alastair.adversaria » What I’m Reading

Ecclesia Reformanda - A New Reformed Journal

A new theological journal has just started up, with two of my favourite British bloggers on the editorial board: Ros Clarke and David Field.

The following is the description of the journal from the website:

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est: ‘the reformed Church is always being reformed’.

Ecclesia Reformanda is a new print journal for pastors, theological students, and scholars, that seeks to serve the Church in its ongoing reformation according to God’s Word. The editorial board believes that historic Reformed theology offers the best expression of the theology of Scripture, and so the journal is confessionally Reformed. However, a genuinely Reformed theology is always looking for God to shed new light on his Church from his Word. It is therefore always reforming.

Ecclesia Reformanda is distinctively Reformed, with a contemporary cutting edge. It presents some of the best in British Reformed thinking and writing to serve the Church, her teachers, and her Lord.

The journal covers all of the theological subdisciplines, and early issues will include articles on intertextuality in Romans 2, poetry in James, the place of children in the new covenant according to Jeremiah 32, Jim Jordan’s hermeneutics, Herman Bavinck’s theological method, and John Owen’s doctrine of justification. Future editions will contain articles on ethics, public theology, and pastoral counselling.

A yearly subscription only costs £15. Abstracts of the articles from the first edition can be found here.

Zizek on the Traumatic Formation of the Human Being

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek responds to the claims that decoding of the genome enables us to reduce the human to the operation of chemical processes:

Here, however, one should be attentive to the formulation which repeatedly occurs in most of the reactions to the identification of the genome: “The old adage that every disease with the exception of trauma has a genetic component is really going to be true.” Although this statement is meant as the assertion of a triumph, one should nonetheless focus on the exception that it concedes, the impact of a trauma. How serious and extensive is this limitation? The first thing to bear in mind here is that “trauma” is NOT simply a shorthand term for the unpredictable chaotic wealth of environment influences, so that we are lead to the standard proposition according to which the identity of a human being results from the interaction between his/her genetic inheritance and the influence of his/her environment (“nature versus nurture”). It is also not sufficient to replace this standard proposition with the more refined notion of the “embodied mind” developed by Francisco Varela: a human being is not just the outcome of the interaction between genes and environment as the two opposed entities; s/he is rather the engaged embodied agent who, instead of “relating” to his/her environs, mediates-creates his/her life-world - a bird lives in a different environment than a fish or a man… However, “trauma” designates a shocking encounter which, precisely, DISTURBS this immersion into one’s life-world, a violent intrusion of something which doesn’t fit it. Of course, animals can also experience traumatic ruptures: say, is the ants’ universe not thrown off the rails when a human intervention totally subverts their environs? However, the difference between animals and men is crucial here: for animals, such traumatic ruptures are the exception, they are experienced as a catastrophe which ruins their way of life; for humans, on the contrary, the traumatic encounter is a universal condition, the intrusion which sets in motion the process of “becoming human.” Man is not simply overwhelmed by the impact of the traumatic encounter - as Hegel put it, s/he is able to “tarry with the negative,” to counteract its destabilizing impact by spinning out intricate symbolic cobwebs. This is the lesson of both psychoanalysis and the Jewish-Christian tradition: the specific human vocation does not rely on the development of man’s inherent potentials (on the awakening of the dormant spiritual forces OR of some genetic program); it is triggered by an external traumatic encounter, by the encounter of the Other’s desire in its impenetrability. In other words (and pace Steve Pinker), there is no inborn “language instinct”: there are, of course, genetic conditions that have to be met if a living being is to be able to speak; however, one actually starts to speak, one enters the symbolic universe, only in reacting to a traumatic jolt - and the mode of this reacting, i.e. the fact that, in order to cope with a trauma, we symbolize, is NOT “in our genes.”

From ‘No Sex, Please, We’re Post-Human!’

Thoughts on Rowling’s Revelation that Dumbledore is Gay

Albus Dumbledore

I can’t say that I am especially surprised by this revelation. I am, however, disappointed. Revealing such details about characters outside of the books cheapens the books themselves. The questions raised by a book should largely be left unanswered and the desire to settle all such ambiguities is characteristic of the excesses of fan fiction. It seems to me that Rowling’s willingness to pander to such speculation about characters lowers the value of her work. One of the things that I most love about a good book is the manner in which it creates a space within which our imaginations can play, the ambiguities giving us the option of reading the book in many different ways. When an author settles ambiguities like this I feel cheated. It is Rowling’s task to write and it is our task to read; I wish that she wouldn’t do our part for us.

In an important sense the books ceased to be Rowling’s on the day they were published. The printed books are the canon; we have no desire for an authoritative oral tradition interpreting the books for us. I preferred it when such issues as whether Neville Longbottom would get married or whether Dumbledore was ‘gay’ were open questions and we were left with ambiguities concerning which we could make up our own minds.

Regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality, I did wonder about it myself when reading the books. There were a few suggestive hints here and there. There is also the fact that there are clear parallels to homophobia and ‘coming out’ stories at various points in the books (and Dumbledore would hardly be the first homosexual English headmaster, would he?). For this reason the content of the revelation did not surprise me, even if the fact that Rowling would reveal such details outside of the books disappointed me.

I am convinced that homosexual practice is wrong, but I can’t say that I find it easy to identify entirely with either of the two predominant reactions that I have encountered to this revelation. On the one hand there are those who rejoice in this revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality as a triumph for ‘tolerance’. Rowling herself spoke of her books as a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’. This troubles me. I want the stories that I read to be driven by such things as character and plot, rather than by political or religious agendas. While I appreciate finding Christian symbolism in stories, I don’t like stories that are obviously thinly-veiled propaganda for the Christian faith. If I feel this way about propaganda for Christian faith, I will obviously feel uncomfortable with thinly-veiled propaganda for political correctness, a cause for which I have considerably less enthusiasm. By making such revelations about Dumbledore’s sexuality in the context of the claim that the books are a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’, I fear that Dumbledore is being made into a pawn in a political game. Something of the three-dimensionality of the character is lost in all of this. If Dumbledore is going to be gay I want Dumbledore to be gay because that is who the character is, not because the author wishes to be politically correct.

In addition to this, I feel uncomfortable about the outing of sexuality in general (not just homosexuality in particular) that is brought about by such revelations. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the authority figures of children to be thought of in a non-sexual way. I don’t want to be told that Dumbledore or McGonagall are straight or gay. Undoubtedly we are sexual beings, but our sexuality belongs, I believe, within bounds. There are parts of life that should be non-sexualized. This is part of what concerns me about many of the things associated with the ‘outing’ or ‘coming out’ of homosexuals. By defining the person too much in terms of their sexuality, sexuality in general is brought out of the contexts in which it belongs and starts to invade every area of life. I don’t like being called ‘heterosexual’ for a host of reasons, but one of these reasons is that, although I do possess a sexual nature, it is not something that I believe belongs in most contexts of discourse.

The outing of Dumbledore’s sexuality (no less than if we were told that McGonagall is ‘straight’ — and there is an important difference between knowing these things and being told them) risks sexualizing relationships that shouldn’t be sexualized, such as Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry, the teenager that he has long private conversations with and a special concern for. I also believe that this ‘outing’ of Dumbledore goes against the character himself. Although I can imagine a Dumbledore with feelings for Grindelwald, I cannot imagine a Dumbledore who would say: ‘I am gay’. While Dumbledore undoubtedly has a sexual nature, this sexual nature is generally quite marginal to the character as we encounter him in the books (in fact, there is still no claim — to my knowledge — that he ever engaged in homosexual activity).

On the other hand, there is the reaction of those who feel that the character of Dumbledore is now defiled. I also find it hard to identify with this reaction and fear that there may be an element of homophobia driving it. Although Rowling may have ‘outed’ him, Dumbledore did not come out about his sexuality in the books. In the books the character of Dumbledore is defined by far, far more than his sexuality. He comes across as a very human and a very noble person. As such a person, he is the sort of person who might truly wrestle with the complexities of human sexuality, without reducing himself to being defined by or purely driven by this sexuality. In fact, the Dumbledore that we encounter in the Harry Potter canon seems to be chaste and celibate. I see no reason why such a character should not appear in a book written for teens. There are many virtuous people who have struggled with homoerotic desire. Is a person defiled more than any other person simply because they have sinful desires? Is there any of us who doesn’t have sinful desires?

I am quite happy to think in terms of a Dumbledore who has homoerotic desires but refuses to be defined by them. In fact, we might end up with an even higher view of Dumbledore as we see his willingness to deny his desires for the sake of what is right (defeating the dark wizard). We might also begin to appreciate how Dumbledore’s personal struggle with such ‘abnormal’ desires enables him to become an even greater person than he would have been otherwise. It might be a good explanation for why Dumbledore is so attuned to the condition and so concerned for the wellbeing of the marginalized.

One of the strengths of Rowling’s characterization in the HP series is that she did not write ideal characters, but human ones. She presents us with a world in which the battle between good and evil occurs within each one of us and a world in which we must overcome certain desires, vices, character flaws and prejudices within our own selves. It is through the battle with our own selves that true and lasting character is formed. It is this account of human character and nature that enables us to understand how we might not allow ourselves to be defined by our desires (even, to some extent, our good desires), but might gain mastery over them. In such a world it is often the persons who have to wrestle most with the misleading desires of their own natures who emerge as the true people of virtue and character, rather than those who were so free from misdirected desire that they never had to wrestle with themselves in the first place.

As I believe that homoerotic desire is misdirected desire I do not believe that it should be portrayed as a good thing when we allow this desire to drive us. For this reason the idea of a ‘gay and proud’ Dumbledore saddens me. People who struggle with homoerotic desire are, I believe, struggling with a particular form of the compromised nature that afflicts us all as fallen human beings. I believe that true liberation for human beings with compromised natures (i.e. all of us) cannot be found in mere acceptance of the validity of our misdirected desires, but in the power to overcome our compromised natures, even though the struggle may never end here on earth. This is why any Christian refusal to justify homoerotic desire must be driven by the love for people made in God’s image that refuses to ‘tolerate’ these desires that lead to their being enslaved. How sad it is that Christians are often known for their homophobia, rather than for their strong affirmation of the one who struggles with homoerotic desire as a person made in the image of God, and for a love that refuses to stand idly by and see others being led astray by misdirected desires. For this reason I would be disappointed with a Dumbledore who was proud of his homoerotic desire, even though I like the idea of a Dumbledore who is able to recognize homosexual desire as part of his nature, but is enabled to wrestle with his nature in various ways. If anything, such a Dumbledore is more like the rest of us.

Preaching

The Sermon on the Mount, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598

The following are some slightly edited comments that I made on another blog earlier today:

From time to time I hear people lamenting the current state of evangelicalism and particularly of the loss of an appreciation for preaching. I couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of bad preaching around. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit under such preaching too often, but the fruits of it are not hard to see.

However, although I see a big problem, I am not at all convinced that traditional evangelical preaching is the answer (perhaps people would appreciate preaching more if we only had it once a month, like the Lord’s Supper…). I believe that there are deep problems with many of the traditional paradigms for preaching in evangelicalism and elsewhere. Preaching has become the event of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, which seems to me to be a serious departure from the biblical pattern. Even when Paul speaks until midnight at Troas, the Eucharist is spoken of as the reason for gathering (Acts 20:7). In the context of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, preaching should essentially be ‘tabletalk’.

While the Scriptures certainly teach about the importance of preaching, they also say a lot about aspects of the service that evangelicals tend to downplay as a result of their emphasis on preaching. The Scripture says a lot more about the institution of the Eucharist than it does about Christ’s institution of the Sermon as an essential element of gathered worship.

Such a focus on preaching has created new concepts of the Church. The Church becomes defined primarily around ideas and ever more sharply defined theological positions, rather than around community, which is something that the Eucharist retains the centrality of. The Church has also become organized more and more around one man’s activity (and, as James Jordan comments, that man is not Jesus Christ). Evangelical congregations are often more passive in gathered worship than medieval ones were and this is a serious problem. The service becomes something that the preacher does, rather than the shared activity of the body of Christ.

Worship becomes a mere preface and epilogue to preaching. Scripture-rich liturgies are abandoned and in some churches the congregation only open their mouths for the singing. Pastors do not prepare the liturgy. The liturgy is an after-thought, hastily thrown together, while most of their effort is put into crafting the rhetorical masterpiece which is the Sermon.

The pastor becomes increasingly defined by his role as the ‘preacher’. Rather than letting the father-like leadership that the pastor exercises over the congregation condition our understanding of the role and practice of preaching, other dimensions of the pastor’s role have been forgotten as his preaching becomes all-important. In actual fact I am not at all sure that preaching is the most important task committed to the pastor. One does not have to look far in evangelicalism to find good examples of the way in which preaching can eclipse all else, reducing churches to preaching centres. Far from building up the Church, such preaching undermines it.

Scripture reading in the service is often reduced to the reading for the sermon. Contrast this with the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. For instance, Robert Letham lists the readings in the EO liturgy for Good Friday — John 13:31-18:1; John 18:1-28; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:28-19:16; Matthew 27:3-32; Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 27:33-54; Luke 23:32-49; John 19:25-37; Mark 15:43-47; John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:62-66 and, quite literally, these are just starters. There are probably a couple of dozen more Scripture readings in addition to those already mentioned.

This brings to light one of the deepest problems with preaching as understood and practiced within conservative evangelicalism. This problem is the priority that it tends to give to our own words in worship, over God’s words. Our words gradually squeeze out God’s words. Rather than letting preaching be the handmaid of God’s Word, we will reduce the Scripture readings far sooner than we will cut down the length of the sermon.

The responsive and receptive character of Christian worship becomes downplayed and our words become less and less controlled by God’s Word. The Scripture content of the liturgy and prayers plummets, to be replaced by evangelical clichés. The texts for sermons become ever shorter. Some evangelical preachers pride themselves on preaching huge sermons on a couple of words in a text. This often has the effect of leaving preaching largely uncontrolled by the Scriptures. For many sermons the ‘text’ is merely a pretext or springboard to explore a dimension of systematic theology or the like.

Evangelical worship is full of the noise of our own voices. We continually speak at God but don’t take the necessary time to attend to and to digest what He might be saying to us. Having more times of silent response to readings of the Word of God, for instance, would be a huge step in the right direction, as would having more lengthy readings that are not preached on (throwing out the technology that eclipses the simplicity of worship would also be helpful). Sometimes we need to resist the urge to continually rush to say what the Scriptures mean and just allow them to work on us, practicing the art of listening to Scripture together (which means that we do NOT read along in our own Bibles). Contemporary evangelical worship, with all of its technological bells and whistles, provides us with dozens of distractions from the simplicity of the Word of God and from the terrifying silence that might actually lead to personal or theological epiphanies.

Preaching has come to be understood as a great rhetorical event. I believe that significant changes in popular evangelical preaching styles would have to take place in order to bring them more in line with Scripture. Calm Scriptural exposition should replace many of the impassioned rhetorical displays that one hears from evangelical pulpits (rhetorical displays that often disguise a depressing lack of content). The pastor should teach the congregation as a father teaches his children. This means that the ideal position is sitting, not standing, and that shouting and the raising of voice for rhetorical effect is generally unnecessary.

The pastor should also remember that he is like a father teaching children, something that many evangelical preachers forget. If unbelievers attend worship they are eavesdroppers; the gathered worship of the Church is not for their benefit, but is about the relationship between God and His people. The fact that preaching in the Church is for children means that preaching is for the converted. Sin and unbelief are still addressed, but they are addressed as issues in the lives of the children of God — the baptized.

The oratory model of preaching tends to place orator and audience at different poles. The model presumes an initial distance between orator and audience that needs to be overcome by rhetoric. Standing behind the lectern, the orator tries to win over his audience with clever rhetoric and artificially exaggerated emotion. Preaching becomes drama; preaching becomes an ‘act’ in which the preacher adopts an affected style of speech.

The pastor should address the congregation as one who already has a relationship with them. The father or the pastor should not have to ‘win over’ their hearers in the way that the orator does. They ‘win over’ their hearers differently, by powerful truths plainly and lovingly spoken and by teaching with a gracious authority. The pastor should teach the congregation entrusted to him much as Jesus taught His disciples. He speaks naturally to his hearers and does not employ an affected style. The passion and emotion that arise are natural and not exaggerated or affected.

Many of the problems of emotionalism and rationalism in evangelical circles arise from distorted models of preaching. If pastors were more concerned with plainly addressing the truths of the gospel to the consciences of the saints in the context of the gathered ‘family meal’ of the Eucharist I suspect that we would not have the same problem with the rationalism and intellectualism that arises from the rather silly idea that the intellect is primary, for instance.

Of Boggarts

The Boggart Snape after Neville's Riddikulus Charm

Many Christians have claimed that the Harry Potter books are dangerous, encouraging children to get involved in witchcraft. We are called to exercise discernment and reject such literature completely. It is interesting to observe how much popular children’s literature escapes such judgment, for instance literature that presents disfunctional relationships between children and parents and broken families as the norm and encourages the reader to identify and empathize with promiscuous and morally twisted characters. It is quite heartening to observe just how robust the family values put forward in the Harry Potter books are. Marriage, faithful relationships and strong relationships between children and their elders are presented as the norm. Given that these are books written by a former single mother in a society where countless families are broken and disfunctional, this fact probably deserves more attention than it has generally received (one also wonders whether Rowling has her own experience in mind when she has Harry speak some strong words to a particular character about marital commitment in book 7).

The contrast between Harry Potter and the messages that many popular TV shows, movies and books are giving young people about relationships is quite startling. The fact that many Christian parents permit their children to sit in front of TV shows and films that subtly but determinedly corrupt morals and expect their children to be mature enough to deal with such influences whilst fearing that Harry Potter will lead them to dabble in the occult is quite bizarre.

When it comes to the accusation of witchcraft, I actually believe that Rowling can help us arrive at a more Christian view of witchcraft. The world that Rowling writes of is a world of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, self-shuffling cards, flying cars, wands hidden in umbrellas, bat bogey hexes, Whomping Willows, Quidditch, owls who deliver the mail, wizards who wear the most ridiculous garments to pass themselves off as Muggles, and the like. It is a delightfully humourous and playful portrayal of a magical world. It is not intended to be taken seriously. The fact that many Christians do take it seriously is a sign that something is badly wrong with us.

One of my favourite creatures found in Harry Potter’s world is the Boggart.

‘Now, then,’ said Lupin, beckoning the class toward the end of the room, where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ said Professor Lupin calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. ‘There’s a Boggart in there.’

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnigan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively.

‘Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,’ said Professor Lupin. ‘Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks — I’ve even met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice.

‘So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’

Hermione put up her hand.

‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’

‘Couldn’t have put it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. ‘So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears.’

‘This means,’ said Professor Lupin, choosing to ignore Neville’s small sputter of terror, ‘that we have a huge advantage over the Boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?’

Trying to answer a question with Hermione next to him, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet with her hand in the air, was very off-putting, but Harry had a go.

‘Er — because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?’

‘Precisely,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione put her hand down, looking a little disappointed. ‘It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a Boggart make that very mistake — tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.

‘The charm that repels a Boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.

‘We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please … riddikulus!’

The pre-Christian world was full of dark, enclosed spaces for Boggarts to hide. People were plagued and tyrannized by fear, held in its bondage. Satan played with people’s imaginations, holding them in bondage as much (if not far more) by means of the fear within as by external demonic forces without. One of the effects of the gospel was to flood the world with light, driving the Boggarts out from their darkened lairs.

In the light of the gospel we can, like Harry and his classmates, learn to perform the riddikulus charm on our demonically-induced fears. After the gospel has taken effect we can mock things that once terrified us. This is one of the purposes of the celebration of Halloween. The gospel reveals that much of the fear that Satan excited in men prior to the advent of Christ resulted merely from the exaggerated shadows that he cast in the darkness. Now that light has come the shadows are removed and Satan is reduced to a far less terrifying stature. We can begin to laugh at the shapes that we once saw in the shadows.

Whilst there are undoubtedly evil forces at work in our world — Harry’s world contains Dementors and Death Eaters, not just Boggarts — we need to learn that many of the terrors that haunt us are merely products of our fearful imaginations. Satan loves to have the huge shadows that he tries to cast taken seriously. We will only truly defeat him when we learn to laugh at the shadows, walking through death’s shade while fearing no evil.

Good Christian fiction writers can help us to do this. Christian authors can and should tell stories of Greek and Norse gods, of dragons, giants, goblins, faeries, of witches on broomsticks, of pixies, gnomes, elves and dwarves. These stories are the chains in which defeated Boggarts are paraded in triumph before the Risen Christ. J.K. Rowling, by presenting us with a delightfully exaggerated magical world, has robbed real witchcraft of power, performing the riddikulus charm on many of its Boggarts. Much of the power of witchcraft derives from the huge aura that it builds up around itself and the irrational fears that it creates in us. Once these irrational fears and superstitions have been exorcized by humourous light fiction, witchcraft looks considerably less threatening (even though it never ceases to be real).

Many Christians operate in terms of a view of the world that is driven by fear and superstition. There is a terrible fascination with the morbid and the dangerous; such people see demons and witchcraft everywhere. The wonderful thing is that Christ died to set us free from such a paranoid fear of the demonic realm. There is witchcraft in our world and it is evil and dangerous and Christians should openly and strongly resist it. However, it is by no means as all-pervasive as some fevered imaginations might suggest.

Many of those who object to Rowling’s works are those who are still terrified by Boggarts. They continue in panic, hysteria and conspiracy theory-driven witchhunts. Thankfully, orthodox Christians have historically encouraged far greater scepticism towards such exaggerated myths of occult practices. This strong Christian scepticism towards many of the claims made for the occult has encouraged the rise of science and a more rational society. It is no accident that the sciences seldom prosper in superstitious societies. It is only as the old witch-hunts and superstitions end that our clearer vision enables us to come to a more scientific understanding of our world. This is one of the chief ways in which the clearer light of the gospel paves the way for science.

Occult practices undoubtedly exist, but viewed through eyes freed from fear and superstition through Christ’s victory we see a world where many of our former fears are revealed as mere creations of our own imaginations. Works like Harry Potter are a good way to start innoculating ourselves and our children against such fears.

Recent Garverization and my Rather Large Workload for the Next Few Months

A number of people have asked me about the reason for my dramatically decreased blogging output. There are a number of reasons. I have lacked any great desire to blog for weeks now. Rather than blog merely out of a sense of obligation I have put my blogging to one side and only blogged when I have felt like doing so. I needed to have some time away from blogging over the last month or two and the rest did me good. However, I don’t expect that I will feel inclined to resume regular service for the next few months at least. Guest posts are still welcome, though, if any are interested in submitting material on the subject of the atonement.

