Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Mr. Assad

"The nations raged,
but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth..."

Who are you, O man,
to lift a hand
against the God that made you,
or His stamp
imago dei
pressed upon the clay about you,
in faces cold and ashen,
row on row
the old
the young
lie quiet.
Shuttered eyes
and plastic sheets
cry out like the blood of Abel,
and you,
destroyer of the light of life,
destroyer of your soul,
defacer of that image in yourself
more than in those at rest,
where will you go?

The drums and guns,
may rumble menace,
the mortars, bombs,
may all fall all about you
and you may
survive this day
and many other;
yet there is one
like to no other,
with twilight in the morning as at night,
a day of awful calm,
of power unsheathed and unopposed,
of recompense and justice undebated,
and when you stand,
O man,
before that great white throne,
where will you go?

Friday, August 9, 2013

(Still) Summer

It is August,
the dog days of summer
sniffed twice
turned around
and flopped on Phoenix
snuffling, shedding heat like hair
that sticks to everything
(don't wear black).

The rains,
God's blessed rains,
and finding the desert inhospitable,
back to the Gulf,
to the Pacific,
to the beach
(where it's much nicer this time of year).

So here we are,
left to our own devices,
such as fans,
and A/C,
and popsicles,
and pools,
waiting it out
to see who flinches first
and who backs down
from our annual game of chicken

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Tug of the Tiber

I was talking with a friend about an interesting issue: thinking evangelicals, tired of shallow churches and hollow worship, wind their way to Rome.  Now, I know that 'data' is not the plural of 'anecdote', but we (and our circle of friends and acquaintances) had been seeing this trend for a few years, at least.  It's a challenge to the Reformed churches, because maybe a decade ago it seemed like they were the leading destination for mainline evangelicals seeking depth and solidity (such as myself).

First, a few thoughts on Rome.  She is doubtless a Christian church, affirming the same Trinue God, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who died to redeem fallen sinners.  She is also (to me) a very wayward church, allowing (in the Lumen Gentium) quite a bit more than I am persuaded the Bible allows regarding sincerity being soteric, irrespective of a personal relationship with Jesus, and there are many other points of departure I could note, not least the council of Trent, the Mass, the canon, and the sacraments (the reasons for Protestants in the first place).  But boy oh boy has she got looks.

Celibate priests (except the ex-Anglicans, ahem), beautiful architecture, history, glory, incense, hushed prayers, art, charity, theology, and now an admirably humble pope who seems to want simply to do good in the world.  Above all, the claim to "true catholicity" by dint of her worldwide presence and (supposed) uninterrupted succession.

So when the music fades and all is stripped away, when the jokes from the plexi-pulpit have grated through the speakers, when the inch-deep self-esteem teaching is threadbare, where to go to worship God?

To the reformed churches?  Those quibbling denominational d-bags?  They are like bacteria, they just keep dividing.  Plus, they only care about head knowledge.

No, safety and substance are held out by Rome, along with the promise of absolution provided you trust the church to dispense it.

Hits the spot, no?

No less, the reformed arguments against Rome frequently have the ring of dismissiveness (pooh, Rome?  that old bag?), or else they argue historic issues on which Rome has sidestepped (Justification by faith alone! Luther got rehabilitated, OK?). 

What is needed in the reformed churches is a freshly reasoned, accurate, and above all charitable counterargument to the lure of Rome.  Your mom always knew that you would catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and especially when making a case to a potential Rome-ward bound person, attacks are not the answer.  Understand the criticisms and the draws, there are real problems in every church, including the reformed camp, and there are strengths in many places, too.

A specific concern: unity and historicity.  Rome's succession story is a-historical, to say the least.  Look up the investiture controversy and look at the early church.  Rome's touted unity is given the lie by competing factions within the church and by the existence of, among others, Copts, Eastern and Russian Orthordox, to say nothing of Protestantism (kicked out by Rome, but now accepted as "wayward brothers").

A general concern: the word of God.  Is God's word subject to the church, or vice-versa?  It troubles me that many of the American evangelicals who are migrating to Rome have probably not reckoned with their forfeiture of a very deeply held Protestant/American religious conviction: the right to interpret Scripture.  Clearly, the church (broadly speaking) has a history and system of interpretation that is useful, frequently correct, and not to be ignored, but on matters of dissension, may not a man prayerfully submit to the Word as he reads it?  Not in Rome.

A difficult charge: the reformed are not charitable.  Too often true, but that's not to say there's something wrong with reformed theology in general.  Properly understood theology works itself out in real life.  Really believe that only God knows who will be saved?  Then you will probably take every chance to share the gospel.  Who knows?  God may use you today.  Really think that true Christians are preserved and persevere to the end?  Then get persevering!  Really believe in the inerrancy of Scripture?  Then "why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I command?"  Here is a call to charity.  If you don't want people to think of your church as cold, then be warm yourself.  It's contagious.

To conclude, it is silly to dismiss Rome, especially with such an engaging pontiff as the man who currently claims the Holy See.  Let us rather work to make the Biblical arguments upon which reformed theology is built, and offer them in a spirit of charity, trusting that by God's grace, those who seek substance will find it in the Word of God, and let's be there, too.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Schism and Hermeneutic

Note: Throughout, I assume that the reader is conversant with the Bible and has read through it, hopefully many times.  If any reader would care to have citations for any referenced passage, please ask in the comments.  This is a conscious decision to improve the flow of the writing, which is intended to be persuasive, not technical.

