Saturday, January 29, 2011

J.I. Packer Jesus the Lord: Part II


In this post I will concentrate on Packer's in-depth discussion of the New Testament claims on the significance of Jesus as pre-existent Lord of creation and its importance in the lives of those seek identification and profess allegience to Christ as so depicted. This includes what Packer identifies as four primary propositions which in their cumulative significance provide a compelling set of reasons to take the core NT claims with the utmost seriousness in the shaping of contemporary belief in the life of the church and in formal Christological studies.

With this foundation lain Packer adds five crucial claims and seeks to respond to three compelling problems in the perception of God that he identifies with classical Trinitiarian Christology. For these enduring problems, which on their face seem contradictory, he offers plausible expanations while honoring the mystery of the entire Christian revelation, which by its very nature is infinitely beyond exhaustive understanding in which we see but in part.

What folows is both a summary and commentary on Packer's claims, including his assessment on their importance for the integrity of a vital Christian faith for our time and place. It is only by grasping something of their significance to the integrity a thoroughly orthodox Trinitarian theology and religious culture that one can appreciate the motives underlying Packer's critique. For this work Packer offers largely a constructive theology that includes a contrast to a view of Christianity that he argues moves beyond the orbit of a classical Christianity that includes embrace of a pre-Incarnate Christ as reflected in John and in some of the New Testament letters (e.g. Ephesans, Colossians.

Primary Propositions

The first is the claim that Jesus is God's promised Christ

Thursday, January 27, 2011

J.I. Packer's Jesus Christ the Lord Part One

I would encourage those who are interested in serious evangelical theology to obtain The J.I. Packer Collection, edited and introduced by one of Packer's biographer's and foremost champions, Alister McGrath

The collection includes a selection of some of Packer's finest essays from 1954-1998 and demonstrates something of the combination of cogency and pietistic verve underlying Packer's rationalist theological reflections on a broad array of topics in Anglo-American Protestant religious culture over the second half of the 20th century. Uppermost among Packer's themes are the centrality of a deeply orthodox, firmly scriptural based Trinitarian theology, a fleshing out of a distinctively evangelical theology that Packer distinguishes from both fundamentalism, to which he is obviously closer, and Protestant liberalism. These essays also include an apologetic impetus in what he depicts as the various dimensions of contemporary idolatry both within and outside the church, and in-depth commentary on important Protestant writers as distinct as the largely unknown James Orr (1844-1913), J.I Robinson, author of the best-seller Honest to God, and the irrepressible C.S. Lewis. In this post I concentrate on Packer's 1977 essay, "Jesus Christ the Lord," originally published in John Stott's Obeying Christ in a Changing World. As time allows I will comment on other essays in this fine collection of Packer's essays as I believe his work provides an important pathway to serious faithful evangelical renewal.

Jesus Christ the Lord Overview

"A generation ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed for query the theme, 'Who really is Christ for us today.' Since his time Christology has become a matter of new debate, and of fresh tension too. Tielhard de Chardin, in maximizing Christ's cosmic significance, has appeared to depersonalize him. And Protestant theologians, in stressing Jesus' humanness and historicality, have appeared to dissolve away the substance of the godhead. Should such Cristologies be taken as the last word, the faith-relationship with Jesus which we spoke [below] would not be 'on.' And merely by existing they make that relationship harder to hold on to, just as do current 'secular' pictures of Jesus as a troubles hysteric (e.g., Dennis Potter, Son of Man) and as a pleasant song-and-dance man (e.g. Godspell; Jesus Christ Superstar). Fresh clarification is called for, urgently! (p. 154).

The centerpiece of this article is the critical contrast Packer makes in juxtaposing a high Trinitarian vision of Christ as God fully embodied in human flesh against a more this wordly grounded humanitarian Christology focusing on Jesus' sterling character and his exemplification of God's spirit throughout his life. On this latter perspective, a follower can obtain a closer walk with God by imitating Christ's spirit and his example as the selfless man in service for others.

Packer acknowledges the value in the latter understanding, although he views it is egregiously incomplete, and thereby, in the most radical sense, heretical. Specifically, it falls far short of any claim of Christ as God including any appreciation of the Son in his pre-incarnate manifestation as the second person in the Trinity as commonly understood in traditional orthodox theology and embodied most fully in the new Testament in the Gospel of John. Neither does this humanistic perspective account in any profound sense for the clear NT vision of Christ as high priest whose sacrificial death was an apt substitute for the collective sins of humankind.

Packer focuses the brunt of his essay on his explanation of the core orthodox belief in an incaranational God "who is there," who has come into our world from his pre-incarnate presence, which is based, hr maintains, on a view of Jesus best aligned with Scripture in which any Jesus outside of the NT context is both unknowable in any meaningful way, which, in any event, would be some other religion than that characterized as orthodox Christianity in the full Trinitarian, incarnational, and canonically-based scriptural sense. "That the only real Jesus is the Christ of the New Testament history and theology, and that by parting company with the New Testament [in its comprehensive depiction of Christ] we do not find him, is a truth that cannot be too often emphasized today" (p. 155) When that is given up in quest of a more humanitarian interpretation in what is commonly viewed as Christ "from below," a great deal, indeed, is sacrificed, and not merely doctrine, but the very power of Christ in God as the means of reconciling the world to God, and all of the claims that are made, for example, in the first two chapters of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the first chapter of Colossians, the prologue in the Gospel of John, and virtually the entire tenor of The Letter to the Hebrews.

Opening Argument

"The Christian consensus has been that as Scripture is the proper source from which theology should flow, so Christology is the true hub round which the wheel round theology revolves, and to which its central spokes must each be correctly anchored if the wheel is not to get bent" (p. 151).

Packer draws on Scripture in the full canonical sense through the hermeneutical principle in which that which is clear and central in the Bible becomes the basis for interpreting that within Scripture which is more opaque in which Deuteronomy 29:29 might serve as an underlying interpretive principle. In the words of Puritan theologian John Robinson, new light often does break through in God's word as reflective even in the formation, of both the OT and NT canon, in which whatever new insights that do emerge are congruent with the core plotline and doctrinal claims as reflective foremost throughout the entire NT text. It is the entire NT narrative in turn, that forms the basis for the full Trinitarian and Incarnational theology in which Jesus of Nazareth is both son of man and son of God and who existed before the foundation of the world.

Any equivocation on this, however vast the gap between our understanding and the claim driven by faith in search of increasing knowledge, a distance of which Packer knows quite well, is to put into jeopardy the entire foundation of what John Stott refers to as basic and C.S. Lewis as mere Christianity. What is central, Packer insists, is the core claim that Jesus was not merely a holy person whose entire life embodied the spirit of God, but that he was and is divine and became flesh when the pre-existing son of God was incarnated into the world. In this Packer ascribes to the key claim made by Jesus as written in the Gospel of John, Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). It is this foundational statement that possesses unfathomable kergymatic and ontological power, however much the mystery of this revelation remains well beyond the human capacity to grasp in anything remotely resembling a complete sense. More than anything else, perhaps, the scandalous nature of this proclanmation is something, on Packer’s studied interpretation, that humanitarian Christology categorically rejects on its face.

Building on this core Trinitarian assumption, Packer insists on a God who is there, "actively and objectively" in the world, "in the place of power." It is the claim of faith that his existence is true irrespective of whether it "is acknowledged or not" This ontological statement is meant as a direct barb against any perception of the resurrected Christ as merely living in "his followers' memories and imagination" (p. 152) as a great deal of liberal or humanitarian Christology, as claimed in a great deal of liberal and humanitarian Christology and the consequent neglect of the divine Christ as the pre-existent Son, viewed as an antiquarian residue of an outdated historical mindset. The critique would equally apply to Rudolph Bultmann's existential interpretation of Christ in his quest to demythologize the text (Scripture) in order to remythologize its essence in a perspective not too different from the anti-theistic theology of Bishop John Spong.