In September I will be spending two and a half weeks in South East Asia, where I have to deliver over 40 hours’ worth of lectures on the subject of Christian Ethics. I only discovered that I would be speaking so much a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have spent far more time working for my father’s business than I have in preparation. I have only read sections of a few books on the subject and nothing more. I have a vague idea of how I will approach the subject, but little more. I have never had to prepare anything like this before and only have a month in which to do so. I am the best man at a wedding this Saturday, which considerably limits my preparation time this week. I also have two Sundays in the next month when I will be preaching at churches in the locality, while the pastors are on holiday, not to mention occasional work for my father’s business.

I would greatly value people’s prayers and any ideas and recommendations from those who have done this sort of thing before. This is really a matter of being thrown in at the deep end for me and I am not at all sure that I am equipped for it. Please pray that I will have motivation, direction and clarity in my studies and preparation. Please also pray that the talks, when I deliver them, will be of blessing to the hearers.

HP7

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night. What a superb book! The dénouement was everything that I could have hoped for and more, wrapping up the whole series beautifully. It becomes apparent that Rowling had this ending clearly in her sights from the very start of the first book. Also, if there are any doubts in anyone’s mind that Rowling self-consciously writes as a Christian, this book should answer them. I can’t wait until the Christian Harry Potter experts start to comment on this book. If you have not yet read the book, go and do so right away! If you have, add Hogwarts Professor and Sword of Gryffindor to your feed aggregator and follow their post-book discussions. They should be very interesting. Even when you have already read the books, I have no doubt that these bloggers will bring to your attention the inner dynamics of the series and help you to appreciate many more subtle details that you might have missed.

[BEWARE: the comments of this post may contain spoilers!!]

Links

Over at Fragmenta, Matt writes:

Peter Leithart suggests that “linking intention to the literal [sic] sense, while acknowledging multiple senses, makes possible a proliferating richness of meaning while preventing what Eco calls hermeneutical drift.” But I don’t care about proliferating meaning. I want to know “what Saint Paul really said” — which may or may not be “literal”, a word fraught with over-simplistic dichotomies. The other, “multiple senses”, if they differ from the author’s sense, are misreadings, in both the Bloomian sense of the word, and in the simplest sense of the word: they are wrong, and if we rely upon them, we are building with straw, setting ourselves up for future refutation and exposure as fools. As I attempt to relate one text to another within the Bible, these other “multiple senses” will be hindrances or distractions. Worse, if we embrace other senses of the text than the ones intended by the author (and there may be more than one of these!), we are likely to become the future “Old Perspective” or the future “Law/Gospel hermeneutic,” fighting losing rear-guard actions against the tide of new scholarship that is, horrifyingly, armed with something much closer to the original authorial meaning. (That, in a nutshell, is the reason for the success of N.T. Wright and other NPP authors who pose such a threat to the old perspective.)

On this occasion I can’t quite agree with Matt, although I apprecaite and share many of his concerns with other approaches. Whilst the original meaning of the text is always important and should not be lost sight of, the meaning of the text is far greater than its original meaning. I appreciate the value and importance of such readings of Scripture that Matt speaks of. However, important as such readings of the Scriptures are, it was not the approach adopted by the apostles, who habitually interpreted the OT in a manner that placed the accent on the multiple senses that went beyond the original sense and occasionally even appeared to run contrary to it.

I am presently enjoying reading Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings

in the SCM theological commentary series. In the series preface, R.R. Reno makes my point as follows:

Precisely as Scripture—a living, functioning text in the present life of faith—the Bible is not semantically fixed.

I suspect that Matt and I differ to some extent in our understanding of what the task of interpreting the Scriptures entails. However, many of his concerns are my own and I recommend that you read his post, even if you end up disagreeing with him on a number of points.

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Peter Leithart has some great thoughts on Matthew 2. Among other things, he observes the presence of an exile-return inclusio in the gospel.
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Jon seems to have caught the linking bug, poor fellow. Posting long lists of links is a sure sign that your blog has jumped the shark. He has also posted a copy of his recent article on the 1689 Baptist confession, which I am sure that a number of readers will enjoy reading, as I did.
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Joel has been posting on the subject of the PCA report on the FV/NPP on his blog recently:

PCA report on NPP/FV: a summary
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 1
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 2
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 3
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 4
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 5
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 6
PCA report on NPP/FV: conclusions

On the subject of the PCA report, I would also recommend this very interesting perspective on the report from the perspective of canon law, written by Jordan Siverd.
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Time has an interview and a cover story on Archbishop Rowan Williams. There is also a lengthier MP3 version of the interview available here [HT: Thinking Anglicans].
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Adrian Warnock has an interview with the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions. Frustratingly, I am still waiting for Amazon to deliver the copy that I ordered well over a month ago.
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Chris Tilling starts reviewing Chris VanLandingham’s provocative new book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. If VanLandingham is right, then practically everyone else — whether from the New Perspective or traditional Protestant positions —is wrong. Chris also promises a forthcoming interview with VanLandingham, which is worth looking out for.
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David Field posts some helpful comments from Joel Garver on the subject of baptismal regeneration.
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A Lutheran enthuses about the relationship that NTW draws between Baptism and justification.
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Michael Westmoreland-White lists some female theology bloggers. I already subscribe to a number of the blogs mentioned, Cynthia Nielsen’s Per Caritatem being a particular favourite.
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Christianity Today has an interview with Richard Bauckham [HT: Dr Jim West].
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John H suggests a new proposition (with apologies to Martyn Lloyd-Jones!):

If what you believe and teach concerning the Supper couldn’t be misinterpreted by some people as sounding like cannibalism, then your understanding and/or teaching of the Supper is deficient.

John also has some very interesting observations from David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham (part 1, part 2). John also has a very good post on the subject of Christian children.

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R. Scott Clark on ‘Baptism, Election and the Covenant of Grace’. If nothing else, one has to be impressed with Clark’s chutzpah in distinguishing Lutherans from Protestants. Those terrible Lutherans, suggesting that Baptism actually does something!
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John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright will probably be released in November.
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There is a pre-publication special offer for Logos Bible Software’s electronic version of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
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I am encouraged. I thought that I read too many blogs. However, I only have about 250 blog feeds on Bloglines; Macht has about 550. If you don’t already use a feed aggregator like Bloglines, I strongly suggest that you start. It makes blog reading so much quicker and easier.
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Cooking for Engineers [HT: Peter Roberts]
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John Barach discusses Alias, strong male figures in popular TV shows and the manner in which shows such as Alias and 24 can desensitize us to surveillance and torture. As a fan of LOST and 24 (although my faith in both shows has taken a bit of a beating over the last season) and someone who has watched most of the first couple of seasons of Alias, I find that I agree with many of John’s observations.
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Please pray for the Presbyteer’s church.
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Some helpful productivity advice [HT: Mark Horne]
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From lifehacker:

101 New Uses for Everyday Things
Time is All We Have: 3 Ways to Increase Return on Investment
Determining the doneness of a steak

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From the Evangelical Outpost:

A Virtual Tour of Dante’s Inferno
Knit Graffiti

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The divine Prince Philip.
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Finally, a few Youtube videos.

I will never understand Japanese gameshows

Another clever advertisement

Links and News, but not in that order

I returned from a few days back in Stoke-on-Trent on Tuesday evening. My time back home was full of activity, but very enjoyable. As there was a wedding on, I had the opportunity to meet a lot more friends than I would have met on another weekend. During the few days back home, I watched Spiderman III for the second time (I far prefer Spiderman II) and Pirates of the Caribbean III (none of the later films in the trilogy have lived up to the original). I helped out at a kid’s club, with preparation for the wedding celebration and had to preach at very short notice (I mainly reworked material that I had written and blogged about recently). I also enjoyed following the cricket when I had a few minutes to spare. The West Indies may not be the strongest opponents, but convincingly winning a Test match does provide welcome relief after the mauling of the latest Ashes series and our failure to make much of an impact at the World Cup.

Over the last few days I have read a number of books. On my way down to Stoke-on-Trent on the train, I finished reading L. Charles Jackson’s Faith of our Fathers: A Study of the Nicene Creed. I had the privilege of meeting Charles a couple of months ago and have enjoyed reading his book. It is a very helpful introduction to the Christian faith, following the statements of the Nicene Creed. Each chapter is relatively short and followed by some review questions. It would be a useful book for a study class and also provides the sort of clear and straightforward (but not simplistic) introduction to Christian doctrine that might be of use to a thinking teenager (Ralph Smith’s Trinity and Reality is another work that I would recommend for this).

On the train journey back I finished reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. A friend recommended the book to me when it first came out a few years ago, but I have only just got around to reading it (I bought a secondhand copy of the book from my housemate John a few months ago). Martel is a very gifted storyteller and the book is quite engrossing. Whilst I strongly disagree with the underlying message of the book (about the character of faith and its loose relationship with fact), I greatly enjoyed the book and may well revisit it on some occasion in the future.

I have also been reading a number of other works, including Courtney Anderson’s To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson, which a friend lent to me, in preparation for my visit to Myanmar in September. I am also reading Steve Moyise’s The Old Testament in the New, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Children of Hurin and I have been dipping into the second volume of John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology. On the commentary front, I have been using Goldingay’s recent work on Psalms 1-41 and Craig S. Keener’s commentary on John’s Gospel.

At the moment I am reading up on the subject of the atonement. I am particularly enjoying Hans Boersma’s work, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition. I am also reading Where Wrath & Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today, edited by Oak Hill’s David Peterson (I am still waiting for my copy of Pierced for Our Transgressions to be delivered), Joel Green and Mark Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross and revisiting Colin Gunton’s The Actuality of Atonement.

Since returning to St. Andrews I have done very little. I spent much of yesterday playing Half-Life 2 (which I am revisiting after a few years) and reading. Today I expect that I will be a little more productive.

The following are some of the sites, stories, posts and videos that have caught my eye over the last few days.

Matt Colvin has an interesting post on ‘Headcoverings as Visible Eschatology’. Within it he argues that Paul’s teaching on the matter in 1 Corinthians 11 was not culturally determined, but informed by redemptive history.

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James Jordan has posted a series on the Biblical Horizons website: ‘How To Do Reformed Theology Nowadays’. As usual, JBJ has many useful and provocative observations. Here is one extended quotation:

The second problem is that since the academy is separated from the world, it is inevitably a gnostic institution. It is a place of ideas, not of life. For that reason it tends to become a haven for homosexuals (as it was in Greece, as Rosenstock-Huessy again points out in his lectures on Greek Philosophy). But apart from that problem, the separation of the academy from life means that the fundamental issues are seen as intellectual, which they in truth and fact are not. Clearly, conservative theological seminaries are not havens for homosexuals. But when what is protected is ideas and not women, then something is not right. Do academistic theologians protect the Bride of Christ, or do they protect a set of pet notions?

Consider: A man might say that when the Bible says that the waters of the “Red Sea” stood as walls and that the Israelites passed through, this is an exaggeration. What really happened is that a wind dried up an area of the “Swamp of Reeds” and the Israelites passed through. Now, this is a typical gnostic academistic way of approaching the text. The physical aspect of the situation is discounted. What is important is the theological idea of passing between waters. Human beings, for the academic gnostic, are not affected and changed by physical forces sent by God, but are changed by notions and ideas only.

The Bible shows us God changing human beings, bringing Adam forward toward maturity, very often by means of striking physical actions, such as floods, plagues, overwhelming sounds, and also warfare. It’s not just a matter of theology, or of “redemptive history” as a series of notions.

Now, some modern academics have indeed devoted themselves to social and economic history, and have seen that human beings are changed by physical forces that are brought upon them (though without saying that the Triune God brings these things upon them). This outlook, however, has not as yet had much impact on the theological academy.

The fact is that God smacks us around and that’s what changes history. Ideas sometimes smack us around, true enough. But the problem of the academy is that it is (rightly) separated from the world of smackings. From the academistic viewpoint, the actions of God in the Bible, His smacking around of Israel to bring them to maturity, are just not terribly important. What matters are the ideas.

This means the chronology is not important, and the events as described can be questioned. Did God really do those plagues in Egypt, smacking around the human race to bring the race forward in maturity? Maybe not. Maybe the stories in Exodus are “mythic enhancements” of what really happened. It’s the stories that matter, not the events. Maybe the Nile became red with algae, not really turned to blood. The blood idea is to remind us of all the Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile eighty years before.

Think about this. For the academistic, it is the idea that is important. Human beings are changed by ideas. And ideas only. Of course, it should be obvious that turning all the water in Egypt to blood (not just the Nile, Exodus 7:19) is a way of bringing back the murder of the Hebrew infants and of calling up the Avenger of Blood, the Angel of Death, because blood cries for vengeance. They had to dig up new water (Ex. 7:24) because all the old water was dead and bloody. An event like this changes people. The theological ideas are important. But the shock and awe of having all the water of the nation turn to blood is also important. It forces people to change.

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Josh, the Fearsome Pirate, puts his finger on one of the reasons why I would find it hard to become a Lutheran and reminds me of one of the reasons I so appreciate the Reformed tradition: ‘The Bible & Lutheranism’.
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Peter Leithart blogs on a subject that has long interested me: the necessity of the Incarnation. The question of the necessity of the Incarnation might strike some as needlessly speculative. However, our answer to this question does have a lot of practical import, not least in our understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption and the manner in which Christ relates to the cosmos. It raises teleological questions very similar to those raised in supra-infra debates, but does so in a far more biblical manner (supra-infra debates that are not grounded in Christology do strike me as unhelpfully speculative).
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Leithart also blogs on the subject of Pentecost on the First Things blog, one of a number to do so over the last few days. NTW sermons on Ascension and Pentecost have also been posted on the N.T. Wright Page. Joel Garver also blogs on Pentecost here. Over the next few months I will be doing a lot of work on the subject of canonical background for the account of Acts 2 (something that I have blogged about in the past). I will probably blog on the subject in more detail in the future.
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There have been a number of engagements with popular atheism in the blogosphere recently, particularly by Doug Wilson. Wilson’s recent debates with Christopher Hitchens can be found on the Christianity Today website: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. It is interesting to see how Hitchens consistently seems to fail to get Wilson’s point about warrant for moral obligation. Macht also has a helpful post in which he observes Richard Dawkins’ tendency to lightly dismiss positions (not just Christian ones) without ever taking the trouble to try to understand them first.
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Joel Garver summarizes the recent PCA report on the NPP/FV and posts a letter raising some questions and concerns on the subject.
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Ben posts an interesting list of recent and forthcoming must read theological books and Kim Fabricius loses all credibility.
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A recent convert to Roman Catholicism argues that FV theology leads Romeward. A recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy argues that Peter Leithart was instrumental in his conversion. The first post prompted a very lively and rather heated discussion in the comments (which I participated in).

Frankly, while I do not agree with such moves and do not find the slippery slope argument — much beloved of FV critics — at all convincing, I am not surprised that a number of people make such moves and credit the FV with moving them some way towards their current ecclesiatical home. Unlike many movements within the Reformed world, the FV is heading in a (small ‘c’) catholic and principled ecumenical direction. The journey to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism is far shorter from a catholic than a sectarian tradition. The FV is not generally given to overblown polemics against every theological tradition that differs from the Reformed and appreciates reading material produced by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox. It can open one’s eyes to the fact that there are actually some pretty fine Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians out there and that, despite a number of failings, they are often far better on certain issues than their Reformed counterparts. Differences remain, but they are put into a far more realistic perspective.

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John H on what lies beneath debates about Mary. He also raises the issue of the presence of the Eucharist in John’s gospel for discussion.
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The most blogged passages of Scripture [HT: The Evangelical Outpost].
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Christianity Today has its 2007 book awards.
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Encouraging signs from Dennis Hou’s blog.
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Edward Cook watches LOST with Hebrew subtitles.
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Best selling books of all time [HT: Kim Riddlebarger]
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118 ways to save money in college
Learn a new language with a podcast
Learn the 8 essential tie knots

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New music from The New Pornographers [HT: Macht]
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A third of bloggers risk the sack
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Life as a secret Christian convert
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Global Peace Index Rankings (if you are looking for the US it is down at 96 between Yemen and Iran)
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A wonderful new site where grandmothers share films of some of their favourite recipes.
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Boy kills a ‘monster pig’ [HT: Jon Barlow]
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Some Youtube videos.

George Lucas in Love

Five Hundred Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

Pete Doherty queues for an Oasis album. It is sad to see how messed up he has become since then.

Finally, from my fellow St. Andrews Divinity student, Jon Mackenzie, comes ‘The Barthman’s Deck-laration’

NTW Lecture on the Purpose and Use of Doctrines

On May 2nd I had the opportunity to hear N.T. Wright deliver a lecture on the subject ‘Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture’, here in St. Andrews. I am not the fastest note-taker, and so the following is a rough reconstruction of the basis gist of Wright’s lecture, based on my sketchy notes. For this reason they really should not be used as a point of reference for Wright’s thought.

Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture

NT WrightThe first half of the paper will be primarily methodical; the second half primarily exegetical. We currently face a puzzle of perception. There are those in the Church who are troubled by what they see as the hardening of theology into dry doctrine. Scripture, they believe, brings life, not ‘doctrine’. Scripture can often function like a favourite movie or symphony for them. For others, however, Scripture has become as dry as doctrine itself. Extended prayer and praise meetings are what they regard as important — the Spirit. In addition to such people there are those who love dogmatic theology and are bored by labyrinthine exegesis.

We need to recover an understanding of Scripture in the light of narrative. One can almost anticipate the sighs of some hearers of this lecture. Narrative theology is so passé. They are even giving it up in Yale! However, a narrative structure is very clearly present in Scripture. This stands in contrast to the Gnostic gospels. Lacking such a narrative they would quite likely function as a cuckoo in the nest of the canon. Genesis to Revelation is one massive narrative. The various writers of Scripture, particularly the earlier ones, can be compared to engineers from many different workshops producing the many nuts, bolts and cantilevers that would eventually come together to form the Forth Bridge, something far bigger than anything that they could have envisaged.

When we read Paul we need to read him as one who thinks Scripture. His mind is full of the Scriptural narrative (and the various subnarratives) and he regards himself as one who inhabits the big narrative that Scripture presents us with. As we read Paul we need to ask how he can function as Scripture for us. When we read Scripture are we really looking for Scripture itself, or are we merely looking for something else — such as doctrine or devotion — that we try to mould Scripture into.

As a suggested way forward for our thinking on this matter, perhaps we should start to think of doctrines as akin to ‘portable narratives’. Doctrines are like suitcases that enable us to transport longer narratives from A to B. However, like suitcases they need to be continually packed and unpacked. Sometimes we need to, in order to address important questions that the Church faces in the course of its mission, to speak about the meaning of Jesus’ death. On such occasions it is better to say ‘atonement’ than have to give a more long-winded statement.

However, as a note at this point, it is important to remember that, when Jesus wanted to teach His disciples about the meaning of His death, He didn’t give them a ‘doctrine of atonement’. Rather, He gave them a meal. When we think about the atonement we need to recognize that the Eucharist is the grid of interpretation that we have been given.

Creeds can be compared to portable stories. Although some have treated them as such, creeds are not like ‘checklists’, arranged in no particular order. Rather, they follow a clear narrative order, telling, in broad brush outline, a story that begins in creation and reaches its climax in Christ. They are telescoped narratives. If we leave our suitcases unpacked for long periods of time there is always a danger that the contents will become mildewed. The same is the case with the creeds. We must always be prepared to ‘unpack’ the narrative of the creeds.

One of the purposes that the creeds serve is that of enabling the narrative to function as a ‘symbol’, as something that we can subscribe to. Doctrines also enable us to more adequately defend the narratives from attacks at key points.

The packing and unpacking that we are here speaking of can be observed within the text of Scripture itself. Paul frequently packs and unpacks his narrative. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:56 we find the terse statement, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.’ This is a very closely-packed version of what Paul unpacks, expands and lays out in detail in Romans 7. We see much the same ending in Romans 7:25 as we do in 1 Corinthians 15:57. The packing and unpacking of doctrines, then, is not just something that the Church does; Scripture does it too.

It is possible to treat dogmas as items on a checklist in a way that detaches them from any narrative framework. It is also possible to place them into the wrong narrative. Dogmas are like the dots on a dot to dot puzzle. The dots by themselves are not enough; they must be joined up in the correct order. Implicit narrative is all-important. If we put our doctrines into the wrong narrative we can end up falsifying them. This is very significant when we come to the doctrine of the atonement. We must recognize that it is the story of Israel that drives the NT and Jesus himself. This is what Paul means by ‘according to the Scriptures’. The cross isn’t merely predicted by isolated proof-texts within the OT, but is the fulfillment of the entire OT narrative of Israel. This can be very hard for those who think in terms of a creation-fall-Jesus pattern to understand. However, if we miss out Israel we are in danger of becoming Marcionite in our thinking and losing out in such areas as ecclesiology.

Some understand the divinity of Christ in terms of a ‘Superman’ type narrative. Others understand the Second Coming in terms of the narrative of the rapture. These are examples of ways in which our implicit narratives can falsify or distort doctrines. The doctrine of atonement is a self-involving doctrine. Whilst all doctrines are to some extent self-involving, atonement is more so. It is about reconciliation with God and outside of the context of reconciliation with God it can never be properly understood. The atonement is not just an ‘involving’ doctrine in the sense of being something that we must mentally and emotionally commit ourselves to. The truth of the atonement is embodied in the practice of the Eucharist.

Unlike those who adopt the ‘checklist’ mentality, we need to recognize that not all ‘doctrines’ are the same sort of thing. For instance, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ is not necessarily the same sort of thing as ‘the doctrine of the resurrection’. Particular doctrines are, to some extent, sui generis.

It is interesting to observe that, whilst Paul mentions the cross all the time, he never gives it any expanded treatment. This contrasts to the way in which Paul unpacks the doctrine of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The cross is woven deep into the fabric of 2 Corinthians, for instance, but it is always treated in connection with other doctrines.

The book of Romans is about the δικαιοσυνη θεου (righteousness of God). It is about God’s addressing the problem of humanity and of Israel to keep the covenant. The significance of Israel in this picture is that Abraham was going to be the one through whom God was going to set right that which went wrong in Adam. However, it seems that God’s purpose for Israel has failed. Traditional readings generally fail to see this and, as a result, marginalize sections like 9-11, 2:17-29 and 3:1-9. Subtly different questions than those of Paul are brought to the text.

In his approach to the cross in Romans, Paul seems to take traditional statements concerning the cross as the basis for his argument in such places as 3:21-26. In the early chapters of Romans Paul demonstrates the failure of Israel to be the light of the Gentiles and the reality of universal sin. God’s plan seems to have collapsed. In 3:21-26 Paul gives an exposition of the manner in which God has been faithful to His covenant in dealing with sin.

It is unfashionable to go to the book of Acts in order to discover Paul’s theology, but the parallel between the reference to passing over sins in Romans 3:25 and statements made by Paul in Acts 14 and 17, where Paul speaks of the times of ignorance of the Gentiles, are interesting. Romans 3:21-26 does not give us a generalized statement of atonement, but rather declares how, in the present time, God is dealing with Jews and Gentiles.

