Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Certainty, Charity, and the Bible

John Armstrong's latest weekly newsletter is going to raise some ire.

I'm not sure if I would agree 100% on everything he says, I think he hits close to the mark on one aspect - the difference between Scripture and systematic theology.

While Scripture does make propositional statements about who God is, who Christ is, and many other things, these statements are not organized in a systematic fashion, and all the interconnections are not spelled out for us. In some sense we "fill in the gaps" with logical and philosophical deductions, and these form the frameworks for our systematic theologies.

Where the more strident among us (be they "fighting Calvinists", "fundamentalists", or whatever your label du jour is) go wrong is in placing our deductions and constructs on the same level as the revelations of Scripture itself. Scripture is not primarily concerned with "filling in the gaps" in a systematic theological system - it is concerned with proclaiming God's works in history leading up to and culminating in Christ, and thus engendering and nurturing faith in Him. I would not make as sharp a dichotomy between God's Word and Scripture as Armstrong seems to do (and I think he's going to be in for some roasting over this), but his basic point is well taken.

And if we can acknowledge both the secondary nature of our theological systems, and our primary bond to Christ and our brethren in Him (who probably hold to other systems), we therefore should be gracious and accepting of other believers, and truly accept the adiophora as adiophopra. Augustine's maxim, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity" is sadly more honored in the breach than the observance.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

"Peace, Peace", they cry...

..."when there is no peace." That old phrase from the prophets came to my mind as I was biking home from Chipotle's last night.

Every Friday evening, a small group of protestors sets themselves up in the corner of one of the main intersections of Redlands. They carry signs and hand out petitions supporting "world peace" and decrying how military spending detracts from "health care".

I guess I'm still Calvinistic enough to have a total lack of comprehension for why people think this sort of thing will work. Such groups inevitably appeal to things like "universal brotherhood", rejection of violence, etc. The problem is, these concepts are only valid in the context of God's work in the church. In the church, there is (or should be) no Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian, all are brothers. Outside the church, there is tribal and racial hatred - you see the results in Rwanda and East L.A. Christians, in their offical role of ambassadors of Christ, are called to turn the other cheek. Police officers and soldiers (who can also be Christians) cannot turn the other cheek without innocents paying the consequences. For there are men and women on this earth who fear not God, and must taste the sword before they grudgingly submit to the law of men and nations.

And if the secular idea of pacifism is linked to evolutionary ideals ("We ought to be better than this by now!"), all I can say is, they are ignorant of history and human nature. Fine ideas, a liberal education and chanting the stanzas of "Kumbayah" will not reverse the Fall.

There can be no peace, apart from the Gospel. And even then, the final Peace is still to come. But when it comes, who will be found faithful on the earth?

Friday, May 27, 2005

The Tongue is a Fire...

A big fight back home between friends apparently boiled over again. I tried to speak as cautiously as I could, and still wound up offending someone. Evidently, badly.

I am beginning to understand why some monastic orders instituted a vow of silence. There are some days when no matter what comes out of your mouth, it's going to cause offense to someone. The combination of our small wisdom in knowing what to say, and the greatness and sensitivity of our egos in judging what we hear, makes for bad communications all around. How easy it is to start a fight with our fellow believers - intentionally and unintentionally!

This time alone out here in CA has been frustrating, but also eye-opening. I'm sometimes shocked at how differently I'm seeing things now...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

ALWAYS Check Your Sources...

I got this beat into my head in college/seminary/grad school, but it pays. Really it does.

John Armstrong posted an item on his blog claiming that some church in California was offering prefered seating to the best tithers. The only problem is it's a hoax. The background story is a fake news item from Lark News, a Christian version of The Onion.

Even if the story is plausible - check your sources. The sad thing is, this story sounds plausible in today's environment - and even someone as usually right-on as Armstrong can get tripped up sometimes.

UPDATE: J.A. found out about the error, left the original post intact, and posted a very humble and up-front apology. Would that more people were as candid about their mistakes.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Proof of the Pudding

"..is in the eating." An ancient saying. But true.

