Thursday, December 23, 2010

Naming Names

It's remarkable just how many names Luke drops in his two opening chapters (and 3.1). And they mean everything for his message. Jesus comes not just to earth but to people. To peoples. To names.

He comes for Jews, the children of Israel, of Levi (Zechariah and Elizabeth), Judah (Mary and Joseph), Asher (Anna) and all tribes, for high priest (Annas and Caiaphas), Levitical priest, religious teacher, prophet and prophetess, poor couple, marginal shepherds. For every position, for every vocation, for every pedigree, he comes.

He comes for the Gentiles, the wealthy (Theophilus), accomplished physician (Luke), wicked centers of political power from Herod to Caesar Augustus, in Judea, Galilee, Ituraea, Trachonitis, Abilene, Syria, and Rome and all “those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” For every race, for every evil, he comes.

And Luke names Jesus’ predecessors too. He comes as the Son of God, the bearer of the Spirit, the One heralded by angels, “Christ the Lord” has come preceded by the Prophet Elijah’s spirit and power, fulfilling the Law and Priesthood of Moses and Aaron, securing the Promise of Abraham and Jacob, and taking the Kingly throne of David to accomplish “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people,” forever and ever.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Apologizing for God

There seems to be a prevailing opinion among postmodern evangelicals that we are apart of a kingdom that is continually being duped. We have said the prayer and have been baptized into an unholy communion, a bumbling and awkward people. We are apart of the church, but only to apologize for her.

This morbid tendency to self-laceration seems a dangerous state to be in, because it means that we will believe just about anything our critics want to say about us, true or false. More and more I come to wonder if, in the midst of accusations that Christianity, say, in colonialism, was co-opted by the powers that were, and made its puppet, if this is not getting it completely backwards. Perhaps it is the case that it is not God's kingdom that is co-opted, but His kingdom that co-opts. Here, dear reader, bear with my foolishness. Karl Barth once said that,
"[God's] power is neither a natural nor a spiritual power. nor one of the higher or highest powers that we know, nor the supreme power, nor their sum, nor fount. It is the crisis of all powers…"
God's great mystery is that he is wholly other, and yet makes himself known. The picture Barth evokes is fantastic, as it suggests a Power that is unobservable simply because there is no scale between it and us. It is God as an immeasurable point of light that shoots through dying flesh and breaks up the cellular matter of all being, whether physical, emotional, psychological, bureaucratic, political, or cultural. It becomes a kind of imperceptible healing cancer, with cells rebelling against the old man, forming glorious tumorous growths, negating old appendixes, recreating him into a holy other being. It is imperceptible because it is often so small and so slow, but its effect is immense. If he is among us, we may be equally unaware of his work as the world is. The difference is that we know he is at work.

The task then, is, not to impishly cede the victory to our Accuser, but to overcome him by the biumvirate of, as Revelation 12:11 puts it, Lamb's blood and the faithful testimony of the same.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Psalms in the Context of the Scriptural Story

Ellen Davis writes,

"...the psalms have nearly inexhaustible potential for making connections with the larger biblical story. This relieves the preacher of the anxiety that has become a modern trademark of the profession, namely, the perceived need to 'find an illustration,' on which the success of the sermon is often supposed to depend. That is a pernicious idea, for very often the illustration proves to be the tail that wags the dog of the sermon (and I use that last phrase advisedly). But if you make good use of the narrative potential of the psalms, then you will be led naturally to illustrations that are appropriately subordinate to the psalm text" (Wondrous Depth 28).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wrestling as Devotion

When Jacob went to meet Esau, years after the younger stole the birthright of the older, Jacob perceived that his brother intended to bring to naught the blessing of their father Isaac. He heard, "four hundred men are with him," and "he is coming to meet you," (Gen. 32:6).

What else could it be but revenge? Jacob calls out to God, and so began one of the most strange episodes in the history of the people of God.

