Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Larry Norman (1947-2008)

The godfather of early Christian rock has passed away at the age of 60. This is very sad--the first two Christian albums I owned were both from Solid Rock Records (with their cool logo, a take-off on the Rolling Stones): Larry Norman's "Something New Under the Sun" and Randy Stonehill's "Welcome to Paradise." What I so appreciated about these early "Solid Rock" guys, as well as Keith Green, was their intense piety and their unwillingness to sell out to the music industry machine--often giving their albums away. And some of the songs undoubtedly made an impact during the Jesus People days: "I Wish We Had All Been Ready" and "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" were the two Larry Norman classics. What was most encouraging was his testimony just prior to his homecoming as contained on his website; it appears that as he crossed the dark river, he was continuing to cling to Jesus and fight the good fight.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New American Religious Biography Book

As JT has scooped me, John Muether's Cornelius Van Til is coming out in March. It really is a wonderful book--intriguingly, it focuses on Van Til as a churchman and views his apologetics through that lens. I'm not aware of anyone else, except for the late Charles Dennison (former historian of the OPC) doing this, either in journal essays or elsewhere.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"How to teach and preach 'Calvinism'"

John Piper gives excellent advice on how to teach and preach the doctrines of grace. Many of these points are sound pastoral practice; but the ones I appreciated the most were: "work the five points out from 'I' rather than 'U'"; "out rejoice your critics"; and "don't be strident, but gentle."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Primary Work of the Church

It is always striking to me how the issues we face as a church have been faced before. I've been plugging away on a faculty lecture that I'm to give this April at Westminster Seminary California; in doing so, I ran across this quote from Nelson Bell, father-in-law to Billy Graham and associate editor of the Southern Presbyterian Journal (3 June 1953; p. 2):

There is a central emphasis which the Church and individual Christians must constantly keep before them and, because we "wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places," we face the ever present temptation to change that emphasis to something more compatible with human reason and pride.

The all-important emphasis, the very key-stone of the gospel message, is redemption of the individual soul and this redemption means a change of destination, a change of eternal environment, for those who believe.

While it is true that the home, the community and the nation are safer, happier, and better in every when when lived in and influenced by Christians, these happy results are incidental to the Gospel of Christ, for our Lord came into this world for the primary purpose of saving sinners, giving to those who believe in Him eternal life.

Without discounting in the least the social implications of the gospel, we need to constantly remember that there can only be social blessings and changes after men have been saved from sin and live unto righteousness. There is the constant temptation to long for the fruit and forget the absolute importance of the true from which the fruit must come. Social reforms must come through and from redeemed lives. Without such a transformation vital and lasting changes cannot materialize.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I felt led to post this...

...just kidding, sort of: Mark Dever on the bondage of "guidance." [HT: JT]

The Reason for God

Over the weekend, as I had hoped, I finished Tim Keller's new book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. When I bought it, I didn't know what to expect (aside from the title, of course); as I noted the other day, I smiled in recognition of Keller's method, which hailed from Cornelius Van Til, the Dutch Reformed apologist who taught for nearly 40 years at Westminster Theological Seminary.

But the book is more and less than a manual on apologetics. It is more in that it is incredibly winsome, well-written, and well-argued (qualities that many "apologetics" books fail to have). The first part of the book deals with seven "defeater" beliefs that skeptical people bring to their investigation of Christianity: in my language, they include pluralism; the "problem" of evil; western views of liberty and Christianity; the historical flaws of the church; the "justness" of hell; science and faith; and the authority of an inspired Bible.

In dealing with these skeptical positions--which are not new by any means, but rather represent the continued legacy of modernity in a "post-modern" world--Keller walks inside and demonstrates the internal inconsistencies both of the positions and the worldviews that make them appear appropriate. He does this so well that I found myself making stars and comments in the margins so that I can try to remember the arguments as I deal with family, friends, and neighbors.

The second part of the book presents a well-reasoned presentation of the Gospel that is not merely a Gospel tract, but serves as the flip side of the defeater beliefs. Not only do these skeptical positions not make sense of all the data, there is a better explanation of the data--and that would be "mere Christianity," with its emphasis upon creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. That story line--or maybe better, that opera--invites us into a dance in which we become most human because we have the very image of God in us restored.

