The Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom and What That Means for Ministry

Paul David Tripp explains the difference between insight and application, or knowledge and wisdom, and why that matters for personal ministry:

Most of us are tempted to think that change has taken place before it actually has. We confuse growth in knowledge and insight with genuine life change. But insight is not change and knowledge should not be confused with practical, active, biblical wisdom. In fourteen years of seminary teaching, I have met many brilliant, theologically astute students who were incredibly immature in their everyday life. There was often a huge gap between their confessional and functional theology. Students who could articulate the sovereignty of God could be overcome with worry. Students who could expound on the glory of God would dominate classroom discussions for the sake of their own egos. I have counseled students who could explain the biblical doctrine of progressive holiness while nurturing secret worlds of lust and sexual sin. I have seen many men who were months away from ministry who had not yet learned how to love people. Students who could explain the biblical teaching of God’s grace were harsh, judgmental legalists.

In short, we must not confuse insight and change. Insight is a beginning, a part of the whole, but it is not the whole. We do want people to see, know, and understand, but we also want them to apply that insight to their daily life. God opens our eyes so that, in seeing him we would follow him more closely. This means that personal ministry should not end too soon. If holiness is God’s goal, we must be willing to help others through the process of change.

For many people it is much easier to know what is wrong than how to change it. I may have confessed a selfish, idolatrous heart and seen its fruit in my relationship with my wife. But it will be harder for me to think clearly and creatively about how to repent and love her in specific ways. I may understand the major themes in Scripture, but I may not know how to use them in certain situations and relationships. We all need people to stand alongside us as we apply God’s Word to our lives. -Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, pp. 242-243

Soli Deo Gloria

“YOLO”, SNL, and Two Ways of Denying God is God

YOLOMost of us have heard the phrase “you only live once”, now commonly shortened to that maddeningly moronic acronym “YOLO”. Rappers Drake and Rick Ross blessed us with this gift in pop culture and it’s now common to hashtag #yolo in tweets and instagrams depicting recklessly stupid behavior. The main point is you only live once, so why not? It’s the mantra of mindless kids and the punch-line to many jokes about youthful foolhardiness. As someone somewhere once put it, “YOLO is carpe diem for idiots.”

Well, just when you thought it was kind of dead, Andy Samberg, Adam Levine, and the SNL Digital Shorts crew resurrected the phrase and gave it a new twist.

You can go read the rest of my piece for Christ and Pop Culture.

Responses to “Calvin Killed Servetus!” by Denomination (Or, Dealing with Theological Moral Hubris)

men_debate_calvinism

HT: The Sacred Sandwich

It’s a well-known fact that the heretic Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva during Calvin’s pastorate there. This is universally condemned by both Calvin fans and foes alike. At least it should be. What’s often debated is Calvin’s role in the whole affair and what impact, if any, it should have on our judgment about the man, his theology, and the subsequent theological tradition that follows him. And indeed, it is problematic. That anybody could think that burning at the stake those with whom we disagree on theological matters is, in any sense, compatible with the Gospel of the crucified Messiah, is a morally-disastrous lapse in judgment to say the least.

So what do we say to this? Especially when the subject is brought up in order to discredit Calvin or the Reformed tradition as a whole?

Two Classic Responses
1. The General Point - The first typical, and valid, response is to make the general point that one wrong action, incident, statement, or even habit, doesn’t necessarily invalidate someone’s entire career. Obviously one can find dubious actions and statements in the biographies of most of history’s heroes. Lincoln’s anti-slavery record is brilliant and yet he made statements that by contemporary standards (as well as transhistorical ones) are quite racist. Martin Luther King Jr. broke his marital vows to Coretta Scott King numerous times. And no, this isn’t just prudery or relativistically equating personal sexual misdeeds with corporate violence. By engaging in the adulterous trysts he did, he risked the public moral integrity of the entire Civil Rights movement he came to represent. At the biblical level, one might point out that not a single figure in the Bible, even its authors, comes out clean except for Jesus. In that sense, Calvin keeps company with the long line of saved wretches like Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul.

2. Moving to Calvin – Second, one can move to the particulars of the case, placing Calvin in his historical context. Clearly he wasn’t the only one at the time to make that lapse. Calvin was unfortunately a “Constantinian” in the sense that he un-biblically mixed the authority of the State with that of the Church, but then again so was everybody else. It’s easy to forget that Servetus was already condemned to death by the Roman Catholics. Similarly, if the Lutherans had gotten their hands on him he would have been a goner.  Further, Calvin explicitly warned Servetus in correspondence not to come to Geneva or things would not go well for him there either. He even risked his own life at one point to go meet him in an area outside of Geneva where he himself was a wanted heretic in order to reconcile theologically. It is not the case that Servetus was the victim of Calvin’s peculiarly authoritarian personality that flowed from his inhuman, predestinarian God. If anything, it was an inherited, though still culpable, flaw in thought and practice. It should be noted that Calvin held no explicit political authority in Geneva and was not even a citizen until much later in life. Also, he is reported to have pleaded with the city elders to, at the very least, execute him in a more humane manner than burning. (Now, to us that doesn’t sound like much, but comparatively-speaking that’s something.) To place it in a broader framework, sadly Servetus was one of many heretics tried and executed in the Reformation era by both Catholics and Protestants of all stripes–they were universally more violent and barbarous times. To put it bluntly, the reason Servetus is brought up today is that he was a little more famous, and because it’s an easy way to criticize and single out Calvin. For more along these lines, see R. Scott Clark’s post on the “Calvin as Tyrant Meme“, and a more complete summary of the Servetus affair here.

