Archive for March 2010

On the Psalter (part 1)

March 31st, 2010 — 10:57am

For some time, I have been thinking about starting a series of posts on the Psalter. I think it was in the summer of 2007 that I first read Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasy: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible. His section on the Psalms (pp. 194–202) opened up a whole new world to me regarding the eschatology and structure of the Psalter. (See also Geerhardus Vos, “Eschatology of the Psalter,” in The Princeton Theological Review, available here.)

What intrigues me about Dempster’s reflections is that they lift the Psalter, and Christian use of the Psalter, above the plane of individual devotional piety. Certainly the Psalms often express the soul of the individual saint; they give us language to pour out our hearts before God in the secret place. But there is, as Vos says, a “second face” of the Psalter: it speaks not just in the prayer closet but also in “the open places of a tumultuous world.” There is a deep historical awareness in the Psalms, a deep sense of where the currents of redemptive history are going; and it “goes without saying that what can be prayed and sung . . . in theatro mundi was never meant for exclusive use in the oratory of the pious soul.”

In following posts, I will attempt (following Dempster) to work through the overarching structure of the Psalter, and also spend some time on “the gateway to the Psalter” – Psalms 1 and 2.

Comment » | Exegetical Fragments

Soul music

March 30th, 2010 — 4:17pm

This piece by Roger Scruton at The American presents an extraordinarily brilliant analysis of “popular” music, as well as insightful reflections on the nature of music in general. Do take a couple hours to read and listen through it.

Comment » | Poets, Painters, and Playwrights

Praying the master plan

March 30th, 2010 — 10:20am

I think my most difficult pastoral task is praying for God’s people. I know exactly what Paul meant when he said, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought.” Any individual life, every household, presents a mountain of needs – often really heart-wrenching stuff, the kinds of things that bring you to tears if you think about them long enough. And there’s no point in pretending I have time to pray for each one of these needs. I don’t. This may be just as well, however, since God surely doesn’t need me to keep Him up to speed on the various troubles in the lives of His saints; and when I look at the lives of people, I can see that laundry-list prayers miss the mark, anyway. God’s people need something much deeper and broader than healing after a surgery, a lift of heart after bereavement, stable employment, wisdom to sort out marital difficulty, and so on. They need (as intangible as this may seem) what one might call the whole-life healing of divine grace. They need God to turn back the degenerating power of sin at every level, in every sense, in every dimension of their lives. They need the loving, cleansing, renovating rule of God to flood through their lives from one end to the other, rushing into all the cupboards and closets and corners, driving out all that is unclean and polluted and shameful; and then to spill out into their whole world, until all things are fresh and clean and whole. . . . But how on earth does one seriously pray for this sort of thing? It sounds delusional.

I am comforted by the fact that when I read Paul’s prayers for the churches of his day, I find him praying something much like what I have described. In his prison epistles, where he opens up his prayers in some detail, they invariably center on knowledge or wisdom. In Ephesians 1, he prays for “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [God]”; in Ephesians 3, that the saints “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”; in Philippians 1, that love “may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment”; in Colossians 1, that the church “may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

And when we explore what it is Paul desires the saints to know – what he seeks for them in the way of wisdom’s content or substance – we find that it all has to do with what God is doing in the world through His Son. Wisdom is fundamentally knowing “the mystery of [God’s] will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9); and it is this knowledge that God has “lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight” (Eph 1:8). In knowing the master plan of God’s world-restoring grace in His Son, we ourselves participate in that restoration. God by His Spirit brings knowledge of His world-restoring, world-reconciling grace-in-Christ into the citadel of our hearts and minds (Eph 3:16–17), and as a result we are rooted and grounded in love. Our whole way of thinking about, and responding to, everything is fundamentally altered. We are changed from the inside out by a world-embracing “vision” of divine grace. We understand (by grace) the hope to which He has called us, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe (Eph 1:18–19); and the glory of it all works transformingly in us.

This is, of course, why preachers are to keep the gospel central in their preaching, and not simply to offer “practical helps” from the pulpit. We preach the master plan for the same reason we pray the master plan: because God’s people need more than relief from immediate pressing problems. They need such relief, to be sure, but above all they need to know what God is doing in the earth, so they may count their afflictions light, so they may remain grounded even when things are evil to the eye, so they may bring forth from their inmost hearts grace and truth for the world around them (Jn 7:37–38); or as Paul puts it, so they may bring forth “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:11) and “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10).

