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Entries in Theology (12)


Stop the world, I want to get off!

Have you felt like that? I think we all have. This past few weeks, I've felt it acutely. Fortunately, for those who belong to Christ, we will get out of this world, and a new one will be ushered in. In my Augustine class, on November 4, we talked about City of God, and the discussion about the Kingdom of God and what that entails was so encouraging.

And then the U.S. election happened; and all that entails. You know what I mean; the rancor, the condescension, the crowing of the victorious, and the despair of the defeated. I know the truth of the ultimate ruler of the universe. I know the eschatological hope. But my heart goes out to those who honestly fear what will happen. There has been a fair bit of jeering (and some if it is deserved) toward those who are very fearful of what is to come, but I wonder how many of those people are minorities. My kids live in a very multi-ethnic city, and they have friends from many different backgrounds, and the fear is real. I am reluctant to mock fear. 

It does feel like the world has gone crazy. When people I once respected reveal an ugly side, it bothers me. It also makes me re-evaluate myself. Have I come across like that? Lord, I hope not. I am torn between wanting to rant at the top of my lungs or retreat entirely.

We are so distracted by the world around us. Things are enticing. We end up wasting time, partaking of the mundane, the ultimately useless. "Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things" (Ps. 119:37). How much of our time is spent on things that are of no eternal value? And how many of those are dressed up as if they are "Christian?" Sometimes, I feel as if Christian commentary is more about pop culture or politics than Christ. Yes, I know we have to engage with those things, but honestly, I don't see a lot of good coming from either location. Some of it is not worth engaging.

We are studying the origins of humanity in my theology class. This has led to a discussion of being made in the image of God means. You see that phrase a lot these days, done up in Latin for good measure: Imago Dei. I thought that the few things I'd read on the subject were useful. Millard Erickson digs deep, and asks questions I have never thought of. This encourages me in a world where I want to get off. I encourages me to ponder who God is, and by extension, who I am. This is comfort to me. And quite serendipitously, much of the course material in Augustine is dovetailing with the theology class. I'm reading Augustine's book on the Trinity. Those ancient writers knew how to ponder God well.

I've also picked up The Valley of Vision for another read, and I'm following along with a daily reading schedule that I got from Joe Thorn's blog years ago. I want to ponder God more deeply. In the face of a crazy world, he is the one to whom we turn. Only he will suffice. He is our hope. Looking to people, things, and earthly kingdoms will only provide the most fleeting hope.

I do want to get off this world, whenever God ordains that to be. It often discourages me to think about what the future holds for my kids and their kids, but I guess I'm not the first woman to ponder such a quesion. All I can do is rejoice in the Lord, see his goodness, be grateful in the small things, and cling to the hope of the coming kingdom.


Affliction is one of God's medicines

Clearly that sentiment would not be very popular today. Even in some Christian circles, afflictions are seen as more inconvenient than anything. But there was a time when life spans were shorter, illnesses weren't so easily dealt with, and struggle was more frequent in the everyday lives of people. We live in an age when affliction is seen as an interloper, not a part of life.

There I was last Friday night with my two assignments for Dr. Haykin's class, completed and freshly printed, waiting to be handed in the following day. I was in my flannel jammies, with plans to sit in front of the television and watch Shetland. I was excited about the next day, which also included my son's engagement party. I decided to play with the puppy for a while to tire him out. Two hours later, I was in the E.R., after a bumpy amublance ride, with a dislocated and fractured ankle. After having the dislocation fixed and the leg stabilized, I was sent home with Percocet, and told to report to the fracture clinic the next morning. By late Sunday afternoon, I had gone through surgery, was out of recovery, and equipped with some hardware in my ankle. 

It was not the weekend I had planned.

Yes, this throws a monkey wrench in my plans.

Someone asked me if I was sorry I got the puppy in the first place. I'm pretty sure people without puppies break limbs. In fact, as I saw the surgeon, I was reminded that this was my third break in three years (get the calcium and weight bearing exercises going!). I didn't get to my class. I'm not getting to my other class today. I will resume school duties next week, but my poor husband is run ragged at the moment making tea, doing laundry, and ensuring that I don't fall face first off my crutches.

This is minor in the grand scheme of things. I can look forward to healing at some point. There are people who will never walk again. I'm not going to complain. I'm thankful for a husband who has a job which allows him to take time for me. I'm thankful for friends who bring soup and buns and cake. I'm thankful for family who bring food. I'm thankful for kids who come to help out. I'm thankful for a friend who is a hairdresser and will come and pick me up to cut my hair.

It's so easy to think that we're blessed when we're swimming along nicely. We feel like we're on top of the world. And when trouble comes our way, we get disgruntled. I don't like having to sit on my rear end all day. I don't like not being able to go out with my dogs and run. But this could be so much worse. Yes, it's a bummer, but it's not that bad.

