Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the Gospel Pool

I just picked up an article this morning by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, from LeadershipJournal.net called The Gospel in All its Forms. I read the first lines and put it down to come write this post. The article begins,

"The gospel has been described as a pool in which a toddler can wade and yet an elephant can swim. It is both simple enough to tell to a child and profound enough for the greatest minds to explore."
I love the "both/and" nature of that statement because it is a healthy corrective to several unhealthy tendencies I have seen recently in the church (and maybe even contributed too). Many seem to have an "either/or" mentality when it comes to the gospel. I've seen this play out in two ways that impact me directly and Connexion (the college ministry of ECC) also.

First, there is a pervasive attitude that you must choose between preaching the gospel and equipping the saints. I think this comes from an overly simplistic understanding of what the gospel is, assuming gospel summaries like "Four Spiritual Laws" are the sum total of the gospel rather than just a brief and incomplete outline of the gospel. Recently, I was accosted by a guy after a message in which I reconfirmed my commitment to preach the gospel and only the gospel. He felt that as a believer he wouldn't benefit or get anything out of such simple gospel messages. It's highly likely that I'm largely to blame for this - i'm sure it had to do with my lack of explanation during the message. I should've explained that I think the whole of the Bible is either gospel or preparation for hearing the gospel (law). But while I am largely to blame, so is a faulty understanding of the gospel. It is not something we learn and grow beyond. We initially learn and believe the main points, the summary outlines, and spend the rest of lives growing into it - into a deeper understanding of its doctrines, its implications, etc. In a ministry like Connexion that strives to be outreach oriented and at the same time equip students for ministry, we are constantly faced with the question "how do you reach and minister to both". The answer - preach and teach the gospel! There are delicacies there to please (maybe not the best word) every pallet.

That leads me to my second observation, very similar to the last but worded differently. In much Emerging Church literature there is a talk about the gospel of the kingdom. No problem there, Jesus talked about it a lot too. However, what emerging folk (and the liberal folk before them) emphasize is kingdom living, not entrance into the kingdom. For example, Doug Pagitt writes, "The good news is not informational...Instead we have an invitation into a way of life - life we constantly realize is not ours alone" (Preaching Re-Imagined, pg103). Commenting on this, Kevin Deyoung writes, "If the good news is an invitation to a Jesus way of life [which we're bound to fail at] and not information about somebody who accomplishes something on my behalf, I'm sunk. This is law, not gospel" (Why We're Not Emergent, pg. 114). Similarly, Machen described liberalism as beginning in the imperative mood ("do this") while true Christianity begins in the indicative mood ("this is true") and then moves to the imperative ("so do this").

There is a danger in overreacting to the gospel as imperative theology of liberalism and emerging churchism and totally neglecting the kingdom motif. That would still be to err by adopting the "either/or" mentality. Instead, we ought to recognize and teach that the gospel is about how one enters the kingdom (by faith in the one who purchased us by his blood) and how one lives in the kingdom (by the power of the Spirit and in conformity to Jesus' pattern of life).

Certainly there are enough jewels in the gospel rightly understood to occupy us for a few lifetimes, and fuel our worship for a few eternities.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reflections on Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

Today I finished a book I've been reading for about four weeks now. It's not long, but it's been my bedtime reading and I've enjoyed taking it slow - its given me time to ponder the lessons learned from the life of Tom Carson, an ordinary pastor, husband and father to DA Carson (and two other children as well).

This book is one of the most encouraging and also horribly (wonderfully) convicting at the same time. Tom Carson was a church planter/pastor in French speaking Canada at a time when there was no evangelical witness and little toleration for the 'damned Protestants'. What stands out about Tom Carson's life is not, however, the pioneering courage of this pastor. It's there, but it wasn't the aspect the author, his son, really highlighted. Instead, what stands out is the often painful ordinariness of Tom Carson's ministry (painful to him, not those how where shepherded by him). His churches struggled for converts, struggled to maintain viable and consequently Tom's family often struggled.

Tom Carson, in his son's words, never reached any positions of influence or notoriety in ministry, and by many (all) worldly standards his ministry was a meager success - even when others around him were making great strides in the advance of the gospel.

