A while back, I purchase N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God in the hopes that it would shed some light on my long-held theory that Christianity would not have been able to succeed as a religion and eventually take hold root around the world if the primary event of Christian history – the resurrection – had not actually taken place.  Wright’s monumental work – part of a larger series called Christian Origins and the Question of God (this book is Volume 3) – seemed to be a likely place to find a detailed examination of that very question, and so far it has not disappointed.  In reality, it is much more detailed than I had anticipated.  The first 206 pages of the book are devoted to examining the question of how the peoples of the ancient world viewed the idea of “resurrection,” so as to set the context in which the early Christian church began to proclaim Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave.

I believe that I have finally reached the point in the book where it will begin to intensively examine the ideas that initially caused me to purchase it; as such, a small excerpt to set the stage:

Titian - Averdoldi Polyptych. Brescia. Santi Nazzaro e Celso

Titian; Polyptych of the Resurrection - Santi Nazaro e Celso, Brescia

One of the most striking features of the early Christian movement is its virtual unanimity about the future hope.  We might have expected that the first Christians would quickly have developed a spectrum of beliefs about life after death, corresponding to the spectrums we have observed in the Judaism from within which Christianity emerged and the paganism into which it went as a missionary movement; but they did not.

This observation forms the hinge upon which turns one of the central arguments of the present book.  This can be expressed in the form of a question.  Granted that the early Christians drew freely on Jewish traditions, and engaged energetically with the pagan world of ideas, how does it happen that we find virtually no spectrum of belief about life after death, but instead almost a universal affirmation of that which pagans said could not happen, and that which one stream (albeit the dominant one) of Judaism insisted would happen, namely resurrection?  Let us be quite clear at this point: we shall see that when the early Christians said ‘resurrection’ they meant it in the sense it bore both in paganism (which denied it) and in Judaism (an influential part of which affirmed it).  ’Resurrection’ did not mean that someone possessed ‘a heavenly and exalted status’; when predicated of Jesus, it did not mean his ‘perceived presence’ in the ongoing church.  Nor, if we are thinking historically, could it have meant ‘the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God’.  It meant bodily resurrection; and that is what the early Christians affirmed.  There is nothing in the early Christian view of the promised future which corresponds to the pagan views we have studied; nothing at all which corresponds to the denials of the Sadducees; virtually no hint of the ‘disembodied bliss’ view of some Jewish sources; no Sheol, no ‘isles of the blessed’, no ‘shining like stars’, but a constant affirmation of newly embodied life.  As Christopher Evans put it a generation ago, ‘there emerged in Christianity a precise, confident and articulate faith in which resurrection has moved from the circumference to the centre.’

This alone demands historical explanation. But there is more.  There are substantial mutations from within the ‘resurrection’ stream of Judaism.  In particular, the historian must account for the fact that, with early Christianity thus being so clearly a ‘resurrection’ movement in the Jewish sense, the well-established metaphorical meaning of ‘resurrection’ – the restoration of Israel in a concrete socio-political sense – is almost entirely absent, and a different set of metaphorical meanings emerge instead.  How does it come about, in other words, that early Christianity located its life-after-death beliefs so firmly at the ‘resurrection’ end of the Jewish spectrum, while simultaneously giving the word a metaphorical meaning significantly different from, though in long-range continuity with, the meaning it had within Judaism?  How do we account for both the strong similarity between Christianity and Judaism (there is no sign, in early Christian resurrection belief, of anything remotely like moving in a pagan direction) and the equally clear dissimilarities?

Intriguing.  This should be well worth diving into.

Herman Bavinck, from Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1, Chapter 8 – “Religious Foundations”:

We have a choice only between two alternatives: either (1) religion is folly since God does not exist or is in any case strictly unknowable; or (2) it is truth but then demands and presupposes the existence and revelation of God in a rigorously logical and scientific sense.  Those who cannot accept the former are compelled to assume the latter and to recognize God as the very principle of being, the essential foundation (principium essendi) of all religion.  Religion exists solely because God exists and wants to be served by his creatures.  Only when the existence of God is certain can we understand the essence and origin, the validity and value of religion.

