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I am not going to say much, other than that this helps me. I am a sinner, and I still sin, frequently in fact. The only difference between me and the world is that I am a saved sinner (simultaneously justified and sinner); nevertheless, I still think in ways that terminate nowhere else but in the self, and by absolutizing material reality in a way that never gets back to material reality’s origin. Like the world I think foolishly (at points), and like ancient Israel, I have my high places. So what helps me, and maybe it will help you too, is Webster’s discussion of the vice of curiosity. Here is what he has written:

Curiosity involves the direction of intellectual powers to new knowledge of created realities without reference to their creator. In curiosity, the movement of the mind terminates on corporeal properties of things newly known, without completing its full course by coming to rest in the divine reality which is their principle. In effect, curiosity stops short at created signs, lingering too long over them and not allowing them to steer intelligence to the creator. So Augustine against the Manichees:

Some people, neglecting virtue and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of the nature which remains always the same, think that they are engaged in an important business when searching with the greatest inquisitiveness and eagerness into this material mass which we call the world … The soul … which purposes to keep itself chaste for God must refrain from the desire of vain knowledge like this. For the desire usually produces delusion, so that the soul thinks that nothing exists but what is material.

Curiosity, Augustine says elsewhere, is ‘eating earth’, penetrating deep and dark places which are still time-bound and earthly. Or again, in another idiom, curiosity is the ‘lust of the eyes’ (1 Jn 2.16), so called, Augustine says, because its origin lies in our ‘appetite for learning’, and ‘the sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge’. It is that ‘vain and curious longing in the soul’ which, ‘cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning’ is in reality a greed for ‘new experiences through the flesh’, a disordered ‘passion for experimenting and knowledge’ – flocking to see a lacerated corpse, attending a theatrical spectacle, letting contemplation be distracted by watching a lizard catch flies. Curiosity terminates on surfaces.[1] 

I fall into the trap of curiosity more than I would like to admit! But I seek, by the Spirit, to live a life of (as Torrance would say) ‘repentant thinking’. Living a life that moves and breathes from the Spirit’s breath, the breath that animates the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. There is a depth dimension to Christianity and this life that most Christians will never experience in this life (and I am not supposing that the alternative is an elitist gnostic kind of Christianity!), because we are too curious and not contemplative and critical enough in our daily walks with Christ. As James writes “14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” Curiosity is the desire that terminates in sin and death. We so often give into this curiosity, and hardly ever do the hard work of actual Christian contemplation. We go the way of the world, we are just too curious.

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word (London and New York: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 196.

*I originally posted this May 3, 2013.

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John writes of God:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.[1]

God is love. Growing up in, and still inhabiting, in many ways, the evangelical sub-culture in North America this pious idea of God is love is floated around almost ubiquitously. I remember years ago while attending a particularly large and popular evangelical church in Southern California, this well known pastor said “God will become whatever you need him to be.” I needed God to be all types of things for me back then; I needed emotional stability and spiritual foundation. But maybe you can already see where I am going with this, maybe you can see the theological problem associated with thinking of God under these constraints.

Is it really true that God is love? Yes. Is it true that God will become whatever we need him to be as the body of Christ? What happens if we couple the Johannine idea that God is love together with this idea that God will become whatever we need him to be? To help us answer these questions, and I want to keep this as un-technical as possible (so don’t be scared by this quote, keep moving on), I thought I would bring up 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. The following quote comes from a brief summary of Feuerbach’s critique of the Christian approach to God and this within the context of Karl Barth’s engagement with it. But the point I want to highlight by this quote is simply the critique that Feuerbach made of the Christian’s projection of a God-concept.

His primary avenue for accomplishing this goal lay in his assertion that “God” is nothing more than a projection of humanity’s essential ideals as distilled from embodied existence. God is, in Barth’s paraphrase, the “religious feeling’s mirrored self” (522). Feuerbach positions himself firmly against any thought system that introduces an unnecessary abstraction from the totality of sensory experience in which the only real distinction is the encounter between the objective I and the otherness of the Thou. “Truth, reality, the world of the senses, and humanity are identical concepts” (521) according to Feuerbach and, in the last analysis, “divinity” is just another item in the equivalency series. Thus, “the beginning, the middle, and the end of religion is Man” [#1] his own and his god’s alpha and omega.[2]

We don’t want to give Feuerbach too much shrift, but along with Barth I think we should actually appreciate Feuerbach’s critique of the pietistic conception of God; at least to an extent. I believe that his critique is apropos to what I was describing above; this concept of God that really is contingent upon what we need him to become for us. We end up constructing a God to meet our perceived needs, and thus projecting an uber-concept greater than ourselves who we believe is the living God who can meet all of my emotional and other needs in just the way I might think they need to be met; typically meaning that we will feel a certain way, or have an experience of God that we deem worthy of the God we worship.

