Ben's Blog Items Credenda|agenda: things to be believed, things to be done Tue, 23 May 2017 18:40:24 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb Advent Joy and the City of God Israel is a city in ruins waiting redemption. Then in the darkness, a voice calls out from a nearby mountainside. Wake up! Get dressed! Get ready! Isaiah 52 says that it will be like the Exodus. God will vindicate His name, and bare His arm for all the nations to see. When God restores Israel, He will go before them and behind them. But at the center of the chapter is the announcement itself. Isaiah says that the announcement is beautiful, lovely. And the response of the watchmen at the broken gates of the city is joy and dancing and singing together. Your God reigns, and your God is coming!

Isaiah doesn’t show us the full restoration of the city; he primarily shows us the announcement that the city will be restored. And this announcement is beautiful and erupts in joyful singing.

Centuries later, John came baptizing, and he bore witness to Jesus who was the Coming One, coming looking for fruit, looking for a city full of people preparing for Him. John points to Him and many begin to follow Him. John says that Jesus is the bridegroom, and you can tell because the bride is with Him. John identifies himself as the best man. He is the friend of the groom and rejoices in the wedding.

But one of the most startling things in the gospel accounts is that this wedding, this marriage, seems short lived. What would you make of a romance like this, where the man comes courting, comes wooing a bride, and then tells her he must go away for a while? Jesus says He must go, but it will be better this way. He goes to prepare a place. And meanwhile, He promises to come and be present with His people through the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit, the people of God, the bride of Jesus will be led into all truth, will be helped and comforted. In short, while Jesus goes to prepare a place for His bride, His bride remains in the ruins of the world to prepare a place for Him.

In other words, Jesus comes in His first advent to announce that He is coming. His first advent is efficacious, powerful, and authoritative. By His death and resurrection and the gift of His Spirit, He secures forever His final advent. His first advent is the announcement that God is King. Your God reigns!

In Philippians, Paul writes to remind the believers of their place in this story. They are citizens of heaven, though the city around them may resemble a Roman colony. They are colonists of another empire who are awaiting the arrival of their King who will transform their lowly bodies into glorious bodies (like His) and subdue all things under His rule. In other words, Paul reminds the Philippians of the announcement: Your God reigns and He is coming! And because of this, because Paul and the Philippians have heard this announcement, they are to rejoice. And again, Paul says, I say rejoice!

Paul says that we are the watchmen in the ruins of this city called the world. But we have heard the announcement that our God is King and that our King is coming. And this must result in joy and singing. And our rejoicing must spill out in joyful preparation. The King is coming! Wake up! Get your beautiful clothes on! Get the city ready!

This is what Advent means. Advent is an annual reminder that our mission is to get this whole world ready for when Jesus arrives forever. Advent is an annual reminder that we are getting this world ready for the Wedding of the Ages, for when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Evangelism means calling the world to wake up and get dressed and to join us as we seek to deck this world in the most glorious way possible for the Reception of her King. Whether Christ returns in a few years or a few hundred thousand years, we have our marching orders and we still have plenty of work to do.

So as you prepare for Christmas, think of it as getting ready for the arrival of our King. Decorate, give gifts, be generous, be merciful, and do it all in obedience to the Great Commission. Get the world ready for the King. Because He comes, He surely comes. Rejoice.

]]> (Toby Sumpter) Church Mon, 12 Dec 2011 23:00:33 +0000
Credenda Fall Conference The Grace Agenda: All of Christ, for All of Life, for All the World. So that means that Sept. 16-17 of 2011 will be an ideal time to visit Moscow. C'mon, Mark Driscoll and Doug Wilson on the same stage. You want to see that. Although there will be a lot more to announce about this conference in the coming months, early registration is now open.]]> (Editor) Church Tue, 18 Jan 2011 17:25:27 +0000 Catholic Foxe John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was one of the most significant works of the Reformation, and a glimpse into his life and his famous book indicates why that was and why it should continue to be.

Foxe became convinced of Protestant doctrines while studying at Magdalen College at Cambridge and resigned (or was asked to resign) in 1545, and when Mary came to the throne, he and his family fled to the mainland a few years later. Foxe spent time in Frankfurt and Strassbourg among other cities, and while in exile and found himself embroiled in controversy in Frankfurt when two factions formed in the English speaking church divided over issues of church polity. One side, led by Richard Cox, held to the polity of the Church of England and the newly published Book of Common Prayer, while the other side led by John Knox (and supported by Foxe) preferred the polity and liturgy of John Calvin’s Geneva. This of course gives us the debate of Cox, Knox, and Foxe which just goes to show that Dr. Suess was never far from the truth.

Beginning in Frankfurt and continuing throughout his life, Foxe showed himself to be a catholic protestant. While he sided with the Reformed contingent in Frankfurt, he decried the violence of the warring factions. Back in England he quickly assumed a similarly Reformed and puritan stance on many points. While he allowed himself to be ordained to the priesthood, he refused to wear vestments and because of similar scruples with the Church England declined to take any pastorate in the English Church though he did continue to write and preach in various capacities.

Despite Foxe’s objections to some of the forms imposed upon the English Church, Queen Elizabeth would refer to him affectionately as “our father Foxe,” and in 1570, the Anglican Convocation ordered a copy of his Book of Martyrs to be placed in every collegial church in England. Before the end of his life the Council of Bishops also ordered it placed in every cathedral church. Frequently it could be found chained to the pulpit next to the Bible. And for many years following, a well worn Book of Martyrs was as indicative of a fervent English faith as a Bible.

