Friday, November 30, 2012

Some thoughts on the Freedom of the Trinity

Without an ontologically independent Trinity, one cannot properly conceive of God’s relation to creation.  The differentiated Triunity of God makes possible both an ontological and personal transcendence as well as an immanent presence through his Son and Spirit.  In this way God is covenant Lord over his creation.  We say that God is Lord “in this way” in order to avoid all non-biblical concepts of lordship.

A similar temptation arises with concepts like transcendence and immanence, indeed with every ascription we make about God.  If we are not careful to invest these common terms with biblical content, they are likely to tyrannize our doctrine of God and compel it to conform to whatever cultural, political, or philosophical meaning these terms posses in our modern world.  This, of course, does not constrain the theologian to use only biblical terms, since even biblical terms can become subject to unbiblical, alien connotations depending upon how are used by any particular culture.  Rather, we must carefully determine what the Bible says about God, and in this case about God as Lord, in order to faithfully communicate his proper relations with creation.

The Word of God, however, supplies every thing we need here.  If theologians would but pay careful attention to the richness of the ways in which God has revealed himself in the Bible, especially the diverse ways in which God in his freedom interacts with and makes himself immanent in the world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they would not have to shipwreck their theology either on the Scylla of “monotheistic” tyranny or on the Charybdis of “tritheistic” egalitarianism.  It is precisely the trinitarian lordship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that richly transcends all such human dichotomies, as Pannenberg explains:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

God's Special Presence

That we do in truth enter into God’s special presence in the midst of his gathered congregation must never be slighted or forgotten. The reality of God’s special presence with his people on the Lord’s Day has come under considerable attack in recent years. All of life is worship, we are told. God is present everywhere all through the week; therefore, what we do on Sunday is not really any different than what we do on other days. God cannot be more present on one day or in one place over against another. So let's drop all this talk about "coming into God's presence" when we gather for worship at church.

What are we to think about this kind of reasoning? Well, for one thing, it is certainly true that God is present everywhere. But his omnipresence is not what I am referring to when I talk about God's special presence with his people on the Lord's Day. God has promised to be present with his people in a special manner when they gather on Sunday. The one who skips church for the golf course or shopping mall or State park may not argue from God’s omnipresence to justify his not being in church. Sure, God is present on the golf course, just as he is present in hell. But this general presence of God doesn’t do the people in hell much good. Think about it. God is present in heaven and hell, but he is not present in the same way in each of these locations. There is a huge difference.

Even if we cannot define it precisely, God is nonetheless present in a heightened, special sense when his people gather as the church on the Lord’s Day. For one thing, he is present there pro nobis (“for us”). This is the place and time where he gathers his people to hear and receive his gifts through the Word and Sacraments. He has promised to be there for us when his people gather.

It is not so much that God was not present in, say, China, when the pillar and fire led the people of Israel out of Egypt or when his presence filled the Tabernacle upon its completion (Ex. 40). Rather, the Lord was at these appointed places in a special, life-giving way. The people of Israel were given singular signs of God’s special presence as they gathered around Mt. Sinai and the Tabernacle.

Similarly, it is not that God is absent from the food court in the mall on Sunday; rather, he has promised to be present in a special way, the way of salvation and blessing, at the Communion Table in church. The bread and wine are singular signs designed to assure us of his special, gracious presence with us. He has not promised to be in the mall on Sunday for you. Actually, if you refuse to heed the Lord’s summons to gather with his church, he may be present there against you so that you could very well experience his judgment and curse, rather than his promise of blessing, life, and salvation.

Moreover, when we are in God’s special presence with his people every week, receiving from him his promise through his Word and Sacrament, we can leave the gathered congregation into the world with the full assurance that God will be with us and for us wherever we may be during the week. Without being in the Lord’s special presence we have no assurance that his general presence will be of benefit to us. When delight in his special presence then we can be sure of his omnipresent help in every situation and location (see Gen. 3:8; 4:16; Exod. 33:14-15; Deut. 4:37; Deut. 12:7, 18; 14:23, 26; 15:20; Judges 18:6; 2 Kings 13:23; 17:18-23; Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18ff.; etc.).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This Little Babe

Here's my short homily from Christmas Eve 2009.  During Advent and Christmas I typically spend some time reading Martin Luther's Advent and Christmas sermons.  Anyone familiar with Luther's thoughts about the baby Jesus will recognize my dependence on him.  Very few theologians have grasped the full significance of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God as Luther did.  The true humility of God is unveiled in the story of Jesus' birth.  God the Son united himself to our human flesh forever.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Is Christmas Christian? Redux

Every year I repost these essays because every year I keep hearing the same old tired anti-Christmas rhetoric from a vocal minority of well-meaning Christians.  I really don't want to return to this issue each year and rework everything. So here it is again. I hope it helps.

