By In Politics

A bloody right ear

In Luke 22, one of Jesus’ disciples (identified in John’s Gospel as Peter) attempts to defend Jesus from arrest by striking the High Priest’s servant with his sword, cutting off his right ear. Jesus rebukes his wayward disciple, and promptly stretches out his hand to heal the servant’s ear.

A remarkable display of healing grace? A typically Christlike display of love for enemies.

Yes, indeed. And yet so much more.

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By In Family and Children

Don’t let worldliness destroy your family

What are the two periods of a child’s life that are most dreaded by most parents?

Answer: the terrible twos, and the teenage years.

It’s obvious why these periods of a child’s life strike such fear into the hearts of the average mum and dad…

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By In Politics

Philosophy and Faith for Incoming Freshmen

In the next few weeks, colleges across the country will commence their Fall semester. Many students who grew up in Christian homes will consciously trade in their faith for a philosophical system antithetical to the one of their upbringing. Even more students, however, while not outright denying their Christian faith, will unconsciously adopt a philosophical system that is inherently idolatrous. It’s not that this second group wants to be idolaters; they simply lack the tools to discern the nature of the bill of goods their professor is selling them.

So, how can one know if a given philosophical system (Kantianism, Marxism, Platonism, etc.) is idolatrous? One can begin by asking two questions. First, “is this logical?” Second, “is this sinful?” If the answer is “yes” to the first question, the answer will be “no” to the second question. If the answer is “no” to the first question, the answer will be “yes” to the second question. Here’s a story to illustrate the point:

On her twenty first birthday, Cindy was promised a night on the town with her girlfriends. After dinner, her friends came to her house in a limo, blindfolded her, and took her to Crazy Dave’s Casino (obviously, she had some pretty lame friends…). As they were getting into the limo, they shoved some bills in her purse and said “tonight’s on us!” Once inside, Cindy took off her blindfold. Because there was no signage on the inside of the building, Cindy still wasn’t sure where she was. Eventually, she saw a waitress and asked if she could get something to drink. As she pulled out her wallet to pay, she saw four hundred Crazy Dave’s Casino-Bucks in her purse.

Now, there are only two ways that Cindy could have deduced her location. First, she could have spotted a logo. While it’s true the big Crazy Dave’s sign was outside, there were actually logo’s on the slot machines, napkins, etc. Secondly, of course, she could’ve known by looking at the Crazy Dave’s Casino-Bucks. Her currency could’ve revealed to her the location. Likewise, her location could have told her what sort of currency her friends slipped into her purse. For Cindy to answer the question “am I at Casino Dave’s?” she’d have to look at her currency. For her to answer the question “what sort of currency do I have in my purse?” she’d have to look at the signage.

Back to our original question: how can one know if a given philosophical system is idolatrous? There are at least two ways: Firstly, you can look for signage. Here, you’re trying to determine if the system outrightly advertises itself as sinful. Put simply, this means asking a couple questions of the philosophical system. One question is, “does it enable me to do something God forbids?” Nihilism, for instance, enables one to tear down systems for “tearing’s” sake. Well, some systems need to be torn down, but we’re commanded to obey God’s rule. Any tearing, then, must not be for its own sake, but because we’re seeking a system patterned after the rule of God.

Thus, we know Nihilism is idolatrous because it enables us to do something God forbids.  Another question to ask is, “does the system forbid me from doing something God commands?”  Animism, for instance, is idolatrous because it teaches that everything on the earth, indeed the earth itself, has a soul. Thus, I’m forbidden from, among other things, giving thanks to God. If “Mother Nature” is giving me food, my thanksgiving is directed to the object I’m eating rather than the One who gave me the object to eat. Like Cindy, you’re in a building (the Casino of Idolatry, if you will), and you’re looking for clues as to the nature of the structure.

Secondly, you can look at the currency in which the philosophical system deals. This is crucial because not all philosophical systems are easily detected as “sinful.” Like Cindy in the casino, there isn’t a big Crazy Dave’s sign, and the logos are quite small and inconspicuous. Thus, it won’t do to simply ask “am I in the Casino of Idolatry?” Rather, you’ll have to ask “am I using the currency of the Casino of Idolatry?”

Well, what is the currency of idolatry? In a word, it’s illogicality. If the system is illogical, it is idolatrous. Idolatry is always making a deal in which you trade life for death; the family blessing for some soup. An idolatrous philosophical system never uses the currency of “logic.” Thus, one can ask the question, “Are the propositions which this philosophy proposes logical?” If the answer is “no!” then you can know the system is itself idolatrous. With a little deductive reasoning, one can find idolatry in any illogical statement. Likewise, one can find incoherence in any given expression of idolatry.

Take, for example, the illogicality of Kantianism. In his book on logic (a wonderful resource for any incoming freshman!), Vern Poythress shows how the system is self-defeating (i.e. illogical):

“Kantianism uses reason to build a system that sets the limits of reason. To do so, it has to survey the field. It has to transcend the phenomenal and look at the noumenal realm as well. It has to take a God’s-eye view. This view, once achieved, afterwards allows it to tell you and me the narrower limits in which our reason can safely operate. The God’s-eye view is Kantianism’s secret, and simultaneously its weakest point. Kantianism is self-destructive. In its results, it tells us what are the limitations of reason. If we take those results seriously, we have to apply them to Kantianism’s own reasonings about philosophy. Those reasonings go beyond the limits, and so we conclude that they are not sound.”

Faith is not antithetical to critical reasoning. In fact, faith offers the freshman the tools by which she can fully engage the whole of reality, physical and metaphysical. Or, to stick with our illustration, the biblical faith offers a currency backed by the Creator of the whole world. Thus, spendable not only in “religion class” but in philosophy, art history, economics, and science. Go, then, freshman: study with confidence! Indeed, study in faith.

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By In Theology

Reading the Fathers

An increasing number of people in the evangelical and Reformed tradition are becoming aware of the importance of engaging with the writings of the early church Fathers. The Reformers themselves would of course have taken this for granted, a point regularly made, for example, by students of Calvin – notice the huge number of quotations from the Fathers in his Institutes and elsewhere. In a similar vein, if we turn to Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper or Jewel’s Apologia for the Church of England, once again we find not only a heavy dependence on the writings of the church Fathers, but also a deep-seated conviction that a theological (and indeed historical) continuity with the Fathers is a vital part of what it means to hear the truth of God in the Scriptures.

It’s therefore very encouraging to see the self-identified heirs of Calvin, Cranmer, and the rest following in their footsteps in this matter, since working hard at this connection with the early church is really the only way to ensure that we acquire a vision of the Christian faith with the deepest possible roots in the (small-c) catholic tradition of which we rightly consider ourselves to be a part.

Yet the enterprise of reading the Fathers is not always as easy as it seems.

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By In Theology, Wisdom

How not to miss opportunities in theological and ministerial education

I was chatting with a friend recently about ministerial and theological training, and I had a couple of thoughts about some of the ways in which the whole experience can go awry.

It strikes me that one of the problems that sometimes arises when people go to seminary or theological college is that they are frankly a little suspicious of their lecturers (whom they don’t know very well, after all), and about the books they’re asked to read (many of which are written by people they’re never heard of), and they therefore approach their studies with an attitude of rather unconstructive criticism. They adopt a “personal theological position” on a whole range of matters about which they profess sufficient knowledge to make pretty final-sounding judgments, and then proceed to assess what they read and hear on the basis of whether it agrees with what they already think they know.

As a result, their theological training is characterised by two major disappointments. First, they experience only the slightest incremental growth in theological understanding during their training, because they have innoculated themselves anything new, and it’s quite hard to have your world rocked by someone who is saying stuff that’s basically pretty familiar. Second, on the (rare?) occasions that they happen to encounter something genuinely new (perhaps by accident, or perhaps because it’s forced upon them), they respond with an unhealthy dose of critical-spirited-ness, because, after all, this stuff contradicts my “personal theological position.” It’s all pretty sad.

At the risk of causing offence – a risk worth taking in this instance – I’ll be blunt.

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By In Wisdom

Bittersweet goodbye

It’s always sad for a church to say goodbye to our friends. It’s inevitable, of course, for people move house for many different reasons – work, family commitments, and so on – and very often this means leaving their church to worship elsewhere. But this doesn’t make it any easier when we suddenly realize that friends who’ve been a permanent fixture in our lives are going to be around a whole lot less often.

It’s even harder when the people moving on have been deeply involved in the church’s ministry. A church might lose an Elder, a family-full of wise listening ears, and a flock of behind-the-scenes servants who over the years have been responsible for a myriad of practical tasks from putting the coffee on before church to clearing up the mess afterwards.

This is the situation we’re going to find ourselves in at Emmanuel in the next few weeks with the departure of one of the families who have been with us from our very first service in March 2009. Frankly, apart from the fact that some other church somewhere is about to be richly blessed by some new arrivals, it’s hard to see the bright side.

But there is a bright side. There’s always a bright side. The God who disciplines us for our good so that we may share in his holiness (Heb 12:10) and who brings affliction so that we might keep his word (Ps 119:67) is perfectly capable of taking the bitter water of a friend’s departure and making it sweet (Ex 15:23-25).

So then, what are the good things that could happen as a result of our friends leaving the church?

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By In Politics

Reconciliation at the Table

We are a divided people. Children turn against parents, parents turn against children, politicians turn against politicians, and we turn against those who rule over us. From within, we have been working steadily to undo Paul’s great theme in his writings: the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in Christ Jesus. Our oneness is challenged daily as we hear of reports of brothers and sisters tearing one another, gossiping, cursing one another. Authority figures are being killed and authority figures are unjustly killing. If you try to find a consistent trend there is none. We destroy our unity because we have sabotaged the image-bearing status of humanity, as Al Stout noted here.

But our solution is near us. It seems too simple; too safe and yet too dangerous.

When we taste the Eucharist we taste physical elements offered to God’s people for edification, wisdom, and nurture. Yet when tragedy strikes we run away from the meal that brings together male and female, slave and free. What would the world be like if police officers and their black neighbors were to eat and drink at the table together? What would it look like for the one in authority to partake of bread and wine with the tattooed Hispanic convert? What would it look like to be formed by something given to us, something served each week by a minister of the Gospel? What would it take to get estranged brothers to embrace each other at the culmination of worship, and then say, “Peace be with you,” as they look into each others’ eyes and drink the blood of Christ and eat his body?

The Gospel of the sacraments ought to do that for us. The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” a Baptism unites us into the oneness formed by the Spirit. God takes us from our diversity and unites us into his Threeness and Oneness.

Why have conversations about unity abandoned conversations about the table?

If the Church wishes to see unity, let’s encourage the weak and strong, young and old to build ecclesiastical patterns of weekly eating, weekly partaking, weekly loving, weekly embracing, and weekly serving one another—in and through our diversity—that we may find union with Messiah Jesus: the source of all true reconciliation. So this Sunday b come and serve your brother and sister with intentionality as you eat and drink in the name of One Lord, one faith, and one baptism.

  1. I Corinthians 12:13  (back)
  2. or whenever your church communes at the table  (back)

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