Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Twelve Days of Christmas--a la Turka

I may have posted this in the past during my days living overseas. I don't remember. But nonetheless I think this travel article is hilarious, entertaining, and based entirely on gross generalizations about life in southern Turkey. Who knew that jolly ol' Saint Nick was from Asia Minor, eh?

Yes, Mustafa, there IS a Santa Claus!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Engagement Photos

Since I'm currently unable to upload some photos from the day of our engagement, you can check out a few that her mom posted at her site.


Isn't Olivia beautiful?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

We're engaged!

Old news is betters than no news, so . . .


Here's how it happened:

Last Saturday, December 13, we were going to go into the city for my birthday (Dec. 16). I had originally wanted to go ice skating at Millenium Park for my "birthday," because one of the first things Olivia and I did together was she taught me how to ice skate.

Well, as it turned out, the weather was awful: 38 degrees with sleet and wind gusts of up to 40 mph. So we had a quick change of plans: we went to a European bookstore near Loyola's watertower campus, and then we took the El to Olivia's surprise birthday gift for me: a splendid Turkish restaurant on Belmont near Halsted and Clark. The food was excellent, and I even got to speak some Turkish with the waiter.

As our meal progressed, Olivia said, "You're awfully quiet. Is there something on your mind?" (Duh!) I pulled out a flyer from an antique store in Richmond's Carytown district which we had visited back in March. I then read to her a journal entry from that day, how that had really turned around our relationship and showed me how wonderful she really is. Then, to commemorate that day, I pulled out an "early Christmas gift" I had purchased from that antique store: an inlaid soapstone jewelry box. However, I set it aside and told her she couldn't open it yet. (Good work, Susan, on the black velveteen gift bag!)

Then I read Olivia another journal entry about two times when she had held out her hand to me, which meant the world to me. The first time it was to encourage, challenge, and coach me; the second was to offer her forgiveness, reconcilation, and acceptance.

After this, I got down on my right knee (well, technically I got up on my knee, since we were sitting on the floor on pillows), opened the jewelry box which contained the engagement ring, and offered her my hand. I told her I wanted to be hers for the rest of my life and then asked her to marry me. With a tone of voice that spoke in glad confidence and resolution, she replied, "Yes, yes, absolutely yes."

I took the ring out of the box and put it on her left ring finger. Not knowing exactly what to do next, we both sort of just stayed there, smiling and squeezing one another's hand. But I could've stayed in that moment forever.

Every day I think now, She's going to be my wife in a matter of months! We'll get to spend every day of the rest of our lives together, and we'll never need to leave each other. It just blows my mind. It's the first thing I think about when I wake up and when I go to bed. I am filled with awe, wonder, and gratitude to God when I think of what a gift she is and of the holy mystery that is marriage.

P.S. For whatever reason, Blogger is not allowing me to upload photos properly right now, and it's doing all kinds of screwy stuff with the line spacing. I'll try to get some photos posted at some time in the new year. In the meantime I'll be traveling all over the U.S. to spend Christmas with family.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Advent: God Drawing Near

It's almost inescapable: Christmas is celebrated with placid pastoral scenes of a babe cradled in a bed of straw, with his adoring parents around him beaming. (Of course, in many nativity scenes, the holy family are literally beaming with light!) We think it's a time of good cheer and peacefulness, a time of repose, a time to say, "no more worries." And all that it is. But as I've been studying Exodus over the past few months, the picture painted there of God-come-down is entirely different.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloudover the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. (Exodus 19:16-19)

When the God of the heavens tore open the heavens and came down to meet with his chosen people, he came as "a consuming fire" (24:17). "Our God comes and will not be silent," attests the psalmist. "A fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages" (Psalm 50:3). God coming to Earth is not a welcome sight for most people. Just ask King David!

In the same sermon from 1928 which I quoted from earlier, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says much the same--that the fearful event of God-among-us should lead Advent to be a time of self-examination.

Perhaps, after all, Advent is a time for self-examination before we open the door [to Christ]. When we stop to consider, the contrast between those early Christians and us is extraordinary. They trembled at the thought of God coming, of the day of the Lord, when Jesus, "Judge eternal, throned in splendor," would shatter the complacency of all the world. But we take the thought of God coming among us so calmly. It is all the more remarkable when we remember that we so often associate the signs of God in the world with human suffering, the cross on Golgotha. Perhaps we have thought so much of God as love eternal and we feel the warm pleasures of Christmas when he comes gently like a child. We have been shielded from the awful nature of Christmas and no longer feel afraid at the coming near of God Almighty. We have selected from the Christmas story only the pleasant bits, forgetting the awesome nature of an event in which the God of the universe, its Creator and Sustainer, draws near to this little planet, and now speaks to us. The coming of God is not only a message of joy, but also fearful news for anyone who has a conscience.

It's difficult for me to keep this in mind, when I've got 27 Christmases of warmth and cheer behind me. But perhaps only when we consider this, pondering it in wonder and awe, will the child who becomes the Prince of Peace really be good news.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

(Not) Advent: Rilke on Waiting

Okay, so this isn't exactly either Advent-related or even Christian-related, for that matter. But in view of the Bonhoeffer quote from my previous post, I thought I'd add this quote which I've always taken to heart. It's from the early twentieth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet (letter 4, July 16, 1903).

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Since the time an education professor of mine at Michigan State first shared this with us, I've found a bit of comfort in this. Questions and uncertainty and waiting are okay, Rilke exhorts us. Moreover, they're something to be lived through, involved in, and borne with patience. In my own life, I think that it has been times of uncertainty, longing, and wonder--those liminal moments when I stand on the threshold of a significant decision and must take a step in one direction or another--when I most live in fear-of-the-Lord. And that's when I feel the most alive.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent: Bonhoeffer on Waiting

Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. Waiting is an art which our impatient age has forgotten. We want to pluck the fruit before it has had time to ripen. Greedy eyes are soon disappointed when what they saw as luscious fruit is sour to the taste. In disappointment and disgust they throw it away. The fruit, full of promise, rots on the ground. It is rejected without thanks by disappointed hands.

The blessedness of waiting is lost on those who cannot wait, and the fulfillment of promise is never theirs. They want quick answers to the deepest questions of life and miss the value of those times of anxious waiting, seeking with patient uncertainties until the answers come. They lose the moment when the answers are revealed with dazzling clarity.

Who has not felt the anxieties of waiting for the declaration of friendship or love? The greatest, the deepest, the most tender experiences in all the world demand patient waiting. This waiting is not in emotional turmoil, but gently growing, like the emergence of spring, like God's laws,* like the germinating of a seed.

Not all can wait--certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!

In a few weeks we shall hear that cry of triumph. . . . But, not so quick! It is still in the distance. It calls us to learn to wait and to wait aright.

-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon delivered in Barcelona on Dec. 2, 1928.
Text: Revelation 3:20
*Presumably Bonhoeffer means the laws that govern the natural order.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

Every class period of mine begins with five minutes for a "warm-up" question or prompt to help establish a routine, transition students' focus from the hallway chatter to the lesson, and either to review yesterday's main point or to set up the day's lesson. But yesterday I asked everyone to write down a few things they were grateful for. But if I was sitting in that desk, here's what I'd have written:

I'm thankful for . . .

. . . probably very little, actually. The Holy Spirit urges that we are to be thankful for everything and in every circumstance (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 2:7; 3:15-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). I usually complain or, perhaps more usually, take things for granted instead of acknowledging that I owe my very existence to God. All I am and possess I have received from him. "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corithians 4:7).

. . . forgiveness of my every trespass, justification, and full-bodied righteousness as free gifts; entrance into the kingdom of God; the guarantee of the Holy Spirit; the sure intheritance of life everlasting in the dwelling place of God.