Night came. Jacob was alone. And a man was there. They wrestled until light returned.
"When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob's thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

Then he said, 'let me go, for the dawn is breaking.'
'I will not let you go unless you bless me.'
So he said to him, 'What is your name?'
He said, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.'" (Gen. 32:25-28)
Jacob had received a promise, and just as that promise appeared to be coming to an end, he begins to strive with God. The blessing he receives as a result is a name, but it is an immense name that came to define the people of God: Israel, "he who strives with God."

If the church is, as Andrew Kirk once said, "an enlarged Israel," (as opposed to a "new Israel"), we still carry this name, though we rarely invoke it. It still marks us, even if it is only a latent marking, like an indelible tattoo on our back. What else is the church, but a people who strives with God? Surely the history of the church, and Israel, bears this out. Faithful men are those who are continually wrestling with God, through prayer seated in the heart; through fasting gnawing at the body; through earnest and tireless supplication. They are faithful people, continually submitting themselves to "the sharp compassion" of the wounded and wounding hands.

What else is apostasy, but refusing to wrestle anymore? It is turning instead to wrestle with an object of wood, stone, paper, or plastic–– one we think we can dominate. An idol lets us believe that we define the rules and set the boundaries of engagement. It lets us think it will bend to our lustful clawing hands–– although in a treacherous twist, we all find ourselves crushed in the end.

Wrestling with God is different. It means He sets the parameters. It means knowing we will walk away limping–– a difficult prospect, for none like pain, and most will refuse Him for it. But in wrestling with Him, we will gain our fitness and our blessing. It is the only way we can be prepared for the rigors of His glory and our joy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Story of Eldridge and a Mexican Drug Cartel

When I first heard this story about a month ago, the first words out of my mouth were an exuberant "ah-hah!"

But the more I think about it, this sort of situation is not uncommon. How often in the past have prominent figures of Christianity (whether we love them or hate them) been co-opted by movements that bear little resemblance to Christ? The example that comes most readily to mind is, for me, Luther, whose theology became a convenient tool for German National Socialism, and I know there are other less insidious examples we could think of. It's too simple to excuse those figures whom we like as merely misunderstood while we heap coals of condemnation on those whom we don't like. To what extent, and under what circumstances, is the proverbial fruit of a work actually a reflection of its deeper theology?

At the end of the day, I guess I just don't like who I want to not-like, and I don't like that about myself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Physicality of Psalm 23

Robert Alter's excellent translation of Psalm 23 strips the psalm of its typical eschatological, and dualistic bent. Rather than translating verse 3, "he restores my soul" he translates it "he brings my life back." The image being of one who is close to death, and is prevented from entering that realm. It is not one of spiritual refreshment through solitude. In verse 5 rather than translating the Hebrew, "you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows" he translates "you moisten my head with oil, my cup overflows." Alter points out that the word typically translated anoint is absent, therefore the image is more "sensual than sacramental". This verse is an ode to the physical elements of the good life, where wine is ever-present, and luxury is granted even in the scoffing presence of one's enemies. Finally, Alter translates verse 6, "And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long days." Again the image is not eschatological, but profoundly present. David hopes that his daily life will be structured around presence in God's house, with God's people.

Robert Alter is no iconoclast (cf. his latest book in praise of the KJV). He is more sentimental about time-honored translations than most evangelicals. His translations break away from Tyndale's only when linguistic evidence stacks up beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I wonder how a Christian could be grateful for Alter's move away from subjectivism, all the while accepting the cross-bearing discipleship that Jesus calls him to? Can Bonhoeffer and Alter embrace?

Monday, October 4, 2010

What Culture is Not

C.K. Rowe on what culture cannot mean:

Culture cannot mean: a sphere of life that exists in independence from God (cf. Acts 17:24, 26). In this respect H. Richard Niebuhr's famous book 'Christ and Culture' is the example par excellence of how not to speak of culture: in Niehbuhrian grammar, Christ is one thing, culture another. Whatever this teaches us about Niehbuhr's thought, it is emphatically not what the word culture could mean if it is to be employed rightly in relation to the text of Acts. Indeed... Jesus is Lord of all (Acts 10:36).

