Mere Fidelity Podcast: Beyond the Abortion Wars

This week we had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Charles Camosy of Fordham University on the show. He’s written an impressive new book on the subject of abortion Beyond the Abortion Wars, and so we wanted to have him on to engage him on some of the more difficult questions such as exceptions in the case of mortal threat to the mother and so forth. Because why talk about the easy bits? Please give it a listen, and feel free to weigh in over in the comments at MereOrthodoxy.com.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Tips for Preaching: Manuscript and Practice Out Loud

pulpitThis week saw a damning broadside in The New Republic against famed scholar Cornel West, by his erstwhile friend, mentee, and notable scholar in his own rights Michael Eric Dyson. I’m so far from competent to weight the merits of the case going in either direction, it’s beyond pointless for me to comment. I found the article fascinating, as much for the argument and the drama, as the compelling insights into the nature of writing, the academic life, and, yes, their application to preaching and teaching in the pulpit.

In one section, Dyson goes after West’s apparent drop-off in scholarship. Apparently West hasn’t written anything by himself in years, and much of his work seems to be collections of spoken addresses, interviews, and conversations that have been transcribed and edited. So what’s the problem with this? Dyson explains:

In Brother West, West admitted that he is “more a natural reader than natural writer,” adding that “writing requires a concerted effort and forced discipline,” but that he reads “as easily as I breathe.” I can say with certainty, as a college professor for the last quarter century, that most of my students feel the same way. What’s more, West’s off-the-cuff riffs and rants, spoken into a microphone and later transcribed to page, lack the discipline of the written word. West’s rhetorical genius is undeniable, but there are limits on what speaking can do for someone trying to wrestle angels or battle demons to the page. This is no biased preference for the written word over the spoken; I am far from a champion of a Eurocentric paradigm of literacy. This is about scholar versus talker. Improvisational speaking bears its wonders: the emergence on the spot of turns of thought and pathways of insight one hadn’t planned, and the rapturous discovery, in front of a live audience, of meanings that usually lie buried beneath the rubble of formal restrictions and literary conventions. Yet West’s inability to write is hugely confining. For scholars, there is a depth that can only be tapped through the rigorous reworking of the same sentences until the meaning comes clean—or as clean as one can make it.

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.

West admires the Socratic process of questioning ideas and practices in fruitful dialogue, and while that may elicit thoughts he yearned to express anyhow, he’s at the mercy of his interlocutors. Thus when West inveighs, stampedes, and kvetches, he gets on a roll that might be amplified in conversation but arrested in print. It’s not a matter of skillful editing, either, so that the verbal repetition and set pieces that orators depend on get clipped and swept aside with the redactor’s broom. It’s the conceptual framework that suffers in translating what’s spoken to what’s written, since writing is about contrived naturalness: rigging the system of meaning to turn out the way you want, and making it look normal and inevitable in the process.

While I don’t find myself writing scholarly work every week–on top of my blog, or rather, before it–I’m usually spending a number of hours writing a couple thousand word manuscript on about 10-20 verses in order to preach them to about 20-odd students every Thursday night. On top of that, on Thursday itself, I’ll usually practice something like 4-6 times throughout the day as I prepare, before I ever get up to preach that night. The funny thing is, I’ve noticed that both parts of my sermon preparation are necessary for me. Dyson’s analysis of the different glories of the spoken and the written word speak to why.

Manuscripting of some form is absolutely necessary for me. The first draft is where I figure out the logical order, find most of my major points, craft certain key phrases, and make sure the flow is there. Without the outlining and manuscript process, I would not be forced to wrestle with the fundamental meaning of the text, and establish the bones, so to speak, before I put flesh on it. That said, if you look at my sermon notes and then follow my sermon, odds are that on any given night there’s going to be a major discrepancy between the two. Oh, sure, the sections are likely in the same order, the logic is there, and the paragraphs are mostly in place, but there is still wide variation from my initial draft to my final delivery. The reality is that as I practice throughout the day, I find myself following the text, but rewriting the sections as I go. Indeed, I end up rewriting it in my soul, since by the time I get up there, I’m barely looking at my notes anymore.

I know a lot of preachers hate practicing. The great thing about disciplining yourself to practice live before you go up a few times, is that you can begin to draw out those moments of improvisatory insight before you ever get in front of your people. And most preachers know that those are often your best points, right? By practicing, you take those flashes and work them into the structure of your sermon, dwell on them a bit more systematically, and draw out the implications with greater depth and persuasive power.

But I need both halves of the process. For those preachers who seem to hate preparatory manuscripting, you need to know that the best flashes of improvisatory insight come after you’ve already wrestled with the text for a while, written and rewritten sections, and tried to string it all together as best as you can on the page. Without that foundational work, your riffing will be less likely to be grounded in a fresh engagement with the text and more drawn on the leftovers of more studious days.

