Friday, March 24, 2006

This is Getting Obnoxious . . .

I feel like I'm having my 3rd "going out of business" sale this week - but dramatic exits aside, I did want to follow up my exit with a brief explanation. You'll notice that I didn't offer one initially - I should have kn0wn better. My church experiences over the last few years has been a poignant reminder that a vacuum of explanation will always be filled by spurious data - controversy is always more fun than reality.

I'm not throwing in the turban because I'm as sensitive as some might believe me to be - I have ample chest hair, and a stunning capacity for dead-lifting heavy objects. All that to say I would hate for you to imagine me slumped over my keyboard, crying like Gidget on a date gone wrong at my poor reception in the blogosphere. I've been warmly welcomed and respectfully recieved by most.

I would also hate for anyone to imagine that I'm selling the silverware over various rhetorical scuffles on PyroManiacs. I do have to admit, however, that it's not long before my presence in the meta renews old frustrations - but I'm never under the illusion that I'm not asking for it. I know what I'm going to hear before I go over there, and yet I persist, to their puzzlement and sometimes mine. Am I just looking for attention, or do I really think that they'll reverse some of the strongest and dearest convictions they hold in life? Although I can't say that I ever enjoy the often curt, sometimes dissmissive and usually immediate evaluations of my comments (as though they were simply my "answers" waiting to be checked by their "answer key"), my real reasons for showing up aren't spoken often enough - I really do love most of what I read there. I happen to find insatiable delight in the exaltation of God's sovereign majesty. As often as I am frustrated by various disagreements, I am pleasantly surprised by posts which don't fit the caricature of the Reformed Baptist obsession with doctrine for doctrine's sake (such as James' recent post on the Messiah and Justice - actually pretty much everything James says, some of Frank Turk's stuff on missions and Phil's interaction with Michael Spencer in the comments to this post). Some trusted friends have told me to stay away - but I can't. I agree with so much (let God be my judge!) that I long for genuine interaction on the points with which I don't agree. I'm sure that there are a few patrons of the Pyros who would sneer at that, but I've recieved the strangest (and kindest!) emails from those who foolishly fuel the hope of that possibility (which is hindered every bit as much by me as it is Phil Johnson)!

But, that brings me to the real reason for my limey fork-flinging to come to an end - I answered someone who asked if it was the way I was being treated by Phil and Tim Bayly that "broke the camels back" (I feel like throwing in a "as it were" somewhere around here, just for Tim). I answered "yes and no". Hopefully the above can help to fill in the "no" a little. But, now for the "yes": I started blogging because I like to read - not Sweet Valley High, not The Grapes of Wrath, not The Prayer of Jabez, and God help me, not even the better devotional literature - I like to read books which are directly related to the personal discovery of Bible study: books on method - theological, hermeneutical, ethical, historical and grammatical. It's my only real hobby. That's not something to brag about, either - I've heard Solomon's warning (Ec. 12:12) and I believe in its wisdom. I'll not bore anyone trying to convince them that it's my love for the treasure I have in Scripture that fuels my desire in this way; and I'll certainly not waste any time trying not to sound pedantic or self-important (too late). Let's just say that "academic respectability" isn't really something I'm all that worried about in a small church where most of my constituents could care less about "variegated nomism". I'm painfully aware that 1) it's not like I've read bags of academic books 2) that sort of interest is one very small part of the Christian life 3) I've not necessarily understood a single thing I've read - but that's where the blog was supposed to come in. I wanted a forum to log my thoughts and recieve feedback with a view toward processing what happens to strike me in the reading. And all of that, of course, was with a view toward growing in my ability to understand and apply Scripture.

