Friday, December 31, 2021
Friday, December 24, 2021
Monday, December 20, 2021
I'm taking a couple weeks away from the blog as I celebrate the Christmas holiday with my family. I will, however, continue putting up the weekly Scripture-prayer videos on Fridays, so you can look for those on the 24th and the 31st. Merry Christmas!
Friday, December 17, 2021
An invitation to prayer through the words of Luke 1:39-55
(Gospel text for RCL Advent 4, Cycle C)
Thursday, December 16, 2021
Question: Does God control history? And if he does, then does the story of history—including the story of the Old Testament—have anything binding to say to us as Christians about how we follow God?
The answer to the first question, by most of the Christian tradition, would be “Yes, God does control history…but it depends on what you mean by ‘control’.” We acknowledge that God is sovereign over all things, but there are two different ways of interpreting what this means. It could mean that God is in active control over everything that happens, that history, indeed, proceeds entirely according to his own divine plan. Or, it could mean that God holds sovereign prerogative over all things—he has the power to direct events whenever he so chooses, but he may also permit events to happen of their own accord without his active involvement in directing them. Even if merely the latter is true, most Christians would still believe that God intentionally directs some events, such as the great narrative of the Old Testament. What, then, does this part of “his story” have to say to us as Christians?
Why did God bother with the Old Testament story?
Up until the Protestant Reformation, the dominant way to read the Old Testament was as an allegory—it was a story in which God was placing elements which all pointed toward and foreshadowed Christ. However, in terms of Christian theology, the Old Testament seemed to be unneeded. If human beings were sinful from the time of the Fall, and the remedy for sin was the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, then why didn’t God just send Jesus right away? What was the point of Israelite history and the Law if it didn’t actually solve humanity’s problem?
The Calvinists shine new light on the Old Testament
John Calvin, following less than a generation after Martin Luther, was one of the leading lights of the Protestant Reformation. He engaged in a labor of biblical-theological synthesis practically unseen in Christianity up to that point. His book, Institutes, was the first truly biblically-based systematic theology that the Christian faith had ever produced. Instead of mining the Old Testament simply for allegories of Christ and the church, Calvin and his followers carefully studied the structure of the Old Testament until they had discerned an overarching pattern: God’s sovereign guidance of history through the means of covenants.
Covenant Theology - The Calvinists saw three great covenants operating in the Bible:
- The Covenant of Works: This covenant was established with Adam and Eve, and later expanded under Moses as the Law for the people of Israel. Under this covenant, God gives commandments for humanity to keep; the reward for keeping them is life in relationship with God; the reward for breaking them is death. Adam, as the “federal head” of all humanity, broke the covenant of works; all of us, incorporated in him, share his punishment, and we also ratify his actions with our own sins.
- The Covenant of Grace: This is the covenant of the New Testament, instituted in Christ. Jesus himself, as the “federal head” of a new humanity, perfectly fulfills all the requirements of the Covenant of Works. We enter the covenant of grace through faith in Christ, and, incorporated under his headship, we benefit from his perfect keeping of the Covenant of Works.
The Three Uses of the Law
Even though the first covenant is superseded by the covenant of grace, Calvin and the reformers recognized that it was still God-given and still had application to the Christian life. Martin Luther had posited two uses for the Law: (1) civil use, in which the righteous standards of the Law help us organize civil society, so that the wickedness of unredeemed humans is curbed; and (2) pedagogical use, in which the Law convicts an unredeemed person of sin, confirms his inability to be righteous, and points the way to Christ. However, as Calvin recognized, these two uses alone would mean that redeemed Christians still have no actual use for the Law. So Calvin discerned a third use: (3) didactic use, in which the Law (although it no longer has power to condemn the believers) helps Christians find the way to a holy, righteous way of living. In this way, even the Law becomes a gift of God’s grace.
The Sovereignty of God over All Things
Thus, Calvin saw in the events of the Old Testament evidence about the way God works: he orders the events of human history toward his own ends and makes them part of his grand narrative. In the same way, Calvin followed the tradition of Augustine in claiming that God is in active control over all things, even our individual lives. Everything we experience, including our faith in Christ, comes from the will of God alone, and it is only by his gracious choice that we are saved.
