Friday, December 12, 2008

The Dark Side of Christ

Surely darkness is a poor metaphor for the Light of the World. And yet most of Jesus' forward looking parables are arrayed in sinister linings. Like chiaroscuro, his ominous shades of horror add a third dimension to our Savior. The One who would bruise no reed and smolder no wick invited hearers to peer into ghastly scenes of One who will account for every offense in bitter weeping and anguished gnashing.

These parables of tenants, wedding feasts, and minas tell a different story than the soft gospel of a God who punishes begrudgingly, caught in the awkward position of conjuring up wrath to prove his justice. No, he comes as an insulted father, a deceived debt reliever, a pained vineyard owner, and a king whose rule has been jeapardized. He comes enraged to "put those wretches to a miserable death", to "destroy those murderers and burn their city", to "bring them here and slaughter them before me". And all the beseeching, begging, pleading falls on deaf ears. He is merciless.

If Jesus is able to grant "joy inexpressible" to his beloved, who can put words to the grisliness that awaits his enemies? If he is the Creator of our bodies and the intricacies of our nervous system, he is able to inflict pain beyond our wildest nightmares. And if he sustains vast complex galaxies by his word, he is able to uphold this place of torment forever and ever.

We do no favors when we fumble the doctrine of hell - when we feign the complications of Gehenna, bemoan more loudly the present plight of the oppressed, take torture out of the gospel, and make Jesus appear squeamish around blood.

But if we come to grips with such terror, we will find in it something worthy of the brutality of the cross.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Religion as a Bull Market?

Okay, so maybe it's tacky to post a link to another blog. Forgive me this once. I thought this was interesting, if not because Richard John Neuhaus is using a clever typology to create a cleverer typology then because it seems relevant. Here's a key excerpt:
If the subject of the future of Christianity is reformulated as the future of religion in this society and the world, there is, from a historical and sociological perspective, nothing to worry about. For as far as one can see into the future, religion is a bull market. In America, where more than 90 percent of the people say they believe in God and well over 80 percent claim to be Christians of one sort or another, Christianity is a bull market. We can debate until the wee hours of the morning whether this is “authentic” or “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, but the fact is that this is the form—composed of myriad forms—of the Christian movement in our time and place. (
I am continually vexed by these sorts of questions… and discussions on Shane Claiborn.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hebrew and Greek Fonts

I have been trying to get Greek, and Hebrew fonts for the blog, and just found out that you have to copy and paste the specific texts from a website that has the texts in unicode.  For Hebrew you can use
For Greek you can use
There you go if anyone wants to do it.  

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Alex Luc and Gen. 3:22

Dr. Alex Luc in my Hebrew class this evening brought up an interesting point about the Hebrew text of Gen. 3:22 that I had never heard before.  

Our English Bible's generally translate that text, "Then the Lord God said, 'Behold the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil..'"  This, according to Luc is a dubious translation.  There is another, and possibly more appropriate way this text could be read.  The Rabbis in some of the Targums translated it, "Then the Lord God said, 'Behold the man has become as a loner [or has become alienated], from it (the tree) knowing good and evil...'"  This is not to say that Adam has been alienated from the tree, but has made himself alone, alienated from God on account of him gaining the knowledge of good and evil from the tree.  Dr. Luc puts a break between two of the words in the Hebrew that are joined in our Bibles.  The two Hebrew words generally translated "like one of us" are k'hd, this word translates, "as/like one", and mmnu, which can be translated as "from" and then the first person plural ("from us"), or "from" and then the third person singular("from it/him").  Our English Bible's, and the LXX opt for the former, "from us", while Dr. Luc goes with the latter "from it".  The main syntactical reason to take this word as "from it", is that the other six times this construction is used in the early chapters of Genesis it is used to refer to the tree that was in the midst of the garden, not used to denote the first person plural.

This has an interesting theological application.  If Dr. Luc's reading is correct, it removes any idea from this text that Adam and Eve's sin elevated them to some higher god-like status.  God created man in his own image, and it is confusing to say that the fall perfects, or expands that in any way.  It seems more sensible that Adam's sin alienated him from God, on account of his innocence being lost in knowing the difference between good and evil.               

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A letter to Shane and Chris

Shane and Chris,

My wife and I are indebted to you guys for your bold, prophetic voices. In your words and walks, you are re-imagining what our faith looks like against the prevailing script of “technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism” (Brueggemann). As a family gearing up to do church-planting among the poorest neighborhoods in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we resonate deeply with your call to the church to take seriously Christ's own words and walk amongst the desolate.

Huge swaths of the church still consider doctrine a list of truths to be affirmed rather than acted, conversion more decision than demonstration. It seems wherever we look to the right to put words to our faith, we must sacrifice hearing the things closest to God's heart for our lives. But wherever we look to the left to put action to our faith, doctrines get sheepish, scurrying into the shadows of a looming concern for the poor. Talk of sin gets befuddled, talk of hell squeamish, and in the end we're hard-pressed to find a problem worthy of the solution of the cross.

We fear Jesus for President dabbles in the latter. You guys borrow heavily from liberation theology to paint broad strokes of the biblical narrative - a tradition the church has much to glean from. But by reading the Scriptures exclusively through the lens of God's interaction with regimes, they are muffled. Likewise, in your book, the stories of triumph over wicked political powers are shouted while the Bible's most prominent theme of God reconciling sinful man to himself through Christ is whispered ambiguously. There is one mention of sin, to assure us it's not the yoke Jesus frees us from (111); more attention to the hell of poverty on earth and even doubts (?) of an eternal one (290ff); and more excitement about the "conversions" of car engines and renewable energy sources than the sheep Christ came to claim (308). No faith in a desperately needed Savior. No atonement. No justification. No reconciliation. No salvation.

I realize these are "buzz words" for Bible thumping (or Bible humping, as my co-worker says) fundamentalists. And there is a desperate flight in my generation of all things fundamentalist. But they are the words of Scripture - to whom else may we go? If others have embalmed them and decorated their narthexes with their death, that is a travesty. And yet we can still do nothing less than watch the Spirit breath life into these words through us, reattaching them to the cross-bearing lives they belong to.

Again, we sincerely applaud your audacity to defy the comforts of Christendom for the cost of the cross. But we are equally desperate to hear men and women boldly making sense of that cross in light of the Scriptures - "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us".

David and Julie

Monday, November 10, 2008

November 4

Here's a powerful post surrounding the election. Its a white father wrestling with how to account for this red-lettered date with his black son (adopted from Ethiopia).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Taxing the Wealthy

I've seen this tax illustration countless times leading up to the election but its very misleading for several reasons.

1. All we are privy to is what each man at the table pays for the total bill (i.e. his taxes). We have to do the math to figure out what each one makes according to the 2008 tax brackets. To pay $0 of a $100 tab, the bottom four men must make $8000 or less a year. Our present poverty line for singles is $10,400, neither of which are livable wages. For the richest man to pay $59 he must be making 44 times that amount, or $354,000.

2. In reality of course, taxes don't buy beer unfortunately. Pure capitalism is a bit of a mirage. Big business in America takes a lot of government money to float by way of infrastructure, subsidies, security, etc. So the richest men at the table are paying money to make money, not just to fund others' drinks.

3. In the illustration, the money is paid in exchange for equal rounds of beers for all participants. The poorest appears to drink as heartily as the richest. Sadly this is embarrassingly untrue. Of course richer folks will live more comfortably on their own income than poorer folks, but how do we account for the huge disparity on government spending between wealthier and poorer communities? Let's just say kids in Richland County don't go to the same public schools as kids in Lexington.

