Happy Reformation Day! Now Repent

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

-Martin Luther, the 95 Theses

Among the many important letters Martin Luther wrote in his storied career, the one he wrote in protest of the sale of indulgences to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, on October 31, 1517 might have been the most important. The letter itself isn’t the important part, but enclosed within it was a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Now, scholars debate whether or not Luther actually took up a mallet to nail the theses up on Wittenburg’s Castle Church on that same day. Also up for debate is whether or not Luther actually intended to accomplish anything more than invite a scholarly debate between solid, Catholic theologians on an issue of importance. What is not up for debate is the colossal significance these theses had in instigating a theological and socio-political revolution that ripped open Europe, changing the face of Western, indeed global, Christianity to this day: the Protestant Reformation. 

This is what Protestant churches celebrate on Reformation Day. Now, to be clear, we don’t mainly celebrate the politics, although a few good (and many bad) things followed. We certainly don’t sing about the tearing of the visible unity of the church. We don’t rejoice in the centuries of acrimonious disputes that followed. No, in fact, many of these are things we lament–at least we ought to.

What we celebrate is the recovery of an essential insight into the Gospel: the good news that Jesus’ reign and rule are freely available to all, without regard to their present ‘righteousness’, or meritorious works; that we are saved by the grace and good will of our heavenly Father through the work of Jesus Christ; that we are justified, declared righteous because by faith we are united with the Righteous One, King Jesus. As it was later summarized in the 5 Solas: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for God’s glory alone.

Celebrate by Repenting

Unfortunately many of us don’t know how to celebrate this Gospel properly. We sing, we praise, we write blogs about Martin Luther and the message of justification by faith, and in general have some nice, warm thoughts about the whole affair. Now this great news is certainly worth singing about; it’s definitely worth a blog or two. For these truths, unfortunately clouded over and muddied up however temporarily in the dominant, late-medieval theology of the day, to be regained and preached loudly and clearly for all to hear is a glorious thing.

Still, if we want to celebrate Reformation Day properly, there is only one truly appropriate response: repentance. See, surprisingly enough for many Protestants, Martin Luther never mentioned the phrase “justification by faith” in the 95 theses. Not by name at least. He certainly spoke of grace and the nature of forgiveness, issues connected to it, but the subject he opened up with was the nature of repentance.

For centuries Jerome’s mistranslation of Matthew 3:2 as “Do penance” instead of “repent”(as well as some other doctrinal developments) had led to a misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to respond to the Kingdom of God. The Greek term metanoia means a deep, internal change of mind–a reconsidering of one’s course of action in light of new realities. Luther saw that when Jesus called for people to repent, he wasn’t calling for a simple change of external actions, or for meritorious acts of penance, and certainly not for people to buy themselves some grace through indulgences. He was calling people to recognize the arrival of God’s reign and rule by turning and submitting themselves to it; it was an invitation to consciously live in the new reality of God’s kingdom made available by grace through Jesus.

The Reformation was, in many ways, an attempt at this kind of repentance not only in the life of the individual Christian, but in the life of the Church as a whole. For those of us claiming the mantle of ‘Protestant’ there can be no question whether the whole of our lives need be one long process of reconsidering everything in light of the Gospel. Repentance is not simply a one-time act but a life-long task. Sin is too deep and Jesus is too good for us to think we ever have it handled–there will always be some sin our heart needs to release and some gift of God’s grace to embrace. God’s liberating reign in Christ is something we’re called to dive into daily.

