Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Christmasization of Life

I'm not going to tell you to put Christ back in Christmas, nor am I going to tell you of it Saturnalia origins, nor am I going to rail about consumerism.

Instead, I want to expand the Advent season to include the whole year. I really want Christmas in July, but not in the usual ways. Whatever else Christmas is about (and it is about a lot of things), it is about the ontological change of the aeons -- the coming of Messiah to bring the "olam haba", the age to come, into fruition. Christmas, then, is about living in a different mode of existence -- not in the way of the old world, but in the way of the new age come in Messiah Jesus. In many ways, this new age is defined by 'righteousness', which has a multivalent definition. The aspect of its meaning that I find most significant at this point in the year is 'set in right relationship'.

So, for Christmas, maybe these presents might be an option (and can even be given last minute):

-Forgive someone who has hurt you, even if they are not seeking or do not want forgiveness
-Seek forgiveness from someone you hurt, especially if you have since lost contact with them
-Break bread with an enemy and listen to their viewpoint, even if you still end up disagreeing with them
-Mediate between two warring parties
-Confess your sins
-Adopt a child

Of course, this need not apply only to human-to-human relationships, or to divine-human ones.

-Care for the neighborhood stray
-Adopt an animal that has been abused
-Stop using destructive means to control pests
-Eat right (which means learn how to cook and bake)

The list could go on, and I'd love to hear your stories/ideas of how you are making Christmas an integral part of your, your family's, your neighborhood's, and your environment's lives.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rethinking It All: God

I blogged about Athanasius, the (in)famous Alexandrian bishop three years ago. I have had reason, by way of Seminary to revisit this seminal thinker. Now that I am actually studying the nuts and bolts of Church history (instead of taking potshots based on strawmen and secondary interpretation), I can see where Athanasius is coming from in his critique of the Arians. This is, and remains, no small issue.

Arius, if nothing else, was defending a credible understanding of the Biblical God, revealed in Jesus the Christ, in line with Greek philosophy. I say 'credible' because in Greek thought, it worked. The problem, though, is what the Platonic milieu he spoke in meant by the multivalent word 'God'. For the thorough-going Platonist of that era (and who wasn't?), God was totally transcendent, wholly other from Creation -- so much so that he/she/it/they could have no real contact with said Creation, in other words, there could be no mixture of "essence" or "nature" or "substance". This God fit the Greek criteria of impassibility, unmoveability, and immutability. The problem was that, in some way, the Word of God (however conceived) was revealed as "becoming flesh" (Jn. 1:14) -- if the Word was fully God how could he/it commingle with the created flesh of Jesus? But positing a difference in "nature" or "essence" (the infamous 'ousia'), the Greek transcendence problem could be overcome. And leave the Church, substantially, with two divine sources, or two Gods. If the Word was God, he/it could not suffer and salvation could not happen. Therefore the Word was "god" in a lesser, derivative sense and so could.

Athanasius' response is ingenious and complicated. Suffice it to say that he was very concerned to stress the reality of the divine nature of the Word, equal with God and the human nature, at least of the body/flesh, of the hypostatic union known as Jesus. The Word must be God to save; the Word must be made flesh so that man could be saved. He ran the risk (and may have fallen headlong into -- it is hard to tell) of both Sabellianism and Apollonarianism.

In doing so, though, Athanasius effected a fundamental shift in the world of thought, quite unconsciously: by using Platonism he effectively destroyed the overall system. It is clear that Athanasius held to a similar conception of the divine substance as other Platonic thinkers: separate, impassible, etc. However, he also defined "death" as disintegration of the person, that it total solitary self-reflection without reference to another outside (cf. Zizioulas in Being As Communion, this is a fundamentally Eastern way of understanding personhood), which is a very close description of the Platonic God! In the Wholly Other's place, though, he substituted a more Biblical understanding of a God that is transcendent, but also extremely near in Jesus the Messiah. This God is one of intimate and everlasting relationship, which is his definition of life. To have a share in this God (theosis) is to have life, instead of sharing in the god of death and non-existence (being not in relation to anyone else). While he did not take this idea to its logical limits, it was (and is!) pregnant with possibility, especially in undertaking some sort of understanding of the economy of salvation, how God gets things done.

The interesting piece, historically, to add is that whenever the Platonic god raises his ugly (and totally other) head, various heresies come along with it: with the rise of Deism (extremely Platonic) we have the reemergence of Sabellianism, Adoptionism, and other forms of Unitarianism, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. When God is thought of in relational terms, no such heresies exist: note that the detached, otherworldly Trinity of the Western Church has led to many such outbreaks in history, but the Eastern tradition has had no such 'luck'.

The historical accomplishment, even if flawed at some levels, of Athanasius and the Cappadocians after him, needs a heavy reassessment by Christian thinkers. A God in relation is necessarily a God for us, revealed in Jesus the Messiah and in the Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus. Let the doxology flow.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Reprive: A Breath, A Wind, The Spirit

What if we've gotten the gospel the wrong way around? I've heard a preacher recently regale his congregation about how we cannot keep the Torah, and we need to keep it perfectly to be save, and that's why we need Jesus to keep it perfectly so we don't have to. Breathless...and backwards, I think.

Were Adam and Eve in a perfect relationship with God before He gave His command? Were the Israelites delivered from slavery in Egypt before the Sinai theophany and the descent of the Torah? While we were still in Exile (as Jews) or outside of God's family (Gentiles), did the Messsiah die for us and welcome us in? Is grace first or obedience first?

There is no question that we are supposed to live as God has intended His human creatures to live and that there are dire consequences if we opt to do otherwise. Sin, living outside of God's proscribed limits, has consequences -- far reaching and destructive, even to disinheritance. Sin is a fact in the human condition and it has permeated into every facet of existence. Whether or not we perfectly obey Torah, live as the wise creatures we are supposed to, we still inherit the Adam's rebellion and his curse. We need the action of God before any sort of obedience truly matters. It is here that Jesus comes in, taking the curse of Israel's disobedience and the Adam's as well upon himself, exhausting all wrath and fulfilling justice. His completely Torah-obedient life did not take away our duty, but was necessary for him to be able to have a curse-reversing death: only the obedient was worthy to undo the unworthy action of the disobedient. Jesus' death, as Messiah the faithful Israelite, establishes us in the Kingdom of God: his life was a prerequisite to that obedience. Since he himself did not need to be rescued from the dominion of sin, he could effect the new Exodus in his death.

And he lives, for death could not hold him, he needed no rescue, but due to his faithful obedience had the authority to take his life up again. His Spirit-animated existence now he passes onto us, we who have been incorporated "in him". What God has done in Jesus, he intends to do in His whole human creation, and what He does in the humans, he intends to do for all creation.

A breath of fresh air.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Last Withdrawal

It is time, dear reader, to draw this series to a close. I have much more that I would like to say concerning the Church year, lectionaries, and other things regarding worship specifically, but I must stop here. There is much changing where I am and I won't have a chance to speak to those things for the time being -- more time in Arabia is needed before anything can be confidently said.

What have I learned through all of this? In many ways I cannot answer that confidently: I suffer from the same pop-Protestant aversion to anything about my religion other than just "Jesus is the answer." The freedom given us, at least prima facie in the New Testament, coupled with the dearth of historical information about how the first century Church actually operated, leads to an almost hopeless morass of various opinions on how we should live and worship today. Not to mention the ambiguity on matters of Torah observance, ecclesial polity, and the continuation of the Spirit today. I honestly want to throw my hands in the air in distress and disgust.

