Archive for July 2010

The mystery of sin

July 16th, 2010 — 10:23am

“When all is said and done, sin proves to be an incomprehensible mystery. We know neither whence it is nor what it is. It exists, but has no right to existence. It exists, but no one can explain its origin. Sin itself came into the world without motivation, yet it is the motivation for all human thought and action. From an abstract point of view, it is nothing but a privation, yet concretely it is a power that controls everyone and everything. It has no independent principle of its own, yet it is a principle that devastates the whole creation. It lives off the good, yet fights it to the point of destruction. It is nothing, has nothing, and cannot do anything without the entities and forces God has created, yet organizes them all into rebellion against him. With everything that belongs to God, it opposes everything that belongs to God. It is the will of a weak, finite creature in its revolt against the Creator. It is dependence at war with the Independent One and striving for its own independence. It is impermanent becoming in a struggle with him who exists eternally. It is the greatest contradiction tolerated by God in his creation, yet used by him in the way of justice and righteousness as an instrument for his glory.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 3.145)

Comment » | Arete’s Riddles

Small stuff

July 15th, 2010 — 1:45pm

This will sound weird, but stay with me. I believe we don’t take the “small stuff” in life seriously enough; and the reason we don’t take it seriously enough is that we don’t see it as small enough.

Interpreted: I think most serious Christians experience moments when they look at their lives and say, “I’m just wasting my time on a lot of small stuff. My everyday life is consumed with things that really don’t matter.” But isn’t it in the everyday stuff (washing your car, emailing your boss, eating a tuna sandwich, waiting for the bus, sanding a porch rail, combing your hair, watching a ballgame, tickling your three-year-old) where you make or break the business of glorifying God in the world? It’s here, not in the prayer closet or the pew, where a lot of people screw up the whole business. The “small stuff” is vastly important.

But of course it’s only vastly important if you believe there really is such a thing as glorifying God in the world. It’s only if you see what a massive project God’s kingdom is, what a big deal His covenant is, what a lot God is up to in the long ages of His world, that you begin to see how tiny your life is; and precisely when your life gets shrunk down to this size, you see that you are part of something huge and eternally important, something that transcends your small life quite infinitely. And so everything you do matters. Not because it will be the most important thing ever in this world, but because it’s part of the most important thing ever.

Okay, got that off my chest. Back to the small stuff.

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

Parasite of the good

July 14th, 2010 — 7:06am

“Just as sin is dependent on the good in its origin and existence, so it is in its operation and struggle. It has power to do anything only with and by means of the powers and gifts that are God-given. Satan has therefore correctly been called the ape of God. When God builds a church, Satan adds a chapel; over against the true prophet, he raises up a false prophet; over against the Christ, he poses the Antichrist. Even a band of robbers can only exist if within its own organization it respects the rules. A liar always garbs himself or herself in the guise of truth. A sinner pursues evil under pretense of the good. Satan himself appears as an angel of light. In its operation and appearance, sin is always doomed to borrow, despite itself, from the treasury of virtue. It is subject to the unalterable fate – while striving for the destruction of all good – of working simultaneously on its own demise. It is a parasite of the good.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 3.139)

Comment » | Arete’s Riddles

Pastoral prayer

July 11th, 2010 — 6:56am

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, hear now our prayer in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ:

How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! Our souls long, yes, even faint for Your courts. We long for these moments when, in the stillness of Your presence, we are reminded that You are the Builder, the Upholder, and the Governor of all things, and we are not. We long to be reminded that though the floods have lifted up their voice, though they lift up their roaring, the Lord on high is mightier than the thundering of mighty waters, mightier than the waves of the sea. We long to hear that though the nations rage, though they set themselves against You and Your Anointed, they are but men, and You laugh at them. We long for assurance that though our sins mount up to heaven, though they prevail against us, and we stink in our iniquity, You cast all our sins into the depths of the sea, and there is forgiveness with You that You may be feared. We long to know that when we sink in deep waters where there is no standing, it is You who draw us out of the miry clay, and set our feet upon a rock, and establish our goings. We would gaze upon Your majesty; we would bow before Your righteousness; we would marvel at Your wisdom; we would revel in Your love. Your beauty and bounty are wondrous to us, our God; Your grace and glory are marvelous in our eyes. Even the sparrow finds a home in Your house, great Lord, even the swallow a place where she may nest her young; how much more we, whom You have claimed to be Your children and Your inheritance forever! Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, O Lord; blessed are those who put their trust in You! Meet with us here, as You have promised, and show us Your glory in which alone our hearts can rest. We ask in the name of our beloved Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Comment » | Grace and Life

