Resting or Rooting

God has graciously allowed Sheri and I to rear six wonderful children. My wife has nursed each one of them. Thus, I have been able to observe the nursing process up close. When our child was hungry for his/her mother’s milk, nothing else would do. When my wife or I would hold them, they would not settle down, but would be actively rooting. They did not want to be comforted or cradled. They were often cranky and flailing until they got what they wanted.  Conversely, after they were weaned they would readily crawl up into our laps and seek to be cradled, especially when they were sick. Our arms were a refuge rather than a refilling station.

In Psalm 131:2, David picks up on this imagery as he describes his relationship with God– “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother: like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (ESV) Rather than crawling up into the lap of my loving Father and quietly resting, I often flail and fight as I demand to understand things that are beyond me or relentlessly pursue my own dreams (131:1– “I do not have great aspirations, or concern myself with things that are beyond me.” [NET]). We have to learn to live with our limitations as we rest in the arms of our faithful God. The life of faith must accept the mystery of God’s ways and the disappointments of personal expectations. David ends the psalm in verse three with a call to his fellow Jews to rest in God as a way of life – “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” At the end of the day, the only way to live with our limitations in understanding and accomplishments is to rest in our limitless God.

Doug Finkbeiner

Are You a Word-Centered or a Spirit-Centered Christian?

A choice commonly placed before believers at some time in their Christian experience is the suggestion, or even demand, that they center their lives on the Bible, or alternately, on the Holy Spirit. Either they live their lives according to the written Word, or they live guided by the Spirit. This great divide has never been more obvious than today. Some Christian traditions emphasize strict adherence to the Bible, while others believe such an approach is too mechanical, and would rather be led experientially by the Spirit. Which approach is correct? A look back into history may help.

While most evangelicals associate Martin Luther with the Lutheran church and erroneous views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and rightly so), Luther was one of the first Reformers to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church by declaring the primary authority of Scripture over the papacy. Luther was Word-centered and demanded that everything be judged by the Word of God (the fact that he failed to do so completely is clear, but anachronistic).

In contrast, the radical reformer Thomas Müntzer emphasized a Spirit-centered Christian life. He stressed an inner-oriented hearing by man that would lead him from bondage to freedom. For Müntzer, “the God who speaks is the God who is experienced directly in the heart” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996, 151).

For many Christians today, this sounds appealing. Who doesn’t want to experience God directly in the heart? Who doesn’t want a dynamic walk of faith where God speaks directly to you? But this approach also has a dark side. It appeals to our narcissism and rebellion by doing away with an objective authority for truth and making our own individual experience with God supreme. The example of Müntzer is instructive because of the direction that his Spirit-centered theology took. Unmoored from Scripture, he began to teach that the knowledge of God was not teachable, but could only be conferred in connection with a spirit-worked faith saturated with experience. Thus, he called for a reversal from the traditional movement from the external to internal. He concluded that the living Word of God must be heard from God’s own mouth and not from books, not even the Bible.

This is always where Spirit-centered theology leads. Luther was right to demand a Word-centered faith. While a Word-centered faith can at times become cold and clinical, with little evidence of the Spirit or His fruits, without the foundation of the authority of Scripture over experience a person’s Christian life will be built upon sinking sand. There are plenty of examples of supposed Word-centered churches, ministries, and people with little evidence of the Spirit of God. But life that is properly centered on the Word will exhibit both the stability of revelation and the vitality of the Spirit.

How can you tell which you are? Ask yourself a few questions:

Þ   Do you savor every chance to read, meditate on, memorize, and apply the written Word of God? Or does your Christian life consist primarily of “talking to God,” with little attention to the Word?

Þ   Is it difficult to go a day or two without the Word? Or do you find it hard to get yourself to open and read the Bible?

Þ   Do your prayers flow out of what you read in the Scriptures today? Or do they revolve primarily around yourself, your problems, and your concerns?

Þ   Are you right now pursuing some intentional study of something in the Bible? Or is your Christian walk a passive “go with the flow”?

It has been my experience that Spirit-centered Christians tend to judge their own spiritual maturity far more positively than perhaps they should, and the reason is simple: they are judging everything by feeling. While they claim that they are being led by the Spirit, and not feelings, their faith is as subjective as that of any theological liberal. They have forgotten a fundamental biblical and theological truth:

The Spirit works primarily through the Word!

