By In Culture, Scribblings, Theology

a poem for advent

E. E. Cummings


maybe god

is a child
‘s hand)very carefully
to you and to
me(and quite with
out crushing)the

papery weightless diminutive (more…)

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By In Theology

John’s Wedding Party

Guest post by Jacob Gucker

Interpreters of the fourth Gospel have long noted that it begins very similarly to the book of Genesis. John’s description of the opening days of Jesus’ ministry reads as if it is echoing the words of the six-day creation sequence from the book of beginnings. Most scholars favor the idea that the wedding at Cana falls on the seventh day, completing the first week of the new creation with man and woman together and the wine of the new age flowing abundantly. Others suggest that the wedding falls on the 6th day, the wedding at Cana echoing the creation of man and woman.

There are other themes from the rest of Genesis in the opening chapters. For instance, we see the dove that once hovered over the flood now coming down to light upon Jesus at His baptism. And, just as Jacob saw angels descending and ascending on a stairway to heaven, Jesus claims that His disciples will see the angels doing the same on Him. Furthermore, just as Noah provided rest in the form of wine after the great flood, Jesus turns an abundance of water into wine at the wedding feast, symbolizing the genesis of a new age.

Commentators agree that chapters 2-4 are a distinct literary unit because of the inclusio in 4:46 which informs the reader that Jesus has returned to Cana where He turned the water into wine. Scholars refer to this unit as a “Cana to Cana cycle.” I propose that John intended this unit to be a chiastic recapitulation of Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” I also propose that this unit works as a literary “day” on which the “Sun of Righteousness” comes out of His chamber like a bridegroom and, like a strong man runs His course with joy. (more…)

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By In Culture, Theology

Sola Fide: The Problem With the Sinner’s Prayer

I am a Reformed Protestant, and I don’t believe we are saved by faith alone. Neither do I believe we are “once saved, always saved.” Do those statements seem strange to you? Then you’ve probably fallen prey to one of the great distortions of Protestant and evangelical theology. Read on, and I’ll explain.

Both the material cause of the split between Rome and the Reformers (Sola Fide, or “faith alone”), and the formal cause (Sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone”), suffer from widespread distortions and misunderstandings, even among Protestants who claim to espouse these principles. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I want to debunk some popular myths about these two of the Five Solae.

The Pseudo-Sacrament of Conversion

Let’s start with Sola Fide, as it’s commonly embodied in evangelical circles: as a sort of confession of guilt and pledge of allegiance to God known as “the sinner’s prayer.” It usually goes something like this: (more…)

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By In Theology, Worship

Attaining Unity: A Reply to Mike Allen

By Peter Leithart

Mike Allen of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, scores some points in his review of The End of Protestantism. He lodges the fair complaint that my rhetoric sometimes outruns my evidence. He argues that more stress on the present reality of the church’s unity deepens the tragedy of division; divisions in the church “straightforwardly oppose reality.”

Of course, I have parries to these criticisms. The complaint about rhetoric misconstrues the genre of the book, which is sermonic rather than academic. Sermons need arguments too, but sermons aim to move, not merely to convince.

Mike is right that I don’t provide complete arguments or probative evidence for many of my assertions, that doesn’t mean there are no arguments or evidence to present. In some cases, I mistakenly wrote as if the reader would be familiar with my other work, where I offer fuller arguments. Mike is also right that my assertion that “nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions” is unprovable. But there’s plenty that makes it plausible – the New Testament’s forceful emphasis on unity as a part of the church’s witness, the testimony of unbelievers over several centuries, and the cultural effects of the church’s fragmentation documented by writers like Brad Gregory. (I suspect Mike is as skeptical of Gregory as he is of me, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Some of his other criticisms miss the bull’s eye. Mike thinks he can rebut my discussion of global Christianity by saying that the globalization of the church is likely to make Christianity more “fissiparous” rather than more unified. But I make exactly that point (p. 128), and his criticism misrepresents my argument in any case. The north-south inversion of Christianity isn’t evidence that “unity is just around the corner” (Mike’s mischaracterization, not my words). Along with the softening of Protestant-Catholic and East-West boundaries, it’s evidence that God is busting up the old world of post-Reformation Christianity, an end that offers opportunities for fresh beginnings. Mike doesn’t think these trends have much of anything to do with one another, but, working within the biblical paradigm I outline in chapter 8, I take both trends as signs of what appears to be an epochal internal restructuring of Christianity.

