Monday, July 31, 2006
I'm writing today from Vancouver, British Colombia, where my family and I are taking a week to relax and audit a theology class from Jeremy Begbie at Regent College (one of my favorite places in the world). At the moment, I'm looking out over the city from our 22nd floor hotel room. This week hosts Vancouver's international fireworks competition, so every other night or so everyone heads out to the beaches and watches different nations compete for the best display. Does any other city in the world so effortlessly blend urban style with the majesty of ancient forests and surging, crystal rivers? I almost did my M.Div. here instead of Gordon-Conwell, but changed my mind because, among other reasons, I was afraid I'd love British Colombia too much by the time I was forced to leave the country upon graduating. My wife has never been to Regent College or Vancouver, so I'm in show-off mode. Tomorrow we'll do tea at Stanley Park, then probably rent bikes and explore the forest. I'd say this place is most like a big-city version of a Europeanized Yosemite, if that makes any sense. And watching the sun start to set (it won't fully go down until 10:00 p.m.), over the blue English Bay, wild forests rising up beyond the skyline to the north, it makes plenty of sense to me.
Strangely, I'm sitting here waiting for J.I. Packer to call me back. I never thought I'd write that sentence before today. He's (maybe) doing the foreward to a book I'm putting out next year, and thought I'd use that as my excuse to try to drop in on him at the college and introduce myself. One of the Regent staffers who nearly forced me to call him at home laughed at how Packer-fans sometimes show up and take pictures of themselves in front of his house. Check out his new book, Prayer: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight (co-written by Carolyn Nystrom, who groomed some of his lectures). Packer is best known for the tremendous Knowing God but has continued a steady output now into his eighties. Another classic is Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God which shows why a high view of divine sovereignty in salvation (that God chooses us before we choose him) is perfectly compatible with the practice of sharing our faith with others. Last month Packer gave a lecture here at Regent where he claimed that best the label for his career-calling would be "catechist" (agreeing with Alister McGrath's dubbing him as such in his biography of Packer). That is, he takes historic Christian orthodoxy and makes it accessible to everyone.
More on the Regent College trip later. Tomorrow, my wife and I and about six others will have tea with George Marsden, who wrote the great new (and really, the definitive) biography of Jonathan Edwards. Quite a treat, indeed. I'll write more about the Jeremby Begbie class later, but now, back to vacationing...
Friday, July 21, 2006
If the title of this entry didn't stop you from reading further, especially in the middle of a hot summer, you must be a real theologian. Here's the issue: when the Bible attributes certain characteristics to God, how are to we to understand the relationship between those attributes and God himself? Or, how does Biblical language work? More simply, if the Bible says that God "changed his mind" or is "fuming in anger" or "feels betrayed", we have three main interpretive options. "Univocity" means that such words when applied to God mean the same thing ("one voice") that they do when applied to us. Lately some controversial evangelical theologicans have taken the univocal approach in order to say that when God "changed his mind" (in a few places in Scripture) that he did so in the same way and for the same reasons that we change our mind: new data that we hadn't forseen comes into view, and so, we adjust ourselves. So, God changed his mind about destroying Israel in the desert because Moses helped him see reality in a new way. You can see the problems that univocity gets you into! But many fundamentalists use the univocity view to justify extremely literalistic readings that discount metaphor, allegory, etc. On the other extreme, equivocity is the route of hyper-skepticism and postmodernity, which often suggets that God is so ultra-transcendant and unknowable that the Biblical language itself can't tell us anything very reliable about God. Human language for God, including scriptural language, is a form of our reaching up and trying to explain our religious feelings and experiences. Of course, this view would deny that Biblical claims about God are themselves revealed by God.