Christmas Time is Here Again - An introduction to the issues.

The Reformation and The Celebration of Christmas - Have Protestant churches regularly observed Advent and Christmas?

What did John Calvin Think about Christmas?

Isn't Christmas Really A Roman Catholic Holiday? - Why should Protestants observe it?

Isn't Christmas really just a Roman Catholic Mass? - More on the supposed Roman Catholic origins of Christmas

But Christmas is a Roman Catholic HOLY DAY. - Even more on the supposed Roman Catholic character of Christmas.

Isn't Christmas rooted in a pagan holiday?- A critique of the idea that Christmas was pagan holiday incorporated into the church year.

What about all of the pagan symbolism and ceremony associated with Christmas?

Surely you have to admit that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol.

Doesn't Christmas violate the regulative principle of worship? - The Bible doesn't talk about Christmas!

What about the whole "Church Year" thing? - How can we follow a calendar that's not biblical?

But when the Church celebrates Christmas it's an imposition on my conscience. - Why should I be forced to observe Christmas?

Wait! Observing "days and years" is all Old Testament Religion! - We've been freed from all those festivals and observances, right?

Is there any warrant from the Bible for commemorative annual festivals?

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

I can't shake the feeling that all of this is too pagan – Isn't all of this symbolic stuff (trees, seasons, etc.) just nature worship?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Heresy with the Really Cool Name

The Good News is not that God made some external determination to forgive man, superficially exercised 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 life, to restore the distorted and corrupt condition of man’s actual human existence.  In his innermost being as the Son he genuinely united himself to human, finite, creaturely existence.  We call that the incarnation.

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 way.  He personally bore all of this.

Incidentally, it is important to not evade this point by denying that Jesus assumed our fallen, mortal human nature.  The Greek culture where the Gospel was preached held to the apathy or passionlessness of the divine nature.  In order to avoid the revolutionary doctrine of God presented in the Scriptures, the heresy of aphthartodocetism was invented.  The error here is to say that Jesus took to himself a flawless human nature, one that was not affected by the curse.  God himself didn't really suffer, he only appeared to do so.  Jesus' mind and body were not subject to sickness, weakness, and the liabilities of our mortal existence.  That, of course, frees God from any contact with the yuckiness of mortal human existence as we experience it.

But this is not what we read in the Scriptures.  Jesus, as true God, was also a man like us subject to our frailties though without sin.  This is not only essential to his being our Savior; it is precisely the way the Son has revealed the true character of God to us. If the weakness, suffering, and death of Jesus was simply that of a good man from Nazareth, then God is inevitably bound to become a cold, silent, unknown heavenly power.  And even if God had united himself with a pre-fall Adamic human nature, somehow remaining aloof and detached from the weakness as suffering associated with humanity's present condition, then that would be the end of the Christian faith.  What Jesus’ birth—and then, of course, his life as a mortal man—manifests to us is the willing suffering of the passionate God.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Some Older Comments on the Trinity & Femininity

Here are some comments from a lesson I taught way back 1994.  I think I still agree with myself.

In Gen 1:27, "So God created man in His [own] image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."

Both men and women image God.  Just as a man as Husband in some special sense images the Second Person of the Trinity and a man as Father in some special sense images God the Father, so also the woman as mother, finds a model within the Trinitarian life of God also.  But where?  God has not revealed himself as “Mother.”   That is not his Name.

Nevertheless, the source of motherhood is to be found in the attributes and behavior of God.  And of the three members of the Godhead, the one that most presents himself as the model of motherhood is the Holy Spirit.  The woman as mother models in so many ways the work of the Holy Spirit.  You should be studing him, because I believe he was the model in which the woman as image of God was largely (but not exclusively) sculpted.

In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit hovers over the unformed, dark, and unfilled earth like a mother bird. The Spirit is "the Lord and giver of live."   Remember that God as the source of all created reality includes the paradigms of created gender within Himself.  Within the Godhead there resides the original mixture of attributes that will become the source of created masculinity and feminity.  The created qualities of masculinity and femininity reflect uncreated qualities within the Godhead.   So the qualities of the feminine in the image of God, the woman, arise out something that corresponds to femininity in the Godhead.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Holiday Feasting!