So, this Reformation Day celebrate the Gospel by repenting–call to mind the goodness of God, the new reality made available in Christ, and live in light of that. Can’t think of anything? Here’s a starter list:

  • Pride – Consider God’s glorious humility in Christ and get over yourself–discover the joy of self-forgetfulness. In fact, try to practice humility by serving someone else without being able to take credit for it.
  • Lust – Look to God’s beauty in Christ and realize He’s the summit of true desire.
  • Gluttony – Take hold of God’s feast provided in the body and blood of Christ and pass the plate to those in need.
  • Greed – Observe of God’s riches, his generosity in Christ and remember that God provides all we could ever want. Give generously to those who do not have.
  • Sloth – See God’s active drawing near in Christ and respond–act–turn to him. Begin (or re-engage) in the spiritual disciplines that draw you to Christ.
  • Wrath – Remember God’s putting away his own righteous wrath toward you in Christ and put away your own unrighteous rage towards others. Instead, be gracious in word and deed towards those around you–especially the aggravating ones.
  • Envy – Recognize God’s gifts toward you in Christ and be grateful for what you have, not bitter what your neighbor has instead.

These ought to keep you busy for a while. Now, start celebrating!

Soli Deo Gloria

Vital by Anberlin (Or, When Anberlin Decides to be Awesome Again)

I bought my first Anberlin album back as a sophomore in high school. Blueprints for the Blackmarket was revolutionary stuff for the Christian music scene, which is what I was primarily limited to at the time,  and I’ve been a fan ever since. Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of their last couple albums New Surrender or Dark is the Way, Light is a Place.  There were some stand-out tracks (“Miserabile Visu”, “Closer”, “To the Wolves”), but on the whole, I’d been worrying whether they lost the magic–or their coffee machine. With the release of their latest album, Vital, my fears were taken to the back shed and beat down to the sound of Stephen Christian’s lovely, raging falsetto, aggressive guitar riffs, and catchy drums. Anberlin delivered this time.

I don’t know if it’s the return of Aaron Sprinkle producing, or just a need to turn a corner, but Anberlin has recovered and produced an album that tops their magnum opus, “Cities.” In many ways this album flows naturally out of moves they made in Dark is the Way–an appreciation for and tasteful use of electronics and synth, but without the falsified feel of so much vocoder-pop playing on the radio. They’ve crafted a new sound while simultaneously returning to the angsty, guitar-driven alt-rock of “Paper-Thin Hymn” and “Feel-Good Drag.”

I’ll name stand-out tracks but honestly, this is one of those don’t-skip-a-song albums where each listen through gives you a new appreciation for a song previously ignored. The opener “Self-Starter” is a typically strong lead-in to the rest of the album. The nice thing is that it’s sustained through-out, even on the ballads. I consistently come back to “Desires” and “Other Side.” “Desires”, featured above, sounds almost like a throw-back to “Feel-Good Drag” both musically and thematically. “Other Side”, with its use of synth notes dripping with longing and low-end, bass and guitar work, reminds me of Tron for some reason, only with some emotional depth. “God, Drugs, and Sex” is a slow, but rich closer that won’t beat out “Miserabile Visu (ex malo bonum)” or “Fin”, but still carries on in the same tradition.

Lyrically, the song I’ve been thinking about most is “Modern Age.”

It reads like a commentary on some of the incoherencies and angst of contemporary, postmoderns. There is a deep desire to be known, to be loved, yet most will “Fall asleep alone. Safer then the off-chance, Of getting your heart attacked, one more time.” The vulnerability that love requires is painful, and postmoderns are reluctant to get hurt, to get burned. A generation born with that misleading but looming 50% divorce rate statistic hanging over their heads, or even more, the painful reality of growing up in one of the those homes, grows up a bit skeptical of attaining the love it deeply desires. Indeed, this skepticism about love bleeds into our other relationships–Christian sings, “Have we all hid ourselves from friends?” We’re a generation that is constantly communicating, surrounding ourselves with friends, and acquaintances, while simultaneously hiding from them. Afraid of true honesty and relational risk we camouflage ourselves, create false identities, and hide in plain sight.

The chorus though, is really what got me thinking:

Don’t we all, want to be loved?
Don’t we all, write our own tune?
Let our silence break tonight
Don’t we all, learn right from wrong?
And don’t we all, want to be loved?
Let our silence break tonight

I was immediately struck by the incoherence between the desire to be loved,  learning right from wrong, and “writing our own tune.” Writing our own tune is a typically modern/postmodern way of thinking about freedom and purpose.  For our life to be truly ours, for the song we sing to be our own, we must have written it ourselves, without any help, so to speak. To be liberated on the modern view is to live unconstrained by expectations, commitments, destiny, fate, social conventions; there can be no moral grammar to which the lyrics of our vitality must conform–anything other than a wholly self-determined song is inauthentic.

