Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 3.15-18

1 Peter 3.15-18

[15] …Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, [16] keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. [17] It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. [18] For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

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COMMENTARY: To begin, I should note that I have (again) combined two of Calvin’s sections into one for the sake of having more material to work with. Calvin’s avowed pursuit of exegetical brevity is often my cross to bear, although it makes reading his commentaries a rather pleasant exercise – and one which I commend to all of you who are following this series.

Calvin begins by noticing that “Peter does not expressly bid us assert and proclaim what has been given us by the Lord everywhere, and always and among all indiscriminately, for the Lord gives his people the spirit of discretion, so that they may know when and how far and to whom it is expedient to speak” (108). The point, Calvin tells us, is that we ought to be ready to confess and defend our faith from detractors, not that we need to be out talking about our faith all the time. Such a interpretation is in keeping with both Calvin’s predestinarianism – it is only expedient to talk about Christ to the elect but not yet efficiently called, as it were – and with his love of moderation – radicalism is not something that he looks kindly upon. Furthermore, we see here also Calvin’s conception of vocation and offices: “Peter here does not command us to be prepared to solve any question that may be mooted; for it is not the duty of all to speak on every subject” (ibid). Some things are better left to pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, politicians, etc.

What Calvin thinks Peter seeks to communicate in this passage is that every be0liever – the average person in the pew – “should make it evident to unbelievers that [he or she] truly worshipped God, and had a holy and good religion” (ibid). This was important in the context of the epistle’s writing, Calvin notes, which saw Christianity as sacrilegious. Against these claims, Peter wants for his readers “to make it evident to the world that they were far off from every impiety, and did not corrupt true religion” (109).

But, Calvin notes that it is important to join to this Peter’s remarks about having a good conscious. The force of this phrase is that verbal defense of the Christian faith is undermined by a life that lacks virtue. As Calvin puts its, “What we say without a corresponding life has but little weight,” or, “But the defence of the tongue will avail but little, except the life corresponds with it” (110). Furthermore, it is this corresponding life of virtue that causes the enemies of Christianity to be ashamed of their false accusations. It is here that Calvin gives us one of his rephrasings of the Scriptural text in light of his interpretation: “[It is] as though he had said, ‘If your adversaries have nothing to allege against you, except that you follow Christ, they will at length be ashamed of their malicious wickedness, or at least, you innocence will be sufficient to confute them.’” (ibid).

Coming again to the question of suffering, Calvin notes the truth of the notion that it is better to suffer for good than to suffer for evil. The notion operative here is that if one suffers for good, one can at least be comforted by one’s goodness. If on suffers because of evil, on the other hand, not only does one suffers but one also knows that it is one’s own evil that brought this suffering. Now, Calvin notes that such a sentiment “occurs everywhere in profane authors” (111). Calvin knew his Stoics, so one suspect that he is thinking of them. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy also comes to mind in this regard. But, there is something in this passage not found in the ‘profane authors,’ namely, reference to the will of God. The fruit of this is that, unlike the profane, “the faithful have always this comfort in their miseries, that they know that they have God as their witness, and that they also know that they are led by him to the contest, in order that they may under his protection give a proof of their faith” (ibid).

The concluding material on Christ and his acquisition of salvation is fascinating. Indeed, this verse holds the seed to a very robust soteriology, and I am happy to have been made more aware of its presence in the course of the current study. But, Calvin doesn’t do much with it, basically saying simply that Christ’s example encourages us in our trials. This is true, and this is how this verse is functioning in context, but there is so much more here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Happy 2nd Birthday, DET!

That is right! DET is now entering into its third year. This blog was born with something of an introduction and manifesto, and last year I elaborated on my vision for DET. These documents still accurately represent what DET is about, so I am content to simply refer to them here.