While it was Foxe who succeeded in giving Mary the epithet “Bloody,” and he would have no patience for talk of returning to Roman idolatry or mimicking its tyrannical abuses, he was not a reactionary either. While he decried the burning of Protestants at the stake, he likewise decried the execution of competing versions of Christianity period. He raised objections to the burning of two Roman Catholics during the reign of Edward VI, the protestant prince. Later, he objected strenuously to the burning of several Anabaptists. As he objected to the factions of Frankfurt, he was an irenic man who was not looking for dissension or divisions for the sake of dispute.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs reveals something of this catholic spirit in its literary structure as well. While Foxe is most famous for his vivid and excruciating accounts of the English martyrs, particularly during the reign of Bloody Mary, he doesn’t begin there. It is striking that Foxe begins with Jesus and the apostles and documents in great detail the ten great persecutions under Roman Emperors before the Edict of Milan under Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century. Foxe summarizes: “As the children of Israel had suffered in Egyptian captivity for 400 years, so had the Christians suffered persecution under the heels of the Roman empire for 300 years. The blood  of the lamb had saved the Israelite’s when the death angel passed over Egypt to deliver them from Pharaoh’s iron grip, and now the Cross of the Lamb of God had led an army of deliverance into the last stronghold of Roman tyranny and set God’s people free.”

While Foxe points to isolated persecutions “in isolated areas of the world” he sees the freedom granted under Constantine as the beginning of a thousand years in which Christians “lived in relative peace.” He recounts some of those isolated incidents and martyrdoms which occurred throughout the Middle Ages, but he picks up his central story again pointing out that the “persecution of Christians was spasmodic for nearly a thousand years, but then Satan again fastened himself on Rome and sent his workers forth in another systematic attempt to destroy the Church. Only this time the persecutions would not come from pagans, but from those who called themselves Christians, and whose fury and sadistic actions against those who held in faith to Christ would far exceed the cruelest imaginations of the pagans.”

Here Foxe’s catholicity becomes most apparent. While his rhetoric may strike our ears as heated and divisive, if he can prove what he says there is nothing overstated. But furthermore these few short quotations give us a glimpse into his overall project in the Book of Martyrs. His book is not merely a loose collection of martyr narratives. The overall plan and theme of the book is to tell the story of the true catholic Church. He opens the book quoting Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and he traces the story of God’s people particularly through their struggles and suffering.

But what Foxe notices is that there are some striking parallels between his 16th century situation and the situation of the early church martyrs. In both cases there is horrific suffering and death for believers, and in both cases the suffering and death is being meted out by furious and sadistic Romans. In the first instance it was Roman Emperors and their governors, and in the Reformation it was Roman Pontiffs and their bishops. Foxe draws a straight line from the early church down through the centuries to the Reformation and argues through narrative and story for the catholicity of the Reformation. The true catholic church is displayed and glorified through the blood of the martyrs, and ironically Rome is the instigator of both eras of persecution.

Many commentators have noted that Foxe does not pretend to offer an unbiased account of the Reformation. It is clear who Foxe is cheering for. But his cheering is not for a newly formed splinter denomination of English Puritanism. For all his own personal convictions, Foxe reveals a deep love and thankfulness for the historic catholic church, the church of the middle ages, the church of the fathers, the church of the apostles, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not the Reformers who left the Church, it was rather the Roman officials who defected to the old imperial and pagan ways. And despite the horror, Foxe sees in the courage of the Protestant martyrs the image of Christ, proving once again that Christ is with His Church and it will not be overcome.

]]> (Toby Sumpter) Church Mon, 20 Sep 2010 02:59:05 +0000
Worship is the Center This article was originally delivered as the Convocation Address at the 2010 New Saint Andrews College Convocation.

King David writes to us in Ps. 30:11-12 “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, to the end that my glory may sing praise to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I give thanks to you forever.”

Throughout this Psalm, David describes the joy that he has in his salvation, the great pleasure of knowing that his soul has been raised from the grave, that the terrible heat of God’s fierce anger has been turned aside, that the Lord has had mercy on him, and that God has turned his mourning into dancing. And this great joy has led David to praise the Lord, to sing eternally of the great salvation of his God.

But David doesn’t just say that the salvation of the Lord has merely led to his response of praise. David insists that the Lord saved him for the very purpose of causing him to praise the Lord. He says - “you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, to the end that my glory may sing praise to you and not be silent.” That phrase “to the end” could just as easily be translated “in order that” or “for the purpose of.”  The Lord has saved David in order that David would sing praise back to God.

Now that statement, the assertion that God has had mercy on us for the purpose of getting us to praise him, is a claim that can be quite offensive to the pride of the human heart. To say that God only saved us in order that we might glorify him, makes God, it would seem, into something of a narcissist. A non-Christian college student that I was speaking to once phrased the objection something like this – “Doesn’t it seem like the best deeds, the most noble deeds, are those that are done without regard to the attention that we will get for doing them? Isn’t it best to give for the sake of giving, rather than for the sake of being noticed as we give? Isn’t it best to perform a sacrificial good deed for the sake of the goodness of that deed, rather than for the reward that we might get for performing that good deed?” Thus, according to this student, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was a noble deed. But the moment that we are told to thank Jesus and praise him for his sacrifice, then the goodness of his sacrifice becomes soiled with a narcissistic self-centeredness. If he saved us for the sake of getting our praise, then doesn’t that lessen the goodness of his salvation?

