canon sense

"every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Evangelical Conflation of the Public with the Political

I am finally getting around to read James Hunter’s To Change the World ( I know I am very late to the game) and its a clear challenge to evangelicals — both on the left and right — who think that cultural change comes primarily through the political process.  As someone who is on his way to DC, this is a good to reminder.  In fact, Hunter goes so far as to suggest a moratorium on the church’s engagement with the world of politics, and does so because he thinks the church has reduced its engagement with the world solely to the political.  So he suggests the church take up a postpolitical witness.  To do this, the church has two tasks: (1) disentangle its life and identity from the life and identity of American society and (2) decouple the public from the political.

While I would certainly want to push back on Hunter’s suggestion of a moratorium (for example, he fails to distinguish between the church corporate and the individuals who make up the church), I do agree with him on the two tasks.  The second in particular is something that needs to be worked out, and like Hunter states, it begins with the imagination.  The problem with most of the North American church is that it cannot imagine an engagement with the world that is not political and this is because we have conflated the public with the political.  However, this is not necessarily unique to evangelicals, but rather, is an American phenomenon, thus the first tasks that Hunter mentions. So when the public is reduced to politics, culture is politicized.

But public life for the Christian is (should be) much bigger than politics (i.e., arts, education, care for the environment, provision to the least of these, etc. ). And as I think about DC and ministering to interns, this will prove to be a good corrective to many who think politics is the highest form of cultural engagement.  Being engaged politically is certainly important, but it is just one way to engage the world.   Hunter may go too far in his desire to see the church go silent with relation to politics, but he is right in seeing the need for the church’s imagination to be expanded beyond the political.


Graham Greene on Time

Reflecting on the persecuted church in Southern Mexico in his classic novel The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene writes that when the church goes missing, so goes the sense of time (p. 100). The church offers a sense of time that the world needs.  The world on its own terms does not respect time.

Time limits us. It reminds us that we live a day at a time.

The church does not take for granted the rising and setting sun, but instead sees it as a symbol of grace. It sees it as a sign of its creatureliness, and thus serves as a sign of a Creator. The church sees the world and sees a theatre for God’s glory. God sees the world and sees a world of human limitations.  Yet the limited world of time and space are the very things God delights in.  He does not despise our creaturely existence, but watches over it, sings over it, and even enters into it.

The Parables We Need: Hypocrites, Racism, Church Size, and Penis Size

From Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, Page 215,

“I wish I could have been a fly on the wall that moment when Papaw was recovering there in Clark County Hospital. He had worked there as a maintenance man for years. Now he was the one needing repair, a repair that he would outlive for a while until it would finally catch him ten or so years after. But at the moment his heart was older than his body. It was tired and wanted to quit early on him. When Papaw saw the man who lived across the street, you remember, he saw only a preacher, a hypocrite.  When Papaw saw dark-skinnned men, he saw only “niggers,” good ones and bad ones. That’s why it must have been something for Papaw that day when a stranger came to visit him amid the tubes and monitors that were chained to his arms. That someone? A black chaplain. Who knew, deep into his middle years, that such a man would sit with Papaw and ask him about Jesus? Oh, the marvelous return to old and ancient things, to those Eden things, that Jesus intends to see us into again. What a shrewd move on Jesus’ part to see men so differently from Papaw and to put in front of Papaw this different vision. It is like the kind of parable Jesus told in which a Samaritan is the good rescuer of a Jew in need. Jesus rementors our sight. Scales fall from our eyes. Human, we see and are known.

Eyes with scales left on cause men to see in comparisons. We compare biceps and bulges, paychecks and professional titles, and we tally points scored whether with siblings, sport, business, or our prowess with women. Some men compare penis size, other men compare church size — there is little difference between these games. Both are false measures and are of the same genre of self-misdirection. So Jesus calls men to places where glad-handing does not work and advancement in the company has no merit. Jesus looks grown men in the eye and tells them that caring for children and those equally dependent and overlooked will make us great (Luke 9:46-48).”

Advent and Afflictions

Nestled between what some might call metaphysical speculation, the Westminster Confession of Faith has an insightfully sensitive paragraph on the relationship between God and our experience with sin and temptation.   The tone is pastoral and very cautiously avoids the theological pitfalls of many. It reads:

The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.

Whether because of our sin or because of God’s mysterious hand whereby he lets us feel his absence that we might long for his presence, our afflictions, say the Westminster Divines, are underwritten by a God who calls us his children. As Advent is upon we are reminded that God is not only “God with us”, but also “God for us”.    Not just present, but active. His commitment to be God with-and-for-us  is manifested most climatically in the incarnate life of his Son.   God the Son takes the humble act of adding our humanity to his divinity. He enters our pain, misery, and darkness and brings comfort, life and light.  His holiness and faithfulness rub against our sinfulness and apostasy and he works our salvation from within our humanity.