Not only is this book more than a manual on apologetics, it is less. By that I mean, this strikes me as a book that is meant to be used, given away, and shared over coffee with unbelieving friends. This would be a great book for a small group of friends to begin to investigate Christianity, to give to an unbelieving relative who has asked you for reasons for your faith, to center an approach to evangelism around. The ideas will work their way into sermons. And so, it is less than most books on apologetics, which seem to be geared mostly to believers at a semi-academic level to prepare them in the most abstract way to reason--but not actually with real unbelievers.

This is simply a wonderful book, a useful tool for God's work--but it will only make a true impact for the Kingdom if it is used, given away, and shared with others.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Reading Karl Barth

Dan Reid, reference editor at IVP, gives some fascinating reflections on reading Karl Barth at the pace of 5 pages a day. As I've already suggested on this blog, I've done the same with John Owen. I wonder what other theologians would be "better" in short doses...some might suggest Calvin, Edwards, Augustine, or Aquinas. I would think anyone whose writing is both dense and dexterous would repay slowing down and reading slowly.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The only thing better than the Crips and the Bloods...


[HT: Z]

Like Van Til. Only Better.

Like some, I rushed to Borders last night to get the new Tim Keller book, The Reason for God. I was able to get through the first chapter last night before I went to bed. As a Westminster grad, I had to smile in recognition to the apologetic methodology--moving on to the unbeliever's turf in order to show the inconsistencies of their own worldview and then demonstrating that only a Christian worldview can make sense of any thing. It was just like Van Til.

...Only without the confusing terminology. And a whole heap more readable. And winsome. And literate. And interesting. And, well, better. I'm looking forward to finishing the book over the weekend.

One funny fact: last night, I was picking up Rick Lints, professor of systematic theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who is doing our first annual David C. Jones Lecture in Theology and Ethics. As we talked on our cell phones in order to identify the other to each other, I said, "I have a brown jacket and green cords on and I'm holding Tim Keller's new book!"

The Reason for God--the ultimate identity marker.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

As one who leads...

...you can't delegate hope, John Ortberg wisely notes.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Communion with the Triune God

Readers of this blog will know that I have struggled to read John Owen. One book that helped me read Owen well was Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor's edited version of Owen's Overcoming Sin and Temptation. But another, which came out this past fall, was Communion with the Triune God.

In this book, which is volume two in the standard edition of Owen's works, we have a different Owen--a lyrical mystic, who guided us into what it might mean to be "greedy for delight" in God. Taking each member of the Godhead, Owen unpacked what it might mean to hold communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit distinctly. In particular, we have communion in the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus the Son, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Along the way, Owen pointed particularly to the glory of the Son as the incarnate God. In two lengthy digressions, he expounded the attributes of the person and work of Jesus, highlighting his glory in making the love of the Father known by his self-sacrifice on the cross. Over and again, he showed the glory of the Cross, but even more the glory of the resurrected Jesus who triumphed over death, sin, and hell by the cross.

Kapic's introduction, which draws in part from his book Communion with God, helpfully oriented the reader to the nature of Owen's spirituality. Likewise, the outline provided in the front of the book (which extends for 32 pages [!]) was very helpful when the book's structure became convoluted. Once again, I pursued my method of reading on a small portion of Owen at a time--this time, I averaged about 6 pages a day in my morning worship. It took me the better part of three months to finish the book--but with such a dense, rich book, that amount of time was necessary to absorb and meditate upon the truths Owen presented.

However one pursues this book, it provided me with important insights with which to worship and delight in our glorious, Triune God each morning. I would urge you to do the same.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Church Calendars, Scriptural Authority, and Liberty of Conscience, no. 1a

Whew. I didn't guess that this post would generate such "interest" (in fact, that post had the largest number of comments in the short history of this blog). While I don't have time to respond to all the comments, I wanted to respond to the general themes of some and then write a separate post about Christmas and Easter.

1. This may surprise some of you in the light of what you think I said (as opposed to what I actually said): I think Wayne Larson's approach makes a lot of sense. He wrote:

What if our session chose to do this by way of organizing a good portion of those 52 Sunday's around, say, the major events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ? We could have a series of Sundays in which our Scripture readings and prayers reflect on his promised coming (from both the vantage points of OT Israel and our present hope in his return). Then perhaps we could have a few Sundays in which our Scripture readings and prayers center on the incarnation of our Lord. We might then even have a few Sundays that reflect on those portions of the Scriptures where we see the Son of God revealing himself to his people and the nations and consider how we might take that message of the gospel to all of the world. Then we could have a few Sundays where our readings and prayers consider why our Lord came for us in the first place - to redeem us from our sin and bondage - even noting that our Messiah was rejected by men, smitten and afflicted. We could then have a few Sundays where we give special attention to his death, resurrection, ascension, and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.

