I’d like to claim that leaving apostasy out of one’s understanding of the scriptures (be it systematic or informal) has several negative consequences. Here’s a few that come to mind (some of them are quite related):

1) It makes the OT harder to read. After all, apostasy plays a major role, and if one is not accustomed to thinking in terms of apostasy, many of the stories will seem strange.

2) It belittles the OT. Take point 1 a bit further, and one sees that the logical conclusion of seeing all these strange stories of apostasy while not thinking such a thing is possible in the NT is to belittle the importance of the OT to Christians today. After all, God was obviously angrier or something back then…

3) It turns rather straight-forward passages in the NT into problems that must be solved (often by twisting them until they have no real content, like saying they are offering threats that are only hypothetical and cannot actually happen).

4) For those in the reformed tradition, it makes them agnostic on issues of life and death. By leaving out apostasy, one is only left with the categories of elect and non-elect when discussing matters of life eternal. Though the covenant may play a role in one’s thinking, without apostasy it has little meaning in terms of a relevant category associated with salvation. Combined with the notion that only God knows who the elect are, denying apostasy denies the ability to know if one is saved (or if anyone else is saved, for that matter).

For a reformed treatment of apostasy, Joel’s treatment of the topic is a good place to start.

Systematic theology

Here’s a thought. Systematic theology has the unfortunate side effect of making some passages hard and others easy irrespective of the authors intent, underlying literary structures, or any other consideration apart from the actual word choice. Put another way, systematic theology can have the unfortunate effect of making the Bible harder to read.

For example, take the word justification and its normal reformed connotations. Now read James. Tough stuff, huh? Yet from my reading of the Old Testament, I cannot help but think that the book of James would have been extremely straight-forward to a first-century Jewish Christian. So what’s the problem. Enter systematic theology. I read the word justification, and I read into it a rather specific meaning. In the case of James, that meaning flails about in the context and cannot find its footing.

Now, does this imply systematic theology has no value? Absolutely not. But if true it does imply that systematic theology has its proper place and scope, a scope perhaps more limited than some are inclined to believe.

David and Saul

An odd thought hit me yesterday regarding the story of David’s ‘interaction’ with Saul after their falling out. Previously, I’ve viewed David’s actions as an almost unattainable example of Christian humility and submission to God’s lawful authority. And I still think that viewpoint has much to offer. Though I haven’t read the story in some time, for some reason a pattern sort of leapt to mind yesterday that paints a somewhat different view. Before I briefly spell it out, let’s first look at the straightforward Christian Submission viewpoint and see how it plays out.

Stuart: So John, I hear your pastor is requiring you to tie little bells in your hair and dance on stage for the Christmas pageant.

John: Yeah, and I really don’t like the idea. But what am I to do? He’s my pastor.

Stuart: Right. And after all, look how submissive David was when Saul was actually trying to kill him.

Stuart: You’re right. Here, can you help me tie tiny braids in my hair for the bells?

Sounds nice. But here’s the issue. It isn’t like David painted a target on his chest so Saul would stop missing with the spears. He fled. And before long, he was roaming around the countryside with an armed company stealing food. And those times he could have killed Saul but didn’t, it isn’t like he just sneaked off. He flaunted his mercy to Saul, forcing Saul to say all kinds of nice things about David in front of his army. David owned Saul by not killing him. And he helped Saul play the madman in front of his troops.

That does not smack of the particular flavor of submission that I have typically seen David’s example used to require from Christians in challenging situations that involve God-ordained authority figures misusing their power. Have I forgotten some critical portion of the story, or am I on to something here?

The Public Word

I was cleaning out some ‘stuff’ and had to sort through some remaining tapes that hadn’t yet been weeded out. Among them were the tapes from the main speaker, Tommy Nelson, at the 1991 CCC Christmas Conference in Dallas. One of the five tapes was titled something along the lines of “The Priority of a Private Passion”. I can’t remember the first couple words (though I’m sure there was a ‘P’ in there for alliteration), but the last couple words stood out. I remember the talk. It was all about the preeminence of a daily quiet time if one wanted to walk with the Lord. The speaker even explained how, in 17 years, he had only missed one quiet time, and it was because of the crazy schedule he had to keep at a camp. When he realized he hadn’t had one that day, the boys he was with in the cabin were already asleep, so he called to mind some chapters of the Bible he had memorized as a poor substitute for his QT.

