Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Paul Tillich: Systematic Theology

This is the final installment of my Paul Tillich mini-series. I have another series just about ready to go, so stay tuned!

Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Pages 97-150.

Following a treatment of “Existence” wherein he elucidated the context into which salvation must come, Tillich turns to Christology proper in his section entitled, “The Reality of the Christ.”

The first of three sub-divisions in this section deals with “Jesus as The Christ.” Tillich seems to be concerned with understanding the interplay between faith and history. He seems to argue both that denial of Jesus historical existence is denial of Christianity, (cf. 107) and that the simple fact of Jesus’ historical existence does not make him the Christ. Only the reception of him as such makes him the Christ. Without this reception, “[h]e could then have been a prophetic anticipation of the New Being, but not the final manifestation of the New Being itself” (99). Tillich further cautions us about the dangers of interpreting literally the biblical symbols used to communicate the significance of Jesus as the Christ (cf. 107-113).

“The New Being in Jesus as The Christ” is the second sub-division. Tillich’s concern is to describe the New Being in Jesus the Christ, which he defines as, “the undistorted manifestation of essential being within and under the conditions of existence,” (119) and what has been overcome in Jesus’ inauguration of the New Being as the Christ. This inauguration was accomplished by Jesus’ participation in all the aspects of finite humanity just as any other human being, but in his life alone were the tensions between the existential polarities of human existence held in balanced tension (cf. 127). The significance of the establishment of the New Being in Christ is that we are may participate in the New Being, though only “fragmentarily and by anticipation” (118).

Finally, the third subsection is entitled, “The Valuation of the Christological Dogma.” Here Tillich undertakes an engagement with the Christological doctrine of the early church. His modus operandi is to first affirm that these councils preserved Christology, and to then criticize the councils for what he sees them giving away to the Hellenistic context (cf. 145). Tillich seeks to free Christology from “a confusion of its conceptual form with its substance” (142), and intimates that “theology must try to find new forms in which the Christological substance of the past can be expressed” (145). It is as though Tillich were saying that the early church experienced Jesus as the Christ and interpreted this in the language and symbols available. Further, we must now move beyond this contextual language and superstitious symbols to understand what is the true substance of this event.

Tillich’s understanding of Christology is an appealing one. It offers a systematic interpretation of who Jesus was, what he accomplished and why it is important. This interpretation does not draw on what many see as the “overused” language of Christianity’s theological tradition. Instead, it uses terms that make more contemporary sense. Working from a more traditionally “orthodox” understanding, it might be tempting to press Tillich at his most obviously weak point, namely, his assertion that “the Christ” could have had a name other than “Jesus of Nazareth” (114). But this would be to play into Tillich’s hands. He would quickly point with great erudition to the superiority of the historical-critical approach to the biblical text and, finding himself resisted staunchly here, he might retort that the Old Testament provides no reason to expect the name “Jesus.” No, the battle is with his use of language.

Tillich reacts against what he understands as superstition, literalism and supernaturalism – things that the historical-critical methods have banished (cf. 108-10). He approaches the language of the biblical text as “symbols,” which he understands as “expresses of…self-interpretation” (109). However, this is a false dichotomy.* By understanding the biblical language as symbols used to communicate experiential understanding, Tillich has separated this language from what a “common-sense” approach might call concrete reality. Yet, understanding the language as simply literal is problematic as well. By working in a strictly literal manner, we bind our understanding of the transcendent hopelessly to the material, created order – an order which God created and thus infinitely exceeds. A middle way is offered to us by the concept of analogy. For instance, we may speak of God as “Father.” But, if we limit our understanding of God as Father to our experience with human fathers, we have a distorted understanding of God. In truth, God is like human fathers, but God is also far beyond human fathers in that our understanding of a human father should be judged by the revelation of God as Father.**

*[In what follows I am very dependent upon George Hunsinger’s work entitled, “Beyond Literalism and Expressivism: Karl Barth’s Hermeneutical Realism” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)]

** [Tillich’s view of language is inescapably tied up with his understanding of the biblical text. The biblical texts are to him merely human expressions of the significance of the even of Jesus and his work as the Christ to usher in the New Being. However, the Church has long affirmed that the Scriptures are something more, something revelatory and in some sense given by God. Simply accepting the God-given nature of revelation does not guarantee that one will reject Tillich’s symbolic expressivism, but it is a prerequisite for understanding the biblical text in literalist or analogical terms.]

Monday, August 28, 2006


-> Link 1

A few days ago I was made aware of an initiative by a group of evangelical theologians entitled, “A Call to and Ancient Evangelical Future.” The document is available over at Christianity Today and CT also offers links to other aspects of this initiative, such as a list of those who have attached their name (although, when I tried to check this list, it wasn’t available), the means to affix one’s own name, etc. It is worth knowing that this kind of thing is floating around. It was organized by the likes of Bob Webber and Kevin Vanhoozer. CT did an interview with the former that may be accessed here.

I recently did work on similarities between Vanhoozer’s recently published book entitled The Drama of Doctrine and George Lindbeck’s groundbreaking study in The Nature of Doctrine, and it was interesting to see how some of the themes that I engaged in these two authors are involved in this initiative as well. But, enough said.

-> Link 2

My friend and colleague David recently posed an extended discussion of the doctrine of Scripture in conversation with the doctrinal commitments of American evangelicalism on the same topic. His discussion is available here. While I cannot fully endorse David’s conclusions on this matter, he has done a fine job of indicating many aspects of what is at stake in the doctrine of Scripture.

-> Template Changes

If you look closely at the right-hand frame, you will notice two new sections of links. The first, “Post Serials,” provides links to index pages for the different post categories. The second, “Favorite Posts,” provides links back to some of the more important posts, which I have chosen based on my own preference and my site statistics. Both of these sets of links will grow with time.

-> Peter Martyr Vermigli Update

I have finished Vermigli’s Treatise on the Sacrament of the Eucharist. You can read my preliminary comments on this essay here. In that previous post I briefly discussed 4 points, which I will now briefly rehash after having read the entirety of the treatise.

(1) Throughout the treatise Vermigli advocates a position very similar to that of Calvin without making any direct references to Calvin. This latter point is not surprising, since in 1549 when the treatise was written, Calvin was still consolidating his position in Geneva and had not yet reached the stature of influence that many associate with him today. Nonetheless, I do think that Calvin’s and Vermigli’s positions are quite similar, although Calvin has a number of unique ways of approaching it that I did not find in Vermigli (the emphasis on the sursum corda and the imagery of our souls being lifted into heaven, for instance, is important for Calvin – if I remember correctly, Vermigli alludes to this idea and says that he has no quarrel with it).

(2 & 4) The Holy Spirit remains the actor in the Lord’s Supper for Vermigli, but he continues to stress that only the presence and exercise of faith on the part of the Christian makes the sacrament efficacious. About this I have some misgivings, although it is central to the opinions of all the Reformers with which I am familiar.

(3) Vermilgi’s discussion of the social impact of the Supper sharply declined as the work went on.