This post probably falls into the "well, DUH!" category, but I still think it worth meditating on. One of the editorials for the current First Things (unfortunately, not available online yet - watch this space for the link) is "An Unworkable Theology" by Philip Turner. His point is quite simple, but widely applicable...

Every denomination has its theological articles and books of theology, its liturgies and confessional statements. Nonetheless, the contents of these documents do not necessarily control what we might call the "working theology" of a church. To find the working theology of a church one must review the resolutions passed at official gatherings, and listen to what the clergy say Sunday by Sunday from the pulpit. One must listen to the conversations that occur at clergy gatherings - and hear the advice clergy give troubled parishioners. The working theology of a church is, in short, best determined by becoming what social anthropologists call a "participant observer."

He goes on to painfully detail his application of this method to First World Episcopalianism, with predictable results. But as I read this, other applications also came to mind. How much of the preaching in our churches really reflects what we say we believe? How much of our behavior really reflects what we say we believe? The proof of our theology is not just what creed we uphold, but how go about our Christian life as well.

Sneaky suspicion: The "working theology" of some online defenders of Reformed theology may actually be Pelagian. After all, if there is a Pelagianism of morality (man can really act rightly before God if he so desires), why not a Pelagianism of theology (man can really believe rightly about God if he so desires)? The way some Reformed "apologists" treat their opposition, it makes you wonder...

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A good movie, yes... a great movie, no.

I just got back from Revenge of the Sith. And, well, it didn't suck. A ringing endoresement, eh?

It's the best of the three 'prequels', no question. But I can't help but imagine what this movie could have been. I will readily grant Lucas this - the plot for turning Anakin into Vader is superb. And by that I mean realistic, from a psychological and spiritual point of view. A combination of an appeal to power lust, an obsession with order, and playing on an powerful desire for a lesser good (saving his wife's life) against the greater good (the preservation of the Jedi order). By these or similar mechanisms, men and women fall into darkness in real life.

The problem is Hayden Christenson. I'll readily grant that his acting is better in Sith than it was in Clones. But his performance is still too uneven, and ultimately unconvincing. He lacked a convincing portrayal of a struggle against and final submission to the temptation, and the self-deceptions necessary to maintain himself in his choices.

In the hands of a more competent actor for the part of Anakin, Sith could have been a movie that transcended the genre of science-fiction and told a truly chilling tale about a real Fall of Man. Unfortunately, while still an entertaining film (and much better than any of the summer trash we're likely to be seeing), what it could have been it is not. Sad that is.

SWIII Review Upcoming

I am now the possessor of tickets to the 3PM showing of Revenge of the Sith at the local multiplex. Watch this space for an in-depth review of said movie after I return.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Heart of Darkness

Mornings are always the worst time for me. Nightmares half-remembered, the worries of the day ahead, waking up to a silent, empty room - I hate mornings.

One thing about all this is that it is a sharp reminder that I am a sinner. I am corrupt. Broken. Unholy. Whatever front I can put on to others after I walk out the door, I cannot hide from the face in the mirror. Or the Lord of heaven.

Looking at the daily digest from the old theology list, I see they are arguing over the atemporality of Christ as related to His incarnation. I once would have dived right into a discussion like that. Now, I have to question how much we can really know about that. Christ did not explain to us how He was God. He just said he IS God.

And on mornings like this, I am less interested in how Christ as God related to God the Father while He was on incarnate on earth, than in whether He's interested in pardoning a wretched sinner like me. Because that is my only hope.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Company You Keep

It appears that Phil Johnson has joined the ranks of the bloggers. And I thought I was the last one on the bandwagon. Knowing Phil via several other venues, it's going to be interesting - but if he ever finds out I'm at BHT now, I may be in for a whuppin' for hanging out with "the wrong crowd".

