31 October 2007

justification in luke-acts

The 1992 volume Right with God: Justification in the Bible and World, edited by D.A. Carson (Baker Press), contains an interesting and helpful essay by Richard B. Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary, entitled "Justification in Luke-Acts" (106-125).

Given the importance of justification for several of Paul's epistles, the fact that Luke-Acts takes up about one quarter of the New Testament, and the traditional link between Luke and Paul, it is an intriguing question how Paul's doctrine of justification makes its way into Luke-Acts, if at all.

Gaffin notes at the outset that two extremes are to be avoided: [1] striving to set Paul and Luke in fundamental opposition just because there are differences and [2] reading Paul into Luke so that Luke is "Paulinized" in a way that does violence to his own theology and modes of expression.

As a further introduction, Gaffin suggests that two approaches to Luke-Acts could be taken on the matter of justification. On one hand, one could commence "an exegetical survey of the relatively few passages where justification/righteousness language occurs," and from there consider other related ideas. On the other hand, one could begin with the overall narrative arc of Luke-Acts, identifying major themes and then "considering whether these theme involve elements that bear on the idea of justification," placing specific references within the wider context (108).

Gaffin opts for the second approach.

The focus of Gaffin's presentation of Luke-Acts is upon the role of the Spirit. The main point of his analysis is that the Spirit of God is the Spirit who, in and through Jesus Christ, brings the kingdom of God in salvation and judgment: a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. As the one anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, Jesus undergoes the baptism of the cross, submitting to judgment, but is also raised to new eschatological life by that same Spirit.

Pentecost is of a piece with Jesus' death and resurrection. When he pours our his Spirit upon the disciples, they "are not consumed like chaff by the 'fiery pneuma' because [Jesus], the baptizer, has already been been baptized for them" (111). Jesus had already exhausted the destructive aspect of the spiritual fire in his death and resurrection and thus only the messianic blessings of the Spirit remain.

The Spirit at Pentecost, then, is "totally saving" and "manifestly gracious" in his baptizing of the church (111).

Gaffin summarizes the implications for justification within Luke-Acts in the following way:
Pentecost, then, is the de facto justification of the church. Along with Christ's resurrection and ascension...it is a declaration, in effect, of the church's righteous standing before God. Pentecost is not only the efficacious empowering of the church for kingdom service (it is that, to be sure), but is also the effective demonstration that the church is no longer subject to God's wrath. The eschatological life of the Spirit poured out on the church at Pentecost seals its acquittal and the definitive removal of it guilt...The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of justification. (112)
From this quotation, it would seem that in Gaffin's interpretation of Luke-Acts justification is first and foremost a forensic event that marks out the true covenant community as God's forgiven eschatological people and thus is as much ecclesiological as it is soteriological.

After this discussion of the Spirit and Pentecost, Gaffin goes on to examine various texts within Luke-Acts that speak of the "forgiveness of sins." Though Gaffin touches upon the ministry of John the Baptizer and the Lord's Prayer, he focuses in upon the two instances in which Jesus declares sins forgiven: the healing of the paralytic (Lk 4) and the woman who wept at Jesus' feet (Lk 7).

Gaffin notes that in both instances, while "remission is sovereign and gracious (it is not even sought, at least not explicitly)" it is nonetheless not granted apart from faith. In both the case of the paralytic and the woman, Jesus is said to see their faith. Thus, Gaffin notes, "Their faith was visible, embodied in and inseparable from the actions they took" (115).

We can note in this context, then, that justifying faith is one that is seen by God in our actions by which we respond to his grace. One might say that while faith is the sole instrumental cause of justification, God grants justification in response to a faith that is expressed in our actions, as genuinely Protestant theology has always maintained.

As Gaffin later notes, "in Luke-Acts faith/repentance/conversion all refer to the decisive movement away from sinning and self-reliance towards God." But repentance as metanoia is "hardly a bare mental act. It engages the whole person and does not exist in isolation, apart from specific concrete manifestations" (116).

Gaffin also draws attention to the larger narrative within which Jesus pronounces sins to be forgiven, in particular, the "broader context of Jesus' table fellowship and other ongoing associations with sinners" as a manifestation of the salvation he brings, relativizing the distinction between "righteous" and "sinner" (116). Table fellowship itself reveals the character of justification within Luke-Acts. Gaffin writes,
Given the cultural-religious circumstances, Jesus' table fellowship with "sinners" itself shows vividly that acceptance with God and acquittal in the forum of his judgment is not based on righteous conduct, no matter how scrupulous, but on God's unmerited mercy, mediated through commitment to Jesus and his word. (117)
Though Gaffin does not pursue the issue, it would be interesting to trace this line of thought out in connection with Paul's comments on justification and table fellowship in Galatians. If table fellowship is itself a declaration of God's acceptance and acquittal of sinners, then it is evident why Paul might think that refusal of such fellowship over the issue of circumcision would undermine the reality of justification.

The first mention of forgiveness in Acts is from Peter's sermon at Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." The connection between repentance, faith, forgiveness, and baptism looks back to John's baptism, but now brought to eschatological fulfillment in the exalted Christ.

As Gaffin notes, the Spirit here is not to be understood as "an independent, presumably even subsequent, addition to forgiveness but as integrally and inseparably connected." That is to say, the event of Pentecost itself demonstrates that 'those who are justified are those who are Spirit-baptized' (120).

In light of this, the offer of Peter to the crowd, offered in the tangible event of baptism, "is not an individual experience of power such as they have just been observing in Peter and the others...Rather he offers inclusion into the church as the Spirit-baptized people of God, so that they share individually in what is true of that community corporately" - the justifying seal of the Spirit (120).

Gaffin concludes with a brief discussion of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He readily admits that "there is nothing wrong with what the Pharisee prays. It is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the thoroughly commendable deeds enumerated." Indeed, as Gaffin notes, the Pharisee's prayer "can even be said to reflect a certain theology of grace" (124).

The problem with the prayer is, instead, what is missing from it: a humble confession of his own sin and guilt that acknowledges that he, the Pharisee, is like this tax collector. Rather than this, we find the Pharisee setting himself apart in a self-regarding confidence from which he looks down upon in contempt upon the tax collector.

The larger context is one of righteous status and God's eschatological verdict. In the final judgment, who will be found righteous before God and justified? As Gaffin notes, "in terms of contemporary Jewish socio-religious categories" it is the Pharisee who would be assumed to be righteous (123). By justifying themselves in the "eyes of men" they assume that they have justified themselves in the sight of God. This is the assumption that Jesus challenges: "What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight."

Jesus' challenge, then, is one of who is righteous in God's eyes. As Gaffin notes "the tax collector, in abandoning himself to the forgiving mercy of God, exemplifies the humility of faith." Moreover, God's forgiving mercy in eschatological judgment shows that justification is "present deliverance from the eschatological wrath of God, a verdict, already rendered, of acquittal and right standing in the final judgment" (124), bringing the final verdict into the present.

30 October 2007

downame on the word of god

In his The Sum of Sacred Divinity (1630), John Downame provides an extended treatment of the Word of God as that is given to us in Christ, entrusted to the church in the Scriptures, and proclaimed for humanity's salvation (for a brief biography of Downame, see my introduction to "Downame on the Visible Church").

The following are some excerpts from Downame's discussion (spelling and usage updated):

The prophetical office of Christ respects a church and people, in bestowing upon them his Word and the fruit it brings forth by the working of the Spirit: for these three - prophet, Word, and church - have a perpetual relation unto one another. Wherefore in handling the prophetical office, the Word of Christ is first to be spoken of and then his church.

The Word of Christ is all the holy doctrine that he has taught from the beginning, concerning our salvation through him, wherein observe:

First, Christ is the matter and only subject and substance of the Word. In that regard, he himself is called "The Word" (Jn 1:1) or "The Word of God" (Rev 19:13). Because of him and him alone it is that there are in the Word so many glorious and excellent speeches, and the doctrine of the gospel has the name of "the Word of Christ" (Col 3:16). So as it is not any natural knowledge that this doctrine teaches, but heavenly and supernatural which was not in Adam before his fall, though he was perfectly holy and endued with all manner of natural understanding.

Secondly, he himself, as he is the matter, so he is the author of the Word. In which respect the Scripture gives these names unto him: first, he is called "the Speaker" and interpreter of the Father's will (Dan 8:13), to which place it may be the Apostle has some eye, when he says, "Take heed you do not resist him who speaks," or "the Speaker," meaning Christ (Heb 12:25); secondly, "a Doctor" or "a Teacher" (Mt 3:10); thirdly, "a Prophet," the Head and Lord of the prophets (Dt 18:15; Acts 3:22); fourthly, "an Apostle" (Heb 3:1); fifthly, "the Angel of the covenant" (Mal 3:1).