So those are my two tips: manuscript, then practice. I know every preacher is different, and plenty do it different, but if you’re young like me, or hitting a bit of a dry patch in your preaching, maybe consider giving it a try.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pride Goes Before the Fall, But Unbelief Goes Before Pride

apple sinOne of the classic debates medievals and later theological types liked to kick around was, “What as the first sin of Adam?” Not what the particulars of it were, mind you–they all read Genesis 3 closely–but the essence, so to speak. What drew Adam and Eve toward violating God’s command? Was it primarily lust and desire? Or sloth?

In his question devoted to the subject (Institutes, Vol 1. Top. 9, Q. 6),  Turretin notes that among the various options forwarded, two stand out as the most popular. The first is pride, an opinion favored mostly by Roman Catholics; second is unbelief, which is the typically Protestant option. Being archetypically Protestant, Turretin opts for the latter. For Turretin, the general apostasy and turning away from God that led to Adam violating God’s covenant command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an “incredulity” and contempt towards God’s word.

Of course, Turretin knows that the act of sin, and particularly the first sin, is quite complicated. Parsing out the various moments, acts, components, and so forth reveals various dimensions which definitely joined pride to unbelief. Nonetheless, Turretin thinks that when we sink down to the roots of the act, it’s caught up tightly in the faculties that judge falsity and truth, error and unbelief.

He then gives a number of, well, numbered reasons for thinking we ought to give priority of the root of unbelief.

  1. First, looking at the first attack point of temptation shows us where the origin of sin lies. What did the serpent first challenge? The integrity, reliability, and goodness of God’s word (“Did God really say?”, “You will not surely die”). This precedes his temptation to pride (“you shall be as gods.”)
  2. Second, “pride could not have place in man except on the positing of unbelief.” In other words, you can’t think too highly of yourself unless you’ve already stopped believing in God’s word of threat against disobedience.
  3. Third, the Bible points to sin as seduction and its roots in Satan’s cunning and deceptions (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14; Gen. 3:1).
  4. Fourth, only unbelief would have made him think that it is virtuous or a good thing to not be dependent on God for your good in all things. The desire for independence and autonomy from our good Creator is folly.
  5. Fifth, Turretin points out, if Satan first tempted Adam to sin, well, either he believed him or he didn’t. If he did, then unbelief follows. If he didn’t, well,  explain how he ended choosing sin in the first place?

Okay, but where does that unbelief come from?

But unbelief could not have place in man, unless first by thoughtlessness he had ceased from a consideration of God’s prohibition and of his truth and goodness. If he had always seriously directed his mind to it…he could never have been moved from his faith and listened to the tempter. Hence, therefore, unbelief or distrust flowed first. By this man did not have the faith in the word of God which he was bound to have, but shook it off at first by doubting and presently by denying; not seriously believing that the fruit was forbidden him or that he should die. Again, note the credulity by which he began to listen to the words of the Devil…believing that God envied him the fruit and that he would be like God and omniscient. Thus he made an erroneous judgment by which he determined that the object presented by the Devil was good for him. Hence presently his appetite and his inclination of concupiscence and its motions influenced the will to the eating of the fruit. At length, the external action followed. This inconsideration may well be called the beginning or first stage of sin.

There’s a few brief points worth making here.

First, I think the logical priority of unbelief makes sense according to Turretin’s schema. That said, we need to be careful here and remember that he’s speaking of Adam according a prefall state. The relation between the will and the intellect is a bit more complicated now that things have been disordered through sin.

This bit of theology is worth reflecting on for its practical value. Turretin says that Adam could have only fallen into sin through thoughtlessness. By not constantly meditating on the reality of God’s word, his command and his promises, he was tempted to doubt, then unbelief. No wonder the Scriptures constantly remind us to keep God’s word on our minds at all times, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).  Distance creates distrust.

And that’s at the heart of most temptation to sin, right? Distrust in the goodness of God? Distrust that his commands and prohibitions flow from his good character? Disbelief that whatever sin we’re actually drawn towards is actually bad for us and that God wants to keep us from those things that would hurt us?

Finally, unsurprising, then, that salvation is caught up with the restoration of faith by the Holy Spirit. Faith is the opposite of unbelief. By faith we trust God’s promises, are restored to proper relationship to God through union with Christ, and receive the Holy Spirit who even reconciles us to trust, not only God’s promises, but God’s law as well (Rom. 8:7).

So, to sum up: pride goes before the fall, but unbelief goes before pride. Be constantly meditating on his word day and night, praying that God would increase your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Peace That God Himself IS

peaceJohn Webster is relentless in his refrain that all of our theology, even our theology about the role of theology, needs to take its orientation in the nature and activity of the Triune God in himself and his works. Unsurprising, then, is his decision to discuss the peace of God as the necessary foundation and precursor to discussing theology’s role in establishing the peace of the church. “Theology must first speak of the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility” (The Domain of the Word, p. 150).

