Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck, Part 2

16 August 2009

As I concluded my previous post, I could fairly hear the deacons in the audience shouting, “Just because the hair on the back of your neck stands up, how do you know it’s right?”

That’s a good question.  There has to be some norm, some standard by which to measure.

There is.  It’s called the Bible, and one of the things it teaches us is this: who the hearer is will determine what he hears.  If this sounds subjective to you, that’s because in a sense, it is.  But it’s entirely biblical: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” as Jesus often said.  This saying teaches us that there is such a thing as having ears to hear, and such a thing as not having ears to hear.  The person with ears and the person without ears are both standing in front of Jesus, and both hear the same parable…but only the one with ears to hear really hears it, after all. The same propositional content for both, but one understands and the other does not.

Nor is understanding, or failing to, the full range of outcomes.  The same content can convey two opposite messages to two different people, as Paul tells us:

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

We carry the gospel on our lips and in our lives, and this bespeaks death to those who are perishing, but life to those who are being saved.  It’s the same content, but different messages are received because the hearers are different.  This is obvious with a little reflection: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” is gospel to God’s people, but chains and a rod of iron to those who will not kiss the Son.

This is to say that there is no substitute for walking with God and being conformed to the image of His Son.  As we do this, we will find that He makes us able to see and hear what would otherwise be invisible and inaudible to us.  All of which returns us to the question: how will we know when this is happening?

Two blind men are standing on a hill, looking out at a sunset.  Suddenly, one of the blind men is healed entirely, and the sunset bursts in on him.  “I can see!  I can see!” he shouts.

“How do you know?” asks his still blind companion.


Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?


Having Eternal Life

1 June 2009

Our corner of the theological universe commonly makes a big deal about eternal life, which is appropriate — eternal life is a big deal.

But we commonly think of eternal life as something we’ll get after we die.

We don’t say that, of course.  In fact, when we’re evangelizing we regularly say the opposite.  For example, we often quote John 5:24: “He who hears My word and believes on Him who sent Me has everlasting life.”  “Has,” we say.  “See, it’s right now, already, the moment you believe.  Right then, you have everlasting life.”

But we somehow don’t seem to think in those same terms in our daily lives.  We think of having eternal life like having a bus pass — it’s something you carry around with you, so that when you get to the door of the bus, they’ll let you on.  But you don’t use a bus pass all the time; just when getting on the bus. We think “having — right now — eternal life” is like getting a ticket to heaven right now, so we can stick it in our pockets and use it when the time comes.

But that’s not it at all.  The moment you believe the gospel, eternal life begins.  That’s what John 5:24 says, and it’s what we’re claiming to believe.  If you’ve believed the gospel, your life, today, is part of that eternal life.

So what does that look like?


A Few Points on the Ethics of Theological Conflict

3 May 2009

I had occasion to recently come upon an article in Credenda/Agenda, the focus of which was an entirely different theological controversy than the one in which the free grace community finds itself presently embroiled. I’ve been following that controversy for some time, and I have a few opinions on it, but for the moment I’m going to keep them to myself, because I want to talk about something else: how God’s people conduct themselves in theological controversy.

The article devoted two of its eight subpoints to that very issue.  Now, I’ve had a lot to say about this over the past few years, but nothing I’ve produced has been as comprehensive as this article, and certainly nothing I’ve produced has been as well said.  Since I can do no better than to quote the article, I am going to do just that, by the kind permission of the folks at Credenda/Agenda and Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho.

You will want to know that since the particular doctrinal context of the article is largely an intra-Presbyterian conflict, there are several references to the Westminster Standards, which are (theoretically, at least) the doctrinal confession of the Presbyterian churches.  For our conflict, substitute something similarly authoritative.  You’ll be surprised how uncannily a propos this is, with that single substitution.

For your edification and reading pleasure, I give you an excerpt of “Credos” by Douglas Wilson, Credenda/Agenda 15 number 5, 2007:

On Heresy

1. I believe that any minister who brings or circulates charges of heresy, particularly when the charges concern a right understanding of the covenant, should have a household that is in harmony with the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6), with children who all love and honor the Lord Jesus Christ. Who is the false teacher, and who is the true minister of the covenant? By their fruit you will know them (Matt. 7:15-20).

2. I believe that such qualifications are relevant in the current dispute because covenants are understood incarnationally. This statement is a broadside directed at heresy hunters who are doctrine machines, zealous for covenant theology, but whose covenantal lives in their own homes [are] in disarray. This is a widespread problem, and is not a veiled reference to any particular person or family.

3. I believe that the ignorance of the Westminster Standards displayed by some of her zealous defenders is astounding and inexcusable. I believe some people who bring charges of heresy should read a book sometime.

