Category Archive: Theology
“Christmas trees have pagan origins, so they’re bad. For that matter, Christmas and Easter have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. The theater has pagan origins, so it’s bad (and so are any other forms of acting).” And so on and so on.
Heard anything like this? Godly people should have nothing to do with anything that (allegedly) has pagan origins.
How about this one: Musical instruments have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. Truly godly people would stay away from them.
Here’s something we’re told explicitly in the Bible: It was in the line of Cain, among the ungodly, that we first find musicians with instruments. Cain’s murderous descendant Lamech has three sons, one of whom, Jubal, is described as “the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Gen 4:21). So there you have it: According to the Bible, expertise in musical instruments springs from the family of the ungodly.
But does that mean that the godly must never use musical instruments? Certainly not. David plays an instrument. David, under the inspiration of God, designs and commissions instruments for the Temple that Solomon will build. The Levites play instruments from that time on. The Psalms commend the use of instruments, even in the worship of God.
In fact, notice that it’s not just music that the ungodly develop in Genesis 4. It’s also metallurgy and agribusiness. Lamech’s son Jabal “was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Gen 4:20). And Lamech’s other son Tubal-Cain was, literally, “the sharpener of every craftsman in bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22). As Jubal was the “father” of musicians–that is, the one who taught and trained and developed them–so Jabal and Tubal-Cain trained and taught all those who excelled in their fields. If “pagan origins” mean that we have to stay away from something, then we ought to stay away, not only from music, but from agribusiness and blacksmithery, too. But, of course, that’s not what Scripture teaches.
And therefore this argument — “If it has pagan origins it’s bad and godly people should abstain from it” — fails on biblical grounds. It adds to Scripture, setting a standard higher than the one God sets, and therefore ought to be rejected and condemned. (For more, see James B. Jordan’s “The Menace of Chinese Food.”)
It certainly is true that these skills were developed first among the wicked, and that’s worth thinking about. One of the patterns we see in Scripture, not least in Genesis 4, is what Jim Jordan calls “the Enoch factor,” which is this: The wicked get there first. It’s in the city of Enoch, Cain’s city, that we first find a lot of wonderful things. That poses a temptation to the righteous, the temptation to intermingle with the wicked and to forsake bearing faithful witness in order to enjoy those good things. But we fight that temptation by remembering what Jordan (somewhere) calls “the Jerusalem factor”: the righteous get there in the end.
So musical instruments and agribusiness and metallurgy may start in Cain’s city, among the wicked. They may have “pagan origins.” But they end up in David’s city, even being employed in God’s Temple. As the Proverb says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (13:22).
I would not be surprised to find that Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks (1999) is now a standard text in that field. He wears his learning lightly and provides a survey of ancient Greek religions (the plural is deliberate) that takes into account the many local variations instead of pretending that all Greeks thought the same way at all periods of Greek history. In fact, one could argue that the one “misstep” in the book is apparent in the title already: the word “religions.” As Price shows, the ancient Greeks would not have thought that they were practicing religion over here at this point in time and politics or war or family life over there at that other point in time.
Here’s Price’s summary, springboarding off a quotation from Xenophon:
Many aspects of Xenophon’s account are surprising to those reared on Jewish or Christian religious assumptions. In place of one male god, in the Anabasis there is a multiplicity of gods, even unidentifiable gods. Gods are both male (Zeus, Apollo), and female (Artemis). There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics and warfare or private life; instead, religion is embedded in all aspects of life, public and private. There are no sacred books, religious dogmas or orthodoxy, but rather common practices, competing interpretations of events and actions, and the perception of sacrifice as a strategic device open to manipulation. Generals and common soldiers, not priests, decide on religious policy. The diviners are the only usual religious professionals, and religion offered not personal salvation in the afterlife, but help here and now, escape from the Persians or personal success and prosperity. Religious festivals combined solemnity and jollity. Practice not belief is the key, and to start from questions about faith or personal piety is to impose alien values on ancient Greece (3).
