Thursday, July 30, 2015

Planned Parenthood: What Would the Prophet Micah Say?

And I said,
Hear now, heads of Jacob 
and rulers of the house of Israel.
Is it not for you to know justice?
You who hate good and love evil,
who tear off their skin from them
and their flesh from their bones,
who eat the flesh of my people,
strip off their skin from them,
break their bones 
and chop them up as for the pot
and as meat in a kettle.
Micah 3.1-3

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lord's Table Meditation

* One of the occasional meditations I write for our church bulletin.

In 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 the apostle Paul recounts the words of Jesus at the last supper before his death.  These are familiar words that are often used in the celebration of Communion:

This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

Paul then adds these important words which state one of the purposes of this special sacrament:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  1 Corinthians 11.26

In this sacrament we are proclaiming the central glory of salvation—the death of Christ.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul had stressed that importance and centrality of “the word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1.18).  Paul preached the message of “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1.23).  In fact, he argues that, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”  (1 Corinthians 2.2).

So when we participate in the Lord’s Supper we are also proclaiming the gospel message—Jesus has died for sins.  We are not proclaiming the funeral of Jesus as if he is still dead.  No.  We are proclaiming the glory of the cross as that place where Jesus takes away sin.  Consider these words from Ephesians 1.7-8:

In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished on us.

Think of it—we have redemption; the release from our sins.  We have forgiveness from God.  All this is due to the riches of God’s grace which has been lavishly poured out on us.  These blessings are bought for us by the blood of Christ that he shed on the cross.  Let us proclaim with joy the Lord Jesus’ death today.  He is the risen One and his blood is strong to save!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Isaiah's Polemic Against Idolatry

I came across a profound statement by John Oswalt regarding Isaiah's polemic against the idols as it is found especially through Isaiah 40-48.
  Many interpreters accuse Isaiah of creating a straw man at this point. They argue that he has engaged in reductionism of the worst sort, refusing to admit that no pagan ever thought his or her god was restricted to an idol. In pagan thought, the idol partook of the holiness of the being who was spiritually continuous with the idol but yet transcended it. The accusers say that Isaiah understood this quite well but conveniently chose to overlook it because it was much easier to attack the practice of idolatry. Isaiah, however, is not disregarding that issue at all, as is clear from his case against the Babylonian gods in 40-48. He challenges their worshipers to produce evidence that any of the gods had ever explained "the former things" or, failing that, "the latter things." That is, could the gods explain how the world began or how it would develop in the future? Of course they could not because they are a part of the world's cycles, and, just as the thunderstorm does not know how it arose or where it will go, neither do the gods. A further question is even more pointed: which of the gods ever once specifically foretold the future? The answer is never. Of course there were plenty of cases of prediction, but like those of modern astrologers, they were so cloaked in ambiguity that they would always be "right" no matter what happened. 
Yahweh, on the other hand, did make specific predictions in case after case, particularly those of the exile and the return. He can do that, the prophet says, because he "sits above the circle of the earth" (40:22). He is not a part of the stars, "the host of heaven," but is the one who calls them forth by name (40:26). In short, Isaiah boldly asserts that Yahweh is not a part of earth's cycles. He is not a personification of any of its forces. He is beyond it and directs it. Therefore, he alone can specifically predict the future. Furthermore, he alone can do "new things." The gods can only do what they have always done. They cannot transcend the past because they are part of the past. Neither can they alter the future because they are whatever that future unfolds to be. This is a far more sophisticated argument than merely an attack on idol making. To be sure, the prophet includes idol making in his polemic because that is at the heart of the issue. To make your god into an idol is a fundamental expression of the conviction that the gods are continuous with the cosmos and fundamentally at one with it. The Bible's profound iconoclasm is aimed precisely at this point. 
If Isaiah was struck in his call experience with Yahweh's absolute transcendence, both in essence and in character, there was something else that struck him in the experience with equal force. Although Yahweh is utterly other than the earth and all that is in it, it is his glory and his alone that fills the earth (6:3; cf. 40:5). Transcendence is often faulted by its detractors as making creation completely inaccessible to God and making God completely inaccessible to the creation. This was certainly the concern of the neo-Platonists, who sought to overcome what they saw as this inevitable outcome of the doctrine. Isaiah (and the rest of the Bible) is blithely unconcerned about philosophical conundrums. Although God is not the creation and has no essential continuity with the creation, he is everywhere present in his earth He can intersect it at any and every point. Thus, its glory is his glory, and it has no other. This is the wonder of the biblical doctrine of revelation. Truth does not emerge from within the cosmos because the cosmos is not self-explanatory. To attempt to make it explain itself is to deify it and that is the way of endless horror, as both Romans 1 and modern film culture amply demonstrate. 
Instead, truth and glory have broken in upon us from beyond ourselves. More than that, God has broken in with his truth and glory for the express purpose of sharing that truth and glory with us. Thus, we have the astonishing phrase The Holy One of Israel." He is the only Holy One in the universe, and yet he has chosen to become immanent in Israel. He has chosen to be owned, as it were, by this broken, fallible people. He is pleased to become localized in them.[1]