Yet, after about a year on the blogosphere I've discovered something (partially through PyroManiacs, but elsewhere as well): being in process is something you're not really allowed to do in public when it comes to theology - at least not in the theo-blogging community. My church family allows me the room to grow in my leadership skills, my preaching, my marriage, my parenting and any number of sanctification issues. Growth in these areas take both time and experience. You can't simulate it by repeating someone else's preaching style, mimicking someone else's relationships, carbon-copying someone else's parenting techniques, etc. But when it comes to theological stimulation on the internet, it seems as though the growth is expected to take place all at once. Very few bloggers allow people to "work through" theological convictions without enormous suspicion. When you are handed a particular set of convictions and told that it is the truth, you may, if you're lucky, be told how such a person arrived at it. But once you attempt to get there yourself, by the power of your own conviction (asking questions and challenging what sounds funny) it's assumed that you are aiding (if not identifying yourself with) the enemies of the truth. It's as though someone were snapping their fingers saying, "Have a perfect marriage - NOW!!!" and then accusing you of rebellion for not complying immediately.

Please hear me right there - I'm not talking about trying to re-invent the foundational truths expressed in the earliest creeds and consensus, or the plainest saving truths about the Gospel - but in trying to evaluate the theological proposals of other Christians according to Scripture, and in trying to reexamine my own theology according to the Scriptures, I'm realizing that what people want to see isn't that you're INTERESTED in the answer, or that you're wrestling with Scripture in COMING to the answer, it's that you HAVE IT ALREADY. The general lack of willingness to let you get there, or patiently walk with you in the process makes this whole exercise seem like more of a loss than a win for me, and it felt like time to cut my losses.

The fear of relativism (which may in fact be one of the most deplorable evils of our time) seems to result in impatient frustration with Christians who question them about their interpretations or theological convictions. More than that, the moment a person stops to ask (in faith!) "have I missed something that the Scriptures teach about justification or the Gospel?" its bemoaned that the postmodernists have won. The question itself is viewed as a fickle willingness to forsake the Gospel instead of a faithful desire to hear God and not ourselves in Scripture. And that strikes at the core of what it means for me to believe in the Bible's authority - namely that in my study it always maintains the right to say I'm wrong.

The fact is that I know what I believe - but I want the Scriptures to have the authority to scrutinize my beliefs in practice, not just in theory (as do many of those with whom I disagree). Sadly, I genuinely don't know how to demonstrate that on the blogosphere without alienating those whose theology happens to be the most like mine. It just seems like more grief than it's worth. Anyway, hopefully that helps to explain the departure. Thanks again for your well-wishing.

It wasn't very well thought out, it certainly wasn't carefully edited - but it's REALLY the last one.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Stick a Fork in Me, I'm Done!

If you need me, I'll be pawning your mom's silverware . . .

Friday, March 17, 2006

. . . but I didn't write it. It comes from Mike Bird, who has some great stuff to say, as usual. Here's a post he did recently about why he's neither a fundamentalist nor a liberal. Found myself saying 'amen', so I thought I'd re-post it here for your encouragement. If you decide to leave feedback, do comment on his site as well!
Fundamentalist versus Liberal

In light of the recent posts by Ben Myers and Chris Tilling I thought I'd add my own thoughts.

Preliminary Remarks

1. Most persons who use the term "fundamentalist" pejoratively are simply ignorant of the historical circumstances surrounding the origins of fundamentalism as a theological movement in North America in the early 20th century. Many are also ill informed about the historical, theological and cultural differences between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism - the two cannot be equated.

2. The terms "fundamentalist" and "liberal" are often used these days as an opprobrium but they have also become relative terms, i.e. a fundamentalist is someone more conservative than me and a liberal is someone less conservative than me. (I've been called both!) To make things worse, Old Liberalism was a package and you could easily discover an Old Liberal based on certain questions, e.g. virgin birth, inerrancy, resurrection, atonement, etc. But today there are a number of theologians who don't quite fit the bill, e.g. Rowan Williams. William's has an orthodox view of the resurrection (as far as I can tell), but his views of sexuality are as liberal as Hillary Clinton speaking at an ACLU convention. In sum, other than being an insult, the terms fundamentalist and liberal don't really mean much anymore.