Has the traditional argument just taken a wise course of action, by cutting to what it has deemed to be the ‘heart of the matter’? The problem here is that we run the risk of forcing texts onto the Procrustean bed of our own assumptions. Our eagerness for ‘doctrine’ can result in the muting of the Jew/Gentile point that was so important for Paul.

Later in the epistle, Paul goes on to claim that the death of Jesus demonstrates the sovereign love of the Father. From this we can deduce the fact of final salvation. While we were weak, while we were sinners, while we were enemies, Christ died for us. Paul spells this out in terms of Christ’s obedience, a Pauline theme of which the Reformed emphasis on the active obedience of Christ turns out to be a parody. Whilst we can agree with the Reformed doctrine in what it is trying to say, it misses Paul’s point. We needn’t lose the idea of imputed righteousness, but we will get it back within a larger framework, which might threaten some pet assumptions.

In Romans 8:3 Paul speaks of God speaking sentence on Sin itself, not just sins, or sinners. This is the clearest statement of penal substitution in the epistle. God condemned Sin (not Christ); Christ has borne the sentence. What is the larger argument within which this is the turning point? The larger underlying argument is that of the role played by the God-given Torah in Romans 7. Sin does its worst in Israel and will be dealt with there. In the ινα of 5:20 and 7:13 we see that this was God’s purpose all the way along. God’s purpose was to make Israel the place to raise Sin to its height. Torah heightens, rather than alleviating, the problem, turning sins into transgression. God then passes sentence on Sin at the point at which it has been gathered together. The cross then brings into effect the larger purpose of God (Romans 5:21). The story that Paul is telling here is far bigger than the one that has been told by many of his interpreters.

How can this be relevant to the sinner on the street? The significance of this narrative is often implicit and assumed. When you are talking to a person on their deathbed you would not usually discuss the question of why God gave the Law in the first place (although you never know!). If you were going to mention the Israel dimension of the story you might focus more on the truth of God’s faithfulness through death, using Abraham and others as illustrations of God’s trustworthiness. It is worth noticing that, when Paul presents the gospel to pagan Gentiles, his message usually takes a different form to that which we see in the epistles.

In the rest of Romans we see that the cross is not mentioned in 9-11. However, it is implicit throughout. The cross is far wider in meaning than one particular account of how human individuals can be saved.

The frustration experienced by dogmaticians and exegetes when faced with each other’s objections is quite understandable (exegetes and dogmaticians may just be two different types of people). Rather than trying to get at supposedly Pauline ‘doctrines’, we should focus on his larger narrative arguments. ‘Atonement’ is not the primary thing that Paul is talking about. We must read Paul in the context of his implicit narratives. We should never protect Paul from this story. We need to rethink the way that we engage with Scripture. Scripture is not merely a peg to hook ‘doctrines’ on. We need to listen to Scripture when it disagrees with us or we don’t understand it. The faultline that so often exists between Scripture and doctrine can only be overcome by the authority of Scripture being exercised in such a way.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 39 - A Humble King Crowned with Thorns

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ — John 19:1-5

Have you ever wondered why the soldiers chose a crown of thorns? After all, they could have constructed the crown from a number of other materials. Yet, the crown of thorns seems purposed, that is, it draws us back to the Genesis and the series of curses that resulted when our first parents fell. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen 3:17-18). As Jesus begins to walk the path that leads to his death by crucifixion, we have a glimpse here of how he, the true guiltless Man, will take the curse, our curse upon Himself. The scene is shot through with irony—Pilate, the image of a false and corrupt “king,” presenting the true King as a helpless prisoner and eventually condemning Him to die. Likewise, we see Jesus, the Lord of creation, the perfect image of God, who unlike Adam and Eve, listened the voice of the Father in humble obedience even to the point of death on a Cross—this Jesus, Pilate proclaims is the true man (talk about meanings going beyond the intention of the author/speaker), and indeed He is—the icon of God who makes the invisible God visible, who opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts and who gives life to the dead. Yet, the One through whom all things were made and who, came to His own, finds His own in rebellion against Him. In fact, they even weave together a crown of thorns and dress Him in a purple robe to mock Him. What is our Lord’s response to this? Does He lash out and call down legions of angels to wipe out the rebels? No. The innocent, yet true King, crowned with signs of creation’s curse, stands silent and walks the path that was both His destiny and our blessing. Behold the Man!

Cynthia Nielsen is graduate student at the University of Dallas and an adjunct philosophy instructor at Eastfield College. Her interests include jazz guitar and Russian language and literature. She blogs at Per Caritatem.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 37 - The Wounds of Job


What is the message of the book of Job, for those of us who are enduring unjust suffering? Perhaps we can hear what the Lord would tell us more clearly from summarizing the story from a slightly different angle.

Job was blameless and upright, and his righteousness was the boast of the angels of God. In the fullness of time, God humbled him to a lowly state, with Job becoming as poor as any man. Then God crushed him with horrible wounds in his flesh, so that he suffered agonizing pain. Though Job prayed that God’s wrath would be taken away from him, he finally resigned himself to God’s will - remaining obedient in the face of death.

His friends, who had once praised him, now hid their faces from him. They esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. They renounced him as wicked, and numbered him with the transgressors. The wrath of God was poured out on him. Job cried out to God for deliverance, but no help came. He had made great claims, as if he was in some special status before God, but events apparently proved that God’s affections were elsewhere.

His accusers were wrong. Job was more righteous than they ever knew, and in cursing Job, they had cursed God’s chosen agent – bringing God’s anger and judgment upon themselves. Yet Job himself, in the midst of his affliction, interceded and atoned for the sins of his friends, offering forgiveness for those who would come to him. In the end, God exalted Job to his former splendor. People came from far and wide to pay homage to him who the Lord had afflicted, laying treasures at his feet. And he brought many sons and daughters into glory.

In an almost stigmatic sense, Job was given the wounds of the Lord. Though he was blameless and upright from the beginning, his righteousness was elevated to a whole new level by participating in the redemption of the world.

What comfort is this to us who also suffer? I think of George MacDonald’s famous quote at the beginning of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain:

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.

The curse of man becomes the gift of God, once we’ve drunk the cup to the bottom. It’s a hard and high calling, and we may scream to be left alone. Like Job, we may also cry, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him.” But we can take comfort in being in far better company than those who are at ease. Like Job, we must wait for our renewal to come, knowing that our redeemer lives. Then, though broken by despair, we will have our hearts kindled by a strangely familiar voice:

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he will interpret to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself – including, of course, the testimony of the prophet Job.

Wonders for Oyarsa is a blog by a Christian computer professional preparing for cross-cultural work in East Asia. The purpose of the blog is to facilitate a journey through the Bible - reading it in its entirety, reflecting on it, honestly writing what comes to mind, welcoming conversation from all. The author hopes being swept up into this story will help him and others not take for granted the wonders of the story we humans inhabit.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 19 - Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Flax

Look! My servant whom I have chosen,
My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased!
I will put my Spirit upon him
And judgment to the nations he will announce.
He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And smoldering flax he will not quench,
Until he sends forth judgment to victory;
And in his name nations will trust.
— Matthew 12:18-21

These words, slightly modified from Isaiah 42, are often quoted in connection with Jesus’ compassion, and compassion certainly is present in this context. Jesus gives true and who heals multitudes (12:15).

But Matthew quotes them with something else in mind. The Pharisees are plotting to destroy Jesus (12:14), but Jesus’ response is not to destroy them in return. Instead, he withdraws. When the crowds follow him, he heals them but he also hushes them. He warns them not to make him known, Matthew says, so that “it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet,” and then he quotes the words above.

Who are the bruised reed and the smoking flax?

In Isaiah, “bruised reed” is the Assyrian ambassador’s term for Egypt: “You are trusting in the staff of this bruised reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him” (Isa. 36:6; cf. Ezek. 29:6). A bruised reed makes a bad staff because it snaps and the sharp end is driven into your hand.

And smoldering flax? Flax here is a wick and if it’s smoldering it’s about to go out and leave you in the darkness.

These aren’t simply images of weakness. They are images of things that let you down, things you ought to have been able to count on but which fail you, which leave you in the lurch, which even cause you pain and make you helpless.

The bruised reed and the smoldering flax in the context of Matthew 12 are the Pharisees. They were zealous for God’s covenant and Jesus ought to have been able to lean on them. But they are bruised reeds that will snap and pierce his hand. They are associated in the Gospels with the synagogue, which is an offshoot of the temple where God’s lamp burns. Their light should have illuminated Jesus and his work. But like the wicks in the lamp in Eli’s day (1 Sam. 3:3), they are smoldering wicks which will leave Jesus in darkness.

And Jesus lets them.

He doesn’t break the bruised reed. He doesn’t snuff out the smoldering wick. He doesn’t destroy those who would harm him. He doesn’t quarrel and cry out and shout down his enemies, nor does he allow the crowd of his followers to do it. Instead, he allows himself to be let down by the very people he should have been able to trust. He allows them to pierce his hand and leave him in darkness.

This refusal to break bruised reeds and snuff out smoldering wicks, the refusal to destroy those who threaten or betray him, will lead to Jesus’ death but not to Jesus’ defeat. It’s precisely by suffering this injustice that he will establish justice in the world.

In fact, in Isaiah 42, which Matthew doesn’t quote, Yahweh promises that the servant will not be “bruised” and will not be “quenched”: the very same words used for the reed and the flax. You can lean on him and he won’t splinter and pierce your hand. You can trust him to keep giving light. He allows himself to be let down so that he won’t let you down, so that his mission will succeed, so that the nations will trust in his name.

We are united to him. We share in his identification as God’s beloved, chosen servant. God has placed his Spirit on us so that we can carry out Jesus’ mission to establish God’s just rule among the nations. And therefore we also must share his demeanour until he sends forth justice to victory.

John Barach is the pastor of Reformation Covenant Church in Medford, Oregon. He’s married to Moriah and has the world’s cutest 21-month old daughter, Aletheia. He blogs at Kata Iwannhn: The Blog According to John, spends too much time working on exegesis for his sermons, and can be seen around Medford in various coffee shops, reading books and trying to figure out how to plant a liturgical, psalm-singing church that challenges the existing culture instead of conforming to it.

Miscellaneous

Tomorrow, and possibly a few other days of this week, will be without guest posts. I will be meeting up with my father in Edinburgh tomorrow and will not have access to my computer. The rest of the week will be exceedingly busy. Apart from regular activities I have a St. Patrick’s Day party to prepare for on Saturday. In addition to this, I am running rather low on guest posts at the moment. A number of people have promised to send me posts that I am still waiting on.

I appreciate that my blogging for the last few weeks (months?) has been rather patchy. I am not sure if this will change any time soon. I have a number of half-completed lengthy posts on my hard drive and dozens of other subjects that I have considered posting on over the last few weeks. The sheer number of things that I have been itching to comment about as I have been reading Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry over the last few days has been simply overwhelming. The problem is that the book has been so utterly appalling (I regret to say that this is not just exaggerated rhetoric) so far that I really wouldn’t know where to start. I am usually a relatively composed reader, not given to strong reactions, but some of the claims made in this book have left me dumbfounded. I just would not know where to begin in a response. Doug Wilson has been responding to the book on his blog, but he is far too kind in his criticisms. This is a book whose claims need to be taken apart stone by stone, each stone pulverized individually and the resultant dust scattered to the four winds of heaven. However, I do not have the time, energy or patience to waste on such a thankless task.

Here are a few links from today:

John H has alerted me to this article from the Scientific American‘Special Report: Has James Cameron Found Jesus’s Tomb or Is It Just a Statistical Error?’. Mark Goodacre also has more on the tomb story — ‘Talpiot Tomb Various’ and ‘Mariamene and Martha, Stephen Pfann’. Ben Witherington links to an interview he has given on the tomb story.

***
Kim Fabricius’ Ten Propositions on Sin. As usual, I don’t agree with a number of Kim’s claims, but the clarity of insight of some of his observations always makes him worth reading.
***
David Field explains Aristotle’s Four Causes.
***
Jeff Meyers podcasts an old lecture on the Mercersburg Theology’s sacramental conflict with Old School Presbyterianism.
***
First Things’ Joseph Bottum on good prose on the Web.
***
John H on the altar-calling tendencies of some forms of contemporary atheism.
***
Lifehacker alerts us to two potentially useful downloads — Google Image Ripper and Polyglot 3000

Lenten Guest Post - Day 15 - He Healed Them All

And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. — Luke 7:17-19

“Oh that all could touch you and be healed!
But have you not made us the tassels of your garment
for a bleeding world to grasp?”

O Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that we may not

So much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

- St. Francis of Assisi


Kerby Goff works with Campus Crusade for Christ in Oklahoma and is part of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, which he does not use. He blogs at blogkerby.blogspot.com. He thinks church history is cool, and his friends laugh at him (not with him) when he makes Bible jokes. He also loves asian food and all things asian so much so that his patriotism often comes into question. He spends most of his time reading, running, cooking, and hanging out with college students, especially international students.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 14 - Walk With Me a Mile

After watching a film on the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer a few days ago, the question of violence has been tugging insistently at my heart. Naturally, then, I would like to explore the text at the heart of Bonheoffer’s peculiar variety of non-violence which nonetheless led him to be involved in the assassination plot for which he gave his life.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. — Matthew 5:38-41

Leaving aside the question of whether Jesus’ teachings add up to a categorical prohibition against the use of violence, there are a number of points concerning which disciples of all traditions can come to basic agreement.

Violence is a form of self-righteousness. To demand an eye in return for an eye is to pronounce righteousness for ourselves before men. It is an attempt to do for ourselves what God has promised to do on our behalf.

Violence is a form of misplaced allegiance. When we place our trust in coercive force, be it wielded by the State or our own hands, we betray our allegiance to the One Who wields the sword at His pleasure.

Violence is a form of doubt. By resorting to violence, we take the Lord’s name upon ourselves: Yahweh Yireh. We doubt that God will see to it – that He will deliver us from our dilemma – and so we seek to deliver ourselves.

Violence, manifested in litigiousness, jingoism, or physical aggression, has no place in the life of a disciple of Christ. Let us repent of our self-righteousness and unbelief. In conclusion, allow me to share a favorite poem of mine, the story of Abraham and Isaac retold from the perspective of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

Chris Jones is a former member of the blogosphere. His former blog, The Thinkery, is now operated by someone else, and everyone should add it to their reading lists. Chris presently teaches high school Policy Debate, which he finds very fulfilling. Though he is merely a layman, his academic interests include language and theology, especially textual criticism. He would like to get involved with missionary work eventually.

News and Links

Prison Break Season 1As I am very bad at keeping up to date with e-mail correspondence with my friends and family, from time to time I will post news updates on this blog. The last few weeks have been relatively uneventful. Last week I started studying Latin with my housemate John, which has been quite an enjoyable experience so far and makes something of a change from the things that we usually do. Last week I also received the DVDs of season 1 of Prison Break, which John and I have been watching compulsively ever since.

Since my Chinese teacher from last semester returned to China I have been unable to find a replacement. I know of a few places where I might possibly find one, but haven’t had any success yet. I have been studying theological German this semester instead (with Jon and a couple of others), which is another first for me. The German is nowhere near as intense as the Chinese was last year and so I have a lot more free time in which to read, play Settlers of Catan, card games, Civilization IV and other such things. I am taking modules in John’s gospel and Hebrew praise and lament this semester. Both have been stimulating so far, particularly the John’s gospel module, for which we have Markus Bockmuehl, who is quite brilliant and a privilege to study under.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral MinistryThis morning I received a copy of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry in the mail. I have only read the first chapter, which does not augur well for my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I fear that my blood pressure might be raised next week, in which I plan to finish reading it. Fortunately I am reading a number of other enjoyable books at the moment, which should help in this respect. Yves Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit is a good read, as are Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I also plan to read Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being (no, I really haven’t read it yet!) and reread Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations within the next couple of weeks.

At present I am hoping that I will be able to complete my Lenten blogging project. However, I am running dangerously short of posts at the moment. If you want to take part, please send me something as soon as you can.

I will conclude this post will a short list of links fron the last day or two:

***
Leithart blogs a thought on turning the cheek as a form of resistance.
***
Mark Goodacre blogs some assorted thoughts on the Talpiot tomb. Dr Jim Davila posts some thoughts from Dr Alexander Panayotov.
***
Baudrillard is dead. AKMA links to some thoughts on Baudrillard and his work here.
***
FV and their critics two sides of the same coin? I suspect that both parties in the present debate will strongly disagree with the way that they are represented here.
***
David Field reflects on Galatians 3:12 and Leviticus 18:5 (here and here). I can’t say that I am convinced, but have yet to make up my mind on that passage (the use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 seems to make more sense to me). Tim Gallant had some interesting thoughts on this a while back (see under section 5).
***
I have just lifted the following Rowan Williams quotation from Ben Myers’ blog.

Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities…. And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.

Sounds quite right to me.

***
Lots of Rich Lusk stuff.
***
Movements towards incest. I saw this one coming quite some way off. The sort of arguments being raised against it by people in our society is perhaps one of the most depressing things of this whole matter.
***
The Presbyteer observes something about the way that we all tend to read Scripture.
***
Kim Riddlebarger comments on the danger of self-appointed theological experts online.
***
On a not unrelated subject, Ross Leckie explains how easy it is to bluff knowledge of a book that you have never read. I suspect that many theologians are gifted practitioners of such methods when it comes to the biblical text.
***
Danny Foulkes reacts to John MacArthur’s claim that every self-respecting Calvinist is a premillennialist.
***
My brother Mark gives a video lesson in constructing an origami star.
***
Speed Painting with Ketchup and French Fries
***
Hack GoogleMaps to enable you to zoom in further.
***
Calvinix tablets: highly recommended for any Arminian readers! Also, denominational Swiss Army knives [HT: Michael Spencer of BHT].

Lenten Guest Post - Day 12 - A Case for the Christian Year

In my work as campus minister at a Christian school, it often falls to me to answer questions from my Southern Baptist co-workers regarding some of my allegiance to the Christian year. A few days ago a farmer working on our campus farm stopped by to ask me about the Ash Wednesday service he saw promoted in the campus newsletter. When someone has no understanding of the Christian year or the place of seasons and celebrations in Christian history, it’s hard to know where to start in explaining the value of things that the person may only understand as bad because they are “Catholic.”

So I’ve developed a bit of a “sell” to explain the Christian year to my Baptist friends. I’m not unrealistic, but I am hopeful that somewhere in what I have to say, I’ll at least stir up some curiosity.

I like to think about it like this:

The Bible encourages us to not be “pressed” into the world’s mold. When I was growing up, I understood that to have to do with sin, but now I understand that all kinds of things encourage or discourage me in following Jesus closely. The value system of the world; its finances; its media and, yes, its calendar.

I live my live by a Calendar that’s a mixture of my American culture, the school where I work and some family traditions. Christians in the first centuries of the church lived in cultures that shaped their thinking using calendars dominated by politics and pagan religious observances. To resist the “mold” of their culture, it only made sense to make the calendar a Christ-centered story.

So the Christian year began, and evolved, not as a way to honor any church, but as a way to honor Christ — all year long. The year follows his life, passion and ministry. The significant times of the Church calendar invite us to come to Bethlehem, find the empty tomb, and on Ash Wednesday, begin the long walk with Jesus to the cross.

Some of the things in that calendar go back to the very earliest centuries of the history of the church. Others came along many centuries later. Not all of the Christian year needs to be understood or appreciated for it to be a way to shape our worship, family life and personal devotion.

Our goal is to be shaped by Christ, and constantly mindful of what he has done for us. In the seasons of the church year, we hear the stories of Jesus from the scripture, and we’re always invited to join the story, meditate on Jesus and deepen our identification with him.

Is this putting one day above another, as some of the Puritans objected? No…it’s putting Christ above everything. When I make the lectionary (another post) the companion of my journey through the Christian year, I feel I’ve literally joined the great crowd of witnesses, moving through life and into eternity led by the great shepherd, Jesus Christ.

The Christian year is a powerful way of filling my life with Christ, and being shaped by his Gospel. It puts me in the company of other believers, and it reminds me of the most important story that can affect my life: the story of Jesus.

Michael Spencer has been the campus minister at the Oneida Baptist Institute in Kentucky, USA, for 15 years, where he preaches, teaches and ministers to hundreds of students from around the world. His blog is www.internetmonk.com.

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Brueggemann on the Loss of Lament

Michelangelo - Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel

In an article, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament’ [JSOT (1986) 57-71], Walter Brueggemann address the manner in which lament seems to have dropped out of the ‘functioning canon’, identifying some of the unfortunate results of this.

One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology. Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party is surrounded by subjects who are always ‘yes men and women’ form whom ‘never is heard a discouraging word’. Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.

Brueggemann goes on to argue that lament allows for healthy forms of personality development that are largely precluded in its absence. He explores the analogy of a mother’s relationship with her child. For her child to develop ego-strength the mother must not take excessive initiative, but must be open to and encourage the initiative of the child and be responsive to it. He goes on to observe:

Where there is lament, the believer is able to take initiative with God and so develop over against God the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith. But where the capacity to initiate lament is absent, one is left only with praise and doxology. God then is omnipotent, always to be praised. The believer is nothing, and can uncritically praise or accept guilt where life with God does not function properly. The outcome is a ‘False Self’, bad faith which is based in fear and guilt and lived out as resentful or self-deceptive works of righteousness. The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility.

I do not suggest that biblical faith be reduced to psychological categories, but I find this parallel suggestive. It suggests that the God who evokes and responds to lament is not omnipotent in any conventional sense or surrounded by docile reactors. Rather, this God is like a mother who dreams with this infant, that the infant may sone day grow into a responsible, mature covenant partner who can enter into serious communion and conversation. In such a serious communion and conversation, there comes genuine obedience, which is not a contrived need to please, but a genuine, yielding commitment.

Where there is no lament through which the believer takes the initiative, God is experienced like an omnipotent mother. What is left for the believer then is a false narcissism which keeps hoping for a centred self, but which lacks the ego strength for a real self to emerge. What is at issue here, as Calvin understood so well, is a true understanding of the human self, but at the same time, a radical discernment of this God who is capable of and willing to be respondent and not only initiator.

This may not be the most helpful way of expressing the point, but the point is important nonetheless. It resonates with my concern to articulate a synergistic doctrine of providence. God wants us as His children to become His co-workers and vicegerents in His creation. For this reason God creates space in which we can seek, question and even challenge his providential dealings with us and the world. God wants us to be active participants in His providential rule, not merely passive sufferers of it. I do not want to suggest for a moment that God is anything less than omnipotent. However, His omnipotence is not an omnipotence held over against us. Rather, God’s omnipotence is a gracious omnipotence that encourages and facilitates our growth into responsible and mature rule in His creation and is not merely acted out upon us.

