Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Kingdom of God

From The Reformation Study Bible, note to Luke 17:20-37 (p. 1638):
Jesus' answer to questions regarding the coming of the kingdom of God points to the dynamic character of that kingdom. In this passage, Jesus presents the kingdom both as present reality (v. 21) and as yet to be fully revealed (vv. 22-37). Jesus often presented the kingdom as a hidden and growing reality (Matt. 13:31-33), which is both present and future. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, the kingdom is already present (11:20), but the full reality of the kingdom is yet to be manifested (cf. 19:11). Christians are to pray for the full realization of God's kingdom (11:2). See theological note "The Kingdom of God."
Here is the theological note "The Kingdom of God":
The theme of the kingdom of God runs through both Testaments, focusing God's purpose for world history. In the Old Testament God declared that He would exercise His kingship (His sovereignty, Dan. 4:34, 35) by ruling over people's lives and circumstances through His chosen King, the Davidic Messiah (Is. 9:6, 7) in a golden age of blessing. This kingdom came with Jesus and is known wherever the lordship of Jesus is acknowledged. Jesus is enthroned in heaven as ruler over all things (Matt. 28:18; Col. 1:13), King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14; 19:16). The golden age of blessing is an era of salvation from sin and fellowship with God leading to a future state of complete joy in a reconstructed universe. The kingdom is present in its beginnings but future in its fullness; in one sense here already, but in the richest sense still to come (Luke 11:20; 16:16; 17:21; 22:16, 18, 29, 30).
The kingdom came bringing mercy but also judgment, just as John the Baptist, its forerunner, had said (Matt. 3:1-12). Those who received Jesus' word and put their destiny in His hands found mercy, while those who would not were judged.
The task of the church is to make the invisible kingdom visible through faithful Christian living and witness. The gospel of Christ is still the gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 4:23; 24:14; Acts 20:25; 28:23, 31), the good news of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The church makes its message credible by manifesting the reality of kingdom life.
The coming of the kingdom meant a new stage in God's redemptive program. All that was typical, temporary, and imperfect in the arrangements God made for Israel's communion with Him became things of the past. God's Israel, the seed of Abraham, was revealed as the company of believers in Jesus (Gal. 3:16, 26-29). The Spirit was poured out, and a new way of life became a reality for this world. A new internationalism of global church fellowship and global evangelism was born (Matt. 28:19, 20; Eph. 2:11-18; 3:6, 14, 15; Col. 1:18, 29; Rev. 5:9, 10; 7:9).

Saturday, December 27, 2014

WORLD update (December 2014)

Dec. 13
Back to the future of bad ideas: "Isaiah Berlin foresaw the danger of believing in an earthly paradise." One useful point is that toleration "as an overarching value has built-in limitations." One reason is that "[i]t doesn't work all the way up. At some point, intolerance must be exercised against those who refuse to tolerate." In addition, "[i]t is unstable in a closed system. With no outside arbiter to determine what may and may not be tolerated, whoever has the power fills that vacuum—and feels justified in breaking eggs to make the perfect omelet."

In layman's terms: "A pastor, lawyer, and author [Randy Singer] says fields of ministry aren't confined to church walls."

Where are they now?: Scroll down to read "[u]pdates from a dozen past Daniels of the Year." Previous winners include Stephen Meyer (2009), Makoto Fujimura (2005), Phillip Johnson (2003), Franklin Graham (2002), John Ashcroft (2001), and Ken Starr (1998; Baylor University president).

Dec. 27
Confirmed: "Scientists have confirmed that genetic material recovered in 2012 belongs to King Richard III, an English monarch who died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The discovery could have profound implications: DNA testing did not fully match the royal line, indicating marital infidelity likely occurred somewhere between the 14th and 15th centuries—which could cast doubt on the Tudor claim to the English throne. Professor Kevin Schurer, who worked on the project, told BBC News, 'We may have solved one historical puzzle, but in so doing, we opened up a whole new one.'"

Myth makers: "Scholars who doubt Jesus' existence follow standard conspiracy theory procedure."

