spectator, the citizen male.  Winckelmann was right: this art was fundamentally homoerotic…  The Greek sculptor’s dedication to naturalism, his obsessive investigation of the male body’s minutae, exploited this unrestricted climate.

[Praxiteles created] the first monumental naked Aphrodite, caught unawares as if by a voyeur, her sex appeal enhanced by devices ranging from the modesty of her posture and gesture to Praxiteles’ use of the finest crystalline marble for her body and the subtlest polychromy for her skin… the female nude [sculpture] soon became second only to the male in popularity. [5]

Stewart describes an “unrestricted climate”, a description which correlates well with the literature of the period and is certainly also congruent with earlier, still influential, Homeric epic.  This unrestricted climate bears striking parallels to the ancient near eastern cultures celebrating fertility via free sex around naked goddesses.  While Praxiteles created his artwork some three centuries prior to the New Testament, the “climate” was substantially the same when Paul, led by the Spirit, preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Greeks.  Many of the temples were flourishing centers of prostitution; their ads and billboards were semi-naked/naked statuary of gods, goddesses, and demi-gods whose tales flaunted promiscuity. God’s redemptive response revealed in the New Testament stands in harmony with the Old. Knowing man’s heart and sin, God inspires the gospels and epistles to substantially include the message of salvation from sexual sin, and sanctification in sexual morality. It is the reordering and transformation of promiscuous sex and nakedness to true beauty and holy intimacy.

As a result, perhaps we should not be surprised that the pastors and theologians of the patristic age opposed nudity in art; it was not a cultural element open for “redemption” by Christians. Clement, critiquing the popular acceptance of nudity in the Greco-Roman art of cosmopolitan Alexandria in the late 2nd century, states:

…of what are your other pictures?  Small Pans, naked girls, drunken satyrs, and phallic symbols – all painted naked in pictures disgraceful for filthiness.  And more than this: you are not ashamed in the eyes of all to look at representations of all forms of licentiousness that are portrayed in public places.  Rather, you set them up and guard them with scrupulous care. [6]
Chronicling and reflecting on the immodesties of theatre, public festivities, and art in his day (considered redemptive by the pagans) Augustine wryly observes: “if this is purification, what is pollution?” [7]

In terms of broad acceptance within the life of the church, nakedness in art first blossomed as a result of the Italian Renaissance–a movement that drew heavily on the revival of Greco-Roman paganism, flaunting this syncretism. The movement developed with the aid of powerful families, like the Medici of Florence, who functioned as patrons (and suppliers of wine and women) for gifted artists like Michelangelo. The artists, in large part through Medici influence and an enthusiastic upper class, brought nudity in art boldly into public life, including the life of the Roman church; the art both reflected and contributed to a promiscuous culture. Savonarola’s moral thunderings against a pornographic culture deeply irritated the bohemian Medici.  Martin Luther was disheartened and disillusioned a generation later by Rome’s rampant immorality. Italian church culture was by this point awash with the unabashed nudity of new, stunning, works of art in good part due to the patronage of the Medici pope, Leo X.

In contrast to Italy, the Northern Renaissance showed restraint in art, particularly in regions dominated by Protestantism; even the art of the substantially tolerant early Dutch Republic had a vastly greater inclination to modesty than exposure-tolerant Italy, France and Poland. The Northern cultural modesty, largely concurrent with post-Reformation Protestantism, dissipated in time through the growth of Enlightenment culture which drew heavily from the Renaissance and ancient Greece and Rome. In contrast to the Enlightenment acceptance and promotion of public, naked art, the legacy of European and North America Puritanism, reflecting Scripture’s tenor, celebrated private nakedness reserved to marriage and sought to defend and promote public modesty, understanding that both need to be rooted in and reflective of the gospel of grace in Christ.

21st century, Europe and North America have an increasingly pornographic art, film and pop culture. But this is as old as pagan fertility cults, technology added. The new twist comes from the church where some argue that wherever there is a glimmer of created order or common grace, there is potential for finding “redemptive value”. This is rationale for not only engagement, but also participation. People, of course, qualify such a break from Scripture and church history: “these are complex issues, this is the domain of the mature and wise.”  They seem to fail to notice, however, that their argument is ironically similar to that of the “adult” billboards along our freeways.