At the same time, some of the conversations that this series have sparked amongst my friends have been truly enlightening. Micah's question, "What does YHWH require of you?", has become a regular and lively query. It is very humbling to me to see other men and women bow themselves to the simple, yet incredibly difficult, demand of obedience: training our eyes, ears, hearts, minds, and hands to listen carefully, to be careful, and to act in a peaceable and gentle way.

It is the simplicity of the demand that proves to be a stumbling-block. For what does it mean to be faithful in our circumstances? We have Torah to guide us, it is true, but we must not let that be our focus, otherwise we will tithe on the mint and cumin, but forget the weighter matters of peace and compassion. Compassion seems to be the main focus of Jesus' ministry even: compassion to neighbors, to socially and religiously outcast, to the ostensible enemy. Not because sin should be pooh-poohed, but instead because the real battle lies elsewhere, with the Satan, not with Rome or sinners.

But we are distracted. Debates on the meaning of justification (endless it seems), on ecclesial polity, on the state of Israel in prophecy, and so on, take our attention away from obedience. We are left with a high view of our rational skills and sophisticated rhetoric. However, the woman on the street, abandoned by her husband and with no marketable skills, finds no comfort that you are "of Wright" or "of Piper", "of Luther", "of Calvin" or "of Ratzinberger". She sees, rightly, through this game as a play of power and money, of status and pride, of mint and cumin. The Enemy, the real enemy, has us ensnared and confused. We know the Scriptures but haven't the foggiest of what they actually mean. We know our responsibility to the poor, outcast, widowed, hungry, naked, but act on it through our Republican or Democratic proxies all too willing to enforce "equity" and "justice" through brutality and theft. And the Church is powerless to do anything because we are too tied into it: how can we proclaim peace and reconciliation to our "enemies" within the gates of the Church when we are so eager to bomb the infidels out of existence because they threaten, even if just theoretically, our comfortable way of life? We are distracted.

In many ways, this rethinking has been a quest for significance. When Paul sojourned in Arabia, he found his calling being strengthened and confirmed by his reading of Isaiah and the Torah. In his work was the fulfillment of many of God's longstanding promises: Israel restored through the Messiah, the Gentiles brought near to worship the true God. I continue to probe and pry the mysteries of God, but have not yet found myself in Paul's shoes. All the better for now, I suppose, I am not yet sanctified to the priesthood that God calls all his people to.

And so the sojourn continues for me. I cry out that God has left me and me alone to rethink, but I know there are at least 7,000 who have not bowed their knees to any other God. I am no Elijah, nor a Paul, but I am trying -- feebly -- to follow in their footsteps. In an age where everyone is a role model, we desperately need these men of faith, and of failure, to show us a better way.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Rethinking It All: Jesus the Jew

I was recently approached about publishing this little series. I have agreed, although now I feel the intense need to go back and rethink the rethinking. Something about being in "official" print. Blogging, in my mind at least, is about one or two steps below self-publication in a plastic binder. This all, in other words, needs a serious gussying up.

I remember vaguely when it first dawned on my that Jesus was a Jew. Not that I didn't know it, but much of the Christianity I'd encountered was content to let his ethnic background be a bit of embarrasing (and somewhat unnecessary) familial history. In other words, aside from historical accident, it wasn't important. Once the realization that it was important -- that Jesus' Jewishness formed his mindset, his symbolic universe, his way of discourse, and who and what he cared about -- the rethinking really began. If I could remember the date, I would say it was the date that I became uncomfortable with evangelicalism and an overly systematic understanding of the faith. My exposure to what is called Biblical Theology (basically, in an extremely reductive way of saying it, reading the Bible as a story and drawing theological conclusions from that) both from the Tyler theonomists and Geneva helped me along this path. There was something important, vitally important, about understanding Jesus as a Jew. Missing that understanding stunts a very vital part of the faith. Included in this are why his mission was to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" instead of the more general "mankind"; why the Bible seems to be relatively unconcerned with divinity claims, but bends over backwards to confess and prove that he is the Messiah, the promised Jewish king who would also be lord over the gentiles/nations; why apocalyptic texts aren't talking about the end of the physical world, but the corrupt nature of the world-systems that inhabit God's good creation; why circumcision is a big deal in the early Church and not later; and the list could go on. The path to this understanding has been endless fruitful in my attempts to be obedient to the faith and in my knowledge of the one we call "Lord and Christ", but it also has been endlessly frustrating because nary a conversation happens or a sermon gets preached that I don't get riled up over what happens when this basic paradigm is misunderstood or ignored altogether. Blessing and cursing live, as always for a spiritual leper like myself, next door to each other.

The thing that has grasped me lately, though, has been an off-shoot of all of this: I am a Gentile. I was born a Gentile, I will die an ethnic Gentile. I can no sooner become a Jew than a leopard can change his spots. So, when I approach Jesus, I am not just divide by the servant-master principle, but also by a deep cultural divide. Of the Jews are the promises, the covenants, the beautiful Torah, the election, the patriarchs, the kingdom, and salvation. I am but a former idolater, rescued from the no-gods of my ancestors, and placed firm footed amongst the worshipping company of those who have held the true God as the only god for millennia. If I am seeking to understand this Jesus and what he has said, I must develop a certain cultural sympathy to a people that has been at the apple of God's eye since Abraham (this is not to say that modern Jewry can be affirmed as it stands, it still has the same need as Gentiles to bow to the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth). I approach as the other to this wholly Other.

So now I see that we must approach the Scriptures in a totally different way, not only through Jewish eyes, but also through Middle Eastern eyes as well. This causes a significant problem, though: what about the perspicuity of Scripture? The perspicuity doctrine would state that everything necessary for "salvation" (a tricky word to define as it is) is understandable by anyone straight from the text of Scripture or the "preaching" (yet another one of those words) of it. If we take a cultural understanding to be necessary, doesn't that just add a layer of elitist hierarchy for the common folk to be part of God's people? Yes and no.

First off, the basic confession is that "God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus is therefore Lord". One can read or hear Scripture and get the basics of this confession down, be changed by the Holy Spirit, and have a saving faith. However, like the Ethiopian eunuch, there is much to misunderstand. What do we mean by "raised from the dead"? (Still) leading NT scholar Rudolph Bultmann would say it means "the disciples got a sense of Jesus' presence after his death" -- a highly influential opinion in large swaths of Christianity. Others would say that Jesus' physical body was raised from a physical grave, albeit changed in significant ways (see the Gospel of John, for example) -- this is the confession of much of Christianity from the earliest days and fits in not only with the Biblical record, but with a cultural understanding of what "resurrection" is. Another question that arises is the word "lord". What does it mean? What does it not mean? (That might be the more important question). There are a variety of answers in the public square, but while many may do justice to some part of the linguistic range of the Bible's use of the term in reference to Jesus, many do not fit at all, even traditional understandings fall into this sometimes. So, again, the answer to the above question is: yes and no.