. . . one year with my wonderful girlfriend Olivia. We can have fun together, whether it's a water fight, playing catch, or looking at paintings. We can pray together--and she is sure teaching me to pray God's Word back to him. We're slowly learning to listen to one another and to communicate. We can encourage each other and "speak the truth in love." We can even do nothing together! Plus she's "pretty darn attractive," I might add.

. . . not going crazy upon moving from Virginia to the Prairie State.

. . . a job where I'm able to be challenged as an educator without being placed under extreme duress or in a hazardous situation.

. . . health insurance and a steady paycheck.

. . . the Spinas' extended hospitality.

. . . another autumn, even if not as beautiful as earlier ones.

. . . a new apartment that is big enough--and for furniture from some generous donors!

. . . parents who are still married and who listen to me (and for one other "parent" who also listens and counsels me).

. . . grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell's cream of tomato soup.

. . . flavorful beers.

. . . the pale winter light and skeletal, barren trees. The dim lavenders, umbers, ashes, and straws brushed across the horizontal landscape are increasingly beautiful to behold.

. . . friendships both new and old.

. . . the fact that I not only own one Bible, but in fact several.

. . . my ability to read and think, to understand directions, and to dissect written material. I'm learning from my students never to take any simple task for granted.

Oh, and lest we forget, we owe this entire Thanksgiving holiday to a boatfull of crazy Calvinists who made their way across the vast Atlantic to pursue true worship of God. Oops, did I say that?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why Are Calvinists So Negative?

Ted clued me in to a brief commentary by John Piper titled "Why Are Calvinists So Negative?" Piper, a pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, is a self-declared "seven-point Calvinist" (!).

Read it here.

Although I think a better title would be, "Why are Calvinists Often Perceived as Negative?," I think that there's a lot of value in what he says. I think Piper's comments are apropos (yes, Olivia, there's that word again) and frank, given his own stance on soteriology. His three main reasons why Calvinists can be perceived as negative are:

1) The doctrines of grace have an intellectual coherence that attracts logic-oriented people, who tend to operater more in the realm of the mind than of the heart. Therefore they (we) can often be less people-sensitive and, consequently, argumentative.

2) Upon seeing the "doctrines of grace" in the Bible--which really are there, I believe--Calvinists can become upset that they were never taught this stuff their whole lives in the church. They're upset they missed out, and they can be angry that other pastors and churches failed to clearly set forth the wonders of dead people made alive.

3) They try to convince others of the truths they so cherish. The problem is, they're not always tactful and gentle about it, thinking that "converts" can be made by argumentation rather than by the Holy Spirit. (Piper does add, though, that others are just as sinful, that is, sinfully reluctant to acknowledge the teachings of Scripture.)

I that any way we cut it, anyone who takes a stand for his convictions--theological, political, economic, or whatever--will be unpopular. No one likes to be challenged, and ideas are easy to avoid if they're mere transient, flimsy opinions. But inasmuch as we are in fact able to know the Scriptures through the gracious breath of God's Holy Spirit interpreting his Word to us, the fact is--and it's difficult for me to admit this--we now see only "in a mirror dimly." We know the God of grace and the unveiling of his mystery only by incomplete, imperfect prophecies. Only when we are taken home to glory shall we know face to face. (See 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.) Until then, let us rest content with the tensions of Scripture--in hope!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Taking the Name in Vain

In Bible Study Fellowship this past week, we studied Exodus 19-20: YHWH descending upon Sinai in a fiery maelstrom to deliver the Ten Words to Israel.* The third (or second, if you're Lutheran) commandment stopped me and made me think a bit. "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold guitless anyone who misuses his name" (20:7, NIV). This makes it seem like what is forbidden is to use God's name to curse someone, or to make oaths in a cavalier fashion, or to elevate your own teaching's authority by claiming the name of God.

Older translations, however, phrase the commandment as "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain." Could this mean something different? I recalled an old podcast sermon by Jeff Oschwald about this commandment in which he said "taking God's name" was to be called by God's name--to belong to him or to identify with him. Women take their husband's names at the wedding rite. In a few months Barack Obama will take the name President Obama.

So could it be an altogether different thing than simply employing God's name in an unworthy manner? Certainly this interpretation would still make sense. But could it be that as the new nation Israel was coming under a new status as the living God's "treasured possession," his "kingdom of priests," and his "holy nation" (Exodus 19:5), that they had therein also "taken on" God's name? To them alone had Yahweh revealed himself truly; and it was Israel alone who could say they were the one people set apart by God. They had his promises and his Law by which they were to live, with all the resources of the Almighty backing them. How could they take such a name in vain--that is, to no profit--by turning back on God and forsaking his Law in culpable disbelief and rebellion?

In the same way, all of us baptized into the church have been baptized into (eis) the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have a new name; we're called Christ-ians, those who belong to Christ and live under his kingship. Could this third commandment mean for us today not to disbelieve the God-reality, the salvation-reality, we're baptized into? To turn our backs on God, to love sin more than the Master who bought us (2 Peter 2:1), to fail to come to the obedience of faith despite all that is pledged to us?

I'm not saying that all who are baptized are necessarily "saved." First Corinthians 10 dispels that myth; many will "fall in the desert." But in the church, where we go by the name Christian, we have so many benefits that the rest of the world lacks: preaching of God's Word and the "visible word" of the sacraments, the love and prayers of the saints, the revealing of heaven in worship, the presence of the Holy Spirit, church discipline, and so on.

Anyway . . . it's just a curious thought. And how often my thoughts get me into trouble!


*The ten "words" take the form of ten "covenant stipulations" by which Israel was to pledge her loyalty to her Redeemer and Sovereign, who brought them out of Egypt's slavery and delivered them from the plague of death.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New Grading Policy

I told this to my students today. Seriously.

"Starting January 20th, I'm going to have a new grading policy. No one really needs above an 85%. That's a solid B, which is good enough. In fact, if you got above a 90% (A), you probably did something disingenuous to get that grade. So from January 20 onward, I'm going to take points away from anyone above an 85% and give them to failing students with scores below 60%. That way everyone can pass whether they have earned it or not."

The response was hilarious. A few students thought it was a good idea. (Can you guess which ones?) The majority, however, thought it was ludicrous and totally unfair. One said, "Well, in that case, I'll just quit trying to do any better than an 85." Another commented, "If I can't fail, then why should I care? This is great."

When I told my students I was only joking, a few of them--very few of them--caught on to my pun.

I then asked students in my third-period chemistry class, "If you paid someone $75 for new shoes, did they scam you and rip you off? Do they owe you money back, since they're now $75 wealthier, and you're $75 poorer?" They all said no, that it was fair for them to receive the money in exchange for the shoes. Everyone benefited. So why is it that we think it's unfair when someone sells a lot of shoes to willing customers? Why does he suddenly owe everyone else?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stayin' alive

Yes, I'm still around, folks. I'm just darn busy. (And I don't mean that I'm repairing my hole-riddled socks.) I've been busy with what I frankly see as much more important matters: talking with friends and wise brothers and sisters, spending precious time with my girlfriend in some pretty rough days of hers, getting schoolwork done, et cetera.

But in the meantime, here is a wonderful quote from John Frame:

Sometimes in the Scriptures, "knowing" a person refers mainly to knowing facts about him, but most often it means being involved with him either as a friend or as an enemy . . . . When Scripture speaks of God "knowing" men, generally the reference is not to factual knowledge at all (since it goes without saying that God knows the facts). In such contexts, knowing generally means "loving" or "befriending" . . . .