4. I believe that those who bring heresy charges need to take special care that their confidence in creedal advance has not been practically vitiated by other factors. Such factors could include pessimistic eschatology, extreme law/gospel dichotomies, ecclesiastical turf war envy, unhelpful two kingdom distinctions, or personal familial tragedies.

5. I believe that when heresy charges are confused, blurry and distorted enough to include in their charges very different and contradictory heresies, this is evidence, not that the heretics are broadly wicked enough to encompass any error, but rather that any stick is good enough to beat them with.

6. I believe that when lies and slanders are circulated under the cover of heresy charges, those so charged should not lament but should rather obey the Lord Jesus, and rejoice and be exceedingly glad (Matt. 5:11-12). The truth is vindicated, not only when faithful ministers proclaim and defend the truth, but also by those who cannot argue against it without resorting to distortion and misrepresentation.

7. I believe that bringing heresy charges in grief or sadness or with heaviness of heart is not to be thought of as an all-purpose moral disinfectant, allowing one to therefore get the facts wrong, charge individuals falsely, and then claim that the cause of all the trouble was lack of clarity on the part of those misrepresented.

8. I believe that the task of rooting out heresy was not committed to jitney theologians and hedge preachers on the Internet, furiously typing, as busy as the devil in a high wind.

On Giving Offense

1. I believe that few subjects are as badly neglected in the modern Church as the applied field of biblical polemics.

2. I believe that when controversy breaks out in the modern Church, it is therefore likely that all parties to the controversy share certain assumptions about what is appropriate in conflict and what is not, and these hidden assumptions tend to govern their discourse instead of the example and pattern of Scripture.

3. I believe that this hidden compromise of method vitiates the attempts of those believers who attempt to be faithful to the content of Scripture, as well as to the content of their confessional heritage.

4. I believe that in a particular kind of religious controversy the central point is to accomplish reconciliation, and that to fail in this task is to fail in maintaining the spirit of unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-6). We are to receive one another but not into disputes about debatable things.

5. I believe that in another kind of religious controversy the central point is to give offense, and that failure in such controversy is a failure to give offense in the way Scripture requires. And Scripture demands that we seek to offend willful obstinacy of opinion by ecclesiastical officials in the face of the grace of God.

6. I believe that failure to distinguish these two kinds of controversy, or a flat denial that there is ever a time when giving offense is a spiritual obligation, means in effect, that in the great basketball game between obedience and disobedience, the referees are always on the take.

7. I believe that our Lord Jesus, when confronted with ecclesiastical obstinacy, showed us this godly pattern for giving offense. Did you know the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?(Matt. 15:12). Yes, I did, He replied in effect. Mission accomplished (v. 13). The Lord attacked the scribes and Pharisees for their long robes, sanctimonious geegaws, prayer habits, tithing practices, their ways of greeting, their seating arrangements, their hypocrisies, and so on. After one such exchange (Luke 11:43-44), one of the lawyers said that Jesus was insulting them in His indictment too (v. 45). And in effect Jesus said, Oh, yes, thanks for that reminder. You lawyers . . .(v. 46). In short, Jesus was seeking to offend.

8. I believe that in a sinful world giving offense is one of the central tasks of preaching. When the offending word is brought to bear against those who have shown themselves to be unteachable, they are written off by that offending word. Employing a scriptural satiric bite is therefore not rejoicing in iniquity, but rather testifying against hardness of heart.

9. I believe therefore that in every controversy, godliness and wisdom (or the lack of them) are to be determined by careful appeal to the Scriptures, and not to the fact of someone having taken offense. Perhaps they ought to have taken offense, and perhaps someone ought to have endeavored to give it.

10. I believe that sometimes a fool is not to be answered according to his folly (Prov. 26:4), and those who contradict are to be answered in all gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25). In other situations a fool must be answered according to his folly lest he be wise in his own conceits (Prov. 26:5), and those who oppose the truth are to be rebuked sharply (Tit. 1:12-14; 2:15). Examples in Scripture and church history of men who can do both are not to be thought of as conflicted personalities, but rather as examples of obedience and balance.

11. I believe that true biblical balance in such things is the fruit of wisdom, and that such balance is not usually found in hot-headed young men, who do not know what spirit they are of (Luke 9:55). Consequently, prophetic rebukes should come from seasoned prophets, from men called to the ministry of guarding the Church of God. The work should be done by men of some age and wisdom, and not by novices, firebrands, and zealots.

12. I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is always to be our example in dealing with certain kinds of religious leaders, and that where He has set an example, we must strive to follow Him. Part of this means we must be careful not to be hasty in imitating Him, since His wisdom was perfect and ours is not. It is therefore good to take counsel with others.