Later:

…a human is a human because he is the image of God; a human is at once a religious being in virtue of being human.  Religion is not “the essence”  of a human, as Amorie van der Hoeven Jr. expressed himself somewhat less correctly, for religion is not a substance but a disposition or virtue.  Still religion is an essential of human nature so integral to it and inseparably bound up with it that, though sin can devastate it, it cannot eradicate it.  For that reason religion is universal and has such immense power in life and history.

A Sunday Reflection

On March 14, 2010, in Theology, by marc
Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Ran across this quote from Charles Spurgeon while browsing at challies.com:

You need not weep because Christ died one-tenth so much as because your sins rendered it necessary that He should die. You need not weep over the crucifixion, but weep over your transgression, for your sins nailed the Redeemer to the accursed tree. To weep over a dying Saviour is to lament the remedy; it were wiser to bewail the disease. To weep over the dying Saviour is to wet the surgeon’s knife with tears; it were better to bewail the spreading polyps which that knife must cut away. To weep over the Lord Jesus as He goes to the cross is to weep over that which is the subject of the highest joy that ever heaven and earth have known; your tears are scarcely needed there; they are unnatural, but a deeper wisdom will make you brush them all away and chant with joy His victory over death and the grave. If we must continue our sad emotions, let us lament that we should have broken the law which He thus painfully vindicated; let us mourn that we should have incurred the penalty which He even to the death was made to endure … O brethren and sisters, this is the reason why we souls weep: because we have broken the divine law and rendered it impossible that we should be saved except Jesus Christ should die.

Ephesians 2:1-10:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Simple, stunning, beautiful.  Not from ourselves, but a gift of God; not by works so that boasting in anything but the grace and goodness of God is precluded.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

- Augustus M. Toplady, 1776.

Outward Show

On March 3, 2010, in Culture, Reformed Theology, Religion, Theology, by marc
John Calvin (1509-1584)

John Calvin (1509-1584)

Found in The Stewardship Study Bible, in the course of reading I Samuel 16 – a quote from John Calvin:

Where is our gratefulness toward God for our clothing if in the sumptuousness of our apparel we both admire ourselves and despise others, if with its elegance and glitter we prepare ourselves for shameless conduct?  Where is our recognition of God if our minds be fixed upon the splendor of our apparel?  For many so enslave all their senses to delights that the mind lies overwhelmed.  Many are so delighted with marble, gold, and pictures that they become marble, they turn, as it were, into metals and are like painted figures.  The smell of the kitchen or the sweetness of its odors so stupefies others that they are unable to smell anything spiritual.

Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism reads like a memo from the early 20th century to to present-day church. Case in point – Chapter 3′s extensive section on the loss of the consciousness of sin in preaching:

Modern liberalism has lost all sense of the gulf that separates the creature from the Creator; its doctrine of man follows naturally from its doctrine of God. But it is not only the creature limitations of mankind which are denied. Even more important is another difference. According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.

The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but today it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.

What has produced this satisfaction with human goodness? What has become of the consciousness of sin? The consciousness of sin has certainly been lost. But what has removed it from the hearts of men?

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

…the loss of the consciousness of sin… has its roots in a mighty spiritual process which has been active during the past seventy-five years. Like other great movements, that process has come silently ? so silently that its results have been achieved before the plain man was even aware of what was taking place. Nevertheless, despite all superficial continuity, a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.