To my own congregation: the next time I pick up the church directory and pray for you by name, this is what I will be praying. And precisely because I believe in the master plan, I believe God will hear from His throne in heaven and answer for the sake of His Son.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Petition for the goods of life

March 29th, 2010 — 3:09pm

“Many earnest Christians are struck as they pray the Psalms by how often the petition for life and good fortune occurs. From a glance at the cross of Christ there comes to many the unhealthy thought that life and the visible, earthly blessings of God are in themselves at least a questionable good, and in any case a good not to be desired. They take, then, the corresponding prayers of the Psalter to be an incomplete first stage of Old Testament piety, which is overcome in the New Testament. But in doing so they want to be more spiritual than God himself.

“As the petition for daily bread includes the entire sphere of the necessities of physical life, so the petition for life, health, and visible evidences of the friendliness of God belong necessarily to the prayer which points to the God who is the creator and sustainer of this life. Bodily life is not disdainful [not to be disdained]. Precisely for its sake God has given us his fellowship in Jesus Christ, so that we can live by him in this life and then also, of course, in the life to come. For this reason he gives us earthly prayers, so that we can better recognize him, praise him, and love him. God wants the devout to prosper on earth (Psalm 37). And this desire is not set aside by the cross of Christ, but is all the more established by it. . . .

“Therefore we need not have a bad conscience when we pray with the Psalter for life, health, peace, and earthly goods if we only recognize, as do the Psalms themselves, that all of this is evidence of the gracious fellowship of God with us, and we thereby hold fast to the fact that God’s gifts are better than life (Psalm 63:3 f.; 73:25 f.).

“Psalm 103 teaches us to understand the entire fullness of the gifts of God, from the preservation of life to the forgiveness of sins, as a great unity and to come before God thanking and praising him for them (cf. also Psalm 65). The Creator gives us life and sustains it for the sake of Jesus Christ. . . . Only for the sake of Jesus Christ and at his bidding may we pray concerning the goods of life, and for his sake we ought to do it also with confidence. But if we receive what we need, then we ought not to cease thanking God from the heart that he is so friendly to us for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible)

Comment » | Incarnation and Embodiment

What would it take . . .

March 27th, 2010 — 9:31am

What would it take, I ask myself, to see the young generation in our Reformed churches develop what one friend of mine calls “an intelligent passion” for Christ and His kingdom? What would move them beyond mediocre conformity to pop culture or (perhaps even less savory) “churchy” culture? What would bring them to a place of reflective, critical, responsible, transformational engagement with the real world in which we find ourselves today?

It’s going to have to start at home, and to be honest, I can’t figure out what a lot of parents are thinking these days. Their offspring are given unlimited electronic access to everything under the sun, with no apparent supervision, and very little apparent instruction. The children spent most of their waking hours fraternizing with fools, without even the add-on of consistent catechizing and family worship, let alone serious conversations about a Christian philosophy of life. And then the parents are mystified when their kids turn out to be functional pagans by the age of twenty. This whole way of doing things has got to change. What is the better way?

Children develop an intelligent faith by interacting extensively with people who love them and who have an intelligent faith. Children don’t develop an intelligent faith by being told simply to believe certain things, without explanation, without interaction, without exploration of the hard questions that inevitably hang around the fringes of our finitude. If they can’t ask such questions and feel that the questions are being taken seriously, they will eventually (and sensibly) conclude that the faith they are being told to believe just isn’t defensible.

Children develop a passionate faith by interacting extensively with people who love them and who have a passionate faith. Passionate faith is faith that is profoundly connected to God through worship and to the real world through whole-life discipleship.

Passionate faith is systematically eroded when children are taught they are in “limbo” with God until they sustain some kind of spiritual rite of passage (dramatic “conversion,” for example). It is nurtured, conversely, when children see their role models passionately loving and worshipping God, and when they are taught that this wonderful God is their God from conception, fully and truly, without qualification.

Passionate faith is also eroded when children are taught that the real world is bad, dangerous, and best avoided by staying put in a Christian ghetto. Parents with a separatist view of culture and a pessimistic view of history will not be passionately engaged with the real world, and neither will their children (until they grow curious enough to go exploring on their own). Conversely, parents who enact before their children a delight in all created things, who have a robust theology of celebration and cultivation, who are up to speed on cultural developments and manifest a great love for what is good and a great hatred for what is evil, and who expect the kingdom of God to grow and flourish through the taking captive of every thought and every human enterprise, will be parents whose passion – both loving and hating – will be contagious for their children.

