Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An Axis of Hope: HTB, Gumbel and Welby

HTB and the new Archbishop of Canterbury

I found this story in the Spectator both informative and accurate - at least to my perceptions and experience of the church and individuals named.  For those who are still inquiring with an open mind about the new Archbishop of Canterbury Designate, this is worth a read:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Through the Bible: How Does the Bible Affect the Way You Think?

Models of thinking and its impact on how we read the Bible and World

As we come to the end of our reading of the Old Testament and as we prepare to begin the New Testament, I would like to pause and reflect on the Bible as a whole.  Especially I want to reflect on how the Bible affects our thinking.  And I am not just interested in our ability to regurgitate information.  Rather I want to ask: "How do you read the Bible?  How do you reason? And is there a relation between one and the other?"  I learned from a former mentor, Howard Snyder, that people tend to follow different styles or models of reasoning, which in turn affect the way we "read" the world and "read" scripture.  The influence between our thinking and reading (especially if we are serious readers) is not uni-directional.  I have developed his insights a bit differently, but his original contribution to my thinking remains strong. Few people are exact representatives of these models but hopefully one will recognize these traits as dominate in certain people, groups and even ourselves.  Hopefully they will help us recognize how these styles affect how we "read" the world and scripture so that we might more fully grow into the full stature of Christ, "in whom all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).

Hierarchical - thinkers see all truth (including revelation) as divinely dictated from on high.  The key dynamic is submission to authority or power.  The one who has the power (and knowledge is a form of power) distributes it, usually according to a prescribed order of access.  To gain the knowledge one must first follow the order. Islam, some versions of Christianity, and theocracies in general, reason out of this model.   

Linear - thinkers see truth as progressively gained (or regressively lost) and that time is moving "forward" to some golden era or utopia.  The key dynamic is progress from one stage or era to the next. Secular ideologies of progress are linear ways of thinking.  In the United States, political conservatives and liberals tend to be linear in their thinking.  They just define "progress" differently - and usually oppositionally.

Cyclical - thinkers see truth and the world as an endless cycle of repetitions - what has been, is now and will be, world without end.  This way of seeing truth (and reading the world) is common in the East.  It is thin on hope.  It is not a redemptive vision of life; it offers no hope for change.  It is foreign to most westerners but is making a come back in the guise of Eastern religions and paganism.       

Ecological - thinkers see the truth and the world as embedded in a highly complex web of relations - both natural and supernatural.  Ecological thinking is both messy and provisional (at least initially) because we never see all that is going on.  We see as we are situated and thus partially - "as through a glass darkly."  We are more relative than wrong.  Ecological thinking lends itself to humility and faith and patient inquiry after God.  It also recognizes the validity of certain aspects of the other models of reasoning - at least in certain instances.  But over time this style of thinking generates wisdom for living in the world according to God's intentions for it.  Exemplars of this model of thinking that have instructed me are Lesslie Newbigin (Reformed missionary), Wendell Berry (farmer and poet), Abraham Heschel (Jewish Theologian), and Richard Bauckham and Ellen Davis (biblical scholars).  But the most formative influence in my learning to think "ecologically" is the Bible itself.  Howard Snyder gave me the language for describing how the Bible has shaped the way I think.

If I were to describe the history one finds in the Bible I would call it an "ecological account of God's pursuit of humanity."  Though humanity is the focus of God's pursuit, it is in the context of our embeddedness in creation, as part of creation, so that creation itself becomes an object of this pursuit (see Romans 8 for Paul's account of the scope of salvation).   After all, if the stewards of creation are being redeemed then what might this mean for creation itself?  Creation is our habitat and our habits are being transformed by grace.

The divine pursuit chronicled and meditated on in the Bible has the character of a romance, for God pursues us neither as judge, master nor even parent but as friend, lover and covenant partner for the world's healing.  One of the clearest expositions of the biblical philosophy of history - this inspired chronicle of God's pursuit of covenant partners - is found in Ezekiel chapter 16.  We turn to that chapter in our next post.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 14

Prophets and Knowledge of God 

 Prophets and Covenantal Knowledge

The prophets obsessed about the covenant, the divinely instituted means of keeping our relationship with God intact.  The language of covenant is not used often in America.  We are people more familiar with contracts.  But contracts are not covenants.  Contracts bind people together for mutual benefits - either wealth (commercial contracts) or power (social contracts).  But covenants bind people together not out of mutual benefit, not out of political or material interests, but out of loyalty and love.  A contract is a transaction, about mutual interests.  A covenant is a relationship, about a new identity - two becoming one, an "us."  A contract "benefits"; a covenant "transforms."

