Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Theology Page 1 of 3

The Cornerstone

The New Testament writers are united in identifying the ‘stone the builders rejected’ which has become the ‘chief cornerstone’ with Jesus (Psalm 118:22, and Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:17, and 1 Peter 2:7).

A Christian’s faith can often be shaken and challenged. Doubt can be a real companion for sensitive souls. Easter returns us to the cornerstone of our faith, Jesus Christ once rejected now raised from the dead.

And this effects everything.

“The resurrection gives coherence to the entire New Testament: to the story of the virgin birth, to the miracles, to the transfiguration, to the titles ascribed to Jesus, to the worship accorded him, to Pentecost, to the idea of ‘en Christou’, to the perception of his death as an atoning sacrifice, to the expectation of the parousia, to the hope of resurrection and to the belief in a final judgment. It explains the disciples’ faith and martyrdom, the survival of the church, the expansion of Christianity and the existence of the Gospel of John.” (Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, page 237)

Calvin the Poet?

John Calvin was known for his theology and not for poetry. However, this snippet from the introductory sections on the Christian life if not poetic is at least lyrical, and shows just how readable Calvin really is.

This is worth sharing. And pondering.

We are not our own:
let not our reason nor our will therefore sway our plans and deeds.
We are not our own:
let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh.
We are not our own:
in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.

We are God’s:
let us therefore live for him and die for him.
We are God’s:
let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.
We are God’s:
let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.

from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7.1

The Gamemaker

The Hunger Games trilogy dips in and out of ‘arenas’ in which deadly games are played. These are not arenas as we would picture them, but large modeled environments in which arbitrarily selected youth fight to the death in contests controlled and manipulated by remote ‘gamemakers’. The games are continuously filmed and broadcast as each contestant, one by one, is killed, until only one victor is left.

The chief gamemaker in the games is a producer who manipulates the environments and situations faced by the contestants in order to provide maximum entertainment for the audience. The games are brutal, and the gamemakers are heartless.

The movie version of The Hunger Games had at the end of April grossed nearly $375,000,000 in the USA alone. Less viewed (in the same period grossing 1/10 of that of The Hunger Games) is a film called The Cabin in the Woods. (Before seeing this one, the closest I had ever come to watching a film listed as ‘horror’ was Zombieland, and that hardly counts.)

The Cabin In The Woods PosterThis movie concerns five college students who head to an isolated cabin for a weekend getaway. They have no idea how isolated it really is. As evening sets on their perfect getaway, strange events begin to suggest that all is not as was advertised. One learns that they, too, have entered unawares into an arena of sorts where remote ‘puppeteers’ are manipulating their environment in a way designed to lead to the deaths of four of the five, each in a particular order.

Their deaths are intended to fulfill an ancient ritual designed to placate a mysterious deity whose unhappiness could lead to the destruction of the entire world. What was once accomplished by tossing humans into volcanos is given a modern and high tech twist.

The controllers in this movie, like those in The Hunger Games, play god to those in the arena, allowing the illusion of free will while at the same time manipulating events to their own seemingly trivial or arbitrary ends. When the goal of the four deaths is reached, a party complete with dance music and drinks all around erupts in the control room while on the screens the one remaining character engages in a life or death battle with a zombie. It is a surreal image. None of the ‘gods’ in the control room care about the life struggling for survival behind them. They have achieved their goal, the gods are having their fun, and the life of the person under their thumb does not matter.

Whereas The Hunger Games seems only interested in revealing the cruelty of which people are capable, clearly in the absence of the divine, The Cabin in the Woods seems self-consciously bent on suggesting a view of the gods, or God, in which they or He are unconcerned for human pain and suffering.

Is there hope in either vision? The only hope is centered in the strength of the human spirit (mixed with a bit of marijuana in the latter). But The Cabin in the Woods may be suggesting that in the face of an all powerful deity, the human spirit, though noble, is powerless.

The Cabin in the Woods in the end was more brutal, more gory, more over-the-top and even more funny, than The Hunger Games. But it was more thoughtful as well. It left me longing for a God whose power is matched by his love. And perhaps that is what these films always long for. That there is brutality and suffering in the world does not and cannot imply that the God who rules is insensitive and uncaring. Instead of partying while we die, he is the only gamemaker to enter the arena himself to die not as the victor, but as the one who would bring the games to an end.

