Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas 2006

At the end of the year, I find it refreshing (and a bit frightening) to come to a holiday that points to the most momentous bit of news the world has ever heard. Assumed familiarity with this news, and the legion of pressures and distractions that engulf us, have dulled its impact. The dullness, however, is ours. The news is sharp and weighty. The first recipients of this news—an odd cast of characters, including a Jewish carpenter living in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in Palestine, a teenage girl from the same obscure town, a pregnant senior citizen, a group of shepherds, an old man named Simeon, an elderly prophetess, and a group of Gentile astrologers from the east—did not miss the weight. Witness Simeon’s response to the message: "My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" [Lk. 2:30-32, ESV]. Nor did the first hearers miss the sharpness. Look at the old man’s words to the teenage mother: "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed" [Lk. 2:34-35, ESV].

Our cultural marketplace sells many bromides that pose as the Christmas message. Let us not be fooled. The real thing is hearty food, bracing drink, and fresh, crisp air. It is the news that God's eternal Word of life was made manifest, that his express image was stamped, definitively, into the tender medium of a baby’s flesh, so that through him we might receive pardon and healing, and our world would be renewed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The opening of John's first letter

1 John 1:1-4 (ESV):
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— [2] the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— [3] that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. [4] And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

John's summary of what he has to say about Jesus drips with a sober awe and joy. He is careful to note the very concrete evidence upon which he founds the astonishing conclusion that "this is the word of life." He saw the evidence, he heard it, and he touched it--because it was all wrapped up in his dear friend, Jesus the Messiah. And the only conclusion John could reach was that this dear friend was "the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us."

John will not, however, rest content with his own fellowship with Jesus, or with his own joy in Jesus. The fellowship and joy must be shared. Invitations must be issued. And that is precisely what John does here: he says, "come enjoy fellowship with us. Look over our shoulders and behold the word of life made manifest in my friend. In seeing him, and in knowing him, you will have fellowship not only with him but with his Father as well."

And when we ask, "why, John, do you invite us to do this?" he says, "so that our joy may be complete." At first that sounds strangely self-centered--John and his fellows are writing to complete their own joy, and not that of their readers? But another moment's reflection makes us grateful that the one issuing the invitation is so excited about the fellowship into which he invites us, and that he is so eager, so happy, to have us. And that kind of joy, the kind which is consummated in sharing, is very contagious.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Illuminating article on evangelicalism/emergent in NYT

On Easter Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting article by Michael Luo on the current state of evangelicalism, describing some of the developing political and theological divisions. You can read the article here.

The most interesting and illuminating part of the article is the description of the theologicical disputes between the emergent and (traditional) evangelical camps. Often reporters for secular newspapers and periodicals will either overlook the substance of theological disagreements, reduce them to politics, or fail to report them accurately. While Luo certainly doesn't provide a nuanced presentation of what the argument is all about (to be fair, he didn't have the space to do so), the article strongly indicates that he has at least begun to see what is going on here. Look at his summary sentence of the issues:

"[The emergent movement/conversation] emphasizes reading the Bible as a narrative, perfect in its purposes but not necessarily inerrant; de-emphasizing individual salvation in favor of a more holistic mission in serving the world; even making evangelicals less absolutist on whether people from other religions might find their way to heaven."

Despite the false dichotomy of the first point (one can read the Bible as primarily narrative and inerrant), Luo has accurately identified the hot-button issues raised by the emergent conversation and accurately distilled much of the teaching of emergent, or at least its most visible spokesmen, in this one sentence.

