Sunday, March 29, 2009

Arminianism vs. Calvinism

Here is a link to an admittedly simplistic but effective analogy of the Atonement presented by the Wesleyan Arminian blog.

Thanks to Craig L. Adams.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

St. Augustine on the Church

“He cannot have God for his Father who will not have the Church for his mother.”
-St. Augustine

Marva Dawn on Church shopping

“We have turned churches into 'vendors of religious services and goods' where people shop for worship, instead of 'a body of people on a mission'. People choose a church by what makes them feel good, instead of belonging to a community in which God will kill us, and then raises us up into the new life of obedience!”
- Marva J. Dawn, Living in the Lamblight,
ed. by Hans Boersma

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ron Luce on Leadership

“Those who speak up shape culture.”
- Ron Luce, BattleCry

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Problems with "Contemporary worship"

I have often complained about "contemporary-style" worship, by which I refer to worship styles which generally utilize a "praise band" and newer "choruses" with words projected on a screen or wall, as opposed to organs, choirs, and traditional hymnody (I'm obviously painting with broad strokes).

Some complaints:

1) "Contemporary worship" is not contemporary. It is better termed "Baby Boomer-style" worship, since the Baby Boomer generation (those born in roughly 1945-1967) is the generation which created it. Post-Baby Boomers are creating and recapturing other styles; in fact, "contemporary" worship is really just worship that was contemporary 30 years ago, as opposed to 500+ years ago (as with "traditional" worship). It's no more contemporary than Gregorian chant, and we ought to stop referring to it as such.

2) Baby Boomer worship is largely devoid of Christian symbols. By getting rid of stained glass windows (which tell the story of Jesus and his Church), robes and stoles (which help root the Church in a theological tradition), the liturgical year (which helps root us in Scripture and the salvific story of Jesus), and traditional hymnody (which connect us through music to those saints who have gone before as well as to others who share this hymnody in the Church Universal), as well as other symbols, we sanitize worship of some of its most Christian elements. We thus miss opportunities to teach who Jesus is and who we are in him. One of the most shocking aspects of seeing Joel Osteen on television (other than inadequate theology) is that the cross has been replaced with a rotating globe. Very telling.

3) Baby Boomer worship is extremely exclusive. If I don't know the latest praise band "hit", I simply can't sing it. No music is offered for my education; I simply see the words projected on a screen. I am therefore invited to stand and listen as others sing, while I cannot. That's more concert than worship. If I am not already immersed in the Baby Boomer worship subculture, I am excluded.

4) Many incorrectly believe Baby Boomer worship to be the answer to the decline of the mainline Church. I attended a meeting a few weeks ago at which a United Methodist bishop (gently) chastised those gathered for continuing to sing older songs, such as "How Great Thou Art" (odd, considering that particular song is relatively "contemporary" when compared to the works of, say, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, or Fanny Crosby). His point was that these songs, produced by earlier generations, simply did not speak to a 21st century population. He failed to show what was so dated about lyrics such as:

"O For A Thousand Tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!"

"Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood."

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was long but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see!"

"Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia! Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia! Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia! Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!"

"O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee."

"When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died; my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride."

"O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me! The Father's coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree. Th' immortal God for me hath died: My Lord, my Love, is crucified!"

"Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; weep o'er the erring one, lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save."

"Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word; I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord; thou and thou only, first in my heart, great God of heaven, my treasure thou art."

It is not mainline music which has resulted in decline; it is theological uncertainty, missional lethargy, evangelistic malaise, and institutional compromise which is killing us. We need leadership in these areas, not in the remaking of our hymnody.

If we teach the gospel faithfully, as we pledged to do in our ordination vows, these songs can and will come alive for Christians of any century. Poor teaching is no excuse for replacing quality texts with choruses containing less challenging lyrics.

5) The quality of Baby Boomer worship songs is generally poor. I freely admit to being a music snob. I regularly listen to the songs of the greatest songwriters of the past hundred years - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Carole King, George Harrison, and others. The latest Baby Boomer worship hit pales by comparison. Let's be honest: much of what passes for "contemporary Christian music" doesn't stand up to these great writers. Every now and then, there's a good song. But, by and large, it's awfully bad.

