Saturday, December 29, 2007


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Thursday, December 27, 2007

BBQ in 5 secs

Want some blackened catfish quick tonight, honey? No problem. I'll get some liquid oxygen and be right back.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Christmas Homily

Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve 2004

Text: 1 John 1:1-4
Title: This is the God in Whom We Trust

You've probably saw the reports a few years back—mostly on the internet—that the famous atheist Anthony Flew at age 81 (or so) now believes in God. The headlines would have you believe that Flew had some sort of conversion and is now a believer.

Remember Anthony Flew? For over 50 years he has been an icon of religious skepticism and a committed atheist.
In 1950 he wrote a short essay called "Theology and Falsification." And ironically this paper was presented to Oxford's Socratic Club, led by C.S. Lewis (until 1954). Dorothy Sayers was part of this club, too. The paper has had an enormous impact.

He began with a parable adopted from someone else: Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing both flowers and weeds. One explorer said, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagreed, "There is no gardener."

So they decided to pitch their tents and set a watch. But no gardener is ever seen. The first explorer says, "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.

Yet still the “believing” explorer is not convinced. "There is a gardener. But he is invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last his friend, the skeptical explorer despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"
The original claim that there is a gardener (an invisible deity that cares for the garden) has died the death of a thousand qualifications. The claim that there is a gardener (God) is not even meaningful.

There are, of course, a number of problems—philosophical, theological, and biblical—with this parable and what it supposedly proves. But this is not the time or place—Christmas Eve—to analyze something like this for every false assumption and error in logic.

But I should note that Flew to date has not retracted his rejection of an invisible Gardner deity. When Flew says he "believes in God" that's not what he means.'

So, does Anthony Flew now believe in God? Yes and no.

There are three problems with this statement "Anthony Flew believes in God.”

First, the verb "believes.

Second, the noun "god."

And third, just one small little detail—Flew denies that he has come to any kind of religious conviction about a supreme being.

1. What does it mean that Anthony Flew now “believes”?

Anthony Flew now "believes in God" means "Anthony Flew now thinks there is a god" (small "g"). No, he doesn't believe in God. Rather, he now is of the opinion that there may be some sort of deity. That's not the same thing as believing in God. Trusting in God.

But his “believing” clearly has no impact on his life or relationships.

For us Christians "believing in God" is not merely some private philosophical opinion or a religious sentiment.
Jesus birth was very public and his public life demanded change in the real world, not just in the hearts and minds of believers.

You are either for Jesus or against him. He said “follow me,” not simply “form an opinion about divinity.”

2. Then there’s this little word "god."

Whom do you refer to when you say "god'? The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or some generic supreme being. They are not the same.

We often say that people who think that some supreme being exists "believe in God" but that's not accurate. They think that a god exists. To “believe in God” is to trust in the living and true God, the Creator and Redeemer revealed in Jesus Christ.

Anthony Flew, however, says this: "I'm thinking of a god very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins. It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose." Would Flew ever think that God was a cosmic oriental despot if he took the time to carefully consider the significance of the incarnation of God the Son?

Modern man treats the substance of Christmas—the birth, the enfleshment of God himself—like they would a dead animal on the sidewalk—we walk carefully around it and try to avoid looking at or smelling it.

Christmas becomes a metaphor, a symbol for something happy, something sweet, something—let’s not define it too carefully or identify it too concretely—something nice to think about once a year.

Very interestingly this is admitted by the champion of religious relativism and pluralism in our generation, John Hick, the English religious philosopher. In his book, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Hick argues exactly this way. The title of his book says it all. He is happy to believe in the incarnation as a religious "idea," a metaphor of God's nearness to man. But he will have nothing to do with it as history, as an event in the real world, as something that actually happened. He wants nothing to do with the Christmas history as it is related in the Bible—God the Son begin born a human child to a virgin mother. We cannot believe that God actually became a man in Jesus Christ, Hick argues, because if we did that, we would have to accept that the Christian Faith is alone the truth about salvation and peace with God. We would have to accept Christianity's exclusive claim. We just can't do that, we can't believe that.

So it turns out –and everybody knows it—that there’s nothing but the shell left—colors, lights, the warmth of Christmas fires and cider, the smell of evergreen and cinnamon. But underneath nothing. Nothing at all.

Ultimately, when Christmas sentiments have freed themselves from the story of Christmas, then every man and woman must imagine his idea of Christmas. These days Christmas provides an opportunity for one’s own privatized religious feelings.
So year after year we have the same old tired “meaning” trotted out for us to “celebrate.” The "meaning of Christmas is giving" Yawn. The true meaning of the holiday season is enjoying family and friends and helping those who are less fortunate than we are. Sigh.

No, these do not explain the true meaning of Christmas. Rather, they summarize how we are to respond to the miracle of Christmas eve. How we are to live in the light of the real meaning of Christmas—the incarnation of God the Son.

But the focus of Christmas should not on us—some humanistic reduction of Christmas to religious sentiments or humanitarian concerns. These horizontal, social concerns are important, but they are not central, they arise because of the vertical.

(Make the sign of the cross): God reveals himself to us in Jesus, comes to us first and then we love one another, give to one another.

You forget the one and you will never truly have the other.

I would hope that even our littlest children know that believing in God means trusting in the One who came to live among us and die for us.

Christmas is the time we remember not an invisible Gardener, not a parable, but the true story of God's becoming man for us.
And the invisible God that is made know to us in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not a cosmic dictator or tyrant. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a divine community of love and service turned outward toward his creatures.

Believe in God, believe also in me, Jesus said.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Keeping Up

Lot's going on, not much time to blog.

Saw I am Legend last night with my son and middle daughter. Really well done. This wasn't a kid sci-fi movie. You know, like Independence Day. The row of jr. high kids in the front of the theater were restless the entire movie. Highly recommended.

I need to update my "What I am Reading or Listening to" box on the right side of my blog. I finished Gene Wolfe's new novel Pirate Freedom. Everything Wolfe writes is worth reading. This one wasn't as dense as many others, but it was quite satisfying nonetheless. The moment I finished I began to read it again. That's the mark of a good book.

Sledge's With the Old Breed ought to be read by every post-WWII American man. It's a marine grunt's battlefield account of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. There's nothing like it. I can't believe I hadn't read it until now.

Currently, I'm listening to Steve Martin read his own Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. I enjoy Steve Martin's book. The Pleasure of My Company was a gem. I'm also listening to Dean Koontz's latest novel, The Darkest Evening of the Year. So far, so good.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XVI

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, Part XI, Part XII, Part XIII, Part XIV, and PartXV.

Q. 17. But aren't we giving in to paganism when we start talking about the symbolism of the seasons and all that? Isn't this nature worship?

Answer. No. It's not nature worship. And it's not pagan to recognize and utilize the symbolism associated with the seasons of the year.

According to I Timothy 4:4, "Everything that God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer." God has created both us and the rest of his creation responsive to temporal rhythmic patterns (Gen. 1:14). There are certain temporal rhythms of life that are built-in to his creation and into us. Daily: Sun up, Sun Down. Monthly: the cycle of the moon. And yearly: the march of the seasons and the alternating of darkness and light, cold and warmth associated with the movement of the earth and Sun. We ignore these patterns and we suffer the consequences!

The sun governs not only the day, but also the year (Gen. 1:14). The solar cycles are inescapable. Our own rhythms of life are influenced by the progression of the seasons. God has created us enmeshed in the creation. Human psychology is affected by the seasonal changes. For example, studies have indicated a significant increase in crimes of violence during times of a full moon. 17-25% more babies are born during the waxing period of the moon than during its waning. All you have to do is ask any OB nurse.

