Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The PM vs. the pensioner

A cringe-inducing and possibly decisive moment in the current British election campaign. Watch the video to the end . . .

Proverbs: meant to be read cumulatively and communally

There is a way of reading Proverbs that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is . . . disillusionment? That's my tongue-in-cheek translation of Proverbs 16:25. I'm referring to a way of reading Proverbs that takes individual proverbs out of context and absolutizes them. For instance, Christian parents should take great comfort from Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." I do! Yet we've seen examples where children of godly parents have departed from the way of life and never returned. Do these examples give the lie to 22:6? Well, no. Proverbs was meant to be read in it's entirety, with each proverb building on the others to give a full picture of life lived coram Deo.

Incidentally, some Old Testament scholars believe Ecclesiastes was a response to a way of reading Proverbs that turned it into a collection of failsafe principals. Qoheleth "the Preacher" seems to contradict the author(s) of Proverbs at a number of points. The righteous don't always prosper. Some times the hard worker starves, while the lazy man grows fat. Calamity overtakes the wise and the foolish. This is vanity. But back to Proverbs . . .

Today at the Redeemer City to City blog Tim Keller shares some of his insights from preaching through Proverbs. He says that this ancient book of wisdom is both more and less than we moderns typically take it to be. Keller writes:

So Proverbs cannot be "dipped into". It only repays very long study in which you keep the whole book in your head and compare passage with passage. How is that best done? In a community! Some commentators argue that the book of Proverbs was originally written as a manual to be studied by a community of young men under the mentorship of older men -- for a number of years. Each proverb was to be discussed and considered and compared to the others. Examples from life were to be shared. In other words, Proverbs may have been written to be the basis for deep, comprehensive personal growth through mentoring in community. It touches on every area of life.

Read the whole thing

Sounds like a great idea for a small-group Bible study!

Wednesday is for Watson

More edifying wisdom from the scripture pencil of Thomas Watson. These come under the heading A GODLY MAN IS A THANKFUL MAN. . .

Praise and thanksgiving is the work of heaven and he begins the work here which he will always be doing in heaven. The Jews have a saying — the world subsists by three things: the law, the worship of God and thankfulness. As if where thankfulness was missing, one of the pillars of the world had been taken away and it was ready to fall. The Hebrew word for 'praise' comes from a root that signifies 'to shoot up'. The godly man sends up his praises like a volley of shots toward heaven. David was modelled after God's heart and how melodiously he warbled out God's praises! Therefore he was called 'the sweet psalmist of Israel' (2 Sam. 23:1). Take a Christian at his worst, yet he is thankful.

In petition we act like men; in thanksgiving we act like angels.

A gracious soul is thankful and rejoices that he is drawn nearer to God, though it be by the cords of affliction. When it goes well with him, he praises God's mercy; when it goes badly with him, he magnifies God's justice. When God has a rod in his hand, a godly man will have a psalm in his mouth.

A child of God keeps two books always by him: one to write his sins in, so that he may be humble; the other to write his mercies in, so that he may be thankful.

The Godly Man's Picture (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992) - quotes from pgs. 128, 129, 131 & 132

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Election and the people of God

More from the late, great Lesslie Newbigin:

The fact of Jesus Christ must be interpreted in relation to the biblical doctrine of election.

Here we meet with an idea which is as offensive to our human reason as it is central to the Bible. The Bible is primarily the story of election, of the people whom God chose, and of the individuals whom he chose to play special parts in the story. According to the Bible, God chose one tribe out of all the tribes of men to be his people, his witnesses, his priests, the agents of his kingship. . . . We understand election, like creation, in the light of Christ's words and deeds. . . . He reconstituted the chosen people, choosing whom he would and appointing twelve to be the nucleus of a new Israel. These twelve he sent out to be his authorized representatives. Men were to be related to the Kingdom of God by being related to them. To receive them was to receive Christ and to receive Christ was to receive God. Christ is God's chosen and they are chosen in him. To them, and to all who believe, his word is: 'You did not choose me but I chose you.'