Thinking back over the last year, I must admit that my enthusiasm for blogging has flagged a bit. This is primarily due to the increased academic demands that a PhD program brings. Quite simply put, I simply have had less time to devote to blogging, and I think that has shown. However, I did spend considerable time and energy on the second annual Karl Barth blog conference, which turned out very well. Watch for the third installment next year. It is increasingly true that what goes on here at DET throughout the year is undertaken in service of this annual event, and this event is reason enough to keep soldiering on in the theo-blogosphere.

In any event, I hope that you will all stay tuned for another year of DET and, while you are at it, tell some of your friends to drop on by. ;-)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 3.10-15

1 Peter 3.10-15

[10] For, “Whoever among you would love life and see good days must keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. [11] Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. [12] For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”* [13] Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? [14] But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”* [15] But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.

* Psalm 34.12-16 and Isaiah 8.12, respectively.

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COMMENTARY:

Calvin gave me much more to work with in this section with reference to sheer volume of words, but for some reason I’ve come up a bit dry. One interesting point is that Calvin quotes from Plato’s Republic in the course of his exposition, something you don’t see too much of anymore. Below are short quotations from Calvin’s reflections on peace and violence, and suffering for the sake of righteousness.

Peace

Seek peace and pursue it. - “It is not enough to embrace it when offered to us, but it ought to be followed when it seems to flee from us. It also often happens, that when we seek it as much as we can, others will not grant it to us. On account of these difficulties and hindrances, he bids us to seek and pursue it.”

Violence

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. – “The meaning is, that the faithful will do more towards obtaining a quiet life by kindness, than by violence…”

Suffering for what is right

“…but that when they neglect nothing to secure peace, were they to suffer, they are still blessed because they suffer for the sake of righteousness…To suffer for righteousness, means not only to submit to some loss or disadvantage in defending a good cause, but also to suffer unjustly, when any one is innocently in fear among men on account of the fear of God.”

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Church According to Donald Bloesch

Donald G. Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission, Christian Foundations (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002).
Now that both the Barth blog conference and the Princeton Seminary Barth conference are concluded, I have had some time to do some wider theological reading. I have spent a number of hours over the past few days sitting on my porch with this volume by Donald Bloesch. Bloesch has an eight part series entitled “Christian Foundations,” and this is the portion dedicated to ecclesiology. While it is true that Bloesch is not a very creative thinker in his own right, he is interesting – at least to me – as one who is an evangelical and has learned from Barth, but who does not follow Barth whole hog.

Before I get on to a few thoughts on this volume, however, I want to plug another of Bloesch’s works - Essentials of Evangelical Theology - which makes, in my humble opinion, a great volume (actually, two volumes now bound in one) for introductory theology classes at evangelical Christian colleges or for teaching theology to adults in your local evangelical church. I recommend it whenever I get a chance.

Back to The Church. First, here is a list highlighting some of the good and helpful things about this volume:

  • Bloesch tends to write in a very summary-oriented style. He likes to lay out the various positions that different branches of the Christian tradition hold on a given topic before going on to let the reader knows what his own personal view is. This is one of the things that makes his work a great teaching tool.

  • Bloesch also, in the course of his summarizing, tends to quote from a diverse body of thinkers. Emil Brunner, P.T. Forsyth, Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Philip Schaff (to whom the volume is dedicated), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Schmemann, and Hans Küng are those names that Bloesch quotes and that now spring to my mind. This is great exposure for beginning students of theology.

