Thursday, April 30, 2009

How to Reach Non-Whites

Michael Horton makes a great point about context-ualization in his recent article "Does Anybody Really know What Time It Is?" He writes:

If we are going to understand our times--and how the gospel addresses us in them--con-textualization itself will have to be "context-ualized." In other words, we have to realize that this concept too belongs a particular pattern of thinking and web of assumptions we have inherited as denizens of a certain time and place.
"The gospel," adds Horton, "has been around a lot longer than has the doctrine of contextualizing."

I can hear the objection as I type: "But doesn't Paul claim to have become 'all things to all men'? Doesn't this prove that contextualizing has been around since the very beginning?" The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes, without attempting to prove, that there is a one-to-one correspondence between Paul's "becoming a Gentile" in his own day and a church planter's attempt to pull out all stops to relate to his target audience in our own.

The reason these dots don't connect is simple: The division between Jews and Gentiles was not primarily racial, but theological. In other words, it wasn't merely that Jews hated non-Jews and Paul decided to break those illegitimate barriers down. Rather, the wall of division was erected by God himself under the Mosaic covenant, with a whole bunch of rules and rituals bequeathed from on high to reinforce it. The purpose of this separation was so that God could illustrate what holiness and privilege looked like, and ultimately, to illustrate the weakness and inability of his privileged people to retain their unique, set-apart status.

Turning to today, there simply is no demographic category that even comes close to mirroring Paul's concern in I Corinthians 9. Whether we're talking about race, gender, or socioeconomic status, the fact is that in Christ Jesus there is no longer male or female, Jew or Gentile, bond or free, for we are all one in Christ. To put it simply, the gospel makes these categories irrelevant. The new covenant is catholic in the truest sense of that word, for it opens up God's promises to all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations.

Furthermore, do we really want to mirror the apostle's supposed demographic sensitivity? What if I taught a seminar at a missions conference titled, "How to Reach Non-Whites"? After all, since Paul lumped all non-Jews into one catch-all category, why can't I do the same? Asian? African? Hispanic? Arab? Oh, I totally understand all those people. They are non-white, after all.

To be honest, if my vast experience at being both an earthling and Adamic cannot qualify me to relate to other Adamic earthlings without also having to learn about monster trucks, fine cigars, or teenage vampires, then I may as well quit now, because I just don't have the time.
For two of those pursuits, anyway....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some Questions Concerning Contextualization

Mike Horton wrote a great piece for Modern Reformation recently critiquing the dogma of contextualization with which I hope to interact in subse-quent posts.

(For those of you unfamiliar with contextualization, it refers to the practice of presenting the message of God’s Word in such a way that it will be intelligible to those who are listening. There’s much more to it, of course. Included is the idea that we need to take demographics into account when preaching so as to understand our audience and meet them where they’re at, as the saying goes.)

To kick things off, I thought I’d ask a couple questions to get the conversation flowing:

Can we not say that the categories that contextualizers consider so important—such as socioeconomics, race, and gender—are the very categories Paul insists are now irrelevant under the New Covenant (Gal. 3:28)?

Is there really a one-to-one correspondence between Paul’s becoming all things to all men on the one hand, and our incarnating the gospel to our hearers on the other? In other words, are Jew/Gentile relations analogous to Black/White ones?


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Report to Presbytery of the Judicial Commission of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery in the Matters of TE Jason Stellman et. al. VS. PNWP

Below is the ruling of the PNWP's standing judicial commission regarding our complaint filed against the presbytery last October. The reason for the complaint was that, by rejecting the study committee's minority report, the presbytery judged Rev. Peter Leithart's views to be not in violation of the Westminster Standards at any point.

I admit that I'm not a polity guy, and I haven't really taken the time to absorb the ruling or understand it completely (and it would have been out of order to debate it on the floor). I have absolutely no desire to push this thing any further, though I feel that it's probably the correct thing to do from the standpoint of confessional fidelity. This is not the kind of thing you sign up for when you become a pastor, and I find absolutely no pleasure in seeking to remove a good man from the ministry of the PCA.

Prayers for all concerned are appreciated....

Friday, April 24, 2009

Update on Peter Leithart and the Pacific Northwest Presbytery

I don't have time to get into specifics, but I thought I should update you all on the latest news with respect to Rev. Peter Leithart and the Pacific Northwest Presbytery.

The Standing Judicial Commission of the PNWP ruled a couple hours ago against the complaint that I and a few others filed due to presbytery's failure to receive our study committee's Minority Report. In other words, the PNWP's position that Rev. Leithart's views are within the bounds of the Westminster Standards has been officially and finally ratified with no further recourse from within this particular court.