Bitter tweets: "Two faiths collided last month on Twitter. Retired pitcher Curt Schilling, a professed Christian who vowed a decade ago never to hide his beliefs (see 'Never hide,' March 19, 2005), tweeted a series of comments critical of macro-evolution, including, 'Show me the fossils that became human' and 'Where are the fossils?'"

Terror and grace in 1914: "Fancy shaking hands with the enemy."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shakespeare and religion

In a chapter titled "Monster Ingratitude," Peter Leithart writes in Gratitude: An Intellectual History, "The anxieties of the age were represented dramatically in the plays of William Shakespeare" (114). At that point, Leithart inserts an endnote, which reads as follows (263-64n75, bolding mine):
Recent Shakespeare scholarship has emphasized not only his interest in contemporary Elizabethan politics but also the theological setting in which those political interest[s] have been developed. Debora Shuger writes, "[I]f it is not plausible to read Shakespeare's plays as Christian allegories, neither is it likely that the popular drama of a religiously saturated culture could, by a secular miracle, have extricated itself from the theocentric orientation informing the discourses of politics, gender, social order and history." Quoted in Jeffrey Knapp, Shakespeare's Tribe: Church, Theatre and Nation in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). In his 2002 Shakespeare's Tribe, Jeffrey Knapp argues that scholars do not go far enough. While they stress "the centrality of religion to the study of Renaissance drama," they accept part of the secular theater thesis they are opposing since they assume that "Renaissance playwrights [are] 'Christian' only cognitively or subliminally, rather than purposively and devotionally." Thus not even recent revisionist scholarship "allows the possibility that Renaissance plays may have been intended and received as contributions to the cause of true religion," nor have scholars considered the possibility that "Shakespeare and his contemporaries were capable of envisaging their profession itself—their acting and playwriting—as a kind of ministry." For his part, Knapp argues that "English theology and ecclesiology shaped the drama at a fundamental level, in helping to determine the conceptualization of the player and the playwright as professions, and of the theater as an institution; these self-images in turn disposed theater people toward the enacting of certain confirmatory plots, themes, and characters on stage; and thus religion had a crucial say in the creation of plays, in their content, and, by extension, in their presumed social effects." In short, "religion had a more direct role in the production of plays than as the deep structure of dramatized ideology; it provided the rationale and even motives for acting and playwrighting." Along similar lines, Julia Reinhard Lupton argues that Shakespeare's dramas "stage the sacramental marriage, civil divorce, and dangerous liaisons between politics and religion in the West, probing the intersection between the founding metaphors of divine sovereignty and modern forms of social organization based on the economic contracts of individuals. Shakespeare's plays, I suggest, are preoccupied by the strange cohabitation of the saint and the citizen" (Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005], 12).
For more quotes from this book, see here and here.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hell

From The Reformation Study Bible (the notes of which are being revised), p. 1580 (connected to Mark 9:43-48):
The New Testament views hell as the final abode of those condemned to eternal punishment at the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:41-46; Rev. 20:11-15). It is described as a place of fire and darkness (Jude 7, 13), of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), of destruction (2 Thess. 1:7-9; 2 Pet. 3:7; 1 Thess. 5:3) and torment (Rev. 20:10; Luke 16:23). These terms are probably symbolic rather than literal, but, if anything, the reality will be more terrible than the symbol. New Testament teaching about hell is meant to appall us and fill us with horror, persuading us that though heaven will be better than we could dream, so hell will be worse than we can imagine. These are the issues of eternity that must be realistically faced.
Hell is not so much the absence of God, as the consequences of His wrath and displeasure. God is like a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), and His righteous condemnation for defying Him and clinging to the sins He loathes will be experienced in hell (Rom. 2:6, 8, 9, 12). According to Scripture, hell is unending (Jude 13; Rev. 20:10). There is no biblical warrant for speculations about a "second chance" after death, or an annihilation of the ungodly at some stage.
Those in hell will realize that they have sentenced themselves to be there because they have loved darkness rather than light, refusing to have their Creator as their Lord. They preferred the self-indulgence of sin to self-denying righteousness, rejecting the God that made them (John 3:18-21; Rom. 1:18, 24, 26, 28, 32; 2:8; 2 Thess. 2:9-11). General revelation confronts everyone with a certain evidence of God, and from this standpoint hell has a basis in God's respect for human choice. All receive what they chose, either to be with God forever, or to be without Him. Those who are in hell will know, not only that for their doings they deserve their punishment, but that in their hearts they chose it.
The purpose of the Bible's teaching about hell is to make us turn with gratitude to the grace of Christ that saves us from it (Matt. 5:29, 30; 13:48-50). For this reason God's warning to us is merciful; He has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezek. 33:11).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Praise vs. Thanksgiving