What is prompting this post, really, was that I was listening to a local Christian music radio station, and they were interviewing the lead singer of one of the groups they play on their station. He was sharing some personal stuff he was dealing with in regard to doubt about God’s love and presence in his life. He said that he was in a dark place with that when he wrote his song, but that in the midst of that God’s light began to break through the darkness and he began to have an experience of God that began to assuage his feelings of darkness and angst. What I sensed though, as I listened to him, was this type of pietistic mood and conception of God, like the one I’ve been describing above. The idea that God becomes what we need him to be, and typically that is resident within a particular experience or feeling; of the kind that a song could capture.

I too, years ago, and for many years in my life, experienced deep angst, anxiety, and depression; I struggled deeply with doubt of God’s existence, and doubt of reality itself. The only way I could describe that season was that it was hell. The kind of God I was being pointed to in that season, and because of my evangelical context, was the kind that this singer above seems to be thinking from; this God who will become whoever I needed him to be. But this, in the end, never really helped me; in fact I would say it prolonged the dark season of my soul by placing all of the weight and onus on me to construct a God, to muster a feeling, wherein I finally felt like the ‘light was breaking through the darkness’ and I was having a real experience with the real God; the God who indeed is love.

The concept of God that Feuerbach was primarily critiquing in his historical period would be something like Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of God; a God known primarily by a ‘turn to the subject’. A God who was more contingent upon how I ‘felt’ about God, or we felt about God as the community of Christ, rather than believing that we could actually be confronted by God by way of direct encounter with him as revealed in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. While the relationship between the evangelical concept of God and Schleiermacher’s concept of God might only have tenuous linkage, I believe there is enough to make my particular point stick. In other words, whether Schleiermacher or a Western evangelical, we all have the propensity to construct gods of our own making by way of self-projection; in other words, in line with a Calvinian theme, we are all idol-manufacturing people who bend that way over and again, and constantly. If we find ourselves within a community of faith wherein we are fed theology that reinforces that bent, that’s the direction we will turn. And then we fall prey to Feuerbach’s critique; we are simply worshiping a God of our own making and projection.

Contrariwise, the reality is that the living God is, of course, not of our own making; he’s not a projection of us. Indeed, the living God has spoken in Christ; he has revealed himself over the long period of salvation-history as mediated through Jesus Christ. What finally “cured” me, and this was significant towards bringing me out of my long long season of doubt and anxiety, was to be confronted with the fact that God isn’t who we need him to become. All of that presupposes that we actually know who we need him to become for us; that we can search our own hearts and minds at the depths that only he can. When I realized that God is not who we need him to become it began to liberate me. I was able to come out of myself, and realize that the life I needed was found ecstatically; he was God in Jesus Christ. I didn’t need to engage in self-psychology anymore, I could simply begin the life giving process of doing doxological/worshipful theology and constant meditation upon who the actual living and true God is. I.e. The God who broke into my sinful human nature, and recreated it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I could begin living out of the new creation and first fruits that Jesus was and is for me, as the new creation of God in his humanity for me.

The irony of the ‘God becomes who I need him to be’ approach is that it not only dehumanizes us (by putting us in the position of God), but it dedivinizes God (by reducing him to a human projection). Coming to know God more accurately, or rightly, more orthodoxly meant for me a way of escape; it indeed did bring God’s genuine light into the serious darkness of my soul. I was set free indeed. My hope is that I can help other people experience this same freedom by introducing them to God who is indeed love, but who defines what that means for himself.

[1] I John 4:7-10, NASB.

[2] Daryl, “And Was Made Man”: The Witness of Feuerbach’s Anti-Theology, Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007), accessed 05-29-2017.

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.

 

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

As I see it there is a major need for genuine Christian education and discipleship within the North American Protestant churches. My background and training, and ministerial experience fits me into a role that could help facilitate this; my guess is that there are probably countless others out there like me. But I don’t want this post to be about me, but about this need in the churches.

