Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Offensive Art

An image with Jesus covered in ants from the video “A Fire in My Belly,” part of the ‘Hide/Seek’ exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

just read an article posted by the Wall Street Journal (you can read it here) explaining that the Smithsonian has removed an offensive video that shows a crucifix of Christ with ants crawling all over it. The image above is a still shot from the video. The video was removed after complaints from some Catholics that it was offensive to them.

One cannot help but wonder what kind of outcry would be coming from the media and various liberal groups had this been some other religious symbol such as a Koran. Why is it that offensive expression are acceptable if it a Christian target? Individuals in the U.S. have the right to express themselves and that includes the right to insensitivity and poor taste. What is curious, however, is why such expressions would be displayed in a public repository such as the Smithsonian. I would think that such a prestigious public museum would be focused on the display of objects that have cultural or historical significance for the country rather than being used to promote expressive artistic exhibits that any rational person would see are offensive to a major portion of the population.

The crucifix is not an artistic representation that I, as a conservative Protestant, would be particularly excited about but in the broader cultural context it is clearly understood to be a Christian symbol. The artist claims that the message was that we were all created in the image of Christ and were returning to the earth. Whatever the intention the result is quite offensive but what bothers me the most is that Christians seem to be fair game for this kind of thing in a way that virtually no other group is. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

"The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”           
                                                                                                                                (Psalm 50:23 ESV)

Brothers and sisters today is a day set apart for thanksgiving. As believers we are to offer thanks every day but particularly on this day we often have an opportunity to express our thanks to the Lord in the company of others who may not share our blessed hope. Many people who do not believe or have no personal commitment to the Lord will give thanks today for family, friends, and various material blessings. To be sure, we as Christians are thankful for these things as well but as God’s children we have Him which is the greatest thing we could ever be thankful for.  It is important today (as every day) that when giving thanks to our Lord that we do so not out of any kind of circular logic that emphasizes ourselves but rather in a way that emphasizes Him as the gracious giver of blessings. In doing so we properly offer our thanksgiving as a form of worship as is appropriate.

As Jonathan Edwards explains in his essay on Religious Affections:

“True gratitude or thankfulness to God for his kindness to us, arises from a foundation laid before, of love to God for what he is in himself, whereas a natural gratitude has no such antecedent foundation. The gracious stirrings of grateful affection to God, for kindness received, always are from a stock of love already in the heart, established in  the first place on other grounds, viz., God's own excellency; and hence the affections are disposed to flow out on occasions of God's kindness. The saint, having seen the glory of God, and his heart being overcome by it, and captivated with love to him on that account, his heart hereby becomes tender, and easily affected with kindnesses received. If a man has no love to another, yet gratitude be moved by some extraordinary kindness; as in Saul towards David: but this is not the same kind of thing, as a man's gratitude to a dear friend, that his heart was before possessed with a high esteem of, and love to; whose heart by this means became tender towards him, and more easily affected with gratitude, and affected in another manner. Self-love is not excluded from a gracious gratitude; the saints love God for his kindness to them: Psal. 116:1, "I love the Lord, because he hath heard the voice of my supplication." But something else is included; and another love prepares the way, and lays the foundation for these grateful affections.

In a gracious gratitude men are affected with the attribute of God's goodness and free grace not only as they are concerned in it, or as it affects their interest, but as a part of the glory and beauty of God's nature. That wonderful and unparalleled grace of God, which is manifested in the work of redemption, and shines forth in the face of Jesus Christ, is infinitely glorious in itself, and appears so to the angels; it is a great part of the moral perfection and beauty of God's nature. This would be glorious, whether it were exercised towards us or no; and the saint who exercises a gracious thankfulness for it, sees it to be so, and delights in it as such: though his concern in it serves the more to engage his mind and raise the attention and affection; and self-love here assists as a handmaid, being subservient to higher principles, to lead forth the mind to the view and contemplation, and engage and fix the attention, and heighten the joy and love.--God's kindness to them is a glass that God sets before them, wherein to behold the beauty of the attribute of God's goodness: the exercises and displays of this attribute, by this means, are brought near to them, and set right before them. So that in a holy thankfulness to God, the concern our interest has in God's goodness is not the first foundation of our being affected with it; that was laid in the heart before, in that stock of love which was to God, for his excellency in himself, that makes the heart tender and susceptive of such impressions from his goodness to us. Poor is our own interest, or the benefits we have received, the only, or the chief objective ground of the present   exercises of the affection, but God's goodness, as part of the beauty of his nature; although the manifestations of that lovely attribute, set immediately before our eyes, in the exercises of it for us, be the special occasion of the mind's attention to that beauty, at that time, and serves to fix the attention, and heighten the affection.” … “The first foundation of the delight a true saint has in God, is his own perfection; and the first foundation of the delight he has in Christ, is his own beauty; he appears in himself the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely. The way of salvation by Christ is a delightful way to him, for the sweet and admirable manifestations of the divine perfections in it: the holy doctrines of the gospel, by which God is exalted and man abased, holiness honored and promoted, and sin greatly disgraced and discouraged, and free and sovereign love manifested, are glorious doctrines in his eyes, and sweet to his taste, prior to any conception of his interest in these things. Indeed the saints rejoice in their interest in God, and that Christ is theirs: and so they have great reason, but this is not the first spring of their joy. They first rejoice in God as glorious and excellent in himself, and then secondarily rejoice in it, that so glorious a God is theirs.”

