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.