This belief in an incarnational God "who is there," who has come into our world from his pre-incarnate presence, argues Packer, is based on a view of Jesus best aligned with Scripture in which any Jesus outside of the NT context is both unknowable in any meaning sense, some other religion than that characterized as orthodox Christianity, and in the most fundamental sense, heretical. In Packer’s words, “the only real Jesus is the Christ of the New Testament history and theology, and that by parting company with the New Testament we do not find him, is a truth that cannot be too often emphasized today" (p. 155). When that is given up in quest of a Christ "from below" perspective, a great deal, indeed, is sacrificed. It is not merely primary doctrine that is at risk, which is important in itself to preserve but belief in the very power of Christ in God as the primary and ultimately only means of reconciling the world to God, which is the basis for evoking the commitment to it. At risk also, are the entirety of the claims that are made, for example, in the first two chapters of the Letter to the Ephesians and Colossians, the prologue in the Gospel of John, and virtually the entire tenor of The Letter to the Hebrews in which the underlying message expressed in various ways is that in Christ “the whole fullness of God dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

Final Points for Part One

In clearing the air for his broader argument, which I will review in succeeding posts, Packer makes three preliminary points on whether and the extent "we find the real Jesus in the New Testament" (p.155).

The first is Packer's argument that the NT in its varying books and genres exhibits an underlying unity much deeper than any differences. Thus, in their different ways, the synoptic gospel writers, Paul, and John have focused their central attention on the integrating fabric of Christ's life, teaching, core mission leading to Jerusalem, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, all of which presupposes the core message of the NT of "God who through Christ reconciled us to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19) through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

In this Packer is reacting against a 100+ year scholarly tradition which has pitted the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith with the corresponding claim popularized in the contention that Paul in emphasizing the risen Christ was the inventor of Christianity as a distinctive religion beyond Judaism. It is this sharp difference in the scholarly literature between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith that was also echoed in a different way in the Gospel of John written toward the end of the 1st century. There is little doubt that Paul's work was instrumental in creating a more inclusive movement in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise as well as the vision of Isaiah of bringing in the gentiles to the household of God's kingdom through the galvanizing presence of the spirit of Christ. In that sense new light broke through.

Nonetheless, Paul's core belief, which formed very early (in the late 30s or early 40s) on the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the risen Christ speaks volumes against any radical polarization between the theology of Paul and the writers of the synoptic gospels. When one considers, too, that Mark and Luke were very much immersed in the mission of Paul in which their gospels were written later than Paul's letters, then, even though their narrative focus is on the life and crucifixion of Jesus, with Luke addressing the post-resurrection sightings, then it is not a stretch to view at least their gospels as post-Pauline texts. In this respect, the synoptics provided narrative structure to core Christological claims made initially by the earliest reported followers of the Christian way and exemplified more thoroughly in Paul’s various letters.

A hint may be found in the opening statement of Mark, commonly viewed as the first gospel and the one most congruent with the "historical Jesus." Thus, "in the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God" (Mk 1:1), in which the entirety of the text that follows is commentary. Keeping both Mark and Paul in mind, one might plausibly surmise that Paul was in touch with close to the earliest versions of the resurrection tradition, embraced its core tenets which shaped its entire ministry. Mark, in turn, who was influenced by Paul's teaching of the crucified and resurrected Christ, was also close to Peter of whom he obtained first hand testimony in which the writing of the gospel itself was likely sanctioned, if not commissioned by the early church, and obviously viewed congruent with its teachings.

With these points and others in mind, Packer seeks to deconstruct a pervasive liberal bias in contemporary biblical scholarship, with its exaggerated emphasis on the importance of the historical evolution of the Bible and the diversity of literary genres while ignoring countervailing evidence. One of the chief problems, posits Packer is in its tendency to allow different emphases within the text to override the NT's underlying unity in its central Trinitarian keygmatic claim beyond myth in any superficial sense, though not beyond mystery as well acknowledged in the NT itself (Ephesians 3:4-10, I Corinthians 2: 6-16).

In wrapping up this portion of the review of Packer’s essay, Packer makes a couple of additional related points. This includes the somewhat contestable claim that the bulk of the NT texts, certainly the most important of them, which ultimately formed the canon, were written before 70, which included significant testimony from primary witnesses. Packer’s point here is that the memory of primary witnesses would have been sharp enough to accurately recall the basic events, including states of mind of primary actors, though I wouldn’t want to dismiss some authorial innovation in constructing synoptic texts as well as Acts based on a looking back from the perspective of Jesus as the risen Christ. Given that, Packer’s main claim still holds that the core gospel story of the resurrected Christ bestowing his presence on his first followers through the power of the Holy Spirit emerged very early, logically sometime before Paul’s conversion. It is this historical rebuttal which is the primary evangelical response that Packer makes in response to the thesis of a great divide between the historical Jesus and the Christian faith as emerging only decades after the event through the cumulative influence say of Paul and John and the distinctive communities that both spawned and were influenced by their work.

With the gauntlet laid down, Packer then proceeds to his more substantive constructive arguments on the biblical nature of Christ as described in the New Testament and to more extensive pointed critiques against a pervasive liberal theological interpretation characteristic of the dominant seminaries in both the U.K. and the U.S. A discussion of these matters will follow in additional posts.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

J.I.. Packer's Theology of Scripture

The Bible as the Decisive Word of God

In his various texts Packer lays out a strong case for the centrality of the Bible in its full canonical depth as the primary source for interpretating the role of the church as well as the relationship between Christ and culture in any given context. As a prelude he reviews both the concept of authority as reflective in Roman Catholic theology and the individual as authority as posited by cultural commentators in the secular as well as in the liberal theological realm. To these two, both of which he accepts as important, he offers the Bible as primary authority to which church and culture are subordinate. Thus, Packer is not suggesting that these three primary soureces of authority never coincide or that two of them have no authority at all. His point is not sola scriptura, but the placing of Scripture in the magisterial role in the determination of where ultimate authority lies. In practice there is often a great deal of blending among these three sources even as ther issue of where ultimate authoritativeness remains.

Packer is aware that the concept of authoritativeness is both inescapable and frought with danger. Properly grasped, however, biblical authoritativeness as he understands it, is synonymous with human freedom in the sense in that it best reveals humankind's primary vocation made in the image of God. In the following passage I by-pass Packer's discussion of church as authority and only briefly alludeto his discussion of self as authority in order to give primary attention to his central focus.

The Bible as Authority

Packer identification of the Bible as the ultimate source of authority is based in the most fundamental sense on the grounds that Christianity is a revealed religion and that revelation is most fully encapsulated in the Bible. This revelation comes from “the inward voice of the Holy Spirit.” which illuminates the words of the Bible without which personal experience of God cannot be perceived. The Holy Spirit is not only the indispensable guide for the receptions of its truths. It is the vehicle that God used to convey his thoughts to the writers of the various books without denying one iota their humanity and autonomy. This personal perception is not only the basis for the timeless truths expounded in the Bible which, however time bound they were in their human expression, are “self-interpreting” within the hermeneutical framework of the Bible as the unified, and for human beings, sufficient Word of God.

This authoritative center is an essential basis for a vitally grounded belief, which, without some illumination by the Holy Spirit belief itself becomes suspect or at the least extremely wooden. In the most fundamental sense there is no getting beyond the circularity of these assumptions even as the possibility of exposition is potentially infinite-like in its richness and depth, the exploration of which is the continuing work of the called church and all individuals who seek to take the Bible with radical seriousness.