Brueggemann proceeds to observe that the absence of lament leads to the ’stifling of the question of theodicy,’ by which he refers to the ‘capacity to raise and legitimate questions of justice in terms of social goods, social access, and social power.’ The lament is not merely a ‘religious gesture’ seeking ’simple religious succor,’ but seeks to ‘mobilize God in the arena of public life.’ But using the lament form regularly, ‘Israel kept the justice question visible and legitimate.’ Brueggemann claims:

Where the lament is absent, the normal mode of the theodicy question is forfeited. When the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate. Instead we learn to settle for questions of ‘meaning’, and we reduce the issues to resolutions of love. But the categories of meaning and love do not touch the public systemic questions about which biblical faith is relentlessly concerned. A community of faith which negates lament soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions at the throne (which is a conclusion drawn through liturgic use), they soon appear to be improper questions in public places, in schools, in hospitals, with the government, and eventually even in the courts. Justice questions disappear into civility and docility. The order of the day comes to seem absolute, beyond question, and we are left with only grim obedience and eventually despair. The point of access for serious change has been forfeited when the propriety of this speech form is denied.

Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo.

Lament is a way of approaching theodicy that has largely been abandoned for philosophical explanations that seek to dissolve a theoretical perplexity and leave our existential crises unaddressed. The ‘resolution’ that is offered is an abstract theological excuse, rather than an answer that takes the form of divine action in history. We tend to read back our questions of theodicy into the biblical text. However, if we follow our definition of the term, the theodicy offered by the book of Job, for instance, is quite limited and unsatisfactory. The ‘theodicy’ that seems to be given is that of divine action of deliverance and vindication in history, rather than theoretical explanation. The questions of Job are not silenced by compelling theological answers (such answers are noticeably absent), so much as by the reality of YHWH’s personal presence and action in his plight.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 10 - Contagion of Purity

And as Jesus returned, the multitude welcomed Him, for they had all been waiting for Him. And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was an official of the synagogue; and he fell at Jesus’ feet, and began to entreat Him to come to his house; for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, and she was dying. But as He went, the multitudes were pressing against Him. And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him, and touched the fringe of His cloak; and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. And Jesus said, “Who is the one who touched Me?” And while they were all denying it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes are crowding and pressing upon You.” But Jesus said, “Someone did touch Me, for I was aware that power had gone out of Me.” And when the woman saw that she had not escaped notice, she came trembling and fell down before Him, and declared in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” — Luke 8:40-48

It’s hard to imagine the fear that must have clawed at her. What if she was wrong about him, and… he saw her do what she hoped to do. Surely he would be furious.

She had been singled out, shamed and embarrassed by others for many years. That was hardly new, but the familiarity did nothing to lessen the pain of exclusion and repulsion; and the thought of his finger angrily pointing her out — with so many people watching — was terrifying to her. The anxiety must have added its own nausea to the discomfort that had been with her for twelve years. But her desire to be without shame and whole was greater than her fears about the eyes and thoughts of her neighbors and friends. She covered her head, shut the door behind her and made her way towards the crowds.

She was right to be concerned. Since the time of Moses, Israel’s God had protected his people from his wrath by erecting a series of ceremonial walls and fences. The law graciously made known what was and was not allowed into his presence. Only the clean, perfect and pure could be admitted. The others….well, they had best keep a distance.

Impurity was everywhere, and its influence and strength seemed unassailable. How could it be any other way? Toss a white linen into a puddle of mud and which wins out: dirtiness or cleanliness? Lay a rotting carcass on a kitchen table and which extends it foothold in the world: purity or corruption? The answer is obvious- the linen becomes soiled and the tabletop nasty.

It’s a rule of creation as radical as gravity, itself. And God’s law took this into account: Touch an unclean thing, and you become unclean. Handle impurity, and you became impure. Simple. Clear. Common sense, really.

The woman in the story was unclean. The constant vaginal bleeding made her so.
Again, common sense, but lest there was any doubt — God had said as much.

But she hoped, none the less. She found him surrounded by those who belonged- those whose touch would go unnoticed by the priests and guardians. She reached out an unclean hand and touched his garment. Impurity soiling purity, and… he stopped.

Something counterintuitive and unimaginable, like fish multiplying endlessly or waves parting at the touch of priest’s feet, had taken place: The linen had touched the mud and the mud had been transformed. The putrid flesh that had been laid on the clean table had itself become an extravagant feast.

Our God is not a god of common sense. He recreates a world of Carnival — a world turned on its head. In his kingdom the last is first, weakness conquers strength and impurity is overrun by purity and wholeness.

Perhaps many saw only a sick woman, made well. But for those with eyes to see, all of creation had shifted and run backwards. Quietly, almost passively our Lord had tipped his hand and shown what he and his Father were up to.

How the kingdom of hell and death must have staggered and backed away. I can imagine demonic chests and bellies in the crowd being sucked in to avoid contact with this man and now… this woman; for who knew how far this influence ran.

Purity had become the contagion.

Pain, guilt and shame were no longer reasons to hide from God. He swallowed up each for this precious woman and gave her his own life.

His Kingdom still runs wildly backwards, but he must be sought. He must be touched. He has told us where he can be found- with his people, in his word and sacraments. He’s waiting to turn and smile at our fearful effort. Life, inclusion and wholeness are still offered there, waiting to pass from holy to filthy hand.

Phil James is the father of six and husband to Sandi. A repenting TR, he currently worships at Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Chattanooga, Tennessee (www.acotr.com). He enjoys Feta cheese, reading, winemaking, and blogging at Dappled Thoughts (www.dappledthoughts.blogspot.com). Currently, he’s also on a Terrence Fischer movie kick. He misses Theologia’s Forums and Jonny Quest reruns on the Boomerang Channel.

Prayer for his family (five daughters!) and for wisdom as he tries to figure out what the gospel has to say to business (especially employee/employer relationships) is greatly coveted.

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Lenten Guest Post - Day 3 - Approaching God with Humble Hearts

Jesus told a parable one time about a Pharisee (super-religious guy) and a tax-collector (scum-of-the-earth). They both went to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray to God. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not as bad as other people. The Pharisee layed out all his religious deeds before God. It was like a bad interview where you can tell that the interviewee (in this case God) is wanting to say, “Is there a question that you wanted to ask?”

The dirtbag tax-collector approached his devotions in a very different manner. His physical deportment and the words he chose communicated humility. It is certainly possible to look downcast with a haughty heart. It is possible to say self-effacing words while being perfectly self-aggrandizing. That was not the case with this fictitious supplicant. His words and attitude aligned, and God heard his prayer.

The conclusion of the parable favors the tax-collector over the Pharisee. Pride is bad. Humility is good. Boasting against others is bad. Contrition is good. God will justify and exalt the humble and contrite person. God will condemn and abase the arrogant person. He said all this in the Old Testament (see Psalm 51:17).

There is much anti-clericalism floating around these days. That is not the lesson that Jesus was intending to teach. There were humble Pharisees (see Nicodemus in John 3). There were certainly arrogant tax-collectors. Tax-collectors were not hated without cause. The point is that we are to approach God in contrition over our own sins, not seeking to make our rotten apple look shinier because it doesn’t have a worm sticking out of it like the next guy’s.

Jason Kranzusch lives in Jackson, MS, attends St. Stephen’s Reformed Episcopal Church, and blogs at axegrinder. His likes include buffalo wings, basketball and blues music; he dislikes bad breath, gangsta rap, and the life of a cubicle zombie. This fall he begins his PhD program. He is thankful to God for helping him to devise various ways to combat noise pollution.

Links

The first guest post will be posted later on today. Thank you so much to those of you who have expressed your interest in taking part in this and to those of you who have already sent in posts.

The following are a few links that have caught my eye over the last day or two:

***

Future is the creation of Christianity and the Christian era, and this is so because Christianity puts death and resurrection at the center of its creed: “Christians believe in an end of the world, not only once but again and again. This and this alone is the power which enables us to die to our old habits and ideals, get out of our old ruts, leave our dead selves behind and take the first step into a genuine future.” Rosenstock-Huessy goes so far as to say that “Christianity and future are synonymous” (CF 63-64).

Through creating future, a common future, Christianity also created the possibility of a unified human race. The church entered a “world of divided loyalties – races, classes, tribes, empires, all living to themselves alone.” Jesus did not destroy these pre-existing loyalties, but fulfilled them: “by a gift of a real future, Christianity implanted in the very midst of men’s loyalties a power which, reaching back from the end of time, drew them step by step into unity” (CF 62). Pagan thought means “disunity, dividedness of mankind,” and this dividedness is as much temporal as spatial. Pagans never arrived at a view that history was one; each history instead begins and ends something “within time,” and so “pagan thought almost universally pictures human life as a decline from a golden age in the past toward ultimate destruction in the future” (CF 63). This tragic view of time can do no more than cultivate virtues of endurance: “it faces the world with prudence and courage; it is grounded in the facts of experience.” But paganism cannot produce faith, hope, and love. This is because paganism “lacks future,” and also because paganism leads to a lack of future.

Leithart blogs on God, Time, and the Christian Era here.

***

There is a curious feature about several of the parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics. On at least four occasions where Thomas has lengthy parallels with the Synoptics, he lacks a parallel to the middle part of the story. It is a phenomenon I label the missing middle. It is easy to see when we lay out Thomas in parallel with the Synoptics.

Read the whole of Mark Goodacre’s perceptive post here.

***
Listen to the audio of Alister McGrath’s critique of Richard Dawkins here [HT: Ben Witherington].
***
Ben Myers posts the next Thomas Torrance audio lectures here.
***
…and observes that there is indeed a Bob Dylan album for every season.
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Garrett Craw puts things into perspective.
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Jeff Meyers podcasts on Romans 11.
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Buy Britney’s hair — a ’snip’ at $1m!

In Which Alastair Invites You to Guest Post

This Lent I would like to try something that I have never tried before on this blog. This may end up falling flat, but I would like to believe that it will work out. Whether it works out or not is really up to you.

Every day during Lent, I would like to have one of my readers post a guest post on this blog. No one else has ever posted on this blog before, so you have the opportunity to be one of the first. To qualify to guest post you don’t have to be a pastor, a theologian, or even a student of theology. Nor do you have to be an existing member of the blogosphere. I would love to have many different voices contributing to this project.

There are a few guidelines for the content and subject of the guest posts.

1. The posts must have as their subject matter a saying, action or event from our Lord’s public ministry, after His Baptism and prior to His entry into Jerusalem. During Holy Week this rule will change.

2. You are invited to present a few personal reflections on the saying, action or event. These reflections can take a number of different forms. Creative and imaginative posts are very welcome. Your reflections could be a word of testimony concerning the way that these verses have helped you at a particular time in your life. They could be more theological in tone. You could post a poem, a piece of art, a musical composition (you could sing a favourite hymn, for instance) or an audio or video clip (any Youtubers out there?). Once a saying, action or event has been posted on, I would prefer that people move onto a new one. However, I am prepared to make exceptions, given the right circumstances. If you have a particular verse that you just have to post on, book early!

3. The season of Lent is designed to lead us through the events of Holy Week into Easter. This fact should be reflected in the content and emphasis of your post. The ideal post will help readers to prepare their hearts, minds and lives for Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

4. You are NOT invited to argue some partisan position. These guest posts are not to be about pushing a NPP or FV position down people’s throats, for example. This does not mean that you cannot give a different perspective on a particular passage. Provided that you present such a position charitably, such a post would be quite welcome. The point is that this is not the appropriate setting for theological dogfights. The goal of this project is to edify and to get to know each other.

5. Please keep your posts to a reasonable length. You are writing a blog post, not a book (yeah, yeah, I know what you are about to say!). A post could be no more than a few sentences in length, or it could be several paragraphs in length. This is largely left to your own discretion.

Entries can be sent to 40bicycles at gmail dot com. I don’t have any post for tomorrow or the rest of the week, so you might find your guest post posted more or less straight away. Others might have to wait for a couple of weeks. If you could give a few details about yourself along with your post, they can be put on top of your guest post. You could give, for example, your name, where you live, the church you attend, where you blog (if your blog), where you work and a short list of things that are very special to you, important events in your life, etc. You are also invited to include a prayer request for yourself or for something or somebody else (you could ask people to give thanks for something with you, for example).

What are you waiting for?

A Few Links

Leithart blogs on the subject of a biblical view of obscenity. Meanwhile, the brouhaha on the Warfield list that started all of this has only just died down. The discussion has made interesting reading and generally reveals an apparent inability to draw the most commonsensical of distinctions. In the process of the discussion Leithart has been called a ‘weirdo’ and ‘an overeducated prurient pig’. The FV has been labelled ‘antithetical to piety’ by fine gentlemen on the list, staunch defenders of the Decalogue’s rule over our speech that they are. Along with Mark Horne I have been accused of ‘glorying the use of the obscenity’ and been described as ‘chronologically immature’; people have shuddered over the spiritual state of any offspring that I (and those who share my views on this matter) might have in the future.

Fortunately, a few of the posters in the thread were able to speak a measure of sense and give some perspective on the issues. One post in particular attempted to rescue the ailing thread by injecting it with a large dose of reason. Unfortunately the transfusion was rejected and the thread finally perished in a pool of its own nonsense sometime last night.

It is hard not to wish, like Mark, that they would just have spoken a little more loudly so that everyone could have heard them.

***
Leithart blogs on the subject of Lent:

In Reformed churches, the suppression of Lent has been simultaneous with the suppression of Carnival and other seasons of playful joy. Suppression of Lent did not produce perpetual Easter; it produced a perpetual Lent.

I’m not suggesting a direct cause-and-effect. But I am suggesting that there is wisdom in setting aside a specific period for mourning, self-examination, and fasting. We acknowledge Lent in the same way and for the same reason we have a time of Confession at the beginning of each worship service. There is a time for lament over sins; there is a time for mourning our own depravity. But lament and mourning ought not choke out rejoicing in the goodness of God.

When the Lenten spirit is not given its due, it has threatened to engulf the whole year. The Lenten spirit is part of the church’s life, and if we don’t wear ashes and purple for forty days, we might well end up wearing them for 365.

Leithart blogged some helpful thoughts on Lent three years ago that are worth remembering as we get ready for the season.

***
‘How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise’ [HT: Paul Baxter and Mark Horne]. Very perceptive article.
***
Kim Fabricius’ Ten Propositions series continues with ‘Ten Propositions on Theodicy’. Whilst I often don’t see eye to eye with Kim’s propositions, they are always thought-provoking. The fact that they are so succinct and to the point is an added bonus.
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I wonder if John Frum (whoever he is) put this on his CV. Cargo cults must be some of the weirdest forms of religion out there.
***
Douglas Knight summarizes some of the issues addressed by Oliver O’Donovan’s recent series of web sermons. If you haven’t read O’Donovan’s sermons already, I would recommend that you do. Whatever your position on the issues that he addresses, O’Donovan always makes for stimulating and thought-provoking reading. He is also very cool-headed and even-handed in conversations that are commonly undermined by the failure of the various parties involved to hold the strong feelings that the issues arouse in them in check.

Update: Leithart blogs on Modern Sex-Speak

Postmodernism Interview

The second part of Peter Leithart’s interview on the subject of postmodernism (and I only just realized that the intro music to the podcast is Wilco’s Theologians).


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Leithart on Systems and Sub-Systems

Leithart continues to post on the FV debates:

A few days ago, I suggested that the Federal Vision controversy in the Reformed churches is a “Presbyterian identity crisis.” But I don’t want to minimize the theological dimension of this debate. The issue is how to express the real theological differences, as opposed to the host of imaginary differences that are often discussed.

Here’s the problem: Those associated with the Federal Vision and their opponents both claim to hold to the doctrinal standards of the PCA and OPC (or the other Reformed denominations). The differences between the two sides often seem miniscule, and that makes the debate seem trivial and often petty. The “identity crisis” dimension provides part of the explanation. But only part. It’s not only theological. But it is theological.

Only it’s not theological in the way that is often suggested.

It’s not theological in the sense that one side teaches salvation by works and another salvation by grace through faith; both teach salvation by grace through faith. It’s not theological in the sense that one side teaches election and reprobation and another denies it. Both sides are high Calvinists. We could tick off any number of doctrines where there would be very close agreement. There are, I admit, some doctrinal differences, but the key differences do not appear at the level of “doctrine.” At that level, the differences are indeed small.

But that doesn’t mean the differences are nothing, or that it’s a debate about nothing. The debate is a debate at a sub-doctrinal or meta-doctrinal level. It’s not a debate about the system, but about the sub-system. Both sides can agree with what confession says, but they do it with a different intonation. Both are running the same doctrinal and Confessional programs, but they have different operating systems that affect the way the doctrinal programs work.

Read the whole post here.

Once again I think that Leithart is on target. It is always reassuring to observe that I am not the only one who sees some of these things. Leithart’s point about time is a particularly important one. In fact, I think that his point can be pushed even further. I believe that the increased sensitivity to the importance of time on the part of the FV leads, not just to an appreciation of the way that various doctrines need to be rethought in a manner that recognizes the importance of the temporal character of creaturely existence, but to a change in the way that we approach the task of theologizing in general.

As FV thinking matures I would be very surprised if we find it sticking with the model of theologizing presented by traditional Reformed systematic theology. I think that we will see a strong movement away from such a form of theologizing and I believe that we are already seeing such a movement taking place. The problem with traditional Reformed systematic theology is that the very way that it does theology downplays the importance of time.

Traditional Reformed theology has generally operated in terms of the spatializing metaphor of the ’system’. Doctrines have to be put together, like pieces in a puzzle. However, it seems to me that FV theologians increasingly theologize in terms of a quite different metaphor, that of the ‘narrative’. When one theologizes in terms of the metaphor of ‘narrative’, one will notice that doctrines simply do not take the central stage as they do in the ’system’. Doctrines within a ‘narrative’ approach to theologizing are very different creatures to doctrines encountered within a ’system’ approach to theologizing. Theologizing about justification in terms of narrative involves a certain way of telling a story, grasping its direction and living it out. Theologizing about justification in terms of a system generally has little time for such story-telling, but approaches the ‘doctrine’ of justification more as something to be abstracted from the story and analyzed as a timeless truth about the numinous thing called salvation works.

The tension that many recognize as existing between biblical and systematic theology in some Reformed quarters is related to the tension between these two different ways of approaching theology. The very metaphor that systematic theology operates in terms of makes it difficult for it to process properly a number of the insights of biblical theology. For example, to what extent could a Reformed systematic theologian really do justice to the importance of maturation in Scripture, without changing the very way that he approaches the task of theology? For the systematician to really take on board the insights of the biblical theologian, he will increasingly have to relax into a more narrative form of theologizing. As long as the systematician persists in trying to construct a panoptic and spatialized system, he will find it impossible to truly appropriate the insights of the biblical theologians.

This is not to deny that there is a distinction between the task of the dogmatician and the biblical theologian, although they are far closer than often presumed. Many of the key influences on the FV movement, people like Peter Leithart, James Jordan and N.T. Wright, are practitioners of a more narrative approach to theology. All of these theologians engage in a sort of theology that unsettles traditional boundaries between systematic and biblical theology. They address many of the same questions that systematic theologians traditionally address, but they tend to theologize about such questions from quite a different angle.

The fact that many of the opponents of the FV find it hard to understand them is not surprising. Such writers are not merely tweaking some of the rules of a game familiar to both parties; they are playing a different sort of game altogether. Narrative theology, for example, is not totalizing like system theology. It is far more open-ended in character. Part of the reason for this is that the narrative theologian, unlike the system theologian, finds himself within the object of his study. The story that we are telling is the story that we find ourselves in. The objectivity and detachment of the system theologian simply does not exist for the consistent narrative theologian.

Leithart lists a number of other sub-systemic issues. It seems clear to me that many of these sub-systemic issues again flow quite naturally from the ’system’ approach to theologizing. For example, a narrative approach to theologizing is far less likely to favour a ’substance’ view of human nature and will be far more open to a high view of ritual. The understanding of the relationship between Old and New Covenant will also tend to be quite different in a narrative approach. System approaches, since they tend to abstract from time, cannot really do justice to the reality of maturation. They also tend to sharply distinguish periods from each other, placing them in antithetical relationship, or collapse them into each other, stressing an underlying identity and treating the historical differences as more ‘accidental’ in character. The root problem in this case is that the system approach treats periods of history as if they were objects without any time dimension, to be taken in by the eye in a single glance (vision is the dominant faculty in the system approach; hearing and speaking are more primary in the narrative approach). Within a narrative approach to theologizing relating periods of history is nowhere near as difficult, simply because periods of history can only be properly understood within a narrative.

If the current debate is going to make any progress we will have to begin to talk seriously about the way that we believe that the task of theology should be approached.

Leithart on the Presbyterian Identity Crisis

Leithart writes:

After the Reformation, Reformed churches found themselves striving not only with Catholics but with Lutherans, and as a result both Reformed and Lutheran dogmatics developed along the lines of a one-sided, though historically understandable, via negativa. Reformed theology had its own resources on which to draw, but at many points, and particularly on issues of ecclesiology and sacraments, defined itself as not-Lutheran and not-Catholic. Lutherans did the same. My church history professor at seminary said that Lutheran dogmatics texts had a threefold structure: The Catholic Error, the Reformed Error, and the Lutheran Truth. Reformed theologians followed (and some still follow) a similar method. Reformed theologians and churches, as a result, formed their identity as Reformed by distinguishing their views and practices from Lutherans and Catholics. In the wake of the fundamentalist controversy, Presbyterians added another element to this theological method - we are not-liberals. The badge of inclusion in the Reformed world was not teaching any form of baptismal regeneration.

“Federal Vision” theology messes with these boundaries. It attempts to follow the lead of Scripture, even when that seems to conflict with Confessional formulae and seems closer to Luther than Reformed orthodoxy. It develops a baptismal theology that is not starkly at odds with Luther, appreciates de Lubac on the doctrine of the church and Alexander Schmemann on the Eucharist, finds Barth and Lindbeck intriguing and helpful at a number of points, and is stimulated by Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. As a result, “Federal Vision” theology challenges conservative Reformed culture as much or more than it does Reformed theology, for it questions the performances and boundaries that once defined this culture. Though the specifics of the debate can appear to be so much gnat-straining (particularly to those few outside the Reformed world who pay attention), the debate touches a nerve and provokes profound reactions because it’s not just a theological debate but an identity crisis. The Federal Vision challenges some of the identifying symbols, the boundary-markers of Reformed communal identity, and that kind of challenge cannot help but provoke a heated response.

From this angle, the future shape of American Presbyterian will be significantly shaped by the outcome of this debate. It appears to me that one of the issues facing the OPC and the PCA is whether we will isolate ourselves in an ever-more enclosed sectarian form of Christianity or whether we will more and more see ourselves as a distinctive stream of the catholic church.

More or less on target, it seems to me.

I am Interviewed…

by the Internet Monk. Read it all here.