Initially, there are elements of this argument that might feel a touch compelling. After all, wasn’t it Jesus who warned the scribes about looking for attention for their own piety – Lk. 20:45-47. Wasn’t it Jesus who taught that when we give, we are not to do it with the intention of being seen and should not even let our right hand know what our left is doing – Mt. 6:1-3. Wasn’t it Jesus who told us that we should pray secretly, not loving to be seen – Mt. 6:5-6. In short, Jesus taught us not to do our good deeds before men. But isn’t God doing exactly that? Hasn’t he done his good deeds for the sake of getting us to praise him? Is there an inconsistency here? Is God’s insistence that we praise him for his salvation a violation of his own standard?

Of course this is foolish talking and I’m sure that we could offer a whole host of answers to these objections. But let me give you a very brief shot at one answer to this, an answer that will set me up for an exhortation to our students.

First of all, notice that implicit in this objection is the presupposition that goodness is something external to God, something that should be done for “it’s own sake.” Goodness is set up all by itself as something that we should all venerate for no other reason than that it is goodness. But we all know, or we all will know by the end of this academic year, that it is impossible to have a transcendent standard of goodness that we ought to submit to, without a transcendent God to whom we must all submit. This is the error of our new atheists, those men who pound their pulpits of disbelief and go on tirades about the immorality of Christianity. They claim that to give children a Christian education is the same thing as child abuse. They maintain our faith poisons everything. They call us a wicked cult.

To which, the presuppositionalist answers - “Immoral, is that bad? Child abuse? Should we not do that? Wicked, is it wrong to be wicked? Says who?” A transcendent standard to which all men must answer is dependent on the existence of a transcendent being to whom we must all answer. You cannot have one without the other. This is the argument to which the new atheists have no answer other than to change the subject. Another way of putting this would be to say that morality is always personal. Things are right or wrong because someone has said that they are right or wrong. If you do away with the person, then you also do away with the morality. The new atheists, in their rejection of the person of God, have forfeited the ability to talk sensibly about right and wrong.

Now bring this back to our first question. Remember that the student who wanted Jesus to give himself as a sacrifice merely for the sake of the goodness of that action, had assumed that goodness was something external to God, something that should be done for its own sake. He wanted us to elevate morality and minimize the person. He wanted obedience, but no worship. But if morality must be personal, then obedience without worship is nonsense.

Remember that I mentioned that Jesus himself taught that we should not do our good deeds to be seen. The implication seemed to be that we should do our good deeds solely for the sake of the goodness of those good deeds, expecting nothing other than the satisfaction of knowing that we had done something good. But that is not actually what Jesus said in Mat. 6. When someone alludes generally to a verse, you really ought to make sure that you read the verse closely to see what it really says. Jesus says –

“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”

It is not the case that Jesus is exhorting us to do something solely for the sake of some impersonal goodness. He is exhorting us to do our charitable deeds in secret so that it is clear that they are being done solely for the sake of the Father in Heaven. Our charitable deeds become good when they are done before our Father and for the sake of pleasing him. This is because, obedience is always personal. Good works are not good when done in some abstract impersonal vacuum. They are good when they are done for the sake of our heavenly Father.

All true obedience is not done for the sake of the action itself, but rather for the sake of the pleasure of the triune God, our lawgiver. The non-Christian wants to find a way of being good without this lawgiver. He wants to have goodness, without having to acknowledge the God who is that source of that goodness. He wants to have morality without having to have worship, without having to bow down. But this really is impossible. Rules require that there be a rule giver who is worthy to be obeyed. But acknowledging that the rule-giver is worthy to be obeyed is the beginning of worship. Once you have named the person behind the commandments, you have just said that there is someone out there, to whom all mankind must submit. That is worship.

So all real obedience begins with worship. You can’t have right and wrong without first having Hallelujah. You can’t have “thou shalt not steal” without having “though shalt have no other gods before me.” We began this talk by suggesting that the requirement to worship God seemed to be sort of at odds with the rest of God’s law. But now we see that actually worshipping God is the beginning and the necessary foundation for any obedience to God. Obedience starts with worship. Worship provides the context for all obedience.

And this all brings me to my exhortation. Students, you were made to be worshippers of the triune God. This is your purpose. This is your calling. It is what you are here for. Worship orients everything, it explains everything. It is only in the context of this worship that you can sensibly talk about right and wrong. It is only as worshippers of the Lord Jesus Christ that you can speak of works of righteousness. Because of this, worship is the center of everything, the foundation of your week. However, in the coming months it will be very easy to forget this. It will be easy for the pressures of the workload to distract you from your focus on our heavenly Father. It will be easy for the friendships and animosities that will bloom this year to dominate your thinking in such a way that you give little thought to your Savior. It will be a simple thing for the Spirit-filled worship of Sunday morning to become an afterthought, a jarring interruption breaking into your hectic life.  But let me urge you, on behalf of all your instructors, in the midst of all of your studies, in the midst of all the tasks that we are about to heap onto you, please don’t lose sight of what is the center. You are worshippers of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is your reasonable service. May God bless your studies this year and make you faithful laborers in his kingdom.

