Monthly Archives: March 2006

The dangers of the conference celebrity circuit

Carl Truman posts some good thoughts on the dangers of theological gurus here. In days when conferences are being used self-consciously as extra-legal alternative church courst (where there is no need to follow process and grant rights to the accused) I think these meditations are timely.

Of course, this doesn’t mean all conferences are wrong (any more than all blogging is wrong, etc).

Personal relationship with Jesus?

Transforming Sermons led me here where the “personal relationship” language is accused of betraying, “a creeping sort of secularization of our language about God.”

This dovetails quite well with a couple of articles on “Doctrine,” recently publish in the Act 3 Journal in which I try to explore some of Peter Leithart’s thoughts. But it also reminded me of my essay, “Do I have to go to Church,” in which I said:

In both the West and the East, people commonly think of the being they call “God” as some sort of vague ghostly force which cannot be approached except through some sort of vague, internal–often called “spiritual”–contemplation. At best, this “God” is considered personal, and the “spiritual” exercise involves verbal communication–prayer. Nevertheless, as important as prayer is, it is hardly an adequate way, by itself, to relate to a real person. Believing in such a God too often resembles a child’s imaginary friend.

In contrast to this popular view, the God presented in the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures is a real person who has real relationships with human beings. More than that, He is a great king over the whole universe (which He made in the first place). People who are rightly related to Him are said to be members of His kingdom, citizens of His commonwealth.

Looking back on all this, I now realize what I want.

I want Christians to know so that they confess the truth: “I have a public relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Was this a slip?

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol i, p. 11 (emphasis added):

It may be admitted that the truths which the theologian has to reduce to a science, or, to speak more humbly, which he has to arrange and harmonize, are revealed partly in the external works of God, partly in the consitution of our nature, and partly in the religious experience of believers; yet ….

Is God a mute?

Obviously (for literate Reformed types who have read John Frame) it is ancient news to criticize Charles Hodge’s “scientific induction” model for how theology ought to be done. Still, it is hard to read this without commenting even when aware one is not saying anything new.

According to Hodge, the Bible presents us with facts and the theologian must put these facts in a proper relation to one another. But the Bible is not phenomena like recording the times of sunrise and sunset throughout the year. The Bible is teaching. God is just as capable of presenting causal and other sorts of relations in a book as Charles Hodge is. So why does God need Hodge to write his own book?

I think there is good reason for Hodge to write, but his model of induction and ordering facts is not a rationale that comports with the Christian God.

Facts and states of affairs

Reading Hodge on the inductive method in theology with all his discussion of “facts” and “truths” that are all there in the Bible, but must be ordered, reminds me of nothing so much as Logical Atomism and Wittgenstein’s Tractaetus. Of course, Hodge would demand a systematic relations between these truths, but the truths are treated as so obvious that it is hard to believe the relations are all that firm in comparison to the things themselves.

You never know where theology might lead

Wow. Trying to bring Calvin up to speed for his memory test tomorrow on Luther’s Smaller Catechism and the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed led to our most detailed discussion yet of how babies are formed.

If you want to know where christological heresies came from, examine squeamishness.

And it leads me to think that real orthodoxy is well served by the enthusiastic curiosity of a ten-year-old.

Sacrifice, Slaughter, Table, and Altar

In discussing the forecourt, before getting to the items in the inner sanctuary, we are told that Solomon made ten tables, five for the South and five for the North (Second Chronicles 4.8). What were these tables for?

Later, Ezekiel is given plans for an ideal Temple that is close enough to Solomon’s to answer our question: “And in the vestibule of the gate were two tables on either side, on which the burnt offering and the sin offering and the guilt offering were to be slaughtered” (Ezekiel 40.8). When one looks at Leviticus 1-6, this is confirmed. No animal ever died on the Tabernacle altar.

In fact, the altar was never the place of appeasing God’s wrath through a death. Rather, one needed blood that had already been shed to sprinkle on the altar in order to have the right to approach the altar. The altar was not the place of God’s wrath but a holy place one could approach only after God’s wrath was placated. The propitiation was made by the offerer slaughtering his representative animal so that the Levite could then show God this had happened by putting blood on the altar. At that point the animal was allowed to ascend into God’s presence. In some cases the animal was to be partially eaten by the Levite and even the offerer. It was not unclean or unholy. There is nothing to indicate that it represented sin on the altar.

Weirdly, this indicates that the cross was not an altar but a table. After Jesus died and was buried we see the tomb described in Temple imagery. One holds back while another enters first. Two angels sit at either side of a resting place with linen garments beside them. From there Jesus, the sacrifice, rises up and (with a disanalogous forty days) ascends in a cloud to God like smoke from a fire.

So why is it considered so wrong to speak of the Table of the Lord’s Supper as an altar? Granted, the word may play into doctrinal and practical errors, but calling the Lord’s Supper a “table” is actually no less prone to those sorts of mistakes than is an altar. If some tradition wants to refer to it as an altar, I certainly don’t think we should act like the term alone must be corrected as some sort of misunderstanding of the Bible.

