Archive for May 2010

Morning prayer

May 30th, 2010 — 5:42am

“From the night season our soul awaketh early unto thee, O our God; for thy precepts are a light upon the earth. Teach us to perfect righteousness and holiness in thy fear; for we glorify thee, our God, who existest in verity. Incline thine ear and hear us; and call to remembrance by their names, O Lord, all those who are with us and pray with us; and save them by thy might. Bless thy people and sanctify thy inheritance. Grant peace to thy world, to thy Churches, to the priests*, to the Authorities, and to all thy people.

“For blessed and glorified is thine all-honourable and majestic name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

(Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, ed. Isabel Florence Hapgood)

[*In the Presbyterian tradition, the reference here would be to ministers and elders.]

Comment » | Grace and Life

Creation and time

May 29th, 2010 — 6:10pm

“Time is the necessary form of the existence of the finite. It is not a separate creation but something automatically given with the world, cocreated with it like space. In a sense, therefore, the world has always existed, for as long as time has existed. All change, then, occurs in it, not in God. The world is subject to time, that is, to change. It is constantly becoming, in contrast with God, who is an eternal and unchangeable being. Now these two, God and the world, eternity and time, are related in such a way that the world is sustained in all its parts by God’s omnipresent power, and time in all its moments is pervaded by the eternal being of our God. Eternity and time are not two lines, the shorter of which for a time runs parallel to the infinitely extended one; the truth is that eternity is the immutable center that sends out its rays to the entire circumference of time. To the limited eye of the creature it successively unfolds its infinite content in the breadth of space and the length of time, so that creature might understand something of the unsearchable greatness of God. But for all that, eternity and time remain distinct.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 2.429)

Comment » | Qohelet’s Musings

A tampering God

May 27th, 2010 — 10:04am

Post-Darwin Christianity exhibits an extraordinary variety of views on how to read the scientific “evidence” for evolution. Some simply accept the “findings” of science, without any concern for how this acceptance might be squared with a faithful reading of scripture. Others believe some “reconciliation” of science and scripture must be attempted where they appear to conflict (the Author of nature is, after all, the Author of scripture); but opinions differ as to whether biblical interpretation should move in the direction of scientific findings, or vice versa. Should biblical interpretation be accommodated to the scientific evidence, or should our reading of the scientific evidence be accommodated to faithful biblical interpretation?

One question that lies near the center of these disputes is whether we are permitted to believe God has tampered with the scientific evidence. Some Christians want to say that since His first act of creating something ex nihilo (be it the world as we know it, or the “stuff” from which all things have evolved) God has confined His relations with the world within the “laws of nature” or “ordinary” providence. On this view, if we study nature and its “laws” (which are universally reliable) and are led to conclude that the earth is billions of years old, any hint to the contrary in scripture must arise from a misreading of scripture. What is off the table is any notion that God might have done something in nature that we couldn’t predict by the laws of nature.

Ken Miller, for example, says we haven’t understood the mythological character of Genesis 1–2. A “literal” reading of Genesis 1–2 must be wrong, because if it were correct, Genesis 1–2 would conflict with the assured findings of science. What Miller firmly refuses to believe is that God might have played fast and loose with the evidence in nature (e.g., creating a world that has the appearance of age). He emphatically rejects any idea of a “deceptive God” doing anything that might mislead or confuse the scientists.

Meredith Kline took a different tack. He insisted we haven’t understood the Bible’s own clues (notably Genesis 2:5) about God’s use of “ordinary” providence throughout most of the creation week. What we may perceive as “extraordinary” acts of God in Genesis 1–2 (e.g., giving light to the earth prior to the creation of the sun) become quite obviously “ordinary” once we grasp the details of his “framework hypothesis” concerning those chapters – which hypothesis importantly allows for a non-chronological reading of the creation days and for a very old earth.

Without debating the merits of Miller’s mythologizing or Kline’s framework hypothesis, it does seem to me they share a profoundly questionable assumption: that when we come to the facts of science, we needn’t be concerned that the facts are muddled by supernatural intrusions (beyond the bounds of the ordinary workings of nature). There is no need to posit a “God in the gaps”; we needn’t explain things with reference to surprises on the part of the Creator-King.

Disciples of Miller and Kline may argue that I have grossly oversimplified, even misrepresented, their views. I hope that is not the case; and I also want to remove any misunderstanding in what I am about to say: it does seem to me that, given the assumption described above, it is difficult to maintain the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (or any other “miracle,” for that matter). Let no one mistake: I am not saying either Miller or Kline denies the reality of miracles. I want to parse out the logical conclusion of accepting their assumption (as I understand it); I am not saying that either man actually takes their assumption to its logical conclusion. What I am asking is this: if we are prepared to say that God has raised the dead, multiplied bread and fish and oil and flour, turned water into wine, walked on water, and healed the sick, then precisely how can we argue that God would never suspend the “laws of nature” to create the world in the order described in Genesis 1, or to destroy the world with a flood? How, in short, can we insist that things in nature may always be explained without recourse to the notion of supernatural intervention?

