Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cranky Calvinists Are Not Consistent Calvinists

I'm fortunate to belong to a Presbyterian church where Calvinism is the norm, not the exception.  But after hearing that some people at our old EFCA church in Illinois were raising a ruckus against those who aren't persuaded of Calvinism, the thought hit me: If you're really a Calvinist, your own theology dictates that no one can learn spiritual truth unless the Spirit reveals it to them.  That is, in essence, the implication of "total depravity" as well as God's sovereignty in all things (see 1 Cor. 2:14).  "When we know something, it is because God decided to let us know it, either by Scripture or by nature.  Our knowledge, then, is initiated by another.  Our knowledge is a result of grace."*

So if you're a Calvinist and you encounter others who aren't persuaded of the same doctrines you are, you have no choice but to be kind and gentle toward them.  You can respectfully explain from Scripture why you're convinced of its validity, and you can pray for them to be enlightened by God.  But to quarrel or demand their conversion to your perspective--however biblically accurate it might be--demonstrates that you don't live out the theology you preach.  "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.  God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25).

We would all do well to think and act this way.
*John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987), p. 23.  Probably the most challenging and yet one of the most rewarding books I've ever read.  The first chapter about God's covenant lordship is utterly remarkable.  Thanks, Dr. Griffith.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Outcroppings of Heaven

How often do you think of this when you gather with the saints for worship on Sundays?

[E]ach church is the full manifestation in time and space of the one, true, heavenly, eschatological, new covenant church.  Local churches should see themselves as outcroppings of heaven, analogies of "the Jerusalem that is above," indeed colonies of the new Jerusalem, providing on earth a corporate and visible expression of "the glorious freedom of the children of God."

--D. A. Carson, "Evangelicals, Ecumenism, and the Church."  Quoted in Stephen Wellum, "Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants," Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright (Broadman & Holman, 2006), p. 148.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Paul Tillich on the Necessity of Revelation

In a few weeks I'll be helping lead a class at church about the nature of God and why it matters.  Coincidentally enough, after I was talking with a co-worker yesterday about Christian existentialism (e.g., Soren Kierkegaard, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich), I found this quote from Tillich that blew my mind.
The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based and are taken by systematic theology from the sources, through the medium, under the norm.  Their content cannot be derived from questions that would come from an analysis of human existence.  They are 'spoken' to human existence from beyond it, in a sense.  Otherwise, they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself.*
What is so cool to me is that this shows the necessity of a theistic God, that is, a God who is outside of and separate from man and his world, yet one who can definitively reveal himself and speak into man's world.  If all we have is a deistic God (such as that of Thomas Jefferson or Isaac Newton), he may have the omniscience and wisdom to explain the human condition and the conundrums and pains of our experience, but he cannot speak to us or reveal to us his wisdom.  If, on the other hand, we have a pantheistic God who is so completely interwoven with man and creation that creation is the sum total of God and vice versa, then how are we to clearly distinguish his voice and revelation apart from competing voices in the world?  Even more, if God is creation and humanity, then wouldn't that make God both the cause and victim of humanity's woes?  To answer the questions about our own existence, we need a God who is not created and yet who is present with us, condescending and accomodating himself to reveal truth and to deliver us.

This is much like Martin Luther's saying that the gospel message must come to us from outside--it is an "alien" message--because it proclaims an "alien righteousness" belonging to Christ and bestowed from God through Word and Spirit.  In our own experience and life we find no salvation, nor can we find our way to God or a sufficient explanation of the world, until the gospel dawns upon us from heaven.

*Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 64.  According to Wikipedia, Tillich uses "sources" to refer to the Bible and Christian history, "the medium" being the collective experience of the Church, and the "norm" as the theological standards of the biblical message by which all experience is to be judged.  I am not here endorsing Tillich as a uniformly orthodox Christian, by the way. 

Tillich would probably deny that we can speak of God's "nature" or "being," since that would mean he himself has being, thus raising the question of "From where comes God's being?  What sustains or enables his existence?"  For Tillich, speaking of "being", "essence," or "existence" is a purely human or creaturely reality and cannot be applied to God. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

All Things Are Yours

"Each one of you says, 'I follow Paul,' or 'I follow Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas [Peter],' or 'I follow Christ.'  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"  (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)

"For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not being merely human?  What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each."  (1 Corinthians 3:4-5)

"So let no one boast in men.  For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's."  (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)

I pretty much love Reformed theology.  It shows up in every post on this blog (hence the unabashed shout-out to God's foreknowledge in the title Beloved Before Time).  Reformed churches--both the preaching and the people--have set my faith on a firm foundation.  So as I wade through the murky waters of biblical teaching on baptism and covenant theology and the nature of the church, I come face-to-face with the fact that I might end up going against the Reformed confessional standards that I have so profited from (namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Westminster Standards).  To go against conscience is neither wise nor safe (Luther).  And yet this is so hard for me, because I want everything in neat little boxes, with no loose ends or perplexing uncertainties.

While I recognize that in some gray areas it's more expedient for pastors to simply stick with a denominational norm and then get at the hard work of caring for souls, slavish commitment to one expression of sound Reformed theology is not the goal of these confessions.  Their goal is to teach Christ-exalting truth.  And they still do, even if I differ on a few points.

If I say I'm reticent or unwilling to believe or practice X (and X is not sin) because the Heidelberg says otherwise, am I not being merely human in my allegiances (1 Cor. 3:4)?  The reality is that I do not belong to Calvin or Ursinius or the PCA, but that "I belong, body and soul, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).  Quite oppositely, they belong to me and to the flock under their care (1 Cor. 3:21-23).  Theologians, pastors, books, confessions, and traditions exist not as masters over Christ's church but as her servants, and each belongs to her to build up and beautify her in its own appointed times and ways.  There are many workers in God's field and many builders in God's temple, each of whom has his (or her) own unique but necessary contributions (1 Cor. 3:8-10).  We may be less without them, but they are insufficient on their own.  As a Christian, I do not exist to bolster the validity of the Reformed confessions, but rather they exist to bolster me and all Christians, and along with others to contribute to the chorus teaching us to sing God's praises.

So even if I find that Olivia and I choose to embrace a more baptistic view of baptism, that's okay.  The foundation is what makes a building strong, and that one foundation of God's sovereign grace in Christ Jesus has been well-laid (1 Cor. 3:11).  My life and family stand strong because Reformed theology is "rooted and built up in Christ" (Col. 2:6-7) and serves as a strong foundation and framework for my house.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that John Murray or B. B. Warfield has to install the plumbing.