Dealing with Theological Hubris by Denomination
Now, while all of these points ought to be considered and weighed, there’s another way to handle the whole charge: the tu quoque (“you too”). Admittedly, it is formally a fallacy, but in response to the ad hominem nature of the “Servetus” denunciation, I think it has a part to play in the discussion. It’s more commonly-observed that most of us suffer from chronological moral hubris, the malady that makes us think we obviously wouldn’t have done what our historical forebears did if we had been there, attributing to ourselves a righteousness in some particular area that is only ours by dint of our social-historical location. What also needs to be recognized is how easily people fall into denominational or theological moral hubris, in thinking one’s own tradition has no truly dark stains in it. This particular hubris is commonly-spotted whenever the Servetus charge is raised.

In order to remedy this situation, I thought it would be helpful to begin to catalog differing “Calvin Killed Servetus”-type rejoinders to some of the major theological and denominational traditions. Some might find this dubious and divisive. I sympathize. I find my writings dubious most of the time as well. In this case, I’d like to think of it as a helpful moral reminder to cool your theological jets when it comes to traditions other than your own. It’s a negative task, with a positive goal: greater humility towards the various wings of God’s family.  That’s a little easier when we remember that everybody’s got something–I just thought it might be helpful to list some of the biggies.

Note: this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be denial of the fact that each of these denominations have martyrs, and gentle heroes of the faith. Still, in no particular order, here goes:

  • Anglicanism – Long history of violently persecuting Puritans, Dissenters, Lollards, Society of Friends, Catholics, and everybody not going to the State church. Also, Henry the VIII. ‘Nuff said.
  • Anabaptists - John Leiden and the freaky weird, violent, Munster incident. I’ve long been convinced the Anabaptists saw the beauty of pacifism partly because they got their lunches handed to them at Munster. I know that’s not entirely true, but…
  • Roman Catholics – Do I really have to? Well, just off the top of my head: the Inquisition, various Crusades, vaste swathes of Papal history…
  • Eastern Orthodoxy – Some crossover highlights with the Roman Catholics, (Crusades), 1000s of years of collaboration, collusion, and sanctioning of corrupt governments by various patriarchs and theologians in the church. In our own day, one thinks of the persecution of fellow Christian Evangelicals in Orthodox countries like Russia supported by current patriarchs.
  • Lutherans – Well, Luther wasn’t a daisy himself. Most of us know that, but let’s just mention two: “The Jews and their Lies” and the Peasant revolt.
  • Methodists, Baptists, Society of Friends - All three of these streams and denominations, in their American iterations at least, have, alongside of others, had devastating struggles with slavery and racism. For quite some time it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves within the Society of Friends until the valiant efforts of John Woolman. Both the Baptists and the Methodists had separate African-American counterparts formed because of white racism.
  • Pentecostalism, Charismatics – Now, when you start moving closer in historical distance to the current day, denominations and traditions are less likely to make some of the tragically violent mistakes of their pre-cursors, simply by dint of cultural and political shifts. Given that the rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements in the last 100 or so years, most of the excesses will be of the more common sort: pastoral indiscretion, financial shadiness, abuses of power, and widespread problems with heresy and false teaching. This can happen in all streams, though.
  • Non-Denoms and Young Denoms – Of course, there are many random theologically-indeterminate, non-denominational evangelicals, or maybe emergents, who don’t feel very bound to any tradition and sit loose with respect to Christian history as a whole. They might pride themselves on their virtually stainless record. Let me just say that having a decent theological-history that goes all the way back to the 70s is nothing to brag about. That’s like boasting about your perfect attendance on the second day of school. The reality is, in some way you’re dependent on what comes before so you, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge it.

As I said, this is a far from comprehensive list. It’s open to revision and addition. Sadly the history of Christian sin and failure is broad and wide. Thankfully so is the grace of God. He can use the broken and sinful to do his good work. People like you and me. Even people like John Calvin. Just something to keep in mind next time you’re about to write of a particular thinker or an entire tradition. 

Soli Deo Gloria

The Unbearable Burden of Uniqueness

Life can be lonely and painful at times. It’s even worse when you’re ‘unique’. Paul David Tripp explains the way feeling like that special snowflake can go bad and keep our relationships perennially casual; impotent as sources of comfort and change:

Another reason we keep things casual is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts. –Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands, pg. 164

unique2While it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.

The Pride of Unique Despair

I remember when this point flooded my mind with light in college. It was a particularly angsty time for me; school, girls, church, and the looming question “What am I going to do with my life?” I think that’s a given for most 20-year-old guys. In any case, I had just met my future, life-long friend, Kierkegaard and was reading through The Sickness Unto Death–probably my favorite of the pseudonymous works–and he was tracing the labyrinthine ways sin can distort our understanding of ourselves. In a particularly eye-opening section, he points out that pride can take many forms, even the devious negative pride of thinking you’re beyond God’s help. It’s not that you’re so great you don’t need it, it’s that you’re so miserable you can’t receive it. It’s the narcissism of thinking that no one understands–not even God. I had been trapped in a form of pride so subtle it took a long-dead Dane using abstruse, post-Hegelian language to expose my folly–to prise open my eyes and reveal the dark comfort I took in being uniquely pained, beyond God’s comfort and the understanding of my fellow man. Oh, to be twenty again (shudders).