4. On that note, the illustration fails to account for the members at the table as human beings, instead of units of economic output. Each man at the table represents not just himself but his family, his community, his school, his subculture. America is not a level playing field. Sure there are lazing, greedy, mooching poor people (just as there are lazy, greedy, mooching rich people). But unless we are willing to say that the reason 80% of black kids in inner-city Baltimore fail to graduate high school is laziness, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of a problem much bigger than we realize. Meanwhile, we're arguing over who gets to pay the least for it. Surely money is not the only answer, but I'm not holding my breath for a free one.

5. Another barrier to a level playing field yet to be mentioned is oppression. The Bible is not ignorant to the inherent wickedness and laziness of man (see Proverbs and Paul). But by far, the number one factor contributing to poverty according to the Scriptures is oppression (see Pentateuch, History, Psalms, Proverbs, Prophets, Gospels, Paul, and James). Of course there are rich people who are innocent of malicious oppression; and there are rich people who are ignorant of their oppression; and there are rich people downright guilty of it in complex economical, social, and political ways biblical writers' couldn't have dreamed of. Whatever the category, chances are that at that table, some are able to pay more of the bill because others can't.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Review of Irresistable Revolution

In Walter Brueggemann's deeply insightful The Prophetic Imagination, he complains, "The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act". Our desperate need is for a prophetic imagination to "nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us". Indeed "Who will ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down)" (Rom 10:6). How can we be awakened from our slumber of costly self-absorption into the light of gospel-living unless someone goes before us and shows us the way? What we desperately need is not more talkers but dreamers, not mere sideline critics but those who will live critically of the prevailing ethos.

Without being too dramatic, I believe Shane Claiborne attempts such a feat. Author, speaker, and co-founder of The Simple Way in the badlands of Philadelphia, Shane believes, imagines, and acts on a new way of living in his recent book Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. He won't win any awards for clarity or conciseness but his book is littered with gems that capture this thinking:

"Charity wins awards and applause, but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for charity. People are crucified for living out a love that disrupts the social order, that calls for a new world" (129).

"...believers are a dime-a-dozen nowadays. What the world needs is people who believe so much in another world that they cannot help but begin enacting it now" (149).

"For the flag and the cross are both spiritual. And they are both political... No wonder it is hard for seekers to find God nowadays. Its difficult to know where Christianity ends and America begins" (193).

"The more personal property is retained as private space, the more corporate property becomes a necessity. And the cycle continues, for as we enlarge the territory of corporate property, private property remains comfortably sacred" (330).

"...I just wanted to rise above the suffocating deadness, to rise above people who no longer feel or dream but just exist" (346).

Most importantly he's done something (exit Donald Miller). Whether he is moving into a decrepit, crime-ridden neighborhood and building community, or sleeping in public parks with the harassed homeless, or extending fellowship to Iraqi believers during America's invasion, he is acting in refreshing, innovative ways that give pause to our shared ethos with the present powers. That is prophetic.

My only complaint is the faddish, stifling ambiguity that permeates his writing. A pair of millennium have taught us that talk of Jesus is malleable, that he can fit into our image of him. As communication and causes grow, our Messiahs will multiply into a myriad of Christs, christening the banners of everything from Republicanism to organic herbal remedies. I am not saying Shane has invented a Jesus on the spot. I am saying that the less we hear of Christ and the more we hear the issues, Jesus ends up filling in the cracks and becomes immeasurably less than we intended.

That being said, Irresistible Revolution is a great read that challenges my Jesus and my lifestyle to the core. May we be men and women that invite fresh winds of Scripture to upend our cultural comfort and embody a different script than the tattered one we've been handed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Earthiness of the Old and the Dualism of the New

How do we account for the contrast between the OT's preoccupation with hard work, harvests, politics, and justice, and the NT's urging to get our eyes on things above, to live as exiles, to labor for eternal fruit, and store imperishable treasure? Without trying to jam both Testaments into the same mold, I don't think the differences are as drastic as they may seem.

Certainly there is discontinuity in God's plan of salvation from Old to New. But it's wrong to imagine a false discontinuity that envisions Israel's salvation as an earthly utopia and the church's as a heavenly one. There is no such naive idealism in the OT. From Abraham's doubts and white lies to Israel's grumblings and golden calves to the Law's depressing prediction of absolute failure and punishment, the Scriptures stand witness to the blatant shortcomings of the people of God. At best, men and women of faith are fed shadowy images of better things to come. Hebrews 11 offers us a window into a "dualism" older than Israel and its practical implications.

This parade of exemplary saints from Abel to David all demonstrate one thing - commendation of hopeful faith embodied in earthly action. These were not OT caricatures pouring themselves into building heaven on earth. In the Promised Land itself, Abraham was "like a stranger in a foreign country"! No, at their best they were looking forward, seeing from a distance, welcoming "a better country - a heavenly one". Their sacrificial offerings, boat building, baby making, civil disobedience, prophesying, conquering, and administering justice all economically, socially, religiously, and politically served the same purpose - banking their physical lives on something better to come; living a heavenly reality in earthly bodies and communities.

As Christians we look back on a rich inheritance of ancestral witnesses. We look forward to Jesus, whose own obedience meant flesh, blood, work, sweat, connecting the theological dots of worship within our bodily existence, and then dying and resurrecting bodily himself. This "race marked out for us" is tied taut between these examples. No wonder the fledgling church of Acts is instantly forced to define social structures (1:14-15), property rights (2:44-45), politics (4:19; 5:29), and treatment of the poor (4:34) in light of Jesus' resurrection and their mission in the opening chapters. The church is at its worst when it hangs limply in the balance of an aritificial dualism, affirming Jesus' lordship over everything we can't see and having trouble finding his relevance in things that matter.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Communion and our Engagement to Christ

I posted this on my church's blog recently. Sorry about the length PD.

When we read about the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-26, and Luke 22:14-23), something strange becomes apparent. We are familiar with the first two parts of communion; Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples, and then He passes the wine telling them that it is, “the new covenant in My blood,” (Lk. 22:20) These parts of the Lord’s supper are mentioned perhaps every time and everywhere it is practiced. What we often neglect to notice is the promise given with the Elements:

“But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom,” (Mt. 26:29, cf. Mk. 14:25, Lk. 22:16,18)

It does not sound like a promise at all, and no doubt the disciples did not hear it as such. To them, it is difficult to hear anything except, “We did some amazing things together, I am leaving you. Oh, and by the way, I’ll come back sometime ” If this were all Jesus meant, despair and desertion would not be difficult to understand. However, upon closer examination we see that there is a very great promise here.

Recall a couple of weeks ago Dusty talked about the Jewish custom of marriage (Parable of the Ten Virgins). He mentioned how the bridegroom and bride would become engaged (and at that point they were viewed as essentially married to the extent that if the bridegroom died, the bride would be considered a widow) and then the bridegroom would proceed to leave and prepare a home for his bride. As soon as his estate was ready the bridegroom would return in a glorious procession and days of feasting and dancing would ensue, and the marriage would finally be consummated.

