Luc Ferry on Salvation

“I would like you to imagine that you own a magic wand which allows you to arrange matters so that everyone in the world today begins to observe to the letter the ideal of respect for others embodied in humanist principles. Suppose that, everywhere in the world, the rights of man were scrupulously observed, with everyone paying respect to the dignity of everyone else and the equal right of each individual to partake of those famous fundamental rights of freedom and happiness. We can hardly begin to comprehend the unprecedented revolution that such an attitude would introduce into our lives and customs. There would be no wars or massacres, no genocide or crimes against humanity. There would be an end to racism and xenophobia, to rape and theft, to domination and social exclusion, and the institutions of control or punishment – police, army, courts, prisons – would effectively disappear. So, morality counts for something, and this exercise suggests the degree to which it is essential to our common life; and, at the same time, how far we actually are from its realisation.  Yet, such a miracle would not prevent us from getting old, from looking on helplessly as wrinkles and grey hairs appear, from falling ill, from experiencing painful separations, from knowing that we are going to die and watching those we love die. In the end, nothing will save us from getting bored and finding that everyday life lacks zest. Even were we saints, immaculate apostles of the rights of man and the republican ethos, nothing would guarantee us a fulfilled emotional life.”

  • Luc Ferry, atheist

Can We Know God’s Will for our Lives? Part 2

In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it?

Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God’s will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God’s will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.

Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a “no” and others with a “yes,” while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.

Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God’s direction. Maybe it’s prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one’s life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.

Let me illustrate:

Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it’s game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.

Likewise, to fret about God’s will for my dinner or whether or not I should be “kind” to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we’re asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we’re ignoring the rules of the game we’ve already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.

I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand “God’s will for my life” as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.

In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.

Seeking God’s will for my life does not dismiss everything he’s already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my “gifts” in the context of the team and the strategy already given?

The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.

One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.

We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?

Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:

1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God’s rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment?  When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God’s word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you’ll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn’t an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.

2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.

3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you’re in, or if you’re out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover  new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favourites).

4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn’t. But don’t eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don’t be quick to take them as signs that this isn’t what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.

5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike.   We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.

All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God’s initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God’s YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.

Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God’s team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God’s will below.

Music and Bach: Rethinking Spirit Led Worship

hands-music-musician-piano

I’ve been wondering about the musical mechanisms we have employed in Christian Evangelical circles. I’m thinking of the two very different modes of musical worship – one which hold’s thoughtful and systematic planning in high regard, and the other which hold’s spontaneity in high regard.

I’m trying to think this through objectively, though of course, as a critical realist, I never reach strict objectivity because I, we, can’t escape our context and the biases and presuppositions that come with them. So then, for me to be “critically realistic,” I must take into account my subjectivities and interpretive lenses that have formed my thinking.

I will say that as a musician involved in leading worship and playing drums, I’ve experienced both: spontaneous and planned.
I’ve heard it said, that strictly planned worship simply does not allow the work of the Spirit; unless there is room for spontaneity. I understand the concern. My question is: what assumptions are intrinsic to this thinking? Why is it that Christians in my tradition (not all of them of course, but many), have equated spontaneity with some higher work of the Spirit?

Yesterday, in Christian Though and Culture class @ Regent, we looked at The Enlightenment and its effects on Christendom. The lecture was titled: ‘Lord of Reason: The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative in the Modern Era’. What resulted from this self-explanatory title, was a fundamentalist escape from culture. The Fundamentalist movement, which Mark Noll describes as being “intellectually sterile,” had absolutely nothing valuable to say about or contribute to culture:

“As a result of following a theology that did not provide Christian guidance for the wider intellectual life, there has been, properly speaking, no fundamentalist philosophy, no fundamentalist history of science, no fundamentalist aesthetics, no fundamentalist novels or poetry, no fundamentalist jurisprudence, no fundamentalist literary criticism, and no fundamentalist sociology” (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 137).

Thankfully, prior to the rise of Fundamentalism, there were leaders within the Evangelical movement that were quite different. Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield are those often mentioned, but the one who has stuck out to me, was Johann Sebastian Bach.

I am no expert on this man (or anything really… except maybe eating), but I do believe that those who have equated spontaneous, unplanned songs of worship with a greater move of the Spirit can learn a thing or two from Bach.

He is known for many things, he is known for his incredible ability to have very “rational” and mathematical music. More importantly, he was able to fuse this rationalism with his theology. This may seem normal for us today, but back then, rationalism and mathematics were seen as causes of “the eclipse of the biblical narrative” within society. His music, what I would like to point out, was far from spontaneous. But if something is Spirit empowered music, it’s his. He teaches us that, as James Macmillan has written, “abstract complexity and spiritual joy are not mutually exclusive.” He is sometimes called the “fifth evangelist,” and that for a reason.