Concluding remarks: This treatise is very interesting in that it has introduced me to a part of the Eucharistic controversy with which I have not yet been acquainted. Vermigli was most helpful to me in his discussions of various kinds of unions of the believer with Christ (found in the latter sections of the treatise). It is a shame that Vermigli devoted nearly half of the treatise to the issue of transubstantiation and to the elucidation of patristic sources in arguing against transubstantiation. But, for those of you who like a well turned argument, Vermigli’s wit is peppered throughout these discussions.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Something Like an Apology

To everyone who has left comments here and been mystified as to why they have never made their way into view, I offer my apologies. Suffice it to say that I had some of my settings improperly “set,” as it were. You will find that your comments are now available, and I do hope that you will leave more in the future as I greatly enjoyed reading them.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What Am I Reading? John Webster

John B. Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (Eerdmans, 1998). You can buy a newer paperback version from Amazon here.

John Webster delivers in this volume another instance of the kind of penetrating theological exposition that is to be expected from one of the foremost systematic theologians of the world today. I am not currently in the mood to provide any thing like an extensive review of this volume, but I will go so far as to heartily recommend it to any who are interested in theological ethics or Karl Barth studies. The reason I do not recommend it to a wider audience is because the material content of the volume, though wonderful diverse in some respects, is ultimately quite narrow. Those who are simply interested in questions of the relation of God’s agency and human agency, or who want to know “what Barth’s understanding” of this question is, would do well to look elsewhere as each chapter here provides answers to these questions. While these answers are always embedded in other interesting material, the more casual reader could develop a sense of tedium and redundancy. But, this in no way lessens the mastery of the essays contained in this volume and it is certainly a must read for serious scholars of these topics.


On a related topic, those of you (if ‘you’ exist) who have been waiting patiently over the past month to hear what my final take on Peter Martyr Vermigli’s treatise on the Lord’s Supper will be – I must offer an apology. Other project pushed this reading from my mind, and I have yet to find suitable opportunity to return to it. Two other books must be read before I again take up Vermigli, but the good news is that I hope to have read them both by the coming weekend, and then Vermigli is once again in a place of ascendancy on my docket.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Spreading the Word: Boyd and Warren

I found out about this thought-provoking segment over at GOTT. It is very interesting indeed, and I recommend it highly. These two men, Rich Warren and Greg Boyd, seem to me to represent two different streams of neo-evangelicalism, and seeing them handle themselves on camera and speak somewhat ad hoc is an enlightening exercise. Check it out.

Rich Warren and Greg Boyd on Charlie Rose

A Few Comments

Warren - It is a shame that, while Warren has developed a humanitarian concern, he has yet to leave behind a "Jesus as my meal ticket to heaven" mentality. I enjoyed when Charlie kept sticking it to Warren and trying to get Warren to say that only Christians will go to heaven. I saw Larry King do something similar to Joel Osteen. In all fairness, I probably shouldn't enjoy watching these evangelical figureheads squirm as much as I do, but it is one of my vices. Also, Warren's discussion of a "New Reformation" and the view of doctrine that he reveals here is also interesting. Warren's penchant for throwing around buzzwords is also illuminating.

Boyd - I found Boyd to be far more interesting than Warren, if only because he seems to be more interested in making situations more complex, whereas Warren seems to like to simplify them. But, Charlie did a good job pushing Boyd. He pushes Boyd on issues and ask whether Christian beliefs should form Christian's opinions on issues, etc, and tries to imply how that is an inherently political thing. Boyd seems to be primarily interested in taking the "Christian" card away from politicisns, in that he wants to help Christians see how their beliefs are being preyed upon by politicians. Boyd is also clearly not from the tradition of the Magisterial reformers.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Paul Tillich: Systematic Theology

The mini-series continues...


Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 106-137

In his discussion of the nature and means of revelation, Tillich focuses on the interrelated ideas of mystery, ecstasy, and sign-event. For Tillich, revelation is “the manifestation of something hidden which cannot be approached through ordinary ways of gaining knowledge” (108). Revelation makes the mystery knowable, though it does explain the mystery. The mystery remains mysterious, as it were. Ecstasy, then, “points to a state of mind which is extraordinary in the sense that the mind transcends its ordinary situation” (111-2). Thus, ecstasy is a supra-natural awareness of the mind enabled by the presence of the mystery. The sign-event is then the means of revelation, thought these are many and varied. It is the correlation of all the necessary components for revelation enabling the mystery to grasp the human awareness (cf. 117).

With the nature and means of revelation set forth, Tillich moves on to the content of revelation. Speaking about this content in a general sense, he calls revelation “the manifestation of the depth of reason and the ground of being. It points to the mystery of existence and to our ultimate concern” (ibid). Moving on to a Christian account of revelation, Tillich discusses Jesus as the “final” and thus “decisive” revelation (133). How are we to know this? “A revelation is final if it has the power of negating itself without losing itself” (ibid). Since all revelation is conditioned, it is necessary for the conditioned element to be negated and the elements of revelation to remain. Tillich understands this to have occurred in Jesus of Nazareth’s death on the cross, where the finite Jesus was negated without removing the infinite Christ (cf. 133-7).

There are multiple problems with this understanding of revelation. First, Tillich grounds revelation in the existential dilemma of finitude and death, namely, the human person’s ultimate concern. It is only within this category that he discusses revelation as something particular occurring by the power of the Christian God and located at the person of Jesus. During his general discussion of revelation, it is difficult to discern whether Tillich understands revelation to be intrinsically connected to the particulars of the Gospel, especially since he places pagan illustrations of revelation alongside of Christian and Jewish examples (cf. 124-5).

Second, and following from the first point, Tillich does very little to temper this universal ambiguity of revelation in his Christological discussion. In his discussion of the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, namely, that the finite is removed so that the infinite revelation might remain, Tillich states “this means that in following him we are liberated from the authority of everything finite in him, from his special traditions, from his individual piety, from his rather conditioned world-view, from any legalistic understanding of his ethics” (134). The effect of this statement is two-fold. First, it undermines the Christian faith by leaving it no more claim to truth than might be argued from the experience of ecstasy, in other words, we are only able to say that Christianity is true because it produces a greater number of opportunities for transcendental experiences. Second, it undermines the biblical text and any of Jesus’ teachings in the same manner. Thus, Christianity descends into existence as simply one more path leading to existential encounter with the ground of being (cf. 112).

Third, Tillich abandons the notion that the human person of Jesus is God. True, there is a “presence of God in him which makes him the Christ,” (135) but this presence is bestowed not intrinsic. Tillich goes so far as to state outright that, “Jesus became the Christ” (133, emphasis ours). This modification in the tradition understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God, namely that he is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, leads to important correlations in Tillich’s concept of salvation. Since Jesus becomes Christ (Messiah / Savior / final revelation) by virtue of his uninterrupted unity with the ground of his being (cf. 137), he becomes a “New Being” (cf. 136), which is the hope for humanity.

Fourth, while it is not explicit in this section, the only logical relationship between Tillich’s idea of the person of Jesus and this notion of his existence as “New Being” would push him to say that it is into this New Being, which by virtue of its unity with the ground of being transcends human finitude, is the existence into which the Christian faith saves us by the revelation of Jesus. Thus, for Tillich, the primary plight of humanity can be nothing other than the existential question of finitude and death, and the way that this is solved is not by God in Gods-self entering into the world, but for the human Jesus to exist in perfect union with the ground of being, in order that humanity might enter into that same union.

This is deficient.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

And now...

