Sunday, January 31, 2010

Christ, Kingdom, and Culture, Part 3: VanDrunen

Continuing our reflections on Westminster Seminary’s annual conference on the topic of Christ, Kingdom, and Culture, the third lecture, titled “Christ and the State,” was given by David VanDrunen.

VanDrunen made a great point about how that we must be careful not to equate the civil kingdom with the state and thereby collapse into the state all other civil endeavors or concerns. States can be oppressive and tyrannical, he argued, and there needs to be a sufficient decentralization of power in order to guarantee some sovereignty to things like education and the arts.

One point that VanDrunen was careful to make was that the state, though a post-fall phenomenon, is nonetheless a legitimate institution and sword-wielder. Quoting Calvin, he insisted that “tyranny is better than anarchy.” (Just a quibble, but I am not convinced of how helpful this point is, since the term “anarchism,” when used today, inevitably evokes the idea of chaos while ignoring its political and economic definition, which is basically synonymous with “libertarianism” or “socialism,” properly understood.)

The issue of civil disobedience also came up. VanDrunen argues that it is never proper for a believer to seek to fight against religious persecution by means of the carnal weaponry of the state or its courts. If memory serves, he believes the same rules apply in the civil realm as well, meaning that it any form of civil disobedience to lawfully ordained magistrates is wrong, unless they compel us to disobey God’s law.

To tip my hat to the just-deceased Howard Zinn, I would respectfully disagree here. While I do think a Christian should never resist religious persecution but rather endure it as an example of Christ-like cross-bearing, I do think it’s legitimate for the believer to fight against injustices that arise for non-religious reasons (such as during the civil rights movement), as long as such resistance (1) is non-violent, and (2) doesn’t violate the Westminster Confession and invoke our spiritual liberty as a reason to resist civil oppression (I wrote about this topic here, here, and here).

OK, discuss away....

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Theology of the Cross, Salinger Style

Finally, though, I got undressed and got in bed. I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard.

I used to get in quite a few arguments about it with this boy who lived down the corridor, Arthur Childs. Old Childs was a Quaker and all, and he read the Bible all the time. He was a nice kid, and I liked him, but I could never see eye to eye with him on a lot of stuff in the Bible, especially the Disciples. He kept telling me if I didn’t like the Disciples, then I didn’t like Jesus and all. He said that because Jesus picked the Disciples, you were supposed to like them. I said I knew He picked them, but that He picked them at random. I said He didn’t have time to go around analyzing everybody. I said I wasn’t blaming Jesus or anything. It wasn’t His fault He didn’t have any time.

Anyway, when I was in bed I couldn’t pray worth a damn....

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
RIP, J.D. Salinger

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Three Things I Need You to Know"

First off, a moment of silence in honor of the life and death of Howard Zinn. His magnum opus, A People's History of the United States, is a must-read for anyone at all interested in history and politics (it'll knock you on your, umm, rear, to misquote Will Hunting). I would especially commend it to those who insist that the church must fight for social justice; no church leader, regardless of how emergent, bohemian, or soul-patched, will ever come close to raising Americans' awareness of the plight of the powerless and disenfranchized to the degree that Zinn has done. His love for his neighbor should put us all to shame. Plus, he even puts social justice concerns in the correct kingdom....

Speaking of book recommendations, have you all heard of the Classic Reformed Theology book series? A new volume was just released: Caspar Olevianus's exposition of the Apostles' Creed with an Introduction by R. Scott Clark. Here is Volume One, and here is Volume Two. For those of you pinching pennies, a great deal on both volumes can be found here.

And lastly, I was dismayed to discover after Steve Jobs's unveiling of Apple's iPad that my life was suddenly meaningless because I don't yet have a -- what's it called again? -- oh yeah: an iPad. Then again, it looks like I'd still need to muster the energy to actually use my fingers to type on it, which is a total hassle. I mean, it's 2010 for crying out loud, I can't be expected to endure that kind of physical exertion anymore. Call me when you invent a microchip implant to make all my decisions, or a personal Avatar-body to live my life for me. Reality is too tiring....