Ecclesia Reformanda - A New Reformed Journal

A new theological journal has just started up, with two of my favourite British bloggers on the editorial board: Ros Clarke and David Field.

The following is the description of the journal from the website:

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est: ‘the reformed Church is always being reformed’.

Ecclesia Reformanda is a new print journal for pastors, theological students, and scholars, that seeks to serve the Church in its ongoing reformation according to God’s Word. The editorial board believes that historic Reformed theology offers the best expression of the theology of Scripture, and so the journal is confessionally Reformed. However, a genuinely Reformed theology is always looking for God to shed new light on his Church from his Word. It is therefore always reforming.

Ecclesia Reformanda is distinctively Reformed, with a contemporary cutting edge. It presents some of the best in British Reformed thinking and writing to serve the Church, her teachers, and her Lord.

The journal covers all of the theological subdisciplines, and early issues will include articles on intertextuality in Romans 2, poetry in James, the place of children in the new covenant according to Jeremiah 32, Jim Jordan’s hermeneutics, Herman Bavinck’s theological method, and John Owen’s doctrine of justification. Future editions will contain articles on ethics, public theology, and pastoral counselling.

A yearly subscription only costs £15. Abstracts of the articles from the first edition can be found here.

Zizek on the Traumatic Formation of the Human Being

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek responds to the claims that decoding of the genome enables us to reduce the human to the operation of chemical processes:

Here, however, one should be attentive to the formulation which repeatedly occurs in most of the reactions to the identification of the genome: “The old adage that every disease with the exception of trauma has a genetic component is really going to be true.” Although this statement is meant as the assertion of a triumph, one should nonetheless focus on the exception that it concedes, the impact of a trauma. How serious and extensive is this limitation? The first thing to bear in mind here is that “trauma” is NOT simply a shorthand term for the unpredictable chaotic wealth of environment influences, so that we are lead to the standard proposition according to which the identity of a human being results from the interaction between his/her genetic inheritance and the influence of his/her environment (“nature versus nurture”). It is also not sufficient to replace this standard proposition with the more refined notion of the “embodied mind” developed by Francisco Varela: a human being is not just the outcome of the interaction between genes and environment as the two opposed entities; s/he is rather the engaged embodied agent who, instead of “relating” to his/her environs, mediates-creates his/her life-world - a bird lives in a different environment than a fish or a man… However, “trauma” designates a shocking encounter which, precisely, DISTURBS this immersion into one’s life-world, a violent intrusion of something which doesn’t fit it. Of course, animals can also experience traumatic ruptures: say, is the ants’ universe not thrown off the rails when a human intervention totally subverts their environs? However, the difference between animals and men is crucial here: for animals, such traumatic ruptures are the exception, they are experienced as a catastrophe which ruins their way of life; for humans, on the contrary, the traumatic encounter is a universal condition, the intrusion which sets in motion the process of “becoming human.” Man is not simply overwhelmed by the impact of the traumatic encounter - as Hegel put it, s/he is able to “tarry with the negative,” to counteract its destabilizing impact by spinning out intricate symbolic cobwebs. This is the lesson of both psychoanalysis and the Jewish-Christian tradition: the specific human vocation does not rely on the development of man’s inherent potentials (on the awakening of the dormant spiritual forces OR of some genetic program); it is triggered by an external traumatic encounter, by the encounter of the Other’s desire in its impenetrability. In other words (and pace Steve Pinker), there is no inborn “language instinct”: there are, of course, genetic conditions that have to be met if a living being is to be able to speak; however, one actually starts to speak, one enters the symbolic universe, only in reacting to a traumatic jolt - and the mode of this reacting, i.e. the fact that, in order to cope with a trauma, we symbolize, is NOT “in our genes.”

From ‘No Sex, Please, We’re Post-Human!’

Thoughts on Rowling’s Revelation that Dumbledore is Gay

Albus Dumbledore

I can’t say that I am especially surprised by this revelation. I am, however, disappointed. Revealing such details about characters outside of the books cheapens the books themselves. The questions raised by a book should largely be left unanswered and the desire to settle all such ambiguities is characteristic of the excesses of fan fiction. It seems to me that Rowling’s willingness to pander to such speculation about characters lowers the value of her work. One of the things that I most love about a good book is the manner in which it creates a space within which our imaginations can play, the ambiguities giving us the option of reading the book in many different ways. When an author settles ambiguities like this I feel cheated. It is Rowling’s task to write and it is our task to read; I wish that she wouldn’t do our part for us.

In an important sense the books ceased to be Rowling’s on the day they were published. The printed books are the canon; we have no desire for an authoritative oral tradition interpreting the books for us. I preferred it when such issues as whether Neville Longbottom would get married or whether Dumbledore was ‘gay’ were open questions and we were left with ambiguities concerning which we could make up our own minds.

Regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality, I did wonder about it myself when reading the books. There were a few suggestive hints here and there. There is also the fact that there are clear parallels to homophobia and ‘coming out’ stories at various points in the books (and Dumbledore would hardly be the first homosexual English headmaster, would he?). For this reason the content of the revelation did not surprise me, even if the fact that Rowling would reveal such details outside of the books disappointed me.

I am convinced that homosexual practice is wrong, but I can’t say that I find it easy to identify entirely with either of the two predominant reactions that I have encountered to this revelation. On the one hand there are those who rejoice in this revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality as a triumph for ‘tolerance’. Rowling herself spoke of her books as a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’. This troubles me. I want the stories that I read to be driven by such things as character and plot, rather than by political or religious agendas. While I appreciate finding Christian symbolism in stories, I don’t like stories that are obviously thinly-veiled propaganda for the Christian faith. If I feel this way about propaganda for Christian faith, I will obviously feel uncomfortable with thinly-veiled propaganda for political correctness, a cause for which I have considerably less enthusiasm. By making such revelations about Dumbledore’s sexuality in the context of the claim that the books are a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’, I fear that Dumbledore is being made into a pawn in a political game. Something of the three-dimensionality of the character is lost in all of this. If Dumbledore is going to be gay I want Dumbledore to be gay because that is who the character is, not because the author wishes to be politically correct.

In addition to this, I feel uncomfortable about the outing of sexuality in general (not just homosexuality in particular) that is brought about by such revelations. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the authority figures of children to be thought of in a non-sexual way. I don’t want to be told that Dumbledore or McGonagall are straight or gay. Undoubtedly we are sexual beings, but our sexuality belongs, I believe, within bounds. There are parts of life that should be non-sexualized. This is part of what concerns me about many of the things associated with the ‘outing’ or ‘coming out’ of homosexuals. By defining the person too much in terms of their sexuality, sexuality in general is brought out of the contexts in which it belongs and starts to invade every area of life. I don’t like being called ‘heterosexual’ for a host of reasons, but one of these reasons is that, although I do possess a sexual nature, it is not something that I believe belongs in most contexts of discourse.

The outing of Dumbledore’s sexuality (no less than if we were told that McGonagall is ‘straight’ — and there is an important difference between knowing these things and being told them) risks sexualizing relationships that shouldn’t be sexualized, such as Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry, the teenager that he has long private conversations with and a special concern for. I also believe that this ‘outing’ of Dumbledore goes against the character himself. Although I can imagine a Dumbledore with feelings for Grindelwald, I cannot imagine a Dumbledore who would say: ‘I am gay’. While Dumbledore undoubtedly has a sexual nature, this sexual nature is generally quite marginal to the character as we encounter him in the books (in fact, there is still no claim — to my knowledge — that he ever engaged in homosexual activity).

On the other hand, there is the reaction of those who feel that the character of Dumbledore is now defiled. I also find it hard to identify with this reaction and fear that there may be an element of homophobia driving it. Although Rowling may have ‘outed’ him, Dumbledore did not come out about his sexuality in the books. In the books the character of Dumbledore is defined by far, far more than his sexuality. He comes across as a very human and a very noble person. As such a person, he is the sort of person who might truly wrestle with the complexities of human sexuality, without reducing himself to being defined by or purely driven by this sexuality. In fact, the Dumbledore that we encounter in the Harry Potter canon seems to be chaste and celibate. I see no reason why such a character should not appear in a book written for teens. There are many virtuous people who have struggled with homoerotic desire. Is a person defiled more than any other person simply because they have sinful desires? Is there any of us who doesn’t have sinful desires?

I am quite happy to think in terms of a Dumbledore who has homoerotic desires but refuses to be defined by them. In fact, we might end up with an even higher view of Dumbledore as we see his willingness to deny his desires for the sake of what is right (defeating the dark wizard). We might also begin to appreciate how Dumbledore’s personal struggle with such ‘abnormal’ desires enables him to become an even greater person than he would have been otherwise. It might be a good explanation for why Dumbledore is so attuned to the condition and so concerned for the wellbeing of the marginalized.

One of the strengths of Rowling’s characterization in the HP series is that she did not write ideal characters, but human ones. She presents us with a world in which the battle between good and evil occurs within each one of us and a world in which we must overcome certain desires, vices, character flaws and prejudices within our own selves. It is through the battle with our own selves that true and lasting character is formed. It is this account of human character and nature that enables us to understand how we might not allow ourselves to be defined by our desires (even, to some extent, our good desires), but might gain mastery over them. In such a world it is often the persons who have to wrestle most with the misleading desires of their own natures who emerge as the true people of virtue and character, rather than those who were so free from misdirected desire that they never had to wrestle with themselves in the first place.

As I believe that homoerotic desire is misdirected desire I do not believe that it should be portrayed as a good thing when we allow this desire to drive us. For this reason the idea of a ‘gay and proud’ Dumbledore saddens me. People who struggle with homoerotic desire are, I believe, struggling with a particular form of the compromised nature that afflicts us all as fallen human beings. I believe that true liberation for human beings with compromised natures (i.e. all of us) cannot be found in mere acceptance of the validity of our misdirected desires, but in the power to overcome our compromised natures, even though the struggle may never end here on earth. This is why any Christian refusal to justify homoerotic desire must be driven by the love for people made in God’s image that refuses to ‘tolerate’ these desires that lead to their being enslaved. How sad it is that Christians are often known for their homophobia, rather than for their strong affirmation of the one who struggles with homoerotic desire as a person made in the image of God, and for a love that refuses to stand idly by and see others being led astray by misdirected desires. For this reason I would be disappointed with a Dumbledore who was proud of his homoerotic desire, even though I like the idea of a Dumbledore who is able to recognize homosexual desire as part of his nature, but is enabled to wrestle with his nature in various ways. If anything, such a Dumbledore is more like the rest of us.

Preaching

The Sermon on the Mount, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598

The following are some slightly edited comments that I made on another blog earlier today:

From time to time I hear people lamenting the current state of evangelicalism and particularly of the loss of an appreciation for preaching. I couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of bad preaching around. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit under such preaching too often, but the fruits of it are not hard to see.

However, although I see a big problem, I am not at all convinced that traditional evangelical preaching is the answer (perhaps people would appreciate preaching more if we only had it once a month, like the Lord’s Supper…). I believe that there are deep problems with many of the traditional paradigms for preaching in evangelicalism and elsewhere. Preaching has become the event of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, which seems to me to be a serious departure from the biblical pattern. Even when Paul speaks until midnight at Troas, the Eucharist is spoken of as the reason for gathering (Acts 20:7). In the context of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, preaching should essentially be ‘tabletalk’.

While the Scriptures certainly teach about the importance of preaching, they also say a lot about aspects of the service that evangelicals tend to downplay as a result of their emphasis on preaching. The Scripture says a lot more about the institution of the Eucharist than it does about Christ’s institution of the Sermon as an essential element of gathered worship.

Such a focus on preaching has created new concepts of the Church. The Church becomes defined primarily around ideas and ever more sharply defined theological positions, rather than around community, which is something that the Eucharist retains the centrality of. The Church has also become organized more and more around one man’s activity (and, as James Jordan comments, that man is not Jesus Christ). Evangelical congregations are often more passive in gathered worship than medieval ones were and this is a serious problem. The service becomes something that the preacher does, rather than the shared activity of the body of Christ.

Worship becomes a mere preface and epilogue to preaching. Scripture-rich liturgies are abandoned and in some churches the congregation only open their mouths for the singing. Pastors do not prepare the liturgy. The liturgy is an after-thought, hastily thrown together, while most of their effort is put into crafting the rhetorical masterpiece which is the Sermon.

The pastor becomes increasingly defined by his role as the ‘preacher’. Rather than letting the father-like leadership that the pastor exercises over the congregation condition our understanding of the role and practice of preaching, other dimensions of the pastor’s role have been forgotten as his preaching becomes all-important. In actual fact I am not at all sure that preaching is the most important task committed to the pastor. One does not have to look far in evangelicalism to find good examples of the way in which preaching can eclipse all else, reducing churches to preaching centres. Far from building up the Church, such preaching undermines it.

Scripture reading in the service is often reduced to the reading for the sermon. Contrast this with the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. For instance, Robert Letham lists the readings in the EO liturgy for Good Friday — John 13:31-18:1; John 18:1-28; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:28-19:16; Matthew 27:3-32; Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 27:33-54; Luke 23:32-49; John 19:25-37; Mark 15:43-47; John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:62-66 and, quite literally, these are just starters. There are probably a couple of dozen more Scripture readings in addition to those already mentioned.

This brings to light one of the deepest problems with preaching as understood and practiced within conservative evangelicalism. This problem is the priority that it tends to give to our own words in worship, over God’s words. Our words gradually squeeze out God’s words. Rather than letting preaching be the handmaid of God’s Word, we will reduce the Scripture readings far sooner than we will cut down the length of the sermon.

The responsive and receptive character of Christian worship becomes downplayed and our words become less and less controlled by God’s Word. The Scripture content of the liturgy and prayers plummets, to be replaced by evangelical clichés. The texts for sermons become ever shorter. Some evangelical preachers pride themselves on preaching huge sermons on a couple of words in a text. This often has the effect of leaving preaching largely uncontrolled by the Scriptures. For many sermons the ‘text’ is merely a pretext or springboard to explore a dimension of systematic theology or the like.

Evangelical worship is full of the noise of our own voices. We continually speak at God but don’t take the necessary time to attend to and to digest what He might be saying to us. Having more times of silent response to readings of the Word of God, for instance, would be a huge step in the right direction, as would having more lengthy readings that are not preached on (throwing out the technology that eclipses the simplicity of worship would also be helpful). Sometimes we need to resist the urge to continually rush to say what the Scriptures mean and just allow them to work on us, practicing the art of listening to Scripture together (which means that we do NOT read along in our own Bibles). Contemporary evangelical worship, with all of its technological bells and whistles, provides us with dozens of distractions from the simplicity of the Word of God and from the terrifying silence that might actually lead to personal or theological epiphanies.

Preaching has come to be understood as a great rhetorical event. I believe that significant changes in popular evangelical preaching styles would have to take place in order to bring them more in line with Scripture. Calm Scriptural exposition should replace many of the impassioned rhetorical displays that one hears from evangelical pulpits (rhetorical displays that often disguise a depressing lack of content). The pastor should teach the congregation as a father teaches his children. This means that the ideal position is sitting, not standing, and that shouting and the raising of voice for rhetorical effect is generally unnecessary.

The pastor should also remember that he is like a father teaching children, something that many evangelical preachers forget. If unbelievers attend worship they are eavesdroppers; the gathered worship of the Church is not for their benefit, but is about the relationship between God and His people. The fact that preaching in the Church is for children means that preaching is for the converted. Sin and unbelief are still addressed, but they are addressed as issues in the lives of the children of God — the baptized.

The oratory model of preaching tends to place orator and audience at different poles. The model presumes an initial distance between orator and audience that needs to be overcome by rhetoric. Standing behind the lectern, the orator tries to win over his audience with clever rhetoric and artificially exaggerated emotion. Preaching becomes drama; preaching becomes an ‘act’ in which the preacher adopts an affected style of speech.

The pastor should address the congregation as one who already has a relationship with them. The father or the pastor should not have to ‘win over’ their hearers in the way that the orator does. They ‘win over’ their hearers differently, by powerful truths plainly and lovingly spoken and by teaching with a gracious authority. The pastor should teach the congregation entrusted to him much as Jesus taught His disciples. He speaks naturally to his hearers and does not employ an affected style. The passion and emotion that arise are natural and not exaggerated or affected.

Many of the problems of emotionalism and rationalism in evangelical circles arise from distorted models of preaching. If pastors were more concerned with plainly addressing the truths of the gospel to the consciences of the saints in the context of the gathered ‘family meal’ of the Eucharist I suspect that we would not have the same problem with the rationalism and intellectualism that arises from the rather silly idea that the intellect is primary, for instance.

Of Boggarts

The Boggart Snape after Neville's Riddikulus Charm

Many Christians have claimed that the Harry Potter books are dangerous, encouraging children to get involved in witchcraft. We are called to exercise discernment and reject such literature completely. It is interesting to observe how much popular children’s literature escapes such judgment, for instance literature that presents disfunctional relationships between children and parents and broken families as the norm and encourages the reader to identify and empathize with promiscuous and morally twisted characters. It is quite heartening to observe just how robust the family values put forward in the Harry Potter books are. Marriage, faithful relationships and strong relationships between children and their elders are presented as the norm. Given that these are books written by a former single mother in a society where countless families are broken and disfunctional, this fact probably deserves more attention than it has generally received (one also wonders whether Rowling has her own experience in mind when she has Harry speak some strong words to a particular character about marital commitment in book 7).

The contrast between Harry Potter and the messages that many popular TV shows, movies and books are giving young people about relationships is quite startling. The fact that many Christian parents permit their children to sit in front of TV shows and films that subtly but determinedly corrupt morals and expect their children to be mature enough to deal with such influences whilst fearing that Harry Potter will lead them to dabble in the occult is quite bizarre.

When it comes to the accusation of witchcraft, I actually believe that Rowling can help us arrive at a more Christian view of witchcraft. The world that Rowling writes of is a world of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, self-shuffling cards, flying cars, wands hidden in umbrellas, bat bogey hexes, Whomping Willows, Quidditch, owls who deliver the mail, wizards who wear the most ridiculous garments to pass themselves off as Muggles, and the like. It is a delightfully humourous and playful portrayal of a magical world. It is not intended to be taken seriously. The fact that many Christians do take it seriously is a sign that something is badly wrong with us.

One of my favourite creatures found in Harry Potter’s world is the Boggart.

‘Now, then,’ said Lupin, beckoning the class toward the end of the room, where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ said Professor Lupin calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. ‘There’s a Boggart in there.’

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnigan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively.

‘Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,’ said Professor Lupin. ‘Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks — I’ve even met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice.

‘So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’

Hermione put up her hand.

‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’

‘Couldn’t have put it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. ‘So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears.’

‘This means,’ said Professor Lupin, choosing to ignore Neville’s small sputter of terror, ‘that we have a huge advantage over the Boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?’

Trying to answer a question with Hermione next to him, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet with her hand in the air, was very off-putting, but Harry had a go.

‘Er — because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?’

‘Precisely,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione put her hand down, looking a little disappointed. ‘It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a Boggart make that very mistake — tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.

‘The charm that repels a Boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.

‘We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please … riddikulus!’

The pre-Christian world was full of dark, enclosed spaces for Boggarts to hide. People were plagued and tyrannized by fear, held in its bondage. Satan played with people’s imaginations, holding them in bondage as much (if not far more) by means of the fear within as by external demonic forces without. One of the effects of the gospel was to flood the world with light, driving the Boggarts out from their darkened lairs.

In the light of the gospel we can, like Harry and his classmates, learn to perform the riddikulus charm on our demonically-induced fears. After the gospel has taken effect we can mock things that once terrified us. This is one of the purposes of the celebration of Halloween. The gospel reveals that much of the fear that Satan excited in men prior to the advent of Christ resulted merely from the exaggerated shadows that he cast in the darkness. Now that light has come the shadows are removed and Satan is reduced to a far less terrifying stature. We can begin to laugh at the shapes that we once saw in the shadows.

Whilst there are undoubtedly evil forces at work in our world — Harry’s world contains Dementors and Death Eaters, not just Boggarts — we need to learn that many of the terrors that haunt us are merely products of our fearful imaginations. Satan loves to have the huge shadows that he tries to cast taken seriously. We will only truly defeat him when we learn to laugh at the shadows, walking through death’s shade while fearing no evil.

Good Christian fiction writers can help us to do this. Christian authors can and should tell stories of Greek and Norse gods, of dragons, giants, goblins, faeries, of witches on broomsticks, of pixies, gnomes, elves and dwarves. These stories are the chains in which defeated Boggarts are paraded in triumph before the Risen Christ. J.K. Rowling, by presenting us with a delightfully exaggerated magical world, has robbed real witchcraft of power, performing the riddikulus charm on many of its Boggarts. Much of the power of witchcraft derives from the huge aura that it builds up around itself and the irrational fears that it creates in us. Once these irrational fears and superstitions have been exorcized by humourous light fiction, witchcraft looks considerably less threatening (even though it never ceases to be real).

Many Christians operate in terms of a view of the world that is driven by fear and superstition. There is a terrible fascination with the morbid and the dangerous; such people see demons and witchcraft everywhere. The wonderful thing is that Christ died to set us free from such a paranoid fear of the demonic realm. There is witchcraft in our world and it is evil and dangerous and Christians should openly and strongly resist it. However, it is by no means as all-pervasive as some fevered imaginations might suggest.

Many of those who object to Rowling’s works are those who are still terrified by Boggarts. They continue in panic, hysteria and conspiracy theory-driven witchhunts. Thankfully, orthodox Christians have historically encouraged far greater scepticism towards such exaggerated myths of occult practices. This strong Christian scepticism towards many of the claims made for the occult has encouraged the rise of science and a more rational society. It is no accident that the sciences seldom prosper in superstitious societies. It is only as the old witch-hunts and superstitions end that our clearer vision enables us to come to a more scientific understanding of our world. This is one of the chief ways in which the clearer light of the gospel paves the way for science.

Occult practices undoubtedly exist, but viewed through eyes freed from fear and superstition through Christ’s victory we see a world where many of our former fears are revealed as mere creations of our own imaginations. Works like Harry Potter are a good way to start innoculating ourselves and our children against such fears.

Recent Garverization and my Rather Large Workload for the Next Few Months

A number of people have asked me about the reason for my dramatically decreased blogging output. There are a number of reasons. I have lacked any great desire to blog for weeks now. Rather than blog merely out of a sense of obligation I have put my blogging to one side and only blogged when I have felt like doing so. I needed to have some time away from blogging over the last month or two and the rest did me good. However, I don’t expect that I will feel inclined to resume regular service for the next few months at least. Guest posts are still welcome, though, if any are interested in submitting material on the subject of the atonement.