And that we may know with what graces our Savior Christ is furnished for so great a work, "all the treasures of knowledge and understanding are hidden in him" (Col 2:3), yea, he is "Wisdom itself" (1Co 1:24) or "the Wisdom of God" (Lk 11:49) and called, as by a proper name, "one who understands riddles" (Dan 8:23), this is, one who has all hidden things numbered before him already told, and as we say, at his fingertips, which as occasion serves, he utters to his church.

Wherefore, here is the touchstone of all truth and there is no truth concerning God and our salvation in Christ, but in the Word, our Savior himself bearing record, "Your Word is truth" (Jn 17:17).

Touching the outward instruments, which it has pleased him to use in the delivery of his Word, sometimes he spoke by his own voice from heaven, sometimes by the ministry of his holy angels. But specially this outward ministry is either his own which he executed personally himself when he was upon the earth (described in Isaiah 42:1-7, in regard whereof he is call a minister, "the minister of the circumcision," Rom 15:8, and a "Servant," Isa 42:1) or it is of his servants from the beginning of the world of whom he says, "He that hears you, hears me; and he that receives you, receives me" (Lk 10:16). Of whose ministries and functions, we shall have cause to speak hereafter.

Therefore, Christ's office of a teacher did not first begin when he took our flesh upon him, for it was his Spirit that spoke in the prophets long before he came into the world, as the Apostle bears record, "The fore-witnessing Spirit of Christ that was in the prophets declared the sufferings that should befall Christ and the glory that was to follow" (1Pe 1:11). And that which is in the Psalms, "Today, if you will hear his voice" (95:7), the Apostle to the Hebrews refers to the voice of Christ (Heb 3:7).

Thirdly, I note the perfection of this doctrine that Christ has opened the whole will of his Father fully and perfectly in every age and never left his church without a full and perfect direction of all things necessary for their salvation, for Moses says, "Behold, I set before you this day life and death" (Dt 30:15), which he could not have said unless there had been a certain direction to lead them unto life. And when he charges, "Not to add to the words the he gave them in commandment nor to take away from them" (Dt 4:2), does it not prove that the same was perfect?

Fourthly, the subject of the Word being Christ, it is more particularly the covenant made in him, which by the Word is promulgated and offered unto all and his Spirit makes effectual to as many as receiving the same by faith, make themselves worthy of it.

This covenant being distinguished by the "Old Testament" and the "New," as before has been declared, the publication of the Old Testament in and through Christ to come was called "the promise" (Acts 13:32; Gal 3:17); when he was exhibited and had come indeed, that worthy welcome message was termed "the gospel" or good news and glad tidings (Acts 13:32; Mk 1:1).

But it is the glory of Christ's administration, whether in his own person when he was among us or by his servants, that the outward dispensing of the Word is accompanied with an inward working of the Spirit, of which both parts his prophetical office stands, herein differing from all other ministers, who only preach the Word, set on the outward element (Mt 3:11) plant and water (1Co 3:6), but the whole blessing comes from him, for his teaching opens men's minds "that they may understand the Scriptures" (Lk 24:15) and bestows other grace which the Word brings forth, even in the wicked, by a general working of his Spirit, as we are taught by the parable of the sower (Mt 13:24) and have Herod (Mk 6:20) and the Jews (Jn 5:35) for an example.

[At this point Downame speaks at length regarding the visible church. Later he returns to the ministry of the Word as that is given to the church visible.]

Christ not only gathers a church unto himself, a precious possession out of the world and the delight and joy of the earth, but he garnishes it also and sets it forth with many goodly ornaments and rich endowments, which the Apostle calls "gifts" (Eph 4:7-8). Some for the public, some for a man's own private use.

Of these, the first are certain rich jewels of inestimable price and value: his Word, sacraments, and other holy things, which Christ has laid up in the Ark of his church and committed to their care, as a treasure which he will trust none but his church withal. As under the law, in the Holy of Holies (wherein was the Ark) were kept the "Tables of the Testament" (the Word), "the golden pot that had manna" (a sacrament), and "Aaron's rod that had budded" (for a sign against the rebellious; Num 17:10; 1Co 4:21), his Word to be preached, sacraments and other holy things to be administered. Here therefore are the lively notes and marks of a church (Mt 16:19). The Scripture styles them by the name of "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 28:19-20).

The prime and principal is his Word (whereof we have spoke already), the treasure of all heavenly knowledge. This, says the Apostle to the Romans, is "the chief" (of those excellencies which the Jews had above other men) "that unto them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom 3:2). Or, as the prophet speaks, the "excellencies of the law" (Hos 8:12). Wherefore God's Word and precepts Daniel many times calls "things deposited" (see also Paul, 1Ti 6:20 and 2Ti 1:14). In regard whereof, the church is said to be "the pillar and seat of truth" (1Ti 3:15), for the truth of God is no where to be found but there. It is error, lies, superstition, and deceit, whatsoever comes not from hence. The church only is the golden candlestick figured in the law, which holds up the eternal truth of God to give light unto all the world and there light is to be had, when darkness covers the whole of the earth beside.

Preaching, for the form and manner of it, is an instruction by word of mouth, opening and interpreting the Scriptures, rendering the sense thereof, drawing the doctrines that are to be gathered from them, making use and profit of it for the edification and building up of our faith, which the Apostle, by a metaphor from the sacrifices of the law, called "cutting aright the Word of truth" (2Ti 2:15). It stands not in the bare and naked reading of them. And that you may see, Nehemiah 8:8-9, where "the people abiding in their standing, the Levites taught them the law, first reading it distinctly, then rendering the sense of the Scripture itself." So Luke 4:17-21, our Savior coming into the synagogue, there was given him the book of the prophet Isaiah, which when he had unfolded it, read a portion of the Scripture, he folded the book and gave it to him that waited and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue, being fastened upon him, he began to say to them, "Today is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears."

And of this instruction by word of mouth, it pleased God to make choice, rather than of reading, for that it pierces deeper into the heart and mind of man and more affects him and that through the blessing of God, uses the zeal of the speaker for the quickening and putting of life into that which is spoken. The argument, matter, or subject must be of and concerning Christ, by teaching our own corruption and impotency to fulfill the law and therefore the necessity we have to fly to him which is made unto us of God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, that he that glories might glory in the Lord. Wherein it differs from the ministry of Moses or of the law, as the Apostle does oppose them, "Who also has enabled us to be ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the Spirit" (2Co 3:6). So Romans 1:1-4, he shows, he was "called to be an Apostle and set apart to preach to the gospel of God, concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord." And Romans 10:8, "This is that Word of faith that we preach."

In like sort it is said of Philip, when he came down unto Samaria, that "he preached unto them Christ" (Acts 8:5). Peter also, Acts 10:43-44, declares the sum of all that which he was charged of God to preach unto the people to be this, that "by his name should everyone that believes in him receive forgiveness of sins."

The part of this instruction in the church are doctrine and exhortation, both comprehended (Ro 12:7-8). Doctrine, by laying forth the truth and confuting of contrary errors, that so the purity of faith may always remain found and uncorrupt in the church. Exhortation, which sharpens the Word and sets an edge upon it, by applying the same and making use of it, as the necessity of people requires. And these two aptly answer to the two parts of the soul of man - his mind or understanding and his will and affection - both which, by these means, God provides for.

From here Downame continues by speaking of the administration of the sacraments, the nature of the ordained ministry, and of the character and extent of the Scriptures. Perhaps I'll blog some of that at some later point when time permits.

What strikes me most about Downame's account of the Word of God is how profoundly christocentric it is, beginning with Christ as the Word of the Father who is the ultimate content, subject, matter, and speaker in all of Scripture. Secondly, I appreciate Downame's emphasis upon how God has designed that we should receive the Word through the instrumentality of human speakers who not only read the Word, but explain it and press it into our lives.

29 October 2007

the evangelical crackup

Reporter David D. Kirkpatrick writes about "The Evangelical Crackup" in yesterday's New York Times.

The "crackup" here refers to the waning hegemony of right-wing conservative politics among evangelicals, particularly among younger voters, so that evangelicalism no longer represents, in the words of Marvin Olasky, "the Republican Party at prayer".

One of the more disturbing elements of the article, to my mind, was the way in which some evangelical leaders appear to equate a "leftward drift" on some political issues with a declension from theological orthodoxy.

According to the article, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, sees these political shifts as a move away from orthodox evangelical theology, replaying the early 20th century split between evangelicals and the liberal mainline. Even David Wells, who I thought would be a more clear thinker, is quoted as saying that these political shifts represent a "capitulation" to the broader culture, associating that with a decline of the mainline liberals.

