Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Who (or What) Are We Fighting... And What With?

This is probably going to get me "Blogspotted" again. :-( But what the heck, the symmetry is too great to pass up.

In doing my usual trek through my blogroll in my browser's favorites column, two blogs hit on spiritual warfare today - and wound up on opposite sides of the fence...


Real Spiritual Warfare is Not Like a Round of "DOOM"

Frankly, I get nervous at both.

Dan's post makes me nervous, because I *don't like* the idea that demonic influence can permeate families without any positive action on the part of the descendants. I think that coming to faith in Christ should automatically sever any such things, even if they do exist. And there are things in *my* past that some folks who follow this line of thinking might want to pray over *me* for, and I don't know if that's appropriate... or not...

Phil's post makes me nervous, because it reduces spiritual warfare to promulgating and arguing over theology and philosophy. For all the insistance in Reformed and Fundamentalist circles on the supernaturality of the universe - at least, where God is concerned (creation, Incarnation, Resurrection, etc) - there is little taste for allowing that the dark side of the supernatural just might be active today too. "Charismatic (*and* demonic) activity ceased at the closing of the canon!" If you say so. But I've seen the biblical arguments for this, and I am not impressed. (EDIT - in the comments section, Phil says he *has* encountered demon-possessed people, but he addresses the *person*, not the demon. That seems the opposite of the NT pattern, and I have asked him about this.) I think that both Fundamentalism and strict (r)eformed theology have absorbed at least this much modernism - that they are very uncomfortable with the idea of ongoing supernatural activity that does not fit in their theological box.

And I am still this much of a rationalist, that I am too. So Dan's article makes me uncomfortable.

And I have changed in my thinking enough, that I acknowledge that there is a possibility that divine and demonic activity is more than possible in this life. So Phil's article makes me uncomfortable.

There are elements of truth in both sides, I think. The ultimate "spiritual warfare" is the preaching of the Gospel, not funky "territorial prayers". But I also think there is a demonic side to the evils around us that rational theology is blind to.

I am forced to acknowledge, once more, that there are things in theology and life that I cannot pin down, that defy my ability to rationally set them in a row.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Theological "Need-To-Know"

In addition to sensitivity level, information that is classified is restricted in its dissemination based on the "need to know" the information. Having a "top-secret" clearance does not give one access to all documents classified at that level. Rather, information is disseminated based upon sensitivity level and the need to know.
- "Classified Information", Wikipedia (italics added by me)

The drive, the need, to explain things that don't make sense to us is very powerful. Especially for theologians. And accepting that there may not be an answer - or worse, that God may not deign to give us an answer - is very hard indeed.

Dan Edelen's latest post resonates with me on this topic. When faced with evil, with tragedy, with Things That Just Don't Make Sense, we want to know "Why?" We demand to know why. And sometimes, if we don't have ready answers, we extrapolate them from what we think we know (or just make them up) so that we have some comfort to fall back on. But, perhaps, there are things we just won't be told the "why" for. God's answer to us may be, "You don't have need-to-know for that information right now."

Dan references Job and his trials in his post. I would like to elaborate on that theme. We, the readers of the book of Job, are given the "inside scoop" on why Job suffered - Satan's challenge to God about the ground of human faith. When, at the end of the book, God does appear to Job, He could also have told Job the reasons why. God doesn't. Instead, He confronts Job with Himself, and insists that Job admit his ignorance. And even after that, God keeps the "secret". I don't think Job ever knew, in this life, why he went through what he went through.

When faced with tragedies like Katrina, like Dan's sad story of the missionary who died before she could fulfill her calling, we want the "classified data" in the background - we want to know WHY. And sometimes, I think God's answer to us is the same as His answer to Job - "You're not cleared for that information!"

Accepting mystery, the incompleteness of our understanding in this life, has been a big hurdle in my walk of faith. Sometimes, it's nice to know that others have faced the same struggle, and that I can learn from their acceptance that there are some things that God just hasn't seen fit to clear us for.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

If You Play with Fire, You May Get Burned...

And if you decide to go playing politics, you should not be surprised if you get attacked politically.

Case in point - James Dobson of Focus on the Family. He has, over recent years, become more and more involved in political matters, often in belligerant style. Most recently, he has been focusing on the politics of the federal judiciary, as evidenced in his involvment in the Justice Sunday rallies and the nomination of Harriet Miers.

