Archive for November, 2008

Good News

November 28, 2008

I just received a letter today informing me that I have passed my comprehensive exams.  That means I am officially at the “all but dissertation” stage.  I have already submitted a prospectus for my dissertation, and I anticipate that it will be approved soon.  I am looking forward to focusing my primary attention on it over the next few months (I hope to finish a first draft by the start of next fall’s semester).  And so the ball keeps rolling…


Black Friday Indeed

November 28, 2008

I just recently discovered that today, the official start of the holiday shopping season, is known as “Black Friday” because it supposedly represents the day when businesses move from the red to the black.

Perhaps the adjective “Black” more appropriately describes the hearts of some crazed, idolatrous shoppers who lose all sanity one day a year and show callous disregard for the well-being of others.  In a tragedy that I find difficult to comprehend, a 34-year-old Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by eager shoppers early this morning.  The shoppers took the doors off the hinges, trampled the victim, and then kept right on blowing past him when paramedics arrived to tend to him. 

I’m all for seizing good buys.  In fact, my wife braved the crowds this morning and saved us a lot of money for the holiday season, all without treating other people like cockroaches.  Folks, when we allow the lure of material things to turn us into stampeding animals, we have lost our way.  This latest tragedy is a fitting illustration of the materialist idolatry of our age, a clear valuation of things over people.  And my guess is that the slowing economy has, to this point, only strengthened our idolatry by making us cling more tightly to what we have and what we have the power to acquire.  This calls for widespread repentance. 

Pastors, we have an opportunity in the face of an economic downturn to tell our churches that, yes, the future is uncertain, and it is that way precisely because God wants it to be that way for us.  If God allowed us to know exactly what the future holds, then we would inevitably find security in our own ability to plan for it rather than in his word of promise.  We would, like the unbelieving Israelites, seek to gather more than a day’s worth of manna at a time, rather than relying on the promise of God that adequate manna would be there tomorrow.  When faced with a financial squeeze, we will either overestimate the importance of money and things in an attempt to conserve what we have and seize what is available, or we will recognize that there is no ultimate security in money and things and begin to hold on to what we have with a looser grip.  God is calling us to the latter course of action.  May repentance begin in the church, and may the church be the antithesis of the Black Friday madness.

Will I Die with Prayers Unanswered?

November 27, 2008

Tonight I read back over something I had written a couple of years ago about particular situations where it looked to me like God was at work, specifically in answer to my prayers.  I was excited.  Now that time has passed, I can see that my prayers were not, in fact, answered.  Almost all of the initially positive signs of God’s work in people’s lives have come to nothing.  I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced this kind of disappointment. 

The temptation here is to pray less, and to pray with less fervency.  If disappointment is what I will get, why invest myself?  Do I want to die having spent a large amount of time and energy asking God for things that never came to pass?  It only makes sense to slack off on prayer a little and put my time to better use.

And then I remember Paul’s words: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. . . . Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 9:2-3; 10:1).  Paul took a risk.  He invested himself personally in the eternal well-being of his unbelieving kinsmen, the people of Israel.  He allowed himself to be grieved by their lost condition, and he prayed fervently for God to change their hearts.  Then he went to his death with the vast majority of Israelites still hardened to the Messiah.  And so it persists to this day. 

Was Paul a failure on this point?  Should he have gotten the clue that God wasn’t going to do what he was asking and moved on to something more fruitful?  Should he have closed his heart to Israel once enough time had elapsed and he saw that little had changed?  No.  The same Paul who grieves over Israel in Romans 9 is the one who says, “all Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26.  I know there is controversy over the interpretation of this verse, but my view is that it refers to ethnic Israel as a whole, at the return of Christ.  Paul’s kinsmen will be saved, in part because Paul prayed for their salvation.  Even for those who do not share this view of the word “Israel” in this verse, all can agree that Paul argues here for the completion of God’s redemptive purpose, the salvation of all of his people.  And even though Paul died long before the completion of that redemptive purpose, I believe his prayers are planted seeds that will bear fruit at the appointed time, namely, the end. 