Secondly, there has always been an interpreter in the Church: that father to the son on Passover, the Levite to the common folk in rural ancient Israel, Ezra, Jesus, Paul and the apostles. Whether that role needs to be clouded with "ordination" or not is another issue for another day. What is needed is men (and women) of solid character -- in other words, those whose lives reflect their obedience to the faith -- who take upon themselves the burden and privelege of studying the Scriptures deeply, not just at a linguistic or exegetical level, but at the cultural, historical, economic, and sociological levels: to know not just the words, but their deep contexts, embedded in real history that we can know, albeit often times through a glass darkly. Once this has happened, and the people of God are trained to do this for themselves (they must first see the need of total discipleship!), will the Jewishness of our Messiah really mean something: he will be confessed by all to be appointed by God as both Lord and Messiah.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Revelation

This topic is scary for a number of reasons. One the imagery used in the book scared me so badly when I was younger that I was more receptive to hear the Gospel, even if the viewpoint presented then does not represent my viewpoint now. Second, because neither Luther nor Calvin wrote anything of substantive length on this book -- fools rush in where angels dare to tread.

But my purpose here is not to challenge any eschatological system or put forward a new one. The debate there is intractably muddled. I spent a good chunk of my life wandering amongst dispensationals, postmillennials, amillennials, preterists, and futurists to know the dead ends that there lie.

Instead I wish to speak of worship. Putting "worship" and "Revelation" in the same sentence is, in some parts of my denomination, tantamount to taking the proverbial mark. The worship scenes in the Revelation involve non-Psalm tunes, musical instruments, incense, and other heterodox accoutrements to some. I've heard tell that we cannot use any of the material in this book to account for our styles of worship because it is symbolic, therefore the Regulative Principle somehow does not apply. Whatever one thinks of this is, at least in this post, of no concern to me, maybe I'll address it another time.

What I do wish to speak about is the contention that it does apply to our worship today, specifically the claims of the late David Chilton in his magnum opus The Days of Vengeance. Chilton takes a hard look at the liturgical structure of the book, showing in very detailed ways that the book is really a Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur ceremony, except about the destruction of apostate Jerusalem (in AD 70, mind you) and the vindication of faithful Israel (the Church composed of Jew and Gentile). So far, so good. However, Chilton often makes the point that this should be the model for our worship: with the bishop/pastor representing God, the elders gathered around him, etc. It leads to a very High Church ecclesiology, with especially the pastor having an almost godlike status (and, if reports are to be believed, this is often what happened in Tylerite churches, to much ill effect and spiritual damage, but I cannot corroborate those rumors). It is here that I think Chilton misses a very important facet of Revelation (and, to be fair, it is no fair to pick on someone who has been deceased over a decade -- I mean no ill will to him and have learned much from his commentary and other writings). Revelation is not modeling a pattern for continuing Temple-like worship of the Church, but rather showing forth the last Temple liturgy that was accomplished with the Messiah's eschaton (the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and vindication of the Messiah through the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). Revelation, then, if I am correct (and these are very preliminary thoughts) is a book that finalizes the old order of things, showing that the Messiah has truly fulfilled all that the Temple was and stood for, in a cosmic way, once for all time, and so now in the New Jerusalem, the Church adorned as a Bride, there is no Temple save the Lord God and the Lamb in its midst. Temple worship of any sort is fulfilled in the Messiah.

This, of course, does not mean that worship is done, but instead we must look to the very fruitful model of the synagogue as the early Christians did.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

All Theology is Local

If a pastor/priest/preacher whatever is not in tune with their local community, both insiders and outsiders, they cannot do their job -- at best they will be ineffective, at worst they will be incredibly damaging. The trouble, then, will systematics is that it is theology abstracted from place and time. If your pastor is a systematics person, pray for them to be rooted and resist any attempts to make theology esoteric or trivial or over complicated. All theology is local.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rethinking It All: Symbolic Interpretation

Reading through The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism has brought up a few things that I have not considered in a long time: interpretive maximalism. This idea, proffered by James B. Jordan and expounded by David Chilton in his magisterial Days of Vengeance, looks for symbolic resonances throughout Scripture. In many ways, it is sort of a "Scripture interpreting Scripture" on steroids. The thought behind it is that in an aural and oral society, verbal and symbolic resonances would be easily picked up by the hearers with a minimum of forward allusions. The classic example, if I remember correctly, is that of Abimelech's death in the book of Judges. He, an enemy of God's people, is killed by having a woman throw a stone upon his head. The verbal and symbolic import of the text, though, (not to mention syntactic parallels) ties it in with the promise of the redeemer in Genesis 3: an enemy of God's people, the serpent, is killed by the seed of the woman crushing his head. The key symbols here are the enemy, the woman, and the head-crushing (compare, once again, Sisera and Jael elsewhere in Judges). It is not, of course, an exact parallel, but rather an evocative way of telling a story. The idea of "intertextual echo" proffered by Richard B. Hays is in some respects similar, but his has to do more with narrative underpinnings, rather than symbolic repetition.

In reading an essay in Jewish Roots by Margaret Barker, these ideas came running back. While Ms. Barker tends to be into what I might call the strange side of interpretive maximalism (believing YHWH to be the son of El Elyon, for example), some of the resonances that she brings up about the high priest in ancient Israel deserve closer attention. Sometimes, when interpreting Scripture, it can be easy to stick just with rational and narrative analysis, which have arguably been the Protestant's bread and butter since inception. Oftentimes, as Barker proves unwittingly, this sort of symbolic interpretation can lead into some weedy territory, which the early Reformers wanted to avoid, especially as they saw it in some allegorizing in the Catholic tradition. To avoid symbolism in the Bible, though, is to throw the proverbial baby out with the (equally proverbial) bathwater. Care, of course, must be exercised and other interpretive methods must be used to balance the symbolic. Once this is the case, though, the symbolic can then be used in tandem with historical, narrative, and theological interpretive criticism to further probe the meaning of Scripture in its original context and for us today.

The difficulty, as I see it, is reconstructing anything like the ancient symbolic worldview. Our symbolic universe, replete with the goddess Freedom and her entourage, is hard enough to pin down since our public discourse is largely demythologized. Instead of the evolving hand of Marduk, we speak of evolutionary processes. Instead of the cruel mastery of Mammon, we talk about economic determinism, both capitalistic and socialistic. The list, as always, could go on and on. The ancient worldview, at least the ancient Israelite shared (with significant variation and mutation) by the Biblical authors, is populated by angels and demons, primeval "welter and waste", gardens, serpents, nudity and clothing, names and Names and naming, blood crying out from the ground, and wanderers with marks of protection, just to mention some of the symbols from the first chapters of Genesis. We hear talk of the earth, the heavens above, the waters in division, and the grave below: so temporal space is conceived tripartite, with the sea in league with the underworld. This symbolism is powerful and still resonates today, but with a muted voice. Reclaiming it in a post-secular, post-Enlightenment world may be impossible for life, but essential, at least, for understanding the Biblical mindset.