If we return to the scene in that upper room shortly before Christ’s death and look again at Christ’s language with this image of marriage in mind, its meaning changes. His announcement of His departure is not an expression of abandonment, but a promise of perfect marriage. It is not a funeral march but the beginning of the engagement. Interpreting the Lord’s Supper with an understanding of marriage, His instructions at the passover come to mean two things:

1) Our relationship to Christ has changed. In the Luke account Jesus says, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” There cannot be a new covenant unless there is an old covenant. The old covenant was our guardianship under the Law. By Christ’s death, our obligation to the Law has been satisfied in Christ, and by joining with Him in death, we announce that the old relationship has ended and a new marriage is beginning. If our old master was merely right in its expectation of us, our new master is good and right in His expectation and aid. And so, as we take communion, we remember the beginning of our betrothal to Christ. What Christ means, then, by saying that He will abstain from the cup until God’s kingdom is established is essentially a commitment to abstinence, since the blood is the very thing that binds husband and wife. Christ is saying that until the proper time, the marriage will not be consummated between He and His Bride. So even though we have fellowship with Christ, our fellowship with Him is not what it will be. This brings us to the second point.

2) Our relationship to each other has changed. Inasmuch as it is important to understand who our Bridegroom is, we must understand who the Bride is. Jesus gives the cup and says, “Take this and share it among yourselves,” and then the bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you,” (Lk. 22:17, 19) Remember that God’s intention from Abraham on was to make a great family, or nation, bound by a common heritage and blood (Gn. 17:1-8). The lineage that went from Abraham down through Isaac, Jacob, and all of their descendants all the way down to Christ is a tangible symbol of an eternal reality, that is, the Vine that is Christ in whom we find our spiritual lineage (Jn 15:1-11). In the same way that the Jews trace their physical lineage to Abraham, we trace our spiritual lineage to him through Christ. Hence, by ingesting His blood and body, we are taking in the very elements that make a family a family. I am related to my mother and father and sister by a temporal sort of blood, and my ties to them will end (again, in a temporal sense) as soon as I die. In the same way that my physical blood binds me to my earthly family, the blood of Christ binds us together as His Church as long as we are alive (which is, of course, forever).

The implication here is that when you, the reader, sit in the pews of Rutledge Chapel and eat of Christ’s body and drink of His blood, you sit among family. These same people who eat and drink with you, assuming that they are indeed in Christ, are as much apart of you or more than your physical family, and ought to be treated as such. Christ’s blood flows through my veins and your veins and animates the various limbs and members of this body that is the Bride. This is the Church, this is the Bride of Christ, and this is what is in store for those who trust in Him. It is a terrible, glorious and weighty title to be given. At the same time, it is a wonderful thought that a wedding greater than any bride could ever conceive of is being prepared by a Lover who has not spared any expense to be united with us.

Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, For the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.
Revelation 19:7-8

Saturday, August 9, 2008

‘Home’ and the Imperishable Inheritance of Grace

"Maybe this Robert will come back someday…What of Jack will there be in him?”

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

I used the word ‘imperishable’ here in this title because it is the word that most embodies the splendor and incorruptible eternality of our inheritance in Christ’s standing and also the rewards that are made possible by Christ’s great repute. However, for this novel it would have been just as fair of me to use the word “irresistible” and to good effect. That is the question here isn’t it? Can an inheritance of grace be resisted?

It would be true to say that this novel is a work that takes its aim at a profligate son, a prodigal. But where does Christ’s story of the prodigal son get its start? The story that Christ read as a young man, the story that set down roots in His heart is the story of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the father of Jacob and of Esau.

This novel “Home” is a story about inheritance, and how the claim inheritance makes on its benefactor can survive and be carried out in weakness. In the same way, the promises of God were carried down through the life of Jacob, the deceiver.

“Jacob was a quite man, dwelling in tents,” -Genesis 25:27b

"Jack had run a length of clothesline from beam to beam and thrown a tarp over it to make a low tent in the angle of the floor and roof…a soul that had improvised this crude tabernacle to stand in the place of other shelter…” –Marilynne Robinson, ‘Home’

Just as the Reverend Boughton would often pull Jack in close to get a good look at him, so did Isaac reach out to touch his sons. When Isaac's vision became “dim” as scripture puts it, he carried out his blessing by touching his son and, in that way, confirming on him his grace. So many times through out the novel Reverend Boughton longs to see Jack but can’t. “Is Jack here? I hope you find him, because it seems like I never even get a clear look at him,” He is the only child who truly had the Reverend's inheritance, and at the same time, the only child whom the Reverend could never completely see in order to bestow his blessing. This is why the reverend has no peace, because, although he has many children, he has not given his blessing to the one he intended to have it.

At the end of the novel we learn that the inheritance was given, and received. The young Robert receives the framed picture of the river and, like a fissure in a mountain, the line of grace runs back up through the entire novel, introducing and superimposing itself on every scene that felt deprived of it. Although the salvation moment happens off stage, it is made incarnate here in Jack’s son. Just as Jacob wrestled with God and was full of deceit, his true inheritance and election was made certain because he fathered the nations, and this is why the Lord is wonderful.

The lord is wonderful because even after the metal is cast, and the form is cooled, and there seems to be no hope, only an empty expectation to receive back from the mold that shape that was always cast into it, out comes something full of redemption and grace.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Lord is Wonderful: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Home

“The Lord is Wonderful”, is the closing line of Home. Robinson’s third novel continues to unwrap the depth and complexity of human life in Gilead, Iowa. Home is a followup to Gilead, but not a sequel, prequel, but the same stories told from a different house. Their relationship is not unlike that of the four Gospels in the Bible. Giving unity in setting and characters, diversity in form and content and both creating an overwhelming artistic complexity and beauty.

and Home have much in common, namely, the Boughton’s and the Ames’s and the shining star of radicalism: Gilead, Iowa. In Gilead readers were invited to read the memoirs and letters of 76 year old Rev. John Ames as he dies of angina pectoris, a failing heart, writing to his 6 year old son Robby (whose name we learn in Home). The reader becomes fully acquainted with the Boughtons in Gilead, particularly John Ames’s fabled namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton and his sister Glory. Home puts Jack and Glory to the foreground and leaves John Ames a shadowy figure. Robinson’s characters evoke a kind of gestural stroke like the paintings of Rembrandt, the interaction of the characters is greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the psychology of human interaction something very different from Gilead is given in Home, Robinson weds form and content in electing a unique third person POV. However, the POV in Home is not omniscient, but rather is cinematic. By not giving the us the privilege of knowing the intentions and thoughts of her characters, Robinson leaves us to grapple with the complexity of humanity found in the relationships of Jack and Glory. Following Jack or Glory around could have been interesting, but in Home Robinson gives reflections on the mystery of the family, and God’s providence in it. Where Gilead gave pastoral and theological reflection, Home explores familial and relational bonds.

Thematically there is perhaps one dominant motif, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jack certainly is the Prodigal who returns and Glory the elder brother, yet Robinson shows something much more profound and real than how that story is typically treated. There is much Scripture in Home, though not to the same degree as Gilead, however, what Robinson does in the final pages of Home is nothing less than a reflection on how wonderful the Lord is. Throughout the entire novel we follow Jack and Glory as they eke out their time in Gilead waiting and watching for some glimpse of grace. Reflection is too narrow, what Robinson gives us is a dramatization of wonderfulness of the Lord. If this sounds too pious and mawkish for a Pulitzer prize winner, one must read it for themself to test her maxim “if you can pull it off, you can do it”. This kind of description admittedly makes the book sound trite and pious. Perhaps, that it is why Robinson did not just tell us the Lord is wonderful, but showed us.