But in at least one regard, I wonder about Price’s distinction between “Jewish or Christian assumptions” and what Price describes with regard to the ancient Greeks. While modern Christians might be surprised that for ancient Greeks “There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics and warfare or private life; instead, religion in embedded in all aspects of life, public and private,” Paul wouldn’t have been.
When Paul came, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, that proclamation was surely not the announcement that, after all, religion is only a sphere in life, to be sharply distinguished from politics and warfare and family life and all those other things (which, themselves, are spheres distinct from each other), and that in the sphere of religion Paul’s hearers ought to drop their allegiance to Zeus and the rest of the pantheon and put their trust in the Triune God instead.
Paul did not come teaching his hearers to invent a religious sphere in which they would serve Jesus and freeing all other spheres from the influence of “religion.” Instead, he came proclaiming a Jesus who was Lord of all, Lord of the whole of life, Lord on Sunday but also on the other six days, Lord in the church’s assemblies but also in “all aspects of life, public and private.”
In his survey of Augustine’s City of God, Edward R. Hardy, Jr. talks about the way things were in America at the time he was writing (c. 1955):
Perhaps our national temptation … is a new form of the imperial ideal in which the civic idealism of the “American dream” replaces the religious vision of brotherhood in God. If St. Augustine heard a modern American school or congregation singing with devout fervour:
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
he would assume that these words referred to our true fatherland, the heavenly city which can be reached only after the sin and sorrow of this earthly pilgrimage are ended. And we should have to tell him that for many of those present there was no truer heaven than the future United States of America. Some would suggest that our national church is the public-school system, as in St. Augustine’s time schoolmasters rather than priests passed on from generation to generation a more than secular loyalty to the great traditions of Rome (“The City of God,” in Roy W. Battenhouse, ed., A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, pp. 258-259).
As many people have pointed out, in Christian ethics, the indicative precedes the imperative. First God says, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” and then he gives the Ten Words (“You shall have no other gods before me…”). First Paul tells us what Christ has done and who we are in Christ, and then he summons us to act accordingly. First comes the good news of what God has done for us and then comes the summons to respond in faith and love and new obedience.
But when we look at the very beginning of Scripture, what we discover is that the imperative came first. God creates the heavens and the earth, and then the first word God speaks is a command: “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). Now, that’s not the first word in the Bible — first comes the narration, the story of God creating the heavens and the earth, and the description of the earth at the time of creation — but it is the first word recorded that God spoke with regard to that creation. He creates the world. It’s dark, unstructured, and unpopulated, and the Spirit is hovering over the deep. The narrative reminds us that there’s always an indicative implicit in and before the imperative, so that the imperative assumes and develops a personal relationship between commander and commanded, so that the imperative is never mere imperative but rather is a vocation. Nevertheless, in terms of God’s speech in history, the imperative comes first, and surely that’s significant.
With regard to man, something similar is the case. In Genesis 2, which develops and expands the account of Day Six in Genesis 1, we learn that when Yahweh God placed Adam in the Garden, he spoke to him: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Here, the first thing Yahweh God says is indicative (“Of every tree of the garden you may eat”), but it’s an indicative indicating permission (as opposed to a mere statement) and is tied to the next clause in the sentence, which is an imperative disguised as an indicative: “you will not eat” is indicative in form but imperative in force, meaning “don’t eat.” So the permission given in the first clause also shares something of that imperatival character. Again, there is a lot of implicit indicative here, including the personal relationship of Adam to Yahweh God who is his creator and the commander. But the first thing Yahweh God says to Adam has the force of a permission and a command with regard to the trees, something imperatival in force.
Returning to Genesis 1, we find that God’s work with creation takes the form of a series of imperatives, moving through the days of creation up to the sixth day, when man is created, male and female. While the events in Genesis 2 take place first, before the creation of the woman, in Genesis 1 the first word of God to the pair, to man as the image of God, male and female, again takes the form of an imperative. God’s first word to Man (male and female) is not a description of creation, not a presentation of all of God’s goodness, not a report about how God made man in his image, not a promise of what God would do for Adam and Woman. Instead, it’s a command. Sure, it’s a blessing, but it’s a blessing in the imperative: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). Only after that does he go on, in the indicative, to say that he has given man the green plants and the trees for food (1:29). The first thing Adam and Woman heard from God was an imperative, and surely that’s significant.