Here's a few things I'm taking away:
1. I was convicted by how Tom Carson loved his wife, even during her last losing battle with Alzheimer's. Tom Carson never wrote a book or published a scholarly article, but his marriage was a book on steadfast, committed love - even though he was at times overwhelmed by his failures as a husband. I'll probably never write a book either, but I hope, and by God's grace will strive, to make my marriage a humble, gentle testimony to Christ's love or his church.

2. I was also convicted by Tom Carson's pastoral ministry. He was constantly moving from his knees to his people and back to his knees. Both his prayer life and the hours and hours a week he spent going to meet his people in their homes is astounding. Granted, this ministry is easier when you have a small ministry, but that can easily be a cop out for not having a truly pastoral ministry marked by prayer and care for the flock.

3. Tom Carson's life and ministry are also a powerful call to perseverance. Even when he resigned from fulltime pastoral ministry due to a lack of ministry fruit, he was active for decades more in ministry. At times, when he was working as a translator fulltime, he also worked as many hours for a young church with no compensation. Up to the last weeks of his life he was praying, visiting, preaching, playing piano, writing letters and more. There was no retiring from ministry for Tom Carson because life was short and eternity long. I pray that God allows me such a long ministry.

4. The final thought isn't a conviction or encouragement, but a question - by what standard will I evaluate my ministry. Tom Carson was never blessed with numbers or great revivals or pools of converts, but the impact of his steady plodding and faithfulness to the gospel ministry is profound. He could easily have fell into jealousy and been angry with God for not making him more flamboyant, more visionary, a better leader, etc. He did fall into periods of despair, but it seems so different than the funks I sometimes fall into. His despair centered on his failure to make God famous in his area of calling, not because he wasn't famous.

I think this book is a must read for pastors or future pastors and even those involved in lay ministry as deacons, elders, teachers, etc. It is a touching tribute to a father who loved God above all, Christ's church and his family well also.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Christ and Culture

I have this book on my shelf but haven't touched it yet. I assumed that it was simply a 'remix' of the classic Neibuhr book; however, it seems I assumed too much. Here's an excerpt from an interview conducted by Derek Thomas from FPC Jackson with DA Carson (who happened to be my adviser at TEDS, nothing like a little name dropping, huh) on his book Christ and Culture Revisited:

DC: Thank You. At one level, the tension between Christ and culture is perennial, and every generation must thoughtfully engage in the discussion. Moreover, the world has become much less North-Atlantic-centered than it was in Niebuhr's day, especially the Christian world -- and these changes require serious reflection. Would Kuyper have developed his gentle version of sphere sovereignty if he has been born in China under Mao? Why are the French and the American versions of the separation of church and state so radically different? Where is the place of suffering in our thinking? Alternatively, in precisely what ways does the Christian have a responsibility to serve as salt and light in a world that is corrupt and dark? What does the Bible say on these and related matters?

As for Niebuhr's seminal work: the five well-known typologies he advanced (and that have been the basis for discussion in the Anglo-Saxon world for the last half-century) are insufficiently grounded in Scripture. One of the five has little biblical warrant at all. Insofar as the other four have biblical warrant, then if they are treated as alternative models from which one may choose, one is saying that the Bible does not speak univocally on the subject, and one can pick and choose among the assorted "case models" that the Bible offers. It is much more faithful to Scripture to say that behind Niebuhr's typologies stands a still more comprehensive vision of the relations between Christ and culture that is grounded in a rich biblical theology. That is what I have tried to tease out.

DT: What are some key things for young pastors to keep in mind when they are urged to "engage the culture"?

DC: Know what the gospel is first, comprehensively, accurately, faithfully. Work out from there. Learn to preach to your own people, not to the aggregates set out in books by Barna and Wuthnow (though much can be learned from such books). Whether the "engagement" is part of how you engage people evangelistically, or part of how Christians in your church do good in your own community, keep thinking through what the Bible itself says -- and then try, like the men of Issachar, to understand your own times.