In the publisher’s write up of Home, they call it Robinson’s “best work”. I agree. I think that Robinson has demonstrated her prowess as an author in Home that her other work (Housekeeping and Gilead) affirms but in Home her writing is rich with complexity, artistry, and most of all grace.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


At closer inspection the prioritist call for the church to trump humanitarian aid for the sake of evangelism is not as pious as it may sound. A theology is only worth the community which can embody it. I am willing to wager that the same zeal extreme prioritists apply to mission work – cutting humanitarian services for exclusively evangelistic ones – is kept at bay from creating major disruptions in their own lives. Where do they invest their time? Their money? Their career or credentials? How much is discarded into the stuff of life (housing, repairs, mortgages, food, family, leisure, entertainment, rest) and how much is salvaged for the true eternal work of evangelism? Are they as faithful to route out all “superflous waste” in their own lives as they seek to impress upon all missions endeavours?

I would suspect that there are in truth two theologies at work here. One emphatically endorses the goodness of God’s creation and gifts, his present Lordship, and worship which extends to all areas of life. Another, with dogged fidelity to a sacred/ secular dichotomy, in which creation and its cares are the irrelevant trimmings of souls and the afterlife. I pity the recipients of the latter.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Response to Chris Little's "What Makes Missions Christian?"

This is my abbreviated response to Chris Little over his article "What Makes Mission Christian?" in the most recent issue of International Journal of Frontier Missions (

First, it does sound like you were “set up” in this issue and that is not right. At the same time I was taken aback by much of your language aimed at the opposition. You warned of the “horizontalization in mission” (67) and urged “recovering the doxological theme in mission” (69), reminding us that “mission is not undertaken for the welfare and glory of man” (70). Are you really willing to assert that “there is nothing particularly Christian about humanitarian work” (68)? That Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates are indistinguishable from Compassion and World Vision? Furthermore you drew several hard, fast lines between holism and a host of evangelical boogey-men: liberalism, Liberation Theology, annihilationism, inclusivism, and rice Christianity. I’m sure you could point to holistic ministries in each camp but to resort to over-generalized name calling is unfair, unhelpful, and will certainly break down lines of communication.

Second, and more to the point of the actual argument, I am uncomfortable about your portraits of Jesus and Paul. What do you really make of the nature of Jesus’ work? We cannot get around the fact that his miracles are almost entirely centered on restoring bodies. To try and distance him from that central, prophecy-fulfilling work is in danger of making his miracles into arbitrary magic tricks exclusively meant to draw crowds to hear his words – as if pulling a rabbit from his kippah would have worked just as well. As a side note, that brought out two interesting comments in your article. The first is that Jesus never did a miracle which did not lead to words. In reality, wherever you find a couple of paragraphs of black print together in the Gospels it’s usually Jesus doing without saying. The second statement was that ‘poor’ is not “simply a socio-economic term” (69). Granted poor, deaf, blind, dumb can all have spiritual meanings, they also have very literal, very powerful meanings as well including the Isaiah prophecy you referenced (Lk 4:18-19) which was literally being fulfilled by Jesus (Lk 7:21-23). We can safely assume literal poverty was what their money bag was for. I am not trying to play Jesus’ works off his words but simply saying the picture is far more complex than either side has a tendency of painting it.

Briefly on Paul, it is not true that he “seems purposefully to have avoided…personal charity” (67). He made much of his humanitarian aid to Jerusalem (Ac 24:17; Rom 15:25ff; 1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 8:1-4; 9:1-2, 12). Very interestingly, when he goes to compare his gospel with the apostles the thing James, Peter, and John challenge him on is not Romans Road but to “remember the poor”, which he is quick to assert is the “very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10). Of course, Paul’s calling and gifting distinguished him from the Stephen, Cornelius, Lydia, James, and Lukes of the NT but we cannot make the case that he did not capture God’s concern for the poor nor consider it fundamental to his mission – he did.

Third, (and I hate to use an over-played word you are probably exhausted of hearing) I am afraid that this might lead to a reductionistic view of mission (at least I didn’t say Platonic, Gnostic, or post-Enlightenment). True mission has always been more but certainly never less than answering the question of how one gets saved. At its best, mission must entail the full council of Christ, the message of resurrection and reconciliation, and planting communities who live as a powerful, subversive force here and now in light of the resurrection. It should come as a shock to our over-programmed senses that the only two formal offices in an institution bent on reaching the world are elders and deacons. How can we make mission any less than that?

Honestly I think prioritism is a bad question that has generated a hopeless debate. I would liken it to asking, Which is more important, evangelism or holiness? Or evangelism or theological education for that matter? You might be able to make a great case for one or the other but you are not going to be happy with the results. True, giving someone a loaf of bread is not the same as sharing the gospel (as George Verwer reportedly said), but sharing the gospel is not the same as giving a loaf of bread. Both neglectful Christians are disobedient.

At the end of the day I don’t have a problem with a clarion call to include the gospel at the forefront of all endeavors. It’s our lifeblood. But the way there cannot be through denigrating something so dear and so oft-repeated throughout the Scriptures.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Review of Surprised by Hope

Wright’s newest title and growing theme in his writing and teaching of late is an attempt to connect the elusive dots between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the end of the age, and their implications for the individual, the church, and the cosmos in the present. He outlines his framework primarily as a critique against mainstream, post-Enlightenment, Western Christianity which views salvation as “‘my relationship with God’ in the present and about ‘going home to God and finding peace’ in the future’” (196). This gross misunderstanding, according to Wright, is committed generally to life after death without working out the specifics (6), begets an escapist piety without quarrels with the injustice in our day (27, 66), skews proper exegesis (199), smacks of Gnosticism in which “the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place” (90), and places personal eternal security at the center of everything and “the hope of creation as mere embroidery around the edges” (80).

Emphatically distancing himself from evolutionary optimism (things will get better and better as we build heaven on earth) or transitional souls (things will get worse and worse until we finally abandon this wicked earth), Wright seeks to answer “the major, central, framing question” of both Testaments: “God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos” (184). The bodily, in our space-time continuum, resurrection of Jesus “is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven” (234). By rising bodily (not spiritually) from the dead, death has been defeated (not redefined), and we have witnessed the inception of the inevitable trajectory of God’s good earth (our present space) meeting God’s perfect heaven (God’s present space) as depicted in Revelation. Believers are signposts here and now of the goodness of creation and its eventual renewal by championing the Lord’s present dominion over all the earth – spiritually, socially, politically, economically – and anticipating when we are resurrected bodily and creation is “set free from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). “We do not ‘build the kingdom’ all by ourselves but we do build for the kingdom…what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess” (143, 156).

As always there are so many things Wright does exceptionally well. His opening chapters prove that he remains a premier apologist and one of few theologians with refreshing, exciting things to say about the resurrection and new creation. In a lot of ways, his critiques are penetrating and demand attention. Biblically, we cannot deny social action, political involvement, environmental concern, the integrity of secular work, or the stuff of life but neither can we support their weight under the present ambiguity about a temporary earth and eternal heaven. He has caught the evangelical hand in the cookie jar trying to retrieve treats of present relevance while balancing precariously on a rickety step-stool of escapism.

At the end of the day, despite talk of the middle way, we are still left out of focus when we approach the New Testament with Wright’s prescription. At the heart of the problem is his rendition of the gospel: “the gospel, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true lord” (227). Though this is absolutely true and cannot be said enough in our wishy washy private spiritualism, this narrow definition demands he shy away from (not deny) talk of the role of sin in individuals and Christ’s solution (which really fuels talk of his lordship), a deafening theme in the Scriptures. By emphasizing the former aspect of the gospel at the exclusion of the redemption of humanity is really the false dichotomy that looms large behind the social action versus evangelism debate. Both are about as helpful as giving priority to Jesus as Savior or to Jesus as Lord.