The prophets took the covenant as both a clue to the nature of God and to the nature of knowledge itself.  Abraham Heschel writes that for the prophets religious knowledge:

Is the awareness of God's interest in man, the awareness of a covenant, of a responsibility that lies on him as well as on us. Our task is to concur with his interest, to carry out his vision of our task.  God is in need of man for the attainment of his ends....Life is a partnership with God and man...and it is because of his need of man that he entered a covenant with him for all time, a mutual bond embracing God and man, a relationship to which God, not only man, is committed...the essence of which is the awareness of the reciprocity of God and man, of man's togetherness with Him who abides in eternal otherness (Man is Not Alone, p. 241-43).

The names of God were indicative of God's own nature and identity, the polarities of "otherness" and "togetherness."  The name "Elohim" was the generic name for God, God known by way of creation.  God as Creator; God as "other."  The name "Yahweh" was the personal name for God, God known by way of redemption.  God as Redeemer; God as "togetherness."

The name "Elohim" occurs some 2,400 times in the Old Testament.  It is the name used in Genesis chapter one to describe the One who creates everything out of nothing.  Throughout the Bible this name is used of God as the source of all that is.  There is a radical break between the creation and the Creator in biblical thought.  Creation is not a "bridge" to God but it is an "echo" of God's nature.  God is totally other.

The name "Yahweh" occurs some 6,800 times in the Old Testament.  The preponderance of the personal name suggest the overarching intent of scripture - that God desires to be known beyond the gulf of his otherness.   In Exodus 3:14 God reveals his nature as "I will be who I will be."  That is, God as redeemer is known in his activity in history, his providential ordering of our lives to know him in the partnership of covenant.  We come to know this God by walking with God.  There are not two Gods being revealed, but rather two ways that God's revelation comes to us.  We experience God as creator primarily as the creation "benefits" us.  We experience God as redeemer in a binding relationship that transforms us.  This is the kind of relationship that Moses and Israel enter at Sinai.  The rest of the OT tells the history of that relationship.

The nature of that relationship is told in Israel's history.  The prophets are the ones who wrote, preserved and interpreted that history for the instruction of all later generations.  We will explore the nature of that history, as depicted by the prophet Ezekiel, in our next post.

Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School: God Bless the Families

This picture of the sign just yards away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School is worth a thousand words.  Much has been written about the causes of this tragedy and our country will necessarily go through a season of introspection, and self evaluation.  President Obama promised as much last night in his Presidential Address at Newtown, CT. 

In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, I encourage all of our Truro families to take the following steps in the days and weeks ahead.

First, talk and listen to your children.  Mostly listen.  They will be seeing images and endless chatter from the media.  They will be hearing from school officials and from other children.  What they need most is availability from their parents.  Sometime a question will come at an inopportune time.  Be ready to turn your undivided attention to them when they are ready to talk.  Not everyone processes information the same way or at the same pace, especially when the information is emotionally charged.  Respect the particular way your child processes highly charged information and be an active listener. 

Second, turn the conversations, when appropriate, to God.  The Lord is always the silent partner in all of our conversations with our children.  Acknowledge his presence and seek his guidance as you walk with your child (or your friend) through this troubling event (actually, series of events in 2012).

Third, exercise and eat well.  Life is stressful in North America and especially so during the holiday season.  One of the best ways to recalibrate and detox is to spend time outside, exercising the body.  Most of us already suffer from nature-deficiency.  Emotional trauma adds to our stress.  Reconnecting with our bodies and creation is therapeutic.

Fourth, reflect on this event and ask the Lord to show you how you might respond to the pathological violence in our society.  First, we need to educate ourselves about what is actually happening to our society.  Usually broad accusations are not helpful (i.e. "we need to get all the guns off the street" or "we need to get all the crazy people off the streets, etc) because they are not accurate.  Like most social pathologies, there are several causes not one.

Finally, keep your life and that of your family deeply rooted in Christ, his word and his community, the Church.  We are fast approaching the festival of the Incarnation (we have six Christmas Eve and Christmas services next week).  Please make it a priority to worship together as a family knowing the ultimate cure of our social illness still lies in the One whose coming we celebrate, "God with us."   