If God is really sovereign over everything, do I really need to take responsibility for anything? The answer, of course, is yes. The best advice here comes from an old Christian saying: “Believe as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.” The wisest course of all is to take everything that happens to us as mercies and disciplines coming from the hand of God, and at the same time to take responsibility for our own actions.
Study the Old Testament! These books are given to us by God for our growth in holiness. Though we are no longer under condemnation for our failure to keep his commandments, those commands can still help to guide us on our way to a full, joyful life of righteousness.
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Monday, December 13, 2021
Saturday, December 11, 2021
- Basil the Great
Labels: Synaxis (Classic Prayers)
Friday, December 10, 2021
An invitation to prayer through the words of Luke 3:7-18
(Gospel text for RCL Advent 3, Cycle C)
Thursday, December 09, 2021
Question: How do we find favor with God?
This has been the driving question of all human religions. Many ancient religions said that we must provide sacrifices to the gods to find their favor, or follow certain rules. By the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century AD), most Christians in Europe would have given a whole list of answers to that question: “In order to find favor with God, you must be baptized into the church, receive the sacraments, confess any mortal sins to your priest, pay money for spiritual ‘indulgences,’ and then after death proceed through purgatory until you are finally free from sin.” All of these answers came from layers of Christian tradition that had developed over the centuries. Martin Luther, however, began with another question: “What is our ultimate source of authority?” And if the ultimate authority is not layers upon layers of human traditions, then maybe the answers we’ve been giving to the question of how to find God’s favor have been wrong.
The Problem of Christian Authority in the Late Middle Ages
The rule of Christianity, from the very beginning, has been simple: “Jesus is Lord.” It is Christ alone who is the center of our faith, and the Bible is honored because it stands as the first and only authoritative witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However, the early church never set any clear boundaries on the relationship between later Christian traditions and the Bible, and as the centuries wore on, and fewer and fewer people in Europe were able to read the Bible for themselves, the slowly-developing traditions of the Catholic church became the main authority for Christian faith. This led to a number of problems, not the least of which was the sale of “indulgences”—the teaching (sanctioned by the pope) that if you donated to certain worthy causes, the pope could grant you (or a deceased family member) a free pass through purgatory. The famous catchphrase was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” However, by the 1400s and 1500s, a new generation of scholars were learning Greek and Hebrew, were reading the Bible for themselves, and were finding that many of these Catholic traditions seemed to run against the spirit of the Scriptures themselves. So which one should be given pre-eminence?—the Bible, even though its interpreters now faced the challenge of applying a text that was a millennium-and-a-half old to the contemporary world?—or the traditions of the church, which were assumed to be directed by the active ministry of the Holy Spirit?
Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”)
Luther looked at the evidence for the two sources of authority: Scripture and tradition; and found that tradition was not matching up to the spirit of the New Testament church as revealed in the Bible. That being the case, tradition could not be considered “inspired” by the Holy Spirit or authoritative in the same way that Scripture was—the Bible had to take precedence. He called this theological rule “Sola Scriptura,” and proceeded to write a complete translation of the Bible into German, so that ordinary Christians around him would finally have access to the Scriptures.
Sola Fidei (“Faith Alone”)
Once the question of authority was settled, Luther went back to the Bible with fresh eyes, to see what the New Testament itself, unencumbered by later interpretations, said about the biggest question of all: how to find favor with God. What Luther found was that the popular-level Catholicism of the Middle Ages seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. There was nothing in the Bible that made the performance of certain actions on our part the prerequisite of God’s grace. We were expected to be baptized, take communion, and give generously, but these things were not the things that saved us, because it wasn’t anything on our part that could save us. It was God’s grace alone that opened the way for us to receive his favor; and the one and only thing we had to do to receive that gift was to say Yes to it with our whole beings: this is the response of faith. So Luther made this his second rule of faith—“Sola Fidei”—it is faith in Jesus Christ that saves us, and nothing else. Other good actions on our parts are an indicator of whether we actually have that saving faith in Christ, but it is not the acts themselves that grant us favor with God. Jesus has already won that favor for us, completely apart from our actions.
In our Baptist practice, we know that it is not baptism that saves us, or taking communion, or anything like that. However, we still sometimes fall back into the habits of trying to earn favor with God. We sometimes conceive of God as perpetually disappointed or frustrated in us because of our continued struggles with sin; we might picture him as a disapproving father or a meticulous judge keeping careful track of all our transgressions. We need to remind ourselves, day in and day out, that when God looks at us, he sees the righteousness of his own Son; we need to remind ourselves that there is nothing we could possibly do to make him love us more, because he already loves us to an infinite degree.