I hope to reproduce the SJC's actual ruling in a day or two.

Not sure what's next....

Monday, April 20, 2009

Is Romans 2 Good or Bad News?

As I pointed out in my post last Wednesday, the standard Catholic position with respect to Paul and James on the relationship of works to justification states that, while man can never bring God into his debt or earn any reward from him, he nonetheless may (and must) perform Spirit-wrought good works in order to be saved. Romans 2:6-13 is often quoted in favor of this view:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Now the traditional Protestant response is that Paul is explaining to his Jewish readers that if they insist on relating to God on the basis of works, then they'll have to go the distance. "Don’t just listen to the law," Paul sarcastically urges, "but go ahead and do it. All of it." Paul then proceeds to demonstrate both the Jews' and Gentiles' failure to perfectly obey the law, showing that God's solution is a "righteousness apart from the law" that has been revealed in Christ.

The Catholic will not relent at this point, however, but will argue that Paul is not pitting perfect law-keeping against faith, but rather, is contrasting the perfect kind of obedience that cannot justify with a less-than-perfect kind that can.

Their argument follows these points: (1) If Paul is speaking in Romans 2 of a covenant-of-works type of righteousness that is unattainable, then he would not have immediately referred his Jewish readers to "Gentiles who by nature do what the law requires" (v. 14). Unless such Gentiles exist, his argument has no force; (2) The whole context of Paul's chiding of his kinsmen is "repentance" and "continuance in well-doing" (vv. 4, 7), which makes no sense under the original Edenic covenant; (3) Every other New Testament reference to final judgment states that it will take place "according to works," and none of them are said to be hypothetical by Protestant exegetes, so why single out this one? (4) Paul describes the entire doing-the-law-to-be-justified and judgment-according-to-works processes as things that happen "according to my gospel" (v. 16), meaning that his message in Romans 2 is not meant to be taken as bad news, but as good news.

Two questions arise. First, how weak or strong are these points? And second, how consistent or inconsistent are they with the confessional Reformed position?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who Said That?

Here is this week's "Who Said That?":

"[Believers] are not under a legal system administered according to the principles of retributive justice, a system which requires perfect obedience as the condition of acceptance with God, and which says, 'Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.' They are under grace, that is, under a system in which believers are not dealt with on the principles of justice, but on the principles of undeserved mercy, in which God does not impute 'their trespasses unto them.' There is therefore to them no condemnation. They are not condemned for their sins, not because they are not sins and do not deserve condemnation, but because Christ has already made expiation for their guilt and makes continual intercession for them."
There's a double challenge here: First guess the source of the quotation, and then guess who cited it approvingly. And as always, no Googling....
The original quotation is from Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, and it was cited approvingly by Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis in his book Not By Faith Alone.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet

"The subject of Christ and culture has never been as popular among conserva­tive Protestants in the United States as it is today, and the topic has never needed as much attention from the perspective of the church. It gets that attention in this important book by Jason Stellman. Dual Citizens will certainly upset those used to thinking of Christ as mainly the transformer of culture. But for genuine wisdom not only on the culture wars, but on the culture, ways, and habits of the church, Stellman’s discussion is the place to go."

Dr. D. G. Hart
Director of academic programs Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Wilmington, Delaware

"For too long I struggled to recommend reading on the subject of living the Christian life as a ‘resident alien.’ Often I was reduced to directing readers to liberal Methodists (such as Hauerwas and Willimon) as the best embodiment of Christian convictions. At last I can point to practice that is firmly grounded in Reformed theology. Dual Citizens is written by someone who loves the world: its movies, its music, and its authors. But this is a rightly ordered love because it is a penultimate love. Here is a robust pilgrim theology that marches on to Zion while avoiding the pitfalls of asceticism and legalism. By putting earthly king­doms in their proper place, Pastor Stellman demonstrates how rightly to use the present world even as one eagerly awaits the next."

Mr. John Muether
Professor of church history/library director
Reformed Theological Seminary
Orlando, Florida

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rome's Reconciliation of Paul and James

I think I’m beginning to get a handle on the Catholic approach to reconciling Paul and James. Unless I’ve totally misunderstood their position, I think it goes something like this:

There are two kinds of faith, and two kinds of works. (1) Dead Faith is a bare intellectual assent akin to that of devils; (2) Living Faith is the genuine kind of faith that produces heartfelt obed-ience; (3) Dead Works are works done without living faith; and (4) Living Works (not the best way of putting it, but I’m trying to keep this simple and consistent) are those acts of obedience that spring from living faith.