13. I believe that sharp rebukes and the ridiculing of evil practices should seldom be the first approach one should make, but usually should follow only after the rejection of a soft word of reproach, or when dealing with hard-hearted obstinacy displayed over an extended period of time. If this is not remembered, the satirist will find himself killing ants with a baseball bat.

14. I believe we must be careful not to let strong language and supposedly-righteous anger be a substitute for good arguments, to be employed when we feel threatened. Strong language must be weighed and measured, and must always have a point. Special thanks to Jim Jordan for his comments on the above.

The rest of the article focuses on the doctrinal content of the controversy, and depending on your background, may induce hyperventilation, redness of face, and blog posts.  If you want to read the whole thing, you can link directly to it here or have a look at the whole issue on the page for volume 15, number 5 of Credenda/Agenda.


Is Amillennialism Racist?

5 April 2009

In the preceding post, I addressed the accusations of racism that often attach to premillennialism.  In this post, I’d like to discuss another accusation of racism, this one leveled by Jim Jordan against amillennialism at this year’s Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference.

…which brings me to amillennialism, more evil than you can imagine.  The Great Commission is a postmillennial and a theocratic command.  Let’s go over it, in case there’s somebody here who doesn’t know that.  Jesus said “All power has been given to Me.”  How much power?  I can’t hear you.  All power?  All of it?  Where?  In heaven and on earth.  Any other place besides that, that counts?  Go therefore and disciple all nations.  Which nations?  All nations.  Do what to them?  Make converts in all nations?  No, disciple all nations.  Now what do the Jews understand by “disciple all the nations?”…They’re living in [a discipled nation].

………………………………………………….

They understand that this is a theocratic command to disciple all nations.  Is Jesus going to fail?  I can see it now…”Jesus… can come back tomorrow, He can come back any day.”  And what’s Satan going to say?  “All power, huh?  All authority in heaven and on earth, and you just couldn’t pull it off, could you, boy?”  Do you think that’s gonna happen?

I don’t.

And I think it borders on blasphemy to suggest that that’s gonna happen….Gentlemen, I don’t think we should be be very tolerant.  Premils understand that Jesus’ kingdom is going to conquer all the nations and it’s going to fulfill the purposes of this creation.  I can get along with premils.  Amils say, “God is going to toss this world; Jesus is going to fail; the nations are not going to be discipled.”  I don’t think that we can afford to be very respectful to that.

The amillennial outlook is racist. It says that because white, European civilization is falling apart, Jesus is coming soon.  Jesus isn’t really going to bring much Christianity to the black and brown and yellow people in the world.

It’s arrogant to assume that God’s center of history is on the white, European race, and because the whites are falling apart, God has got to end history.  That is arrogant.  It’s racist.  And it ends history, and this is where the problem comes in the church.  The amillennial attitude says there’s nothing new, there’s nothing more to be learned, there’s no need to have a continuing conversation….Guys who look forward to the day, a thousand years from now, when theologians in Sri Lanka bring new insights out of the book of Nehemiah — that’s not going to happen.  We don’t need new insights.  We’ve got it all written down in our confessions and catechisms and in a few of our commentaries.  Don’t tell us there’s anything new that’s going to come.  Don’t tell us that vast new insights are going to come from Africans and Asians and Polynesians, when those people, with their gifts, convert to the Lord.  No, there’s no need for any new insights.

The Eastern church stopped everything with the seventh ecumenical council.  Our amillennial brethren have stopped everything three hundred years ago.  And that’s deadly.  And it’s intolerable….It cripples the Reformed faith.  In all our Presbyterian and Reformed denominations and seminaries, we have to pretend that this is a perfectly okay way to think, and what winds up being the case is, that view dominates.  Sorry, I just don’t think we can have that.

…There’s no longer any time left to be tolerant of people who have that idea of what it means for Jesus to have all authority that He, by His Spirit and through His church, is going to disciple all nations.

Jordan says a lot of highly charged things here, as of course he is well aware.  I’m not sure he expects anyone to agree with them all.  But he does point out an important dividing line in eschatology.  Pre-, post- or amil view is less important than believing that there will be a real victory, and that God will win it, taking seriously the promise that the God will win the nations to Himself.  A premil view that takes the dominion mandate and the great commission seriously — a combination I am presently calling dominon premillennialism, for lack of a better term — is every bit as committed to this as a postmil view; we just quibble a little about the timeline.

And yet, as Jordan points out, the organizational and denominational lines are repeatedly drawn in a way that lumps postmil and amil folks together on one side of the fence, with premil folks on the other.  Why is that?

And given those choices, can anyone blame people for fleeing to the premil side of the fence, where there’s generally no need to tolerate amillennialism?