This is to say nothing about the poor quality of most praise bands. Again, I plead snobbery. I have heard few (if any) praise bands which can compare to the instrumental mastery of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who. If you're going to rock it up, do it well - or, please, don't do it.

Here is a link to a post by John Stackhouse entitled "Chris Tomlin’s Worship Songs: We Have Got to Do Better".

I am an advocate of "indigenous worship". Use the gifts and graces of the folks who are part of your congregational fellowship. But don't necessarily reject the practices of traditional worship, which have much to teach. Too often we confuse "traditional" with "traditionalism", two terms which are not synonomous; slavish devotion to things past is not the same as embracing the best of what has gone before. Surely we can be "current" while still recognizing the timeless power in a worship style and in music which has praised God powerfully and inspired the Church through the ages to be her best.

Worship done well that remains Biblical, Spirit-led and Christocentric is always, by definition, relevant. May we strive to do and be our best.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Karl Barth on Preaching

“Preachers must not be boring. To a large extent the pastor and boredom are synonymous concepts. Listeners often think that they have heard already what is being said in the pulpit. They have long since known it themselves. The fault certainly does not lie with them alone.

"Against boredom the only defense is being biblical. If a sermon is biblical, it will not be boring. Holy Scripture is in fact so interesting and has so much that is new and exciting to tell us that listeners cannot even think about dropping off to sleep.”
– Karl Barth, Homiletics
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 81.

Friday, March 20, 2009

David Peterson on Worship

"Is worship, then, essentially an experience or feeling?

"Is it to be identified with a special sense of the presence of God, or with some kind of religious ecstasy or with expressions of deep humiliation before God?

"Are there special moments in a Christian meeting when we are truly 'worshipping' God?

"Are church services to be measured by the extent to which they enable the participants to enter into such experiences?

"Such a subjective approach is often reflected in the comments people make about Christian gatherings, but it has little to do with biblical teaching on the matter.

"Furthermore, it creates significant problems for relationships amongst Christians, since not all will share in the same experience and some will inevitably be made to feel that their worship is inferior.

"Worship must involve certain identifiable attitudes, but something is seriously wrong when people equate spiritual self-gratification with worship."

— David Peterson, Engaging with God:
A Biblical Theology of Worship

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Interesting quote

"There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know."
- President Barack Obama,
at the National Prayer Breakfast
(Source: The White House)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Here's a great acronymn take-off on the famous (and incorrect) TULIP of Calvinism:

F reed to believe by God's grace
A tonement for All
C onditional Election
T otal Depravity
S ecurity in Christ

Thanks to A.M. Mallett over at Introspectives of an Arminian Christian

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rerun: Was Jesus "punished" for us?

"...he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the suffering that brought us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed."

- Isaiah 53:5

This wonderful verse is crucial in Atonement theology, yet it is often, in my view, mistranslated and misunderstood. This can lead to some views of the Atonement which are not Wesleyan and, perhaps, not even Biblical.

The misunderstood word is the Hebrew word "musar". This is a word that traditionally has meant "correction", "chastisement", "instruction", "suffering", "rebuke", or "discipline", as from a loving father. In fact, "musar" is used 50 times in the Old Testament, and the King James Version always utilizes one of these English words. The ASV followed suit, as did the RSV about 50 years later.

According to Isaiah 53:5, then, and assuming a messianic perspective, Jesus suffered for us. The verse does not teach that Jesus was punished for us; "punishment" comes from an entirely different Hebrew word which is not used in reference to atonement.

This is an important distinction, because punishment and forgiveness are not synonomous, and salvation hinges on forgiveness in Wesleyan theology. When a person is found guilty of a crime, they are sent to prison, the imprisonment being their punishment. Let us assume that they have been sentenced to two years in prison. At the conclusion of those two years, they are freed from their cell, having served out their punishment.

