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.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Reciting the Creeds as a Counter-Cultural Act

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

Do you want to do something really counter-cultural?  Do you want to engage in a subversive activity?  How about standing with courage and speaking truth to power?  In one sense we do these things when we believingly recite the creed together every Sunday.  In our Affirmation of Faith we have been using the Apostle’s Creed.  At other times we may use the Nicene Creed.  We can, of course, get bored with these creeds and just being to mindlessly recite words but when we engage our minds and hearts in the confession of the Creed we are doing some amazing things.  I was helped to see this by the words of Luke Timothy Johnson from his book The Creed when he discusses what is happening when we recite the Creeds

“In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together.  In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other.  In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago.  In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again.  In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition.  Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act.” (pp. 40-41)

So our commitment to the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds is a conservative impulse—we are seeking to conserve the tradition and preserve it in faithfulness.  But we also need to see our commitment to the Creeds and our weekly recitation of their truths as a joyful counter-cultural protest against the folly and unbelief of our time. 

So what about you?  Will you join heart and mind today in the recitation of the Creed; taking your stand to preserve the truth of the gospel?  Will you glory in the power of communal creedal recitation?  Let us affirm the faith of the gospel with vigor and joy!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Triablogue: Yahweh and Zeus

Steve Hays takes on a foolish atheistic argument--well worth reading!

Triablogue: Yahweh and Zeus: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Systematic Theology: Some Introductory Comments

* Here are the notes from an introductory lecture about systematic theology I did a few years ago for a high school class.

What is Systematic Theology and Why does is matter?

1.     Definitions:

a.     “Systematic theology is any study that answers the questions, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.”  Wayne Grudem ST, p. 21

b.     “The attempt to summarize religious truth or the belief system of a religious group (such as Christianity) through an organized system of thought carried out within a particular cultural and intellectual context (see method of theology).”  Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, p. 111

c.      “Evangelical theology can be defined as systematic reflection on scripture and tradition and the mission of the church in mutual relation, with scripture as the norm.[1]

d.     John Frame: “theology is the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life.”[2]

e.     “Theology, then, must be a secondary description, a reinterpretation and reproclamation of Scripture, both of its propositional and of its nonpropositional content.  Why do we need such a reinterpretation?  To meet human needs.  The job of theology is to help people understand the Bible better, not to give some sort of abstractly perfect account of the truth as such, regardless of whether anyone understands it or not.  Rather, the job of theology is to teach people the truth of God.  Although Scripture is clear, for various reasons people fail to understand and use it properly.  Theology is justified not merely by its correspondence with the truth—if that were the criterion, theology could do no better than simply to repeat Scripture—but theology is justified by the help it brings to people, by its success in helping people to use the truth.”[3]

f.      “It is all too easy for us to imagine that we have a higher task than merely that of helping people.  Our pride constantly opposes the servant model.  And it is all too easy for us to think of theological formulations as something more than truth-for-people, as a kind of special insight into God himself (which the biblical writers would have written about, had they known as much as we)… Our theologies are merely attempts to help people, generally and in specific times and places, to use Scripture better.”[4]

2.     Goals of systematic theology:

a.     Task-oriented theology

The ultimate aim of theological reflection is to assist in the church’s task of bringing about the “obedience of faith…among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5).  Evangelical theology is task-oriented reflection upon scripture in light of the practical needs of ministry and mission.  Evangelical theology’s task is to be the church’s servant in the extension of the kingdom of God in the world and in the believer’s heart.[5]

Theology should never be a merely academic enterprise, but rather the search for biblical understanding in the context of the ministry and mission of the church.  The point of theological reflection is to “let the earth hear His voice.”  Evangelical theology is properly “task theology,” i.e., theology hammered out in response to the challenges posed by the Great Commission.[6]
Systematic theology is a tool for extending God’s dominion in the world; it is dominion-oriented.[7]

3.     Relationship to other branches of theology:

a.     Biblical Theology: 

“Biblical theology gives special attention to the teachings of individual authors and sections of Scripture, and to the place of each teaching in the historical development of Scripture.”  Wayne Grudem ST, p. 22

·      Two crucial ideas: process and progress

“The first term (process) teaches us that both the character and task of Biblical theology is that of tracing the great themes of salvation history according to their historical order of unfolding.  The second  (progress) informs us that the focal point of Biblical theology is not only the historical unfolding of God’s self-revelation but also the expansion and upward movement of that revelation.”[8]

b.     Historical Theology: “a historical study of how Christians in different periods have understood various theological topics” Grudem, p. 21

c.      Philosophical Theology: “studying theological topics largely without use of the Bible, but using the tools and methods of philosophical reasoning and what can be known about God from observing the universe”  Grudem, p. 21

d.     Triangle: Biblical studies --> Systematic Theology --> Apologetics

·      Need to understand the what the Bible says before we can accurately do systematic theology
·      Need to know what we believe (systematic theology) before we can accurately defend it

4.     Why study systematic theology?

a.     Know God better: John 17.3

b.     Protect the church: 1 Timothy 4.11-16; 2 Timothy 2.14-18; 4.1-5; Titus 1.9-11

c.      Worship: Psalm 145; Revelation 4 and 5

·      Rev 4.11: praise (“Worthy”) for God the Creator

·      Rev 5.9, 12:  praise (“Worthy”) for Lamb as Redeemer

5.     How should we study systematic theology?

a.     Prayerfully

“Men who know their God are before anything else men who pray, and the first point where their zeal and energy for God’s glory come to expression is in their prayers….Yet the invariable fruit of true knowledge of God is energy to pray for God’s cause—energy, indeed, which can only find an outlet and a relief of inner tension when channeled into such prayer—and the more knowledge, the more energy!  By this we may test ourselves.”  J. I. Packer Knowing God, p. 24

b.     With help from others—especially teachers in the church

·       Ephesians 4.8-12 (teachers as gifts from Christ to the Church!  This includes teachers from the past!)