...for a moment of non-theological levity:


You know you are not Reformed if...

I very much enjoy posting wity things related to theology as they float through the theo-blogosphere. The latest to come to my attention is a Foxworthy-esque list entitled You Know That You Are Not Reformed If.... I highly recommend that you surf on over and take a look.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Choice Quotations: George Hunsinger on Karl Barth on the Trinity

From Disruptive Grace, “Mysterium Trinitatis: Karl Barth’s Conception of Eternity.” It is my privilege to endorse these quotations.

"Modalism…means that the trinitarian hypostases are merely manifestations of God in history, but not essential distinctions within the eternal Godhead itself. For Barth, however, the trinitarian hypostases, each of which is fully God, coexist in, with, and for one another eternally and essentially. Barth repeatedly states that the living God would have been an eternal communion of love and freedom between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, whether the world had been created or not. Nothing could be farther form modalism. “Social trinitarians”…who are usually the ones making this charge, might ask themselves whether they can do as much justice as Barth can to the clear biblical witness to God as a single acting subject who is the Lord. In any case, modalism can be charged against Barth only out of ignorance, incompetence, or (willful) misunderstanding." (191)

"The one God who posits himself as three is also the same God who posits himself as many. The three are his hypostases or concrete modes of existence; the many are his perfections. The many perfections of God confirm and glorify his oneness." (194)

"Barth separates himself from the venerable theological tradition that regards simplicity as more basic in God than multiplicity…Barth agrees with this tradition about simplicity, but disagrees about its exclusion of multiplicity as supposedly improper to God…The mystery of the Trinity at this point is precisely this, that because God’s being in its simplicity admits of no parts or degrees, each of the three divine hypostases, in simultaneity with the other two, is fully and perfectly God." (194-5)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Paul Tillich: Systematic Theology

I have recently noticed quite a few posts on Paul Tillich floating around the theo-blogsphere, although I don't precisely know why as this year does not mark any particularly important date in Tillich's life so far as I can tell. But, as one given to following the crowd when it serves my own purposes, I thought that I would put up some of my own content on Tillich. So, this is the first post of a 3-part mini-series. Enjoy! And if you can't enjoy, at least read...

Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Pages vii-viii, 3-34, 59-66

Throughout these sections, Tillich appears to be primarily concerned with prolegomena. Specifically, he is interested in discussing the proper object of theology, and delineating precisely what his method of correlation entails. These two foci will be discussed in turn.

First, what is the proper object of theology? This discussion is centered upon an attempt to determine what are the formal criteria for “theological enterprise” (11). The first criterion that Tillich elucidates is as follows: “The object of theology is what concerns us ultimately. Only those propositions are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of ultimate concern for us” (12). For Tillich, the notion of “ultimate concern” is linked closely to the existential condition of human persons, namely, the religious concern of humanity based by Tillich upon the requirements of the great commandment (11). The second criterion that Tillich lays out is as follows: “Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us” (14). The question of being and non-being gets to the heart of the matter. Humanity is concerned with the condition of the human person in relation to the infinite to which humanity belongs, from which it is separated, and to which it longs to return (ibid), namely, God.

In response to this, it must be asked whether there is anything distinctly Christian about this notion? Is it not simply an assertion that within every human person is a longing for the infinite, which we tend to define as God? What is distinctive about this God and this longing, except that Tillich references the great commandment of biblical fame?

Second, what is the method of correlation? The method of correlation attempts to relate the content of Christian faith to the questions of human existence (60). Thus, the theologian must be mindful of the “situation,” that is, the theologian must respond to the questions asked by humanity’s “creative self-interpretation” in the theologian’s contemporary period of history (4). This method has many benefits, because it properly seeks to relate the Christian faith to the theologian’s contexts, thus seeking to merge the kerygmatic and apologetic theological traditions (cf. 6-8). However, it might be argued that, while this method is helpful and proper, it misses a deeper point, namely, that it is God who speaks to the contemporary situation, not the theologian. When this understanding is layered beneath Tillich’s method of correlation, there appears to be greater possibility for the prophetic nature of the kerygma to be guided to the heart of the contemporary situation, for it is indeed God rather than the theologian who ultimately understands and speaks to the situation.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Does God Suffer?

Thomas G. Weinandy is here to answer the question for us. Actually, he isn't "here" per se, but over at First Things, with an article based on his book, Does God Suffer?

I have not read the book, but judging from the article it is definately worth my time to do so and this task has been added to my to-do list. As for the article, it is a very fine discussion of the question of whether ornot God is impassible, and precisely what is at stake in answering this question. In addition to my recommendation of this article to all those who are interested in this question, I should like to make two comments. First, it seems to me that Weinandy is too quick to lump T.F. Torrance and Karl Barth in with Jurgen Moltmann on this question. But, we can forgive him since he is only doing a quick overview in this article. Hopefully his book is a little more nuanced here. Second, I have not decided as to how far I can go with Weinandy on the specifically Christological sections of this article. I think we can be sure that this section is greatly extended in the book, and I look forward to examining that at a latter date.

That said, do check out this article.

Thanks to my buddy Shane for bringing this article to my attention.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Jason Ingalls: A Sermon on John 6

Jason Ingalls is a friend and colleague of mine from Princeton Theological Seminary, from which he graduated this past May. He is currently engaged in preparation for ministry with IVF. This sermon was preached on August 6th at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church in Montgomery New Jersey. I was present to hear this sermon. Although it is clearly addressed to a particular context, I believe that it is worth reproducing for the benefit of any who might take the time to read it. Please do.


I love movies with surprise endings, movies like Signs or the Sixth Sense. But those of you who share this love know the real problem with surprise-ending movies is that, after a while, they don’t surprise us anymore. Ok, ok, we say to ourselves, we know that he’s dead and that water kills the baddies. It’s right about then that I turn the DVD off and watch television.

Our passage today is something like that. I struggled to find a way to express it to you like a movie with a surprise ending, hiding the end until I could get to the end of the sermon and pull it out with a flare…but I am no M. Night Shyamalan! Besides, you know how the story ends: Jesus proclaims himself the bread of life and that whoever believes in him will never go hungry or thirsty. If we are to understand the surprise (and maybe experience it again ourselves), we are going to have to do some work.

The reason for surprises is false expectations, and the crowd in our story today had several. Let’s set the stage. If you look in v. 59 of John 6, you’ll see that Jesus says all of these things in the synagogue in Capernaum, and the beginning of this passage says his audience was the people who followed him across the sea after he had fed the five thousand, perhaps the same people who had tried to make him king by force. They have followed Jesus and sought to make him their leader, and he has already denied them. Tension hangs in the air as heaps of people cram into the bare room of the synagogue. Perhaps Jesus was just putting down the Scripture scroll when the people interjected (v. 25), “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Already there are expectations building—Jesus is to them a rabbi, a teacher, but not just any teacher, a miracle worker, and not just any miracle worker, a miracle worker like Moses.