Thus, on Packer’s view the full flourishing of the immense riches latent within the Bible require a reception of its revelatory meaning and application via the Holy Spirit through grace. This in turn both stimulates and is stimulated by the activation of faith through, as humanly possible, the ultimate and continuous commitment of one’s time and resources to live out of the calling through which God addresses each individual. For Packer, the Bible is the primary source in illuminating the character of God and also in laying out the required human responses. In addition it provides many sources of help and direction that a close and regular prayerful and expectant reading of the text provides. Thus, on Packer’s reading, faith illuminated by grace, is based ultimately on persuasion that it is the Lord our God who speaks in and through this text in a uniquely disclosive manner. More fully, the Bible is

"…a record and explanation of divine revelation which is both complete (sufficient) and comprehensible (perspicacious); that is to say, it contains all that the Church needs to know in this world for guidance in the way of salvation and service, and it contains the principles for its own interpretation within itself. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit, who caused it to be written, has been given to the Church to cause believers to recognize it for the Word that it is, and to enable them to interpret it rightly and understand its meaning…Christians must therefore seek to be helped and taught by the Spirit when they study the Scripture, and must regard all their understanding of it, no less than the book itself, a the gift of God."

Any other reading, according to Packer, is a misreading and a denial of what the Bible was and is meant to convey. “We are to bow to…[its] authority at every point, confessing that here we have both truth and wisdom.” This… way of true discipleship” is based on a circular argument. The proof is less the logic of its apologetic, which may not ultimately convince even as it seeks to demonstrate the reasonableness of faith, than the power of its claims and its “harmonistic” integration as attested in the final analysis by the Holy Spirit as conveyed from believer to believer. In short the truth of Packer’s third option is based ultimately on nothing less than self-disclosive revelation that to accept or reject has consequences of the profoundest sort even as, on Packer’s account, exegetical and expositional problems persist in biblical interpretation and application since full disclosure remains perpetually beyond the human capacity to grasp. As Packer summarizes his biblical hermeneutics:

"Will any model do to give knowledge of the living God? Historically, Christians have not thought so. Their characteristic theological method, whether practiced clumsily or skillfully, consistently or inconsistently, has been to take biblical models as their God-given staring point, to base their belief-system on what biblical writers use these models to say, and to let these models operate as ‘controls’, both suggesting and delimiting what further, secondary models may be developed in order to explicate these which are primary. As models in physics are hypotheses formed under the suggestive control of empirical evidence to correlate and predict phenomenon, so Christian theological models are explanatory constructs formed to help us know, understand and deal with God, the ultimate reality. From this standpoint, the whole study of Christian theology, biblical, historical and systematic, is the exploring of a three-tier hierarchy of models: first, the ‘control’ models given in Scripture…; next, dogmatic models which the Church crystallized out to defend and define the faith,” first and foremost, the Trinity; finally, interpretive models lying between Scripture and defined dogma with particular theologians and theological schools developed for stating faith to contemporaries."

The critical factor is not only the starting point, but the layering order of Scripture, axiomatic doctrines, and only then historically grounded interpretation in service as much to apologetics as to dogmatic exfoliation. To confuse this order is to confuse a great deal and to misconstrue the nature of biblical interpretation.

It is this evangelical challenge to 20th century Protestant liberalism in the quest to re-capture the intellectual and pietistic vitality of the biblical revelation that Packer posits as “true Christianity.” On his account the hermeneutics that he lays out represents the surest approximation to it that he believes a rigorous and up-to-date Reformed-based evangelical scholarship linked to a corresponding pietism grounded on its own founding premises, forever subject to enhanced light, can provide. It is this that Packer argues as do I, that is needed as a counter-balance to the cultural captivity of so much of mainline Protestantism by the persuasive powers of contemporary secular thought and culture which has set the terms of academic based critical biblical research for well over 100 years. In short, there is much to be gained by a careful analysis of Packer’s theology of Scripture even if one takes issue with critical aspects of his interpretation.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading the Bible for Spiritual and Theological Intent

An issue that has come up in one of our Bible studies is that of interpreting the meaning and significance of the Old Testment

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unpacking Packer's Theology Part Two

Biblical Centrality and Turning Modern Culural Paradigmatic Assumptions on their Head

Packer’s overarching claim is “that Scripture sets before us the factual and moral nature of things” about the human condition. “God’s law,” in the most complete sense corresponds to “created human nature, so that in fulfilling his requirements we fulfill ourselves.” There is, according to Packer, “not a touch of authoritarianism [that] enters into his exercise of authority over us.”

That is because in fulfilling our relationship with God we attain the very purpose of life, which to miss is to miss a great deal. There is no surer pathway to this realization, however failing our efforts may be, Packer argues, than through a full and comprehensive appreciation and application of the Bible as the place where God most thoroughly and unequivocally speaks. The precepts of faith as disclosed in and through the Bible “are not in themselves unreasonable, but they are above reason; they terminate in mysteries which the human mind can express only as paradoxes.” As he further explains:

"Reasoning may prepare the mind for faith in these truths [as revealed], by showing their meaning and biblical basis, their congruity with the total biblical outlook and the known facts of life, and the weaknesses of objectives made to them; but reasoning alone cannot produce faith, for faith goes further than reason could take it. Reasoning at best could only suggest probability, but the nature of faith is to be certain. Any measure of doubt or uncertainty [even in my unbelief] is not a degree of faith, but an assault upon it. Faith, therefore, must rest on something more sure than an inference of probability."

That something more is trust through faith, ultimately via the agency of grace that the truth of God is revealed in and through the Bible. The validity of such faith cannot “be demonstratively proved; for such proof is only possible in principle on the basis of an exhaustive understanding of its object.”

The negative corollary is that once:

"You give up the New Testament view of biblical inspiration—there is no limit on how far you will go in rejecting or relativizing biblical assertions. [That is because] there is no limit apart from your own arbitrary will. Protestantism’s current confusion is largely due to the way its teachers have fanned out at this point producing as many sub-biblical theologies as there have been thinkers to devise them."

Packer’s major concern is that once the Bible is surrendered as anything less than the disclosive word of God, every single tenet of faith, including God’s very being as a theocentric reality is open to radical revision, deconstruction, and re-mythologization. The Bible is far from exhaustive in its revelation of God. Nonetheless, Packer argues that it is the most substantial bulwark available in maintaining a foundational Christian stance based on its own revelatory cogency against the many intruding forces when “sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:3) is replaced with other teachings.

The quest for complete knowledge, which, as God’s creatures we neither need nor can expect to have, would be to be like God, the fundamental sin of Adam and Eve. Packer’s point is that Scripture is absolutely reliable for that which it is relevant, in the final analysis, the salvation of our souls and the reconciliation of the world even while shedding only partial knowledge of God’s revelation. For:

Scripture tells us what we need to know for faith and godliness. But at no point do we dare imagine that the thoughts about God that Scripture teaches us takes the full measure of his reality. The fact that God condescends and accommodates himself to us in his revelation certainly makes possible clarity and sureness of understanding. Equally certain, however, it involves limitation in the revelation itself. If we fail to acknowledge God’s incomprehensibility beyond the limits of what he has revealed, we shrink him in thought down in our size….It is certainly proper to stress that scriptural revelation is rational [a point missed in many mainline congregations]. But the most thoroughgoing Bible believers are sometimes like Job, to go on adoring God when we do not specifically understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.