Man's knowledge of God, then, is very similar to God's knowledge of man. To know Him is to be involved with Him as a friend or as an enemy. For the believer, to know Him is to love Him--hence the strong emphasis on obedience (as we have seen) as a constitutive aspect of the knowledge of God. Here, however, we wish to focus on the fact that the God whom we know and whom we love is of necessity present with us, and therefore our relationship with Him is a truly personal one. The intimacy of love assumes the present reality of the beloved.

--The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 46-47.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Problem of Autonomy with Solo Scriptura

In a few recent posts, I've been trying to show how the idea of sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," has become twisted somewhat into solo scriptura, "Scripture only," that is, abandoning the church's confessions and creeds in interpreting the Bible. It may seem like solo scriptura is the ultimately commitment to the authority of the Bible. It sounds good to say, "I believe the Bible" or "I have no creed but Christ," rather than saying, "I believe the Nicene Creed" or "I believe the Augsburg Confession." However, this has had profound affects on how we determine doctrinal "truth."

One person can study the Scriptures and become a Calvinist who believes that the Bible teaches one people of God united throughout history by a single, overarching covenant of grace. At the same time, his neighbor can study his Bible and become a dispensationalist who believes that the Jews and Gentiles have separate ways to God (obedience to the Mosaic Law vs. faith in Christ, respectively) and are not direct heirs of the same promises of redemption. Both people study the Bible. Both may even have exegetical skill, and both may live obedient, prayerful lives. How does this happen? (I could make some joke that the dispensationalist's exegetical abilities are a bit lacking, but I'll hold off.) The same could be said for people who believe in the Trinity and the complete deity-and-humanity of Jesus Christ and for those people who, conversely, are modalists, unitarians, or Arians. Everyone is studying the same Bible and backing their beliefs with biblical proof-texts. So there are clearly some flaws to this solo scriptura approach.

First off, if the Church (whether its collective councils or the preaching of your pastor) is denied any authority at all, then the only place left to find what Scripture "really" says is in my own individual study of the Bible. Only what I find to be true is binding upon me, and no one else can tell me that the Bible might actually teach something other than what I actually perceive in its texts. After all, since we have "Scripture only," no one else's interpretations are any more binding than my own understandings--and they certainly can't hold a match to the very words which I am reading on the page right now.

But if the Christian next door reads those same texts and comes up with a different, even contradictory, interpretation, how can this be reconciled? After all, each of us, "just me and my Bible and the Holy Spirit" came up with totally different conclusions about its meaning. If all of Scripture is breathed out by the same God of truth who never changes, lies, or deceives (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21), how can these contradictions be reconciled if both of us are right?

The logical outcome of this way of viewing the Bible is that final interpretive authority lies with me and no one outside of me. I measure the validity of all other interpretations against the standard of my own interpretation. Now, it is well and good that, to parrot Luther's words, our consciences be captive to the Word of God as we are addressed by it, for to betray one's conscience is indeed sin (Romans 14:23). But do we really believe that all of a sudden, my own autonomous declaration on the Bible's meaning is elevated beyond the collective understanding of Spirit-guided saints throughout two millenia of Christian history? Didn't Jesus actually promise that he would be with his church by his Spirit through all ages (Matthew 28:20)?

Does anyone really believe that what others say and teach has no real importance, as long as we're not convinced of it ourselves? Are historic, widespread understandings such as the virgin birth of the Messiah really of no account or authority, since all they are is someone else's opinion, anyway?

Now, I'm aware that I'm perhaps pressing this beyond what people consciously think as they interpret the Bible. I don't think many Christians at all would ever knowingly say, "Yes, my own interpretations and judgments are, in fact, the standard, because traditions and the teachings of others carry no authority; there is only Scripture's very words." I'm just taking this to its logical extent for the sake of illustration.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Socialism vs. the Meaning of Money

I'm sorry, but I just have to post this. It's absolutely brilliant. It is a "must-read" before you vote on Tuesday.

"Do the Rich Owe Us?"

Also, you may wish to check out my former housemate Anthony's article, "Was the Early Church Socialist?" here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Celebrating the "Righteousness of Faith" since 1517

I have been meaning to continue on with my posts on sola scriptura, though in a sense I'm not really diverting from that path: October 31 is Reformation Day, the day on which confessing evangelicals celebrate the nailing of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg on All Hallows' Eve 1517, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation. His Theses were basically a series of remonstrances against the papacy for allowing the sale of indulgences. The years of 1517-1521 then saw a flurry of study and writing which furthered the work of Jan Hus and William Tyndale in bringing the gospel to light and freeing the church from its "Bablyonian captivity." When Luther was brought to trial as a heretic at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he said boldly,

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.* God help me. Amen.

Luther was therefore a framer of sola scriptura, for he stood on the authority of the Bible alone.

I think this t-shirt is awesome. It highlights Luther's theology of justification: simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time justified and a sinner."

There is something I love about celebrating Reformation Day. Maybe it's simply because I was raised in the Lutheran Church and come from German ethnic heritage. Maybe. But more than that, it's really because the message of God's free love and mercy upon sinners on account of Jesus' obedient life, ransoming death, and victorious resurrection alone--received through faith alone--is the best news there is. It puts vigor in a man's enfeebled steps. It pumps blood through closed veins. The news that sin doesn't win and that God needs no man's help to kick Satan's ass and free men from the grip of death is awesome stuff.

In celebration of the truth, here is Article 22 from the Belgic Confession, an awesome summary of Luther's (and the Reformation's) insight into the gospel, that we fully possess Jesus Christ by faith alone apart from our deeds.

Article 22: The Righteousness of Faith

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God-- for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified "by faith alone" or by faith "apart from works."^53

However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us-- for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.

But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.

When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.

^53 Rom. 3:28

Previous posts: 2007, 2006, 2005.
* Some records add at this point, "Here I stand; I can do no other."

Friday, October 17, 2008

What a difference a letter makes!

Sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation. Reacting against the Roman Catholic belief that equal authority lies in both written Scripture and in the papacy, the reformers were adamant that the Bible alone was to be the source and norm for all matters of belief and practice. When the pope started issuing documents with teachings contrary to Scripture, such as purgatory and the merit of indulgences, it has to be rejected. All authority lies in God's Word alone.

The reformers were also big proponents of what is called the "priesthood of all believers." It was not only the educated clergy who had access to God's truth through the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit indwells all who trust in Christ and illuminates for them God's Word (1 Corinthians 2:10-16; 1 John 2:20-27). There are no necessary clergy-laity distinctions, because all who are hope in Jesus are equal members of his body, living in communion with him (Galatians 3:26-29). The Catholic leaders of the time taught--and I believe that they, to a degree, still practice--that laymen don't need to concern themselves with personal reading of the Bible. After all, only the pope and his cardinals can rightly know and explain it.

But do modern evangelicals believe in sola scriptura (Scripture alone)? Or has it been bastardized into solo scriptura (Scripture only)?

Let's face it: there are way too many denominations today. The number is in the tens of thousands, and it's growing daily. People church-hop and change between traditions; denominations split; and divisiveness, discord, and disunity are a persistent cancer in the Protestant branch. To what do we owe this? I think it could be a notion of solo scriptura.

In an effort to protect the Bible as the sole and infallible authority over the church, many evangelicals (chiefly within the Anabaptist tradition, although not limited to them) began to work from a belief that the Bible was the sole authority whatsoever. Nothing or no one has any authority except for the written Word. This sounds good in theory, because it appears to exalt the God-breathed Word and its ability to speak through the power of the Holy Spirit to each individual believer. As a result, many well-meaning Christians may now say that they have absolutely no need for someone else's creeds, confessions, or catechisms. After all, no authority lies in others' (outdated? dusty?) theology. The Holy Spirit speaks to me when I read my own Bible. As a corollary, church traditions and denominations are cast off or even looked upon with suspicion. They're often seen as a hindrance to the rule of God's Word in his church or a deceptive trap that lures people away from a personal, intimate relationship with God and down the slippery slope toward institutional religion.