And that is where we must constantly look when we pray: to the end.  “Hallowed be your name” is an eschatological request, a desire for the full revelation of God’s glory to all of creation at the end of history.  “Your kingdom come” likewise looks to the final establishment of the Kingdom of God.  The same is true for “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  The requests that follow—for provision, pardon, and protection—focus on what we need in the present that will sustain us until the end.  And so prayer is profoundly eschatological in nature, and that means much of what we pray for will not come to pass until the end, at least if we are praying correctly.

If the Lord tarries and I reach the point of death, will I do so having invested numerous hours over a lifetime praying fervently for things that have not come to pass?  I certainly hope so.

The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 2

November 25, 2008

[Please see part 1 for the context of this discussion.]

Like John Bunyan before him, John Piper favors a policy of open membership at his church, a policy by which true believers who were baptized as infants and who cannot submit to believer’s baptism in good conscience (because they consider their infant baptism scripturally valid) would be allowed to join the church without being scripturally baptized.  I understand Piper’s theological and practical reasoning on this, and I think he has a good intention behind it, namely, to move some active attenders at his church into a membership status so that they can come under the full care and discipline of the church.  Nevertheless, I disagree with the policy for the following reasons:

(1) Even on its own terms, the policy is inconsistent.  Piper argues that the requirements for membership in any local church should be the same requirements for membership in the universal church.  But this is manifestly impossible.  The vast majority of Christians (or, to use Piper’s terminology, members of the universal church) cannot join Bethlehem Baptist Church simply because they cannot, for geographical and circumstantial reasons, involve themselves in the life of that local body.  If I lived in the Minneapolis area, Bethlehem would be a likely place where I would seek church membership.  But I live in Louisville, and for that reason membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church is a closed option for me.  So what Piper evidently means when he argues that the requirements for membership in any local church should be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church is actually this: the requirements for membership in any local church must be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church plus a commitment to be involved in the corporate life of that particular local church.  In many cases (if it is a healthy church), that commitment will be formalized by a church covenant, the terms of which any person must agree to abide by in order to join and maintain membership in that local church.  But obviously, signing the church covenant at Bethlehem Baptist Church is not a biblical requirement for salvation (membership in the universal church), so we have at least one additional requirement here that eliminates the vast majority of believers from membership at Bethlehem Baptist, simply because, as a local church, Bethlehem Baptist must be truly local, that is, restricted in time and space to a particular body of people.  Therefore, I find the argument that moves from universal church membership to local church membership to be lacking at this point.  It simply does not work.

(2) The previous observation creates a category of thought by which we can determine that membership in any local church involves particular commitments that not all true believers can make.  I cannot commit to the terms of Bethlehem Baptist Church’s covenant, if for no other reason because I cannot be physically present with that church on a regular basis.  Membership is not open to me unless I make significant personal changes.  I submit that baptism falls into the same category.  There may be true believers who are not scripturally baptized, and if we as Baptists restrict them from membership for that reason we have not done anything essentially different from restricting those who cannot commit to the church covenant for other reasons, though they may still be true believers.

(3) The foregoing observations lead me to conclude that it is simply wrong to equate denial of membership with excommunication.  The Baptist church that excludes evangelical Presbyterians from its membership over the question of baptism is not saying that these evangelical Presbyterians cannot be viewed as true believers until they repent.  It is saying, rather, that due to differences over a significant ecclesiological matter, there can be no institutional unity so long as these differences persist.  To take myself as an example once again, Bethlehem Baptist Church would not allow me to join so long as I live in Louisville, but that does not mean they view me the same way they would view an excommunicated member.  Granted, living in Louisville and having a faulty view of baptism are different matters (Scripture addresses one but not the other), but at least we have a category by which to understand that not allowing someone to join a church does not mean we automatically treat them as unbelievers.