As it has always been with the Bible, faith precedes knowledge and that which God does provide is often viewed as foolishness to the world (1 Cor. 1:27). There is no getting around the circularity and even scandal of this claim as the depths of “sound doctrine” are ever unfathomable in the riches of “the mystery which has been hidden from the ages and from the generations, but now has been revealed to His [highly flawed] saints” (Col. 1:26). It is this gospel and this gospel only to which we are to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim: 4:2) to preach. This is the core and substance of Packer’s highly nuanced and very much orthodox theology of Scripture. Among much else his theology of Scripture has the capacity of serving as one critical resource among others in helping to refashion both evangelical and mainline Protestantism along the critical axis of its Reformation-based roots as the hermeneutical basis for a viable reconstruction in the current setting.

Unpacking the Evangelical Theology of J.I. Packer Part One

Along with C.S. Lewis and John Stott,the Bristish born pietist theologian, J.I. Packer, has had a very strong influence in contemporary U.S. evenaglical circles. This prolific author has written some very popular books such as Knowing God (1973)as well as more specialized works on the 17th century English Puritans and other Protestant theologians throughout the centuries. Throughout his writings he has always sought to merge the pietistic longing for just a closer walk witn God with the many specialized issues of systematic and historical theology in which for Packer as well as his primary mentors, the great Puritan Divines, especially John Owen, there is no divide.

I discovered Packer some 5-6 years ago and have been enthralled by his work ever since. I encourage all those interested in bringing pietism and formal theological discourse into closer proximity to take a closer look at Packer, including those who would dismiss him as a narrow fundamehtalist, of which he is clearly not.

Unpacking Packer’s Theology of Scripture Part One

Packer’s theology of Scripture represents a fundamental challenge to the precepts of modern intellectual life and culture, particularly against the Enlightenment interpretation of freedom which he seeks to turn on its head in what he refers to as “God’s Freedom Trail.” Freedom, liberty, and authority are the key topics Packer addresses in the first chapter of Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life. His objective is to demonstrate that a substantial grounding in the biblical revelation through Word and Spirit is the surest basis available for the realization of these values in contrast to the Enlightenment’s pathway of secular humanism, ultimately “in dreams of the perfectability of man.” Such dreams, Packer maintains, were transformed in the 19th and early 20th centuries into an unrelenting pursuit of progress through the elusive quest for the gradual control and organization of nature, society, and the self, which Packer views as nothing short of a disaster for humankind.

The matter of authority is unavoidable, argues Packer, the only question is upon whom or upon what that is placed. For advocates of the precepts of the Enlightenment, ultimate authority is placed on human reason, which Packer accepts as a penultimate good bestowed by the Creator, and essential when governed by the direction of the Holy Spirit upon solid biblical precepts. One of Packer’s chief apologetic objectives is to illuminate both the biases and insufficiencies of modern secular thought and culture, particularly its influence on liberal theology which he discusses in some depth in Fundamentalism and the Word of God. His critique of liberalism is made in broad strokes, which would benefit from more refined analysis that took into more subtle account the many complex array of historical circumstances that have resulted in its unfolding. Packer’s primary strength remains deep biblical exposition and ability to communicate to a broad, predominantly evangelical audience. As stated, a key objective of this chapter is to expand the reach of Packer’s audience to a greater segment of the mainline clergy and laity.

According to Packer, in the Enlightenment perspective a great deal of authority is placed on the infinitely seeming capacity of human reason, particularly through science, to resolve the fundamental problems of the day in whatever spheres they may reside, both in terms of the academic disciplines and practical application. This overly optimistic view of gradual progress in which the deistic god takes on the passive role of clockmaker has been challenged in the 20th century through various postmodern scenarios of non-foundational deconstructionism and trends within philosophical pragmatism that focus on irony and the persistence of evil. What remains in modern/postmodern secular perception is the ineradicable belief both in human consciousness and the social construction of reality as the predominant philosophical precepts of contemporary western thought and culture. On this interpretation religious faith is viewed as a subset of a variety of humanly constructed forces, which at most provides for some under-defined remainder for the transcendent within culture.

20th century western liberal theology has largely accepted these major premises, and has sought to correlate “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude vs. 3b) within the overarching framework of contemporary thought and culture. Rudolph Bultmannm, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, and Rosemary Ruether could be considered representative theologians of this broad school of thought whose collective work has spawned much contemporary reflection which has been highly influential in the seminary and in mainline Protestant denominations. Along with the United Church of Christ theologians Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackre, who exhibit a powerful affinity with evangelical theology within a Barthian framework, Packer has labored diligently to counter this tendency through the development of a highly cogent Reformed-based evangelical biblical perspective. The objective of these theologians is that of providing an effective counter-response in the realm of formal theology at the seminary level and within the congregational setting among clergy and laity. This they do by referencing first the Bible as the interpretive grid for examining the culture and then that of theology and to an almost 2000 year church tradition as a primary resource for stabilizing and strengthening a distinctive Christian identity within the self and within the body of Christ.

For Christians, argues Packer, “[t]heology must function as the queen of the sciences showing us how to approach, interpret, and use all our knowledge in such a way that the secular order is sanctified to the glory of God.” This they must do in order to uphold the integrity of orthodox Christianity, even if the result is further distancing of Protestantism theology and practice within the context of mainstream western culture and the secular academy. This eroding tendency is a cumulative trajectory of at least the past 50 years, with roots extending back several centuries of sociological and cultural trends of an ever growing secularization combined with a highly influential fundamentalist resurgence, and ever increasing religious and cultural pluralism. The explosion of such centrifugal forces in contemporary western society and culture has rendered any claims of “no other name than Jesus” a most dubious proposition subject to much scorn and contempt when not utterly ignored as simply irrelevant.

In the given climate mainline Protestantism would do well to embrace its increasing marginality as a gift of God, and in the process articulate its message in a much more unequivocal, albeit thoughtful way than is evident in at least many quarters. Packer’s text, Fundamentalism and the Word of God is designed both to repudiate claims of “obscurantism” when historical evangelical theology becomes too uncritically associated with 20th century fundamentalism and to provide a cogent statement of basic evangelical principles, which, in theory, can be embraced in mainline congregations as well. Written 50 years ago the book remains timely in the current setting. It is the basis for all that Packer has since written. While their styles and sensibilities are clearly different, Packer’s concerns are very much analogous to those of Douglas J. Hall, as the latter presented them some 40 years later. As Hall writes:

(1) The Christian community must be occupied with the biblical and doctrinal substance of its faith because this is its window on the world, the intellectual-spiritual perspective from which it “discerns the signs of the times” (Luke 12:56). (2) This professional contemplation of the word when it is serious (and therefore not just “professional”) thrusts the discipline community into active engagement with the world; that is, far from providing a once-remove from history, the right profession of the faith already serves, on the contrary, to push the no doubt reluctant church ever more insistently into the actual life of the world. (3) In particular such contemplation creates in the discipline community a vigilance for whatever threatens its world’s life (italics in original).

In these critical points, Hall and Packer share a close affinity from their rather different theological sensibilities and historical theaters of influence.

I focus on Packer as highly representative of the American evangelical tradition notwithstanding his British roots, and one whose views are least likely to be closely studied (if at all) within mainline seminaries and congregations even as Packer, in his more expansive moments seeks critical dialogue with these two sectors of contemporary Protestantism. Any imaginative effort to exorcise the fundamentalist-modernist split within the psyche and cultural experience of 20th century American Protestantism needs to come to terms with the evangelical tradition in its full scholarly and pietistic force, particularly the centrality of the role of the Bible before turning to theologians like Bloesch and Fackre whose theological perspectives have been substantially influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of Barth, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. While the full scope of contemporary evangelical scholarship is far from tackled in this effort, a concentrated focus on Packer opens up some important passageways which perhaps complement Fackre’s important work on the evangelical scholar Carl Henry.