Read the whole interview here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Great Book on Emerging Church


I had taken a vacation from reading anything emerging church or about emerging church. That peaceful, enjoyable break needed to end, so I picked up this book not expecting much. It was, however, fantastic. The critique of the movement is insightful, winsome, informed and balanced. They see the good and the bad. They've read widely, attended the right conferences, experienced the right services...and still are committed to the 'traditional' church. They engage with the writings, style, teaching, sermons, etc of Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones and others, as well as the critiques of DA Carson and other evangelical pastors/theologians. Even if you've read DA Carson's Becoming Conversant with Emergent, this one is still a must read as it engages a much wider range of speakers/authors/influencers in the emerging church movement.Check it out.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Vision of Students Today

In response to my post about exegeting culture, specifically college student culture, Mark sent me this video. It's great.

Also, check out the link Beth sent, twistori.com. Thanks.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hurricanes and Global Warming

A recent news headline declared "Study Refutes Link Between Global Warming and Hurricanes". The article goes on to report, "Not only that, warmer temperatures will actually reduce the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic and those making landfall, research meteorologist Tom Knutson reported in a study released Sunday". From this I conclude a few things:
1. Tom Knutson will get very nice Christmas presents from makers of huge SUV's.
2. Sales of said SUV's will skyrocket tomorrow in Fla. Acutally, make that next Monday. News is a little slow in getting to Florida.
3. Don't buy everything you read, including 'gloom and doom' reports on global warming. Maybe it's the greatest hoax ever.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Best Hotel in Bloomington

I'm real proud of my wife Lynn. She is an awesome wife, mother and sales manger at Homewood Suites in Bloomington. Today, her hotel was named "Best Hotel in Bloomington". Congrats!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Exegesis of Culture

I just started a book by David Wells called Above All Earthly Powers. I've only read the introduction so far, but I'm pushing this book forward on my reading priority based on what I read so far. This simple quote hit me like a ton of bricks tonight:

...theology, if it is true to its own nature, must be missiological in its intent. Its task is not only to understand the nature of biblical truth but also to ask how that truth addresses the issues of the day
I realized recently that I have spent a lot of time, energy and even money developing my skills at interpreting and understanding biblical truths and virtually no time/energy/money on understanding our culture. That is hyperbolic, but by comparison, I've invested nothing in exegesis of the culture.

One the challeges I face in this is knowing who speaks for the culture, specifically the culture of the college student on IU's campus. The culture seems so splintered, so fragmented that it seems impossible to find someone who speaks for the whole. Who are the poets expressing the concerns, hopes, fears and loves of the culture?

Newish CD


I've had this CD for some time now, but I think I bought it at a time when I bought several others and it got a little lost in the shuffle. I don't know how that happened, because this one by Daniel Renstrom stands heads and shoulders above the rest I bought recently. It is short, and it leaves me wanting more - a lot more. Check out the CD Adore and Tremble and listen to Daniel's music on his myspace page.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Context and Interpretation, the Laodicean church


Yesterday I expressed some concern over interpreting passages of Scripture in light of very specific and localized contexts. Believe it or not, it matters not only in how we interpret but also what and how we apply Scripture. Let me use a passage I've become quite familiar with as an example.

In Revelation 3 Jesus threatens to spit the Laodicean church out of his mouth because they are lukewarm. Not a pretty picture. In fact, the picture that is painted of Laodicea is uniquely bad - they are the only church in Revelation 2-3 to which Jesus does have some word of praise. But what does it mean that the church is lukewarm?

The traditional interpretation was that Jesus wished the church was either passionately for him (hot) or entirely indifferent in unbelief (cold). Frankly, this interpretation shipwrecks on the fact that in the passage, both cold and hot are cast in a positive light (Jesus' wishes they were either cold or hot, implying either is a good option). This could hardly be the case if cold meant indifferent unbelief. Also, the context doesn't seem to favor this interpretation because the imagery is of Jesus drinking the hot and cold water and spitting out the lukewarm water. The therapeutic value of the hot springs in Hierapolis was gained from bathing in them, not drinking them (it was actually deemed undrinkable).