A good friend sent me some words from J.C. Ryle:

Affliction is one of God's medicines. By it he often teaches lessons which would be learned in no other way. By it he often draws souls away from sin and the world, which otherwise would have perished everlastingly. Health is a great blessing, but sanctified disease is a greater.Prosperity and worldly comfort is what all naturally desire; but losses and crosses are far better for us if they lead us to Christ.

I have no idea why this happened other than I need to remember that I'm not 25 years old anymore and running through the house is perhaps not recommended. The reading for my theology class this week focused on God's governing activity. I am reminded that God's governance over my life, and in fact over all the unviverse is good. This is a bad thing to have happened, that is for sure. But God is still good. Theology is so very practical!

By the end of the day, after navigating the house with my crutches, and managing pain, I will be tired, and probably cranky. But God is still good. And I want to remember this truth.


The theological spiral

I had my first class yesterday in Theological Foundations. I am really going to like it. The prof has a very dry wit, which I appreciate. He's also a seasoned teacher; at 70 years of age, he has been doing this for a while. 

Yesterday, in addition to being introduced to one another and the subject matter, we discussed some of the objections to studying theology as well as devising a method for doing theology. Some of the objections were:

"The Bible is enough -- I don't need theology."

"Theology is impractical -- give me something life-related."

"The diversity of opinion among theologians shows that firm conclsions are impossible anyway."

"Doctrine divides, but experience unites."

"Theology is incomprehensible."

I've heard all of those objections, but most frequently the first one. Of course, we discussed the objections to those statements. 

One of the things I most appreciated about our time together yesterday was the reminder for intellectual humility. We really don't know it all, and while truth is not changing, we as humans are, and our reception of it may look different. On our course, notes, there was an interesting passage about the theological spiral. I thought this was interesting in light of Grant Osborne's book The Hermeneutical Spiral. I like the image of a spiral to discuss learning:

The theological spiral continues: we come to doctrinal conclusions based on our reading of the biblical texts, then this doctrinal perspective informs our reading of biblical texts, but at some point we may notice that we are continually explaining away the texts, which then leads to a revised or clarified doctrinal position, and that new perspective informs our reading of the texts . . . . 

Our readings of Scripture are always reforming and growing. It doesn't mean, however, that we never land on a particular position; rather, we are humble enough to entertain the prospect that we don't know it all.

I was also very grateful for the discussion of looking at the historical development of doctrine. We were reminded that we were not the first people to attempt to evaluate doctrine and express theology. One of the things I continue to see is how much I don't know. I am regularly confronted with instances of being asked to think about different implications, and it's good to be challenged.


React, critique, build

This is a rather random post this morning. I'm enjoying the sound of the much-needed rain falling. 

I was thinking about change; specifically how I've changed in the past few years. Some might say I've changed for the worse. I'm attending seminary, which some think I shouldn't do. I am willing to read opposing views on issues, which some say I shouldn't do. I've had a few critiques of complementarianism, which some have come to see as an indication that I'm becoming "liberal." 

I was looking back over the past fifteen years, pondering the growth (or lack, I suppose) in my Christian life. Much of my growth has come as I have explored Reformed theology. Much of my growth has come as I've learned a lot about studying God's word and deriving theology from it. Much of it has come from simply watching others. Sometimes, my thought processes have been similar to a crusade. I can distinctly remember times in the past when every morning, I was still thinking and churning over an issue. I will (with embarrassment) admit to actively participating in dialogue before having a full understanding of the matter. And there are times when I've just had to be silent; although those silent times are probably not frequent enough.

I think my growth in Christ has followed a three part path: I react to something, I critique it and investigate it, and then I build. This is how I was when I discovered Reformed theology. I purchased a book called Grace Unknown (which is now called What is Reformed Theology?) by R.C. Sproul. I wanted to learn about grace, hence my purchase of the book. I had no idea that what I read would change everything. I did react to these new teachings. I was bothered by some. Sometimes, the newly converted are the most vocal, and I did a lot of critique. I was likely not charitable about things, and I'm sure I came across as beating a dead horse and banging the same drum far too often. I think that's what we do when we come across something that shakes us up.

And then we build. That's when we have to stop banging the drum and do the hard work of understanding. That may involve time apart from the sound of others' similar sounding drums. There is such benefit in sitting down and immersing ourselves in what we don't understand and unraveling things.