Contrary to my youthful, turmoil-filled estimation, the basic theological and practical reality is that, in fact, people do understand. Maybe not each particular person knows your particular pain–the multifarious permutations of human tragedy and depravity are endless. Still, someone does. Someone else has wept as you’ve wept, struggled as you’ve struggled, and failed as spectacularly, maybe even more so, as you. The good news is that you’re not unique. You don’t have to grieve alone or heal alone.  

Jesus, the High Priest and Our Brother

The author of Hebrews points out two ways this is particularly true for the Christian:

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering…Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to  to make a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(2:10, 14-18)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15)

1. Jesus has gone through it alongside of us. In the Incarnation, the Son became our brother, our high priest, by taking on flesh and enduring all that we’ve endured, except without sin. (And even then, that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the weight of temptation–in order to resist it, he had to bear it’s full weight.) Jesus knows our pain. Jesus knows our suffering. He knows our struggles. He took it on by becoming our brother, being human alongside of us, tasting the full range of human experiences and loss, even to the point of death, so that he could overcome it. Bottom-line is the Son of God knows what it’s like. He understands. You’re not alone. What’s more, he went through it all to fix it. Whatever shame, guilt, or fear you have, Jesus took it to the cross and rose again, leaving your sins in the tomb never to be seen again.

2. Jesus gave us brothers and sisters. Jesus became our brother in order to “bring many sons to glory.” He didn’t just save you from your sin and misery, but a company, a whole world-wide family of fallen, feeble, being-redeemed people for you to walk alongside of in the church. Your local church is full of ‘unique’ people just like you. People with deep scars that Jesus is healing, broken hearts that Jesus is mending, histories of slavery that Jesus is redeeming, and lonely silences that Jesus is speaking into. It’s kind of like I told one of my students the other day, “Everybody here has a story just like yours. It’s just the details that are different.” And the miracle of grace is that God wants to use those stories, all the broken twists and turns, to speak grace into the lives of his children by His Spirit.

Break the Silence

Coming back Tripp’s quote, the point is you have every reason to break the silence. Don’t believe the narcissistic lie that you’re alone in your pain and sin–you’re not. Take courage, humble yourself, and transform a merely casual relationship into a truly personal one by reaching out to somebody. Let someone in on your anger issue. Talk to someone about the family trauma that’s tearing you up inside. Share your work troubles. Finally admit to the absolute terror you experience whenever you think about your future. Invite someone to know where you’re really at. It’s only when we confess what’s truly going on in our hearts and lives that someone can speak a word of grace and comfort and the healing can truly begin.

The long and the short of it is you don’t have to carry the unbearable burden of uniqueness. The Gospel means that you can be saved just like everyone else.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons God Isn’t Obvious — Some Kierkegaardian Observations

kierkegaard 2At some point in life, most of us have wondered why God isn’t more obvious. Why doesn’t he clearly reveal himself to all people in a clear and distinct manner? Why all this business about an incarnation, and a book, or an internal word of the Holy Spirit? Why doesn’t he just make it so everybody gets it?

In a brilliant article on Kierkegaard’s (K) conception of God, Paul Moser and Mark L. McCreary draw our attention to 4 Kierkegaardian considerations on the elusiveness of God. Note though I have numbered, labeled, and removed footnotes, what follows is a direct quote:

  1. Merely Objective Knowledge Isn’t Enough First, K maintains that those who seek God merely by means of objective information will be frustrated. Although K does not disapprove of objective knowledge as such, he strongly warns against approaching God as an impersonal object to be studied. In his words, ‘God is not like something one buys in a shop, or like a piece of property’. Instead, God is a personal agent, a subject with definite redemptive purposes for humans. Human knowledge of God, therefore, ought to be characterized by subjectivity and relationality, not by impersonal or detached forms of objective knowledge. Merely objective knowledge about God does not entail personally knowing God via a God-relationship. Moreover, obtaining merely objective knowledge may also promote complacency or a false sense of superiority. As K puts it, the ‘most terrible thing of all is’ to be ‘deceived by much knowledge’. In the end, some people who pursue only objective knowledge or evidence of God miss the fact that God is a subject and they therefore fail to encounter God as a personal agent, as person to person in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. In this respect, knowledge of God is not available in a purely objective approach
  2. Presumptuous Approaches Are Inappropriate Second, K expects that God will remain hidden from presumptuous individuals. In Christian Discourses, K devotes an entire discourse to the theme of presumptuousness. Presumptuousness might manifest itself when someone ignores God, explicitly denies God’s existence, or demands particular services from God. All of these manifestations stem from a position of selfishness and cognitive arrogance wherein one desires to live ‘as if he were his own master, himself the architect of his fortune’. However, a presumptuous stance demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who human beings are and who God is. Human beings are not ultimately their own masters, just as God is not a genie in a lamp who exists to cater to their wishes. As K points out elsewhere, an attitude of presumptuousness begins and ends in despair. Therefore, such an approach is likely to leave one without illumination regarding God’s existence and character.
  3. Denial of Sin The third reason why God may remain hidden from many people brings us back to the crucial issue of self-knowledge. According to K, to know and relate to God properly (as a morally perfect agent), one must break through to a consciousness of one’s sin. Sin and moral imperfection separate, or alienate, human beings from the holy and morally perfect God. To lead people to such an awareness, according to K, God creates each human being with an inner conscience, i.e., a personal ‘preacher of repentance’. However, the truth of one’s sinfulness is difficult to confront for a human. Many humans are afraid of this truth and prefer to retain a posture of self-sufficiency and an attitude of selfishness. Therefore, owing to selfish choices, actions, or fears, God’s call to many humans via conscience is ignored or avoided. As a result, such people fail to hear God’s voice.
  4. The Offense Finally, K explains that Jesus’ life is the possibility of offense and, as such, prevents many people from enjoying a God-relationship. K emphasizes sin to discuss forgiveness. After one’s confession of sin, the claims of Jesus should be of interest to one. K notes that Jesus offers rest to each individual through reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins. However, many people do not accept this offer because Jesus is also the possibility of offense. First of all, it is potentially offensive that Jesus, a human being, claims to have divine authority. Next, it is highly offensive that Jesus ‘declared himself to be God’. K describes in detail the various ways in which this claim can be offensive. The very concept of the ‘God–man’ is also problematic for some. K describes this ‘composite’ as the absolute paradox, as a ‘sign of contradiction’, and as something that brings the understanding to a standstill. There is no irrationalism here, but rather an insistence that profane reason and profane history can never directly demonstrate (i.e., deductively prove) that Jesus is also God. K maintains that this situation is the result of Jesus’ free choice to hide his divinity in what he calls ‘the most profound incognito’. The significance of the incognito is that it forces the issue of needed human faith to the forefront. K likens the possibility of offense to ‘standing at the crossroad’, where ‘one turns either to offense or to faith’. Those who are offended at Jesus turn away from faith and hence also from forgiveness and a personal God-relationship.