During the winter, the days are short, the rays of the sun are more slanted, and the weather is cold. In the winter everything dies or at least looks and feels dead--insects, animals, vegetation--the whole world seems to shut down. It affects us too. The relative absence of sunlight and the dominance of darkness make us melancholy or worse. We are psychosomatic beings. In the Spring, everything seems to come back to life--resurrected from the dead, as it were.

All of this is inherent in God's creation. The Bible recognizes this and builds on it. Of course, the pagans pervert it. They worship the sun and moon. They believe that fertility and life is somehow resident in nature. They deify the forces of nature. And if man would just manipulate nature correctly he can also gain life for himself. So you get pagan fertility cults and rites and other perversions.

The Bible does not completely set aside the calendar cycles because pagans pervert the meaning. No, rather, as we have seen, God has placed the Sun, moon, and stars in the firmament to indicate festival seasons (Gen. 1:14).

The Israelite calendar did not attempt to disregard the symbolism and experience of the seasons of the year just because gentile nations perverted them. God placed the major Israelite festivals precisely at points in the year that would correspond to their meaning!

Passover takes place in the Spring because it celebrates the Israelites' resurrection from the death of Egyptian bondage. God gave them new life. And this new life is only possible because of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, typified by the Passover lamb.

Pentecost was held at the beginning of the Summer harvest. Tabernacles was observed during the Autumn harvest to remind the people that the source of their blessings was Christ. God established the seasonal changes when he established the sun and moon as symbols (Gen. 1:14). The Bible indicates the value of arranging the worship of the people of God so that it is keyed into the seasonal changes (Song of Songs 2:10-12; Matt. 24:33-34; John 10:22-23; John 20:15). Recognizing these seasonal cycles and making use of them in the worship of the church is not "nature worship." If that is the case, then God was guilty of leading his people into idolatry when he ordered the feasts of Israel to coincide with the appropriate seasons of the year.

In John 10:22-23 Jesus attends the feast of Hanukkah. During this festival the Jews celebrated the restoration of the temple after the abomination of desecration by Antioches Epiphanes. It was celebrated at the time of the winter solstice; just as the sun begins its annual rising (the nights are longest, the days are shortest, but that all begins to change at this point). It was a feast of lights! Now in Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, the light is dawning and Jesus is the light of the world.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that Hanukkah is nowhere commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet Jesus attends and explains it in terms of himself. Jesus sets his seal of approval on a feast celebrated during the winter solstice, commemorating the rebuilding of the temple and the beginning of the dawn of new light for the people of Israel.

But, now, we know that Christ himself is the new temple (John 2:19) and his birth was the beginning of God's "tabernacling" with men (John 1:16-18). His work was the prophesied dawn of God's great work of temple building. His birth was the beginning of the dawning of the true light that comes into the world and that gives light to every man. Remember the Star of Bethlehem in the night sky. The early church recognized these truths and turned the Feast of Hanukah into the celebration of the nativity of our Lord, the True Temple.

Therefore, just as the great redemptive events recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures were keyed to the changes in the seasons--Passover in the Spring means life from the dead--so also the church ordered her Scripture readings and prayers so that the life of Christ would be correlated to the symbolic changes evident in the seasons of the year. Easter, for example, is celebrated in the Spring when the entire created order is symbolically restored from death to life.

Consider how this works for Christmas. Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? Not so much because it has much of anything to do with the date of his actual birth--although as we noted above, the early church suspected a winter birth. Nor is it the case that the church gullibly adopted a pagan Roman holiday, the festival of the Invincible Sun (Dies Natalis Dei Solis Invicti). The early church was not so naïve. The date was picked for symbolic reasons.

The winter solstice occurs around December 25th (solstice from the Latin: sol = sun, and sistere = to stand still). This is the time of the year when the Sun reaches its southern-most extremity (or to put it another way, it is the point on the Sun's ecliptic at which it is the farthest south). The longest night and the shortest day occur at this point and from this day onward the days get longer and the nights get shorter. The darkness of winter begins to give way to the light and warmth of Spring and Summer. This continues until the summer solstice when the other extreme is reached.

What does this have to do with Christmas? Much in every way. Just as death and darkness give way to life and light in the yearly cycle of seasons, so also the death and darkness brought on by sin gives way to the life and light realized in the work of Jesus. Jesus birth is celebrated when the darkness of night has reached its peak, and once he is born the light begins to wax and the darkness wanes. As the hymn reminds us:
Behold a branch is growing
As of loveliest form and grace,
As prophets sung, foreknowing;
It springs from Jesse's race
And bears one little Flower
In midst of coldest winter,
At deepest midnight hour.
The purpose of the church year, therefore, is to redeem the time, to consecrate the various seasons of the year by the word of God and by prayer (worship). This provides the people of God with amble opportunities to give thanks and rejoice in what God has done in Christ and through his saints throughout history. Used in this way it can be a great educational tool to teach the people the Bible (lectionary) and especially the life of Jesus Christ.

We need not fear the Christian calendar. It has great didactic significance. The Christian year is ordered according to the life of Jesus Christ, from his birth to his ascension and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that as Christians we are in Christ. Each year we are reminded that the yearly cycle of our lives finds its true meaning and significance in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It gives us occasion to celebrate the mighty acts of God in the person of Jesus Christ! The Christian year reminds us that we are "in Christ," our time is "in Christ," and our lives are not our own.

This is my last post in this series. Time to stop talking about Christmas and enjoy it!

I'll close with the words of the venerable Reformed theologian Francis Turretin (1623-1687), considered by most to have been one of the finest Reformed theologians in our tradition:
Hence we cannot approve of the rigid judgment of those who charge such churches with idolatry (in which those days are still kept, the names of the saints being retained), since they agree with us in doctrine concerning the worship of God alone and detest the idolatry of the papists (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, p. 104).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Stairway to Heaven

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XV

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, Part XI, Part XII, Part XIII, and Part XIV.

Q. 16. But what difference does it really make? Does the church need to have a church year calendar of annual feasts?

Answer. I don't think the church year is absolutely necessary, but it seems almost inescapable, given the fact that God has created us to live through these seasons. During the childhood of humanity, God tutored Israel by providing them with festivals keyed to the changes in the seasons. Since we are deeply affected by the change of seasons, it only seems right that the church make use of the symbolic dimensions of the seasonal changes in conjunction with the life of Christ.

First, the Christian faith takes time seriously. Christ did not rescue us from time, but from sin and death so that we might properly consecrate our lives in time to the Father by the power of the Spirit. We are not saved from time, but in time. Time is reclaimed for man. God takes up our time into his life. The man Jesus Christ is now part of the very life of the Trinity. Unfortunately, the early church Father Athanasius' maxim "God became man so that man might become God" (On the Incarnation) has been misunderstood. It might be more appropriate to say that God became man so that man might become man again. This was Luther's way of putting it.

The Christian faith, therefore, is not a "spiritual religion"—spiritual in the sense of non-material, ethereal—rather, it affirms space, time, body, and matter—everything as the good creation of God--and all of it to be used in his service. Walker Percy in his novel Love in the Ruins gives the church the role of restoring humanity to a proper earthiness. At one point, a major character has the Lord's Supper explained to her by her husband.
"This is my body given for you." The woman, who knows very little about the Faith is shocked: "My God, what do you do in Church?" The husband explains: "What she didn't understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the Angels, that it took nothing less than union with the humanity of Christ to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.
Thus, time and history are very important to Christianity, particularly Christian worship. Genuine Christian worship is not disembodied, timeless worship. It is not an attempt to transcend the limitations of our creaturely existence, but an opportunity to consecrate our creaturely existence to God.