In September I will be spending two and a half weeks in South East Asia, where I have to deliver over 40 hours’ worth of lectures on the subject of Christian Ethics. I only discovered that I would be speaking so much a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have spent far more time working for my father’s business than I have in preparation. I have only read sections of a few books on the subject and nothing more. I have a vague idea of how I will approach the subject, but little more. I have never had to prepare anything like this before and only have a month in which to do so. I am the best man at a wedding this Saturday, which considerably limits my preparation time this week. I also have two Sundays in the next month when I will be preaching at churches in the locality, while the pastors are on holiday, not to mention occasional work for my father’s business.

I would greatly value people’s prayers and any ideas and recommendations from those who have done this sort of thing before. This is really a matter of being thrown in at the deep end for me and I am not at all sure that I am equipped for it. Please pray that I will have motivation, direction and clarity in my studies and preparation. Please also pray that the talks, when I deliver them, will be of blessing to the hearers.

HP7

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night. What a superb book! The dénouement was everything that I could have hoped for and more, wrapping up the whole series beautifully. It becomes apparent that Rowling had this ending clearly in her sights from the very start of the first book. Also, if there are any doubts in anyone’s mind that Rowling self-consciously writes as a Christian, this book should answer them. I can’t wait until the Christian Harry Potter experts start to comment on this book. If you have not yet read the book, go and do so right away! If you have, add Hogwarts Professor and Sword of Gryffindor to your feed aggregator and follow their post-book discussions. They should be very interesting. Even when you have already read the books, I have no doubt that these bloggers will bring to your attention the inner dynamics of the series and help you to appreciate many more subtle details that you might have missed.

[BEWARE: the comments of this post may contain spoilers!!]

Links

Over at Fragmenta, Matt writes:

Peter Leithart suggests that “linking intention to the literal [sic] sense, while acknowledging multiple senses, makes possible a proliferating richness of meaning while preventing what Eco calls hermeneutical drift.” But I don’t care about proliferating meaning. I want to know “what Saint Paul really said” — which may or may not be “literal”, a word fraught with over-simplistic dichotomies. The other, “multiple senses”, if they differ from the author’s sense, are misreadings, in both the Bloomian sense of the word, and in the simplest sense of the word: they are wrong, and if we rely upon them, we are building with straw, setting ourselves up for future refutation and exposure as fools. As I attempt to relate one text to another within the Bible, these other “multiple senses” will be hindrances or distractions. Worse, if we embrace other senses of the text than the ones intended by the author (and there may be more than one of these!), we are likely to become the future “Old Perspective” or the future “Law/Gospel hermeneutic,” fighting losing rear-guard actions against the tide of new scholarship that is, horrifyingly, armed with something much closer to the original authorial meaning. (That, in a nutshell, is the reason for the success of N.T. Wright and other NPP authors who pose such a threat to the old perspective.)

On this occasion I can’t quite agree with Matt, although I apprecaite and share many of his concerns with other approaches. Whilst the original meaning of the text is always important and should not be lost sight of, the meaning of the text is far greater than its original meaning. I appreciate the value and importance of such readings of Scripture that Matt speaks of. However, important as such readings of the Scriptures are, it was not the approach adopted by the apostles, who habitually interpreted the OT in a manner that placed the accent on the multiple senses that went beyond the original sense and occasionally even appeared to run contrary to it.

I am presently enjoying reading Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings in the SCM theological commentary series. In the series preface, R.R. Reno makes my point as follows:

Precisely as Scripture—a living, functioning text in the present life of faith—the Bible is not semantically fixed.

I suspect that Matt and I differ to some extent in our understanding of what the task of interpreting the Scriptures entails. However, many of his concerns are my own and I recommend that you read his post, even if you end up disagreeing with him on a number of points.

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Peter Leithart has some great thoughts on Matthew 2. Among other things, he observes the presence of an exile-return inclusio in the gospel.
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Jon seems to have caught the linking bug, poor fellow. Posting long lists of links is a sure sign that your blog has jumped the shark. He has also posted a copy of his recent article on the 1689 Baptist confession, which I am sure that a number of readers will enjoy reading, as I did.
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Joel has been posting on the subject of the PCA report on the FV/NPP on his blog recently:

PCA report on NPP/FV: a summary
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 1
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 2
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 3
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 4
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 5
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 6
PCA report on NPP/FV: conclusions

On the subject of the PCA report, I would also recommend this very interesting perspective on the report from the perspective of canon law, written by Jordan Siverd.
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Time has an interview and a cover story on Archbishop Rowan Williams. There is also a lengthier MP3 version of the interview available here [HT: Thinking Anglicans].
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Adrian Warnock has an interview with the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions. Frustratingly, I am still waiting for Amazon to deliver the copy that I ordered well over a month ago.
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Chris Tilling starts reviewing Chris VanLandingham’s provocative new book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. If VanLandingham is right, then practically everyone else — whether from the New Perspective or traditional Protestant positions —is wrong. Chris also promises a forthcoming interview with VanLandingham, which is worth looking out for.
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David Field posts some helpful comments from Joel Garver on the subject of baptismal regeneration.
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A Lutheran enthuses about the relationship that NTW draws between Baptism and justification.
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Michael Westmoreland-White lists some female theology bloggers. I already subscribe to a number of the blogs mentioned, Cynthia Nielsen’s Per Caritatem being a particular favourite.
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Christianity Today has an interview with Richard Bauckham [HT: Dr Jim West].
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John H suggests a new proposition (with apologies to Martyn Lloyd-Jones!):

If what you believe and teach concerning the Supper couldn’t be misinterpreted by some people as sounding like cannibalism, then your understanding and/or teaching of the Supper is deficient.

John also has some very interesting observations from David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham (part 1, part 2). John also has a very good post on the subject of Christian children.

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R. Scott Clark on ‘Baptism, Election and the Covenant of Grace’. If nothing else, one has to be impressed with Clark’s chutzpah in distinguishing Lutherans from Protestants. Those terrible Lutherans, suggesting that Baptism actually does something!
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John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright will probably be released in November.
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There is a pre-publication special offer for Logos Bible Software’s electronic version of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
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I am encouraged. I thought that I read too many blogs. However, I only have about 250 blog feeds on Bloglines; Macht has about 550. If you don’t already use a feed aggregator like Bloglines, I strongly suggest that you start. It makes blog reading so much quicker and easier.
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Cooking for Engineers [HT: Peter Roberts]
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John Barach discusses Alias, strong male figures in popular TV shows and the manner in which shows such as Alias and 24 can desensitize us to surveillance and torture. As a fan of LOST and 24 (although my faith in both shows has taken a bit of a beating over the last season) and someone who has watched most of the first couple of seasons of Alias, I find that I agree with many of John’s observations.
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Please pray for the Presbyteer’s church.
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Some helpful productivity advice [HT: Mark Horne]
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From lifehacker:

101 New Uses for Everyday Things
Time is All We Have: 3 Ways to Increase Return on Investment
Determining the doneness of a steak

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From the Evangelical Outpost:

A Virtual Tour of Dante’s Inferno
Knit Graffiti

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The divine Prince Philip.
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Finally, a few Youtube videos.

I will never understand Japanese gameshows

Another clever advertisement

Links and News, but not in that order

I returned from a few days back in Stoke-on-Trent on Tuesday evening. My time back home was full of activity, but very enjoyable. As there was a wedding on, I had the opportunity to meet a lot more friends than I would have met on another weekend. During the few days back home, I watched Spiderman III for the second time (I far prefer Spiderman II) and Pirates of the Caribbean III (none of the later films in the trilogy have lived up to the original). I helped out at a kid’s club, with preparation for the wedding celebration and had to preach at very short notice (I mainly reworked material that I had written and blogged about recently). I also enjoyed following the cricket when I had a few minutes to spare. The West Indies may not be the strongest opponents, but convincingly winning a Test match does provide welcome relief after the mauling of the latest Ashes series and our failure to make much of an impact at the World Cup.

Over the last few days I have read a number of books. On my way down to Stoke-on-Trent on the train, I finished reading L. Charles Jackson’s Faith of our Fathers: A Study of the Nicene Creed. I had the privilege of meeting Charles a couple of months ago and have enjoyed reading his book. It is a very helpful introduction to the Christian faith, following the statements of the Nicene Creed. Each chapter is relatively short and followed by some review questions. It would be a useful book for a study class and also provides the sort of clear and straightforward (but not simplistic) introduction to Christian doctrine that might be of use to a thinking teenager (Ralph Smith’s Trinity and Reality is another work that I would recommend for this).

On the train journey back I finished reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. A friend recommended the book to me when it first came out a few years ago, but I have only just got around to reading it (I bought a secondhand copy of the book from my housemate John a few months ago). Martel is a very gifted storyteller and the book is quite engrossing. Whilst I strongly disagree with the underlying message of the book (about the character of faith and its loose relationship with fact), I greatly enjoyed the book and may well revisit it on some occasion in the future.

I have also been reading a number of other works, including Courtney Anderson’s To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson, which a friend lent to me, in preparation for my visit to Myanmar in September. I am also reading Steve Moyise’s The Old Testament in the New, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Children of Hurin and I have been dipping into the second volume of John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology. On the commentary front, I have been using Goldingay’s recent work on Psalms 1-41 and Craig S. Keener’s commentary on John’s Gospel.

At the moment I am reading up on the subject of the atonement. I am particularly enjoying Hans Boersma’s work, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition. I am also reading Where Wrath & Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today, edited by Oak Hill’s David Peterson (I am still waiting for my copy of Pierced for Our Transgressions to be delivered), Joel Green and Mark Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross and revisiting Colin Gunton’s The Actuality of Atonement.

Since returning to St. Andrews I have done very little. I spent much of yesterday playing Half-Life 2 (which I am revisiting after a few years) and reading. Today I expect that I will be a little more productive.

The following are some of the sites, stories, posts and videos that have caught my eye over the last few days.

Matt Colvin has an interesting post on ‘Headcoverings as Visible Eschatology’. Within it he argues that Paul’s teaching on the matter in 1 Corinthians 11 was not culturally determined, but informed by redemptive history.

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James Jordan has posted a series on the Biblical Horizons website: ‘How To Do Reformed Theology Nowadays’. As usual, JBJ has many useful and provocative observations. Here is one extended quotation:

The second problem is that since the academy is separated from the world, it is inevitably a gnostic institution. It is a place of ideas, not of life. For that reason it tends to become a haven for homosexuals (as it was in Greece, as Rosenstock-Huessy again points out in his lectures on Greek Philosophy). But apart from that problem, the separation of the academy from life means that the fundamental issues are seen as intellectual, which they in truth and fact are not. Clearly, conservative theological seminaries are not havens for homosexuals. But when what is protected is ideas and not women, then something is not right. Do academistic theologians protect the Bride of Christ, or do they protect a set of pet notions?

Consider: A man might say that when the Bible says that the waters of the “Red Sea” stood as walls and that the Israelites passed through, this is an exaggeration. What really happened is that a wind dried up an area of the “Swamp of Reeds” and the Israelites passed through. Now, this is a typical gnostic academistic way of approaching the text. The physical aspect of the situation is discounted. What is important is the theological idea of passing between waters. Human beings, for the academic gnostic, are not affected and changed by physical forces sent by God, but are changed by notions and ideas only.

The Bible shows us God changing human beings, bringing Adam forward toward maturity, very often by means of striking physical actions, such as floods, plagues, overwhelming sounds, and also warfare. It’s not just a matter of theology, or of “redemptive history” as a series of notions.

Now, some modern academics have indeed devoted themselves to social and economic history, and have seen that human beings are changed by physical forces that are brought upon them (though without saying that the Triune God brings these things upon them). This outlook, however, has not as yet had much impact on the theological academy.

The fact is that God smacks us around and that’s what changes history. Ideas sometimes smack us around, true enough. But the problem of the academy is that it is (rightly) separated from the world of smackings. From the academistic viewpoint, the actions of God in the Bible, His smacking around of Israel to bring them to maturity, are just not terribly important. What matters are the ideas.

This means the chronology is not important, and the events as described can be questioned. Did God really do those plagues in Egypt, smacking around the human race to bring the race forward in maturity? Maybe not. Maybe the stories in Exodus are “mythic enhancements” of what really happened. It’s the stories that matter, not the events. Maybe the Nile became red with algae, not really turned to blood. The blood idea is to remind us of all the Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile eighty years before.

Think about this. For the academistic, it is the idea that is important. Human beings are changed by ideas. And ideas only. Of course, it should be obvious that turning all the water in Egypt to blood (not just the Nile, Exodus 7:19) is a way of bringing back the murder of the Hebrew infants and of calling up the Avenger of Blood, the Angel of Death, because blood cries for vengeance. They had to dig up new water (Ex. 7:24) because all the old water was dead and bloody. An event like this changes people. The theological ideas are important. But the shock and awe of having all the water of the nation turn to blood is also important. It forces people to change.

***
Josh, the Fearsome Pirate, puts his finger on one of the reasons why I would find it hard to become a Lutheran and reminds me of one of the reasons I so appreciate the Reformed tradition: ‘The Bible & Lutheranism’.
***
Peter Leithart blogs on a subject that has long interested me: the necessity of the Incarnation. The question of the necessity of the Incarnation might strike some as needlessly speculative. However, our answer to this question does have a lot of practical import, not least in our understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption and the manner in which Christ relates to the cosmos. It raises teleological questions very similar to those raised in supra-infra debates, but does so in a far more biblical manner (supra-infra debates that are not grounded in Christology do strike me as unhelpfully speculative).
***
Leithart also blogs on the subject of Pentecost on the First Things blog, one of a number to do so over the last few days. NTW sermons on Ascension and Pentecost have also been posted on the N.T. Wright Page. Joel Garver also blogs on Pentecost here. Over the next few months I will be doing a lot of work on the subject of canonical background for the account of Acts 2 (something that I have blogged about in the past). I will probably blog on the subject in more detail in the future.
***
There have been a number of engagements with popular atheism in the blogosphere recently, particularly by Doug Wilson. Wilson’s recent debates with Christopher Hitchens can be found on the Christianity Today website: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. It is interesting to see how Hitchens consistently seems to fail to get Wilson’s point about warrant for moral obligation. Macht also has a helpful post in which he observes Richard Dawkins’ tendency to lightly dismiss positions (not just Christian ones) without ever taking the trouble to try to understand them first.
***
Joel Garver summarizes the recent PCA report on the NPP/FV and posts a letter raising some questions and concerns on the subject.
***
Ben posts an interesting list of recent and forthcoming must read theological books and Kim Fabricius loses all credibility.
***
A recent convert to Roman Catholicism argues that FV theology leads Romeward. A recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy argues that Peter Leithart was instrumental in his conversion. The first post prompted a very lively and rather heated discussion in the comments (which I participated in).

Frankly, while I do not agree with such moves and do not find the slippery slope argument — much beloved of FV critics — at all convincing, I am not surprised that a number of people make such moves and credit the FV with moving them some way towards their current ecclesiatical home. Unlike many movements within the Reformed world, the FV is heading in a (small ‘c’) catholic and principled ecumenical direction. The journey to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism is far shorter from a catholic than a sectarian tradition. The FV is not generally given to overblown polemics against every theological tradition that differs from the Reformed and appreciates reading material produced by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox. It can open one’s eyes to the fact that there are actually some pretty fine Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians out there and that, despite a number of failings, they are often far better on certain issues than their Reformed counterparts. Differences remain, but they are put into a far more realistic perspective.

***
John H on what lies beneath debates about Mary. He also raises the issue of the presence of the Eucharist in John’s gospel for discussion.
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The most blogged passages of Scripture [HT: The Evangelical Outpost].
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Christianity Today has its 2007 book awards.
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Encouraging signs from Dennis Hou’s blog.
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Edward Cook watches LOST with Hebrew subtitles.
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Best selling books of all time [HT: Kim Riddlebarger]
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118 ways to save money in college
Learn a new language with a podcast
Learn the 8 essential tie knots

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New music from The New Pornographers [HT: Macht]
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A third of bloggers risk the sack
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Life as a secret Christian convert
***
Global Peace Index Rankings (if you are looking for the US it is down at 96 between Yemen and Iran)
***
A wonderful new site where grandmothers share films of some of their favourite recipes.
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Boy kills a ‘monster pig’ [HT: Jon Barlow]
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Some Youtube videos.

George Lucas in Love

Five Hundred Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

Pete Doherty queues for an Oasis album. It is sad to see how messed up he has become since then.

Finally, from my fellow St. Andrews Divinity student, Jon Mackenzie, comes ‘The Barthman’s Deck-laration’

NTW Lecture on the Purpose and Use of Doctrines

On May 2nd I had the opportunity to hear N.T. Wright deliver a lecture on the subject ‘Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture’, here in St. Andrews. I am not the fastest note-taker, and so the following is a rough reconstruction of the basis gist of Wright’s lecture, based on my sketchy notes. For this reason they really should not be used as a point of reference for Wright’s thought.

Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture

NT WrightThe first half of the paper will be primarily methodical; the second half primarily exegetical. We currently face a puzzle of perception. There are those in the Church who are troubled by what they see as the hardening of theology into dry doctrine. Scripture, they believe, brings life, not ‘doctrine’. Scripture can often function like a favourite movie or symphony for them. For others, however, Scripture has become as dry as doctrine itself. Extended prayer and praise meetings are what they regard as important — the Spirit. In addition to such people there are those who love dogmatic theology and are bored by labyrinthine exegesis.

We need to recover an understanding of Scripture in the light of narrative. One can almost anticipate the sighs of some hearers of this lecture. Narrative theology is so passé. They are even giving it up in Yale! However, a narrative structure is very clearly present in Scripture. This stands in contrast to the Gnostic gospels. Lacking such a narrative they would quite likely function as a cuckoo in the nest of the canon. Genesis to Revelation is one massive narrative. The various writers of Scripture, particularly the earlier ones, can be compared to engineers from many different workshops producing the many nuts, bolts and cantilevers that would eventually come together to form the Forth Bridge, something far bigger than anything that they could have envisaged.

When we read Paul we need to read him as one who thinks Scripture. His mind is full of the Scriptural narrative (and the various subnarratives) and he regards himself as one who inhabits the big narrative that Scripture presents us with. As we read Paul we need to ask how he can function as Scripture for us. When we read Scripture are we really looking for Scripture itself, or are we merely looking for something else — such as doctrine or devotion — that we try to mould Scripture into.

As a suggested way forward for our thinking on this matter, perhaps we should start to think of doctrines as akin to ‘portable narratives’. Doctrines are like suitcases that enable us to transport longer narratives from A to B. However, like suitcases they need to be continually packed and unpacked. Sometimes we need to, in order to address important questions that the Church faces in the course of its mission, to speak about the meaning of Jesus’ death. On such occasions it is better to say ‘atonement’ than have to give a more long-winded statement.

However, as a note at this point, it is important to remember that, when Jesus wanted to teach His disciples about the meaning of His death, He didn’t give them a ‘doctrine of atonement’. Rather, He gave them a meal. When we think about the atonement we need to recognize that the Eucharist is the grid of interpretation that we have been given.

Creeds can be compared to portable stories. Although some have treated them as such, creeds are not like ‘checklists’, arranged in no particular order. Rather, they follow a clear narrative order, telling, in broad brush outline, a story that begins in creation and reaches its climax in Christ. They are telescoped narratives. If we leave our suitcases unpacked for long periods of time there is always a danger that the contents will become mildewed. The same is the case with the creeds. We must always be prepared to ‘unpack’ the narrative of the creeds.

One of the purposes that the creeds serve is that of enabling the narrative to function as a ‘symbol’, as something that we can subscribe to. Doctrines also enable us to more adequately defend the narratives from attacks at key points.

The packing and unpacking that we are here speaking of can be observed within the text of Scripture itself. Paul frequently packs and unpacks his narrative. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:56 we find the terse statement, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.’ This is a very closely-packed version of what Paul unpacks, expands and lays out in detail in Romans 7. We see much the same ending in Romans 7:25 as we do in 1 Corinthians 15:57. The packing and unpacking of doctrines, then, is not just something that the Church does; Scripture does it too.

It is possible to treat dogmas as items on a checklist in a way that detaches them from any narrative framework. It is also possible to place them into the wrong narrative. Dogmas are like the dots on a dot to dot puzzle. The dots by themselves are not enough; they must be joined up in the correct order. Implicit narrative is all-important. If we put our doctrines into the wrong narrative we can end up falsifying them. This is very significant when we come to the doctrine of the atonement. We must recognize that it is the story of Israel that drives the NT and Jesus himself. This is what Paul means by ‘according to the Scriptures’. The cross isn’t merely predicted by isolated proof-texts within the OT, but is the fulfillment of the entire OT narrative of Israel. This can be very hard for those who think in terms of a creation-fall-Jesus pattern to understand. However, if we miss out Israel we are in danger of becoming Marcionite in our thinking and losing out in such areas as ecclesiology.

Some understand the divinity of Christ in terms of a ‘Superman’ type narrative. Others understand the Second Coming in terms of the narrative of the rapture. These are examples of ways in which our implicit narratives can falsify or distort doctrines. The doctrine of atonement is a self-involving doctrine. Whilst all doctrines are to some extent self-involving, atonement is more so. It is about reconciliation with God and outside of the context of reconciliation with God it can never be properly understood. The atonement is not just an ‘involving’ doctrine in the sense of being something that we must mentally and emotionally commit ourselves to. The truth of the atonement is embodied in the practice of the Eucharist.

Unlike those who adopt the ‘checklist’ mentality, we need to recognize that not all ‘doctrines’ are the same sort of thing. For instance, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ is not necessarily the same sort of thing as ‘the doctrine of the resurrection’. Particular doctrines are, to some extent, sui generis.

It is interesting to observe that, whilst Paul mentions the cross all the time, he never gives it any expanded treatment. This contrasts to the way in which Paul unpacks the doctrine of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The cross is woven deep into the fabric of 2 Corinthians, for instance, but it is always treated in connection with other doctrines.

The book of Romans is about the δικαιοσυνη θεου (righteousness of God). It is about God’s addressing the problem of humanity and of Israel to keep the covenant. The significance of Israel in this picture is that Abraham was going to be the one through whom God was going to set right that which went wrong in Adam. However, it seems that God’s purpose for Israel has failed. Traditional readings generally fail to see this and, as a result, marginalize sections like 9-11, 2:17-29 and 3:1-9. Subtly different questions than those of Paul are brought to the text.

In his approach to the cross in Romans, Paul seems to take traditional statements concerning the cross as the basis for his argument in such places as 3:21-26. In the early chapters of Romans Paul demonstrates the failure of Israel to be the light of the Gentiles and the reality of universal sin. God’s plan seems to have collapsed. In 3:21-26 Paul gives an exposition of the manner in which God has been faithful to His covenant in dealing with sin.

It is unfashionable to go to the book of Acts in order to discover Paul’s theology, but the parallel between the reference to passing over sins in Romans 3:25 and statements made by Paul in Acts 14 and 17, where Paul speaks of the times of ignorance of the Gentiles, are interesting. Romans 3:21-26 does not give us a generalized statement of atonement, but rather declares how, in the present time, God is dealing with Jews and Gentiles.