So why is God elusive according to Kierkegaard? Once again Moser and McCreary:

All of the aforementioned issues are inseparable from K’s conception of God. When individuals think or act in ways that prevent them from recognizing God, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the character of God. To search for or demand merely objective knowledge of God is to miss the fact that God is a subject, a personal agent with definite redemptive purposes for humans. To approach God presumptuously ignores that the fact that God, if God exists, has the wisdom, power, and authority to be God, that is, one who is worthy of worship. Those who drown out their conscience sometimes deny a contrast between God’s moral perfection and their selfishness and moral deficiencies. In addition, those who are offended at Jesus might misunderstand God’s humble, compassionate, and self-sacrificing love for God’s lost and dying creatures.

In other words, God doesn’t want to meet you as anyone other than himself. He wants you to know the real God—to reveal himself in ways that are consistent with his own character.

Would we want anything less?

Soli Deo Gloria

Sex-Trafficking, Evangelical “Colonialism”, and the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit

Sex-Trafficking-1024x692In preparing to teach my students about Jesus’ hard saying about the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:29) this week, I couldn’t help but make the connection to the recent, bizarre criticism of Evangelical efforts to end the sex-trafficking trade. What’s the charge? Well, apparently taking women and children out of the pay-for-rape game smacks of Evangelical colonialism to some. According to Yvonne Zimmerman, a professor of Christian Ethics, instead of focusing on trafficking in all of its forms, Evangelicals seem to narrow their concern to sex-trafficking, likely because of their “Protestant” theology of sex and vision of the “sexually pure and pious” woman. (Read “evil, Victorian sexual mores that Freud opened our eyes to, and Foucalt exposed as forms of social control.”) If they weren’t so obsessed with restricting sex to their particular norm, they wouldn’t be so focused on the prostitution-trade. What they seem to be overlooking is that some of these women might actually want to stay in prostitution and so the imposition of our values is, at the very least, problematic. They are assuming an idea of freedom and inadvertently limiting the freedom some of these women would choose for themselves.

Right.

You can read the rest of my guest piece over at the Christ and Pop Culture Blog at Patheos.com.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Important Tips on Reading

One day I hope to look like this.

One day I hope to look like this.

I read. A lot. Well, it doesn’t feel like I read enough, but compared to normal people, yes, it’s a bit obsessive. (What can I say? I’m Reformed.) In any case, while there have been a number of pieces of advice on reading that I’ve found, received, or formulated over the years, three in particular have shaped my reading habits and formed me for the better as a reader and a thinker.

1. Read Your Favorites’ Favorites – The first bit of explicit reading wisdom I remember getting was from one of my future groomsmen, Scott Buttes. We were both at the gym and I was telling him how I excited I was about listening to podcast sermons by my pastor because I learned so much from them. I was particularly ecstatic because he had brilliantly gone into the 1st Century history to show how the Roman Imperial theology was behind so much of the NT proclamation of Christ as Lord, and so on and so forth, and even more excited that his new book was coming out. At that point, Scott stopped me and said, “Derek, what you need to be doing is reading the guys that he reads and going to the source.” He pointed out that Charles Spurgeon was a great preacher, but the commentator he read was J.B. Lightfoot. In the same way, I should look for the people that my favorite preachers read, and read them. So that’s what I started doing and it’s been crucial for my intellectual development since.

What does that look like? Well, maybe you’re a Tim Keller fan. I know I am. Do you like Keller’s philosophical acuity? Check out Alvin Plantinga. How about his Christ-centered exposition of the Scriptures? Read some Edmund Clowney. His sensitivity to how preaching should affect the heart? Jonathan Edwards is helpful there. How about his knowledge of early Christianity? Look up Rodney Stark. The list goes on. Basically, his book’s footnotes are a treasure-trove. It works even for heavier theological dudes. Fan of Michael Horton? Go actually read John Calvin. How about Kevin Vanhoozer? Check out Karl Barth or H.U. Von Balthasar. Again, footnotes are important.