In shifting the focus from fundamentalism to historical evangelicalism Packer notes that “the inerrancy debate about whether we should treat all Bible teaching as true and right is really about how far we can regard Scripture as authoritative.” As Packer puts it, neither the concept of infallibility nor inerrancy are “essential for stating the evangelical view” even as the underlying intent of such language in honoring and preserving a robust sense of the triune God of the Christian mode is indispensable. What Packer means by biblical infallibility is the Bible’s “wholly trustworthy and reliable” quality. Packer defines inerrancy as that which is “wholly true” for that for which Scripture is designed to address, “all things necessary to salvation” in the broadest sense.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jesus as Lord

Jesus is Lord: Can This Title be used with Integrity?

Matters of inclusion and exclusion are critically important within the Christian religion. There is much contention within the camp over where those lines are drawn as well as the more subtle issue as to who is doing the drawing. I would rather see this broader matter examined with much depth and care rather that to spend overly much time on symbolic issues such as the centrality of the single word, “Lord.” Broader issues, of course, are embedded in this highly evocative matter. Still, to get at the level of discourse that is perhaps needed, an effort to push beyond the immediacy of this specific issue to concerns of a more underlying nature may be instructive in helping to establish the kind of mediating center in a firmly grounded Christian theology which is the hallmark of the Confessing Christ (CC) vision.

While linguistic subtleties abound, God and Lord would be along the same meaning, even as I acknowledge that connotation is everything. So would, to use the language of the psalms, in reference to the hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, “Take it to my Rock in prayer.” I wouldn’t want to eliminate any of these references to God, or the many others provided in the Bible, while at the same time I’m not sure I would want to insist on any as a litmus test given the partiality and time bound nature of our own limited knowledge. Moreover, at least in western democratic societies, contemporary usages for the term “Lord,” are archaic, which does not mean the word should be eliminated. Far from it, as far as I’m concerned. However, much subtle hermeneutical work would be needed if this term is going to be fruitfully appropriated at least among more than a few congregations.

Consequently, I would want to issue caution on insisting upon the term, particularly where there is considerable resistance against it, as long, however, as the issue revolving around this word usage can be discussed and respectfully argued about. I am opposed to the unequivocal removal of “Lord” in much of the worship service in UCC congregations and the New Century Hymnal (NCH). At the same time, if other language is available that refers to the sovereignty of God, I’m not sure what the insistence of the word “Lord” is all about, especially if that terminology becomes the basis for a separation or a reason that people, who may be on the margins of faith stop coming to church. What perhaps is missing in many congregations is critical and respectful dialogue where these difficult issues can be examined in a manner where no one feels repressed to mask his or her perspective, questions, or doubts.

There are social, cultural, and theological pressures of many sorts in virtually all congregations, and, I suppose we can all provide examples of “bias” across the ideological and theological landscape. The question for me is how to move forward in creating a constructive religious culture where the critical issues of mediating the faith once delivered to the saints in the midst of the secular city can take place and be examined.

The Viability and Challenge of God Talk

The Viability and Challenge of God Talk Within the Milieu of the Secular City

Given the current emphasis on the term (or title) "Lord," Avery Dulles’ reflections in The Assurance of Things Hoped For may be of relevance:

"Faith is a religious act. It involves an adoring submission of one’s whole self to God as supreme lord of all things. In faith I abandon the self-centeredness of my normal vision and consent to look at reality from God's perspective. I transfer my concern from narrow self-interest to the God on whom I depend and who is to be unconditionally esteemed, trusted, and loved for his own sake. The intrinsic motive of faith, the ‘authority’ of God, is God himself in his wisdom, truthfulness, holiness power, and fidelity. These divine attributes, though conceptually distinct, are all identical in God" (p. 275).

In the important work of coming to term with modernity many of the more liberal Protestant denominations and theologians sacrificed at least to some degree the clarity and power of this fundamental faith act. In reading through Dulles I get the impression that on the whole, Vatican I & II did a better job than Protestantism of grappling with the intellectual premises of modernity as well as that of inter-religious dialogue, while maintaining the radical particularity that in Christ the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind has been given once and for all even as there are always new insights to be gleaned from this core revelation.

To be sure this religious act is a matter of faith all the way down which cannot be proven by human reason, logic, or evidence. Nonetheless, these can, and need to be helpful, for without signs it would be very difficult to see, even in a glass darkly. Even still such faith viewed exclusively through secular channels might readily be viewed as absurd, or more charitably as obscurantist.

In seeking to come to terms with modernity, liberal Protestantism at its worst accepted too readily the underlying assumptions of secular intellectualism, particularly a diminishing of the radicality of God as transcendent Other over and above anything that can be conceived in the natural world or in the realms of our inner and social experiences. Thus, one might say that the notion of God was repressed from 20th century intellectual history and philosophy as a manifestation of a broader “death of God” phenomenon, particularly in Europe and less so in the US, notwithstanding persistent strains of fundamentalism as well as evangelical resurgences throughout the century.

At its best the effort to come to terms with modernity is indispensable, if there is going to be a credible apologetic aspect to the faith at all, not only in response to overt unbelief (and therefore to the culture at large), but in response to the multiplicity of identities among many who are overtly Christian (like many of us?) in their (our) various constructions of reality which are anything but purely Christian. Perhaps I might suggest that at least in Protestant circles that apologetic work has barely begun to take place outside the realms, say, of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Langdon Gilkey. One might also place Walter Brueggemann in this apologetic category in his “funding” of postmodernity in the compelling breakthrough of the kairotc moment through the imaginative stimulus of the Holy Spirit. Such apologoteic theology is indispensable if such fundamental religious acts of claiming Christ as Lord and Savior are going to mediate in ways that are compelling.

As many here have pointed out, there is a broad range of problems linked to the liberal (post or otherwise) or neo-orthodox solution. Might we see as a next step a thick reformed-grounded evangelic apologetic that does not merely collapse into dogmatics, but confronts the intellectual premises of modernity and postmodernity on their own terms while maintaining a distinctively Christian perspective? Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackreand George Hunsinger, UCC centrist stalwarts, have done substantial work in this arena. I suppose one could argue that Barth’s turn to dogmatics was also a subtle form of apologetics by indirection, but a fuller apologetic effort may be needed, such as that as exhibited by Jurgen Moltmann if the religious act of faith is going to be viewed as credible by more than a remnant.

I don’t disagree that the more fundamental work may still be the need to sharpen a subtle dogmatic project right in the heartland of the UCC denomination and its supporting seminaries. In fact, I think it’s essential. Let that work go forth! On Bloesch, on Fackre, on Brueggemann, too! Still given the pervasive cultural and religious pluralism of our times along with a profound agnosticism in the heartland of the “thinking” middle class and contemporary intellectuals, perhaps there is a need to move beyond Karl Barth’s dogmatics (while drinking richly from his wells) and incorporate richer apologetic work in the very creation of a more subtle articulation of faith.

On that score, perhaps Dulles may have a point or two in Ch 11 in The Assurance of Things Hoped For, titled “Properties of Faith.” In that chapter, Dulles points to five key properties: “supernaturality, freedom, certitude and doubt, and obscurity.” For Dulles, faith is primary, but it is faith in search of knowledge amidst the dynamic tension of certitude and doubt within the context of the ultimate obscurity of the mystery of God, given the fathomless range of His Kingdom and the inherently limited and flawed nature of our own understanding and will. The gap between what we seek and what we possess is itself fathomless, though we press toward the mark in the midst of our groaning and travail, and in the process are occasionally given the light of the beautific vision of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of human history.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Biblical Presuppositions and the Word of God

Biblical Presuppositions and the Word of God: Seeking Truth through a Mirror,

"The meaning of biblical inspiration is that through the agency of the sovereign Holy Sprit the sacred text is at once God’s didactic witness and man’s celebratory witness to salvation through Christ—eternally planned, long prepared for, accomplished through incarnation at the appointed time, and now to be proclaimed everywhere as Scripture sets it forth. The person and the place of the Christ of space-time history is the interpretive key to all Scripture; the Old Testament is to be read in the light of the New Testament fulfillment in and by him, just as the New Testament is to be read in the light of the Old Testament foundations on which that fulfillment rested. For the Christian there is no Christ but the Christ of the Bible (specifically, of the New Testament teachers), and no understanding of the Bible but that which matches the expressed mind of Christ and his apostles (specifically, as they interpret the Old Testament and relate it to themselves" (J.I. Packer (1996). Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (p. 192).

