Archive for May 2011

Nothing in common with tyranny

May 31st, 2011 — 4:31pm

This has everything to do with the biblical political theology our congregation has been exploring in the Books of Samuel:

“[God’s] authority is divinely majestic just because it has nothing in common with tyranny, because its true likeness is not the power of a natural catastrophe which annihilates all human response, but rather the power of an appeal, command and blessing which not only recognises human response but creates it. To obey it does not mean to be overrun by it, to be overwhelmed and eliminated in one’s standing as a human being. Obedience to God is genuine precisely in that it is both spontaneous and receptive, that it not only is unconditional obedience but even as such is obedience from the heart. God’s authority is truly recognised only within the sphere of freedom: only where conscience exists, where there exists a sympathetic understanding of its lofty righteousness and a wholehearted assent to its demands – only where a man allows himself to be humbled and raised up, comforted and warmed by its voice.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.661–62)

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

Fifth Sunday after Easter

May 29th, 2011 — 7:44am

“Lord from whom all good things do come; grant us, thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Comment » | Grace and Life

When God shakes acorns

May 27th, 2011 — 4:39pm

I assume most of us recognize the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. The stuff of fiction stories hasn’t actually occurred in “real life”; the stuff of non-fiction stories has. Less obvious, perhaps, is the distinction between fantasy fiction and non-fantasy fiction (which, as stated here, is my own brainchild, so it’s a good time to trigger critical filters): non-fantasy fiction could occur in our world as we know it (though, in fact, it hasn’t); fantasy fiction is stuff that couldn’t occur in our world, though it might in a different one. In fantasy fiction, the rules of that world are different from those in play in our own.

Whither this? Well, I’m in a running dialogue with a friend about the value of fiction stories. Is there any real value in stories that have never actually happened; and mustn’t we ask the question even more seriously about stories that couldn’t possibly occur in the “real world” at all?

I wouldn’t have thought 2 Samuel 22 a likely source of answers to these questions, but preaching through the text, it has been impossible to ignore some truly fantastic elements in David’s song. We find him sinking in the “waves of death,” in “torrents of destruction,” entangled in “the cords of Sheol” (vv. 5–6). He cries out to Yahweh, and the next thing we know the earth is reeling and rocking – the very foundations of heaven tremble at the erupting wrath of the Most High (v. 8). Yahweh mounts a cherub (v. 11); He bows the heavens and descends upon the earth, veiled in canopies of watery darkness (vv. 10, 12). He roars from heaven (v. 14), scattering the enemies of His servant with lightning shafts (v. 15); at the fiery blast from His nostrils, the channels of the sea are laid bare, and the foundations of the world uncovered (v. 16). It’s a scene of fearful glory and stunning power. Now here’s the question: When did this “really” occur? In fact, we must ask whether this scene even could occur in the “real world” – does Yahweh have nostrils? could He possibly ride on a cherub? Well, not exactly, but such questions badly miss the point of the text. This isn’t about what actually happened, or what actually could happen, in the world as we know it: it’s intended to open our eyes to a whole other sphere of reality that intersects with our world in the most ordinary things (the death of a king on Mount Gilboa, for one), and in which lies our hope of deliverance from all the evils we suffer in this world.

One of the uglier bits of fallout that has attended the Enlightenment’s disenchantment (or, as we might prefer to say, demythologizing) of the world is the erection of a firm barrier between what is “real” in the “real world” and what is . . . uh, myth. What I think may not be so obvious to us is that in erecting this firm barrier, we have also erected very high and firm partitions between the actual (non-fiction), the possible (fiction), and the impossible (fantasy). Never mind where we got these partitions: they are up, and not going anywhere. Certain things are real, actual, and therefore believable. Other things are possible, given the rules of the world as we know it; but it is also quite clear that other things lie beyond the borders even of possibility – out there are the myths, the objects of unreasoned faith (UFOs, gods, fairies, dragons, trolls, and so on).

I’m not going to offer a critique of the Enlightenment at this point, but I find it interesting that the Bible regularly takes us into the realm not only of fiction (parables, for instance), but even of fantasy (especially in its poetry and prophecies). Why? I think at least part of the reason must be that we need constant reminders that our God is not simply the God of the actual; He is also the God of the possible, and indeed of the impossible. We need, for example, to know that God will move heaven and earth to save those who trust in Him: not because we’ve ever actually seen this happen in the world as we think we know it, but because it happens all the time in the sphere of reality where nothing is impossible, and which we have apprehended by faith. And to take this a step further, I think extra-biblical fiction stories and fantasies may serve a similar function in our lives: they may remind us that “what is” is not all there is, not all there need be, and not all there will be. They may gesture at that sphere of reality without boundaries: the sphere of the working of God. They may awaken hope in us; they may open our eyes again to transcendent things.

My daughter once asked me if the wind was God’s shaking the acorns out of the trees. If we are going to take 2 Samuel 22 seriously, I believe the answer must, at some level, be yes. And that’s also why I’m glad she loves a good fantasy story. Who knows, her God may use it to shake some Enlightenment silliness out of her head one day.

Comment » | Exegetical Fragments

Dare to be a David?