2. Read Stuff That’s Too Hard For You – The second bit of advice that follows is to try and read stuff that’s too hard for you. Sometimes your favorites’ favorites are not easy. They’re not always quick reads. But if you’re always looking for easy reads, even if you consume a lot, you’ll never fully work your intellectual muscles to stretch and grow. Right after I finished college, I asked one of my professors which good history of theology I should check out. She recommended Jaroslav Pelikan’s 5-volume classic, even though she knew I was clearly not up on the subject. I love that she did that. She knew I was just arrogant enough at the tender age of 21 to tackle them anyways. Now, I definitely missed a lot of what was going on. Nevertheless, the impression it left on my mind of the breadth and depth of Christian orthodoxy and tradition throughout the centuries has never left me, and, on top of that, prepared me for later theological engagement. (Not to mention humbled me a bit. Just a bit.) This holds true in almost any area of knowledge or literature. Honestly, it’s okay if you have to pull out a dictionary or constantly Google new terms you encounter. That’s about the only way to get through anything by David Bentley Hart. I’m not saying you should only read hard books, just some more than you might naturally attempt.

3. Read What Interests You – I can’t remember where he says it, but C.S. Lewis has a marvelous comment about reading the books that interested him instead of the books he “ought” to read. I think my dad understood this intuitively. He used to take us to the library when we were kids and he’d pick out one book we had to read before we returned, but he then let us pick the rest based on our own interests. Yes, it’s important to read broadly, even those books that aren’t initially appealing. And yet, when in doubt, read what’s interesting to you. If you pick books on subjects you’re interested in instead of ones you think you should be interested in, you’re more likely to read even the hard books. This is why I have more books on the Trinity and the atonement than on ecclesiology in my theological library. I happen to think they are theologically prior to ecclesiology, so it makes sense for me to read about them first, but I’ll just say that I initially preferred them because they were more interesting to me. Now, realize, I am interested in ecclesiology, even more than I used to be. But really, it’s only because of the training I’ve had disciplining my mind in the areas that interest me, that I’m able to approach the thicker material in subject matter that wasn’t initially appealing. Bottom-line is: when in doubt, choose what’s interesting.

Hopefully these tips serve you as well as they’ve served me over the last few years.

Soli Deo Gloria

John Calvin’s Motherly God (Or, Maybe He’s Worth Actually Reading)

mother“John Calvin’s God is nothing but an autocratic tyrant, an arbitrary despot, who may be concerned with legal justice, but who was the worst sort of example of ‘forensic theism.’ Yes, he might be ‘gracious’, but it is an almost unfeeling graciousness, concerned only to preserve his own rights, rather than bestow good on his creatures.”

At least, that’s the picture I had before I’d read any Calvin.

I know I’m not alone in this. For most people who’ve read a little theology, or maybe a lot, but not done too much hands-on work with the man himself, it’s quite easy to see a cold systematician, with his precise, logic-chopping predestinarianism, and his absolute God who is the apotheosis of power, but not love; the king, but not the father.

It came somewhat as a surprise when I found out that “scholars who have devoted a lifetime to Calvin research have arrived at exactly the opposite reading of his doctrine of God”, (B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, pg. 23). Upon actually reading Calvin–a substantial amount, not just cherry-picked ‘gotcha’ texts–I came to understand why: Calvin is all about God’s good fatherhood. Indeed, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Divine Fatherhood is one of the main roots and wellsprings of Calvin’s understanding of God.

For instance, in creation:

…we ought in the very order of things diligently to contemplate God’s fatherly love toward mankind in that he did not create Adam until he had lavished upon the universe all manner of good things…thus assuming the responsibility of a foreseeing and diligent father of the family he shows his wonderful goodness toward us.

-Institutes, 1.5.3

Quotes such as this could be multiplied ad nauseum with respect to just about every doctrine; from providence to prayer, atonement and adoption, election and ecclesiology, the fatherhood of God is everywhere seen. For those of us who’ve spent any amount of time in the Institutes, not to mention the commentaries, it’s obvious that Calvin has a deeply paternal picture of God.

What comes as a surprise even to Calvin readers though, is God’s motherly instincts in Calvin’s theology. Gerrish calls attention to a number of fascinating passages in which Calvin compares God’s care to that of a mother (Grace and Gratitude, pg. 40). Commenting on Isaiah 42:14:

Like a woman in labor. By this metaphor he expresses astonishing warmth of love and tenderness of affection; for he compares himself to a mother who singularly loves her child, though she brought him forth with extreme pain. It may be thought that these things are not applicable to God; but in no other way than by such figures of speech can his ardent love towards us be expressed. He must therefore borrow comparisons from known objects, in order to enable us to understand those which are unknown to us; for God loves very differently from men, that is, more fully and perfectly, and, although he surpasses all human affections, yet nothing that is disorderly belongs to him.

Besides, he intended also to intimate that the redemption of his people would be a kind of birth, that the Jews might know that the grave would serve them for a womb, and that thus, in the midst of corruption, they might entertain the hope of salvation. Although he produced a new Church for himself without pain or effort, yet, in order to exhibit more fully the excellence of his grace in this new birth, he not inappropriately attributes to himself the cry of “a woman in labor.” -Comm. Is. 42:14

And again, in a sermon on Job he speaks of the humanizing effects God’s motherly love effects in us:

True, our Lord for his part becomes more familiar with us than anything else. He is like a nurse, like a mother. He does not just compare himself with fathers, who are kind and good-natured to their children. He says he is more than a mother, or a nurse. He uses such familiarity so that we shall not be like savage beasts anymore. -Serm. Job 22:1-22

And further he writes about Is 49:15:

By an apt comparison he shows how strong is the concern he bears for his own. He compares himself to a mother, whose love for her baby is so engrossed and anxious as to leave a father’s love a long way behind. Thus he was not content with using the example of a father, which he employs frequently elsewhere. To express his burning affection, he preferred to compare himself to a mother, and he does not call them just “children” but his”baby”, since affection for a baby is normally stronger. The affection a mother feels for her baby is amazing. She fondles it in her lap, feeds it at her breast, and watches so anxiously over it that she passes sleepless nights, continually wearing herself out and forgetting herself. -Comm Is. 49:15

Of course, for Calvin, as for the text, even a mother’s love may fail because it is human–God’s passionate, motherly love never will. God is motherly towards us so as to be a type for all mothers, even as he is revealed as the Father from whom all fathers gain their name. (Eph. 3:15)

If you’re looking for a loving God, one who is, yes, a strong sovereign, but also a tender Father–even more, gentle as a mother–I would direct you to Calvin’s God. I will be the first to admit that Calvin was not a perfect man, nor a perfect theologian. And yet, I can think of few surer guides into a rich, biblical, and pastoral portrait of the God of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

In Memoriam: Grandma Flora

grandma

Flora Rishmawy–My Grandma. I think she’s like 19 or 20 here.

This last week, my grandma, Flora Rishmawy, passed on to be with Jesus. I was honored and blessed to deliver the message at the memorial service in Las Vegas. Some people asked to see it, so I’ve reprinted it here with minor corrections. 

We’re all here to celebrate my Grandma, Flora Rishmawy’s life. And just looking around the room, clearly there’s a lot to celebrate. I’ll start with what I know:

Grandma –The first thing I knew about Flora Rishmawy was that she was my grandma. That was her name for years before I ever found out she was “Flora”. She’s just always been ‘Grandma’ to my sister and I. My earliest memories of her consist of trips out here to Las Vegas, or her and Grandpa coming out to visit us in Hacienda Heights or Yorba Linda. They were some of the biggest highlights of our year. Things I knew about Grandma back when I was kid:

  • Let’s be honest, she always had something for us. It didn’t matter what or when, like most grandmas, she liked giving us things. Connected to that, I knew she liked “finding” things, wherever. Shopping was a thing with Grandma. She wasn’t a spender– she was a shopper, though, and when it came to her family, it was a labor of love and joy to find us things we might like or need.
  • She always looked nice for my Grandpa. My Grandma’s hair was perfect at all times. Honestly, I can still remember the smell of her hairspray. When you’re a little kid, that’s impressive.
  • I also knew that whenever we were with her, we were going to eat good food. Everybody here knows, Grandma could cook. Whether it was snacks like sambuses, or large meals, or desserts, nothing was ever “okay” when she made it. It was great. Seriously, I don’t get how Grandpa managed to stay decently trim. Ironically, some of my favorite memories of her are not at the crazy intense meals she could make at holidays, but at the breakfasts she would cook for us. Whenever we were going to leave Las Vegas after a short vacation, she would cook up an amazing breakfast with bacon, eggs, bread, and all the basics. Nothing crazy, but somehow though, she made all the basics taste better.
  • Finally, I knew she loved us and we loved her. That was never in doubt.

Of course, over the years, I came to realize that she was far more than a Grandma.

Tino and Flora Rishmawy - 53 years solid.

Tino and Flora Rishmawy – 53 years solid.

Wife - I found that there was once a young woman, born in Honduras in 1933–a beautiful young woman who caught the eye of my Grandpa who pursued her and married her when she was 19. I remember Grandpa telling me about courting her as a young lady, and I got a kick out of thought of young Grandpa, dating a pretty young Grandma. I mean, you look at the pictures and you see it. My Grandpa looking like Errol Flynn and Grandma just a beautiful sweet thing. For 53 years after that, she was a loving wife to my Grandpa Tino until he passed 6 years ago. They kept their vows. She loved him—she didn’t just feel nice things about him, but actually loved him in word and deed, the way a wife should.

Friend – Flora was also a friend. Grandma had a lot of friends—friends she raised kids with, friends she played poker and bingo with, friends she cooked, and laughed and was a friend to. Some of those friends are here now and know a lot more about this than I do.

Mother – And of course, she was a mother—to my Dad, my uncles, my aunt, and a niece she loved like a daughter, my aunt Gera. All you have to do is look at her children and you know something about her: she was a wonderful mother. Their love for her, their devotion, is a testimony to her faithful care for them over the years. I specifically get to see it in the way my Dad is a father to me and my sister. I know he gets a lot of it from his mom. Actually, that’s part of why my mom calls him “Florita” sometimes.

Now, in all of these roles, she was one thing: she was hospitable. She took care of people, hosted them, and of course, cooked for them—it was a labor of love for her. She was a hostess, and everybody knew that—it didn’t matter if you were family, or friends, neighbors. People remember Flora’s kindness, her care, her hospitality.