I continue to be surprised by the way in which many evangelicals are still fighting theological "liberalism" as the primary enemy, so that every shift away from the cultural trappings of evangelicalism is seen as a shift towards such liberalism - without always recognizing to what degree evangelicalism's own cultural trappings are already a "capitulation."

Moreover, as far as I can discern from the article and my own experience and exposure to younger evangelicals, most evangelical Christians have not really moved much politically on issues such as abortion, use of embryonic stem cells, euthanasia, gay marriage, and so on. Rather, they have raised questions and shifted on issues such as environmental stewardship, warfare, economic policies, global poverty, HIV/AIDS, and so forth.

In these respects, it seems to me that some evangelicals are actually often moving closer to the historic social teaching of the Christian church, particularly in its contemporary application in orthodox varieties of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Neo-Calvinism, and so forth. If so, then perhaps these political shifts among evangelicals are more a matter of Christian ressourcement and retrieval than cultural capitulation.

I doubt there will ever be enough political unanimity and willpower among American evangelicals to create a viable political alternative - even if they were allied with Roman Catholics - but I would certainly welcome a wider array of live options beyond the Republicans and Democrats, perhaps even a party like the European-style Christian Democrats.

25 October 2007

the scandal of particularity

Lesslie Newbigin was probably one of the foremost Reformed churchmen of the 20th century: a courageous missionary, a thoughtful pastor-scholar, a successful ecumenist, and an insightful and prescient commenter upon the contemporary world.

Everything Newbigin has written - at least that I've read and studied - is certainly worth the attention. If you've not read anything penned by Newbigin yet (and shame on you), then Eerdmans' Lesslie Newbigin - Missionary Theologian: A Reader might be a good place to begin. It collects together excerpts from some of his most formative and trenchant works. Newbigin's works are also available online at newbigin.net.

One of his last book-length works was The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission published by Eerdmans in 1995 around the same time as Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Published only three years before his death, The Open Secret builds a theology of mission upon more than 40 years of experience, writing, and reflection.

In The Open Secret Newbigin sets out a clear vision and call with regard to the essentially missional character of the church. In the process he wades through the vast array of literature on missiology and church growth from the past century, cutting a clear, biblical path through the sometimes dense undergrowth of varying perspectives and programs.

Newbigin's theology of mission is centrally Trinitarian in shape: proclaiming the kingdom of the Father in faith, sharing the life of the Son in love, and bearing witness of the Spirit in hope. As he unfolds these themes, Newbigin time and again underscores the importantly historical character of the Christian faith, that the concrete particularity of the Christian gospel is precisely what makes it relevant for all times and cultures.

This is the trajectory of the biblical witness, a continual narrowing of God's electing and redeeming purposes (Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, a remnant, etc.) until they all come to focus upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, in order that the universal purpose of blessing might come to all nations.

Newbigin explains the Scriptural "scandal of particularity" in relation to the universality of the gospel. These two themes appear in Scripture side by side, without any apparent sense of tension. Newbigin explains this in terms of the biblical view of humanity, which doesn't begin by "looking within and finding at the core of human reality a purely spiritual entity that is the object of God's saving purpose" (70). Rather the biblical focus is upon "this real world of real people" in all of their created materiality and interconnectedness.

Newbigin roots this, in turn, in the doctrine of the Trinity in which we find that "God is no solitary monad." Instead, Newbigin writes
God, as he is revealed to us in the gospel, is not a monad. Interpersonal relatedness belongs to the very being of God. Therefore there can be no salvation of human beings except in relatedness. No one can be made whole except by being restored to the wholeness of that being-in-relatedness for which God made us and the world and which is the image of the being-in-relatedness which is the being of God himself. (70)
If all of this is correct, then it cannot be the case that salvation comes "to each, direct from above, like a shaft of light through the roof," but rather must come through others, through our neighbors who have been called by God to bear his blessing to others (71).

The Bible, Newbigin observes, gives us a story, a narrative, a universal history. Sometimes people think that the point of the biblical story does not lie in its historical character, in it's "happenedness," but Newbigin disagrees. The biblical stories are not true simply in pointing to or illustrating "how things are" in abstraction, communicating general truths about the human condition.

Rather, the biblical story is true in terms of "this is what actually happened." As Newbigin notes,
The Bible does not tell stories that illustrate something true apart from the story. The Bible tells a story that is the story, the story of which our human life is a part. It is not that stories are part of human life, but that human life is part of a story. (82)
The reason that the salvation of each it tied up with the salvation of all is that "the biblical story is not a separate story." As Newbigin says, "The whole story of humankind is one single fabric of interconnected events, and the story the Bible tells is part of it" (87). Regarding the unbroken fabric of world history in relation to the Christian story, he writes
The Christian faith is that this is the place in the whole fabric where its pattern has been disclosed, even though the weaving is not yet finished...the question of the relation of the biblical story to the whole story of humankind is a question that has to be answered in action. The Christian confession about the meaning and end of history can make good its claim to truth over against other interpretations of human history only through actions in which this confession is embodies in deed - and in suffering. (88-90)
And it is from here that Newbigin moves on to speaks of God's action in the world through his people, the church.

Newbigin finishes The Open Secret by noting that one of the most common metaphors in the New Testament for describing the relationship between the church and the Gospel is one of "stewardship." He provides a brief catalogue of biblical teaching: Jesus' parables of servants entrusted with property, the image of clay pots filled with treasure, and so on.

The overall emphasis is one of the "infinite worth [of the gospel] as compared with the low estate of the servants in whose hands it is placed" (188). And the role of the church is that of steward, the gospel having been entrusted to them not primarily for their own benefit, but to be shared with the nations.

Newbigin goes on to outline the "several kinds of temptation" into which such a steward might fall, all which we can recognize in ourselves and our various communions far too easily. Newbigin illustrates each of these from the parables of Jesus: the steward who thinks himself to be the proprietor or the lazy, drowsy servant who allows the treasure to be stolen. The former ends up seeing the gospel as a personal possession and stingily withholds it from those "heathen" he deems to be irretrievably "lost." The latter is exemplified by a kind of worldliness so that the word of the gospel falls silent, whether due to the worldliness of liberalism or of a kind of Christian faith that is all too comfortable and mistakes middle-class propriety for gospel-values.

For those of us who hold to an orthodox, traditional faith, however, it is the parable of the unprofitable servant that Newbigin sees as most applicable. It is well worth quoting him at length:
...the steward may forget the purpose for which the treasure was entrusted to him and keep it wrapped up or buried in the ground. It is to such an unprofitable servant that the master in Jesus' parable says, "You wicked and slothful servant...You ought to have invested in money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest" (Matt 25:14-30). To invest the money with a view to a high rate of interest is to risk the capital. The church has often been afraid to do this, thinking that the faith once delivered to the saints to be preserved inviolate and without the change of a comma. Verbal orthodoxy then becomes the supreme virtue and syncretism becomes the most feared enemy.
This seems correct to me and a danger into which we all too often fall and do well to be warned against.

Newbigin concludes by once again returning to the true nature of the church's mission, one in which the church "seriously expects the Holy Spirit to take what belongs to Christ and show it to the church, thus leading the church into new truth." The church must, therefore, take risks, going forth among the nations, learning to speak the gospel faithfully, but in ever new ways.

24 October 2007

beyond liberal and conservative

Recently a friend drew my attention to a bevy of Particular Baptists who have launched a new website called "Humble Orthodoxy," complete with a blog and a conference. If these leaders are serious about "representing biblical truth with humility," then I can only support them heartily, given the polemical pyrotechnics that often seem to radiate from their compatriots, particularly online.

Yet, I do wonder how much "humble orthodoxy" is packaging over substance, especially given the way in which the moniker seems designed to counter the "generous orthodoxy" of the emerging crowd and of post-conservative evangelicals. It is especially the post-conservatives that I imagine stand as a target by way of critique or competition, especially humble orthodoxy's eschewing of "reinvention."

Advocates of a generous orthodoxy or post-conservative evangelicalism often speak of moving beyond theological liberalism and conservatism. The notion of moving "beyond theological liberalism" should be a welcome one to orthodox Christians, evangelicals included.

In the mainline churches, developments within the fold of "post-liberal" theology evidence a marked return to orthodoxy and orthopraxis, even if one might think things should go further. When theological liberalism has run its course and been found wanting - something we need to move beyond - this is welcome news.

Yet, it is likely the "post-conservative" bit that bothers many evangelicals, especially the (politically and theologically) conservative sort behind "Humble Orthodoxy."

For some, "post-conservatism" no doubt sounds like a call to let go of evangelical distinctives such as biblical inerrancy, the necessity of conversion, personal evangelism, or the doctrine of hell. If that's the case, then perhaps there is some cause for concern, though the precise contours of those doctrines may truly need some reconsideration and revision in light of Scripture and historical theology, without thereby abandoning them altogether.

