Archive for September 2010

Of theological maturity (again)

September 30th, 2010 — 3:58pm

If I were to offer a definition of theological maturity, it would likely be a humble comfortableness in the presence of mystery. (I have written about this, incidentally, before.)

Sophomoric theology is ever in quest of settled, simple answers – tidy “essentials” that cannot be wondered about. It loves reiteration, not conversation. It hugs the centerline and shuns guardrails. Remarkably, it retains these features in both its liberal and conservative forms: the liberal shrinks his “essentials” to a bare minimum, relegating everything else to the realm of mysteries that need not be believed; the conservative sees his creed as the end of all conversation, banishing mystery to the realm of things that ought not be meddled with. For both, it’s the stuff in the middle of the road that counts: for the liberal, all else is a matter of agnosticism; for the conservative, all else is fodder for anathemas.

Thoughtful learners of theology will understand that actually just the reverse is the true situation. There is a revealed truth on that side, and a revealed truth on this side; and both must be held, but they are hard to hold together. Accordingly, we take that truth as a “guardrail” and this truth as a guardrail, and once the guardrails are settled we get down to the difficult business of saying what lies between. Here there is room for all manner of conversation, even real dispute, for we are in a space filled with mystery, bounded as it is by two truths hard for us to reconcile, yet both true.

One need turn but a few leaves in the annals of Christendom to observe this. Famous guardrails have included the full deity and full humanity of Christ; the unity and plurality of the Trinity; the certainty of God’s eternal decree and the conditions of His historical covenants; the visibility and invisibility of the church; the church’s being in the world, yet not of it; the “already” and “not yet” of God’s kingdom; God’s knowability and incomprehensibility; the newness and oldness of the New Covenant; the divine authorship and human authorship of scripture; divine sovereignty and human responsibility; and so on. How can all of this be “resolved”? Well, certainly we must not drive over guardrails set for us in scripture. Within these rails, however, we must continue to search and ponder, and converse with one another; and we must be wary of declaring too quickly that our particular piece of pavement is the province of orthodoxy. This is not to say there are no right answers between the rails – there are. It is to say one should not feel theologically superior merely because one stands on an imaginary centerline. Such feeling betrays profound ignorance of the whole theological project. As Chesterton once put it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”


Comment » | Trinitarian Reflections

Of boys and books

September 28th, 2010 — 11:14am

In the “so obvious I can’t believe it got published” department, parents of boys should read this piece from The Wall Street Journal.

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

Introducing collects

September 28th, 2010 — 10:34am

During my studies of Reformed worship in seminary, I was introduced to something called the “collect,” a particular form of prayer. At my professor’s recommendation, I picked up a book titled The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, edited by C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl, and have found this form of prayer to be eminently useful in my own prayer life.

A collect is a short prayer made up (usually) of five parts. The following is a well-known collect that will enable us to identify each of the parts:

“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Notice the five elements:

1. The Address. This is a name or title of God that He has revealed to us, in this case, “Almighty God.”

2. The Acknowledgment. This is a quality or attribute of God upon which the petition to follow is based. The petition in the above collect is for cleansing of thoughts, so the particular qualities of God that are noted relate to His omniscience (His knowing all things, including the thoughts of our hearts).

3. The Petition. This is the precise thing asked for (a specific need). In the above instance, it is cleansing of our thoughts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

4. The Aspiration. This part is generally introduced by the word “that” and discloses the purpose for which we ask the petition. Here, we desire perfectly to love God and worthily to magnify His holy name; this is the purpose for which we ask His cleansing of our thoughts.

5. The Pleading. Finally, we plead the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ. All prayer for all things must be made in His worthy name: “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I hope to put up a number of collects in the coming months, and I would encourage readers to consider writing and praying their own collects as a way of introducing fresh order, clarity, and beauty into their private prayers.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Vows and ledgers

September 27th, 2010 — 1:00pm

Two highly important (and woefully unappreciated) distinctives of Christian marriage:

