Sunday, February 27, 2011

Imitating our Master

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is one of those bona fide classics that every Christian can profit from, even if you don't agree with everything in it. There are things here that should be daily reminders for pilgrims on the way. I've been dipping into it again. Here are some snippets. . .

Those who fully understand Christ's words must labor to make their lives conform to His.

Knowledge is a natural desire in all people. But knowledge for its own sake is useless unless you fear God. An unlearned peasant, whose contentment is the service of God, is far better than the learned and the clever, whose pride in their knowledge leads them to neglect their souls while fixing their attention on the stars.

Nothing is so beneficial as a true knowledge of ourselves, which produces a wholesome self-contempt.

Always keep in mind that all are frail, but none so frail as yourself.

It is good that everything is not always to our liking; for adversity makes people look into their hearts in order to realize that they are exiles and must not put their hopes in any worldly thing.

The Imitation of Christ is clearly a book by a man who was saturated in scripture and who had a keen sense of the effects of sin. If you've never read it I hope you'll pick it up.

Quotes from pgs. 15, 16, 17, 18 & 30 of this edition

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The end of baptism

Here's another quote from Children of Promise (Geoffrey W. Bromiley) pp. 89-90

Whether we be baptized in infancy or on profession of faith, there is in fact no time when we can say that baptism refers simply to some past or present experience in our own life and that it has meaning and value solely or primarily as a witness to that experience. As a sign of the regenerating, renewing, and resurrecting work of the Holy Spirit it always has a wider as well as a narrower time reference. It begins with Christ's first coming before our present life and it ends with his coming again after our present life. Thus we begin with Christ's death and resurrection for us and we end with our own death and resurrection with him at the last day. Our attainment of this end is the creative work of the Holy Spirit which is declared to us in baptism and which has its initial outworking in conversion and the ongoing movement of renewal. Only when the end has been attained can we say that by the work of the Spirit we have fully entered into the baptism of Christ. But then the thing signified will be present in its totality and the sign and its testimony will no longer be needed.

Bromiley bases the above on passages taken from (among others) Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Peter 4. This eschatalogical dimension to baptism is not something we're used to considering (or at least I'm not). Typically we think of baptism as something that witnesses merely to an event in the present or past, but the New Testament writers (Paul especially) see baptism as having a future dimension as well. That's one reason why we can say that the efficacy of baptism isn't tied to the moment in time that it happens. There's nothing magical in the water or in the pastor/priest that administers it. The validity of our baptism is demonstrated in a lifetime of being conformed to the image of Christ, and consummated in the final resurrection described in 1 Cor. 15 and elsewhere. How this past/present/future scope of baptism might inform the question of infant baptism I'll leave for you to ponder.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

If the Bible is God's authoritative word. . .

- That means it speaks to us words that are not always what we would say to ourselves.

- That means it speaks to us words that are not always what we want to hear.

- That means it speaks to us words that are not always what the culture speaks.

via Rev. Henry Greene


by Tom Toles

Monday, February 21, 2011

He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois

Some classic American cinema for your Presidents' Day. Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln. . .

Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1939)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Machen on the radio

In 1935 J. Gresham Machen gave a series of talks on Philadelphia radio station WIP. They were published under the title The Christian Faith in the Modern World. Best I can tell it's out of print, but I scored a copy at a used book sale at our church. This is vintage Machen -- clear, concise and unflinching in defense of truth.

The world was a scary place in 1935. Machen remarks in the first talk called "The Present Emergency" that humanity is standing over an abyss. The "war to end all wars" was still fresh in the public mind, America was in the grip of the Great Depression, and another world war loomed on the horizon. Yet with all that Machen had the audacity to go on the radio and affirm that the most pressing emergency facing mankind had to do with God and the unseen world. More specifically, the most urgent question facing humanity is how can one be right with God. The world is still a scary place, and that question still presses in on sinners who wake up to their perilous position under the wrath of a holy and just God.

Machen began by sketching a rudimentary doctrine of the knowability of God and then proceeded to explain and defend basic Christian doctrines in confessional Protestant terms. As a leading New Testament scholar it's not surprising that Machen spent a good chunk of these talks on the doctrine of Scripture. How can we say that the Bible is God's word? How can we believe every word in the Bible is inspired? What does that mean exactly?

After answering those questions and explaining what it means to say we believe in the full "plenary" verbal inspiration of the Bible -- and just as importantly what it doesn't mean (e.g. the human authors weren't mere stenographers for the Holy Spirit, nor were their natural abilities and literary styles obliterated by the receipt of divine revelation) -- Machen ends by affirming that for the Bible to be good news it must be more than a record of inspiring religion. It must be more than a manual for living. For the Bible to be good news for sinful men and women it must be a record of facts.

The Bible does tell me the facts. It tells me Jesus died on the cross to save me; it tells me He rose from the dead to complete His saving work and be my living Lord. What do I say when it tells me that? Do I say: "That is history and not religion: I am not interested in it; it may be true or it may not be true for all I care; the Bible is a book of religion and not a book of science or a book of history"? No, my friends, I do not say that. I say rather: "Praise be to God for that blessed story of the resurrection and the cross; upon the truth of it all my hope depends for time and for eternity; how I rejoice that God Himself has told me in His holy Book that it is true!"

Here is a rule for you, my friends: no facts, no good news; no good news, no hope. The Bible is quite useless unless it is a record of facts.

Quote from "Do We Believe in Verbal Inspiration?"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

America's favorite temperance drink

I've been listening to the latest episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass & Co. claim to have found the secret recipe for Coca-Cola.

I don't drink the stuff, but I'm fascinated by the history and iconography of this enduring cultural artifact. Much of the mythology of Coke revolves around Coca-Cola's inventor, druggist John Pemberton. Like many Confederate veterans Pemberton became addicted to morphine -- the drug of choice for treating wounded soldiers. After the war he began experimenting with a concoction that contained extract from coca leaves, as in cocaine. The hope was that it would help wean addicts off of their dependence on morphine. His first product was a wine containing caffeine, and yes, cocaine. Must have been quite the energy drink! When temperance mania hit Atlanta; Pemberton realized he needed to adapt to the changing social mores. He removed the alcohol from his beverage, tinkered some more and -- voila! -- the primitive version of Coca-Cola was born. It's his recipe that Ira Glass attempts to reproduce on this week's show.

Interestingly enough; coca leaves are still used in the official formula, but not before they're de-cocainized at a plant in New Jersey. That makes the Coca-Cola Company one of the biggest importers of a Schedule II controlled substance in the country!

Monday, February 14, 2011

"It's always been you."

Four Weddings and a Funeral (dir. Mike Newell, 1994)

God is love, but love isn't God (C.S. Lewis)

From the introduction to this edition of The Four Loves.

St. John's saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougemont) that "love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god"; which of course can be re-stated in the form "begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god." This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God. (pp. 6-7)

We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred. (p. 8)

Good words on this day devoted to love from the wisest book I've ever read on the subject. It's worth noting that Lewis isn't denigrating human loves. Romantic love, love of family, friendship, and love of country are all examples of love to be celebrated. They all reflect aspects of the divine love. It's when these loves become the ultimate thing, the highest good, that they carry within themselves seeds of poison.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A wrap-up of Letters to a Young Calvinist

As promised, some final words on this engaging book from Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith. Previous posts here, here and here.

Smith got the idea to write the book while reading Letters to a Young Contrarian (Christopher Hitchens) and Letters to a Young Catholic (George Weigel), and it's this epistolary form that gives the book it's sparkle. Sprinkled throughout these letters to "Jesse" (a composite of several young adults that Smith taught at an Assemblies of God congregation in Southern California) are personal references and anecdotes. Also enjoyable are Smith's many recommendations of books to read, and Letters features a superb bibliography. I tagged several books for future reference.

Perhaps my favorite chapter/letter is one called "To Be Reformed Is to Be Catholic". What, you say? Wasn't the whole point of the Reformation to oppose the Catholic Church? Well, not exactly. The original Reformers didn't set out to start a new branch of the Christian church. Smith suggests that we think of the Reformation as originally conceived as an Augustinian renewal movement within the Church. It's significant that Luther was an Augustinian monk, and Calvin considered Augustine his mentor -- he cites him more often than any other church father. Smith writes:

My point here is that the Reformers were not revolutionaries; that is, they were not out to raze the church to the ground, get back to some "pure" set of New Testament church principles, and start from scratch. In short, they didn't see themselves as leapfrogging over the centuries of post-apostolic tradition. They were re-forming the church. And in that respect, they saw themselves as heirs and debtors to the tradition that came before them. Indeed, they understood the Spirit as unfolding the wisdom of the Word over the centuries in the voices of Augustine and Gregory the Great, in Chrysostom and Anselm. To say the Reformed tradition is "catholic" is just to say that it affirms this operation of the Spirit in history, and thus receives the gifts of tradition as gifts of the Spirit, subject to the Word. (p. 46)

Of course history moved in a different direction, Rome dug in her heels at Trent, and Calvin ended his life lamenting the failure to achieve a Protestant consensus. That being said Reformed Christianity still calls us to see ourselves as part of a Spirit-guided, centuries-old movement of God working through a catholic "universal" church, imperfect as it has been and will be. It also reminds us that the visible unity of the church is something to earnestly desire and work for.

It's easy to see how this approach is attractive to folks who've grown up in traditions that have a negative view of history, and pooh-pooh the need for dusty old creeds and books written by long-dead church figures. As Smith points out, this is actually a form of "chronological snobbery." I believe along with him that the historical-rootedness and intellectual rigor of Calvinism explains in part the growth of the "young, restless, Reformed" phenomenon that's gotten so much ink, but if we're not careful those same characteristics can lead to pride -- which is why this may be the most important statement in the book.

The Reformed tradition isn't an intellectual framework to make us "smart" Christians (enabling us to then look down on other "dumb" Christians). It isn't a theological complex to be admired for its coherence and theoretical beauty. It is first and foremost an articulation of Jesus's call to discipleship. Calvinism isn't worth a thing—it will be merely a clanging cymbal—if it doesn't engender a way of life that exhibits the gracious compassion of God lived out in a people who are a foretaste of his coming kingdom. (pp. 58-9)

Amen to that!

