notes from a church visit

I’m visiting churches again. Visited one this past Sunday. Some thoughts follow.

Sermon, by the lead pastor, whom I know quite well to be a real solid Christian, was entirely applicational: the original meaning was completely bypassed. But by evangelical standards, it might be considered a pretty expository sermon. It was full of anecdotes; story about a wonderful lady who recently passed away; story about a new born from an elder. The stories were added toward the halfway point of the sermon, and thereafter present throughout. Also present were some traces of apologetic about the historical reliability of the Bible. Added other verses to support his point.

Thorough discipleship process: they’ve accepted the fact that people will compartmentalize church, so they make sure the time they spent at church was well worth it, well planned, and purposeful. They have inserts about bible reading, and have not only membership classes but also training classes that last for longer stretch of weeks, and going through a small and foolproof theology textbook. It’s not seeking to change the way people arrange their schedule, but work within that constraint to try to change them from within, I think. The choice of the text – by a famous and famously boring theologian – is telling: they seek to be solid, simple, and lowest-common-denominator without being sloppy. The question of theological method is completely lacking, probably a question not worth asking from their perspective.

The idea of receiving prayer is a creative way to transform the “walking the dusty road” strand of the revivalist past, however, however tangential and thrice-derivative that was. The way they carry it out suggests the objectivity of a liturgical element. The subjective feel one gets from “receiving prayer” is now performed objectively, like the lord’s supper. It takes away the self-centered notion of conversion, and focuses instead on human weaknesses and communal prayer. Quite a good idea, actually.

Speaking of lord’s supper: they don’t actually do it during the sunday service. They do it in their community nights. This is another departure from the tradition. It makes one take a second look, and perhaps with a bit of discomfort. But after thinking about it, doing lord’s supper on sunday isn’t a requirement (even though it is a presupposition of sorts). And that way they can make the service something less: and in so doing, they can focus on the seekers. The real deal takes place during community nights.

Very beautiful location. The building had just been renovated. Everything is well-cared for and well-attended to. Childcare, parking, donuts, coffee, bookshelves, etc.

Aside

Barth’s letter to the “folks at Christianity today”

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one of my fav. pictures of Barth

Found this blog, and writer posted a whole letter from Barth in response to Van Til’s criticisms. I thought this quote says a lot about the mutual incomprehension between the camps:

“The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time.(4) So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.”

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Read the whole thing here.

 

Vanhoozer on Ricoeur

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I love Vanhoozer. One of his earlier loves is Paul Ricoeur. So I’m trying to love Ricoeur, too. This is from his Ricoeur book: 

I interpret Ricoeur’s philosophical program as a continuation of the “unfinished” projects of Kant and Heidegger. Ricoeur’s philosophy of narrative hope emphasizes the imaginative and temporal aspects of human being. From Heidegger Ricoeur borrows the notion of temporality of human being, future- oriented to not-yet possibilities (chapter 2). From Kant Ricoeur takes up and develops the notion of the creative imagination as the “power of the possible” (chapter 3). I suggest that Ricoeur’s unique contribution is to give a linguistic and literary orientation to the work of these two important thinkers. Creative language, especially metaphors, constitutes hope’s vocabulary and gives expression to the possible or to the ways things might be (chapter 4). Stories and histories – creative writing – shape human identity, for narrative unites the power of the creative imagination and the concern with human temporality in order to explore specifically human possibilities (chapter 5). (Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, 18).

Stephen Dempster on Old Testament Theology

(Stephen Dempster) Screen-Shot-2014-01-10-at-8.59.12-AM-250x290

Got bitten by the Old Testament bug today. Stephen Dempster is one of the OT guys I deeply admire. Dempster and Sailhamer are two the very few OT scholars that truly appreciates the OT text as it is given to us, and try to understand just as it is. Dempster’s book, Dominion and Dynasty, is a great introductory text to this task (Here’s the first chapter).

Gospel Coalition interviewed him when the book came out. The following answer to the question “How would you summarize your book’s argument in one paragraph?”