Mike’s point about the present unity of the church is criticism of a different order and requires a different sort of response. Like many, perhaps most, Reformed thinkers, Mike takes the present unity of the church as an invisible or heavenly unity, and characterizes my position as illegitimately empirical. Mine, he charges, is an ecclesiology of sight rather than faith. He acknowledges that I occasionally speak of present unity (p. 28), but thinks that present unity doesn’t play a large enough role in my book.

Let me attempt a slight restatement of my position that I hope takes account of Mike’s criticisms.

For starters, a methodological remark that addresses one of the underlying issues in Mike’s review: He characterizes the “underlying logic” of my book as “sociological” rather than “theological.” I don’t accept the criticism because I don’t acknowledge that disciplinary separation. More positively, I write from the conviction that theology is inherently sociological and that biblically-informed history-writing is a mode, and should be one of the chief modes, of theology. Are Samuel and Kings political science or theology? Is Acts history or ecclesiology? To my way of thinking, The End of Protestantism is a thoroughly theological treatise.

To the question of unity more particularly: An empirical test is integral to the biblical portrayal of unity. Jesus prays the church would be unified enough for the world to recognize it (John 17:21, 23). This cannot be a unity discernible only to faith, since Jesus expects the world to discern it. If our unity doesn’t show the world that the Father sent the Son, it’s not the unity Jesus prayed for.

On the basis of Ephesians 4:4-6, Mike argues that the unity of the “one body” is a present reality but not an empirical reality. The unity must be the unity of the invisible church. “God reveals oneness first as a gift in the present” that “must be maintained.” It “can be stretched and even scandalized” but remains inviolable. In the midst of stretch and scandal, we need to view the church theologically rather than sociologically or empirically.

This is a questionable reading of Ephesians. Nothing in the passage suggests that Paul is speaking of an invisible body (a strange category in any case). Immediately after the “poem” on oneness, Paul writes of gifts distributed by the ascended Lord Jesus to His church (vv. 7-11), gifts including visible apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who build up what must be the visible “body of Christ” (v. 11). Does it make sense to say that “body” in verse 4 is an invisible company when “body of Christ” in verse 11 is a visible communion? What warrants the insertion of a visible-invisible distinction? It seems more straightforward to conclude that for Paul the unity of the body is as visible as the unity of baptism. (more…)

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By In Culture, Family and Children

On the Nashville Statement and My Signing of it

Guest post by Alistair Roberts

Note: Alistair Roberts signed the Nashville Statement, but has some reservations from a conservative perspective. He agreed to repost his lengthier observations here.

I’ve posted some thoughts here.

The Nashville Statement is a reassertion and defence of the creational reality of humanity, of the basic anthropological difference: that humanity is created and divinely blessed with fruitfulness as male and female. It is this reality that is under assault today on various fronts, as the natural order of creation is challenged by those who variously deny this difference, whether they reduce the sexed body to a superficial façade that can be changed, abandon substantive sexed selfhood for radical gender performativity, studiously downplay the ways in which the sexes are naturally physically and psychologically ordered to each other, or detach marriage from any procreative end or form. In standing against these developments, we aren’t expressing some peculiar or eccentric claims of Christian theology, but upholding creational realities that have been generally recognised across human ages and cultures.

Read the whole article.

As I suggest in the article, the Nashville Statement is far from perfect in a number of respects and various critical pieces have been written about it by writers who hold to firmly orthodox positions on sexual ethics (see Matt Lee Anderson’s remarks here, for instance). There are a number of things that I would have liked to have seen in it, including:

  1. A much more robust account of the grounding of sexual ethics in creational reality, making clear that this isn’t just a matter of biblical revelation and that explicit scriptural teaching isn’t the only way to arrive at a basic understanding of marriage or the problems with same-sex relations and transgender ideology.
  2. A clearer admission of the many ways in which evangelicals themselves have been complicit in or compromised by the shifts being challenged. The ways we have participated in a culture of divorce, the normalization of a contraceptive approach to marital relations, our downplaying of the procreative calling of marriage, and widespread use of pornography among Christians are all sins we must openly confess and address if we are to have any real success in dealing with the issues that the Statement highlights. These things are all connected: same-sex marriage was a fairly direct outgrowth of cultural trends that we are all fairly profoundly compromised by.
  3. A much firmer statement about the ways in which relations between men and women have been disordered by the Fall, with the result that natural differences are twisted towards mutual frustration, oppression, and destruction.
  4. A better framing of the seventh article, whose denial seems to push back against groups such as the Spiritual Friendship crowd, but which lacks the clarity it really needs to do this well. In my reading of it, I think it allows—perhaps unwittingly, I don’t know—for the accommodation of some of their concerns and positions as potentially orthodox, while firmly resisting certain of their ways of framing things. I think such challenge is needed, but I fear some signers and framers of the Statement will have dismissed the Spiritual Friendship position without adequately understanding what they are presenting. It is important to recognize that male androphilia and female gynephilia are naturally disordered and that the significance of nature isn’t negated by grace: that naturally, in the good and proper functioning of creation, men are sexually attracted to women and women to men. It is also important, however, to appreciate that the ‘homosexuality’ of gay and lesbian persons is typically merely one aspect of broader experiences of selfhood and lebenswelt that, though perhaps atypical for their sexes (remember, sexuality is a gender difference—men are gynephiles and women are androphiles), can often find legitimate expression in ways that aren’t sexual, and which can be very good and praiseworthy. The Spiritual Friendship crowd, whatever their faults, are actually trying to forge a positive vision of what faithful Christian discipleship looks like for persons in such a position. I fear that, if we aren’t careful, we will be trying to beat something with nothing.
  5. A strong word against the vicious animus against LGBT persons that has far too often infected Christian contexts, rendering an orthodox stance on sexual holiness odious to those who cannot separate it from the personal hatred that they have experienced from Christians on account of their sexuality. The radical loss of the credibility of Christian sexual ethics in society has many causes, but this must be placed near the top. It is great to see the call to present the truth in a loving way, but without a direct condemnation of the hatred for and unhealthy obsession with LGBT persons that exists in many quarters of society and the Church, we won’t really be addressing our own sins.


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By In Politics

Conservatives on the Cutting Edge

Guest Post by Troy Green

In James K.A. Smith’s excellent book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theologyhe explains recent developments in theology and philosophy among mostly post-liberal (some Catholic) theologians. As with everything Dr. Smith writes, his prose is accessible and written with clarity and precision as he describes the contribution made by some of these post-liberal scholars.

One quote caught my attention. He quotes Wolterstorff saying, “I have long thought, that . . . it’s remarkable that Karl Barth should have arrived in the 1920’s at the views which I characterized as those of the Yale theologians, views which we can now recognize to be….postmodern views. But it’s even more remarkable that Abraham Kuyper should have arrived at postmodern views of academic learning fifty years before that, more than a hundred years ago.”Abraham Kuyper was a brilliant theologian and politician of the latter 19th century who remains in high esteem among conservative evangelical scholars. Yet, Wolterstorff finds it remarkable that Kuyper could be on the cutting edge of theology some 50 years before men like Barth came along and 100 years before Yale theologians.

Question: Is this an anomaly or true to form for conservative evangelical theologians to be so far advanced in comparison to certain philosophical and theological trends of their day?

Smith describes the general consensus of the Radical Orthodox movement: “They are all particularly wary of the danger of adopting secular frameworks for Christian theological and theoretical reflection insofar as such secular paradigms are, ultimately, pagan (i.e., religious but misdirected or apostate).  In short, there is no secular, if by “secular” we mean “neutral” or “uncommitted”; instead, the supposedly neutral public spaces that we inhabit–in the academy or politics–are temples of other gods that cannot be served alongside Christ.”

Wow. There is no secular. There is no neutrality. Since this is the recent big discovery over the past several decades of post-liberal theology, I wonder if we could go back some 50 years and look at some of the conservative evangelical theologians to see what they were saying in the 1950’s and 60’s. A simple reading of anything by Cornelius Van Til one could find similar statements. Of course, this doesn’t even come close to plundering other works–which are replete with such statements–from men like R.J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer.

I’m appreciative to see many of these post-liberal theologians stating similar conclusions to that of Van Til. I am delighted to see them make contributions to revive a much needed political ecclesiology—the institutional church—in light of the realization that there is no secular or neutral ground. Conservative evangelical theologian, James B. Jordan, has been pushing an ecclesiocentric theology for decades. This is needed in both conservative and liberal churches as Smith mentions in his book exposing the shortcomings of the fundamentalist and liberal theologians of the modern 20th century.