However, I would suggest that there is a difference between a church's session structuring its Sunday worship services around major themes and texts like this and a deliberate ordering of the church's life around the historic church calendar. I agree that we need to teach and preach the whole counsel of God and doing so in this fashion would assist our people in inculcating the Gospel. Once that teaching and preaching moves into a full observance of the church calendar with the rites attached to those observances--such as the placing of ashes on the forehead, for example--then it strikes me that we've moved beyond or beside the expressed command of Scripture. And that is my concern.

2. That would then be my answer to the several charges of hypocrisy: "well, you preached at a Reformation Day service; a Valentines Banquet; a pro-life service; a Christmas service; an Easter service, etc." In preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God, it is appropriate to order the ministry of the Word to draw people into the major themes of the Gospel itself. The fact that our culture still views Christmas and Easter as major poles of our calendar makes it convenient to preach and teach on the themes of Jesus' advent(s), death, and resurrection. [I'd also note that the Valentine's Banquet is tonight, Friday; and it is always appropriate to bring God's Word at such settings--but it is not a stated service of the church, either.]

I must admit, however, that I am very uncomfortable with the way some churches I have attended have "candle light" services on Christmas eve or decorate the sanctuary with greenery for Advent or have (what we called) "the creeping cross," which progressed toward the center of the sanctuary in the Sundays leading up to Easter. I wonder about the biblical warrant for these things and worry that people are led to believe that those things are necessary for the worship of God--which is only a few steps removed from formalism, legalism, and superstition, which were concerns of the Reformers themselves.

3. Kyle Wells asked the best question--where is all this talk about the conscience in the NT especially? It strikes me that a key text on this point would be Colossians 2:16-23--Paul clearly urges the Colossians not to allow their consciences to be bound ("let no one pass judgment on you...with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath") by religious observances that were no longer in effect ("the substance belongs to Christ"). These things "may have the appearance of wisdom," but I wonder whether such observances actually led people to trust in the ritual actions rather than in Jesus himself.

4. Finally, Luther. While Jeff Meyers raised the appropriate comment regarding my use of Luther, even he would agree that I was not appealing there to Luther as liturgist, but to Luther as defender of liberty of conscience as bound by God's Word. I thought when I typed that in someone would probably suggest that it was a bit of a non sequitur, but I had just finished doing my Luther lecture in class and used the Diet of Worms clip from the Luther movie--so I thought it was a good place to end.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Church Calendars, Scriptural Authority, and Liberty of Conscience, no. 1

[Wow, sorry for the long title, but there it is.] Since we are sitting here on "Ash Wednesday," it seems a good time to reflect once again on the issue of the church calendar and especially on how Presbyterians should think about using or not using the calendar in the life of their churches. Or maybe--from a different angle and still mulling over my lecture that I just gave on Martin Luther--the question should be: why should those who emphasize the authority of Scripture not incorporate the church calendar into the rhythyms of a Presbyterian church's year?

In order to get at an answer to this question, I think you have to start with the question of authority--who or what determines or orders the life of a church? That is to say, on what basis does the church order its life? For most Protestants and especially for most conservative Presbyterians, we would say that Jesus is the King over his church and he orders his church through his Word and by Spirit. And that, of course, is the right (i.e. biblical) answer (for more on this, see On Being Presbyterian, ch. 4 and 8).

Protestants came to this answer over against what they saw to be an usurption of the church's authority by the pope, an expansion of the church's authority through its canon law, ritual practice, and traditional usage, and a corrupt use of that authroity, typified most clearly in Pope Leo X's decision to sell indulgences in order to fund the completion of St. Peter's Cathedral. The church used authority in order to bind the consciences of God's people in an unbiblical and hence illegitimate manner.