Second, since this is true, Christians confess that the way we use our time is a good indicator of what we think is most important. We will always find time for what we think is most important. Our real priorities are revealed in the way we structure our time. Time talks. Time is like money because it reveals where our hearts really are. When we give someone else our time, we give ourselves. "What does this person believe?" we ask. To answer this we might best look at how a person uses his time. If you spend more time on the golf course on Sunday than you do with God's people, you have made a statement about your real commitments. If you spend more time in front of the TV than you do with your children, then we know what really matters to you.

All of this is true for the church as well. The church shows what is most important by the way she keeps time. One way to answer the questions "What do Christians confess? What do they believe? What is important to them?" is to look at how they keep time.

Consider Ephesians 5:15-16, "See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time. . ." Do we believe that it is necessary to redeem the present moment and bring it captive to and for Christ? Of course. What about each day? Ought we to redeem the days for Christ? How was that done in the Old Testament? Morning and evening sacrifices and the daily prayers and Scripture readings that developed from the sacrificial liturgy in the synagogues set apart each day. What about each week? There are weekly Sabbaths. What about the months? The Hebrews had monthly assemblies as well. What about the years? God instituted yearly feasts (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles) that were linked to the seasonal changes.

The annual calendar of feasts in Israel (Exodus 23:10ff. Lev. 23) was primarily a theological pedagogy—instruction centered on commemorating the great saving works of Yahweh. The seasons were made to serve a theological purpose in the life of Israel. They were catalysts to cause Israel to remember what Yahweh had done for her. Passover / exodus / new life / Spring (Lev. 23:4-8). Pentecost / Sinai / first fruits (Lev. 23: 15-21). Tabernacles / full harvest (seventh month) / fruitfulness / judgment (Lev. 23:33-43).

Man remains a seasonal, rhythmic creature. That has not changed since the coming of Jesus Christ. If the church does not set up an annual church calendar to mark time, somebody will! And somebody has--the modern secular State.

Redeeming the time for us means reclaiming the time from the tyranny of the modern state. It has only been since the French Revolution that the calendar has been secularized. No longer is it keyed primarily to the great redemptive historical events of Christ's life, death and resurrection. The calendar is well on its way to being de-Christianized and correspondingly politicized

Like the pagan states of the ancient world, modern secular politics has again commandeered time for itself. Political holidays have slowly replaced Christian feasts in our land. Nationalistic holidays (e.g., Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Labor Day, Presidents Day, etc.) that celebrate national heroes are most prominent. This is a contemporary form of Baalism, when the faith is subordinated to national, political interests. Don't be fooled, if Christ's life and Christian saints are not memorialized throughout the year, then others will take their place (Washington's birthday, Martin Luther King day). Our calendars have almost become thoroughly secularized.

People will simply use whatever pagan calendar becomes prominent in culture. Christians that attack Christmas and Easter as pagan holidays, usually go to churches that make a big to-do about New Year's day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the Fourth of July. The annual cycle in America is truly becoming paganized. The Baalism of nationalism that commemorates the victories of the nation and celebrates all kinds of political "saints" (George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Columbus, etc.) is in the process of replacing the festivals of the church commemorating the life and work of Jesus Christ and the triumphs of his Church in history.

Some of these secular holidays may seem rather benign to us, but we our culture is living on the borrowed capital of Christendom. Just remember the French or Bolshevik Revolution, where atheistic, political holidays were forced on the populace. Even today in nations like the Congo, political tyrants deliberately impose political holidays and ban Christian ones in order to claim dominion over all of life.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Watch out, Spider Pig, here comes Elvis the Robocat! But I think Robocat's gonna need a few more upgrades before he can protect us from Terminator Pig.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Behold Your God! A Christmas Meditation

When my son was younger we were driving by one of the banks on Watson Road and he cried out, "Look, everyone—open/closed/ open/closed—a pattern!" His Kindergarten teacher had been teaching them to look for patterns in their daily experience. He found a pattern in the alternation of signs above the drive-thru lanes at the bank.

There is a pattern in my preaching on Christmas and Good Friday. Have you noticed? These are really the only two Christian festival days that we observe that don't fall on Sunday. Christmas and Good Friday—the birth and death of our Lord.

Every year on these special occasions I normally make an effort to assist you in reflecting on how these events inform, even transform our understanding of who God is.

Especially on Christmas and Good Friday, in the manger and on the cross, we are given the clearest and yet most challenging disclosures of the nature and character of the Lord of the universe.

This is not a season for mawkish little stories and the like. It ought to be a time for deep, soul-transforming meditation and reflection upon the character and work of our God.

When I studied geology at Mizzou, we could learn just a little about the subsurface geological phenomenon without physically examining the rocks themselves. But what we were really looking for was an outcropping of rock that would reveal to us what was below. The birth and cross of Jesus, if you will, are two major outcroppings of God, who remains largely invisible to us, even though he has in some sense made himself known in creation. In Jesus the invisible God is seen.

Of course, Jesus' entire life was the manifestation of the glory of God, according to the first chapter of John: Jesus is the Word of God, the true and original Image of the Father, the very form of God, and the true and final revelation or manifestation of God by which all of our conceptions of God are to be measured.

I am convinced that every year it is supremely beneficial for Christians to be brought again to the manger and to the foot of the cross and forced to look—Behold, this is your God! No other. What Jesus is, God is. What Jesus does, God does. Here is the meaning of the word "god."

All of the birth narratives rub out noses in this essential fact: this baby is your God. Worship him. This infant is nothing less that "God with us"—Emmanuel. "God among us." Worship him.
Matt. 1:23, ""Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel," which is translated, "God with us."

Matt. 2:11, And when the wise men from the East had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke 1:35, "And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God."

Luke 1:76 (Zechariah's Song about his Son, John the Baptizer): ""And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord [Yahweh] to prepare the way for him, (Luke 1:76).

Luke 2:11, (to the shepherds) "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11).

John 1:1, 'In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).
There you have it. We behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. God is most fully God when he is taking on human flesh in order to serve us.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life-- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us (1 John 1:1-2).
If you insist on learning the meaning of the word "god" from somewhere other than Jesus himself, then your god is a false one. This has always been the temptation for the church. To make over God according to how we think he ought to be.

This is the error of every major heresy in the early church. Most of the heretics meant well. They were concerned to guard a pure conception of God and his nature. This is well illustrated with the arch heretic Arius. The reason why Arius would not say that Jesus was fully God was that he consumed with protecting God's purity from any contact with the material world. He was defending the immutability and impassability of God, as he understood it.

Jesus just had to be something less than fully God! Why? Well, it's not too difficult. He is born an infant! He is in full contact with flesh and material existence. He suffers and dies on a cross. God cannot, God must not be envisioned as submitting to these indignities. God is higher and holier and loftier and therefore above all of this muck.

The Church, by God's grace, did not give into these Greek conceptions of God as surgically removed from his creation. For all of the possible pitfalls, the church confessed what the Scriptures said: Jesus was God. Jesus was born. Mary was the Mother of God (theotokos, literally: "God bearer"), not just the mother of a man. God suffered and died on the cross for us, not merely a man. We cannot explain this. It makes us wince and causes us great intellectual angst, but it is what the Scriptures teach. Here we stand.