]]> (Ben Merkle) Church Fri, 20 Aug 2010 16:39:54 +0000
Catholic Reformer The Dominican theologian Yves Congar (1904-1995) is hardly a household name, especially among Protestants.  But he was one of the most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, and, because he left such a deep imprint on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), he was one of the most important theologians of the century from any tradition.

He is of particular interest to Protestants because he was himself a reformer – a Catholic one, for sure, but a reformer nonetheless.  His life and work provide a model for small-c catholic reform among the heirs of the Reformation.

Congar regarded his commitment to reform in the Roman church as a response to a call from God.  During a retreat shortly before his ordination in 1930, he was meditating on Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 and “perceived a definite call to labour in order that all who believe in Jesus Christ might be one.”  He spent the remainder of his life working through the implications of that call.

Pursuit of Christian unity became a driving force for Congar.  Though he agreed with the famous declaration of Vatican II that the body of Christ “subsists” in the Roman church, he also insisted that non-Catholics should not be regarded as non-Christians or heretics.  The Orthodox are not “heretics” simply because of their refusal of communion with Rome, and Protestants and Orthodox are both separated brethren, “Christians who already possess in greater or lesser degree what we desire to see fulfilled in them, and who themselves secretly look for such a consummation.”  Christians born into a non-Catholic communion are “very rarely real heretics.”

In addition to writing voluminously on ecclesiology, he formed friendships with Protestants and Orthodox, putting his commitment to unity into personal practice.

Troubled by the fact that the church seemed to have no ability to arouse the interest in the gospel among modern people, Congar was also committed to seeing how Roman Catholic teaching could be made intelligible to unbelievers.  More basically, the church and world need each other, Congar believed: “At bottom, the Church and the world need one another.  The Church means salvation for the world, but the world means health for the Church: without the world there would be no danger of her becoming wrapped up in her own sacredness and uniqueness.”

One of Congar’s primary goals was to rehabilitate and expand the role of the laity in the Roman Church.  In this, he is, to Protestant ears, often contradictory.  While he wants to affirm the role of the laity, he often seems to be taking back what he offers, since he continues to work within the Catholic notion that the difference between clergy laity is not “functional” but “essential.”  Yet, his main goal is to provide a “priesthood of all believers” justification for the “lay apostolate” and the participation of the laity in the church’s mission.  He was an apostle of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Congar is perhaps most relevant to Protestants in his meditations on “true and false reform.”  He assumed, like all Catholics, that the basic structures of the Catholic Church remain inviolable and infallible.  “Nothing could be more dangerous,” he claimed, “than to work to reform something in the domain of the ecclesial life without being assured of a very solid ecclesiology, that is to say a theology of the structure of the Church.”  Further, “regarding the Church itself and its basic structures of doctrine, sacramental life, and institutional offices, the tradition is closed.  The Church can err neither in its basic structures nor in its secular and general practice.”

Yet, he insisted just as strongly that the church was in need of continual reformation in its morals, practice, and theological formulation.  But how can one distinguish true and false reform?  What’s the difference between reform and revolution?

One might expect a Catholic to emphasize submission to the hierarchy or lock-step conformity to tradition.  But that was not what Congar highlights.  Instead, Congar lays out a fourfold standard: True reform is marked by 1) the primacy of love and pastoral concern; 2) the intention and effort to remain in communion with all; 3) patience, both from reformers and from the established authorities; and 4) a commitment to recover rather than overthrow Tradition.

That is a remarkable sketch of reform.  If Congar’s work shows that the differences between Catholics and Protestants remain, in his phrase, “practically impassable,” it indicates how much we heirs of the Reformation have to learn from those who battled for the twentieth-century Roman Catholic reformation.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Church Wed, 18 Aug 2010 16:24:35 +0000
Helping Africa He’s leaving before they have to carry him out. Phil is 100% drained, physically, mentally, emotionally; he can’t take any more. 2 years as an aid worker in a central African nation is more than enough.

Yet another deeply wounded casualty in the west’s campaign to ‘end poverty’ in Africa, his wounds will take a long time to heal, if ever.  The meaning of “poor” having far broader understandings now.

Meantime there are lines of replacements behind him, all waiting for the adventure of their lives, and all carrying the same unquestioned deeply seated assumption—that the best way to end poverty is to throw money and programs at it. Great western savvy and technology can surely bring the quick fix.

But welcome to the real world – the world that the international organizations know exists, but fail to reckon with or at least seek to understand. Their institutional survival needs define things, not realities on the ground.

As an engineer Phil worked hard—18 hour days 7 days a week. At first he thought he could change things. If you could just fix that bridge and repair that road then market routes would open up, the economy would flourish and things would take off on their own, all fixed up. Or repair that well and run that water line, and the health and sanitation index would soar.

But the problems weren’t what they first appeared to be. The bridge was bad because warring parties and power struggles had destroyed parts of it and local farmers had come and carried off the pieces that were left. His designs for the repairs ended in fifth rate quality work carried out with inferior materials, a function of both shortage of funds and irresponsible management.

As for the wells, pumps worked for a while but heavy use with little or no maintenance led quickly to broken parts with no replacements. As for markets, with ignorance and dishonesty rampant, it was hard to figure out exactly how and where to facilitate change.

Adequate project monies never seemed to be available. It’s the end of the funding year he’s told. Deeper investigation however revealed “thinned” coffers, a phenomenon known as “leakage” in relief and development terminology; a continuous struggle with national staff who have gone “sour.”

But it wasn’t the individual things that did him in. Ultimately it was the overall lie; the unending stream of lies from all sides, in every area of endeavor.

