19 December 2006

van mastricht and doctrinal diversity

I continue to read through various works of 17th century Reformed theology on a variety of topics. I hope to get back to some of the information on Suarez soon. In the meantime, a sidenote.

Peter Van Mastricht (1630-1706) was a German-Dutch theologian who studied at Utrecht under the tutelage of Gisbert Voetius and later taught there. Van Mastricht is probably best known for his Theologia Theoretico-Practica (1682-87), a comprehensive and infuential work that was translated into Dutch and won much acclaim (including that of Jonathan Edwards). In this way, Van Mastricht deeply shaped the experiential piety of the Nadere Reformation in the Netherlands, as well as larger currents of Reformed theology, even within English-speaking divinity from the late 17th century onward.

An excerpt from his Theologia Theoretico-Practica on the topic of regeneration has been translated into English and was first published in 1770, though it was re-issued in 2002 as A Treatise on Regeneration (SDG Press), edited by Brandon Withrow. Van Mastricht's treatment of regeneration is, in many respects, typical of the late 17th century and many aspects would be readily recognized, particularly the explanation of regeneration as an instantaneous introduction of a new principle of life into the heart by the Spirit, logically prior to faith.

I'm less interested in the details of Van Mastricht's account, however, as I am with how he interacts with views of Reformed theologians with whom he differs on matters of detail. In this regard, his treatment of regeneration in connection with infant baptism can serve as an example, as he recognizes that on that matter "the orthodox are divided" (52). He divides opinions into several categories.

First, there are those who, in the case of infants, "deny that regeneration can precede baptism" and thus the baptism of infants only "seals regeneration as future, when the elect infant shall arrive to the age of discretion, so as to be capable of faith and repentance" (52). Prominent in this connection, Van Mastricht mentions "the celebrated Amyraut" (should we refer to this now as the "Amyraldian view"?), though a similar position was held by a number of Puritans. Van Mastricht suggests that such a view may conflate regeneration "which bestows the spiritual life in the first act or principle (by which the infant is effectually enabled, when he arrives at the exercise of reason, to believe and repent), with conversion, which includes the actual exericses of faith and repentance" (52-3).

Second, there are those who "modestly declining to determine the point," leave the question of the timing of regeneration in relation to infant baptism up to "the sovereign will of God" (53). In this connection Van Mastricht cites Zanchius, Ames, and Spanheim. One can hardly object strenuously to such a view, though Van Mastricht's own views fall elsewhere.

Third, there are those Reformed orthodox who believe that "regeneration is effected at the very time of baptism" in infants, "ordinarily at least." In this connection he cites LeBlanc, as well as "the celebrated Peter Jurieu, Beza, and others" (53). He noted earlier that Reformed theologians are all fully agreed that there is no regenerating power in baptism itself (as some Catholics held) nor that the Spirit's work is tied to the administration of the sacrament in an absolutely inseparable way. As he notes later, it not sheer lack of baptism, but contempt of it, that is damning.

Fourth, there are those, incuding van Mastricht himself, who hold that "the baptism of infants...presupposes regeneration as already effected" and thus this prior regeneration is effectually sealed by baptism. He labels this a "common opinion" among the Reformed orthodox and judges it as the "most agreeable to truth" among the various options he enumerates (53).

Van Mastricht goes on to defend his position, appealing to various biblical texts, but also considering specific texts that seem to weigh against his own view. In doing so, however, Van Mastricht interacts primarily with the third position, which sees regeneration in infants as ordinarily tied to baptism. Some of his argument is directed at what he takes to be the views of Roman Catholics (seeing baptism itself as effecting regeneration) and Lutherans (seeing the Holy Spirit's regenerating work as confined to baptism). Yet he notes that the position contrary to his own, seeing baptism as the ordinary means of regeneration in infants, is held by "eminent men among the Reformed themselves," now adding the names of "Pareus, Davenant, Ward, and Forbes."

What is noteworthy to me in all of this is that Van Mastricht's presentation of the range of Reformed opinion is presented with care and even-handedness, never simply dismissing those views that had currency among various prominent Reformed divines, even when he disagrees with them. Moreover, while presenting his own views as "most agreeable" to Scripture, he gives alternative positions their due, recognizing them to have a reasonable basis in Scripture and theological reflection and presenting their proponents as "celebrated" and "eminent" figures fully within the bounds of "orthodox" Reformed thought.

This sort of disagreement and discussion strikes me as rightly modelling the way doctrinal differences should be handled within the broad boundaries of Reformed thought (or, indeed, even wider traditions) on matters of detail and ongoing reflection.

18 December 2006

what would jesus say?