Moreover, although the article's clarity decreases in what follows, the obscurity actually illustrates the true, and generally counterproductive, obscurity of the emergent debates. For example, after noting (correctly) that emergent's speculations have made many evangelical leaders "nervous" that emergent will "water down the theology," Luo quotes Albert Mohler as saying, "It's over the question of the nature of truth." That is indeed a big issue, but the reader is given little to work with in discerning exactly what Mohler meant--we don't, for instance, hear Mohler identify the "It" in question, or hear what he thinks the competing visions of truth are. The reader is left to guess, though, that Mohler was charging the emergent folks with promoting relativism, because Luo next reports that emergent leader Brian McLaren denies the charge that he is promoting relativism. To the contrary, McLaren asserts that his intent in leading the emergent conversation is to rescue evangelicalism from the jaws of its "fundamentalist elements," to avoid "polarization," and to find a genuine "third way." Luo does not identify--probably because McLaren didn't either--who the "fundamentalists" in question are, what the "polarization" is about, or the courses between which McLaren is attempting to navigate a "third way." Throwing about vague and inflammatory words like that is not helpful, but has become sadly typical in the debate over emergent (and emergent proponents and critics share the blame).**

Let us seek better things, casting aside the sin of using words just to win arguments. Contrast how the Word of God works: He is the light who has come into the world to save us from the domain of darkness, driving smoke and darkness away; and he is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We who are being conformed to his image should aspire to wield our words like bright candles and sharp scalpels--shedding light along the narrow way, cutting with surgical precision to kill sin and save souls.

** NOTE: To be fair I should point out that the phrase "fundamentalist elements" was not a verbatim quote from Brian McLaren himself. Those were Michael Luo's words, and whether they accurately reflect what McLaren said I do not know. If not, then at least in this instance he should not be charged with throwing about vague and inflammatory words.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

More on the atonement on the eve of Good Friday

Here is a link to a good commentary on the atonement by Mark Dever:

Dever does a good job of defending penal substitution while affirming the other great things Jesus acheived on the cross (like triumphing over the powers and blazing a trail for his disciples to follow).

In this he follows Paul, who could speak of Jesus's death atoning for our sins and triumphing over the powers in successive breaths:

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (or: "in it"--i.e. in the cross)."

Colossians 2:13-15 (ESV)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On the atonement

The penal substitutionary view of the atonement has fallen on hard times in some quarters. "Divine child abuse" is one phrase of disapprobation that critics have attached to the view that Jesus died on the cross to appease his Father's wrath against sin. The doctrine allegedly begets "vampire Christians" who want Jesus for his blood but little else. And I recently heard someone ridicule the idea of penal substitution by saying that it posits a God who asks more of us than he is able to do himself: God does not allow us the luxury of kicking Bill, against whom we have nothing, in order to appease our anger against Bob, against whom we do have something that we would like to forgive.

When assessing those kinds of criticisms of a doctrine, it helps to find a good defense of the doctrine under attack and see if it bears any resemblance to the representation of the doctrine by the critic. So this past weekend I reached for one of the best popular explanations of a penal substitutionary view of the atonement of which I am aware: chapter six of John Piper's book The Pleasures of God, entitled "The Pleasure of God in Bruising His Son."

The chapter title (based on Isaiah 53:10) would indeed suggest divine child abuse, and sadistic divine child abuse at that, since God took pleasure in bruising his Son. But you cannot judge a chapter by its title, which, in this case, was undoubtedly intended to be provocative, the kind of thing that begs for an explanation. And the explanation given by Piper here totally destroys the idea that penal substitution is a kind of divine child abuse.

Let me briefly summarize the chapter. Piper begins with a summary of chapters one through five of The Pleasures of God, in which he had set forth and defended the idea that God, being supremely righteous and glorious, rightly values his own glory and honor above all things. God intends to be glorified through all the earth in all the things he has made. And to that end, God has chosen certain people through whom he is to be particularly glorified. But there is a problem: the people whom God has chosen are sinners, and as sinners they have obscured God's glory, the very thing God is most committed to displaying. So what was God to do? Ignoring the sin, sweeping it "under the rug of the universe" wouldn't befit a righteous God. We do not think much of judges who acquit the guilty; how much more unrighteous would God be to acquit those guilty of the most heinous sin: Failing to acknowledge or give thanks to God, exchanging the glory of God for created things? Since God has so acquitted such heinous sinners, however, it cries out for an explanation. That is what Piper tries to give in this chapter.

And Piper's explanation of penal substitution looks nothing like divine child abuse. Note these three distinctions:
(1) Piper notes that the Father and Son agreed that the Son would be bruised for the sins of the world. He then illustrates the nature of the agreement in his closing parable, where a human father and his adult son plan a rescue operation in an evil country, where the son would necessarily die in carrying out the plan.