(4) An open membership policy would lessen the significance of baptism considerably.  It would create a category of church members who are, by the church’s own definition, unbaptized.  There are several problems with this situation:

a. The New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized believer/church member.  Granted, the particular situation we are facing today (where whole denominations hold to a faulty view of baptism) is not in view in the New Testament.  But simply because unbiblical anomalies exist does not mean that we should perpetuate them in our own practice.  As people of the book, we must do our best to conform our ecclesiology to Scripture.  Piper has done this very well at Bethlehem in other areas, leading to important changes that have conformed the church’s practice more to the pattern of Scripture.  I believe the open membership policy would represent a departure from that pattern in Piper’s ministry. 

b. If we will permit one category of unbaptized people to join our churches (namely, those baptized as infants and who cannot submit in good conscience to believer’s baptism), then what is to stop us from allowing other categories of unbaptized people to join, say, those who are professing believers but who believe baptism simply doesn’t matter, or those who are too shy to identify themselves publicly with Christ through baptism?  Could an open membership policy inadvertently decrease a church’s valuing of baptism to the degree that baptism simply ceases to be a requirement at all but something more like an option that some will take and others will refuse?  I fear that, after two or three generations of this kind of policy, when the rigorous theological thinking of those who originally instituted the policy has passed into history, it will be difficult to stop that kind of practical slide into a nullification of baptism as a necessary ecclesiastical rite. 

c. And that is why I always try to defer to tradition on difficult issues like this one.  In this discussion, there is an important point that must not be missed: Throughout the history of the church, baptism (however it has been understood) has been universally acknowledged as an entrance requirement for church membership.  Whether we are talking about Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Wesleyans, or Baptists, one thing they all share in common is that they have all agreed that baptism is a prerequisite to church membership.  Granted, they disagree on the proper subjects, mode, and meaning of baptism, but no church tradition (with the exception of radical groups like the Quakers) has ever made it a policy to accept the unbaptized as members.  And yet, this is what Piper proposes that Bethlehem should do in at least some situations, according to his own understanding of baptism.  I think there is a reason such a view is virtually unprecedented (with the exception of John Bunyan and perhaps a few other leaders and churches scattered here and there throughout history).  That reason is that the church throughout history has, by virtual unanimity, acknowledged the initiatory character of baptism and has guarded it from devaluation.  Before we decide to turn against the virtual consensus of tradition, we should have overwhelmingly good theological reasons to do so.  I believe Piper’s arguments lack that kind of warrant on this issue. 

Therefore, I would oppose the institution of an open membership policy at any Baptist church.  I know that in some situations that may put some groups in a difficult situation.  But I believe a major revision to a church’s membership policy that devalues baptism would create even bigger problems.  For this reason, I do not see open membership as the answer.

The Value of Learning Latin

November 24, 2008

As one who teaches Latin to junior high students, I was quite gratified to read the following from Victor Davis Hanson:

Four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education. In particular, such instruction would do more for minority youths than all the “role model” diversity sermons on Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Montezuma, and Caesar Chavez put together. Nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy (except perhaps Sophocles’s Antigone in Greek or Thucydides’ dialogue at Melos). After some 20 years of teaching mostly minority youth Greek, Latin, and ancient history and literature in translation (1984-2004), I came to the unfortunate conclusion that ethnic studies, women studies–indeed, anything “studies”– were perhaps the fruits of some evil plot dreamed up by illiberal white separatists to ensure that poor minority students in the public schools and universities were offered only a third-rate education.

Read the whole post.

HT: Justin Taylor

The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 1

November 24, 2008

Those who know me or who have read my blog for any length of time know how indebted I am to the ministry and teachings of John Piper.  I have read most of his books, quite a few of his sermons and articles, and I have heard him speak at conferences multiple times.  He is a tremendous gift to the church.  He is everything a pastor-theologian should be: rigorously biblical, deeply theological, and passionate for the glory of God in all things. 

But I do disagree with him from time to time, and this post and the following one will address one area of disagreement, namely, Piper’s proposal that his church, Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, adopt an open membership policy (links to various articles and sermons can be found here).  Bethlehem has not, to this point, adopted the policy, but it looks like it will come up for a vote at some point.  I do not consider myself an advisor to Bethlehem Baptist Church on this issue, but as a Baptist I do believe it is important for all Baptist churches to think through carefully the terms of their membership policies.  In this post my purpose is to explain Piper’s position, followed by a critique in the following post.

Piper and all of the elders at Bethlehem Baptist agree that scriptural baptism is for professing believers only.  They do not recognize infant baptism as a true baptism in any sense.  The current proposal of open membership does not change that fact.  That Bethlehem would either start baptizing infants or recognize infant baptism as legitimate is not on the table at all. 

