Category Archive: Theology

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July 16, 2018

Not Only a Comfort But a Joy

Category: Christian Life,Theology :: Link :: Print

God, for many of us, is a life preserver flung to a drowning man.

And so he is, if you happen to be drowning. But you can’t drown all the time. Sooner or later you have to start merely living again; you reach shore, splutter the water out of your lungs — and then what? Throw away the life preserver?

If your interest in God is based upon fear rather than love, very likely. In such a case, you will be willing to pay very high for the life preserver as you go down for the third time; you will offer for it all your worldly treasures, your lusts and greeds and vanities and hates. But once safely on shore, you may be minded to throw it away and snatch your treasures back.

We are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasures; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him.

Otherwise … we shall try to be negatively good, and make a virtue of misery; plume ourselves on the rejection of delights for which we are too weak, measure our piety by the number of pleasures we prohibit. And others will react against us by rejecting religion altogether, probably announcing with pride that they are choosing ‘life’ instead. — Joy Davidman.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:38 am | Discuss (0)
July 13, 2018

Old, Sapless, Joyless

Category: Christian Life,Theology :: Link :: Print

How many thousands picture Christianity as something old, sapless, joyless, mumbling in the chimney corner and casting sour looks at the young people’s fun? How many think of religion as the enemy of life and the flesh and the pleasures of the flesh; a foe to all love and all delight? How many unconsciously conceive of God as rather like the famous lady who said, ‘Find out what the baby’s doing and make him stop’? — Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:23 am | Discuss (0)
July 11, 2018

Temptation & Vocation

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew,Theology :: Link :: Print

The temptations we all face, day by day and at critical moments of decision and vocation in our lives, may be very different from those of Jesus, but they have exactly the same point.

They are not simply trying to entice us into committing this or that sin. They are trying to distract us, to turn us aside, from the path of servanthood to which our baptism has commissioned us.

God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each one of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God’s purpose. If we have heard God’s voice welcoming us as his children, we will also hear the whispered suggestions of the enemy — N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 26.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:06 am | Discuss (0)
August 23, 2016

Fifty to a Cave

Category: Christian Life,Church,Theology :: Link :: Print

The author of this article is billed as a “leading expert on the persecuted church,” but I have to say that I find what he says here not only very strange but unbiblical.  The gist of the article is summed up on the site as follows: “When a Christian experiences persecution or imprisonment in a foreign land, we do everything we can to extract them. But what if God has them right where he wants them?”

I grant that God does use persecution, suffering, crucifixion, death to advance the gospel and his kingdom in the world. But does that really imply that we, who see people in danger and suffering, shouldn’t attempt to rescue them? Does it mean that if we do help them, we might be thwarting God’s plans?

Would we apply the same reasoning to other situations of suffering? To the wife being beaten by her husband? To the woman being assaulted and raped? To the child being abused? To the homeless person who has no means of support and who hasn’t eaten for days? To the flood victim who has lost his house and all his belongings? Would we say “Maybe God has a good plan for this suffering and so I won’t try to help this victim”?

I hope not!

Abram did not say, when Lot was captured, “God might have a purpose for this” and leave him captive. Instead, he went and fought and rescued him (Gen 15). Ditto for David when his wives were captured (1 Sam 30).

How about a concrete example of “extraction from persecution”?  “While Jezebel massacred the prophets of YHWH, … Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water” (1 Kings 18:4). Should Obadiah have been (to borrow this author’s words) “emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually strong enough” to leave them in Jezebel’s reach instead?

Rahab helped the Israelite spies escape (Josh 2). When Athaliah murdered all the king’s sons, Aunt Jehosheba rescued Joash and hid him (2 Kings 11). In Matthew 10, Jesus told his disciples, “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.” Obviously Jesus doesn’t think flight is a bad thing. When people were plotting to kill him, Paul escaped by being lowered from the city wall in a basket (Acts 9).

Proverbs 24:11 tells us “Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter.” James tell us that “pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is” — what? To leave the orphan and widow in their suffering because God might use their suffering might bring about something good? No: “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.”

Yes, God uses even suffering for his good purpose. But that does not imply in any way that we should just leave people — let alone our brothers and sisters in Christ! — in their suffering. We may not reason from God’s sovereignty to our irresponsibility.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:31 pm | Discuss (0)
July 4, 2016

Confessionalism

Category: Theology,Theology - Eschatology,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

All narrow confessionalism and all complacency in any local ecclesiastical tradition must hear the apostolic judgment: “What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:36) — Richard Paquier, Dynamics of Worship, 52n9.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:19 pm | Discuss (0)
July 1, 2016

Hope

Category: Theology :: Link :: Print

Hope stretches between sacrifice and life renewed. Vision can often see no further than the sacrifice which God’s commandments impose; it cannot descry the enrichment of life which God’s grace intends. Hope holds the gap.

“Must I rule the appetite of sex within the law of Christ, must I persevere in practices of prayer which are dry and seemingly infertile? It is death to my spirits. What life will ever come of it for the Christian people or for me?”

If this is death, I ought to embrace it for Christ’s sake, and be willing not only to die, but to lie dead in sure and certain hope. Where the burial of Christ is, there the resurrection of Christ will be. — Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:45 am | Discuss (0)
September 11, 2014

The “Pagan Origins” Fallacy

Category: Church Year,Ethics,Theology :: Link :: Print

“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).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:50 pm | Discuss (0)
February 10, 2014

Ancient Greek Religion

Category: History,Theology,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

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.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:01 pm | Discuss (0)
January 28, 2014

No Truer Heaven?

Category: Miscellaneous,Theology :: Link :: Print

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).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:49 pm | Discuss (0)
November 21, 2013

The Imperative Comes First

Category: Theology :: Link :: Print

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.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:38 pm | Discuss (1)
May 29, 2013

Prayer, Work, and Play

Category: Theology :: Link :: Print

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).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:52 pm | Discuss (0)
May 9, 2013

Ascension vs. Chain of Being

Category: Theology,Theology - Anthropology,Theology - Christology :: Link :: Print

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.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:54 pm | Discuss (0)

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