     [1] John N. Oswalt, “The Book of Isaiah: A Short Course on Biblical Theology” Calvin Theological Journal 39 (2004), 69-70.  For more general reflections on similar themes from Acts 17 see my essay “Thoughts on God’s Transcendence and Immanence.”  Available online:  

Jesus Loved the Scriptures

* One of the occasional meditations I write for our church bulletin.

Jesus loved the scriptures.  When he was being tempted by the devil he turned to the Scriptures repeatedly to answer the temptation.  In the very midst of that temptation Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8.3: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”  Jesus saw the Scriptures as the word which proceeds from the mouth of God.  When Jesus began his ministry he again turned to the Scriptures to define his calling and describe his ministry.  He quoted from Isaiah 61.1-2 and declared that its fulfillment was to be found in him (Luke 4.14-21).  In his on-going arguments with religious leaders Jesus repeatedly pointed to the Scriptures as his authority.  He declared that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10.35) and when his opponents refused to see the truth he could simply declare, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God?” (Mark 12.24).  When asked about which commandment is the greatest Jesus, again, pointed to the Scriptures (Mark 12.29-31 quoting Deuteronomy 6.4-5 and Leviticus 19.18). 

Jesus understood the ancient Scriptures to be not merely the words of men but also the word of God.  Notice how he refers to Psalm 110.1:

David himself said in the Holy Spirit, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies beneath your feet.”

Jesus recognizes that the words of David are spoken “in the Holy Spirit”—there is both a human element and a divine element.  And the human and divine do not cancel each other out.  At other times Jesus could simply quote the Scriptures and say “God said…” (Matthew 15.5) thus showing his view of the Scriptures—they are the very words of God.

In his pain on the cross Jesus would again turn to the Scriptures to give vent to his suffering—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22.1).  After his resurrection he did not stop looking to the Scriptures.  Rather he taught his disciples how to read the Scriptures rightly so as to see him in the fullness of God’s revelation (Luke 24.44-47).

If we would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ then we should also adopt his view of the Scriptures.  May we see them and honor them as the very word of God by which we live.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Some Meditations on the Lord's Table

* One of the occasional meditations I write for our church bulletin.

Today we celebrate the Table of the Lord.  In light of this it is good to reflect on what the Bible says about this glorious practice.  The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10.16-17 states:

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?  Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of one bread.

Two items are worth noting here—one that is toward Christ and the other which is toward the Church.

First, note that Paul speaks of our engagement in the Lord’s Supper as a “sharing” in the blood and body of Christ.  This word “sharing” is the Greek word koinonia which has the nuance of participating or sharing in something.  Some of have said that this passage deals with the central mystery of this sacrament—our participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of receiving this sacrament by faith and then when we do this we “spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ, crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being … really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers…” (WCF 29.7).  So in the Supper we are engaging with Christ in a real participation, by faith, with his body and blood.

Second, the Table of the Lord also has a church focus.  For Paul, the fact that we “partake of one bread” speaks of our unity in the body of Christ.  The Supper signifies our common bond in Christ.  Therefore, the Table speaks against all causes of disunity.  It reminds us to check our hearts and our attitudes toward others in the body of Christ.  There are times when we even need to seek reconciliation first with a brother or sister in Christ so as to maintain that unity (see Mathew 5.23-24). 

Our communion is with Christ and his body, the church.  The Table of the Lord speaks of both of these realities.  Let us participate with joy and love this day for we are a blessed people!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Obergefell v Hodges: Religious Liberty Statements and Implications

The following are quotations from the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the issue of religious liberty.