It would seem that Dobson has been very deeply involved with the Miers nomination almost from the start. If the reports at the Wall Street Journal are correct, Dobson was expressly courted by the Bush Administration with assurances that Miers would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. His involvement has raised some eyebrows, and may be engendering a backlash - apparently, Arlen Specter is considering calling Dobson as a witness in the Miers nomination hearings because of his involvment.

I am not saying anything here about the fitness of Miers for the post, or why Bush really chose her. So what is my point in all this? Just this. If Dobson does get called before the Senate and roasted over an open fire (not just the Dems would enjoy this - Specter's appointment to the Judiciary Committe was opposed by Dobson), he and his supporters will likely paint it as a martyrdom tale - the brave Christian leader standing in the path of the godless secularists seeking to stack the courts against traditional American/Judeo-Christian values, and being slandered and attacked for his heroic stand.

As Hagrid would say, "Codswallop!" Politics is politics. And Dobson knows this well. As the book Blinded by Might showed, Dobson has been playing the political game for quite a long time, so he cannot be blind to how it works. Now, if one wants to play politics, that's fine. But playing politics is NOT the same as advancing the Kingdom. And when the political wheel turns, and you find yourself on the receiving end of what you've dished out for so long, to cry "Persecution!" would ring hollow to my ears. And it would ring hollow to many more ears as well - ears much more hostile than mine, who would rejoice to see the name of Christ and the Church dragged through the mud yet one more time.

But then again, too many evangelicals cannot see the difference between advancing the Gospel and appointing strict constructionists to the Supreme Court - so if Dobson does decide to play the martyr, it might work. Sad to say.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Taranto's Law

Named after James Taranto, ringmaster of the "Best of the Web" blog at OpinionJournal.com. My formulation of it is, "Sooner or later, real life WILL imitate The Onion."

Case in point -

Israelites Sue God for Breach of Covenant - The Onion

Romanian Prisoner Sues God for Failing to Protect Him From the Devil - Pakistan Daily Times

(HT to Mere Comments)

Another Fine Mess

...I've gotten myself into.

The *one* thing that gets my blog noticed beyond myself and a small circle of friends is this whole mess about Mary. *sigh*

Paul Owen and Eric Svendsen are slugging it out over the details of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary (or PVM), so I'll refer interested parties to those blogs. (After cramming for a final this week, I haven't had time to fully digest either argument myself.) For my part, I will reply to Kevin Johnson's reply to my last post.

First off, I am well aware of the venerability of the PVM doctrine. So my criticism of it is not based on any animus towards the Roman church (which didn't evolve until the Middle Ages in my viewpoint, but that's another matter). The extent to which the Reformers held to PVM is another matter, currenly being debated in the blogs listed above, so I'll withhold comment.

RE: the question of tradition vs. modernity - for me, this is not a question of blind rejection of tradition. I speak as one who has already come from such a viewpoint. I have moved from indifference to liturgy and the centrality of the Eucharist, to one who ardently embraces both. I have moved from a strict credobaptism (including the denial of faith and salvation to infants) to a broad paedobaptist position - clearly the *traditional* position. I am no longer so blind as to think that the traditons of the Church (including Biblical interpretations) are to be ignored on the basis that *we're* so much more knowing and informed than they were.

However, let me also make a few counterpoints. I am still, self-consciously, a Protestant - which means, among other things, that I hold that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority and court of appeal in matters of doctrine and practice. *Any* tradition, no matter how venerable or ecumenical, has the right to be brought before the bar of Scripture and examined. (Of course, the interpretations of the Scriptures used are another matter, and that is where the problems I have with Paul Owen began.) In abandoning the modernist acid of total distrust, let us not leap blindly into a total acceptance of all things received either. Error and truth were co-mingled from the start, as any reading of the Pastoral Epistles will show.

Kevin asks, "(A) doctrine such as the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is so widely attested that we shouldn't abandon it at the very least without reviewing our own presuppositions and understandings of the issues at hand in rejecting such a doctrine."