And it is no wonder. As I said, Jesus has just fed 5,000 people with little more than a lunchbox full of food. So it is understandable that when in v. 27 Jesus tells the people to work for food that doesn’t get old and useless they find it a very appealing message. Some of them are probably thinking, “Maybe he didn’t want to be king, but maybe he’ll feed us and we’ll get what we want anyway.” The people that followed Jesus across that sea and had tried to make him king were probably farmers, probably people who knew what it meant to put in a good, hard day’s work in the fields. These people knew what it meant to work for food! The crowd that met Jesus looking for a leader probably showed all the signs of doing hard labor. Perhaps one man was sunburned; another had a long scar up his right arm. One man was missing an eye because he got on the wrong side of a Roman soldier one day. Another just wanted revenge. Some days, most days, it was all these people can do to hold their ship together, to put food on the table, to live a life worth living.

Look at verse 30-32 with me: “So they asked him, ‘What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written [and here they quote a Psalm]: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’.” The crowd quotes Scripture to Jesus. It’s a challenge. Moses had given them bread from heaven, they say. What will you do to prove who you are? They could not force him to be their king, but maybe they could get him to be their prophet. They would make Jesus their leader no matter what.

In the whole text we get this one expectation from the people—they want a leader. They want someone powerful who can feed them, who can lead them out of persecution, and who can give them what they desire: they want another Moses. You might ask what’s the problem with that? The problem is this: in their desire to make a leader of Jesus, they missed that their true leader and provider was God.

And, we have to admit, we are not too different ourselves. Montgomery Evangelical Free Church corporately and its members personally are in the midst of transition. Your pastor is gone, and you are seeking other leadership. Some days, most days, it is all you can do to hold this ship together. I can see the strain on your faces, especially at the end of a VBS week! Some of your faces have been sunburned, looking up into the sky trying to figure what it is that God is going to do next. Others of you have those long scars that show this whole process has hurt you. Others of you feel like you’re missing eyes since Dwight left, not really able to see. Others might be angry or resentful.

And I’m sure that many of you are yearning for a leader: someone who can feed you spiritually, someone who can lift the oppression of this interim time, someone who can be with you, pray for you, give you rest. You want a leader.

But how many of you have felt it? I know I felt it before I left. How many of you know the “if only?” If only we get a pastor who is a shepherd, we’ll be okay. If only we get an administrator, we’ll be okay. If only we can find the right person, we can avoid past problems and be delivered into a time of wonderment, peace, and satisfaction. We look for human, all-too-human, Saviors with our “if onlys.” If only, if only, if only…

They will kill us, these “if only’s,” especially if, like the Israelites, we start to look for someone other than God to be our Savior. We will shrivel and die like a vine cut off from the branch. In Christ, there is no “if only we get this person or that.” In Christ, it is already finished.

But, the people of Israel did not know this completion in Christ…according to our passage they could not even recognize the Hand that fed them in the wilderness. Quoting the psalms, they meant to make Moses their savior (“He [Moses] gave them bread from heaven to eat”). They wanted Jesus to play a similar role. Jesus rebuked them: “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father, who gives you the true bread from heaven.” The people wanted and needed leaders…but the problem was when their desire for a leader became the desire for an all-too-human Savior. That desire blinded them to the work of God. Jesus pointed out that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven, even now only God the Father gives the true bread from heaven.

False expectations lead to surprises in good movies, and the false expectation that Jesus would be a leader like Moses, the leader of a nation, set the crowd up for a real shocker. When Jesus rebuked them, he pointed out that in the present, it is the Father who gives the true bread from heaven. [Pause] But how can that be? Jesus already said in v. 27 that the Son of Man would give this food! Are there two givers, or just one? The people were hungry in their bellies; they wanted a leader to save them from Rome; they wanted security; so Jesus made it very clear that it was never Moses but God the Father who gave the manna from heaven, and it would be God the Father who would now give the true bread from heaven. Jesus continues in v. 33, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Not quite understanding, the people press on, “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘from now on give us this bread’.” They came here for food and leadership, after all, and they were going to get it.

And they got more than they bargained for. In response, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Can you imagine the shock rippling through the crowd at these words? Jesus himself is the bread of life that is given by God the Father and the Son of Man? If anyone is to come to the Father, they must eat of this bread? The rest of John 6 tells how these scary words led Jesus to lose all his disciples save the Twelve. They drive everyone looking for normal food away.

The people’s surprise and disappointment is that the Father gave Jesus as a leader to be followed, but instead of giving security and freedom, Jesus gave a cross and bondage to righteousness. The food the people wanted was not the food that God was offering. The work required of them was not the work they expected. They wanted a king and a revolution. Jesus offered a servant and peace. The work they had to do was actually no work at all.

Doing the work of God, Jesus said in v. 29, is nothing other than believing in the one He has sent. Some of the people in that synagogue in Capernaum took this food and responded in faith and obedience to the call of God that He gave and gives in Jesus Christ. They heard it and received it in faith, and were changed from fishermen and goodwives into disciples and apostles. These disciples and apostles were the beginning of the Church in which you and I sit today. They learned that in Jesus Christ, they would never hunger after things that would not satisfy or thirst after things that would not quench. They learned that in Jesus Christ was hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. They learned that the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord was all in all. In Jesus Christ, the food and the one who gives it are one and the same Person. In Jesus Christ, the Gift and the Giver are one.

And if we can ever learn this truth freshly for ourselves and receive Christ as all the food we need, we too might be changed. The people wanted a leader, someone who could feed them and keep them safe. We, too, want a leader, don’t we? We want someone who can feed us spiritually, divide the Word of God rightly among us, pray for us, look out for us, keep us safe, and lead us out of the Egypt we find ourselves in. The problem comes when all too often we find ourselves looking to a human being to be that for us, and in so doing we forget, at least in practice, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Montgomery Evangelical Free Church, receive the good news of the Gospel: Only Jesus Christ can rescue us. Only Christ can pull down bread from heaven for you. Only Christ is all the food we will ever need. When we do not seek the provision God the Father has already given us in Jesus Christ, there is no person on this earth who will fulfill our wants and needs! There is no other Savior save Christ alone.

When we were incapable of knowing God, the Father revealed Himself in his Son Jesus Christ. When we were unable to have a relationship with God, the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to reconcile us to Him. When we were unable to obey God, Jesus Christ obeyed for us even to death on the cross for our sin. In his resurrection, the Father justifies us in Christ. In his ascension, we are promised eternal life with the Father. The Father has met every single one of our needs in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the true bread from heaven. Jesus Christ is the true vine. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Only Christ completes and fulfills and enables our relationship with God the Father. Hallelujah. Amen. Seek no other.

We, today, must do the work of God. Doing the work of God is nothing else than receiving Jesus. There are people in the world who will claim that if you subscribe to their teachings or buy their books or embrace the purposes or pray the prayer of an Old Testament nobody that you can find fulfillment in this life. We all feel the temptation to put human beings in place of God. To this all I can ask is that we listen again to the words of Jesus, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Following Christ is not glossy or trendy; it is a “long obedience in the same direction.” In this stretch of transition, I implore you to stop doing and working and striving for a few minutes each day to pray. In this time of transition do not let the days pass you by without constant prayer for the committees searching for pastors. Do not let the days pass you by without thanking God the Father for having already given you all that you will ever truly need in Christ. Do not let a day pass you by without reminding yourself and telling others that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Seek no other than him.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, who has given us eternal food from heaven in Christ, grant that we might come to you in humble prayer so that we might not forget that no human Savior can replace Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our continued salvation. We pray this through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, August 07, 2006

John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 69-81, 94-6

In these passages, Calvin succinctly expounds his understanding of what is often called “special revelation.” What are his basic moves? First, Calvin makes it clear that Scripture is necessary to properly identify God (chapter VI). Though creation points to a god, and though the human person innately recognizes a higher power, it is only through the “spectacles” (70) of Scripture that the true God might be known. Second, Calvin argues that the Scriptures are the Christian’s true authority not because the Church identifies them to be so, but because “God in person speaks in it” (78). It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit in the Christian heart and mind that establishes in that heart and mind a trust in the authority of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures are thus self-authenticating and beyond proof (chapter VII). In chapter VIII Calvin enters into a discussion of the proofs for Scripture and introduces an interesting question as to the interplay between these proofs and self-authentication. Finally, in a key portion of chapter IX, Calvin inseparably links Word and Spirit, such that the Word is authenticated by the work of Spirit and the Spirit is recognized because of the Word.