The problem is that this is exactly what love and “right and wrong” are; morality is a grammar that provides patterns of existence within which love can flourish and grow. Love by its very nature requires restraints, fidelity, honesty, vulnerability, exclusivity, that impose a limit to the kind of tune we can write. The contradiction appears when we realize that if our lives are going to be anything more than lonely little melodies, if there are going to be deep and beautiful harmonies, we have to allow ourselves to be captured by a different kind of freedom–one that finds itself most deeply in a passionate commitment to something beyond ourselves. It’s the freedom of goodness, of truth, of living in line with the deep rhythm of reality and finding our place in the divine harmony God is writing. See, only then, only when we’ve surrendered ourselves to the truth, submitted to honesty, embraced a song greater than our own can we begin to give ourselves to each other without fear, to risk commitment, to dare to be truly known, to take off the mask–to love.

I’d like to say that Christian gets this, with his anthem-style call to “Let our silence break tonight.”  While there is no explicit deconstruction of this generation’s discordant values, the call itself begins to draw us out. Truly communicating is the first step towards emerging from the self-induced isolation; breaking the silence with honesty is a movement toward true freedom and love.

This is all deeper than I intended to go in an album review. Still, identifying and giving voice to the tensions of a generation is one of Anberlin’s greatest talents. Their ability to do it on a rockin’ good album is why I keep them on repeat. If you haven’t already, go check Vital out–it’s worth your time.

The Gospel According to Bach

Because Chris Tomlin just wasn’t good enough for Reformation Sunday, our choir performed a majestic rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 4 this morning. Now, I have to admit I am a bit of a neanderthal and growing up in the churches I have, great as they were, I was never really exposed to high church culture; it’s not my natural jam. Still, I was deeply moved by this piece.

Musically, it was Bach–’nuff said. Lyrically, again, it was Bach, but this particular piece was based on Martin Luther’s hymn, “Christ Lay in Death’s Cold Prison.” While it was meant to be heard, not merely read, I’d encourage you to take some time this week to work your way through the verses, meditating on the deep, Gospel truths about Christ’s death for sin, and hard-won victory of the powers of hell and the grave. It is heavy with theological and spiritual substance; rich food for the soul. Eat up.

Christ lay in death’s cold prison
bound fast for our transgression;
but now he has arisen
and brought to us salvation.
Let us all be joyful, then,
praise God and give thanks to Him
and sing Hallelujah,
Hallelujah!

O Death, you spared no mortal soul
of any race or nation,
for all were under sins control,
none was without transgression.
Therefore came grim Death so soon
and with swift advance it brought our doom,
and held us in its realm of terror.
Hallelujah!

Our Savior Jesus, God’s own Son,
here in our stead descended.
The knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended!
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death’s gray shell;
It’s sting he now has ended.
Hallelujah!

It was a war of majesty,
of Life and Death together;
but Life gained the victory,
and did destroy the other.
Scripture has proclaimed it so,
how one death devoured its foe,
and mocked its fleeting power.
Hallelujah!

Here is the spotless Easter-lamb,
that God the Lord did give us,
who high upon the cross was hung
and sacrificed to save us.
On our doorposts is his blood,
The price he paid to conquer Death:
the Strangler now cannot destroy us.
Hallelujah!

Then let us keep this holy feast
with all delight and pleasure,
which God the Lord makes manifest;
he is our light and pleasure,
who through the splendor of his grace
has lightened our most sacred place.
The night of sin has vanished.
Hallelujah!

So Christians, feast with joy each day
on Christ, the bread of heaven,
the Word of grace has purged away
the old and evil leaven.
Christ alone, our holy meal,
the hungry soul will feed and heal;
faith lives upon no other!
Hallelujah!