Thinking of that brought home another point - how fleeting Christian community seems to be. Partly this may be my own personality showing through (I am a bit of an introvert), but it still seems to me that so much of our expressions of "fellowship" are dependent on other factors - whether we attend the same church, how much we are alike with the other person, and whether or not they agree with us theologically. Having gone through two church changes back in 2001-2002, I can also say that so much of the "Christian fellowship" evaporated once I left each church. There was little sense (after one left the worship service) that the people gathering there were doing anything more than "socializing".

Online, it gets worse. Without the constraints that being in the same location with the other person (and having to see their reactions), people's inhibitions get lowered. The rhetoric gets increased. And the results can get ugly. I've seen it too many times to deny it. (I've also been guilty of it myself.)

"Community" and "fellowship" are words that get tossed about, but in actual practice get little real attention. There's always other factors that are (consciously or not) given higher priority - doctrinal agreement, social parity, membership, whatever. I'm still getting my bearings on the "Emergent" movement, but it does seem they are consciously trying to address this issue. And whatever other problems they may have, that's a good thing.

As far as BHT goes... One thing I've noticed is that they have set rules on civility. They have a broad spectrum of people. There is conversation about things besides theology. And not everyone is on the same page theologically. In other words, it's more like real life. And it looks to be interesting.

Are we known by the comany you keep? The Pharisees and Jesus both thought so. But their attitudes towards that "company" made all the difference...

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Pressure's on...

In more ways than one.

Several big homework projects are on the front burner this weekend, and on top of that I've been accepted into The Boar's Head Tavern - an unexpected honor.

I actually shouldn't gripe about the homework. It occurred to me this morning (while I was worrying about several other things) that overall, I have been abundantly blessed and protected by God far above and beyond what I have ever deserved. And that I don't thank Him as often as I should. I sometimes wonder why He bothers.

I was going to post my Boar's Head background bio, but I think I'll wait until tomorrow for that.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Second Crusade

The (un)holy wars have started at Internet Monk again. A post on the self-appointed gatekeepers of the True Reformed Faith begain drawing the ususal assortment of trolls and calvinayeen, and it got yanked. (Edit - the article has been restored, with an explanation as to the reasons for the whole episode.)

Every time I think IMonk may be going a little too far in his critiques, these bozos show up and unwittingly prove his points. In real life, what these guys are doing would be called "stalking", wouldn't it?

One of the tenured beer-swillers at Boar's Head Tavern linked to an article on why some personality types are drawn to some churches and theologies. Fascinating stuff. The full article is here. I post here only a taste...

Presbyterian / Reformed churches are sometimes not marked by sweetness but harshness, especially in those branches that have not jettisoned their historical theological base. Doctrine is the big thing, approached with the precision of an engineer. Here is what I mean. Let’s say that an engineer is going to build a bridge across the Mississippi River. He cannot afford to care what people think of him or how he comes across. “Hang it all, Man, we must be correct. I don’t care what you think. I’ll not have this bridge collapse because of your idiotic opinion. I have a moral obligation to ignore your ignorance.”

That is the one vital thing when it comes to building bridges of steel and concrete; it is different when it comes to the bridge between a holy God and sinful man. The gospel ministry is not only a science, it is an art, and the cure of souls is its great work. Knowing the Queen of the Sciences, theology, is vital, but kindness and gentleness are prerequisites, too. Augustine’s motto must ever be our own: “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.” (Strongly in deed, gently in manner.) Or, as Saint Paul put it, “Speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15.) Tragically, all too few Reformed / Presbyterian churches are characterized by being suaviter in modo; instead of being sweet in their approach, they are too often harsh.

Chrsitianity & Conservatism - Take 2

In today's National Review Online Jonah Goldberg follows up on John Derbyshire's piece on conservatism.

Goldberg too examines the religious angle of this question, and makes a valid point...

Christianity, as I understand it, holds that the perfect world is the next one, not this one. We can do what we can where we can here, but we’re never going to change the fact that we’re fallen, imperfect creatures. There’s also the whole render-unto-Caesar bit. And, of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition assumes we are born in sin, not born perfect before bourgeoisie culture corrupts us into drones for the capitalist state. In other words, while Christianity may be a complete philosophy of life, it is only at best a partial philosophy of government. When it attempts to be otherwise, it has leapt the rails into an enormous vat of category error.