Of course, I may be employing a bit of hyperbole, but I bet that this view of solo scriptura sounds pretty familiar, even the norm. But is it right? Is it safe? Is this what the reformers and--gasp!--the Bible actually have in mind?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do we really need no teachers?

Several days ago (or weeks, I forget which) a friend and I were discussing briefly the value of church creeds and confessions (or lack thereof). To support the belief that we don't need creeds or councils or the church fathers, but only the Bible, she cited 1 John 2:27: "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you." It sounds good, but is that really true?

It's a question I can't really remain silent about, because I value a particular Protestant church tradition, that is, the Reformed tradition, with its wonderful confessions and catechisms.* So, do we really need no one to teach us? Is that what the Bible teaches?

1 John 2:27 in context.
The elder John's letters were written to combat an incipient form of Gnosticism. Briefly summarized, this was a Greek philosophy claiming that created matter was lowly and evil, and the divine could not truly inhabit it. Rather, God lived only in the "spirit" realm, where true virtue and goodness lie. Therefore God could not have actually taken upon himself human flesh, and "Jesus Christ" only appeared to be a human. (There are various Gnostic positions on this, e.g., docetism, cerinthianism, and others.) At the same time, because all virtue is exercised in the immaterial realm, what we do in our daily conversation is of little importance. Bodily sins have no affects on our inner spirits, so live it up! The real way to spiritual maturity was rather through special, secret knowledge (gnosis), and those who possessed it were the "enlightened ones" (pneumatikoi).

In chapter 2 of his first canonical letter, John writes to protect his flock from these "enlightened ones" who once were part of their church but now figured out that Jesus wasn't all he was cracked up to be (2:19). God incarnate, in touch with diseased sinners, and dying on a cross--preposterous! John's church was in danger of being led astray into believing that they didn't know the truth about Jesus and "real religion," so he had to assure them that in fact they did know the true God, that Jesus was the one God-man and mediator, that sin matters, and that they overcame evil not through exalted knowledge available only to the elite, but by believing in Jesus (2:12-14; 5:4-5).

When we examine it in context, John isn't saying anything at all like, "You don't need any teachers, because God's anointing, the Holy Spirit, lives in you." He's saying instead that what they know about the gospel--creation, fall into sin, redemption through the promised Messiah, and renewal by his Spirit--was in fact true and sufficient for godly living. What they needed to do instead was to live out what they already believed (2:3-6; 2:28-3:3).

Quite the contrary, they actually really did need teachers! John says that "we" (he and other apostles) were the ones who had seen, touched, and heard the incarnate Word of life. But this Word was only made known to the (likely) Ephesian church by means of the apostles' own testimony and proclamation, which they were glad to share (1:1-5). He even makes so bold a claim as to say that he is God's very own commissioned voice in the world: "We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the spirit of truth from the spirit of falsehood" (4:6).

I hope to explain further from Scripture why we do in fact need creeds, confessions, and church traditions. Whether I stick my foot in my mouth or say something hastily remains to be seen.
* These include the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort (which are collectively known as the Three Forms of Unity); the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms; and the three "ecumenical creeds": the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Messy God?

One of the few periodical e-mails I actually like to receive, amid a sea of bills and notices and spam, is the Christianity Today magazine e-mail, which finds my inbox every day. While perusing the articles a few weeks ago I found this one, which made me think a bit. Why? Because the author, Carolyn Arends, sounds a lot like me!

"I've been searching for frameworks, outlines, contexts; ways to more thoroughly understand what I believe," says Arend. These sure sound like words what I try to do. I love to study Scripture and read through theological works--anything that will help me to think in new ways, to clarify God's truth, to see his work in a way that fits. Maybe I have some sort of "inner engineer," because when it comes to doctrines and theology, I find myself wanting to take it apart and see how it all works. After all, knowing how it's put together helps me know how to use it--to live it.

But as I continue to encounter people from different Christian traditions and denominations, I become aware that God simply doesn't behave as a God who can be dissected.

But there are people—wise, godly people—who grin at me like my husband did at my organizer. "Do you think," asked my friend Barbara, who happens to be a theology professor, "that part of you is looking for control?" I stared at her blankly. No, part of me isn't looking for control. All of me is looking for control. I hate chaos and uncertainty. I am deeply bothered by doctrinal divisions within even the small confines of my own church tradition.

And honestly, I really don't like it when God behaves unpredictably, when he seems to be as much about mystery as he is about revelation, and when he refuses to fit into the slots I have labeled for him.

Faith would be much tidier if God could be contained within mutually agreed upon doctrinal positions. Scripture would be much more manageable if it were pure exposition, if there weren't all those sprawling narratives, wistful poems, and cryptic apocalyptic visions. Why didn't God give us his Word in sermon points that spell out catchy acronyms? Why is it all so messy? Even our most precise expositor, the apostle Paul, holds revelation and mystery in tension. In his letter to the Ephesians, he proclaims, "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure" (1:9, NLT).

When I read this, I had to laugh a bit. Let's get serious here, folks. Of all people, I could probably think and talk and debate for hours over a lot of doctrinal issues and why I believe them to be biblically and practically valid. Yet the Holy Spirit will continue to bear fruit and create redeemed disciples of Jesus Christ even in people and churches who hold different, even opposing, doctrinal views from my own generally Reformed convictions.* For as much as truth needs to be defined and defended--the Holy Writ says so itself--the Spirit of God seems to be moving in an even bigger way. I'm not saying this to pluralize Gospel truth. I'm saying this because the fact is there are godly people bearing the fruit of the the Spirit who don't hold to the doctrinal positions I do.


* I'm thinking of, for example, differing views on divine calling, baptism, the Lord's Supper, eschatology, the nature of worship and the church, speaking in tongues, etc. On the latter, "tongues" freak me out. I have friends who claim to pray in tongues. I see no reason for them to exist, the Scriptures are enigmatic as to what they are or whether they were to have ceased, and yet godly people still claim to pray in such languages.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Wisdom from the East

In Istanbul there is one of the world's most renowned architectural structures, the Hagia Sophia (Turkish Aya Sofya), the Church of Divine Wisdom. (No, this is not pagan; it's a reference to Christ Jesus as the "wisdom of God"; 1 Cor. 1:18). Even though it was built under Emperor Justinian in the 500s it was, and still remains, to my knowledge, the largest free-standing dome in the world--a feat not even Sultan Suleyman the Great could top with his Blue Mosque over a millenium later.

But I think that there's another type of wisdom in Turkey: they don't have mortgages. I saw numerous concrete skeletons of half-built apartments dotting the city's hills, which scratched my curiosity. Then I found out that most people in Turkey don't use credit to build their homes; they simply build only as much as they can afford in cash at that time. Sure, things take longer that way, but they don't have debt. Can anyone in America even fathom that? It used to be that you had to put at least 20% down in cash--but no more! So while we think we're so economically advanced here in the U.S., it's really the Turks who will never have a credit crisis.


Thanks, Triston, for this gag. I had to laugh, because I think it sums up my blog pretty well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fulfilled weather, unfulfilled longings

October 1st arrived on September 30th. It feels like heaven.

You see, I LOVE October. I think I could write a book about it. So, when I stepped outside at 6:10 A.M. and felt the brisk air, I smiled. It's a good day when I can wear a sweater or my fleece vest. Even yesterday evening I felt a change in the air: something intangible, indescribable . . . but different that spoke, Fall is almost here.