In the midst of life's complexities and with a social agenda, Charles Sheldon asked, "What would Jesus do?" In light of the current conflict in Iraq, some opponents of the war ask, "Who would Jesus bomb?" And today I ran across a blog post, apparently aimed at perceived doctrinal errors in the Reformed world today, more or less asking, "What would Jesus say?"

The suggested answer appears to be that Jesus would manfully, sharply, and vigorously confront errors with words of scorn, rebuke, denunciation, and intolerance, giving opponents no slack at all. According to the author, while Jesus dealt mildly with the errors of simple folks, he was anything but mild when it came to false teachers who actively opposed his gospel.

Fair enough, I guess.

But the whole argument presupposes some kind of analogy or symmetry between, on one hand, the diversity of views that exists within contemporary Reformed theology (and we're talking about conservative, confessing theology here) and, on the other hand, those religious leaders who opposed Jesus and the good news he brought.

Moreover, the argument suggests that the essential clarity of God's word not only extends to (in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith) "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" (1.7), but to all manner of detail - including items upon which there has never been a full consensus among Reformed divines, let alone the wider church catholic.

Rather, the argument seems to suppose a zero tolerance policy with regard to any and all perceived error, rejecting distinctions between "essentials" and "non-essentials," though hinting that we might give special attention to matters of greater importance (left undefined).

What is one to make of such an argument?

It's undeniable that Jesus sometimes used terrifying invective, cursing in no uncertain terms those opponents who harbored murderous intentions, plotted and grumbled against Jesus' mission to Israel, and in so doing led others astray. But this was not the only way Jesus dealt with those who entertained error, even in their roles as teachers and leaders. One might think here of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus or even his often confused disciples.

For those who embraced Jesus' mission as part of the unfolding of God's redemptive plan for Israel and the world, Jesus provided sometimes firm instruction, but he also remained patient with those searching and welcomed such folks into table fellowship. This practice, alongside his relative inattention to the theology of the Sadduccees, indicates, therefore, that Jesus made distinctions between various sorts of errors and teachers.

We need then to ask what it was about some of Israel's religious leaders that provoked Jesus' harshest responses. Could it be that what drew fire from our Lord was not so much error in itself, but rather the fundamental attitude that expressed itself in various ways, incuding error?

And might it be that this attitude was primarily one that presumed upon God's grace, taking up the biblical story in pursuit of self-justification, to exclude and control, setting up boundaries other than (and inimical to) faith in the person of Jesus?

If that is so, then might not real danger arise when we begin to slide towards similar attitudes - perhaps when we dare take up the Gospels' story of Jesus in order to justify our own similarly exclusionary attitudes or our own right to imitate Jesus' invective in opposing those among his followers with whom we may disagree?

Whatever one may conclude regarding those questions, I'm convinced the imitatio Christi that my own confessional Reformed tradition needs to contemplate today is less one that focuses upon Jesus' words to his opponents and more one that embraces Jesus' teaching that the world will know the Father sent his Son if only we learn to love one another, especially when we disagree.

16 December 2006

'tis the season

The tidal wave of final papers are now all graded, though I still need to submit the grades electronically, which I'll do sometime over this weekend.

Between small group, a couple of Christmas parties, an early anniversary celebration, spending time with my parents before going away to visit Laurel's mother for Christmas, and so forth, we've been out every evening this past week - not to mention shopping, packing, meeting with students, a few final committee meetings, lining up house and pet sitters, and everything else that needs to be done before Christmas is upon us.

At any rate, perhaps I'll find a few moments of time to blog something brief over the coming days or, as is often the case, go back and proofread and publish a post I wrote weeks or months ago.

I hope everyone is doing well and staying healthy. Take time to relax and enjoy time with friends and family as we remember and celebrate together the birth of the Savior.

13 December 2006

the lord's army

My 4 year old daughter has found herself in several Sunday School contexts where she's been led in singing:
I may never march in the infantry / Ride in the cavalry / Shoot the artillery. / I may never fly o'er the enemy / But I'm in the Lord's army.
Sometimes this has been accompanied by marching and shouts of "Yes, sir!"

Let's set aside the song apparently being aimed more at little boys than the "sugar, spice, and everything nice" set. I've got a daughter who is awakened by nightmares in which she pummels the bad guy to death, knocking out all his teeth, and then skinning his corpse (I kid you not - and don't ask me where she gets that sort of thing from, since your guess would be as good as mine). So she's not averse to martial pursuits.

What I find somewhat off-putting about the song is, first, it seems to present being "in the Lord's army" as a kind of second best. Really, it would be better if we could all join the military forces of our respective nations but, ding dang it, since we're not all really qualified, I guess we'll have to settle for the next best by being in the Lord's army. That seems to me to send the wrong message to kids, subtlely prioritizing their national citizenship or nascent patriotism over loyalty to King Jesus and his reign.