From Peter Leithart's Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor UP, 245n49):
The Hebrew word for thanksgiving, todah, derives from the verb yadah, "praise," the root of the name Judah. Etymologically, the words for "praise" and "thanksgiving" are connected, and the verb form yadah is used regularly throughout the Hebrew Bible, translated as "thank," "praise," or "confess" depending on the context. The Psalms do not neatly divide into psalms of praise and psalms of thanksgiving, into psalms that celebrate Yahweh's character and attributes in themselves and psalms that celebrate Yahweh's acts on behalf of his people. Thanks and praise merge into one another in a theologically significant way, a sign that for Israel God's character is revealed in history and the world.
See here for another quote from the book.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Infant Baptism

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 38):
Baptizing the infant children of believers (sometimes called "paedobaptism"), in the belief that this accords with God's revealed will, has been the historic practice of most churches. However, the worldwide Baptist community, which includes distinguished Reformed thinkers, disputes this practice.
Baptists insist that membership in local congregations is only for those who have publicly professed a personal faith. The argument often includes the claim that Christ instituted baptism primarily as a public profession of faith, and that this profession is part of the definition of baptism, with the result that infant baptism is not really baptism at all. On this ground Baptist churches rebaptize persons baptized in infancy who have come to faith—from the Baptist standpoint they have never been baptized. Historic Reformed theology contests the view that only adult, believer's baptism is true baptism, and it rejects the exclusion of believers' children from the visible community of faith. These differences regarding the nature of the visible church form the background for all discussions of infant baptism.
The practice of infant baptism is neither prescribed nor forbidden in the New Testament, nor is it explicitly illustrated (though some argue that the New Testament practice of household baptisms probably included infants and small children). Rather, the scriptural case for baptizing believers' infants rests on the parallel  between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism as signs and seals of the covenant of grace (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11, 12), and on the claim that the principle of family solidarity in the covenant community (the church, as it is now called) was not affected by the transition from the "old" to the "new" form of God's covenant brought about by the coming of Christ. Infant children of believers have the status of covenant children and therefore should be baptized, just as Jewish male infants had previously been circumcised. The Old Testament precedent requires it and there are no divine instructions explicitly revoking this principle.
Further evidence that the principle of family solidarity continues in the New Testament period is found in 1 Cor. 7:14, where Paul notes that even the children of but one Christian parent are relationally and covenantally "holy" (that is, set apart to God together with the one Christian parent). So the principle of parent-child solidarity still stands, as Peter also indicated in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:39). And if infants are deemed members of the visible covenant community with their parent, it is fitting to give them the sign of covenant status and of their place in the covenant community; in fact, it would be unfitting for the church to withhold it. This fitness is demonstrated in that when circumcision was the sign of covenant status and community inclusion, God commanded it to be done (Gen. 17:9-14).
Against these arguments, Baptists allege that first, circumcision was primarily a sign of Jewish ethnic identity, so the parallel between it and Christian baptism is mistaken; second, that under the new covenant the requirement of personal faith before baptism is absolute; and third, that practices not explicitly recognized and approved in Scripture must not be brought into church life.
Certainly, all adult church members must profess faith personally before the church. Communions that baptize infants provide for this in confirmation or the equivalent. The Christian nurture of Baptist and paedobaptist children will be similar: They will be dedicated to God in infancy, either by baptism or by a rite of dedication; they will be brought up to live for the Lord and led to the point of publicly professing faith, in confirmation or baptism. After this they will enjoy full communicant status. The ongoing debate is not about nurture, but about God's way of defining the church.
It is sometimes said that infant baptism leads to a false presumption that the rite itself guarantees the child's salvation. In the absence of biblical instruction on its meaning, this unfortunate misconception is possible. But it should be remembered that such a misunderstanding is equally possible in the case of adult, believer's baptism. See the warning in "Baptism" at Rom. 6:3 [p. 1776].

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Legalism

From The Reformation Study Bible (p. 1544):
The New Testament views Christian obedience as the practice of "good works." Christians are to be "rich in good works" (1 Tim. 6:18; cf. Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10; 2 Tim. 3:17; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14). A good deed is one done according to the right standard, God's revealed will; from a right motive, love for God and others; and with a right purpose, the glory of God.
Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce good works in this sense. It skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as ways to earn God's favor. It can be arrogant and contemptuous of those who do not labor in the same way. Finally, legalism's self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and compassion out of the heart.
In the New Testament we meet different kinds of legalism. Legalists among the Pharisees thought that because they were descended from Abraham they were guaranteed approval by God, while paradoxically they formalized daily observance of the law, down to the minutest details, as the rule of life. In doing so they avoided what the law truly required. Judaizers were legalists who taught Christian believers that they must go on to become Jews by being circumcised and observing the religious calendar and ritual laws, and in this way gain favor with God. Jesus attacked the legalism of the Pharisees; Paul, the Judaizers.
The Pharisees that opposed Jesus thought of themselves as faithful keepers of the Mosaic law. Yet in emphasizing minor details they neglected what matters most (Matt. 23:23, 24). Their elaborate and misguided interpretations of the law denied its true spirit and aim (Matt. 15:3-9; 23:16-24). They substituted human tradition for God's authoritative law, binding consciences where God had left them free (Mark 2:16-3:6; 7:1-8). At heart they were hypocritical, seeking human approval for themselves and condemning others (Luke 20:45-47; Matt. 6:1-8; 23:2-7).
The Judaizers opposed by Paul added to the gospel requirements for salvation that obscured and denied the all-sufficiency of Christ (Gal. 3:1-3; 4:21; 5:2-6). The idea that there must be additional requirements to perfect the gospel was the root of their error. Paul opposed this idea no matter who advanced it (Col. 2:8-23), because it corrupted the way of salvation. Like Jesus, he would not tolerate those who brought new burdens to lay on the sheep.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Apologetics in a Secular Age

Trevin Wax has a helpful interview with James K.A. Smith about Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, a book which I have written about briefly here and here. A very useful point is that people's imaginations need to be captured, not just their intellects. Here Hal Bush reviews Smith's book How (Not) To Be Secular, and he also acknowledges the importance of the imagination.

However, one problem with rightly addressing the power of the imagination to change hearts is that sometimes the imagination is overemphasized to the exclusion of the intellect. At one point in the interview, Smith says,
In a secular age, Josh McDowell and William Lane Craig are not really going to pierce the imaginaries in which many people are ensconced. We would do better to give friends a copy of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, or get them to watch the HBO documentary, God Is the Bigger Elvis.
Smith's comment, admittedly not in the context of his broader work, sounds as if rational apologetics are generally useless for people "ensconced in imaginaries." And while this may be true, it's possible for some people to read this statement as a broad dismissal of apologetics. This interpretation of Smith's comment is a misreading, but without an explanation, it's possible that some Christians might come away thinking that they shouldn't read apologetics, but they should read un-apologetics.

Somewhere Doug Wilson says that apologetics is primarily a defense, not exclusively an evangelism tactic. Wilson isn't the first one to point this out, but when he was discussing this issue, he mentioned Acts 18:24-28, in which Apollos was an encouragement and a help to believers because of his public debates with Jewish opponents.

Work by apologists is not to be dismissed, even if it's true that unbelievers today are not as likely to be converted because of rational argumentation. The work of apologists is extremely valuable to the communion of saints, who benefit from being reminded that their faith is not an irrational one.

Update: Smith says that "these issues are addressed in both Imagining the Kingdom and How (Not) To Be Secular." He adds that it's "good to remember that when an interview is regarding a book, one can assume that there's more in the book than in the interview." So read the book!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

WORLD update (November 2014)

Nov. 1
A test of true diversity: "A controversy over discrimination is coming to an institution near and dear to you," just as it has come to Gordon College. See here for more on the issue ("Religious colleges face a new threat over their sexual policies").