In the meantime, we are going to go see The Avengers so we can see evil get its butt seriously whooped.

Theological Soundtrack

Monday morning is my day to pull up to the fuel pump and top off a depleted tank. Sunday takes a lot out of me.

I ordinarily make no appointments other than to spend the morning reading. And I read devotionally, theologically, historically, and practically, normally running four or so books at a time.

You will find me more often than not doing this reading at a local Starbucks. I will run into a few friends, and perhaps make a new one or two, but generally I’m left alone and the ambient noise while sufficient to keep me focused is not so overwhelming that it distracts.

Now and then, however, a conversation arises at a nearby table which is either loud enough or interesting enough that I can’t help but listen and hence be hopelessly distracted. This is particularly difficult when the work I’m reading demands a high level of concentration.

When that happens, I pull a set of earbuds (of which I’m not fond) from my case and queue up a classical playlist in iTunes. The classical music can be turned up to a sufficient volume to obscure the conversation around me while being itself generally non-intrusive. And choosing shuffle keeps it interesting.

So it was that I found myself reading this morning Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything with earbuds uncomfortably in place.

Slowly, I became aware of a serendipitous overlap between the words I was reading and the music I was hearing. A soundtrack to my theological reading was forming.

As Sanders made much of the dramatic centrality of the Holy Trinity of God in our salvation, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was building to a noisy climax. Theological and musical drama fed each other.

And then, as Sander’s content drifted into a consideration of the meaning of grace in trinitarian terms, J. S. Bach took the stage with the appropriately chosen Sheep May Safely Graze.

I’m not so mystical as to say that the Holy Spirit would have chosen that moment to serve as something of a divine DJ (or ‘iTunes Genius), but it would not take much to push me to that conclusion.

The Gospel, II

Darrin Patrick, Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission summarizes the message of the gospel in this way:

The Facts
– Incarnation
– Sinlessness
– Crucifixion
– Resurrection

The Announcement
– Heralded declaration
* Jesus died for God
* Jesus died for sinners
* Jesus rose again
– Faith response
* Jesus is savior
* Jesus is lord
* Obedience is Christ motivated and empowered
* Identify idols
* Repent and believe the gospel

Best reminder from Patrick’s summary is this, referring to the revelation of Jesus in the Bible:

“Jesus isn’t saying, “Let me show you how to live,” so much as he is saying, “Let me show you why I died.”

The Gospel

Greg Gilbert (What Is the Gospel? gives a well reasoned summary of the Gospel message.

God
– Creator
– Holy and righteous

Man
– All guilty of treason against God
– All fall under God’s active judgment against sin

Christ
– A fully divine, fully human king
– A suffering king
– A substitute
– A resurrected and ascended king

Response
– Faith relies on Jesus for one’s righteousness
– Repentance acknowledges the rightful king and leads to real change

Kingdom
– God’s redemptive reign
– God’s present reign
– God’s reign to be consummated
– Christians live for the King

Preaching Hell

Written well before any modern controversy, British commentator Bruce Milnepenned some wise words on the place of hell in Christian preaching. Worthy of reflection here are his comments on John 12:35, 36, a passage following a very rich presentation on the meaning of the cross.

So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. (John 12:35, 36)

To this Milne says:

There is an urgency in this last appeal of Jesus from which the modern church does well to learn. The days when sermons on hell and its conditions were the staple diet of the evangelical pulpit have long since departed. Their going is not wholly to be regretted. Fear of hell-fire is certainly not the primary motive for seeking Christ’s salvation. Besides, such preaching often concentrated on the damnation of the lost in a manner that left the saved smugly secure and unchallenged concerning the profound moral and ethical implications of living a ‘saved’ life. We would not turn back the clock in this respect even if we could.

Yet the warning note which Jesus strikes here is always relevant. The implications of turning away from the light of God are terrible in the extreme, and Jesus is concerned that people be clearly aware of them. We are certainly to draw men and women towards God’s salvation by all God-honouring inducements. We are certainly authorized to bear witness with full hearts to the completeness of the salvation which Christ has won for sinners, and the joys beyond compare which await those who cast themselves upon his mercy.