One of the things that Barker argues is a symbolic tie between the high priest's work and Jesus' acclamation in Philippians 2. I've heard interpretations using Adam and Israel and the Servant (all of which have very good points, but that it for another time), but never the high priest. The parallels that she draws are quite intriguing, if I ultimately disagree with her overall interpretive scheme (she has a hammer of Temple symbolism and therefore everything is a Temple nail). It is an occasion to further study in a passage that I love and deeply lack understanding of (most of the Biblical passages that I keep returning to in my studying and questioning I deeply lack understanding). But it must be carefully tempered, otherwise we may develop symbolic worlds that make sense to us, but separate us from the realities that they are supposed to point us towards.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rethinking It All: Theonomy

My formative years of learning about what the Christian faith means in the day-to-day ethics of living came from the relatively small, but quite outspoken group known as the Theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists, headed by such luminaries as RJ Rushdoony, Gary North, and Kevin Craig. While practical application differed between the various schools of theonomists (how many schools? as many as there were theonomists), the exegetical base established by Greg Bahnsen seemed to be reasonably normative. That is to say, the Torah has abiding moral and legal principles for life in a post-resurrection world, which should not just be applied in a private or "spiritual" sense, but in the public realms of jurisprudence and legislation. In other words, "God's Law or Chaos" (so says a bumper sticker I have in my collection).

For many years, I have come under flak for being sympathetic to the theonomic cause. (I prefer the appellation 'theonomic' over 'Christian Reconstructionist' largely because of political differences inherent in those titles.) One professor even labeled the movement as 'demonic', albeit in some jest. The vitriol of many theonomic writers, especially North and David Chilton, occasioned this sort of derision. Looking back on some of their more polemic writings (especially "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators"), it doesn't strike me as odd in the slightest that theonomists were, by and large, a lonely bunch. I still hold onto the basic tenet and exegesis: the Old Testament, especially the Torah on which the whole is built, is fundamentally important to the Christian Church and we ignore it or 'spiritualize' it to our own peril. The Torah of Moses does have very significant things to say not just about our individual, private or family lives, but also about our public and political discourse, especially in an increasingly antagonistic pluralist polytheist society (for many in the Church, I realize, the realities of the demonic side of the 'principalities and the powers' is a reality that the North American branch of the Church has not yet fully understood or contended with, but we are starting to feel the pressure).

My rethinking comes along the lines set forth, not only by the theonomists, but by much recent and erudite scholarship that is pouring over the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. That is, the ever present, and apparently and paradoxically divise, debate about Paul and the Torah, whether on the more scholarly level (Westerholm, Sanders, Wright, et al) or the more popular Lutheran-esque revisions (Piper and company). When thinking about this, though, it is important to set it in proper historical context, especially as we find it in the book of Acts: how does the relation of the Torah ("holy, just, and good") to the Gentile converts work?

In reading Marcus Bockmuehl's Jewish Law in Gentile Churches and Mark Nanos' The Mystery of Romans, I have been introduced to the halakhic concept of how Gentiles were supposed to act in the land of Israel if they wanted to be part of the common life and the worship (however limited they might experience it) of the one true God. These regulations are found primarily in Leviticus 18-20 (further confirming my suspicions that the Church's ignorance of this book has been theologically deadly) and consist mainly of three categories: idolatry/blasphemy, blood regulations (both dietary and 'blood shedding'), and sexual immorality. Interestingly enough, these same things appear in Acts 15 under the auspices of the Apostolic Decree, a document drafted to answer the question "What must Gentile converts to the Messiah do in order to be saved?" Of course, here, a redefinition of soteriology is in order -- in Acts the question is not "how does one get into heaven" but "how does one have a place in the eschatological community that will have a place in the age to come". Salvation is never primarily individualistic (although it does involve the individual), but speaks of how we are to be truly human now, in anticipation of God's final plans for creation (for example, Rom. 8).

These categories (which in later Rabbinic thought would be categorized under the heading of "Noachide Laws") give the theonomist much to think about. Many of the laws to Israel were exactly that, to Israel as it lived in the land. The relevance to diaspora Judaism has been much debated in Jewish circles, and Christians should consider the relevance to ethnic Jews who follow Messiah, as they are the restoration of "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (of course there is much debate here). But to the Gentile who believes in Messiah? It would seem that many of the laws, especially concerning 'ritual' or Sabbath or kosher or circumcision, do not have anything to say to the Messianic Gentile. These are the things that make Jews Jews, and Paul says (and the Apostolic Decree confirms) that "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (that is, Jews are Jews who follow Messiah, Gentiles are Gentiles who follow Messiah, they do not need to become the other). In thinking about public ethics, then, it becomes important not to overstate the theonomic case, but what is there in Lev. 18-20 and Acts 15 (not to mention Ex 20, the Ten Commandments, but that is another story for another time) must be studied and understood. In many ways, it seems, the New Testament understands the Gentile converts to not be a separate institution, but a part of God's eschatological community, which includes the restored Israel of which I've spoken in previous posts. The Church, then, is to be neither Gentile nor Jew, but builds off of what God started with Israel and forms something new, where the distinctions between Jew and Gentile are relativized in Messiah, but certainly foundational ethical principles form the basis of continued community life, in both intra-community dialogue and table fellowship and also in public discourse and legislation.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Limits of Competence

I have been raised and reared under the Gospel of Excellence. If everything we do is supposed to be "to the glory of God", then (the assumption goes) everything we do must be excellent, because only excellent things are worthy of the glory of God. However, having lived under that burden for many years now, I'm beginning to see that the assumption entailed in it are incorrect.

Anyone under the burden of "perfectionism" knows that ultimately perfection is unattainable, but the drive to grasp it shoulders guilt upon us. So we try harder, and fail -- maybe a little, maybe epically -- and we try again to get it just right. I wonder, though, if this call to perfection might be part of Adamic pride, the desire to be as God without reference to God. If so, then it is a peculiar sin, since even God did not make all things perfect: ask any farmer about their marginal land, ask any carpenter about marginal wood, ask a coffee roaster about 'defect' beans, etc.

Instead, I would like to proffer the idea of competence: we work not for perfection, but for fit. To return to a bit of agriculture (or gardening, if you prefer), marginal land is not rendered useless by its status as marginal. Instead, special care and consideration is needed to make proper and sustainable use of that land (sustainable being understood as use that preserves or improves the fertility and integral structure of the land). Sometimes its best use, its most competent use, is being marginal: a barrier between the rows of crops and the 'wild'. However, if our agriculture standard is 'perfection' (and that usually is defined in an industrial economy as 'efficiency'), then marginal land qua marginal land is useless. It must be (incompetently) turned into row land, which makes it unsustainable and is deeply damaging to the structure of the land and the humans who are to care for it, as Wendell Berry might point out.

Competence, then, involves a few neccessary things that distinguish it from 'perfection': humility to see and know the work, land, idea, people as they really are; care to get into the marginal parts of life along with the 'better' elements and to understand them; place, since no thing is ultimately disconnected from where it grows, whether we are speaking of plants or ideas or factories. 'Perfection' or 'excellence' are, in the end, Platonic ideas, ideas beyond the reach of man that make us feel trapped in our creatureliness; competence embraces creatureliness, yet mourns sinfulness (not the same thing!), and makes the best of its created circumstances. Competence is thrifty -- even apple peels can have copious amounts of canning pectin rendered from them. Excellence ends up being wasteful, as apple peels cannot contribute to a larger goal (pectin is never the goal in perfection). The idea of scale really does hit home here: competence can be content with the small, with excellence is always striving for the 'big' solution to the 'big' problem.