Scripture and history indicate that nudity in art (and now film) is not actually the domain of the mature, the wise, or those engaged in “redemptive activity.”  Rather: “we dress because we sin… [it is] a reminder that man is an unholy fugitive, in hiding from God and from his own fellows” [8] and a picture of the need for bloody atonement for sin, and clothing by the righteousness of Christ.  As such, “whether it be in a nudist colony, at an orgy, in primitive society, or in the nursery, public nudity is only possible for those unconscious or aggressively heedless of their sinfulness.” [9]  It is far more likely that the attitude of the acceptability of nudity for “the mature” in art, film, and pop culture is contributing to the rising tide of infidelity and divorce in the church.

This latter analysis coheres far better both with the teaching of Scripture and the reality of human existence. Rather than redemptive, promotion of nudity in art and film by Christian educators and leaders is destructive; it is folly, not wisdom. Wisdom says “And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth.  Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng.  Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death.” (Proverbs 7:24-27)  Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

To reject nudity in art and film is no denial of artistic ability, nor of created beauty. It is a realistic, careful, humble acknowledgment of God’s redemptive work in Christ and His precepts for a grace transformed, holy, happy life in a fallen world. This includes the need for covering nakedness.  Real redemptive activity seeks to preserve and rescue from sin by pointing men and women to Christ and His Word.  Knowing this redemption, Paul, by the Holy Spirit, declares:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality… will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God… you were bought at a price, therefore glorify God in your body and your spirit, which are God’s.”  (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

[1] W. David O. Taylor, “Violence, Profanity, and Nudity: A Dialogue” in Christianity Today (posted online 8/03/2004 at
[2] H.R. Rookmaker argued similarly in his Modern Art and the Death of A Culture, stating that the “erotic and sexual have a place in art, as they have in life… we cannot simply say that the nude in art is impure.”  Rookmaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (London: IVP, 1970), 239-240.  Rookmaker does not seem to understand that Scripture’s precept is that the positive, celebrated, and normative place of nudity in life is a private intimacy within the covenant and commitment of marriage; art by contrast is an intrinsically public venture. This is why I believe recourse to arguments for necessity of nudity for scientific or medical purposes, or forensic evidence cannot apply to art/film. In medical and forensic situations there remains an awareness of the value and propriety of privacy, whether in the physician’s office, the anatomy class, the courtroom, or legal archives.
[3] Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985), 117.
[4] I would recommend Ian Hamilton’s (Cambridge Presbyterian Church, Cambridge, UK) and Ian Campbell’s sermon series on the Song of Songs (PRTS Conference 2010) for a balanced exposition of the Song: both avoid the twin errors of spiritual allegorizing on the one hand, and sexual allegorizing on the other.
[5] Andrew Stewart, “Greek Sculpture” in The Oxford History of Western Art, ed. Martin Kemp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 15.
[6]  Clement of Alexandria in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 189.
[7] Augustine, City of God, 43.
[8] Mason, 116.
[9] Mason, 117.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

OT God of Wrath vs. NT God of Mercy??

Why It Will Not Work to Pit the Old Testament God of Wrath against the New Testament God of Mercy

Don Carson:
As for the cries for vengeance, the Apocalypse provides stunning counterparts to the psalms.
“How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev. 6:10), cry those who had been slain because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
“Give back to her [Babylon the Great] as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup. Giver her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself. In her heart she boasts, ‘I sit as a queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.’ Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her” (Rev. 18:6-8).
“Woe! Woe, O great city, where all those who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! . . . Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you” (Rev. 18:19-20).
And there is much more of the same.
The factors we weighed when we considered similar Old Testament passages apply here as well. But the point to be made is that if we take seriously the eternal perspective that is laid out in the New Testament, then it simply will not do to write off the Old Testament witness as intrinsically harsher and therefore not something we need worry our heads about today.
Note especially Carson’s conclusion:
I think it is closer to the truth to say that in the coming of the Lord Jesus and the new covenant he sealed with his own blood, both the justice of God and the mercy of God appear in sharper relief than ever before, leaving us with correspondingly less excuse, and with great grounds for praise and worship.
—D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil1st ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 105.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Worship: The Time & Place of Personal Integration

by Mark Horne

One of the Apostle Paul’s most famous descriptions of the church involves an individual human body:

    For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

    For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

    The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, ESV)

One could easily think that Paul is arguing from the premise that every human person is a unified body. In a biological sense that seems self-evident. But the Bible can speak of people as driven or controlled by various body parts. Paul must be arguing here from the ideal human person–the one who has matured. Paul himself is a large part of the Scriptural witness that affirms that human beings are often bodies in which the parts are at war with one another. Thus:

    Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

    What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:12-19, ESV)


    So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I pummel my body and make it a slave, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27, ESV)

Likewise, James compares controlling one’s speech as “taming the tongue” and further compares such discipline to that of domesticating wild animals (James 3). Notably, James calls such rule or dominion over one’s tongue a form of wisdom, reminding us of Lady Wisdom’s declaration, “by me kings reign” (Proverbs 8.15).

Jesus himself warned of how one part of oneself could mislead the rest:

    If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30, ESV)

So it seems that while the human person should function as a unity, a person can, in a sense, be a cluster of warring members. While this should not be so, it nevertheless is often true.

One way to think of what is going on is to differentiate between the de jure and the de facto–legal terms for what is officially true and what is true in reality. While we owe much to others, we are each, once we reach maturity (viewed as a legal age) de jure owners of ourselves. But are we de facto masters of ourselves? The concept of self-ownership is a foundation, but it must be used to build self-mastery–from de jure to de facto.

Furthering us in this process is one of the purposes and benefits of regular Church worship. To show how this follows from Scripture, we need to get some basic points about the worship system or sacrificial system that was given by God through Moses.

As we follow Paul’s admonition in Romans 6 and master ourselves into a single whole intent on serving God, we can more and more fully respond to Paul’s summons to worship in chapter 12:

    I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Romans 12:1, 2; ESV)

Sacrifices were cut up by the offerer (not the priest, he simply took the pieces and fed them to the fire). All the appropriate parts had to be offered. (Some were also cut off and thrown away, just as Jesus advised. My working assumption for now is that, in the New Covenant, we are liberated from sin to an extent that we can offer all our parts. Jesus was using an analogy for struggling with sin from the Old Covenant sacrifices but didn’t want a literal application to our body parts).

I may be wrong, but I think many Evangelicals believe that the fire on the altar that consumed the sacrifices represents God’s fiery wrath on sinners. This is a mistake. The fire on God’s altar represents God himself and his glory and presence. It is true that unrepentant, unforgiven sinners find God’s presence to be torment (thus the imagery from Revelation 14.9-11). But that makes no sense for sacrificial animals that have been washed and had the unclean parts cut away. The sacrificial meat, remember, is treated as holy, not as defiled.

In the sacrificial system established under Moses, the animal takes the curse of sin for the offerer when the offerer kills it. The blood is carried near to God’s presence on the altar to display the evidence that death has taken place and there is no further judgment to come. Then the animal goes up into the altar where it is turned to smoke and goes further up into heaven–into God’s glory cloud like the cloud that came down on Mt. Sinai or that later filled the Tabernacle and still later entered Solomon’s Temple. The cloud that Ezekiel saw and, in a vision, penetrated to see God’s throne carried by Levitical angels.

This, after all, is exactly what happened to Jesus. He is killed. His blood pours out on the ground for all to see. Then he is transformed by the Spirit. He is raised from the dead and then ascends to His Father in a cloud.

One more piece of evidence that burning the sacrifice represents transformation and elevation or ascension, is that the items put in the fire with the animal (incense, cake of bread) is also what is kept inside the Holy Place. The altar was set up outside the doorway of the Tabernacle. The Holy place was the first room on the other side of the entrance where only priests could pass through. So putting the animal on the altar seems to correspond with a priest approaching God’s presence in the Tabernacle. The second room where no one could go but the high priest represented the highest heavens and there were two golden statues of angels representing the Guards in God’s own throne room. So it is no surprise that, when Jesus was taken up in a cloud, two men in white were seen as well.

And by going through this process, Jesus became to us, among other things, “wisdom from God” (First Corinthians 1.30). He was made our Greater Solomon.

Before killing the animal and then putting it through this transformation, the offerer was to place his hands on the animal to appoint it as his representative. So the animal's death and “resurrection” are supposed to apply to the worshiper. We are supposed to be transformed by God’s presence in worship. Our minds are to be renewed in wisdom and torn away from the folly of the world’s alleged “wisdom.”

Many times in the Bible God’s people are summoned to gather as one before the Lord’s presence. But what is odd is that we also see in the Bible sometimes a person summons all of himself in the same way he would summon a group of people to gather together.
    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits… (Psalm 103.1b, 2; ESV).

David here summons his soul, and then summons more: “all that is within me.”
When God calls us to worship, he calls us altogether (all-together) to gather as a single whole. Just as we are affirmed as one body with fellow Christians as we listen to God’s word, pray to him, sing psalms and hymns, and eat and drink bread and wine together when we “come together as a church” (First Corinthians 11.18), so we are each taken apart by the word of God (Hebrews 4.12) and put back together as new whole person, glorified by contact with the glory of God.

We are, if you will, disintegrated in worship and then re-integrated better than before. And in that transformation, you learn to rule yourself and everything else better by a true wisdom. You are renewed in your mind.

One final comment. I don’t know that we can reduce this transformation process to understanding new truths or some other intellectual process. While hearing good preaching and learning new things is important, it might not happen every week. Does that mean going to church was a waste of time? I have to say no. Even though church can be “done wrong,” we should expect that meeting with God in a special way has power that affects us even if we don’t learn anything new or feel inspired by some aspect of the service.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let's Level the Playing Field

by Carl Trueman

Now that California looks set to mandate that transgender children be allowed to choose which bathrooms they use and which sports teams they join, it would seem an appropriate time to press for the purging of the remnants of a reactionary age.  Indeed, now that gender is, according to the courts, nothing more than an attitude of mind, could we dispense with all the talk of 'women's rights'?  Such terminology was minted in an era when the silly assumption was made that physiology and genetics had some determinate connection to gender.

A good place to start might be women's sports and the exorbitant amount of money which those who elect to be called 'women' athletes are paid for what are actually mediocre performances.  Take, for example, the women's mile record, which stands at 4:12:56, as set by Russian athlete, Svetlana Masterkova in 1996.  One would have to go back to 1915 to find a slower men's mile record.  Further, the fastest woman's mile between 1996 and 2012 was that by Maryam Yusuf Jamal in 2007, clocking in at 4:17:75.   To put it bluntly, I have personally seen a significant number of schoolboys run faster in the last four years. And the boys' high school mile time is sub-4 and has been since the 1960s. It seems somewhat unfair that these 'women' are paid for turning in such so-so to mediocre times while far superior school athletes receive neither fame nor fortune.  And the story is not unique to the mile: it replicates itself across the track and field world and spills into other sports, Billie Jean King's victory over a superannuated has-been chauvinist notwithstanding.

The whining about unequal pay and prestige for women athletes could now be nicely brought to an end: if gender is just an attitude of mind, then when it comes to athletics, let human beings compete on a level -- nay, on the same -- playing field.     Of course, it might just be that gender is actually a little more than an attitude of mind -- but there I go again, committing a hate crime.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What is the Gospel?

by Shawn Kennedy

When you think about words that are used, abused and highly misunderstood in our culture today, one word in particular rises to the top. It is the word love. We use the word love in our culture to describe our thoughts and feelings for just about anything and everything.

A person wakes up in the morning and quickly jumps into the shower. As the warm water runs over their head, they say to themselves, “I love warm showers.” Then they make their way into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and as they sip the coffee, they say out loud with a smile, “I love coffee in the morning.” They leave their house saying to their spouse and children, “I love you, have a great day.” They pray on their way to work and end the prayer by saying, “I love you God.” When they get in the office, they scan their Facebook account, because the night before they posted a new status update. They wonder how many people liked their post. Today, was a good day. Several people from all across the country not only liked their post, but made multiple comments. As they reclined in their chair they look over at a co-worker and say, “I love facebook.”

If you put all this together, in less than 2 hours this person has declared their love for warm showers, coffee in the morning, their spouse and children, God himself, and facebook.  And so it is not wonder when it comes to the subject of love, we are often confused, using it carelessly with little thought.

I would submit to you that what has happened in our culture when it comes to the word love has also happened in our local churches and in the larger landscape of Christianity when it comes to the word gospel. Just like the word love, we use the word gospel at times freely and careless, rarely asking and answering the question, “what is the gospel?”

I can still remember, three years ago sitting at my desk, reflecting on my life and leadership, successes and failures and asking myself this question, “Shawn, do you really understand the gospel?” It is a strange and vulnerable question for a person to ask who has a been a follower of  Jesus for twenty years, has a graduate degree in theology, teaches at a Christian college and pastors a growing church. Yet, I am convinced it is easy, as a followers of Jesus, to let our hearts and minds drift on autopilot and think we understand the gospel, but do we really? Can we communicate the gospel to friends and family with confidence and clarity? Can those in our immediate family and church family communicate the gospel with confidence and clarity?
It was on that day that I started a journey to absorb everything I could on the subject of the gospel. I approached the question, “what is the gospel?” with fresh eyes and an open heart. I wanted to be awakened again to the radical scandalous grace of God and refreshed by his ferocious love. All of this happened and more.