Culture cannot mean: a piece of reality that is separable from other basic aspects of a total pattern of life. When historian David Cherry, for example writes of the effects of Roman presence in North Africa, he separates what belongs inherently together. "There is in fact no evidence to show that there was any really significant measure of cultural change in the region during the period of Roman occupation. It might be supposed instead that the main consequences of the coming of the Romans were economic and social." Contra Cherry, economic and social consequences are not non-cultural but are instead bound up with what it would mean to speak of cultural consequences in the first place. Precisely to the degree that the Romans affected social and economic life, they also effected cultural change.

Culture cannot mean: a static backdrop to the text of Acts, as if Acts itself were somehow sealed off from and did not partake of Graeco-Roman culture; or a pristine reality that Acts attempts to form, as if the new culture that Acts seeks to narrate was to retain nothing from the old. It is of course that the 'culturally fluid' situation of the late antique period bears little resemblance to the situation Acts describes. But if we are to speak of culture in relation to Acts, we cannot think in terms of entirely isolated forms of life. To take one obvious example: when the Christian community bursts the conceptual framework of Graeco-Roman altruism by engaging in radical economic redistribution (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37), they did not attempt to erect their own mint and strike 'Christian' coins for use in the network of house churches. The governor Felix hopes for Paul's collection money not for spiritual reasons but because he can use it (Acts 24:17, 23, 26).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pauline Metalepsis and Limited Atonement

If there is one Reformed doctrine that has received more scorn than the rest, it is the doctrine of limited atonement. It is the product of austere, harsh men, and it certainly has no basis in the Bible. I know a professor of New Testament who exclaims that there are four major 'Christian' doctrines that have falsely been propagated as biblical: premillenial rapture, infant baptism, the cessation of the charismatic gifts, and limited atonement. The other three aside; it seems to me that the doctrine of limited atonement does have very little textual support. For the most part it has been a doctrine argued for by logical deduction. Richard Hays' chapter on Christ's praying of the Psalms in The Conversion of the Imagination has given me new eyes to see this doctrine biblically, though.

Here are a few reflections:

It seems to me that one of the greatest fears in the Psalms is the fear of shame. Especially, throughout the so-called lament Psalms. The two phrases "Let me not be put to shame" or "Let them (my enemies) be put to shame" occur often (cf. Psalm 6, 25, 31, 35, 40, 44, 53, 69, 70, 71, 83, 86, 109, 119, 127, 129 in some of these chapters it occurs multiple times). Shame and honor are the ultimate punishment and reward. The idea of personal shame is horrific, and the shame of one's enemies is the climax of vindication.

What does this have to do with atonement? This is where Hays helps. Romans 15 is of course a chapter that calls the church of Rome to lay down their rights. It is a chapter that obligates the powerful to bear with the other. There is an interesting quotation of Psalm 69 that appears in verse 3: "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me." At face value this quotation only partially makes sense in its Romans 15 context. It is merely reminding the reader that Christ didn't mind a little vicarious suffering. But is this all Paul is trying to communicate? The literary trope of metalepsis may shed a bit more light. If one takes into account the context of Psalm 69, we get a broader picture of Paul's meaning.

"Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel. For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face... the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me" (Psalm 69:6-9).

Here is Hays, "the Messiah who prays such a prayer in the midst of suffering is a powerful model for the other-regarding conduct that Paul is urging. Paul wants the Roman Christians to echo the prayer of the Messiah by saying, in effect, 'Do not let the one for whom Christ died be put to shame because of me' (cf. Romans 14:15)".

Paul is arguing that there is a specific class of people that should labor to remove internal shame from their midst. Those for whom Christ died should bear with one another. The Church's identification with the death of Christ is an extra motivating factor in intra-ecclesiastical fraternity. If this identification is not unique to the Church, Paul's argument loses much of its force. Neither David nor Paul would, it seems to me, want to argue that vicarious shame has universal impact. Especially, when one remembers David's urge for God to humiliate his enemies (as shown above).