Surely, most readers will not understand the latin in his music, but one must ask, what have we done with music?

I’m not trying to speak against spontaneous music, since many believe that in it, there are greater forms of art (which is probably also questionable).

To get back to the question, what assumptions are intrinsic to this thinking – the thinking that spontaneous music is more spiritual? Maybe we can’t answer that definitively, but we can at least re-think what really is “Spirit-led” music.

This brings up other questions: God has given us many gifts; Scripture, reason, art, experience, tradition. How are we using them? Is the idea that a spontaneous “letting go and letting God” mentality in music really a means of the Spirit of God being ‘allowed to flow’? Could that be just laziness? Could it be that with all the gifts that God has given us, and if we consider that since our fundamental calling is to be Human, and that as Human, we are called to Cultivate (essentially, to Create Culture), should we not be making the best of what we have with our God-given skills ? Would not these things bring greater glory to God? I think these are important questions that need evaluation.

Here’s one piece Called “Agnus Dei in G minor” – Paul Hofreiter sums this piece up:

“The most intense solo in the entire work is the Agnus Dei in G-minor. This angular music makes strong use of imitation between the alto voice and the violins, creating a bridge between humanity and divinity as Christ offers his body and blood for the salvation of humankind. The jagged and chromatic nature of the music in the aria demonstrates the profound reality that Christ has, indeed, participated in our humanity in all its anguish and death. There is no mistake for Bach in the understanding of the purpose and reason for Christ’s death.”

Also, for more info on this subject check out http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/tas3/musicon.html

With All Your Mind

Why is it that many Christians today separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the mind? As if any thought of the mind is a product not of the Spirit but of the flesh.

Mark Noll wrote on this subject, calling it the “Scandal” of the Evangelical mind: simply put, that there is no mind. He argues that Christians today, specifically Evangelicals, don’t think ‘Christianly’ about culture the way their Fathers did. By Fathers, I’m referring to the Fathers of Evangelicalism; John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and others.

In my thinking, the Liberal Theology in the 19th century rejected the supernatural and embraced science, humanistic endeavours, and ultimately the mind (and that definitely created a problem, but that’s not my point right now). This liberal theology welcomed the popular consensus that reason was of utmost importance. Maybe it’s a bit of an overstatement but I think in many ways the fundamentalist reaction to liberal theology in the 19th century was one that led to the rejection of the use of the mind, creating a false dichotomy between the mind and the Spirit.

Here’s how:

The wake of the 20th century saw immense supernatural activity amongst Evangelicals, resulting in the birth and growth of Pentecostalism. Being raised Pentecostal, I tread carefully on these waters, but not uncritically. Perhaps the embrace of the supernatural at the expense of the natural became catalytic in the discarding of the mind. (As a side note, this seems to fit perfectly well with a pre-millenial eschatology that longs for an escape from this ‘evil’ world, dualizing God’s “good” creation. I realize that statement opens up a whole other dialogue, let’s forget I said that for now). Don’t misunderstand me here, I believe in the supernatural and I believe that it’s something we can and should seek, but not at the expense of the natural. The supernatural work of the Spirit was never meant to be worshiped, just like the natural (creation, our bodies, etc) was never meant to be worshiped.

Let’s talk about it.

If Jesus asks us to love God with our whole being, including our minds, then thinking (about both God, culture, and the world), should not be considered an action that is mutually exclusive to the work of the Spirit. In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit is not manifested ONLY when something supernatural happens, that is a false dichotomy. God is the God of the natural and the supernatural. Christian’s need to again begin thinking Christianly about culture, about God, and about how they are to engage in the world. Not escaping it, not leaving it, not disappearing from it, but showing the world what it means to be human; this involves the mind empowered by the Spirit.

Your Kingdom Come?

The historical transition from the Pagan Roman Empire to the Christian Roman Empire was a big part of Christian history, having massive implications. How should it be viewed? Here are some thoughts.

Though it is difficult (for me) to affirm any extreme theological assertion with regards to many matters, in my opinion, Christianity cannot (ever) provide an authentic basis for political rule. The only alternative, biblically speaking, is to live in a (paradoxical) way that seeks to acknowledge Christ as the King above all kings, while living and engaging with a world that does not.  (As apposed to running away from it, or inventing doctrines that promise future escape, completely disregarding the creation narrative… but that’s another issue).

At the fall of Rome, pagan’s argued that Rome’s traditional gods were wreaking revenge and causing its downfall for siding with the God of the Christians. Augustine responds by differentiating God’s kingdom from the kingdom of the earth: The “Christian” kingdom of Rome was not the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus’ claim that his kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it does not effect this world, on the contrary, it is one that subverts the worldly kingdom with a Kingdom in which the “first shall become last, and the last shall become first” (Mark 10:31).   I agree with Jacque Ellul that the militant and political interpretation of the Gospel is a falsification, and I would add that it is a recurring misunderstanding of the Gospel message, revealed with Jesus’ own disciples: their expectations of what was to happen represent the same expectations of all of Israel; that God would eventually send a Messiah who would militaristically and politically take charge of Israel (Luke 9:46; Mark 9:33; Matt 18:1; Acts 1:6).