The Crown of God’s creation is clearly humanity, which is made in God’s very own image and invested with regal authority to rule all of his creation on planet earth. In the beginning there was perfect harmony between God, humanity, and the world. Adam and Eve fell from this regal position when they rebelled against God by listening to the Serpent. The world was plunged into death and chaos under the Serpent’s rule. God promised to restore the lost glory of humanity and creation by sending a human descendant to dethrone and defeat the Serpent, thus reinstalling humanity to its rightful regal role over creation. Consequently, two important themes that dominate the Old Testament stories are land and lineage, and are thus inextricably interconnected. Thus the concern for both in the early chapters of Genesis. Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, and their hopes focus on a child. Genealogies become extremely important. At the end of the first major genealogy of the Bible, there is a hope expressed in the birth of a child for salvation from the curse upon the creation (Gen. 5:29). When Abram and Sarai appear on the scene, they are chosen by God to be the agents through which the lost glory of creation will be restored, and thus two of the major promises to them are land and descendants. In fact in the ensuing narrative, which focuses on the nation of Israel, the ultimate threats will become exile and barrenness. Eventually the hopes crystallize on the promise of a royal descendant through whom the lost glory of humanity and creation will be restored. Thus the storyline points to David and his line. The lengthy genealogies in the first book of the Bible that point in this Davidic direction are resumed in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, showing that every hope is pinned on David. This last book, Chronicles, begins with nine chapters of genealogies. The genealogies essentially summarize history from Adam to David. With David, the story begins!

How many Bible-reading persons do you know that can tell you the significance of “land” and “genealogies” in the Bible? These are the things that are skipped. Therein lies one of the most useful things about this book.

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What came up when I googled “Old Testament.” I was expecting a smart phone instead of a scroll.

There’s peril in this kind of approach in general, though. Thinking about OT from a compositional perspective necessarily involves decisions on its order; and the typical charge is that it is hard to avoid some level of arbitrariness in this process.  M. Daniel Carroll R. of Denver seminary writes that

Why TchoTose a sequence from the Talmud without entertaining the Hebrew canon that students will have in their possession? It would be an interesting exercise to see how this book might look if that were the basis of this theology. Nevertheless, at least he raises the issue of a different Jewish canon, something most students are not aware of. In addition, one wonders if the claim that the Major Prophets, the Twelve, and a good portion of the Writings were designed to serve as a ‘commentary’ on the historical material is not also arbitrary.

Nevertheless, a worthwhile volume to pick up indeed.

 

Carl Henry’s 15 Theses

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Posted these theses in one of my old blogs, which I’m in the process of phasing out. I’m also going through something with Henry right now, so I thought I’d post these here again: these 15 theses are the major claims of Carl Henry’s theological program.

1. Revelation s a divinely initiated activity, God’s free communication by which he alone turns his personal privacy into a deliberate disclosure of his reality.

2. Divine revelation is given for human benefit, offering us privileged communion with our Creator in the kingdom of God.

3. Divine revelation does not completely erase God’s transcendent mystery, inasmuch as God the Revealer transcends his own revelation.

4. The very fact of disclosure by the one living God assures the comprehensive unity of divine revelation.

5. Not only the occurrence of divine revelation, but also its very nature, content, and variety are exclusively God’s determination.

6. God’s revelation is uniquely personal both in content and form.

7. God reveals himself not only universally in the history of the cosmos and of the nations, but also redemptively within this external history in unique saving acts.

8. The climax of God’s special revelation is Jesus of Nazareth, the personal incarnation of God in the flesh; n Jesus Christ the source and content of revelation converge and coincide.

9. The mediating agent in all divine revelation is the Eternal Logos–preexistent, incarnate, and now glorified.

10. God’s revelation s rational communication conveyed in intelligible ideas and meaningful words, that is, in conceptual-verbal form.

11. The Bible is the reservoir and conduit of divine truth.

12. The Holy Spirit superintends the communication of divine revelation, first, by inspiring the prophetic-apostolic writings, and second, by illuminating and interpreting the scripturally given Word of God.

13. As bestower spiritual life the Holy Spirit enables enables individuals to appropriate God’s revelation savingly, and thereby attests the redemptive power of the revealed truth of God n the personal experience of reborn sinners.

14. The church approximates the kingdom of God in miniature; as such she is to mirror to each successive generation the power and joy of the appropriated realities of divine revelation.

15. The self-manifesting God will unveil his glory in a crowning revelation of power and judgment; in this disclosure at the consummation of the ages, God will vindicate righteousness and justice, finally subdue and subordinate evil, and bring into being a new heaven and earth.

~ ~ ~
On a different note, I really like this photo of Henry I found today. He looks slightly curious, somehow inviting, unlike the famous one where he has his hands clasped looking like he’s thinking about something.

Brownian wisdom on Gospel of Luke

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This discipline of putting up at least one picture when blogging has an unexpected advantage: I now have more of sense of the humanity of scholarship. This guy up there is Raymond Brown, NT Scholar extraordinaire.  My senior pastor graciously shared some wisdom from this book this morning through email, and I thought I’d post it here. It’s about the disctinctiveness of the Gospel of Luke. 

Luke, who has described the disciples/apostles with extraordinary delicacy during the ministry (unlike Mark who dwells on their failures and weaknesses), continues a merciful portrayal of them during the passion, never mentioning that they fled.  Indeed, he places male acquaintances of Jesus at Calvary (23:49).  This fits with Luke’s unique post-resurrectional picture where all the appearances of Jesus are in Jerusalem area (as if the disciples had never fled back to Galilee), and where apostles like Peter and John will become chief actors in the Book of Acts.  The Jesus of the passion, accused by chief priests before the Roman governor and the Herodian King, prepares the way for a Paul brought before the same case of adversaries (Acts 21:27 – 25:27).  The innocent Jesus who dies asking forgiveness for the enemies and commending his soul to God the Father prepares the way for the first Christian martyr, Stephen, who will perish uttering similar sentiments (Acts 7:59–60).  Consistency from the Law and the Prophets to Jesus and ultimately to the Church is a Lucan theme in which the passion is a major component.

It’s much more important, I think, to know details like these about each of the gospel narratives than it is to know how they “harmonize.” It may be that a polyphony of voices were intended, rather than a harmony that erases each gospel’s distinctiveness. 

John Frame’s reservation with Vanhoozer

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John Frame’s stature in the evangelical world is approximately proportionate to his physical stature. He raised many prominent scholars: the only one I’ll mention here (as you can guess) is Kevin Vanhoozer. It is not everyday that someone can impress Kevin Vanhoozer, but John Frame did. Vanhoozer related an anecdote that explains why in the Festschrift to Frame:

Thirty years ago I sent out requests to various theology professors around the United States, asking them to recommend their seminaries to me, a prospective MDiv student. Some didn’t understand my parody of the genre (viz., application forms) or the manner in which I had turned the tables. They informed me that it was usually the student, not the seminary, who provided letters of reference (duh!)

 

You, however, entered into the game with relish. To my question, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the applicant?” You praised your faculty colleagues for their scholarship and saintliness, and then added, “Except me–I’m totally depraved.” I knew then that I had found a kindred spirit, and my mentor.

 

You did not disappoint–well, at least not until you left for Westminster California at the end of my first year. Still, you went the extra mile by agreeing to supervise my MDiv honors thesis on “The Special Status of the Bible in James Barr, Brevard Childs, and David Kelsey” (and thanks, by the way, for introducing me to Kelsey; I still require his Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology for my theological method course). (lxxix)

I would kill to have a copy of Vanhoozer’s MDiv honors thesis. But I thought it’d much more civilized to do a worldcat search, and when I failed, I phoned Westminster Seminary about it. Hopefully they get back to me.

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Vanhoozer giving a talk on Augustinian Inerrancy

Anyway, this post is about the problem Frame seems to have with Vanhoozer’s approach. This is from a comment made in William Edgar’s piece, Frame the Apologist. Edgar first listed the similarities between the two:

An interesting aside: it would appear that the work of Kevin Vanhoozer bears a certain to John [Frame’s]. My guess, informed somewhat from John’s own recollections, is that when Vanhoozer was a student at Westminster, he was influenced by John’s way of thinking. Like John, Vanhoozer argues for the “theodrama” of Scripture, which includes the various ways it carries meaning. Vanhoozer argues that the propositional (“locutionary”) content of Scripture, that is, what it teaches, points to, or argues, [are] often communicated in an “illocutionary” manner…Both theologians want to help the evangelical community get back to more solid doctrinal footing. Like John Vanhoozer critiques Charles Hodge for his “biblical empiricism” and seeks a more canonical way to tell the whole story, rather than to amass data. Intriguingly, too, Vanhoozer’s view of “trianguation” somewhat resembles John’s triperspectival approach…

Then he goes on to describe the differences, and from Frame’s own words:

I do suspect that John is not altogether comfortable with Vanhoozer’s apparent underplaying of the primary exegetical work needed to get to the story, nor, perhaps, of the seeming neglect of the more normative aspects of the Bible’s instructions. Indeed, in discussing his relationship with Vanhoozer and his high respect for him, John has nevertheless expressed doubts about the usefulness of largescale models and pleads for simply working more with Scripture–its teachings and implications.

This, in a way, can be seen as simply a difference in emphasis. At the same time, it is interesting and important to think about why these two great evangelical theologians diverge at precisely these points. That’s for a different post, though.

Reminders from Gordon Fee

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This man is as formative for me as any biblical scholar. His lecture courses from Regent College have accompanied me for hundreds of sleepless hours. I think Regent College is as responsible and influential (via Rikk Watts, NT Wright, Ian Provan, Phill Long, Bruce Waltke, and of course Gordon Fee, among others) as the seminary I went to for my understanding of the Bible – and very likely even more influential. They also feature an unbelievable collection of theologians such as Colin Gunton, three of the Torrances (minus Iain, the “liberal” one), etc.

