Monthly Archives: June 2011

Wish List

Saturday is my birthday. You might be tempted to buy me a Barnes & Noble gift card, because you know how much I love books (I do, I do). But just in case you’re wondering what I really want, I’ll tell you.

I want all of our troops to come home and our planes to stop bombing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Lybia. I want our government to stop borrowing money from China to wage war in the Middle East and North Africa. If we’re going to borrow billions from Chinese Communists, could we spend it on providing clean water, food, medicine, and adequate housing for all who don’t have those things? I want to put a stop to exploitative child labor and sex trafficking. I want all women to receive equal pay for equal work without having to sue Wal-Mart to get it. I want everyone to have the opportunity to learn how to read and to believe whatever they want without fear of persecution. I want all people to hear that God loves them and sent his son Jesus to die for them.

These are just a few of the things on my birthday wish list. But if you can’t get me any of them, I’ll still take the Barnes & Noble gift card.

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The Triune God

The Holy Trinity (1620) by Henrik van Balen (1575-1632), oil on panel, Sint-Jacobskerk, Antwerp 

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is only one God who exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (If you prefer a gender-neutral formulation, you could use “Parent, Child, and Comforter” instead.) Not three gods. Not three personalities. One God, three Persons. All three Persons are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They have always been God, and will always be God. Moreover, the Father is not Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. They are three distinct Persons in one Godhead. Sounds complicated, even illogical. Theologians call it a “mystery”—not in the sense of a puzzle to be solved, but a truth that was formerly hidden but has now been revealed.

The Trinity is perhaps the most important and unique teaching in Christianity and it’s central to Christian worship. Despite its importance, the term “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible and the doctrine is explicitly stated nowhere in scripture. It is, however, present in embryo in a number of passages. One of the most interesting is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Nowhere else in the New Testament do we find a Trinitarian formula associated with baptism, not even in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke. In the Book of Acts the apostles baptized “in the name of Jesus” only (Acts 8:12, 19:5).

Some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the triune formula, because it’s unique to Matthew and sounds too theological for Jesus’ earthly ministry. This supposed anachronism has caused some to conclude that Matthew’s triune formula was added to the Bible later. However, the words “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28:19 are found in all existing biblical manuscripts, making it improbable that they were added long after the Gospel was written (Tasker, Matthew, 275). All three Persons of the Trinity were present at Jesus’ own baptism (Matt. 3:16, 17), so it isn’t surprising that the Lord would mention all three in a baptismal formula.

Even if the Trinitarian formula were from a later period, which I doubt, it wouldn’t disturb me. The fact that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t explicitly stated in the New Testament doesn’t bother me either, any more than it bothers me that an acorn doesn’t have a trunk, branches, and leaves. Theology matures and changes as the church grows older and faces new challenges. As in biology, growth in theology is generally a good thing, though it can go wrong sometimes.

Illustrations for the Trinity are all flawed, whether its three states of water (liquid, ice, steam) or three roles of a person (father, husband, worker) or three parts of an object (three leaves of a clover). The Trinity is a doctrine “we cannot fully comprehend, although we can apprehend.” (Oden, The Living God, 224). Dogs cannot use or fully comprehend human speech, but they can apprehend certain tones and commands. They have limited comprehension, because they’re dogs. Humans are the same way when it comes to divine truth. We can only understand so much before reaching the end of our intellectual ability.

When we come to the limits of reason, we must rely on faith to help us accept what is hard to understand.

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Religion, for Better or Worse?

Wilberforce holding the broken chain of slavery, Christ Church, Chelsea.

True religion brings salvation, frees us from the bondage of sin and guilt, and fills us with love for God and our neighbors. False religion damns us and makes us the meanest, most loathsome creatures. You can find both in Christianity. Indeed, you can find both in any church or even in any Christian heart. It amazes me how the same religion that exalts us to heaven can cast us down to the pit of hell. I’ve pondered this contradictory effect of faith for a while and found a new illustration of it in a book I’m currently reading.

The classic memoir Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass is a fascinating first-hand account of American slavery from the perspective of a former slave who became one of the most eloquent and well-known abolitionists. I’m reading this sobering tale in preparation for an important event. Next Saturday, June 18, a statue of Frederick Douglass will be unveiled on the front lawn of the courthouse in Easton, Maryland. (You can read more about the event here.)

After describing a particularly sadistic slave master who was also a devout Christian, Douglass says this:

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, and most cruel and cowardly, of all others.  

Why is that? Atheists would say that all religion is corrosive; it makes good people bad. I think there’s much evidence for this claim but it goes too far. I believe all religion can be corrosive, because all religion can become an excuse for our own sin. A wise man once said, A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice because a surplus of virtue is unchecked by the constraints of conscience.” If you think you’re doing God’s work, you can justify anything, because the ends justify the means. At least that’s how many sinners rationalize their evil behavior.

Religion can also be ennobling. It makes bad people good and good people better. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a minister’s daughter whose faith motivated her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Douglass’s Narrative Life, Stowe’s book raised awareness of the horrible realities of slavery and the need to abolish that terrible institution. John Newton grew up without the benefit of a Christian home and worked as a sailor and slave trader. As an adult he had a powerful religious conversion. He quit slave trading and studied theology. After he became a minister of the Gospel, he wrote one of the most well-known and beautiful hymns in the English language: Amazing Grace, which celebrates God’s power to save “a wretch” like himself.   