It would be inappropriate for a judge to then say, "You have been in prison for two years; now, you are forgiven." The criminal was not forgiven; he took his punishment. The same would be true if a person received a fine for a parking violation. If they pay the fine, they have received their punishment, they have paid their debt.

Conversely, if a judge were to say to the criminal, "You don't need to serve two years; you are forgiven", or to the parking violator, "You don't need to pay the fine; you are forgiven", then there would be no punishment. Punishment and forgiveness are not the same thing.

In the 1970s, the Good News Bible (also known as "Today's English Version") appeared, translated quite loosely, a style known as "dynamic equivalence" (as opposed to the more literal KJV and RSV). In this translation, "musar" was rendered in Isaiah 53:5 as "punishment". Still, this can be forgiven, since the Good News translation itself was fairly paraphrastic and not really intended for academic or theological use.

The New International Version (NIV) emerged in 1978 as a legitimate translation alternative to the KJV and RSV. This wonderful translation made the mistake of translating "musar" as "punishment". Why?

Calvinists have held to a particular view of Atonement theology which states that Jesus, on the Cross, received our punishment. Thus, the demands of divine justice were satisfied by the death of Christ. The NIV was translated primarily by Calvinist scholars, so it is only natural that Isaiah 53:5 reflects their theological bias, even if translating "musar" as "punishment" was truly innovative, and without real precedent in the history of the English Bible. Surprisingly, the NRSV followed the NIV upon its release a decade later, as did the HCSB in 2004. I am grateful for the ESV (2001), which renders "musar" as the more traditional "chastisement".

Wesleyans should not forget the actual meaning of the verse. Jesus suffered for us, thus reminding us of the importance of suffering and the terrible pain inflicted upon our loving Lord...not that any debts would be paid through punishment, but rather that we might be truly forgiven. Jesus' suffering was substitutionary in that his suffering, "...became a substitute for something else that would otherwise occur" (in the words of the late J. Kenneth Grider). In other words, Jesus' suffering served as a substitute for our punishment.

In the words of Gordon Olson, "The sufferings and especially the death of Christ were sacrificial, were not the punishment of the law but were equivalent in meaning to it, were representative of it and substituted for it. The demands of the law were not satisfied by it, but the honor of the law was promoted by it as much as this honor would have been promoted by inflicting the legal penalty upon all sinners. The distributive (or vindictive) justice of God was not satisfied by it, but His general (or justice for the public good) as a responsible Moral Governor was perfectly satisfied."

This is more than simply a "moral influence", intended to show God's love and break our hearts, as much of traditional Protestant Liberalism maintains. Jesus suffered and died for a uphold God's moral sovereignty and to make real forgiveness possible, that we might know salvation. This is truly good news. We can know real forgiveness! Without question, due to our sinfulness, we deserve punishment - but are forgiven, because of the faithful suffering of Our Lord.

I urge my Wesleyan sisters and brothers to ponder this perspective as we approach the darkness of Good Friday and the glories of Easter Sunday.

- Originally posted 3/19/2007

Monday, March 09, 2009

Rerun: Kenosis

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient
to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
- Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

This is my favorite passage in all of Scripture, and it is absolutely loaded with Christological claims...

  • it presumes Jesus' pre-existence and "equality with God";
  • it affirms that Jesus became incarnate in human flesh;
  • it emphasizes Jesus' humility and obedience to God, even to the point of a gruesome death on the Cross;
  • it clarifies that, on the Cross, Jesus really died; there was no pretending, no "show";
  • it proclaims Jesus' subsequent exaltation and universal Lordship.
What a powerfully important passage!

Verse 7 has always intrigued me...particularly the phrase "emptied himself", which may have serious implications in Christology. The Greek root word used is "kenosis", which means, "to empty" or "to be emptied". While some translations render the phrase "made himself nothing" (NIV, ESV) or "made himself of no reputation" (KJV), I believe that these are attempts to interpret a difficult concept, that of the Son "emptying himself", rather than simply translations of the text.