The first quotation comes from the decision  written by Justice Kennedy:
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.  The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. (p. 27)
This sounds fair-minded but other of the Justices bring nuance and perspective which speaks of the dangers of this decision for religious liberty.  Chief-Justice Roberts comments:
 Today's decision, for example, creates serious questions about religious liberty.  Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is--unlike the right imagined by the majority--actually spelled out in the Constitution.  Amdt. 1.
Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice.  The majority's decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations.  The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to "advocate" and "teach" their views of marriage.  Ante, at 27.  The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to "exercise" religion.  Ominiously, that is not the word the majority uses.
Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage--when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious  adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples.  Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage.  See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36-38.  There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court.  Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today. 
 Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of today's decision is the extent to which the majority feels compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate.  The majority offers a cursory assurance that it does not intend to disparage people who, as a matter of conscience, cannot accept same-sex marriage.  Ante, at 19.  That disclaimer is hard to square with the very next sentence, in which the majority explains that "the necessary consequence" of laws codifying the traditional definition of marriage is to "demea[n] or stigmatiz[e]" same-sex couples.  Ante, at 19.  The majority reiterates such characterizations over and over.  By the majority's account, Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history--in particular, tens of millions of people who voted to reaffirm their States' enduring definition of marriage--have acted to "lock ... out," "disparage," "disrespect and subordinate," and inflict "[d]ignitary wounds" upon their gay and lesbian neighbors.  Ante, at 17, 19, 22, 25.  These apparent assaults on the character of fairminded people will have an effect in society and in court.  See post, at 6-7 (Alito, J., dissenting).  Moreover, they are entirely gratuitous.  It is one thing for the majority to conclude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share the majority's "better informed understanding" as bigoted.  Ante, at 19.  (pp. 27-29)
Justice Thomas in his dissent writes the following:
 Aside from undermining the political processes that protect our liberty, the majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect.
The history of religious liberty in our country is familiar: Many of the earliest immigrants to America came seeking freedom to practice their religion without restraint. See McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1409, 1422– 1425 (1990). When they arrived, they created their own havens for religious practice. Ibid. Many of these havens were initially homogenous communities with established religions. Ibid. By the 1780’s, however, “America was in the wake of a great religious revival” marked by a move toward free exercise of religion. Id., at 1437. Every State save Connecticut adopted protections for religious freedom in their State Constitutions by 1789, id., at 1455, and, of course, the First Amendment enshrined protection for the free exercise of religion in the U. S. Constitution. But that protection was far from the last word on religious liberty in this country, as the Federal Government and the States have reaffirmed their commitment to religious liberty by codifying protections for religious practice. See, e.g., Reli- gious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq.; Conn. Gen. Stat. §52–571b (2015).
Numerous amici—even some not supporting the States—have cautioned the Court that its decision here will “have unavoidable and wide-ranging implications for religious liberty.” Brief for General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists et al. as Amici Curiae 5. In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. Id., at 7. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.
The majority appears unmoved by that inevitability. It makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph, ante, at 27. And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition. Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons . . . as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Ibid. Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.
Although our Constitution provides some protection against such governmental restrictions on religious prac- tices, the People have long elected to afford broader protections than this Court’s constitutional precedents man- date. Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process—as the Constitution requires—the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process. Instead, the majority’s decision short-circuits that process, with potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty. (pp. 14-16)
Justice Alito argues the following in his dissent:
Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences. 
It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.

Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reas- sure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. 
The system of federalism established by our Constitution provides a way for people with different beliefs to live together in a single nation. If the issue of same-sex mar- riage had been left to the people of the States, it is likely that some States would recognize same-sex marriage and others would not. It is also possible that some States would tie recognition to protection for conscience rights. The majority today makes that impossible. By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turn- about is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds.

Social Scorn, or Laughter Before the Lions

In response to the Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states there has been and will continue to be commentary on this decision and its import for our time.

David French over National Review has written a short piece entitled The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion that is Incompatible with Christianity which contains the following profound lines:
For many believers, this new era will present a unique challenge. Christians often strive to be seen as the “nicest” or “most loving” people in their communities. Especially among Evangelicals there is a na├»ve belief that if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms. But now our love — expressed in the fullness of a Gospel that identifies homosexual conduct as sin but then provides eternal hope through justification and sanctification — is hate. Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.
I have often stated that today's Christians in America will have to face laughter long before they face the lions.  This social scorn is powerful and will prove "persuasive" (not in the rational sense of being persuaded by argumentation) in the lives of many.  There will the temptation to change or, at least, mute the teaching of Scripture regarding sexual ethics.  Faithfulness to Christ will mean bearing this social scorn.