Second, the song seems to trample over the convictions of Christian brothers and sisters among us who may be pacifists or who have a rigorous interpretation of the conditions under which war is justifiable. While the image of warfare is a perfectly biblical one, and one that even pacifists should be able to embrace, it's also the case that the Gospel redefines the nature of that warfare in terms of spiritual weapons: proclamation, prayer, deeds of love, moral fortitude, suffering service, and so on. I'm not sure the song helps communicate that redefined vision.

Finally, the assumed analogy of the song seems to suppose an "us - them" model of warfare, spiritual or otherwise, with the "enemy" defined as an external force to be objectified and fought with the appropriate artillery by land and air. But that seems problematic. The enemy without is never merely a "them" to be obliterated. Rather he or she is a person held captive by the powers of darkness and rebellion who is to be set free by Gospel warfare, won over from the enemy's power into the redemption of the people of God.

Moreover, the enemy is never simply outside, but also always remains within, both within our communities as followers of Jesus and, more importantly perhaps, within our own hearts and flesh. Spiritual warfare cuts to the very heart of our identity as the baptized people of God who have not only died once to sin, but must continue to put to death the works of the flesh, disciplining ourselves lest we should be disqualified.

I guess it's silly, in some respects, to get worked up over a child's Sunday School ditty. Yet, if we take Christian nurture of our children seriously, then the shape of the theology and piety embodied in our speech, our songs, and our practices is of vital importance to the Spirit's work in the lives of our children as they grow up more and more into conformity to Christ.

Update: There's some discussion of this post here.

12 December 2006

finals week

Sorry for not blogging, but it's finals week and I'm up to my ears in paper grading. I did the math (silly me) and figured that by the time all is said and done I'll have graded around 320 papers this semester, along with 640 homeworks, adding up to approximately 2000 pages of freshman prose.

It's a miracle I haven't gone stark raving mad. Of course, if I were stark raving mad, would I realize it?

08 December 2006

suarez and keckermann

Allow me to begin by stressing that I am not an expert on Francisco Suarez (though I'm learning) and have even less knowledge of his Reformed contemporary, Bartolomaeus Keckermann (1571-1609). In light of that, what follows should be seen more as an arrow pointing towards an interesting avenue for research than any sort of developed thesis.

There is a story to be told about the place of Suarez (1548-1617) within early modern shifts in theology and philosophy (particularly metaphysics) and, as I've already suggested, that story intersects in intriguing ways with the story of Protestant scholasticism. The thought of the German Reformed theologian, Bartolomaeus Keckermann remains, I think, an important part of how those stories intersect.

Though now often forgotten and much neglected, Keckermann decisively shaped early Reformed scholasticism, with an influence that extended to even colonial New England. Dying relatively young, the bulk of Keckermann’s writings appeared in the last decade of his life, from around 1600 until his death in 1609. And the scope of Keckermann’s vision was broad, proposing a comprehensive and systematic curriculum for Christian learning. In this connection we can note his various “Systema” on assorted topics. Keckermann’s Systema logicae went through fifteen printings of seven different editions. His Systema SS. Theologiae went through eight printings of three editions. His Scientiae metaphysicae compendium systema went through four printings. Suffice it to say, Keckermann's work was relatively well known, at least among Reformed academics, in the early 17th century.

In his project Keckermann followed out and expanded upon Vermigli’s positive approach to natural theology, maintaining the unity of truth whether derived from reason or revelation. This does not entail, for Keckermann, that one ought to pursue a natural theology that is logically prior to and unconstrained by revelation, or that natural theology can grant the knowledge necessary for salvation. It does, however, make room for drawing upon non-Christian philosophical figures such as Aristotle where their views did not run contrary to Scripture.

Keckermann’s writings, in fact, maintain a significant focus on Aristotle and, more generally, issues of philosophy and metaphysics. This focus leads him to criticize so prominent a figure as the French Reformed logician Petrus Ramus (1515-1572) since, as Keckermann saw it, Ramus did not deal with metaphysics and, moreover, his focus on definitions and division of topics leaves out discussion of the essences of things themselves.

His immediate historical context instead leads Keckermann to view Aristotle as chief among the ancient philosophers since, like Keckermann’s systematizing contemporaries, Aristotle is comprehensive and deals with the relevant range of academic disciplines. In many respects Aristotle was especially suited to the temperament of the day and, in particular, Keckermann’s own penchant for “systematic” thought. Keckermann, however, emphasizes that Aristotle needs to be read within the history of interpretation and, especially, within the context of modern authors who have a better method and who edit and explore topics in a matter more suited to the contemporary situation. Among those modern authors, Keckermann would have included Suarez.