It seems to me that in the Incarnation, the Son "emptied himself" of something, according to Philippians 2:7. The question is, "Of what did Jesus empty himself?"

I believe that Jesus emptied himself of the glory of divinity. If God were to appear to us in all of his glory, how could we survive? So, Jesus emptied himself of God's glory, while remaining fully God. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in stanza 2 of his "Oration 37" speaks of it as a "...reduction and lessening of his glory".

Retaining the divine nature, being emptied of divine glory also meant that Jesus emptied himself of the "omni" qualities of God. Pre-Easter, Jesus, in my view, was not omniscient, was not omnipotent, and was certainly not omnipresent.

If he were omniscient, then why do we have these words in Mark 13:32, in which Jesus is speaking of the eschaton in the so-called "Marcan Apocalypse"...
"But about that day or hour no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father."

Additionally, why do we have the claims of Luke 2:40 and 2:52 that Jesus grew in wisdom? It seems to me that, like every human being, he was learning - about God, about himself, and about his calling. That's one of the most human of qualities, and, if Jesus didn't need to learn and discover his calling, he may not have been fully human.

If he were omnipotent, then why do we have these words in Mark 6:5-6, during a visit to his hometown of Nazareth...

"...he could do no deed of power there,
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
And he was amazed at their unbelief."

Faith seems to be required in some way in order for Jesus to perform a miracle. This suggests that Jesus was limited in some way, and not all powerful.

I suppose I don't need to make the case that Jesus emptied himself of omnipresence. For one to make the claim that Jesus was omnipresent during his earthly ministry is to not only demonstrate a misunderstanding of human nature, but to seriously question Incarnational doctrine, which clearly affirms that Jesus lived in a definite place and time as a human being.

If Jesus had not emptied himself of these divine attributes, then he could not have been fully human. Imagine the baby in the Bethlehem manger. Now, picture that same baby as knowing everything, as being absolutely all powerful. He'd simply be playing human...toying with Mary and Joseph. This beautiful image can become very frightening, if the "baby" in the manger isn't really a "baby" in any sense that we would recognize; he's really quite monstrous.

So, Jesus emptied himself of divine glory, which includes the "omni" attributes, in order to become fully human. But, he remained fully divine. How can this be?

Our God is a god of paradoxes. The first shall be last, the last first. The God who never changes changed by becoming incarnate in human flesh. God is a god of wrath and mercy.

The Incarnation is a holy mystery. We can know in part, but not entirely (at least not yet). We may not be able to fully understand how it all works, but we can know that God does understand it, and that his reasons for doing things the way he did come out of his deep, abiding love for us.

It is a touching sign of grace that God is self-limiting in his love. This is part of the beauty of Philippians 2:5-11, and why I am thankful that it appears in the lectionary each year on Palm/Passion Sunday. It provides an excellent means to discuss not only the horrific tragedies of Holy Week, but also to talk about the greatness of God's love, and what the ways in which God modeled this love, to prepare us for heaven.

I am reminded of Charles Wesley's wonderful words...
"He left his Father's throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam's helpless race.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!"
- "And Can It Be that I Should Gain"
(The United Methodist Hymnal #363)

- Originally posted 3/26/2007

Monday, March 02, 2009

Rerun: A Wesleyan Response to Inerrancy

The subjects of Biblical authority and inerrancy were topics of conversation at a recent meeting of the Pittsburgh District Committee on Ordained Ministry, a team on which I'm blessed to serve. This post was originally posted 10/16/2006, but I thought it appropriate to post again as "food for thought" to any interested readers.

Donald Haynes of Hood Theological Seminary has written a column for The United Methodist Reporter in which he deals with the question, "Is the Bible literally the Word of God?" In the article, Haynes strongly affirms Biblical authority while essentially rejecting the notion of "inerrancy".