A fair question, and I am trying to lay my cards out on the table in this post. However, as the comments section in Kevin's own post attests, the "presuppositions and understandings of the issues" by those who initally put forth the PVM should also be on the table. And here is my second biggest beef with PVM - the very idea of it smacks of Platonism and a denigration of the sexual nature of our Lord and those who surrounded Him. Why is the idea that Mary and Joseph had normal marital relations - and children - so abhorrent to some of the Early Fathers? And how much of that attitude went into the establishment of PVM?

Kevin also asks, "My question back to our almost-Reformed-Catholic friend and other interested parties is this--What does it hurt to embrace the majority opinion of the Church on this matter? A more important question is this, 'How seriously do we take the traditions of the Church and how much do these traditions form our thinking in this matter and others?'."

To answer the first question - in the whole question of "reformed catholicism", Protestants are being asked to give up a *lot*. Our sectarianism, our theological snobbery, our biblical reductionism. What are *we* bringing to the table in return? If we cannot bring what makes us distinctly Protestant - if we still think there is any worth in identifying ourselves as Protestant - to the table, is this really a dialogue? I have often said in other venues that for there to be true ecumenism, *everybody* would have to bring something, and everybody would have to give up something. I think Protestants *can* bring something to the table, as Protestants - our high view of Scripture's role in theology. And I think a reasonable result of that (pardon the word choice) would be a re-examination of the PVM by other communions.

In answer to the second question, the answer is probably "Not much, and not enough." Historical ignorance is an American badge of honor, especially it seems in evangelicalism. I am trying to rectify that in my own life, but I am still a "work-in-process". (Side note - One aspect of that work is my working on the Ancient Christian Commentary series by IVP. The volume on Judges arrived yesterday. Tell Paul Owen that everybody listed in the section on Judges 11 - Ambrose, Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom - thinks Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter.)

In some aspects, I am sorry the rupture had to occur at this point - however much I may think the PVM to be mistaken, it's not something I would withhold fellowship with someone over, and there are bigger fish to fry in ecumenical matters. It does, however, serve to highlight the tensions that still exist between modern Protestants and the other communions.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Well, Since You Asked...

I was going to do this within the comment section of the last entry, but it probably deserves a post of its own.

Kevin Johnson (of Reformed Catholicism (which I had forgot to add to the blogroll - thanks for the inadvertent reminder) asks for an elaboration on why I listed Paul Owen's post on Mary as a reason I'm not a "reformed catholic". Fair enough.

Let me state at the outset that I am not against tradition per se, and that I have wide agreement with the goals and insights of those who call themselves "reformed catholics" (hence their inclusion in my blogroll list on the right). However, sometimes the acceptance of (C)atholic teachings and traditions goes just a *wee* bit too far. As much we can (and ought to) castigate reductionistic Protestantism, we must also acknowledge that, on occasion, a blind hog will find an acorn - and that there *are* "traditions" that deserve to be thrown out with the bathwater. The perpetual virginity of Mary is, IMHO, one of those instances.

I, personally, find the argumentation Owen puts forth in the article linked above very weak. I'll take it point by point.

1. I will pass on the nuts and bolts of the Greek exegesis of Luke 1 (as I am no expert on that), but if Mary was going to be a perpetual virgin, what on earth was her "pledge to Joseph" supposed to be?

2. There is nothing in the Old Testament about people abstaining from marriage as a "holy order" within Judaism (Jeremiah being a unique exception) - you don't see the eschatological relativizing of marriage until the New Testament. "Temple virgins" are *pagan*, not Judeo-Christian, in origin. Owen's readings of Anna and "the women temple servants" in I Samuel presume, and do not prove, his thesis.

3. Also, Jepthah said he would offer up whatever came out of his house *as a burnt offering*. And why would his daugher's friends have to go on the mourning trip with her if she was just going to be a "vestal virign" - they could see her anytime. No, I am afraid that Jepthah *killed her*.

4. Jesus giving care of Mary over to John and not to his (literal) brothers, I think, demonstrates what He taught all along in the Gospels - bonds of faith override bonds of blood. At least, the John 19 passage can be read just as well my way as Owen's.

5. I will also pass on the interpretation of the Woman in Revelation. To paraphrase Chesterton, the only monsters more fantastic than those in Revelation are Revelation's commentators. :-} I will only note in passing that the identity of the Woman has been broadly construed, even in "traditional" (i.e. non-Protestant non-dispy) schools of interpretation.

