Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What Makes A Just Man?

Matthew 1:18-19
"18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."

The way we often conceive of justice and righteousness in the Bible might cause us to pause at the description of Joseph as he deliberates about arrangements for dealing with his problem. Shouldn't it rather be, "Joseph, being a merciful man..."? Isn't Joseph within his rights to make noise about this? And to be unwilling to do so would not be because he is just, but because he is merciful.

We can tend to think of justice and mercy like oil and water, not exactly opposites, but where one is the other must give way. Or we think of them as credits and debits where a credit may be extended but the balance will come due at some letter point, in someone's account. A quick google search on the subject yields many results where this antithetical understanding of justice and mercy are described.

But is that the picture we get from the Bible? Are justice and mercy a yin and yang that must be balanced? Or are they related in some other way?

Here are a selection of verses to ponder on this subject.  And for ourselves, what makes us those who would be characterized as "just"?

Job 37:23
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.

Psalm 33:5
The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

Psalm 36:6
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord.

Psalm 71:2
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me, and save me!

Psalm 72:2-3
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!

Psalm 89:14
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

Psalm 112:9
He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever;
his horn is exalted in honor.

Psalm 143:1, 11
A Psalm of David.
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!

For your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!

Isaiah 1:17
Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 30:18
Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!

Micah 6:8
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Zechariah 7:9
"This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ecclesiology & Hermeneutics

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity. 
- The Second Coming by William Butler Yeates
Recently the blogosphere, facebook, and twitterverse have all been abuzz with thoughts on the new book by Rachel Held Evans entitled A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It didn't take long for folks like Desiring God Ministries and The Gospel Coalition to post their critical reviews. Already we're seeing push-back to these early reviews from others such as this response from The American Jesus. I'm not really interested in going into any of the details of the book. While I don't particularly like the gimmicky approach to the book and the fact that it is sort of set up to ridicule a certain stereotype, I do appreciate the opportunity it provides to reflect a little on the Biblical interpretation and the Church.

G.K. Chesterton once described America as a "nation with the soul of a church." This seemed right for a nation whose culture had been so profoundly shaped by two populist, evangelical "awakenings" in the 18th & 19th centuries.  But while "soul" can refer to that invisible and incorruptible feature of one's identity; "soul" can also mean something more like "ghost."  And while Chesterton certainly meant it in its former sense, I suspect that today the latter sense prevails. Not unlike Flannery O'Conner's description of the South as "Christ-haunted" rather than "Christ-centered."

One thing the awakenings did for Americans was to solidify an ecclesiastical conscience. Regardless of how many people actually attended church on a regular basis, most people considered themselves to be Christian and most people recognized many Christian teachings as normative for a decent and civil society.  In other words, for most Americans the phrase "the Christian thing to do" was equivalent to the phrase "the right thing to do." In spite of this hegemonic "Christian" conscience, the Christian churches in American remained increasingly decentralized. One could perhaps argue that this conscience provided a surrogate ecclesiastical unity that incentivised continued disunity among the churches. Even the Roman Catholic Church in America is considered merely one denomination among many. This hegemonic conscience provided the unifying and normalizing power typically found in a church tradition.

The upshot of today is that this general Christian conscience in America has largely evaporated. What is left is an American form of Christianity that lacks the ability to sustain a common narrative and hence, has no power to provide the unity that once existed. One victim of this disunity is the inability to read the Bible together. It is noteworthy that the reviews more critical to Evans' book focus in on the misapplication of interpretive "principles." In the absence of a church's normalizing authority, critics seek out an "objective" set of principles to which everyone can adhere. The problem with this, as Alasdair McIntyre has so convincingly pointed out, there simply is no rationality and hence no objective principles absent of some tradition. Isaiah 1:18 begins famously with the call to "Come, let us reason together." Without a greater sense of unity, there will be no common sense of rationality.