In particular, Keckermann seems to admire Suarez’s major contribution to the study of Aristotelian metaphysics, namely, the logical re-organization of Aristotle’s treatment of topics in the Metaphysical Disputations, a methodical arrangement that very much resonated with Keckermann’s own projects and interests. While the degree of direct influence is difficult to determine, Suarez’s metaphysics had been published in Germany prior to Keckermann’s treatment of the subject and Keckermann’s organization is strongly reminiscent of Suarez’s at a number of points. Moreover, departures from Suarez are most apparent where Keckermann notably diverges from Suarez on matters of substance.

Keckermann, therefore, does not follow Suarez slavishly, as is clear from his treatment of God in relation to the notion of Being. One place in which Suarez had departed from Aquinas in a somewhat more Scotist direction was on the question of Being, positing and placing God within a univocal notion of Being, over against Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy. (While Suarez's subtle position is beyond my present scope, I doubt it's entirely correct to label Suarez either a Scotist or a Thomist on the question of Being.)

On this matter, however, Keckermann re-asserts a more Thomistic analogical understanding, seeming directed against Scotus as mediated by Suarez. Among later Reformed scholastics, Keckermann is followed here by J.H. Alsted and Johannes Maccovius, while Gilbertus Jacchaeus (whom we will mention in more detail in another post) favors Suarez’s position. Still others take up mediating views, such as Franco Burgersdijk, who saw Being as univocal, but distinguished within a univocal notion of Being between “being of itself” and “being by participation,” thereby drawing upon more Thomistic concepts.

There are two primary points to take away from this brief note.

First, if we are correct in supposing that Saurez influenced Keckermann (and the evidence is indirect, though strongly probabitve), the primary influence seems to be more one of shaping the overall form of Keckermann's thought (particularly how he arranges topics and appropriates Aristotle), rather than the substance, recognizing of course that even the shape of a discussion affects how answers are formulated.

Second, on more substantial questions (particularly questions of the univocity and analogy of being), Suarez's treatment molded subsequent discussion and, within that discussion, there was diversity of viewpoints on the issues from the very inception of Reformed scholasticism.

bht poll

So, Boar's Head Tavern is polling its contributors on a range of issues. Even though I'm not a BHT guy, I love those folks over there (yes, even though most of them are Baptists) and I thought I might as well jump in. Besides, this has been an exhausting week and I need an easy way to do a blog entry.

Sorry these are not "short answers." My general bias is that if it can fit on a bumper sticker, it's probably not worth saying.

Baptism - Christ, present by his Spirit, gives himself to us in a promise made with water. Credobaptism? If we allow that kids profess faith through baptism. Regarding other churches' baptisms as invalid is a scar on the face of catholicity.

The Lord’s Supper - We receive the body and blood of Jesus by sharing bread and wine in the power of the Spirit, a memorial of his death enacted by his gathered Body. When we receive Christ, we receive all his benefits. Weekly eucharist is normal.

Emerging Church - Difficult to generalize, but they are good Christian folks, well-intentioned, trying to make the Gospel tangibly seen and known within the communities they inhabit. Some need to grow up and a few flirt with heterodoxy, but we've all got our in-house problems.

Young Earth Creationism - I can respect young earthers who uphold what they believe to be biblical truth, but don't try to convince me of "creation science" or "creationism."

Cessationism - The Spirit gifts himself to his people, coming to diverse expressions, including pretty surprising ones at times. I don't think some gifts have the same purpose or shape today as in the apostolic era, but I can't biblically rule out analogous expressions of them today.

Abraham Lincoln - His use of our founding documents to deconstruct the Constitution's presumption of slaveholding was a brilliant rhetorical re-reading of the American narrative. He also looked better once he grew the Amish beard.

Gender Issues - Still a soft complementarian since there are biblical reasons why the Minister of word and sacrament is male. Sexual differences are real even if we can't articulate them. I don't think another's egalitarianism makes it impossible for me to work together for the Gospel. We do need to encourage women to develop and use all their gifts for the sake of the Body.

Inspiration of the Bible - Plenary, verbal inspiration, authoritative, etc. But I have no axe to grind with Pete Enns, Tom Wright, or John Webster, whatever D.A. Carson might have to say about that.

Gay Marriage - I'm not going to advocate it, but I'm not going to get my knickers in a twist over it. Christian marriage before God and unions sanctioned by the civil government describe two distinct, even if overlapping, spheres of human relationship. Maybe it's time for the church to regain a sense of her identity as an alternative polis.

Education (Home, Public, Private, None) - I'm an educator and favor education any way you can get it. Besides, the civil government has a legitimate interest in an educated citizenry, so long as it doesn't subvert Christian nurture.

