Friday, June 29, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Kuyper on common grace

Abraham Kuyper didn't invent the concept of common grace, but he pushed it further than anyone before or since, even writing a three volume treatise on the subject. Here's a bit of "Calvinism and Religion" -- the second lecture from Lectures on Calvinism -- that gives an idea of Kuyper's massive view of common grace.

Religion concerns the whole of our human race. This race is the product of God's creation. It is his wonderful workmanship, his absolute possession. Therefore the whole of mankind must be imbued with the fear of God—old as well as young—low as well as high—not only those who have become initiated into his mysteries, but also those who still stand afar off. For not only did God create all men, not only is he all for all men, but his grace also extends itself, not only as a special grace, to the elect, but also as a common grace (gratia communis) to all mankind. To be sure, there is a concentration of religious light and life in the church, but then in the walls of this church there are wide open windows, and through these spacious windows the light of the Eternal has to radiate over the whole world. Here is a city set upon a hill, which every man can see afar off. Here is a holy salt that penetrates in every direction, checking all corruption. And even he who does not yet imbibe the higher light, or maybe shuts his eyes to it, is nevertheless admonished, with equal emphasis, and in all things, to give glory to the name of the Lord.

You can hear echoes in that of Kuyper's most famous line: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: "Mine!"

Quote from pp. 42-3 of this edition of Lectures on Calvinism

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Wesleyan who loves Calvin

From a Gospel Coalition interview of Fred Sanders:

Definitely sign me up for the "Wesleyans who love Calvin" club. I teach excerpts from The Institutes every year, and I've worked through the whole book cover to cover five times (three with students in seminar). There is no better way to learn the craft of theology than to work through The Institutes. Calvin shows his work: he always lets you know what he's after, what he's afraid of, and why he's doing things. He brings you along with him, and requires an active and responsive reader who is willing to make costly decisions all along the way. He never just lists a series of truths in the "Ten True Facts About Angels" style; he is always asking, at every point, "What can we be saying the gospel itself while teaching on every subject in theology?" He called The Institutes little, and really believed it: his commentaries of course dwarf it; his Job commentary alone equals its page count. He wrote a systematic theology that succeeds in pushing the readers out to Scripture itself, where they have to deal with the living God, not Calvin. The first time I read The Institutes I was in seminary, and he talked me into infant baptism with his testament-spanning arguments. The third time I read The Institutes I was a new professor, and he talked me out of infant baptism in spite of himself, because of the weakness of his argument. I don't think I ever leave a Calvin experience unchanged.

Turning from Calvin to the Calvinists, I'd also be willing to host the meetings for a "Wesleyans who love Calvinists" club. I'm going to ignore the left wing of the Reformed tradition here (it's not just the Wesleyan tradition that has generated its share of liberals), and focus on the side of the tradition that is either evangelical or within hailing distance of conservative evangelicalism.

The Reformed tradition has produced a whole series of great theologians. On my very short list would be Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Ursinus and Olevianus (that is, the Heidelberg Catechism in particular, but also Ursinus's exposition of it), and Karl Barth (I said "within hailing distance"). But many more are waiting in the wings; Calvinism has a deep bench.

There are probably a lot of reasons why so many good theologians come from this tradition. But the most important is surely that the Reformed have excelled at getting the central message of Scripture right. They emphasize the glory of God, and trace all of God's ways back to that ultimate horizon in one way or another. I think that has been a beacon that has drawn a lot of the most faithful and creative theological minds to that tradition. On a related note, I think Ephesians is the key text for the Reformed tradition at large. Not that Ephesians trumps any other book in the canon, but Calvinists have long known that in that letter, Paul stands tip-toe on the highest point of the revelation and insight given to the apostles, and gives a panoramic overview of all God's ways. I don't just mean the occurrence of words like election and predestination in chapter 1, I mean the vast sweep of God's purposes in the recapitulatory economy (1:10), and how it makes known his eternal character as Father, Son, and Spirit. Calvinists from Thomas Goodwin to John Webster get this. If I were to start a theological Ephesians fan club, more Calvinists would show up than anyone else.

Sanders goes on to explain why he's a self-described Wesleyan and not a Calvinist, so be sure to read the entire interview.

As a Calvinist who loves Wesleyan hymnody and the evangelical focus of the Wesleyan tradition I really appreciated Sanders' perspective. I can remember as a child hearing "Calvinist" used as a pejorative from the pulpit, though I'm pretty sure what the preacher meant by Calvinists was anyone who believed in "eternal security" i.e. Baptists. By the same token it's unfair for Calvinists to call Wesleyans "Pelagian" or "semi-Pelagian". The bottom line for me is that regardless of how we choose to label ourselves, if we can confess the grand central truths of the faith as expressed in the ecumenical creeds, we're all part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church -- which contra our "uppercase c" Catholic friends -- includes the heirs of the Protestant Reformation.