The alternative then, is to seek the kingdom of God as revealed in the Gospels: a kingdom that subverts all notions of unequal and unjust social systems through selfless love: a world in which claims to rank and status have no place at all. This is a paradigm exemplified most beautifully by God himself, who leaves his throne to die on a cross in shame.

How should this impact our political stance?

N.T. Wright – Justification

It is unfortunate that most have pigeon-holed N.T. Wright into being a theologian with “liberal tendencies.” Many have categorized him as unbiblical in his “New Perspective” approach that at first glance seems to undermine classical Protestant Theology. “Justification by faith” has become the end all of Protestantism, more specifically for Reformed Theology, and Wright’s approach is not to discard it completely, but to understand in the grand framework of the Abrahamic Covenant.

The implications regarding our definition of justification is enormous, and Wright is simply using the New Perspective as a means to show that Paul’s use of “justification by faith” has way more implications than simply securing ones destination to heaven. Paul’s use of Abraham throughout his epistles, namely Galatians, and Romans, aren’t merely examples or illustrations of faith, but rather provide a framework in which we understand what faith and salvation really is.

The first part of this book is dedicated to a grand introduction, engaging with the “justification” on the basis of history, tradition, and of course the Bible. The second part of the book focuses on the exegesis of Scripture, as he goes through various Pauline epistles, bringing them into light through his exposition framed by the Abrahamic covenant.

Without giving away too many details in this book I will say a few things. Wright defines words like “righteousness” and “justification,” and does so with historical and literal context in mind. These words have familial and communitarian implications and essentially provide a greater Ecclesiology, Christology, and Missiology.  For Wright, the righteousness of God is not explicitly (though perhaps implicitly) a moral virtue, but specifically refers to his covenant faithfulness made with Abraham. This is made clear throughout Wright’s exposition of the book of Romans. Our ‘righteousness’ has to do with our covenant membership and behaviour. The marker then for those who are part of this covenant community is — like abraham — faith, not “works of Torah.” The problem is, that since the late medieval period, the church has ‘de-judaized’ the gospel, and has assumed that the problem with Judaism, and specifically 1st century judaism was legalism; essentially, that Jews from the 1st century were trying to earn their salvation. This is precisely wrong.

The 1st century Jews were quite aware that they were already a part of this covenant family, and the works of the law were a “marker” that intensified their separation from their gentile neighbours. For them, they were “justified by the works of torah” – in other works, they were counted as part of the covenant family and the works of torah was evidence of that fact. There is no such idea that 1st century judaism is attempting to earn salvation, it was already given by God through Abraham.

It was an ethnic elitism that had become problematic for the famous Jewish sect known as the Pharisees. Legalism was not the problem. God’s purpose of the Torah was not to intensify some kind of ethnic elitism but to provoke the surrounding nations to become part of the family of God, always intended since God’s covenant with Abraham. They were to be a “light unto the nations,” so that through Abraham, “many nations would be blessed” (Gen. 15). For this reason, Jesus reminds them that they are “a light unto the nations” and a “city set on a hill,” yet unfortunately, they failed miserably.

With this in mind, (and much more if you read the book for yourself), Wright points out that being “justified” by faith, has more implications than merely assuring the believer that he will one day go to heaven. So, if you’re wondering what those implications are, read the book. I highly recommend it.

 

Criticism of A Separate “Rapture”

The following is an excerpt from http://www.theopedia.com/Rapture, Text licensed under CC BY 3.0.

The doctrine of the rapture as an event separate from the general resurrection is a fairly recent doctrinal development within the scope of the Church’s historic body of belief.  Prior to 1830, most of the ‘rapture texts’ were regarded as referring to the General Resurrection. This was especially the case with the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage which was primarily regarded as referring to the resurrection rather than a rapture.

Virtually no prominent theologians held to this theory before Darby‘s influence in the 1840’s.  For example, none of the great reformers, e.g. Luther or Calvin, believed in a “Secret Rapture” theory. Nor did the ancient church fathers such as John ChrysostomJustin MartyrIrenaeus,Hippolytus expressly assert the theory of the pre-tribulation rapture, with the possible exception that The Shepherd of Hermas, 1.4.2 speaks of not going through the Tribulation.