A Faith for this One World? (1961)

The whole core of biblical history is the story of the calling of a visible community to be God's own people, His royal priesthood on earth, the bearer of His light to the nations. Israel is, in one sense, simply one of the petty tribes of the Semitic world. But Israel — the same Israel — is also the people of God's own possession. In spite of all Israel's apostasy, Israel is His, for His gifts and calling are without repentance. This little tribe, and no other, is God's royal priesthood, His holy nation. And the same is true in the New Testament. There is an actual, visible, earthly company which is addressed as 'the people of God', the 'Body of Christ'. It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.

The Household of God (1953)

What glorious truths to muse on as we worship tomorrow as God's elected people, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Almost as good as being there

I've been listening my way through two recent conferences. Together for the Gospel (T4G) was last week in Louisville. I especially recommend Mark Dever's address "The Church is the Gospel Made Visible." Hmmm, sounds a lot like Newbigin's idea of the local church as "hermeneutic of the gospel." I'm also enjoying Ligon Duncan's talk on the Patristics. There were one or two other high-profile pastors you might want to check out too.

T4G 2010 audio/video

Also last week was the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference on "Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright." And dialogue it was. Case in point was Richard Hays' sharp criticisms of Wright's methodology. If you want to hear Wright preach, listen to his chapel message on Ephesians 1:10, 2:10, 3:10. Most noteworthy was Kevin Vanhoozer's thoughtful and witty attempt to encourage rapprochement between Wright and his Reformed critics. I hope they were listening. Vanhoozer said it's time to "beat diatribic swords into dialogic plowshares." I love the sentiment and the alliteration!

Wheaton audio/video

Merle Haggard: American original


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gospel help for Christian parents

I'm wary of books on Christian parenting -- and Christian dating, and Christian marriage, and Christian financial planning. You get my drift. I'm a newbie parent so take anything I say about it with a grain of salt. I see parenting as more art than science, so I'm skeptical of any book that claims to be a foolproof manual or advocates a one-size-fits-all approach to the subject, even if it has a Christian label on it. That caveat out of the way, I can see Shepherding a Child's Heart becoming something of a manual for my wife and I in the years ahead. I'm only a third of the way through, but this book has already begun to change my theoretical approach to being a parent. We'll see how it works out in practice!

Overall, I appreciate author Tedd Tripp's focus on the centrality of the heart. At the risk of sounding clichéd -- his approach is rigorously gospel-centered. The focus of so much parenting literature and advice is on behavior. Behavior calls attention to the problem, but behavior is not the fundamental problem, the heart is. It would be a tragedy for Christian parents to raise kids who are well-behaved, little Pharisees! Tripp writes in chapter 1:

A change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable. (p. 4, emphasis his)

He's not advocating that parents abandon the requirement of good behavior, but that they not stop there. The law should lead to the gospel. A polite, well-behaved child is not the ultimate goal. Tripp remarks that a child well-schooled in the social graces can easily use good behavior to selfishly manipulate others unless that good behavior is rooted in a Godward orientation. This focus on heart change has huge implications for biblical child-rearing which are unpacked throughout the book.

I really like the chapter on authority. Tripp writes how the confusion about authority in our culture leads to confusion about the role of parents. Sometimes we're not comfortable with being in charge, either because we don't like being under authority ourselves, or we've seen how authority has been abused. This problem is also bound up with false notions of freedom. We desperately need a biblical understanding of authority. I find the way Tripp goes about this to be very helpful. The bottom line of why parents are in charge of our children is not because we own them, or because we're bigger and stronger (that doesn't last long!), but because God has placed us in charge. We are his agents. Like the centurion in Matthew 8 I can say to my son, "I too am a man under authority." Whatever conflicts we may have will be more about him and God than about me. Tripp cites Ephesians 6:4 as a defining text in this regard.