While this may not be the nail in the coffin, it at very least provides a potential biblical trajectory for the doctrine of limited atonement. More importantly for me personally, it gives positive pastoral implications for this austere doctrine. Here we have one more reason to practically love our brothers and sisters. They are those unique few for whom our Savior shed his blood.

Let it be known that I am in no way saying that Richard Hays is implicitly arguing for the Reformed idea of limited atonement in his book. He is definitely not. However, I doubt he would mind a little reader-response 'interpretation'.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


My wife and Rose Marie Miller are the two women in my life pointing me again and again to the gospel. Dave and Barb Bindewald too. Our associate pastor Dave said over a pot of coffee and cookies one late night in our apartment about the great exchange in 2 Corinthians 5.21, ‘We usually get the first part at conversion, that Christ took our sins. But the second, that we gain Christ’s righteousness, well many of us will never get that.’

I thought, It sounds pretty straightforward to me. I get the accounting business of debits and credits. I wouldn’t dare speak of my own righteousness. My problem is not that I think that I have a righteousness of my own but that I don’t feel as deeply as my theology might indicate.

That was partly true. I really do know the right answer about the exchange that’s taken place in the gospel. But its not just my feelings that haven’t followed in suit – my whole life betrays a self-righteousness and I’ve been blind to it.

Self-righteousness is being shocked by the evil I see in others. It is a flat denial of those very sins dwelling deep in my own heart. It feeds a critical spirit, rabid cynicism, gossip, slander, and pride. I build a false record inwardly.

Self-righteousness is avoiding transparency, evading confessing my sins to brothers let alone repenting when I wrong others; it’s bristling at gentle correction and an eagerness to defend myself. It seldom fully forgives. It revels in being thought well of, being admired, being needed. I build a false record outwardly.

Self-righteousness is calling sin a ‘mistake.’ It’s presuming upon Christ’s forgiveness rather than seeking it. It makes for shallow times of repentance, vague references to broad sins, and a cross-less confession. With little sin I need a little Savior with a little gospel to make up the difference between a holy God and myself. I build a false record upwardly.

To myself, to others, to God – my presumptive righteousness demands so much of me and returns so little.

“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” (Gal 4.26)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Meditation on the Innovation of Boredom

In Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind, Patricia Meyer Spacks explains that boredom as such is a relatively recent invention, from the eighteenth century at the latest. Before that we had melancholy (which was a kind of affliction of the spirit) and, further back still, acedia (which was a sin). What’s distinctive about boredom is that we don’t see it as either a condition of our own selves or a sin, but rather something that just happens to us. When we’re bored, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with us: we think the world is at fault. Stupid old world — it doesn’t interest me. And interesting me is the world’s job.

(Alan Jacobs, quoted by Joe Carter, "Thirty-Three Things" on First Thoughts Blog, entry posted August 21, 2010, [accessed August 23, 2010])

What happened? If boredom is an innovation that roughly coincides with the enlightenment, it would seem that Descartes developing an epistemology in which everything but himself is doubted would lead to this very thing–– boredom. Ho-hum, clock-watching, face-heavy-in-the-hand, nose-picking, boredom. When everything– besides me– is made into an accessory, and when accessories gradually take on a disposable nature, and when everything disposable tarnishes and browns with age like a discarded issue of People magazine from 1994, what are we left with? Not much. Moreover, when God himself is deemed unnecessary, as Nietzsche lamented, we are in a doubly dire straight, because all transcendence becomes relegated to climbing the uselessly short ladder of our own mind. This is the post-modern milieu– boredom insulated by the earbuds of my I-Pod, noise bouncing off the interior walls of my skull with nowhere to go.

This innovation is more than incidental. When we consider that the medieval mind was everywhere haunted by the sacramental, boredom seems an impossibility. Seemingly everything was expressed in relational terms. Before an object falling was mere gravity, it was an object pursuing the ground with something like desire. The planets moved according to a kind of music, which suggests a scale that can be appreciated if not comprehended by the human mind. Christ was not absent at the communion, but was manifest in a "real presence." In a world like that, in which the eternal was constantly breaking into the temporal, who could be bored?