1. The vows don’t include a return policy when one decides one has made a mistake.

2. No ledger book is permitted. Ever. Else grace is made void.

Comment » | Hearth and Home

On Christian worship

September 26th, 2010 — 6:02am

“Christian worship is the voluntary and loving response of those who have been consciously delivered from the guilt, thraldom and penalty due to sin, and consciously restored to the favour and fellowship of God. There will exist a consciousness of freedom of access to the source of all needed help and blessing; but this freedom will always be accompanied by a deep sense of personal unworthiness. There will be a constant feeling of thankfulness for deliverance from the allurements of the unbelieving world. There ought also to be an assurance of ultimate victory over all the difficulties, dangers, temptations and trials which are all a necessary part of the discipline which the Christian must undergo in this present world.” (Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant, p. 252)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

On the Psalter (part 3)

September 22nd, 2010 — 9:45am

I’d like to resume a series of posts on the Psalter that I began a while ago: preceding installments are here, here, and here. The basic idea I’m exploring is that the Psalter’s structure (developed in five books) and its “gateway” (Psalms 1 and 2) indicate that the work as a whole is as much interested in the history of the world as it is in the devotional piety of individuals. This is worth exploring, because most readers of the Psalter (in my experience, at least) find it much easier to relate to than other Old Testament books, precisely because it is not full of history or prophecies about the future. When the Bible talks about the world, we’re kind of lost; when it talks about us and our feelings, it makes sense. The problem here lies not in thinking that the Psalter addresses feelings and experiences on the individual level: it does. The problem lies in a general ignorance of the biblical view of history, such that when the Psalter displays its historical/eschatological “face” (Vos’s term), we brush past it in favor of more individualistic concerns.

Psalm 1, as we have seen, speaks of “blessed” individuals who inherit the land (the new Eden) because they are rooted in the instruction (Torah) of Yahweh. Such individuals are not sinless, but they do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; they listen to a different voice, are in a different way, sit in a different place.

So far this all sounds very Abrahamic. Abraham believed God – he listened to and lived by every word that proceeded from the mouth of the Lord – and his seed inherit the earth. We come then to Psalm 2, the other door in the “gateway,” which opens up further dimensions of all this.

Psalm 2 situates the concerns of Psalm 1 on a global scale. The movement from the first psalm to the second looks something like this: (1) Yahweh wills that not merely individuals but also kings and nations listen to His voice, submissively trust in Him, and walk in His ways. (2) The rule of Yahweh has been “localized” in the person of His Anointed, and obedience to Yahweh must take the particular form of trusting (taking refuge) in His Son (see especially 2:12). (3) The judgment that befalls individuals who refuse to listen to Yahweh (1:5–6) will be visited on kings and rulers who seek to cast off the “bonds” of Yahweh’s Anointed (2:3), for He has given all things to His Son (2:8) and wills that all living things be united under the rule of His Son.

This globalizing of trust in Yahweh and obedience to Yahweh, coming to focus in reverence for and trust in His Anointed, opens the way into the rest of the Psalter. I will take that up in more detail in later installments, but for now I’d like to propose that Psalm 1 is a beautiful depiction of Old Testament piety, centered upon the Torah of Yahweh. It must be remembered, though, that Torah had at every point an eschatological focus: the future arrival of Messiah and of Yahweh’s “sabbatical” kingdom in Him. Though the psalmists could not have known just when and how this would occur in their future, we know from the standpoint of New Testament revelation that Messiah’s enthronement culminated when Jesus “ascended on high” and took His seat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. It is appropriate, then, to read Psalm 2 retrospectively as an ascension psalm, and to understand much of the remainder of the Psalter as a description of what Yahweh’s Anointed will do during the days of His ascended reign.

Comment » | Exegetical Fragments

On courage

September 19th, 2010 — 3:58pm

I’m in chapter three of Ralph Wood’s book on Tolkien, where he masterfully explores the presence and function of the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage or fortitude, and temperance) in The Lord of the Rings. Here’s a gem on courage:

“In the pagan realm, courage is supremely manifested when one dies in battle while defending a just cause. In the Christian world, it is a willingness to die as a martyr rather than denying Christ, or else to refuse to kill others only in order to preserve one’s own life. Even when courage does not require the shedding of our blood, it always entails a refusal to love our lives so much that we lose our souls. Courage refuses to commit sin because of fear. It makes war against the brute power of evil with all the strength of one’s body and soul. As its name indicates, courage is located at the center of our being, in the cor – the heart and its intentions. We are called to courage in order to preserve our integrity before others and in the presence of God: to keep ourselves morally and spiritually intact.” (Wood, p. 100)

Comment » | Arete’s Riddles

Of books, especially Tolkien

September 16th, 2010 — 6:10am

In response to kindly complaints that my blog exhibits a degree of “attention deficit disorder,” that it rambles in a most desultory manner from thing to thing without a hint of what might be coming next, I should perhaps explain something about my reading habits.