On the other hand, it seems to me that a post-conservative theology might equally well suggest letting go of evangelical distinctives such as pietism, revivalism, anti-sacramentalism, individualism, and so on, along with the complicity of these trends with modernist projects, American culture, and Republican politics.

If that's the case, then I think the post-conservative move is a welcome one that evangelicals should heed and from which they may learn. After all, in these specific areas, "humble orthodoxy" represents an evangelicalism that is already in large part a "reinvention" of the more catholic faith of the Protestant Reformers.

One might suggest, however, that there is something deeper to the notion that moving beyond liberalism also requires moving beyond conservatism. Indeed, it might be the case that conservative evangelicalism covertly (or even not so covertly) shares many of its core distinctives with liberalism.

That is to say, it is quite possible and plausible to argue that theological liberalism and theological conservatism, rather than representing, respectively, a departure from and a preservation of orthodoxy, both significantly represent a departure from orthodoxy and, moreover, a departure that follows substantially the same trajectory.

Consider: in the early 20th century both the (liberal) Social Gospel and (conservative) Fundamentalism equally claimed the mantle of "evangelicalism." In the case of fundamentalism and its neo-evangelical offspring, they were able to make the claim stick. The parallel, however, is instructive.

In part it points to a common ancestry, in particular, a 19th century Christianity that embraced personal piety, religious experience, a rigid moralism, and social action - not that these elements are in every respect negative developments or departures from a more historic faith. But in their particular, 19th century configuration something new was certainly afoot - redefining and reinventing Protestantism.

Whether liberal or conservative, the heirs of the Great Awakenings stood together in the causes of abolition, temperance, improved working conditions, even if they eventually parted ways on issues such as women's suffrage. Whether liberal or conservative, they held to a piety that placed religious experience of the sacred over the particularities of dogma, along with practices of self-reliant spiritual discipline and holiness. Whether liberal or conservative, they shared an attachment to ever new measures to instill piety, embolden faith, and disseminate the message, developing new forms of sacred music and deploying new modes of communication. Whether liberal or conservative they held to a literalistic hermeneutics that spawned, respectively, either a creeping skepticism about the veracity of Scripture or an increasingly fantastic apocalypticism.

It is no surprise, then, that the two major 20th century studies of "New Side" Presbyterianism were written by liberals who thought the emergence of revivalistic piety provided a historical precedent for more liberal interpretations of the Christian faith.

These observations, therefore, suggest that moving beyond liberalism will naturally involve a concomitant move beyond the conservatism that emerged alongside liberalism from the same religious experiment - an experiment that many orthodox Christians have seen as having gone wrong, even before the more recent diagnoses emerging from post-conservative critics.

I would suggest that any "moving beyond" might also prove, at the same time, to be a move that must first go back in order to go forward, to draw upon the resources of a pre-modern and pre-revivalist catholicity in order to find a way forward in a world where the forces of modernity and revivalism have run their course and are fading away.

If I'm right about that, I hope it's a perspective the conservative orthodox might be willing humbly to consider and, in doing so, come to better believe, live, and represent biblical truth.

23 October 2007

the historic diaconate

The text of the Euchologion comes down to us from the early centuries of the church in a version dating from the 8th century, though bearing witness to earlier practice. The Euchologion includes a variety of rites for setting apart individuals to service.

The following are prayers prescribed as a bishop sets apart a woman for the diaconate, with prayer and the laying on of hands:
Holy and All-powerful God, through the birth in flesh of your Only-begotten Son and our God from a Virgin you sanctified woman, and granted not only to men but also to women the grace and visitation of the Holy Spirit. Now, Master, look upon this servant of yours also, call her to the work of your diaconate and send down upon her the rich gift of your Holy Spirit. Guard her in your orthodox faith in a blameless way of life in accordance with what is well pleasing to you, as she fulfils her ministry at every moment.

Master and Lord, you do not reject women who offer themselves, and by divine counsel, to minister as is fitting to your holy houses, but you accept them in the order of ministers. Give the grace of your Holy Spirit to this servant of yours also, who wishes to offer herself to you, and to accomplish the grace of the diaconate, as you gave the grace of your diaconate to Phoebe, whom you called to the work of the ministry. Grant her, O God, to persevere without condemnation in your holy churches, to give careful attention to her way of life, to chastity in particular, and show her to be your perfect servant, that, when she stands before the judgment of Christ, she may also receive the fitting reward of her way of life.
An earlier text, from the 6th century Apostolic Constitutions, prescribes that as the bishop "lays hands" upon a candidate in "presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses," he shall pray:
O Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, creator of man and of woman, you replenished the Spirit upon Miriam and Deborah and Anna and Huldah; you did not disdain that your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; also in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple, you ordained women to be keepers of your holy gates - may you now also look down upon this your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of deaconess, and grant her your Holy Spirit, and 'cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit,' that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to your glory and the praise of your Christ, with whom may glory and adoration be unto you and the Holy Spirit for ever.
What are we to make of these ancient rites? How are we to interpret them? What is their relationship to the teaching and witness of the New Testament?

In the New Testament scriptures, we find the example of Phoebe to whom Paul refers as a "deacon of the church at Cenchreae" (Rom 16:1). There is also 1 Timothy 3 where, following the qualifications for overseers, the text speaks of "deacons likewise" and then "women likewise," perhaps suggesting a parallel between these women and their male diaconal counterparts.

Moreover, arguments against the ordination of women to the presbyterate typically turn upon what is understood as a prohibition against women "teaching or ruling" over men (1Ti 2:12), which would not apply directly to the issue of women in the diaconate as an office of service, especially to other women.

Thus, various ecclesiastical bodies, like the ancient church and in fidelity to their understanding of Scripture, have included women in some manner or another within the diaconal ministry of the church. In the denomination I grew up in - the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) - we had deaconesses who, though not ordained, were set apart by prayer and served as a body alongside deacons in the duties of the diaconate.

This was, admittedly, a default position since in 1976 a majority of a denominational study committee of the RPCES had determined that "some women, full of the Holy Spirit and with appropriate gifts from him, may be called of God to serve the body of Christ as deacons and that women so gifted and called may be set apart (ordained) to the office of deacons" (as they had been in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America since the late 19th century).

But the committee's recommendation did not finally pass in Synod, though it was raised again two years later in an Overture from the Michigan-Northern Indiana Presbytery.

Since that time there has always been a significant minority in the RPCES (and now the PCA, with which the RPCES joined in the early 1980s) who have held, on biblical grounds, to the propriety of ordination to women to the diaconate. When I was ordained as a deacon a decade ago, I took an exception to the Book of Church Order on this matter, an exception which hardly raised an eyebrow among the presbyters then examining me since it was an exception held by several of their number as well.

Whatever the ambiguities of the New Testament data may be and whatever the practices of contemporary church bodies, as we see in the prayers above, it is certain that by the early third century the church had deaconesses (or women deacons). The women were given both liturgical and catechetical duties (e.g., teaching women, taking communion to the sick, assisting with baptisms) and were set apart by bishops through the laying on of hands. Often these women were widows or celibates.

How this historical evidence is interpreted and evaluated is another matter. Some hold that these women were "ordained" to an ecclesiatical office like male deacons. Others see them as simply "set apart" to a duty like lectors or other lesser functions. There is also the question of the relation of the diaconate in the early post-apostolic centuries to the diaconate and "widows" we find in the New Testament, as well as their relation to the permanent diaconate revived in the Western church at the time of the Reformation.

In recent decades, there are two important contributions to the interpretation and evaluation of this historical evidence.

First, there is Aimé Georges Martimort's Deaconesses: An Historical Study (Ignatius, 1986). A French Roman Catholic scholar, Martimort gives an extended and excellent apology for the historical credibility of the position of the Roman Catholic church - that the deaconesses of the early church formed a non-clerical order to assist and subordinate to male deacons, who were not permitted certain functions open to their male counterparts, and whose setting apart by the hands of the bishop did not constitute "ordination."

Second, there is Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald's Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church (Holy Cross, 1999). An Eastern Orthodox theologian who has represented the Ecumenical Patriarch at conferences, FitzGerald winsomely argues that the deaconesses of the early Church were truly an ordained order, coordinate with, even if subordinate to, their male counterparts, and who ministered as deacons teaching and giving pastoral care primarily to women.

In my opinion, FitzGerald provides the stronger historical argument, even if Martimort shows that the ministry of deaconesses was more limited in some respects in comparison with male deacons. Neither author fully evaluates whether the analogous relationship between men and women in the diaconate, with differences as well as similarities, was primarily a matter of following biblical example or of allowing cultural accommodation.