Let me address a mistake that continues to be perpetuated and it sounds so right because it is popularly repeated over and over again in apologetics and evangelism books, tracts, and sermons. The mistake is to think that the miracles that Jesus did proves that he was divine. That the clearest, most compelling outcropping of the divinity of Jesus was when he did miraculous works of power. No. Read the Bible carefully. In the Scriptures it is prophets who do these kinds of things.

Moses was not God. He was a mighty prophet. And Moses discovered, too, that the magicians of Egypt could imitate these acts. Jesus himself knew and the author of Acts relates that other people were able to perform exorcisms and various miracles. Similar miracles were done by Elijah and Elisha, but they were not God. Haven't you every thought it odd that the epistles of Paul and Peter and John make no mention of the miracles of Jesus as a proof of his divinity. That whenever they speak of Jesus as God they connect it with his incarnation and self-sacrificial death? As Peter says, "Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him."

But his divine nature and character are unveiled primarily in his humble service to us in his birth, life, suffering, and death. Think of Phil. 2:5-11: "because he existed in the form of God . . . he humbled himself."

The point is that what makes, what proves, if you will, that Jesus is God, is not his works of power and might, but his humble self-sacrifice. His self-effacing love and service for humanity. This is who God is.

The Good News is not that God made some external determination to forgive man, exercised the his divine will, waved a disinterested wand and sprinkled some salvation dust across the human race. What he did was penetrate the very depths of humanity's being and live, to restore the distorted and corrupt condition of man's actual human existence. Genuinely united himself to human, creaturely existence.

God himself bore our infirmities and sins and the whole inheritance of judgment that lay against us--God himself, not merely in some extrinsic, detached wa--but he personally bore all this.

The angels knew where to direct the shepherds. The apostles know where to guide the world to find life—to the heard, seen, touched Word of Life! To Jesus. Listen to the angel when he says, "You shall find him. . ." Where? The angel did not say, you should find him in heaven! The angel did not say you shall find him within you. The angel did not say, you shall find him after much fasting and prayer so that you can transcend the distance between God and man. The angel did not say, you shall find him if you do great works of mercy and love. The angel did not say you shall find him when you philosophically abstract from him all created attributes. The angel said, "Unto you a Savior is born, he is Messiah Yahweh. You shall find him in Bethlehem, lying in a manger."

Listen to the beloved Apostle John. "We proclaim to you the Word of Life" What word of life? John does not say you will discover it within you. He does not give a list of the attributes of divinity and ask you to hold all of these together in order to get your mind around God. He does not say, "You must understand now that God is quite spiritual and cannot have any contact with physical matter." He does not attempt to take us down the path of negation so that we can rise about earthly, material things in order to make mental, purely internal contact with divinity.

No. He links what seems impossible to bring together: "That which was from the beginning" and "what we have seen, heard, and our hands have handled." This is the Word of Life. This is the one "who was with the Father" (v. 2c) and has now appeared.

This little baby is your Creator and Savior. This is the glad tidings to be shouted on the mountain top, according to the prophet Isaiah: "O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!" (Isa 40:9).

This limp infant is the Lord of the universe. The speechless child is the Word of God. This is the offense of genuine Christianity. This is also the glory of our faith.

Don't be distracted by the majesty and incomprehensible otherness of God. Consider the pattern of God's work for us in Christ. Consider what this pattern reveals about who God is. Come and watch and listen at the manger. Consider the cross.

In every other way God is terrible and awesome, a consuming fire. Only in the flesh of Christ do we find a merciful God. Only in Jesus Christ do we find the Word of Life, communion with the Father, eternal joy.

HT: Martin Luther!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XIV

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, Part XI, Part XII, and Part XIII.

Q. 15. You have suggested that there is warrant from the Bible for such annual festivals that commemorate the historic acts of God's work of redemption for us. Where?

Answer. God has established the seasonal cycles for the purpose of religious festivals. A careful and literal reading of Genesis 1:14-15 will make this clear.
Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate between day and night, to be signs, to designate religious festivals, and to mark days and years.
The third purpose listed here has to do with "religious festivals [mo‘adim]." The Hebrew word mo‘ed is used consistently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to religious festivals and feasts (over 200 times). Had he not fallen, Adam would have eventually figured this out. But he fell. When Yahweh redeemed Israel, his first-born son (Exod. 4:22), he gave to his people a festival calendar synchronized with the seasons of the year (Lev. 23).

Now, there is a sense in which the Church in Christ is restored to her Adamic lordship over all of creation, what God intended for humanity in the beginning. She has the right and power to establish festivals and feasts in conjunction with the symbolic dimensions of creation. She sees how God has done so in the Old Testament, when the people of God were children and were put under a schoolmaster to teach them the ABC's (Gal. 3:23-4:1-7). Now with one eye on the details of the old world's annual festivals and the other eye on the world-changing events of the incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ she exercises her wisdom, according to the biblical principles and patterns established by God, to institute new annual celebrations keyed to these great redemptive events in the life of Christ.

Surely Pastor Rob Rayburn is correct:
Now if you interrogate the Scripture as to whether God's people ought to celebrate the great events of their salvation with special feasts and holidays, the only answer that you will ever get is "YES! BY ALL MEANS, YES!" We are commanded in the Bible to remember the great works of God by which he has redeemed us from sin and death. These great events are to be kept alive in the consciousness of both the individual believer and the church. God taught his people in ancient times that one very important way to do that was the keeping of annual feasts commemorating those events (Sermon, Nov. 28, 1993, Faith Presbyterian Church).
Pastor Rayburn has expanded his argument in his recent sermon Is Christmas Christian?

There's a smidgen of hyperbole in this, but Martin Luther's comments are worth noting:
We therefore have and must have the power and the freedom to observe Easter when we choose; and even if we made Friday into Sunday, or vise versa, it would still be right, as long as it was done unanimously by the rulers and the Christians. Moses is dead and buried by Christ, and days and seasons are not to be lords over Christians, but rather Christians are lords over days and seasons, free to fix them as they will or as seems convenient to them. For Christ made all things free when he abolished Moses. . . We know that we shall attain salvation without Easter and Pentecost, without Friday and Sunday, and we know that we cannot be damned--as St. Paul teaches us--because of Easter, Pentecost, Sunday or Friday (On the Councils and the Church, 1539).

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Some members of church choir stopped by tonight to sing carols. The snow was heavy and the roads weren't that safe, so everybody didn't get to participate. They came inside for a few songs and then finished outside with one quick "We wish you a merry Christmas."

Click on the picture for a larger image.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XIII

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, Part XI, and Part XII.

Q. 14. But don't these annual festivals smack of Old Testament religion?

Answer. Well, is "Old Testament religion" a bad thing? We are, after all, whole-Bible Christians and the Hebrew Scriptures have been given for our instruction (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:1-11).

As I have said in previous posts, if you are looking for a direct commandment or a law establishing the practice of an annual commemoration of Christ's birth, you won't find it in the Bible. Nevertheless, what we do have is plenty of biblical warrant for the post-Pentecost church's freedom to establish annual festivals to commemorate the great redemptive events accomplished in Christ's birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out the Spirit on Pentecost. And is it not conceivable that the annual festivals of Israel might function as wise instruction for the church in the new age?