It is in this linking of Spirit and Word that we are faced with what seems to be a sort of hermeneutical circle.

“For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word” (95).

To rephrase the issue, in order to trust and understand the Scripture we must be convinced of it by the Holy Spirit, and in order to properly recognize the work of the Holy Spirit we must have the reference point of the Word. This circular conundrum is not unlike that which Calvin presents in the opening pages of this work, namely, the mutually necessary knowledge of God and knowledge of the self. These constructions seem to present us with what we understand to be a paradoxical construction, namely, a circle. Perhaps this is because we conceive of each side of these paradoxes as temporal moments to be experienced. Perhaps the way out of these conundrum’s lies in recognizing the prior activity of God. A discussion of temporality is important here. Our human, time-conditioned minds naturally assume that the two sides of the paradox cannot occur at the same time. Perhaps they can. Also, perhaps they occur outside of time in the existence of God.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Link Too Great To Pass Up

David Congdon over at The Fire and the Rose has up another post in his series on The Heresies of American Evangelicalism. In that post he links to an ingenious, entertaining and thoroughly depressing document entitled The Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism. In the interest of spreading this document further across the web, and to ensure to that I my own record of its existence, I have undertaken to call it to your attention, gentle readers.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Brand Underground

Since blogs first came into existence, they have served as a method of disseminating information through links to various other sites and resources. Those who know me well know that I am the kind of person whose curiosity is easily aroused, and today I bring to you a very interesting article from the New York Times Magazine entitled The Brand Underground. It deals with questions of culture and counter-culture with reference to the retail business, the commercial role of ‘branding,’ and how a new generation of ‘rebels’ are attempting to do battle with the commercial ‘establishment.’ Here are a few interesting portions to whet your appetite.


Perhaps the first lesson of the brand underground is not that savvy young people will stop buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.


In his 1934 memoir, “Exile’s Return,” Malcolm Cowley asserted that by 1920 the bohemian “doctrine” of Greenwich Village could be broken down to eight key points. Several of these remain fairly timeless markers of counterculture: liberty, living for the moment, protecting one’s individuality from the common fate of being “crushed and destroyed by a standardized society.” Each person’s “purpose in life,” the codification states, “is to express himself.” Cowley wrote that the bohemians saw themselves standing in opposition to “the business-Christian ethic then represented by The Saturday Evening Post,” a mainstream valuing “industry, foresight, thrift and personal initiative.”

But that old-fashioned value system, Cowley argued, shifted to a consumption ethic of spending and leisure, and the bohemian doctrine, it turned out, “proved quite useful” to the new mainstream ethic. Cowley posited that bohemian ideas about the primacy of self-expression and living for the moment “encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match.” The shift, he wrote, happened shortly after World War I. So for 80 years or more, the central problem of consumer culture and counterculture has been the same: it is very easy to confuse the two. Which is why, actually, Cowley was not so much praising the bohemian idea as scorning it.


They believe what they are doing has meaning beyond simple commercial success. For them, there is something fully legitimate about taking the traditional sense of branding and reversing it: instead of dreaming up ideas to attach to products, they are starting with ideas and then dreaming up the products to express them.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Form and Function of the Lord's Prayer: A Pattern and Prayer for Any Occasion

This is the mss from a presentation I delivered to the combined church board of one of the churches I served as an intern at their yearly board retreat. It was a lot of fun to put together and I know that at least two or three of those present appreciated it. Maybe you will too.


(Matthew 6.9-13)

In approaching the Lord’s Prayer, we will divine our study broadly between the categories of Form and Function. However, we will begin by addressing a number of preliminary concerns. By “Form,” we mean to inquire as to questions relating to the significance of the Lord’s Prayer as a thing in and of itself, and by “Function,” we mean to reflect upon the place of the Lord’s Prayer in the Church, how it is to be used, applied, etc.


Before we turn to the form of the Lord’s Prayer and to our investigation of its significance as a thing in and of itself, we must first deal with a few preliminary questions. Since we have chosen Matthew’s account of the prayer, our first question must concern the relationship between the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Together with Mark, Matthew and Luke comprise what are called the Synoptic Gospels. These Gospels share a similar plot arc and very similar material, although they differ at many points. The general scholarly consensus is that Mark preceded Matthew and Luke. The latter two evangelists would then have used Mark as a guide in the writing of their own gospels. However, Matthew and Luke often share material that is not found in Mark. The Lord’s Prayer is one example of this material found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Thus, one suspects that Matthew and Luke are using a common source other than Mark as they write. We do not have this other common source, but scholars have named it the “Q” Document – short for Quelle, the German word for ‘source’ - and suppose it to contain all the materials that are shared between Matthew and Luke but are not found in Mark.

I am sure that you will also notice that the setting for the Lord’s Prayer is different in Matthew than in Luke. In the former, it is found as one piece in a series of Jesus’ teachings, while in Luke the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray, much like John the Baptist taught his disciples (Luke 11.1). This notion of a teacher instructing his disciples in how to pray developed in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition of the centuries following Christ, and it became of great import. What better way to find out what someone truly believes than to listen to them pray? In asking Jesus to teach them to pray, the disciples want people to be able to identify them as followers of Jesus, in other words, they want to pray like Jesus. In Luke, Jesus is happy to provide this instruction.

Our second preliminary issue concerns the traditional ending of the Lord’s Prayer. If you have a KJV, or are familiar with the form of the Lord’s Prayer recited in more liturgically minded churches, you will recognize the following phrase: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.” If you have the NIV or the TNIV, you will find this phrase in a footnote, and if you have an NASB you will find it in brackets. This is because the best scholarship has indicated that this phrase is to be considered a later insertion. The earlier and best manuscripts of the gospels do not include this phrase. It would seem that it was inserted at some point to round out the prayer, that is, to help it end on a high note and with the appropriate concluding ratification, “Amen.” These changes make the prayer more suited to liturgical recitation. While this could and should give us pause as far as our notions about modifying the biblical text is concerned, I have no problem with using the lengthened form for recitation. The Church throughout history, under the guidance of the Spirit, thought it a benefit to piety to conclude the prayer in this way, and I am happy to accept their authority.