In the New Testament, the word gospel first appears in Mark. It is here, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that Mark shares his overall purpose and point of writing: “The beginning of the good news (which in Greek is the word gospel) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”  (Mark 1:1).
Then thirteen verses later, we find Jesus preaching and proclaiming to those in Galilee. What does he proclaim? He proclaims the gospel.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! –  Mark 1:14-15.
At the end of the Matthew, we find Jesus saying this gospel, will be proclaimed to the entire world.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.Matthew 24:14
When you exit out of the gospel writers and enter into the writings of Paul, we find that he is unashamed of the gospel and believes it has life changing power.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.Romans 1:16
Not only does Paul believe this gospel has life changing power, but he also encourages those in the church of Corinth to stand in the truth of the gospel.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand.1 Corinthians 15:1 ESV
Then Paul goes on to say that the gospel is active and growing, not something that is passive and stagnant.
Because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.Colossians 1:5-6


As you can see the word gospel is mentioned throughout scripture in various ways and in various settings. Yet, the question still remains, “What is the gospel?”
The word gospel in english find it roots in the greek word, “euangĂ©lion.”  The word euangĂ©lion literally mean “news that brings great joy.” When we hear the word gospel in today’s Christian culture our minds and hearts immediately run to the spiritual implications, but in the first century most minds and hearts would race to the political and historical implications. For those living in the time of Jesus, the word gospel was used to refer to life altering, history making, world shaping news.


An example of this can be seen in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. when Greece was invaded by Persia. The Persians thought this would be an easy and effortless victory, but the Greeks would prove them wrong. They would not only fight back, but successful defeated the Persians. After the battle was won, Greece sent heralds or evangelists out to proclaim the good news or gospel of their victory to the surrounding cities.
Gerhard Kittel, the German protestant professor who wrote a well known and widely used book titled, “The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” writes the following description of the Battle of Marathon.
“The messenger appears, raises a big right hand in greeting and calls out with a loud voice… By his appearance it is known already that he brings good news. His face shines, his spear is decked with laurel, his head is crowned, he swings a branch of palms and joy fills the city.” Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 2, p. 722)
Kittel describes a scene of someone bringing life altering, history making, world shaping news of great joy. It is not something that is happening, it is something that has happened.


If we continue this historical plight, we find that the very word of Mark would have connected in the minds of his readers in profound ways. For what Mark says about Jesus is the exact phrase attributed to Caesar Augustus. An inscription that was discovered from the first century reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus” (Priene 105.40).
When it was first inscribed it carried with it the message of life altering, history making, world changing news that Caesar Augustus was on the throne. The point that is being made and reinforced that this is good news, joyful news worth celebrating and rejoicing over. At least from  the perspective of the Romans.
When the word gospel is being used in the New Testament it is clearly referring to the life altering, history making, world shaping news about Jesus and his Kingdom. It communicates something has happened in history and as a result the world will never be the same. The gospel of Jesus is good news about a conquering king and battle won.


As I continued on my journey, I took the time to research how other pastors and theologians answered the question, “what is the gospel?” Here are some of the answers that stood out to me.
Tim Keller in his book, “The King and The Cross” writes: “A gospel is an announcement of something that has happened in history, something that has been done for you, that changes your status forever. It is not good advice, it is good news.”
Martin Luther in his book, “Basic Theology” writes: “The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s son, who died and was raised, and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.”
Alistair Begg in his book, “Keep Me Near the Cross” writes: “Here’s the gospel in a phrase. Because Christ died for us, those who trust in him may know that their guilt has been pardoned once and for all. What will we have to say before the bar of God’s judgment? Only one thing. Christ died in my place. That’s the gospel.”
N.T. Wright in an article for Christianity Today writes: “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”
Scot McKnight in his book, “Embracing Grace” writes: “The gospel is the work of God to restore humans to union with God and communion with others, in the context of a community, for the good of others and the world.”
John Piper in an interview on the gospel states: “The Gospel is the news that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.”


After tracing the word gospel through scripture, looking at if from a historical perspective and then learning from pastors and theologians, I would like to share with you how I define the gospel. In one sentence, I would define the gospel as the good news of Jesus and His Kingdom. If you gave me three sentences, I would define the gospel in this way:

The gospel is the good news that God who is holy and just, looked with grace and mercy on our sin, and in His great love sent His Son to proclaim and establish His Kingdom. Jesus came to sacrificially and selflessly die for us so that, by His death, resurrection and power, we could receive new and eternal life. It is through Jesus that sin is forgiven, people are reconciled to God, and the world will one day be made new.

If you had three sentences, how would you define the gospel?
As I reflect on my journey, I have learned that the gospel is never something you outgrow or grow beyond. Instead as a follower of Jesus you continue to grow each year into a richer, deeper, fuller understanding of the gospel. It fuels our faith, shapes our prayers, directs our ministry and reminds us of our worth and God’s spectacular glory!