Unfortunately, this perspective barely gets a hearing in most contemporary Reformed circles. Consider Terry Johnson's otherwise good work on Reformed worship Leading in Worship. He has this advice for those considering the church year: "While the revival of the liturgical calendar has become popular in some circles, we recommend moderation or abstinence for several reasons" (p. 103). Four reasons are given, all of which are very weak.
1. Scripture doesn't warrant the creation of a church year calendar.
2. A calendar of special days deemphasizes the Lord's Day
3. Observing a church year calendar threatens the Reformed tradition of preaching through books of the Bible (lectio continua).
4. The church year has a dubious origin in church history.
Even though I am about to critique Johnson's four arguments against the use of a church year, I do not put him or his arguments in the same category as those that we have been considering thus far in these posts. Johnson advances his arguments with evident hesitation. He is not an anti-Christmas radical. In the end, as we shall see, he recommends a simplified church year calendar!

Johnson's first argument is that
. . . Scripture does not warrant the creation of a "church year," but instead warns against the observing of "days and months and seasons and years" (Gal. 4:10) (Leading in Worship, p. 103).
This first argument proves too much. Galatians 4:10 is quoted as warning Christians against the observance of "days and months and seasons and years." But what does this mean in Paul's argument with the Galatians? As we have seen above in my answer to Question #7, the "days, months, and years" refer to the Jewish festival calendar consisting of weekly, monthly, and annual feasts commanded by Yahweh (Lev. 23).

The Apostle Paul's point is that these festivals have been made obsolete with the coming of Christ. The Christians of Galatia were being seduced by erring Christian missionaries from Jerusalem who taught them that faith in Jesus Christ was not sufficient to be justified before God. Only observing the distinctives of the Torah (circumcision, Sabbaths, feasts days, food laws, etc.) would guarantee their justification.

The problem was not that the Galatians were observing their own special festival days (like Christmas and Easter) not commanded by God, but that they were acting as if the old law was still in force and that Jesus had not yet come to fulfill it. Paul's words must not be taken out of context and made into some sort of abstract prohibition against all extra-biblical celebrations. After all, an abstract prohibition against observing "days and months and seasons and years" would rule out a great deal more than the traditional church year festivals.

Confusion arises with statements like the following: "Our heritage is rightly suspicious of the creation of ceremonies and rituals not authorized in Scripture" (Leading in Worship, p.103). The problem with this is that technically the church year does not introduce new ceremonies or rituals; rather, it organizes and directs our Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and sermons according to the life of Christ.

As I have said over and over again in this essay, I don't see how a church that celebrates Christmas, remembering Christ's birth by singing, praying, and learning more about this particular event in the life of Christ is introducing new "ceremonies and rituals." Now, there are a few traditional rituals associated with Christmas and Lent, like Advent candles and ashes applied to the foreheads of worshipers; but these need not enter into the discussion at this point, since they are not part of the essence of the celebration of the church year.

Johnson also warns "churches may not mandate or require such [annual observances] without destroying liberty of conscience" (p. 103). The question of liberty of conscience need not enter into the discussion at all. Why? Because members of the church promise to submit to their leaders in the area of worship.

Are pastors guilty of an "abuse of church power" when they regularly choose the hymns for the congregation, select prayers and Scripture readings, and arrange the order of their Sunday services according to their own preaching schedule? This is all that happens in most Presbyterian churches that observe Christmas--select biblical passages are read, seasonal prayers are prayed, and hymns about Jesus' birth are sung.

If the "imposition" of these is a violation of "liberty of conscience," then so is every worship service that is planned by church officers and "forced" on the people. Do church officers pick "themes" for various Sundays? Of course. Does this destroy liberty of conscience? If not, then what's the problem with choosing to highlight the theme of Christ's coming once a year? What's the difference? Do the Scriptures mandate or authorize pastors to force such an order on their congregations? For example, why should the congregation have to submit to worship services where the singing, praying, and Bible readings are correlated to five years of sermons through the book of Romans and yet be free to reject a year of prayers, readings, and songs organized around the life of Christ? I don't see any substantial difference between the two practices.

Johnson's second argument concerns the danger of diminishing the importance of the weekly Lord's Day. "Christian piety is better nurtured in the weekly Sabbath cycle of penitence and celebration than in periodic penitential seasons of Lent and Advent and occasional holy days. Fifty-two holy days is better than a dozen or so" (p. 103). First of all, if it's about counting up the number of feasts, then Johnson needs a refresher course in math. If fifty-two holy days is better than a dozen, then sixty-four is better than fifty-two! Why can't we have both the Lord's Day celebrations and a dozen or so more days?

The real question, however, is must the Lord's Day necessarily be "replaced" or "diminished" by the addition of an annual cycle? Might not the annual cycle support and enrich the foundational weekly cycle of worship? Why must this be an either/or proposition? Why can't we have both?

The third argument against the church year is that it would surely interfere with the Reformed tradition of lectio continua preaching! But, now, surely we must ask the Reformed liturgical question: where is the lectio continua method of preaching and ordering Scripture reading sequences for the Lord's Day services commanded or mandated in Scripture? What happens to the regulative principle of worship when Reformed authors begin to talk about preaching? There is no biblical command that mandates the method of continuous preaching through books of the Bible. Indeed, one might argue that there's more biblical warrant for celebrating annual feasts than there is for the lectio continua method of preaching so popular with Reformed pastors! Bringing Reformed tradition into the argument doesn't really help.

Furthermore, I am compelled to ask why everything the people of God do when they are gathered for worship must revolve around the texts that the preacher has selected for the day? Why must this concern for sequential preaching through books of the Bible be given such a large place in ordering our worship services?

I believe that the traditional method of preaching through books of the Bible is indeed the best method of preaching. I also agree that this is a wonderful tradition in the Reformed churches. But it is just that—a tradition. I see nowhere in Scripture where it is mandated or even exemplified! Furthermore, a moderate observance of the major festivals of the church need not threaten a pastor's regular preaching through books of the Bible. In fact, in my experience breaking in on a preaching series for Christmas often gives the congregation a needed and refreshing break.

Johnson's fourth argument is that "the church year is both of dubious historical origins and contemporary motivation" (p. 103). I think I have already dealt with this objection in my responses to earlier questions on the origin of Christmas.

It is rather telling that notwithstanding all of these arguments against the celebration of church year feasts Johnson recommends following the example
. . . of the Continental Reformed churches in limiting their church year to what has been called the ‘five evangelical feast days': Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Some might add Trinity Sunday to this list as well. In this way, the high points of the Gospel message would be commemorated in Reformed churches annually along with most of Christendom, without becoming entangled in the full calendar cycle (p. 104).
In the pages that follow this comment Johnson offers five sample services for Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Terminator Pig

For 3 bucks you can buy a Terminator T1000 Pig in Japan. This is the coolest of the cool. Terminator Pig can take down Spider Pig easily.

Unfortunately, Spider Pig has got Terminator Pig beat when it comes to theme music.

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XII

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, and Part XI.

The last two posts have focused on objections made by many Reformed Christians against Christmas. Some conservative Presbyterians use "the regulative principle of worship" and the absence of a biblical commandment to criticize others for celebrating Christmas. The regulative principle of worship is often misunderstood and misapplied in very narrow ways. I have addressed this problem in chapter 16 of my book The Lord's Service. Does Christmas violate the "regulative principle of worship"?

Q. 12. But celebrating Christmas is an imposition on my conscience! I am being forced to worship in ways I don't agree with.

Answer: Oh really? Is it a violation of your Christian liberty to be forced to sit through the reading of Luke 1 and 2 every year? Is your conscience violated when the church compels you to sing with the entire congregation "Joy to the World, the Lord is come" every year on a certain date? Are you being coerced against your will to listen to sermons on the wonder of Jesus' incarnation and pray prayers that implore the Lord to come again and restore his kingdom? What more can I say?