Developing competence, of course, is no easy thing. Especially since competence is so wide ranging: one can be 'excellent' in only a few things; one can be competent in many. Consider just the duties of a house husbandman: carpentry, plumbing, painting, mechanical maintenance, care for animals, care for wife and children, etc. Competence in these things is developed over long periods of time and in conjunction with community (we observe and help others to build these skills). Excellence in any of these things, apart from a conscious disciplined career choice, is impossible for us -- I certainly will never understand the full inner workings of my car, but that doesn't mean that I cannot use and maintain it properly.

Excellence, however, is still needed. I strive for excellence in my theology and in my coffee roasting -- however, excellence must itself come by way of competence. Only when I have learned to care for these things as concrete entities, as placed things, can I develop them to their greatest potential.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Interlude: The Psalms

Dear Reader and Fellow Rethinker,

I appreciate your patience with this series of posts -- I do not know how many will be a part of the whole or even if I will "finish". In many ways, I hope that I do not, for that would call for another rethinking: I am not infallible and I must be allowed to disagree with myself. In some ways, this Arabian process is one of self-discovery -- but not in the sense of "self-actualization" but rather the sense of "it is no longer 'I' who lives, but the Messiah who lives within me". This process changes me, brings me to repentance, and is conforming me to an image of the Messianic Other. It is uncomfortable, and (as a friend tells me) dangerous considering some of the ties I have in the Christian world. But it is something that must be done and has been pressing on me for years.

Which brings me to the Psalms. My religious tradition uses only Psalms in corporate worship. It is one of the things that led me to embrace the tradition and which has caused this rethinking: in many ways that tradition is being consumed in the gnostic modernism that I described earlier, I do not wish it to be. The Psalms can be an antidote to that tendency.

The Psalms are, really, God's song-book. Whether or not a Church tradition makes use of them says much about that tradition. Many "evangelical" traditions forswear them or relegate them to "personal devotion", if that. The vapidity of much modern Church music does not need to be recited here, instead I would like to examine some of the positive aspects of the Psalms.

The Psalms connect the Messiah's Body and Bride with its past. This is a collection of works that span around a half-millennium in time, from the foundation of the Kingdom to the initial return from exile and speak of the common hopes of Israel. If the full restoration of Israel is important in understanding the New Testament, then the Psalms are indispensible: the themes of forgiveness, restoration, vindication, triumph, and God's royal sovereignty pervade the poems and songs. In that light, it is important, though, to recognize that even though we sing these songs and they do have modern applicability, they are Israel's songs. Those of us who are Gentiles in the faith must see them in their proper historical and eschatological light before we just take them as our own. When we sing of vindication over enemies, let us remember that God has done this in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. When imprecations are sung, let us remember that the Messiah is the conquerer and that the enemy may not be the Romans or the Taliban or whoever, but "the last enemy that shall be defeated is death". When return from exile is longed for, let us remember the book of Acts and our responsibilities towards the historically called Israel "according to the flesh", for the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable".

The Psalms emphasize the community that God has called, not just the lone individual. We are called by the Messiah not to be individual brides, as if Jesus were some cosmic polygamist, but to be a part of -- to participate in -- his one Bride, the Church, made up of Israel and righteous Gentiles together praising God. Even those songs that are spoken from an individual point of view are often the king singing, giving them an undeniable Messianic cast. Those of Asaph often express the individual longing to be back in the community, amongst the throng of worshippers (such as Psalm 42/43). The individual finds meaning and purpose in the midst of this worshipping community, who share songs and history, who are called into being, not by themselves, but by the Shepherd.

The Psalms remind us that not everything is well, that there remains mighty acts of God for us to participate in, pray for, worship God for, and so on. There is exile still, there is sin, there are enemies, death still reigns over much of the world. But the Messiah has conquered and is conquering through that worshipping community. If man fell into sin by his selfish idolatry, what is true salvation but the restoration of worship and koinonia between man and his Creator? All is not well, but the Messiah reigns (Psalm 2) and the troubled history of Israel (Psalm 105-106) has brought the mighty act of God on the cross of Jesus of Nazareth to bear on the whole world.

The Psalms remind us that we know God, not by idle speculation or theological dogma, but through His acts in history to restore, redeem, and recreate. God is a revealer, but He does so through acting in history, especially through His chosen ("salvation is from the Jews"), culminating in their representative and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Christian knowledge is not esoteric, not far off, not the exclusive provenance of the priestly caste (regardless of ecclesial nomenclature), but the common property of His people and knowable by all who would investigate these things which "were not done in a corner".

The Psalms tell us that even though the public works of God are available to all -- Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free -- they ultimately lead us to recognize the Creator's great unfathomability: "how unsearchable are your works". God acts, we can understand, but let us not think that we have exclusive or exhaustive knowledge of God's doings or plans: "the secret things are God's, but the revealed things are our and our children's".

The Psalms, in other words, form important cornerstones for Christian worship and keep us grounded in the full history of God's mission in the world: Abraham to Israel through Moses to David past the exile to the Messiah and the ingathering of the Gentiles, of which many of us are. In the great words of the Psalmists: Praise Yah!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Primacy of Acts

When thinking about the ideas of simplicity and clarity in theology, one quickly runs into a fasinating doctrine from the Reformation: the perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity means clarity (why they don't use that much more clear word is beyond me) and has to do with the idea that the necessary things to believe for one to be a part of the people of God are accessible to anyone. I love this idea, but too often our understand of what we must believe for salvation is clouded by centuries of minutae from systematic theology: justification, the innards of trinitarian speculation, whatever eschatology we call home, etc. Instead, looking at Scripture, it is (with a few exceptions that prove this rule) a story -- exactly the story that we need in our postmodern/modern malaise and loss of certitude, exactly what we need to found and sustain a community such as I describe in the last post. In other words, what is necessary to believe is the mighty acts of God. These are relatively clear and point the way to being explained by the apostles in the New Testament. In that regard, if we are to reassess and understand New Testament theology, how it connects to the Hebrew Bible, and how the whole story fits together, primacy in interpretation must be given to Acts: the perspicuity of Scripture practically demands it.

However, how well do we know Acts? In some ways, due to its classification as a "historical" book, it often is slighted or ignored: where are its great discourses into Christology? Or Justification? Or any other doctrine that props us up against our theological enemies? Usually, when people start reading Acts, they begin to notice that their theology doesn't stand up to it, so they say that Acts is "early", "primative", "undeveloped", "not a credible witness", "perfunctory", "not normative" or something of the sort. Acts does not have a high christology, or concentrate very much on justification, and seems to up end any eschatological speculation (why, after all, does Peter say that his audience was in the last days? More on that anon). Acts humbles overly spiritual and overly intellectualized theologies both, and therefore gets tossed in the dust bin. Even if a Church or denomination claims to be centered on the "Word of God", rarely is Acts preached through or even mentioned -- except maybe to note the ostensible tension between it and Galatians, with Galatians always coming out on top as being Paul's "more mature thought". Whenever data that doesn't fit hits an entrenched worldview, it is often ignored or belittled until the evidence mounts so high as to create a paradigm shift or a breakdown of the sacred canopy. I know this because I do it myself, hence the need -- the desparate need -- for rethinking, for Arabia. Acts must send us to Arabia, to hear with fresh ears and to see with fresh eyes the magnalia Dei, the wonderful works of God.