Not surprisingly, when you tease out the implications of a Jesus more Lord than Savior you end up with incredibly helpful insights and incredibly bizarre exegesis. To cite a few of the latter: 1 Corinthians 5:17’s warning that without Christ’s resurrection “you are still in your sins” becomes “not simply a private experience; it is a fact about the cosmos” (247). Similarly, he draws a curious analogy: “He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God” (202). That is Wright’s paradigm speaking, not the Scriptures and certainly not 1 Peter 2:9-12 which labels believers with all the titles of Israel and gives them the same marching orders, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness…[that Gentiles] may see your good deeds and glorify God”. A final example is his esteem for the church’s mission for beauty. Because Christ is Lord over a good creation beauty joins the ranks of social justice and evangelism as the duties of every believer. Though we cannot deny its relevance, it is infused by Wright a priority the New Testament simply does not give it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review of Art of Biblical Narrative

I started my review of The Art of Biblical Narrative I posted it below. Essentially, Im okay with saying Ruth and Boaz weren't real people... Ask me about it.

Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative is a must read for anyone interested in hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation. Although this book was written before the French Revolution of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, his approach is free from many of the snares and objectivist language that plagues so many hermeneutics books. "Well then, what is approach? What's his worldview? I see that he teaches at Berkley, he must be liberal" You might say. For 'hardlined evangelicals' drinking the cool-aid of Warfield, they will have a problem with his understanding of historicity of the events recorded in the Old Testament. For 'hardlined liberals' drinking the cool-aid of higher criticism, they will have a problem with his understanding of historicity of the events recorded in the Old Testament. No that wasn't a typo. Alter argues that the ancient Hebrew way of realizing history was through fiction.

0Not a balance-between-a-documentary-and-spiritualized-fables, but something different. Inspiration is pretty easy to understand when we think of the propositional stuff of 1 Timothy. What about fiction? The other 3/4 of the bible. Every character's inflection, which P.O.V., which details to include, which ones not to. Anyone who has been involved in any creative process knows that there are no rules as to what must be included, as Marilynne Robinson tells her students if they can pull it off they can do it, with that said how does a Sovereign God inspire and put His stamp of approval on a set of texts that seem to open to interpretation? I have not read every inerrantist's dealing with questions but I know what I have read is that they are assumed at best, ignored at worst.

The book is arranged with each chapter dealing with a different literary device of the OT. Alter's greatest insights are on the subject of repetition. When we are confronted with events that seem to overlap, some respond by saying "see how similar these stories are, who can make heads or tales, who knows what is real and what is made up"? Alter argues that the key to these stories is wrapped up not their similarities but in the subtle differences, in that we begin to perceive the message and shaping power of the narrative.

The Art of Biblical Narrative is not an apologetic for the scriptures, rather Alter demonstrates the beauty, intricacy, and craftmanship of the OT. Which becomes a kind of apologetic, but certainly only for those who have eyes to see.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mo Money, Mo Problems

“How much is too much?”, is the traditional wording of paltry middle class piety. The fact that Jesus failed to mention the secret income cap (with a conversion chart next to weights and measures in the index) has rendered most everything he and his disciples said about money impotent. Without a clear, codified dollar amount looming over our climb up the economic ladder, we are free to revel in our wealth under the guise that none of us are rich.

The problem with our parade is that it sorely misunderstands what the market and the Scriptures teach about money – namely, that it can be amassed in a vacuum. Perhaps the reason for Jesus’ great omission is that he could not conceive (literally) of a world in which us and our things were not intertwined with God and humanity and the earth. To ask how much is too much is to pit money against itself, abstracted from the world we live in. But to ask how we might worship with what we have is to invite the concrete reality of God and the poor into our dialogue.

That is the conversation the Bible takes up. John’s radically impractical legalistic words about two tunics and extra food envisions a world in which some people have neither (Lk 3:11). Jesus’ Messianic signposts of good news, sight, and liberty were not for arbitrary audiences as if he could have divided his time between Wall Street and Water Street. Nor were his miracles arbitrary magic tricks as if pulling rabbits from his kippah would have done just as well. No, they were integral to his God-given mission (Lk 4:18-20; 7:20-23). Comparing the rich young man’s sorrow to Zacchaeus’ joy reveals the rightful place of possessions between us and the Lord (Lk 18:23; 19:6). Surprisingly Jesus does not say, “where your heart is, there your treasure will be also”, but the reverse. Once we have our treasure in the right place our hearts will follow (Lk 12:34).

Community thinking, vertically and horizontally, on wealth is desperately needed if we are to gain any clarity at all. Things are not passive objects that fill our homes, but threatening thorns (Lk 8:14), treasure traps (12:21), an alternative to the kingdom (12:31), an alternative to the Master (16:13), a respite from worship (12:34) – in short, they pit us against God. Generosity is not another personal spiritual discipline that needs work but the names and faces of those around my table (14:13-14). It is not the aimless simplifying of my home so faddish today but the sacrificial supplying of the destitute (12:33). It is not asking with the lawyer “Who is my neighbor?”, but with Jesus “Who proved to be a neighbor?” (10:29, 36).

There is nothing wrong with money in and of itself but there is no such thing as money in and of itself.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Pursuit of Ugliness and the Loss of Beauty

I recently watched two films in the same weekend. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and American Beauty (1999). I couldn't help but reflect on how these two films shared so much in common and yet came to vastly different results.

To briefly summarize each of these plots. The Pursuit of Happyness, set in San Francisco 1981 introduces us to Chris Gardener a low income working man who is struggling to make ends meet. Everything changes when opportunities for him to escape his poverty come through hard work and a payless internship at a stock broker firm. Gardener completes the internship as a homeless man and is granted a full time job at the company.

American Beauty is story of American suburbanite Lester Burnham's spiral into a depression fueled by his lustful obsession with his daughter's friend. When given the chance to actualize his fantasies, he is shocked back into his fatherly role, but this revelation comes all too late.

There is one particular question that both of these films explore and offer an answer to: What is beautiful? What is worth pursuing?
Despite these movies' great differences, one great similarity they share is that they are both about the DNA of what it means to be an America, and interestingly they are both made by non-Americans (British screenwriter Sam Mendes directed AB, Italian director Gabriele Muccino TPoH). Chris Gardener seems to be working towards everything that Lester Burnham already has, a well paying job, his own house, a family. Yet, Burnham is less that satisfied with it all. They seem to be two slices of the same person, one looking forward with wishful eyes while the other looks back grimacing.

If one were to develop a soteriology from The Pursuit of Happyness, it would be, as William Edgar says, solus bootstrapus. This move shows us a man who is essentially a "good guy", someone who has been dealt a bad hand, given the chance to do the right thing he will. Sure enough as we see, he works hard pushes through, shows himself to the be the good guy that he is. Thus happiness has been attained, or has it?

One fundamentalist website reviewed American Beauty saying this"This is the story of an American tragedy, not beauty. It's about despair. Isolation. Hopelessness." (Pluggedin review of American Beauty). Well, that is correct. The problem is, that the reviewer missed the whole point of what is ugly, what creates despair, isolation, and hopelessness. The story shows us that chasing after the American dream, reveling in greed, lust, and apathy is ugly. What we assume to be beautiful as Americans is truly ugly. Our lake houses, suvs, sterile picture perfect homes are an affront to beauty of a man who came in a borrowed inn, rode a borrowed donkey, and was buried in a borrowed grave. American Beauty's antidote for the ugliness of the American dream is to show us that the moments that truly matter are the small things in life. The voyeuristic next door neighbor shows us with Edward Hopperian style, that this world is so full of grace and beauty that sometimes his heart feels like it will explode. He remarks that in the face of a dead homeless woman, he saw the face of God staring back at him. This kind of grace, as the title of a sermon I recently heard reminds me, sings in a minor key. What would Lester Burnham say to Chris Gardener? Perhaps "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die".