Every church orders her Scripture readings, prayers, and hymns even though there are no explicit instructions on how to do this in God's Word. If our choosing the theme of the incarnation of Christ to order our worship, prayer, and singing is a violation of the regulative principle of worship, then so are all other ways in which pastors and churches choose themes and order their service. The pastor who preaches through the book of Isaiah for seven years and each week picks hymns and prayers appropriate to the sermon's topic is imposing extra-biblical worship on his parishioners.

Q. 13. How can any Reformed pastor justify imposing these man-made annual observances on his congregation?

Answer. Some American Presbyterians who are more comfortable with the Scottish and Puritan traditions have thought that annual church year celebrations are not only extra-biblical, but outright dangerous. One must be careful how the word "Reformed" is used. The designation "Reformed" refers to a much wider tradition than is commonly thought. As I argued in an earlier post, many Reformed communions since the Reformation have used church year calendars with good effect.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Spider Pig

Is Christmas Christian? - Part XI

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, and Part X.

A Parking Lot Parable
(Slightly Revised)

Once upon a time, Jeff Meyers and Tony Rollins—old friends who had not seen each other for a few years—met in the parking lot of a neighborhood church. They were dropping off their preschool children at the church for Mother's Day Out. (They were such conscientious and helpful fathers.) As they were walking into the church, Tony pointed at the church's sign with a grimace and a confident wag of his head: "Is that biblical?"

"What?" Jeff asked. "The sign?"

"No," Tony replied. "The sign says that this church has Advent services every Wednesday evening. Is that biblical?"

It was early in the day and Jeff was feeling frisky, so he answered with a few of his own questions. Somewhere in the middle of this conversation, the two conscientious fathers remembered to sign their children in. They continued their friendly discussion once they were outside again.

JM: Is there something unbiblical about having church services on Wednesday?

TR: No, no, that's not what I mean. I mean Advent services. Is that biblical?

JM: What makes meeting on Wednesday evenings for a month or so to commemorate the sufferings of Jesus unbiblical?

TR: It's not the Wednesday meetings that I'm concerned about. Let's leave that out of it. It's the celebration of the season of Advent. The Bible says nothing about such annual events. Presumably this church celebrates Advent for a period of time on Sunday, too. And they probably also observe Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and all of those other man made seasons. Right?

JM: Sure. So, let me get this straight. Because the Bible doesn't explicitly say anything about a yearly observance of Advent (that is, meeting together to commemorate Jesus' coming), therefore it is unbiblical? Furthermore, the Bible doesn't command us to reflect upon the birth of Christ in corporate worship, therefore Advent and Christmas are unbiblical and forbidden as well. Is that what you mean?

TR: Yeah, that's what I mean. The Bible does not command that kind of worship. It's unbiblical for a church to think it is pleasing God by observing Advent, or for that matter, Christmas, Lent, or Easter services. God has commanded no such thing.

JM: Wait a minute, let's not muddy the waters. It's not the "kind of worship" that is under discussion, but the time and theme of worship. This church does not get together on Advent to engage in a different kind of worship. Rather, the people gather to hear the Word, meditate, pray, sing—all the normal activities of worship. Advent does not actually change the worship, but the theme of the worship, especially the Scriptures that are read, the psalms and hymns that are sung, the content of the prayers that are offered up, and the subject matter of the sermons.

TR: That may be true. I don't have a lot of experience with these kinds of worship services.

JM: Well, let's assume for the sake of the discussion that no new elements of worship, no new worship practices are introduced. What if I frame the issue this way: during Advent some Christians focus their meditations, Scripture readings, and prayers on the coming of Jesus. Is that unbiblical?

TR: But that's the problem—the Bible does not command the church to celebrate a season of Advent.

JM: Granted. But does that make it wrong to observe such a season? Is it dangerous and unbiblical for the Christian community to set aside a particular time to read, meditate, sing, and pray about Jesus’ coming?

TR: Yes. When it comes to worship, whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Advent, Christmas, and Lent are not commanded, therefore they are forbidden. When church leaders invent man made seasons like this and impose them on congregations, they are binding their people's consciences where God has not bound them.

JM: That's interesting. Tell me about your church, won't you? What has your pastor been preaching about?

TR: I'm a member of Calvin Reformed Memorial Church. My pastor is Rev. Regulative. He's been preaching through the book of Romans for quite some time. We've been in chapter 9 for a few months.

JM: How long has he been preaching from Romans?

TR: For about three years now. We believe in preaching straight through books of the Bible.

JM: Wow! How much longer till he finishes Romans?

TR: He estimates that it will take him about two more years’—five years total.

JM: Does the pastor choose hymns and compose his prayers each Sunday such that they support whatever theme he is preaching from Romans?

TR: Yes, that's the general practice.

JM: Is that biblical? Where in the Bible has God commanded that pastors preach through entire books of the Bible like that? Where has God commanded that a pastor select hymns and readings based on his own man made preaching scheme and then impose them upon the consciences of worshipers gathered on the Lord's Day for church?

TR: Oh, I see! You were trying to set me up, weren't you?

JM: I confess. You caught me. But, let's not get sidetracked. I asked you whether your church's way of ordering its worship was biblical. I am referring to the time and themes of your services. Where does God command that the pastor order the Scripture readings, sermons, hymns, and prayers according to this method of continuous preaching?

TR: Off the top of my head, I don't know. But this has been the Reformed way since the Reformation. Our church is being true to a venerable Reformed legacy when we follow the lectio continua ("continuous reading") method of preaching.

JM: A venerable legacy, huh? Isn't that kind of like an "old tradition"?

TR: It's more than just a tradition. We believe that it's the best way of teaching people the Bible.

JM: Maybe so, but my point is that it is nowhere commanded in the Scriptures. Is it? You say it's the best way, but I ask: Is it the biblical way? There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that either Peter or Paul preached verse by verse through entire Old Testament books. The Bible does not command pastors to select themes for their worship services—readings, prayers, and hymns—according to this method of preaching, does it? My bottom line question to you is: what really differentiates your church's way of ordering Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers from one that uses the traditional church year? Your pastor "forces" five years of Romans on his congregation's worship and this other church's pastor "forces" a year of the life of Christ on his. What's the essential difference?

TR: When you put it like that, you make it sound like the church year is primarily a way for the church to order its readings, prayers, and hymns over time. Are you suggesting that it's not all that different from what Reformed pastors do when they choose themes for their worship service based on their preaching texts?

JM: Exactly. The church is free to order her readings, prayers, and hymns according to the preaching texts chosen by the pastor and she is also free to order its readings, prayers, and hymns according to the life of Christ as embodied in the traditional church year. If your church can emphasize the truth of God's election (Romans 9) in a worship service with preaching, prayers, readings, psalms, and hymns appropriate to such an emphasis, then this church can also choose to commemorate the Lord's advent (Matt 1, Luke 2, etc.) and adorn the celebration with appropriate preaching, hymns, readings, and prayers. What's the difference?

TR: I guess that makes sense to me, but I'm not so sure that you haven't tricked me somehow. I've always been suspicious of the church year because Catholics and Episcopalians do it. Don't they force the churches to keep the church calendar? I don't think I would appreciate being mandated to celebrate something that the Bible doesn't command.

JM: Whoa, do we have to go through the Bible doesn't command it routine again?

TR: No, I don't think so. But I am concerned about binding people's consciences with extra biblical requirements.

JM: You mean like imposing the epistle of Romans on people for five years?

TR: Ha, ha. Very funny.