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #5-How to Meet People in Coffee Shops

I meet new people in coffee shops. All. The. Time. (Seriously, 4 people in 2 days last week.) I mostly like this. I’m a decently friendly guy and I enjoy getting to know different, interesting people. On top of that, I’ve got a bit of an evangelistic streak in me. You probably won’t ever hear me roll through the 4 spiritual laws over an espresso, but it’s unsurprising to find me in a conversation with someone I’ve met 20 minutes prior, discussing their church history and views on Jesus. Still, every once in a while I feel like I have “Talk to me” written on my forehead. I’ve tried to think about how I happen to get into these conversations and I’ve come up with some reasons, both serious and silly. So, if you want to meet people in coffee shops you might try some of these methods, especially if you’re looking to be “missional” and relational in your approach to sharing the Gospel.

1. Read interesting books. Seriously, read interesting books, or at least ones with interesting covers. Then, leave them out on your table. Usually every couple of visits to a coffee shop somebody’ll ask me about the book I’m reading and we”ll start talking. Funniest conversation like that was when I was reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I got to explain that it was social commentary and American religious history, not a biography of the band.

2.  Smile. This is simple, but I generally smile at people when I see them walk in, or we make eye contact. When I’m studying, I look up a lot and almost by reflex find myself smiling at somebody. I might have no intention of talking to them, but somehow, we end up in a conversation because I guess smiling is rare. We live in an increasingly suspicious and cynical culture. In a culture where the biggest cause of depression is loneliness, signs of life and warmth are attractive. Of course, this can easily be misread. Beware the creeper smile. Still, be friendly.

3. Notice People and Ask Questions. If you’re bold and want to be the one to start the conversation, notice people and ask them questions. People are so used to going through their days without anybody taking an active interest in them and their activities that an honest question about something you’ve noticed (again, something not creepy), will usually invite an answer that you can build into a conversation. Noticing books, unique shoes, inquiring about what they’re studying, etc. will usually draw people out of their I-don’t-know-you-keep-the-traditional-3-feet-away shell. Thing is though, you should actually be interested in those things. Don’t ask about something if all you want to do is cut to the chase and get at what you’re really interested in. Be interested in the person. In any case, you probably won’t have anything useful to say to them unless you’ve first paid attention to who they actually are.

4. Commit to Being Somewhere. Place is important. Investing time and committing to going regularly to particular places at particular times, or at least on a regular basis gives you a great opportunity to become familiar with and familiar to regulars as well as randoms. It gives you the opportunity to just start saying hi, and then building out relationships from there. So, pick a place and plant yourself.

5. Have a huge mustache (Men only). Okay, this is a joke, but I seriously get comments on my mustache from random strangers 3-4 times a week. On more than one occasion this has developed into a long conversation about Jesus and inviting them to church. Just sayin’, it’s something you pastor-types might want to try out.

6. Pray. Really, if you want to meet people, engage them about life, truth, and Jesus, then pray before you go anywhere. Pray God will give you opportunities, and wait for God to work. Sometimes you meet nobody, then there are days when you end up talking to a total stranger about their deepest convictions about life, God, and reality. You really don’t know what God will throw your way if you ask him.

Alright, that’s about it. I’m not an evangelism expert, but hopefully some of these tips can help you meet the people that God has placed around you “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (Acts 17:27)

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Review- A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes

Mitch Stokes. A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 252 pp. $16.99. ($11.35 on Amazon)

In the last few years, with the rise of the New Atheism, authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have made popular Christian apologetics popular again. A veritable cottage industry of “responses” and rejoinders have been churned out by top-notch scholars (and some hacks too) either presenting arguments for Christianity or attempting to dismantle the claims of the New Atheists. While a number of these books are well-written and quite valuable, none of them quite accomplish what Mitch Stokes’ has in his recent work, A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be A Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.  

He Knows What He’s Doing

What makes this book different? The key is that Stokes knows what he’s doing and, more importantly, what he isn’t. So often works of apologetics try to cover everything and don’t end up adequately covering anything.  Stokes knows better. He’s narrowed his focus, honed in on the key issues, and goes to work on them in a humorous, engaging, and readable fashion. What are those issues? The relationship between faith and reason, science, and the problem of evil.