But before I jump too much in my appreciation of post-liberal thought embracing a virgin birth and the resurrected Jesus, I don’t want to ignore all the areas it’s still wrong (e.g. views on feminism, socialism, homosexuality, etc.). I want to say something to these post-liberal theologians in light of the historical battles – very costly battles – fought by conservative evangelicals defending the integrity of the Bible and the fundamentals of the Christian faith against the claims of liberal predecessors: Welcome! Welcome to the 1960’s. If you are this elated about the discoveries of the sixties, imagine how ecstatic you will be when you reach the eighties and discover cassette tapes, classic rock, and Theonomy/Reconstructionist debates within conservative evangelical theology.

My assumption: Abraham Kuyper is not an anomaly. Neither was R.L. Dabney on EducationJohn G. Machen on LiberalismR.J. Rushdoony on the Politics of Guilt and Pity, and Cornelius Van Til on everything. These men are true to form. To believe the Bible is God’s Word–and to study it as such–is to always be on the cutting edge.

Post originally published at Theopolis.

Rev. Troy Greene is Pastor of The King’s Chapel in Brooklyn, New York.

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By In Theology

Ballet and Biblical Interpretation

Guest Post by Jacob Gucker

My wife and I attended the Houston Ballet’s performance of Aladdin a few years ago. It was my first ballet and a great experience. I found the costume design enchanting, the music salubrious, and the choreography mesmerizing. Even though we were way up in the first balcony, we enjoyed a true feast for the senses. Aladdin is a classic tale, but many people are more familiar with the Disney version than the original story from The Arabian Nights. In the ballet, Aladdin marries the princess at the end of Act II and they share a wedding dance that ends with the two dancers in a pose that tastefully resembles a coital embrace. In act III the evil magician deceives the princess and spirits her away to become a slave in his harem. When the man, the Adam, pursues his wife to the uttermost, infiltrating the magician’s palace, they share the same dance, ending with the same pose before going on to face the deceiver together. It was sublime!

My favorite scene occurs in the first act when Aladdin first arrives in the cave of wonders. The audience sees that the floor is covered in gold coins by way of the set design and lighting, but Aladdin’s survey of the cave is not complete until he beholds the precious gemstones which fill the cave. Dancers represent the gemstones.

A parade of precious stones dazzles Aladdin, who simply sits to watch. Time slows down as first a group of onyx and pearl dances, giving way to a routine by the silver and the gold, leading into a sapphire solo, moving into a passionate couple’s dance for a hot pair of rubies, after which the emeralds have their go, and finally, the diamonds. My favorite was the dance of the diamonds. They were dressed in silver, white, and black. They wore tutus, and I now understand why ballerinas wear them. The effect of their shiny tutus waggling as they pranced about en pointe was wonderful to behold and, furthermore, totally convincing. I was really, truly, seeing diamonds.

But what if I refused to accept this way of conveying a cave full of gems? What if I rejected the art form? What if I rejected ballet as the best way to tell the story unfolding before me? What if, after the show, I walked up to the director and said, “I think that your dancers represented the gemstones poorly; you should have used props?” Or, what if someone asked me what the scene in the cave was about and I said, “It was about people dancing in colorful costumes?” What if I stood before an assembled body of ballet aficionados and complained that the passage of time in the cave seemed unrealistic. “There’s no way it would take Aladdin that long to survey the gemstones. Each set of dancers danced for seven whole minutes!” That would be utter foolishness. They would laugh at me and shake their heads for seeing it so woodenly and I would walk away, disappointed in the artist.

Some people read the Bible this way, especially Genesis and Revelation. Genesis and Revelation are history, but not as modern people would tell it. Scripture is literature; scripture is the finest art. I heard a preacher once who proclaimed that there is a physical city of gold and jewels, the exact dimensions of the one mentioned in Revelation 21, presently traveling through outer space. This city will descend upon the earth at the end of time. I laughed inside. His view is what many people would call a “literal view of scripture.” Not so. A literal view of scripture is one that considers its genre and historical context and pattern of symbolism.

Scripture tells us early on that gemstones symbolize God’s people. The gemstones on the breastplate of the high priest of Israel symbolize the tribes of Israel. Paul applies this symbolism to the church in 1 Corinthians 3, saying that the church is God’s temple. The gold and precious stones of that temple are people. Ballet uses people to symbolize gemstones, but the Bible uses gemstones to symbolize people. The city that comes down like a bride prepared for her husband is tribes and peoples and nations. This may be a disappointment with the Artist to those who were looking forward to actual streets of gold, but this is God’s art and He wouldn’t have it any other way.

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