How does this apply to the apparent contradiction between Paul and James, with the former saying that Abraham was justified apart from works and the latter saying that the patriarch was justified not by faith alone, but by faith and works?

Well, the Catholic would say that Paul is not concerned with answering the question "What kind of faith justifies?", and likewise, James is not addressing the question "What kind of works do not justify?" In fact, it’s the other way around. Paul’s concern is to dispel the idea that the works done by the Judaizers (and by extension, by faithless Gentiles as well) can garner any favor with God whatsoever. James's concern, on the other hand, is to dismantle the notion that a mere cognitive assent of the mind can justify anyone. But, Rome maintains, what both writers agree on is the idea that a living faith justifies.

So as you can see, both Protestants and Catholics insist that certain words are used equivocally by Paul and James, we just disagree on which words those are. The Catholic maintains that they are using "justification" identically but are using "faith" and "works" differently, while the Protestant says that the interpretive key is the different definitions of "justification" that are in play (Paul's has to do with legal acquittal before God, and James's with demonstrative vindication before men).

To the Scriptures, then.

Avoiding the silly accusations that fault Catholics for not being more Protestant and Protestants for not seeing things like Catholics, which position makes the most sense out of the data? And can either approach be adopted by either side?

Monday, April 13, 2009

When Grace Loses Its Graciousness

Forgive me for the harping, but I just can't figure out the Catholic position with respect to justification in general, and Abraham's in particular.

Paul takes up this point in Romans 4. He begins not by stating that Abraham was not justified by the boastful kind of works, but rather that the reason Abraham did not boast was because he did not work at all, but believed on him who justifies the ungodly.

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not be-fore God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (vv. 2-5).
Clearly Abraham is not justified by works according to Paul, meaning that whatever James is talking about when he says that the patriarch was justified by works, it must be something different than what Paul is referring to.

Moreover, the apostle makes it clear elsewhere that the fact that salvation is by grace demands that it be by faith, for if works are mingled into the justification equation, the principle of grace has been undermined: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace" (Rom. 11:6; cf. 4:14-16).

And lest the reply be offered that it is only Jewish ceremonial "works of the law" that cannot justify, both Paul and Peter state that these ethnic boundary markers, which all good Jews meticulously kept, only serve to bind their adherents with an unbearable yoke and curse them along with all who are in Adam. Why would laws that the Judaizers obeyed serve to curse and not justify, unless the point being made is that Israel is but a microcosm of all people who trust in works of any kind to gain God's gracious acquittal?

It seems to me that the Reformed formula of guilt/grace/gratitude does a much better job of guarding the graciousness of the gospel on the one hand, while still retaining a place for holiness and obedience on the other.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Who Said That?

Please, no Googling:

"We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many desires and synthetic passions as possible.... We live in a society that tries to keep us dazzled with euphoria in a bright cloud of lively and joy-loving slogans. Yet nothing is more empty and more dead, nothing is more insultingly insincere and destructive than the vapid grins on the billboards and the moronic beatitudes in the magazines which assure us that we are all in bliss right now. I know, of course, that we are fools, but I do not think any of us are fools enough to believe that we are now in heaven.... I think the constant realization that we are exhausting our vital spiritual energy in a waste, the inescapable disgust at the idolatrous vulgarity of our commercial milieu is one of the main sources of our universal desperation."

Good luck....
The answer is Thomas Merton (well done, Rob).

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Isn't It Ironic?

I like irony, and when I detect it I like to point it out. And I'm not talking about rain on your wedding day or ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

I have been chuckling to myself recently about how that Catholics deny the Protestant idea of the perspicuity of Scripture (that the Bible is clear enough on its basic teachings that even children can understand its message), but at the same time, Rome's doctrines represent the conclusions that any child would reach by just reading the Scripture for what it says. And contrariwise, we Protestants insist that the Bible is perfectly clear and understandable while employing our most impressive systematic and exegetical acumen to highlight just how complicated the seemingly-plain language of Scripture really is.

For example, if my four-year-old daughter were to read the words, "This is My body," she would probably conclude that the bread is Jesus' body in the most basic and literal sense of the word, and I would have to try my hardest to explain that what Jesus really meant was that the bread is his body truly, but spiritually and not physically since insistence upon the ubiquity of Jesus' human nature betrays an erroneous, indeed Eutychean, understanding of the communicatio idiomatum.