But with that thought's gladness also brought with it a bit of disappointment. I realized that the really "good stuff" of October only lasts a few weeks before all the leaves are fallen into a rotting, brown mess and the icy rains of November chill a dying landscape. No more pumpkins. No more cross country. No more cider.

Isn't it so with much of life's joys? Some of them run past us too quickly to fully grasp and hold on to--like those moments of joy in which we feel the joy, but before we can identify it as such or determine exactly why we're happy they flee away. That's why we keep photo albums, to try to enter into those ephemeral moments and memories. And if that's not the case, there's never time enough to do all the other things we wish to do. Instead, they remain on a list titled "To Do Before I Die," products of a pause's daydreams. So little time and so much to do!

Every time I feel this way, it confirms to me the reality of an eternal life wherein all our joys and longings are finally met in such a way that they never pass; they will ever be fresh. The fact that we as humans have all of these unfulfilled desires that will go with us to our grave leads me to no other conclusion than that this life isn't all there is; this isn't our home. Where will we see our dreams? Wherein will "our youth come to us like the dew" (Psalm 110:3 RSV)? It can only be in the never-ending, forever-unfolding kingdom of God.

"We are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding" (1 Chronicles 29:15 KJV). Such is our plight right now. But one day the shadows we grasp for will shed their ephemerality, and the joys of our heart will trade their dim tracings for the substance of Reality.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"It's financial socialism"

I'm not someone who is very politically active, but the call to follow Jesus is certainly a call to politics of a sort. "There's a new Caesar in town," they say. The Treasury's proposed $700B bailout of investment firms is quite the conundrum, and I'd appreciate others' voices on this as well, especially thoughts marked by Scripture and Jesus' teachings.

Most of the companies getting bailed out are mortgage companies which rise and fall upon property values and people's desire and ability to buy and build homes. Others are investment firms tying up billions of dollars of Americans' retirement money. If these companies disappear, so might your 401(k) or 403(b). With failed mortgage lenders, fewer people can buy or sell homes, further crippling our economy. With dead investment brokers, more money is withdrawn from circulation as people scrimp and save for the rainy days ahead. With these problems in view, it sounds like $700 billion well spent.

But something feels a little too "Big Brother" about all this. In a recent CNN.com article, senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky (who also happens to be a former Detroit Tigers pitcher) said that "This massive bailout is not a solution. It's financial socialism and it's un-American." About as un-American as eminent domain, I say! The U.S. Treasury now owns 80% of AIG, which means that it basically controls its operations. If they do this enough times, how far apart from Communism will we really be?

To add to that, why should I shoulder a massive tax increase to pay off someone else's mortgage? Worse yet, why should my tax dollars help rescue firms whose executives have made millions and tanked their own company through irresponsible greed? After all, that's what the subprime/adjustable-rate mortgages were all about, as I see it. Homebuyers weren't disciplined enough to save money; they wanted homes now and bit off more than they could chew. Lenders wanted high-interest revenue from myopic lendees who failed to see how stupid and irresponsible it is to take on a high-interest loan with no fixed rates. Both were greedy, and now both are hurting. Will the Fed's deus ex machina end up sanctioning such behavior? It's not unlike having an abortion: Neither party thought about the future; they wanted only the moment's pleasure. But instead of learning accountability for one's actions by keeping the child, let's just let them have a quick-fix abortion instead. Sure, that's sad, but at least it gets out of the way and life can get back to normal.

Of course, you see that my Libertarian tendencies are peeking through a bit. I realize that this is a huge deal for many common people's livelihood. No, our present economic crisis is probably not what the media would like to have you fear, but it's still nonetheless a call for sobriety. We (read: I) need to have grace and compassion on those who erred, even sinned (gulp!), in this ordeal: I too will likely be a homeowner someday. Perhaps the government's rescue is a necessary evil.

What's a good government to do? And, dare I ask, What would Jesus do?

Ron Paul (remember him?) also has some helpful insight on this economic SNAFU which is now FUBAR.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jesus the leper

Last week during my church's junior high youth group meeting, the focus was on "Jesus the healer." We read Mark 1:40-45 (NIV):

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them." Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Something struck me as I thought through this story. I had always heard and thought that Jesus "could no longer enter a town openly" because he became so wildly popular due to his healing ministry. But then I thought this: He just touched a leprous man, who according to the Law was ceremonially unclean and had to live a solitary existence outside the city walls (see Leviticus 13:45-46). Anyone who touched such a diseased person also became unclean. Additionally, because many such leprous diseases are caused by bacteria, those who dared to contact lepers were feared to be disease-bearers themselves.

Could it be that because the now-healed leper spread the news that Jesus had touched him, Jesus couldn't enter public places because he was shunned as also unclean? The NIV's rendering is perhaps a little more nuanced or embellished than other translations, but it hints in this direction. Like the lepers, Jesus too had to stay out in "lonely places," cut off from the rest of society. And "yet"--in spite of his disgrace--other sick people still continued to stream to him.

Jesus' ministry was a radically shameful one in the world's eyes. As he worked his miraculous healings, the evangelist Matthew says that this fulfills what was spoken by God through his prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases" (Matthew 8:17). In bearing all our sin-sick ailments that defile our souls and cripple our bodies, like the lepers of old, he too had to go "outside the camp," bearing man's shame (Leviticus 13:45-46; Hebrews 13:11-13).

Many ask the age-old question, If God is both loving and sovereign, why do people suffer? But I believe that this portrait of Jesus, among many others, shows to us the wonder of his redeeming ministry: God does not stay aloof on his holy throne (read: Allah), but enters into and takes up within himself the worst of man's pains and curses, suffering alongside us and, ultimately, in our place upon his Cross.

"Jesus is my hero. He took all the bad things of the world into himself." - my Turkish friend Deniz

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part IV: The Objective Word of Christ

As I attempted to prove in the part III, faith is nothing; it is simply looking away from your own experiences, conscience, decisions, and resources to God and his word. Like Abraham, we believe that what God tells us is true (Romans 4:17-18). Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, "By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein" (14:2).

The problem with assurance, as I've said, is that it can be tempting to look into ourselves to find within our own faith confirmation that we belong to Christ. After all, only those who confess and believe that Jesus is Lord will be saved and find their eternal home in the kingdom of God. But the problem with trying to derive assurance by introspectively reflecting upon ourselves is far from the biblical picture of faith and certainty exemplified in Romans 4. From the first time I read these words in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together, the nature of Christian faith and assurance stood out in the sweetest and brightest of light:

The Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God's Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his own guilt, and God's Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification. He lives wholly by God's Word pronounced upon him, whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent.

The death and the life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources; rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from the outside, in God's Word to him. The Reformers expressed it in this way: Our righteousness is an "alien righteousness," a righteousness that comes from outside of us (extra nos). They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward, to the Word that comes to him. The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God's Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. (pp. 21-22)

In other words, "The experience of faith," says Phillip Cary, "is the practice of refusing to put faith in experience." We see in Romans 4 that Abraham lived and died by God's promises, his revelation, his declared word; he walked by faith and not by sight. In the same way, Bonhoeffer is saying that it's not our own judgments, conscience, or experiences of faith or righteousness that matter. What matters is God's Word: the law that declares us sinners, and the gospel that declares us righteous in Christ, who is the perfect Savior of sinners and their Mediator before God. We see this too in Romans 4:22-25:

That is why his [Abraham's] faith was "counted to him as righteousness." But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

God's Word says that Jesus was handed over to death "for our trespasses." It also says that "Jesus died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3), that no one is righteous, and that the law shuts up everyone's mouth and holds the whole world accountable to God (Romans 3:9-20). If faith is believing what God says, then faith says: "I am a sinner under judgment (because God says so)."

