“What Season Was Adam Created in?” And Other Questions That Make Us Giggle

lego-adam-and-eveIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged in Turretin, so I figured I’d get back at it before Scott Swain loses heart. To be honest, I was working my way through his section on the decrees and predestination of God. Apart from the usual density of Turretin’s prose, mucking about with God’s eternal decrees which are actually one decrees and will, only multiply distinguished according to our own conceptions…Well, you get the picture. My hubris in theological writing only extends so far.

In any case, I’ve begun Turretin’s section on Creation and things have predictably smoothed out a bit. Given that much of the heavy lifting has been done earlier, Turretin is mercifully clear, and there is quite a bit of interesting biblical exegesis. Actually, I really found a few sections of his examination of the days of creation to be beautiful. What’s more, I’m continually shocked at the broadness of Turretin’s learning as well as the sources he’s willing to draw on. In one paragraph alone, he appeals to the Targum Onkelos, another rabbi, Rashi’s commentary, and caps it off with a quotation from Augustine.

What’s really struck me in this section, though, is the oddness of some of his discussion questions. For instance, there are a number of the discussions on subjects you’d expect. He has a longish question on whether creation is eternal or not, or whether it could theoretically have been eternal as Aquinas argued. Not only is that a famous debate in the middle ages, for those paying attention to current discussions around creation, that debate is still live. For people exploring panentheist theologies, or versions where God is something like the emergent property of the universe, Turretin’s discussion of whether anything besides God could be eternal can easily become relevant.

On the other hand, there are times when four hundred years distance in terms of culture and scientific cosmology show their colors.

How many of you would think to ask the question and argue at length over the question of “What season was the world created?” I mean, really, was it spring, fall, winter, or summer when Adam popped up in the Garden of Eden? Were the leaves just turning red, gold, and brown, or were they newly in flower? Was it harvest time, or were the flowers just blooming? Would Adam have to knit a sweater soon, or were things nice and balmy? Or maybe Eden was just perpetually living in summer–kind of like Orange County?

I’m going to assume that if you’re like me, this question simply never occurred to you. But apparently this was a lively enough debate for Turretin to devote four pages of dense prose to the matter.

Another section that made me giggle a bit, was his segment on the nature of the waters above in the heavens. This is the 1600s so they’re not working with our modern cosmology, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have learned discussions based on the best observation and scientific theories of the day–theories that we might still find plausible and with sufficient explanatory power to convince us if we didn’t have computers connected to telescopes floating about in space.

What’s interesting is how these paradigms played a role in their theological disputation. For instance, the “waters of the heaven” debated became relevant in Turretin’s debate with the Lutherans because apparently some Lutherans were asserting that a layer of water would interfere with the type ascension of Christ and believers the Reformed asserted. They then used that premise to strengthen their arguments for their views of the Lord’s Supper which depends on the omnipresence of Christ’s physical body. See how quickly that goes from bizarre preoccupation to important sacramental debate? (For the record, Turretin believed that they referred the clouds on the basis of scientific theories and exegesis.)

Or again, among other reasons, Turretin reasoned that Adam was created in a part of the world that was in Autumn at the time because it was the most hospitable season for man. This is important because it gives testimony to the benevolent care of God for his human Image-bearers. It also points us to the fact that humanity is the crown of creation–the world was made for man, not the other way around. In other words, in the middle of this rather odd discussion–to our minds–there’s a profound humanism at work that still speaks a biblical word to us today.

Of course, all of these raises the question: which debates and discussions will give our spiritual and theological descendants a bit of a giggle? Which of the hot topic issues that currently exercise us, or fascinate us will pass entirely out of the theological discussion in the coming decades and centuries? We need to remember that our own age is not the summit of theological development. Being farther down the timeline doesn’t necessarily mean we’re farther along in the discussion. At times contemporary concerns can end up being little more than distractions in the long run. Distinctions can be discarded and lost for a time as unnecessary or out-moded, only to be discovered as crucial after the damage of their loss has been made painfully apparent by the failure of theological discussion without them.

Only time will tell, of course. May God give us the grace to struggle faithfully for the truth in all of our discussions and the humility to know the provisional, time-bound nature of all our creaturely labors.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Look At How Jesus Worked For Me!” (A Reflection on Testimony and Gospel Preaching)

There is a bit of irony of the preaching and spread of the gospel after the dispersion of the Church in Acts 8.