This is why we’re going to miss her, and why we can rejoice: somebody else is taking care of her now.

Jesus is Taking Care of Her: - For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Phil 1:21-24

Grandma always believed in God. She was a good Catholic, brought my dad and family up in the church. Like my Grandpa though, towards the later years, she began to trust God in some deeper ways. She decided to trust Jesus to care for her as she was less and less able to care for herself.

The promise of the Gospel is that for those who let him, Jesus will take care of them, both in this life and in the next. The apostle Paul here is writing to his church in Philippi and he goes back and forth as to what he should do, remain there with them, or depart to go be with Jesus, which, he says, is far better. He ultimately says God has left him with the church to care for it, but he looks forward towards that day when God calls him to himself to rest.

Why? Because he knows that Jesus is the sum of all our human strivings. All that we seek in our lives with our families, our friends, spouses, works, the rest that we try to achieve for ourselves through our own efforts, that’s found in Jesus. And, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, then all the good things about this life, all the joys, the laughter, the meals, the reunions, all the meaning in every beautiful sunset we’ve ever experienced has come to us as a gift from his hand.

All of that beauty was in God before he gave it to us. And he gave it to us so that we might look up at him in gratitude, in love, and in delight. In fact, the NT says that Christ is the pattern for all of these things.

Now, sin, both ours, and others, has broken up that joy. There’s a brokenness in all of God’s good gifts.  It has shattered some things, twisted others, introduced tears and pain into that transcendent tapestry God wove in Creation. There’s disease, heart-ache, and worst of all, the sting of death.

This is why, for Paul, to go to Christ is to go to the source, pure and unbroken goodness. All the things that Grandma loved most about life, she is enjoying right now in the arms of Jesus. She’s no longer frail, or weak. And she has the joy of knowing Jesus, her love, her savior, her creator, better than she ever could have imagined. This is part of why Paul writes to another congregation:

Like Those Who Have No Hope. But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. (1 Thess. 4:13-14)

Paul says that we don’t grieve without hope—now, notice what that doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean we don’t grieve.

See, it is okay to grieve. We’re here celebrating her life, but it is okay to cry. The Gospel is not that there isn’t pain now—it’s that one day, all pain will cease. But that day is not right now for us. For now, death does have a sting. Grandma isn’t here with us right now. So, you know what, go ahead and cry. Go ahead and weep. Go ahead and feel that loss. God is not an unfeeling God that tells you to just smile and put a cheerful face on it. Jesus himself wept at the graveside of Lazarus, even while he knew that he was about to raise him from the dead. It says that he was moved to tears because of our pain.

The one thing that Paul says is that we don’t grieve without hope. I have hope because Grandma is with Jesus. And the thing is, Jesus is coming back. He came, he lived the life we should have lived, took the consequences our sins deserved, then rose to life again, and ascended to heaven. And the promise is that the resurrection he experienced isn’t for him alone. The promise is that for all who trust him to take care of them, all who put their faith in him, they will one day return with him, fully resurrected, with new bodies, perfect bodies, bodies that can love, and touch and sing and embrace and reunite with loved ones.

The hope is that, on top of seeing Jesus, we get to see each other again in the new world God has promised to make—because that’s what is happening—God is going to fix all things, and make all things new again, and everything we ever loved and hoped for, including Grandma is going to be in on it.

So, if you’ve accepted the Gospel, there’s hope. Grieve, but hope.  Weep, but let some of those tears be mingled with tears of joy at the fact that because Jesus lives, we’ll see her, and my grandpa, again. And on that day, the Bible says God will wipe every tear from our eyes—including the ones we weep for Flora today.

Please pray with me.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Ways Christians Can Disagree About What to Do About Poverty Politically

Disclaimer: Just to clarify, I’m not going to try and put forward any solution, any “true” answer, or definitive position on what Christians ought to be doing about poverty other than working to alleviate it. I’m not arguing for a particular political policy or party, or against a particular policy or party, despite what this may look like. I’m just trying to facilitate calmer, more empathetic, and Christ-like discussions within the Christian community by pointing a few things out.

Christians Should Care About Poverty
povertyLet’s start with the obvious. I don’t know that I really have to argue for this–I hope I don’t–but the Bible is idiot-proof clear that God’s people ought to care for the poor, work to relieve their suffering, help, etc. Depending on who you read, there’s anywhere from 300 to 2000 verses on the poor and justice. I’ll give three from the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels:

Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.

Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read… “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Clearly Jesus wants us to help the poor and he even sees his own mission having to do with that. Christians should want to help the poor–actually, not just want it, think nice thoughts about it, but actually do it. (Jas 2:14-17) The question becomes, “How?”

Strategies
Typically the least controversial approach is through personal generosity, independent charity groups, and the direct involvement of the church in the fight against poverty. Even minimal historical digging and contemporary research will show that for 2,000 years the church has, for the most part, been known for its charity and benevolence to the most vulnerable in society. In fact, the name “charity” has its origin in the practice of Christian benevolence in connection with the Christian virtue of caritas. I don’t think anybody will argue that the local and global Church shouldn’t be directly helping the poor.

votingTo many Christians (we’ll call them “Group A”) one equally obvious answer is to vote politicians into office who will act legislatively to create programs aimed at helping the poor through various redistribution and assistance programs. It really seems to be the obvious solution. That’s the quickest way to leverage goods and services on behalf of the poor at the national scale. So, when election time rolls around, they look, they read, and think about which party or politician seems most committed towards that end and they do their Christian duty and vote for her/him.

At the same time, there is a significant chunk of Christians (we’ll call them “Group B”) who apparently don’t buy that answer. This actually seems to be a significant chunk of the American church and probably a majority of American Evangelicals. They tend to vote against politicians who favor those sorts of long-term assistance and poverty-related legislation and generally are opposed the large-scale, governmental efforts in this regard–often-times quite passionately. Now, unsurprisingly this sort of voting behavior on the part of Group B leaves Group A scratching its collective head. “I thought Christians were supposed to care about the poor? How could you possibly be opposed to Politician X, or policy Y?”

Three Reasons
What I’d like to do is just quickly point out three reasons (and there could easily be more) why a sane Christian, who has read all those verses about the poor, cares passionately about them, wants to relieve their suffering, and work for justice on their behalf, might still fall into Group B. I’m not necessarily endorsing these views, just trying to explain some of the thought process and logic of it so that Group A doesn’t immediately have to assume bad faith, or a hardness of heart against the poor on the part of Group B. So, here goes:

  1. Church Not Government- The first reason is that they might simply think that poverty-relief is not the job of the government, but rather that of the church. They read the Scriptures, see all of those injunctions to God’s people to care for the poor, and conclude that they are, in general, only for God’s people. The church should be taking care of the poor, working in the inner-cities, creating communities in which sharing is the rule and poverty-alleviating generosity is second nature. The government on the other hand is there to bear the sword, maintain legal justice, ensure the rule of law, and other such functions. In essence, it’s a difference in political theology, in their understanding of the role that God has ordained for the government and for the church. Some Group B Christians think that voting in extended-duration welfare-style legislation is a sort of unwarranted outsourcing, and maybe even an excuse for negligence on the part of the church in their call to serve the poor. The point is not to ignore the poor, but help them in the way they think God has called them.
  2. Government Okay But Ineffective- Another line of thinking might not make that sharp distinction between the church’s job and the state’s job, but might simply find the government ineffective at doing that job. This one shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Basically, the logic is that it’d be fine if the government helped out, but by and large it isn’t very good at doing that. In fact, often-times when you compare the effectiveness of government-run programs and that of church or independent non-profits, they just don’t line up well. Group B might cite cycles of dependence, the destruction of social structures, and various other side effects that are said to accompany government intervention. Now, this isn’t necessarily a specifically Christian way of thinking, but rather a pragmatic one that a Christian might be persuaded of. Again, the issue here is not whether Group B cares about the poor, but what they think will actually help the poor.
  3. Government But Not that Policy- This third reason is really kind of a special version of the second. You might find Christians who actually think that the government has a role to play in combating poverty, a strong one in fact, but still think that certain policies currently touted as main planks of a poverty-combating platform to be faulty and harmful. The recent big one I can think of is the Affordable Care Act. Now, correct or not, I know people who generally think the government should be involved in this sort of thing, actually want health care reform, but simply thought the Act was/is a bad way to go about it–that it might actually be detrimental in some respects. They want the poor to get health care, good health care, but they think this Act doesn’t do it in a sustainable or helpful fashion and so their opposition to it is, in fact, motivated precisely because of their concern for the poor. There are probably other examples, but this was the obvious one.

I fully acknowledge at this point that there are likely many Christians in Group B who don’t vote the way they do for these reasons, but rather for very selfish reasons unconnected to any principled theological concerns. (Actually, I’m planning on writing a post about reasons Christians should never use for opposing poverty legislation soon.) Still, these are three possible, plausible, non-poor-hating reasons for being a Group B Christian.

Conclusions
Now at this point you might be thinking this was one big apology for Christians voting conservative and Republican and really just a stealth argument against Democrats. You’re free to go ahead and think that. I mean, that’s not what I’m doing, but I have no control over your mental habits. Once again, in order to compensate for my incompetence as a communicator or the sheer perversity of some readers, I’m just trying to point out that there are processes of thought by which someone might arrive at a Group B voting pattern, while still having read all those verses about poverty with an aim to obey them.

Of course, it may be that all three of those stances are flawed whether in their approach to the scriptures, their understanding of the pragmatic situation, or their judgment about particular pieces of legislation. Who knows? Maybe the Affordable Care Act really is a great plan. (Please don’t argue either for or against in the comments. It’s not that I don’t care, but I kinda don’t for the purposes of this blog.) All I’m trying to do is ensure that Christians in Group A don’t immediately assume or accuse Christians in Group B of not caring about the poor. Instead, you should work to engage them theologically about the role of the government, or informationally about real effects about various programs or policies.

And really, it’s not even just this issue. Generally-speaking, assuming bad faith motives like “they just hate the poor”, as the only possible reason someone might disagree with you politically, or in any other area, is generally not a winning strategy, either for understanding or communicating. I guess what I’m trying to foster, in my own inadequate way, is the intellectual empathy Matthew Lee Anderson’s been talking about lately. If we’re going to have a real conversation about any of this, especially in the body of Christ, we need to be able to at least try to understand where the other person is coming from, even if you still end up thinking they’re wrong.

Well, this blog’s too long already and I don’t know how to end it so there.

Soli Deo Gloria