Interestingly that fundamentalist website said this about The Pursuit of Happyness.
Inspirational isn't a word I would normally choose to describe a great movie, as it conjures up connotations of something sappy or overly sentimental. Nevertheless, I think that's the word that best captures Will Smith's powerful portrayal of real-life father and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps worker Chris Gardner. (PluggedIn review of Pursuit of Happyness)
I am grateful for the poignant message of movies like American Beauty, and appalled at the ugliness of The Pursuit of Happyness. With one you weep for redemption entering in like a bull on parade, and while with the other one find yourself looking for a coffee table from Ikea to turn over. What these movies show us that, while the reviewer of American Beauty cited it as a tragedy, perhaps that title is more fitting for The Pursuit of Happyness.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Wholism and Prioritism: Rather Gnosticism, Materialism, and Wholism

"Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection." Housekeeping

The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
and good news refreshes the bones.
Pr. 15:30 ESV

“A twinkle in the eye means joy in the heart,
and good news makes you feel fit as a fiddle”. MSG

Where does the body end and the spirit begin? This is not a new discussion. There are many many ways of looking at this. Does the ministry of preaching (word) have a greater seat in the Kingdom than feeding and clothing (deeds)? Are practical works a means to an end? Or are they an end in themselves? I think some more fundamental questions must be asked to answer these questions about wholism and prioritism.

These are not merely questions about practice but about the Gospel that we preach. Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity's, whole thesis is this point, the Christian Gospel is not a set of truths, propositions, or statements that people affirm, that would be Christianity. The Gospel is, as N.T. Wright says, “Jesus is Lord, and one day every knee shall bow..." Therefore Leithart can say that the Gospel is economics, art, and anything else. Not merely something that you can extract principles about economics from. The Gospel is a redemptive and healing work to all things.

When someone says that the preaching of the Gospel is prioritized over ministry of deeds, what they are saying is that the Gospel is a set of truths orally communicated that people must know, we feed people so that they might be alive long enough to pray the sinners prayer and await the rapture.  I am personally confused that the same people who fight for a literal and historical account of the Bible seem to see only the spiritual world ahead of us.

(Enter Leithart stage left)

If Leithart is correct, then we need a new vocabulary. Christianity, and it’s red headed step child prioritism, are more correctly known as Gnosticism. The Gospel is wholistic; everything on this earth will be made new by the resurrection of Christ. What then are we preaching? Did Christ appear as a spirit? Was his body or his spirit crucified? We do not want to run to the other extreme of materialism. Rather the whole Gospel must be preached to the whole person.

To return to the objection at the beginning, what is at stake is not where does money go? To the pastor or to the shovels to dig the well? The questions are:

How do we see God working?
What kind of Kingdom is coming?
What kind of Kingdom are we proclaiming?
What kind of King do we serve?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who’s Asking the Questions? Ethnotheology and Justification

At least one of the powerful ways culture shapes theology is its prerogative to ask questions. In doing so societies around the world are building scripts to live by, each nuanced with particularities of resources, religious traditions, education, etc. Walter Brueggemann calls our Western script, “technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism” spread on the “liturgies of television” promising safety and happiness. This has had a tremendous affect on the way we do theology. The questions that remain for an incredibly wealthy, oppressive, safe society are relegated to the non-tangible, spiritual realm. The core of our gospel (and I think ‘core’ is desperately dangerous language, deciding what’s in and what’s expendable) is justification by faith – how I get to heaven. There are at least two pressing problems with this.

First, I submit that what appears to be a pious preoccupation with God’s justification on our behalf is dangerously close to atrophying the larger narrative. God, eternally existing apart from the world has created, sustained, and filled it with image-bearers to reflect his glory. Upon our rebellion he has enacted a recreation replete with a new humanity, heavens, and earth. To reduce the focal point of our worship and the springboard of our action to our personal salvation is to swallow the gnat of John 3:16 and strain out the camel of Colossians 1:15ff. Of course our salvation tunes our hearts to praise but if we bind it to the lyrics of Indelible Grace, our view of God will surely diminish not expand.

Second, our banner of salvation-turned-hermeneutic jeopardizes our reading of the text – as if Jesus’ exposition of Moses and the Prophets had less to say about himself than about how we might renounce works and embrace life. Matthew’s gospel provides a tremendously uncomfortable example. Our modern gospel has trouble identifying the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of God – they do it all the time – unless we begin to take Jesus’ pre-resurrection, cryptic gospel talk at face value. In case his readers missed Matthew’s explicit claims to Jesus’ kingship, Jesus fills in the gaps by talking about entrance into the kingdom exclusively in terms of obedience (5:13, 20, 30; 6:14, 24; 7:13-14, 19, 23, 24-27; 8:18ff; 10:26-42; 12:33-37, 50, etc.). His parables of judgment do not divide believing/unbelieving but righteous/wicked or hearing-with-fruit/hearing. Interestingly, faith is used almost exclusively to mean trust in Jesus’ ability to act in the present, physical reality. So is Jesus saying we’re saved by works not by faith? That’s not the question he’s answering. What he does seem to be saying (unless his teaching was one big set-up for the apostle Paul to knock his notions of obedience out of the park) is that salvation and doing the will of God is inseparable; that Jesus is King and his rule extends to every aspect of our lives.

I am absolutely not doubting or belittling the doctrine of justification by faith. Neither am I appealing for an end of cultural questioning, as if there are supracultural questions that can replace our pesky cultural ones for all peoples to ask. I am saying that the reading of the Word is truly a hermeneutical spiral in which we ask our context-laden questions and receive surprising answers that sharpen new questions of the text for a faithful rendition.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

can i have a side order of polygamy please?

Andy and I lived together for over four years - a couple in college and a couple in seminary. He has never been deeply theological or hyper-spiritual, but always wanting to please the Lord whether he's cutting a record or running his lawn business. He's one of my favorite people on the planet.

So, he calls me today and asks, in 100% seriousness and curiosity, if the Bible ever says we shouldn't have more than one wife? I responded and was satisfied with what the Spirit gave me to say. I was just wondering how you guys would wax biblical and pastoral in your answer to him? It was tougher to think through it than I thought. Insights, please.

[apologies if this is not heady enough]

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Subjection of the Mind (or "Why The Enlightenment and Feminism Have Haunted Us Since the Beginning" or "How to Screw Up Everything")

Genesis three comes as a disturbing plot twist in an otherwise flawless creation narrative. In Genesis one and two, things were just gaining momentum in God's new world. Everything was new and bright. Animals were receiving names and enjoying a delightfully non-darwinian existence, plants were producing oxygen and enjoying being eaten, and man and woman were just beginning the cultivation of God's garden. Everything was––pardon the expression–– "coming up roses." And then we find Eve reasoning with a snake.

Eve's discussion with the serpent is a telling one. It is fraught with subtle logical derailments that send the rest of history hurtling towards a damned future of wars, curses and imminent death. Within the dialogue we see man, represented by the woman, progress through three stages of thinking:
  1. The mind in subjection to God.
    Eve responds well to the serpent's initial temptation, "From the fruit of the trees of the garden you may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'" (Gen. 3:2-3) Eve knows what God has commanded, and she knows what she can and cannot do, but as Paul would later point out in Romans, if we are justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 3-4, esp. 4:3: read work as knowing the law; faith knowing the giver of the law), knowing the law is of little value if we do not subject ourselves entirely to the One giving it.