I read twenty or more books at a time. The amount of stuff I have to keep up on won’t permit me to do less, and anyway, it suits me. When I get tired of one book, I put it down and go read a different book for awhile. When I’m tired of the second book, I go pick up a third, and when that no longer holds my attention, I return to book one. It so happens God gave me a brain that can keep track of what’s going on in all the books at once, so the “system” works for me, and it keeps me fresh. When I finish a book, I add a new one to the mix; or sometimes I add a new one just for the fun of it.

So much for apologia. Now to the latest addition.

I recently began reading Ralph C. Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth. I’m tempted to drop everything and blog through it, I’m enjoying it so much. Let me give just a couple snippets from his chapter on creation to whet appetites all round.

On the goodness of food:

“The hobbits are unabashed lovers of food, enjoying six meals a day. Not for them our late-modern and quasi-gnostic obsession with slimness. Tolkien would have agreed with the novelist Tom Wolfe’s lament that America is the country where no one can ever be too rich or too slender. The feast laid on at the Inn of Bree is a celebration of a homely and humble cuisine that features the gift of simple food rather than fastidious gourmandizing: ‘There was hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese: good plain food, as good as the Shire could show’ (1.166). Even Barliman Butterbur’s name suggests the hops that he brews and the fat that seasons his cooking. Yet food is far more than physical sustenance for the Company; their shared meals also renew their spirits. Nowhere is their communal existence more fully realized than in their feasting.” (Wood, p. 24)

On the goodness of doing things slowly:

“Most of the free creatures in Tolkien’s world reverence the good creation with their craftsmanship. A craft requires lifelong discipline and laborious effort, unlike the instantaneous results of magic. Gandalf’s fireworks, by contrast, are matters of skill and labor rather than sorcery – even if his wand seems to be a supernatural gift. Once Gandalf suspects that Bilbo has come into possession of the magical Ruling Ring, he spends many decades in his quest to confirm his hunch. Repeatedly Tolkien stresses the importance of patience, the willingness to avoid the shortcut and the easy way, recommending instead the slow and arduous path that leads to every excellence. Anything worth doing well is worth doing slowly.” (Wood, p. 26)

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

Reading the Bible

September 15th, 2010 — 11:41am

A few humble thoughts on how to read the Bible:

Every text in the Bible is situated in four contexts, and each of these contexts helps us understand what the text is saying and how we are to respond to it. The four contexts are as follows:

1. The historical context

The question to ask here is what was happening in the world and the life of the author when this text was written. Every writer is a product of his or her time, and in order to understand a writer, we must understand something of the time in which he or she lived. It is no different with the biblical writers, even though they were inspired by the Holy Spirit and kept from error.

2. The literary context

We need to try to recreate the writer’s dictionary (what particular words meant at the time he was writing), and also learn as much as we can about the grammar and syntax of the language in which he thought and wrote.

But there is much more than this to literature. The biblical writers were working within a literary tradition overseen by God Himself, so biblical texts are full of allusions to prior texts, and full of hints, images, shadows, and “types” of things yet to come. We must ask how the words, imagery, and ideas in a particular text are informed by any number of other biblical texts. This requires a growing familiarity with the Bible as a whole.

3. The canonical context

Because God is the primary Author of scripture, the Bible (the entire “canon” of scripture) is one cohesive story. We must ask how a particular text serves this overall biblical story of the Triune God, His Messiah, and His kingdom.

4. The covenantal context

God intended scripture to teach us, reprove us, correct us, and train us in righteousness. We must therefore ask how each particular text is intended by God to shape the life of His people in every age, including our own.

Comment » | Exegetical Fragments

At the right hand

September 15th, 2010 — 10:01am

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in order to enjoy a quiet vacation at the right hand of God, for, like the Father, he always works (John 5:17). He went to heaven to prepare a place for his own there and to fill them here on earth with the fullness that he acquired by his perfect obedience.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 3.474)

Comment » | Gospel and Kingdom

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