Of course, the biblical argument is primary, but these authors provide much insight into how the relevant Scriptural data was understood in the early post-apostolic Church, relative to their own cultural context. As such, their work is one important piece to consider as churches continue to discern how God is calling women to use their gifts in service to Christ's body.

21 October 2007

reminder: not for sale

Just a reminder that Tuesday is the Philadelphia "Not For Sale" event sponsored by my parish, City Church along with a group of other local churches and ministries. It's designed to raise awareness about local and global human trafficking.

Here are the details:
Date: Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Time: 7:00pm - 9:00pm
Location: Woodland Presbyterian Church
42nd St. and Pine St.
Philadelphia, PA
For further directions, begin with this map.

It would be great to see some of you in the Philadelphia region come out for this event.

confronting kingdom challenges

The World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) was formed in the year 2000 by a merger of the World Fellowship of Reformed Churches and the International Reformed Fellowship, both of which had been founded in 1994, the former serving the Americas (along with India and east Africa) and the latter serving mostly the Pacific rim nations of Asia.

Today the WRF has grown to include Reformed bodies, institutions, and individuals from around the globe: 22 denominational bodies, 37 educational and missionary organizations, and hundreds of individual members (of which I am one) representing six continents and dozens of nations. Thus it is a truly worldwide effort in Reformed ecumenism.

All members affirm the authority of Scripture, the catholic Creeds, and at least one of the following: the Gallican, Scots, or Belgic Confessions, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, Westminster Confession of Faith, London Confession of 1689, or Savoy Declaration.

If this sounds like a project you would want to be part of as an individual, parish, or institution, I would urge you to join by contacting executive secretary of the WRF, Samuel Logan (President Emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary).

The Second General Assembly of the World Reformed Fellowship took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 2006, the theme of which was Masibambisane, the Zulu word meaning "Let us carry the burden together." The papers presented at that historic conference have now been collected together as Confronting Kingdom Challenges: A Call to Global Christians to Carry the Burden Together and addresses the enormous challenges we face throughout the world today.

The proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of Jesus Christ calls us to carry these burdens together and equips us for the opportunities confronting us. Confronting Kingdom Challenges assists us in our increasingly global vocation to serve those around us.

The volume begins be setting a theological context for burden sharing, focusing upon evangelism, as well as giving important attention to the biblical mandate for unity in Christ and the spiritual and practical dangers of disunity.

The chapters that follow provide insight and teaching on concrete issues. These address the challenges and opportunities of ethnic conflict in the Middle East, global sex trafficking, forms of so-called "neo-paganism," defending the gospel, HIV/AIDS, missions, the global urban poor, spiritual formation of ministers, theological education, and radio ministry.

The volume concludes with a hopeful and needed essay on sharing burdens with our sisters and brothers in the mainline churches and other Christians from whom we find ourselves ecclesiastically separated.

Authors include Christian leaders in religion, education, medicine, broadcasting, psychology, urban ministry, and missions, from an Anglican archbishop to a counselor who cares for victims of sexual abuse.

Confronting Kingdom Challenges is a profoundly encouraging book worthy of attention by all Reformed Christians.

18 October 2007

terrific cover of cash

I was in a Johnny Cash mood early this morning and was looking around online for videos of Cash while eating my breakfast. While browsing around, I ran across a video of group of teens at an acoustic music camp doing a terrific cover of "Folsom Prison Blues":

I wish the sound quality was a bit better, but the kids are really talented and the lead guy has the perfect voice for a Cash cover.


17 October 2007

apologetics study bible

Yesterday I went to my campus mailbox to find a hefty, more than 2000 page tome entitled The Apologetics Study Bible - which claims to provide "Laser Surgery for Blind Faith" - "Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith."

The book was accompanied by a letter singing the praises of the publication as a "thinking edition of God's Word" that "will become an important tool," helping us "by tearing down the obstacles of disbelief," which will "prompt a rewarding experience at every reading." The letter goes on to suggest that I, as a person with a website, might want to mention it or post a review.

While there are 130 articles in the study Bible "written by today's leading Christian thinkers" dealing with pressing issues of our day and "life's ultimate questions," I searched in vain for the one on the church's captivity to marketing-driven consumer culture. Alas.

My first question when encountering a new study Bible is, "Why another one?" Certainly there are some very worthwhile study Bibles out there (the HarperCollins, New Interpreters, and Oxford ones come to mind), but there is also a glut in the market.

A brief browse through Amazon.com or Christian Book Distributors reveals a plethora of niche study Bibles: inductive, literary, Catholic, archaeological, life application, comparative, teen, Reformation, Hebrew-Greek key word, kids, quest, Spirit, prophecy, methodical, inspirational, student, adventure, life recovery, everyday living, boys, life principles, women of faith, open, starting point, Spirit-filled, Scofield, rainbow, journey, leadership, serendipity, discoverer's, teen guys, dating, praying woman, men, girls, Jewish, illustrated, African heritage, faith in action, emphasized, evidence, defenders, legacy, recovery, spiritual formation, ultimate, treasure, preacher's, Orthodox, teacher's, all about Jesus, hands-on, quick, living water...and I'll stop there out of sheer exhaustion.

Sometimes I suspect we might be better off simply getting back to the biblical text itself, perhaps with a bit of textual gloss, but without all niche-marketed accoutrement.

Still, granted the nature of study Bibles as such, one can ask whether The Apologetics Study Bible stands out in any way or offers a unique contribution. In some respects, it certainly does.

The introductions and notes for each book in the Scriptures attempt to provide evidence of their reliability and truth. Interspersed throughout the text there are the aforementioned 130 articles, accompanied by "Twisted Scripture" notes addressing how various sects distort particular passages, along with biographies of "great Christian apologists" from throughout church history, from Justin Martyr to Cornelius Van Til. At the back of the volume there are a variety of charts and maps showing archaeological discoveries, manuscript evidence, comparisons of various world religions and sects, and so on.

Much of the information and many of these tools are helpful. Still, I have some serious qualms about the volume.

First, I harbor a general suspicion of those who position themselves as professional "apologists." Perhaps this is due to various encounters in recent years with self-appointed "apologists" who inhabit the Internet and produce a steady stream of materials. A number of these individuals strike me as anything but an attractive commendation of the Savior, more irritating than inviting.

Frankly, I have no idea who some of the contributors are, so cannot vouch for them and for their vocation as "apologists." Others are important and respected theologians and Christian philosophers (e.g., John Frame, William Lane Craig). Several I have difficulty seeing as serious "apologists" (e.g., Chuck Colson, D. James Kennedy).

Add to this my general suspicion of "apologetics" as a distinct theological discipline. As a Christian philosopher, I'm certainly all in favor of a discursive unfolding of the riches of the faith in a way that is attractive, reasonable, and true to the contours of the biblical story.

Yet, I've become increasingly convinced over the years that Christian persuasion requires a rhetorical form that is inseparable from the beauty of Trinitarian life. Moreover, the faith we commend has an irreducibly communal, liturgical, and sacramental form, seeking peace and justice - this praxis is intrinsic to its defense.

Moreover, I don't think Peter's call to "be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in you" (1Pe 3:15) is a mandate for every Christian to be an "apologist." In context the issue is bearing witness in the midst of suffering, ministering God's blessing in love and tenderness even when persecuted. By having a good conscience, living in hope, suffering without shame, confident in our baptismal identity in the risen Christ who also suffered, our lives become an apology for the faith.

None of these general observations, however, necessarily renders the book unprofitable. Many of the annotations are helpful and several of the articles are very balanced and solid (e.g., Frame on Open Theism; Horner on Aquinas).

Still, on the level of specifics, I would offer several criticisms.

First, the outlook tends towards the very conservative wing of evangelical theology and piety. Salvation tends to be reduced to "going to heaven when you die." Textual and historical issues pertaining the ancient Near East are often dealt with on a superficial level. Views of creation are limited to young earth creationism and "day age" views of the Genesis 1 chronology. Universalism is dismissed out of hand as obviously unbiblical. Pacifism is barely addressed in the article on just war theory. Oddly, passages dealing with the role of women seem poised somewhere between complementarianism and egalitarianism.

Second, the organization seems a bit odd. Some articles accompany passages that are evidently related (e.g., addressing evolution in connection with Genesis 1-2), but most seem entirely randomly placed (e.g., a discussion of postmodernism in the middle of Zechariah). Much of the article content could be helpfully gathered into a separate book, leaving the Bible itself with its annotations.