The belief that the Bible is "inerrant" is a Calvinist doctrine which, while "in the mix" since the 16th century, wasn't formalized until the early 20th century. In the light of the 19th century development of "modern" Biblical criticism, conservative Christians (who were soon dubbed "fundamentalists") declared a belief that the Bible is inerrant in order to combat the affect that modern criticism was having on the notion of Biblical authority. By the 1970s, many evangelicals had established the idea that inerrancy was one of the real tests of evangelicalism.

The problem is that historically speaking inerrancy has been foreign to Wesleyan theology (as demonstrated by Wesleyan theologians Dennis Bratcher, J. Kenneth Grider, and Gregory Neal, among others). The reason for this is that Methodists, from Wesley's day until today, have been primarly concerned with the soteriological message of Scripture; what does the Bible say about the salvation message?

The fifth of the Methodist Articles of Religion, entitled "Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation", states in part:
The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation...
The fourth article of the Evangelical United Brethren Confession of Faith similarly states, in part:
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.
Obviously, no mention is made of the notion of inerrancy, which is predated by the Methodist Articles.

Inerrancy has, at times, actually led to idolatry and sin. A common side effect of inerrancy has been termed "bibliolatry". The Bible is inspired and authoritative, but it is also a book written through the agency of human beings. Many who affirm inerrancy are aghast at the notion that the Bible is a very human book.

Christian orthodoxy has affirmed for centuries that Jesus was/is both fully divine and fully human; in fact, this affirmation is a legitimate test of orthodoxy. He wasn't "more God" or "more human"...he was fully both.

Why, then, do so many of our sisters and brothers who affirm inerrancy reject the idea that the Bible can also be a fully divine book as well as fully human? Frankly, to reject the human side of the Bible is to place the Bible above Jesus, which is clearly sinful. Jesus is the Lord of Scripture, and is himself above even the Holy Bible.

I have found it useful in my personal understanding to differentiate between Jesus as the one true Word of God (with a capital W) and the Bible as the living, active, supernatural word of God (with a lowercase w). Both are from God, but one is certainly superior to the other.

What, then, are we to say as Wesleyans about inerrancy?

First, we can strongly affirm Scriptural authority. The Bible is inspired by God and is essential, and is authoritative for the Church. It does indeed contain all that is necessary for salvation and, as such, we need to cling to the message of Scripture and live in its gracious words, allowing the Spirit to shape us and remake us using the Bible. (Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, probably the top New Testament scholar on the planet today as well as one of the top evangelical theologians perhaps ever, has some good words to say about Biblical authority, while rejecting inerrancy.)

Second, we can be gracious to our sisters and brothers (generally of Calvinist persuasions) with whom we disagree regarding how best to define the ideas of Biblical inspiration and authority. We need not disparage those who do affirm inerrancy, even as we live in another room of God's house.

Third, we must see to it that modern Biblical criticism is responsibly applied. We have much to learn from Biblical critics, but too often their work is used to demean or belittle the Christian faith or important doctrines of the faith. Wesleyans have a responsibility as "Bible moths" to defend the Scriptures and see to it that criticism is applied properly. John Wesley once wrote, "The Church is to be judged by Scripture, not Scripture by the Church."

Fourth, we need to be "on guard" regarding the idolatry of bibliolatry. Most folks who commit this error do so unawares. While we must guard orthodoxy, we must do so in a loving way, graciously correcting and instructing our Christian brethren.

Finally, we need to focus on our mission, which is also the Bible's purpose. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and the Bible exists not that we might prove scientific details or historic happenings which don't even matter (in terms of the big picture), but that people might believe. As I said to a Presbyterian colleague in my seminary years, "We United Methodists are content to let you all and the Baptists worry about inerrancy; we're too busy saving souls." That was my smart-mouthed way of putting the debate into perspective; we should not be distracted by these interesting but ultimately silly debates when the task at hand is of such great import.

O Father of all the nations of the earth: Remember the multitudes who have been created in your image but have not known the redeeming work of our Savior Jesus Christ; and grant that, by the prayers and labors of your holy Church, they may be brought to know and worship you as you have been revealed in the Bible, your word, and preeminently in your Son, the Word; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.