Somebody get on the horn to the Justice Sunday crowd and inform them of this overlooked dilemma.

He also makes a fine point about the cardinal sin of liberalism...

The belief that all good things move together and there need be no conflicts between them is, ultimately, a religious one. And — by definition — a totalitarian one. Mussolini coined that word not to describe a tyrannical society, but a humane society where everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. Mussolini didn’t want to leave any children behind either. The attempt to bring such utopianism to the here and now is the sin of trying to immanentize the eschaton.

And this from someone who isn't even a Christian. How come he can see these things, and politicized Christians from either end of the spectrum cannot?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Looking back to look forward...

I sometimes wish I could be more like the way I was - so confident in The Truth, thinking that doctrinal purity was the sure path to Christian discipleship. But articles like this are a sharp reminder of why I can't go back...

Everybody, I mean everybody where I live has heard some version of the Gospel, the issue is that they've so rarely seen it, though they've seen plenty of doctrinal arguments. In fact it seems to me that evangelism is simply a form of doctrinal argument. As I've said before, the goal seems to be to 'argue people into the kingdom'. The fact is none of us have anywhere near the intellectual integrity we think we have. We think we have hard-core beliefs but when it gets down to the relational push and shove of everyday life we think what we want to think, do what we want to do and believe what we want to believe.

Non believers aren't impressed by our arguments, nor our intellectual integrity, they are impressed by our ability to love. My ability to convert someone (which is non-existant) is generally hindered by my argumentive skills. I'm saying all of this to say that my willingness to reach out to someone will be more likely based upon their proximity to my life, the love I feel for them and the opportunity I'm given; and less so on my doctrinal stance.

If you really love Jesus, and you really love one of His creatures, you'll naturally want to introduce them to one another. My focus isn't upon helping them to avoid "hell" (whatever that is), my focus is on sharing with them the best, most loving and joyful love relationship I'm capable of enjoying.

BTW, this is why (the Internet Monk) pisses so many people off, he places relational integrity before perceived intellectual integrity.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Hunger Artist

Nice post by Doug Wilson...

"All this is serious business, but it should not obscure what is being done. The Christian faith does not say no to a young man's sexual urges just to be a killjoy. Rather, it is more like a mother telling her son that he cannot have a bag of chips half an hour before dinner. She knows what has been prepared, and she does not want his impatience to wreck it. In the same way, sexual impatience causes a lot of problems in marriage. We say no to that which would diminish or destroy the joy and purity and honor of the marriage bed" (Future Men, p. 144).

I wholeheartedly agree. I also wholeheartedly call this a fine example of the Rumplestiltskin Fallacy - that by naming a problem, you can make it go away.

I agree 110% that sex is for marriage, mind, body, and soul. But my dinner's been put off for 20+ years so far, there's no sign of anyone in the kitchen, and there's a LOT of free "potato chips" available online.

Screwtape must be laughing his ass off.

Christianity and Conservatism - How do they stack up?

Today's National Review Online has a post by John Derbyshire on the death of conservatism.

And I thought I was a pessimist.

Whatever you think of conservatism's prognosis, he does offer a six-point encapsulated definition of conservatism, and makes a comparison between it and American conservatism, both Republican and "religious right" versions. Yet another example (and one much more thought out than Hitchen's screed) of how conservatism and christianity both overlap and oppose.

Here's my own take on the Six Points...

1. A deep suspicion of the power of the state.

This really shouldn't be limited to conservatives. Any student of 20th century history ought to be able to tell you what happens when you concentrate power in the central government - especially if that government has a nationalist or utopian agenda. And still being calvinistic, I get nervous when too much power concentrates in one area - especially government. Even if you try to wield it at first with the best intentions, power corrupts. Our fallen natures can't handle too much without becoming... changed. "I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it." (Elrond, Fellowship of the Ring.)