Poet perspective: "Christians and Shakespeare: Blame him or claim him?" Too bad to see that this is even a question. Marvin Olasky reviews Leland Ryken's book on Hamlet. Also in this section are books by John Frame (Selected Shorter Writings) and James Sire (Apologetics Beyond Reason and Echoes of a Voice).

Boys wrestling girls: Reminds me of this 2009 column.

Spotlight: Scroll down to read the Spotlight about Paul Gosselin's Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West.

Ad: "Reformation Network, the always-on streaming radio station, features biblical preaching and teaching, Scripture, news, audiobooks, music and more."

Nov. 15
Sent packing: "Some campus ministries adapt—and even grow—as they lose their homes."

Who is confined?: "Those who attack Christianity do so from an unenviable place."

Vikings: Olasky provides a one-paragraph review of a book on Vikings, and he says, "It's too bad that [the author] assumes Scandinavia's semi-embrace of Christianity came about through power politics rather than any changes of heart."

Notable books: Books reviewed include Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, Mike Cosper's The Stories We Tell, Dennis Jernigan's Sing Over Me, and Witt and Richards's The Hobbit Party.

The new photos: "Our inclination to cling to visuals of the past says much about our heart's condition."

Nothing but Him: "Resting in God's grace at Thanksgiving."

Nov. 29
International Day of the Bible: "The National Bible Association, YouVersion, BibleGateway.com, and the American Bible Society are promoting Nov. 24 as the first International Day of the Bible, in hopes of persuading people to devote a portion of their day to reading the Bible. The groups hope organizations will post Scripture online or have someone read it aloud at noon without commentary."

Happy Days of Despair: "What can keep good times from becoming banal and empty?"
Ingratitude is preliminary to going astray—see Romans 1:21. It's the wellspring of human depravity since the beginning of time, but our present-day ingratitude may have taken root during the 1950s, when we thanked ourselves for our new prosperity instead of God. Then wondered why worshipping that pale plaster idol felt so banal.
In his introduction to a new essay collection called The Seven Deadly Virtues, editor Jonathan Last quotes Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others." It is gratitude, Last goes on to say, "that allows us to appreciate what is good, what should be defended and cultivated."
If any particular noise defines our age, it is complaint—the thin, sour tone we use to describe social trends, genetically enhanced foods, movie remakes, and (above all) government. Given that there's plenty to complain about this Thanksgiving, there's at least as much to celebrate—not in a perfunctory "I'm grateful for" ceremony around the table, but in countless deliberate choices to look to God's fullness instead of our emptiness. Maybe we can just be happy.
Interpretive dance: "The BioLogos Foundation is making a major, well-funded push to change the way Christians read Genesis and think about Adam and Eve." According to Stephen Meyer, "BioLogos leaders are using 'an unsubstantiated and controversial claim to urge pastors and theologians to jettison a straightforward reading of Genesis about the human race arising from one man and one woman. They think "the science" requires such a reinterpretation, but apart from speculative models that make numerous question-begging assumptions, the science does no such thing.'"
Denis Alexander: Adam and Eve lived long after the first homo sapiens, and were "people whom God assigned as the founders of his new spiritual family on earth. The model therefore envisages Adam and Eve as the Homo divinus—the first human beings to truly know God and walk in fellowship with Him."
Stephen Meyer: Alexander's claim "is not based on evidence, but on a speculative field called theoretical population genetics, [which] assumes but does not establish that humans and lower primates share a common ancestor and that all gene differences between humans and other primates are the result of random mutations."
Taking a stand: "If it comes to breaking civil law, American Christians will have company."
Not long ago a sweet woman in my state of Pennsylvania was fired from a low-level college administrative job for speaking innocently of Jesus and sharing her thoughts on marriage in a conversation initiated by a colleague. I wrote about her case for the magazine, and the woman really believed that as a result of that public exposure she would receive justice and be reinstated in her place of employment. What the Christian world will have to come to terms with in the future is that it’s OK to take a stand for Christ, as long as you don’t think it will necessarily improve your life. The Western Christian world, I mean. The Middle Eastern fold already gets that.