In addition, however, we dare not fail to warn them that the Redeemer is also a judge, that sin unrepented is sin condemned, and that it is, and will be, when the king returns, ‘a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God ‘ (Hebrews 10:31). While people have opportunity, we are to speak, and plead, as did our Saviour….

from Bruce Milne, The Message of John (Bible Speaks Today)

The End of the World

I have grown used to Christians making generalizations lamenting the present state of life in the world, assuming a moral degradation from some idealized standard, and suggesting that such is a clear harbinger of the End of the World.

I have grown used to it. I just don’t get it. Earlier this year I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and if ever an era revealed End-of-the-World colors, it was the 14th century. But we are still here.

My patience wears thin, though, when the idealized standard is localized to something like the 1950s and some historic event (“…when they took prayer out of our schools…”) or another is erected as the watershed moment. Yes, THOSE 1950s when my black friends endured dental work without anesthesia and Colin Powell, later so distinguished, would drive through the south having to turn his wife into the woods to relieve herself, as they were unable to find a restroom she was free to use.

There never has been a golden age. We might even want to argue that things are so much better today than they have been at any time in the past.

But that is not my purpose. My purpose is for us to look critically at any and every era and train ourselves to see God’s providential hand of grace through it all.

In the following quote, John Frame is critiquing those critical assessments which judge contemporary life as defective because they have departed from a high and therefore pure standard. His comments are applicable as well to any effort to locate a pure golden standard anywhere in history and outside the hope of the Gospel.

So the problem is not history; the problem is sin. Culture is bad today, but Sodom and Gomorrah were probably not any better, nor were Tyre, Sidon, Ninevah, Babylon, Rome, Capernaum, or Bethsaida.

Popular culture is bad, but high culture is too. Beethoven was a devotee of the secularism of the French Revolution, Wagner of German mythology, and their music makes a powerful case for these false worldviews.. The problems of high culture go back a long way. It is not that high culture has been infected by popular culture; if anything, the reverse is true. And folk culture has always had alongside its humble virtues a lot of bawdy tales, class warfare, ignorant populism, and disrespect for the holy.

It is always wrong to try to single out one element of culture as pure, even relatively pure, and blame all of society’s ills on some other element. That is almost always self-serving: we like what we like and we want to blame the evils of life on the culture we dislike. But perhaps we need to have a more biblical view of sin. Sin is not limited to one segment of society or one segment of culture. It pervades everything. And whatever good there is comes from God’s common and special grace.

The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Page 887.

Prayer for Spiritual Renewal

Gordon Fee concludes his God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (discussed yesterday) with prayer drawn from three sources: David, Moses, and later Christian hymnody.

Oh God, you are my God,
Earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirst for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

If your Presence does not go with us,
do not send us up from here.
How will anyone know
that you are pleased with…your people
unless you go with us?
What else will distinguish…your people
from all the other people on the face of the earth?

Holy Spirit, all divine,
Dwell within this heart of mine;
Cast down every idol throne,
Reign supreme, and reign alone.

Let all God’s people say, “Amen.”

[Sources: Fee, page 903; Psalm 63:1; Exodus 33:15, 16; Andrew Reed.]

The Holy Spirit in the Christian Life

Gordon Fee believes, I think rightly, that the place, role, and ministry of the Holy Spirit are overlooked and downplayed in many churches. As a corrective, in his monumental God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul Fee first exegetes all the relevant passages dealing with the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters and then offers 100 pages of theological reflection derived from that exegesis.

At the end, he offers an appeal to the church to pursue a way forward. He does not naïvely call upon us to the restoration of some ‘primitive’ Christianity. Rather what he hopes for is that we would recapture

“…the Pauline perspective of Christian life as essentially the life of the Spirit, dynamically experienced and eschatologically oriented — but fully integrated into the life of the church.” (page 901, emphasis his)

I think his is a hope and desire worth sharing. As others have noted, the Christian church is often confessionally trinitarian, but functionally bi-nitarian. I see that in my own practice and language. To Fee

“…a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. …our theologizing must stop paying mere lip service to the Spirit and…the church must risk freeing the Spirit from being boxed into the creed and getting him back into the experienced life of the believer and the believing community.” (page 902)

Such a movement will restore life and power to the church, and be central to the divine intention that the “…glory of the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)

“This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit, but the exaltation of God…. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism, and materialism… . And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one — to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son, by the empowering of the Spirit.” (902)

It’s a good and worthy dream.

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