That is, the choice of being Word-centered or Spirit-centered is not an “either-or” but a “both-and,” with the Word being primary. We must be Spirit-centered people, but that only comes through being Word-centered. Paul captures this truth in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he speaks of the reading of God’s Word:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord [in the written Word], are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Transformation by the Spirit only comes through beholding Christ in the Word. The Scriptures must be primary in a believer’s life. It is only through being Word-centered that we can be assured of the truth AND live a Spirit-filled life.

There Was No Golden Age in the History of the Church

How often have you heard people lament that these days are not like the “good old days”? Perceptions of the past state of the world or Christianity are often skewed, reflecting the selective memories of individuals or the selective reading of the historical record. We like to think that there was a Golden Age when true and pure Christianity was dominant and Christians all lived happy, holy lives, but the more history I read, the more I believe the idea is a fantasy.

Westminster Seminary church historian, Carl Trueman reminds us that this pining for an ideal era of Christianity has a long history that goes back at least to the Reformation:

One harmful but guiding assumption of much of Reformation and post-Reformation historiography has been that there are ‘golden ages’ such that the present state of the church pales in comparison to some perceived time when all was right with the church…

The Golden Age model has two faults. First, it typically smooths out the rough spots in a particular era by treating theology as though it dropped out of the sky, or, perhaps better, straight out of the Bible. It does not. Humans do theology in specific historical, cultural contexts, and theological issues are always more complex than the Golden Age model allows. One does not have to reduce everything to an extreme materialist model of history to acknowledge the truth of this statement.

In addition, it does not always allow for the fact that we live in the late twentieth century, not the sixteenth or seventeenth. If one wishes to appropriate the sixteenth or seventeenth century, for example, as a model for contemporary church theology, one must do without blinkers and with an awareness of the theological, cultural and philosophical developments between then and now. Ignoring the critical questions of history does not make them go away.

(Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment,ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark; Paternoster, 1999, xvi.)

With that last statement Trueman reminds us that we need to tell the whole story, a story that takes all the aspects of life into consideration: political, sociological, and cultural. We cannot imagine that none of these things mattered or had an influence on the times. Additionally, if we wish for the good old days of selective memory or reading, we have to take the good and the bad. If it’s the Reformation we wish for, we have to take the inherent violence and political instability of the times, in addition to the somewhat rudimentary post-Catholic church order and life. If we long for the great revivals of the 18th or 19th centuries we have to take the extreme emotionalism, moralism and nationalism that were often confused with the gospel.

Rather than wish for the “good old days,” we ought to take the advice of Solomon, who recommended against idolizing the past, and instead instructed us to enjoy the present, warts and all:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this…In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl. 7:10, 14)

Faith that Takes Calculated Risk

Ruth 3 has long been a challenging passage to interpret. It is this chapter that records Naomi’s instructions to her daughter-in-law, Ruth, and the carrying out of those instructions. Recall that Naomi told Ruth to sneak down to the threshing floor where Boaz was threshing barley, to uncover his legs in the night, and to wait to see what would happen.

Some interpreters have presented the actions of Ruth as inherently sexual and seductive in nature. Scholars have debated the meaning of several key words contained in Ruth’s instructions and in the description of Ruth’s carrying out Naomi’s instructions. Three in fact (glh, sakab, and regel) have semantic domains that include euphemistic references to genitalia or sexuality. The careful interpreter must admit that to a small degree the text is ambiguous (though the sexual interpretation is not in line with the narrator’s portrayal of Naomi, Ruth, or Boaz).

The interpretation of these words aside, the possibility exists that Boaz may indeed misinterpret Ruth’s actions. Her actions, though not sexually suggestive, are bold, even daring. By carrying out Naomi’s plan, Ruth is taking a risk. Block summarizes it well: “Remarkably Ruth’s faith appears to be equal to that of her mother-in-law, for she gives herself wholly to carrying out Naomi’s scheme in full. Meanwhile the narrator challenges the reader to trust God the way these women do.”

Somewhere there exists a fine line between faith and foolishness. I suppose we all draw our own line. What is clear to me as I read this passage is that Ruth has drawn the line differently than I. She is willing to step out in true faith. The risks I am willing to take for the Lord are a bit more ‘calculated.’