Third, there are a number of articles which I think are on the wrong track or tackle the issue from an unhelpful direction (e.g., Groothuis on postmodernism, Draper on denominationalism). On the whole, the notes seem to have a bent towards literalistic interpretation of prophecy, pre-millennialist understandings of eschatology, and reductively historical-grammatical hermeneutics - though given the different annotators, this is not always consistent across books (not to mention other inconsistencies, e.g., Craig's views on middle knowledge alongside Ware's Calvinistic compatibilism).

Fourth, I'm surprised by a number of the issues that are not addressed by articles (e.g., ancient slavery, though it is mentioned in the notes), as well as some that are included. General articles included on "the 3 laws of logic" and a thumbnail sketch of epistemological theory strike me as out of place.

While some readers might find The Apologetics Study Bible a useful reference, given the drawbacks of the volume - not to mention its cost, size, and weight - I suspect it would prove to be only an very occasional reference tool for many potential purchasers. On many issues, one would do better to read more in-depth resources readily available online or at a seminary library.

16 October 2007

homily for proper 23C

I ended up serving as pulpit supply for a church this past Sunday. Since they use the Revised Common Lectionary, my homily was based upon the Old Testament and Epistle readings.

Apparently, so I'm told, I preach like an Anglican. I'll take that as a compliment.

Here in chapter 29, the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter from Jerusalem to the Jewish community in Babylon, delivering a word from the Lord addressing their situation.

From the content of the message, it appears that the exile community had been stirred up by unfounded hopes of imminent deliverance, particularly by false prophecies of Babylon’s defeat (narrated in the previous chapters and alluded to later in chapter 29). Moreover, these prophecies seemed to be stirring up unrest in both Jerusalem and among the exiles, perhaps even inspiring thoughts of rebellion against their foreign rulers.

With our knowledge of the larger story of Israel, and from our historical distance, we may be puzzled by these hopes for a freedom soon-at-hand or these plots of political non-cooperation with imperial power. In the face of exile, did Israel still doubt the word of the Lord? Had the Lord not been clear that their exile would last 70 years, more than a generation?

I suspect, however, that few of us really have much sense of how traumatic the experience of the Jewish people must have been as they suffered through forced migration to a distant land – or what a sense of grief, anger, and hopelessness such exile might generate. And yet our present world is full of such stories of exile and mass deportation or displacement, from political oppression of Buddhists in Tibet to the civil war in Sudan, down to the after effects of hurricane Katrina in our own country or those victims brought here as part of global human trafficking.

In his novel Gate of the Sun, Lebanese Christian author Elias Khoury weaves a fictional account of Palestinians driven into Lebanon by the creation of the state of Israel and the 1948 war. The story is told as a series of flashbacks narrated by the main character, Yunes Al-Asadi, as he lies in bed, weak and broken after four decades of exile and struggle, dying in a dilapidated hospice in a refugee camp.

It is a story of ongoing armed struggle against irretrievable loss, of love tested and stretched thin over the distances generated by geography and political unrest, of the pain and daily struggle living as a refugee carrying keys to a family home now occupied by others, of unflagging passion for the restoration of what has been lost and a passion for a renewed justice and peace that never comes, of the inevitable passing away of a generation that remembered a previous way of life for their people.

Many of these contemporary stories of exile echo the experience of God’s people in Babylon and help illuminate all they must have gone through and lost.

Moreover, we find ourselves drawn into such stories of exile and are moved by the human suffering and costs they involve. We recognize that exile is not an experience peculiar to Israel. We do not remain untouched by tales of unrest, distress, and tumult among the nations of our present world. Rather they resonate with our own lives, our own losses, our own struggles, unbelief, and failure in the midst of a broken world.

And why is this? It’s because our personal stories, and the human story as a whole, are a story of exile and return, expulsion from the God's garden of delight and the promise of redemption, of profound loss and the hope of restoration.

So let’s look at today’s Old Testament and Epistle readings a bit more closely. I want to draw out three main themes: first, seeking peace; second, enduring hardship; and third, speaking truth.

Seeking Peace

As the Lord addresses the exiles through Jeremiah, he confronts their false hopes with an extraordinary message, challenging the deceptions of the prophets. He urges them to set aside their expectations of imminent release and their plots of political unrest.

Instead, the Lord encourages the exiles to settle down and lead normal lives: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” The God of Israel goes on to encourage parents to seek the marriage of their children and to look forward to the birth of a new generation, there in Babylon, a generation who would never know what it was like to have once lived in the land of promise.

In the face of being uprooted from their homes, perhaps torn from their families, oppressed by a foreign political regime, and forcibly deported to a distant land – in the face of all of this, the Lord tells the exiles to settle in for a lengthy stay, to put down roots and embrace the situation into which he had sent them at this time.

After all, living in constant turmoil and unhappiness would not resolve or change their situation. Impatience could not end the exile any sooner.

Furthermore, instead of the exiles seeing their situation as wholly negative or as an unmitigated evil, the Lord encourages his people to find in it a new opportunity and a new calling or vocation within God’s larger purposes for his people. He says to them, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

“Seek the welfare,” that is, the peace or shalom of Babylon. What does this mean? This notion of “peace” is not simply a desire for the Jewish exiles to live quiet lives in their new situation, unmolested by their Babylonian neighbors. Rather, within the larger scope of the biblical narrative this peace, God’s shalom, is the overflow of God’s effective presence and rule in the world. It is the new, hope-filled future that God promised to his people, when he himself would come into their midst and establish his kingdom, when Israel’s oppressors would receive judgment, and the entire created order would be renewed and made whole.

And this – this peace, this shalom – is what the Lord calls Israel to seek in the midst of her exile in Babylon. And the exiles are to seek this peace not just for themselves, but also for Babylon. They are to intercede in prayer for their enemies and oppressors. They are to seek the salvation and renewal of those into whose land they had been deported and among whom they live as strangers and even enemies.

Furthermore, it is in seeking this peace and welfare of Babylon that the exiles would find their own peace and know their God to be faithful. While the Lord continued to hold out the hope and promise of an eventual return from exile, in this place and at this time, he called his people to seek the salvation of their enemies and to pursue wholeness in the midst of exile. And, what is more, the Lord connects and binds together Israel’s own peace and renewal with that of their new home.

What can we learn from this for our own situations and contexts?

We ourselves continue to live as exiles in the midst of a broken world. While God’s promise of a hope-filled future and the establishment of his kingdom and shalom are certain, we do not yet experience their full reality.

We find that projects we undertake lie unfinished, almost forgotten. Or that career hopes and vocational dreams we held to when we were younger have been pushed aside by obligations of family or the difficulties of our workplace.

Various relationships we had once entered into and in which we found joy and fulfillment may end up stretched thin by distance or neglect or sometimes broken apart entirely.

Perhaps our finances are unexpectedly tight or the car is falling apart and we don’t have the means to replace it right now. Or maybe our next door neighbors are not the ones we had hoped for. Or perhaps we are more lonely than we ever imagined we’d be or we’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, or infertility, or the miscarriage of an unborn child.

Whatever the case, in our daily lives we encounter constant reminders – large and small – that this present age is not our final destination and that our hearts long and ache for the future that God has in store for us, for the establishment of his kingdom, and for the restoration of our world.

And we are tempted, like the exiles in Babylon, to seek immediate solutions, to listen to voices that offer false promises of quick results; we are tempted to rise up against the difficulties facing us in ways that are likely to harm us and those around us.

So what are God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah calling us to do?

Seek peace – seek the welfare of the city – to embrace the situations into which God has sent us, to embrace them as his calling upon our lives here and now.

To regard them as opportunities in which we can make the peace of the Lord known through our response to circumstances and in our service to others, in planting gardens and establishing our homes as places of welcome.

To intercede in prayer on behalf of those around us caught up in the same difficulties or to pray for them and their salvation even when they are the source of our difficulties.

To acknowledge God’s faithfulness to us and to his promises even in the midst of hardship.

And God’s promise is that in seeking the peace and welfare of others, we will find our own. By carrying God’s salvation – his kingdom and wholeness – into the dark and broken places of our own lives, God’s redeeming presence overflows into the lives and situations around us. And in seeking the welfare and shalom of those around us, we will find that God remains faithfully among us. The salvation of each of us is inextricably bound up with God’s saving purposes for others.

And so, we are to seek peace in all the places of this world into which God sends us.

Enduring Hardship

In today’s epistle reading we find that, like the Jewish exiles in Jeremiah’s day, the Apostle Paul was person who knew what it meant to endure hardship and to suffer at the hands of others. He finds himself imprisoned, “chained like a criminal,” as he says.

And why is Paul imprisoned? For the sake of his gospel – God’s message of peace for a broken world, good news of wholeness for a world disfigured by sin, a royal proclamation of a new king who will accomplish all of this. He writes “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” That’s Paul’s gospel in a nutshell.