And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:1-4)

peter preachingWhat was this preaching like? Whatever it was, it must be something a bit different than what we often hear in churches and pulpits when it comes to evangelism. Often we’re told that all we must do to share the gospel is share our own story. All we need to do is share of the marvelous things God has done in our lives to change our circumstances, our families, our jobs, and our general outlook on life.

In a sense, we’re told to share a story whose essential core is: “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!”  Some of this is due to our Evangelical history of sharing our testimonies of faith. Beyond that, though, it is reinforced by with our culture’s current emphasis on the power of personal stories and truth something we arrive at through our own narratives.

But how does that work for those who were “scattered” after Paul was “ravaging the church” in the midst of the persecution in Jerusalem? What about those devout men who buried Stephen and made a great lamentation over him? It’s hard to imagine them heading out into the hillsides and cities of Samaria and Judea saying, “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!” Losing your home, your job, your family, any and all social standing you might have had, freedom, security, or even physical health doesn’t really look like Jesus “worked” to most people.

No, there had to have been something more compelling than that. And indeed, if you look at the preaching in the book of Acts, there is. Take, for instance, Peter’s speech to the crowds in Acts 2 is paradigmatic:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:22-41)

What do we see here? A personal reflection on the way Jesus has changed Peter’s life? A recounting of Jesus’ personal forgiveness on the shores of Galilee? A narrative about Peter’s own relief and growing sense of personal confidence because of his encounter with Jesus? No. What we find is a recitation of the good news of Jesus’ story. Over and over again we see this discernable core message that God has kept his promises to save the world. He has done so by sending the Messiah, the King of Israel who is indeed the King of the Whole World. And this king has lived, taught, died a death for sin, risen again to new life, and is even now seated on the throne of heaven offering forgiveness for their rebellion and salvation to all who believe in him. This is the gospel message that comes with power even when the messenger seems outwardly weak, and their story doesn’t seem to “work” according to most outward, human principles.

This is the message that Luke talks about when he says that Philip went about after the dispersion:

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.  For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8)

And later, in his encounter with the Eunuch, we see him preach to him on the basis of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40).

Where am I going with all of this? I don’t want to ignore, or deny the power that sharing our personal testimony has in leading someone to faith, or in encouraging the faith of other believers. Peter’s story (besides establishing his renewed apostolicity and place in the church) is a personal comfort and a demonstration of the gospel at work to transform an individual’s life. There is a proper place for our stories.

But what I want us to remember that there is another, deeper story that forms the heart of the gospel. Peter’s story only matters because it’s based on a prior story about God and God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord who is bringing the kingdom, making all things new and inviting sinners to be forgiven and participate in the process. That is the invitation that underlies all of our stories and the one that should be the focus of all of our sharing and evangelism.

In other words, the story that ultimately changes us is the one that says not, “Look at how Jesus has worked for me!”, but “Look at Jesus’ work for me!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Public Shaming on the Internet

We have a growing culture of public shaming.  Or at least that’s one possible conclusion from an interesting NY Times essay on the phenomenon.  We decided that we should take up the question of what such public shaming means for us as Christians.  So we did.

As always, if you found this helpful, feel free to share with others.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria

The Ring, the Giver, and the Bridezilla Inside Us All

bridezillas-showTrue story:  I won’t say when and I won’t say how, but I have seen episodes of the show Bridezillas. Mostly in horror. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s essentially a reality show that follows soon-to-be, hysterical, tyrannical, drama-queen brides as they prepare for their weddings. The show is a parade of varying levels of emotional and relational dysfunction, narcissism, horrible family patterns, and mayhem with humorous commentary.  Obviously, all the caveats, warnings, and self-deprecating comments about voyeuristic reality shows can be inserted here.

Still, I was reminded of the show the other day when I ran across a passage in Augustine that I think cuts to the heart of the most horrifying thing about most of the brides on the show. Augustine is preaching about the proper relationship of Christians to the world and what it means not to “love the world, neither the things that are in the world.” He is careful to distinguish between loving the world as a created gift (ie. heaven, moon, sun, earth, oceans, etc), and loving it as an end in itself:

Let the Spirit of God be in you, that you may see that all these things are good: but woe to you if you love the things made, and forsake the Maker of them! Fair are they to you: but how much fairer He  God does not forbid you to love these things, howbeit, not to set your affections upon them for blessedness, but to approve and praise them to this end, that you may love your Creator. In the same manner, my brethren, as if a bridegroom should make a ring for his bride, and she having received the ring, should love it more than she loves the bridegroom who made the ring for her: would not her soul be found guilty of adultery in the very gift of the bridegroom, albeit she did but love what the bridegroom gave her? By all means let her love what the bridegroom gave: yet should she say, This ring is enough for me, I do not wish to see his face now, what sort of woman would she be? Who would not detest such folly? Who would not pronounce her guilty of an adulterous mind? You love gold in place of the man, lovest a ring in place of the bridegroom: if this be in you, that you love a ring in place of your bridegroom, and hast no wish to see your bridegroom; that he has given you an earnest, serves not to pledge you to him, but to turn away your heart from him! For this the bridegroom gives earnest, that in his earnest he may himself be loved. Well then, God gave you all these things: love Him that made them. There is more that He would fain give you, that is, His very Self that made these things. But if you love these— what though God made them— and neglect the Creator and love the world; shall not your love be accounted adulterous?

-2nd Homily on the First Epistle of John

The horror of watching some of these Bridezillas, aside from the blatant idolatry of the bride who says “It’s all about me”, is the way obsession about the wedding, the dress, the ring, and all the trappings and accoutrements eclipses any sane focus on the marriage or impending union with the groom. There are a number of episodes where the bride’s fixation on having the perfect wedding, perfect ceremony and party, so engulfs her that she pours out abuse upon abuse on her family, friends, and alleged love of her life. You could easily imagine her dispensing with the groom entirely if it weren’t for the fact that it would ruin the balance of the pictures.

And this, of course, is the deepest horror of it all: in viewing the Bridezilla, we find ourselves exposed. The worship of the wedding on the part of the Zilla is just a microcosm of my daily temptation to worship creation instead of the Creator. I am the Bride who focuses on the Ring instead of the Giver of the ring. Every time I look to God and accuse him of not arranging my life in the particular ways I picture it playing out, I am, in effect, focusing on the quality of the gold, the shape of the diamond, and the way it sits on my finger instead of the glory, goodness, and generosity of the God who gives me these things that I do not deserve. (Note: do not read this as a comment on the relative worth of brides and husbands on the human plane.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a beautiful wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying God’s creation and even desiring it. Augustine reminds us, though, that the things of the world, all that shines and is fair, becomes an idol unless it is taken for what it is: a gift and a token of something of far surpassing worth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Landscape Artist

landscapePsalm 107 is a testimony to the great love of the LORD, recounting his mighty acts of salvation for his chosen people Israel. Towards the end, the Psalmist gives us a powerful, albeit quirky image of the LORD’s wonder-working salvation:

He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the evil of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell,
and they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.
By his blessing they multiply greatly,
and he does not let their livestock diminish.
(Psalm 107:33-38)

In this life, it often appears that then land of the righteous is desolate while the unrighteous seem to reap a bountiful harvest that overflows into abundance.

Their investments multiply. Their children grow strong. And those of the righteous? They seem to languish in poverty and overcome with illness.

Yet the Psalmist testifies that the LORD is a mighty God who works a salvation of reversal.

The full become empty and the empty are filled. The barren give fruit while the fertile dry up.

Rich valleys and fields become salted wastelands, cursed and bereft of life.

Deserts are transformed into lush gardens teeming with life.

Gardens become the foundation of cities and culture.

Where once was a desert and the threat of death, there stands a city where the hungry can be nourished.

The God of Israel is in the habit of reworking the landscape of reality.

For those who trust on him, this is what he does in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Friendly Rejoinder to a Response to a Reply to a Defense of the Term “Savages”

Last week Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan wrote a piece defending Chris Kyle’s use of the term “savages” to name his opponents. I followed it up with a piece questioning some aspects of that defence. This week Andrew had a friendly response to my critique. If you haven’t already, please read these before going further as I won’t be recapping the arguments. Also, please note, if you comment in a way that indicates you have not read the articles, I’ll likely ignore you.

That out of the way, what I want to do is just give a quick, friendly follow-up to clarify my points in contrast and agreement with Walker.

First, I hope I did not give the impression that Christians ought not name evil in stark, appropriate terms. Indeed, I noted that I was grateful to Walker and Strachan for making that broader point. Naming actions as wicked, evil, idolatrous, violent, and so forth are necessary for proper Christian speech. So, just to be clear, I have no problem labeling the atrocities recently perpetrated by ISIS as wicked, grotesque, cruel, and utterly appalling. In that sense, I find a larger, broader agreement with Walker and Strachan in the principle of naming evil as evil.