When Apologetics Does More Harm than Good

I am a firm believer in the believer’s responsibility to be prepared to give an answer (apologia) to those who ask him about his hope in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15). Apologetics has become a passion for me because I believe that the Christian faith can not only withstand every assault by unbelief, but that it easily overpowers every other belief system devised by men. I also believe that apologetics is not a concern just for pastors and theologians, but also for every believer. However, we live in a day when few Christians can actually “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion that raises itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). A number of factors have contributed to this malaise: decline in theology, weak preaching and teaching, and the church’s capitulation to the culture’s obsession with entertainment and banality.

Another factor that prevents apologetics from becoming the skill of every believer is the unfortunate direction that apologetics has taken in the modern era. In an attempt to answer liberalism and skepticism on their own turf, some defenders of the faith chose to seek to defend the faith purely on rational grounds, apart from Scripture. In effect, this move severed the apologetic from its very lifeblood, and turned apologetics into a largely philosophical affair. Even today, the vast majority of evangelical apologetics is practiced from an evidential approach, seeking to match the challenges of unbelief on their own terms. This seemed to work reasonably well until postmodernism came along and undermined the whole modern project of proofs and evidence. The truth is, however, that evidential apologetics was never really all that Christian to begin with. It was more theistic, leading those who became convinced to a belief in God, or a god. At that point Scripture was trotted out like an embarrassing family secret, kept hidden until that point, since the evidentialism could go no further than bare theism. Additionally, the confidence in philosophy has placed most apologetics outside the reach of the average Christian.

It was exactly this modern approach to apologetics that denied Scripture its central role which Abraham Kuyper rejected when he wrote that in the struggle against the anti-Christian worldview that was already dominating Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, “apologetics have advanced us not one single step. Apologetics have invariably begun by abandoning the assailed breastwork, in order to entrench themselves cowardly in a ravelin behind it” (Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931, 11).

Kuyper, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901-1905) and one of the leading intellectuals of his day, was also a pastor and educator, who founded the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880. He had a keen ability to discern the movements of culture and thought that were shaping his day. His writing is timeless, and much of what he wrote is directly applicable to the challenges we face a century later.

Writing about the mistake of trying to defend the faith according to the rules laid down by skeptics, he writes:

From the first, therefore, I have always said to myself, if the battle [against unbelief] is to be fought with honor and with a hope of victory, then principle must be arrayed against principle: then it must be felt that in Modernism the vast energy of an all-encompassing life-system assails us, then also it must be understood that we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power. And this powerful life-system is not to be invented nor formulated by ourselves, but is to be taken and applied as it presents itself in history (p. 11-12).

What Kuyper is saying here is that it will not do to seek to defend the Christian faith with the criteria of reliability laid down by philosophy and modern unbelief. Since Christianity is an all-encompassing “life-system” (Kuyper’s word for worldview) antithetical to the life-system of unbelief, it needs a principle of its own to defend itself, namely the authority of Scripture. Anything less than an epistemological starting point in the self-attested authority of Scripture was insufficient to the task. Since Kuyper did not see this happening among the apologists of his day, he decried apologetics as worthless.

In this sense, Kuyper was correct—apart from the authority of Scripture, apologetics becomes an exercise in ever-increasing obscurity through philosophy and speculative metaphysics. This severs apologetics from its power source, and puts the practice of providing an answer for one’s hope outside the reach of all but the brightest philosophers. While philosophy helps to clarify our thinking when it serves as the handmaid of theology, when it is allowed to dominate apologetics, it does more harm then good.

Stalker

Have you ever had that sense that you’re being watched?…that you’re being followed?  Or maybe even worse you’ve actually spotted someone watching and following you?  No matter where you go, they show up.  No matter where you turn, they follow you.  The sense of being stalked is one thing…the fact of being stalked is another.

I get the sensation of being stalked every fall.  As the calendar pages turn and the leaves begin to change colors, there’s this sixth sense that kicks in and whispers in my mind’s ear – “It’s that time again.  He’s watching you.”

Although I try to fight the urge to look, it usually only takes a couple of days and I look up in the night sky and he’s there – Orion.  The ancients called him “The Hunter.”  And he hunts me down every fall no matter where I am — he was there in Michigan and in Minnesota and in Wisconsin and now in Pennsylvania.

