Friday, November 25, 2011

Same Mass... Increased Density

This Sunday the Roman Catholic Church will be implementing the first significant changes to their English liturgy in Southeast Michigan since its translation from Latin in the 1970’s following The Second Vatican Council. A comparison of the old version and the new version of the Mass can be found HERE.

The changes are supposed to be a more literal rendering of the language of the Latin Mass and are intended as part of a world wide effort to commonize the vernacular liturgies so that they are as similar as possible. For the most part the result of the changes is that the wording is more conservative. For example, in the old liturgy the priest would greet the people by saying “The Lord be with you” and the people would respond “And also with you” but now the response will be “And also with your spirit” which seems a bit less intuitive to modern ears. Another example is during the recitation of the Nicene Creed. The old language spoke of Christ as “One in being with the Father” but now Jesus will be said to be “consubstantial with the Father”. The two versions mean the same thing but the new language is clearly less user friendly for the average person. Many of the changes are similar to this in that they are focused more on a precise translation of the Latin and less on ease of understanding for the layman. The new Mass also involves a change to some music and more singing.

These changes have caused quite a stir among many Catholics. Some see them as a good thing. They view them as an elevation of the language of the Mass that further sets it apart from common discourse. Others, however, see these changes as a partial repudiation of the advances made at Vatican II and worry that people will be driven away by the apparent conservative shift in the language of the liturgy. They worry that the Mass will be less accessible for people after these changes.

From a purely theological perspective nothing in the Mass has changed. This isn’t surprising because even the sweeping liturgical changes of Vatican II itself did not change the underlying theological understanding of the Mass or Catholic doctrine. The changes at that time and now are a matter of how those beliefs are communicated and presented. Whether the shift to a more conservative presentation will be beneficial or not to the Roman Church remains to be seen.

When I speak with many of my Catholic friends and family one of the things they often mention is that the Mass gives them a feeling of history, connection, and separation from the broader culture. There is a sense of connection that they find in their liturgy that transcends the chaos of their modern lives. These changes will likely strengthen that response. Though many oppose the changes I think Rome may indeed understand very well what it is doing.

People have a desire to connect to something stable and unchanging. In a time when so many Protestant churches, in an attempt to be seen as relevant, are more likely to reflect the culture rather than confront it the decision by Rome to become more formal in its liturgy may further strengthen the differentiation and the power of the Catholic sub-culture. As an alternative to both widespread Protestant oscillation and Roman formalism I pray that our churches would focus on the unadorned preaching of the Gospel because only God Himself is unchanging and transcendent and we can only truly have fellowship with Him through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The greatest and most valuable tradition of all is the Gospel. It is the message of the Prophets and Apostles and it alone is the power and message of salvation. By God’s grace, let us forego undue focus on liturgy and focus instead on the clear preaching of the Gospel. For as the Apostle Paul reminds us “…since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-24 ESV)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thought on Thanksgiving from the Early Church

I thought it would be appropriate today to share a brief thought on thanksgiving from the early Christian teacher John Chrysostom (347-407). The following comes from one of his homilies on the book of Ephesians. Unfortunately it is a sentiment that would be difficult to find in many of our churches today.

“What then? Are we to give thanks for everything that befalls us? Yes; be it even disease, be it even penury [extreme poverty].  … Yes, even though thou know not the word, give thanks. For this is thanksgiving. But if thou give thanks when thou art in comfort and in affluence, in success and in prosperity, there is nothing great, nothing wonderful in that. What is required is, for a man to give thanks when he is in afflictions, in anguish, in discouragements. Utter no word in preference to this, “Lord, I thank thee.” And why do I speak of the afflictions of this world? It is our duty to give God thanks, even for hell itself, for the torments and punishments of the next world. For surely it is a thing beneficial to those who attend to it, when the dread of hell is laid like a bridle on our hearts. Let us therefore give thanks not only for blessings which we see, but also for those which we see not, and for those which we receive against our will. For many are the blessings He bestows upon us, without our desire, without our knowledge.”

We are to give thanks despite whatever worldly afflictions we face. This is not because we follow some sort of stoic submission where we seek to be indifferent to suffering. No, it is rather because no matter what we face here we can be confident in the goodness of our God who has done immeasurably much for us in His gift of Christ. We know that the sufferings of this current time are nothing to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Happy Thanksgiving 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics

By Graeme Goldsworthy / IVP Academic

In Gospel Centered Hermeneutics, Graeme Goldsworthy's argues that evangelical contributions often do not give sufficient attention to the vital relationship between hermeneutics and theology, both systematic and biblical.

Therefore, Goldsworthy moves beyond a reiteration of typical arguments to concentrate on the theological questions and presuppositions, and their impact on the interpretive process and on their impact of our articulation of the gospel. In doing so, he brings fresh perspectives on some well-worn pathways.