Friday, December 7, 2012

Shed to Study, Week 13-15

We are close to finishing.  Trim and book shelves are complete.  I will move my desk in tomorrow and books starting next week.  The sink counter and odds and ends are left.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 13


The Prophets and the Embodiment of the Word: Ezekiel as Case Study

A.    Vision of the Chariot (ch 1) 
The Prophets were seers.  Like the singer in exile (Psalm 126), the prophets were like those who dreamed and whose dreams were revelatory.  God was the not merely the object of their dreams but the subject.  Revelation was not merely an event in the life of the prophet; it was an event in the life of God. There was a self-disclosing on the part of God.  What one detects in the life of the prophet is the inadequacy of language to carry the full freight of this revelation. The prophet is increasingly dependent on symbolism and even embodiment.  The revelation of God cannot be adequately contained propositionally.  The Word of God tends toward incarnation. And in the path between propositions and incarnation lies symbolism.

The vision of the chariot is a case in point. Ezechiel's commissioning occurs at the time he should be functioning as a priest in the Temple (1:1-3).  This vision (or waking dream) is in technicolor and itself is in need of analogy as the prophet struggles for language adequate to what he is seeing ("like," "something like," looked like" - vv 4. 5, 7, 13, 16, 22, 24, 26, and 27).  Commentators themselves resort to analogy to interpret the meaning of the symbolism - it is like the creation motifs of the Jerusalem temple, it is like the Babylonian gods that YHWH rules over, it is like the Cheubim of Isaiah's vision (ch 6), and the like.  Since we are told this is a vision of the glory of the LORD that normally dwelt in the Temple, it likely has more than one referent and may include all of the above.  The point here is that Ezekiel finds even symbols inadequate to carry the full meaning of divine revelation.  We must read further to see what he does with this fact.

B.     Call to the Rebellious House (ch 2-3)

In 2:1-7, for the first time God addresses Ezekiel as ben adam (literally "son of man" or "son of adam").  The phrase occurs about 90 times in Ezekiel and suggest the creation motif from the Temple is at the heart of this revelation.  The 'son of adam" is the point of contact and reconciliation between heaven and earth.  This new man is called to embody this message of reconciliation to God's rebellious people who have abdicated their calling.

C.     Called to Act out the Message (chs 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, etc)

If propositions and symbols are inadequate to carry the full freight of revelation, what will the prophet do?   The divine message require a deeper indentification from the prophet.  In chapter 4:4-8 the Lord tells Ezekiel to act out Israel's siege:

Lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it.  For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment.  For I assign to you a number of days... And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah... And behold I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from side to the other, till you have completed the day of your siege.

  Gabriel Josipovici comments perceptively about this kind of prophetic experience: Such behavior is not just supplementary to language; it swamps language completely.  One senses in all these prophets a terrible longing for escape from the limited, contigency-bound use of words...This so important that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to to show upon their very bodies the meaning of the events that are occuring around them and which the people refuse to acknowledge... Listening and speaking are no longer enough for the prophets.  God and man can no longer speak in the tones and using the expressions of everyday conversation... It is as though the voice had to carry across a great distance now, and if this is partly because the audience blocks its ears, it is also because God no longer seems able to speak simply and directly.... but the prophets, desperate for the people to see and understand, act out that meaning in their own bodies. (The Book of God, p.181-2). 

From the experience of the prophets, which is also the experience of God in the prophets, one detects the inevitability of incarnation.  There is about to be a man, another "son of  adam" like Ezekiel whose every word and deed, embodied in his person, reveals the message of God to his people.

This "incarnational trajectory" in scripture reminds me of Flannery O'Conner's description of a good short story: it must have meaning and muscle.  And the meaning is in the muscle. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is Calvinism a Heresy?


Catholic Christianity vs. Calvinism

A few weeks ago we discussed the nature of heresy and used Calvinism as an illustration (see Through the Bible, Week 7, Applied to Heresy).  Orthodox and Catholics believe Calvinism is heretical and most Protestants (and Anglicans) do not.  Some of you have asked me to help you understand the Catholic position and why they would view Calvinism as heretical.  A good entree into the thinking of Catholics on this subject is the following quote by Peter Kreeft, a Catholic Philosopher who teaches at Boston College.

Peter Kreeft has distinguished the historic Church's soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with that of Calvinism by saying, "it is the Godfather, not God the Father, that makes you an offer you can't refuse." This memorable observation gets at why the Church has historically viewed Calvinism as a heresy: it's doctrine of God is deviant.  The idea that Kreeft is highlighting is that God is not a sovereign who acts like a Father, but rather the eternal Father who acts sovereignly.  His reign is characterized by his nature, which is revealed most fully to us in the life of his Son (who we know only did what he saw his Father doing).