Happy Thanksgiving

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Which is it? The Translation of Acts 13:48

All of God’s word is powerful and useful without exception but naturally there are certain passages and verses that will have a huge impact on our understanding of particular doctrines or positions. Few doctrinal arguments have resulted in the proliferation of collections of such verses on each side as the Calvinist Arminian debate. Over the years supporters of each side have stockpiled proof-texts like so many missiles at the ready to be launched at any potential challenger.  In addition to these missile texts there are also what I call grenade texts; proof-text that get lobbed over where if the person on the receiving end is quick enough, they can be hurled right back. These “grenade” texts can really be confusing because the argument regarding them often revolves around nuanced grammatical or contextual issues. One such text is Acts 13:48.

The ESV renders this verse the following way:

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

Calvinists often quote this verse because it seems to be clear support for their view of predestination. In addition they often quote from traditional translations such as the KJV that give the verse a strong predestinarian emphasis.

”And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.

Arminians, however, argue that this verse may not be as clear an example as the Calvinists believe it to be. Dr. Jack Cottrell, who is one of the most capable contemporary advocates for the Arminian view, says the following when discussing this verse:

The verse is “almost uniformly translated in a way that pleases Calvinists: ‘As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.’ How can this be reconciled with the Arminian view? There is no need to invoke an implied foreknowledge here, nor to seek some esoteric meaning for the verb tasso. The key is to understand that the verb form (tetagmenoi) should be taken as middle (reflexive) voice, not passive. (Grammatically the form can be either.) Using the common connotation “to place, set, order, or arrange in a certain position,” we can see that the statement can quite validly be taken thus: “As many as arranged themselves unto (eis) eternal life believed,” or “As many as turned themselves toward eternal life believed.” This agrees with the context, where the Jews’ response to the gospel is being contrasted with that of the Gentiles. Whereas the Jews rejected the gospel and judged themselves to be unworthy of eternal life (v. 46), the Gentiles received it gladly and embraced the message of eternal life (v. 48). In both cases the decision was a matter of free choice.

This Arminian interpretation of Acts 13:48 is essentially the opposite of the usual translation. We therefore have two possible translations of the same Greek text which are worlds apart in their theological implications. The obvious question is based upon the plain understanding of the language itself, apart from preconceived theological convictions, which of these translations is more accurate?

As expected, answering this question is not simple and I certainly am not qualified to give any final or definitive opinion on the matter. My purpose in this post is rather to describe the debate and to use it as a template to highlight the need for working through these kinds of issues with a commitment to let the text drive our conclusions rather than imposing our theology upon it.

The verse in Greek is:

ἀκούοντα δὲ τὰ ἔθνη ἔχαιρον καὶ ἐδόξαζον τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου, καὶ ἐπίστευσανὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον: 

The primary argument revolves around the word τεταγμένοι (tetagmenoi) which is a form of the Greek verb tassw (tasso). The verb tasso means to draw up in order, to arrange, assign, fix, determine, appoint, or position. It is a word that is derived from the positioning of units in military order. The verb form in this verse, Tetagmenoi, is in the perfect tense meaning that it implies past action that has ongoing consequences (at least to the time of the writing). It is also part of a phrase that can be taken to be a past perfect (pluperfect) construction. This simply means that it establishes some point in the past (the time of the events in the narrative) and then describe some action prior to that time (tetagmenoi).

This brings us to the crucial part of the argument. If the verb is taken to be in the passive voice, meaning that the subject is receiving rather than doing the action of the verb, then the common translation is preferred. If, however, we understand the verb to be in the middle or reflexive voice, meaning that the subject acts upon themselves and both gives and receives the action of the verb, then Dr. Cottrell’s translation would be preferable. The problem is that τεταγμένοι, could be either middle or passive since the form of the verb would be the same in both cases. Since both the middle and passive renderings of the word are grammatically indistinguishable the decision on which is being used has to be made based upon its usage and context.

Arminians make a contextual argument from the overall passage in Acts that the middle voice makes more sense (see Olsen etc.) and of course, Calvinists argue for the passive voice (see Wallace etc.). There have been other scholars such as Alford who have argued based upon context and grammar that the verse should be interpreted “as many as were disposed believed”If this is correct it would essentially remove the argument at least one step from this particular verse because whether it was human or divine agency that produced such a disposition cannot be determined conclusively from this verse.