Third in our preliminary excursion, I would like to point out what we find in verse 7 (Matthew 6.7). “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” The following verse reminds us that this babbling is not necessary because God already knows what we need. I would suggest that verse 7 has three things in the crosshair: first, repetition of the divine name; second, repetitions and variations on requests; third, general length. The first and third of these are of a piece. Both repetition of the divine name and general length of a prayer could be understood as ways that the one praying goes about getting God’s attention. We must remember that in pagan religion, knowing the name of the deity is what allows one to dial into the deity. The name is the deity’s phone-number, as it were. It gets and keeps the deity’s attention on you. Furthermore, praying at length might be seen as a way to impress the deity and convince the deity that you are worth answering. These two things are ruled out for Christians. Yes we know God’s name, but we need not struggle to keep God’s attention. God is our Father, as we see in the first petition of the Lord’s prayer in verse 9, and God is always ready to give attention to our prayers. The notion of repeating variations on requests would easily fit into this pattern of trying to impress the deity and keep the deity’s attention, but it moves further as well. At what point do we stop praying to God and start praying to ourselves in an attempt to talk ourselves into thinking everything will be all right, or that we will receive what we so desperately want? At what point do we begin to simply stir up our own emotions and try to make ourselves feel better?

Finally, the last of our preliminary concerns has to do with the emphasis of the Lord’s Prayer. For this we must turn to verses 14-15, which highlight the reciprocity between our forgiveness of those who wrong us, and God’s forgiveness of us. We find this also in the fifth petition of the prayer. In fact, since verse 15 simply restates in a negative way the assertion of verse 14, we really do have this notion present in the passage three times. Now, I do not want to over-explain this emphasis and thereby remove its potency. We must simply affirm, as this passage very clearly emphasizes, that in some sense our forgiveness is tied up with our willingness to forgive. This emphasis also touches on the issue of how to translate ovfeilh,mata (opheileimata) in verse 12. Is it “debts” or “trespasses” or “sins?” More precisely, this word means, “wrong, sin or guilt.” Verses 14 and 15 use paraptw,mata (paraptomata), which means “sin or wrongdoing.” Neither uses a`marti,a (hamartia), which is the standard word for “sin” in a strict sense. What I would like to impress upon you is the notion that the specific word used does not always, and in fact, seldom carries with it immense theological import. These words are something like synonyms; each meaning relatively the same thing, each having a different origin but a comparable use. In this case, I advocate translating verse 12 simply as “forgive us our sins.”


We have discussed some important preliminaries and now move on to a discussion of the Form of the Lord’s Prayer, that is, of the significance of the Lord’s Prayer in and of itself. To do this we will examine the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. I will be brief in this section, and I will be generally following John Calvin in his discussion of this passage in his Harmony of the Gospels, found in his collected commentaries. Calvin also discusses the Lord’s Prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have provided you with the former and I commend the latter to your further study. Calvin makes note that the petitions seem to be divided in the same manner as the Decalogue: they open with petitions referencing God, and they conclude with petitions referencing the human person’s life in society. Noting this reinforces what we have said concerning verse 7. We pray not primarily for our benefit, but because in so doing we return to God what is God’s due and bear witness to God’s power and glory.

The first petition is found in verse 9. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” I wish to here echo what Calvin has to say, and since he says it with far more eloquence than I can muster, I will quote him. “Whenever we engage in prayer, there are two things to be considered, both that we may have access to God, and that we may rely on Him with full and unshaken confidence: his fatherly love toward us, and his boundless power. Let us therefore entertain no doubt, that God is willing to receive us graciously, that he is ready to listen to our prayers, - in a word, that of Himself he is disposed to aid us.” What more exciting and profound truth is there to be found than that God, rather than looking upon us with wrath, looks upon us with grace and is ready and eager to help us? Thus, when we pray, we do address a fatherly God. However, though God is our father God is not our back-slapping buddy. We also see that God is in heaven, that is, God is profoundly and fundamentally separated from created things as being far above and beyond them, beyond us. Though we address a fatherly God, this God is still God, and is worthy of our respect and praise, our trepidation and our love. In recognition of this, the verse continues, we are to declare God to be holy. We are to “hallow” or to “sanctify” God. This is to recognize God’s perfections, God’s above-ness. This is the task of all creation, of the human being in general, and of the Christian in particular. Martin Luther makes much in his lectures on Galatians that faith in its most essential form is our human act of declaring God to be what God truly is.

Following in verse 10 are the second and third petitions, which are quite alike. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is apparent that what we have here is a sentence with two heads and only one tail. Our prayer is for both God’s kingdom and God’s will to exist here on earth like it exists in heaven. We will leave Calvin aside for the moment at this point to explore how Luther dealt with these two petitions in his Small Catechism. “Your Kingdom Come. Question: What is this? Answer: In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us…Your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Question: What is this? Answer: In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.” Luther here makes a fine distinction, namely, that what is the case and that what is apparent to us in our own lives may be two quite different things. God’s kingdom is come and God’s will is done. What we petition for is that we might see it, that we might observe it infuse our lives and the world around us, that we might be made a part of this coming and this doing.

As we take up the fourth petition we take up the petitions that deal with the human life in human society. The first of these petitions is found in verse 11. “Give us today our daily bread.” It should be noted that “bread” here should be taken to refer to all that is essential to our mortal survival. However, it does not refer simply to that which is essential to our survival, but it refers to all the good gifts of God’s creation. Luther goes so far as to include spouses, children, civil society, and money. Calvin makes the observation in his study that some people are well established in this life and do not question whether the necessities, or even the bounties of life will be available to them. For such people Calvin suggests that the purpose of this petition is to remind them that, regardless of how it may look from down here, even we who are affluent receive our bounty from the hand of God.

Petition five is next, and reads as follows in verse 12: “And forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” We have already touched upon this petition in our preliminary remarks, noting that, in conjunction with verses 14 and 15, it is the seat of the emphasis of the passage here in Matthew. Calvin sees this petition as that which is materially foundational for all the others, that is to say, he thinks that this petition must be in place before we can pray the other petitions. Another way of saying this is that our justification must be taken care of before we are able to truly praise God and recognize that our daily sustenance comes from God’s hand. Calvin takes the second phrase not as causal for the first, that is, it is not that we have to forgive those who sinned against us in order to be saved. Rather, he takes it in an exhortative manner, such that it is presented here with such gusto and in such close proximity to our own divine forgiveness in order to spur us on to acts of forgiveness. As Calvin puts it, “This condition is added, that no one may presume to approach God and ask forgiveness, who is not pure and free from all resentment. And yet the forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others.” Let us not lose sight either of the free nature of our forgiveness, or of this strong exhortation to practice forgiveness in our own relationships.

Finally, we reach the sixth petition in verse 13. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from…” from what? There are two ways to take “evil” here, either a simple noun denoting general evil-ness, or as a substantive referencing a particular evil, “the evil one.” Calvin sees very little difference in how one interprets this word, and I am more than a little inclined to follow him in this opinion. In any case, “evil” is that which is not good, and that which is against good, and therefore that which is against God. Calvin, taking his cue from Saint Augustine, renders the logic of this sentence as follows: “That we may not be led into temptation, deliver us from evil.” In this petition we recognize our continued weakness. There is no room for Christian triumphalism. All our problems with sin and evil are not solved when we become a Christian. If anything, these problems are intensified. Now more than ever we must pray that God would protect us from these pitfalls and dangers. Thus, the Lord’s Prayer closes with the admittance of our weakness and dependence upon God.