At times, I am tempted to sigh with frustration when I see others in that critique stage, where every word out of their mouths is an impassioned critique. I certainly don't have to read that person's writings. And I need to be gracious, because I think there are times when we have to go through that. I do find that as I get older, I want to critique less and less because being in the build phase is so much easier. It takes energy to critique, to be fired up about something. I am finding more pleasure in expending that energy on the build phase. I have also found (to my detriment) that seminary and involvement in the latest controversy don't mix well. The paper I wrote this past semestser on John's use of Isaiah would have benefitted greatly from avoiding social media during the recent Trinity debates.

There are times when we do need to dismantle things and evaluate. But we also have to spend the time building. When we point out discrepancies, we do need to have in the back of our minds at the very least, a way forward. It does no good to tell others "don't do this!" or "don't read that!" if we're not willing to give guidance to what they should do or should read. We need to build. The critique part is easy, but building takes work.


Why is propitiation important?

Last Sunday, I taught from I John 2:1-6. We touched on this passage:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

Deep truths

There are some very deep truths about Christ being taught in those passages. An advocate. A propitiation. An advocate is easier, because the idea of a lawyer comes to mind when thinking about the word "advocate." But propitiation? It's clearly not a word that just comes up in general conversation, not even among Christians. Here is how the word in the Greek, hilasmos, has been translated by some of the popular translations:

  • The King James Version and New King James Version: propitiation
  • The New American Standard Bible: propitiation
  • The English Standard Version: propitiation
  • The Holman translation: propitiation
  • New International Version: atoning sacrifice
  • New Revised Standard Version: atoning sacrifice
  • The Net Bible: atoning sacrifice
  • New Living Translation: the one who atones for our sins 

In Bill Mounce's expository dictionary, we read this with regard to hilasmos:

to atone, have mercy on, to make atonement for, propitiate," and refers in in the NT to the atoning work of Christ whereby he propitiates God's anger.

Turning away anger

The part about turning away God's anger is important. It is so important that Leon Morris in his book The Atonement (a book you should read) spends a great deal of time explaining why it is important. In the past, others have tried to rob the word of its reference to God's anger. Morris uses "wrath" throughout instead of "anger."  In his discussion (p. 171) of how hilasmos is used in the New Testament specifically, in I John 2:2 and 4:10, Morris says:

Here NIV translates hilasmos with 'atoning sacrifice', but has a marginal alternative, 'He is the one who turns aside God's wrath.' The other passage says, 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins' (I Jn. 4:10.) Again there is a marginal reading, 'as the one who would turn aside his wrath.' In both passages (as elsewhere) this version's margin recognizes the true meaning of the term. (p. 171-72)

I have an NIV that was published in 1984, and there is indeed a notation. I don't know if the NIV from 2011 has that notation. Bible Gateway doesn't include it.

God's mercy understood alongside His wrath

That idea of turning away wrath is crucial to understanding not only what God has done for us, but the seriousness of sin. Some people define propitiation with "expiation," but that does not carry with it the idea of turning away wrath. We don't want to think that God is wrathful. We want a loving, merciful God. But to understand God's mercy, must we not understand his wrath? How can we understand the extent of God's love apart from knowing what He's saved us from? I John 4:10 demonstrates that the greatest act of love God has made is to send Christ to turn away the anger that was rightfully ours.

My gratitude for receiving forgiveness from someone who is merely a little ticked off with me is not the same thing as the gratitude toward Christ who turned away wrath, which includes judgment. God is a god who judges. You can't read the Old Testament and not see that. And if you don't like the God of the Old Testament, then what do you believe about the Word of God?

Sure, propitiation is a big word, and we need to look at what it means, but I think English is sufficient enough to define it without robbing it of its true meaning. 

One of my favourite passages from Leon Morris's discussion of propitation comes in his conclusion:

Some find a difficultly in that they see wrath as incompatible with the fact that 'God is love.' They are so sure of the love of God that they say that there can be no such thing as the wrath of God. But this is faulty reasoning. The opposite of love is not wrath. It is hate. We can say that, if God is a God of love, he will not hate those that he has made, but we cannot say that he will never be angrywith them. Indeed, the opposite may well be the case. The more he loves the more he will be angry with everything that mars the perfection of the beloved, that is with every sin. God's wrath is identical with his love. God's wrath is God's love blazing out in fiery indignation against every evil in the beloved. (p. 174).

Our most pressing need

Why is propitation important? Because it deals with our most pressing, most dire need: dealing with our sin. Prior to John writing about propitiation, he deals quite thoroughly with the matter of our sin. Sin is a reality. As we get older, it doesn't become less of a factor. We may recognize it sooner, but it's there. Propitiation is important because it shows us that we can rejoice. Praise God! His anger is turned away from us! And we can receive cleansing, and walk in the light. Understanding the meaning of the word may take a little time and thought, but it's worth it.

For more on this term, see Rebecca's entry in Theological Term of the Week.