c.      With rejoicing and praise: Psalm 139.17
·      Psalm 19.8; 119.14, 103, 111, 162
·      Romans 11.33-36

d.     With obedience

·      Matthew 7.24-27

“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility?  Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God.  I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it.  If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God?”  Thomas a Kempis The Imitation of Christ (book one, chapter one)

[1] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 43.
[2] John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 76, 81.
[3] John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 79-80.
[4] John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 80.
[5] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 9.
[6] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 45.
[7] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 47.
[8] Don Garlington, “The Biblical-Theological Method” in Exegetical Essays (3rd ed.), Wifp and Stock, 2003, p. 1.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

God's Book, the Bible: Some Quotations

But do we ponder the implications of this stupendous affirmation?  We are saying that throughout the entire history of the world, and throughout all written documents of all civilizations, the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the universe, the God who will one day judge every human being who has ever lived--this God who is over all has given the human race just one collection of his written words: This book.  The Bible.   --Wayne Grudem

* From the last interview Francis Schaeffer gave before his death in March 1984.

Q: You have a deep love for God's truth and His Word.  Would you share from your personal experience?

Schaeffer: I don't love this book because it has a leather cover and golden edges.  I don't love it as a "holy book."  I love it because it is God's book.  Through it, the Creator of the universe has told us who He is, how to come to Him through Christ, who we are, what all reality is.  Without the Bible we wouldn't have anything.

It may sound melodramatic, but sometimes in the morning I reach for my Bible and just pat it.  I am so thankful for it.  If the God who is there had created the earth and then remained silent, we wouldn't know who He is.  But the Bible reveals the God who is there; that is why I love it.  I don't love the Bible as a book.  I love it because of its content and who gave the content.  I feel this more strongly, emotionally as well as intellectually every year that my life passes.

Monday, June 15, 2015

On the Benediction: Reflections on 2 Corinthians 13.14

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

Sometimes it is good to start at the end.  At the end of our worship service there is a “benediction.”  A benediction is simply a prayerful blessing.  As the service is ended and we are about to go out into the rest of life we receive this prayerful blessing.  I have grown to love and use the words of 2 Corinthians 13.14—“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”  Here a few things I love about this passage:

It is Trinitarian—all the members of the Trinity are mentioned.  This reminds me that no aspect of God is withheld from blessing his people.  God in the fullness of who he is blesses his people.  There is no competition or disagreement in the Godhead.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all committed to the gospel grace of his people.

It is focused on gospel grace.  The blessing speaks of grace, love, and fellowship—all of this flowing from God to us!  We are a people of the gospel and these gospel realities are not just for the beginning of the Christian life.  They are needed to live the Christian life—everyday and always!  This blessing is one way we keep the gospel central in our lives and in the life of our church.

May I suggest a simple way to receive this benediction?  Whenever I am on the receiving end of the benediction from a minister I simply extend my hands outward in a posture of receiving a gift.  As the words are spoken I receive the words, often silently saying “thank you” to God.  In this way I affirm the gospel and receive it afresh.

I have grown to love this benediction.  It is short but powerful.  It can be spoken in a few seconds but the truths are majestic enough to meditate upon for a lifetime.  Grace, love, and fellowship from the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—blessings indeed!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

God's Actions Rooted in History: Some Comments by Francis Schaeffer

We began a series of studies through the book of Isaiah last night.  Isaiah 1.1 begins the book as follows:
"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah."
I then came across these words by Francis Schaeffer--he was writing about the prophet Jeremiah but they fit just as well for Isaiah.
“The Bible puts its religious teaching in a historic setting.  It is quite the opposite of the new theology and existential thought, quite the opposite of the twentieth century’s reduction of religion to the ‘spiritual’ and the subjective.  Scripture relates the true religion to space-time history which may be expressed in normal literary form.  And that is important, because our generation takes the word religion and everything religious and turns it into something psychological or sociological.
"The Bible also has another emphasis.  Not all that occurs in space-time history is explainable on the basis of natural cause and effect--for example, economic, military, and psychological.  Most modern men explain all of history this way, but the Bible does not.  The Bible says that there is a true significant space-time history which God has made.  Of course, history must be understood to be partially a product of the economic forces, of the flow of cultural thought, of military power, and so forth.  If we had sufficient time to look at Jeremiah in detail, we would see various forces present: the great countries (Egypt on one side, Babylon on the other), tremendous external and internal forces.  Still, history is not to be explained only on this basis.  A holy and a loving God really exists, and He works into the significant history which exists.  He works in history on the basis of His character; and when His people and their culture turn away from Him, He works in history in judgment ”[1]

     [1] Francis A. Schaeffer, Death in the City [1969] in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview—vol. 4 (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1982), 213-214.

Drawing Near to Jesus Through the Old Testament

       “I find myself aware that in reading the Hebrew scriptures I am handling something that gives me a closer common link with Jesus than any archaeological artifact could do.  For these are the words he read.  These were the stories he knew.  These were the songs he sang.  These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of ‘life, the universe and everything’.  This is where he found his insights into the mind of his Father God.  Above all, this is where the shape of his own identity and the goal of his own mission.  In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus.”[1]

     [1] Chris Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Faith (London: HarperCollins, 1992), ix.