There were one or two things in LTAYC I could quibble with. For one thing I didn't find his advocacy of an all-encompassing Kuyperian "wide-angle Calvinism" totally convincing, (I have problems with the strict two kingdom's folks too!) Nevertheless, the author will be happy to know he convinced me that I need to read Abraham Kuyper for myself. Minor reservations aside, I loved this book!

Monday, February 7, 2011

On the enduring appeal of Bible stories (Ryken)

These stories are both factually realistic and romantically marvelous. They bring together two impulses that the human race is trying to join—reason and imagination, fact and mystery. The stories of the Bible nourish our need for both down-to-earth reality and the more-than-earthly. They appeal both to that part of us that is firmly planted on earth and to that part of us that soars to the heavens.

Quote from Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Baker, 1992) p. 39

Friday, February 4, 2011

Darkness exposed at Planned Parenthood

"Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them."
- Ephesians 5:11

These videos give the lie to the idea that Planned Parenthood is a benign organization devoted to helping women and girls. The first is from a clinic in New Jersey, the second is from a clinic in Virginia. In them a man and woman posing as a pimp and his associate approach the clinics seeking advice on obtaining services, including abortion, for the sex workers they manage. They clearly state that some of the girls are as young as 14. Watch what happens.

via Thabiti Anyabwile

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Old Testament pictures of baptism

Yesterday I posted some words of appreciation for Geoffrey Bromiley's little book on infant baptism. Fundamental to the case for baptizing the infants of Christian parents is a view of scripture that sees the Old and New Testaments as a consistent, inter-related revelation of God's "divine action, message, and command." One application of this principle views the new covenant sacrament of baptism as corresponding to the old covenant sign of circumcision.

But before coming to that conclusion it's interesting to look at how Peter and Paul point back to two "types" of baptism in the OT. Clearly they saw the OT as having a significant bearing on the meaning of New Testament baptism. Peter pictures baptism as Noah's Ark saving Noah and his family from the flood of God's judgement (1 Peter 3:20-21) and Paul pictures baptism in the Israelites' deliverance thru the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2). If we believe that Peter and Paul were guided by the Holy Spirit then we can't say these were arbitrary examples picked out of a hat. After all, there are other water incidents in the OT they could have brought in (e.g. Naaman's cleansing in the Jordan River).

What do the typological examples used by Peter and Paul tell us about baptism?

What is pictured is the deliverance of an elect family or people. The motif of the covenant is prominent in both incidents. In the first we have the covenant of God with Noah. His family is included, enabling him to become the progenitor of a new race. In the second the deliverance leads to a new covenant relation between God and Israel, but it is premised on the prior covenant with Abraham. (pp. 15-6)

. . . in both these typical incidents the covenant is made not with the individual alone, with Noah or Moses, but with the family or people. Not Noah alone but his wife, his sons, and his sons' wives are brought into the ark and preserved there. Not Moses alone, nor just the male Israelites, but all the children of Israel, the men, their wives, and their little ones, go out from Egypt and walk on dry land across the sea. The point is not merely that in these actions, which are types of baptism, the children share the experience with their parents. It is rather that the covenantal action of God is not with individuals in isolation, but with families, or with individuals in families, so that those belonging to the individuals are also separated as the people of God and in a very special sense come within the sphere of the divine covenant. (p. 16)

Neither one of these examples should be cited as proof-texts in support of infant baptism, but they seem to indicate that the apostles didn't think the family relationship signified under the old covenant had been reversed under the new.

Quotes from Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants (Eerdmans, 1979)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A recommendation: Children of Promise

Thanks to my pastor for loaning me this book. The author, Geoffrey Bromiley, was one of his professors at Fuller Seminary. I'm only a few pages in but this looks to be a clear summary of the pro-infant baptism case, while acknowledging that this debate can't be definitively resolved since the New Testament neither prescribes or prohibits the practice. It would be easier if it did! In light of the often contentious debate over baptism I liked the author's statement of purpose for the book: "not in the hope of winning a debate, but with the prayer that God may be glorified both in continued reflection on baptism and also in its administration, whether to young or old."

Where you come down on the question of infant baptism has a lot to do with how you see the relationship between the Old Testament/Covenant and the New Testament/Covenant. Often those who hold an exclusive credobaptist (believer's baptism) position see more discontinuity between the old and new covenants than those who believe that the infant children of believing parents should be baptized. After agreeing that "differences do exist between the old covenant, or the old form of the covenant, and the new" -- Bromiley states a key interpretive principle underlying the case for infant baptism.

The old covenant is the covenant of promise and the new covenant is the covenant of fulfilled promise. Fundamentally, however, this covenant is one, just as the purpose, word, and work of God are one. The Old Testament is superseded by the New only in the sense that it is fulfilled in the New. The external details differ but not at the expense of the underlying consistency or continuity of the divine action, message, and command. Hence the Old Testament cannot properly be understood apart from the New, but equally the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the Old. (pp. 14-5)

Tomorrow -- how this principle informs two key NT texts on baptism -- 1 Peter 3:20-21 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-2.