Here in Vancouver, during the long rainy months, I have found it fearsome to think that, as Christ walked among us with hard calloused feet, (to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins) the Spirit broods over this city in a low, heavy cloud, intermittently dunking and sprinkling us, and that the mountains surrounding it are somehow the cusp of the Father's palm, hovering somewhere between cradling and crushing this pile of glass, brick and mortar. It seems positively old-fashioned to imagine that mingling with the hydrogen and oxygen of the atmosphere, holding the space between atoms, is the same One who hovered over the waters in the beginning. As I sit on the bus, enduring the grind of my routine and trying not to make eye-contact with anybody in particular, I cannot think of a better way to remember God's immanence. It moves me to pray for the "timekept City," to remember that even in a country that claims something like 40% of the world's freshwater, "[Y]ou neglect and belittle the desert./ The desert is not remote in southern tropics,/ The desert is not only around the corner,/ The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,/ The desert is in the heart of your brother." In a world like this, who could be bored?

(Poetry quoted from Eliot, Thomas Sterns, "Choruses from 'The Rock'" in The Complete Poems and Plays. [New York; Harcourt Brace, 1967] 96, 98)

Friday, August 20, 2010


As a seasoned pioneer missionary with twenty five years of church planting and upwards of fifteen thousand ministry miles under his belt, the apostle Paul unveils his crowning strategy for Spain in his letter to the Romans. As far as first century Roman Empire dwellers were concerned, Spain was the western “ends of the earth” (India to the east), and therefore the eschatological fulfillment of God’s pursuit of his glory (Is 66.19).

He writes: “I no longer have any room for work in these regions...I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you” (Rom 15.23-24).

There is an explicit and implicit charge in these matter-of-fact logistical plans for the first century Roman church and twenty-first century American church. Paul betrays a twofold stratus of commission calling. Explicitly, Paul highlights the calling of “foundation layers” such as himself - men and women commissioned to preach the gospel where it has yet to be heard.

This is Paul’s calling. And as a man duly called he expects “help,” propempo, the NT technical term for missionary support - funding, lodging, travel, regional coworkers, etc. Its Paul’s calling but the church’s task. Spain is Rome’s opportunity.

But there’s also an implicit charge. There is work to be done by “builders,” those Christians left behind. By this point, Paul has scarcely sprinkled the eastern Mediterranean world with a handful of fledgling house churches in major metropolises.

Take the church in Corinth for example. As far as we can tell several house churches of fifty plus believers constituted Paul’s plan for Greece. After that he felt claustrophobic in the region to know that one solitary city had that many Christians. There was no room for him to work.

The implicit charge is that members of these house churches build. They take Paul’s meager eighteen months of planting (Corinth) and begin to water. They organize themselves into a healthy church; care for their members; preach the Word, disciple, serve the Supper, guard the gospel; reach out to neighbors and coworkers with the good news; and begin thinking about multiplication in Greece.

This is the builder’s call, no less than the pioneer foundation layer. I suspect for all his gifts, Paul would have made a lousy builder. That’s probably why far from disparaging Christian builders in Rome, he greets them with reverent admiration in the following chapter.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When the Christianity in the Fridge Goes Bad

Finally, somebody wrote this article (interesting that it's in the Wall Street Journal).

I've seen this guy's book in the bookstore and wondered what it was all about. I'm relieved that it's not another book that we'll come to lament like those photos of ourselves in middle school wearing really baggy pants.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer Reading: The (Very) Short List

Well friends, it's probably more summer where you are than where I am, but nonetheless let's don the sunglasses, let our whitened thighs distract a few satellites, and grab some reading to occupy us for a short spell. Here's two articles I have enjoyed recently:

"The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong"(Harper's, Aug. 2005) - Many of you won't need much convincing of Bill McKibben's basic premise– that American Christianity is probably on the whole more American than it is Christian– but McKibben offers some valuable statistics and analysis. When he observes that "America is the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behaviour," he holds a frightening mirror up to us that we ignore to our peril. I don't agree with all of his assumptions (namely that the issue of the death penalty is clearly prohibited in scripture), but that our culture is composed of a kind of uncritical pseudo-Christianity that has managed, in spite of its best intentions, to live out an increasingly ironic faith will surely drive us to examine this dangerous dualism in our midst. Reading this alongside Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship has been scaring the (I hope) hell out of me.