There may be an answer that I am missing, but . . . well, I am missing it.

Comment » | Science, Theology, and Priestcraft

On fighting

May 25th, 2010 — 8:58am

“The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim, or to use a more modern term, “sell” Christianity today! Is it not usually presented as a comfort, help, release from tensions, a reasonable investment of time, energy and money? One has only to read – be it but once – the topics of the Sunday sermons announced in the Saturday newspapers, or the various syndicated “religious columns,” to get the impression that “religion” is almost invariably presented as salvation from something – fear, frustration, anxiety – but never as the salvation of man and the world. How could we then speak of “fight” when the very set-up of our churches must, by definition, convey the idea of softness, comfort, peace? How can the Church use again the military language, which was its own in the first days, when it still thought of itself as militia Christi? One does not see very well where and how “fight” would fit into the weekly bulletin of a suburban parish, among all kinds of counseling sessions, bake sales, and “young adult” get-togethers.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

Nowhere generation

May 24th, 2010 — 3:23pm

My North American generation may be the first in the history of the world to raise indifference, boredom, infidelity, and aimlessness (except in the cause of vanity) to the status of virtues. We bridged the gap between a generation for whom it was cool to have questions but no answers, and a generation now nearing the drinking age who don’t even care about the questions (the devolution, one feels, was inevitable). Our standard response to anything deeper than People magazine is a thoughtful, “Whatever, man.” Should it vex anyone that this seems pretty well to exhaust our philosophical arsenal (and our convictions), we would admonish him to relax.

The average young man today is an emasculated nitwit. He has three things on his mind: cheap sex, easy money, and his own importance (whether expressed as a superiority or an inferiority complex is immaterial). What he lacks, poor fellow, is manliness: the character, principles, and learning that might qualify him for a family’s affection, an employer’s confidence, or the barest responsibilities of leadership. Not that this troubles him, particularly.

What of the average young woman in my generation and beyond? There will be little left of her when, in twenty years, the makeup finally gives out. Something about an entitled diva wannabe in a middle-aged body is really unattractive – but how long did we expect the veneer to hold up without any real womanhood underneath? You can’t paint on virtue. You can’t paint on wisdom, a willingness to learn what truly matters. You can’t paint on a well-cultivated soul, or purpose in life beyond self-glory. So after the paint starts to crack, you’re left with what you had all along: an entitled diva wannabe, whether the high-powered corporate kind or the trailer park variety.

We don’t know enough to know our own ignorance. We have too much to care about any of it. Our sensory experience has inflated until we can feel neither sobriety nor awe. Ennui is the spirit of the age: glutted with our cornflakes, we have starved out desire for anything else.

Part of the tragedy of the average is that it isn’t universal. There are people in my generation and beyond who have been forced to face the deeper realities of life under the sun. They are a lonely lot, these. I spoke once with a young man who had endured a terrible heartbreak. He confided in me how difficult it is for him to talk with anyone his age, because all they care about is the latest greatest pop band. It would never cross their minds to ask him how he’s really doing; nor would they have the attention span to hear him out, or wisdom to offer the slightest comfort. Pity these souls who, along with their peers, have left the innocence of childhood, but who have crossed the lonely threshold of maturity, while their peers remain happily stupefied in adultescence, cheerily enjoying the privileges of grownups without any burden of wisdom or responsibility.

“There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers. There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth. There are those – how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift! There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.”

The progression is telling: from rejection of authority, to pride and complacency, to indifference and cruelty. We just don’t care about anything bigger or better than ourselves.

I know, this probably qualifies as a “rant,” and a pretty cynical one at that. But diagnosis is not prognosis. Even in my generation in North America, there is still something called the kingdom of God, and those within it who fear the Lord their God and possess the beginning of wisdom. It remains true, however, that we must wake up to some things if we would serve the purpose of God in our own generation (Acts 13:36). We might begin by listening to our fathers and mothers.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Morning prayer

May 23rd, 2010 — 6:54am

“We give thanks unto thee, O Lord our God, who hast raised us up from our beds, and hast put into our mouths the word of praise, that we may adore and call upon thy holy Name. And we entreat thee, by thy mercies which thou hast exercised always in our life, send down now also thine aid upon those who stand before the presence of thy holy glory, and await the rich mercy which is from thee. And grant that they may always with fear and love worship thee, praise thee, hymn thee, and adore thine inexpressible goodness.

“For unto thee is due all honour, glory and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

(Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, ed. Isabel Florence Hapgood)

Comment » | Grace and Life

Coming with the clouds

May 22nd, 2010 — 4:14pm

Many of us, I think, if we were honest, would have to admit we aren’t quite sure how to interpret a lot of what is described in the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation. I want in this post to offer a few interpretive helps, admitting up front that this is a sketch that calls for further study and reflection, and also that what I am offering is not original with me.