When do you leave a church? 

This is an extremely difficult question, as anyone who has done it can attest.  Is it when they kick you out?  When you are convinced that the damage is irreversible?  When you think you spot a trend?  When you get mad?

Raising the issue to the next level, when does a church leave a denomination?

I realize that this is a non-issue for many evangelical churches, which are commonly unaffiliated with any other part of the body of Christ.  I also maintain that denominations are the best answer to the problem of sin in the church, as we are to strive for unity and connection with our brothers and sisters where it is possible to do so in good conscience.  This is not an argument for denominations per se, though it is about church affiliation, so on we go.

Recently, a church in my denomination (OPC) chose to reject overtures of reconciliation from the presbytery (the regional church) and abandon our denomination, only to promptly affiliate with another (ERPC).  The details of the affair are not known to me, nor are they directly relevant to the larger discussion, so we will leave them here. 

Our denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, would be described by most Christians as conservative.  We have a very high view of Scripture, we hold to the Westminster standards, discipline is conducted according to the constitution of the church contained in the standards and the book of church order.  Individual churches are under the care of a session of elders, the regional churches meet quarterly, and the denomination meets annually.  Appeals of judicial matters may be made up the chain if a party is dissatisfied, and as a general rule things are done decently and in good order.

But that's not good enough for some. 

After some reading on the ERPC website, it seemed to me like there was little to differentiate them from the OPC; they claim the Westminster standards, maintain Biblical inerrancy, and (notionally) have a presbyterian form of government (they have six churches, FWIW).  A few points stick out, though, and I must assume these are the levers that pried churches out of the OPC and into the ERPC:

1) Reduced regional authority - this suggests to me that these churches were born out of judicial proceedings they did not like, but that is beside the point.  It's not the main issue of this discussion.

2) "Strict" adherence to the Westminster standards - this is their jab at what they see as wobbliness on the standards in the OPC.  I counter that the standards are secondary, and what they see as wobbly is a balancing act by the OPC of maintaining Scriptural primacy over the subordinate standards, which are nevertheless strongly asserted as a correct and well-formulated system of theology.  Parsing them like they are inspired is a hermeneutical error.  This gets at the main point, keep reading.

3) Six-day literal creation - The best for last, right?  Their website spends as many words on this as on justification by faith alone.  Here we go.

A cursory reading of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2 leaves some questions open.  What's the deal with the second account?  Is it a zoom-in on a day?  If so, what day?  How come the voice of the narrative changed?  Why is a parallel literary structure apparent in the first account, but not so in the second?

These questions are about how to interpret Scripture.  They are hermeneutical.  They aim at eliciting from the passage (or similar passages) some clues as to how we should take all of it in, how it should fit with our understanding of the rest of revelation, and so on.  Clearly, differences on hermeneutics produce differences in doctrine and practice.  Major interpretive differences about baptism produce different churches, differences on justification produce different churches, and now, it seems, a difference on Genesis 1 & 2 produces a different church.

But what, exactly, is the difference?

The OPC has made clear that the hermeneutical difficulties inherent in early Genesis mean that some variety of views is acceptable within our church.  Many in the OPC are six-literal-day folks, but the denomination has stated that the framework hermeneutic (which is literary) adequately deals with the text while admitting the general revelation that creation bears of an old Earth, and even day-agers are welcome.  Why?  Is it because our standards are lax?  Quite the opposite, in fact: the church cannot speak where God has not spoken. 

If a passage is obscure, and remains so under diligent, careful, investigation, we lack the authority to mandate a meaning.  The church exercises respect for Scripture when she will not talk over it.  The secret things belong to the Lord, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children, that we may do the words of God.  The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. 

So can you build a denomination on this hermeneutic divide?  Probably.  Should you?  I rather think not. 

The topic at issue is not soteric - nobody argues (I hope) that you HAVE to have the right view on Genesis 1 to get into heaven.  It is not even a practical issue - what does it change in your worship or piety whether rock strata developed over millenia or were laid down in an instant by the hand of God?  The arguers on this topic will declare that it is an inerrancy of Scripture issue - but not all Scripture is literal history.  God did not actually use Moab as a chamber pot, nor cast a single shoe over Edom.  Prophecy is filled with accounts of visions that are presented as a matter-of-fact.  Let's not even get started on the Revelation to John.

I'm afraid that I am left with no other conclusion than that this argument is over the inerrancy of somebody's opinion.  About hermeneutical inerrancy.  Interpretive inerrancy.

Folks, God's word stands, no matter what we think of it.  The Word of God in the Old and New Testament, as recorded in the original languages, is without error.  We have no such guarantees of (or, I hope, trust in) our own wisdom in parsing that word.

Furthermore, arguing so bitterly about words (specifically "day") seems to be forbidden by Paul.  Violating clear teaching of Scripture for the sake of a view on an obscure part plainly breaks the widely accepted hermeneutical rule of work-from-easier-to-harder. 

It saddens me to see interpretation abused to the detriment of my church.  But so it goes, and so it will go, while Christ tarries.  In the meantime, let's work and pray for truth, unity, and love to prevail in the Body of Christ while we sit under the word of God together.

Friday, August 2, 2013

For my Wife

Who else is there
(I know not one)
with smiling eyes
when day is done?

Who else is there,
so patient, kind,
who knows my heart,
my soul, my mind?

Who else is there
to love our son,
to train him up
and see him run?

I know none else
like to my wife;
I want none else
to share my life.