Though I am sympathetic with this viewpoint, I still think it is too un-nuanced.  Many heirs of Calvin view God primarily as Father and only secondarily as sovereign. This can even be argued for Calvin himself (who is less "Calvinist" than many of his heirs).   Not all Calvinist confuse role with person.   For them, the person of Jesus remains a clear window into the divine nature.  We will discuss this further in future posts when I discuss some of my favorite Calvinist theologians. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Going Deeper, Reaching Further

In a recent talk I outlined the missionary focus of Truro for this year (and years to come), which I summarized as "Going Deeper, Reaching Further."

 Reaching Farther by Going Deeper:

To reach further we must go deeper.  And going deeper will be spurred on by reaching further.  The further we reach out in mission the more we will need the deepest resources of the faith and the profoundest communion with Christ.  This mirrors the rhythm of our worship: one of gathering to meet Christ in the Word and Eucharist and then dispersing to join Christ in his mission in the world. 

We will reach further by

  1. Building a culture of friendship.  Friendship is characterized by affection and respect. This is how Jesus referred to his disciples toward the end of his life.  This is the kind of life he commended to them (John 15:13-15). 

  1. Praying for and inviting our neighbors to Alpha, the Marriage and Parenting courses, all of which are characterized by friendship.

  1. Being a peacemaking church.  Peacemaking is both an imperative of the Gospel (Heb. 12:14) and indeed, the fruit of the Gospel: "and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the Cross" (Col. 1:20). Peace is both gift and task

  1. Helping all kinds of churches reach their local communities with the Gospel by learning to do evangelism this way too.  We currently help Baptist, Coptic, Pentecostal and other churches do evangelism this way and thereby fortifying the unity for which Jesus prays for his church.

We will go deeper by 

  1. Beginning our theology with "original design" (Genesis 1-2) rather than "original sin" (Genesis 3).  By following the biblical order we become a more biblical people

  1. Living in the narrative of the Bible in a worshiping community with fellow Christians rather than proof texts that divide the narrative from the community.  Narrative gives us a context for living; proof text gives the illusion of thinking and an "incarnational deficit." Such a deficit can be sustained in a virtual community but not in an actual community.  Our current mission must be seen as an embodied continuation of the biblical story – from creation to new creation.   

  1. An incarnational faith will affect our thinking about community, buildings, and all things material. It will teach us to have a fuller understanding of salvation as "creation - healed" rather mere forgiveness alone. 

Through the Bible, Week 12, part 2

   Prophets: Part Two


C.     Prophetic Experience

The prophet's primary experience is one of pathos - a combination of compassion for the human condition and empathy for the divine predicament.  As we mentioned earlier in our study, God is in a predicament.  The LORD God has all power but what he really wants cannot be forced.  He wants our love, freely given.  But our hearts are turned away from him.  How does God help us to return to Him?  Jeremiah captures the anguish in God's heart when compares "faithless" Israel (Northern Kingdom) favorably to "treacherous" Judah (Southern Kingdom).  And the Lord said to me, "Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.  God, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say,  Return faithless Israel, declares the LORD>  I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD.  Only acknowledge the your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. Jeremiah 3:11-15.  The LORD seeks to woo her back, which both honors her freedom and yet elevates her dignity as someone worthy to be wooed. 

The prophet is someone who hears the word of the LORD and then embodies that word in his own experience.  This is seen most poignantly in the prophet Hosea, whom the LORD orders to marry the prostitute Gomer.  His own marriage becomes an object lesson of God's love for his people Israel. 
                      D.   Prophetic Office in Israel  

The primary role of the prophet is reestablish the force of the covenant in the life of Israel, and especially her leaders.  We see graphic examples of that when Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) and is then given a fresh encounter with Mosaic revelation (1 Kings 19).  Nathan also defends the covenant when he rebukes David for his infidelity with Bathsheba (1 Samuel 12).

The prophet also functions as a social reformer, an ancillary role to that of covenant enforcer. Amos words were immortalized in our time by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr:

Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (8:23-24).
Finally the prophet is a public poet who is authorized to re-image the social possibilities for God's people.  Some behavior is no longer practiced because it is not imaginable.  The prophet creates a space where the unimaginable becomes imaginable again.  Two of the most powerful and perennial images is that God will make himself a new people and give them a new heart.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel both develop this image:

Behold the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenantt that they broke, thoug I was their husband, declares the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LROD: I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God and they shall be my people (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

The prophets sought to bring about social transformation through a word-wrought change of heart in God's people.