Through his Son’s humanity we are made sons and daughters and our humanity is restored. And because we are his children, loved in the Son for the sake of the Son, his love is not abstract or general, but it is personal and involved with the very details of our lives.  The Father chastens us, contradicts us, and we feel it.  It hurts, but it is love. It is what good fathers do.  His hand in our afflictions are not arbitrary or random, but intentional. Dare we say it, he afflicts us in Christ. In Christ we are afflicted with a Fatherly hand that he might raise us to a more close and constant dependence upon Himself. 

Rescripturing and Christology: Psalm 2 and Isaiah 49

How did the NT come to confess a high Christology when they drew on sources that initially seem to evidence a low Christology? Ps. 2 for example is a text with a fairly low Christology (i.e., Davidic figure with no eschatological overtones) but is a heavily cited text in the NT used to bolster a high Christology.  Did the NT just import their confessional theology into the OT? I am tempted to follow Oliver Crisp and say that the classic dilemma of modern Christology is really false dilemma and that we should not assume that if one begins with a Christology “from below” he or she will end up with a correspondingly low Christology.[1]

One way of reframing this issue is by understanding the event of re-scripturing. Alan Mitchell notes that when an author quotes a text, he is not merely proof-texting, but rather appropriating a text for new purposes by virtue of a new setting. In the case of Ps. 2, we may think that it is the NT that is rescripturing Ps. 2 and using it to fund a high Christology. But in actuality, it is the OT itself that re-scriptures Ps. 2 and is what sets the stage for a high Christology that the NT borrows. How so?

Many have noted the thematic and linguistic similarities between Ps. 2 and Isa. 49. For example,

Ps. 2:7: “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son…’”

Isa. 49:3: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant…”

The “Son” in Ps. 2 is referring to the Davidic king who is YHWH’s representative to the nations. The servant in Isaiah 49 seems to be referring to Israel, though at the same time is distinct from Israel.  Ps. 2 has a historical king in mind, while Isaiah 49 has an eschatological servant in mind. So what is the link?

What we see in Ps. 2 is that the king’s inheritance of the nations seems certain, while in Isa. 49 Israel’s current exile indicates a reversal of Ps. 2.  Ultimately though, the Servant in Isa. 49 is YHWH’s response to Israel’s failure to be a light to the nations and the remedy to exile.  The Servant is sent to “raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel (v. 6b),” which will lead to Israel’s restoration and renewed calling to be light to the nations. What is significant about the Servant’s role is that this raising up and bringing back has thematic agreements with the gathering and shepherding role that is often associated with the Davidic king (cf. Jer. 23:3-8; Ezekiel 34:23).

So if we understand the Davidic king of Ps. 2 and Servant of Isa. 49 to have similar functions, then what we have in Isa. 49 is an eschatologically refocused vision of Ps. 2 and a low Christology being lifted up, not arbitrarily, but because the context demands it. And therefore by the time of the apostolic church of the NT, we see the living embodiment of Ps. 2’s veracity on full display (i.e., the church confessing that a descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth, is Lord) and is to be the summoning voice to the nations that calls out, “Kiss the son, lest he be angry with you… Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Ps. 2:12).”

[1] Webster, J B., Kathryn Tanner, and Iain R. Torrance. The Oxford handbook of systematic theology. Oxford; New York: Oxford Univ Pr, 2007, 166.

Government: Prelapsarian or Postlapsarian Institution?

A question I have been working through, which really may be inconsequential, is whether or not the institution of government is a prelapsarian institution (Al Wolters in Creation Regained seems to argue this) or a postlapsarian institution (Abraham Kuyper in his Lectures on Calvinism clearly argues this).

The former seems to legitimate government as a creational good (i.e., I Tim. 4:4, “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected), while the latter accepts government as a provisional good (i.e., Genesis 9: 6, Rom. 13, I Pet. 2).  A prelapsarian view would understand government primarily as a means of organization.  A postlapsarian view would understand government primarily as a means to restrain evil and promote justice.

John Frame argues that it is both, but works back from eschatology. He would argue that the new heavens and new earth will be governed by the Lordship of Christ, yet there will be no sin to restrain.  Thus the provisional gives way to the creational, but the creational finds its ultimate purpose in the eschatological, where the Son delivers the kingdom to his Father that God may be all in all (I Cor. 15:24-28).  But does this lead to the idea that government was a prelapsarian institution?  Again, this may be inconsequential.  If your methodological entry point is in protology or eschatology, the conclusion seems to be the same; government is good. God likes government.

Confession, Lamentation, and Action

As the media unfolds the devastation in the Philippines I can’t help but feel that I should have more grief than I do.  I want to blame it on proximity or the detached relationship that media creates, but then this small piece from First Things (actually unrelated to the events in the Philippines) stole away my excuses.