2. A preference for liberty over equality.

Here I am more ambivalent. Along with Pascal, I am deeply suspicious of any attempts to enforce "equality" or "social justice" from above, as that again requires concentration of power, and often substitutes one set of injustices for another (Pensees 60, 81). But again, unfettered freedom is also a problem, and the biblical witness is clear that when "everyone does what is right in his eyes", chaos ensues. I don't think that we have given enough thought to the fact that the Church transcends both democracies and dictatorships - the people of Christ have lived under both, and will continue to live in whatever societies man organizes himself into. Nations rise and fall. The Church will continue.

3. Patriotism.

Again, patriotism is a limited good at best. "Patriotism" is a relatively recent notion (at least as far as loyalty to an abstract national state overagainst loyalty to clan, race, creed, etc). I have travelled overseas a bit, and I can say I appreciate how much better (relatively) things are here in America than elsewhere, and I have no qualms defending her and my countrymen from those who would destroy us. But America is NOT the New Zion. We are a fallen sinful people just as every other is. Our record is not spotless (the treatment of Indians and slaves, abortion on demand, our wars of aggression against Mexico and Spain, etc). American Christianity has always had a peculiar problem that traces back to the original Puritan experiement of a "Christian nation". We see ourselves as "special" in God's eyes because of our Christian forebears, or because our government incorporated God-talk and some Christian principles into its structure. I think this is nostalgia and longing for a mythic past more than anything. If we are Christians, we are strangers and pilgrims (Phil 1), whose citizenship is in the city of God (Heb 11). And our culture is now nothing like what it used to be. As I have stated before, the sooner we come to realize our status as "internal missionaries" for a far Kingdom rather than "crusaders" seeking to restore a "Christian" past, we'll be much better off - and ironically, much better able to influence the culture.

4. A belief in established institutions and hierarchies.

This is the American context. We self-consciously based our nation on a rebellion against an established institution and hierarchy (the crown of England). That has had a profound effect on many aspects of the national character, conservaties included. That revolution was based on Enlightenment reason, which claimed priority over established institutions and hierarchies. But once they were gone, Reason itself was overthrown. So what remains to take the place of either? (That sound you hear is the madman Nietzsche running about with his lamp...)

Others far more capable than I (Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, George Marsden) have belabored my next point, so I will just summarize. American evangelical Christianity is about the most anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional mess you could imagine. Even I myself, who worship in an Anglican church when I'm home in DC, have some silent qualms about an authoritative hierarchy of bishops claiming their authority descends from the Apostles themselves. But whether or not you accept episcopal government, what you *do* have is the authoritative word of God, and the covenant community of the Church. We also have 2000 years (plus, couning the history of Israel) of history regarding theology, missions, martyrdom, etc. We do not live to ourselves - we have a legacy from the past, and an obligation to our brothers and sisters today, and also to the lost. And ultimately, our calling is to serve, to take the lowest place, to be slaves to all. Not very conservative, do you think?

5. Skepticism about the idea of progress.

I think that both modern conservatives and liberals have been guilty of worshiping at the idol of Progress. It may be more incorporated into the liberal philosophy, but it is (or was) the "spirit of the age" and everybody drank of it. Of course, after the pricetag of Progress comes due (nuclear waste, millions dead from "social engineering" in Russia, identity theft, pollution), it doesn't look nearly a sure thing. Again, the problem is not our technology (phyhsical and sociological) so much as our ill wisdom in using it (or in some circumstances, not using it).

Christianity is much more sanguine. I don't have any figures, but I would venture a guess that Ecclesiastes is one of the least-preached books in American churches today (apart from the forgotten uncles in the attic, the Minor Prophets). Ecclesiastes is a damning blast against any ideas of "progress", "happy materialism", or just about anything under the sun. The more years I accumulate, the more I appreciate its wisdom. Human nature cannot evolve and improve, because human nature is *fallen*. What is wrong with us, cannot be fixed by ourselves. Every Tower of Babel erected by man will be torn down and sown with confusion. For God will neither be mocked, nor will He leave His people to perish. He will both judge the pride of fallen man, and redeem fallen man to His own glory. And history will be capped off in the final analysis by the Return of Christ and the re-establishment of heavenly and earthly paradise. So there is progress in a sense - but not what most people are looking for...