God's Word also says that Jesus has fulfilled all of the law's demands and is the One in whom all of God's promised new covenant blessings are "Yes!" and "Amen!" (Romans 10:4; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 8). He is the perfect Savior for sinners and the victorious Lord who has accomplished justification for men and has defeated the guilt and power of sin and death (Romans 3 - 8). In him we are cleansed, forgiven, reconciled to God, raised to new life, seated with God in the heavenlies, adopted as sons, sealed with the indwelling Holy Spirit, and promised an eternal inheritance in heaven (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:4-10). So faith says, "Christ is the perfect Savior for sinners (because God declares him to be so)."

Therefore we have a new "logic of faith":

Major premise: Jesus Christ is the Savior of sinners.
Minor premise: I am a sinner.
Conclusion: Jesus is my Savior (thus, I am saved).

Both premises of this syllogism involve faith: we only know ourselves to be sinners and Jesus our Savior because God has revealed it in Scripture. If we can say and confess both these premises, that is faith and belief, because we are agreeing with and trusting in God and his word. In neither place do we need a subjective awareness of our own faith; but faith in the objective Word is certainly present and real. And where there is this faith--acknowledged or not--there is justification, adoption, sanctification, and all the benefits of union with Christ. We are assured of our salvation because God says so.

The Logic of Faith, Part III: The Object of Faith

The Logic of Faith, Intro, Part I, Part II

The Bible tells us that the righteous (justified, saved) live by faith (Romans 1:17; 2 Corinthians 5:7). Yet I hope you can now see with me that we cannot look to our faith itself for assurance of salvation. As for me, my faith is too shaky of a thing, too uncertain. I sin--a lot. But if the logic of the gospel is "Whoever believes in Jesus Christ is saved," then I cannot know that I'm saved unless I know I have met the condition of belief. But that means looking into my own life, looking for fruits born from faith (James 2:14-26). The gospel of "faith alone" becomes directed toward the experiences that faith brings into my inner life.

But what is faith? Or, rather, what are we to have faith in, that is, what is the object of our trust? Let's look at Romans chapter 4, where Paul explains the nature of faith: "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (v. 3). God told the great patriarch that he would bless him with a child, and that a great nation would spring from his offspring to bring blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6). God sealed his promise with an oath to destroy himself if he should ever renege or come up impotent (15:7-21).* Abraham knew that as ludicrous as it was to think that the Almighty could die or destroy himself, so too was it impossible for God to fail in what he promised. His word was sure. Therefore we see in Genesis and also in Romans that Abraham's assurance of blessing did not lie anywhere within himself, but solely in the truthfulness of God and his revealed word:

Abraham . . . is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness." But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:16-25)

Abraham knew that in himself and in his aging, barren wife Sarah there was no hope to see God's blessing realized. Instead, he looked to the heavens and saw not only how numerous God said his offspring would be, but also the God of infinite power and freedom who called those very stars into being. His body was dead, but he trusted that God gave life to the dead (see also Hebrews 11:17-19). And just as sure as he was in God's nature, so too was he certain that what the Lord said was true: "as he had been told . . . ."

So what is faith? To start, it is seeing yourself empty and insignificant, and instead looking away from yourself to the power, truthfulness, and fidelity of God. It is trusting not in your own works or resources, emotions or experiences, judgments or decisions, but clinging solely to the reliable, rock-solid Word of God, which never fails. Faith is nothing and has no substance. It is simply looking away from yourself and entirely to God and his revelation.

*In the ancient Near East, many oaths were ratified by a rite in which one or both parties killed or cut apart an animal and then walked between the pieces or placed their hands on the animal's head. In effect they were pledging, "If I ever go back on my vows, may it be to me like this animal" (cf. Jeremiah 34:18-22). Interestingly, in Genesis 15, it is only God (manifested as a smoking fire pot and torch) who passes between the carcasses. He is taking full responsibility for the oath upon himself.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

As you may now be aware of, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN lab in Switzerland has begun testing equipment that will hopefully provide a glimpse into conditions just moments after the Big Bang. (Actually, they're trying to produce antimatter or "dark matter.") There has been a lot of controversy over this, especially with suspicion by many creationists over any sort of Big Bang idea itself. As a science teacher, people frequently ask my opinions about the Big Bang, evolution, stem cells, and the like. So, I thought I might as well get it over with and say a few things concerning the LHC.

First, the CERN lab's research is not necessarily some sort of misguided quest wasting billions of dollars to prove God doesn't exist. Consider what a recent TIME Magazine article has to say about their research:

The driving principle behind the CERN experiment — and indeed physics itself — is that despite its vast and complex appearance, the universe is actually ordered, rational and elegant. Every major breakthrough in physics has shown the cosmos to conform to mathematical equations so symmetrical and satisfying they can only be described as beautiful. (Physics have christened two of the particles they will study at CERN as "truth" and "beauty," after a Keats poem that suggests the two are interchangeable.)

What drives modern physicists forward is a quest for purer beauty. The Standard Model, the theoretical framework that incorporates all current knowledge about the interaction of subatomic particles, is the closest physicists currently have to a theory of everything. But it is becoming increasingly awkward and messy, and it has holes in it. For example, despite all the gravitational forces that should be reining the universe in and slowing it down, it is expanding at a quickening rate. No one knows why. And something seems to cocoon the universe's spiral galaxies, keeping them from spinning out of control. No one knows what.

The fabric and order of the universe, physicists say, can only be described as "beautiful." I seem to recall a passage of Holy Scripture saying that "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm 19:1). In Genesis 1, we see God ridding the universe of all chaos and establishing his divine order.* If we pray for the outpouring of God's Spirit, may not many people discover the wonder of a cosmos so orderly and inspiring that we are led to believe a rational, intelligent, beautiful Creator is himself behind it all?

"Something seems to cocoon the universe's spiral galaxies [including our own Milky Way], keeping them from spinning out of control. No one knows what." Perhaps the yet-undiscovered reason is itself that all things are being sustained and upheld by the Lord to preserve life and propel forward his redemptive plan for history (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). The Genesis account shows God giving the universe not only order, but order for the sake of inhabitability and life.

While I once thought NASA was a totally impractical waste of money, I think astronomy and physics may be a worthwhile pursuit, because they lead us to a deeper awe of our Sovereign.

The alleged Higgs boson, dubbed the "God particle," is supposed to account
for all mass. The CERN lab hopes to discover this elusive subatomic entity.

- - -

Second, the Big Bang theory itself presupposes belief in an immaterial, pre-existing causal agent, i.e., God. (Think along the lines of Aristotle's "Prime Mover.") What? You've never heard that before? Consider this: Any physicist or chemist knows that a reaction cannot occur unless there is disequilibrium in forces within the system. In other words, if the Bang were to have happened, it demanded unbalanced forces within the material sphere of pre-Bang matter. But prior to the Bang there could not have been any disequilibrium within the sphere, or else the Bang would have happened immediately. If there is no disequilibrium in forces, then all is at perfect equilibrium, and the Bang would never happen. So, that means that even if the material sphere existed, the Bang had to have been caused by a causal agent outside of the sphere of matter--an Uncaused Cause who created the disequilibrium. Big Bang cosmology therefore demands a pre-existent immaterial Being. Christians know him to be God the Lord, or El Olam in Hebrew, "the Everlasting God." He is YHWH, the great I AM who is outside of time.

Additionally, though I don't think this is exactly what the Old Testament's writers meant in their poetic language, there sure are a lot of references to God creating by "stretching out the heavens." (The Big Bang theory tries to account for why the universe is actually expanding.)