(2) Lest we think we're dealing with a case of a sadist Father and masochist Son, Piper notes that the pleasure the Father took in his Son's suffering was not pleasure in the Son's suffering in and of itself, but rather in what his suffering accomplished, i.e., vindication of the worth of God's glory and redemption of God's chosen people. Just as Jesus didn't exult in his suffering in and of itself, but endured it "for the sake of the joy set before him," so his Father exulted in what Jesus's suffering accomplished.

(3) Piper's explanation of God's dilemma establishes that this was not a case of God wanting to forgive sinners, but needing to vent his anger against someone else to do so. Rather, it was about demonstrating the absolute justice and righteousness of God's character, and the priceless worth of God's glory. And those are the very things that Jesus displayed supremely in his suffering and death.

The climax of Piper's chapter on God's pleasure in bruising his Son is lovely. He writes (p. 176) that Jesus's "every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: the glory of God is of infinite value!" Therefore, "in the very moment that God's curse rested most heavily on Jesus because of sin, the Father's love for his Son reached explosive proportions." And Jesus "knew that he was bearing it for the Father's glory, and that the Father loved him for it."

Here we see worked out in human history the "sweet agreement" (Richard Sibbes's phrase) between the Father and Son to redeem the people of God: to carry out an excruciatingly difficult rescue mission. Not divine child abuse. Everything about this (now accomplished) mission proclaims "the glory of God is of infinite value!" There is indeed more to Jesus's work on the cross than substitution, but let us not be ashamed to proclaim in our day what God has accomplished in Jesus, and, against those who would call the Father a child abuser, to thoughtfully praise the Father for his righteous pleasure in the bruising of his Son.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More on C. S. Lewis, modernity, and postmodernity

I've been reading C. S. Lewis a lot over these last few weeks (people who know me fairly well would be surprised that I ever stopped, but I'd actually taken a pretty long hiatus from reading his works), and it amazes me how pertinent his works are to the current discussions of postmodernism in the church. For all his criticism of moral subjectivism and epistemological pessimism, which would appear to peg him as thoroughly "modern," he consistently distinguishes his own position from the kind of idolatrous objectivity for which modernity has been rightly criticized. Sanity is relevant in any age--and it's nice to hear it from other ages, to keep (as Lewis said in his introduction to Athanasius's On the Incarnation) "the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds."

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Taking modernism and postmodernism out to the toolshed

The name of this blog comes from an essay by C. S. Lewis, "Meditations in a Toolshed." In the essay, Lewis described a few minutes he spent in toolshed one afternoon. The shed's door was ever so slightly ajar. From one corner of the shed, Lewis could see a beam of light streaming through the crack, illuminating a few specks of dust and faintly illuminating a few odd objects in the shed. But when he moved to another corner of the shed, while he could no longer see the beam itself, he could look along the beam to the trees and sky outside, and all the way back to the beam's source, the sun. Standing outside the beam looking at it, and standing within the beam looking along it, were totally different experiences.

Lewis's essay was a polemic against the general mindset of his day, which insisted that a "true" account of any thing must come from those who look at it rather than along it. Thus, according to the then-dominant mindset, to get a "true" account of love you would go to psychologists and neurologists, not lovers. To get a "true" account of religion, you would go, not to its practitioners, but to anthropologists and sociologists, or perhaps again to psychologists and neurologists. Lewis thought that was nonsense. The view from within something provides a world of insights that the outside observer cannot imagine. Thus Lewis concluded: "One must look along and at everything."

Since Lewis penned his essay a great pendulum shift has occurred. Now conventional wisdom says that the true account of a thing comes from those within it, who look along it rather than at it. "Tell me your experience" is now the means for discovering truth. That is so even where one person's account conflicts with other "true" accounts from other vantage points. The conclusion "that's true for Smith, this is true for Jones, so-and-so is true for me" is the ultimate exaltation of looking along over looking at. And Lewis's conclusion that we must look along and at everything opposes that new mindset--sometimes called "postmodernism"--just as ruthlessly as it opposed the former one.