Your focus can be sharpened by the realization that discipline is not you working on your agenda, venting your wrath toward your children; it is you coming as God's representative, bringing the reproofs of life to your son or your daughter. You only muddy the waters when the bottom line in discipline is your displeasure over their behavior, rather than God's displeasure with rebellion against his ordained authority. (pp. 33-4)

How does this approach to parental authority and discipline help one get to the heart of the problem?
If correction orbits around the parent who has been offended, then the focus will be venting anger or, perhaps, taking vengeance. The function is punitive. If, however, correction orbits around God as the one offended, then the focus is restoration. The function is remedial. It is designed to move a child who has disobeyed God back to the path of obedience. It is corrective. (p. 36)

This chapter also has some excellent stuff on the essential role of love and humility. I'll probably share a few more tidbits from this book as I work my way through it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The buzz of religious experience

I'm surprised, pleasantly so, to read something like this in the pages of Christianity Today. Mark Galli writes:

There are many reasons to question the amount of attention our age gives to helping people have memorable religious experiences. For one, other religions seem to be equally capable of giving people an encounter with transcendence. For another, as we now increasingly see, drugs seem to be able to do the same thing.

Similarly, we rightly question making our faith mostly about "deeds not creeds"—as if the Christian faith were primarily a religious ethic. Again, most of the ethical injunctions of Christianity are found in other world religions, and are even championed by many atheists. You don't need revelation to figure out that adultery, stealing, and murder are really bad ideas, and that there is something noble about caring for other human beings. We have countless examples of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others—even agnostics and atheists—living upright lives and giving themselves in sacrificial service to the marginalized.

In short, what Christians uniquely have to offer the world is not religious experience or even a unique religious way of life. We're not hawking "your best religion now," for our religion, upon close examination, seems no more admirable or sinful than any other religion. Christianity stands under the judgment and grace of God—as do all religions.

No, what Christians bring to the world is a message embedded in a story, and nothing less than a God-given, God-revealed message and story.

That's good! Personally, my "memorable religious experiences" come more often from a well-crafted IPA, a great film, or hearing my son say da-da, than they do in a worship service. But it's through placing myself under the ministry of Word and sacrament, and attending to the ordinary means of grace, that I find myself mysteriously and excitingly being transformed into the image of Christ. I'm not the man I used to be, and by God's grace, I'm not the man I will be. That's memorable enough for me.

God's solution to evil

I recently read Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006) by N.T. Wright. In the adult Sunday School class I help teach we're discussing the book and watching the companion film that Bishop Wright did for Channel 4 in the UK. Both the book and video are powerful. Wright leans heavily on earlier work, especially his massive Jesus and the Victory of God. In fact this book makes for an accessible entry point into the strengths, and some would say weaknesses, of his thought. Wright's purpose here is to demonstrate how the scriptures of the Old and New Testament provide a more effective and compelling response to evil than either the myth of automatic progress growing out of the Enlightenment, or postmodern-style cynicism and nihilism. By response Wright doesn't mean that the Bible answers every question we may have about the "problem" of evil, rather it tells us "the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil." (p. 45) The hinge of this story is the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12, and the main character of the story is the nation of Israel, culminating in the prophetic and kingly work of Israel's Messiah.

One of the emphases in this book that I loved is Wright's refutation of two kinds of false dualism that often spring from efforts to deal with the problem of evil. The first is an "us and them" dualism that sees the line between good and evil running between the good guys (me and those like me) and the bad guys (them). A recent example of this, according to Wright, is the post-9/11 rhetoric from Western leaders about ridding the world of evil and defeating an "axis of evil." Wright reminds us of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's hard-won insight that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and every human society. The second is an "ontological dualism" that sees the physical world of matter, space and time as essentially evil and the spiritual world as essentially good. This often leads to a belief that salvation consists of the obliteration of the physical, and the liberation of the soul from the body. Thus we've grown up with images of heaven as a place where disembodied spirits sit on clouds and play (invisible?) harps for all eternity. These pictures of salvation and the afterlife have more in common with gnosticism than the Bible, and it's amazing how far they've crept into contemporary evangelicalism. Been to a "Christian" funeral lately?