3. The Fundamentalis vesus Liberal controversy was really a symptom of Christianity wrestling with the challenges posed by modernity. There were two reactions to modernity: "run for the hills and hide your daughters" (Fundamentalists) or "wine me and dine me" (Liberals). As we enter into a Postmodern period the liberal versus fundametnalist controversy is no longer the defining issue for Western Christianity.

See further:

- Carl F. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947)
- George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980)

Why I'm not a Fundamentalist

1. Fundamentalists major on the minors, and make minor issues tests for faith and orthodoxy (e.g. alchol, Bible translations, etc).

2. Fundamentalists fail to distinguish between what is Christian and what is the cultural Christianity that they were nurtured on.

3. Fundamentalists fail to distinguishy between areas of conviction and areas of command, and treat areas of conscience as a test of orthodoxy.

4. Fundamentalists have a view of Scripture that is docetic in that Scripture is divine but it is not human - no human processes (e.g. the Synoptic problem) are compatible with divine authorship.

5. Fundamentalists preach the authority of the text but practice the authority of the community.

6. Fundamentalists fails to appreciate the different genres of the Bible or comprehend the role of presuppositions in influencing our reading of Scripture.

7. Fundamentalists believe in theological cloning rather than theological learning.

8. Fundamentalists fail to be the salt of the earth as they are concerned almost exclusively with the minutia of doctrinal purity and correctness.

9. Fundamentalists have a lopsided soteriology as they think of salvation as purely the salvation of souls for heaven rather than the liberation of persons from sin, sickness, subjugation, and death. They aim for decisions rather than making disciples.

10. Fundamentalists fail to recognize the true marks of the Church and allow for a diversity of voices within the body of Christ.

11. Fundamentalists are more excited about what they are against, than what they are for.

12. Fundamentalists regard the Spirit as a theological entity, but not as a presence that manifests itself in worship or loving community.

Why I'm Not a Liberal

1. Liberals mimic culture to the point that they simply imitate the contemporary values of the day and wrap them up in some Christian wrapping paper. The world looks on and says, "Thanks for affirming all of my values but you can keep the wrapping paper".

2. Liberals minor on the majors - sin, atonement, and resurrection.

3. Liberals have a view of Scripture that is Arrian - it is human but not divine.

4. Liberals take Scripture to be illustrative but not necessarily prescriptive and normative for faith and praxis.

5. Liberals deny the transforming power of the gospel to liberate persons from every form of sin.

6. Liberals minimize the unique revelation of God in Christ and deny the eschatological finality of Jesus Christ.

7. The Gospel of Liberalism was what Karl Rahner warned us of: A God without wrath takes men without sin to a kingdom without judgment.

8. Liberals de-historize and de-apocalypticize the message of the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles.

9. Liberals preach pluralism but do not tolerate anyone who fails to embrace their pluralistic ethos.

10. Liberals believe the Spirit is a Spirit of unity but not a Spirit of truth.

11. Liberals think that the only heresy is to believe in heresy.

12. Liberals think that the church is about programs and structures, when it is about creating gospel-proclaiming, Spirit-drive, Christ-centred, God-focused redemptive communities.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Macular Degeneration

I hate to admit it, but I'm petering out. I'm staring at a screen for sermon prep and Bible Study creation all week long, and the thought of going home to blog makes my eyes want to vomit. By the end of the week they feel like Gandalf's description of the eye of Sauron - "wreathed in flame and lidless". Good luck getting Visine to work on that. But more than that, there's so much to comment upon and so little time to attend to it that I've finally decided to give blogging a break for a bit, at least until I've hit a stride with some of my other responsibilities. I know I'll be back soon, though, if for no other reason than that my brief absence from the blogosphere has already saddled my conscience with an unbearable pressure to sit down and spray text about a million different topics - James Crossley's post about secularism in Biblical Studies, Adrian Warnock's comments on the interchange between iMonk and Phil Johnson (and iMonk's fantastic follow up post), common confusion about propositions, modernism and the Enlightenment (scroll down to the end of the page), my brother's acceptance into Princeton, Michael Bird's excellent upcoming article in Tyndale Bulletin, evaluations of some competing proposals for the ecumenical task, exciting developments in Bible Software and of course, brief blurts about the books I'm currently reading (especially Francis Watson's Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith and Alasdair Macintyre's After Virtue). I'm sometimes seized with a kind of catatonic schizophrenia in the middle of a conversation while thinking about something I'd like to write, but I never seem to find the time to successfully log them in at Soylent Green; I'm tired of saved half-drafts that I just delete in frustration at not having enough time to finish them.