Key, it has become clear to me, is the disciples question in the beginning chapter. "Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" Often times, at least in all the commentaries I've read and all the sermons I've heard, this is considered a juvenile or completely off-base question: how, after all, can the disciples still be thinking and speaking in such earthly terms? How can they consider Israel important at all since the Messiah has come? But notice that Jesus does not chide them or say "O you of little faith" which was his common way of addressing their former failure to understand: "It is not for you to know the times and eras that the Father has set by his own authority, but you shall be my witnessess in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth." In other words, they had not asked a wrong question, but the answer was not going to be given to them at that time. However, if we understand a little bit of the basic Jewish eschatology of the time (and I'm thankful for )Mark Nanos for bringing this obvious point to my attention), we know that the restoration of Israel from exile, to its position of God's wise stewards of Creation and ruler over the nations, was expected before the Gentiles could come into the true worship of the one God. Note the prevalance of this theme in Jeremiah 30-33: Israel is restored to God's favor, then the Gentiles worship alongside of them.

What happens in the book of Acts is that through the proclamation of Jesus as "Lord and Christ" (code, as it were, for the functions that the Messianic King was to have -- Anointed One over Israel "Christ" and Lord over the Gentiles), Israel is being restored: their sins are forgiven, the Spirit of God rests on them instead of the Temple, and the are united with the Messiah. The tricky part comes when Cornelius believes and receives the Holy Spirit, just like the Jews. This is unexpected, as it is generally believed at this time that the Jews will have a precedence over the Gentiles in the Kingdom -- lord to servant, if you will. For the Gentiles to become full members of the people of God, to become children of Abraham, they will -- in the mind of some Christian Jews -- be circumcised and take the full burden and privelege of Torah upon themselves. Not so say Peter and James and Paul, but instead they must comport themselves like changed Gentiles, "righteous Gentiles" in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15). But the point is, since Israel is restored through the work of the Messiah and the proclamation thereof, the Gentiles can come into the Kingdom as equal participants, not as "second-class citizens" (basically the argument of Romans and Galatians). This is why Paul's ministry continues throughout to be "to the Jew first and also the Greek" -- Israel must be restored, then the Gentiles can enter in alongside as equals, both vindicated (justified/acquited) as God's people based on their faith in the Lord Messiah alone.

Reading Acts in this way, with the dual focus on the restoration of Israel and efficacy of the witness "unto the ends of the earth" calls for a rereading of the epistles: how do the situations and controversies in Acts find their expression in Paul's dense rhetoric in his letters; how about Peter; or John? Once situated thusly, I've been finding in my reading that the epistles make a lot more sense -- they speak to genuinely first century issues -- not to fourth century or even sixteenth century ones. That does not make them any less relevant, though. We live in a storied world, where Acts (not to mention Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, etc.) makes up a vital chapter in our corporate history -- denying its validity would be tantamount to saying that because we don't relive the American Revolution constantly, it must not be important (which maybe the British wouldn't mind?). Such a devaluation of history in the Church bespeaks a prevalent and pernicious gnostic influence: only the timeless is important, history is important only if it teaches us lessons for today. May it never be in God's Church! Instead, we continue the narrative of Acts in our local parishes: we are witnesses, not to "personal conversion" but to the resurrection of the Messiah, to the restoration of Israel, to the in-gathering of the Gentiles to the true worship of God. What Jesus "began to do and teach" continues, by the Spirit he and the Father share, in the workings of the Church qua Church in the world today -- there is no need to relay the foundation of the Messiah and his apostles, but to build the Temple of God upon it (I Corinthians 1-3). Many of the lessons in the book, of course, do have contemporary relevance, especially since the arrogance of Jew over Gentile has been radically reversed in Church history: instead of Gentiles needing to become Jews, often times it is Jews that must become, not Jewish followers of the Messiah, but Gentiles!

It is high time for us to reconsider the role of Acts in our thought, actions, and worship as the people of God.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Church

In some ways, it is rather odd to start rethinking with the Church. After all, the Church is emphasized only in the New Testament (it is in the Hebrew Bible, but not in the same capacity) and only after the work of the Messiah brings the eschatological fulfillment of Israel's hopes to bear. History, however, has shown that the Church -- where Christians of all stripes live and move -- has not been particularly faithful to its mission or even to its constitution. From early on, it has been gnosticized and mysticized beyond any reasonable recognition of an institution that would have grown out of Temple and synagogue. However, this is where we most fully image the Messiah, as his body, so the Church is indeed one of the forgotten emphases of the faith, one that desparately needs to be recovered before any positive steps can be taken in the redemptive acts of God in the world.

Rather than talking about the marks of the "true" Church, which could be classified as one of the most damaging and violent debates of all human history, re-examining the difference between visible and invisible Church is in order. I am used, in the past, to speaking of the invisible Church as being those who "truly are in faith" as opposed from the "masses" who populate the pews. Philip J. Lee, in his wonderful Against the Protestant Gnostics, calls this what it is: gnostic elitism, leading to a bifurcated people of God, the superspiritual versus the moderate or the normal. Really, this gnostic belief is the same as the Judaizers, only in different terminology: you must be circumcised to be a part of the Messiah's people, or, you must have "true" faith to be part of the Church. Since we can never know for certain whether or not anyone other than ourselves have "true" faith, we must rely instead on the visible Church as our means of defining the community of God's people. In other words, as far as humans are concerned, those who are united with the Messiah are those who unite with his people in worship -- which seems to be Paul's argument throughout the book of I Corinthians. To take it a step further, though, the argument can (and should) be made that the only real example of what the Church is, is found in the local parish. The Church, the true Church, is made of a collection of real people in real places that have participation with the Messiah through faith and therefore have participation with each other, the Messiah's body. The word koinonia, which often is translated rather dully as "fellowship", has this double edge to it: we participate in the Messiah, so we participate with each other. The idea of the imago Dei finds its fullest expression here as well: if the Messiah is the imago, and we are united with the Messiah, even called by his name (12:12), then we -- as the body -- are imago Dei as well. (A quick note to say that this does not mean that either individuals or those outside of the Church are not imago Dei, but the Church qua Church is the expression of the renewed, redeemed imago found in the Messiah).

What then of the invisible Church? We do have the "wheat and tares", however I'm not sure if that parables applies outside on the historical division between those who are allegiant to the Messiah and those who are not, evidenced at AD 70 and AD 135. We do have a wonderful model to consider, though, in the book of Revelation. In God's throne room, where the seer John is taken up, we see not only the redeemed of Israel (the symbolic 144,000), but also ones from "every tribe, tongue, nation in the earth". While we normally experience the Church only on the local level of real people that we know and can interact with, when we worship the one true God, we join the rest of those who are outside of our parish community in heaven, so that the Messiah's body is one on the local level and one worldwide.