Tuesday, December 07, 2021
Monday, December 06, 2021
Friday, December 03, 2021
An invitation to prayer through the words of Luke 3:1-6
(Gospel text for RCL Advent 2, Cycle C)
Thursday, December 02, 2021
Question: Where do Christians go to find answers to ethical questions that aren’t specifically addressed in Scripture? For instance, if someone asks me, “Is smoking a sin? Is contraception a sin? Why is slavery now considered unconscionable if it was accepted as a fact of life in the New Testament?”—how should I respond? Where do we go for answers if the Bible doesn’t specifically address such issues?
We Baptists don’t have a handy, immediate source for questions like this. We tend to prefer to start with biblical verses (such as “love your neighbor as yourself”) and then reason from there, even if the specific issue in mind isn’t addressed by the verse itself (so, since we are called to love our neighbors, that is, to do unto them as we would have them do unto us, and Jesus implies that everyone is our neighbor, then slavery cannot be morally right). This is persuasive up to a point, but on some issues, the opposing viewpoint is able to argue right back by reasoning from Scripture. (On the slavery issue, Christians in the south argued that it was justified by God’s cursing of Canaan in Genesis 9, by the fact that OT saints like Abraham had slaves, and by the fact that no one in the NT condemns it—in fact, in Philemon, Paul sends a runaway slave back to his master.) So, is there another authority we can reason from besides just the Bible in order to make our case? The tradition of Christianity says that there is: a system of ethical reasoning known as “natural law.” The basic principle is that we can look carefully at the world around us to discern God’s intent from the way things are designed, and then try to fulfill that intent. On the issue of slavery, natural law helpfully shows us that all people in the world are born the same way, develop the same way, have the same kind of moral and intellectual faculties, and (thanks to more recent science) share essentially the same DNA—thus there is no basis, from natural law, to give one race or group superiority over another: the natural world itself tells us that slavery is immoral.
Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law
The Natural Proof for the Existence of God
Aquinas wrote a number of powerful proofs for the existence of God. Unlike Anselm, whose argument rested only on the logic inherent in the idea of “God” itself, these arguments start from observations of the natural world that everyone can agree on: things like—“everything in motion had to be set in motion by an outside force,” and “everything that exists, exists because it was caused—in the natural world alone, we do not observe an effect without a cause.” Taking these observations, he devised a system which showed the absurdity of an “infinite regression.” That is to say, you can’t just have an infinite span of “caused events” in eternity past, nor an infinite series of things in motion, without having an “uncaused cause” or an “unmoved mover” somewhere back there who started it off. Logically, an infinite regression is an impossibility; otherwise we would not currently exist (because the logical idea of an infinite series before our existence means that, ultimately, that series will never actually reach the point where it produces us, or else it would not be infinite). But we do exist, therefore there must be an “uncaused cause.”
Natural and Supernatural Reasoning about Human Perfection: the Seven Virtues
Aquinas also gave us a helpful breakdown of the dynamics of human morality, the perfection of which are called “virtues.” He saw that there were some human virtues which could be deduced from reasoning about the natural world alone—these were the four “classical virtues” from Greek philosophy; and three virtues that we could not have discerned from nature, but were revealed to us in Christ.
Prudence, or wisdom—the practice of careful, thoughtful discernment about our actions and their consequences (i.e., “common sense,” which happens not to be very common, unfortunately)
Justice, or fairness – doing right to others (including honesty, give and take, keeping promises, etc.)
Temperance, or restraint (self-control) – reining in our appetites so they don’t rule over us; practicing moderation
Fortitude, or courage – the practice of confronting fear and uncertainty, and of sticking to it in hard situations
Faith – belief in God and obedience to him; more than just intellectual assent to a list of doctrines, true faith is a relational trust that should transform your life
Hope – setting our eyes on God’s ultimate victory and the triumph of his love over all other things; refraining from despair and refusing to give up
Love, or charity – Making God and others the center of our lives rather than pursuing our own self-interest; seeking the glory of God in worship and in our daily actions, and seeking the good of our neighbor in kindness and forgiveness. Not so much a “feeling” as an act of will: “Do not waste time wondering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did” (C. S. Lewis).