Who is TR on the BHT? - No one. Any TR worth his salt would say those BHT folks are all a bunch of heretics - just look how they're answering these questions.

Sanctification - By grace, through faith, repentance, and diligent use of the means of grace, learning to become who we already are in Christ.

BHT Comments - Why ask for trouble?

05 December 2006

emerging in postmodernity

I want to return to Scot McKnight's talk on the emerging movement. "Emerging" represents a trend that is central to the mission of a younger generation of pastors and church leaders. Whatever one might think of this movement, we cannot ignore it and perhaps we can even learn from it, especially by listening to those, such as McKnight, who speak from within it.

We can begin here by reflecting upon McKnight's suggestion that the emerging church is a missional ecclesiology that engages with postmodernity both as a cultural phenomenon and in terms of how theory and practice might reorient our theology.

McKnight points out that there are at least three ways in which emerging Christians engage with postmodernity: [a] some minister to postmoderns, [b] some minister with postmoderns, and [c] some minister as postmoderns.

The idea here is following. Some emerging Christians see postmoderns as folks who need to be saved, not least from the potentially damaging character of postmodernity. Some see postmodernity as a fact to be accepted and seek to minister contextually within the contemporary situation. And some accept a large part of the postmodern critique of modernity, see evangelicalism as complicit with modernity, and thus allow postmodern theory to chasten the expression of their faith.

I think its worth pointing out that the postmodern itself is a complex phenomenon.

For instance, we can distinguish between postmodernism as a theoretical critique of philosophical modernism and postmodernity as a cultural condition. We can also distinguish between aspects of the postmodern that are, in fact, hyper-modern - the modern come to its fullest and most self-conscious expression - and aspects of the postmodern that represent a genuine critique of and counter-practice to modernity. Moreover, there are varieties of postmodern thought that are "postmodern" in part due to their openness to retrieving and reappropriating the premodern. And add to this that, more often than not, it is precisely postmodernism, as a critical enterprise, that offers some of the most trenchant critiques of postmodernity at its most hyper-modern.

In light of these complexities, I think it is fair to say that one does not necessarily need to make a choice between ministering to, with, or as postmoderns, since these options are not mutually exclusive.

Jamie Smith points out that our dominant cultural phenomena tend to remain within the conserving structures of individualism and consumerism (often with a concomitant relativism) - all very modern tendencies - without having internalized postmodernism's critique of just such tendencies. Thus, a facile relativism born of value-constructing consumerism might well be a form of human brokenness and faithlessness that the church must minister to.

But the church may take up this ministry, in part, by using tools of postmodern critique to bring expression to the Gospel's message, while living out an alternative practice, thereby serving the Gospel, in a sense, both as and with postmoderns. Moreover, the church can do all of this, in part, by heavily re-investing in aspects of the faith that sink their roots deep within premodern thought and practice (historic liturgy, sacramental life, classical patterns of preaching the biblical text, modes of theological reflection, etc.).

To many believers, especially within traditional ecclesiastical institutions (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Reformational), such an emerging approach may seem, at best, eclectic and, at worst, a radicalization of modernity's pick-and-choose religious consumerism, marketing the faith to a contemporary audience. This is all the more so given the rise of the emerging movement, at least in America, largely from within evangelical non-denominational and free church communities (in the UK I understand that matters are different, with much of the emerging movement occurring within the established Church of England).

There's no point pretending that such a criticism of emerging churches has no teeth. Nonetheless, we do need, I think, to grasp the complexity of the question here, which is largely a missional one of distinguishing contextualization from capitulation, transposing that question from the field of foreign missions, where it historically arose, into our present cultural context in the postmodern west (Newbigin is a leading light in this task).

Part of the question, to my mind, is how we distinguish a capitulation to culture from an engagement with culture or an attempt to speak and live the Gospel contextually to culture. It doesn't seem to me that this is always a simple or straightforward distinction.

I find instructive the way that a thinker such as N.T. Wright unfolds the "Paul and empire" theme. Wright sees Israel's historical polemic against idolatry and Gentile powers being taken up by Paul in relation to his immediate context and the situation of the churches to which he is writing (and that plays out differently in Paul's writing to the Roman colony of Philippi than it might elsewhere).

There are places further along in church history where many have regarded the contextual elements of respective theologies to be brilliant and strategic moves within the unfolding of our theological traditions. For instance, we find Augustine polemically drawing upon the language of neo-platonism, Aquinas taking up Augustinian theology in the face of Aristotle, and the Reformers deploying the tools of Renaissance humanistic studies. Can we embrace these moves within our theological heritage while dismissing contemporary analogues as mere capitulations to culture?