Presuppositions are unavoidable. So are ultimate commitments and vocabulary. There is no value free space that one can claim as above the fray of human experience.

That said where does one find ultimate trustworthiness even in the finiteness of our human condition? For there is something within us that seeks truth and ultimate harmonization notwithstanding the invariable gap between that for which we strive and that to which we attain even in our best or better moments. Vanity, all of it sayeth the preacher, who defines the ultimate human vocation in the mandate “To fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Why so? Because, says the preacher, “God will bring every word into judgment, including every single thing, whether it is good, whether it is evil” (Ecclesiastics 12: 13b-14) upon which the sinking sand of our own creations cannot stand. That so, Christ has even taken the burden of our failings and insufficiency upon himself for our own incapacity to follow God’s law with all our hearts, mind, strength, and soul even as the searching for such righteousness and health goes to the core of the human quest for wholeness, and ultimately salvation, whether recognized or not (Romans 1: 18-23).

As Christians, our ultimate justification is in Christ, in his completed work initiated on Calvary in which our calling is nothing short of placing all on the altar of radical Christ consciousness as did Christ on his utter fidelity to the will of God (Philipians 2:5-11): “Let this mind be in you which is in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God...made Himself of no reputation taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeliness of men.” It was this Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” In Christ the law is established, not by works but by faith that God through Christ embraces us as we are, even as we are called to perpetually reformulate ourselves, ultimately through grace via the modeling that Christ provides.

A major 20th theological struggle has been the determination of authority in biblical theology. To put it in current terms, the issue is whether the world (that is the culture) should serve as the context to interpret the Word or whether the Word should be the basis to interrogate the culture. Liberal theology has argued for the former. This, I believe, is a dead end, which is not to deny the importance of providing deep context of both the contemporary and biblical world in the engagement of biblical interpretation. In this claim, I raise the issue of authority as well as that of ultimate identification and vocabulary which are unavoidable in any event. Thus, for Christians, the critical issue is whether ultimate reliance is placed:

• In the teachings of the church
• On human experience and knowledge
• On the Bible
• On some kind of combination of the Bible, common and critical sense, the religious tradition, and dialogue with others both Christian and no Christian

If the latter, what is the criteria upon which various claims are made? That is, the matter of decisiveness cannot be avoided through this more eclectic approach. None of these are self-evident. Even the first one presupposes self-consciousness as the ultimate source of reliability.

I’ve held to the position laid out in the third bullet for a long time, as determined, ultimately by the Holy Spirit, and in the process have held to a very high view of Scripture and Christology. My shift toward a greater reliance upon the Bible with the support and grace of the Holy Spirit has been gradual through a continuous engagement with the biblical text, as much as possible, sacramentally.

Such reading, in turn, leads back out into experience and, however flawed, toward self-evident confirmation. Such ways of knowing through the certitude of faith, amidst the doubts that our human fragility cannot deny has been the common experience of many through a 2,000 year history in widely different contexts through various continents around the world. A rich drawing on the history of Christianity, particularly key writers is an incredibly important resource, which to overlook is to overlook much.

I do not embrace the Bible in an unthinking way. Rather, I acknowledge that it challenges many of my most fundamental presuppositions without which I would neither know God nor come to an understanding of who Jesus was and is, where I find my most enduring and sustaining significance, sometimes despite myself. I take the Bible, particularly in its New Testament revelation, as a profound and enduring (canonical) reflection of the apostolic witness, as utterly reliable in its fundamental claims. This is ultimately in Christ as the Incarnation of the living God, and it is only in the veracity of this belief, which I accept on faith, personal experience, and partial knowledge, that I ground my claim of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life in which no other god will do.

Anything less may be beautiful, and a reflection of a profound Christian sensibility within the syncretic world view of interfaith globalism or the secular paradigm of postmodern and radical non-foundational relativism. Such a reading, a profound marginalization of the New Testament, is nothing that would draw me—as it would be no more than an option, within the context of merely human knowledge, more or less persuasive in any given mind-set; nothing beyond a belief—a purely personal truth without ontological substance.

The evangelical claim, buttressed by the sensibility of a reformed theological outlook asserts that the Bible has its own capacity to speak the truth to the human condition. Thus, while other resources are ministerially essential, the Bible is magisterially the single most authoritative source to draw on in the human quest to be in relationship to God. This requires personal engagement in a deep and continuous exploration of the biblical riches, and a drawing on as well, of a broad range of theological resources from the immeasurable repository of the Christian past. This claim is faith based all the way down. Nonetheless, it is a firm (ideally, unswerving) belief despite the inevitable doubts, that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life without equivocation and remainder. This faith in the biblically-revealed God is something that cannot be proved by reason even as much explanation can, and needs to be given. It can only be lived, experienced, and then only partially known in a mirror, dimly and shared with others via the fragileness of our earthen vessels.

Thus, while the Bible is very much a human document, more fundamentally, it is the Word of God, which has the capacity to convey to modern people, a message very foreign to contemporary presuppositions, which, nonetheless speaks to the core of the human condition. The Bible (in principle, all of it) does speak but it takes faith and a willingness to work with the text, which even then requires the illumination of grace to experience something of the awesomeness of God that engagement with the text can provoke. I frame this discussion within the circumference of two scriptures:

“The secret things belong to the Lord Our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, in righteousness that the man of God be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

I conclude by a call to read the Word sacramentally, in faith, seeking God’s face in every effort to understand, to “lean not onto thy own understanding,” but on every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. “My son, keep my words and treasure my commands within you… Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablets of your heart” (Proverbs 7: 3). “For they are life to those who find them and health to all their flesh” (Proverbs 5: 21b). “My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes” Proverbs 4: 20-21a). Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lead not on your on understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct their paths (Proverbs 3: 5-6). There is no finer christological statement than that found throughout the Gospel of John, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and The Letter to the Hebrews.

And more, much more—the meditations of the Psalms, the teaching of Proverbs, the deep respect for the law in Deuteronomy, the ethical high point of true Christianity in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the definition of Christ as the lowly servant in Philippians, of whom, for that very reason every knee “should bow” and “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2: 10-11). And then there are the many parables of Jesus, and more, much more on the unfathomable treasure of the biblical revelation.

I do not discount the value of other ways, whether secular and religious. There is much to gain through study and the gaining of critical experience of many things. Not, however, to the point that one loses or even diminishes the most important thing—that “hidden treasure in a field,” which costs nothing short of everything that one possesses. Thus, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). This, in the most fundamental sense, is the cost of faith, which, while we never fully succeed in achieving, our striving toward the mark, in faith, is our due calling. While the spirit bloweth where it will, if we hear the prompting of God on our hearts today we are called upon to open the door.

One can either take the Bible as literature or metaphor, viewing it as essentially a creation of the human imagination, or one can, without denying the human construction of this text, appreciate it more fundamentally as the Word of God. Both choices, which are only partially in our power to embrace, have profound consequences. All things considered, I place my faith on the latter, which needs to be preached, taught, and expounded upon in and out of season with depth, subtlety, humility, but also with much boldness. This includes the effort to explain in language other than that used in the Bible.