    (It is perhaps worth noting that Eve does not mention the first part of God's original command to Adam, "From any tree in the garden you may eat freely," [Gen. 2:16] Could it be that it is equally dangerous to forget what God has allowed us to do as it is to forget what He has told us not to do?)

  2. The mind suspicious of God.
    We infer this step based on Eve's response to the Serpent. In order for her to rebel, she had to believe something of the serpent's line of reasoning. The serpent tempts, "You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil," (Gen. 3:4) Satan's suggestion is that God has maliciously kept something from man that is necessary for God to maintain His edge. In other words, Satan implies that God witholds information for the sake of self-preservation rather than for our protection. Of course, this is preposterous when we consider that God was willing to sacrifice the most beloved parts of Himself in order to redeem an obstinate people. But Eve is only making her decision based on the letter of the law and not on the attributes of the Giver of the law. In doing this, she fails to honor both the letter and the Person.

  3. The mind at war with God.
    The woman percieves some truth in the snake's words and she begins to reason in her own mind. Notice that every reason that she uses to justify partaking of the tree is idiocentric, "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food [she thinks first with her appetite], and that it was a delight to the eyes [then with her aesthetic], and that the tree was desirable to make one wise [and finally with her ambition], she took from it and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her and he ate." (Gen. 3:6) The mistake here is not that Eve reasoned– God forbid that we ever think using our minds is a bad thing! The problem is that Eve intentionally neglected thinking in subjection and fellowship to God and her husband––who is certainly not without blame–– and so in every way God's created order is flipped on its head. God is called a liar, Satan is exalted, women are masculinized, and men are emasculated. Fortunately this apparent victory for Satan is superficial. God is still sovereign, even though His creation rebels against Him. His law is still objectively true, His redemption is sure (Gen. 3:15), and the apparent mountain that Satan has seated himself upon will be shown to be nothing more than a winding inferno with all the rivers of hell emptying on his head.
Even though God's character is vindicated (as if it needed vindication), we still live with the same temptation that Eve faced. Our minds are constantly bombarded with the same temptation that she was, that is, to reason in spite of–– instead of with and under–– our God. This was the great mistake of the enlightenment and all similar movements. Shaeffer was right that whenever man emancipates himself from his God, he finds himself very much alone.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Romans 2:6-10 and the Necessity of Good Works for Final Salvation

It is not hard to see why Rom. 2:6-10 creates huge problems for the Reformed. Interestingly though, it is a text that has often been ignored in the rough-and-tumble of theological debate. In the interest of looking for a kind of biblical coherence in our hermeneutic, it might be fun to take a few texts that have historically caused trouble, and see if a more dramatic reading of them could be helpful. It may be that none of us, or maybe just myself, have learned to do a dramatic reading of the text. That may be the case, but I think we can move forward nonetheless.

This text has been read about 6 or 7 different ways. Doug Moo has a very helpful summary of all of them in his commentary of Paul's letter to the Romans. Only 2 of those readings will concern us. One, the historic Reformed reading of the text (surprisingly not Calvin's himself) , and the reading I will take in which I have followed essentially Tom Schreiner, N.T. Wright, and Calvin (although Calvin does not spend quite as much time on this text as the other two, and leaves some loose ends untied). I will articulate briefly the first, and then defend my own. Historically, the reading that has come from our tradition has said that the promise in verse 7 of eternal life for those that seek, "glory and honor and immortality (Rom. 2:7)" is a legitimate, and real promise. The problem is, that sin has made it impossible for anyone to actually meet their side of the agreement. This is, so to speak, the way to "get saved" apart from Christ. The inverse is, that everyone who is selfish has, "wrath and fury" (Rom. 2:8), to look forward to. Of course, everyone is selfish, therefore, all who do not have Christ to absorb the punishment for their selfishness will have to absorb it themselves eternally. Paul is, then, setting up a hypothetical way of salvation for those who are apart from Christ that he will eventually tear down. This view takes into account Rom 3:9-20, which in the structure of the argument is quite close to our text, and is therefore crucial. Paul says, "no one does good, not even one (Rom. :12)... by the works of the law human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). The problem with this interpretation is that while it makes sense of some of the context, the text itself says nothing whatsoever about it being hypothetical. As was said before though, if this reading is not retained, it seems to be in conflict with the 3rd chapter of Romans. But, if Paul appears to be muddled, the reader has not read enough of Paul, who continually holds things together that at first glance appear to be internally inconsistent. The role of works in the life of a Christian, and the doctrine of justification by faith would be a prime example of that. "Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:21)(Schreiner Romans 115). The fact that Paul states that works will play a part in final judgment, in other places that cannot be written off as hypothetical, demonstrates that this text does not contradict the next chapter of Romans.

Now, the question still must be answered what exactly do these good works do? Or, what is the incentive for performing them? This is where I think N.T. Wright's discussion of the role of works for the first-century Jew is helpful, and is potentially similar to the way Paul would have viewed good works for the Christian. "The 'works of Torah' were not a legalists ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity, of belonging to the chosen people in the present, and hence the all-important signs, to oneself and one's neighbours, that one belonged to the company who would be vindicated when the covenant god acted to redeem his people. They were the present signs of future vindication" (Wright The New Testament and the People of God 238). This was, of course, the way that first-century Jews viewed obedience, not necessarily the way Christians viewed it. There does not have to be continuity between the two, but it is probable that there was. For the sake of brevity, we can all squabble about that later. Works then, in the context of final judgment, are the badges that demarcate believers. The process of final judgment will be more than an angelic secretary shuffling through the file-cabinets of the Lambs Book of Life to find a name. The Lambs Book of Life will be worn on the sleeve's of those that are in Christ. These works do not make someone in Christ, in the same way (to use a disturbing example) that the yellow star of David that was worn by Jews during WWII did not actually make them a Jew. It merely demarcated them for the gestapo, and in that sense was linked to their final judgment. In Romans 2 the man who seeks for "glory, and honor, and immortality", is still given eternal life. In verse 28 it is clear that this person is one who is circumcised, or the one who has a pure heart has it by the Spirit (Rom. 2:29). The good works that are done, in this life, will be done by Spirit-filled Christians, and will be profoundly monergistic. Left to their own devices they would be in the category of Rom. 3:11-18, with the Spirit, though, they fall in the category of Rom. 8:4. But, to say something like, "when you get to heaven don't even mention your work's, just mention Christ's", is simply un-Pauline. It would not be appropriate, or wise to stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and boastfully go on-and-on about all the widows and orphans you took care of, and I contend that imputed righteousness plays an ever-important role here, but I think it is clear that the alien-righteousness believers possess, contains visible qualities (cf. Phil. 3:7-11). To say that this is forsaking the gospel is an adventure in Sproulian point-missing.

In conclusion, how is this to be exposited dramatically? First, this is exactly how doctrine puts its walking shoes on. It is interesting to note that when Paul talks about doctrine that is unsound in 1 Tim. he doesn't mention Arminianism, or Sabellianism, or Gnosticism, but says that the law is laid down for, "the lawless, and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Tim. 1:9-11). Right doctrine's primary antecedent is right living, according to the gospel. Secondly, to retain Vanhoozer's theatrical metaphor, good works are the costumes that identify the protagonists in the Drama. Once again, the costumes do not make the protagonists the protagonists, the Director did that. But, he prepared the costumes beforehand that they might wear them. Thirdly, these "costumes" happen to do more than demarcate the heroes, although they do not do less. Good works are an integral part of advancing the Cause of the Director, and moving the Drama towards its comedic end. The pseudo-protagonist who shows up at the curtain call without his costume on has not played his part, and will be shown to be no protagonist at all.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Richard Pratt on End Times

2nd Presbyterian in Memphis's Christian Life Conference featured Richard Pratt and others speaking on the end times. All lectures are downloadable even previous ones with Tim Keller. Sorry if this is too much like Justin Taylor. I thought I would save the email to all of you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contextualization and Presuppositions

We have much ground to cover as we awaken to the growing global conversation of the two thirds of the church not in the West. “Contextualization” brings to mind trite conversations on superficially packaging western theology with colorful, cultural trimming – e.g. Africans will want to dance during church, the Japanese will maintain a more authoritarian ecclesiology. But at its core, contextualization calls into question the nature of truth as well as what Andrew Walls has dubbed the ‘infinite translatability’ of our faith.