The question becomes, and quite relevant, what makes the Church itself? The word itself, ekklesia, comes from the idea of being "called out"; called away from being destructive and dehumanizing, called into a mission of living a truly human life in the midst of sin -- characterized by hospitality, mutual submission, and self-giving. In an earlier post I talked about the unfortunate marriage of religion and power, or probably better put, religion and violence. The New Testament is clear, it seems to me, that the Church is the court of the Messiah, his Session if you will: Paul says that those "called out" are "seated in the heavenlies with the Messiah" -- that seating, of course, is next to the one enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. However, that rule is not to be "live the Gentiles who lord it over their subjects" but rather "the greatest among you shall be the servant of all". The rule of the Messiah turns all other rule, by what Paul calls the "principalities and powers", on its head, openly shaming all those who call themselves the "true authority" or the "answer". The Church, the visible Church wherever it is, is supposed to lead this -- by leading lives characterized by love, mutual edification, and worship of the true God, who is the Creator and, through the Messiah, is the Redeemer of Jew and Gentile.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rethinking It All: Part Two

One other figure in the Bible that sojourned in Arabia was Elijah. Like Paul, he went there to seek God, asking similar questions: how can these things be? In his case, it was about the idolatry of Israel and the impending destruction at the hands of those idols. For Paul, it was how the God of Israel's righteousness could be revealed in the death of the Messiah. My own escape has clarified, at least a little bit, the historical crises that confront us today (all history is crisis, a golden age has never been).

One of the most alarming trends that I have been a witness to is the prevalent defection from the faith: one strong Christians hanging their hats elsewhere or nowhere at all. At the start of my Arabian adventure, I was there as well -- I have almost left the faith a number of times in the last decade (rethinking, after all, does not come without its perils). By the grace of God, by which I mean the resurrection of Jesus, I have not left -- but I have not been left unscathed.

People change allegiances for a variety of reasons: I am not here to comment on any individual reasons for doing so. If you have left the faith, you know them and you know whether or not they are good reasons. My place, and I would argue most everyone else's, is not to judge your reasons, but instead to try and figure out what exactly it is that is creating and nurturing the environment for those reasons to exist in.

One of the most obvious to me, for I keep running headlong into it, is the dissolution of the old certitudes. Any superficial student of history knows that it is ridiculous to call Christianity a religion of peace: early on it was coopted for the purposes of violence and power, and it has been comfortable in that position. The railing of many "Christians" in our day and age about politics sounds oddly familiar to the railings of elder Christians who argued for the establishment of denominations: the State "defends" the Church with the sword against all enemies, whether heretics or homosexuals or infidels or (insert whatever your church tradition is against). Digging a little deeper into history (ever repeating) it is also easy to see that the Church is in no position to separate itself from this history, since its very theology since the 4th century has been concerned with nurturing and furthering the relationship between Christ and Caesar. I do think Christianity is a religion of peace, but only once it is separated from its dependence on power to assert and maintain its claims.

But this is only one of the old certitudes that have been shattered. The rise of modernism with the Enlightenment was seen by many as a deathblow to Christianity ("God is dead and we have killed him" for example). Christianity adapted and adopted adeptly and became thoroughly modernist, even those branches (American Reformed churches, for one) that clung to an older, "purer" fundamentalism: instead of decimating the division between doctrine and experience (or facts/values, faith/science, whatever dualism you want) the church solidified it in its actions, but denied it in its words. So now we have Christians quite content to say their prayers as a private action, believe in their own salvation (in opposition, of course, to everyone else), but yet not be noticibly different from those who adhere to none of the teachings of the Messiah. Postmodernism, in many ways, has shown that form of Christianity to be a sham: it is all about power, about sex, about money, about the tenets of Nietzsche, Freud, or Smith instead of Jesus. But, as any student of pomo knows, no story replaces the shattered myths, leaving us without a sacred canopy to give direction and meaning.

Now we live in a storied world, as before (even though we denied it), but it is not a coherent or cohesive story: it is many stories, almost all in opposition, vying for credibility, for power, for the 'means of production', for cultural change. Which story to follow, which 'ism' to grasp onto, is the question of the day, even if it is unconscious or implicit. I have seen many students crash upon the waves of consumerism, of 'hard-headed realism', of various forms of theodicy, and not come out the other side. If we believe that God exists to make us happy, or wealthy, or comfortable, or understanding, or anything other than a fellow crucified disciple of Jesus, then our worldview will shatter upon the rocks of the fallen world. Many students have written in papers recently that their main goal in life is to 'be happy', in a sort of morbid (and moribund) christian Utilitarianism. Mill and the Pleasure Principle coopt Christ and the Crucifixion. In a world of competing stories, how can we say what is right or wrong for anyone else (always a good question) or for ourselves? The restrictions, the boundaries, the limitations of the covenant are forgotten because we have no story to bind us to them: our Exodus has been so overly spiritualized that it means absolutely nothing. If our ultimate goal is to attain individualism in heaven, then it makes sense to seek it pre-emptively on earth.

In the midst of this, I feel somewhat like Habbakuk: how is this better? The violent Babylonians of Modernism and Postmodernism cannot really be the scourge that will eschatologically cleanse the people of God! But like Habbakuk, I must realize that my eyes do not see clearly, that the violent -- whether Christian or pagan -- do not ultimately triumph, but the meek shall inherit the earth.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rethinking It All: Part One

In my mind, one of the most important historical bits of Scripture for my personal life is when Paul says (in Galatians) that after his meeting with Jesus at the Damascus Road, he went to rethink everything for over a decade in Arabia. That passage has caused much consternation over what exactly I should do with the training I have received and nurtured for close to a decade. The more I read of historically-based exegesis, the more troubled I become with the history of Christian interpretation, the history of ecclesial activity (especially the confluence of theology and power), and the basis of present Christian devotion and worship. In many ways, I feel completely outside the pale of this long-standing historic community. I've called it my "postmodern Protestant dilemma" (those interested can look up the link). It is, and will remain, a critique from within -- I am a follower of Israel's Messiah and the Gentiles' Lord. I do not critique out of spite, but out of gratitude for the grace I have received in that Messiah. My writing and thinking revolve around the twin foci of being faithful to God's revealed Word (a faithfulness that does not equal correctness necessarily) and God's redeemed people (both Jew and Gentile who worship the one true God in the Messiah).

My start down the road to Arabia began with a simple premise: the broad outlines of God's mission and work in the world should be comprehensible to all of God's people, even if that comprehension comes from the Spirit rather than 'rationality'. In other words, if an idea/doctrine takes a clergyman to understand, then it probably is there to legitimate power rather than a part of God's revelation. In many ways, I still hold to this premise, but what I have found is that the simplest of things can, upon further investigation, but intricately complex. I understand how a car goes, but I could not tell you the intricacies of a driveshaft, powertrain, or fuel-injection (God bless you if you can). The other premise is that a doctrine or theology must be practical. This one has been harder to hold onto -- many teachings in the history of the Church were practical for that time, but have devolved into abstract, ahistorical concepts now. I learned this, interestingly enough, from pagan philosophy: Plato's battle with the Sophists produced amazingly complex philosophy that was practical in his time, but seems so disconnected now (and has destroyed much theology because of it). These two premises, clarity and simplicity still drive my thought. They have, though, both been chastened. Might I even call them mature?

Even though I teach Bible, I still feel in Arabia. I know I have said things that I do not now agree with: theology must be understood as a human endeavor -- anyone claiming the title of 'mouth of God' perpetuates a dangerous and damaging lie (Let those who have ears hear). The power that comes from the burden (yes, a burden) of teaching the Bible is frightening: I am influencing those for whom the Messiah died. Anyone who teaches that is not scared to death of that should not teach, ever. That fear is a necessary part of my Arabian experience: I have been humbled, and continue to be humbled, but this calling from the Most Holy God. Reading student essays this last semester brought this home to me: are we teaching our students well enough to be independent of their teachers? When erudite non-Christians challenge them on their allegiance to the Messiah, will they be able to stand? I fear the worst.