Stokes is particularly qualified to tackle these. Before taking up his position as the Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews in Moscow, Idaho he got his MA in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, then went on to get his Ph.D. at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen. No big deal–just three of the foremost philosophers of religion alive. And, if that weren’t enough,  prior to entering the philosophy game, he got an MS in mechanical engineering. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Introducing Reformed Epistemology–You’re Welcome

One way of describing Stokes’ project is translating Alvin Plantinga for everybody. Plantinga, while being, in my opinion, the most brilliant Christian philosopher working in the analytic tradition today, has not gone out of his way to make his philosophical genius widely accessible to the general reader. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s hilarious and pretty clear as far as analytic philosophers go. Let’s be honest though, the average layman or pastor won’t take the time to read all 500 pages of Warranted Christian Belief  even if it’s worth it (which it is). Stokes takes the best of the Reformed epistemological approach developed by Plantinga and Wolterstorff (don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to buy into it) applied to various issues in philosophy over the last 40 years and condenses it into short, winsome, witty, and clearly laid-out chapters uncluttered with small print or symbolic logic.  He also includes helpful “For Your Arsenal” summary points at the back of each chapter for easy recall of the information.

This isn’t to say that he merely repeats Plantinga, or offers nothing new–he does, especially the way he frames the discussion historically, concretely grounding these ideas in conversation with Hume and Locke on down to W.V.O. Quine. Still, even if translating Plantinga were all he did, this would be crucial because in engaging with both believers and unbelievers with the Gospel over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the issue of epistemology is one that is too often ignored, or simply botched in most popular works on apologetics even though it lies at the root of so many of these discussions. By focusing his sights on the epistemological questions, Stokes really is aiming to give readers a “shot of faith to the head.”

So how does he actually do it? Stokes starts out by explaining and debunking the evidentialist objection to belief in God, that there isn’t sufficient evidence to “prove” he exists. He shows that, in fact, evidentialism is self-defeating–some beliefs must be basic, taken without reasons or evidence, otherwise reasoning itself cannot get off the ground. In fact, he pushes on to show that a demand for arguments and “reasons” for all of our beliefs, actually leads us to the conclusion that atheism itself is self-defeating. In place of the rationalism and evidentialism so commonly assumed by skeptics, Stokes proposes an alternative definition for what it means for a belief to be rational, that it is the product of “properly-functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment” (read as good thinking equipment), like sense-perception, memory, and reason; this is a Reidian, reliabilist approach to epistemology as recovered and retooled by Plantinga and others. Stokes goes on to show that belief by way of testimony, or faith, is actually another valid way of coming by our beliefs, and that it is perfectly rational to believe in God by way faith, testimony, or “taking God at his word.”  Pressing a bit further, Stokes makes the very Plantingan point that if the “Christian epistemic story” is true, then the Christian can believe in God in a way that is basic and rational. Basically, in order to show that faith is irrational, you have to prove Christianity false first.

Now, none of these considerations means that he discounts reason or even the arguments for the existence of God–he actually has a very helpful “intermission” section dealing with the nature of the arguments and the problem of the burden of proof. Instead, Stokes shows that these arguments are helpful in supplementing faith and in dealing with “defeater” beliefs.

Defeaters and Highlights

What’s a “defeater”? A defeater is basically a reason to ditch a belief we gained previously in light of new evidence to the contrary, or that casts suspicion on the way we arrived at our belief. This is why Stokes moves on from his general discussion on faith and reason to consider the two main defeater beliefs for God out there today: science and the problem of evil.