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christ, Kingdom, and Culture, Part 2: Baugh

The second lecture at Westminster Seminary California's conference on "Christ, Kingdom, and Culture" was by Dr. Steve Baugh; the title was "The Kingdom in the New Testament." For those who don't know Steve, he is an amazing exegete (in fact, I just incorporated some of his rich insights into this evening's sermon on the binding of the strong man from Luke 11). In typical fashion, Baugh stood at the lectern with an open Bible in his hand and, structure and decorum be damned, shot from the hip and offered his thoughts on what the New Testament has to say about the kingdom. Here's the description he gave of it:

"The kingdom of God proper is the fully consummated new heavens and new earth inhabited by the redeemed, resurrected saints in glory and incorruptibility where the triune God—including the incarnate Son—triumphantly rules supreme."
He brought out four elements that are necessary for the kingdom to be present in its eschatological fullness: Christ's rule, the people ruled, the king to rule them, and the territory in which this rule takes place. I hate to try to improve on Baugh's description of the kingdom, but I do think there is a catchier and easier-to-remember way of putting it (and in my defense, I am PCA): "The kingdom of God is fully present when God holy people are ruled in Gods holy land by God's holy king." (I preached a series of sermons on this topic a few years ago at Exile Presbyterian Church.)

Looking at the entire scope of God's revelation, it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable to say that the theme of the Bible is the kingdom of God, and the way in which that kingdom is administered is by means of historical covenants that God makes with his people. The most vivid picture of the kingdom in the Old Testament is seen in I Kings 8:14-15, 20-21:

Then the king turned around and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. And he said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who with his hand has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to David my father.... Now the LORD has fulfilled his promise that he made. For I have risen in the place of David my father, and sit on the throne of Israel, as the LORD promised, and I have built the house for the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. And there I have provided a place for the ark, in which is the covenant of the LORD that he made with our fathers, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt."
Note that all the kingdom-elements are present: God's holy people are being ruled in God's holy land by God's holy king. Now this picture of the kingdom is typological, of course, foreshadowing the Day when the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Then (and not before) the Lord's promise will be fulfilled and we will experience as God's holy people the reign of our holy King of kings in the true holy land, the new heavens and new earth. Our role in the here and now is not to try to create such a kingdom in this fallen age, but in the words of Peter, to "wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!" (II Pet. 3:12).

For my part, it seems that if Christians would understand the nature of the kingdom, and particularly that it reveals itself in this age by means of the obscurity, shame, and foolishness of the cross, it would really revolutionize the way we think of the Christian life, as well as challenge the triumphalistic (and, I would argue, postmillennial) expectations we place upon the church and her influence over the culture.

Three cheers, then, for Steve. May his house be blessed, and his tattered Nestle Aland be continually filled with treasure.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Israel's Leadership of the Gentiles

I know this is off-topic, but this question has been bugging me for some time, and I just came across it again while reading N.T. Wright's Romans commentary. As many of you know, Wright insists quite strongly that much of Paul's indictment of Israel focuses not so much on how Israel is sinful like all the Gentile nations, but rather, that they who were destined to be God's solution have, because of their idolatry and rebellion, become part of the problem. He writes on Romans 2:17-29:

[Paul's] point now is not so much to bring out into the open a charge that [Israel is] sinful like the rest.... The point here is that Israel should have been--had been called to be--the divine answer to the world's problem; and that, instead, Israel is itself fatally compromised with the very same problem. Israel's sinfulness is at the heart of the charge, but the charge itself is that the doctor, instead of healing the sick, has become infected with the disease.
A few questions: (1) If Israel had "become infected with the disease" from which the rest of the world suffers, when did this infection occur? (2) If it occurred at the fall of Adam, then in what meaningful sense could Israel have been ordained to be God's solution to the sin problem? Were they themselves not sinful from the outset? (3) But if this infection occurred at some later date (like at the time just preceding the exile for example), then is not Wright's insistence that Israel, at least up until this apostasy, could have been a physician to the Gentile nations an example of a gross underestimation of original sin? And lastly, (4) If Wright is faithfully representing Paul's claim that Israel was to be "a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness" (Rom. 2:19), then is it possible that Paul shared Wright's high hopes for Israel, despite the fall? And if he didn't, what did he mean by his rebuke?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Christ, Kingdom, and Culture, Part 1: Godfrey

I just returned Saturday night from attending Westminster Seminary CA’s annual conference, the topic of which was Christ, Kingdom, and Culture. I always enjoy these events, but this year’s was particularly good (the best since the first one back in ’04 or ’05, I think). Over the next several posts I would like to reflect on some of the faculty’s addresses.