Has the traditional argument just taken a wise course of action, by cutting to what it has deemed to be the ‘heart of the matter’? The problem here is that we run the risk of forcing texts onto the Procrustean bed of our own assumptions. Our eagerness for ‘doctrine’ can result in the muting of the Jew/Gentile point that was so important for Paul.

Later in the epistle, Paul goes on to claim that the death of Jesus demonstrates the sovereign love of the Father. From this we can deduce the fact of final salvation. While we were weak, while we were sinners, while we were enemies, Christ died for us. Paul spells this out in terms of Christ’s obedience, a Pauline theme of which the Reformed emphasis on the active obedience of Christ turns out to be a parody. Whilst we can agree with the Reformed doctrine in what it is trying to say, it misses Paul’s point. We needn’t lose the idea of imputed righteousness, but we will get it back within a larger framework, which might threaten some pet assumptions.

In Romans 8:3 Paul speaks of God speaking sentence on Sin itself, not just sins, or sinners. This is the clearest statement of penal substitution in the epistle. God condemned Sin (not Christ); Christ has borne the sentence. What is the larger argument within which this is the turning point? The larger underlying argument is that of the role played by the God-given Torah in Romans 7. Sin does its worst in Israel and will be dealt with there. In the ινα of 5:20 and 7:13 we see that this was God’s purpose all the way along. God’s purpose was to make Israel the place to raise Sin to its height. Torah heightens, rather than alleviating, the problem, turning sins into transgression. God then passes sentence on Sin at the point at which it has been gathered together. The cross then brings into effect the larger purpose of God (Romans 5:21). The story that Paul is telling here is far bigger than the one that has been told by many of his interpreters.

How can this be relevant to the sinner on the street? The significance of this narrative is often implicit and assumed. When you are talking to a person on their deathbed you would not usually discuss the question of why God gave the Law in the first place (although you never know!). If you were going to mention the Israel dimension of the story you might focus more on the truth of God’s faithfulness through death, using Abraham and others as illustrations of God’s trustworthiness. It is worth noticing that, when Paul presents the gospel to pagan Gentiles, his message usually takes a different form to that which we see in the epistles.

In the rest of Romans we see that the cross is not mentioned in 9-11. However, it is implicit throughout. The cross is far wider in meaning than one particular account of how human individuals can be saved.

The frustration experienced by dogmaticians and exegetes when faced with each other’s objections is quite understandable (exegetes and dogmaticians may just be two different types of people). Rather than trying to get at supposedly Pauline ‘doctrines’, we should focus on his larger narrative arguments. ‘Atonement’ is not the primary thing that Paul is talking about. We must read Paul in the context of his implicit narratives. We should never protect Paul from this story. We need to rethink the way that we engage with Scripture. Scripture is not merely a peg to hook ‘doctrines’ on. We need to listen to Scripture when it disagrees with us or we don’t understand it. The faultline that so often exists between Scripture and doctrine can only be overcome by the authority of Scripture being exercised in such a way.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 39 - A Humble King Crowned with Thorns

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ — John 19:1-5

Have you ever wondered why the soldiers chose a crown of thorns? After all, they could have constructed the crown from a number of other materials. Yet, the crown of thorns seems purposed, that is, it draws us back to the Genesis and the series of curses that resulted when our first parents fell. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen 3:17-18). As Jesus begins to walk the path that leads to his death by crucifixion, we have a glimpse here of how he, the true guiltless Man, will take the curse, our curse upon Himself. The scene is shot through with irony—Pilate, the image of a false and corrupt “king,” presenting the true King as a helpless prisoner and eventually condemning Him to die. Likewise, we see Jesus, the Lord of creation, the perfect image of God, who unlike Adam and Eve, listened the voice of the Father in humble obedience even to the point of death on a Cross—this Jesus, Pilate proclaims is the true man (talk about meanings going beyond the intention of the author/speaker), and indeed He is—the icon of God who makes the invisible God visible, who opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts and who gives life to the dead. Yet, the One through whom all things were made and who, came to His own, finds His own in rebellion against Him. In fact, they even weave together a crown of thorns and dress Him in a purple robe to mock Him. What is our Lord’s response to this? Does He lash out and call down legions of angels to wipe out the rebels? No. The innocent, yet true King, crowned with signs of creation’s curse, stands silent and walks the path that was both His destiny and our blessing. Behold the Man!

Cynthia Nielsen is graduate student at the University of Dallas and an adjunct philosophy instructor at Eastfield College. Her interests include jazz guitar and Russian language and literature. She blogs at Per Caritatem.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 37 - The Wounds of Job


What is the message of the book of Job, for those of us who are enduring unjust suffering? Perhaps we can hear what the Lord would tell us more clearly from summarizing the story from a slightly different angle.

Job was blameless and upright, and his righteousness was the boast of the angels of God. In the fullness of time, God humbled him to a lowly state, with Job becoming as poor as any man. Then God crushed him with horrible wounds in his flesh, so that he suffered agonizing pain. Though Job prayed that God’s wrath would be taken away from him, he finally resigned himself to God’s will - remaining obedient in the face of death.

His friends, who had once praised him, now hid their faces from him. They esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. They renounced him as wicked, and numbered him with the transgressors. The wrath of God was poured out on him. Job cried out to God for deliverance, but no help came. He had made great claims, as if he was in some special status before God, but events apparently proved that God’s affections were elsewhere.

His accusers were wrong. Job was more righteous than they ever knew, and in cursing Job, they had cursed God’s chosen agent – bringing God’s anger and judgment upon themselves. Yet Job himself, in the midst of his affliction, interceded and atoned for the sins of his friends, offering forgiveness for those who would come to him. In the end, God exalted Job to his former splendor. People came from far and wide to pay homage to him who the Lord had afflicted, laying treasures at his feet. And he brought many sons and daughters into glory.

In an almost stigmatic sense, Job was given the wounds of the Lord. Though he was blameless and upright from the beginning, his righteousness was elevated to a whole new level by participating in the redemption of the world.

What comfort is this to us who also suffer? I think of George MacDonald’s famous quote at the beginning of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain:

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.

The curse of man becomes the gift of God, once we’ve drunk the cup to the bottom. It’s a hard and high calling, and we may scream to be left alone. Like Job, we may also cry, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him.” But we can take comfort in being in far better company than those who are at ease. Like Job, we must wait for our renewal to come, knowing that our redeemer lives. Then, though broken by despair, we will have our hearts kindled by a strangely familiar voice:

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he will interpret to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself – including, of course, the testimony of the prophet Job.

Wonders for Oyarsa is a blog by a Christian computer professional preparing for cross-cultural work in East Asia. The purpose of the blog is to facilitate a journey through the Bible - reading it in its entirety, reflecting on it, honestly writing what comes to mind, welcoming conversation from all. The author hopes being swept up into this story will help him and others not take for granted the wonders of the story we humans inhabit.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 19 - Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Flax

Look! My servant whom I have chosen,
My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased!
I will put my Spirit upon him
And judgment to the nations he will announce.
He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And smoldering flax he will not quench,
Until he sends forth judgment to victory;
And in his name nations will trust.
— Matthew 12:18-21

These words, slightly modified from Isaiah 42, are often quoted in connection with Jesus’ compassion, and compassion certainly is present in this context. Jesus gives true and who heals multitudes (12:15).

But Matthew quotes them with something else in mind. The Pharisees are plotting to destroy Jesus (12:14), but Jesus’ response is not to destroy them in return. Instead, he withdraws. When the crowds follow him, he heals them but he also hushes them. He warns them not to make him known, Matthew says, so that “it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet,” and then he quotes the words above.

Who are the bruised reed and the smoking flax?

In Isaiah, “bruised reed” is the Assyrian ambassador’s term for Egypt: “You are trusting in the staff of this bruised reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him” (Isa. 36:6; cf. Ezek. 29:6). A bruised reed makes a bad staff because it snaps and the sharp end is driven into your hand.

And smoldering flax? Flax here is a wick and if it’s smoldering it’s about to go out and leave you in the darkness.

These aren’t simply images of weakness. They are images of things that let you down, things you ought to have been able to count on but which fail you, which leave you in the lurch, which even cause you pain and make you helpless.

The bruised reed and the smoldering flax in the context of Matthew 12 are the Pharisees. They were zealous for God’s covenant and Jesus ought to have been able to lean on them. But they are bruised reeds that will snap and pierce his hand. They are associated in the Gospels with the synagogue, which is an offshoot of the temple where God’s lamp burns. Their light should have illuminated Jesus and his work. But like the wicks in the lamp in Eli’s day (1 Sam. 3:3), they are smoldering wicks which will leave Jesus in darkness.

And Jesus lets them.

He doesn’t break the bruised reed. He doesn’t snuff out the smoldering wick. He doesn’t destroy those who would harm him. He doesn’t quarrel and cry out and shout down his enemies, nor does he allow the crowd of his followers to do it. Instead, he allows himself to be let down by the very people he should have been able to trust. He allows them to pierce his hand and leave him in darkness.

This refusal to break bruised reeds and snuff out smoldering wicks, the refusal to destroy those who threaten or betray him, will lead to Jesus’ death but not to Jesus’ defeat. It’s precisely by suffering this injustice that he will establish justice in the world.

In fact, in Isaiah 42, which Matthew doesn’t quote, Yahweh promises that the servant will not be “bruised” and will not be “quenched”: the very same words used for the reed and the flax. You can lean on him and he won’t splinter and pierce your hand. You can trust him to keep giving light. He allows himself to be let down so that he won’t let you down, so that his mission will succeed, so that the nations will trust in his name.

We are united to him. We share in his identification as God’s beloved, chosen servant. God has placed his Spirit on us so that we can carry out Jesus’ mission to establish God’s just rule among the nations. And therefore we also must share his demeanour until he sends forth justice to victory.

John Barach is the pastor of Reformation Covenant Church in Medford, Oregon. He’s married to Moriah and has the world’s cutest 21-month old daughter, Aletheia. He blogs at Kata Iwannhn: The Blog According to John, spends too much time working on exegesis for his sermons, and can be seen around Medford in various coffee shops, reading books and trying to figure out how to plant a liturgical, psalm-singing church that challenges the existing culture instead of conforming to it.

Miscellaneous

Tomorrow, and possibly a few other days of this week, will be without guest posts. I will be meeting up with my father in Edinburgh tomorrow and will not have access to my computer. The rest of the week will be exceedingly busy. Apart from regular activities I have a St. Patrick’s Day party to prepare for on Saturday. In addition to this, I am running rather low on guest posts at the moment. A number of people have promised to send me posts that I am still waiting on.

I appreciate that my blogging for the last few weeks (months?) has been rather patchy. I am not sure if this will change any time soon. I have a number of half-completed lengthy posts on my hard drive and dozens of other subjects that I have considered posting on over the last few weeks. The sheer number of things that I have been itching to comment about as I have been reading Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry over the last few days has been simply overwhelming. The problem is that the book has been so utterly appalling (I regret to say that this is not just exaggerated rhetoric) so far that I really wouldn’t know where to start. I am usually a relatively composed reader, not given to strong reactions, but some of the claims made in this book have left me dumbfounded. I just would not know where to begin in a response. Doug Wilson has been responding to the book on his blog, but he is far too kind in his criticisms. This is a book whose claims need to be taken apart stone by stone, each stone pulverized individually and the resultant dust scattered to the four winds of heaven. However, I do not have the time, energy or patience to waste on such a thankless task.

Here are a few links from today:

John H has alerted me to this article from the Scientific American‘Special Report: Has James Cameron Found Jesus’s Tomb or Is It Just a Statistical Error?’. Mark Goodacre also has more on the tomb story — ‘Talpiot Tomb Various’ and ‘Mariamene and Martha, Stephen Pfann’. Ben Witherington links to an interview he has given on the tomb story.

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Kim Fabricius’ Ten Propositions on Sin. As usual, I don’t agree with a number of Kim’s claims, but the clarity of insight of some of his observations always makes him worth reading.
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David Field explains Aristotle’s Four Causes.
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Jeff Meyers podcasts an old lecture on the Mercersburg Theology’s sacramental conflict with Old School Presbyterianism.
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First Things’ Joseph Bottum on good prose on the Web.
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John H on the altar-calling tendencies of some forms of contemporary atheism.
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Lifehacker alerts us to two potentially useful downloads — Google Image Ripper and Polyglot 3000

Lenten Guest Post - Day 15 - He Healed Them All

And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. — Luke 7:17-19

“Oh that all could touch you and be healed!
But have you not made us the tassels of your garment
for a bleeding world to grasp?”

O Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that we may not

So much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

- St. Francis of Assisi


Kerby Goff works with Campus Crusade for Christ in Oklahoma and is part of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, which he does not use. He blogs at blogkerby.blogspot.com. He thinks church history is cool, and his friends laugh at him (not with him) when he makes Bible jokes. He also loves asian food and all things asian so much so that his patriotism often comes into question. He spends most of his time reading, running, cooking, and hanging out with college students, especially international students.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 14 - Walk With Me a Mile

After watching a film on the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer a few days ago, the question of violence has been tugging insistently at my heart. Naturally, then, I would like to explore the text at the heart of Bonheoffer’s peculiar variety of non-violence which nonetheless led him to be involved in the assassination plot for which he gave his life.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. — Matthew 5:38-41

Leaving aside the question of whether Jesus’ teachings add up to a categorical prohibition against the use of violence, there are a number of points concerning which disciples of all traditions can come to basic agreement.

Violence is a form of self-righteousness. To demand an eye in return for an eye is to pronounce righteousness for ourselves before men. It is an attempt to do for ourselves what God has promised to do on our behalf.

Violence is a form of misplaced allegiance. When we place our trust in coercive force, be it wielded by the State or our own hands, we betray our allegiance to the One Who wields the sword at His pleasure.

Violence is a form of doubt. By resorting to violence, we take the Lord’s name upon ourselves: Yahweh Yireh. We doubt that God will see to it – that He will deliver us from our dilemma – and so we seek to deliver ourselves.

Violence, manifested in litigiousness, jingoism, or physical aggression, has no place in the life of a disciple of Christ. Let us repent of our self-righteousness and unbelief. In conclusion, allow me to share a favorite poem of mine, the story of Abraham and Isaac retold from the perspective of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

Chris Jones is a former member of the blogosphere. His former blog, The Thinkery, is now operated by someone else, and everyone should add it to their reading lists. Chris presently teaches high school Policy Debate, which he finds very fulfilling. Though he is merely a layman, his academic interests include language and theology, especially textual criticism. He would like to get involved with missionary work eventually.

News and Links

Prison Break Season 1As I am very bad at keeping up to date with e-mail correspondence with my friends and family, from time to time I will post news updates on this blog. The last few weeks have been relatively uneventful. Last week I started studying Latin with my housemate John, which has been quite an enjoyable experience so far and makes something of a change from the things that we usually do. Last week I also received the DVDs of season 1 of Prison Break, which John and I have been watching compulsively ever since.

Since my Chinese teacher from last semester returned to China I have been unable to find a replacement. I know of a few places where I might possibly find one, but haven’t had any success yet. I have been studying theological German this semester instead (with Jon and a couple of others), which is another first for me. The German is nowhere near as intense as the Chinese was last year and so I have a lot more free time in which to read, play Settlers of Catan, card games, Civilization IV and other such things. I am taking modules in John’s gospel and Hebrew praise and lament this semester. Both have been stimulating so far, particularly the John’s gospel module, for which we have Markus Bockmuehl, who is quite brilliant and a privilege to study under.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral MinistryThis morning I received a copy of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry in the mail. I have only read the first chapter, which does not augur well for my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I fear that my blood pressure might be raised next week, in which I plan to finish reading it. Fortunately I am reading a number of other enjoyable books at the moment, which should help in this respect. Yves Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit is a good read, as are Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I also plan to read Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being (no, I really haven’t read it yet!) and reread Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations within the next couple of weeks.

At present I am hoping that I will be able to complete my Lenten blogging project. However, I am running dangerously short of posts at the moment. If you want to take part, please send me something as soon as you can.

I will conclude this post will a short list of links fron the last day or two:

***
Leithart blogs a thought on turning the cheek as a form of resistance.
***
Mark Goodacre blogs some assorted thoughts on the Talpiot tomb. Dr Jim Davila posts some thoughts from Dr Alexander Panayotov.
***
Baudrillard is dead. AKMA links to some thoughts on Baudrillard and his work here.
***
FV and their critics two sides of the same coin? I suspect that both parties in the present debate will strongly disagree with the way that they are represented here.
***
David Field reflects on Galatians 3:12 and Leviticus 18:5 (here and here). I can’t say that I am convinced, but have yet to make up my mind on that passage (the use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 seems to make more sense to me). Tim Gallant had some interesting thoughts on this a while back (see under section 5).
***
I have just lifted the following Rowan Williams quotation from Ben Myers’ blog.

Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities…. And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.

Sounds quite right to me.

***
Lots of Rich Lusk stuff.
***
Movements towards incest. I saw this one coming quite some way off. The sort of arguments being raised against it by people in our society is perhaps one of the most depressing things of this whole matter.
***
The Presbyteer observes something about the way that we all tend to read Scripture.
***
Kim Riddlebarger comments on the danger of self-appointed theological experts online.
***
On a not unrelated subject, Ross Leckie explains how easy it is to bluff knowledge of a book that you have never read. I suspect that many theologians are gifted practitioners of such methods when it comes to the biblical text.
***
Danny Foulkes reacts to John MacArthur’s claim that every self-respecting Calvinist is a premillennialist.
***
My brother Mark gives a video lesson in constructing an origami star.
***
Speed Painting with Ketchup and French Fries
***
Hack GoogleMaps to enable you to zoom in further.
***
Calvinix tablets: highly recommended for any Arminian readers! Also, denominational Swiss Army knives [HT: Michael Spencer of BHT].

Lenten Guest Post - Day 12 - A Case for the Christian Year

In my work as campus minister at a Christian school, it often falls to me to answer questions from my Southern Baptist co-workers regarding some of my allegiance to the Christian year. A few days ago a farmer working on our campus farm stopped by to ask me about the Ash Wednesday service he saw promoted in the campus newsletter. When someone has no understanding of the Christian year or the place of seasons and celebrations in Christian history, it’s hard to know where to start in explaining the value of things that the person may only understand as bad because they are “Catholic.”

So I’ve developed a bit of a “sell” to explain the Christian year to my Baptist friends. I’m not unrealistic, but I am hopeful that somewhere in what I have to say, I’ll at least stir up some curiosity.

I like to think about it like this:

The Bible encourages us to not be “pressed” into the world’s mold. When I was growing up, I understood that to have to do with sin, but now I understand that all kinds of things encourage or discourage me in following Jesus closely. The value system of the world; its finances; its media and, yes, its calendar.

I live my live by a Calendar that’s a mixture of my American culture, the school where I work and some family traditions. Christians in the first centuries of the church lived in cultures that shaped their thinking using calendars dominated by politics and pagan religious observances. To resist the “mold” of their culture, it only made sense to make the calendar a Christ-centered story.

So the Christian year began, and evolved, not as a way to honor any church, but as a way to honor Christ — all year long. The year follows his life, passion and ministry. The significant times of the Church calendar invite us to come to Bethlehem, find the empty tomb, and on Ash Wednesday, begin the long walk with Jesus to the cross.

Some of the things in that calendar go back to the very earliest centuries of the history of the church. Others came along many centuries later. Not all of the Christian year needs to be understood or appreciated for it to be a way to shape our worship, family life and personal devotion.

Our goal is to be shaped by Christ, and constantly mindful of what he has done for us. In the seasons of the church year, we hear the stories of Jesus from the scripture, and we’re always invited to join the story, meditate on Jesus and deepen our identification with him.

Is this putting one day above another, as some of the Puritans objected? No…it’s putting Christ above everything. When I make the lectionary (another post) the companion of my journey through the Christian year, I feel I’ve literally joined the great crowd of witnesses, moving through life and into eternity led by the great shepherd, Jesus Christ.

The Christian year is a powerful way of filling my life with Christ, and being shaped by his Gospel. It puts me in the company of other believers, and it reminds me of the most important story that can affect my life: the story of Jesus.

Michael Spencer has been the campus minister at the Oneida Baptist Institute in Kentucky, USA, for 15 years, where he preaches, teaches and ministers to hundreds of students from around the world. His blog is www.internetmonk.com.

Links


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Brueggemann on the Loss of Lament

Michelangelo - Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel

In an article, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament’ [JSOT (1986) 57-71], Walter Brueggemann address the manner in which lament seems to have dropped out of the ‘functioning canon’, identifying some of the unfortunate results of this.

One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology. Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party is surrounded by subjects who are always ‘yes men and women’ form whom ‘never is heard a discouraging word’. Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.

Brueggemann goes on to argue that lament allows for healthy forms of personality development that are largely precluded in its absence. He explores the analogy of a mother’s relationship with her child. For her child to develop ego-strength the mother must not take excessive initiative, but must be open to and encourage the initiative of the child and be responsive to it. He goes on to observe:

Where there is lament, the believer is able to take initiative with God and so develop over against God the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith. But where the capacity to initiate lament is absent, one is left only with praise and doxology. God then is omnipotent, always to be praised. The believer is nothing, and can uncritically praise or accept guilt where life with God does not function properly. The outcome is a ‘False Self’, bad faith which is based in fear and guilt and lived out as resentful or self-deceptive works of righteousness. The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility.

I do not suggest that biblical faith be reduced to psychological categories, but I find this parallel suggestive. It suggests that the God who evokes and responds to lament is not omnipotent in any conventional sense or surrounded by docile reactors. Rather, this God is like a mother who dreams with this infant, that the infant may sone day grow into a responsible, mature covenant partner who can enter into serious communion and conversation. In such a serious communion and conversation, there comes genuine obedience, which is not a contrived need to please, but a genuine, yielding commitment.

Where there is no lament through which the believer takes the initiative, God is experienced like an omnipotent mother. What is left for the believer then is a false narcissism which keeps hoping for a centred self, but which lacks the ego strength for a real self to emerge. What is at issue here, as Calvin understood so well, is a true understanding of the human self, but at the same time, a radical discernment of this God who is capable of and willing to be respondent and not only initiator.

This may not be the most helpful way of expressing the point, but the point is important nonetheless. It resonates with my concern to articulate a synergistic doctrine of providence. God wants us as His children to become His co-workers and vicegerents in His creation. For this reason God creates space in which we can seek, question and even challenge his providential dealings with us and the world. God wants us to be active participants in His providential rule, not merely passive sufferers of it. I do not want to suggest for a moment that God is anything less than omnipotent. However, His omnipotence is not an omnipotence held over against us. Rather, God’s omnipotence is a gracious omnipotence that encourages and facilitates our growth into responsible and mature rule in His creation and is not merely acted out upon us.