I won’t review these two sections extensively, but some highlights include:

  • Helpful corrections of the historical record when it comes to the “history of the warfare between science and religion.” (Stokes has written short biographies of both Galileo and Newton so he’s well-equipped to handle this.)
  • A good discussion of the difference between the unnecessary “god of the Gaps” who intervenes from time to time to fix things that science can’t figure out and the God of the Bible who supervenes over and upholds the created order.
  • A much-needed guide to distinguishing between methodological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, and the scientific provincialism that convinces so many that accepting the former is predicated by the latter.
  • A fascinating historical and philosophical analysis of the rise of science, the way science actually proceeds, and how theism gives us confidence to engage in scientific study given belief in the Image of God and the rationality of a universe created by God.
  • Numbers. Stokes has an absorbing discussion on the nature of numbers that made even a math-hater like me wonder at the beauty of a mathematically-ordered universe–and how bizarre the existence of such a one truly is unless the world was created by a rational God.
  • A clean introduction into the “problem of evil” discussion that’s been going on in academic philosophy since the 1960s.
  • Short, but clear, Plantingan responses to both the logical and the probabilistic versions of the problem of evil, using both the Free Will Defense with respect to the logical, and a sober reflection on the epistemological limitations of finite thinkers in relation to the probabilistic.
  • A theistic turning of the tables, using the insights of the moral argument to point out that, without God, there is no absolute, moral standard, in which case the objection from evil can’t even get off the ground.
  • A bold statement of the uncommon yet undeniably appealing O Felix Culpa (Happy Fault) theodicy. (I won’t blow the surprise for you.)

Conclusions 

To sum up: Mitch Stokes has done the church a great service with this book.  By making available some of the best insights of the Christian community’s academic philosophers, believers who read this can be humbly confident that their faith in the Gospel is not blind, irrational, or illegitimate. Rather, it is in fact capable of standing up to the fiercest intellectual objections. I highly recommend this book to doubting believers, inquisitive skeptics, and especially pastors who want to be able to lovingly and persuasively commend the Gospel to the both groups.

Soli Deo Gloria

G.K. Beale on the Presence of a Covenant in Gen. 1-3

Alright, I finally cracked open G.K. Beale’s 962 page beast, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.  It’s been staring at me, tempting me with it’s theological awesomeness, so I finally gave in. At about 60 pages in I can safely say this is going to be a watershed work in New Testament studies. Describing the project in a short blog-post while doing it any sort of justice is next to impossible, especially when you consider the fact that Beale’s own description takes him about 25 pages. Still, the title alone points us to fact that one of the main thrusts of Beale’s work is to show how the New Testament can only be understood as the unfolding of the grand story-line of the Old Testament.

In order to do so, he opens with a summary and theological analysis of that story-line, beginning with a focus on the first 3 chapters of Genesis. He pays special attention to Adam, the concept of the Image of God,  and the eschatological thrust of the creational command to “conquer and subdue” the earth and “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), themes of crucial importance for understanding the rest of the tension and story-line of the OT.

It’s at this point that I ran across a very helpful passage discussing the presence of a “covenant” in Gen 1-3. After some careful examination of the texts Beale notes that there are a number of considerations that point us to the idea that it is possible, indeed necessary, to speak of a “covenant” relationship between God and Adam in the Garden, despite the objection that the word “covenant” is not used in the passage. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

In light of these observations, we can speak of the prefall conditions as a “beginning first creation” and the yet-to-come escalated creation conditions to be a consummate “eschatologically” enhanced stage of final blessedness. The period leading up to the reception of these escalated conditions is the time when it would be decided whether Adam would obey or disobey. These escalated conditions indicate that Adam was in a covenant relationship with God. Although the word “covenant” is not used to describe the relationship between God and Adam, the concept of covenant is there. God chooses to initiate a relationship with Adam by imposing an obligation on him (Gen. 2:16-17). This obligation was part of the larger task with which Adam had been commissioned in Gen 1.:28: to “rule” and “subdue” creation and in the process to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Adam’s “ruling and subduing” commission included guarding the garden from any threat to its peaceful maintenance. In light of Gen. 2:16-17 and 3:22, Adam would receive irreversible blessings of eternal life on the condition of perfect faith and obedience, and he would receive the decisive curse of death if he was unfaithful and disobedient. Thus, the discernment of irreversible escalated creation conditions discussed above is the best argument for such a covenant notion.