What is on the table is the possibility of allowing professing believers to join the church as members who were baptized as infants and who cannot in good conscience submit to another baptism because they recognize their own infant baptism as valid.  In other words, the church would not recognize infant baptism as legitimate, but it would, under this proposal, soften its baptism requirement in order to open membership to those who do not agree with the church’s position on baptism.  It is, therefore, more of a practical than a theological proposal.  A few years ago I spoke to a former member of Bethlehem about this, and he said that the policy would allow the church have a covenantal relationship with a number of Reformed believers who are regular attenders but who have not, to this point, joined the church because of their views on baptism.  In other words, the policy would allow these active attenders to become members under the care and discipline of the church without changing their settled convictions on the question of baptism.

As I said, the issue is primarily practical, but there is a theological component involved in Piper’s argument for the open membership proposal.  According to Dr. Piper, the requirements for membership in a local church should be the same as requirements for membership in the universal church.  If we recognize evangelical Presbyterian believers as true believers who belong to the universal church, according to Piper, then we should allow them to join Baptist churches without being baptized (according to our definition of baptism).  Very few Baptists would say that a gospel-believing Presbyterian is not a true believer just because he has not been scripturally baptized.  If that is the case, argues Piper, then we cannot exclude him from membership on that basis.  To exclude a true believer from fellowship in a local church is on par with excommunication, and differences over the nature of baptism should not lead to such radical action against true believers. 

However, the proposal on the table at Bethlehem Baptist does specify that, while membership would be open to professing believers who have not been baptized, teaching in the church would not open up to them.  The teaching ministries of the church will only be carried out by those who have been baptized as believers and who uphold the baptism of believers only as the only scriptural baptism. 

I hope I have represented the position fairly.  In the next post I will explain why I disagree with it.

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

November 21, 2008

Thanksgiving as an annual observance has been practiced for centuries, with antecedents that pre-date the 1621 observance by the Plymouth settlers.  It was not, however, a national holiday observed on the same day by all states in the union until 1863.  It is a holiday that was born in adversity, for the Plymouth settlers set aside a day for giving thanks when only 53 out of 102 of them had survived the previous winter.  It is a holiday that was nationalized in adversity, for President Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving in the middle of the dark days of the Civil War. 

Lincoln’s proclamation is an executive order that establishes a national observance that is explicitly religious in nature.  In a day when the bare mention of God in public discourse has become controversial (except in acceptable phrases like “God bless America), I can’t help but think that we have drifted far from our heritage as a nation.  I’m not one of those “America was founded on the gospel” types, but neither do I buy into the secularist agenda that seeks to purge God from our historical record.  The truth is, without belief in a sovereign, personal God, this whole American project never would have gotten off the ground, for it was by appeal to the dignity and equality of all people, grounded in their status as creatures of a sovereign and benevolent God, that the ideals of our nation were propounded.  Thus, a belief in and acknowledgement of God have permeated the most important documents of our history, apparently without in any way threatening the anti-establishment clause of the Constitution.  One such document that reveals this rich heritage is Lincoln’s proclamation, which follows: 

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Economics 101

November 20, 2008

HT: Doug Wilson

Waiting for Healing

November 17, 2008

I have been sick for about two weeks now.  Actually, my whole family is sick.  It all started for me on November 4th, the day Barack Obama was elected.  I don’t know if there is a connection there or not.  Actually, November 4th was one day after I finished my comprehensive exams, so I think the stress of that may have had something to do with it.

But this is exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen when Obama was elected.  Suffering was supposed to end when the new Adam came to his throne.  Maybe I’ll have to wait until inauguration day.  The election must be like the first coming of Obama, and inauguration day must be like the parousia.  I hope I can hold on that long.  😉

Why I Am a Christian, Part 4b: Because of the Bible

November 15, 2008

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Because of Experience

Part 2: Because of Jesus

Part 3a: Because of the Resurrection

Part 3b: Because of the Resurrection

Part 3c: Because of the Resurrection

Part 4a: Because of the Bible

In the previous post on the Bible I set forth the primary reasons why I believe its claim to be the authoritative Word of God is a claim that warrants my belief.  Now I will address secondary reasons.  These secondary reasons are confirming evidences of the Bible’s divine origin.