JM: I'm serious. Why do you submit to such an imposition on your conscience? The Bible does not command pastors to preach through Romans for five years. Your pastor has chosen to order your church's services according to a man made, extra biblical scheme. The people are subjected to a five year diet of Romans. Is that biblical? What makes this scheme more biblical than Lent or Advent? Why couldn't your pastor choose to preach through the life of Christ in a year and lead the congregation through meditations, Scripture readings, and prayers keyed into the life of Christ? That's precisely what the church year is designed to do! Why do you object to Lent and not to Romans? What's the difference?

TR: Hey, aren't you doing graduate work at that Lutheran seminary?

JM: You mean Concordia? Yeah, why?

TR: That's where you're getting all of these liturgical ideas! They'd never teach this kind of thing at a Reformed seminary, would they?

JM: Look, Tony, sometimes you need to step outside of your own tradition so that you can think objectively about it. Besides, why do you think Reformed Christians have such divergent liturgical practices? It may have something to do with the fact that Reformed seminaries don't teach students to think about worship and liturgy at all. I don't need to convert to Lutheranism to appreciate many of their insights into corporate worship. We seem to have forgotten that the Reformation itself was a liturgical renewal as much as anything else. By the way, I am not suggesting that the received church year is flawless; but I do believe that the Bible gives churches the freedom to use it if they so choose.

TR: Goodness, time has gotten away from me! I've got to run. My wife is helping to plan our church's Vacation Bible School today, and I promised to help.

JM: Is that biblical?

TR: What? Me helping my wife?

JM: No. VBS. Is Vacation Bible School biblical? If it's not commanded in the Bible, it's forbidden, right?

TR: Yikes!

JM: Well . . . where is VBS commanded in the Bible?

TR: You are ruthless!

JM: See you later, Tony. Go help your wife!

TR: Thanks. Let’s talk about this again sometime soon.

JM: Sure.

(This is slightly revised from chapter 18 in my book The Lord's Service

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Thank God that somebody at the church had a GUN

That's right. A firearm. Only someone with gun can stop a madman with his own gun. That's how it works. Imagine what it would have been like if nobody at this church was carrying a gun. I have to wonder if before this incident people might have balked at an armed security guard at this church. From The Denver News:
Jeanne Assam appeared before the news media for the first time Monday and said she "did not think for a minute to run away" when a gunman entered the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and started shooting.

There was applause as Assam spoke to reporters and TV cameras saying, "God guided me and protected me."

New Life's Senior Pastor Brady Boyd called Assam "a real hero" because Murray "had enough ammunition on him to cause a lot of damage."

When asked by a reporter if she felt like a hero, Assam said, "I wasn't just going to wait for him to do further damage."
"I give credit to God," she said.

Assam described how the gunman, Matthew Murray, entered the east entrance of the church firing his rifle.

"There was chaos," Assam said, as parishioners ran away, "I will never forget the gunshots. They were so loud."

"I saw him coming through the doors" and took cover, Assam said. "I came out of cover and identified myself and engaged him and took him down."

"God was with me," Assam said. "I didn't think for a minute to run away."

Assam said she believes God gave her the strength to confront Murray, keeping her calm and focused even though he appeared to be twice her size and was more heavily armed.

Murray was carrying two handguns, an assault rifle and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition, said Sgt. Jeff Johnson of the Colorado Springs Police Department.

"It seemed like it was me, the gunman and God," she said.

Luther's Two Kingdoms - Kinda

There is a fascinating article in the most recent edition of Concordia Theological Quarterly 71.1 (Jan. 2007): 3-28. Cameron MacKenzie analyses Luther's "two kingdoms" theology and discovers that it's not exactly like what is being taught today.

I don't want to repeat all of his arguments. You can read it for yourself. But I will quote a few of MacKenzie's juicy conclusions:
For Luther, "mixing" the kingdoms did not occur when rulers promoted and protected preachers of the gospel nor when preachers rebuked temporal rulers for transgressing the legitimate bounds of their authority. As far as Luther was concerned, "two kingdoms" theology was no reason for silence in the face of wickedness in high places (p. 25).
Here's another fascinating assertion based on Luther's letter to Duke Henry (1539):
Clearly, Luther still did not see a ruler's promoting true religion in his territory as a violation of the "two kingdoms" theology that he had described in his sermon the year before (p. 26)
Commenting on the fact that although the "two kingdoms" theology of the first version (1530) of the Augsburg Confession (in Articles 16 and 28) was not altered by Melanchthon in 1540, he nevertheless did add to Article 26 statements about the responsibility of rulers toward the church, MacKenzie says:
Clearly, such a statement constitutes just one more piece of evidence that, throughout the Reformation period, no one understood the two kingdoms theology as requiring a Christian ruler to refrain from establishing Christianity in his state. Indeed, quite the opposite, temporal rulers were supposed to support and maintain the Church.
Well, it's not so clear these days. It seems that everyone understands "two kingdom" theology to forbid just such establishments. MacKenzie's final paragraph:
Obviously, then, the first Lutherans drew the line between the two kingdoms in a far different way from what we know today as the separation of church and state in the United States. For Luther, temporal rulers who promoted true religion even to the point of punishing heretics were not mixing the kingdoms but those who took measures that inhibited the gospel were. In our times, therefore, we cannot really use this instance of historical theology very effectively as a model for structuring our relationships between church and state. Luther and the Confessions help us to identify the essential functions of each but do not permit us to draw conclusions that we must rigorously separate them. While clergy must preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, they may also exercise temporal power by human arrangement. While rulers must use their power to punish evildoers and to protect the lives and property of their people, as Christians they should also use their authority to establish and care for the church in their lands. If then we wish to use the two kingdoms theology as the first Lutherans conceived it, we must do so very modestly. We can be clear about what both Church and state must do. Depending upon circumstances and institutional arrangements, however, each may do a great deal more" (pp. 27-28).
Yeah. It's called Christendom. Let's restore it.

Monday, December 10, 2007


I finally got a chance to process some of these images I took back in October. I think they turned out great.

We were out at John Keane's property with the boys for youth deer season. I bought some fireworks and took these photos as we shot them out over the lake. Nathan Keane was my assistant. I wouldn't have been able to get the timing right without him.

Check out all 8 of the fireballs and firespiders here.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A 1960's Christmas

This year we decided to go with a retro aluminum Christmas tree. We had one of these when I was growing up in the '60's, maybe even in the 70's. But I'm not sure. Things get fuzzy for me thinking about the past. We're able to do this because one of the families in the church heard me tell a story about how as a kid I loved to sit under the rotating aluminum tree and watch the shiny ornaments pass over me with the color wheel spinning off to the side. So a few years ago they got me one for Christmas. Now this year since we gave our artificial green tree to Becky for her apartment in San Antonio last year, and we didn't want to spend $75 for a fresh tree, we got this one out and set it up. I think it's pretty cool.

Here's the silver tree.

Now, let's spin it.

And spinning even faster!

Click any of the picts for larger images or go here.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part X

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, and Part IX

In the past 9 posts I have asked and answered 9 questions/objections often raised against the celebration of Christmas. I have address three major areas of concern:
1. Anti-Christmas Arguments Based on the Supposed Historic Practice of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.
2. Arguments based on the alleged Roman Catholic character of Christmas.
3. Arguments based on presumed pagan roots of Christmas symbols and ceremonies.
It's time to move to another set of objections made by many Reformed Christians against Christmas. This is the argument based on "the regulative principle of worship" and the absence of a biblical commandment to celebrate christmas. The regulative principle of worship is often misunderstood and misapplied in very narrow ways. I have addressed this problem in chapter 16 of my book The Lord's Service. In the next few posts I will apply what I've said there to the specific issue of celebrating Christmas.