Professor Robert Godfrey opened and closed the conference. In his opening address he pointed out the difficulty of trying to fit any of the various Reformed views on Christ and culture into a nice, tidy slogan. If one insisted on a bumper sticker, however, the only phrase he would suggest would be “Every Square Inch,” for regardless of whether one identifies himself as a Two-Kingdoms advocate or a Kuyperian (or some other option), we can surely agree that Christ rules all of the created order.

In his closing address Godfrey drew our attention to Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty, which says that God rules his church, but he also rules various other institutions such as the state, the school, the family, and so on. With this emphasis, Godfrey said, we don’t need to speak of two kingdoms only, but we can speak of many.

This issue came up again in the Q&A session, at which time Dr. VanDrunen insisted that as Reformed believers we should be able to have our cake and eat it too, holding to both a two-kingdoms model as well as retaining sphere sovereignty. If we adopt the former only, we can end up collapsing the entire cultural kingdom into a one all-embracing category like the state (with its tendency toward tyranny). On the other hand, if we propound a sphere-sovereignty approach only, we can fall into the error of seeing the church as simply one of many institutions through which Christ exercises kingship, thus trivializing the sacred order. But if we embrace each concept we can have the best of both worlds, with the civil kingdom being understood to be much broader than merely the state, but also including the arts and sciences, sports, and education.

There was an interesting moment during the Q&A in which Horton challenged Godfrey’s prior statement about how quote-unquote progressive Kuyper’s cultural agenda was (he pointed out that Kuyper not only sowed the seeds of apartheid, but also opposed women’s suffrage and the rights of workers to strike). Apparently, whether one’s politics are progressive pretty much depends on whether they stand to your left, or to your right.

All in all, two great lectures from Godfrey. The man can work a room.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Some Tidbits, Three Cheers, and a Curse

As some of you know, I am in CA right now to attend Westminster Seminary's annual conference (the topic is Christ and Culture). Should be good. One thing I am especially looking forward to is purchasing David VanDrunen's new book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (he gets a lot of his material from this blog, you know. Yes, that was a joke).

It was great to attend Westminster's 30th Anniversary Dinner last night (apparently we are R.C. Sproul's favorite seminary in the world). Although there regrettably wasn't a "Class of '04" table to sit at (probably because it would make everyone else jealous of how awesome we are), I was seated with some old friends. Plus, the chicken wasn't nearly as rubbery as I expected. Oh, and Godfrey just hit it out of the park with his address.
I am also pleased to announce that our very own Paige Britton has painstakingly pored over the DRD archives and single-handedly tagged every post (until recently only the last year or so was actually categorized). So now everything is nicely labeled and easy to sift through should you so desire. So three cheers for you, Paige, may the wind ever be at your back.

And lastly, I'd like to offer the exact opposite of a cheer and blessing to Pat Robertson. I don't know if people of his ilk are still able to feel shame, but I certainly hope he is brought to understand just how irresponsible his speech has been in the aftermath of the calamity in Haiti. Like Falwell's remarks after 9/11, Robertson's sanctimonious drivel makes me want to distance myself as much as possible from such self-styled representatives of evangelical conservatism. So Pat, if you're reading, may God silence you before you bring any further dishonor to his Name. You don't speak for me, and neither do any of your friends.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Baptism as a Seal of Saving Blessings

There seems to be a lot of confusion of late surrounding baptism, and more specifically, what kind of salvific blessings can be attributed to the sacrament. In the minds of some, if things like union with Christ or forgiveness of sins are the results of faith, then we mustn’t give baptism any of the credit. After all, we’re not Federal Visionists, right?

I think the Westminster Confession is helpful here. We read in xxviii.6:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwith-standing, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost....
So it appears that there is a thing called “baptismal efficacy,” but we are cautioned against insisting that baptismal efficacy takes place at the time of baptismal administration. What, then, is baptismal efficacy? In WCF xxviii.1 it says:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life....
Baptism, then, is a seal to the believer of his union with Christ, his regeneration, and the forgiveness of his sins. Now the whole point of a “seal” is that it provides some sort of confirmation or authentication of something. In this case, the seal is baptism, which is meant to function for the believer as that which confirms his participation in the blessings of the entire covenant of grace.