In his excellent essay, “One Rule to Rule Them All?”, Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully outlines three poor attempts at contextualizing Christianity. First, the belief (soundly refuted in The Drama of Doctrine) that truth is supracultural, able to be decoded from concrete expression and encoded into a new one – “Instead of profitable pastoral instruction, theologians begat system after system, exchanging their ecclesial birthright for a mess of propositionalist pottage”. The second attempt is an uncritical, syncretistic drawing from a supposed united backdrop of philosophy and religion for shaping faith. The third pitfall is “going local”, making one’s primary allegiance to context rather than text as if they were at odds.

Western theology has borrowed heavily from philosophy. In fact the two become eerily indistinguishable in many discussions on systematics. Now third world theologians are replacing philosophy with the social sciences serving the hermeneutical function of acknowledging the interpreter and the practical function of addressing present-day injustice. I am seeing this firsthand in Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako’s Jesus and the Gospel in Africa. Quoting J. V. Taylor he asks, “But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like?” He finds confidence in the answer because “we are not introduced to a new God unrelated to the traditions of our past, but to One who brings to fulfillment all the highest religious and cultural aspirations of our heritage”. Why, Vanhoozer asks, “can theology borrow from Plato but not from primal religions”?

There is indeed a supra-cultural, supra-chronicle, supra-linguistic true God, but he will never be known as such. Instead he has determined to make himself known in time, space, and language, an act riddled with its own presuppositional complexity (e.g. N. T. Wright’s “three worlds” of Paul). And here is where Christianity parts ways with Islam, which is only at its truest form in Arabic: this complex text has since been disseminated and Spirit-accompanied into tens of thousands of language, people, socio-economic groups and in turn blossomed into multi-faceted expressions. The dirty details of Babel notwithstanding, this is God’s plan that charts its course through the promise to Abraham, the commission of the church, and the worship of the new earth.

How do we faithfully expose, sharpen, and embrace presuppositions in this light? How do we maintain malleable yet still breakable doctrines? How might new voices grow our Christology rather than shrink it to the least common denominator? And how do we hold fast to the rule of faith by which all gospel expressions are accountable?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Response

PD, you are way out of line on this one. I doubt any of us would defend the standards as a thorough, consistent, praiseworthy charter for Christian community but to loosely and erroneously wield the warning passages you cited concerning false teachers is absurd. Whether you intend to or not you have wrongly indicted godly, gospel-savoring faculty and staff who uphold them (whether they agree or not) as accomplices.

As I wrote to you before, "legalism" is a favorite term of slander in evangelical circles and is rarely used correctly. Its not wise behavior (I will not be alone with another woman), or cultural behavior (I will keep my Bible off the floor in Muslim settings), or community-conscious behavior (I will not invite someone to drink without knowing where they stand). Properly defined legalism is behavior that strives to earn salvation. It can be any of the former examples or none of them. Our heart is the issue. Knowing my spiritual laziness I can place the strictest of standards on myself and still revel in the free grace of the gospel alone. But I can also throw off all standards entirely and revel in my self-righteousness for doing so. The right set of standards (behavior, culture, community) does not automatically preclude which I will do.

You have failed to account for the “amoral” standards in the New Testament: widows must be 60 to receive charity (1 Tim 5.9), do not eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8.12), or drink wine in certain circumstances (Ro 14.21), “abstain from the things polluted by idols” (Ac 15.20), don’t pursue circumcision after conversion (1 Cor 7.18), let only 2-3 persons speak in tongues and prophecy in any given service (1 Cor 14.27), eat at home before gathering to celebrate communion (1 Cor 11.34). These standards are a blend of wisdom, culture, and community-consciousness and yet they still leave a lot of effeminate, adolescent ground uncovered. Paul was able to articulate a robust, grace-filled gospel in one breath and deliver these standards in the next without jeopardizing his message and so can we. I’m not putting, say, CIU’s prohibition of shorts to class on par with Paul’s advice in terms of Christian wisdom, but that is a question of the caliber of the standard and not the appropriateness of standards in general. If your gospel is so frail in the face of standard suggestions, what will become of it when the NT writers’ take off the gloves for moral imperatives (Ti 2.11ff; Heb 12.4; 1 Pt 1.17; Jas 1:25; 1 Jn 2.15; Rev 2:5, 23)?

I am willing to be wrong, but you appear to be pressing legalist charges where they simply won’t stick.

An Exposition of the Gospel: Anticipated responses

Anticipated responses:

NT Wright once said that the problem with writing is that you have to say everything all the time. Lacking any sort of literary omnipresence I have written and responded to some anticipated responses.

How does CIU take the blame for someone perverting the standards for self-justification? How can you call that sin?

I would point to Matthew 23 as biblical precedent. Jesus calls them children of hell, and says that the fruit of their missionary labor is that they have made them twice as bad! Paul says in Galatians to those who preach a different Gospel, “Goddamn them to hell forever!”. James warns about how teachers will be judged more strictly, if, this is not compelling enough to say that is sinful, all can rest assured that those who have bound the consciences will give account before God for it. People's misunderstanding about the Gospel is their sin yes, but attempts for precision must be made.

The standards are community rules, so how does your argument still apply?

There are a few problems with the idea that the-standards-are-just-community-guidelines-so-we-all-can-just-get-along. If the standards are community guidelines, first of all I have never heard any CIU staff or administration articulate this position, in fact quite the opposite that CIU is a “boot camp” or “testing lab” and that the standards are to be practiced for all of the Christian life. Where are all the standards about how I spend my money? Where are questions about procreation? What about effeminate guys who are prolonging adolescence? How I treat my parents? What about how I treat the environment? The selectively of which particular questions and standards are included is undeniably rooted in early 20th century southern American fundamentalism.

Secondly, if they are just guidelines than why am I asked about my prayer life, diet routine, views on miraculous gifts? Why am I required to go to entire days of prayer? These rules are nothing like U.S.C or the government trying to enforce a speed limit. I think there is a great bait and switch going on here. Corporate times of worship, prayer days, imposed accountability, “looks like a church, smells like a church, oh wait it’s a bible college”.

You should exercise integrity because you signed the form saying you would”

Scripture commands us to throw off the things that so easily entangle us, so that we may run the race with endurance. I happen to believe that more than throwing off immorality, deceit, covetousness, and pride, we throw off the need to meet the demands of the law. My personal experience has been that works righteousness is much more of a snare than pornography. Believing that my actions can help achieve spiritual growth and maturity is much more subtle and in that way more dangerous than smutty websites.

Well if your so smart why don’t have you a plan to replace the standards?

I would suggest one of two routes. Throwing all “spiritual” rules out the window and pushing for an actual academy. The second would be to throw out all rules that are not New Testament imperatives. Even the most staunch dispensationalist would find that commands of the NT are impossible to attain, and this too would miss the thrust of those commands.