May 30, 2007

The Real Body of Christ

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

I don’t recall when I first read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  Perhaps my father read it to the family at some point, but that would have been years ago and I’ve forgotten almost all of it, all except the occasional snippet I’ve read elsewhere.  Now, for the past week or so, I’ve been slowly reading through it for the first time as an adult, savoring a couple letters a day, and it strikes me as arguably Lewis’s wisest book.  There’s wisdom packed into virtually every page of these letters from a senior devil to a junior tempter.

Take this, from an early letter, about the “patient” having entered the church:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.  Do not misunderstand me.  I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.  That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.

But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.  All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.  When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him a one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shappy little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.  You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours.  Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains.  You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side.  No matter.  Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool.  Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somewhat ridiculous (pp. 14-15, paragraph spacing added).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:32 pm | Discuss (3)
May 29, 2007

Psalm 22

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the Director.
According to “The Doe of the Dawn.”
A Psalm.
By David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,
Far from my salvation, the words of my roaring?
My God, I call in the day but you do not answer,
And in the night and I am not silent.

But you are holy,
Enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you trusted our fathers;
They trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were delivered;
In you they trusted and were not shamed.

But I myself am a worm and not a man,
A reproach of man and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
They open the lip; they shake the head:
“Trust in Yahweh! Let him deliver him;
Let him rescue him, since he delights in him.”

Indeed you yourself are the one who drew me out of the womb,
Who made me trust upon the breasts of my mother.
Upon you I was cast from the womb;
From the belly of my mother, you were my God.

Do not be far from me because trouble is near,
Because there is no helper.
Many bulls have surrounded me;
Strong ones of Bashan have encircled me.
They open their mouth against me,
A lion tearing and roaring.
Like water I am poured out,
And all my bones are dislocated.
My heart has become like wax,
Melted in the midst of my bowels.
Dried like the potsherd is my strength;
And my tongue is fastened to my jaws,
And into the dust of death you place me,
Because dogs have surrounded me,
A crowd of the wicked have encircled me,
Piercing my hands and my feet.
I count all my bones;
They themselves gaze, they look upon me.
They divide my garments among themselves
And for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, Yahweh, do not be far from me!
My strength, to my help hasten!
Deliver from the sword my soul,
From the hand of the dog my only one!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
And from the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me!

I will declare your name to my brothers;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise you.
Fearers of Yahweh, praise him!
All the seed of Jacob, glorify him!
And be afraid of him, all you seed of Israel,
Because he has not despised
And he has not detested the affliction of the afflicted;
And he has not hid his face from him;
But when he cried to him, he heard.

From you is my praise in the great assembly;
My vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The afflicted will eat and be satisfied;
They will praise Yahweh, those who seek him.
May your hearts live forever!

They will remember and return to Yahweh,
All the ends of the earth!
They will bow before you,
All the families of the nations!
Because to Yahweh belongs the kingdom,
And he rules in the nations!

They have eaten and bowed, all the fats ones of the earth;
Before him shall bend all those going down to the dust,
Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.

A seed will serve him;
It will be recounted of the Lord to the next generation.
They will come and declare his righteousness
To a people to be born, that he has done this.

A couple comments about this psalm:

In the third stanza, the people tell the sufferer, “Trust in Yahweh!”  This is often translated as a statement: “He trusted in Yahweh,” but the verb here appears to be imperative, as Alexander notes in his commentary.  In that case, it’s a summons to the sufferer to trust in Yahweh.  But it’s not meant seriously as the subsequent comments show: “Let him deliver him….”

The word I’ve translated “trust” here is actually a word having to do with rolling.  You could put it this way: “Roll upon Yahweh!”  The same phrase appears in Psalm 37:5 and Proverbs 16:3.  This wording sounds strange to us, but presumably the idea is that of rolling a burden you can’t bear onto Yahweh who will bear it for you.  It’s the same thought that we find in the exhortation to cast our cares on Yahweh because he cares for us.

At the end of the sixth stanza, there’s a sudden switch.  We’ve been hearing David’s cry for help, culminating in “Save me from the mouth of the lion.”  The next line starts in reverse order, putting the danger first: “From the horns of the wild oxen.”  But it ends up, not with a cry for help as we expect, but with the declaration, “You have answered me!”  This is the turning point in the psalm, so that from this point on there is praise.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:35 pm | Discuss (0)
May 28, 2007

Moscow Vacation

Category: Uncategorized :: Permalink

Last Thursday, Moriah, Aletheia, and I left Medford for a vacation, the first vacation I’ve taken in over a year.  We drove up to Canyonville first, where Moriah had an Avon meeting at the Seven Feathers casino conference room.  (What a depressing thing a casino is.)  During her meeting, Aletheia and I explored downtown Canyonville, ate at a Mexican restaurant, and spent some time at a park, where Theia enjoyed the swings, a slide, and a little helicopter which Theia pretended to fly after patting the seat and insisting that I climb in to be her co-pilot.