But the catharsis will have to wait until at least mid-April when the house we're building is completed and I've moved out of my gracious mother-in-law's home. In the meantime, I hope you'll not forget about me!

And now, for a moment of complete non-sequitur - I've tried to find a reason to post pictures of my family for some time now, but wasn't able to generate one that didn't sound like an entry from my diary. So, for absolutely no reason at all, here they are: My wife and I, my daughter Madelyne, my son Sameer and my youngest, Raj.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Faithful Forgiveness of God

The pixelated beauty to my immediate left is a chap named Timothy Gombis, who currently teaches Bible at Cedarville University in Ohio. Though I know that a few other blogs (not least Metalepsis) have already posted the following meditation on their own sites, I thought it was worth reproducing here as well. Tim's a good friend and a great guy who could easily bench press a car of your choosing with both of our mothers sitting in it. Keep that in mind if you have any comments.
Our texts for this week reveal to us the logic of God's forgiveness. They also reveal to us our own ways with forgiveness and perhaps why we have such a hard time coming to grips with God's outrageous grace. These texts serve as a pleasant and stunning surprise, a blessed rebuke.

We foolishly think that we have God all figured out, don't we? We think that we know how He deals with sinners, what He's like, how He thinks. What is God like? Well, He's mostly like us, except totally huge, and He knows everything. And He told us what is right and wrong, so if we choose to do wrong, He'll be rightly outraged at us - because He told us not to do it, and we should've known better.

But, thankfully, He has made a way for us to be forgiven, and if we're willing to clean up our act, make things right, He's willing to consider taking us back. But He'll keep His eye on us, and if we blow it again..., well, we might want to read the fine print in our contract.

We may not lay out our understanding of God so explicitly, but we often feel that this is what God is like, right? He's very huge and powerful, and his heart isn't as small as that of the Grinch who stole Christmas - whose heart was two sizes too small - but surely it's not THAT big - after all, there's gotta be some limit to forgiveness and grace.

In thinking about God in this way, we have managed to become complete idolaters; we have made God in our own image. What is He like? What's His forgiveness like? Probably like ours.
Scripture, however, turns this idolatry on its head, giving us a true glimpse into the ways of God with His people. We will discover what these texts tell us about the forgiveness of God by asking and answering three questions.

First, why does God forgive sins? Because this is who He is! It is His identity, according to the final verse in our Isaiah passage: "I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins." It is who God is, it is what He does - it's His calling card; He forgives sins!

And He loves to forgive! Our Isaiah text depicts God going to great lengths to overcome our sin and to arrange situations in such a way so that we might more effectively enjoy His love. In fact, what makes God angry in the Isaiah passage, is that Israel refused to give God opportunities to forgive. "Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel!"

So God forgives because it is his very nature to do so - and he DELIGHTS to forgive sinners.
These texts force us to ask a second question: Is this really so? How can we be sure about this? Does he really love to forgive, or does He do it dragging His feet? When God forgives sins, does he do it while rolling his eyes?

And we want to know, because this is how WE forgive, isn't it? "Well, I know I'm supposed to forgive you, so I guess I do. But I don't have to like it!! And I don't have to like you!! I'm still angry for what you've done to me, so you need to spend a few more days in the doghouse until you get completely back in my favor."

And we think that by holding on to bitterness against those who have wronged us we're only showing proper righteous anger at sin. "It's a godly anger at sin, alright?!"