Second up is an article well worth archiving. Andrew Chignell's account of the Wheaton presidential search is proof that Wheaton College is often a microcosm of young Evangelicalism. I personally have very little interest in the presidential search, but the issues surrounding it are in many ways bigger than that school. At more than one point I felt like his comparisons between the Wheaton of last decade and the Wheaton of today would have sufficed for my own experience at a small Bible college. Something is changing in Evangelicalism, and Chignell offers important insight as to what the nature of that change might be.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Some thoughts against Carlos Whitaker (A Review of Up In the Air)

I recently sat down to watch a movie that I had been anticipating for some time, Up in the Air.
The movie, shot almost exclusively in hotels, airports and corporate offices is a tremendous effort to capture what defines a relationship. The movie is a parable on communication, relationships and humanity.

For those that haven't seen the film a brief synopsis.
Ryan Bingham, the film's protagonist, (George Clooney) travels over 300 days out the year to various offices as a contracted employment terminator. He fires people. While out on the road, he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga). Alex, like Ryan is out on the road, or up in the air, just as much, going from Herzt to Hilton to O'Hare and back again. The two strike a relationship that is matches their non-committed worlds. Then enters Natalie Keener, the over ambitious recent grad with a new plan to save the company a fortune by carrying out these firing through an internet video chat system.

The film gets interesting as we see these three characters in a dance of mistrust and misunderstandings. Natalie's new plan to fire people via iChat lacks the experience that veteran Ryan has. She shadows Ryan on these visits to ease the transition of face-to-face to online. Ultimately the switch fails. This lost in communication is highlighted by the fact that halfway through the film, Natalie is dumped by her fiance via text. Alex and Ryan's no trust relationship suddenly gets complicated and comes in nothing less than a crash landing...

This is a shotgun summary of the plot. What the film demonstrates is the irreducible complexity of human communication. I could have said human relationships, but the plot is more pointed than that. What is irreducibly complex about communication? Since, it seems to be increasing in every direction possible (social media, hot spots, 4G). This is the question that Up in the Air asks. Is all this technology really making things any easier? Is communication merely being able to transfer a verbal message? Video? Audio? All together? Up in the Air offers the proposal that there is no substitute for human interaction.

I want to now direct my argument against a practice that I fear is only going to increase. Doing ministry online. There are many examples of this, but one of the worst is Carlos Whitaker. I am almost tempted to refer to him by his Twitter account name LosWhit, since that it is all I really know. Whitaker is a self proclaimed "artist, pastor, thinker, experience architect, and Web 2.0 junkie". He has worked at some churches doing interesting things usually involving hyphenated titles with words like "creativity". If you go to his website, you will find he offers "coaching" services. This coaching consists of him following you on all and any social media sites and offering suggestions via a video chat conference an hour once month for $200 a month. (I'm not concerned about whether this is a fair rate.) I want to ask the same question as Up in the Air, is this really communication? Is this ministry? Is this the best medium for communicating?

The Medium is the MassageThere is more than I am aware of that gets lost in a mediated communication. McLuhan's basic thesis in The Medium is Massage is that the technological means that humans use to communicate alters, shapes, reduces, reforms that message.

LosWhit is an example of a dangerous trend. Paul did send letters to churches, but it was obvious that he valued being there in person over a letter. He even sent someone to deliver the letter. I don't think these are merely technological constraints. I think Paul knew the importance of a human being in the presence of another. When a Christian is before another, Christ himself is before that brother. What is lost in video chats and online sermons is the body of Christ. Unfortunately much of the ministry being done this way will remain up in the air.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Abusing Jesus' Divinity

Looking back at the concerns surrounding the person of Christ in the third and fourth centuries, one notices that the debates are oddly slanted in one direction. Most career heretics, such as Nestorius and Apollinaris seem to be fine with the divinity of Christ, but his full humanity was questionable. For some reason spirituality was tenable, but physicality put real a burr in their saddle. How could God– omnipotent, sovereign, and holy– mingle with the messy materiality of stuff?