So for me, Evans' book should not be dismissed too quickly. Oh, I don't suggest following her gimmicks nor do I encourage people to take pleasure in the ridicule of others. But it is a worthy example of the tremendous problem we face as American Christians.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lord Willing

Women's Bible Study Fallout...

4:13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

At first glance James 4:13-17 seems straightforward - don't make any statements about the future without acknowledging the sovereignty of God over your own.  And perhaps that is all there is to it.  It is appropriate, after all, to be one who is rightly oriented in such a way.  But the context of James suggests that there is more to it than that.  In fact, this portion of James seems very out of place with the rest of James if we take it on this first glance face value.

I see the big questions about these verses being, "Is the quotation James makes literal or figurative? and if figurative, what of?"  And the question associated with it, "who is James talking to?"

If the answer is literal (which it may be) then we might say James is using the clear allusions to wisdom literature in verse 14 as self-permission to abruptly change subjects and include a disconnected proverb to his letter.  His audience would be tradesmen or merchants, or more likely, tradesmen as the example for all people of all occupations and endeavors.  It is hard for me to see how it makes sense for James to do this, especially when he calls it evil boasting in 16.  But maybe that is my problem and I need to get over it.

If the answer is figurative then who is the audience and what is it about?  I am going to suggest that James is continuing to speak to the same audience he has been speaking to.  Up to this point in James's letter the audience has been the early persecuted church, scattered from Jerusalem.  And it is particularly directed at the zealous leaders of the church, inwardly contentious, and violently engaged with its enemies, mimicking the satanic spirit of the communities around them (their Jewish persecutors, and Rome).  But apart from consistency and narrative flow are there other clues that would suggest that James is referring to this audience?  An old pastor of mine suggests a few clues.  If we are assuming figurative language are there other figurative references using tradesmen and/or economics?  Sure there are.  Several of the parables of Jesus are built upon economic imagery.  Revelation has a whole section in chapter 18 about merchants and trade and it is about the fall of the Temple and Jerusalem.  These uses suggest the tradesman have to do with those ordering the life of the church.  What about literal clues that the reference may be figurative?  Remember that Paul was a bi-vocational minister, as most probably were then.  He himself was a tent-maker or tradesman.  And the phrase in 13, "go into such and such a town" echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 10 when he sent out the disciples to go into the towns and preach the good news.  Using the image of tradesmen here as a reference to the same audience from the rest of James does not seem like such a stretch after all - the disciples ordering the life of the Kingdom (in this case disciples going about it all wrong).

If we continue with the idea that James is speaking to the audience he has been speaking to, and assume the language to be figurative, then it modifies how we understand this whole section.  Instead of general instruction to all about the sovereignty of God over the future, it speaks more directly to our character and action being in accordance to the will of the Lord. These are people who are leading the church in the same fanatical violence of her enemies are doing so against the will of the Lord.  To make plans to go forward in this spirit as if it is the way of true success is arrogant boasting in their own evil ways.  This is obvious enough and consistent with what James has already been saying.  Where it gets interesting is in what James proposes as the self-check.  He says, "you ought to say, "if the Lord wills...""  This is clever on James's part.  If you are doing something that is obviously not the will of the Lord, then it is hard to say, "if the Lord wills."  If I say to my friend, "Friend, lets rob that person over there after lunch." it would be weird if my friend replied, "I'll see you then, Lord willing."  Of course the Lord doesn't will that me and my friend rob a person after lunch.  We "know the right thing and fail to do it," and appealing to the will of the Lord helps reveal to us what we already know, that we are being false to the truth, boasting in our arrogance, attempting in vain to wrest control of the future for our own designs.

In our Bible study we talked about the habit of tacking on, "Lord willing" to all the plans we make.  While it may be good practice to do this kind of self-check to yourself, I don't think James is suggesting that we make this a public habit for our everyday practices.  Saying that you are going to visit your aunt this weekend, Lord willing, is not what James is talking about.  Of course it is not against the Lord's will that you visit your aunt.  This scenario is not one involving "knowing the right thing to do and failing to do it."  "Lord willing" is about our ethics.  Bowing to the sovereign will of God is more than an existential nod, it is about ethical allegiance.