May 27th, 2011 — 11:58am

So it’s bugging me again, as I near the end of preaching through the life of David: Why does it seem that on one hand David is presented as a “type” of Christ (no attempt here to use that term with absolute precision), while on the other hand he is presented as an all-too-human example of the saints (who are, most assuredly, not Christ)? How can he be simultaneously a larger-than-life progenitor of the Messiah (the giant-slayer par excellence) and also an ordinary guy in whom we recognize ourselves and whose faith we are called to follow? To put it even more starkly, how can we hold together what is inimitable about David (his foreshadowing of Messiah) with what is imitable (and must, indeed, be imitated).

These difficult questions affect our whole method of interpreting the Old Testament. If we want to take seriously Jesus’ statements that the OT is about Him (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47), if we want to avoid the gross moralizing of the “dare to be a Daniel (or David)” approach that many of us learned in Sunday school, then we must affirm that various OT characters (especially anointed ones) foreshadow Christ to come. Some would even argue that to read the OT any other way – to make it in any sense about character rather than about Christ – is to read it legalistically and turn it into a sourcebook for works-righteousness.

Yet, on the other hand, if we want to take seriously the apostle’s statements that the OT is about us (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11), we need to be careful not to draw lines from the OT to Christ in a way that blurs the lines from the OT to us, the saints of God. We need to be careful lest a fear of moralizing keep us from drawing any “morals” (i.e., instruction in how our God would have us live). We need to beware, for example, lest speaking of David as an anointed one eclipse speaking of him as a Spirit-filled worker for God’s kingdom, very much like ourselves.

It is not true that finding human examples in the OT leads necessarily to moralism, perhaps even threatening the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is not true, conversely, that finding Christ in the OT leads to a kind of “drifting” over the text, with no ability to draw applications or imperatives from it. The reason is that the OT saints are examples to us, above all, of faith (see Hebrews 11) – they show us how to live by faith, how to walk with God by faith, how to please God by faith. They themselves looked forward to the very Messiah whom, in various cases, they typified. To see David is to see Christ in shadowy form; but it is also to see ourselves, our sins, and the victories of a faith that overcomes the world. The OT anticipates the Christ in whom the obedience of the people of God is fulfilled; it also anticipates the obedience of the new people of God in Christ – which is always the obedience of faith.

Comment » | Exegetical Fragments

Despair of the comedian

May 26th, 2011 — 8:48am

I’m a great fan of the work of Anthony Esolen. Today at First Things he heaps derision on one of my favorite objects of scorn: the modern journalist. Hard to believe this class of storytellers is considered a serious source of knowledge about the world.

Comment » | Belly Laughs

Both creature and person

May 24th, 2011 — 10:45am

“The human being is both a creature and a person; he or she is a created person. This, now, is the central mystery of man: how can man be both a creature and a person at the same time? To be a creature, as we have seen, means absolute dependence on God; to be a person means relative independence. To be a creature means that I cannot move a finger or utter a word apart from God; to be a person means that when my fingers are moved, I move them, and that when words are uttered by my lips, I utter them. To be creatures means that God is the potter and we are the clay (Rom. 9:21); to be persons means that we are the ones who fashion our lives by our own decisions (Gal. 6:7–8). . . .

“Though we cannot rationally comprehend how it is possible for the human being to be a creature and a person at the same time, clearly this is what we must think. Denial of either side of this paradox will fail to do justice to the biblical picture. The Bible teaches both man’s creatureliness and man’s personhood.” (Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, chapter 2)

Comment » | Life in Front of the Curtain

Not an improviser and individualist

May 24th, 2011 — 8:40am

“Only that expositor is qualified to be a teacher of the Church who is not essentially or strictly an improviser and individualist but who sees clearly that he must state his case and bear his witness to the whole Church before and after him, who has not merely been alone with God and the Bible and the writings of the Reformers, but who has stood before the whole Church with God and the Bible and the writings of the Reformers, and is therefore confident and competent to speak not only to himself or to an incidental and selected circle, but intelligibly, responsibly and authoritatively to the whole Church.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.615)

Comment » | Life Together

Fourth Sunday after Easter

May 22nd, 2011 — 7:00am

“Almighty God, which dost make the minds of all faithful men to be of one will; grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing, which thou commandest, and desire, that which thou dost promise; that among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Christ our Lord.”

Comment » | Grace and Life

Lordship/grace, sin/error

May 19th, 2011 — 12:31pm

The implications of this passage are legion:

“As in and with the confession of the Church I hear the infallible Word of God, I have to reckon first and above all with the lordship of Jesus Christ in His Church and the forgiveness of sins, which is operative in the Church; not with sin and therefore with the possibility of falsehood and error which it involves. And this means that I have not primarily to criticise the confession of the Church as it confronts me as the confession of those who were before me in the Church and are with me in the Church. There will always be time and occasion for criticism. My first duty is to love and respect it as the witness of my fathers and brethren.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.590)

Comment » | Life Together

Contemporary creed

May 17th, 2011 — 9:20am

Self is god.
Choice is gospel.
Sex is sacrament.

Comment » | Things Come Lately

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