Paul proclaims a gospel that echoes the message of Jeremiah – that even in the midst of hardship and imprisonment, God is faithful. He is at work to save and make whole. Paul may be chained, but the good news itself cannot be chained. Paul may endure hardship, but in seeking the salvation of others, Paul knows himself to be approved by God.

Paul’s patience and endurance are rooted in his confidence that “if we have died with Christ, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” And while our own denials and unbelief must have consequences – as the Jewish people themselves learned through their exile – even in the midst of our failures, God remains faithful to his promises. While Israel did not escape the consequences of her faithlessness, those consequences became a place in which God’s faithfulness to his people shone through, because God cannot deny himself.

Yet, we can say more.

Paul – and we who live after him – find ourselves further along in the story of God’s faithfulness since we know how God’s promises to Israel have come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus we see human faithlessness and its consequences come to their fullest expression, arraying themselves against Jesus and seeking his death.

When the God of Israel appeared in human flesh, he set aside the trappings of his eternal glory and made himself an exile amidst a nation of exiles. And in Jesus Christ we see Israel’s obedience truly lived out and Jeremiah’s promise fulfilled. Jesus did not seek to return to his Father without first enduring hardship. He did not try to stir up violence against the powers of evil in the world.

Instead, Jesus settled down among us, shared table fellowship with us, formed a new family from among us, and lived in solidarity with our own present age of exile. Jesus sought the peace of the world into which the Father had sent him – the shalom, wholeness, and renewal that manifest the kingdom of God.

In seeking our welfare, Jesus found his own – the Father raised him from the ultimate exile of death to reign over God’s own kingdom. In Jesus the peace and wholeness of humanity takes the form of his own resurrection life.

Our place in the story of God’s salvation goes beyond what Israel in Babylon could ever have understood or imagined. Thus, when Paul looks to Jesus he sees all God’s promises unexpectedly and surprisingly fulfilled.

In Jesus, God works out his faithfulness even in the face of human unfaithfulness, so that we can endure hardship with confidence. In Jesus, we know that God is truly God-for-us, so that we may endure everything for the sake of God’s saving purposes in the world. In Jesus, we know that the salvation of each of us is bound up with the salvation of all whom God will save.

And so, even more that Israel in exile, we can endure hardship for the sake of making God’s peace known in the world.

Speaking Truth

The epistle reading ends with a warning from Paul: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.”

Ministry to others based upon confidence in God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ is a ministry that will not need to sink into disputes over words.

We know, of course, from Paul’s own witness that sometimes we must the speak truth in love, contending for what we know to be true and important. Likewise, in our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah’s letter served as a sharp rebuke against the false prophets who were holding out vain hopes for the imminent end of exile, perhaps even stirring up unrest.

But there is a difference between disputes about the truth and disputes about how we best talk about the truth. We can easily recognize the danger of such disputes, especially among those who live as exiles and who endure hardship. In such situations, tempers run short, harsh words are exchanged, disputes arise over matters of little consequence.

These wranglings prove to be distractions from the task at hand – bearing faithful witness to the promises of God, to the message of God’s peace, to the unchained word of the gospel.

Paul states that those who “rightly explain the word of truth” can labor in God’s kingdom without shame, knowing that God approves what they say. Paul’s phrase here “rightly explaining” or “rightly dividing the word of truth” seems to have the sense of cutting to the heart of matters, carving a pathway straight to the important destination.

And this is what we see both Jeremiah and Paul do in their own speech.

Jeremiah says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The message is simple and direct.

And, likewise Paul: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel… If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” Paul cuts to the heart of the matter.

The message of the gospel is not ultimately unclear or a matter of endless dispute. And our task, as those who bear witness to God’s kingdom, who seek God’s peace within our various callings and contexts, who endure hardship for the sake of God’s saving purposes – our task is to set forth that message to others. Our work is to make the word of truth clear – in our words and in our lives – in such a way that others may be grasped by it and know our God to be faithful.

Let's pray.
Living God,
help us so to hear your holy Word
that we may truly understand;
that, understanding, we may believe,
and, believing,
we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience,
seeking your honor and glory in all that we do;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

the analogy of being

A blog reader alerts me to a conference, to be held 4-6 April 2008 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC: The Analogy of Being: A Theological Symposium, co-sponsored by the Dominican House of Studies. The conference subtitle is "Invention of the Anti-Christ or the Wisdom of God?" alluding to Barth's description of the analogia entis as "anti-Christ."

On this matter I'm far more inclined to agree with von Balthasar than Barth, yet there are substantive questions to debate here and the line-up of speakers is impressive: John Betz, Martin Bieler, Peter Casarella, Michael Hanby, David Bentley Hart, Reinhard Hütter, Bruce McCormack, Bruce Marshall, Richard Schenk OP, John Webster, and Thomas Joseph White OP.

Part of the issue here is the relation of God to creation. What is the relationship between created nature and God? Is there a likeness between God and his creation that is revelatory of who God is? Is there any knowledge of God available to the human person, apart from Christian revelation, in virtue of creation or is all knowledge of God graciously given to human beings uniquely in Christ? Or is creation itself "in Christ" from its inception and thus nature is always already graced?

11 October 2007


Sorry once again for the sporadic blogging, but various obligations are taking up what little time I have. While cleaning out computer file folders, however, I did run across some notes for a Sunday School I taught several years ago. An extended excerpt follows:

According to the Westminster Standards and wider Reformed understandings of Scripture, sacraments are “signs and seals” of the covenant of grace. For some of us, those words may be so familiar, we gloss over them without really thinking about them. But what do they mean?

In following, I will focus on the notion of a “sign” in hopes that it will help us better understand these important signs of God's covenant.

Signs in General

First of all, what are signs? While the Scriptures refer in various places to the “signs” of the covenant, what does that mean? What does it mean for anything to be a sign? Pictures, actions, events, gestures, and so on can all be signs. So what exactly is one? And what, in particular, is a covenant sign?

Perhaps I should make a note at this point. In the following remarks I will be using the term “sign” in an exceedingly broad and loose way, so that the category includes all manner of things: acts, events, words, sacraments, images, rituals, gestures, and indeed the entire created order insofar as it is a symbolic disclosure of the divine. Nonetheless, a more careful discussion would require that we distinguish between various sorts of signs since the differences between, say, words and sacraments, are as important as their similarities, even if both are, broadly speaking, “signs.”

So, back to “signs.” What various sorts of signs do we encounter in the the course of a day? Sometimes we see the sort of signs that point to something else, somewhere else.

For instance, we are driving on the interstate, attempting to arrive eventually at our destination: Columbus, Ohio. Overhead we may see a sign that indicates that we should remain in this lane in order to get to Columbus. The sign itself, obviously, is not the city of Columbus. Indeed the sign might be many miles from Columbus. Yet it refers to Columbus and directs our minds - and hopefully our automobiles - towards Columbus, rather than Chicago or Memphis.

Another example. We sometimes say, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” In this case smoke signifies the presence of fire. There is a natural, causal connection between smoke and fire so that smoke isn’t simply a sign that points to a fire that is absent or somewhere else. Rather, smoke typically signifies the immediate presence of fire and there is a tight connection between the two, not just conceptually or by way of reference or similarity. The connection, when present, is causal and direct.

Still another example. In interpersonal relationships we often use signs to communicate our feelings, commitments, and desires. Thus, we might say that a hug is a sign of affection or a handshake is a sign of greeting or sitting by a sick person’s bedside is a sign of concern and care. In all these instances, however, it is not simply the case that there is a close connection between the sign and the thing signified or even that the sign points to something present and immediate. Those things are true, of course.

But in these interpersonal cases, the sign actually communicates what is signified so that the thing signified is internal to the sign and the sign itself partly constitutes the thing signified. Part of what it means to love someone is to hug that person, not merely as a sign that points to a love that lies somewhere else. Rather, even though the love is bigger and more extensive than simply the hug, the hug itself is one part of what that love consists in and is important to making that love what it is. Hugs carry that love forward, reinforcing it and giving it embodied form. Similar things might be said about handshakes, sitting at bedsides, exchanging gifts, taking vows, spending time together, sharing in material goods, and so on.

In each of these cases, the “sign” isn’t simply a symbol pointing to something else, somewhere else, or at some other time. Rather, the sign itself helps express, make present, communicate, and, indeed, constitute what is signified.

Part of the question, then, in discussing “signs of the covenant” is how those signs function. When we consider covenant signs such as circumcision, ritual washings, offerings at the tabernacle, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and so on, do they function as signs like those on the interstate, like smoke where there’s fire, or like those used in interpersonal communication?

A Theology of Signs

Before addressing that question, however, let's back up. Let's ask the question of why it should be fitting for God to use signs at all? If God is a spiritual being, without body, parts, or passions, why would he even think to use signs in the administration of the covenants and in the economy of salvation? Couldn’t God’s self-communication have come in the form of some kind of direct experience of the divine or immediate awareness of his truth and will for us?