The best way out of the dead-ends of univocity and equivocity is analogy. To say that God felt "betrayed" in an analogical sense means that our experience of being betrayed is both similar and somehow different than God's experience. In common with God, we would experience betrayal when someone who promised us love ended up witholding it from us. Different, however, is that God is never dominated or overwhelmed by his feelings, he is never taken off guard by a betraying act, he somehow also uses the other's betrayal for a better end he had in mind, amongst other diferences that we can't even name because we don't fully understand God given our finitude. The analogical view says that the differences in language usage between how a word applies to God and how it applies to us does not cancel the communicative, revelatory value of such a word: when God says "I felt betrayed" he is communicating something real about himself, and enough for us to know him deeper by him tellling us so. God gives us biblical descriptions of himself to deepen our love and worship of him, but not as a way of building a univocal and exhaustively metaphysical model of his nature. As the Reformers said, we never know God fully as he is in himself. So, did God change his mind that day with Moses in the desert? Yes and no. He halted one plan and embarked on another (like we might do), but he foreknew this reversal and was teaching Moses something about intercession (unlike what we could do). Respecting the principle of analogy helps us avoid a lot of bizarre theological claims that we might be able to "prooftext," but that really misuse the text (usually in the direction of univocity).
If you made it this far, I think you've earned your beach read. In fact, I'm off to the pool myself...
Friday, July 14, 2006
"Concurrent operation" is the theological idea that every event that comes to pass in our world, apart from its natural cause, is simultaneously and fully the operation of God. For example, when it rains, it is proper to say, "God gave us this rain" as well as "a rising warm air system has collided with a sinking cold air system." God is the first cause, but both the divine cause and the natural cause are real, and operate concurrently, not in competition. This is not just a theological axiom, but a fundamental for the spiritual life. In other words, the more you believe in concurrent operation, the more you: 1) thank God for every good thing that happens; 2) trust that God is up to something valuable when bad things happen; 3) pray for all kinds of things, knowing that all events, however mundane or momentous, are under his control.
As for prayer and concurrent operation, I've been noticing lately how much the Psalmist glorifies God for his work in the normal operation of the world. In the case of the animal kingdom, notice: Ps. 29:9, "the voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth"; Ps. 104:21 "the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God"; Ps.104:27ff. "these [animals] all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your breath, they are created." So, in addition to what National Geographic has taught us, lions also can be said to look for their food and receive it from God, they are dismayed or happy depending on what God provides them, they die when God determines, and are born when he breathes new life into a cub. Perhaps a culture as scientifically advanced as ours needs to be re-convinced of the dotrine of concurrent operation the same way the Psalmist was -- if we were, instead of letting God get sqeezed-out with our advances in knowledge, we'd just find more things to praise God for..." when you give them the word, O Lord, the chromosomes divide, the stem cells commit to be a particular tissue, the electrons spin and never collide..." Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God...Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs - Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
Sunday, July 09, 2006
One of the comments on my last post brings up a truism about Chrisitanity wherever it flourishes: cultural captivity will never be fully escaped, even by the church. Tim V. mentioned that while Africa's current orthodoxy is marked by a traditional (and proper) resistance to homosexuality, it is, at least where Tim lived, less stalwart about the orthodox view of marital celibacy. Ouch. That is, while the church might be unanimous that homosexuality is wrong, it is less unanimous in its belief that husbands should be monogamous. The statistics of African church growth could be embarrasingly compared to the equally dramatic rise in AIDS, suggesting that while many folks are converting to Christ, many are also sleeping around.
Should this surprise us or cause us to doubt the authenticity of the African revival of the last thirty years? No. The church, even when it is flourishing, always exists within broader cultures. And, since cultures are made up of humans, and humans are sinfully fallen, the church will likely always have sin-patterns of the same variety as their surrounding fallen cultures. Amercan churches will tend to have more sinfully materialistic members than churches in poorer countries, while Christians in, say, Asian cultures, will be more likely to over-venerate their ancestors, and male Christians of other cultures will have a higher rate of marital infidelity. While Christianity is counter-cultural in many ways since it is about the erecting of a new kingdom with new values, it takes generations (sometimes) for certain cultural sins to be purged from the believing community. The power of culture is that it slowly, surely, makes us blind to certain moral categories that, were we really objective, we'd see the Bible clearly opposes. As much as we'd like it be different, real Christians sin in culturally predictable ways.