Anyway, I was re-listening to his short course on Galatians this last week, and just wanted to put down some reminders that I thought worth jotting down.

-There is a discernible progression in Paul’s understanding of the gospel even in the greetings section. 1 Thessalonians has very little content, but by the time you get to Romans, not only do you have that “Grace to you and Peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” but a whole lot of other things as well. Some of these depend on context, of course.

-Philippians is one of the few where Paul does not referred to himself as an apostle: it’s because it’s a friendship letter.

-Paul’s argument in Galatians goes from a memory of a confrontation with Peter to the matter at hand with the Judaisers and circumcision in Galatia: it’s because part of their accusation against Paul is that “he’s not from Jerusalem; his gospel is watered down.” Paul turns it around and made the argument that precisely because it’s not from Jerusalem, it’s not of human origin. It’s from Jesus himself. This can also be seen from the fact that even though it would be more reasonable to go after Barnabas (because they’re on the same team), he goes after Peter, because Peter represents Jerusalem authority.

-In the argument, we can clearly see that there is redefinition of Sin for Paul. It is no longer about Transgressing the Law, but is redefined through Jesus Christ. The outworking of that, and what that means for the Law, gets worked out more fully in Romans. In Galatians, we can already see a “principial obsolescence” (Carson’s phrase) of the Law that the Law itself proclaims (the language about childminder, or mentor), but in Romans, a more complicated picture emerges.

-If Paul had not seen this clearly, and let Peter et al slide, and let the “works of the law” define the entrance into the covenant, Christianity would have died like the church in Jerusalem did (died in Ebionism).

-Deuteronomy entails the more “ethical” dimension of the Torah, not the religious, people-defining, dimension of the Torah. Galatians is about that people-defining dimension. Judaisers want to define a people on their own way, and no one else’s; Paul calls bullshit. This is why in Luke, “prominent women” are mentioned. These prominent women would not be able to enter the fold without Paul’s Christological framework.

-It is also illuminating that Paul does not think in terms of “losing salvation,” but in terms of “cut off from Christ.” The reality of being in Christ is the primary category Paul’s working with, not “losing” or “having” salvation.

-Grace plus anything eliminates grace, because the nature of grace does allow anything else to be added.

-Paul thinks of the coming of the Spirit in terms of Gentile inclusion. This explains much of the “Mystery” talk in Ephesians and Colossians.

 

Princeton Theology & Scottish Philosophy

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The bigass picture of Charles Hodge should alert the reader that “Princeton Theology” isn’t referring to the current Princeton. The current Princeton Semimary has a much greater on Barthian thought, among other things (it’d be unfairly reductive to say that Princeton Seminary is all Barthian, but it’s difficult to avoid this impression due to the two huge stars in the seminary: McCormack & Hunsinger). Princeton Theology, once upon a time, refers to that tradition of theology that was so important to traditional reformed thought in America: that of the Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge (named after Archibald), and Benjamin Warfield. This is a distinct school from the Dutch Reformed School of Kuyper, Bavinck, and Dooyeweerd. In fact, Warfield is quite critical of the Dutch Reformed school: he thinks they’re too much into defending “the great assumption,” abandoning its mission to “reason its way to domonion.” 

This tradition is now referred to as “Old Princeton Theology.” Out of the Old Princeton springs Westminster Seminary, the story of which includes characters like J. Grisham Machen and the (in)famous Cornelius Van Til, but is not a story we will tell today.

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Today’s about this thing with Scottish Philosophy. This refers to the “Common Sense Philosophy” of people like Thomas Reid, and was a kind of Godsend philosophy (through John Witherspoon) for the kind the environment Hodge and company were embattled. But since the 1950s, people have been raising issues about the role of this philosophy and its influence in evangelicalism. Sydney Ahlstrom is a voice among others in his “Scottish Philosophy and American Theology” (Church History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Sep., 1955)). He outlines “the meaning of this amazingly diverse philosophical conquest” at the end of the essay, and I’m quoting in length: 

The first and most obvious observation is that the leading thinkers of the American Calvinistic tradition experienced in acute terms the need for an apologetical philosophy. This was in no significant way akin to that felt by the medieval scholastics who were more interested in proving the orthodoxy of Reason than the reasonableness of Orthodoxy. In America the need stemmed from a concrete situation: the religious decadence of the Revolutionary epoch and th fear, felt particularly in the post-war period, that French infidelity was engulfing the universities. That such “scares” stimulated the apologetical spirit in Harvard, Princeton, and Yale is a familiar matter of record. Put in another way, the American Calvinistic tradition was suffering from a serious malaise; secular rationalism was eating away its vitals, and the tour de force accomplished by Edwards and his distinguished successors did not change the total circumstance. Consistent Calvinism, in fact, only made the great Judeo-Christian paradoxes seem more incomprehensible and uncongenial. Rational defense was required. 