So, in the somewhat mystifying words of the 2 Corinthians text, our forgiveness is "yes and no." We do, but we don't... We forgive..., but we'll just see how things go.

But God is completely unlike us - He is faithful and His word is NOT "yes and no," but YES!!
How do we know it's "yes" and not "yes and no?"

Look at Jesus!! Listen to how outrageous this is - God Himself came into the world, fully participated in the broken human condition, and died. And God raised Jesus from the dead to confirm His promises - to show that he is SERIOUS about forgiveness, SERIOUS about redemption and restoration.

God is fully committed to us - He is not of two minds!! He is not mostly committed to us, but we'll see how things go.

Jesus is the YES of God to us. There is no indecision with God toward his people.
"In Jesus it is always 'Yes.' For in him every one of God's promises is a 'yes.' For this reason it is through Jesus that we say the 'Amen', to the glory of God."

And this is gospel - this is good news, because we know ourselves. We know our sinful hearts, and it is so easy to believe the lie that it's a long road back to God's good graces. It's hard work getting back into his favor. But this is only true if God is like us - thanks be to God that He is not.
The third question that these texts raise and answer is; What must be done to obtain forgiveness?

This is answered in several ways in these Scripture passages, but I love how the Gospel reading answers it - especially when we think about how we usually read these gospel texts.

We typically read this scene where Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof in such an unreal manner. The guys run their friend up to the roof on a stretcher, remove a skylight, install a system of pulleys to the roof and smoothly lower him down - and, of course, he's reclining comfortably - and plop him nicely down in front of Jesus who then conducts this interchange with him and the scribes, to the quiet approval of all those watching, who close the scene with the polite applause of spectators at a golf tournament.

This is, of course, pure fantasy. Think about this scene. It's from Mark, a very gritty Gospel - full of action and pulsing with tension. These men hear that Jesus is at home, so they grab their friend and carry him down narrow streets, bumping his head on stone walls as they twist and turn down the alleyways, and arrive at Jesus' house. They're probably all disheveled and their lame friend is very uncomfortable and very likely in great pain, at this point.

"Ugh! The house is crowded, what're we going to do?! Let's go through the roof!"

"What?! Are you crazy?!"

So they drag him up to the roof, tear apart the roof, with stuff falling down all over the people inside, who are probably not at all happy that these strangers are doing a demo-job on Jesus' house - and while Jesus is teaching!

But so what?! We gotta get to Jesus! They lower him! With what!? We don't know - rope? His clothes? Again, this guy can't be all that comfortable at this point. But, as it happens, there he is, lying on the floor, on his mat.

And then what happens...

Jesus, taking note of their faith, says to the man, "your sins are forgiven."
This story is so familiar to us, we have completely missed how bizarre this is!! Think of all the commotion and the dust and dirt, stuff from the roof falling all over the people down below, people shooting dirty looks up at the guys who just lowered some street person down onto Jesus' IKEA coffee table..., it's crazy!

There is so much going on here, but we must take note of two things:

First, the phrase "when Jesus saw their faith." How often have we read this as, "when Jesus saw their qualifications?" Why did Jesus heal the man, we ask? Because of their great faith - Jesus looked into their hearts and saw that they had great faith!! So we too must have great faith!
NO!! What displayed their faith? Simply this - that they knew they needed something, and that Jesus could help them. That's it. "We're in need, Jesus is near, let's go."

Just like Psalm 32, v. 6: "I confessed my sin, and you forgave the guilt of my sin." That's it - recognition of our sin, forgiveness granted by God. There's no middle step of elaborate performance or credential-checking.

The second thing to note is Jesus' response to witnessing this bizarre instance of breaking and entering that unfolds before him: The dust starts to settle, the people all look at Jesus, He looks at the men, and says to the man, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

No discussion, no questions, no checking of credentials, no theological sparring. No fancy introductory speech, just a total outcast lowered into Jesus' living room, staring dumbfounded at Jesus while he has his sins forgiven by the King of creation.