What I was suggesting was a nuance on the point. I proposed that we ought to be sure we take into account the historical dimension of speech, paying attention, not only to the dictionary denotation of a term, but the socio-cultural connotations of a particular term like “savage.” Walker disputes that point:

Implied in his criticism of us is that naming something as evil or “savage” can or should be conditioned or governed by externalities that have nothing to do with the evil being perpetrated. On this, I simply disagree.

As Walker says, evil is no respecter of persons and our naming of evil should not be. Our naming of evil should be carried on without fear of social and cultural realities as long as we’re equal-opportunity offenders:

And I agree, fiercely, with a recent headline “When ISIS Ran the American South” from Rod Dreher, who linked to a story out of The New York Times that described the barbaric, savage practice of lynching in the American South. I’ll willingly be an equal opportunity offender: Those Americans who perpetrated lynchings acted as savages, driven by irrational motive and employing brutal tactics that were unspeakably awful (and what is incalculably terrible is that many who professed Christ were the evildoers. Maranatha!). I’m not concerned about the feelings of any American who felt they were somehow justified to commit barbaric acts against their fellow citizens because of their skin color. I want to confront that past evil, name it, and work to end future occurrences of it.

Where evil is practiced, let us call it evil, barbarous, and savagery—regardless of culture, race, or ethnicity. Let not the troubled conscience of past sins erode our ability to name evil for what it truly is. Let us be aware of the points of vulnerability, but let not that impede the opportunity to speak in morally stark terms that seeks to restrain the evildoer and rescue the innocent.

I appreciate Walker’s egalitarian approach to condemnation and discernment, as well as Dreher’s willingness to remind Americans of their own possibility of descending into “savagery.” Indeed, in my pastoral care, I repeatedly remind my students of those age-old gospel truths of the universality of judgment and, correspondingly, of the opportunities of grace.

Still, my point is that church leaders need to take care about those “points of vulnerability” in which our chosen terms of moral condemnation can carry a weight that gets away from us. Speech-act theorists have noted the way that the utterances we use (locutions) to say what we want to say (illocutions) can have an effect (perlocutionary force) that carries beyond what we intended. What happens when we invoke terms like “savage” are a good example of that.

When I wrote the initial article, some people were skeptical that race was or even could be a dimension in the use of terms like “savage” for Iraqi soldiers and so forth. In their minds, it was clearly linked to acts of particular political actors associated with particular ideologies and so the condemnation stops there. Let me, at this point, be even blunter than I was in my article. For a lot of people that’s simply not the case.

What do I mean? I know this is a bit anecdotal, but not four days ago, when a woman at a coffee shop found out I was a Palestinian and a Presbyterian, she asked me with great shock about my conversion from Islam. Because that’s obviously what happened. I’m an Arab, so I must have been a Muslim growing up. For her, me saying “Palestinian” just meant “Muslim.”  For many there is an utter lack of awareness of the longstanding history of Christianity in Palestine or the large percentage of Arab Christians in the region as well as the US. Despite what I said, her own preconceptions based on her culture, history, and so forth, determined the meaning of what I said. My illocution had an unintended, but predictable perlocutionary force. This why my dad has historically described himself as a “Christian Palestinian” to forestall the nearly inevitable misunderstanding.

Now, this is a fairly innocuous example. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes trolling through Twitter, Facebook groups, or even just local political commentary at the water-cooler, to see that for a number of Americans and Westerners, even some sitting in certain churches, there is an indiscernible mass of Muslim/Terrorist/Arab/Enemy/Violent-Degenerate. It is for that reason that I raise a caution about the way holding up possibly language about “savages” as morally exemplary can play into this sort of thing.

And this is where I do something that I don’t particularly enjoy doing because of how staunchly conservative I was raised. Returning to the point about being an “equal opportunity offender” on this score. One friend (not Walker) pointed out after my last article that my ethnic background seemed to be playing a role in my reasoning. I agreed. It does. My rejoinder was that so did his. When it comes to the language of “savages”, that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not the brown guy whose ancestry, religion, and culture have historically been the ones under suspicion in the majority culture.

I suppose that’s the sort of sensitivity I’m talking about. I’m not saying we ought to neglect moral language. I’m saying take care of the context in which you use it and choose your terms carefully. Precisely because we want to avoid becoming a “respecter of persons”, it pays to be respecters of context.

Soli Deo Gloria