Everyone knows, of course, that the pilgrims established a feast, invited the Indians and the whole community, and all for the purpose of giving thanks to God for his gracious provisions.  But did you know that in decreeing a feast, they were acting according to a long tradition among the people of God?A tradition that gives priority to feasts—joyous communal eating and drinking—over against fasting and penitential self-affliction?

When the church is healthy she multiplies feasts, when she is sick and wayward she increases fasting and turns the feasting Table of the Lord’s Supper into a somber Tomb.   This is what happened in the late Middle Ages, before Calvin and Luther restored weekly communion, feasting, singing, and gave Christian people a reason for giving thanks.  Knowing that Jesus died to set us from from sin, death, and the devil leads to thankful feasting.

This tradition of giving precedence to feasting is not merely a tradition, it’s mandated by God in the Bible—Old and New Testaments.  God multiplied feasts and commanded his people to eat and drink and rejoice regularly, repeatedly.  Here is just one example:
And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household (Deut. 14:23-26).
So why does God command us to feast?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Another problem I've observed in interviews conducted with the intention of discovering the authenticity of someone's faith has to do with a popular set of "diagnostic" questions.  Of course, we have to ask diagnostic questions of the one being interviewed.  It's not so much the questions that are the problem; rather, the answers that are given need to be wisely analyzed.  Whatever answers our questions provoke must be carefully evaluated.  Too often we react to the sound of certain words and phrases and are too eager to jump to cookie-cutter conclusions about the person's spiritual status.  So what am I talking about?

Probably the most popular set of diagnostic questions for evangelically oriented elders and boards are the two Evangelism Explosion (EE) questions:  

1.  Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?

2.  Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, "Why should I let you into my heaven?" what would you say?

I've used these questions many times in my conversations with people and on evangelistic forays into the neighborhood around the churches I've served.  They are not bad questions.  They can be productive conversation starters.  But evaluating the answers given to these questions is a lot harder than is commonly thought.  For one thing, we need to be very careful about jumping to quick conclusions about somebody's spiritual life and relationship to God based on their short, off-the-cuff answers to these two questions.  I've seen young Christians and wiser elders draw unwarranted conclusions about a person's "unsaved" status simply because the person being interviewed didn't answer these questions with familiar terminology or used words and phrases that evoked "works righteousness" fears.  And conversely, just because a person knows all the right lingo in response to questions like this doesn't mean they are genuine believers. Are these issues for which school and elder boards are thoughtfully prepared?   I want to unpack this a little bit more.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Usus Politicus

The "political" or "civil use" of the Decalogue often gets little or no attention these days.  But every polis needs a legal code that will shape the way people live in relation to one another; and the ten commandments have an inexorably social dimension.  Yahweh gave the Ten Words to an amorphous Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  It was to be the charter for their new culture, foundational words that would mold and shape them into a peaceful, productive society.  The Decalogue is not given simply to guide individuals in their religious, private piety.  They are about how the community is called to live together in marriages, families, cities, and larger communities.  Here are two ways of summarizing the Ten Words that bring out the cultural focus.

The first way highlights what God seeks to promote in human civilization. The Ten Words are intended to form a particular type of society. A community of people . . .

1.  that put their trust in the true God (“In God we trust”), 
2.  that worship God in a fitting way, 
3.  that bear the name of God in a glorious way in their daily lives, 
4.  A civilization that safeguards people from the slavery of never-ending work and frees them to gather for worship on the day of the Lord, 
5.  A culture that honors and obeys parents and others in authority, 
6.  one that protects the life of the innocent, 
7.  that remains true to their marriage covenants.  
8.  that respects the right of private property against theft,
9.  where the courts are respected and justice is the norm because people testify honestly,
10. that are content with what gifts and goods with which God has blessed them.

The second way of summarizing the Ten Words calls attention to what is prohibited and the consequences of violating God's law.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part I

I've often been uncomfortable with the way we interview people to discover if they are believers.  My concern goes back many years.  It probably began decades ago as I was sitting with my young children as they were being interviewed by elders for the Lord's Table.  But it includes my participation in countless membership interviews conducted by church sessions and school boards.  So the problems I see are not endemic to interviewing children, but include the process of ascertaining the status of adults as well.