There’s a point, a choosing point. Your conscience.

The money is huge. If you can just shut down your conscience or at least override it with serious rationalization, you could do well out here. Nice 4 wheel drive, guarded house with staff to do your cooking and cleaning, all expenses paid, salary goes to your bank account back home. Everyone else is doing it, why not me? The feeding trough is full and the takers are everywhere. It’s no wonder the locals are trying to get as much as they can. That’s the name of the game.  The larger the trough, the greater the feeding frenzy.

But why aren’t the guys who are handing out the money paying attention? Or are they and they just don’t care? Or maybe they don’t see any alternative, so let it ride as is. It’s all politics anyway. Or maybe ‘catalyzing change’ is too difficult in light of the lack of clarity about what would actually bring about positive change.

The takers, the international and national organizations and individuals on the feeding trough end, are only too ready to design the proposals and write the plans that meet the needs of the givers—the favored issue for the week or month or year—health care and polio, AIDS, gender-based violence, orphanages. No matter that that locale has no gender-based violence. The general region does and so who needs to know the real truth?

But what is the real truth? Are Africans “bad” people? Or are “bad people” running much of Africa? Or is it neither of these, rather sick systems and socio-cultural norms that have gone awry?

Truth, or lack of it. Where there is no truth, there is no trust. Where there is no trust, systems flounder. When systems flounder so do real time controls which keep us all in line, on the ‘up and up’; with little or no controls, we tend toward a ‘get it while you can’ mentality; survival. Survival is paramount, instinctive. And success has nothing to do with how much you know or what you have achieved but about how much power you have over people. It’s about obligations and ‘favors.’

In most of the underdeveloped world, ‘working’ systems exist. Social systems, political systems, economic systems, cultural systems, justice systems, etc. Many however are sick. Few function with a view toward the needs of the greater population. Bound by socio-cultural norms, fear, stagnation, limited view, they are floundering and oppression prevails.

Africa is full of failed or failing states; their leaders come and go but the scenario remains the same…weak or absent systems, corruption, apathy, lack of justice, lack of truth. Large donor aid money doesn’t fix it; it just supports it; supports it to stay the same, supporting the oppression on every level—social, political, economic, physical, mental.

We are one human being and there is one God and Father over all. We are called to look to the needs of others. And there are others out there who truly need a hand, a word, a look, a moment of your time.

Are we willing to give it by learning and then doing something to help forge the steps which will bring richness not poverty to us all?


Gila Garaway has lived in the Middle East for the past 27 years and has worked in Africa for the past 14. She generally spends at least one month a year also working in India. She has worked as a professional evaluator of development programs, a consultant in program planning, design and management, a national director of an international aid agency, an education research consultant, and a designer of trainings, training materials and workshops covering a wide variety of development topics. She holds a doctorate in Education. For more on helping Africa, see -, and

]]> (Gila Garaway) Church Mon, 03 May 2010 16:24:36 +0000
The Long View I am postmillennial, and postmils like to speculate about the long view.  We like to ask questions like: What is the church and world going to be like after another several millennia of evangelism, baptism, teaching, discipline, Eucharistic merriment?  What kind of political system will exist?  How will the church worship?  What will the economy look like?  What kinds of technological advances will be retained and which will be dispensed with as incompatible with God’s commandments?

To be postmillennial is to be committed to the claim that the state of creation, over time and in time, will be recognizably as the prophets predict: Zion will be raised as the chief of the mountains, nations will beat tanks into tractors, chemical weapons into fertilizers (napalm – a sign of millennial bliss?), peoples from the four corners will be eager to hear the instruction of Jesus, and will live by it.  Wildernesses will turn to gardens, wild animals – and bestial humans – will be pacified.

Yet, some qualifications are in order.  My first instinct in answering the question, “what will the church and world look like in a thousand years?” is to say, “Who knows?”  We can’t determine this with the infantile categories we’ve got now.  We’re only beginning to understand Scripture, or the world.  How can we possibly know in detail where it’s all going?

The problem with predictions is not only that we operate with infantile categories and possess only the most rudimentary knowledge, but also that we have no way to anticipate historical contingencies.  The future surprises; that’s why it’s called the future.  No postmil in 1500 could have had the slightest inkling of the state of the church in 2010, and we can hardly do better in predicting the state of the church in 2523.  We follow the Spirit, and there is no way to peek around the side of the fiery cloud to catch a glimpse of the path ahead.  We shouldn’t even want to, given that the walk is by faith and not sight.

What kind of government will the church have two or three centuries from now?  What kind of worship?  Here’s my bold prediction: There won’t be any one system.  There never will be.  The church will not look the same everywhere.  Assuming there’s still a China in the year 3000, I expect Chinese Christians to worship in Chinese, sing Chinese music, produce Chinese Christian art, take inspiriting from Chinese biblical scholars and theologians.  Mutatis mutandis, global dittos.

Not only cultural differences, but historical contingencies (again) will shape things differently in different places.  A church that has a half-century conflict about the genealogies of 1 Chronicles (Christians can fight about anything) is going to be a different place than a church that had a century-long battle over the chapter numbering in Isaiah.  To give an actual example: African churches who put their first roots down in Proverbs and Hebrews will look different from Protestant churches firmly planted in Romans.