Monday, June 25, 2012

John Ford's "immense practical skills"

It's a relatively uncomplicated process for a writer or painter to translate an artistic vision into something tangible. Not easy, but uncomplicated. In contrast a film director can, and probably will, face a multitude of challenges turning an idea into images and sound. Before the camera rolls there's financing to arrange, locations to be selected, cast and crew to be hired. Then there's the unforeseen problems that arise during production -- this could be everything from uncooperative weather to the leading lady coming down with pneumonia. Because there are so many moving parts in the process of making a motion picture a movie that successfully reflects the artistic vision of its director is a happy accident. A master filmmaker like John Ford was able to meet the challenges and create an environment in which such "happy accidents" were the norm.

I love this anecdote from the set of The Quiet Man (1952) which shows Ford at the top of his game.

[Assistant cameraman Earnest] Day got a crash course in Ford's immense practical skills one afternoon when they were shooting a brief scene inside Cong's Catholic church. The Technicolor film of that period was slow, and the light levels in the church were low. Ford could have had [cinematographer Winton] Hoch boost the light, but that would have destroyed the reflective, noir mood he wanted. Ford instructed Hoch to lower the camera speed to about twelve frames a second, allowing more light into each frame, then took John Wayne aside and explained that, as he rose from his pew and exited down the aisle past the camera, he had to move in slow motion. When the film was projected at the standard twenty-four frames a second, he would appear to be moving normally. Wayne nodded obediently, understood perfectly. "I think we got it on the first take," remembered Earnest Day.

Only a director who had worked in silent films, where camera speeds were often adjusted for dramatic effect, would have known of this gambit; only Ford, in concert with an absolute professional like Wayne, could have tossed it off with such a casual, spur-of-the-moment brio.

Quote from Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (p. 402)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Germany v. Greece preview and some classic Python

Later today Germany will be taking on Greece in the quarterfinals of the 2012 European Football Championship. This affair held every four years rivals the World Cup as both sport and spectacle. Germany with their brand of attractive muscular football is thought by many (me included) to be the team that will take the crown from defending champion Spain, while few expected Greece to get this far, which they did by knocking out the heavily favored Russians.

This match has interesting parallels in the economic turmoil engulfing the Eurozone. The Greek economy is crippled by massive debt, and Germany is the economic superpower holding all the cards. A victory against the Germans would be a morale boost to a country desperately in need of something to feel good about. To pull off the upset the Greeks will have to rely on a stingy ultra-conservative style of football that belies their nation's fiscal reputation. Don't bet on it happening though. Die Mannschaft is just too good.

This isn't the first time Germany and Greece have met on the pitch. Here's an earlier meeting brought to you by Monty Python.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Revisiting the Pensées (Eliot on Pascal)

I've begun re-reading Pascal's Pensées owing to two facts: my dear mom got me a Kindle for Father's Day and shortly after I was made aware that a Kindle edition is available for free. (Longtime readers of this blog may remember me taking a swipe or two at e-books, but I have to admit the Kindle is an elegant way to read books, and even tactilely satisfying.) This digitized version of a 1958 edition has the bonus of a cracking introduction by T.S. Eliot. It doesn't get much better than Eliot and Pascal. Here are some quotes.

On the value of studying Pascal

Pascal is one of those writers who will be and who must be studied afresh by men in every generation. It is not he who changes, but we who change. It is not our knowledge of him that increases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towards it. The history of human opinions of Pascal and of men of his stature is a part of the history of humanity.

The value of Pascal's life before his conversion

The period of fashionable society, in Pascal's life, is however, of great importance in his development. It enlarged his knowledge of men and refined his tastes; he became a man of the world and never lost what he had learnt; and when he turned his thoughts wholly toward religion, his worldly knowledge was a part of his composition which is essential to the value of his work.

Pascal's skepticism leading to faith

For every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own scepticism, that which stops at the question, that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which transcends it. And Pascal, as the type of one kind of religious believer, which is highly passionate and ardent, but passionate only through a powerful and regulated intellect, is in the first sections of his unfinished Apology for Christianity facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief.

A word of caution to those interested in tackling Pascal's Pensées for the first time. Give yourself time, and give him time, to get into the flow. I can imagine a first-time reader throwing up his hands in frustrated puzzlement after the opening section, but the more one reads Pascal the more cogent he becomes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: Berry's second law of a "money economy"

The following quote is from the Foreword to The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

For complex reasons, our culture allows "economy" to mean only "money economy." It equates success and even goodness with monetary profit because it lacks any other standard of measurement. . . .