What the evangelical Christian church has become is a place where consumerism thrives, not discipleship. But Jesus said in His ‘Great Commission,’ which all of these consumer churches can quote
eucharistfrom heart, and do:

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~Matthew 28:19-20

Jesus, according to the missio Dei conception of God, is the God who is shaped by mission, by being sent for us in the Son. As participants in and from His life, by the same Spirit that created the space for the Son’s movement, we too now are called, and more strongly, commanded to “go” and make disciples. Interestingly this imperative isn’t an imperative given by the church, it isn’t something given energy by our own conceiving, no it is something that is based in the indicative reality of God’s life sent for us in Jesus Christ. You will notice that in the Great Commission passage in Matthew that it isn’t our name, our church’s name, or the newest program sold to all of the churches from para-church think-tanks that we are to baptize people into; no, people are baptized into the one name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But what does this really entail? The ‘commission’ tells us: we are to teach them. Teach them what? “To observe all that I have commanded you.” What has our Lord commanded us? Well there is that other famous passage, also found in the Gospel according to Matthew known as the ‘Great Commandment:’

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment.39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” ~Matthew 22:34-40

Jesus, the second Moses and Rabbi that He is hearkens people back to the Torah, the ‘instruction’ of God to His covenant people; and He doesn’t just hearken back in the abstract, but instead to the touchstone passage that all good Jews would know as the Great Shema, or the great ‘Name’ found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

It is interesting, isn’t it? Jesus, the Lord, points people back to the ‘Law of God,’ the Torah of God, or the ‘instruction’ of God; this is interesting because usually when we think of God as lawgiver we think of performance based, duty-driven, decision-centered things. But that is not how Jesus sees what He has commanded us; He sees it all framed by love of God, and that this encapsulates everything else, including obedience to God. And He further sees love as grounded, not in abstract relation, but in the concrete relation of what constitutes the one name of God, the Triune name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This reminds us of I John 4:19: ‘God first loved us that we might love Him.’

Jesus, in the Great Commission is not commissioning us to think up things that will appeal to the culture at large in order to make them disciples. He is commissioning us to make disciples based upon His Great Commandment, the one first given to His covenant people, Israel, in the Great Name (Shema) passage found in Deuteronomy. Jesus as God’s Self-revelation explains or exegetes what the name of God entails; i.e. the Triune name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As disciple-makers in the church of Jesus Christ we are to be baptizing people (from the nations) into and from that name; the name energized by the resurrection power of God in Jesus Christ. It is this name where the love of God, the God who is love comes and encounters His disciples inculcating them into His divine nature, and shedding abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit His love for them and their neighbors (the nations).

As I see all of this, none of this can happen in the abstract. In other words the church has been gifted with teachers (and more), and people need to be taught through the liturgy of the church, through catechetical training, and most importantly through reading Scripture with Christ as the center what in fact has happened to them, and what is happening to them afresh and anew every day as God in Christ breaks into their lives on a daily basis. People in the church need to know who this God is through the resource that He has provided for them in His dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, His Self-actualized explanation of Himself to them. This discipling also happens through partaking of the holy Eucharist, which teaches the disciple that we are witness bearers of the divine name until Jesus comes again.

But again, people need to be taught, and willing to learn what this all means. This isn’t really a matter of how we feel; instead it is a matter of being obedient to the commandment of God’s life, obedient to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to be growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and this is grounded in His life. Consumerism in the church, contextualization in the church is not the ground upon which the Great Commission can be fulfilled; instead it can only be fulfilled by being obedient to the reality of the Great Commandment wherein Triune love is the touchstone upon which all discipleship takes place. And that in itself is where discipleship happens most, when the disciple-makers bear witness to the reality of who God is.

Becoming disciples of Jesus Christ, in my view, is really a matter of doxology. It is a matter of learning how to delve deep into the depth dimension of who God is, seek Him first in all that He is in Himself (aseity), and allow that perspective to drain us of all of our humanly conceived resources and cause us to raise our hands to Him and cry out: ‘Lord have mercy, we are not worthy.’ True disciples of Jesus Christ learn how to abide in the ‘we are not worthy, but you are worthy for us oh Lamb of God’ mode all the days of their lives. And as they are in step with the Spirit in this way, their perspectives and very lives are transformed by the fire of God’s life for them; and it is this fire that spreads to our neighbors, to the nations. This fire, which is all consuming, is God’s Triune life. He calls all to enter into it, to the holy ground of His life, and to be transformed there, and to keep being transformed there over and over again, from glory to glory.