The same goes for political, economic, social, and cultural systems.  The gospel will penetrate and transform them all, but that does not mean that in the year 4822 every nation will have adopted a version of the U.S. Constitution or organized what we would recognize as a free market economy.  There will be constants: Nations will become more peaceable, less aggressive and arrogant, more just and more free.  Economies will be organized to encourage productivity and charity, and businesses will not operate by or appeal to greed – which is to say that what we know as the advertising industry will have withered away.  But no two constitutions will be the same, and no two economies either.

As a postmil, I’m not committed to believing that all unbelievers will be converted, or that every nation will be completely and absolutely conformed to the word of Christ.  All will be hugely more sanctified than now; but even then, some more, some less.  As I understand Revelation 20, we’re in the millennium now, and so the messiness we experience is not a “pre-golden age” reality but a “golden age” reality.  We’re not waiting for another epoch of redemptive history, in which all the rough edges are going to be smoothed.  We’re in the last age before the consummation already, and in this age the seed planted by Jesus and His Spirit is growing into a tree that will cover the earth.  Over time, many rough edges will be smoothed; some more, some less.

Most crucially (in the etymological sense): The church will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever transcend the cross.  What form cross-bearing will take when Isaiah 2 is more fully realized is difficult to say.  But it will be there.  Jesus didn’t say, “Take up your cross for a while and follow me; soon enough, you’ll be able to toss it on the dust heap.”  It’s “take up your cross” from here to the eschaton.  Whatever we say about “latter day glory,” we must never forget that we follow a crucified and risen Savior to the end.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Church Fri, 02 Apr 2010 16:56:43 +0000
Hoc Post It is with a heavy heart and sad droopy eyes that I write this concerned letter to my Presbyterian brothers. A recent blog post called my attention to yet another former Presbyterian minister who has splish-splashed his way across the Tiber and gone papist. Jeffrey Steele, formerly a minister of the Presbyterian Church of America, announced this past summer on his blog his decision to kiss the Pope and don the sacral skivvies of Rome. After having given this development a bit of thought, I have come to the conclusion that the Presbyterians of America need a stern warning. Follow for a moment my super tight reasoning and use of an anciently acclaimed form of argumentation. Jeffrey Steele used to be Presbyterian. Now he is a tiber-splasherpapist. Clearly the cause must have been the Presbyterianism. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. His preceding ecclesiastical association
s must have necessarily been the cause of his subsequent departure to Rome. Steele has joined the ranks of men like Scott Hahn, Jeffrey Tucker, Kenneth Howell, Steve Wood, and many others, who have moved from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicisim. And by this he has proved that the P in Presbyterian, stands for Papist.

Or maybe there is something wrong with the argument.

]]> (Ben Merkle) Church Mon, 29 Mar 2010 20:12:56 +0000
God is mocked God is not mocked, Paul tells us.  Matthew’s Passion narrative (Matthew 27:27-44), however, suggests otherwise.  Matthew gives very little information about the physical sufferings of Jesus.  We can imagine those sufferings from the details he records, but he directs our attention elsewhere.  For Matthew, the cross is mainly about man’s mockery of God.

Pilate knows Jesus is innocent and wants to dispose of Jesus as quickly as he can.  He turns Him over for scourging and crucifixion, and turns a blind eye to what happens within his own Praetorium. “Have nothing to do with that just man,” his wife had warned him.  Pilate follows her advice.  He gives Jesus up to the lions and dogs and wolves, to the strong bulls of Bashan that attack from every side, and washes his hands of the matter.

Inside the Praetorium, a “whole cohort” of Roman soldiers – one-tenth of a legion, some six hundred men – relieves its boredom and discharges its spite by spending an afternoon in cruel fun.  They dress Jesus in a scarlet robe, crown Him with thorns, place a reedy scepter in His hand, and kneel acclaiming Him king of the Jews.  The robe is the scarlet chlamys of a Roman soldier, so the soldiers make Jesus one of their own, chief of the Roman cohort.  The solders are also mocking their Jewish subjects: This strange, silent, passive man is just the kind of king Romans would expect from Jews.

Then they reverse the whole coronation with an anti-coronation.  They spit in contempt instead of kneeling in reverence, pull the scepter from Jesus’ hand and beat His crowned head with it, strip off the scarlet robe and replace it with Jesus’ own robe.  They remove the veil of irony and reveal what they really think about this King of the Jews, what they think about these arrogant Jews who persist against all reason in believing themselves the chosen of the earth.  The Roman soldiers reveal what they really think about the odd, pathetic God who would choose the Jews.

Once the soldiers are done with Jesus, they lead Him to Golgotha, the place of the skull, and fix Him to the cross, where Jewish crowds and leaders join in the mockery begun in the Praetorium.  As people pass, they “blaspheme” Jesus, shaking their heads and throwing Jesus’ words back at Him: “You who destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.”  Prove yourself the Son of God by coming down from the cross.  The chief priests and elders and scribes echo the crowds: Come on down from the cross and we will believe in You.  Save yourself, and we’ll believe that you can save us.

Most Scriptural references to “wagging” or “shaking” the head have to do with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem.  When Jerusalem lies in ruins, Jeremiah says, “all who pass along the way [will] clap their hands in derision at you; they [will] hiss and shake their heads at the daughter Jerusalem: ‘Is this the city of which they said, The perfection of beauty, a joy of all the earth’”? (Lamentations 2:15).  Earlier Jeremiah had warned that resistance to Nebuchadnezzar would be disastrous, since Yahweh was determined to make Jerusalem, its splendid temple, and the whole land “a desolation, an object of perpetual hissing.  Everyone who passes by it will be astonished and shake his head” (Jeremiah 18:16).