Part I examines the foundations and presuppositions of evangelical belief, particularly with regard to biblical interpretation. Part II offers a selective overview of important hermeneutical developments from the Patristic era to the present, as a means of identifying some significant influences that have been alien to the gospel. Part III evaluates ways and means of reconstructing truly gospel-centered hermeneutics. Throughout Goldsworthy aims to commend the much-neglected role of biblical theology in hermeneutical practice, with pastoral concern for the people of God as they read, interpret and seek to live by his written Word.

There were many observations and conclusions in this book that I agree with and some others that I did not. Most importantly, however, this is a book that challenged me to think and for that reason I highly recommend it. This is a book that needed to be written and Goldsworthy skillfully illustrates how the theological and philosophical presuppositions of Biblical interpreters influence their interpretations. He does a marvelous job of placing the task of the exegete in its broader context. He recognizes that to focus simply on rules and methods while ignoring the broader worldview issues related to epistemology and ontology gives us an insufficient understanding of what hermeneutics really involves.

Other works may have more detail regarding practical application of the principals of interpretation but regarding the broader issues involved with Biblical interpretation this is the best thing I have read in nearly a decade. He too quickly (in my opinion) dismisses a plain hermeneutic for Old Testament passages in favor of a covenantal view of redemptive history but a careful consideration of his reasoning is something that those who hold other views will be challenged to respond to. Some of the material in the book may be difficult for those who do not have familiarity with certain theological and philosophical issues but it is written in a way that would allow it to perhaps serve as a launching pad into further study into those areas.

I highly recommend this book to any advanced student or any person who is interested in the relationship between theology/philosophy and Biblical interpretation. Like any human book it must be read critically but it is an excellent work and deserves to be widely read by those interested in the subject.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I am a Compatibilist

In the previous article I discussed Jonathan Edwards' explanation of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility can be compatible. Edwards argument is important because it demonstrates that the teaching of the scripture that God is in control, and also that He justly holds people accountable for their actions, does not involve a logical contradiction. His arguments, and others like it, however are not the basis for why I am a compatibilist. I am a compatibilist because I believe that the Bible teaches it.

The basic question comes down to whose will is determinative for whatever events occur. Is it human choices and intentions that determine what happens or is it God’s choices and intentions? There are many Biblical examples that I think require us to answer that question in a way that asserts that both are the case. As the old theologians used to say “God works through means”. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The Joseph Story (Genesis 37:18-28, 45:1-8, 50:15-20)

Notice the pronouns in the first part of this story. The text is clear that it is the brothers who are making these choices. If we ask who decided that Joseph would be sold to the Ishmaelites we have to answer based upon this section that his brothers did.

They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:18-28 ESV)

When the story picks up a few chapters later we are given another perspective. This time we see the intention of God introduced. In fact, in the same sentence we see two different wills connected to the same event. Joseph says that his brothers sold him into Egypt but then he says that it was God who did it. He emphasizes God’s providence in their actions by telling his brothers “it was not you who sent me here, but God”. It is clear from the overall narrative that this statement is not intended as a denial of the fact that the brothers had sent him but rather his way of emphasizing that God’s purposes are fulfilled even through their sinful actions. Even their rebellious choices end up being part of the means God uses to bring about His ends.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8 ESV)

As we reach the end of the narrative the brothers clearly understand that they are responsible for what happened to Joseph. They did not, however, understand Joseph’s faithfulness and trust in God’s providence that he shows in his famous statement “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”. I have heard many teachers and preachers explain this verse by saying that God used the actions of brothers to bring about His purposes as if God simply made the best out of what happened. This is not, however, what the verse says. Joseph says that “God meant it”. If we ask the question “who is responsible for Joseph ending up in Egypt” we must give two answers. The brothers are responsible but so is God. God didn’t force the brothers to do what they did, their choices were their own. They did what they desired to do and chose according to their own sinful and selfish natures. Their choices, however, were part of the larger plan of God to provide for His people.

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:15-20 ESV)

The Crucifixion (Is. 53:10, Acts 2:22-23, 4:26-28)

We see a similar dynamic with regard to the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bible tells us that it was the plan of God that Christ would be sacrificed. Hundreds of years before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah revealed God’s intentions in the death of His Son.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; He has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:8-10 ESV)

Peter, in his well known sermon recorded in Acts 2, also touches upon both the human and the divine intention when discussing the death of Christ. He makes it clear that human choices led to the death of Christ but like Joseph’s story this is also part of the plan that God has willed to bring about.

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV)

Again in chapter 4 when Peter and John are released from custody and are praising God both the human and the divine wills and intentions involved in the crucifixion are mentioned again.

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:26-28 ESV)

The Bible teaches that there are two distinct purposes at work in the death of Christ. There are the sinful acts of human beings but also there is the plan of God. God did not force these people to do what they did; they acted according to their own desires and their own motives. There was, however, another purpose and another cause of these events. If we ask who determined that Jesus would be crucified we must provide two answers if we are to be consistent with the teaching of the Bible.