Absent sabbath, present sacrifice

July 10th, 2010 — 2:59pm

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! Having lectured twice through the first eleven chapters of Genesis, I would have said these few pages lay the foundation for everything else in Genesis and all of scripture, and (as an obvious corollary) that all the major elements of the Christian “worldview” are seeded here as well. Recently, though, in sifting through some work by Meredith G. Kline and James Jordan (two of the more luminous contributors to Reformed biblical theology since Geerhardus Vos), I have seen as never before how a step (or misstep) in interpreting these early chapters can affect one’s reading of the entire Bible and the formulation of vast tracts of one’s theology.

Both Kline (here) and Jordan (here and here) assign pivotal significance (rightly, in my view) to the Flood account in Genesis 6–9. So massive was the transition that occurred in the Flood that it divided world history into two major epochs: the first running from creation to the Flood (what Kline, following 2 Peter 3:6, calls “the world that then was”), the second running from the Flood to the New Covenant (Jordan) or to the eschaton (Kline, “the world that now is”; cf. his Kingdom Prologue [hereinafter KP], pp. 8–13). I would highlight here the difference between the two men on the terminus ad quem of “the world that now is”; but for now we must occupy ourselves with other things.

Notwithstanding their agreement on the epochal significance of the Flood, Kline and Jordan offer radically different descriptions of the world that emerged from its waters. I will start with Kline.

Kline believes that after the Flood there was a “covenantal reestablishment of the common grace order” (KP, p. 244). This is obviously freighted language, and to understand what he means, we have to go back to his understanding of what occurred after the Fall of man (KP, pp. 153–60; by the by, anyone who wants to glimpse the roots of the Klinean biblical-theological program needs to read and re-read these pages). In his view, when God pronounced the “common curse” on the man and the woman in Genesis 3:16–19, there was also an announcement of the continuation of the world order and of certain common, temporal blessings that all men would enjoy. Here is an extended quote from Kline regarding the cultural side of this “common blessing”:

“Another benefit of common grace, besides the preservation of the natural order in a form that made a history of man on earth still possible, was the continuation, even though in modified fashion, of some important elements of the social-cultural order that had been established under the Creator’s covenant with Adam. This too was implicit in the announcement of the common curse. Thus, in the curse upon the woman (Gen 3:16) it is assumed that the marriage institution would continue as a divine appointment for human society. Moreover, the blessing of the Creator would rest on the marriage relationship in sufficient measure for its function as the institution for the propagation of human life to be fulfilled. There would be barrenness and pain, miscarriage and abortion, but there would be children. In spite of the common curse, by virtue of common grace there would be the “book of the generations of Adam” (Gen 5:1). Again, in the curse on the man (Gen 3:17-19) it is presupposed that man’s dominion over the earth would be continued and that here too divine blessing would be granted on man’s labor to such a degree that human life would be sustained and cultural satisfactions realized. There would be thorns and pests, drought and famine, toil unto death, the destiny that seemed to mock the meaning of it all, but meanwhile there would be bread as the staff of life and wine to make glad the heart of man. And in man’s settlements would be heard the sound of the forge and of music. The way the biblical narrative subsequently traces the significant beginnings of industry, the arts, and sciences in the Cainite communities (Gen 4:17ff.) underscores the commonness of common grace, the ungodly as well as the godly enjoying its benefits. Thanks to common grace, chaos would be averted; human life would retain societal structuring through the continuation of the institution of the family, afterwards supplemented by the institution of the state (Gen 4:15; 9:6).”

Completely absent from this description is any hint that it might make a difference whether the building of culture was done in obedience or disobedience to the Creator-King; the cultural side of the “common grace order” stands more or less on its own, as a kind of “neutral zone” shared by the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent alike. What Kline goes on to say next will make this explicit.