When Moriah’s meeting finished, we continued our trip up to Portland, ate supper with Doug and Amy Hayes, and then flew to Spokane, where our friend Pat Greenfield met us and drove us down to Moscow, Idaho, where we spent the next week.

The town was pretty quiet since the school year was over and most of the university and college students had gone home.  The exception to that general quietness was an incident on the Saturday night after we arrived: a man opened fire on the courthouse and sheriff’s office, which are only a short distance from the house where we were staying.  We were already in bed or getting ready for bed and we didn’t hear the shots.

We were able to see a lot of friends, which was something we had been looking forward to.  I especially enjoyed spending some afternoons sipping cortaditos at Bucer’s and reading.  I’d taken along some books that I’d been looking forward to reading, so I spent some afternoons with Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard, C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Eric Hoffer’s The Ordeal of Change, and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

But the highlight of our time in Moscow was probably our meal on Wednesday evening at West of Paris, a French restaurant owned by our friend, Francis Foucachon.  It was probably the best meal we’d ever had in our lives.  We’ve been talking about it ever since, and I’m sure Moriah will describe it on her blog soon.

We returned home on Friday refreshed and eager to get back to work here.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:19 pm | Discuss (0)
May 14, 2007

Psalm 21

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the Director.
A Psalm
By David.

Yahweh, in your strength the king rejoices;
And in your salvation how greatly he is glad!
The desire of his heart you granted him
And the request of his lips you did not withhold. Selah.

Indeed you welcomed him with blessings of goodness;
You set on his head a crown of fine gold.
Life he asked of you;
You gave it to him,
Length of days everlastingly and forever.

Great is his glory through your salvation;
Majesty and splendor you put upon him.
Indeed, you make him blessings forever;
You gladden him with joy by your face.

For the king trusts in Yahweh,
And in the loyalty of the Highest he will not be shaken.

Your hand will find all your enemies;
Your right hand will find those who hate you.
You will make them like a fiery furnace
In the time of your face, Yahweh.
In anger he will swallow them
And fire will devour them.
Their fruit you will destroy from the earth
And their seed from the sons of Adam,
Because they intend evil against you;
They devise a plot.
They lack ability,

Because you will make them turn their back;
When you ready your bowstrings at their faces.

Be exalted, Yahweh, in your strength;
We will sing and psalm your power.

A few comments about the translation of this psalm:

(1) In line 12, “you make him blessings forever” doesn’t seem to mean that Yahweh makes the king blessed, but rather that he makes him blessed in order to be a blessing to others. He becomes a blessing to the people and a source of blessings.

(2) The word “intend” in line 24 (“they intend evil against you”) is often used for stretching something out (e.g., stretching out a hand), but this phrase (“to stretch out against”) “expresses the intention to cause a certain fate to overtake another person” (Hirsch).

(3) In line 27, the word translated “back” is really something of a guess, though it’s a guess shared by many commentators. Got any better suggestions?

Posted by John Barach @ 3:50 pm | Discuss (0)
May 9, 2007

African Hymns

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Here are a couple of hymns from Africa, quoted by Philip Jenkins in his recent The New Faces of Christianity (p. 104), which I glanced through a while back in Barnes & Noble.  (Someday, I’ll have to read this one and the others in this trilogy: The Next Christendom and the brand-new God’s Continent.)

First, this one from the Transvaal:

Jesus Christ is Conqueror.
By his resurrection he overcame death itself.
By his resurrection he overcame all things.
He overcame magic.
He overcame amulets and charms.
He overcame the darkness of demon possession.
He overcame dread.
When we are with him
We also conquer.

The emphasis on Christ’s victory in the holy war against evil is even stronger in this hymn by Afua Kuma from Ghana:

If Satan troubles us,
Jesus Christ,
You who are the lion of the grassland,
You whose claws are sharp,
Will tear out his entrails
And leave them on the ground
For the flies to eat.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:58 pm | Discuss (6)
May 8, 2007

Why Sacraments?

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

On Saturday, I raised a couple questions for Calvin about his theology of the sacraments.  I thought I’d drag a couple items out of the comments on that blog entry and present them here.