Coincidentally, in college Bible study we were talking about how giving thanks for what we take to use functions in a similar way.  Adam, taking the apple, could not give thanks to God for it because he was outside of righteousness.  Thanking God for and apple God had not given him would have been non-sensical.  If he had tried to give thanks for it perhaps he would have been convicted enough to refrain from continuing.  To put that scenario into James's, Adam saying I will eat this apple, Lord willing, isn't about Adam recognizing that the future is in God's hands, it would be about reminding himself of the will of the Lord - TO NOT EAT IT.

Monday, June 4, 2012

At the Table

The Lord's Table can be a confusing place to be. It may seem an unhappy accident that the Lord would give us so little instruction about important things. But it is better to see this lack of info as being a deliberate act of providence. In his wisdom he has left it to his church to develop our theology of the table, hopefully in faithful dependence upon him and his word. It should not surprise us that there are many differences (small and great) from table to table. Most differences (if not all) come out of the good intentions of the people participating in it to do right by Christ and his church. And often times appreciating these differences can serve to benefit our collective understanding and participation in the ritual.  This post aims only at a narrow part of all that is involved with the table of the Lord - how we conceive of table fellowship. But hopefully it will be helpful in describing our good intentions at Redeemer to do right by Christ and his church in faithful accord with scripture, and also perhaps shed light on a few shortcomings we hope to navigate around.

The original supper was done at a normal table, around which were Jesus and his apostles. We can assume that the actual meal that preceded the ritual meal was like any other meal. An aspect that sets it apart is the context of political revolution. For Jesus, it was his last before his humiliation and death which was simultaneously the end of the old covenant creation, via the ultimate betrayal by regicide of the righteous king, and the bringing about of the new creation. For the disciples it was less understood, but still very much the meal before climactic political action. But if this actual meal is different than another meal between such a leader and his followers it is mostly only different in the dramatic amplitude. Here is Jesus and his friends and followers sharing a meal, getting nourishment and rest before a new day of mission. This is the context (in part) of that meal. The ritual meal that Jesus follows it up with is related to it. Jesus breaks bread, and shares his cup, inviting his followers to participate in a memorial meal that marks the work of atonement and victory Christ did (was about to do) on the cross, and the inauguration of the new covenant, a covenant with a victorious man bringing about peace and full fellowship between humanity and the Triune God.

In the diagram below I have included three ways in which we tend to conceive of the table fellowship we have in the memorial meal. The first one shows "we" as a collection of individuals engaged in one-to-one fellowship over the table with Christ. While it is certainly true that we as individuals have a one-to-one fellowship with our Lord I think the diagram shows that this way of conceiving of the table does not go far enough. The table shown looks more like a trysting place, a performance evaluation, or even an altar where we either sacrifice ourselves or re-sacrifice the Lord.


The second picture shows "we" as a collective engaging in a collective-to-one relationship at the table with Christ. While this seems to deal with the potential pietist/individualist problems of the first picture it ends up also taking what is good about the first one out of the picture. It is true that we, the church, collectively relate to Christ and do so at the table, but this particular way of conceiving of the meal falls short. A collective requires a representative mediator, like the high priest of the OT or the popes of Rome. This way of conceiving of the table creates needless distance.  The truth is we have that mediator in Christ, so the picture is flawed by having Christ apart from the collective. And we still have the problem of the approach to the table looking like the tryst/interview/altar approach from the other picture.

The 3rd picture, while imperfect, attempts to correct and collate the other two. In it we see that "we" as individuals in a collective are united to our covenant head, Christ, and in fellowship with him... "in him". But just as significant we see that we commune with the saints while we commune with Christ. Because of the success of Christ as man, and because of our union with him, humanity is brought in peace into the presence of the triune God as a people, where we participate in the ritual, as his people. And how we relate to each other at the table is deeply important. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul takes great pains to emphasize this importance to the Corinthian church. If Paul was referencing the diagram he'd rephrase things this way, "If you are not being Christ to each other during the meal in the relational arrows between yourselves then the arrows between you and Christ are not happening. What you are doing is non-sensical.  In fact, you are in danger of inviting serious judgement upon yourselves (individually and collectively) by the manner in which you commune with one another."