The lesson here is this: God's hair-trigger response is set to forgive. Call on the Lord, and He will forgive. Intrude on Jesus' personal space, make yourself a nuisance to Jesus, and he'll forgive your sins.

On what basis does God forgive? Recognize your need and call on him and he'll forgive. End of discussion.

God delights to forgive, is angry that his people won't give him opportunities to forgive! God loves to show mercy, so "be glad you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reformed Epistemology and Narrative Theology

SINCE THIS ARTICLE GOT SUCH LITTLE FEEDBACK (being sandwiched between two more "controversial" posts on the Master's Seminary's take on Emergent), I THOUGHT I'D MOVE IT UP HERE AND HOPE IT GETS SOME MORE ATTENTION!

It's been my suspicion as of late that much of what narrative theology has to offer by way of answering the problems of Enlightenment modernism comport well with the presuppositional style of Reformed apologetics. While browsing through my Theological Journal Disc I came across an intriguing article by David Kelly Clark called "Narrative Theology and Apologetics" (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, no. 36 (1993): 4). I remember enjoying reading Clark in my apologetics and evangelism class while in seminary.

In this article Clark, a presuppositionalist apologist and Reformed philosopher of religion, described both the promise and the pitfalls of narrative theology. He draws upon the interchange between Hans Frei and Carl F. H. Henry, giving an even-handed appraisal of the benefits of both approaches. After giving considerable time to pointing out the potential problems with narrative approaches (1. the unclear nature of what that might mean, 2. the detachment of narrative approaches from history 3. conceputal realtivism, "too much Wittgenstein") he goes on to say: "Despite all this, narrative theology does have some things right. Evangelical apologists would do well to develop their thought and strategy in light of these themes . . .":

1) Narrative theology focuses on concrete modes of understnading and communication - traditional apologetics are too abstractly philosophical

2) It encourages us to learn how to work in relativistic and pluralistic milleus - narrative can translate biblical truth into postmodern models of rationality without giving in to relativism

3) It highlights how difficult and complex apologetics really is - modernistic apologetics often prove futile in postmodern contexts

4) It promotes a flexible apologetic strategy, one that responds to particular needs in specific situations - Clark says, "The validity of a multiple-perspectives approach at a limited level (though not at the comprehensive level of worldviews) offers the apologist some flexibility in argument even though the goal, an experience with Jesus Christ, remains constant."

5) It allows for more varied sorts of evidence, including religious experiences - shedding straitjackets of foundationalist (evidentialist) critiera for knowledge means introducing the reality of religious experience can count as evidence.

6) It alerts us to the uniqueness of Christian thinking - narrative approaches refuse to imbibe secular standards for rationality

7) It reminds us that apologists often assume much cultural baggage - Clark says, "at our point in history this baggage includes Enlightenment foundationalism . . . if general culture shifts to postmodernism, however, those we meet may hold cultural presuppositions of which we are utterly unaware."

8) It suggests possibilities for significant cross-cultural apologetics - Again, Clark: "Let us build Christian defense not on traditions that are dying even in the west but on culturally appropriate understandings and strategies."

After concluding that "several significant movements are writing prapgraphs in the Enlightenment's obituary. In philosophy, Reformed epistemologists are decisively demonstrating the self-referential incoherence of classical foundationalism", Clark goes on to say "evangelical apologetics must adapt to a postmodern context. This does not mean jumping on bandwagons or chasing fads. It does mean concieving of apologetics so it functions in the conteporary mileu."

Is it possible to take what's good from narrative approaches while refusing to pitch notions of historicity (i.e., "it doesn't matter if Christ 'really' rose from the dead, it's entering the narrative world that counts) or cave to relativistic tendencies (i.e. "different stories have different criteria for rationality within those narrative worlds")? I hope so! While narrative theology isn't a panacea, it has exerted many positive effects on Biblical studies which shouldn't be neglected, least of all in its response to radical Biblical criticism. Conservative approaches by Kevin Vanhoozer, Joel Green, Richard Hays and others have attempted to develop these insights without falling into the ditch of postmodernist skepticism.