Part of the problem is that we easily settle for questions and answers that use simplistic slogans.  If we hear the interviewed adults or children say the right words, we accept their "testimony" without much more inquiry.  There are any number of evangelical code words and phrases that we learn so that we can communicate to one another that we are part of the same tribe.  Which phrases and terms we use depends on the branch of the church with which we are associated.  Some of the more common ones are:

Asking Jesus into my heart
Praying to receive Jesus
Personal relationship with God and/or Jesus
I was saved when. . .
I got saved. . .
My personal Lord and Savior

There are more, of course.  But you get the idea.  It's not so much that these phrases are wrong or dangerous in themselves. They can indeed helpfully summarize a Christian's experience and present commitment.  My problem is not that people use these catch words to give testimony to their faith.  My problem is that when these words are phrases are absent many interviewers are very likely to question the authenticity of that person's faith.  What often happens in interviews is that we fish for these terms and phrases, asking question after question hoping to hear something familiar.  Once we hear our favorite expression we breath a sigh of relieve and move on.  Here is a real life example.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Not All Killing is Killing

Thou shalt not kill - Deut. 5:17

To even understand what this law forbids you have to know something of the context of the Bible as a whole. This is simply a summary command.  Everyone who knows the Bible as a whole knows that this imperative is not meant to be taken absolutely.   It has to be understood in context.

About a decade ago, after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, this appeared in Christianity Today: “If we kill as a response to this great tragedy, we are no better than the terrorists who launched this awful offensive. Killing is killing, and killing is always wrong.”

No, that's not the case at all.  Suppose someone says, "I take the 6th commandment seriously. I believe all killing is wrong.  That's why I'm a vegetarian."  Has he really understood the meaning of this commandment.  Is he taking the commandment seriously? You want to ask him: So do you also not kill mosquitoes, roaches, and mice?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Play God

When I was a teenager, a few buddies and I would periodically break into a local business.  We used credit cards to jimmy the locks on the back door.  There was no alarm.  We would never steal anything of real value, but we always left with something little—maybe some food (ice cream or candy) or a pen—just enough to top off the experience.  What experience?  The exhilaration that attends such audacious mischief.  For us to roam through the facility and not get caught was an adrenaline rush.  We could do it.  We did it. We were young, but we had the power.  And we didn’t get caught.  We were untouchable.  We were like gods.

Download and listen to the entire sermon on the 8th commandment.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Triune God & Creation

Unexplored Dimensions of Our Christian Worldview
Of him, through him, and to him are all things — Romans 11:36

I.  What was God doing before he created the world?

    A.  WCF 2.2  God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.

    B.   God’s ontological/relational independence

        1.  God neither depends upon, nor needs any other (Exodus 3:14; Psalm 5:9; Acts 17:24, 25; Col. 1:16; Rev. 4:11). God has/d no need for creation.  God desired to created, he didn't need to.

        2.  As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; 1 John 4:8, 16) God experiences the fulness of personal relationship apart from creation.  Out of that fulness of relational happiness the Father, Son, ad Holy Spirit created the world and humanity.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Job's Lament - Part II

Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
"A man is conceived."
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.

This is the beginning of Job's lament in which he curses the day of his birth (Job 3:1-26).  What are we to make of this?  Does Job's poem reveal sinful thoughts?  Is Job's faith wavering?  Has he gone too far?  There are many commentators who believe that this poem uncovers a sinful attitude of ingratitude and anxiety on Job's part.  Matthew Henry says,

"The extremity of his trouble and discomposure of his spirit may excuse it in part, but he can by no means be justified in it. . . . to curse the day of our birth because then we entered upon the calamitous scene of life is to quarrel with the God of nature, to despise the dignity of our being, and to indulge a passion which our own calm and sober thoughts will make us ashamed of.  Certainly there is no condition of life a man can be in this world but he may in it (if it be not his own fault) so honour God, and work out his own salvation, and make sure a happiness for himself in a better world, that he will have no reason at all to wish he had never been born, but a great deal of reason to say that he had his being to good purpose. . . There can be no reason for so vain and ungrateful a wish.  It was Job’s folly and weakness to curse his [birth] day”

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Widow's Mite

I see that the Gospel reading in the lectionary this week is Mark 12: 38-44.  I'm preaching through the 10 commandments, so I won't be commenting on this passage on Sunday.  But I would like to give a different perspective on this passage than what is normally heard.

