Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Theology Page 2 of 3

The Fun of Being a Theologian

There are probably few little boys or girls when asked what they want to be when they grow up say, ‘Theologian.” Certainly there are few of us who would, even if we thought of that as a career to be pursued, would pursue it for the fun of it.

So, I had to chuckle out loud (would that be ‘COL’ in texting parlance?) when I read this footnote in John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. In speaking of how we must approach understanding the ten commandments in a section he titled ‘Decalogical Hermeneutics’ he offers this explanation:

I’m not sure that decalogical is an actual word, but part of the fun of being a theologian is being able to invent new words.

There it is. ‘Fun’ and ‘theologian’ in the same sentence.

As a reader I can say that part of the fun of READING such a theologian is the fun of reading his footnotes. I’ve noted this before. Later, Dr. Frame again makes me smile when he gives credit for a particular illustration, this also in a footnote:

Thanks to Linc Ashby for this artwork. I can draw triangles and rectangles with minor computer assistance, but I look in awe at people who can draw decagons.

Thanks, Dr. Frame, for moving theology out of its musty, somber, and dull confines into the messy and delightful realities of real life.

+ + + + +

I’m not sure if there is a need for ‘full disclosure’ in a blog like this, but though I have written favorably about Dr. Frame’s work before moving to Orlando, I feel some constraint now to point out that now I serve not only as his admirer, but also as his pastor.

Marilynne Robinson and Popular Misconceptions of Calvinism

No matter what we think of Calvinism, that short-hand name given to the predominant theology of the Protestant Reformation, we should want to make sure any ‘-ism’ is accurately understood, which this one ordinarily is not.

Wonderfully, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson liberates Calvinism from the misconception that the system teaches that people are awful. This from an interview with Christianity Today.

Q. Over against the popular science writers, you write, “I believe it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.” How do you reconcile this belief with what Calvin’s followers have called total depravity (“No one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God,” Ps. 14)?

A. I am happy to welcome the psalmist to the ranks of Calvinism. “Total depravity” means that the effects of the Fall are felt through the whole person and that this is always true. It is a rejection of the pre-Reformation teaching that after baptism, sin is localized in the lower functions of the body, in “concupiscence.” The effects of Calvin’s teaching are to remove the special opprobrium that attached to the flesh and to draw attention to the complexities and fallibilities of consciousness.

Calvin celebrates the brilliance of mind and body, as any reader of The Institutes is aware. Over against this is his insistence on our tendency toward error, toward sin. So human life is full of the potential manifest in the gifts God has given us, and full of our inevitable falling short. This is a very dynamic understanding of the self. I find no difficulty in accepting both of its terms as true. Pressed for evidence, I would point to the history of civilization and the present state of the world. Calvin offered human brilliance as proof of divinity in humankind. If we accepted this, there would be a great enhancement of respect for ourselves, and, crucially, respect for others, that could only make us better citizens of earth.

A wonderful response, especially the witty ‘welcoming’ of the psalmist. I continue to be amazed by this woman.

She says many other worthwhile things in the interview. I commend to you.

New Calvinism

I think it was Mark Driscoll who once said that the New Calvinists are just like the Old Calvinists, just nicer. I’ll leave that without comment other than to say that if that is true, then I want to be a New Calvinist.

The Orlando Sentinel took notice of the New Calvinism in a lead story Sunday profiling one of the movement’s well-known old proponents. R. C. Sproul is the teaching pastor and clearly the face of Sanford, Florida’s St. Andrew’s Chapel.

The article articulates in positive tones St. Andrew’s place and vision, and in so doing speaks appreciatively of Rev. Sproul’s clear influence upon modern American theological thinking. R. C. Sproul has been a steady voice articulating a reformational orthodoxy during a period of theological experimentation. He has been used by God not only to defend but also to lend credibility to Reformed thinking. And he has done so while at the same time avoiding the moral traps that have ensnared so many who rise to prominence.

His has been a remarkable career which has blessed many, myself included. It is good to see the front page of a large secular newspaper acknowledge that not all of those shaping the cultural landscape sit in congress or swing a putter.

Nevertheless, while the article rightly connects Sproul with the current renaissance of Reformed thinking, it would be wrong to suggest, as the article could be read to suggest, that Sproul defines the borders of that renaissance. Calvinism does not exclusively reside in a St. Andrew’s can.

The beauty of Calvinism which has drawn many to it is its hearty embracing of the centrality of God in all things, including salvation. God’s holiness, his sovereignty, his grace, his good and remarkable providence, these things all find careful and comforting prominence among those who extol what I call a Big God theology. But what one might not know from the article is that these things are finding prominence not only in the neo-gothic traditionalism of St. Andrews, but as well from pulpits set on stages in the midst of the trappings of worship bands.

In fact, surprising to some would be the fact that those very worship bands, seemingly so far removed from the reserve of a St. Andrew’s type experience, are leading people to give glory to God for his holiness and his sovereignty, a holiness and a sovereignty many first learned from R. C. Sproul.

Though Rev. Sproul would not be interviewed for the article, a spokesman of his Ligonier Ministries is reported to be ‘dismissive’ of churches which have both ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ services. I know what it is like to be taken out of context, so I certainly hope that the brothers at Ligonier and St. Andrews are not dismissive or scornful of any other ‘container’ in which God-centered worship might appear.

What is wonderfully ironic is that this same solid Calvinism is emerging from worship services like that at St. Andrews as well as those which the spokesmen of St. Andrews might characterize as ‘pep rallies’. And if one probes, one might find that there is a God-saturated passion and vigorous biblical methodology motivating those churches every bit as much as that motivating the traditionalism at St. Andrews. All of it flowing from the theology so well championed by good men like Rev. Sproul.

What Was, Is, and Always Will Be the True Priority for Every Human Being

I am nothing, if not a hypocrite. I know that.

I can judge in my heart those who seem to be to be overly committed to sport or leisure, when I find myself consumed with technology and order. I puzzle over those over impassioned by politics, while I lose myself in a gluttonous consumption of cinema.

The list could be multiplied.

There are many good things which should command our attention, and there is much need for rest and leisure. I take no shots at those things, just at my ability to justify my own passions while questioning those of others.

So, it is good for me to be reminded of true priority. This is from the must read classic Knowing God by J. I. Packer. Good for a Sunday morning reflection:

“Finally: we have been brought to the point where we both can and must get our life’s priorities straight. From current Christian publications you might think that the most vital issue for any real or would-be Christian in the world today is church union, or social witness, or dialogue with other Christians and other faiths, or refuting this or that -ism, or developing a Christian philosophy and culture, or what have you. But our line of study makes the present-day concentration on these things look like a gigantic conspiracy of misdirection. Of course, it is not that; the issues themselves are real and must be dealt with in their place. But it is tragic that, in paying attention to them, so many in our day seem to have been distracted from what was, is, and always will be the true priority for every human being — that is, learning to know God in Christ.” (page 254)

Our Heavenly Father

For a meeting the other night, I was led to read for our devotional a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a portion which we all needed to hear:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

I’ve read the passage, of course, dozens of times. But it certainly takes on greater meaning when read during a period of uncertainty and transition.

No one, I have long held, is able to stop worrying. We cannot “turn off” the worry button. What the passage asks us to do is to look to the abiding and unfailing love of our Father. When we do that, and see that he has loved us to a degree in his Son that we cannot measure, worry of its own fades to the background.

When I read it, a memory was triggered, a memory of some lines from an old Phil Keaggy song. The lines (dredged up from some deep part in my memory and reproduced here, perhaps imperfectly) may not be original with him, and they will never be mistaken for great poetry. Nevertheless, they drive my heart to where it needs to be:

Said the robin to the sparrow,
“I would really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush about and worry so.”

Said the sparrow to the robin,
“Friend, I think that it must be
That they have no heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.”


Hit me with the simple stuff.

I can argue the Trinity. I can defend the sovereignty of God against all comers. I’m not afraid of the debate about predestination.

It’s the simple stuff I forget.

Earlier last week, a friend suggested a book to me, Shattered Dreams by Larry Crabb.

When it came Friday, I glanced at it quickly, a glance which included reading the first sentence:

“Three ideas fill my mind as I write this book. The first is this: God wants to bless us.

That simple statement knocked me silly.

It is so simple, and yet do easily forgotten by some of us that God loves us and therefore intends to bless us.

All last night I kept repeating those four words to myself, and to my wife. What profound encouragement that is.

God wants to bless us. So simple. So profound. And, by me, so easily forgotten.

Tell ’em about Hell

On Maundy Thursday, I’m going to be preaching on the wrath of God, and that has me thinking about who needs to hear about hell.

I’m not sure that the message of the reality of eternal punishment is all that effective to scare the unconverted into faith in Christ. It’s real, certainly, and it is the logical result of the rejection of the gospel, for sure. But I’m not sure conversion born of fear itself holds much promise for a lifetime of discipleship. It is the love of God that draws.

No, those who urgently need to reflect on the reality of the wrath of God are Christians. And we need to hear it not that we might fear for ourselves, but fear for those we love. Knowledge of the wrath of God will feed our urgency like nothing else.