Other interpreters connected this criticism of lukewarmness with the Laodicean water supply which was piped in via aqueduct from a distance of six miles from the south. When the water reached the city it would be neither hot (if taken from a hot spring) nor cold (if taken from a cold spring). This position is strengthened by the existence of well known hot spring that were of therapeutic value in the city of Hierapolis, just to the north of Laodicea. Also, there were refreshing cold spring is the city of Colossea just to south. Sadly, the Laodiceans had neither, but were forced to drink lukewarm water. Based on this interpretation amounts to calling the Laodicean church useless. They are neither therapeutic nor refreshing, and Jesus wishes they'd be one or the other because then they'd at least be good for something.

This interpretation, however, also suffers some serious flaws. First, there is no indication that the Laodicean water supply was deemed unfit or even unpleasant to drink based on the temperature of it (it was very hard - see picture of the calcification on the aqueducts). In fact, based on several pieces of archaeological evidence, the water was deemed "sweet" and of "good complexion". Strabo, and ancient geographer/tour guide actually seems to have preferred the water of Laodice to that of Hierapolis, referring to Laodicea's as 'drinkable' (implying Hierapolis' was not). Second, many cities got their water from an aqueduct system, including the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Sardis. Its a leap to suggest that the Laodicean water was someone more lukewarm than these other cities water.

Another knock against this interpretation is that it is so tied to the local context that only those who lived in or had visited Laodicea would understand the message. That truly does undermines the clarity and perpescuity of Scripture.

There is a better interpretation that has been offered. It is based on cultural norms that were much more common and even common today. Some have suggested that Jesus' words refer to the very common practice of drinking hot drinks in the winter and cold drinks in the summer. Huh, imagine that - Jesus drawing imagery from every day life. There is actually quite detailed instructions from New Testament times (and even earlier) for how to heat and cool wine for serving, depending on the temperature. When wine wasn't the drink, one would drink hot or cold water. Interestingly, Plato (4th century BC) even comments on this, "when thirst is accompanied by heat, then the desire is for a cold drink; or, if the thirst is accompanied by cold, then the desire is for a hot drink".

Ok, so now to the so what. If we interpret Jesus' words in light of common everyday drinking practices, what does it mean? What is Jesus condemning the Laodicean church for exactly? in essence, they are being condemned for blending in to the crowd. Hot drinks are desirable on cold days because the stand in stark contrast to the environment. Cold drinks on hot days for the same reason. The Laodiceans didn't stand out from the culture in any significant way, so they were not at all refreshing. They were too worldly to be of any good to the world.

Understood in this light, this passage indeed does have a lot to say to the modern church, especially in the west. George Barna has said that never before have so many people professed to be Christians and never before has it made so little difference. Why? Because we who profess Christ don't look or act any differently. In a lecture I heard him sum up the situation that if you followed your average church going evangelical around six days out of a week, you'd see little to no difference between them and their secular neighbors.

Scary stuff. The threat to the Laodicean church, and to every other lukewarm church, is threatening indeed. Jesus will not tolerate in cognito Christian churches.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

hermeneutics and theology in conflict

Recently I finished up a class in NT Cities. It certainly wasn't the most provocative class I've ever taken - not too much controversial stuff to get worked up about. Yet, one of the issues we discussed on the first day of class back in March has kept coming back to me.

As evangelicals, most of us are sold on the Grammatical-Historical method of interpreting the Bible. What do the words mean and specifically what did they mean to their original author and audience. So, for example, when we study the book of Revelation, we ask questions like "who would first century Christians thought of when they read John's comments about Babylon? Would the apocalyptic genre have changed how they approached such images?" From those questions, and more like them, we distill principles that can then be applied to us and our context.

But, interpreting your Bibles in this way requires us to know something of first century culture, sometime quite a lot about first century culture. And that is where the rub with our theology comes in. Most evangelicals would strongly affirm the clarity and perpescuity of Scripture - "the message of the Scriptures can be understood by the great masses of people who wish to understand it. God’s Word has been revealed in such a way that everyone, who is willing, can understand it." Westminster states the doctrine a little more carefully, "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: (2 Pet. 3:16) yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Ps. 119:105,130)" (Westminster 1.7).

Do you see the rub? In our hermeneutic we say you need to know about 1st century culture, which includes Greek, Roman, Jewish and sometimes Asian cultures. But in our theology we state that anyone, including those who don't know anything about these cultures can read and understand their Bibles.