First, my friend Duane asked if Calvin meant things the way they sound in Ferguson’s summary (or my summary of Ferguson’s summary).  I do think Ferguson’s summary is accurate.  Calvin approves of Augustine’s description of the sacraments as visible words: “Augustine calls a sacrament ‘a visible word’ for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sight, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images” (Institutes 4.14.6).

More disturbingly, he also writes this in his section on the sacraments:

God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough…. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself, even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal … he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, he imparts spiritual things under visible ones (Institutes 4.14.3).

I have to admit that this statement puzzles me.  Is Calvin talking about post-fall man, weakened by sin?  That’s possible.  If so, he’s part of a long tradition.  As Peter Leithart pointed out to me,

The notion that sacraments are a result of sin comes up in Hugh of St. Victor’s De Sacramentis and is probably earlier than that.  It seems connected with the notion that original sin is essentially about our obsession with carnality and materiality, along with the notion that Adam in the garden had a purely “inward” communion with God — come to think of it, I believe that Augustine says that kind of thing.  The movement of redemptive history from a inner communion (Adam) through various sorts of accommodated outward forms of communion (from garden to consummation) but leading to a final restoration of purely inner communion.

In a recent blog entry, Leithart also notes that “Thomas …denies that sacraments were necessary in Eden, since there was no need to remedy sin (ST 61, 2).”  So if this is what Calvin is thinking, then he’s in line with many theologians before him.

But if Calvin wants to say that sacraments became necessary because of our sinful (or at least, sin-induced) weakness, then what about those trees in the Garden of Eden?  Before the Fall, God didn’t simply bestow life and the knowledge of good and evil on man apart from means.  He determined to use created means, the fruit of two trees.  Those trees were as sacramental as the Lord’s Supper, and yet they were present in the Garden before man’s sin.

I’m not sure, however, that Calvin really is saying that it’s sin that weakened man.  He might be, but the last two sentences quoted above seem to indicate that he’s simply talking about physical man, apart from the Fall.  We need sacraments, Calvin says, because we “cleave to the flesh.”  But then he says that the reason God “imparts spiritual things under visible ones” is “because we have souls engrafted in bodies.”  The necessity for the sacraments, then, is not that we are impaired and weakened by sin, but rather that our souls are engrafted in bodies.

On the other hand, perhaps Calvin is still speaking about a weakness brought about by sin but is trying to say that because we’re embodied God uses earthly things to strengthen our faith.  It’s not as if God sees that in our weakness and sin we “cleave to the flesh,” and so He cures that by using non-earthly, non-physical means.  After all, we are embodied.  We are physical.  And so God uses physical means to bring about the cure and to strengthen our weak faith.  That’s about the best I can do with this passage.

The worst interpretation, then, is that Calvin thinks God uses sacraments because being physical itself constitutes a sort of weakness.  I can see how someone might conclude that from this paragraph.  But the best interpretation, I think, is that Calvin thinks sin has brought about our weakness, making it necessary to strengthen our faith with something more than just His word, and that God strengthens our faith by physical things because we are ourselves physical.

(Even on this reading, though, I still get a sense from the last two sentences that Calvin thinks there’s something “condescending” about God’s use of physical things, as if it might have been better to be non-physical and not to need physical sacraments.  That’s just a sense, and I can’t prove it.)

As I’ve indicated above, I don’t buy Calvin’s view.  I don’t believe that the sacraments are in any sense the result of sin or the weakness resulting from sin.  In part, I don’t believe that because there appear to have been sacraments before the Fall.  But my rejection of his view also stems from my embrace of the goodness and physicality of the creation.

I don’t believe that for God to use physical means — and speech is no less physical than food, since it involves physical vibrations in the atmosphere and in the ear — is condescension and certainly not condescension in the sense of “lowering oneself,” as if it’s somehow beneath God’s proper dignity to involve himself with physical stuff.  As C. S. Lewis says somewhere in Mere Christianity (I’m paraphrasing): God likes matter; He invented it.

That’s why we have sacraments.  God made us physical creatures.  He likes us as physical creatures.  He wants us to have bodies for all eternity.

And so He gives us physical food.  He could, of course, simply zap us and give us, by His Spirit, all the energy and strength we need to live.  Food doesn’t have the power in itself to give life.  We eat things that aren’t alive (like plants); we even eat things that are dead (like steak).  Life comes from the Spirit.  But God gives us life as we eat physical food.

So it is with the sacraments.  The question “Why sacraments?” is no harder to answer than the question “Why baths?” and “Why food?”

Just as food isn’t the result of the Fall, so the sacraments aren’t the result of the Fall.  Just as God gave life through all the fruit of all the trees of the Garden, God would give special life through the fruit of the Tree of Life.  Just as God gives you life through your dinner every day, so God also gives you life — the life of Christ — through the Lord’s Supper.

Having said all of that, I do want to add this.  Put in a pastoral way, there is something to be salvaged from Calvin’s approach and from the approach of, for instance, the Belgic Confession, Article 33, which says that ”our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments….”  That “insensitivity and weakness” is not the ultimate reason for the sacraments, but it is a pastoral occasion for the assurance that the sacraments give.

It’s not wrong, therefore, for a pastor — following the lead of Calvin and the Belgic Confession — to say something like this to a guy who is struggling with his faith, struggling perhaps to believe that his sins are really forgiven: “Look, God proclaims Sunday after Sunday that your sins are forgiven.  He tells you again and again that He loves you.  He says it in one way or another in virtually every sermon

“But He doesn’t just say it to you.  That ought to be enough to give you comfort.  But God is so good that He’s done more than that.  He also had you baptized into Christ.  Maybe you think God isn’t really speaking to you in the sermon or the declaration that your sins are forgiven.  Well, what about your baptism?  Do you think that water was meant for someone else?  No!  He called you by name.  He had that water administered to you.  You don’t need to doubt Him.  His love and His forgiveness and His grace are as real as your baptism.

“And as if that isn’t enough, what about the Lord’s Supper?  Every Sunday, that bread and that cup are passed to you personally.  That’s Jesus’ love right there.  He’s giving you His body.  He’s giving you His blood.  Take it.  Don’t doubt but eat and drink.  Yes, your faith is weak.  But God gave you not only His Word but also baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a host of other things, including your pastor and your fellow brothers and sisters, by which He strengthens your faith.”

That’s how I read the Belgic Confession’s use of that “insensitivity and weakness” language: It’s not providing an explanation for why God gave sacraments in the first place, but it’s pastorally pointing to the comfort of having not only the Word but also the sacraments for the assurance of our faith.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:18 pm | Discuss (3)
May 7, 2007

Psalm 20

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the Director.
A Psalm.
By David.

May Yahweh answer you in the day of trouble!
May the name of the God of Jacob set you on high.
May he send you help from the holy place
And from Zion may he support you.
May he remember all your Tributes
And your Ascension may he count as fat. Selah.
May he give to you according to your heart
And all your counsel may he fulfill.

We will shout for joy in your salvation
And in the name of our God we will raise a banner!
May Yahweh fulfill all your requests!

Now I know that Yahweh saves his anointed one!
He answers him from his holy heavens with the saving strengths of his right hand!

These ones trust in chariots and these ones in horses,
But we will memorialize the name “Yahweh our God.”

They have knelt down and fallen,
But we rise up and remain upright.

Yahweh save!
May the king answer us in the day we call.

A few comments about Psalm 20:

1.  Notice how much of the psalm has to do with up and down.  (No, I didn’t notice this on my own.  Jim Jordan points it out in his essay on this psalm.)  The Psalmist talks about being “set on high.”  He mentions Ascensions (see below).  The righteous “rise up.”  But the wicked are driven to their knees and fall down.

2.  In line 5, “Tributes” refers to the grain presented as a gift to God, sometimes in the form of bread, as a a tribute.  It’s part of the results of man’s labor.  The word is often translated “grain offering,” which is indeed what this offering consists of, but the word itself doesn’t mean “grain.”  It’s the word for the tribute you present to a king.  And here the anointed king of Israel is said to have presented his tribute to Israel’s King.  The fact that God accepts this tribute is important: God accepts and delights in the king’s works.  And that’s true of our good works also, which is why the offering is an important aspect of our worship.

3.  “Ascension” (line 6) is the name of one of Israel’s three basic offerings.  Most translations of the Bible get this one wrong.  They translate it “burnt offering” or “whole burnt offering,” and certainly that describes part of what happens to the offering: the whole thing is burned up in the fire.  But the word itself doesn’t have anything to do with burning or with wholeness.  Rather, the word has to do with ascension, with going up.

In this offering, the worshiper killed an animal and then presented the whole animal to God so that all of the meat is consumed in the fire and turned into smoke which ascends up into God’s presence, mingling with the Glory-Cloud that fills the tabernacle or temple.  The offering represents the worshiper (in this case, the anointed king) being drawn near to God, ascending into God’s presence.  By accepting the offering, God has brought the worshiper on high.  If God remembers the king’s Ascension, he will respond by saving the king and setting him on high over his enemies.

4.  In lines 15 and 16, the term “memorializing” is related to a verb meaning “to remember.”  It’s making God’s name (“Yahweh our God”) be remembered.  God appointed that name “Yahweh” as his memorial name (Ex. 3:15), so that when his people call on him by that name he remembers them.  And when God remembers, he acts.  That’s the memorial theology that runs all the way through Scripture.  God remembers those who call on his name and he acts on their behalf.  Similarly, we pray in Jesus‘ name, and God remembers us and acts.

The contrast here is with those who rely on chariots and horses.  There’s no verb in line 15; rather, the verb comes from line 16 (“to memorialize”).  You could render the whole thing this way: “These [memorialize] chariots and these [memorialize] horses….”  I’ve supplied the word “trust” to get the sense of this line across, but it seems to be saying that these people memorialize their chariots and horses, calling on them to help instead of on Yahweh.

5.  The last couple of lines are a bit tricky.  The accents in the Hebrew text lead me to render it the way I have: a cry for Yahweh to save and then a cry for “the King” (who would be Yahweh Himself, probably) to answer the prayer.  But there’s also a space after the word for “the king,” so that it could be “Yahweh save the king!  May he answer us when we call.”  If that’s the case, then the prayer is for Yahweh to give the king victory in battle (which is what “save” means here) and then for the king, or perhaps for Yahweh (now in the third person for some reason) to answer the prayer.  I’m not sure, so I’ll let you wrestle with it to figure it out.  If you have a preference, let me know.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:42 pm | Discuss (0)
May 5, 2007

Questions for Calvin

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Sinclair Ferguson’s contribution to Serving the Word of God is an essay entitled “Calvin on the Lord’s Supper and Communion with Christ.”  The essay’s okay, though I don’t know if it breaks any new ground.  But it raises two questions I wish I could pose to Calvin:

1.  Ferguson points out that Calvin, together with the Augustinian tradition (so I guess the question may really be for Augustine!), views the sacraments as ”visible words” (pp. 204-205).  He says, summarizing Calvin’s view,

The signs display or exhibit Christ to the eyes and to the sense of vision, just as the word displays Christ to the ears and to the sense of hearing as the Spirit takes what belongs to Christ and shows or exhibits it to us (p. 208, emphasis mine)

and later he refers to the function of pictures.

We find something similar in the Heidelberg Catechism,though interestingly enough only in connection with the Lord’s Supper: “As surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me….” (Q&A 75).

My question for Calvin and the whole Calvinian (or Augustinian) tradition is simply this: Why the emphasis on sight?  Why are the sacraments defined primarily as things that we see? 

My guess is that it has it has to do with defining the sacraments as signs and symbols.  The progression, I imagine, goes like this: The sacraments are signs, a sign is a picture, a picture is something you see, and therefore the sacraments are something you see.

There are, however, a number of problems with this approach.

First, not everyone sees his own baptism; not everyone sees the Supper.  I’ve baptized babies who had their eyes closed and weren’t watching the baptism take place.  I’ve also baptized adults who were kneeling in front of me, and I can assure you that they didn’t have eyes on the tops of their heads to see the baptism taking place.  Furthermore, some people are blind and cannot see either baptism or the Lord’s Supper.

But that doesn’t matter.  A baby whose eyes are closed is still baptized.  A blind man who takes the Supper is still eating the Supper.  The fact that he can’t see the bread doesn’t matter.

Second, the Bible never mentions the importance of seeing the water of baptism being applied or the bread being broken or the cup being given.  The Heidelberg Catechism seems to make seeing these things important, but the Bible doesn’t.  I’m not at all sure why the Catechism doesn’t simply say “As surely as the bread is broken for me and the cup given to me.”

Third, it’s not just that the Bible doesn’t emphasize sight; it’s also that the Bible’s emphasis is elsewhere.  Baptism is simply not something that you gaze on.  Rather, it’s a ritual that happens to you.  What’s important is not whether you can see it happening to you; what’s important is that it happens to you.

It’s the same with the Supper.  It doesn’t matter if you can see the Supper.  It doesn’t matter at all if you see the minister break the bread.  You might be able to see the bread and wine on the Table or in the tray being passed; you might also be able to see your fellow church members jaws working as they chew the bread or their Adam’s apples bobbing as they swallow the wine.  Or you might not.  Who cares?  What’s important is that you eat the bread and drink the wine, and that you do it together.

Is it visible?  Yes, but that’s an unimportant aspect of it.  It’s also audible: if you listen closely enough, you might be able to hear someone chewing; I’ve often heard people cough after they drink the wine.  But the fact that it’s audible is irrelevant to the sacrament, and so is the fact that it’s visible.  The bread and wine aren’t just visible; they’re edible, and it’s the eating — and the eating together — that makes the Supper.

In this regard, I suspect that our term “sacrament” may mislead us.  We tend to lump baptism and the Lord’s Supper together into one category which we then turn into a matter of theology and church life, abstracted from real life, and so we forget that baptism is a bath and that the Lord’s Supper is a meal.

Is a bath visible?  Yes.  You can watch a bath taking place.  (“Can,” not “may”: I don’t want you in my bathroom.)  Is a meal visible?  Yes.  You can watch people eating.  But surely the visibility of these things is the least important part.  I’ve bathed my daughter while she’s asleep.  She didn’t see it happening, but that didn’t matter.  She was bathed and now she’s clean.  If the power goes out during dinner and the whole house is dark, you can’t see how beautiful the food and the place settings are, let alone see the others at the meal, but you can still eat together.

And so it is with baptism and the Supper.  Visible?  Yes.  But that isn’t important.  What’s important is the ritual itself: the washing and the eating.

Fourth, I wonder what sort of understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper undergirds this emphasis on sight and what sort of approach to them it leads to.  It appears to me to be a sort of intellectualism.

Sight is the least intimate of our senses.  Taste is the most intimate, of course, because you actually take part of something into your body.  Touch is very intimate.  Smell is quite intimate, but you can smell from a distance without touching.  Hearing is less intimate, since you can hear from a distance.  But sight is the sense that lets you stand farthest away.  You can see farther than you can hear.  (How far can you see?  I can see several light years.  I see stars at night, after all.)

The emphasis on sight, then, is an emphasis on something that doesn’t involve physical contact.  Furthermore, sight in the Bible is associated with judgment.  (Think of lines like “right in his own eyes.”)  We stand at a distance and we evaluate.

And when we make the sacraments primarily something to be seen, when we emphasize their visibility, it tends to put us at a critical distance from them.  They become something to think about, something to evaluate.  Small wonder, then, that at least one Reformed tradition taught that the sacraments work on the mind through reasoning:

The signes and visible elements affect the senses outward and inward: the senses convey their object to the mind: the mind directed by the holy Ghost reasoneth on this manner, out of the promise annexed to the Sacrament: He that useth the elements aright, shall receive grace thereby: but I use the elements aright in faith and repentance, saith the mind of the believer: therefore shall I receive from God increase of grace. Thus, then, faith is confirmed not by the worke done, but by a kind of reasoning caused in the mind, the argument or proofe whereof is borrowed from the elements, being signes and pledges of God mercie (William Perkins, cited in E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, p. 53, emphasis Holifield’s).

Against Perkins, Calvin, and this whole tradition, I submit that we need to drop the emphasis on the sacraments as “visible words” and the emphasis on the importance of seeing anything happen to the bread and cup.  Whether you see it or not doesn’t matter.  The Lord’s Supper isn’t something to gaze upon; it’s a meal we eat together.

In keeping with this strange emphasis on sight, I’ve even heard people say that children who aren’t allowed to eat the Lord’s Supper are still partaking of it.  How?  By seeing things.  They get to see the break broken (though not for them).  They get to see the cup handed out (though not to them).  They get to see the bread and wine being passed and others taking them.  And so, these people say, they get the Lord’s Supper.

The best response may simply be to invite such people over for a meal, to let them look at the table full of food, to pass it around in front of them, but not to let them actually eat any.  After all, by their own theology, they’re partaking of the meal just as much as the rest of us.  That’s nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense for every meal, including the Lord’s Supper.

2.  My second question for Calvin and the Calvinian tradition is related to the first.  Ferguson sums up Calvin’s view this way:

In the preached word, then, Christ speaks to us and we respond in faith to his living voice.  This in itself is enough for us; but God recognizes that our faith is weak and in need of his strengthening.  so he further provides the visible words of baptism and the Lord’s supper where Christ puts his grace on display in order to bring us to a more assured communion with him through the Spirit’s work and our responding faith (p. 205, emphasis mine).

Later, Ferguson adds:

Calvin sees sacraments as appendices to the promise of the gospel, confirming it to faith.  Pictures may display what the weak in faith are not able to read easily in the word.  They thus help us remove our ignorance and doubt of God’s grace toward us, and strengthen our weak faith (p. 208, emphasis mine).

Notice that Calvin links the sacraments with our weakness.  I grant that the sacraments help our weak faith.  But that’s not what Calvin is claiming.  He’s claiming that it’s because of our weakness that we have sacraments.  From Ferguson’s first summary above, it sounds as if Calvin is saying that the Word ought to be enough for us, but, because we’re weak, the Word isn’t enough, and so we need something visible.

Here’s my question for Calvin: Is it really the case biblically that we have sacraments because our faith is weak?  I don’t think so.  I see no biblical support for such a claim.

Perhaps the argument is simply that God speaks and then often adds a sign.  So God establishes His covenant with Abraham and then adds circumcision.  But that doesn’t prove that God added circumcision because Abraham’s faith was weak, does it?

The Tree of Life appears to have been sacramental in some way, and God planted it in the Garden before the Fall.  Either that means that we must say that Adam’s faith was weak and that its weakness is not the result of sin (unless we want to say there was sin before the Fall) or we must say that sacraments aren’t given only because we’re weak in faith.

Again, as with the previous question, I wonder what sort of theology flows out of this view of the sacraments.  Perhaps its a sacramental theology like that of the Puritan William Bradshaw, who wrote:

Hence also it appears, that we specially eate the flesh of Christ, and drink his bloud, when with a beleeving heart and mind, we effectually remember and in our remembrance, we seriously meditate of, and in our meditations are religiously affected, and in our affections thoroughly inflamed with the love of Christ, grounded upon that which Christ hath done for us, and which is represented and sealed unto us in this Sacrament (cited Holifield, p. 59).

On Bradshaw’s view, it seems, the real partaking of the sacrament happens in our hearts and minds through our meditation and the feelings that meditation stirs up in us.  That meditation is sparked by what Christ has done for us, which is “represented and sealed unto us in” the Supper.  But do we need the Supper if our real communion with Christ is up in our minds, brought about by our thinking and not by our actual eating of the bread and drinking of the wine?

I’m afraid this Calvinian tradition easily gives rise to the idea that the Supper isn’t really necessary.  After all, Calvin seems to be saying, the Word ought to be enough.  Of course, he’d add that none of it is ever strong enough to do without the sacraments.  But we ought to be.  If you understand the story, you don’t need the pictures to help you.  And many Reformed churches reinforce this idea by doing without the Supper most Sundays in the year.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:27 pm | Discuss (12)
May 3, 2007

Imprecatory Psalms

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

As his tribute to James Philip in Serving the Word of God, David Searle presents an article entitled “The Imprecatory Psalms Today,” as a reminder to “those who minister the Word of God that we may not select what we think will please our congregations, but must, like James Philip, be preachers of the whole Word, however unpalatable its message might seem to modern ears.”

I appreciate that reminder.  Many books about church planting give me the impression that their authors think we should do nothing in our services that would disturb unbelievers who might happen to attend.  Few things in the Bible are as disturbing as the imprecatory psalms.  And yet God wants His people familiar with these psalms.  In fact, the psalms are songs and so we can say that God doesn’t just want His people to hear these psalms read or preached; He wants His people to sing them.

Searle points out something I had never heard before.  People often say that these psalms don’t reflect the fulness of the grace and love of Christ.  They are sub-Christian, and their authors weren’t fully “Christian” as we ought to be today.  But Searle objects:

If we argue that the believers of the Old Testament dispensation were not Christians as we understand the term, then we should expect their attitude to be much the same as that of other “non-Christians.”  We would expect them to have the same attitude toward their enemies as any other writers who had not come into the sunshine of Christ’s smile and grace.However, in pagan literature there is a complete absence of the sort of cursings which are so manifestly present here.  Non-Christian literature certainly contains plenty of violence and brutal material; it also contains plenty of explicitly sexual sensuality and even sadism and other very unsavoury excessess.  But we also find to our astonishment it does not contain the kind of imprecatory statements which are in Psalm 109.

Is that not both significant and remarkable?  In Holy Scripture alone are such curses uttered — uttered by members of a nation specially chosen by God to be the cradle for the incarnation of his own Son (pp. 172-173, emphasis and paragraph breaks mine).

Searle goes on to talk about how these psalms reflect the psalmist’s deep sense of evil, his commitment to God and not to his own vengeance, and his confidence in God as the just judge in spite of all appearances.  Some older commentators, he says, “called these psalms not psalms of malediction or imprecatory psalms but judicial psalms” (p. 175, emphasis mine).  In the midst of sin and evil in our world, we need justice: “Ultimate justice matters enormously, and this Psalm is about that ultimate justice” (p. 178).Searle does raise an interesting question about hyperbole in these psalms.  He points to Jeremiah 20:16-17, where Jeremiah curses the man who told his father that his son had been born:

May that man be like the towns which Yahweh overthrew without pity.  May he hear wailing at morning, a battle cry at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever.

Searle asks:

Did he really want the midwife’s husband to be cursed like that?  Surely this is hyperbole.  Jeremiah demands that we listen to him.  He is deliberately shocking us and riveting us into attention.  We have to listen.  His words shake us out of any complacency (p. 176).

Reading this, it strikes me both that Searle is probably right and that hyperbole is one of the hardest figures of speech to reckon with in the Bible, perhaps because it seems strange to us to say that part of God’s Word is exaggerating for effect.  (I suppose another option is to say that Jeremiah was sinning when he uttered this curse, but that option doesn’t satisfy me either.)

The very violence of these psalms, even if they do contain some hyperbole, ought to be instructive to us, Searle says.

The imprecatory psalms say this to us: there is really no place in the Christian church for armchair discussions about morality.  Christians are not arm-chair theologians.  They have their say in the common rooms of fellows and students in many of our theological faculties.  We are called to be soldiers of Jesus Christ, servants, bond-slaves of our wonderful Master.  Our commission is to get out there, with jackets off and sleeves rolled up, to engage in the real world.  I have yet to find an armchair theologian in Scripture.  But I find plenty of men and women of God at the coal-face, toiling for their Lord, spending themselves and being spent in his royal service (pp. 177-178).

Perhaps the rise of armchair theologians, Searle seems to be suggesting, is due to our unfamiliarity and our discomfort with these judicial psalms.  If we sang them regularly, they might jar us out of our armchairs and back to the front lines:

While it [Psalm 109] may make our hair curl, and our hearts miss a beat, this man knows no apathy….  God preserve us then from being lukewarm, eitiher towards sin, or towards God (p. 178).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:33 pm | Discuss (0)
May 2, 2007

Serving the Word of God

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

I’ve recently been reading Serving the Word of God, edited by David Wright and David Stay.  It’s a collection of essays in honor of James Philip, who served for forty years as the pastor of Holyrood Abbey Church in Edinburgh, from 1958 on.

I knew nothing about James Philip before reading the biographical essays in this volume.  He appears to have been one of those great pulpit giants, a man who preached twice on Sunday and once again at the midweek meeting, besides leading the Saturday night prayer meeting (at which he also spoke), preparing Bible Reading Notes for every day of the year, writing a monthly pastoral letter to the congregation, and keeping up correspondence with many missionaries.

I’m not going to go through the book chapter by chapter, though there are a few things in the later chapters that I’ll spend more time on in another blog entry.  But here, I want to pass on a few things that I especially appreciated, all of them from James Philip himself as he is quoted at various points in this book.

On what young Christians need:

What I am certain of is this: a great many of the problems and difficulties that beset young Christians’ lives, and the not-so-young as well — temptations, pressures, mixed-up-ness, loneliness, depression, discouragement, or whatever — would be well on the way to solution if only they would at last submit themselves to the “ordinariness” of the means of grace, and applied some discipline to themselves in terms of getting themselves under the word of ministry on a regular, as opposed to a spasmodic basis (cited p. 62).

On preaching the whole of Scripture:

We need all the truth of God for our balanced growth, not merely this or that doctrine, this emphasis or that.  Christ is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption, and to get a whole Christ we need the whole Word (cited p. 63, emphasis mine).

On being missional:

The gospel that lifts the burden of sin from our hearts lays upon us another burden — the burden of a lost world (cited p. 103).

On worship:

The deeper reaches of worship are attained not by the mystics or those that are temperamentally suited or inclined to rapt adoration and wonder, but by those that are poor and of a contrite spirit, that tremble at His Word (Isa. 66:2); and for this reason, that the issues involved are not mystical primarily, but moral, a matter not of temperament but of character (cited p. 246).

On the church as a body:

In a loose association of individuals, each may well remain not only independent of the other but also indifferent to the other; nor is there any essential bond existing between them to lay mutual obligations upon them.  But in membership of a body there is an organic bond which obliges us to be interested in one another, and lays upon us the duty of mutual consideration and care.  What then, are we to say of those believers who are regularly present with us week by week, feeding on what they themselves have sometimes called “the finest of the wheat” but who nevertheless do not become involved in the real life of the fellowship … but remain detached, reserved and, even after some years, still comparative strangers to those who want to share fellowship with them in the things of God….  Either we are content to regard Holyrood as a preaching station, a kind of spiritual “self service” store where you help yourself to anything that happens to appeal to you, or we submit to the biblical teaching about membership of the body and take our responsibilities towards one another seriously….  We need one another.  This is the meaning of the fellowship.  There is a healing, sanctifying and enriching power in the true fellowship of the Spirit.  Most people would be surprised to learn how many needs there are that nothing but the love of the saints in fellowship can meet and solve (cited pp. 257-258).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:12 pm | Discuss (5)