Preparing for Ministry

17 March 2009

A friend recently indicated to me that he’s interested in formal preparation for ministry.  He’s somewhat constrained as to time and prior commitments, so he’ll be taking the long road, not just putting his whole life on hold to go to seminary for a few years.

Increasingly, I think that is a great blessing.  Seminary, by its very nature, is optimized for very lopsided growth.  It’s helpful in certain circumstances, but it’s not the best choice for ministry preparation.

But what really surprised me was what I told him when he asked me for advice on how to proceed.  It didn’t just pop out; he asked the question by email, so I’d had a week or two to consider my answer.  But I found the conclusion I came to surprising.

In addition to continuing in faithful ministry in his own church — which he’s already doing — I suggested just two areas in which he should pursue competence.  The first was exegesis, and for me, that was a no-brainer.  He can’t minister well if he can’t handle the Word well, period.  That starts out with basic hermeneutics and Bible study methods, moves into deeper study and heavier-duty tools, and if he cares to pursue it far enough, to Greek and Hebrew.  No real surprises there.

What did surprise me was the second area I suggested.  In my background, the traditional suggestions would be exegesis and theology.  But instead of theology, I suggested church history.  In my experience, the focus on exegesis and theology tends to indoctrinate a person into a very specific tradition.  In studying the timeless truths of Scripture and theology, he becomes bogged down in his own century, his own culture, his own interests, and consequently in a series of increasingly narrow, ever-more-partisan battles.  This is sub-Christian; we are to look not only on our own interests, but also for the interests of others, particularly others in the church.

I was myself rescued from that narrowing tendency — to some extent — by knowledge of church history.  As I continue to grow in my understanding of the church, I find myself being rescued more and more.  All the theological squabbles come up anyway, just as they would if I focused on theology.  But they come up in proper context, as part of the overall story of how my people have grown and developed in their understanding of the Lord and His Word.

We profess to believe in the communion of saints and the value of fellowship.  Mentally, though, we often add “as long as you’re under 40 and use an iPhone,” or “as long as you come from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912,”* or whatever arbitrary constraint will protect our comfort. And in fact, this is what the study of theology usually comes down to: study of an arbitrary extract of church history designed for the maximum comfort of some particular group or other.  This is the historical version of a man surrounding himself with handpicked yes-men who already agree with him.

Straightforward study of church history, though, forces us to reckon with a bunch of people who don’t think like us.  People we don’t approve of.  People we would never choose and might very well want to disown.  And yet by God’s providence, there they are, and they have many, many lessons to teach.

The sectarian tendency wants to say, “But look at all these things where they got it wrong!”  Sure.  But a great portion of the learning will be in exploring the tension between church history and exegesis.  Why did these people come to that conclusion about this passage?  What were they thinking?  What did they miss?  …or did I miss something?   Both?

We may find that they got it wrong less than we thought.  We will surely find great stores of practical, pastoral wisdom along the way.  And as the proverbs say, he who walks with the wise will be wise, and in a multitude of counselors is safety.

*****

*A reference to a truly stellar, and badly under-attributed, joke by Emo Phillips.


A Narrative Statement of Faith: Impossible?

9 March 2009

As I’ve come to grips with the narrative character of the Scriptures, I’ve become increasingly interested in seeing that reflected in statements of faith — the one I write for myself personally, and others that I’m involved in framing.

I spoke to a number of friends about the possibility of doing this, and they fell into one of two groups: those who thought it an admirable idea, but weren’t sure how one would go about it, and those who thought it was flatly impossible, or at least so difficult as to be impractical.

Thus encouraged, I began to look around for help.  Having been trained since I was very, very small that people get into great trouble in the ministry because they don’t study church history, I turned to church history to see what help I might be able to glean from God’s people of past ages.  As I studied I began to realize something that ought to have occurred to me immediately: it’s already been done. More than once.

So for your edification and reading pleasure, I present the following historical statement of faith, composed in narrative form:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hades.
On the third day He rose again from [among] the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
Whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church
The communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Sound familiar? (If it doesn’t — alack and fie for shame on your teachers — google ‘apostles creed’ and see what comes up.)

Does this mean I’ve stopped working on a narrative statement of faith?  Not hardly.  Versions of the creed above were floating around as early as the second century, and it was modified countless times.  The most prominent example of this would be the Nicene Creed — the version of the Apostles’ Creed that was ratified by a genuinely ecumenical council.

The trend continues today, as it should.  God’s people are writers of creeds and confessions aplenty.  We never speak God’s Word in a vacuum, but only at a particular time, in a particular place, to particular people.  While the Word never changes, the times, places and people change constantly, and therefore constant recasting and reformulation is required if we would speak to the people before us, rather than to their ancestors.

So I’m still working on it.  But now, with some guidance from my fathers.