Nonetheless, the dogmatics of faith takes priority over the important, but secondary work of apologetic explanation, lest the rationale become the basis for the interpretation itself even within the household of faith. Any reformation of mainline Protestantism needs to go and do likewise lest it lose its soul in the vain effort to be “relevant.”

In the stance of faith seeking knowledge we use all that is at our disposal to explain what it is we do believe. Paul’s sermon to the Athenians (Acts 17) serves as a model, though it needs to be added that Paul was not particularly effective among the Athenian philosophers of his day. Paul Tillich’s effort at correlation may be highly imaginative and his life on the boundary very tempting. For those who seek that path (including myself in another life time, and still at some level, my “shadow voice”) I not only wish them well. I look forward to the fruit of such work.

I believe, however, that another highway is called for. This is the reformation highway with all the tools of modern scholarship and sensibility available, but with also, all the resources as well as 2000 years of tradition at our disposal in the difficult, but essential work of revitalizing a deep respect for the Bible as the Word of God in our mainline churches. With the grace of God I have put my hand to the plough to take on such work.

Here I stand.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Would the Incarnation Have Happened if the Atonement was not Necessary

There is sometimes a debate in Christian theological circles on whether the Incarnation (God entering into the world in human flesh) or the Atonement (Christ's sacrificial gift as the sufficient and full substitute for humankind's sins) is the more fundamental phenomena. A great deal of nuance has often accompanied such discussions. This issue has reently been raised on the Confessing Christ discussion list which can be accessed here The following is a slightly elaborated reflection that I initially wrote on the CC listserv earlier today.

Would the Incarnation have Happened if there was not a Need for the Atonement?

Let us consider 2 Corinthians 5:19, "In Christ God was reconciling the world to him." Without the Fall of Adam would the reconciliation have been necessary? In this C.S. Lewis like fictional world the Word, who was in the beginning with God as God himself, would, one presumes have been present, though in some pre-incarnate form as that term is currently understood in Christian theology. On this interpretation both Incarnation and Atonement were secondary matters as a response to the Fall to which they are intimately connected.

Some place the Incarnation in the priority status in the central role of Christ coming into the world in human flesh. However, if one assumes that the Word made flesh coming into the world is not synonymous with the Son's begotten status as the Father's agent in creating the world, then there is no need to prioritize the Incarnation. While the revelation of God in Christ remains in many ways a mystery beyond human comprehension, without the Fall, in my estimation there would have been no need for the second person of the Trinity to have entered into the world at least in the manner as depicted in the New Testament. Similarly, without the Fall there would have been no need for the Atonement. This is not to deny that the second person of the Trinity would not have been present and even conceivably in an incarnational presence, but not in the manner depicted in the New Testament.

Stated otherwise, the comprehensive Christian story as it has come to humankind in its current condition requires due attention to the healing, teaching, and earthly life of Christ as well as to the crucifixion, resurrection, post-resurrection presence, the continuing gift of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the early church, and the ultimate promise of full earthly restoration of the New Israel in the pure light of the Kingdom of God. In terms of God in Christ reconciling the world in God, the Incarnation and the Atonement mutually contribute to the intended saving power of the Trinitarian revelation that comprises our faith.

There may be practical reasons for emphasizing one strand or another of basic Christian doctrine, but the story parts need to be placed within the context of the full narrative plot in which Incarnation and Atonement in their mutual work provide the healing power leading to human salvation and world restoration (Romans 8: 18-25).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Puritan Spirituality and the Quest for a Deepened Walk in Faith in Our Time

One of the challenges of attempting to write regular posts is that my reading and what I might want to say about a given text are difficult to keep in tandem; in fact, it's practically impossible. Therefore, I can only dive in in the midst of the ever flowing stream.

My reading of J.I. Packer has brought me to the writings of the English Puritans, especially John Owens, Jeremiah Burroughs, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. It's Owens and Burroughs who have especially evoked my quest for a deep Christian spirituality--deeper than I live out my life even in the vision of making every thought captive in Christ which at sometimes in life seem easier to do than others, though that perception itself may be an illusion in which at some profound level God knows us better than we can possibly come to know ourselves.

What I appreciate in Burroughs and Owen in particular, clearly reflected in Packer, is the radical embrace of justification by faith only while in simultaneous in search for greater sanctification and holiness in God. While some theologians and devotional writers tend to emphasize one of these divergent emphases (I won't call them polarities) more than the other, when taking the entirety of the New Testament into account, it's difficult for me to fathom that they are anything but ultimately linked.

Consider 1 John alone for a moment, 1:5-10, 3:19-22. Clearly, faith is the baseline without which we cannot even begin to come to God, for without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6) in which believing in God in Christ reconciling ourselves and the world to God is characterized by Paul and other NT writers as our foremost work. Thus, what we place our focal point orientation on, what the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich refers to as "ultimate concern," is the basis for setting everything else in place. For the NT writers the only point of legitimacy in which all else, however pen ultimately important, is God in Christ reconciling the worlds, in which by comparison, all else is only dung.

Thus in our desire to convey something of the depth and mysterious power, love, and all sufficiency in Christ, with our secular friends, in which everything else by comparison is of ultimately no account, the communication gap often lies at the level of coming to terms with core assumptions, in which gaping communication chasms often lies on both sides of the faith/non faith divide. Of course, as Tillich so well argues, all people believe something in which whatever they believe most, often without seeing, that becomes by definition their ultimate concern. Where your treasure is so will your heart be.

What we argue on conviction in the faith of things unseen, through the evidence of a mighty cloud of witnesses, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit to illuminate our own spirit, however dimly, and through the canonical Word of God itself as expressed throughout Scripture (2 Tim 3:16) is that this ultimate concern is in the Holy God who both transcends creation and yet is totally invested and immersed within it in a way that remains intimate yet separate from the world. Our secular friends, on the other hand, will typically have invested their ultimate concern in some aspect of the creation, which, in the most radical sense, even as charity and good common sense precludes us from bandying the term in a loose and insensitive way, would, to use the biblical language, be one type or another of idolatry.

One of the communication challenges as I see it is to draw fully on thick biblical literacy in our own communiqu├ęs and in each of our individual desire to remain as close as possible to God in Christ, and yet to seek out ways to effectively covey something of the inexpressible riches in which God has blessed us in the heavenly realms in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). This is challenging work in which the Puritans probably were not that much more successful in leading those who were not of faith into its inner mystery that requires faith as the basis for believing in the first place, which becomes the framework through which we gain increased knowledge.

Where the Puritans may have had more of an influence is in persuading a broader public that accepted the Christian revelation as a foundational truth claim at some level, however much practically speaking they may have been walking toward an increasingly secular mindset with the ever pressing pressure of placing this revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world to increasing back burner concerns. For our generation and throughout much of the 20th century, the secular challenge has been more in the nature of the existential force of other realities in themselves—science, nature adoration, business, the seemingly self-evident given of pluralism, articulated forms of agnosticism and atheism, etc. challenging any assumption that the ultimate revelation of God to humankind is in and through Christ as a result of the confluence of the Incarnation and the Atonement in the biblical and theological fullness of what this revelatory gift means (John 1:14, 3:16). Still, too, the Puritans were stymied as what they perceived as the rampant secularism of their time, the 17th century! And that at least may give us some comfort in coming to an appreciation of what they were contending with within their own lives and within the culture which at least in some ways is not that dissimilar to our own

While they were perhaps no more successful than we are in our persuasive efforts to illuminate something of the faith once for all delivered to the Saints (Jude 3), what they have left for us is a treasury of awesome devotional reflections at both intense pietistic and profoundly theological levels. For those who have not dipped into the vast Puritan literature on faith I encourage you to do so in which the homely and ever edifying short book of Jeremiah Burroughs, A Treasury of Earthly Mindedness is as good a start as any. Read slowly, read thoughtfully, a little each day and if possible, look up and meditate on each biblical verse Burroughs sites in amplifying his own little text. And then as inspiration moves, go to Packer for a contemporary reflection, first his book A Passion for Holiness and then to A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.