A second law [of such an economy] is that anything diseased is more profitable than anything that is healthy. What is wrong with us contributes more to the "gross national product" than what is right with us. Let us take a healthy marriage for example: a man and wife who produce from their own small farm or homestead or town lot as much as possible of what they eat, and provide on their own as far as possible for other needs; who therefore have work at home for their children; who therefore have "home life" and all that that implies. Such a couple may contribute immeasurably to the health of the nation, even to its solvency. But they are not good for the nation's business, for they consume too little.

If this man and wife were to get divorced, their contribution to the economy would increase spectacularly. Their household, with all its productive motives, means, and energies, would be dissolved, and its members would live by consumption. Their dependence on the industries of food, style, transportation, entertainment, and so on would be greater. So probably would their dependence on the industries of drugs, medicine, psychiatry, counseling, and the like. They would be worth far less to themselves, to each other, to their community, and to the world—but far more to the economy. (Foreword, p. xiii)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Goodbye PCUSA, hello ECO

"Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim." - J. Gresham Machen

Allow me a personal update. On Saturday Memorial Presbyterian Church -- the church my family are members of and where I serve as an elder -- was officially dismissed from the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and received into a brand new denomination ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. As our co-pastor Randy Bare described it Saturday was a "historic and emotional day" as we celebrated a service of worship with representatives of the church body Memorial has been a part of for 88 years, as well as representatives of our new ministry home.

Saturday was the culmination of an arduous years-long journey on which the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit were frequently evident, and I have to say the gracious spirit that characterized this separation was due in large part to the goodwill of those with whom we have sharp disagreements theologically. For those not familiar with Presbyterian church government: individual congregations can't leave unilaterally, but must be granted dismissal by higher church bodies called presbyteries. In our presbytery (The Presbytery of Tropical Florida) we were able to disagree agreeably! This hasn't been the case in other parts of the country where separations of theologically conservative churches like our's from the PCUSA have often been accompanied by bitter strife and even litigation.

But why ECO? Why join a new Presbyterian denomination when there are already several good options for churches like us? This was a question the elders wrestled with, but in the end we decided the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of something new was too good to pass up. And perhaps most importantly several of our sister and daughter churches in South Florida were also headed to ECO.

ECO is a start-up, and as such can look with new eyes at the challenge of being a denomination in a post-denominational world, and of being missional Christians in a Western context that's increasingly post-Christian. ECO seeks to do this while holding fast to the essential tenets of our catholic and Reformed faith -- such as the authority of Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as "the sole path by which sinners become children of God" (quoting from ECO's statement of theological beliefs). I think of it as Presbyterianism 2.0.

ECO's mission statement is to grow and plant "flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ." In other words to create and nurture a healthy "ecosystem" which supports churches in carrying out the Great Commission. What might that look like? Quoting from Pastors John Crosby and Jim Singleton (two of the drafters of ECO's founding documents):

"[ECO] is intended to foster a new way of being the Church, just as traditional, mainline denominations rose to serve in their day. We aspire to reclaim a sense of covenanted biblical community, where unity is derived from a shared mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ, rather than by structural mandate. Our theological beliefs and core values unite us and inform our daily ministry, as leaders of all generations are being developed to equip God's people to speak the gospel into a rapidly-changing world. Congregations will gather together not to debate process or policy, but to collaborate, share best practices, encourage a Jesus way of life, and spur one another on to love and good deeds."

Tragically the mainline Presbyterian Church has lost this vision of unity defined by God's Word and God's mission, instead settling for a forced institutional unity that Machen correctly predicted would lead to strife. If you're inspired by the vision of ECO why don't you consider joining us? There are now 8 ECO churches in South Florida from Ft. Pierce down to The Keys, and many more nationally. Most of all, pray that all of us in ECO would be empowered by God's Spirit to live into our vision for making disciples.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: good work and God's work

These quotes are from Wendell Berry's essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" as published in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993)

By denying spirit and truth to the nonhuman Creation, modern proponents of religion have legitimized a form of blasphemy without which the nature- and culture-destroying machinery of the industrial economy could not have been built—that is, they have legitimized bad work. Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. (p. 104)

The significance—and ultimately the quality—of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part. (p. 109)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Peterson on repentance

A while back I quoted pastor and author Eugene Peterson on the "tourist mindset" that poses a unique challenge to Christian discipleship. Each age poses its own challenges to the life of faith, and when Peterson wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction in 1980 he prophetically diagnosed the obstacles to following Jesus in a society obsessed with instant everything. The challenge has only gotten more acute in the intervening decades.

This book is pure gold, full of life-giving wisdom and encouragement for pilgrims tempted to quit the journey. It's written as a series of meditations on the Psalms of Ascent (120 - 134) which tradition says were sung by worshipers on the way up to Jerusalem to observe the annual feasts. Peterson aptly calls them "songs for the road." They begin with Psalm 120, a lament of distress and woe. This is the song of someone that's -- in Peterson's words -- "thoroughly disgusted with the way things are." It's an acknowledgment that one is living in a world twisted by sin and dominated by lies. This realization leads to the essential first step back to God -- repentance. I love how Peterson describes this loaded word.