Consequently, the argument that the word “covenant” is not used in Gen. 2-3 does not provide proof that there is not covenant relationship, just as Adam and Eve’s marriage relationship is not termed a “covenant” in Gen. 2:21-24 but expresses covenantal concepts and, in fact, is identified as a covenant elsewhere. Likewise, it is profitable that God’s covenant with Adam is referred to as a covenant elsewhere in the OT. The essential elements of a covenant are found in the Gen. 1-3 narrative: (1) two parties are named; (2) a condition of obedience is set forth; (3) a curse for transgression is threatened; (4) a clear implication of a blessing is promised for obedience. It could be objected that there is no reference to either party reaching a clear agreement or, especially, to Adam accepting the terms set forth in this so-called covenant. However, neither is this the case with Noah and Abraham, with whom God made explicit covenants. -A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp 442-43

Again, these conclusions come after a solid examination of the texts (pp. 30-41), and is followed by reinforcing argumentation (pp. 43-46). Still, I found this passage to be helpful in showing that to speak of God’s creational covenant with Adam, or a “covenant of works”, is not an obvious imposition of foreign concepts onto the text in order to fit it into a theological grid, as is so often charged.  Rather, something like this is positively required by a close, narratively-oriented reading of the text.

As I continue to dive into this ambitious, and already thoroughly rewarding work, I’m sure more excerpts and summaries will follow this.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Complex Beauty of the Orthodox Jesus (Or, Why Heresy is too Simple)

My pastor’s sermon this week on Christ reminded me why Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is easily one of the top 5 books I’ve read this year. Amidst the incisive analysis of recent American, religious history and sagacious social commentary he found and quoted one of those passages brimming with spiritual insight into the beauty of the Orthodox faith that Roman Catholics like Douthat seem particularly gifted at expressing. With great paradox and pathos, Douthat lays out the key to understanding the peculiar character of the Christian faith: the perplexing figure of Jesus Christ himself:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship with God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still–a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.

The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy. Is the kingdom he preached something to be lived out in this world or something to be expected in the next? Both. Did he offer a blueprint for moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Both. Did he mean to fulfill Judaism among the Jews, or to convert the Gentile world? Both. Was he the bloodied Man of Sorrows of Mel Gibson; the hippie, lilies of the field Jesus of Godspell; or the wise moralist beloved of Victorian liberals? All of these and more…

He goes on to explain how that paradoxicality gives rise to classic (and modern) heresies–they are sad, misbegotten attempts to handle the tension, usually by subtraction or suppression.

The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, stream-lined, and non-contradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to be come observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern  Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.

These simplifications have usually required telling a somewhat different story about Jesus than the one told across the New Testament. Sometimes this retelling has involved thinning out the Christian canon, eliminating tensions by subtracting them. Sometimes it’s been achieved by combining the four gospels into one, smoothing out their seeming contradictions in the process. More often, though, it’s been achieved by straightforwardly rewriting or even inventing crucial portions of the New Testament account, as the Gospel of Judas’ authors did, to make them offer up a smoother, more palatable, and more straightforward theology.

-Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, pp. 154-155

This is why, ultimately, heresies are usually too simple, or rather, simplistic, to be the truth about Jesus. They treat Jesus like a high school kid treats a Charles Dickens novel–they get an abridged version. When it comes to Jesus, though, dealing with the abridged version isn’t good enough. As soon as you start chopping off, or ignoring bits, or harmonizing the tension away, you lose the beauty of the Gospel because you lose Jesus, the complex, comprehensive savior. He is God and man; he saves body and soul; he is loving and just; he is something completely new that can only be understood as fulfillment of all that comes before. Again, as Douthat puts it, “He is all these things and more…”

Take some time this week to read the Gospels and think about the paradoxical Jew of Nazareth, the Lion who appears as the Lamb that was slain, the Jesus you love and the Jesus who makes you uncomfortable–the wisdom of creeds and councils, of the Gospels themselves, was to know that you need him in all of his complex beauty.

Soli Deo Gloria