The common grace order, he says, “is common not only in the sense that its benefits are shared by the generality of mankind, the just and the unjust alike, but in the sense that it is nonsacred. Particular emphasis needs to be given to the fact that the political, institutional aspect of common grace culture is not holy, but profane” (KP, p. 155, emphasis mine). This is pretty strong, and of course Kline provides an exegetical argument. It is significant, he says, that when the Lord God

“republished the cultural ordinances within the historical framework of his common grace for the generality of fallen mankind, he did not attach his Sabbath promise to this common cultural order. The ordinance of the Sabbath was not reissued in the revelation of the common grace order either in Genesis 3:16-19 or in the covenantal promulgation of it in Genesis 9. This withholding of the Sabbath sign from common grace culture is a clear indication of the secular, nonholy character of that culture.”

Readers should look at how Kline goes on to parse this out, but his basic proposal is now clear: in the absence of the Sabbath from Genesis 3 (where he says a common grace order was instituted) and Genesis 9 (where he says the common grace order was resumed), we can (he says) see God’s intention that a legitimately non-holy sphere of human life exist to be shared in common by His people and His enemies.

Returning now to the Flood account and the covenant with Noah that followed (Gen 9:1–17), we are not surprised to hear Kline argue that this Noahic Covenant was

“not an administration of redemptive grace but of common grace. It did not bestow the holy kingdom of God on an elect, redeemed people. The revelation of this covenant came to Noah and his family and the covenant is said to be made with them, but they are addressed here, as were Adam and Eve in the disclosure of common grace and curse in Genesis 3:16-19, not in distinction from but as representative of the generality of mankind.” (KP, p. 245)

Precisely here Jim Jordan demurs (he would demur from a number of other things we have heard from Kline as well, but here the difference is especially stark). “The Noahic Covenant,” he says, “was not addressed to man as man, but to covenant-man, to the Church. The benefits and duties of the Noahic Covenant are not addressed to all mankind, but only to believers” (see his Biblical Horizons [hereinafter BH], No. 19). And, like Kline, he offers an exegetical argument:

“Notice first of all, that when Noah came off the Ark, he built an altar and offered of every clean bird and beast to the LORD. It was on the basis of that sacrifice, not on the basis of some generalized ‘common grace,’ that God stated that He would never again curse the ground on account of man. God said that He would refrain from cursing even though ‘the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’ God had brought the Flood because the intent of man’s heart was only evil continually (6:5). God changes His approach to man’s sinfulness not because man has changed, but because of the sacrifice.”

There you have it: for Kline the absence of the Sabbath in Genesis 9 is all-controlling; for Jordan the presence of sacrifice is all-controlling. There’s a lot more to it, of course. If I had ample time and space, and didn’t fear exhausting my readers’ indulgence, I would expand on how this basic difference between Kline and Jordan relates to their variant readings of the significance of the rainbow; of the inclusion of animals in the covenant promise; and of Yahweh’s “confirming” with Noah (Hebrew: qum) a covenant that appears already to be in place, rather than “cutting” a new covenant (Hebrew: krt). But now to a brief closing word of commentary.

Without having done an exhaustive study of the matter, I think Jordan plainly has the better of the argument (which is not to endorse everything he develops from his exegesis). The family to whom the Noahic promises and mandates were delivered was a redeemed family; they were a household under the blood of sacrifice (Gen 8:20–22). Moreover, while the mandates to Noah and his household were qualified by the presence of sin, the similarity between these mandates and those delivered to Adam at creation (vis-à-vis Genesis 3) is such that one should be very careful about imposing on the former a “common grace” construction that did not apply to the latter. Put differently, if Adam was to discharge his commission in obedience to and fellowship with his Creator-King, it seems decidedly odd to say that Noah and his family were to discharge their commission “in the common grace mode” (KP, p. 251), i.e., their commission “was concerned with natural life, not with religious fellowship” (KP, p. 261).

I hope I have managed to present Kline’s and Jordan’s views accurately and fairly. Whatever one may think of their respective positions, they illustrate how much rests on the interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis, and what radically different visions of human life can arise from a disagreement in this portion of God’s Word.