There is the question of why, if this is such a contested verse, the preferred Arminian rendering is so rare. Many Arminians argue that the traditional translation is popular as a result of tradition but I find it difficult to believe that virtually every translator would be loyal to traditional renderings. In any case, regardless of which side of the theological argument we happen to be on we must always be honest in our approach to the text. It seems to me, despite my Reformed theological commitments, that the word τεταγμένοι should not be translated as “were ordained” or “were destined” as some older translations render it. It seems that the word more accurately means “were appointed” or “were arranged” as the ESV translates it. Based upon the context I do not think that these people arranged themselves for eternal life therefore understanding the verb in the passive voice makes more sense to me.

The goal of looking into these matters should never be to win arguments. We must always faithfully follow the scriptures wherever they lead us. No major doctrine ever rests upon any single verse. The flinging of proof-texts back and forth in argument is generally unproductive and can be dishonoring to God who has revealed a unified truth to us in His word. This does not, however, mean that we should not wrestle over the meanings of these verses. We must always be willing to sit in subjection to scripture and carefully investigate, understand, and consider the biblical arguments of brothers and sisters who disagree with us so that we may grow in our understanding and our pride may be kept in check. May the Lord who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing grant us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

God Doesn't Make Mistakes...But I Do.

I was attending a business conference earlier this week and between meetings I went to my hotel room to check my email and get some work done. As I came into the room I decided to turn on the television so I could listen to the news as I worked. I turned on CNN and walked across the room to the desk and settled in to get started. At the time I turned it on there was a commercial on so I did not realize that the scheduled program was Larry King Live. Although I normally do not watch Larry King I had left the remote over by the television and it didn’t seem worth the effort to change it. It did not take me long to regret leaving the remote control on the other side of the room because King’s guest was singer Ricky Martin whom he was interviewing regarding his “coming out” and his advocacy for homosexual marriage rights.

I tried to ignore it and focus on my work but it was too distracting. As I got up to change the channel King asked the following question. “As you look retrospectively now, should you have come out sooner?” to which Martin answered “Like I've said, Larry, I wish I knew how good it was going to feel, I would have done it 10 years ago. But I guess I had to go through my spiritual search, my spiritual path to get to conclusions and be able to be comfortable enough to look at myself in the mirror and say, everything is going to be fine. You're a good person. And God doesn't make mistakes.” This is very similar to other statements that he has made recently. Previously on another show while discussing his public disclosure of his homosexuality Martin said "My faith back then was telling me that what I was feeling was bad, was evil," …"I am a very spiritual man and my god doesn't make mistakes. I have a really cool connection with that beautiful light up there that is constantly reassuring who I am and telling me, 'You are an awesome person.”

While it may be easy for those of us within conservative or evangelical Christian circles to dismiss this kind of rationalization it represents a trend that is becoming more prevalent. There are many people who wish to retain a sense of communion with the divine while rejecting any demands upon themselves. This kind of theology would probably not be too concerning if it were not for the fact that so many are sympathetic to its logic.

Just about anyone who knows me has heard me say that everyone is a theologian, it is just a matter of whether they are a good theologian or not and ideas have consequences. For various reasons people do not want to be confronted with the truth about what God says. The biblical standard of holiness is too onerous for us and so often we prefer to create in our own mind a vision of God that selects a la carte from the things He has revealed so that we may have a comfortable and reaffirming view of ourselves. This isn’t just something that happens within the homosexual community, in fact, we all do it. Every one of us prefers not to see ourselves in the same light as God sees us apart from Christ. To face this terrible truth is something that (by God’s grace) those of us who believe are able to do in the knowledge that despite our sinfulness we are accepted through His sacrifice on our behalf.
The kind of argument that Martin gave is wrong for a few reasons. First, it ignores the fact that all of us are depraved sinners that, apart from God’s grace, are incapable of doing anything pleasing in God’s sight. Secondly, it completely misses the holy character of God which is an attribute that He has gone to great lengths to reveal to us in His word. And finally, from an ethical standpoint it is completely arbitrary.

It is important for us to always keep in mind that we possess a fallen nature and that each of us has various proclivities and natural tendencies that are opposed to God and are rebellious. To argue that any particular action or desire is good because it is natural misses an important theological truth. A man may have a natural tendency to anger and violence, drug or alcohol use, or various impure sexual desires and many other sinful proclivities that we could list but the fact that he has them and that they come from “who he is” does not validate the behaviors or the nature from which they proceed. Rather, they confirm the testimony of scripture that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; No one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; No one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12 ESV) Christ did not come here to tell us how awesome we are; rather he came to put our old nature (and its natural desires) to death and to grant us a new life so that we could have a restored relationship with the Father. God may not make mistakes but we all do.