Brueggemann proceeds to observe that the absence of lament leads to the ’stifling of the question of theodicy,’ by which he refers to the ‘capacity to raise and legitimate questions of justice in terms of social goods, social access, and social power.’ The lament is not merely a ‘religious gesture’ seeking ’simple religious succor,’ but seeks to ‘mobilize God in the arena of public life.’ But using the lament form regularly, ‘Israel kept the justice question visible and legitimate.’ Brueggemann claims:

Where the lament is absent, the normal mode of the theodicy question is forfeited. When the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate. Instead we learn to settle for questions of ‘meaning’, and we reduce the issues to resolutions of love. But the categories of meaning and love do not touch the public systemic questions about which biblical faith is relentlessly concerned. A community of faith which negates lament soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions at the throne (which is a conclusion drawn through liturgic use), they soon appear to be improper questions in public places, in schools, in hospitals, with the government, and eventually even in the courts. Justice questions disappear into civility and docility. The order of the day comes to seem absolute, beyond question, and we are left with only grim obedience and eventually despair. The point of access for serious change has been forfeited when the propriety of this speech form is denied.

Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo.

Lament is a way of approaching theodicy that has largely been abandoned for philosophical explanations that seek to dissolve a theoretical perplexity and leave our existential crises unaddressed. The ‘resolution’ that is offered is an abstract theological excuse, rather than an answer that takes the form of divine action in history. We tend to read back our questions of theodicy into the biblical text. However, if we follow our definition of the term, the theodicy offered by the book of Job, for instance, is quite limited and unsatisfactory. The ‘theodicy’ that seems to be given is that of divine action of deliverance and vindication in history, rather than theoretical explanation. The questions of Job are not silenced by compelling theological answers (such answers are noticeably absent), so much as by the reality of YHWH’s personal presence and action in his plight.

Lenten Guest Post - Day 10 - Contagion of Purity

And as Jesus returned, the multitude welcomed Him, for they had all been waiting for Him. And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was an official of the synagogue; and he fell at Jesus’ feet, and began to entreat Him to come to his house; for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, and she was dying. But as He went, the multitudes were pressing against Him. And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him, and touched the fringe of His cloak; and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. And Jesus said, “Who is the one who touched Me?” And while they were all denying it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes are crowding and pressing upon You.” But Jesus said, “Someone did touch Me, for I was aware that power had gone out of Me.” And when the woman saw that she had not escaped notice, she came trembling and fell down before Him, and declared in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” — Luke 8:40-48

It’s hard to imagine the fear that must have clawed at her. What if she was wrong about him, and… he saw her do what she hoped to do. Surely he would be furious.

She had been singled out, shamed and embarrassed by others for many years. That was hardly new, but the familiarity did nothing to lessen the pain of exclusion and repulsion; and the thought of his finger angrily pointing her out — with so many people watching — was terrifying to her. The anxiety must have added its own nausea to the discomfort that had been with her for twelve years. But her desire to be without shame and whole was greater than her fears about the eyes and thoughts of her neighbors and friends. She covered her head, shut the door behind her and made her way towards the crowds.

She was right to be concerned. Since the time of Moses, Israel’s God had protected his people from his wrath by erecting a series of ceremonial walls and fences. The law graciously made known what was and was not allowed into his presence. Only the clean, perfect and pure could be admitted. The others….well, they had best keep a distance.

Impurity was everywhere, and its influence and strength seemed unassailable. How could it be any other way? Toss a white linen into a puddle of mud and which wins out: dirtiness or cleanliness? Lay a rotting carcass on a kitchen table and which extends it foothold in the world: purity or corruption? The answer is obvious- the linen becomes soiled and the tabletop nasty.

It’s a rule of creation as radical as gravity, itself. And God’s law took this into account: Touch an unclean thing, and you become unclean. Handle impurity, and you became impure. Simple. Clear. Common sense, really.

The woman in the story was unclean. The constant vaginal bleeding made her so.
Again, common sense, but lest there was any doubt — God had said as much.

But she hoped, none the less. She found him surrounded by those who belonged- those whose touch would go unnoticed by the priests and guardians. She reached out an unclean hand and touched his garment. Impurity soiling purity, and… he stopped.

Something counterintuitive and unimaginable, like fish multiplying endlessly or waves parting at the touch of priest’s feet, had taken place: The linen had touched the mud and the mud had been transformed. The putrid flesh that had been laid on the clean table had itself become an extravagant feast.

Our God is not a god of common sense. He recreates a world of Carnival — a world turned on its head. In his kingdom the last is first, weakness conquers strength and impurity is overrun by purity and wholeness.

Perhaps many saw only a sick woman, made well. But for those with eyes to see, all of creation had shifted and run backwards. Quietly, almost passively our Lord had tipped his hand and shown what he and his Father were up to.

How the kingdom of hell and death must have staggered and backed away. I can imagine demonic chests and bellies in the crowd being sucked in to avoid contact with this man and now… this woman; for who knew how far this influence ran.

Purity had become the contagion.

Pain, guilt and shame were no longer reasons to hide from God. He swallowed up each for this precious woman and gave her his own life.

His Kingdom still runs wildly backwards, but he must be sought. He must be touched. He has told us where he can be found- with his people, in his word and sacraments. He’s waiting to turn and smile at our fearful effort. Life, inclusion and wholeness are still offered there, waiting to pass from holy to filthy hand.

Phil James is the father of six and husband to Sandi. A repenting TR, he currently worships at Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Chattanooga, Tennessee (www.acotr.com). He enjoys Feta cheese, reading, winemaking, and blogging at Dappled Thoughts (www.dappledthoughts.blogspot.com). Currently, he’s also on a Terrence Fischer movie kick. He misses Theologia’s Forums and Jonny Quest reruns on the Boomerang Channel.

Prayer for his family (five daughters!) and for wisdom as he tries to figure out what the gospel has to say to business (especially employee/employer relationships) is greatly coveted.

Lots of Tomb Stuff


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Lenten Guest Post - Day 3 - Approaching God with Humble Hearts

Jesus told a parable one time about a Pharisee (super-religious guy) and a tax-collector (scum-of-the-earth). They both went to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray to God. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not as bad as other people. The Pharisee layed out all his religious deeds before God. It was like a bad interview where you can tell that the interviewee (in this case God) is wanting to say, “Is there a question that you wanted to ask?”

The dirtbag tax-collector approached his devotions in a very different manner. His physical deportment and the words he chose communicated humility. It is certainly possible to look downcast with a haughty heart. It is possible to say self-effacing words while being perfectly self-aggrandizing. That was not the case with this fictitious supplicant. His words and attitude aligned, and God heard his prayer.

The conclusion of the parable favors the tax-collector over the Pharisee. Pride is bad. Humility is good. Boasting against others is bad. Contrition is good. God will justify and exalt the humble and contrite person. God will condemn and abase the arrogant person. He said all this in the Old Testament (see Psalm 51:17).

There is much anti-clericalism floating around these days. That is not the lesson that Jesus was intending to teach. There were humble Pharisees (see Nicodemus in John 3). There were certainly arrogant tax-collectors. Tax-collectors were not hated without cause. The point is that we are to approach God in contrition over our own sins, not seeking to make our rotten apple look shinier because it doesn’t have a worm sticking out of it like the next guy’s.

Jason Kranzusch lives in Jackson, MS, attends St. Stephen’s Reformed Episcopal Church, and blogs at axegrinder. His likes include buffalo wings, basketball and blues music; he dislikes bad breath, gangsta rap, and the life of a cubicle zombie. This fall he begins his PhD program. He is thankful to God for helping him to devise various ways to combat noise pollution.

Links

The first guest post will be posted later on today. Thank you so much to those of you who have expressed your interest in taking part in this and to those of you who have already sent in posts.

The following are a few links that have caught my eye over the last day or two:

***

Future is the creation of Christianity and the Christian era, and this is so because Christianity puts death and resurrection at the center of its creed: “Christians believe in an end of the world, not only once but again and again. This and this alone is the power which enables us to die to our old habits and ideals, get out of our old ruts, leave our dead selves behind and take the first step into a genuine future.” Rosenstock-Huessy goes so far as to say that “Christianity and future are synonymous” (CF 63-64).

Through creating future, a common future, Christianity also created the possibility of a unified human race. The church entered a “world of divided loyalties – races, classes, tribes, empires, all living to themselves alone.” Jesus did not destroy these pre-existing loyalties, but fulfilled them: “by a gift of a real future, Christianity implanted in the very midst of men’s loyalties a power which, reaching back from the end of time, drew them step by step into unity” (CF 62). Pagan thought means “disunity, dividedness of mankind,” and this dividedness is as much temporal as spatial. Pagans never arrived at a view that history was one; each history instead begins and ends something “within time,” and so “pagan thought almost universally pictures human life as a decline from a golden age in the past toward ultimate destruction in the future” (CF 63). This tragic view of time can do no more than cultivate virtues of endurance: “it faces the world with prudence and courage; it is grounded in the facts of experience.” But paganism cannot produce faith, hope, and love. This is because paganism “lacks future,” and also because paganism leads to a lack of future.

Leithart blogs on God, Time, and the Christian Era here.

***

There is a curious feature about several of the parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics. On at least four occasions where Thomas has lengthy parallels with the Synoptics, he lacks a parallel to the middle part of the story. It is a phenomenon I label the missing middle. It is easy to see when we lay out Thomas in parallel with the Synoptics.

Read the whole of Mark Goodacre’s perceptive post here.

***
Listen to the audio of Alister McGrath’s critique of Richard Dawkins here [HT: Ben Witherington].
***
Ben Myers posts the next Thomas Torrance audio lectures here.
***
…and observes that there is indeed a Bob Dylan album for every season.
***
Garrett Craw puts things into perspective.
***
Jeff Meyers podcasts on Romans 11.
***
Buy Britney’s hair — a ’snip’ at $1m!

In Which Alastair Invites You to Guest Post

This Lent I would like to try something that I have never tried before on this blog. This may end up falling flat, but I would like to believe that it will work out. Whether it works out or not is really up to you.

Every day during Lent, I would like to have one of my readers post a guest post on this blog. No one else has ever posted on this blog before, so you have the opportunity to be one of the first. To qualify to guest post you don’t have to be a pastor, a theologian, or even a student of theology. Nor do you have to be an existing member of the blogosphere. I would love to have many different voices contributing to this project.

There are a few guidelines for the content and subject of the guest posts.

1. The posts must have as their subject matter a saying, action or event from our Lord’s public ministry, after His Baptism and prior to His entry into Jerusalem. During Holy Week this rule will change.

2. You are invited to present a few personal reflections on the saying, action or event. These reflections can take a number of different forms. Creative and imaginative posts are very welcome. Your reflections could be a word of testimony concerning the way that these verses have helped you at a particular time in your life. They could be more theological in tone. You could post a poem, a piece of art, a musical composition (you could sing a favourite hymn, for instance) or an audio or video clip (any Youtubers out there?). Once a saying, action or event has been posted on, I would prefer that people move onto a new one. However, I am prepared to make exceptions, given the right circumstances. If you have a particular verse that you just have to post on, book early!

3. The season of Lent is designed to lead us through the events of Holy Week into Easter. This fact should be reflected in the content and emphasis of your post. The ideal post will help readers to prepare their hearts, minds and lives for Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

4. You are NOT invited to argue some partisan position. These guest posts are not to be about pushing a NPP or FV position down people’s throats, for example. This does not mean that you cannot give a different perspective on a particular passage. Provided that you present such a position charitably, such a post would be quite welcome. The point is that this is not the appropriate setting for theological dogfights. The goal of this project is to edify and to get to know each other.

5. Please keep your posts to a reasonable length. You are writing a blog post, not a book (yeah, yeah, I know what you are about to say!). A post could be no more than a few sentences in length, or it could be several paragraphs in length. This is largely left to your own discretion.

Entries can be sent to 40bicycles at gmail dot com. I don’t have any post for tomorrow or the rest of the week, so you might find your guest post posted more or less straight away. Others might have to wait for a couple of weeks. If you could give a few details about yourself along with your post, they can be put on top of your guest post. You could give, for example, your name, where you live, the church you attend, where you blog (if your blog), where you work and a short list of things that are very special to you, important events in your life, etc. You are also invited to include a prayer request for yourself or for something or somebody else (you could ask people to give thanks for something with you, for example).

What are you waiting for?

A Few Links

Leithart blogs on the subject of a biblical view of obscenity. Meanwhile, the brouhaha on the Warfield list that started all of this has only just died down. The discussion has made interesting reading and generally reveals an apparent inability to draw the most commonsensical of distinctions. In the process of the discussion Leithart has been called a ‘weirdo’ and ‘an overeducated prurient pig’. The FV has been labelled ‘antithetical to piety’ by fine gentlemen on the list, staunch defenders of the Decalogue’s rule over our speech that they are. Along with Mark Horne I have been accused of ‘glorying the use of the obscenity’ and been described as ‘chronologically immature’; people have shuddered over the spiritual state of any offspring that I (and those who share my views on this matter) might have in the future.

Fortunately, a few of the posters in the thread were able to speak a measure of sense and give some perspective on the issues. One post in particular attempted to rescue the ailing thread by injecting it with a large dose of reason. Unfortunately the transfusion was rejected and the thread finally perished in a pool of its own nonsense sometime last night.

It is hard not to wish, like Mark, that they would just have spoken a little more loudly so that everyone could have heard them.

***
Leithart blogs on the subject of Lent:

In Reformed churches, the suppression of Lent has been simultaneous with the suppression of Carnival and other seasons of playful joy. Suppression of Lent did not produce perpetual Easter; it produced a perpetual Lent.

I’m not suggesting a direct cause-and-effect. But I am suggesting that there is wisdom in setting aside a specific period for mourning, self-examination, and fasting. We acknowledge Lent in the same way and for the same reason we have a time of Confession at the beginning of each worship service. There is a time for lament over sins; there is a time for mourning our own depravity. But lament and mourning ought not choke out rejoicing in the goodness of God.

When the Lenten spirit is not given its due, it has threatened to engulf the whole year. The Lenten spirit is part of the church’s life, and if we don’t wear ashes and purple for forty days, we might well end up wearing them for 365.

Leithart blogged some helpful thoughts on Lent three years ago that are worth remembering as we get ready for the season.

***
‘How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise’ [HT: Paul Baxter and Mark Horne]. Very perceptive article.
***
Kim Fabricius’ Ten Propositions series continues with ‘Ten Propositions on Theodicy’. Whilst I often don’t see eye to eye with Kim’s propositions, they are always thought-provoking. The fact that they are so succinct and to the point is an added bonus.
***
I wonder if John Frum (whoever he is) put this on his CV. Cargo cults must be some of the weirdest forms of religion out there.
***
Douglas Knight summarizes some of the issues addressed by Oliver O’Donovan’s recent series of web sermons. If you haven’t read O’Donovan’s sermons already, I would recommend that you do. Whatever your position on the issues that he addresses, O’Donovan always makes for stimulating and thought-provoking reading. He is also very cool-headed and even-handed in conversations that are commonly undermined by the failure of the various parties involved to hold the strong feelings that the issues arouse in them in check.

Update: Leithart blogs on Modern Sex-Speak

Postmodernism Interview

The second part of Peter Leithart’s interview on the subject of postmodernism (and I only just realized that the intro music to the podcast is Wilco’s Theologians).


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Leithart on Systems and Sub-Systems

Leithart continues to post on the FV debates:

A few days ago, I suggested that the Federal Vision controversy in the Reformed churches is a “Presbyterian identity crisis.” But I don’t want to minimize the theological dimension of this debate. The issue is how to express the real theological differences, as opposed to the host of imaginary differences that are often discussed.

Here’s the problem: Those associated with the Federal Vision and their opponents both claim to hold to the doctrinal standards of the PCA and OPC (or the other Reformed denominations). The differences between the two sides often seem miniscule, and that makes the debate seem trivial and often petty. The “identity crisis” dimension provides part of the explanation. But only part. It’s not only theological. But it is theological.

Only it’s not theological in the way that is often suggested.

It’s not theological in the sense that one side teaches salvation by works and another salvation by grace through faith; both teach salvation by grace through faith. It’s not theological in the sense that one side teaches election and reprobation and another denies it. Both sides are high Calvinists. We could tick off any number of doctrines where there would be very close agreement. There are, I admit, some doctrinal differences, but the key differences do not appear at the level of “doctrine.” At that level, the differences are indeed small.

But that doesn’t mean the differences are nothing, or that it’s a debate about nothing. The debate is a debate at a sub-doctrinal or meta-doctrinal level. It’s not a debate about the system, but about the sub-system. Both sides can agree with what confession says, but they do it with a different intonation. Both are running the same doctrinal and Confessional programs, but they have different operating systems that affect the way the doctrinal programs work.

Read the whole post here.

Once again I think that Leithart is on target. It is always reassuring to observe that I am not the only one who sees some of these things. Leithart’s point about time is a particularly important one. In fact, I think that his point can be pushed even further. I believe that the increased sensitivity to the importance of time on the part of the FV leads, not just to an appreciation of the way that various doctrines need to be rethought in a manner that recognizes the importance of the temporal character of creaturely existence, but to a change in the way that we approach the task of theologizing in general.

As FV thinking matures I would be very surprised if we find it sticking with the model of theologizing presented by traditional Reformed systematic theology. I think that we will see a strong movement away from such a form of theologizing and I believe that we are already seeing such a movement taking place. The problem with traditional Reformed systematic theology is that the very way that it does theology downplays the importance of time.

Traditional Reformed theology has generally operated in terms of the spatializing metaphor of the ’system’. Doctrines have to be put together, like pieces in a puzzle. However, it seems to me that FV theologians increasingly theologize in terms of a quite different metaphor, that of the ‘narrative’. When one theologizes in terms of the metaphor of ‘narrative’, one will notice that doctrines simply do not take the central stage as they do in the ’system’. Doctrines within a ‘narrative’ approach to theologizing are very different creatures to doctrines encountered within a ’system’ approach to theologizing. Theologizing about justification in terms of narrative involves a certain way of telling a story, grasping its direction and living it out. Theologizing about justification in terms of a system generally has little time for such story-telling, but approaches the ‘doctrine’ of justification more as something to be abstracted from the story and analyzed as a timeless truth about the numinous thing called salvation works.

The tension that many recognize as existing between biblical and systematic theology in some Reformed quarters is related to the tension between these two different ways of approaching theology. The very metaphor that systematic theology operates in terms of makes it difficult for it to process properly a number of the insights of biblical theology. For example, to what extent could a Reformed systematic theologian really do justice to the importance of maturation in Scripture, without changing the very way that he approaches the task of theology? For the systematician to really take on board the insights of the biblical theologian, he will increasingly have to relax into a more narrative form of theologizing. As long as the systematician persists in trying to construct a panoptic and spatialized system, he will find it impossible to truly appropriate the insights of the biblical theologians.

This is not to deny that there is a distinction between the task of the dogmatician and the biblical theologian, although they are far closer than often presumed. Many of the key influences on the FV movement, people like Peter Leithart, James Jordan and N.T. Wright, are practitioners of a more narrative approach to theology. All of these theologians engage in a sort of theology that unsettles traditional boundaries between systematic and biblical theology. They address many of the same questions that systematic theologians traditionally address, but they tend to theologize about such questions from quite a different angle.

The fact that many of the opponents of the FV find it hard to understand them is not surprising. Such writers are not merely tweaking some of the rules of a game familiar to both parties; they are playing a different sort of game altogether. Narrative theology, for example, is not totalizing like system theology. It is far more open-ended in character. Part of the reason for this is that the narrative theologian, unlike the system theologian, finds himself within the object of his study. The story that we are telling is the story that we find ourselves in. The objectivity and detachment of the system theologian simply does not exist for the consistent narrative theologian.

Leithart lists a number of other sub-systemic issues. It seems clear to me that many of these sub-systemic issues again flow quite naturally from the ’system’ approach to theologizing. For example, a narrative approach to theologizing is far less likely to favour a ’substance’ view of human nature and will be far more open to a high view of ritual. The understanding of the relationship between Old and New Covenant will also tend to be quite different in a narrative approach. System approaches, since they tend to abstract from time, cannot really do justice to the reality of maturation. They also tend to sharply distinguish periods from each other, placing them in antithetical relationship, or collapse them into each other, stressing an underlying identity and treating the historical differences as more ‘accidental’ in character. The root problem in this case is that the system approach treats periods of history as if they were objects without any time dimension, to be taken in by the eye in a single glance (vision is the dominant faculty in the system approach; hearing and speaking are more primary in the narrative approach). Within a narrative approach to theologizing relating periods of history is nowhere near as difficult, simply because periods of history can only be properly understood within a narrative.

If the current debate is going to make any progress we will have to begin to talk seriously about the way that we believe that the task of theology should be approached.

Leithart on the Presbyterian Identity Crisis

Leithart writes:

After the Reformation, Reformed churches found themselves striving not only with Catholics but with Lutherans, and as a result both Reformed and Lutheran dogmatics developed along the lines of a one-sided, though historically understandable, via negativa. Reformed theology had its own resources on which to draw, but at many points, and particularly on issues of ecclesiology and sacraments, defined itself as not-Lutheran and not-Catholic. Lutherans did the same. My church history professor at seminary said that Lutheran dogmatics texts had a threefold structure: The Catholic Error, the Reformed Error, and the Lutheran Truth. Reformed theologians followed (and some still follow) a similar method. Reformed theologians and churches, as a result, formed their identity as Reformed by distinguishing their views and practices from Lutherans and Catholics. In the wake of the fundamentalist controversy, Presbyterians added another element to this theological method - we are not-liberals. The badge of inclusion in the Reformed world was not teaching any form of baptismal regeneration.

“Federal Vision” theology messes with these boundaries. It attempts to follow the lead of Scripture, even when that seems to conflict with Confessional formulae and seems closer to Luther than Reformed orthodoxy. It develops a baptismal theology that is not starkly at odds with Luther, appreciates de Lubac on the doctrine of the church and Alexander Schmemann on the Eucharist, finds Barth and Lindbeck intriguing and helpful at a number of points, and is stimulated by Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. As a result, “Federal Vision” theology challenges conservative Reformed culture as much or more than it does Reformed theology, for it questions the performances and boundaries that once defined this culture. Though the specifics of the debate can appear to be so much gnat-straining (particularly to those few outside the Reformed world who pay attention), the debate touches a nerve and provokes profound reactions because it’s not just a theological debate but an identity crisis. The Federal Vision challenges some of the identifying symbols, the boundary-markers of Reformed communal identity, and that kind of challenge cannot help but provoke a heated response.

From this angle, the future shape of American Presbyterian will be significantly shaped by the outcome of this debate. It appears to me that one of the issues facing the OPC and the PCA is whether we will isolate ourselves in an ever-more enclosed sectarian form of Christianity or whether we will more and more see ourselves as a distinctive stream of the catholic church.

More or less on target, it seems to me.

I am Interviewed…

by the Internet Monk. Read it all here.