In speaking of “paganism,” we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature’ whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism: a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace…

…The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task: she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. The preacher gets up into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and addresses the congregation somewhat as follows: “You people are very good,” he says; “you respond to every appeal that looks toward the welfare of the community. Now we have in the Bible – especially in the life of Jesus – something so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people.” Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rob Bell’s recent “tour” titled The Gods Aren’t Angry while I was reading this.  The point of Bell’s tour, as I understand it, is that the message of scripture isn’t so much one of a just God who punishes sinners, but of a compassionate God who is different from the ancient wrathful pagan gods of antiquity.  This is all of a piece with the continual trend exhibited in the emergent movement (and in modern theology in general) that deemphasizes sin and the wrath of God while emphasizing the grace and love of God.  The problem with doing that, of course, is that it’s a fraud.  Telling people that God loves them without calling them to repentance for their sins and to accept the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for their salvation is to condemn them; and yet, the church today by and large deemphasizes sin because people prefer to believe that they’re basically good.

Machen addressed this problem nearly a century ago; sadly, his admonition is as necessary to the church today as it was then.

More from Machen in Christianity and Liberalism.  Here, he discusses the value of a system of public education for a free society, and the danger of allowing that system to become monopolistic:

J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham Machen

A public-school system, in itself, is indeed of enormous benefit to the race. But it is of benefit only if it is kept healthy at every moment by the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools. A public school system, if it means the providing of free education for those who desire it, is a noteworthy and beneficent achievement of modern times; but when once it becomes monopolistic it is the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised. Freedom of thought in the middle ages was combated by the Inquisition, but the modern method is far more effective. Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them then to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny, supported as it is by a perverse technique used as the instrument in destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past, which despite their weapons of fire and sword permitted thought at least to be free.

If only more Christians thought more deeply on the dangers of ceding the formal education of their children to the state.  Is it any wonder that so many children of Christian families abandon the faith as soon as they leave for college?  Why should this be a surprise when we – more often than not – take our children to church on Sunday to teach them about the glory and sovereignty of God, and then on Monday through Friday send them to the local public school and by implication teach them that what they heard on Sunday about God’s sovereignty doesn’t apply to math, science, history, and art, but that God can be neatly separated from those areas of endeavor – placed in a box, if you will, to be taken out and dusted off again on Sunday at church.

The most important duty of any Christian parent is to raise their child in the faith.  In this day and age, even more so than in Machen’s time, allowing a child’s formal education to be dictated by the state undermines Christian parents in that task.

Christianity and Liberalism

On February 24, 2010, in Reformed Theology, Theology, by marc
J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

Via Reformation 21, I just discovered that one of the books on my reading list is available as a free pdf download (and there’s audio too, if you prefer) at ReformedAudio.org!  Christianity and Liberalism was J. Gresham Machen’s response to the growing theological liberalism within the Presbyterian Church in America in his time. In the book, Machen demonstrates that theological liberalism is not just a version of Christianity, but is actually a wholly different religion that denies the central claims of the Christian faith.  From the introduction:

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.”1 Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end.

More like this in today’s reformed churches, please.

Numbers and the rights of women

On January 17, 2010, in Culture, History, Religion, Theology, by marc

Perhaps you’ve noted in my Goodreads feed that I’ve been working my way through the Bible since late December.  My goal, initially stated, was to read the Bible from front to back (like one would read a regular book) over the course of this year, and to read it aloud.  I got off to a good start, and even began to record myself reading it (thinking that someday when I die, the kids might just find it in some format and have an audio copy of their dear old dad reading the scriptures cover to cover to play for their children, and so on.  I’ve sort of trailed off in enthusiasm for that particular aspect of the project, and I’ve modified the goal of reading it aloud because it’s sort of impractical at times to read aloud at some points when I have time to read, so I’m now planning to read as much as possible aloud.

Anyway, I’m making steady progress, and I’m hoping to be through the Pentateuch by the end of this month – a reasonable goal, I think, especially considering that I’m entering the homestretch of Numbers halfway through January.  And today, I ran across a passage that was interesting, and casts some interesting light on the common claim that the Bible is a tool of patriarchy and all about the oppression of women.  Numbers 27:1-11 says:

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They approached the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly, and said, “Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons.  Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the LORD 6 and the LORD said to him,  ”What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them.

“Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, turn his inheritance over to his daughter.  If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  If his father had no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may possess it. This is to be a legal requirement for the Israelites, as the LORD commanded Moses.’ “

As I was reading, it struck me that this action taken by the daughters of Zelophad was likely completely out of step with the overwhelming male-dominated culture of the day, and God’s response indicates that while the culture may have been male-dominated, He certainly wasn’t.  Via Zondervan’s Expositors’s Bible Commentary, some more detail on how God expressed his concern for these women:

(1-4) The question brought to Moses by the five daughters of Zelophehad, whose genealogy is traced back to Manasseh (cf. 26:33), concerned the securing of the inheritance and the preservation of their father’s name in the land.  Their action in approaching the leaders of the nation was unprecedented, a great act of courage, conviction, and faith.  When the women made their claim to Moses, they specified that their father had not died because of participation in the rebellion of Korah (see Nu 16) but only because he was part of the entire doomed first generation.  It appears from this verse that the rebels associated with Korah not only lost their lives in the judgment of God but that their survivors lost their inheritance as well.  So the women came asking for a decision from the Lord, that their father’s name not disappear from among the clans  of his family.  These verses clearly demonstrate the tie of name to land in the expectation of Israel.  One’s meaning in the community is dependent on the survival of his name in the distribution of land in the time of conquest…

…(6-11) This section gives an indication of how case law might have operated in Israel.  The general laws would be promulgated.  Then legitimate exceptions or special considerations would come to the elders and perhaps be brought to Moses himself.  He would then await a decision from the Lord.  In this case the Lord gave a favorable decision to these women.  In fact, he went beyond their request.  They had requested a landed property (v. 4).  The response of the Lord was for a hereditary possession of landed property.  Not only would they receive the property, they could transfer it to their heirs as well.  It is as thought their father had had sons!

God is not a God for men only.  Even in a time when the world was completely dominated by males, God was concerned about the treatment of women, and was concerned enough to intervene and ensure that they were treated fairly and to do so in a way that was revolutionary at the time.

By the way, I’m reading through my newest copy of the Bible – the NIV Stewardship Resource Bible, published by Zondervan with additional material edited by some friends of mine from work.  The stewardship material that I’ve encountered thus far has been very worthwhile, and of course the NIV translation is very accurate and readable.  Highly recommended.

The New Year’s Update

On January 11, 2010, in Culture, General, History, Politics, Religion, Theology, by marc

So of late, I’ve been noodling around with a bunch of different books, as usual.  My primary concentration has been on Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, which was one of my Christmas gifts, and has been a great read so far.  I’d say I’m just over 1/3 of the way in, and North Korea is as utterly screwed up as I’d imagined it to be.  Aside from which, who would have thought that a guy like Kim Il-Sung (or Kim Jong-Il, for that matter) would be able to build a cult of personality so powerful that young women would consider it an honor to strip naked and be a component of a “living bed” for said totalitarian monsters.

Yeah, that’s… just wrong.  But it apparently happens.  (I long for some nutjob apologist for the regime to come along and leave a DPRK-style denunciation of me in the comments.)

In other news, I managed to snag a relatively cheap copy of Volume III of James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries on Romans (in the hardcover to match my copies of Volumes I, II, and IV).  Thank you, Amazon Marketplace.  I also picked up a copy of RC Sproul’s 1 volume commentary on Romans, and I’m hoping to get his commentary on John ASAP.  And I’ve made a goal of reading through the Bible from cover to cover this year, and I’m doing so using my new pseudo-leatherbound copy of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible from Zondervan, which was edited by a friend of mine.  As of now, I’m just past the giving of the law in Exodus.

After some wheeling and dealing, I managed to scrape together the cash for a copy of NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is – according to reviews – 700+ pages of glorious apologetics in defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That should also keep me occupied for a while.

So happy new year to all; I’ll keep you posted as I make progress.