Now, the day before I saw this tape, during the small group I lead at our home, someone had asked me to explain if private devotions or hearing the preached word was more important. I had no idea what to say, and then, strangely, I realized the answer was actually very straightforward. I asked the group if there was any one thing that the Bible emphasized as a daily activity with regard to learning/interacting with scripture. The answer is to talk about it (see Deut 6). When you get up, when you go out, when you come in, etc. Talk about it. Was this emphasis simply a result of the fact that Deuteronomy predates the printing press? I doubt it. And that brings us to the public/private distinction.

The input from scripture about scripture tends to put it in a public context. This is not to say there are not private goals (hide it in your heart so you don’t sin), but most of the input is driven at a public context. Know the Word so you can give a ready answer. Talk about it all the time. Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. And on and on. The gifts given to the church are to drive the public use of scripture (preaching, teaching, etc). This public dynamic is in the context of the church, a community, rather than set against the backdrop of an individual’s quest for personal improvement. The Word is to benefit the body of Christ.

By approaching the topic in this manner, the emphasis on the preached Word begins to make sense. Our goal is not to privately appropriate the scriptures as an individual effort. Rather, the scriptures, just like the one faith and one loaf and one baptism, build a community. The individual, private sanctification takes place in a corporate context. And from a practical level, this makes a lot of sense. Want to form a cult? Just go study the Bible in complete isolation for 10 years and you should be ready.

Public versus Private

By using the categories of public versus private instead of, for example, subjective versus objective, I’m finding it much easier to get my head around some ideas that had previously eluded me. More on this later. For now, I need some sleep.

Parenting, Punishment, and the Gospel

Over the past several months, I have had the pleasure of having the gospel beaten into my thick skull over and over. Our assistant pastor is particularly persistent with exhortations to trust in the promises of God rather than ‘gutting it out’ as an act of self-reformation that we then offer to God. That’s probably a poor summary of a crucial teaching, but hopefully it hints at the emphasis to which my thoughts have drifted time and time again recently. The basic idea is that in repentance, we do not turn from sin, grit our teeth, and stop sinning. Rather, we turn from sin and look to Jesus, embracing his sufficiency and the assuredness of his promises on our behalf. It is here, not in our own determined efforts, that we find a respite from sin.

Now, some parents follow a basic parenting guideline that says you should offer your children choices and teach them to make good decisions. I’m all for that. With my daughter, Abigail (who will turn three in about a month), I’ll say something like, “Either do as I say now or come here to get spanked.” See? It’s all about choices…

But about two months ago I began to wrestle with the interaction between my discipline of Abigail and her discipleship. I do not mean to imply that discipline is contrary to discipleship. Rather, I began to worry that my pattern of discipline was perhaps open to alternative (and wrong) interpretations. That is, as Abigail grew and made conclusions about life and God, though my discipline was not contrary to the truth, I was concerned that it was too open to improper interpretations, interpretations that were perhaps contrary to the Gospel.

Then it hit me. The first command with a promise is the fifth (Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”), and the fact that it is the first that includes a promise is of theological significance. Now we know that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant built on faith, and if one follows up on the ten commandments, one quickly realizes they are the outworking of a lively faith. That is, the Israelites were not following an arbitrary law, they were entrusting themselves to the God who keeps his promises.

It is as if the other nine commands are adult, in that you have to read them knowing the full story of God’s deliverance (of which they are reminded in the prologue to the commands). But the fifth command, addressed to children, includes a promise. It is as though the fifth command is a training ground for covenantal faithfulness. The command is linked to a promise, which is linked to the Gospel (God will deliver them into, and in, the promised land). The command to children doesn’t simply give the command and assume the reader will rightly reckon it in light of the Gospel. Rather, a promise directly tied to the Gospel is included to teach such an approach to the children.

For the past couple months I’ve tried to embed the promise in times of instruction and discipline with Abigail. When asking for obedience or disciplining her for disobedience, I remind Abigail that she needs to trust God, the one who requires that she obey me, that He will take care of her every need for all eternity. That she needs to love God, and not her sin, and entrust herself fully to her savior. It’s not that I say a set thing each and every time I ever tell her to do something, but I try to include the promise with the command throughout the week, whether once every day or every few days. My hope is that her understanding, as it develops and matures, will be guided to the Gospel.

The Beauty of Truth

I sometimes feel that some people believe an argument from scripture is more likely to be true if the result is, well, ugly. Within the reformed tradition, this approach seems to find particular resonance in discussions of worship. We know that God desires true worshippers, those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. But I feel some are biased toward reading spirit and truth as antithetical to beauty.

Continue reading “The Beauty of Truth”