Even the robbers join in.  Jesus is numbered with transgressors, flanked on the cross by two “royal attendants,” brigands like Barabbas.  The cross triptych forms a macabre parody of the ark of the covenant; Jesus is enthroned as King at the center with two rough beasts filling the positions of the cherubim at Yahweh’s right and left.  The first time Jesus mentioned brigands, He was in the temple, condemning the Jewish leaders for allowing the house of prayer for all nations to be transformed into a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:31).  Now two robbers from the den are at His side, as Jesus, the living temple, is torn down on the cross.  The Jews are all robbers, Jesus charged, and now the robbers join with the Jews, blaspheming Jesus in the same way as the Jews.

Roman soldiers mock Jesus inside their military headquarters, random passers-by mock Jesus as He hangs between heaven and earth, Jewish leaders mock Jesus, even brigands, true criminals, the scum of the earth, mock Jesus.  Jews and Gentiles, governors and criminals, scribes and commoners, all humanity joins in a single chorus of blasphemy.

Atheists – especially the new atheists – blaspheme, and giggle like schoolboys.  They think themselves daring, subversive, so deliciously cunning.  But they are utterly conventional, knowing only how to mimic blasphemies learned from the gospels.  Mocking God is not an invention of atheists.  It’s what Jews do when God comes close, a burning too hot to endure.  It what the religious Romans do in the presence of God.

More Pelagian than Pelagius, the modern world joins with the new atheists in assuring us that we aren’t so bad, and that where we quite understandably fail, we have the resources within ourselves to put things right.  Whether it is war, or poverty, or racial hatred, or disease and disfigurement, we can fix it with a few quick twists of the dial.  Scripture has no patience with such mild optimism.  The cross of Jesus is the crux of human history, the deep revelation of the human condition.  At this crossroads, the Bible uncovers the bloody corpse of a righteous man, and twisted and crucified corpse of the eternal Son of the living God.

Mocking God, killing righteous men – that is the human project.  When a teacher comes with the demand that we do justice and love our neighbors, we betray Him, mock Him, beat Him on the head and crown Him with thorns, before we pack Him off to death on a cross.  Naked and bleeding on the cross, Jesus suffers the fate of Jerusalem, and of Troy and Babylon and Carthage and Dresden and of every city that has ever been razed to smoking rubble.  The cross exposes us as specialists in destruction.  We are specialists in destruction.  History is a waste of ruins, toppled temples, smoldering cities, corpses heaped for burning.  This is what we do.  That is the human project.

Worse, when God the Creator, source of all good and all life, to whom we owe eternal gratitude for our very being, appears in human flesh, we beat Him back with clubs and crosses, until the body of God is a mangled mess.  Putting Jesus to death is the human project.  That is what we do.  We are far, far worse than we let ourselves imagine.

Left to ourselves, mockery would be our last word.  God has a different project, and He won’t let us get away with ours.  Matthew’s ironic passion narrative reveals that as well, as all the mockery is turned back on the mockers.  Roman soldiers mock Jesus as “King of the Jews,” but as He dies, they confess, without irony, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).  Soldiers offer Jesus gall and gamble for His clothing at the foot of the cross, but in so doing they are fulfilling prophecies about David’s Son, who is indeed “king of the Jews” (Psalm 22:18; 69:21).  Scribes of the law throw words from Psalm 69 at Jesus (Matthew 27:43), entirely unaware that their words position with David’s enemies.  At every point, the mockery is turned inside out to become truth.

But God doesn’t simply bypass the human project of mockery and destruction.  The gospel does not announce a new divine fiat, “Let there be peace.  Let there be justice.”  Rather, God enters our story of rage and ruin, offers His cheek to us, and then humbly turns the other cheek, all to invert our project and transfigure it into His.  God is not mocked precisely because God has been mocked.  Left to ourselves, our contemptuous No to Jesus would be our last word.  But for God, Jesus’ cross is the revelation that He is God for us.  In, with, and under our No, the Father of Jesus transforms our rejection into His resounding, triumphant Yes.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Church Wed, 24 Mar 2010 16:38:53 +0000
A Voice from the Darkness Creation did not come perfectly formed from the hand of God.  First Yahweh made a formless, empty darkness, a formless dark emptiness.  Then He called for light.  Creation begins with darkness giving way to light, and in the Bible darkness is typically a signal that the process is running in reverse, that creation is being undone.  When the Bible describes an end, it describes it as a reversion to darkness (Isaiah 5:30; 8:22; 9:2; Zephaniah 1:15; Ezekiel 32:7).

When Judah’s lights go out, Yahweh preserves a remnant; Yahweh brings an end to Pharaoh and puts out the sun and moon, but Egypt is here still today.  Death is different.  Death is utter darkness.  Death is the shroud that lays over all people (Isaiah 25).  In the allegory of death at the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon speaks of the sunlight and moon and stars being darkened as the old man moves toward death.  When Jesus speaks of people being handed over to eternal death, he describes it as a place of “outer darkness” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Darkness is the darkness of un-creation.  All darkness is the darkness of death.

All this is happening at Golgotha, during the suffering and death of Jesus.  For three hours, in the middle of the day, Jesus hangs on the cross in utter darkness.  The sun is blotted out, and moon does not give her light.  The clock stops for the Jews and the Romans who have put Jesus on the cross.