Now here’s the kicker: If the Confession says that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of its administration, it stands to reason that there is a “moment” to which it is OK to “tie the efficacy of baptism.” Now, we would all agree that that moment is when we exercise saving faith. It follows, therefore, that it is perfectly valid for the believer (who has exercised saving faith), seeing his baptism as the seal of his regeneration, union with Christ, and forgiveness of sins, to attribute to that sacrament the blessings of the covenant of grace. In other words, he can say, “I have been united with Christ through baptism,” or “I have been forgiven of all my sins because I have been baptized.”

To deny this not only demonstrates a person’s suspicion of the language of confessional Reformed theology, but it also leaves him with little to say in response to the sacramental language of Scripture.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Sign and the Thing Signified: Can You Tell Them Apart?

In Reformed debates about baptism (especially when Federal Visionists are involved), the biggest issue that arises is the degree to which we can echo the New Testament's language concerining the sacrament's efficacy, and how much qualification we need to offer when we do it. Ironically enough, I was recently accused of sounding like a Federal Visionist because of an article I just wrote for Tabletalk in which I said things like, "Baptism accomplishes this" or "Baptism produces that."

Consider these exerpts from Calvin's Strasbourg and Geneva catechisms:

Question: How do you know yourself to be a son of God in fact as well as in name?

Answer: Because I am baptized in the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question: Is baptism nothing more than a mere symbol [i.e., picture] of cleansing?

Answer: I think it to be such a symbol that the reality is attached to it. For God does not disappoint us when he promises us his gifts. Hence, both pardon of sins and newness of life are certainly offered and received by us in baptism.

Now, everything in us is screaming that such language sounds way too Catholic (or Moscovite), but we must also admit that it also reflects the language of Scripture itself. Paul says that baptism unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection, Peter says that baptism saves us, and Ananias says that baptism washes away our sins.

How, then, are we to talk about the efficacy of baptism?

I maintain that the answer is found in properly relating the sign to the thing signified. If we can remember to carefully distinguish the outward sign whereby water is sprinkled on a person's head, and the inward reality of the sinner being cleansed by the blood of Christ, then we can go ahead and speak of the one as if it is the other.

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other (WCF xxvii.2).
Think of the sign and the thing signified like you would twins: It's only after you've learned to tell them apart that it becomes safe to put them together.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

On Mortification

I just began teaching an adult Sunday School class on John Owen's classic work The Mortification of Sin in Believers, and this morning we looked at chapter 1 in which Owen lays out some opening remarks about the discourse. The whole treatise is an exposition of Romans 8:13b: "If you mortify the deeds of the body, you will live."

One point that gave rise to some helpful discussion focused on how Owen deals with the conditional nature of this promise. He says that we mustn't take Paul's statement as a condition that bespeaks uncertainty, as if this passage were a universally-applicable formula according to which if a person does Y, X will necessarily follow (but who knows if the person will ever get around to doing X in the first place?). The context rules out such an approach, since the passage is addressed to those for whom "there is no condemnation" because they have been "justified by faith" and "have peace with God" (8:1; 5:1).

Rather, Owen argues, the conditional promise highlights "a certain connection or coherence" between the duty (mortifying the deeds of the body) and the reward (life). Though Owen doesn't say it explicitly, the relationship of eternal life to mortification seems to me to be very much akin to that of faith to justification. Can one be justified without faith? No. But is one's justification earned by his faith? No. The meritorious cause of one's justification is the work of Christ, the benefits of which are received through the instrumental cause of faith. Our mortification, therefore, issues forth in eternal life, but eternal life is in no sense earned by said mortification.

In fact, Owen says that:

The pressing of this duty [of mortification] immediately on any other [than believers] is a notable fruit of that superstition and self-righteousness that the world is full of--the great work and design of devout men ignorant of the gospel.... Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.
I am curious to know your thoughts on Owen's treatment of Paul's conditional promise here, as well as whether or not you agree with his assessment of those who disagree with him (and I think we all know who it is that he has in mind).