Of course, the real altar, like the real Temple, would not be architecture, but people.

Clark’s case

Among other problems in Clark’s lecture, he insists that Romans 2.27-29 is somehow a blanket condemnation of his targets:

Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

The problem here is that a great deal of material is being driven through this verse. There is an entire Western philosophical/theological tradition of speaking of “the external world,” over against one’s “internal” self. None of this can be proven from Paul’s passage in Romans. Paul says what everyone believes: that some in covenant do not believe and will not inherit the promises (actually, he says that some don’t “keep the law,” but that’s for another day). Some are sincere believers and others are not and only sincere believers are really God’s people in an ultimate sense.

Paul goes on to write of these outward Jews:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Romans 10.4, 5).

Paul goes on to point out that only the elect will actually benefit savingly from these things–which are, by God’s sovereign grace, those and only those who actually trust God as father, glory in the cross, identify themselves according to their true covenant identity (rather than pervert it and reject Christ because he reveals the perversion), worship God in spirit and in truth, believe and hope in God’s promises, and confess Jesus is the Christ. But he doesn’t deny they are in the covenant. What he denies is that they are predestined to final glory. To deny that they have the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and the Christ would not be to affirm God’s sovereign grace but to deny their guilt in refusing these gifts.

This is precisely what Paul says to the Christian readers, not to think they are beyond such possibilities, but to take them to heart and not sin as these Israelites did:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree (Romans 11.17-24).

Here, suddenly, in the new metaphor, the Gentiles are the relatively superficial covenant members and the Jews are the more deeply natural ones, though they have been cut off. Of course, Paul is speaking metaphorically, but his statement in Romans 2 is no less metaphorical. To claim that “inward” and “outward” are metaphysical entities is itself an assumption brought to the text rather than taken from it.

The point is that we must assure present professing believers of God’s love and also warn them against unbelief without undermining their present trust in God’s acts of love toward them–acts including baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the declarations of forgiveness from a minister of the Gospel, and instruction in God’s word (which are only given to disciples and thus always reaffirm one’s standing in grace no matter how convicting). Head for head, baptism admits all believers into the institutional Church which is the house and family of God outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. We are thus to asssure all baptize professing believers that “because God is the Lord, and our God, and redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments” (WSC #44) for God “is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom” (WLC #101).

No one in this brawl–no one–denies a distinction between special grace and common grace. All teach and preach that those who are predestined to glory are given the faith that causes them to inherit glory and only they do so inherit. Rather, they point out that the distinction between these two groups is found in how they respond to real (albeit common between them) grace. They have all be grafted in the tree, made branches in the vine (John 15.1ff), made members of one body (1 Cor 12.12, 13, 27). They should trust in God to fulfill the promises made to all members of his body and tremble at the thought of rejecting these promises in unbelief.

The church as Charlie’s Angel?

More on the woman warrior.

Here’s the typical scenario: a woman or women do amazing heroic feats under the direction of a male (in the case of the title above he’s even disembodied). Whether its the Powerpuff girls, Buffy (most seasons), Max (working for Eyes Only) or Sidney Bristow it is always the same pattern. (Witchblade was different, but it didn’t last on the air.)

So, is this wrong? Don’t we know a husband who left the bride to take her sword go on a mission?


Why do liturgical churches practice kneeling at the table for the Eucharist?

Kneeling at the Table is defended by virtue of the Real Presence. But why should this matter? If God invites us to sit and relax in his presence, it is a strange form of devotion that says we must disobey him in order to be properly humble and pious. Did the disciples kneel or sit or stand for the Last Supper? They reclined on couches as they did for every meal.

And that’s the point. They were really eating a meal. They weren’t performing a special ritual in the sense that we think about. The ritual was an ordinary meal. Paul told the Corinthians that they could partake with just bread and wine and not the rest of the regular meal, but the fact remains that the Lord’s Supper is a supper.

Jesus didn’t demand that his disciples wait on him at the Supper. He didn’t demand they kneel. He elevated them by eating with them and even serving them.

In the OT, kings had cupbearers to serve them wine. Yet instead of a ritual in which we somehow give wine to Jesus, ministers serve the people in his name and stead. If we no longer recline, so be it. We should, however, assume whatever posture is really appropriate for a meal!

What I want to argue–though I’m not sure how–is the rhetoric of “real presence” and “incarnation” masks a truly Gnostic and perhaps Docetic impulse. The Church seems to be at war with the idea that God would actually condescend to use a mere meal as a means of grace. Instead we make it into this strange, meditative rite in which one is really just in prayer and grace is inserted while one maintains this devotional posture. One sees the same thing in low-church congregations when the participants have time to hold the elements and hunch over them in prayer, almost going into the fetal position, bodily denying the community that has gathered with them.

Far from affirming the “real presence” or the “incarnation,” crippling the actual meal that we have been given only turns it all into an abstraction. Jesus has invited you over to eat with him. That is not the time to be on your knees.