We have now completed our formal exploration of the Lord’s Prayer, that is, we have examined the significance of this prayer in and of itself. What now of the concerns of Function? How is this prayer to be appropriated into our individual lives and the life of the Church and this church? That is must be incorporated is self-evident. This prayer carries with it a dominical command, that is, it is something that our Lord commanded us to do. In Luke, Jesus commands, “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11.1). This is no suggestion – this is a command. We must pray this prayer. How are we to pray it?

(Pattern) Calvin is among a distinguished line of interpreters who have argued that the Lord’s Prayer is not something that is to be repeated ver batum. Rather, it presents us with a guide, a pattern if you will, that we are to follow in our own prayers. Thus Calvin, “the rule which he has given us for praying aright relates not to the words, but to the things themselves.” Christ’s intention was not to put words in our mouth, nor was it to take from us freedom to deviate even from this pattern. Rather, this pattern is given to “guide and restrain our wishes, that they might not go beyond those limits.” Christian freedom is stronger than legalism, and Calvin expects us to use that freedom in our prayers. However, freedom is not truly freedom if it is unrestrained. True freedom is being able to will the good without distraction. True freedom is fenced in, it is directed to its goal, it wears blinders. Thus, the Lord’s Prayer fences us in. It serves as our blinders. It assures us that we can and do pray to a God who looks upon us as a father looks upon a child. Furthermore, it tells us what we are to say to that God, and for what we are to ask. We can and must say and ask these things in different words, but it is these things which we can and must say and ask, not those other things.

(Prayer) But, is Calvin altogether right on this point? I do think that he is right, but is he altogether right? Is the Lord’s Prayer merely a pattern? Is it merely a guide? Or, is it also a prayer? Are these words also a command? I am inclined to think that they are. Perhaps a comparison is in order to strengthen the force of this argument. Take our celebration of Holy Communion for instance. How fitting that we should consider the Lord’s Supper in our consideration of the Lord’s Prayer. When we celebrate Communion, we quote from the biblical text, whether it be Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, or the words of one of the Gospels. And yet, I challenge you to produce for me a sentence of Scripture that commands that we use those words in language as clear as that which we have here in the Lord’s Prayer. Luke 11.1 – “When you pray, say…” Say what? This! When you pray, say these things, say these words, pray this prayer. And yet we resist! To paraphrase Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Can you not pray with me this handful of words?”

Listen now to “The Westminster Standards: The Larger Catechism,” question number 187: “How is the Lord’s Prayer to be used? Answer: The Lord’s Prayer is not only for direction, as a pattern according to which we are to make other prayers; but may be also used as a prayer so that it [that is, prayer] be done with understanding, faith, reverence, and other graces necessary to the right performance of the duty of prayer.” My own paraphrase of this would be something like, “Pray this prayer when you find yourself unsure or unable to pray another prayer.” Perhaps some of you can imagine nothing but stale, lifeless ritual when you envision a congregation or an individual reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps you have never been at a loss for words before Almighty God. Perhaps the tragedy and violence of this life has not overtaken you in such a way as to rob you of your prayers. Perhaps you have never been faced with shades of gray in a decision in this life, but have always seen clearly what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps you have never groaned before God. But, perhaps this is not the case. I ask you, have you ever groaned before God? Paul tells us in Romans 8.26 that sometimes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Yet, I challenge you today to pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. When you find that you do not know what to pray for, pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. When we come together as the body of Christ to face this world seemingly dominated by powers that refuse to bend the knee to God, pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. When you pray, pray these words.

In nomine patri, et fili, et spiritu sancti, amen.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


This post is the reproduction of a sermon that I recently preached. If you are looking for political discussion, this is probably as close as you are going to get here on Der Evangelische Theologe. The sermon isn’t political per se, but it was given in something of a political context – the Fourth of July with a congregation that tends to be decidedly more ‘right of center’ than I would place myself. Because I was only the summer intern, I felt caught between two responsibilities: first, my responsibility to preach the Gospel as I understand it; and second, to be sensitive to the context of the congregation and my own position as a guest among them. My attempt to walk the tightrope resulted in the following, which was relatively well received.


Readings: Isaiah 63.1-6; Matthew 10.32-9; Revelation 19.11-16

John Calvin. Some of you know nothing of the history and doctrine that goes with this name. Some of you know quite a bit. And some of you have been attempting to learn more through my clumsy efforts over the past three Tuesday nights. When Rev. Rob and I sat down to schedule when I would preach to you all, and when we saw that July 2nd was the most opportune date, it occurred to both of us that it might be productive to reflect on a particular facet of Calvin’s life. Most of Calvin’s time was spent reforming the laws and morals of the city of Geneva in Switzerland. This involved extensive interaction with the city’s government. It is here that we find Calvin’s significance for us on this Fourth of July weekend. On this weekend every year, the church is faced with a problem. How should the church and the national government be related? The United States of America has made illegal the establishment of a religion, which is to say that there can never, without drastic modification to the Constitution, be a national religion. This ensures that many different kinds of Christians and even many other people of non-Christian faiths are given freedom to practice their religions without being discriminated against. This is a wonderful thing, and it is wonderful for two reasons. Not only is it wonderful because people of all religions are free to practice their beliefs, but it is wonderful because it ensures that peoples of faith can practice their religions without government interference. The government cannot tell a church what it may and may not preach about. The government cannot tell a church that it must care for some people and not others. The government cannot decide what color a church’s hymnals will be.

So, here in the United States of America the practice of religion is relatively free from government control. We have every cause to thank God for this situation. The question of the relation of government to the church in the United States of America is settled. But, there is one more question. What of the relationship of the church to the government? Although the government does not control the church, should the church control the government? Should the church participate in governing? Should individual Christians hold government offices? These kinds of questions are brought home to us in a special way today because we draw near to the day when the United States of America celebrates its independence.

In my reflecting this week I was reminded of the similarity between how the relationship between the church and the government of the United States of America resembles that of Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin’s greatest battle in Geneva was to establish for the church a measure of freedom from government control in a society that was used to the same person wielding both sacred and secular authority. Calvin understood that these were in fact two different kinds of authority. He knew that the church needed to be free from the civil government because the civil government is only a temporary thing. When the end arrives and Jesus returns to the earth, there will be no more need for civil government. Why? Because there will be no more sin. There will be no more need for protection from the harm that one person all too regularly does to another. In a redeemed world where Christ reigns supreme, all other authority is superfluous. It is not necessary. It will go out the window. But, in the meantime, it is necessary – too necessary.

Why might Christians wonder as to whether they should participate in government? War. For, what is it that war requires but the death of an opposing party? This has always been unsettling for Christians who routinely hear that they should not murder, that they should love their enemies, that they should turn the other cheek, and who aspire to following the example of Jesus who died a humiliating death of crucifixion when he could have easily called down regiments of angels to destroy those who would dare to nail the Son of God to an execution stake. How can a Christian, one who should care about the well being of others more than they care about their own well being, end another human being’s life? How can a Christian, one who has experienced the reconciliation and redemption that comes from Christ, destroy another human being? How can a Christian, one who recognizes that she has been created in the image of God, viciously deny the dignity that comes from carrying that image to someone else? War puts a profound question mark next to the life of any Christian who has participated in this ghastly enterprise. Calvin recognized this difficulty. He argued that these difficult questions are overcome when faced with aggression. When an opposing army threatens a government, that government must defend itself and its people. This is excusable for Christians because to love one’s neighbor greater than one loves oneself might easily include defending one’s neighbor from physical harm. This is even more important for Calvin when the opposing force would, if given the chance, take away the freedom of Christians to worship God without fear or interference.