Toward the end of the book Wright gives this summary.

We are not told—or not in any way that satisfies our puzzled questioning—how and why there is radical evil within God's wonderful, beautiful and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out, but I believe we are incapable of understanding it at the moment, in the same way that a baby in the womb would lack the categories to think about the outside world. What we are promised, however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together. And we are given this promise not as a matter of whistling in the dark, not as something to believe even though there is no evidence, but in and through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and in and through the Spirit through whom the achievement of Jesus becomes a reality in our world and in our lives. When we understand forgiveness, flowing from the work of Jesus and the Spirit, as the strange, powerful thing it really is, we begin to realize that God's forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the rope by which sin, anger, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us. Evil will have nothing to say at the last, because the victory of the cross will be fully implemented. (pp. 164-5)

It's become almost a cliche to say that Wright's a big-picture thinker, and that this strength of his becomes a weakness at times. D.A. Carson has said that Wright's exegesis tends to foreground what's in the background and background what's in the foreground. I think that's a danger for any theologian. We all have our favored emphases that can distort our interpretative lenses if we're not careful. Nevertheless, one need not agree with everything Wright has written on justification (and I don't) to benefit from this book. I told my class that any serious seeker of God must sooner or later grapple with the question of evil. This book is a worthy attempt at doing just that. It's one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to non-Christian friends who want to know why I believe that in Jesus Christ all things are being made new. One day there will be no more sea. (Rev. 21:1)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why I'm catholic

Theology should be catholic, not in the Roman sense of according magisterial authority to the official tradition of the institutional church, but rather in recognizing what we might call the ministerial authority of the consensus tradition of the church as it is extended through time and space. Catholicity is the antidote to the tribalism and parochialism that infects Christian thinking that never leaves its ghetto. When each interpreter lives in his own house the result is a destructive factionalism ("I am of Piper"; "I am of Dobson"; "I am of McClaren").

Kevin Vanhoozer, "Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics" (Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society - March 2005)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When inspiration strikes

I don't consider myself to be a very creative person. I'm a "plodder" and I gravitate toward established structures. When I was in grade school the sight of construction paper and glue sticks gave me cold sweats. They still do. I was one of those kids that hated arts education. My wife, on the other hand, almost went to art school and my 14-month old is already fascinated by crayons and colored paper. Does that mean he wants to write words like daddy? Or draw pictures like mommy? Time will tell. That being said, I do have the occasional creative moment -- usually in the context of problem solving -- and they almost always come when I least expect them. How do I get across a difficult concept in Sunday school? What's the most efficient way to introduce a new process at my workplace? Often a creative answer will pop into my head when I'm staring out the window, ostensibly wasting time.

Here's Jonah Lehrer on the value of daydreaming.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Thomas Watson's scripture pencil

In my devotional reading I've been enjoying The Godly Man's Picture by Thomas Watson (1620 - 1686). To be more precise, the full title is a characteristically (for a Puritan writer) long one: The Godly Man's Picture Drawn with a Scripture Pencil, or, Some Characteristic Marks of a Man who is Going to Heaven. Pithy isn't a word one normally associates with the Puritans, but it applies to this wonderful book.

Watson draws out 24 characteristics of a godly man, or woman. Don't be put off by the title, ladies. These are bracketed by several short chapters of additional encouragements to godliness, and warnings against it's deadly enemy -- hypocrisy. All the things I've heard about Thomas Watson are born out here. His style is warm and a delight to read. He combines deep human insight with rich application of scripture. Here are some gems from the section on prayer.