“Recognition of disastrous realities that does not go through the lament is lethal and irresponsible.”

To lament is to take responsibility.  The PCA offers a way here.

Helmut Thielicke on Marriage: Beyond Bone of my Bone

From his How the World Began: Sermons on the Creation Story, the 20th century German theologian Helmut Thielicke writes,

I once knew a very old married couple who radiated a tremendous happiness. The wife especially, who was almost unable to move because of old age and illness and in whose kind old face the joys and sufferings of many years had etched a hundred runes, was filled with such gratitude for life that I was touched to the quick. Involuntarily I asked myself what could possibly be the source of this kindly old person’s radiance. Otherwise they were very common people and their room indicated only the most modest comfort. But suddenly I knew where it all came from, for I saw these two speaking to each other and their eyes hanging upon each other. All at once it became clear to me that this woman was dearly loved. And it was as if she were like a stone that has been lying in the sun for years and years, absorbing all its radiant warmth, and now was reflecting back cheerfulness and warmth and serenity.

Let me express it this way. It was not because she was this kind of a cheerful and pleasant person that she was loved by her husband all those years. It was probably the other way around. Because she was so loved, she became the person I now saw before me.

This thought continued to pursue me and the more it pursued me the more it lost all its merely edifying and sentimental features, until finally they were gone altogether. For if this is true, then I surely must come to the following conclusion. If my life partner or my friend or just people generally often seem to be so strange and I ask myself: “Have I made the right marriage, the right friendship; is this particular person really the one who is suited to me?”—then I cannot answer this question in the style of a neutral diagnosis which would list the reasons for and against. For what happens then is that the question turns back upon myself, and then it reads: “Have I perhaps bestowed too little love upon this other person, that he has become so cold and empty? Have I perhaps caused him to become what perhaps he really has become? The other person, whom God has joined to me, is never what he is apart from me. He is not only bone of my bone; he is also boredom of my boredom and lovelessness of my lovelessness.”

HT: Wesley Hill

Oliver O’Donovan and Political Theology

If you are interested in how theology intersects with politics you should avail yourself by listening to the lectures Oliver O’Donovan recently gave near Capitol Hill while our government was shut down.   O’Donovan who is a British moral philosopher is currently Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the School of Divinity, New College, Edinburgh.  Ken Myers who helped moderate the event writes about it. He says,

Modern theology and modern politics have tended — sometimes vehemently — to insist on a wall of separation between them, a wall O’Donovan insists must be torn down if we are to be true to the Gospel, which is, after all, the good news about God’s Kingdom. “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical. Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin — their own sin and others’.”

In October 2013, while the U.S. government was shut down over disputes about the federal budget, Oliver O’Donovan made a rare visit to Capitol Hill for a public conversation about the Gospel and public life. The event was held a few blocks from the relatively darkened Capitol building, before a group of about 160 congressional and executive branch staff people, Christian activists, clergy, theologians, and assorted lay-people…

The event was recorded and is available here, in streaming audio or downloadable MP3. (Listeners must sign in to access the audio.)  I realize not everyone has time on their hands to listen to these, but if you tend to be ambivalent about the intersection of faith and politics or if you think the wedding of the two inadvertently sacralizes a political party, I encourage you to listen.

Listening to these, in my opinion, helps reframe the discussion as O’Donovan recaptures and recasts (as in takes it back from liberation theologians)  a politico-theological vision that is fundamentally evangelical and not hitched to a particular party.  For O’Donovan, the church is the community that witnesses to a kingdom that will one day come in full, when the King judges all kings (i.e, Ps. 2).

Our Baptismal Identity

As a Presbyterian I have seen a lot of babies get baptized, and while this sacrament is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace to the one being baptized, it also serves as a means of grace to those who witness.

For the already baptized, our attention is directed back to the font where it all began. Here the water retells the gospel story of God’s uninvited grace. It tells the story of the God who breaks in to reclaim what is his, not our claim upon him.

So every time we see a baby or a convert baptized, we are being taken back to our baptismal identity.  The picture of a baby being baptized is especially fitting for Westerners who are obsessed with being exceptional, pretty, and comfortable with the identities the world confers.  God insults us with a gospel shaped, unearned identity that is conferred upon us by His grace alone.

Our true identity is son or daughter of the one God who is Father of all.  Through water he calls us to share in his Son’s life, death and resurrection by the Holy Spirit.

This event reminds us that grace comes to us, interrupts our life, causes us to cry (which happens at most baptisms for babies), and safely locates us within a new family; the divine family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is visibly expressed through Christ’s body, the church.

To borrow from the Westminster divines, remembering this is what it means to improve upon our baptism.  It is growing into what we already are by grace. So every time you see a baby get wet and cry, just remember, that is the gospel being preached to you again, and again, in order to remind you that grace comes to you, unilaterally and uninvited.