Out of that darkness comes a voice.  This too follows the creation story.  Into the original darkness, Yahweh spoke the Almighty fiat, “Let there be light.”  That is not the word from the darkness of Golgotha.  Jesus utters no fiats.  Instead, His cry is the anguished prayer of a faithful, righteous man who has been abandoned by his friends, surrounded by bestial enemies, whose hands and feet have been pierced, whose clothes have been removed and distributed among his enemies, who finally is abandoned even by God.  Jesus’ voice does not dispel the darkness.  His words instead give audible shape to the very darkness that surrounds it.

Jesus’ cry recalls another incident in which darkness descended and put out the lights.  The ninth plague in Egypt was a plague of darkness.  The darkness came over all the land of Egypt, a “thick darkness” so thorough that Yahweh describes it as a “darkness which may be felt” (Exodus 10:21-22).  Israel has become an Egypt, and the God of Israel is sending a plague of darkness on His own people like the plague of darkness that afflicted Egypt.  The plague that followed the plague of darkness, the Passover slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt, also took place in the darkness, a night.  During the night of Passover, as the Israelites celebrated the Passover within their houses of refuge, marked with blood, the angel of death slaughtered all the firstborn of Egypt.  Out of the gloom of Passover night a “great cry” arose from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:30), a cry of lamentation and anguish in the darkness and gloom.

Israel has become an Egypt, and if Israel is an Egypt, then her firstborn must die.  That can only be Jesus.  The cry that pierces the darkness at Golgotha is a voice of lamentation, lamentation and bitter weeping, the shriek of Egypt mourning her firstborn.  Jesus is the Passover Lamb.  He is the true Son, the true Israel.  But here on the cross, He stands in for all the Egyptian-Jews who crucify Him, and He takes the cry of Israel on His own lips: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

This voice from the darkness doesn’t sound like the voice of the Creator.  But it is.  In this darkness, the world is actually coming to an end, and a new world is beginning.  This is the great and awesome day of Yahweh, and on this day everything Israel had been hoping for begins to happen.   She hoped for the Spirit, and when Jesus cries out and He “yields up His Spirit.”  Jesus is Elijah on the cross, and as He departs He bestows a double measure of the Spirit on us.

Israel hoped for access to Yahweh, and when Jesus dies, God tears the veil of the temple from top to bottom.  The temple has been a barrier, but it is no longer a barrier.  Through the flesh of Jesus, we can draw near in the Most Holy PlaceIsrael had been hoping that the world would be shaken, the nations shaken loose so that the Kingdom of God could come in.  When Jesus dies, the land is shaken by an earthquake.  Earthquakes accompany Yahweh’s approach, usually as a warrior (Judges 5:4; 2 Samuel 22:8; Psalm 68:8).  The death of Jesus is the coming of the warrior of Yahweh, gaining His greatest triumph, His triumph over death by death.

Israel hoped above all for resurrection, and when Jesus dies, the tombs of the saints are opened (Matthew 27:51-53).  Standing in a valley of dry bones, Ezekiel called on the wind or breath or spirit, and that spirit blows over the dead and dry bones; there is an earthquake; the wind gives them breath, and the dead rise.  This is a vision of the restoration of Israel and Judah from the grave of exile, and that vision is being fulfilled and repeated in the death of Jesus.  Already at His Death, Jesus breaks open Sheol and shines the light of life into the darkness of the tomb.  Seeing all this, the centurion and his soldiers confess Jesus as Son of God (Matthew 27:54).  This too fulfills Israel’s hope for the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion.  The centurion and his men are the firstfruits of the Psalm’s promise that “all the families of the nations shall worship before Him” (Psalm 22:27).

At the death of Jesus, everything is shaken: The heavenly veil of the temple is torn, the earth shakes, the tombs under the earth split open and the dead rise.  But at the death of Jesus, the world begins to be remade.  In the darkness of uncreation and death, Jesus cries out like the thunder, and the world is shaken down and begins again.

The best scene in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ occurs during Jesus march along the via dolorosa.  He has been beaten to a Gibsonesque pulp.  He can’t carry His portion of the cross, and He can barely walk.  He stumbles and falls, and Mary His mother comes to Him to wipe the blood from His face.  He speaks to her: “See, Mother, I am making all things new.”

This is absurd.  This beaten and bloody man, stumbling under His cross, going to a gruesome execution, crying out in anguish in the thick darkness: This man is making all things new?  It’s laughable.  But the gospel declares just this: Jesus overcomes the darkness by entering into the darkness.  There is no rupture in the Trinity here; God doesn’t cease to be Triune for the few hours that Jesus dies on the cross.  To speak of the “death of the Son of God” is not to say that the Son of God ceased to exist.  To say that the Son of God died means instead that the He entered fully into the God-forsaken condition of humanity, entered fully into the gloom of the grave, so that He could explode it from the inside with the word of a new creation.

Let there be light: That’s the way the world was made.  Much to our disappointment, though, this is not the way worlds are remade.  The world was remade, death began to run in reverse, when the Servant of Yahweh cried out in the darkness of death.  Still now, for us as well, worlds are remade from crosses, by men who cry out from a gloomy chaos, when faithful and obedient servants of God join with Jesus in crying out in the darkness to the God who said, and will always say, “Let there be light.”

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Church Mon, 15 Mar 2010 02:47:34 +0000