Some Reformed theologians are still favorable of using the term “rapture” but insist on making a very clear distinction between rapture as a synonym for resurrection and what Dispensationalists propose by the term, namely an escape from a yet-future tribulation period. John Stott calls this idea “escapism” in his book Issues Facing Christians Today (2006, 4th ed.). He goes on to write that the Dispensational concept of a “secret rapture”  is one of the most destructive doctrines gripping the Evangelical Church today. According to Stott, it thwarts planning, hinders social involvement, and gives Christians a gloomy outlook for the future.

Other texts used by proponents of a separate rapture, such as Matthew 24:40 – Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left., when taken in context (especially Christ’s statement in Matthew 24:34) are seen by some Preterists as predictions of the Roman catapult bombardment of Jerusalem during the 42 month siege of Jerusalem from late 66-70 AD, not to a rapture. While Dispensationalists claim that the predictions in Matthew 24 are yet-future, centering on a secret-rapture, critics maintain that an exegesis of this passage reveals that this is at best unlikely, if not biblically and historically impossible (cf. The Most Embarrassing Verse In The Bible by Andrew Corbett).

Ye Holy Angels Bright

In 1681, on the year that his wife died after 19 years of marriage, Richard Baxter wrote the words for the hymn Ye Holy Angels Bright.

Ye holy angels bright,
who wait at God’s right hand,
or through the realms of light
fly at your Lord’s command,
assist our song,
for else the theme
too high doth seem
for mortal tongue.

Ye blessed souls at rest,
who ran this earthly race
and now, from sin released,
behold your Savior’s face,
his praises sound,
as in his sight
with sweet delight
ye do abound.

Ye saints, who toil below,
adore your heavenly King,
and onward as ye go
some joyful anthem sing;
take what he gives
and praise him still,
through good or ill,
who ever lives!

My soul, bear thou thy part,
triumph in God above:
and with a well-tuned heart
sing thou the songs of love!
Let all thy days
till life shall end,
whate’er he send,
be filled with praise!

Enlightenment, Deism, Evolution, and the Rapture

N.T. Wright draws the striking connection with the enlightenment project, deistic ideas, evolution, and the church’s anachronistic understanding of heaven. What have you believed about the rapture?

Feel free to check out Wright’s book on this topic:

“Pia Desideria” (Pious Desires) – Philip Jacob Spener

“Every Christian is bound not only to offer himself and what he has, his prayer, thanksgiving, good works, alms, etc., but also industriously to study in the Word of the Lord, with the grace that is given him to teach others, especially those under his own roof, to chastise, exhort, convert and edify them, to observe their life, pray for all, and insofar as possible be concerned about their salvation.” (Pia Disideria, Fortress Press, 1964, p. 94)

Introduction

Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria was first published in 1675 written as an instructional treatise intended for ministers of the church. Spener was a Lutheran bishop who had originally written a preface for Johann Arndt’s True Christianity.  Within six months, he published Pia Desideria also known as “Pious Desires.” Its purpose was to respond to barren spiritual conditions in the church, of which he described as “slothful,” “a terrible ignorance,” and consequently a “disorderly life” (93).

3 Dimensions

The main theme revealed in the selected excerpt is that of the personal Christian lifestyle. Under the assumption that the readers are themselves Christian who have experienced salvation, Spenner emphasizes the outcome of that salvation has having three main dimensions. Firstly that of the inward dimension; that “every Christian is bound” to “offer himself and what he has.” This of course is closely associated to a preceding dimension that is assumed in the text, that of upward relations with God manifested in salvation. Lastly, and perhaps most emphatically is the outward dimension; the edification of fellow Christians by means of a community centered on good works and the study of Scripture. This is the visible manifestation of the Christian lifestyle seen in three dimensions; upward, inward, and outward.

The Big Idea

The outward dimension of the personal Christian lifestyle is the main emphasis of the document. The author assumes that the reader is a Christian, and “all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts” (92). This inward dimension of the Christian life is one of assuming a responsibility,  Spenner ardently claims that “the people must have impressed upon them and must accustom themselves to believing that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice” (95). Upon acquiring this responsibility, the Church experiences edification on primarily a personal level, and leading up to a universal level, “more and more would be achieved, and finally the church would be visibly reformed” (95).

Historical Impact

The protestant reformation, though essentially a positive shift in orthodox theology, came with some unfortunate consequences of extremism. Prior to the reformation, there existed an immense fear of sin, purgatory, hell, and ultimately God (perhaps for wrong reasons).  17th century scholastics who sought to systematize doctrine and rational thought, positively emphasized the importance of the Christian mind, breaking down notions of anti-intellectualism. The unfortunate repercussion was an antinomian lifestyle dominating the church. The challenge offered by Spener in Pia Desideria was one that instigated the change from a religion of the head to one of the heart. The dry and lifeless Christianity of the 17th century was now “coming alive” with the help of Spener’s legacy and the many who built upon it.