God made the earth by his power;
he founded the world by his wisdom
and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
(Jeremiah 10:12)

It's a stretch, for sure, but it's interesting to think that the end of the world is portrayed as the reversal of creation; the firmament will "recede like a scroll" (Revelation 6:14) in the Day of the Lord.

- - -

This brings us to people's fears that these experiments may create a black hole that will swallow our Solar System. However, I'm reasonably confident that the LHC experiments will not create a black hole that will engulf the world and end human history. Though Jesus made it evident that even he didn't know when the Last Day would come, his Word makes it pretty obvious that people will be aware that the End is coming. He says it will be as obvious as lightning (Matthew 24:27). He also says that everyone will see him and mourn, and there will be a great trumpet sound (Matthew 24:30-31). Jesus' revelation to John says that when even the mightiest of people become aware that the Lamb of God is coming for judgment, they will fear him in such a way that they would rather have their skulls crushed (Revelation 6:15-17).

- - -

Finally, why not just lighten up a bit and have some fun with it, as my fellow Michigan State University Spartan Kate McAlpine does in her CERN lab rap video? (It's even complete with a Stephen Hawking-esque voiceover.)

* A dissenter in the Big Bang recently wrote in a blog comment, "Perhaps the most absurd thing ever believed by intelligent people is 'the big bang theory'. One would think smart people would be smart enough not to believe such a dumb thing: The idea that order can come out of chaos." But the biblical account shows exactly that: the world was "formless and void" (Genesis 1:2), but God made separations and distinctions to give it order, and he made substances and life to make it full where it was once empty. Chaos itself did not lead the universe into its established order, but that order was indeed formed from a real mess.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Blogward ho!

Ted has tagged me here to respond to this prompt: Write about 5 specific ways blogging has affected you, either positively or negatively.

1. I met Susan, through whom I met Olivia! (For those of you who don't know, Olivia has now been my girlfriend for nine months.) Several years ago (um, early 2005?) she found my blog through "Mookie" James, as I recall, and followed along with this electronic version of my life throughout my internship (student teaching) year and on through my time in the Near East. After finding out she has a "pretty darn attractive" daughter, I sort of blurted out something in a comment on her blog, and . . . history was made.

2. I have discovered that I like to think and write. Without any sort of avenue for this, I don't think I would have become aware that I really like to think through theological matters and be able to communicate to others what I'm learning. I used to write a lot in this genre in my own journal, but that has now become more of a prayer journal and a daily chronicle instead.

3. I have probably become somewhat more prideful and less discerning in what I believe. Well, maybe, maybe not. What I mean is this: Because it's easy for me to write about something and post it in the public arena (if you call my four readers the "public arena"), I know that at times I have felt like I'm somehow special because I'm writing on this pseudo-instructional platform. I've got something to tell people, darn it, and that makes me cool!

4. Blogging is both a blessing and a curse, in that I think through things a little more deeply as I actually write and receive some feedback from others; yet at the same time I am sometimes so desiring of writing something, anything, that I don't thoroughly consider the validity or worth of what I write. Let's face it, anybody with a computer can start a blog and contribute his two cents' worth. But not everyone deserves to do so. Not long ago, that required a college degree, a publisher's approval, and the work of judicious editors.

5. My desire to write--which I really do enjoy--does sometimes distract me from spending more time reading, studying, praying, and thinking. I'm sure that blogging has some value in teaching God's truth to others, but are there instead better uses of my time and mental energy?

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part II: The Law and Anfechtung

In the last post, I attempted to briefly outline the Protestant “logic of faith,” which goes something like this:

Major premise: Everyone who believes in Christ will be saved.

Minor premise: I believe in Christ.

Conclusion: I am saved.

The problem with this is that to have assurance of salvation, I must not only have faith in Christ, but I must also know that I have faith. I must somehow reflect upon myself and determine that I am, in fact, a believer.

Muddling the waters even more is the American revivalist tradition, with its altar calls and “giving your heart to Christ.” Conversion becomes not simply trust in Christ, baptism, repentance, and catechesis, but rather some sort of subjective “conversion experience.”

But not long into one’s Christian life—or not long into mine, at least—the hammer of God’s law starts banging, showing us our own sin. Many will teach that the law’s requirements were done away with in Christ. That’s a lie. Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law; rather, he came to fulfill its requirements (Matthew 5:17). God’s requirements for humans’ loving obedience to him as Lord have not ended, not in the least! As the Holy Spirit does his work in us, teaching us the real weight of the law, we realize that we still live every single day as rebellious lawbreakers. “For I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Everywhere we turn, the law points out our ongoing sin and shuts our mouths (Romans 3:19-20). It reminds us that “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10). This is why for so many Christians, St. Paul’s own struggle with the law in Romans 7:7-24 could be taken up as from their own lips: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Martin Luther called this experience Anfechtung, “temptation” or “assault.” As Phillip Cary defines it, Anfechtung is "the recurrent experience of being attacked by an awareness of how offensive I am to God, a consciousness of sin and death and the devil which also shows me the weakness of my faith.* But if, at these very moments of Satan’s attempts to turn us from faith and into despair, how am I supposed to find assurance, if part of my assurance is my own faith? It’s certainly difficult (but not impossible), I would say, to be confident that I am a true believer or that my faith is “strong enough” in times of sin and weakness. What good is talking about faith, if I find little faith within me and my own experience?

There has got to be a better way . . . right?


* Phillip Cary, “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant.”

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part I: The Problem of Protestant Theology

[If you haven't done so, please read my previous post first.]

The question that was tormenting me (at least when I did think about it seriously) was Do I really believe in Jesus? Do I believe enough? I suppose that was due in part to the traditional Protestant "logic of faith," as Phillip Cary of Eastern University calls it:*

Major premise: Whoever believes in Jesus is saved.
Minor premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

This major premise is rooted in texts such as Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Much of current Protestant evangelicalism revolves around this and its minor premise, which introspectively seeks and discovers, "I have faith." I think that John Calvin and subsequent Reformers had a lot to do with this. They teach that God has chosen from before time a fixed number of people for salvation: "God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. To this he called you through the gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; cf. Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 8:28-9:24; 11:5). All those whom God has sovereignly chosen to save, he does so by bringing them into fellowship or "union" with Christ through faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This faith is created by the preaching of the gospel, through which the Spirit "calls" people into new life with Christ (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 1:9).**

This "calling" is usually referred to in some sort of conversion experience when people become aware of their need for a Mediator and God's perfect provision of one in his Son. The situation then becomes: If only the elect have faith by means of their spiritual calling and conversion, how can I be sure I have faith? Assurance of my salvation becomes a matter of discovering whether or not I'm among the elect, which I would know by whether or not I have faith.

Now Scripture presents a lot of evidence that someone is genuine in his faith, and I hope to address some relevant passages later (most notably, perhaps, Romans 8:12-17). But the problem of this "Protesant logic" is this: To know that I am saved I must not only believe that God's covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20); I must also know and be aware that I believe. In essence, to find rest in God's redemptive mercy and know that it encompasses me, I must not only possess faith but also be aware that I possess it. Faith is therefore a subjective and self-reflective act. Protestants therefore await some sort of "inner call" or testimony of the Holy Spirit which confirms our calling and election or, "the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16). (Calvin would, of course, insist that this "inner call" is simply the act of regeneration itself, a one-time event that believers need not seek out again. It has been more the work of later revivalists who have brought one's "inner life" into greater focus.)

The first problem with this, as I see it, is that it causes us to look at ourselves entirely too much. Faith is no longer looking away from myself to Christ--away from my own resources, commitments, and decisions and toward those of the living Son of God. It is now directed toward both God and myself. I must know that I am "doing what faith would do" and living how a "true believer" would live. And if I'm not looking to my works and deeds, fruits of the Spirit through they may be, then perhaps I'll be alternately directed to find assurance of salvation/election in my feelings and emotions.