 

The second observation is that the Scottish Philosophy countered precisely those intellectual currents which the philosophy-reading and church-going public of the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century had reason to fear. It not only got around Hume’s “skepticism” by a reductio ad absurdum but short circuited all the major metaphysical heresies.

 

The Scottish Philosophy was an apologetical philosophy, par excellence. And the secret of its success, I think, lay in its dualism, epistemological, ontological, and cosmological. Its other advantages were auxiliary. Reid’s theory of knowledge affirmed a clean subject-object distinction. The world which men perceived was in no sense constituted by consciousness. On the mind-matter problem dualism facilitated an all-out attack on both materialism and idealism, as well as the pantheism that either type of monistic analysis could lead to. Furthermore, by a firm separation of the Creator and His creation, the Scottish thinkers preserved the orthodox notion of God’s transcendence, and made revelation necessary. Dualism also made possible a synchronous affirmation of science on the one hand, and an identification of the human intellect and the Divine Mind on the other. Scottish philosophers could thus be monotonously consistent in their invocations of Bacon or Newton and at the same time certify those rational processes of man which lead toward natural theology and even contemplative piety and away from relativism and romantic excesses. 

 

The Scottish Philosophy, in short, was a winning combination; and to American theologians, even if they felt the need for philosophic support only subconsciously, it was the answer to a prayer. It was, moreover, free enough from subtlety to be communicable in sermons and tracts. It came to exist in America, therefore, as a vast subterranean influence, a sot of water table nourishing dogmatics in an age of increasing doubt. 

 

Yet a price was paid for this philosophical sustenance and a consideration of this exaction constitutes my third observation. 

 

At the outset, however, an exception must be made of the Unitarians. They could adopt and use the philosophical system of fellow moderates in Scotland. For the better part of a century they could grow with and within the tradition because their needs harmonized with its basic presuppositions. Nor did these presuppositions put their theology under stress. On the contrary, the “Scottish period” of Unitarianism was it “Augustan Age” of growth and expansion. 

 

Such was not the case with Orthodoxy. In the seminaries and universities their theology lost its Reformation bearings; “the Augustinian strain of piety” suffered. The belief that Christianity had a proclamation to declare lost its vitality. Park hemmed-in the Scriptures with so much criteria of interpretation that they came to be only an external support to his theological system. And for Hodge doctrine became less a living language of piety than a complex burden to be borne. 

 

The forces leading to this result were manifold – many of them not philosophical at all – but three contributions of the Scottish Philosophy are salient. The first is attributable to the humanistic orientation of the Hutcheson-Reid tradition. As this philosophy was adopted, the fervent theocentricity of Calvin, which Edwards had striven to reinstate, was sacrificed and a new principle of doctrinal interpretation was increasingly emphasized. Self-consciousness became the oracle of religious truth. Man’s need rather than God’s Word became the guide in doctrinal formulation. Flowing from this first reorientation was a second. The Adoption of the benign and optimistic anthropology of the Scottish Moderates by American Calvinists veiled the very insights into human nature which were a chief strength of Calvin’s theology. This revision, in turn, affected the whole complex of doctrine and infused the totality with a new spirit. In a third and more general way, Scottish Realism accelerated the long trend toward rational theology which had developed, especially in England, during and after th elong Deistic controversy. Combined as it was with an all too facile dismissal of Hume’s critique, Reid influence on subsequent thinkers in the Scottish tradition served to reinforce the prestige of thinkers like Locke, Butler, and Paley, who were reinterpreted in accordance with the typical Scottish emphasis. There resulted a neo-rationalism which rendered the central Christian paradoxes into stark, logical contradictions that had either to be disguised or explained away. Reformed theology was thus emptied of its most dynamic element. A kind of rationalistic rigor mortis set in. 

 

In conclusion we may say, therefore, that the profound commitment of orthodox theology to the apologetical keeping of the Scottish Philosophy made traditional doctrines so lifeless and static that a new theological turn was virtually inevitable. Certainly there is no mystery as to why end-of-century theology in America turned with such enthusiasm to evolutionary idealism, the social gospel, and the “religion of feeling.” It was in search of the relevant and the dynamic.