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

A way of worldly godliness

July 10th, 2010 — 8:30am

“There is no failure of correspondence between how Christ appears and the truth he reveals: he is not an impalpable and unworldly redeemer, a ladder for souls, rising up out of the quagmires of flesh and time, but the Lord who saves precisely because he can be grasped, precisely because of his concrete particularity, his real and appearing beauty, which draws others on into history, into the contingencies and particularities of time, into the concrete community of the church. He embodies a real and imitable practice, a style of being that conforms to the beauty of divine love, but that is also a way of worldly godliness; he is no beautiful soul.” (David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 320)

Comment » | Incarnation and Embodiment


July 9th, 2010 — 9:35am

“[Greek education (paideia) had] a wider sense than our modern concept, including not only the communication of basic knowledge and skills but the transmission of the entire way of life of a civilized people. Students in Greek schools would not have been trained for ‘jobs’ but would have been formed into mature Greeks. Greek education inculcated the values of the city into the next generation, and thus educational methods and goals determined the moral climate of life in the future. Thus, the form of education shapes the form of culture.” (Peter J. Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man, p. 380)

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

The way you like it

July 9th, 2010 — 9:29am

Sitting in a service establishment today, reading a book and minding my own business, I suddenly registered something my ears had just picked up from the radio: [chirpy female voice] “. . . and if your psychic reading’s not the best you’ve ever had, it’s free!”

Ponder that one. It gets weirder the longer you think about it.

Comment » | Belly Laughs

Game sense

July 6th, 2010 — 3:48pm

Last winter I was shoveling snow with my neighbor, who’s from Brazil, and I asked him how he thought his country would fare in the upcoming World Cup. “Ah,” he said, “they are a team full of stars; but can they play together? That’s the question.”

Personally, I thought the Brazilians played very well as a team before their shocking elimination last week. But my neighbor put his finger on something I have observed more than once during the proceedings in South Africa: there is a huge difference between having a skill set and having “game sense.” You may have a player who handles the ball as if it’s attached by a tether. He may have more speed, power, agility, and elusiveness than anyone else on the pitch. But if he doesn’t have game sense – if he doesn’t have a “feel” for the game as a whole: the field, the movements of teammates and opponents, where he is and everyone else is, and where the play is going next – any contribution he makes to winning a tournament will be more or less accidental.

There’s a lesson here, I think for Christian discipleship. A lot of Christians I know are working hard on their “skill set” (or at least they know they ought to be working on it). They work hard at Bible reading, prayer, attending worship, being a faithful husband and father or wife and mother, being more honest, being a more diligent employee, etc. And practice makes skillful. But there is such thing as a fairly skillful Christian who hasn’t got a lick of game sense. He works hard at the things he has been told good Christians do; but he has little sense of what game he is playing. He doesn’t really grasp, for instance, what it is to be a bearer of God’s image; he doesn’t understand what humans were created to be. He doesn’t have a good feel for the story of God’s restoring His image in a new humanity, or of the part he and others are to play in this story. He doesn’t see clearly who and where his opponents are, because he hasn’t mastered the movements of God’s kingdom in history, or in his own time. He doesn’t, therefore, live with a deeply informed sense of calling, of the “goal” toward which he and his “team” are driving, of what he and they have been redeemed unto. And thus he tends not to grow much beyond the items on his holy checklist. Put him through the paces of Christian disciplines, and he may look like a star; but in the “real world” of kingdom engagement he looks disconnected from the main action, even confused.

Of course, Christians without a skill set are guaranteed disasters at game time; but soccer is far more than kicking a ball well, and Christianity in the world is so much more than making all the right moves in my practice sessions with Coach Jesus, or even on the pitch. There is a sense of what the game as a whole is about, of what’s going on in this particular moment of this particular game and how it relates to what’s happened before, what’s happening elsewhere on the field, and what’s coming next – and without this sense, we end up with a lot of individual practice sessions, while the game itself is never played. I may be going off my rocker, but then again maybe I’m on to something. You sure know the difference when you see it on the field.

Comment » | Grace and Life

On reading

July 5th, 2010 — 11:49am

“I am old-fashioned and romantic enough to believe that many children, given the right circumstances, are natural readers until this instinct is destroyed by the media. The tyranny of the screen threatens any order in which literary value or human wisdom can be preferred to the steady flow of information. It may be an illusion to believe that the magical connection of solitary children to the best books can endure, but such a relationship does go so long a way back that it will not easily expire. The romance of reading, like all experiential romance, depends upon enchantment, and enchantment relies upon the potential of power rather than upon complete knowledge. You are unlikely to fall in love with someone, however charming such a person may be, if you have known one another all your lives. What you can know fully will not induce you to fall in love, so that falling in love with a book is not wholly unlike falling in love with a person.” (Harold Bloom, introduction to Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages)

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

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