That God is both the “principle” as well as the “pattern” of creaturely peace is important to remember. Webster says that contemporary theology often remembers the “pattern” bit, focused as it is on the God’s outward works to create and secure peace, but forgets the principle. This can lead to an unfortunate “moralitistic” ecclesiology, deprived of the indicative grounding for the imperatives it wants to encourage. Instead, he argues we must first consider God himself as the principle of peace as the foundation and ground of the rest of our reflections.

Of course, as soon as we begin to think about God’s inner, or immanent, peace, we “encounter an inhibition: ‘God is great, and we know him not’ (Job 36.26). We know that God is great, but we scarcely know what we know” (p. 153). This stands as a warning, yes, but also as a “summons” to understand that whatever understanding of God we come to based on his Word, we need to know that God “infinitely exceeds” the operations of our reason.

So what can we say about the peace that God himself is? This:

The peace of God — the peace which God himself is— passes all understanding; ‘neither we nor the angels can understand as God, the peace which God himself enjoys’ (Augustine, City of God, XXII.29). This peace of God’s own self may be considered under the aspects of harmony and repose. First, with respect to harmony; the outer acts of the Holy Trinity are indivisible, the work of the undivided divine essence in its threefold personal modification. By appropriation, specific works may be particularly or eminently assigned to one divine person (as redemption to the Son or sanctification to the Spirit). But each person participates in all, for each shares in the undivided dvine essence, and each work is to be attributed absolutely to that one divine essence. The outer works of the Trinity are, then, harmonious — not mere conjoint or cooperative or composite action, but action which is inseparable and coinherent, and so, in a deep sense, peaceful. This harmony in the missions of the three-in-one is grounded in and gives expression to to the infinite peace which God is. There is no disorder, disruption or contradiction in the works of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the making and perfecting of the world. And so, there is in God’s inner life nothing of divergence or discord, but infinite unity and therefore peace beyond measure.

Second, to this harmony is to be added the element of repose. The outer works of God are effortlessly accomplished, without strain or agitation, without interval between willing and effecting. God rests in his work. This rest corresponds to the inner repose of God in filiation and spiriation, there is no malign diversity, no coming together out of a condition of separation, no overcoming of division or conflict, but always an already-achieved perfection of peaceful life. God’s inner peace is the peace of his triune simplicity.

This inner divine peace is the principle of creaturely peace, that upon which all other peace is founded and by which it is preserved. This is so, however, only because divine peace is in itself complete and fully satisfied. In the repleteness of his life as Father, Son, and Spirit, God is beyond need or desire. His peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence…it is the harmony and repose which, because it needs nothing, is capable of pure charity, giving life and righteous order in the works of creation and providence.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, pp. 133-135

Webster continues on from here to show how this original peace leads to his work of peace in salvation, the peace of the church, and theology’s role within God’s working of peace. For now, though, I think it enough to stop, sit, meditate, and wonder at the peace which God is.

Father, Son, and Spirit dwell in blessed, holy peace, wanting and needing nothing, fully at rest, enjoying the delight of their harmonious existence as the Three-in-One from all eternity. This peace is light, life, and love.

Now one more thought: this God invites us to share–in our own created, derivative, limited way–that peace through the Son who made peace through the blood of his Cross (Col. 1:20), who himself is our Peace (Eph. 2:14).

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Spirituality of Work

This week on Mere Fidelity, Alastair and I chatted with Nancy Nordensen about her new book Finding Livelihood. We talked about work, its purpose, questions of passion and calling, and walking with the Lord through the everyday realities most of us will face at our jobs. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and I pray you will as well.

 Soli Deo Gloria

Arguments Always Involve Relationships

argumentAlastair Roberts has written very interesting post, well worth your time, in defence of the Christian practice of argument or polemical discourse about the truth. In the middle of it, partially in order to help overcome the silly split we often place between reason and emotion, he makes the claim that all of our conversations have various relational dimensions to them. And then he proves it:

Discourse is always relational in character. When engaged in discourse, we are engaging in relationship with:

  1. Our selves
  2. Other persons on our ‘side’
  3. Our own positions
  4. The conversation itself
  5. Our interlocutors
  6. Our interlocutors’ positions
  7. The truth
  8. Spectators and other third parties

In order to think and reason carefully, we must ensure that every one of these relationships is healthy. Where one or more of these relationships is unhealthy—and one of these relationships is seldom unhealthy without infecting the others—our entire discourse can be damaged. The following are a few examples of ways in which each one of these relationships can be unhealthy:

  1. Pride can give rise to an unhealthy relationship with our selves, making it difficult for us to acknowledge ourselves to have been wrong, especially in public.
  2. Fear of losing the friendship of other persons on our own ‘side’ can cause us to step back from making unpopular but necessary criticisms of unhealthy beliefs that have traction in our own camp.
  3. We can over-identify with our own positions, presuming that an attack upon them is an attack upon ourselves.
  4. We can react in fear, impatience, or hostility to the way that the testing and openness of the conversation can place our certainties in question.
  5. An instinctive reaction against our interlocutors can make it difficult to hear them out carefully and charitably.
  6. Negative associations that we have established with aspects of our interlocutors’ positions (dimensions of its rhetoric, terminology, labels, etc.) can cause us to react rather than thoughtfully respond.
  7. We can react in fear to the prospect of the truth as something that can unsettle the status quo, demand our loyalty, or undermine our claims upon reality.
  8. We can allow the tensions that we have with third parties to prevent us from giving people that they recommend a careful and charitable hearing. Alternatively, we could also allow ourselves to get caught up in the stampede of the crowd on social media and fail to think about the matter that they are reacting to clearly for ourselves.

Anyone who’s been on facebook for more than about 20 minutes can recognize these dynamics. Roberts continues:

This list is very far from comprehensive. However, it should give some sense of the many fronts upon which we need to manage our relational dynamics and the affective states associated with these. The thinking process is not just a matter of machine-like logic-crunching and brainpower: it is an interpersonal and relational process and a matter of various virtues, of patience, of charity, of love, of courage, of nerve, of self-control, of trust, of hope, etc. The sharpest minds can be worse than useless when their owners lack virtue or self-control in handling their affective states.

The lack of self-control in handling affective states usually owes more to lack of training than to vice. I have commented on various occasions upon the ways in which much of our education fails to prepare us for the real world situations where the relational character of healthy and clear thinking proves most challenging. In consequence, many people—even those with advanced education—lack the capacity to think well under pressure or to manage the relational dynamics that shape their thinking (dynamics of which many are entirely unaware).

In the rest of the post, he goes on to analyze more dimensions to the reality of argument and to defend it as a practice and our need to develop the emotional and intellectual resources to deal with it.

Again, I cannot recommend it enough. Indeed, this whole post is designed simply to tempt you to read it. Right here. Or again, I’m going to link it here.  Or, if you missed that, you can go ahead and read the whole article here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Read a Chapter Between Chapters

Insert stock Bible image here.

Insert stock Bible image here.

Obviously, I’m a fan of books. I always have been and I always will. Ever since I got the call to ministry, those books have tended to be about theology and the Scriptures, and that only intensified once I got to seminary. Systematic theology, biblical studies, commentaries, and works of Christian history litter the floors of my office, bursting off of the shelves I have for them (also, I need to clean up a bit). Those books have shaped me, grown, and deepened my knowledge of the Bible, the gospel, and God himself. One of the sad quirks of becoming a student of theology and the Bible, though, is that you can actually end up losing your drive to read the Bible itself.

Somewhere in the rush to consume as many studies on Paul as you can afford, you begin to realize, “When was the last time I really just sat and read through Paul?”  I mean, I still read a couple chapters of my Bible for a daily devotional, but there’s a point where I realized the proportion of pages of Scripture compared to pages about Scripture, got wildly out of hand.  I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one this has happened to.

Now, to be fair, when you become a student of the Scriptures, to some degree it makes sense to do a bunch of reading in commentaries, studies, and so forth. In order to really get at the depths of a particular text or settle the meaning of a particular difficult verse that takes about 15 words, you may have to read 30 or 40 pages. Still, lately I’ve been convicted that I need to start tipping the balance back, if not completely in the other direction, at least more than it currently is.

So, I’ve come up with a very simple plan. I’m going to try to go on a “chapter between chapters” plan. In other words, on top of my daily, morning reading, after every chapter I read in work of theology or biblical studies, I’m going to pop open my Bible and read a chapter there too. Obviously, the chapters in my theology texts are going to be much longer than the biblical chapters, but this is a fairly straightforward way of ensuring that I’m engaged in the Biblical text throughout the whole of my day alongside my broader theological studies, not simply during sermon prep or those special little chunks of devotional time.

Which books will I read in particular? Well, I suppose I’m going to start with the four gospels. Recently, Mark Labberton mentioned that for a great many years he’s made it a practice to, whatever else he was studying, make sure he was reading at least one of the Gospels. While all of Scripture testifies to Christ, looking clearly at his person, his way of speaking and engaging with his followers and outsiders in the Gospels ought to be formative in the lives of his disciples. That sounds like wisdom to me.

Am I saying that everyone else needs to do this? Not really. But I figured if you’re like me and you want to find ways to dip into Scripture more, it might help to have a plan. A chapter between chapters just might be it.

Soli Deo Gloria