In fact, we can go back before the creation of man to the first word God spoke, and again it is an imperative: “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). That’s not the first word in the Bible — first comes the narration, the story of God creating the heavens and the earth, and the description of the earth at the time of creation — but it is the first word recorded that God spoke with regard to that creation. He creates the world. It’s dark, unstructured, and unpopulated, and the Spirit is hovering over the deep. But then comes the imperative and things begin to change (“And there was light”). Again, the imperative comes first, and surely that’s significant.
What does an imperative do? Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s observations are helpful here:
The imperative not only commands the listener; it at the same time lights up an alley of time into the future. A trail into time is beaten by the logic of any order given. A high tension current places the moments following the order under the expectation: will this command be followed up and fulfilled? The term “fulfillment” used in this connection is significant. By the imperative, time is formed into a cup, still empty but formed for the special purpose of being filled with the content demanded by the order. The action following the order is not a blind accident of the moment. By having been ordered, it has become organized into one “time span” which stretches from the moment in which the order was given to the moment in which the report is echoed back: “order fulfilled.” Orders connect two separated human beings into one time span, of which the imperative forms the expectation, the report the fulfillment (The Origin of Speech, 46-47).
When God speaks to man for the first time and uses the imperative instead of the indicative, he is creating what Rosenstock-Huessy calls a “time cup.” There is now a dramatic tension in the story: Will Adam and Woman obey God? Will they be fruitful and multiply? Will they have dominion over the animals? What will they do in response to God and to his commanding word? His order now orders their lives, revealing to them their calling, their responsibility, their relation to God and to the world– revealing how they are to use and order time.
The imperative creates the story that follows: by creating the expectation and setting the standards for judgment, it makes the story that follows what it is. Without the imperative, it would just be a story of God creating man and then man doing, well, whatever he felt like. There would be no tension, no expectation, no hope, no sense of satisfaction at a job completed, no disappointment in failure and rebellion, and no corresponding joy at redemption and restoration — by which I mean: restoration to the original task and calling, the calling of maturation, fruitfulness, multiplication, and dominion.
But there was an imperative, an expectation, an impetus forward, creating the story. It’s a story in which, in an important sense, the indicative does precede the imperative: God takes the initiative (as he does even in the Creation narrative) and man responds; God acts on our behalf so that we then can and do respond to him in trust and obedience. In all imperatives, there’s at least an implicit indicative that underlies it, as I’ve said above. But what makes it a story is that it’s a time cup, an imperative-created expectation awaiting fulfillment. We still look forward to man’s fulfilling of the mandate given in Genesis 1 (and so does God), with the joyful certainty because of Christ (here’s the all-important indicative!) that it will be fulfilled. In fact, even the imperative that was God’s first word in his creation (“Let there be light”) has not yet been fulfilled to the fullest extent, and all of history — and all of our lives — are meant to be aspects of that fulfillment until the earth is full of God’s glorious light.
History — the history of the world, and our history — is a time cup, formed by God’s imperatives.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, white-washing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in His grace you do it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives Him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too. God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should — Gerard Manley Hopkins, cited in Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries, 70-71.
In fact, without taking much away from what Hopkins is saying here, one should go even further: “if being in His grace you do it as your pleasure.” It is not only duty that glorifies God; it is also delight. Prayer glorifies God, vacuuming the carpet glorifies God, and so does my son laughing as I tickle him. So does my daughter as she jumps up and down for joy when she finds that I’ve brought her a new book from the library and so does she, if being in God’s grace and not neglecting something she ought to be doing at that time, she sits down to become completely absorbed in that book. God is so great that He is glorified even by our play, because, after all, he even created Leviathan to play before him (Psalm 104).