To resurrect an old rhetorical phrase of mine, the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity is a "Bartholomew Cubbins"-size hat - and the Scriptural pegs available are way too small to hang it on. The "Protoevangelium of James" is not, to my knowledge, anywhere near being an ecumenical creed, and therefore does not have the power or right to bind my conscience in this matter.

So now I guess I have a question - why do we have to go so far out on a theological and exegetical limb for the sake of "catholicity" in this particular doctrine? Is there any room for saying that, yes, on occasion, our forebears in the faith did take a misstep?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday Grab Bag

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Virtue of Consistency?

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Glib inconsistency is the excuse of lazy minds - me (in my TR days)

Several items came together for me this morning that led to this post. First, a discussion in the comments on one of Doug Wilson's series on the relationship between theology and salvation...

My Answer Is Right, Darn It
Cooks Who Feed Only Themselves
We Can't Count That High

(I highly recommend all three.) Anyways, the discussion centers around whether one can have fellowship with someone who teaches Arminian/Semi-Pelagian theology out of conviction, since (in the opinion of some) this means they consciously reject the doctrines of grace, which are clear biblical teaching. Logical consistency demands that since they consciously reject a clear biblical teaching, they must be shunned.

Another link (metaphorically and internet-ally) came up in the Boar's Head Tavern - a link to a post by someone who apparently doesn't want to become a hyper-calvinist, but is being driven to it by the logical necessity of his theological premises. (I don't post the direct link here, since I'm not picking on this person directly, but only using the discussion to demonstrate my point below).

Reformed types tend to assume that logical consistency in our theology is an unalloyed virtue. Our theology is better than others because we weave all the threads of our system together in a neat logical package, and so many others are... well... inconsistent. I heard someone on a lecture tape once (sadly, I have long since forgotten who) say that "as nature abhors a vacuum, theologians abhor mysteries." In the case of Calvinism, that is certainly true. But is it *wise*?

Anybody who has followed a Calvinist/Arminian argument for more than 5 minutes can tell you that each side has pet passages to throw in the others' faces, and each side has carefully constructed logical arguments to disarm the desired impact of those verses. The conclusion I have been creeping towards is that we are dealing with a *genuine mystery and paradox* here. That Calvinism and Arminianism polarize into an "either/or" what is actually a "both/and". Of course, logical consistency DEMANDS that either divine sovereignty or human will have the "final say", and you gotta choose one or the 'tother. And, at least in my own observations, the choice one makes is as dependent on the chooser's personality as it is on their exegetical skills.

If God *is* transcendent, if human beings *are* made in His image, it should not surprise us that there are things about God's ways - especially His ways with us concerning our salvation - that ultimately cannot be totally logically quantified. And when our logical consistency leads us to run roughshod over clearly in-context biblical teachings, we need to step back and put our logical consistency in its proper place. One thing that *can* be clearly exegeted from Scripture is that logical consistency in our theology is NOT God's highest priority for His children. It probably *is* a good thing to have a reasoned faith - but a *living* faith in the Risen Lord is the *highest* priority. And you don't have to have an A+ in Systematic Theology to have a living faith.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Boy and His Tiger (or is it the other way round?)

The tenth anniverary of the end of Calvin and Hobbes is being marked with the release of a three-volume - comprehensive - collection. (HT to Common Grounds Online)

I've had three "must-read" comics in my lifetime - Bloom County (at least the first two-thirds of its run), Dilbert, and Calvin and Hobbes. Bloom was surreal and irreverent, an apt fit for my teenage years. Dilbert is my job. I just change the names and acronyms and it's a 100% match.

But C & H - it was pure magic. I don't think anyone else could combine childhood fantasy, cultural comment, and a Pythonesque sense of humor like Bill Watterson did. It was heartbreaking to see him drop the strip, but I understand why he did so - better to quit at one's peak rather than churn out boilerplate to keep your syndicate happy.

I ordered the set as soon as I heard about it. Did I need to spend that money, did I need to have it? No. But some things transcend need, and touch the basic human condition. Calvin and Hobbes did that. And I will reread and treasure Watterson's art and insight for the rest of my life.