I certainly grant that problematic capitulation is possible and, all too often, actual (e.g., the Latin Averroists whom Aquinas opposed). But do we make suspicion and dismissal our starting points? Or do such judgments arise as the end product of a process of discernment?

My own conviction is that we must begin in a posture of humility, trusting that the emerging movement - whatever its very real problems - is nonetheless a gift that the Spirit has given to the church at this time.

Emerging Christians have been willing to ask difficult questions about evangelicalism's own complicity with modernity and have begun to think through how the demise of Christendom affects the church's mission. Emerging churches have a real heart to reach out to postmoderns in a way that can be heard and received by them, listening carefully to those who remain outside of our churches in order to find out what their questions are and what they are seeking. Moreover, emerging believers take bold risks in their attempt to speak the eternal word to a changing world, risks that more established traditions might find difficult to undertake.

That doesn't mean they get everything correct or always make the best discernments. But it is a conversation that we can ill-afford to ignore. And part of what those of us outside of the emerging movement might be able to contribute as points of contact are resources from within our own living traditions that already anticipate some of the issues raised by the emerging theologians, even if these home-grown resources remain undeveloped or dormant.

From within my own Reformed tradition I'm reminded of counter-modern tendencies within the 17th century scholastics, the cultural engagements of Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, the theoretical critiques of Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til, and the missional perspectives of Lesslie Newbigin and Harvie Conn. More widely, among orthodox engagements open towards the postmodern, I find myself drawn to developments by the ressourcement theologians of Roman Catholicism, post-Christendom thinkers such as Yoder and Hauerwas, and the contributions of Radical Orthodoxy (among others - the list could go on).

None of that points a way forward in itself, but it does suggest, I hope, that there is a fruitful conversation to be had that can serve the greater mission of the church. Moreover, even though the emerging movement is itself a newer development, it intersects in important ways with the ongoing Great Conversation of God's people. Perhaps it is only in dialogue then, with gifts such as the emerging movement, listening to what they might teach us, that the resources of our own various traditions can be dusted off, developed further, re-contextualized, and pressed into service for the sake of the Gospel today.

Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel for the renewal and mission of your church and the training of those who minister. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

03 December 2006

sunday readings

The previous post was just a few thoughts on the Sunday readings for today from the Revised Common Lectionary. I'm not sure if I'll be doing this regularly or if this is just a one off whim of the day. But in my own personal study I often enjoy exploring the themes and narative threads that interconnect between the readings. So perhaps I'll occaionally write those up as I did today. We'll see.

advent 1

Readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36
In today's Gospel reading Jesus says, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and forboding of what is coming upon the world..." (Lk 21:25-26).

Jesus' description hits close to home - if not for us here in the relative safety and comfort of the US, it is nonetheless the reality for peoples throughout the world.

Our sisters and brothers in many places find their homelands tossed about upon the rough seas of international strife. They worry whether they will live to see the sun rise upon another day. They are weary unto fainting with the turmoil that surrounds them. From Darfur to Baghdad, from Vietnam to Palestine, from China to Indonesia, many Christians live in fear of the powers that rule their skies.

Even many of us, on a personal level, find ourselves in analogous situations, even if the stakes are different or the troubles are sometimes self-inflicted.

We are distressed and confused by roaring voices surrounding us, which send up waves of interpersonal conflict and wranglings for control that threaten to destroy what we hold dear. Those places and people to whom we once looked as lights and guides have turned into signs of the brokenness that exists even among God's own people. Perhaps we feel the darkness of depression, or illness, or severed relationships. We fear what might become of us or of our loved ones or of the communities we inhabit.

Jesus' original audience would live to see such times themselves: "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place" (Lk 21:32). The church of the apostles was a church ravaged by senseless divisions and party spirit, by the false teachings of the exclusivistic Judaizers, and by threatening political powers from Jerusalem to Rome. And then, in the AD 60s, Jerusalem itself fell under seige, the emperor Nero committed suicide, the new emperor was deposed, and the whole empire seemed in turmoil. The church found herself to be a fractured people in the midst of a fractured world.

And where is our God in the midst of all this, they might have thought. If God is "gracious and upright," the one whose "paths...are love and faithfulness" (Ps 25:7, 9), then why do we so often not see this more clearly? Where, we wonder, is the tangible evidence of his love?

With God's early church and with the Psalmist, we find ourselves crying out, "Let none who look to you be put to shame! Let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. Show me yours ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths!" (Ps 25:2-3). We repeat, "Remember, O Lord...remember," calling upon our God to fulfill his promises (Ps 25:5, 6).

The God we know in Jesus Christ, however, is a God who keeps his promises, who has secured those promises for us in the person and work of his Son.