And so I remain rethinking it all. Some of the conclusions I have come to have rocked my world, so to speak. I have had to hold tightly at points to the resurrection of Jesus as the only fixed point in my faith. In the end, it is not my knowledge that leads me into the life of the age to come; he is my Lord and he holds me in his hands. I mean that in a significantly different way than I did years ago. It is no mere religious trifle or pleasantry, but rather the only way I can speak about my everyday reality: the Messiah loved me and gave his life for me and now the life that I lead must be in the Son of God.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What is salvation?

From Luke 1:67-75:

Now [John's] father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying:

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David...that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant--the oath that He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

Wait, Zacharias! What about going to heaven when we die?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Developing Virtue

The whole corpus of Biblical law and ethics is focussed on one goal: the maturation of families (and individuals within them) to exercise God's rule upon the earth. To do that, responsibility, the fruits of the Spirit, and virtue must be practiced. The mature Christian's job is to lead others in that development (here is the true Biblical idea of eldership).

I have found myself in the position, more than once, of helping others mature. As I look at my employees and (more significantly in many ways) my daughter, I am struck by my own lack of maturity, of real Christian virtue. How can I hope to see God's will done on earth in my tiny sphere of influence if I haven't been willing to do what His will is?

I desire for Olivia that she be thrifty, hard-working, honest, faithful, dependable, loyal, trusting-yet-shrewd, long-sighted, and loving. I am few of those things and none all the time. How can I hope for her what I am not?

But God gives us the Spirit to be made and remade into the image of His Son.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Faithless Christians

After a long time doing an informal study, I'm convinced that many (if not most) Christians do not believe in prayer. We do not believe that it has power, that it changes things, that it is effective (and therefore important) in any way. So we don't do it. When we do, it isn't prayer that is deep or meaningful or even semi-articulate. It certainly doesn't assume that we are part of the royal court of Christ's kingdom, co-rulers with the one at the right hand of God. We don't, for that same reason, believe in blessings or benedictions. Pious words, maybe, but nothing more. Today in class, during the final benediction, the students--acting in accord with their underlying presuppositions--packed their bags. Nice words, well-meaning (of course) but devoid of any power to create or change. These are the same students that placed great energies into believing either on "Country First" or "Change". It may be that we don't believe in the Spirit of God (we don't--we wouldn't know what it would be like to have a genuine revival, regardless if we are Pentecostal or not).

Could it be that we are now faithless because we finally have succumbed to what other, alien cultures have said the world really is? That there is no way scientifically or biblically that the world might have been created in 6 days? That the worldview of angels and demons, divine kingship, and speaking assess is bogus or "naive"? Assess still speak, instead of being beaten, though, we now elect them to offices political and ecclesial. This degradation of language and symbol could be posited back to the rise of rationalism as an alternative to orthodox Christianity. It could be posited back to when categories of shaliach and malach were replaced with "ousia" and its various forms. I'm not sure--but I know that the powers that be, which are supposed to be in subjection to Christ through his Church, do not want us to think biblically or apart from the Church's or State's "sanctioned" (ordained) interpreters.

Faithlessness is easy.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Theological Burden

My brother and I were talking the other day about the way various philosophers interact: mainly using hubristic personal attacks and ignoring evidence. His specialization is philosophy of science, which I know precious little about. His comments, though, could easily be transfered over to the realm of theology, where I dwell. So much hatred spreads back and forth in this discipline, centered often, I think, on the assumption that what these folks say is what God says (vox theologica, vox dei?). That, depending on which theologians you cling to, whether explicitly or not, determines your salvific standing before Christ. Let me profer a new way of understanding theology:

All theology is man's attempt to understand the self-disclosure of God.

A few notes are in order. "Man" here is shorthand for any human creature that seeks to understand the divine, with the background assumption of the "noetic" effects of sin. That is, man's mind has difficulty understanding the things of God because sin effects all of creation, including the mind of man. For all the smoke blown about theological humility in every Christian tradtion, the noetic effects have often been the burden of whoever your theological opponent is. But you, dear budding theologian with a chip on your shoulder, are impacted by sin as well. And me as well.

Another note. Labeling theology as "man's attempt" is crucial. All theology apart from the inscriptured, authoratative documents of the Bible, is fallible. All creeds, confessions, synods, anathemas, and footnotes are subject to constant revision and error-correction. There is no reason to assume that God wouldn't allow a recalcitrant people to be led astray by a doctrine for a long period of time--he did it will ancient Israel when they became inflamed with pagan power (I Sam 8), why wouldn't he do it when the Church became inflamed with the same power (approx. time range is the early 2nd century)? For all the philosophical brillance of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, and others throughout Church history, theology remains a human endeavor.

If theology is a human endeavor, then motives must be very clear. Oftentimes, theological thinking has been related to power. If the Church has the power to say "this one is (or is not) saved..." then the Church's teaching can easily be corrupted to exclude whatever groups or individuals the teachers of the Church do not like/do not want to share power with. So the gentile Christians become anti-Semitic. So the Christian Platonists revile the Aristotelians. The Aristotelians look down on those who do not adhere to Thomism, etc. The power of the Church, which historically quickly became associated with the wealth, land-holdings, and politics of the State as "faith-protector", becomes another way of exercising god-like authority over the "infidel". In other words, the Church becomes an empire as tyrannical as Caesar ever was. Except that Caesar could only destroy the body.

This is not to say, and this is important, that all theologians (or even any theologians) are solely motivated by power or greed or sex or what-have-you. Such a Nietzchian analysis does not hold up in any way, shape, or form to historical reality. But all theologians, given that they are human creatures in the line of Adam, have mixed motives and cannot usually see the long-term consequences of their actions. Do you think the Puritans envisioned they way their legal and educational policy would change into modern Massachusetts (Increase Kennedy, anyone?) or Harvard University?

The way of persuasion remains. It is not that it has been tried and failed, but that it is assumed to fail and therefore not tried. Yes, there are those who are so recalcitrant in their beliefs that they won't listen to reason. Them we will always have with us, no matter our force of arms or tongue. Presenting arguments that are clear, concise, and well-reasoned may not carry the day with your opponent, but it will carry the day with many of those in the audience.

Why, if adequate persuasion has been used, have the same issues been violent bones of contention in Church history? Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and on and on the list goes of "obvious" or "established" or "orthodox" doctrines that are held in force by power (often times that of the State), but that well-meaning Christians have problems with. Sometimes, yes, the opponent, the "heterodox" has power on their minds--but that just shows the deeper disease of which the heretic is a symptom. Jesus said that the greatest among us, the one who wants or who holds power, should become servant of all. Impractical? Yes. Thank God for the impractical. Instead of burning your brother at the stake of the State or the stake of your fiery tongue, why not follow the command of Jesus in Matthew 18 (go to your brother, reason with him, if he doesn't listen, take witnesses and help, if he doesn't listen, take him in front of the believing community, if he doesn't listen, don't let him eat with you)? Persuasion does sometimes lead to ostracism, but the witnesses and the church are supposed to balancedly ascertain the issues and reasonably decide--not descend into an orgy of fire and blood because a system is challenged.

It comes down to this: unless you can show why your way is right and your opponent's is false, you should probably keep quiet until you can do so. I need to follow that advice just as much as others.