Or, if she read the instruction of Ananias to Saul to "be baptized and wash away your sins," she would most likely assume that baptism washes away sins, leaving me to point out that the administration of the signum and the reception of the res significata are not necessarily simultaneous, and that it's not the waters of baptism that really wash away sins anyway, but the blood of Christ (of which baptism is a sign and seal).

And heaven help me if I ever let her read the book of James, for then she'll probably get the idea that Abraham was not justified by faith alone, but by faith and works (which, in turn, will force me to patiently point out that Paul and James use the words pistis and dikaioo in quite different ways, even though they sound the same in Greek and English).

Does all this hassle tempt me to abandon my complex theology? Of course not. But it does make me wonder if Geneva should trade the notion of perspicuity to Rome for something that they claim, but would look better sitting exclusively on our mantle.

How about sola gratia?

Monday, April 06, 2009

On Elves, Centaurs, and the Ease of Cultural Eutycheanism

I'd like to follow up on something I said in my review of C.J. Mahaney's Worldliness.

I certainly appreciate the way Worldliness concludes with some instruction concerning how to love the world without loving it—affirming, as it were, that “This Is My Father’s World” and that “This World Is Not My Home”—but I still feel that the world gets a bit short-changed by Mahaney and the other contributors.... The Reformed distinction between the sacred and secular realms can be understood within this framework, with the former referring to heavenly realities and the latter denoting earthly ones. But Worldliness explicitly denies this distinction, with Purswell actually calling for its “demolition.” According to him, the dominion mandate should guard us from being “plagued by the tendency to compartmentalize some aspects of our lives as spiritual, good, and holy and others as unspiritual, unimportant, and amoral” (p. 155). Setting aside his failure to read the dominion mandate through the lens of New Testament eschatology, Purswell’s forcing us to choose between an earthly pursuit’s being either “holy” or “unimportant” is a false dilemma that omits the option of “common.” If art, sports, or cooking are neither demonic nor divine, then there is no reason why they cannot be enjoyed for their own sakes without the added pressure to baptize, redeem, or in some sense Christianize them.
If we "demolish" the distinction between the sacred and secular, it seems to me that all we are doing is allowing the former to swallow the latter, with all of life now becoming holy. The problem here is that the very definition of "holy" is "set apart." Now, if something, whether a place or a day or a vessel, is to be "set apart," there must be something it is set apart from. But if everything is holy, then does this not empty "holiness" of all its meaning?

(Kind of like how for Calvinists God's mercy only makes sense in the light of the doctrine of reprobation, Rom. 9:22-23.)

I really appreciate Chesterton's point about the core doctrine of Christianity, the hypostatic union, involving two seemingly antithetical ideas (the human- and divine natures of Christ) perfectly united in one Person. Jesus wasn't an elf (a non-man) or a centaur (a half-man), but he was at the same time truly Man and truly God. Taking this and applying it more broadly, Chesterton argues that when the prophecy that the lion will lie with the lamb is fulfilled, it will not be due to the lion's becoming lamb-like (which would be brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb). Rather, the lion will retain its ferocity while choosing not to give expression to it at that moment.

What does this all have to do with the sacred and the secular? Well, allowing one to swallow the other is easy, but it's also a kind of cultural Eutycheanism (which, when done in Christology, is heretical). Rather, we ought to be true lovers of the world and true haters of it, affirming that "This is My Father's World" and that "This World is Not My Home" (which, when you think about it, sort of necessitates two kingdoms).

Paradoxical, yes. But what about our religion isn't?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

My Anti-Bucket List, Part 3

Continuing to document my monumental lacks-of-achievement (things which I hope to continue to fail to do until I die), I give you these amazing non-feats:
I have never eaten a pecan, an olive (black or green), a lima bean, an egg, a mushroom, or an entire piece of beef jerky.

Here's to hoping I can keep this streak up, because I feel great!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Review of Worldliness by C. J. Mahaney

This review will be published in an upcoming issue of Modern Reformation magazine.


As the editor and contributor, C. J. Mahaney begins the book Worldliness by posing the provocative question of whether I John 2:15 is still in our Bibles, or if we have, in true Jeffersonian fashion, simply cut out the beloved disciple’s exhortation: “Do not love the world” (p. 15).