Perhaps so, but that is not, in fact, how God has revealed himself to us or brought us to salvation or chosen to administer his covenants. Rather, God uses signs, whether those are words, stories, events, material symbols, rituals, or what-have-you.

Sometimes this is explained in terms of God’s condescension or accommodation to human weakness, our finitude, and our bodily nature. Sometimes it is even implied that apart from sin and the darkness and blindness of our stubborn hearts and minds, such use of signs would be unnecessary.

But such suggestions can be problematic.

With regard to the effects of sin, we can observe that even before the fall God had created the heavenly bodies for signs and seasons, he had created humanity in his own image and likeness, and he had set apart the two trees in the garden as sacramental signs of his covenant with humanity in Adam. Moreover, it is clear from the opening chapters of Genesis, taken in the wider context of Scripture, that the entire created order functioned from the start as a symbolic disclosure of God, as a sign and image of who God is, of his dimension of reality, and of his future purposes for the creation. Thus, God’s use of signs cannot be attributed to the limitation introduced by sin.

Nevertheless, one might still suggest that such signs are granted by God in virtue of our finitude and bodily nature, a form of condescension to our weakness. There is some truth to this, of course, insofar as the signs God actually employs, in their particular character, partake of created finitude and materiality. Moreover, what God reveals to us through signs goes beyond what we might know simply in virtue of our creaturehood in his image, and thus is graciously gifted to us. But to explain signs in terms of condescension or accommodation might still be problematic if that's taken to mean that God, having chosen to unveil himself and his purposes, might have found some other, better way to reveal himself or administer his covenant, apart from signs.

We can venture further into God's use of signs by stepping back a bit and looking at the big picture, in fact, at the biggest picture of all: who God is as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In whatever manner we explain our theology of biblical covenants, by the time we get to the end of the biblical story, it is clear that the reality of “covenant” has its ultimate origins in God. In particular, it has its origins in a God who created human beings in his image and likeness in order that they might share together in his own life through faith - a life of union and communion within God, among the Persons of the Trinity.

Thus, whether we see the Trinity itself as covenantal in some analogical sense or whether we see the Trinity as the source and origin of God’s covenantal dealings with his creatures, it is nonetheless the ordered bond of love between Father, Son, and Spirit that is the ultimate ground of covenant theology. It is within the life of God as Trinity that we first find Persons committing themselves one to another in self-giving goodness, truth, faithfulness, and love.

If this is so, however, then it is significant that within the life of the Trinity the Second Person is not only the “Son” of the Father, but also, according to the Scriptures, he is the Word (or logos) of the Father and the Image (or ikon) of the Father. That is to say, the Son is the sign and symbol who communicates the Father in the Spirit, not only to us, but likewise within life of God himself.

If that is so, then God himself is never without signs. Thus, it should be no surprise that it is in and through signs that God makes himself known and communicates himself to his creatures. Any other, supposedly “better” way in which God might reveal himself would not, it turns out, be an adequate revelation of the God who is the Trinity of Persons who created heaven and earth. Thus we should not be astonished in the least that God’s self-communication in and through the biblical covenants involves the giving and receiving of signs.

An Ecclesiology of Signs

We can also note at this point that the biblical covenants are inherently social in character.

Adam was never simply an isolated individual, even before the creation of Eve, but also the covenantal head of the human race whom he represented. Indeed, when we first read of God’s creation of human beings in Genesis 1, created in God’s own image and likeness, we are immediately alerted to the fact that God created not just an individual, but a humanity - and not just a humanity, but a humanity divided into male and female. This establishes from the start that the human race was to exist both as a single humanity, imaging and reflecting God, and further that this humanity was always already one designed to include multiplicity and difference. God’s first command to humanity confirms this: be fruitful and multiply, that is, spread out and fill the earth in an ever expanding and diversifying human community.

As with the previous point about signs, none of this should be the least bit surprising from the standpoint of our own place in the biblical story in which we know God definitively as Father, Son, and Spirit, a community of Persons existing eternally in both absolute difference and complete unity. To be created in the image and likeness of this God necessarily involves being created as a single race of beings in natural and covenantal solidarity while nevertheless embracing diversity and difference.

If, however, the Trinity involves the eternal procession of the Son as the “Word” and “Image” of the Father, so that the life of God himself is eternally mediated through a Sign, then we would expect that part of what it means to exist in community must involve a sharing together in signs. To be a family, for instance, is not merely to have a biological connection (since, after all, families can be established by other means), but primarily to share in the exchanging of vows and commitments established and mediated through signs: shared stories, traditions, rituals, places, property, events, and so on. If this is true of even families, how much more it is the case with the life of communities, neighborhoods, tribes, ethnicities, and nations.

In this context we should note that God’s purposes in salvation do not involve merely the saving of isolated individuals, but the establishment of a new humanity in and through Jesus Christ by the Spirit, bringing the human race to the eschatological end for which he created us - and to do so precisely as a community of persons sharing together in God in a covenantal solidarity. That is to say, the church is not just a collection of saved people. Nor is it merely a means by which we receive salvation through the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, received in faith. Rather, the church as the renewed people of God, a new humanity bearing God’s glorified image, is the very goal of salvation.

As Robert Letham puts it, “Salvation therefore takes place into the church, in the church, and in connection with the church. Both the church and the salvation it proclaims and bears are together grounded in the saving efficacy of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From all this, it is clear that soteriology and ecclesiology are integrally connected, both being outflows of the accomplishments of Christ…” (The Work of Christ 217).

Letham continues, “this connection should be given renewed expression in our own day. One way of doing this is to pay close attention to the biblical doctrine of Covenant as it comes to fruition and full expression in the work of Christ. In the covenant of grace, the individual finds his or her place in the community of the people of God. Corporate solidarity is most prominent, yet it is a solidarity that does not run roughshod over individual liberty. The Godly person, by definition, belongs to the community” (219).

Much more needs to be said here, but if we accept this overall perspective as fundamentally correct, then it helps us explain God’s use of signs in administering his covenants. As both Thomas Aquinas and Francis Turretin note, the place of sacraments in the economy of salvation is fitting and necessary because human communities cannot exist apart from the sharing of signs and the community of the church, in turn, is necessary for salvation since it is both the means and goal of salvation.

It also follows from these points that the signs shared together within the covenant community must be the sort that partly constitute what it is that they signify since part of their significance is the identity of the church herself. Moreover, since the church is the place where the Spirit dwells and works - bringing men and women to faith and salvation through the preaching and teaching of the Word and, indeed, through every aspect of the ministry of Christians one to another - then the signs shared together within the church not only point to and partly constitute what they signify, but they also communicate salvation and make it present to us.

These observations, I hope, help set the context in which we should consider, discuss, and explain the biblical signs of the covenant.

05 October 2007

green flea market

I guess I'm not exactly an eco-warrior. But I am convinced that, as Christians with an eschatological vision for the whole created order, we have weighty kingdom-reasons for making "creation care" a priority in our lives, as stewards of the good gifts God has given to us.

And so, as a family living in and committed to the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia for nearly 8 years, we've been somewhat involved with our neighborhood environmental group: the Wissahickon Environmental Action Network (or "WEAN"). WEAN engages in a number of local, neighborhood initiatives: sending out reminders about recycling collection, lobbying for single stream recycling in our part of the city, distributing information on simple ways to conserve energy in one's home, organizing neighborhood clean up days, working with local schools and businesses toward adopting greener practices, and so on.

In addition, WEAN has hosted some film nights, showing films such as Who Killed the Electric Car and An Inconvenient Truth, along with discussion. The latter film was also part of an "Art & Truth on the Roof" event in Center City co-sponsored by WEAN, Whole Foods, and the Sierra Club, which included live music, recycled art, and a number of educational tables (including the fantastic Philly Car Share program). Some of the core WEAN folks also participated in the Philly "Step It Up" rally in Center City to urge Congress to reduce carbon emissions.

Tomorrow WEAN is sponsoring a "Green Flea Market." We've got a bunch of stuff in our closets that we aren't using and, since our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, we plan on selling off a number of old clothes, toys Claire's outgrown, unused household items, and the like - hopefully to the inexpensive benefit of others. Moreover, the table reservation fee (only $15) will help WEAN to underwrite the cost of neighborhood clean ups, to continue distributing re-usable shopping bags, and to begin to provide energy-saving compact florescent light bulbs to our neighbors.

If you live in the Philly area, the Green Flea Market will take place at La Noce Park on the corner of Rochelle and Ridge Avenues, across from the Wissahickon train station. We'd love for you to stop by!