In that light, we can look back to today's Old Testament text, the prophetic word that came through Jeremiah: "I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel...I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David" (Jer 33:14-15). Jeremiah writes from Israel's exile, when Israel's kings had failed, God's own people had fallen into sin, and all seemed lost. He writes from a fractured nation in a fractured world.

Yet in the midst of such times of distress among the nations - times of fear and foreboding - Jeremiah could look forward in confidence to the fulfillment of God's covenant promise: an heir to David's throne upon whom the fate of Israel would rest, the righteous Branch springing up from the shriveled stump of a failed monarchy.

And not only would God raise up this royal heir to David, but this king would make God's ways known among his people: "he shall execute justice and righteousness... Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety" (Jer 33:15). Through this king God's own saving power as creator and redeemer would be manifest - power to deliver his people from oppression, to vindicate them among the nations, and to secure them from harm.

In response to this display of Yahweh's own righteous acts, in light of God's faithfulness to his covenant promises, the Branch from David would be given the title: "Yahweh is our righteousness" (Jer 33:16).

Yet, after the exile of Israel was over and David's heir Zerubbabel had rebuilt Jerusalem and laid the foundation of the Temple, the royal line once again seemed to fail, Israel fell again into sin, and other nations ruled over God's people, waging war in their land. God's promise, it seemed, had not come true after all. And once again it was clear that Israel was part of the problem.

If "the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Ps 25:9), how could God ever carry forward his mission when the vehicle of that mission was a covenant-breaking and faithless people? From within that tension, God's people still could cry out, "Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me!" (Ps 25:1), the cry again of a fractured people in a fractured world where things are broken more deeply than we ever imagined, a brokenness extending to the heart of the very people through whom God's purposes were supposed to be fulfilled.

From the standpoint of Christian faith, however, we know that our God is a God who will not allow human sinfulness to frustrate his mission.

In fulfilling his promises, God turns our longings and expectations on their heads. He shows himself to be a Storyteller who delights in the well-timed plot twist. He is the God who embraces and enters into the upside down and inside out nature of our lives, and in so doing accomplishes more than we could ask or imagine.

And so the prophetic word of Jeremiah comes to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. It was this Jesus, the heir of David, whom God raised up to display his saving power and to accomplish the vindication of his people.

In Jesus Christ, God demonstrates his love and faithfulness through executing justice and righteousness. He does so, however, not as we would expect - simply by defeating Israel's external enemies. Rather, he does so paradoxically in the death of the righteous Branch himself as the one who took up the fate of God's covenant-breaking and faithless people, embracing the enemy of sin from within the heart of Israel itself.

Moreover, God fulfills his promise to save Judah and to cause Jerusalem to live in safety by delivering the Branch from the power of death, the Branch who embodies Israel's identity and place in God's plan. Therefore, all who are united to Jesus Christ by faith share in his vindication, enjoying the salvation of Judah, resting secure within the safety of Jerusalem. In this way God's promise for Israel spills over far beyond national Israel, sweeping people from every tongue and tribe and nation into the righteousness of Yahweh that was manifest in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But let's return to the first century, to the early Christians living as a fractured church in the midst of a fractured world. These believers, despite similarities, did not find themselves in the same situation as Israel during the exile or even after the return. Though they knew themselves to be exiles and sojourners, they nonetheless knew this from within a life of faith on the other side of Jesus and his work.

In the resurrection of Jesus, they could confess "you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long" (Ps 25:4). They also had Jesus' promise that they would indeed "see the Son of Man coming in a cloud" (Lk 21:27), alluding to the figure from Daniel of God's public vindication of his people, summed up in the reign of the Son of Man. Though precisely how that promise would come to pass was yet to be revealed, they knew it as the promise of a risen Lord and Savior they could trust.

When, in the midst of the turmoil of their world, Jerusalem fell and the empire began to stabilize again, they knew they had witnessed the reign of Christ and the vindication of his people. Those who had persecuted the church were unseated by their own ambitions and pretensions. The exclusivistic claims of the Judaizers suddenly rang hollow. And though the church was not yet free from Caesar's sometimes painful rule, it was all the more clear that Jesus remained the world's true Lord.

Today we see distress and fear around us. We are tossed upon roaring waves and witness troubling signs. We are a fractured people in a fractured world.

Nevertheless, in light of the Scriptures we have seen, we can grasp all more tightly to the hope we find in the story of Israel and of the early church. We can live the meaning of Advent as we remain "alert at all times, praying," anticipating and awaiting even now the appearing of the Son of Man, the rule of Christ made known among us today and the future completion of all things through him.

This hope is not just a conjecture, a wishful hunch, an empty longing, but begins to take concrete shape even now as we strive to live Jesus-shaped lives as the people of God.