(1) The unity of the Bible.  It is utterly remarkable that a collection of dozens of books, spanning thousands of years in composition, written by about forty or so authors from diverse backgrounds, in three different languages, addressing controversial matters of ultimate meaning, could have produced such a harmonious work.  I am not saying that the various biblical books speak with one voice on every issue.  There is a distinct theology of Paul, just as there is of Isaiah, of Moses, and of Luke.  Each author makes his own contribution in terms of style, content, and theology.  But when they are put together into a canon, these books cohere as one large narrative that begins with creation and ends with new creation, finding its center in the person of Jesus Christ.  The foreshadowings of the New Testament in the Old, and the echoes of the Old in the New, the multiciplicity of shadows and types that point forward to Christ, and the multiplicity of ways that Christ fulfills those shadows and types, all point to a single divine mind behind this book.  The Quran and other holy books come nowhere near the majesty of this harmonic unity.

(2) Predictive prophecy. Events foretold in the Bible have been fulfilled as they were foretold.  I think of the last two chapters of Daniel in particular, with its meticulously detailed prophecy of the wars between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies that post-dated the time of Daniel by several hundred years.  Of course, a number of scholars argue that the book of Daniel was actually written after these events, but one can’t help but think that a bit of viciously circular reasoning has gone into that conclusion.  If one rules out the possibility that the future can be foretold a priori, then of course one will have to conclude that whatever appears to be a genuine predictive prophecy would have had to have been delivered after the events it foretold.  The same is true for Isaiah 45:1, which mentions Cyrus by name as the future deliverer of Israel.  Cyrus was a Persian king who lived well over a century after the time of Isaiah, and just as Isaiah foretold, he delivered Israel from exile.  Other examples could be multiplied, particularly in regard to prophecies made about Jesus Christ.  The fact that a book that claims to come from God indicates an ability to predict the future with accuracy confirms its claim by showing that a divine mind that transcends time must stand behind it. 

(3) Historical evidence.  Most holy books have little connection to history, for most are not really about history but about what you might call “religious philosophy.”  Even the Book of Mormon, which does profess to relate history, is hopelessly disconnected from reality.  It is a fairy tale about a civilization in North America for which there is no shred of evidence, translated from mysterious golden plates that no one can access anymore, and occasionally showing traces of historical anachronism.  The Bible is in a completely different league.  There is no doubt that it is a genuine book from antiquity; we have thousands of manuscripts that date back through time, in a variety of languages.  It speaks of figures and civilizations that have been confirmed by the evidence of history.  The ruins of Jericho are available for anyone to go and see today, for example.  And on those historical questions where the Bible’s validity has not been confirmed by archaeology, I would say just give it time.  Historians used to believe that the Bible was simply wrong about the Hittites; they used to believe that the Hittites never existed.  Further archaeological evidence confirms that they did exist.  The same happened in recent decades with King Belteshazzar of the book of Daniel.  It was widely doubted that he ever existed until an inscription was discovered bearing his name.  We are dealing with a book that is rooted in history and that has been confirmed, time and time again, by the historical record. 

(4) The shocking honesty of the Bible.  If I were going to make up a religion, I certainly wouldn’t make up Christianity.  Why would anyone, out of their own imaginations, conjure up a religion that says we are all desperately wicked sinners who are destined for Hell unless we find hope in a redeemer?  Who would have made up something so complex and mysterious as the Trinity, the Incarnation, or substitutionary atonement?  Who would come up with a gospel that is at once a message of free grace and yet is at the same time the most costly thing imaginable, both to God and to us?  Who would have written a book that paints all of the great heroes of the faith with their warts in full view: Abraham, David, Moses, Paul, Peter?  Man-made religions have a tendency to romanticize and to reduce the demands made upon us by the deity.  Christianity does the opposite: it is penetratingly real, honest, utterly demanding, and even a bit complicated, all because it is built on a book that bears these characteristics.  The Bible does not bear the marks of mere human imagination. 

I do not bring these points up because I think I can, by the use of reason alone, certify the Bible’s authority.  I have already argued that the Bible’s authority is intrinsic and self-attesting; there simply cannot be any higher court of appeal.  Nevertheless, what we find when we appeal to reason and to experience is that the Bible’s divine origin is confirmed and that it clearly stands in a category by itself, thereby further strengthening our warrant to believe it is the holy Word of God.