I am of course, being very simplistic. It wasn't that they hated the idea of the Incarnation, but that the Incarnation is by definition a very hard thing to get one's second-order skull around. But there is still this curious trend. The divinity of Christ was taken for granted seemingly by the majority, orthodox and unorthodox alike, while His humanity was the main point of contention.

Zoom ahead to the enlightenment and one notices that the trend is reversed. Suddenly the humanity of Christ is found to be very palatable while His divinity is untenable. It became easier to conceive of Jesus as a good moral teacher than it was to believe he was God. Without going into the reasons for why Schleiermacher's offspring have such a problem with this, I will merely suggest that the locus of contemporary theology is centered on this problem, and perhaps increasingly in Evangelical circles.

How? Let's take ecology for example. The lack of Christology has been my only beef with Wendell Berry. Don't get me wrong, I love Berry and will recommend him and his organic tobacco til' the unclouded Tennessee sun goes down, but Christ is all but absent in his ecology. It is for this reason that, in spite of all of his wonderful insight that his view ultimately appears unrealistic and untenable (and his fiction a bit soapy). It can contrast a redeemed world with the fallen one, but it cannot tell us how to get from one to the other. It is in the bridge of Christ that the fallen and the redeemed are linked and the fallen is given any real hope. Douglas Moo, however, even in spite of the relatively small writing he has produced so far, finds the locus for ecology more or less in the Shema of love for God ad love for neighbor, both of which draw in a robust Christology and consequently a realistic means of caring for the earth.

Ecology is just one example, but I have begun to notice this in Feminist Theology as well and I am sure that it would be easy to find other examples. All of this goes to show that Karl Rahner was right when he said that most Christians today live as functional monotheists to whom the Trinity in all of its distinctive unity is of no consequence. So much is at stake when we neglect the daunting task of developing our theology within the framework of the persons of the Godhead, and since Christ is the most visible member, he is the easiest place to see this happen. It is imperative to insist on a robust Christology.

Monday, February 22, 2010

VanDrunen's Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms Part 1

David VanDrunen's newest book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms looks to be an impressive read. His project is to take on a subject that has been recklessly bandied about all over obscure Reformed blogs and journal articles. This subject is the two social/theological doctrines of the two kingdoms and natural law. VanDrunen limits the scope of his study to the way these doctrines have been espoused historically rather than defending them from an exegetical or biblical theological starting point. Therefore, he examines the way the doctrines have been either embraced or rejected throughout Reformed ecclesiastical history. Who is Reformed will be decided strictly on confessional grounds (those who affirm the Heidelberg or Westminster confessions according to "something like their original meaning").

VanDrunen does an excellent job at giving clear definitions for the two terms he is going to trace out. The two kingdoms doctrine asserts that, "God rules all human institutions and activities, but rules them in two fundamentally different ways. According to this doctrine, God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation" (1). VanDrunen is aware that this is commonly thought of as a distinctively Lutheran doctrine, and posits this as a good enough reason for his study. Right off the bat he shows the vast throng of pastors and scholars who deny the two kingdoms in their work. This is demonstrated in anyone who seeks to critique secular culture from a Christian standpoint. In this view, God is redeeming all things. The Christian then ought to be looking for ways to advance this redemption by seeking to "transform all activities and institutions in ways that reflect the kingom of God and its final destiny" (4). "All activities and institutions" is taken in the plainest sense with these folks, apparently including forming goat-breeding societies on a 'Reformed basis' and developing football programs in accordance with a 'Reformed world and life view' (4). The list of shout-outs received in the one kingdom camp ranges from Herman Dooyeweerd to Richard Hays (also included are the likes of Alisdair MacIntyre and John Milbank). It is this take on Reformed social life that VanDrunen wants to show as ahistorical.