Now in the present, with Paul, "we pray most earnestly that we may see [one another] face to face and restore whatever is lacking in [our] faith" (1 Th 3:10) so that Christ's rule may be known among us, seen and believed in the faces of our sisters and brothers. We pray that "the Lord make [us] increase and abound in love for one another and for all" so that the love of Jesus may live among us as a present sign of his reign (1 Th 3:12). And we pray that "he so strenghten [our] hearts in holiness that [we] may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus" (1 Th 3:13).

In all these ways we, the church, can live as a fig tree in the midst of a world looking for a sign of hope. As the followers of Jesus, we can put out sprouts of faith and love in the present as a tangible sign that God's kingdom is near (Lk 21).

We may still call out, "Let none who look to you be put to shame!" We may yet cry out to God to "Remember!" The way that God will bring us through our present troubles may be obscure. We may remain distressed and full of fear.

And yet, in the midst of all this, we can also be confident that the God in whom we trust - the God who lifted up his righteous Branch, who raised Jesus from the dead, who made the sign of the Son of Man appear - this very same God will fulfill his promises of deliverance and safety. This is the same God who will never allow his mission in the world to be frustrated, even by the sin and brokenness of his people, since it is in their weakness that he proves strong. And this is the same God whose love and faithfulness will be made known in ways that exceed what we could ask or imagine.

02 December 2006

advent season

Over the centuries, the collective wisdom of Jesus' followers have found it helpful to shift emphases in their worship and prayer during different phases of the year, built around the narrative of the Gospel. Liturgical calendars thus serve to provide a healthy balance in the church's teaching focus, to rehearse the great works of God in redemption, and to channel and cultivate a well-rounded piety.

The church year begins anew tomorrow with the first Sunday of "Advent," a word that suggests "approach" or "coming near." It is thus a season of anticipation and preparation of the Lord's drawing near to us, God's mission, his coming into the world to seek and save his people.

First, we look forward in hope to the second coming of our Lord when he will set all things to rights. At that time, he will bring to completion the victory over the powers of sin and death inaugurated in Christ and deliver us finally and fully from the world of sin, the flesh, and the devil. In view of this redemption we now, by hope, persevere in the present tension of a good creation not yet fulfilled.

But, second, we also await the Christmas celebration of his first coming, looking back in faith to remember what God has already done. Living in between the times, and unlike God's old covenant people, we know our Lord as the Incarnate One in whom all God's promises for humanity have already come to fulfillment and remain "Yes" and "Amen." In the cruciform strength of Jesus' accomplishment we, by faith, participate in the mission of God.

And, third, we also wait, watch, and pray in the love of Christ who comes to be present among us right now. We find him in the word of the Gospel, holding out God's forgiveness to us. We meet Christ in words of pardon and of blessing, in proclamation and prayer, in water and bread and wine, in the love of one another, in the stranger and the hungry. In the face of Christ's presence among us we, in love, live out the values of his kingdom within the church and in the world.

May God bless you this Advent season and his Spirit encourage you to watch and pray for his coming.

01 December 2006

world AIDS day 06

Currently, there are 40 million people living with HIV and AIDS globally and 1 million in the United States. World AIDS Day was started in 1998 to raise awareness about the impact of HIV and AIDS on our world.

Support World AIDS Day

You might want to take a moment out today and pray for those who are affected by HIV/AIDS - those in your own local community, your church, your nation, and throughout the world. Following the Gospel, the church has often stepped up to care and pray for the sick and diseased, even when those suffering were alienated in some way from others.

There are all sorts of tangible ways that you can help, both by volunteering your time (e.g., educational programs, medication delivery, visitation) or by giving your finances (e.g., sponsoring a child in affected regions through World Vision, giving to local charities, purchasing (RED) products in your holiday shopping).

Among the areas of the world most affected by HIV/AIDS is the continent of Africa. Coming alongside our African brothers and sisters, the National African American Catholic HIV/AIDS Task Force provides the following prayer:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, O good and gracious God, you are the God of health and wholeness in the plan of your creation, you call us to struggle in our sickness and to cling always to the cross of your Son. O God, we are your servants.

Many of us are now suffering with HIV or AIDS. We come before you and ask you, if it is your holy will, to take this suffering away from us, restore us to health and lead us to know you and your powerful healing love of body and spirit.

We ask you also to be with those of us who nurse your sick ones. We are the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, and friends of your suffering people.

It is so hard for us to see those whom we love suffer. You know what it is to suffer. Help us minister in loving care, support, and patience for your people who suffer with HIV and AIDS. Lead us to do whatever it will take to eradicate this illness from the lives of those who are touched by it, both directly and indirectly.

Trusting in you and the strength of your Spirit, we pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.