This point on the liberty of conscience is actually quite important--one of the major criticisms of Rome made by the Reformers was that the Roman church through its idoltary and superstitutious practices were illegitimately binding the consciences of people. In order to see what these practices looked like in medieval Europe, all one needs to do is read Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars--a worship pattern that emphasized ritual actions that taught biblical truths was emphasized centered on the Mass. The Reformers looked at this and said that this was not the worship which God required in his Word, was not likely to produce Gospel repentance and faith, and hence bound people in superstition which led them to perdition.

And so, the more biblically-oriented of these Protestants came to articulate a position that came to be known as the "regulative principle of worship." The principle itself is much debated today--especially in terms of the extent and application of it--but it remains a very important biblical point: namely, that the only legitimate manner of worship, declaration of doctrine, or practice of church order is that which is contained in Holy Scripture. The way the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it is valuable: "The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (WCF 21:1).

And this "regulative principle," importantly, comes after the chapter on liberty of conscience. Our confessions rightly say that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray to liberty of conscience" (WCF 20:2). The Triune God is King over each individual's conscience; that conscience is bound by the Word of God; and the church may only prescribe (or proscribe) what Scripture does.

All of this brings us to the question of the priority of using church calendar itself. While I am aware that some would make a biblical argument for using the church calendar based on the OT development of sacrifical feast days (an argument that is not convincing to me), I would suggest that what we have for our place in the redemptive, biblical drama is actually a rhythym of 52 feasts days a year--the Lord's Day in which Word, Sacraments, and prayer constitute the heart of the church's "calendar." This, I believe, is what we find prescribed in God's Word, both by apostolic practice and direction. For a Presbyterian church to move beyond this--whether to demand attendance at Wednesday night activities as part of Christian discipleship or to offer Lenten observance as part of the church's discipleship practices, placing ashes on people's foreheads as part of this--binds the conscience in ways that are "beside" the express command of Scripture itself and hence, spiritually illegitimate and potentially dangerous

And as Luther himself said, the only safe place for the conscience is anchored in God's Word: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason--for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves--I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen." What we want are believers whose consciences are captive not to the church, nor its traditions, nor the good ideas of pastors, sessions, or other leaders. We want their and our consciences captive to God's Word--because that is the only safe and sound place to be.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Downside (?!) of Literal Translation

Probably most readers of this blog know the inter-nicene debates that have driven Bible translation over the past 125 years or so (since the Revised Version came out in 1881). The defenders of a more "literal equivalence" or "word-for-word" translation have attacked those who have sought a more "dynamic equivalence" in moving from the original Hebrew or Greek to English.

But perhaps you (and certainly I) have never thought about how these debates play out with the classical Greek and Latin texts as represented by the 500 or so texts in the Loeb Classical Library. This article in the New York Times from 2000 explains some of the, a-hem, updating of the translations and this example from the Loeb Classical Library page makes it all the more, ahh, explicit.

Now my real interest here is to get at the larger issues of translation--I would suspect that most evangelicals would be shocked to read the "glories" of Greece and Rome in such bawdy baldness (and especially those who point to the classical period as foundational for young people's education). And yet, what the Loeb is doing seems to me to be the proper application of a more "literal" approach to translation--translating the vulgar slang of one culture into the vulgar slang of another (Robert Fagles does much the same in his translations of Homer).

On the other hand, it is always a bit shocking to read the "f-bomb" in any piece of literature, especially classical ltierature. And it makes you wonder whether there was a good reason why these texts have held interest only for a small number of classics scholars. Perhaps the Victorian paraphraistic approach was okay here--to communicate dynamically may have avoided offense that could come from the homoeroticism of the ancient texts while still communicating what needed to be said.

And so, perhaps the literal equivilence approach is winning the day, both in biblical and classical translation. Yet, I wonder if such "R-rated" translations might tell us more than we needed to know about the ancient times. In the end, maybe the Loeb Classics should have a "parents-advisory" label; if it works for Eminem, maybe it should work for Aristophanes.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Your church's website...

...probably stinks. At least, that is my take after visiting literally hundreds of church websites over the past two years. This article was fascinating in two regards: 1) that someone could actually write a PhD dissertation on church websites; 2) that her main suggestion was that links communicate far more than text on a website.

I think that last point is probably right. However, most church websites don't have much in the way of text or links; and they certainly aren't crafted with a seeker or potential visitor in view. How to communicate the ethos of a church, especially to a millennial/X-er seeker, continues to allude most churches (and other organizations, including seminaries, for that matter).