The doctrine of natural law gets a little less attention at the outset, but again VanDrunen gives a clear definition. Natural law concerns, "knowledge of God's moral requirements obtained through nature" (15). Interestingly, VanDrunen claims that Abraham Kuyper was one who maintained the original focus on natural law, and was later misinterpreted by some of his followers. The primary culprit for the reworking of natural law is, of course, Karl Barth. Barth abandoned the doctrine of natural law and sought to develop a worldview based on a Christological redemption of all things. Though many in the later Reformed (neo-calvinist) camps had other theological disagreements with Barth, they followed him closely in his transformationalism. While natural law doesn't get singled out in this first chapter much it is clear that VanDrunen sees it as intertwined with the two kingdoms doctrine.

There isn't much to say by way of review thus far. VanDrunen is clearly going against the grain here, though. If he makes his case there are going to be a lot of drywallers, painters, playwrites, and the rest trying to find new motivation.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The Lord has been rooting into the dark crevices of my heart lately and using my wife and Paul Miller's A Praying Life to do it. Self-awareness is always a painful affair - I'm more content to be 'other-aware'. Which is why cynicism has been the perfectly insidious companion for me.

Masquerading as my humble opinion among equals, cynicism allows me to perch above reality, offering objective critiques of its pitiful participants. Cynicism is a knowledge that obscures reality. To see past everything is really to see nothing at all as C. S. Lewis would warn.

I set out to judge institutions (e.g. culture, christendom, church). But institutions means people. And people mean the God they serve. Asking what good can come from Christendom?, can't help but ask what good can come out of Nazareth?.

I used to think the opposite of cynicism was naivety. Now I know its intimacy. Miller remarks, cynicism is "too aware to trust or hope". My 'keen awareness' keeps me arms length from real people with real struggles (who are actually a lot more like me than I care to admit).

My last defense of my sin is that the church needs cynics; it needs people like me who are sharp, insightful, and willing to call her on her faults. A cynic feels like he's in the thick of body life, mourning, striving, thinking; he's really on the bleachers. He's calling plays at the TV from his armchair to teammates he's never gotten to know.

In reality the church needs prophets, pastors, and friends, never cynics. In short, she needs real people. She needs me to speak, and pray, and confess from the midst of my own failings and longings. And I need her.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What About Inspiration?

For some time now, there has been a growing skepticism about the ability of higher criticism to provide adequate answers to the questions we bring to the Bible. In its place, it would seem that literary criticism is taking its place as the biblical study du jour. I, for one, think this is largely a good thing. This means that the biblical text is taken as it exists and studied as such without feeling any compulsion to do the messy work of attempting to pull it apart limb by limb. Dissection gives way to observation as identifying literary devices supplants finding redactors.

In spite of the strengths of bib-lit-crit, I wonder if in its rise something that has historically been emphasized has been neglected. Upon completing my first semester of seminary, I was asked by a friend what I thought about biblical inspiration. To my chagrin, I realized that I had not even thought about it at all during the previous semester. If that brief dialogue were isolated, I might have just assumed it was discussed in class while my brain wandered through the Alps or something. However, subsequent conversations with classmates revealed that this is more than incidental. An emeritus faculty member even mentioned it as a criticism of where the school as a whole is headed. Needless to say, this is troubling. What about inspiration? If my school represents anything of the trends happening in 21st century evangelicalism, what has changed that this no longer warrants discussion?

My suspicion is that inspiration has been lumped with a good deal of theology that has, in many places, fallen out of fashion. And so, as premillenial dispensationalism and Dobson-esque Republican Christianity have disappointed many younger evangelicals, and therefore been (probably rightly) abandoned, inspiration has likewise been tossed out with the proverbial bathwater. This is further enhanced by the rise of an approach to biblical studies that does not demand inspiration as a key doctrine. Whereas much of the older conservative biblical criticism attempted to hold out against form criticism by emphasizing inspiration, the new criticism is amenable to both liberal and conservative approaches. The Bible then becomes, reverently, very good literature, but what makes it distinctive from Dostoevsky is lost.

Any thoughts from the other corners of Christendom?