The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe. . . . The usual biblical word describing the no we say to the world's lies and the yes we say to God's truth is repentance. It is always and everywhere the first word in the Christian life. John the Baptist's preaching was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). Jesus' first preaching was the same: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17). Peter concluded his first sermon with "Repent, and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). In the last book of the Bible the message to the seventh church is "be zealous and repent" (Rev. 3:19).

Repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world. And it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.

What are the pack of lies that the world tells me today? No doubt they're different than the ones the Psalmist had in mind. Earlier in the book Peterson helpfully points out that the form the world takes is different for each generation. Using the old prayer book language the enemies of faith without -- the devil -- and within -- the flesh -- are pretty easy to recognize, but the world is more difficult to detect because it's an "atmosphere" and "mood" that tends to lull me to sleep. Repentance is waking up and realizing that I've exchanged truth for lies (Rom. 1:25). As it was for those ancient pilgrims of faith it's the first step on the journey up to Jerusalem.

By the way, I've always thought this book had one of the best titles ever. It turns out Peterson borrowed it from Nietzche: "The essential thing 'in heaven and earth' is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."

Quote from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, pp. 25-6

Friday, June 8, 2012


Professional soccer player Yael Averbuch:

The national anthem is only roughly two minutes long. But before a game, sometimes it can feel like an eternity.

It had been so long since I stood on the field with my hand on my heart, that I almost forgot my little routine. I put my hand on my heart, not only out of tradition and loyalty to the United States, but so I can feel the thump of my heartbeat. My heart is always pounding. This is how I know I’m meant to play this game. I summon the feelings of extreme gratitude. I say “thank you” for having something in my life that can make me feel so alive. I say “thank you” that I am healthy and able to step on the field. I say “thank you” for the opportunity to play the sport I love and express myself in the best way I know how, with the ball at my feet. I say “thank you” for my existence in this moment.

Click here to read the rest of Averbuch's eloquent tribute to the game she loves.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kuyper's fountainhead of Calvinism

In 1898 Dutch pastor/theologian/politician Abraham Kuyper crossed the Atlantic to deliver a series of lectures at Princeton University. Kuyper's "Lectures on Calvinism" created a stir that continues to be felt today. Google "Kuyperian" and you'll get pages and pages of passionate debate pro and con on Kuyper's legacy. Having read a good deal of this debate I thought it was time to read Kuyper for myself.

The breadth of Kuyper's vision is stunning. In the first lecture Kuyper argued that Calvinism in it's most robust definition provides a "unity of life-system" that informs politics, art and science. For Kuyper the legacy of John Calvin wasn't merely theological, but one that comprehended every sphere of life, and that resulted in major advances in the religious, political and economic life of the nations in which it had its greatest influence (i.e. Netherlands, Britain and America). Surveying the scene at the end of the 19th century Kuyper believed that without its strong Calvinist underpinning Protestantism had become vague and impotent in confronting anti-Christian ideas, rooted in the Enlightenment, that were sweeping across Europe. Kuyper proposed the possibility of a newly revived Calvinism making common cause with Roman Catholicism (that other great Christian "unity of life system") in resisting what he variously calls modernism and modern pantheism -- basically just fancy words for unbelief. It's an interesting thesis to say the least.

But what for Kuyper was the fundamental idea, the fuel if you will, for his wide-angle Calvinism? And where and how did it originate? Here's the key paragraph from lecture one.

There are times in history when the pulse of religious life beats faintly; but there are times when its beat is pounding, and the latter was the case in the sixteenth century among the nations of western Europe. The question of faith at that time dominated every activity in public life. New history starts out from this faith, even as the history of our times starts from the unbelief of the French Revolution. What law this pulse-like movement of religious life obeys, we cannot tell, but it is evident that there is such a law, and that in times of high religious tension the inworking of the Holy Spirit upon the heart is irresistible; and this mighty inworking of God was the experience of our Calvinists, Puritans and Pilgrim fathers. It was not in all individuals to the same degree, for this never happens in any great movement; but they who formed the center of life in those times, who were the promoters of that mighty change, they experienced this higher power to the fullest: and they were the men and women of every class of society and nationality who by God himself were admitted into communion with the majesty of his eternal Being. Thanks to this work of God in the heart, the persuasion that the whole of a man's life is to be lived as in the divine Presence has become the fundamental thought of Calvinism. By this decisive idea, or rather by this mighty fact, it has allowed itself to be controlled in every department of its entire domain. It is from this mother-thought that the all-embracing life system of Calvinism sprang.

Quote from Lectures on Calvinism, p. 16 of this handsome edition