This is worth mentioning because one of common reasons people reject the Christian gospel is that they perceive hypocrisy or lifestyle failure in Chrisitans they meet as a deal-breaker. The underlying assumption is that followers of Christ will be fairly sinless, and if they aren't, then they are either frauds or the Christian message itself is to blame. But even Christian people are not quickly or ever thoroughly freed from the false values they are surrounded by. Often it takes a Christian from the perspective of a different culture to diagonse the ways we have capitulated to our own. East Indian evangelist K.P. Yohannan reports visiting a 3,000 member church in the United States and being shocked to find only two or three in attendance at their weekly prayer-meeting. Does the prayerlessness of that church mean that that it, or that Chrisitanity, is a sham? No, it means that 3,000 self-suffficient Western Christians need to go back and read the Bible more closely where it speaks about prayer, and be glad for the kind rebuke of an Indian brother. One of the reasons that it's good to have multi-national church dialogue is that we can help each other to take off the cultural blinders that we often don't know we're wearing. As Jesus said, the wheat and the tares of his kingdom will grow up together, and only finally sorted out at his return. The Lord of his church knows that it will always be impure, until he comes to fully purify it. Until then, authentic-yet-fallen churches need to keep helping each other to be better cultural critics of their own surroundings.
Monday, July 03, 2006
A few years ago we used to hear anecdotes that the geographic center of world Christianity was Timbuktu, Africa. Sometime later, in November of 2003 to be exact, Peter Jenkins wrote a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly called "The Next Christianity," citing a lot more statistics to make the same point: increasingly, Christianity is a Southern Hemisphere religion. The church is growing wildly in Africa and South-East Asia, while sputtering in Europe (old news) and plateauing in North America. Nothing will illustrate this global shift more plainly than what is going on today in world Anglicanism. Of the 73 million Anglicans in the world, the majority live in Africa. The Nigerian church alone sees more worshippers on Sunday than all of England. While the African church owes its existence to colonial-era missionaries from Britain (primarily), the African church is now taking to task its Western brethren in England and the U.S.A. for failure to hold to the teachings it had first learned from them. And, because of the global shift, the West is forced to listen. As you may know, the 2003 confirmation of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church (USA) began a chain reaction of dissent among the few remaining orthodox Episcopal churches in America, and the African (and South American) bishops heard their cry. So began a new phenomena in world Anglicanism: individual American congregations began to secede from the oversight of their own American bishops and ask to be reassigned under a third-world bishop. The Anglican bishops of Rwanda and Uganda now both have several American churches under their authority. In fact, one of my old seminary buddies, Bill Haley, was ordained in February to begin an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., but his ordination was by the Anglican bishop of Bolivia! Last week, the Most Rev. Peter Aquinola, who heads the Primates of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA) published an "Open Letter from Global South Anglican Leaders to the Episcopal Church USA" to say, in effect, "you Americans have broken with the faith you once taught us -- so we're moving on without you." (To be fair, the ordination of a homosexual bishop is really the last straw after decades of creeping unorthodoxy in the American church.) CAPA will meet in September to make a final decision about what to do about their formal ties with what they perceive as the rogue American church, but whatever they decide will really be the global Anglican response to a pipsqueak American branch of the world Anglican movement (and the American church loses abot 50,000 members a year). Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury still has unofficial "first among equals" status among Anglican leaders, but for sheer reasons of size, the Africans are the heavies of global Anglicanism. And because of that fact, thankfully, global Anglicanism is largely an orthodox, biblical, movement. I predict we'll see a rise in African ruled American churches as the likes of Peter Aquinola increasingly see America as spiritually destitute region of the world that is in need of the gospel, and many, many missionaries. What a reversal, huh?