We see in both of these examples that God’s plans infallibly come to pass. He determines what will happen but He does so in a way that does not violate the ability of people to act according to their own desires. To deny the human intention and agency in bringing about these events is to deny the Biblical witness that those people were responsible for those choices and that they were indeed real choices. If we deny the divine intention then we deny the Biblical witness to God’s purposes in history and perhaps His sovereignty as well. These people made choices that proceeded from their own desires, their own natures, from who they were and God working through them according to their nature accomplishes His own ends. Therefore in these examples we see an illustration of what Edwards was talking about. God is in control and His sovereignty means the outcomes are certain even though people are making free choices for which they can justly be held accountable. There are many other Biblical examples that we could have looked at but these are the most well known and I think they are sufficient to make the point. Compatibilism is not just a speculative philosophical position but is a conclusion based upon a careful reading of the Biblical text.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Free Will

I have been asked many times whether I think the Bible teaches that God is completely sovereign or if it teaches that people have free will. I usually respond that the Bible teaches both. That answer usually frustrates people. Most people recognize that if the Bible is truly God’s word it cannot contain real contradictions and they therefore conclude that it has to teach either one or the other. How, they ask, could God be just in holding people accountable for actions that He ultimately planned or determined?

Many assume that God being in control of all things and people being truly free are incompatible. As Christians, however, we believe that the Bible is true and it is the Bible that is our ultimate authority. The Bible clearly teaches that God is completely sovereign and in control. It also teaches that people are responsible for their actions and that God will hold them accountable for what they do. The logical compatibility of those truths is therefore a necessity for a rationally coherent Biblical theology.

The Bible simply asserts and assumes these truths as facts and does not explain the details of how they can be logically reconciled so various theologians have offered potential solutions. The best attempt I have read is Jonathan Edwards work The Freedom of the Will. Edwards explained that all choices were both determined and free. His observations and insights into the nature of willing allows for a logically consistent compatibilism between divine sovereignty and moral accountability. Since this issue has come up a couple of times in recent conversation and since Edwards’ writing is fairly dense philosophical and theological argument I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of the key points that he makes.

Most people think of free will as the ability to make alternative choices in such a way that the will is neutral and can make a choice either for or against any particular alternative. Edwards, however, shows that the will never has this kind of freedom. He points out that “will” is not so much a noun as it is a verb. The will is not a thing but it is rather the mind choosing. He then examines the basis upon which the mind makes choices. He demonstrates that a mind will choose (or will) that which is the greatest desire acting upon it at the time of the choice. This is very important because it implies that the will is never neutral. There is always a reason why a choice is made. A particular mind cannot choose against its own desires. A mind cannot want to not do what it most wants to do at the same time.

Someone may object and point out that people often do things they do not want to do. The reality is, however, that what people choose to do is in fact what it is they wanted to do at the moment they made the choice. For example, I have met many alcoholics who hate their addiction. They genuinely do not want to continue with that lifestyle. The fact is, however, that at the moment that they decide to pick up the bottle their desire for that short term pleasure is greater than their desire to refrain from drinking. They may seriously regret it later but in that moment the thing they most wanted to do was to take a drink. Although those desires may be so strong that one could say they were not free the fact is that they were choosing according to their own desire. Another example is if your boss asked you to do something that you absolutely did not want to do but you ended up doing it anyway. Even though everything in you might have been resistant to doing what you were asked, if you do it, it is still true that your greatest desire at that moment was to comply. At that moment your desire to keep your job or not have a problem with your boss was greater than your desire to resist. Even though it may not be a choice you would have made in other circumstances, all things being considered, it is what you wanted to do.

The will is therefore always determined by the greatest desires acting upon it at the moment of the choice. This means that every choice is determined by our nature and character. Edwards, however, also argues that our wills are indeed free. They are not free with regard to the power of contrary choice as so many people assume but they are truly free in that they do what it is they wish to do. His point is that so long as a person is not forced to do something against their will or is not restrained from doing something they willed to do then their actions freely proceed from them and so they are justly held responsible for them. Edwards argues that if you do what you want to do then your choices are free even if what you did was what God planned for you to do and you are still justly responsible because they were choices that came unimpeded from your own desires. 

By demonstrating that choices can be both free and also determined Edwards lays a logical philosophical foundation for understanding how to reconcile the Bible’s assertion that God is sovereign and also its assertion that He also holds people accountable for their actions. This view of freedom does not require that people have an equal ability to actualize multiple future realities in order to be free. If God works through beings according to their natures He can determine what will happen without overruling the ability of creatures to choose that which they wish to do. If the actions of those creatures are expressions of their own desires then they are justly held morally accountable for them even if they could not have done otherwise.

The objections to divine sovereignty tend to flow not from Biblical passages that teach that people possess the power of contrary choice (there aren’t any) but rather from a question about God’s justice in holding people accountable for choices that they were certain to make. Edwards’ argument provides a logically consistent explanation that fits with the two plain assertions of the scripture (God’s sovereignty & man’s responsibility). Much ink has been spilled on this subject but Edwards’ argument remains the most compelling work on the subject that I have read. Obviously the summary above barely scratches the surface of the overall argument. If you are interested in reading the entire thing you can get a free copy HERE