My calling is to be a disciple-maker!

 

Something that I struggle with, personally, is with the apparent need calvinspulpitfor depth in Christian discipleship, and how that relates to Pulpit ministry. In other words, because of the way that I am wired, the way the Lord has worked in my life, in particular, I struggle with the idea that all people, all Christians need to be being inculcated with the deeper things, the deeper realities that the history of Christian ideas and Christian Dogmatics have to offer. I want to see people push deep into being deep thinkers about our deep God; but we aren’t all the same are we? We are the ‘body of Christ’; as such we all have our roles within that body-life. And so since this is the reality I simply need to remember all of this, and ask the Lord for wisdom and sensitivity to where people are at in their own walks with Jesus Christ. I think there does need to be a challenge to the body of Christ at large to go deeper, to stretch further into the doctrinal riches God has for us in Christ; but then this also needs to be chastened by the further idea that not all have been called to spend all of their time thinking about the relationship, say, between the Divine and human natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ (this is why creeds and such are so important because they allow non-professional theologians to affirm the deep and doxological truths required by the pressures of the Christ reality, while at the same time not requiring person’s affirming such creeds to necessarily engage in all of the fine tuning and intricacies of developing theories of kenosis etc.).

Along these lines, Karl Barth has a good word on how Christian Dogmatics and Preaching should relate. Barth writes:

When I say dogmatics I naturally have in mind not only what goes on at the university and in books — though I mean that too — but also everything that individual theologians do all their lives as also official systematicians, everything that goes on always and everywhere behind the front of proclamation, everything that I called reflection in § 5. The only thing is that we must not confuse dogmatics and preaching. You should not go out and for a few years overpower your poor congregations with the contents of your notebooks, with the objective and subjective possibilities of revelation, with exercises in the ancient and modern theologies of the schools that we have to study here, with the dialectical corners into which I have to lead you here. You must draw the content of your sermons from the well which stands precisely between the Bible, your own concrete situation, and that of your hearers. Homiletics and practical theology as a whole will deal with it. In no case, however, must you draw on my own or any other dogmatics and please, not from the dogmatics that probably each of you will work out for private use. Everything in its own time and place. Dogmatics is an exercise when it is done properly, but still an exercise, a preparatory act behind the scenes. If other people are interested in it, then we must not forbid this, but as a whole I would say to you that there is hardly anything that we theologians should keep as much to ourselves as dogmatics.[1]

Thank you, Uncle Karl.

Full disclosure: What I do on this blog represents something more like my personal theological notebook, written in a way that I realize that other’s are looking in from time to time. But what I plan on doing, soon, is to start writing min-sermons and posting them here at the blog. My tentative plan is to have what I might call Homiley Mondays, and each Monday post a new sermon on a particular topic or theological exposition of Scripture. I think this will be good practice for me, and hopefully edifying for you.

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics. Instruction in the Christian Religion, Vol. One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 276.

Pastors, especially in the North American evangelical context, in my experience, feel the need to make a sell, or make the Gospel relevant; but this is exactly the wrong way, the wrong order towards proclaiming the ‘good progressivepreachernews’ that Jesus Christ is. I would say that approaching preaching this way is at an epidemic level among North American evangelical pastors. They have been told that the culture at large (inclusive of Christians) have become bored with religion, and no longer see the significance of it for their lives. So in order to fill this gap, pastors, often sense the need to figure out how to make the Gospel proclaimed relevant for their parishoner’s lives. But in reality, the Gospel is indeed relevant; it might appear weak and foolish, but the wisdom of God is on display in the Gospel; and it comes in ‘his weakness’ ‘his foolishness’, and it produces hearts that come to see it as more relevant, more fresh, more pertinent, more other-worldly/yet-most-worldly than any other reality this soul has ever encountered in its entire life.

John Webster, British theologian par excellence, has written on the best way for preachers to preach the Gospel. As you will notice, he presumes upon the adequacy and sufficiency of the Gospel itself; and then allows that reality to ground and fund what the preacher is supposed to do, and how he (or she, depending on your views) is to go about it. Webster writes:

Second, entrusted with and responsible for the message of reconciliation, what does the preacher do? It is tempting to think of the task of preaching as one in which the preacher struggles to ‘make real’ the divine message by arts of application and cultural interpretation, seeking rhetorical ways of establishing continuity between the Word and the present situation. Built into that correlational model of preaching (which is by no means that preserve of the liberal Christian tradition) are two assumptions: an assumption that the Word is essentially inert or absent from the present until introduced by the act of human proclamation, and an assumption that the present is part of another economy from that of which Scripture speaks. But in acting as the ambassador of the Word, the preacher enters a situation which already lies within the economy of reconciliation, in which the Word is antecedently present and active. The church of the apostles and the church now form a single reality, held together not by precarious active presence. The preacher, therefore, faces a situation in which the Word has already addressed and continues to address the church, and does not need somehow by homiletic exertions to generate and present the Word’s meaningfulness. The preacher speaks on Christ’s behalf; the question of whether Christ is himself present and effectual is one which – in the realm of the resurrection and exaltation of the Son – has already been settled and which the preacher can safely leave behind.

Preaching is commissioned human speech in which God makes his appeal. It is public reiteration of the divine Word as it articulates itself in the words of the prophets and apostles, and by it the Holy Spirit forms the church. This public reiteration both arises within and returns to contemplative attention to the Word; the church preaches because it is a reading and a hearing community….[1]

This should help to provide relief for you, pastor. As you prepare your next sermon[s] I would think that it would be encouraging to know that you are not trying to sell anything; that you are not trying to make the Gospel relevant for a certain audience; but because the Gospel is relevant you have something to herald that does not ride on your wit or humor, but on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the same grace that gives each and every one of us the breath we breathe—what could be more relevant than that?


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 26.

I’ll come back to NT Wright, how can I not? But I wanted to highlight something—briefly again—I want to highlight the important impact pastors have. I grew up as the son of a Baptist pastor man (which I have recounted jesuslovemore than once), and so I was always present to the ministry of the church, and part of pastoral life at an intimate level. But just out of high school (in 1992), I went through a lukewarm lull in my walk with Christ; suffice it to say the Lord radically turned my lights back on while I was with some friends in Las Vegas. This brought about a long prolonged season of life where I began to experience crisis, theologically, in my life and Christian spirituality; but crisis in the kind of way of the Apostle Paul, where he had the sentence of death written upon him so that he wouldn’t trust himself, but in the one who raises the dead (II Cor. 1.7ff). And it was in this period, in this season of crisis (by the way I continue on in a theology of crises, but in a different mode than in these initial stages) that the importance and significance of pastors became prominent for me. I needed them; I needed them to point me to Christ in an informed, biblical, and theological way.

By God’s grace I had the opportunity to be directed to Christ through the ministries and pastors of various Calvary Chapels in Southern California (my home church became Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa at this point in life). The Lord providentially used these ministries and pastors to provide an anchor for me which gave me a counter-voice to the pagan voices and ethos I was surrounded by, day to day, in day to day life. At a point, though, these pastors weren’t enough; they weren’t going deep enough, they weren’t providing me with the intellectual and devotional/theological resource my soul was really crying out for. And so I had to enroll in a Bible College and Seminary with trained theologians and pastors at its helm.

And now, though, as I reflect on other people out there, so many of them in crisis in the way that I was, I am concerned! And once again I realize how important and serious it is for pastors to take their jobs very seriously. They need to be men who are drinking deeply from theological pools that become an overflowing fount out of which they might minister to these thirsty souls. They need to remember how lonely and desperate many Christians are ‘out there’ in the world, and how they represent the only tangible point of contact and resource that many and most Christians have available to them. Being a pastor is serious business; it is exceedingly overwhelming, of the kind that the pastor must ever anew, everyday be pushed into and rest upon the breast of God in Jesus Christ—by so doing, they can genuinely provide rest for their parishioners upon that same breast.

 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. ~John 15:5

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judgedmore strictly. ~James 3:1

aug

I am not going to say much, other than that this helps me. I am a sinner, and I still sin, frequently in fact. The only difference between me and the world is that I am a saved sinner (simultaneously justified and sinner); nevertheless, I still think in ways that terminate nowhere else but in the self, and by absolutizing material reality in a way that never gets back to material realities origin. Like the world I think foolishly (at points), and like ancient Israel, I have my high places. So what helps me, and maybe it will help you too, is Webster’s discussion of the vice of curiosity. Here is what he has written:

(2) Curiosity involves the direction of intellectual powers to new knowledge of created realities without reference to their creator. In curiosity, the movement of the mind terminates on corporeal properties of things newly known, without completing its full course by coming to rest in the divine reality which is their principle. In effect, curiosity stops short at created signs, lingering too long over them and not allowing them to steer intelligence to the creator. So Augustine against the Manichees:

Some people, neglecting virtue and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of the nature which remains always the same, think that they are engaged in an important business when searching with the greatest inquisitiveness and eagerness into this material mass which we call the world … The soul … which purposes to keep itself chaste for God must refrain from the desire of vain knowledge like this. For the desire usually produces delusion, so that the soul thinks that nothing exists but what is material.

Curiosity, Augustine says elsewhere, is ‘eating earth’, penetrating deep and dark places which are still time-bound and earthly. Or again, in another idiom, curiosity is the ‘lust of the eyes’ (1 Jn 2.16), so called, Augustine says, because its origin lies in our ‘appetite for learning’, and ‘the sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge’. It is that ‘vain and curious longing in the soul’ which, ‘cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning’ is in reality a greed for ‘new experiences through the flesh’, a disordered ‘passion for experimenting and knowledge’ – flocking to see a lacerated corpse, attending a theatrical spectacle, letting contemplation be distracted by watching a lizard catch flies. Curiosity terminates on surfaces. [John Webster, The Domain of the Word, 196.]

I fall into the trap of curiosity more than I would like to admit! But I seek, by the Spirit, to live a life of (as Torrance would say) ‘repentant thinking’. Living a life that moves and breathes from the Spirit’s breath, the breath that animates the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. There is a depth dimension to Christianity and this life that most Christians will never experience in this life (and I am not supposing that the alternative is an elitist gnostic kind of Christianity!), because we are too curious and not contemplative and critical enough in our daily walks with Christ. As James writes “14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” Curiosity is the desire that terminates in sin and death. We so often give into this curiosity, and hardly ever do the hard work of actual Christian contemplation. We go the way of the world, we are just too curious.

I wanted to take a moment and call us to remember a certain sector of people, of whom I was once apart (not too long ago), that are currently living in a reality that is worlds apart from the daily, mundane reality that ‘healthy’ jesusjairuspeople experience on a day to day existence. As Arthur McGill aptly notes of our society in relation to life and death:

[A]s we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of neat and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them? And given the fine appearances of the suburbs, who can tolerate the slums of the inner city? After all, there we see life collapsing and going to pieces. Urban renewal is required, not to improve the living condition of the people, for they are simply moved elsewhere to less conspicuous slums. It is not to increase the tax revenue, because so much of urban renewal involves tax breaks, subsidized construction, and government office buildings. Rather, urban renewal is required in order to remove from the city that visible mark of the failure of life. [p. 18]

And following a little further on from this:

[W]hat about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them…. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls. [Arthur C. McGill, Death And Life: An American Theology, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1987), 18-9.]

portlandtramI used to drive by that tall and shiny glass plated building with the sky tram connected to it in downtown Portland, OR, and not give that building a second thought—the building that had OHSU stamped on it; I just thought it contributed to the picturesque skyscape of the Portland metroplex. Before 2009 I never would have imagined the kind of death and suffering I was driving by; I never would have contemplated the kind of human suffering that was being experienced, the reality of life-together dreams being snuffed out as spouses, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandparents and grandchildren were slowly dripping away as each drop of poison fell into the veins of those hoping that somehow this magical cocktail would resurrect instead of quench their shared dreams and hopes. But my experience changed. Once I was diagnosed with my statistically terminal cancer, I broke through that glass house, and saw what it looked like from the inside looking out, looking out (literally) on all the cars and people driving by aloof to the fact that I, along  with a host of others, was sitting there dying (of course I generalize to a degree, I am only referring to those driving by who themselves are generally healthy and not on their way to a glass plated building of their own).

Anyway, I thought I would just offer this (cheerful) post by way of reminder. There is a universe next door (as James Sire has used in another context), and people, even in America, are suffering untold misery (even self imposed as it might be sometimes). As you drive by the freshly waxed luxury car today, or you drive by the shiny glass palaces of veneer,  just remember that everyday life looks entirely different from the inside (of those glassy buildings) looking out.

As Christians (and McGill gets to this in the second half of his book), we embrace death, the death that Christ took for us, that His life might also be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies (II Cor. 4.10). And we glory in weakness, because God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, as we understand that we ec-statically and continuously receive our life as gift from the Son’s life for us. So we don’t hide behind glass windows, and well manicured lawns; we look past the mockery of all that, just as Jesus did when he walked past all of the window dressing and false-mourners at the little girls death. Jesus confronted death with His life, and gave life by absorbing her death through His spoken Word Talitha koum! (Mark 5:35-42). We need to penetrate through all the falsity offered by the worldly crowd, those who mock death, by not genuinely dealing with it; and remember the sick among us.

PS. I would appreciate your prayers, I have my next CT scan at the end of May (just to make sure the cancer is still gone).

I am going to try and do a post like this once a week, they will be entitled Pastoral Pause. These posts will be moments where I pause and attempt to summarize all that I have been writing on throughout that particular week, and where I will seek to explain why I think whatever I might be writing upon in that week has important pastoral and real life implications and consequences. Recently I have had an unnamed person tell me that they have (basically) been observing my blog posts (and Facebook posts) over time, and that what I am doing is fine as a hobby (like academic theology is what they said), but that, in the end, all of my musing about deep theological things really is too abstract and aloof to have any value for real life daily Christianity; for affecting real life change in the lives of real life people, who are broken and hurting. This person suggested that I ought to abandon my writings, readings, and thinkings in the regard that I usually do; and instead, they suggested, that I engage in real life Christianity, by loving people, ministering to their needs through showing care and concern, and meet people’s real needs, spiritually. This person thought I should simply relegate all of my theological musings, etc. to an abstract category known as Hobby. 

Let me be very real and frank and personal (if I cussed, I would right now). I make absolutely NO apologies for being who I am (insofar as that magnifies Jesus, and comes from Him), and who the LORD has created me to be (in Christ)! Where I am, and who I am (and am continuing to become) are a result of years and years (now) of going through dire and deep stuff (and I’m not just referring to the cancer). Without getting into all of the details of my life, I think deeply and have deep concerns for God’s people (Christ’s church), because that is who the Lord has created me to be; so to deny this part of me (which is my whole part), would be to deny myself, and to deny myself, would be to deny Christ in me, the hope of glory! There are thousands and thousands of other Christians out there who think deeply (and/or who want to), and who are groping to find answers to their deepest theological questions. It is neither loving or caring to force these people into a mode where they suppress their deepest questions, and end up living their Christian lives in Fundy fear. In other words, it makes absolutely no sense to me to divorce thinking from loving. I have tried to live like that, and it (almost) literally drove me crazy (and I mean that!). The best I know how to do is to show God’s love to people, by surely, being sensitive to them, by listening to them, by praying with and for them, and then by pointing them to Christ (which is profoundly given shape by deep heartfelt thought and thus love of Christ).

This post has turned into something more than I had anticipated when I started writing it. I am not going to be solely doing these posts once a week because of this one person’s comments from Facebook, but they do represent an attitude that needs to be corrected (drastically) in many quarters of the American Evangelical church (if not elsewhere)! I want people to see how so called academic theology and pastoral theology (and Christian spirituality) are not equivocal, should not be divorced from each other; but instead these two realities ought to be understood as one and the same. Pastoral theology is simply the applied side of Academic theology; Pastoral Theology is akin to Principalization and Application in Inductive Bible Study, as is Academic Theology with Observation and Interpretation—and all of this is given regulative value through the only proper and Christian ‘rule of faith’ who is Christ Himself. And so this series of posts will be an attempt to draw lines between what is usually academic theology here on the blog, to its application and implication in Pastoral Theology; and just an attempt to make the connections that are often hard to make for some people (and I mean seeing how and why understanding the Covenant of Works or Perichoresis or whatever is significant for our daily lives).

So stay tuned …

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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“We must always keep in mind that the reason the Son of God came down from the hidden throne of the eternal Father and revealed heavenly doctrine was not to furnish material for seminary debates, in which the display of ingenuity might be the game, but rather so that human beings should be instructed concerning true knowledge of God and of all those things which are necessary to the pursuit of eternal salvation.” Martin Chemnitz, Loci theol. ed., 1590, Hypomnemata 9 cited by Barth, CD I/1, 82.

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