But if intelligent passion begins in the home, it can’t be confined to the home. Children need influences other than their parents; at any rate, such influences are unavoidable. So let young boys “hang out” with older men in the church, shooting guns, catching fish, building campfires, playing ball, reading poetry, grooving to music, watching films, and talking theology – and let them see that this manly life is good. Let young girls “hang out” with older women in the church, baking bread, decorating bedrooms, refinishing furniture, discussing economics, chasing little ones at the beach, making clothes, visiting museums, and taking in opera – and let them see that this womanly life is good. It does indeed take a community to rear a child, because children need to see that their parents aren’t crazy, but are part of an entire active polis called the city of God, the wildly diverse yet passionately thoughtful and engaging fellowship of His covenant people.

There is much more to be said, but I hope this gestures in the right direction.

Comment » | Hearth and Home

Mystery and sanity

March 26th, 2010 — 3:03pm

“Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Maniac”)

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

On leisure

March 26th, 2010 — 2:31pm

“The essence of leisure is not to assure that we may function smoothly but rather to assure that we, embedded in our social function, are enabled to remain fully human.” (Josef Pieper, “Leisure and Its Threefold Opposition”)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work


March 25th, 2010 — 10:32am

“Comprehension excludes amazement and admiration. I comprehend or think I comprehend the things that are self-evident and perfectly natural. Often comprehension ceases to the degree a person digs deeper into a subject. That which seemed self-evident proves to be absolutely extraordinary and amazing. The farther a science penetrates its object, the more it approaches mystery. Even if on its journey it encountered no other object it would still always be faced with the mystery of being. Where comprehension ceases, however, there remains room for knowledge and wonder. And so things stand in theology.” (Bavinck, p. 1.619)

Comment » | Qohelet’s Musings

More on statism

March 24th, 2010 — 3:39pm

I think this is pretty much what I was trying to say earlier, only said better:

“The conflict between Rome and the [early] Church is really a microcosm of a larger struggle that both predates the first century and has lasted to our day. It is the story of men and their quest to be like God that is as old as the pre-cosmic warfare between God and the devil. In the temporal realm the struggle takes shape in the form of earthly potentates that claim all dominion in heaven and in the earth. The Empire is said to be the source of salvation and the government to be the great protector and provider of its people. It can deliver because the Emperor is God. But herein lies the challenge to the Church. Because the Emperor is said to be God, there must be no others. Kyrios Christus must bow to Kyrios Caesar, or else. The history of Rome . . . demonstrates that autocratic rulers and their bureaucracies that reject the God of the Bible become utopian in outlook. What they require is not merely the right to rule, but unlimited power and jurisdiction in the lives of their people . . . . The messianic nature of godless government creates conditions whereby it is virtually impossible for Christians to stay out of politics.” (John Barber, The Road from Eden, pp. 27–28)

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

Sympathy with statists

March 24th, 2010 — 9:51am

I have always found big government ideology hard to understand. Why on earth would anyone want a centralized, bureaucratic government to stand as the supplier, guardian, and regulator of all civic blessings (or, worse still, private freedoms)? Has history not given us sufficient examples of how “benevolent” tyranny corrodes into just plain old garden-variety tyranny? Is it so hard to understand that there are multiple spheres of sovereignty, not just beside the state but also within it (thinking here of such outmoded concepts as federalism), and that this is a basic safeguard to human freedom and flourishing? Setting aside constitutional issues for a minute (you see, I can get with the times), isn’t there a failure of basic good sense in statism?

It recently dawned on me, however, that if a nation takes seriously its refusal to “kiss the Son” (Ps 2:12) this leaves some very big shoes to fill. Who’s going to provide for the poor and needy? Who’s going to grant, preserve, and regulate civil and private liberties? Who’s going to defend us from aggressions within and without? Who’s going to train up our children? Who’s going to take care of us when we are old? Who’s going to tell us what will make us really happy, and then gives us lots of it? Who will assure our future? On whose strong arm shall we all lean? We need a messiah who is big and powerful and impressive and benevolent, who inspires confidence and guarantees security, who solves our problems and grants us shalom. It’s tough to find such a savior on the local level, or in a bunch of fragmented spheres. So enter the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-providing central government. And the louder the advocates of self-government shriek, the gladder we are that big brother is there to preserve order. He is compassionate. He is mighty. He is dependable. And we are dependent. But it’s a small price to pay.

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

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