It's not that there is no place for these things. The apostle Peter stresses that by increasing godly character we may confirm our calling and election (2 Peter 1:3-11). Paul says much the same. We also read in the Bible that true believers have love toward God and joy in him. But are these, in fact, what the Scriptures teach as to the true source of our assurance? I'm not sure. Hang on and find out (I hope).

*Much fodder for this comes from Dr. Phillip Cary's essay "Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise" (Pro Ecclesia 14:4, Fall 2005), 447-486.

** See John Murray's excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied for a sound description and defense of election, effectual inner calling, and regeneration.

How do I know I am saved?

In a ridiculously lengthy but fruitful series of comments left on a recent post on Susan's (a.k.a. Halfmom) blog, the topic of "assurance of salvation" was brought up in this way:

People who have been saved seem to know they have been saved. Since I have no idea whether I am saved or not, I presume I am not.

My sympathies go out to Estelle and all those who wrestle with such painful doubts. The reason is: I too was torn up over this very issue. All my life I grew up believing that everyone who believes that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of his sins (the believing person's sins, not Jesus') would have the gift of eternal life (e.g., John 3:16). But during my freshman and sophomore years at Michigan State, a nagging doubt crept up from time to time: Do I really believe that? What does it really mean to believe? Do I believe it enough? Faced with the reality of a hell of eternal torment that would never, ever cease, I had cause for alarm.

In addition, a few things I've read recently have really provoked me to think more deeply about assurance of salvation and the nature of faith. If we are justified through faith, if faith is what unites us to Christ and keeps us in communion with all his benefits, then what is such a "saving faith"? Can I or should I know that I possess saving faith? This is a matter of no small importance, for it is our Father's desire that we "draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:22). We as rebellious covenant-breakers need assurance that we have found pardon and rest in Christ if we are to rightly glorify God's mercy at the Cross.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Alpha and Omega

I'm in a little bit of "deep water" right now. Whether due to miscommunication or misunderstanding, I'll have to wait several weeks before obtaining an Illinois provisional teaching certificate. (I was told it could be up to eight weeks.) What that means for me is that until I receive it, I'll be working only a "substitute" for decreased pay and no benefits. But just when I find it easy to freak out in anxiety and forget my Father, I need to remember a "bumper sticker" from my friend Jenn's Facebook profile:

(Sorry it's kind of small.) I don't know if this is some sort of kitsch slogan, but either way I believe these are sound words to live by. When we live by Jesus' words, that he is the Alpha and the Omega, we have to acknowledge that no matter how big are our problems or how perilous our evils, it is God who got not only the first word, but also the last. The reality of every evil, difficulty, and anxiety is encompassed by even greater God-reality. He conquers over all our woes, and he will bring all those who trust in his Son with him to outlive them all in the end. We won't live bump-free lives, but we know that the bumps aren't the whole story; God, our loving and supremely powerful Father, is. Even now he weathers storms with us and carries us through, and in hope he will bring us home in the end.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God?"
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
(Isaiah 40:27-28)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Don't Look a Gift Horse, er, Church in the Mouth To See if It Chews the Cud; Neither Look at its Hooves to See if They Are Cloven

With my move to Chicago's western suburbs comes a new church. As I've been involved with several Reformed/Presbyterian churches over the past few years and have seen increasingly the worth of Reformed theology, it's a little hard for me to leave that for an Evangelical Free Church. I have developed understandings (which are always developing, of course) about corporate worship, soteriology, church government, and eschatology which would, at least in part, be left behind with my new church.

In chapters 10-11 of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has a dream in which the Lord Jesus urges him to eat from a cornucopia of animals which would normally be unclean under the Jewish ceremonial law. Peter is in shock, but he learns through it that God has opened the way for "unclean" Gentiles to himself. This is soon confirmed at Cornelius's house, where the Holy Spirit is given to many Gentiles. Peter concludes that "if God gave them the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he had given us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" (11:17). Barnabas comes to the same conclusion that the Gentiles in Antioch likewise were approved by God, since they bore "evidence of the grace of God" and were "true to the Lord" (11:23).

Peter had to yield his prior notions of what constituted the people of God and the marks of their worship, as God opened the door of salvation to everyone (cf. Acts 15). As good as the ceremonial laws in which Peter believed were, they were no longer allowed to supercede the true badge of God's people: faith in Jesus as the Messiah, given and sealed by the Holy Spirit. God's judgments overrode those of Peter or any other Jewish Christian.

In similar fashion, I've got things that I value about worship and doctrine. But what really is more important: valuing good and valid theological understandings, or loving the very people whom God has himself chosen? We're called as the church to love those everywhere who belong to Christ, regardless of denominational preferences, and that call includes me. The question is: Will I love doctrines or even personal preferences (however rational or biblical they may be) more than people? Am I somehow above them?

At the end of his letter to the Galatians, in which he deals with controversy over "marks of the true church," Paul urges the Galatian Christians in every opportunity to "do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). In a family, children don't get to choose their own brothers and sisters, but they are called to put aside their sibling rivalries and live in loving unity (cf. Psalm 133:1). In the same way, we're a "family of believers" because Christians are born not according to our own human wills, but by God's Spirit (John 1:12-13; 3:1-8). Faith only comes from God, so it's his choice that counts. Who am I, then, to question the church I'll be joining, those who are loved by God and given his Spirit? Who am I to look suspiciously--even ungratefully--at God's very own provision for me in people whom I can build up and who also will build me up?

Fear That Freezes, Fear That Frees

Moving to a new locale is a big deal. My future is filled with “what ifs”: What if I don’t like my new school? What if I think my town is boring? What if I don’t make friends? What if I don’t fit in at church? What if my relationship ends? What if I’m all alone? Fear like this often has a tendency to paralyze me. But Jesus speaks to his disciples about this fear that freezes:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7)

The Holy Spirit has graciously reminded me of the truth of this passage (even though I’m having difficulty really grasping it and finding rest at this point). Jesus is telling his disciples—his friends—about persecution and trials that will come as they follow him. They had heard their Master speak about how the religious leaders had not only killed all of God’s previous prophets, but also that they would persecute and even kill the apostles whom Jesus would send (Luke 11:47-51). Jesus was telling them not to fear the very people who would oppose them and even put them to death!

The reason Jesus gives for confidence is odd: They should fear God alone, because only he has the power to determine eternal life and death. Upon a cursory reading, it seems that Jesus is warning his disciples that they too are in danger of hell. But what I believe he’s really saying is this: “You are my dear friends; and in me you are dear to God. No detail of your circumstances will ever slip by his notice or be dropped from his hands. He watches over flittering birds; how much more will he guard you who bear his own image! You have nothing to fear in this world except the God who loves you.”

Leaving a situation in life in which I was growing more and more comfortable and stepping out into a big Question Mark is difficult. But faith calls me to live not by what if but by what is: the reality of Christ's grace, which works its power in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). The truth is that even if all else changes, my life is not over. My path does not dead-end. Life with God is never hopeless. I am often tempted to think in despair, If all my fears above come true, this is all a loss; I will have nothing; what will I do then? But if I have God and even God alone, I have nothing less than if I were to have God and every other worldly blessing. “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life . . . through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). Therefore I am free to take whatever may come, moving forward in hope, because I can know the Almighty, the Commander of Angel Armies,* as my caring, all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving Father who rejoices in doing good to me (Jeremiah 32:41).

*In the Old Testament God is frequently called YHWH Tsavaoth, the “LORD of hosts” (NIV “LORD Almighty”). These “hosts” are the legions of angels who fight at God’s bidding for the good of his people Israel.