What is the solution? In my humble opinion, the solution is found in not pressing either too far - not pushing our hermeneutical principles too far and not pushing the doctrine of the perpescuity of Scripture too far either.

I've seen examples of the Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic taken to far. Take the short letter to Laodicea found in the book of Revelation for example. Many commentaries interpret Jesus' harsh words to the city, words about being 'lukewarm' and 'poor, blind, and naked', in light of the characteristics of that ancient city in Asia Minor. The city was a rich city, so rich it recovered from a major earthquake on its own without the help of Rome. The city, quite possible, hosted a medical school and produced and eye salve. Also, the city was famous for its soft black wool. Finally, the city's water was supplied from an aqueduct system that brought it in from the springs six miles to the south.

All of this has lead commentaries to interpret Jesus' words in Revelation 3 as words specifically spoken into the Laodicean context. Problem? I think so. Several. First, the city wasn't that unique. It was wealthy, but other cities surpassed it in wealth. It had a medical school, so did other cities, even some with ophthalmology schools. It was famous for its raven black wool and was offered white garments instead; however, other churches in other cities were also offered white garments. Laodicea wasn't so unique. Secondly, and more importantly, if Jesus' words were so tied to the local context, how would a reader from Thessalonica or Rome be able to understand the message even if they lived in the same time period? Moreover, how would someone separated by centuries and thousands of miles be able to fully understand Jesus' condemning words? In my opinion, this is an example of taking the quest for context too far.

But, on the other hand, we can also overemphasize the clarity/perpescuity of Scripture. For example, think about the Last Supper as recorded in the Gospels, or Paul's commentary on the meal in 1 Corinthians 11. In both one would have to have some understanding of what bread and wine are. But I've heard stories from missionaries in Indonesia who have tried to teach this passage to people who have never seen or tasted bread or wine. This passage would obviously not be very clear to them. These examples could be repeated a thousand times over. One more - all of us, to comprehend the message of Scripture need to know what crucifixion means. It's not a practice common today, not one any of has ever seen. It's a practice specific to the time, but we need to understand it if the message of the New Testament is to be understood clearly.

How do we hold these things, the perpescuity of Scripture and the Grammatical Historical hermeneutic, in proper balance. First, I'm weary of overly specific appeals to local contexts. I believe we should be looking for connections with first century contexts not in local cities, but in the larger Greco-Roman world. If New Testament writers were appealing to and writing to the larger context, there message would be more readily understood, and beneficial, to the wider Christian community. Second, the doctrine of the perpescuity of Scripture is more true the closer our context is to the context of author/first reader.

Does this matter? What does it mean for how I interpret the Bible? I'll come back to that tomorrow and share what I learned from my study of Laodicea.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A Christian Voters Guide

This blog has been on hiatus since January. Time to break the silence, for those five of you that read. Over the past few months I've started several profound posts, just couldn't finish them. But since we here in Indiana go to the polls tomorrow (though I know some have already gone) I thought I'd buckle down and actually finish one.

I'm sure you've seen 'Christian Voter Guides' before. That's not what I'm offering. I'm actually just writing to encourage you to use your 'internal guide' when voting, aka your conscience. Last night as we watched the news I was informed that 70% of Americans say the economy is the number one voting issue for them right now. Wow, wallets do speak loudly don't they.

With so many issues at stake, issues of great moral importance - like prolife/prochoice, war, environmental issues, issues of US foreign policy, etc. - we don't care. We want more money in our pockets so we can live more comfortably. Again, I don't want to suggest that their aren't moral issues at stake in how one manages the economy, but that's not most of the 70% see. They see promises, real or merely political, about lowering taxes, securing jobs, bringing the price of gas to under $500 per tank, etc., and people say, yeah I want that.

Again, please don't misunderstand me. Money is important. I like having it and don't like being without it. However, in reality, most of us aren't going without - without necessities. Maybe we've had to tighten our belts a little and buy less luxuries, but most of us aren't 'suffering ' - it bothers me to hear those in the media talk about the suffering middle class.

So my closing words are simple - vote your conscience, not your wallet. Don't ask, what will make me more comfortable, but what is right and good. And, I believe, when asking that question, Christians can and will arrive at different conclusions. But at least lets ask the right questions.