However, this is not all that Calvin says. We remember that Calvin wanted the government and the church to be separated. We also saw that Calvin understood the government to be only a temporary fix meant to contain human sinfulness until Christ returns to reign at the end of time. The reign of Christ is the kingdom of God. This kingdom started with Christ and it will be completed with Christ at the end of time. In the meantime, Christians are stuck between two worlds – this disgustingly sinful one, and the beautiful sinless one that will be. This is why the church and civil government must be separated. Civil government belongs to the ugly world and the church belongs to the beautiful world. In fact, the church is the part of the beautiful world whose mission it is to tell the ugly world about the beautiful world. How does the church do this? On the one hand, it does this through Word and Sacrament, that is, when we tell people about Jesus, when we share the Lord’s Supper, when we baptize as we did last week. But, on the other hand, the church does this through its life, that is, how it represents itself and acts toward others. How can the church preach about a God who loves us and wants to save us while at the same time it wages war and kills? Even if this has been the way things have happened in history, this is not the way it should be. And, this is precisely why Calvin wanted the church to be separate from civil government. It is not the church’s job to wage war. It is the church’s job to tell people about the peace that Christ has made available and to point people toward the way life will be in the beautiful sinless world.

The big point to remember here is that the church, and individual Christians, must act like Christ. If the church and Christians are to exercise power, it must be the same kind of power as Christ exercises. So, what we must discover is what kind of power it is that Jesus exercises. I’m sure that at least some of you were wondering when I would actually talk about the Scripture passages we read a short time ago. I’m also sure that many of you are wondering how all my talk about how the church and Christians should love as Christ loved, and how Jesus brings peace when we have just read passages that suggest that God has seen and will see his fair share of combat. Furthermore, we read that Jesus himself said that he did not come to bring peace, but to bring a sword, which is to say the he came to wage a war. But, we need to think a little more about what this “sword” that Jesus brings actually is? How is it that Jesus wages war? How is it that he exercises power?

Remember those seven guidelines for reading that Bible that Rev. Rob put in the bulletins last week? Number seven of those guidelines tells us that we should, “Interpret each text in light of the whole Bible.” This is important, because words and images in the Bible take on different meanings when you look at all the places where they occur. So, our task is to see what kind of “sword” Jesus came to bring. In John 18, Peter cuts the ear from the head of one of the chief priests servants. Jesus miraculously healed the servant and rebuked Peter for his action. If Jesus came to bring a sword like Peter thought, this would have been a perfect time to put such a sword-wielding plan into action. But, Jesus didn’t. By saying that he was bringing a sword, Jesus did not mean that he was going to lead an armed revolution. The next place we hear about swords in the New Testament is in Romans 13, where Paul warns the unlawful that governing authorities do “not bear the sword in vain.” But, here it is the government that has a sword, not Jesus or Christians. So, this does not help us figure out what kind of sword Jesus was talking about.

Next, we see a sword pop up again in Ephesians 6.17 when Paul is discussing the armor of God. Here Paul tells us to, “Take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” So, this sword is the word of God, Scripture. Now we are on to something. And, this idea is strengthened by the next time that we come across swords in Hebrews 4.12. Here, the word of God is again described as a sword. But, it is not just any sword. This sword is both living and active. And, it is even sharper than a double-bladed sword. It pierces so deeply that it gets to the middle of our bones, and it does this in order to judge our thoughts and intentions. Does it make sense that the kind of sword Jesus brought has something to do with the word of God? You will have to decide for yourselves, but I think it might. We have one more passage to look at.

Our last reading for today was from Revelation 19. Here we saw an image of Jesus returning to the earth. This is a pretty striking image. It is a pretty scary image too. If you read on, the battle-scene kicks into high gear, but we need not be concerned with that for right now. What I want you to notice is where the sword is in this image. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, comes riding out of heaven on a white horse. His eyes are filled with fire, he has a bunch of crowns stacked on his head, and he has blood on his white robes. His name is the Word of God and a sword is coming out of his mouth with which to strike down the nations. Let me ask you, where does a warrior usually hold his sword? The sword should be in Jesus hand, but instead, it is in his mouth. Furthermore, Jesus is called the Word of God here, and we saw that the image of a sword is often connected to the notion of the word of God. Is Jesus himself the sword that he came to bring? Is Jesus himself what will upset the peace of the world – a peace established by the Roman Empire through the use of swords? Is Jesus God’s sword that will destroy and render unnecessary the kind of swords the Roman Empire used? What does all this mean?

There is one more important thing to notice here. Jesus’ robes in this passage are bloody. But, how did they get bloody? He’s just now riding out of heaven. The battle doesn’t start for a few more verses, so it can’t be blood from the enemy. How did his robes get bloody? If we stop a moment and think about what Jesus is best known for, we might get the idea that Jesus’ robes are stained with his own blood, the blood he shed for us on the cross. This image of Jesus riding out of heaven, soaked in his own blood and with a sword coming out of his mouth instead of in his hand, is strange for a reason. It isn’t supposed to be what we expect, because what we expect is an image of power like this ugly sinful world thinks of power. We expect to see an image of Christ with his sword in his hand, striking down his enemies and splattering his robes with their blood. This isn’t the image shown to us because we are dealing here with power as we will one day find in the beautiful sinless world. In the end, Jesus, the word of God, God’s sword, will come again. He will speak the truth, and this is the greatest weapon of all. That truth is that God loves us and that Jesus came to earth not to condemn us, but to redeem us and free us from sin. Sure Jesus came to bring the sword, but this isn’t the same kind of sword that the Roman soldiers carried. He came to bring the sword of the Gospel.

Just what does this have to do with Calvin and with what we were talking about earlier? Calvin knew about these two kinds of swords. That is why he wanted the church separated from government. The church’s job is to explain the sword of the Gospel, not to follow after the sword of the Roman Empire, or the improvised explosive devices of the Iraqi insurgency, or the M16’s of the United States of America’s military forces. In this world of violence, it is certainly necessary to defend ourselves, and the purpose of a government is to do just that. When we are threatened, it is hard to see how Calvin could be wrong in thinking that it is regrettable but admissible to pick up the sword of this ugly world and defend ourselves, our family and our neighbors. But, we must always remember that the church and every Christian is bound by something far more powerful than the sword of this ugly world. We are bound by the sword of the beautiful world, Jesus Christ, the Gospel. It is this sword that we must always wield, even though at times we must wield the other as well. It is this sword of the Gospel that will prevail in the end over every sword of this ugly world. It is this sword of the Gospel that will triumph and bring peace. And always remember that this sword of the Gospel is a living and active sword. It will cut deep down into the bone to judge thoughts and intentions. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself pierced by it. In fact, rejoice when this happens because you are being prepared for the beautiful world that one day will come when Jesus rides out of heaven with a sword in his mouth and his robes soaked in his own blood. Amen.