Here is an excerpt from the Olivet Discourse that has puzzled a lot of us (Jesus is speaking):

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:29–35)

Now here’s the phrase that tends to make us think Jesus is talking about His second coming, His return to earth at the end of history: “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30b). When we think of the “coming” of Christ, we naturally think of the second coming. Recently, however, I read something which proposed that this language of “coming on the clouds of heaven” refers not to Christ’s coming down or coming back but rather to His going up, to His ascension. Is it possible that what Jesus is describing here is some visible manifestation (“they will see”) of His having ascended to the right hand of God the Father?

Two things we should look at, one in the immediate context, the other in the canonical context. In the immediate context, Jesus is speaking about “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matt 24:15). If you are a Dispensationalist, you immediately think of the arrival of the Antichrist, which is to occur in connection with the “great tribulation,” which will occur before (or after, or all around, depending on what sort of Dispensationalist you are) the “rapture” of the church. In short, the “abomination of desolation” is a future event located near the end of the church age and the beginning of the so-called “millennial kingdom.”

The problem with this Dispensationalist view (and hopefully I have been fair in representing it) is that it fails to take account of the parallel passage in Luke 21:20, which says this: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.” What in one gospel Jesus refers to as the “abomination of desolation,” He refers to in another gospel as the siege of Jerusalem by armies. Reading the Matthew text in connection with Luke, then, we need to understand that the “tribulation” referred to in Matthew 24:29 is the tribulation of the Jews during the destruction of their holy city.

It is after this tribulation that the “sign of the Son of Man” will become visible: “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30), and then the Son of Man will send out His angels to gather His elect “from the four winds” (verse 31). What appears to be occurring is this: the ascension of Messiah will somehow be made publicly visible to the Jews, and then the gospel age will begin wherein Messiah gathers His people from under the whole heaven.

But we need something from the canonical (larger biblical) context to make this clear, and Jesus has already told us where to look by referencing “the prophet Daniel” in verse 15. Let’s go there.

Jesus’ referring to Himself as “the Son of Man” takes us back to Daniel 7, where “one like a son of man” comes before the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13). When he is presented, “to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14). We know this is referring to the ascension of Messiah to the throne of God, when He is seated on the holy hill of Zion, there to reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. But what is especially interesting, for our purposes, is that Messiah comes “with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13). In other words, His “coming” is not down to us but up to God, and what is being described is not return to earth but ascension to the right hand of the Father.

This helps us understand why Jesus could say, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34). He would, indeed, ascend to the Father and visit public judgment on unbelieving Jerusalem before the end of that generation. It also helps us make sense of some other passages, for example, where Jesus says to the Sanhedrin at His trial, “From now on you all [the second person pronoun here is plural] will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64). The Jewish nation, and particularly their leaders, would indeed see the visible evidence that Jesus was the ascended, reigning Christ; this would occur at the destruction of their beloved city, a destruction Jesus had Himself prophesied. We also gain some insight into Revelation 1:7; and this, in turn, opens up the possibility that references in that book to Jesus’ “coming” may be primarily oriented toward the desolation of Jerusalem and the end of the old (first Adam) age of the world.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to be done with these lines of interpretation. Their implications are rather immense for our understanding of both Old and New Covenant prophecy.

Comment » | Eschatological Prospects

Creature options

May 21st, 2010 — 9:12am

“A creature really has a choice between only two options: either it chooses to be its own creator and thereby ceases to be a creature, or it must be and remain a creature from beginning to end, and therefore owes its existence and the specific nature of its existence only to God.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 2.376)

Comment » | Trinitarian Reflections

The eucharistic act

May 21st, 2010 — 7:10am

“There must be someone in this world – which rejected God and in this rejection, in this blasphemy, became a chaos of darkness – there must be someone to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again as full of divine riches, as the cup full of life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and to thank God for it. This ‘someone’ is Christ, the new Adam who restores that ‘eucharistic life’ which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am, and restores the world to me. And if the Church is in Christ, its initial act is always this act of thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.” (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

On feasting

May 20th, 2010 — 7:31pm

“Feast means joy. Yet, if there is something that we – the serious, adult and frustrated Christians of the twentieth century – look at with suspicion, it is certainly joy. How can one be joyful when so many people suffer? When so many things are to be done? How can one indulge in festivals and celebrations when people expect from us ‘serious’ answers to their problems? Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. They believe that the only way to be taken ‘seriously’ by the ‘serious’ – that is, by modern man – is to be serious, and, therefore, to reduce to a symbolic ‘minimum’ what in the past was so tremendously central in the life of the Church – the joy of a feast. The modern world has relegated joy to the category of ‘fun’ and ‘relaxation.’ It is justified and permissible on our ‘time off’; it is a concession, a compromise. And Christians have come to believe all this, or rather they have ceased to believe that the feast, the joy have something to do precisely with the ‘serious problems’ of life itself, may even be the Christian answer to them.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

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