The reason for such a metaphorical excision is that the very command gives rise to more questions than it does answers, such as:

Does it mean I can’t watch MTV or go to an R-rated movie? Do I have to give up my favorite TV shows? … How do I know if I’m spending too much time playing games or watching YouTube clips on my computer? … Can a Christian try to make lots of money, own a second home, drive a nice car, and enjoy the luxuries of modern life? … How do I know if I’m guilty of the sin of worldliness? (p. 17)
These are certainly important questions to ask, particularly in light of Mahaney’s observation, borrowed from James Hunter, that Christians have “lost a measure of clarity” with respect to how we relate to the world (p. 21). “We have softened,” says Mahaney, to the point where the adjective worldly and the noun worldliness have lost much of their meaning in the contemporary church (p. 22). Against the Christian culture of capitulation Mahaney rightly insists that “The greater our difference from the world, the more true our testimony for Christ—and the more potent our witness against sin” (p. 23). Worldliness, Mahaney writes, “is a passionate plea to a generation for whom the dangers of worldliness are perhaps more perilous than for any that has gone before” (p. 24).

Mahaney continues in his introductory chapter to define what it is, exactly, we’re not to love: “The world we’re not to love is the organized system of human civilization that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God” (p. 26, emphasis original). More specifically, worldliness is “a love for this fallen world. It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God” (p. 27). Some specific issues that the authors address throughout the book are the media, music, stuff, and clothes.

Worldliness closes with a chapter whose title is meant to be something of an ironic surprise: “How to Love the World” (written by Jeff Purswell). Here the author insists that “to read the message of this book as a call merely to avoidance is to misunderstand it…. It would be equally tragic if we defined our relationship with the world simply in terms of negation” (p. 140). In this chapter, Purswell seeks to demonstrate how it is that a Christian should love, and faithfully live in, this present world.

After providing a brief biography of the human story following the pattern of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, Purswell draws or attention to the all-important (and often ignored) fact that it is not the created order per se that we are called to avoid (as if the physical world, as such, is evil as the Gnostics insist). On the contrary, writes Purswell, the believer is a spiritual exile and a geographical earthling, and the lens of Scripture allows the Christian pilgrim an “enhanced enjoyment of the world” (p. 148):

Although the fall brought frustration and corruption even to natural creation, it remains a gift from God to be acknowledged, appreciated, and enjoyed…. It may sound strange to ears tuned to discern danger in all talk about “the world,” but Paul seems just as concerned about a failure to appreciate creation as he is about the tendency to worship it (pp. 150, 151).
“For the heart transformed by the gospel,” Purswell writes, “the physical world holds great promise as a worship-producing source of pleasure and provision that opens the eyes to God and engenders worship of God” (p. 151).

I certainly appreciate the way Worldliness concludes with some instruction concerning how to love the world without loving it—affirming, as it were, that “This Is My Father’s World” and that “This World Is Not My Home”—but I still feel that the world gets a bit short-changed by Mahaney and the other contributors. Despite the very helpful biblical-theological emphases throughout, Worldliness fails to adequately appreciate just how significant the fourth category is in the creation-fall-redemption-consummation motif. If this present age is provisional and will one day be overthrown by an eternal age to come, and if the transformation for which we long is to be experienced in the resurrection, then it follows (especially if one is an amillennialist) that earth and its common blessings are simply that: earthly and common. Furthermore, the Reformed distinction between the sacred and secular realms can be understood within this framework, with the former referring to heavenly realities and the latter denoting earthly ones. But Worldliness explicitly denies this distinction, with Purswell actually calling for its “demolition.” According to him, the dominion mandate should guard us from being “plagued by the tendency to compartmentalize some aspects of our lives as spiritual, good, and holy and others as unspiritual, unimportant, and amoral” (p. 155). Setting aside his failure to read the dominion mandate through the lens of New Testament eschatology, Purswell’s forcing us to choose between an earthly pursuit’s being either “holy” or “unimportant” is a false dilemma that omits the option of “common.” If art, sports, or cooking are neither demonic nor divine, then there is no reason why they cannot be enjoyed for their own sakes without the added pressure to baptize, redeem, or in some sense Christianize them.

The only other area of disappointment with this book centers on the fact that, for the authors of Worldliness, the all-important task of distinguishing ourselves from the world is pursued on an almost completely individual level. While there is little doubt that the believer needs instruction on how to combat his own worldliness and sin, no Reformed Christian should underestimate the role that the visible church plays in setting ourselves apart from the citizens of this present evil age. In fact, one may go as far as to suggest that the primary way that we distinguish ourselves from nonbelievers is by our sacred activity, which primarily occurs in worship every Lord’s Day as we are ushered into glory and truly leave the world behind.

These issues aside, Worldliness is a very necessary and helpful book which will undoubtedly aid believers in the task of living in the world while not being of it.