It should be carefully noted that the 2 synoptic Gospels that include the account of the destitute widow dropping her little gift into the offering box at the temple have it sandwiched between 1) Jesus' warning about the scribes "who devour widows' houses," and 2) his indignant prophesy that Israel's temple/house will be destroyed (Mark 12:38–13:2; Luke 20:45–21:9).  These three blocks of texts are inexorably connected.

      - A warning against the scribes devouring widows' houses
      - A poor widow giving all she has at the temple/house offering box
      - Jesus condemning the temple/house of Israel to destruction

The widow is often used by preachers as an illustration of exemplary giving. She gives all that she has. Isn't that wonderful?  Really?  Would I as a pastor accept everything a poor widow had if I knew she was putting that much into the offering plate?  No way.  Think about it.  Apparently this widow's poverty was known.  And Jesus is not happy that the leaders of Israel are permitting this—more than that—encouraging it.  He's pretty angry.

This story of the widow's offering is not intended to be read as a object lesson about sacrificial giving.  It's not really about the exemplary piety of this widow.  She is so faithful that she gives sacrificially and generously.  There's some truth to this, of course. She is only following the advice of her pastors.  The problem is that the advice of her pastors is monstrously wicked and she apparently doesn't know any better.

This story is an indictment of the leadership of Israel—this is how they “devour widows' houses.”  They have created a system that preys on the weak and helpless.  That makes them believe they are being faithful and godly when they give much more than they need to or can afford to give. They have taught the poor to give everything they have to the temple building fund, which is contrary to the intention of the temple and the treasury system in Israel.  And all to line their own pockets.  Jesus is not first of all praising the widow’s action.  We are being told this story so that we can know why the temple treasury system is going to be demolished and destroyed – because instead of providing for widows and the poor, it sucks up their wealth and leaves them utterly destitute.  This is why the temple must be torn down, not one stone left upon another.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Letting it Settle in

So Barack Obama won.  He won pretty handily if you count the electoral votes (303-206).  The popular vote was a little closer (61 to 58 million), and some of the contested State votes that gave him the electoral advantage were very close.  Even so, take a moment to compare this to the 2008 election.   Back then Obama got almost 70 million votes and McCain about 60 million.  11 million less people voted this time around.  And what is a more surprising, Romney got 2 million less votes than McCain did back in 2008.

Okay. So three days after the election, what do I think about all of this?  First, whatever the numbers may be, I will be amazed if President Obama is able to do much of anything this term.  He's not a leader.  He's a campaigner.  He's been campaigning for the last 5 years.  He's got professionals that advise him well.  He knows what people want.  He's got a knack for appealing to certain kinds of people, which as this election has shown, turns out to be the majority of the voting public.  But he hasn't done anything in the past four years worthy of the name "leadership."  He's "led from behind" on every issue, even the big ones like the stimulus and Obama care.  He's not a leader.  He's a campaigner.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Job's lament

Job's curse-lament begins, "After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.  And Job said, 'Let the day perish on which I was born. . .'" (Job 3:1-3).  Not every commentator thinks that this is Job's finest moment.  Some even think that these sentiments are sinful and self-absorbed.  Divorced from the context of the story of Job this dark little poem might indeed be condemned as narcissistic. But I'm convinced it calls for a careful appraisal.  After all, remember that Job is wisdom literature.  And the words of the wise are not usually superficial.  They are "dark sayings" and "riddles" to be thoughtfully deciphered (Prov. 1:6).

Job was a ruler, a chief elder or probably even a king (Job 29:7; 31:21).  His "friends" are not simply chums, they are his "advisors," his "cabinet," if you will (2 Sam. 16:16).  The calamity that befalls him in the first chapters of the book have repercussions for the entire community, which is why his "friends" spend so much time trying to advise him how to respond well.  Job loses his sons and daughters, his health, the respect of his people, his standing in the community, his wife, his friends, and more.  But what is worse, Job loses the experience of the love and favor of God, his heavenly Father. The long arguments and further laments of Job as book progresses make it pretty clear that this last deprivation that is the most confusing and horrific to Job.

Before I talk about the content of the lament, the first thing we ought to note is how remarkable it is that in the context of Job’s abject misery he bothers to carefully compose, to artistically fashion this curse-lament. It is a complex, artistic poem with a very sophisticated heptamerous literary structure based on Genesis chapter one.  There's a lesson here about the value of art and beauty, even—or especially—in the midst of human suffering.  I am reminded of C. S. Lewis's sermon on the value of Learning in War-Time.

Continued in Part II