He that prays he knows not how, shall be heard he knows not when. (p. 89)

The reason why so many prayers suffer shipwreck is because they split against the rock of unbelief. Praying without faith is shooting without bullets. When faith takes prayer by the hand, then we draw near to God. (p. 90)

The lower the heart descends, the higher the prayer ascends. (p. 91)

A spiritual prayer is when we have spiritual goals in prayer. There is a vast difference between a spiritual prayer and a carnal desire. The goals of a hypocrite are secular and carnal. He looks asquint in prayer. It is not the sense of his spiritual needs that moves him but rather lust. 'Ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts' (Jas. 4:3). The sinner prays more for food than for grace. (p. 92)

To pray for holiness and neglect the means is like winding up the clock and taking off the weights. (p. 93)

Maybe the best thing I can say about reading Watson, and the Puritans in general, is that they cause me to long for heaven.

In that country there is better employment; while we are here, we are complaining of our wants, weeping over our sins, but there we shall be praising God. How the birds of paradise will chirp when they are in that celestial country! There the morning stars will sing together, and all the saints of God will shout for joy.

Oh, what should we aspire after but this country above? (pp. 111-112)

Like John Owen, Thomas Watson is a "heart doctor" that every Christian would benefit from visiting. In the forest of English-speaking Christianity these 17th-century Puritans are the redwoods.

New Bonhoeffer bio

Thanks to Justin Taylor for reminding us that today is the 65th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's death at the hands of the Third Reich. Taylor also points to a new biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas, with a foreword by Tim Keller. I'll be ordering this!

Much more on Bonhoeffer here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Holy Sonnet X" by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Final scene of Au hasard Balthazar (dir. Robert Bresson, 1966)

Wide-angle view of the cross (part 2)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Colossians 2:15

In the cross Christ has disarmed the powers. . . . The death of Christ was the unmasking of the powers — Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate were not uniquely wicked men; they were acting out their roles as guardians of the political and moral and religious order. They acted as representatives of what the New Testament calls the world, this present age. When God raised the crucified Jesus, this present age and its structures was exposed, illuminated, unmasked — but not destroyed. Cross and resurrection seen together mean both judgment and grace, both wrath and endless patience. God still upholds the structures; without them the world would collapse and human life would be unthinkable. But the structures lose their pretended absoluteness. Nothing now is absolute except God as he is known in Jesus Christ; everything else is relativized. That is the bottom line for Christian thinking and the starting point for Christian action in the affairs of the world.

Quote from The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989) as reprinted in Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader (p. 45)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why we love Costco

@ The Frontal Cortex

Topeka it

This will take some getting used to!

Wide-angle view of the cross (part 1)

Yesterday I wrote about two ways of looking at the cross, both Biblical, and both essential. They are the close-up view and the wide-angle view. The work of the cross is a unified whole, but it's like a many-faceted diamond. It is personal, but it's also cosmic. Today and tomorrow I'm posting quotes from two of my favorite theologians expounding on the cosmic dimensions of what Jesus of Nazareth accomplished by his death and resurrection. I hope you'll find them thought-provoking and encouraging.

First up, here's John Calvin commenting on John 12:31.

The Lord now, as if he had already succeeded in the contest, boasts of having obtained a victory not only over fear, but over death; for he describes, in lofty terms, the advantage of his death, which might have struck his disciples with consternation. Some view the word, judgment (πρίσις) as denoting reformation, and others, as denoting condemnation. I rather agree with the former who explain it to mean, that the world must be restored to a proper order; for the Hebrew word mishpat, which is translated judgment, means a well-ordered state. Now we know, that out of Christ there is nothing but confusion in the world; and though Christ had already begun to erect the kingdom of God, yet his death was the commencement of a well-regulated condition, and the full restoration of the world.

Calvin on John 13:31.

. . . in the cross of Christ, as in a magnificent theater, the inestimable goodness of God is displayed before the whole world. In all the creatures, indeed, both high and low, the glory of God shines, but nowhere has it shone more brightly than in the cross, in which there has been an astonishing change of things, the condemnation of all men has been manifested, sin has been blotted out, salvation has been restored to men; and, in short, the whole world has been renewed, and every thing restored to good order.

John 12:31 and 13:31 -- two great verses to meditate on this week. And the references are easy to remember!

Quotes from Calvin, Commentary on John