The ancients saw him as the great hunter chasing game across the winter sky in the northern hemisphere.  I call him the bringer of shortened days and longer nights, of colder weather and blowing snow.  Once I see him, I know that it won’t be long before I’m going to work in the dark cold and then returning home in the dark cold.

In truth, Orion is a messenger of God’s faithfulness.  He is mentioned by name three times in our Bibles – Job 9:9, 38:31, and Amos 5:8.  Orion is part of the creation activity recorded in Genesis 1:14-16  — “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens…let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years…He made the stars also.”  For the thousands of years since  the fourth day of creation, Orion has been faithfully bearing his message of God’s faithfulness.  It is time for another change of seasons, as God has planned.

Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy

During a summer excursion to Edmonton to visit our grand-daughter, my biological clock refused to adjust to Mountain Standard Time and I found myself wide awake by ~4:30 am each morning with several hours before the rest of the house awoke.  With freshly brewed coffee in hand (an essential at that hour!), I experienced some especially precious times in God’s Word.  I also had the opportunity to review four new books I had taken along to evaluate for the upcoming fall semester.  Two of these recent releases proved to be particularly worthwhile reads: Don Carson’s The God Who Is There and Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger’s The Heresy of Orthodoxy.  The latter will be the subject of this blog post while I will return to Caron’s work in a future posting.

In The Heresy of Orthodoxy, appropriately subtitled How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, Köstenberger and Kruger (K&K, hereafter) not only shatter the foundation of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis regarding early Christianity but they dismantle the associated structures that are erected in contemporary discussions of the NT canon and the transmission of the text.  In arguing for radical diversity within early Christianity, in which no single version could be identified as normative until the fourth century, Walter Bauer and his influential disciple, Bart Ehrman, would have us believe that decisions regarding the canon were correspondingly late.  Moreover, they contend that the early transmission of the text was riddled with changes by those seeking to impose their particular version of Christianity.

Beginning with the Scriptures and relevant data from the early church, K&K provide compelling arguments that, while there was legitimate and expected diversity within the early church, the earliest followers of Jesus Christ were united around three integrating motifs: (1) monotheism, that is, belief in the one God, Yahweh, as revealed in the Old Testament; (2) Jesus as the Christ and the exalted Lord; and, (3) the saving message of the gospel. Moreover, orthodoxy as expressed by these unifying truths, preceded heresy, not vice versa – as Bauer-Ehrman advocates’ claim. In critiquing both its methodology and historical analyses, K&K expose the emperor of the Bauer-Ehrman empire as having no cloths. Yet, the emperor lives, since, with the rise of postmodernism and its religion of pluralism, the only heresy that remains is orthodoxy, that is, the belief in absolute truth.  In challenging the persistent assumptions of many Bauer-Ehrman advocates, K&K rightly assert: “As we recognize the manner in which assumptions are imported into the debate without expressly being proven, it reveals once again how the Bauer thesis is less a conclusion from the evidence and more a control over the evidence.” [p. 155]

Of particular value was the clear and cogent case K&K presented for early expectation of and recognition of a NT canon.  They highlight the following three historical and theological factors: (a) covenant; (b) redemptive history; and, (c) community.  Regarding covenant, K&K remind us that the NT canon does not exist “in a biblical or historical vacuum but finds its proper context within the larger covenantal structure laid down by the OT” [p. 109]. Just as God gave the terms and conditions of the old covenant in a body of writings, NT believers would likewise have expected the new covenant, which was enacted with the redemptive work of Christ, to be expressed in written form.  Regarding redemptive history, K&K note the important role of the NT apostles in overseeing and safeguarding the accurate transmission of the message of Christ (both the oral and written forms).  Finally, while it is generally argued that the Christian community was formative in shaping the canon, K&K argue, in keeping with the OT paradigm, “that canon constitutes and shapes community, not the other way around.” [p. 119] In other words, the church is the creation of the biblical canon, not vice versa.

Finally, K&K unapologetically affirm the essential role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the specific writings of the NT, in superintending their collection, and as a powerful testimony within the early Christian communities in their receiving and recognizing these inspired writings as the Word of God.  Serious students of God’s Word who find themselves challenged by the contemporary questions surrounding the early forms of Christianity, the nature of the NT canon and/or the accurate transmission of the text will profit tremendously from this resource.  Köstenberger and Kruger are to be commended for their contribution.

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