6. Elitism.

Every human society has its elites - there's no getting around it. American liberalism is led by billionaires. Soviet Russia had the vlasti and the nomenklatura. High schools have the "cool kids". And any attempt to dislogde the elites simply puts another set in their place - George Orwell's Animal Farm is a telling literary parable of this. Making the "elite" the wealthy and productive is better in some sense, I suppose, than making the academic leftists the elite, but an elite is still an elite.

Of course, Christianity is about the most anti-elite religion on earth (if taken in pure form). The Pharisees were scandalized by Jesus' welcoming and forgiving tax collectors and prostitutes. The Roman noblility regarded Christians as the scum of the earth, worshiping a condemned criminal. Nietzsche's rants against Christianity's "slave mentality" are well-known. But again, if the real problem is human fallenness and human pride, where better should God manifest Himself than among those who are "at the bottom"? God chooses the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich, the powerless to shame the powerful, the foolish to shame the wise (I Cor 1-2). Insofar as our "conservatism" causes us to turn a blind eye and empty wallet to those who are not as well-off as we are, we have let our conservatism dull our witness to Christ.

Whew, that was a long one, and set me behind this morning by about an hour. But I hope it was worth it. It has certainly helped me remind myself of where I stand, and need to stand.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Hobgoblins & Escape Hatches

Sometimes I blog and post myself into some pretty situations.

Some weeks ago, I was posting to the IMonk comments sections against those who throw blanket condemnations on Roman Catholics because of their views on justification, Mary, ad infinitum. Now, at Coffee Conversations, I find myself posting against the idea (mooted by N. T. Wright) that justification in and of itself is an ecumenical doctrine that can unite Protestant and Catholic.

One quote I've heard oft-used is Emerson's "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Whenever I heard it, I thought to myself that those who use it were just shielding themselves from their own slapdash thinking. My (unspoken) reply was "An unthinking inconsistency is the escape hatch of lazy minds".

I want to think I'm being consistent here. I draw a line between dealing with Catholics *as individuals* and with *the institutional Catholic Church*. As individuals, I have no doubts that some are saved, by faith in Christ. Especially here in America, where Catholicism has been effectivey "Protestantized" by the cultual environment. Why should I not extend friendship with such people?

On the other hand, I could never join a Catholic Church, or participate in a Catholic Mass, because I cannot subscribe to their theology of justification and their interpetation of the Eucharist. Until they sort out (according to their own "inerrant" magisterium ;-} ) whether we are condemned apostates (Council of Trent) or "separated brothers" (Vatican II), I see no reason for Protestants to even consider ecumenical union with the institutional Catholic church.

Try as I might to be a "kinder, gentler" theologian, I have to draw some lines somewhere...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Blessed are the Shiftless and the Losers

A very interesting article today at OpinionJournal.com by Christopher Hitchens - a clear warning that Christianity and conservatism are not only NOT synonymous, but also in some cases diametrically opposed...

I have never understood why conservative entrepreneurs are so all-fired pious and Bible-thumping, let alone why so many of them claim Jesus as their best friend and personal savior. The Old Testament is bad enough: The commandments forbid us even to envy or covet our neighbor's goods, and thus condemn the very spirit of emulation and ambition that makes enterprise possible. But the New Testament is worse: It tells us to forget thrift and saving, to take no thought for the morrow, and to throw away our hard-earned wealth on the shiftless and the losers.

I wonder what some of the "culture warriors" will have to say about that. For myself, I sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to be reminded that conservatism and Christianity are NOT the same. Hats off to Mr. Hutchins for the boot to the butt.