That Psalm 8, followed by Hebrews 2, speaks of a transition from being “lower than the angels” to being exalted over them sounds the death knell for the “chain of being” view held by so many throughout history. In this view, God is at the top of the chain, with angels — as spiritual beings or pure intelligences — below him, human beings — who are a blend, both spiritual and material — lower still, the beasts beneath them, and so on. Though there might be the possibility that man might rise in glory, the angels too would be continually rising above them, so that the order of the chain never changes. But if man, created “lower than the angels,” is then exalted over them, the chain is no longer static, with each creature in the place “rationally” assigned to it. Furthermore, if man can be exalted over the angels, the idea that matter is inherently lower than spirit must also give way, since Jesus is fully human, with a human body, and yet is exalted over the angels” — “The Glory of the Son of Man: An Exposition of Psalm 8,” The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan, 17n49.
I got a kick out of novelist and poet John Updike’s review of Paul Tillich’s Morality and Beyond:
The last two chapters, which discuss ethical systems in the context of history, are especially brilliant. Yet the net effect is one of ambiguity, even futility–as if the theologian were trying to revivify the Christian corpse with transfusions of Greek humanism, German metaphysics, and psychoanalytical theory. Terms like “grace” and “Will of God” walk through these pages as bloodless ghosts, transparent against the milky background of “beyond” and “being” that Tillich, God forbid, would confuse with the Christian faith (Assorted Prose, 283).
As James Jordan points out (in the passage I quoted here), the communion of saints is not that I am connected to you and you are connected to me, but that you are in Christ and I am in Christ and we are united in Him. He is the connecting link between Christians. Jordan’s application had to do with the possibility of speaking to the saints and asking them to pray for us. But what he says also bears rich fruit for our comfort when we lose loved ones.
When a loved one dies, so much is left unsaid. We want to tell Grandpa how much we love him. We wish he could know what we’re doing. Sometimes, we wish we could ask his forgiveness for wrongs we’ve committed. But there is no indication in Scripture that our loved ones in heaven are now watching everything that we do, let alone that they can hear what we might say to them.
But then our communion with Grandpa was never first and foremost our family relationship or the fact that we could see him face to face or that the words from our mouths could reach his ear. Our communion with Grandpa was first of all in Christ: He was in Christ, and so were we. And that hasn’t changed. Jesus is still the connecting link, and Jesus does see what we do and hear what we say. Which means that if you have anything you want to say to Grandpa, you can tell Jesus about it and ask him to pass the message along.
Can Grandpa hear you? Scripture doesn’t say. But Jesus can, and he can and will pass on any message that he thinks it best to pass on. Which is a great thing to tell grieving grandchildren who wish they could say one more thing to Grandpa.
In his lectures on Colossians, Jim Jordan takes a short rabbit trail to talk about our communion with the saints, including the saints in heaven:
Hebrews 12 says that when we come to church — and at other times, because heaven is really always open to us — we have communion with the angels and with the saints in heaven. So … you can talk to them, can’t you? If they’re all around us, we can ask them to put in a good word for us, can’t we?
But if you’re in Christ, you’re as close to the throne as you can get. Dying and going to heaven doesn’t put you any closer to God than you already are. You may feel the closeness more, but you’re not any closer.
On Wednesday night, we share prayer requests. So if we’re all in heaven, why can’t I ask Saint Athanasius to pray for me? Why can’t I ask Mary to pray for me? We’re all in the same room, aren’t we? Lots of branches of the church have made this case. When Orthodox and Roman Catholics “pray” to the saints, this is what they have in mind.
The Protestant response is this: When we’re in worship, we’re in heaven with the saints and angels — and with all the other Christians in the world. But can I stand here and ask Robbie Peele in Atlanta, right here and now: “Robbie, please pray for me”? No! He can’t hear me. It’s true that we’re together, but it doesn’t follow that the saints can hear us. Theologically, we’re all together. But we have no reason to think that Athanasius can hear us.
Theologically speaking, the mistake is this: The reason we’re all together is not that we’re all in the same room and so we can now approach Christ. Rather, we’ve all approached Christ and now, as a result, we’re in the same room. Jesus Christ is the connecting point for the church. The connecting point for all of us in the room is not this way: I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me. The connecting point is through Christ and back. We’re connected to Athanasius through Christ and back. If you want to communicate with him, you have to go through the central trunk line, through Jesus Christ. For all I know, the departed spirits do run errands for Christ (as Samuel is assigned to come back and speak to Saul). But we can’t talk to them directly. Everything is through Christ. It is through Christ that we have access to angels and the spirits of just men made perfect. You can’t talk to them.