The third picture also has the advantage of looking like a meal. Here is a place where Christ gathers his people together in peace to relax together, to be nourished together, to look forward to the new day of mission together. The table is not a barrier between Christ and his people, or a barrier between persons. We have been buried and raised up in Christ, above the barrier of sin and death.  Christ and his table are beyond barriers.

What does that mean for us?  For those of us who were raised in the tradition that relates more to the first picture, it is not a bad thing to want some time with the host of the party.  But the host himself does not ignore the other guests, so if we are to be meal takers in his image we ought not fall into rudeness and ignore our brothers and sisters in Christ.  For those of us who are more in the second picture camp we ought to feel the freedom of approaching our host ourselves, as well as our brothers and sisters, instead of watching from a disengaged distance.  And for those of us who feel comfortable in the third picture, we ought to remember that 1 Corinthians 11, while emphasizing relating to others at the table, warns against the temptations that arise around a table.  The peace and freedom we have in Christ does not give us license to ignore our host and choose the brothers and sisters we fellowship with.  It is the Lord's table, after all.  And it is he and his character that we are participating in.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Bigger Picture to a Difficult Passage

If you find the warning passages in Hebrews to be a challenge, you're not alone. These verses (10:26-31) pull no punches and give the reader a serious warning about the high cost of walking away from Christ. It's important, however to see these verses as embedded into a larger section of the book of Hebrews. 

Hebrews 10:19-39 come immediately after a very long and extensive argument demonstrating not only the supremacy of Christ, but also the wonderful privilege we have in Christ. This argument begins in chapter 7:1 and is completed in 10:18. It is right after this that 10:19-39 come to us. It is important to see that they are composed of three parts that form a rhetorical whole:

1.      Exhortation grounded upon the confidence we have from the secure access to the father that has been achieved by the son. With this confident access Christians are to…
a.       Draw near in full assurance of faith
b.      Hold fast the confession of hope without wavering
c.       Stir up one another in love, good works, and fellowship

2.      Warning about deliberately sinning – or as we saw a sinful and willful rejection of the good news that has been hammered out in these previous chapters.
a.       There will not come another savior from God in which later you will find forgiveness.
b.      As we have seen the major temptation that this audience faces is to return to Judaism after having declared their loyalty to Christ. So the writer to the Hebrews reminds them that for laying aside the Law of Moses there was the penalty of death – How much more, he asks, for the one who spurned the Son of God and who profaned the blood of the covenant?
c.       He reminds them that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

3.      Encouragement in showing them the rewards of endurance in the present time.
a.       He calls them to endure by remembering their past experience of God’s presence in the midst of persecution.
b.      He calls them to remember that it is the Lord’s will that they endure the present trials.
c.       He calls them to look forward to the great reward that awaits them in the time to come.

This pattern of exhortation, warning, and encouragement all come together to form a single argument for the early church to boldly draw near to God, hold fast to him with endurance and to encourage one another that by faith their souls may be preserved.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Church Blog...Why?

Oh, I have no grand intentions to become some serial blogger or something worse.  Nevertheless, I thought it would be nice to have a place for George and me to occasionally post items that come up in our study or ministry experience that may be of interest to some.  It will hopefully provide a place for members and friends of Redeemer PCA here in Des Moines to find further material on various things discussed at church.

Finally, about the title. It comes from an early vision statement of RPC when she began her work in Des Moines. We believe it still captures the spirit of our mission. The Church as the Body of Christ is incarnationally directed toward the world in mission and it is only when Christians find themselves situated at the heart of the Church's life of liturgy, Word, sacrament, and prayer that they also find themselves at the heart of the world, ready for mission.