The holiness of God is such an important part of the biblical teaching in both testaments that to ignore it would be to ignore one of the most emphasized attributes revealed to us about Him. In fact, the Hebrew language often emphasizes things through repetition (as opposed to our use of bold font, underlining, and exclamatory punctuation) and anything repeated three times is said to be in the superlative degree, meaning it is being emphasized beyond anything of a comparable class. As far as I know, God’s holiness is the only attribute of God that is ever repeated to the superlative degree in the bible. In Isaiah chapter 6 the prophet sees a vision that many believe to be heaven itself and in this vision Isaiah explains that the angels surrounding the throne were chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”.  This holiness consists in complete separation from anything defiled and anything sinful. Scripture teaches us repeatedly that the reaction of a person who encounters God is immediate humility; typically face down on the ground pleading for mercy, if indeed they can speak at all. To see the face of God would mean death for any human. It is only when we are “in Christ” and have Him as our advocate can we expect to come into the presence of God with anything like the affirmation that Martin describes and that only because He has given to us a new life born of incorruptible seed.

Finally, this argument fails to make any distinctions regarding behavior. Given the amount of ethical teaching in both testaments it is fair to say that God has some expectations regarding our behavior but if our choices are affirmed simply as a result of the fact that they are natural to us and God doesn’t make mistakes then there would be virtually no limit to what could be justified. If a psychopath has a tendency to murder or a drunkard has a tendency to drink, or a pedophile has a disgusting proclivity toward children we would have to accept that all of these behaviors are justified because God made them that way would we not? This argument eliminates any standard by which a person’s behavior could be judged. It is a slippery slope argument to which there is virtually no end.

The Lord has revealed to us in scripture a standard for behavior and if we are to claim to have a relationship with God we must accept Christ and the standard He taught as well. ”Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.. (2 John 1:9 ESV) The good news is that Christ has made it possible for us to abide by that teaching and remain strong in it through what he has done. Regardless of if our struggles were with sexual sin (as Ricky Martin was proudly proclaiming), pride, addiction, or whatever else we know that Christ has won the victory over it. We are to pray for His healing and power and seek His strength. If we insist on confirming ourselves in our sinfulness rather than confessing it (whatever “it” may be) we contradict God and testify to the hardness of our own hearts. As Paul explained in Romans:

”…since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:28-32 ESV)

If we have sin in our lives that we have failed to battle and are trying to reconcile it with our relationship to God I pray we would take up the matter urgently. Let us admit that such things are inconsistent with our testimony and go to our knees. Let us pray together for God’s provision and strength remembering what our brother Paul has taught us: For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

It is God, not I that is awesome and it is only through His grace poured out upon me, a sinner, that I have any affirmation or hope in this life.  –Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book Review: Walter Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament

026105: Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the ChurchPreaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church

By Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. / Baker

Preaching from the Old Testament receives short shrift in many pulpits. Kaiser shows you why and how  you should preach from the OT. Emphasizing the relevance of the First Testament, this reliable guide offers practical insight into expository preaching and concrete suggestions on teaching the narrative texts, wisdom books, prophets, laments, and more. 222 pages, softcover from Baker.

I purchased this book assuming that it might offer some helpful perspectives on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament since it claims to be "a guide for the Church". I figured that in addition to helping me in my current study focus it might also contain some practical advice on presenting the Old Testament in teaching contexts. Although it didn't address my first expectation as deeply as it might have it provided much valuable information in other areas.
Over the years I have found Dr. Kaiser's work to be very helpful particularly in the areas of Old Testament study and hermeneutics. In this book he brings both of these expertise's to bear upon his subject. He points out that although there are many people who are using a biblical text as the basis of their sermons this isn't the same thing as delivering an exegetical sermon. He sees the lack of real expository preaching (and teaching) as one of the reasons for the significant disconnect between what many people who go to church claim to believe and how they often think and behave. In addition to the lack of expository preaching in general he points specifically to a lack of Old Testament teaching as leading to an anemic view of God and an incomplete understanding of the bible in general.
Unlike many other scholars and pundits, however, Dr. Kaiser isn't content to engage in a disconnected examination the problem. He continues in the book to describe the process of how to prepare expository sermons or exegetical class notes for each of the major literary forms found in the Old Testament. He does a great job of addressing important aspects of breaking down a text including the grammatical and literary forms etc. in a very accessible and understandable way. Although the book is written primarily for preachers and teachers I think it would be a valuable resource for any student planning to study in the Old Testament. The process that he describes in the book and the advice he gives include many of the same things that a student needs to take into consideration when studying Old Testament passages.I recommend the book for both teachers and students looking for an introduction in an inductive or expository approach to the Old Testament.