At long last, it’s finally here: P. Andrew Sandlin & John Barach, eds., Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd (Mount Hermon, California: Kerygma Press, 2012).
Preface — P. Andrew Sandlin
Tributes — John H. Armstrong, John M. Frame, Charles A. McIlhenny, Michael D. Pasarilla, Steve M. Schlissel, Jeffery J. Ventrella, Roger Wagner
1. Growing in Covenant Consciousness — Norman Shepherd
2. The Whole Counsel of God: The Abandonment of John Murray’s Legacy at Westminster Theological Seminary — Ian Alastair Hewitson
3. Original Righteousness — Ralph F. Boersema
4. The Glory of the Man: Women, Psalms, and Worship — James B. Jordan
5. Faith’s Obedience and Israel’s Triumphant King: Romans 1-5 Against Its Old Testament Backdrop — Don Garlington
6. Mother Paul and the Children of Promise (Gal. 4:19-31) — Peter J. Leithart
7. Sola Fide: True and False — P. Andrew Sandlin
8. The Reformed Doctrine of Justification by Works: Historical Survey and Emerging Consensus — Rich Lusk
It’s currently available from Lulu, but it will soon be available on Amazon as well as from Biblical Horizons (from whom you can purchase this book, together with new books from Ralph Boersema and Peter Leithart, as a package deal: Watch for it!).
Norman Shepherd was ordained as a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in June 1963. John Murray preached the sermon, and Cornelius Van Til gave the charge to the new minister. In his autobiographical essay “Growing in Covenant Consciousness,” Norman Shepherd quotes from that charge:
You will not think of yourself as an individual theologian bringing to men the thoughts of your heart. You will not even think of yourself first of all as carrying on some tradition, notably the Reformed tradition, as you teach and preach. The world does not need your wisdom, and the world does not need Reformed theology except in so far as your theology and the Reformed tradition in which you labor expound the wisdom of Christ. You must not be a slave to tradition. You must not merely carry on what you yourself have learned from teachers. You must by all means cultivate originality. You must be yourself as you teach biblical and systematic theology. Only if you cultivate your independence of judgment will you make a genuine contribution to theology. But such originality cannot be attained otherwise than by ever going back of all the theology you have learned to the Christ who ever speaks to you in his Word.
The charge concluded with these words:
You need not snatch into the void for something new to say. You build upon the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets. You stand in the Reformed tradition as it stands on Christ. Labor with diligence! Need I tell you this? But labor also with composure of mind. Make no false pretense but have confidence in the promises of Christ.
As it is true that ecclesia reformata reformanda est so also is it true that theologia reformata reformanda est. When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already underway and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation. The powers of darkness are never idle and in combating error each generation must fight its own battle in exposing and correcting the same. It is light that dispels darkness and in this sphere light consists in the enrichment which each generation contributes to the stores of theological knowledge.
Much of the pleading for adaptation of the gospel to the needs of this generation is suspect. For it is too often a plea for something other than the gospel. Far more important is the reminder that each generation must be adapted to the gospel. It is true, however, that the presentation of the gospel must be pointed to the needs of each generation. So it is with theology. A theology that does not build upon the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies upon the past evades the demands of the present.
The progressive correction and enrichment which theology undergoes is not the exclusive task of great theologians. It often falls to the lot of students with mediocre talent to discover the oversights and correct the errors of the masters. In the orthodox tradition we may never forget that there is yet much land to be possessed, and this is both the encouragement and the challenge to students of the wonderful works of God and particularly of his inscripturated Word to understand that all should address themselves to a deeper understanding of these unsearchable treasures of revelation to the end that God’s glory may be made more fully manifest and his praises declared to all the earth. — John Murray, “Systematic Theology,” Collected Writings of John Murray, 4:8-9.