We do not need to tell the unconverted they are going to hell. They probably know that already.

We need to tell ourselves that they are.

Insights from the Country

Most Christian bloggers I see quote hymns and songs which inspire and uplift.

I’ve decided to post the lyrics from a country song. I think that may disqualify me from the fraternity.

I fetched these lyrics off the internet in anticipation of using them in Sunday’s sermon, which already was too long, and so they got snipped.

The point of the sermon (which will be posted here later this week) was that the discontent we feel with the status quo is often an indicator of our longing for God. So, we switch our affections to something else, and find the substitute equally unsatisfactory. The cycle continues until our restless hearts find their rest in Jesus. And even then, even then, we forget his fulness, and are just not satisfied, which is why Christians must repeatedly return for long draughts from the well of God’s grace.

Anyway, the song is “I Keep Looking” and was recorded by Sara Evans a number of years ago. (I’ve pasted it as I found it on the internet. No corrections made.)

Back when I was young,
Couldn’t wait to grow up,
get away and get out on my own;
looking back now ain’t it funny how
I’ve been trying to get back home.

When my low self esteem
needs a man loving me
and I find me a perfect catch
then I see my friends having wild weekends
and I don’t wanna get quite so attached

Just as soon as I get what I want
I get unsatisfied,
Good is good but could be better

I keep looking, I keep looking for,
I keep looking for something more
I always wondered what’s on the other side
of the number two door
I keep looking, looking for something more.

Well the straight haired girls they all want curls
and the brunettes wanna be blonde
it’s your typical thing
you got yin you want yang
It just goes on and on

They say hey its only human to never be satisfied
well i guess I’m as human as the next one

I keep looking, I keep looking for,
I keep looking for something more
I always wondered what’s on the other side
of the number two door
I keep looking, looking for something more.

Note: Pay special attention to the lines “it’s your typical thing / you got yin you want yang”. Only in country music could you rhyme ‘thing’ and ‘yang’!

Special note to Matthew: I hear you laughing.

John, the Predestinarian

When I find myself in a discussion with someone concerning what the biblical doctrine of predestination really means, inevitably somewhere in the conversation he or she will say something like, “But what about John 3:16?”

Of course, I see no conflict between John 3:16 and Ephesians 1:5. Neither do I see a contradiction between the expressed love of God for the world and the free offer of the gospel which is so preciously conveyed in John and the mysterious and yet affirming love for the elect before time which Ephesians or Romans clearly celebrate.

I find it interesting, though, to read this comment by the British New Testament Scholar C. K. Barrett who, as far as I know, has no bone to chew in this argument. Barrett, whose students included J. Dunn and N. T. Wright, among others, sees that this passage, and especially the verses immediately following John 3:16, is in its very tone and direction predestinarian:

“In v.19-21 the predestinarian teaching of this gospel comes clearly to light. Men are divided into two classes, those who do evil and those who do the truth. The former inevitably reject Christ and are rejected; the latter as inevitably accept him.” (The Gospel According to St. John, page 182)

Barrett’s expression of what predestination means as he goes on is not as clear as I would want it to be. I share here what I do just because I find it ironic that the very passage appealed to to reject predestination is said to have a predestinarian foundation and to reside in a gospel whose very nature is predestinarian.

It’s ironic, that’s all.

It should come as no surprise that a guy who names his blog ‘Somber and Dull’ finds delight in irony. It makes me smile.

Happy Calvinists

If I had time, I would reflect on and interact with Amy Bloom’s distillation of the keys to happiness:

The Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness: (1) Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety. (2) Get enough sleep. (3) Have relationships that matter to you. (4) Take compassionate care of others and of yourself. (5) Have work or an interest that engages you.

But what fascinated me in her survey of current writing on the idea of happiness was this paragraph:

It is true that ever since Americans began turning away from Calvinism (and who could blame them: long winters, smallpox and eternal hellfire?), the country has been a breeding ground for good news, for the selling of paths to contentment. The quick-witted and genteel opportunism of Mary Baker Eddy and the medicine-free healing mantras of Christian Science begat Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” and every other “Think Your Way to Wealth and/or Happiness” coach from Father Divine to Suzanne Somers to Deepak Chopra. With questions like “Are you tired of being a victim?” “Do you feel stuck?” “Is something missing?” “Is life passing you by?,” there have been a lot of people giving happiness if not a bad name, then certainly a moist, oily “spray-on tan with a side of cash” kind of name.

If turning away from Calvinism opened the door to all of this, perhaps a return to Calvinism might be a wonderful curative!

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