Q. 11. Doesn't Christmas violate the "regulative principle of worship"?

The argument runs something like this: we must follow only what the Bible mandates in our worship. Therefore, since the Bible says nothing about Christmas, we may not observe such a celebration. Kevin Reed writes:
A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids "any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself." The issue is not a matter of indifference. Since Christmas was not instituted by God, it should not be approved or tolerated in the official practices of the Church. Ministers and church officers are not being true to their ordination vows, if they encourage or tolerate Christmas observance in their congregations.
Excuse me, but where have those who celebrate Christmas established or approved worship not instituted by God himself? What exactly is the new mode or manner of worship that has slipped in during Christmas?

Are any of us Presbyterians praying to or through our Christmas trees? Shame on us. Are we lighting votive candles as offerings to Christ for specific prayers? We should stop. Are we praying to St. Nicholas or to his image? I hope not.

What new worship practices have we instituted by celebrating the birth of our Lord? Not one. Nothing. What do we actually do during Advent and Christmas? As I have indicated already we select Scripture readings that highlight the coming of Christ and tell the story of his conception and birth, we pray prayers appropriate to the theme of Jesus' coming, we sign hymns that celebrate his birth, and we decorate our homes and churches with symbols that help focus our attention on the light, life, and joy he has brought to us when he assumed our human flesh in order to die and rise for the salvation of the world.

Exactly what is the innovation in our manner of worship? Other than the fact that we have chosen a specific theme for a few weeks each year, what is the problem here? How is that idolatry? Popery? Paganism? It's not.

If you've never read my "Parking Lot Parable," well, I think I'll make a few changes to that and post it next.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007)

I wish I had more time to write about the death of Thomas F. Torrance this past Sunday. Well, not so much about his death but about his life and writings. His work has made a big impact on me. But he is not always appreciated by contemporary conservative Reformed pastors and theologians. If you know anything about the current controversies that plague our little corner of Christendom, you know that's an understatement. Presbyterians that appreciate Torrance's insights have to be careful.

A number of years ago a respected member of the Reformed academic community preached at our presbytery's Reformation day worship service. At one point in the sermon he told a story about a chaplain in WWII. He also quoted that chaplain. Of course, I immediately recognized that he was talking about Thomas F. Torrance. But he never mentioned him by name. And I understood why. After the service I spoke with him and told him I appreciated the story about Torrance. He tensed up and looked at me sideways with a bit of suspicion. I assured him that my appreciation was genuine. I had learned a lot from reading Torrance, etc. I listed the books I had read and loved. Then he winked and said something like, "Well, you can't be too careful these days."

That incident still makes me mad. I'm not angry with the speaker. I understand his situation. What burns me up is the petty little index of approved and disapproved authors and theologians that most conservative presbyters use to judge another man's theological commitments. Oh, you've read and liked portions of Karl Barth. You are dangerous. So you say you've read Pannenberg and learned something from him, too. Hmmm, that can't be good. You are recommending books by Thomas F. Torrance on the trinity? How dare you support someone who denies the covenant of works!

Spare me. Deliver me. Better yet: O Lord, deliver us all.

Torrance was a giant of a theologian, surely the greatest British theologian of the 20th century. Sure, he got things wrong. At least, I believe he did. He was on the wrong side of women's ordination debate. No question about it. When his masterful little book on the theology of the ordained ministry The Royal Priesthood was republished with a new forward by him promoting the ordination of women, I was very disappointed. The book is still worth reading. Sometimes his philosophical presuppositions restricted his theological vision. But after all, who can claim to be free from this error?

His studies of the history of Reformed theology were a bit one-sided. Even so, his Scottish Theology provides us with a anti-hagiographic account that so many American conservative Presbyterians so desperately need.

But above all, his works on theology proper, the doctrine of God, are priceless. I cut my trinitarian teeth reading Torrance's works on the Trinity. He's not usually easy to read. But it's grade A prime red meat for those who wish to theologize on the Trinity. Torrance's work inspired a trinitarian theological revival in recent years.

It was a delight to read Alister McGrath's intellectual biography of Torrance a few years ago. It's worth reading.

Like I said, I wish I had more time to talk about Thomas F. Torrance. Here and there on the net eulogies will be available. When I find them, I'll post them here.

George Hunsinger on Torrance

Thomas F. Torrance

You Can Do It, Too!

This is fascinating. Make your own Stonehenge—all by yourself.

But someone needs to tell Wally that when the Space Aliens built stonehenge 4000 years ago they probably used tractor beams and anti-gravity ray guns.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

For Sure

You need to have been caught up in the whole Late Great Planet Earth idiocy in the 70's—like I was—to know just how tragically funny this is.

Well, the ending is a bit scary. I must confess that I'm quite happy not to know what the preacher who came after the song said about Daniel and the "end times."

But if you really, really want to know about Daniel and the end times, make sure you get a copy of James B. Jordan's new commentary The Handwriting on the Wall: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel.

Check out David Field's first look at Jordan's commentary.

Is Christmas Christian? - Part IX

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII.

Q. 10. But we know that Christians incorporated the use of evergreen trees in their celebrations in imitation of the pagans and their festivals. How do you answer this?

Answer. No, we don't know this. According to the Scriptures, God has made trees in such a way that they are richly symbolic. Woodrow summarizes the biblical data:
Inspired prophets often used the tree as a symbol of that which is good. A man who serves the Lord is "like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3). The righteous flourish "like a palm tree" and grow "like a cedar in Lebanon" (Psalm 92:12). They are "trees of righteousness" (Isa. 61:3). Wisdom is "a tree of life" (Prov. 3:18). The blessing of long life is likened to a tree (Isa. 65:22). Those who overcome eat of "the tree of life" (Rev. 2:7). God's people are symbolized by an olive tree (Rom. 11:17). These and many more references show how trees can symbolize good things.
Christians, recognizing the beauty and significance of God's handiwork in trees, began to use them as decorations to symbolize the good gifts of God given through his Son to us at Christmas. We don't have to believe the various Christian legends attributing the first Christmas tree to this or that Christian saint. For example, the folktale that Martin Luther was the first to erect a Christmas tree with candles on it finds no support in the historical record.

Even so, the best evidence is that the Christmas tree is a direct descendent of the Paradise tree used in paradise and passion plays in the middle ages. From about the turn of the millennium (1000 AD) these "mystery plays" were put on all across Europe. One of the most popular was the Paradise Play, which was the story of Adam and Eve and the two trees. The play ended with the promise of the coming Savior (Gen. 3:15). These were very simple traveling drama troupes with one prop--a Paradise tree adorned with apples (and sometimes wafers). It symbolized both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Christ himself).

But historians are agreed that the practice of erecting and decorating Christmas trees arose in Germany in the early 16th century, at the beginning of the Reformation. The first record we have of a decorated evergreen tree being used for Christmas is in 1521 in Germany. A resident of Strasbourg writes in 1605: "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors at Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets." Around 1700, Christmas trees were appearing in the new world as German immigrants came to America.

Pastor Richard P. Bucher's conclusions are surely correct:
. . . I think it is abundantly clear that Christians who erect Christmas trees are NOT worshiping them as gods or goddesses, nor are they loving them more than their Savior Jesus Christ. They are simply using the Christmas tree as a fun custom, one that can remind them of Jesus who is the branch of David (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15), the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). One that can remind them of the tree that led Adam and Eve to sin, but more importantly, the tree on which Christ Jesus died to make atonement for the sins of the whole world (Acts 5:30; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).