What makes the difference between good and bad religion? Why do some people use faith as an excuse to do evil and others as a motive for good? Why do all of us sometimes  use our faith positively and other times negatively? How can the same religion that makes us more like Jesus become an excuse for acting like the devil? I’m not sure I have all the right answers to these questions but they fascinate me.   

Perhaps it’s because the Evil One infiltrates the church with counterfeit Christians, sowing tares among the wheat (Mat. 13:24-30). These pseudo-believers are the ones who do evil in the name of Christ. Still, even without the devil’s influence there’s great potential for self-deception. People might think they’re saved when they’re not. On the other hand, even true Christians are capable of immoral behavior. All believers have two natures: the sin nature they’re born with and the new nature they get when they’re born again. We choose which one to follow and sometimes make the wrong choice, yielding to sinful desires rather than walking in the Spirit.  

When we see others doing evil, we can use it as an opportunity for reflection. Rather than looking for the mote in our brother’s eye, we should deal with the beam in our own (Mat. 7:3-5).

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Wine Stains

Jean Restout II, Pentecost (1732), 183” x 306 1/4”, oil on canvas, The Louvre, Paris

Pentecost Sunday makes me uncomfortable. I don’t speak in tongues, prophesy, or dance in the aisles. The closest I’ve ever come to being “slain in the Spirit” was once when I had the flu and nearly passed out in the pulpit. In fact, I’m so non-Pentecostal that I don’t even raise my hand to vote in church business meetings. I’m sure this “pneuma-phobia” comes from my childhood. I was raised in a church where anything more than a muffled cough in worship was considered out of order. No clapping. No lifting of hands. No laughing. I remember sitting in our family’s usual pew on Sunday mornings, feeling choked by my necktie, wishing something, anything would happen to break the monotony of the service. Now I like monotony. The familiar rhythms of traditional Christian worship are comfortable, like my favorite leather chair.

Pentecost Sunday makes me nervous, because it reminds us that God sometimes shows up in unexpected ways and makes his people look foolish. The Bible says the disciples were “all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). They made such a scene that those watching thought they were drunk (2:13). What about St. Paul’s admonition to “let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? It shows that exuberant and disoderly worship was not uncommon in the earliest churches.

The 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles marked the early beginnings of modern Pentecostalism. A contemporary newspaper article in the LA Times  reveals how ridiculous it all seemed to one outside observer. You can read the original story here: “Weird Babel of Tongues” (April 18, 1906). The reporter who wrote the piece was offended because of the interracial make-up of the congregation (“colored people and a sprinkling of whites”), the disorder (“a state of mad excitement”), and the incomprehensible, ecstatic speech of the worshipers (“the most outrageous jumble of syllables”). There are several parallels with the Cane Ridge Revival of the Second Great Awakening a hundred years earlier. There are obvious parallels with Acts 2:1-21 as well.

In my theological education I was taught to notice the differences between modern Pentecostal experiences and the details of the biblical account, yet I’ve come to see there are more similarities than differences. If we’re honest with ourselves, all non-Pentecostal Christians have to ask why we haven’t seen or experienced anything like what we read in the Book of Acts. In the first century, Christianity was a sect of Judaism, a radical fringe movement. Over the centuries Christians domesticated it and made it respectable. I fear we’ve lost some of its original vitality in the process.

I think about the revivalism in my Baptist heritage, which was at times as disorderly as Asuza Street. But there was something good about it. There was a time when the Spirit was expected to descend and move people to respond publicly.  A passionate sermon might compel scores of repentant sinners with tears streaming down their faces to walk the aisles, kneel at the altar, and confess their sins to God. It still happens in some churches. I have seen beautiful expressions of community as “brothers” and “sisters” kneel next to the ones at the altar, putting their arms around them, praying with and for them. What would happen in one of our “respectable” Baptist churches if people began to weep and wail over their sins? Would we rejoice or merely shift uncomfortably in our pews ?

In the Old Testament Pentecost was an agricultural festival at the end of harvest called the “Feast of Weeks” (Ex. 23:16, Lev. 23: 15-21, Deu. 16:9-12). In later rabbinic tradition this feast (also called “Shavuot”) became associated with the giving of the Mosaic Law at Sinai. In the early church Pentecost was a time of rejoicing. Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 220) wrote, “We spend our time in exultation.” According to Dix, “The church retained [Pentecost] to celebrate not only the events recorded in the second chapter of Acts but her own character as the ‘People’ of the New Covenant, and the fact that ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made’ her members ‘free from the law of sin and death’” (The Shape of Liturgy, 341). Unlike modern American evangelicalism with its focus on individual experience, Pentecost was historically a celebration of community.

The pouring out of God’s Spirit on the first Pentecost gave the disciples boldness to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:14-3:26) and perseverance to endure persecution (Acts 4). If we want revival in our own day and in our own church, we have to be open to whatever God has for us. It might get messy as when new wine bursts old wineskins. But don’t worry if that happens; the altar cloth is red this Sunday and the stains won’t show.

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