No doubt we are led to what we are inspired to read by the Spirit of God and what illuminates one reader may not have a similar impact on another. Notwithstanding that important caveat, I do recommend the English Puritan devotionally-based preachers and theologians. In this era of dummying down, one could do a great deal worse.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years Resolution

This year I will begin my trek to Weight Watchers again.

This year I will write on this blog every day and keep my posts more focused on devotional theology and practice.

This year I will...

New Years' Resolutions. Man disposes, God disposes. Whether or not all such intensions are vanity (James 4:13-15) perhaps our collective human experience will enable us to darw the reasonable conclusion that in such "resolutions," we often miss the mark. With this acknowledge, Jonathan Edward's 70 Resolutions bear, in my view, much studied reflection, preferably one or two at a time, seeded, as it was with Edward's with the quest for God's grace in enlightening their meaning for us in our time and place almost 300 years after Edward's annunciated them. Just as taking them on their own terms has value in seeking bridges between Edward's spirituality and our own quest for the holy, so does re-writing them in our own idiom and in some cases revamping at least some of them them altogether to more accurately reflect some of the different ways God may be speaking to us in our own time and context. Still, I would not want to be too quick to take on such revision so as not to miss the spiritual depth of Edward's own probing of the mind and heart of God even when at least a few of the statements seem somewhat repulsive to our own sensibilities (e.g., # 5,9, 10, 15, 38).

A happy and most blessed New Year

Rsolutions (1722)
Jonathan Edwards

Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat Him, by His grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to His will, for Christ’s sake.

Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

1. Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.
2. Resolved, To be continually endeavouring to find out some new contrivance and invention to promote the forementioned things.
3. Resolved, If ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.
4. Resolved, Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God, nor be, nor suffer it, if I can possibly avoid it.
5. Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.
6. Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.
7. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.
8. Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.
9. Resolved, To think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
10. Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.
11. Resolved, When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.
12. Resolved, If I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.
13. Resolved, To be endeavouring to find out fit objects of liberality and charity.
14. Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge.
15. Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.
16. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any one, so that it shall tend to his dishonour, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.
17. Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
18. Resolved, To live so, at all times, as I think is best in my most devout frames, and when I have the clearest notions of the things of the gospel, and another world.
19. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour before I should hear the last trump.
20. Resolved, To maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
21. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.
22. Resolved, To endeavour to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigour, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.
23. Resolved, Frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs, and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it as a breach of the fourth Resolution.
24. Resolved, Whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then, both carefully endeavour to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
25. Resolved, To examine carefully and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and so direct all my forces against it.
26. Resolved, To cast away such things as I find do abate my assurance.
27. Resolved, Never wilfully to omit any thing, except the omission be for the glory of God; and frequently to examine my omissions.
28. Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.
29. Resolved, Never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made, that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession which I cannot hope God will accept.
30. Resolved, To strive every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.
31. Resolved, Never to say any thing at all against any body, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of christian honour, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said any thing against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution.
32. Resolved, To be strictly and firmly faithful to my trust, that that, in Prov. xx. 6. ‘A faithful man, who can find?’ may not be partly fulfilled in me.
33. Resolved, To do always what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving peace, when it can be done without an overbalancing detriment in other respects.
34. Resolved, In narrations, never to speak any thing but the pure and simple verity.
35. Resolved, Whenever I so much question whether I have done my duty, as that my quiet and calm is thereby disturbed, to set it down, and also how the question was resolved.
36. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it.
37. Resolved, To inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent,—what sin I have committed,—and wherein I have denied myself;—also, at the end of every week, month, and year.
38. Resolved, Never to utter any thing that is sportive, or matter of laughter, on a Lord’s day.
39. Resolved, Never to do any thing, of which I so much question the lawfulness, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or not; unless I as much question the lawfulness of the omission.
40. Resolved, To inquire every night before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking.
41. Resolved, to ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month, and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better.
42. Resolved, Frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism, which I solemnly renewed when I was received into the communion of the church, and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1723.
43. Resolved, Never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s; agreeably to what is to be found in Saturday, Jan. 12th. Jan. 12, 1723.
44. Resolved, That no other end but religion shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it.
45. Resolved, Never to allow any pleasure or grief, joy or sorrow, nor any affection at all, nor any degree of affection, nor any circumstance relating to it, but what helps religion.
46. Resolved, Never to allow the least measure of any fretting or uneasiness at my father or mother. Resolved, to suffer no effects of it, so much as in the least alteration of speech, or motion of my eye; and to be especially careful of it with respect to any of our family.
47. Resolved, To endeavour, to my utmost, to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented and easy, compassionate and generous, humble and meek, submissive and obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable and even, patient, moderate, forgiving, and sincere, temper; and to do, at all times, what such a temper would xxii lead me to; and to examine strictly, at the end of every week, whether I have so done.
48. Resolved, Constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or not; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of.
49. Resolved, That this never shall be, if I can help it.
50. Resolved, That I will act so, as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world.
51. Resolved, That I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned.
52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, That I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
53. Resolved, To improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer.
54. Resolved, Whenever I hear anything spoken in commendation of any person, if I think it would be praiseworthy in me, that I will endeavour to imitate it.
55. Resolved, To endeavour, to my utmost, so to act, as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven and hell torments.
56. Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
57. Resolved, When I fear misfortunes and adversity, to examine whether I have done my duty, and resolve to do it and let the event be just as Providence orders it. I will, as far as I can, be concerned about nothing but my duty and my sin.
58. Resolved, Not only to refrain from an air of dislike, fretfulness, and anger in conversation, but to exhibit an air of love, cheerfulness, and benignity.
59. Resolved, When I am most conscious of provocations to ill nature and anger, that I will strive most to feel and act good-naturedly; yea, at such times, to manifest good nature, though I think that in other respects it would be disadvantageous, and so as would be imprudent at other times.
60. Resolved, Whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination.
61. Resolved, That I will not give way to that listlessness which I find unbends and relaxes my mind from being fully and fixedly set on religion, whatever excuse I may have for it—that what my listlessness inclines me to do, is best to be done.
62. Resolved, Never to do any thing but my duty, and then, according to Eph. vi. 6-8 to do it willingly and cheerfully, as unto the Lord, and not to man: knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall be receive of the Lord.
63. On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true lustre, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, To act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time.
64. Resolved, When I find those ”groanings which cannot be uttered,“ of which the apostle speaks, and those ”breathings of soul for the longing it hath,” of which the psalmist speaks, Psalm cxix. 20. that I will promote them to the utmost of my power; and that I will not be weary of earnestly endeavouring to vent my desires, nor of the repetitions of such earnestness.
65. Resolved, Very much to exercise myself in this, all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness of which I am capable, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him, all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance, according to Dr. Manton’s Sermon on the 119th Psalm,. July 26, and Aug. 10, 1723.
66. Resolved, That I will endeavour always to keep a benign aspect, and air of acting and speaking, in all places, and in all companies, except it should so happen that duty requires otherwise.
67. Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them; what good I have got by them; and, what I might have got by them.
68. Resolved, To confess frankly to myself, all that which I find in myself, either infirmity or sin; and, if it be what concerns religion, also to confess the whole case to God, and implore needed help.
69. Resolved, Always to do that, which I shall wish I had done when I see others do it.
70. Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.