  • Bloesch is ecumenical in orientation, as demonstrated by my previous two points. This comes out materially especially in his chapter on the Sacraments, which he concludes with an appendix discussing the Lima text (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry).
And now, some of the less helpful things:

  • Bloesch is clearly an evangelical in writing this volume. This is good and bad, but it is less helpful in two cases in particular. The first case, Bloesch’s discussion of worship, shows his age. He enters into a discussion of contemporary evangelical worship methods, and does his best to make room for the new without quickly casting aside the old. In general, this works out, but there are a few occasions where his own age makes him a bit tone deaf. At one point he charges contemporary worship music – praise choruses, etc – with being “an elitist music” (138) because it is difficult for the congregation to sing along. Well, had Bloesch come of age after the genesis of rock music (he was born in 1928), he wouldn’t have trouble singing along and would recognize that in the present milieu it is traditional hymnody that is elitist (which I must say even though I love it myself!). Shortly thereafter Bloesch extols the organ which “seems to convey at least some intimation of the grandeur of God” (140). Again, what we have here is the deleterious effect of generational blinders – something that we are all subject to.

  • The second time that Bloesch’s evangelical context gets him into trouble (and mind you, these are merely my contrasting opinions) is in his discussion of women in ministry. He goes much farther than some in making room for women to serve as elders and even as pastors, but he cannot countenance them doing so independently of men: “In a co-ministry, man and woman make decisions together but always acknowledging the priority of man in a fellowship of equals” (225). On my reading of Galatians 3.28 (and other passages), which Bloesch quotes at one point, this does not go far enough.

  • The final criticism that I will make here is that Bloesch, while very aware of the missionary task of the church, does not in any way incorporate this task into his ecclesiology. For instance, there is no chapter devoted to discussing it, and it is not in any way an organizing category as he makes his way through other topics. It is true that this topic shows up, but generally only in the context of discussing other contemporary theological movements or positions that Bloesch feels compromise it. It does very little positive work, and this is unfortunate.
To sum up, Bloesch is no more perfect than you or I, but his work in general – and The Church in particular – serves as a helpful and interesting conversation partner.

Monday, July 07, 2008

H. Richard Niebuhr on Culture-Protestantism and Fundamentalism

So, this year I have been reading H. Richard Niebuhr for the first time, and I have been finding him very interesting. While I often disagree with him, he is a great writer (as I have mentioned before) and he has a way of making one – or at least me – think about things in new ways. It could just be because he is so foreign to me, in which case I have been engaged in broadening my horizons.

In any case, here is a particularly provocative, insightful, and ponderous piece on the relation of fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and Culture-Protestantism. As usual, at least in my experience, he is an equal-opportunity offender. This passage comes from the chapter “The Christ of Culture” from his well-known volume, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), and emphasis has been imported by myself:
The widespread reaction against cultural Protestantism in our time tends to obscure the importance of answer of this type to the Christ-and-culture problem. But we are warned against cavalier treatment of the position by the reflection that some of its severest critics share the general attitude they purport to reject…How often the Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism—by which cultural Protestantism is meant—is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty, a number of Fundamentalists interests indicate. Not all though many of these antiliberals show a greater concern for conserving the cosmological and biological notions of older cultures than for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The test of loyalty to him is found in the acceptance of old cultural ideas about the manner of creation and the earth’s destruction. More significant is the fact that the mores they associate with Christ have at least as little relation to the New Testament and as much connection with social custom as have those of their opponents. The movement that identifies obedience to Jesus Christ with the practices of prohibition, and with the maintenance of early American social organization, is a type of cultural Christianity; though the culture it seeks to conserve differs from that which its rivals honor. The same thing is true of the Marxian-Christian criticism of the “bourgeois Christianity” of democratic and individualistic liberalism. Again, Roman Catholic reaction against the Protestantism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seems often to be animated by a desire to return to the culture of the thirteenth; to the religious, economic, and political institutions and to the philosophical ideas of another civilization than ours. In so far as the contemporary attack on Culture-Protestantism is carried on in this way, it is a family quarrel between folk who are in essential agreement on the main point; namely, that Christ is the Christ of culture, and that man’s greatest task is to maintain his best culture. Nothing in the Christian movement is so similar to cultural Protestantism as is cultural Catholicism, nothing more akin to German Christianity than American Christianity, or more like a church of the middle class than a worker’s church. The terms differ, but the logic is always the same: Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophy.