Monthly Archives: June 2014

Building Towers

Boy Scout Tower

My fourteen-year-old son Mark is away at Boy Scout camp this week. That’s got me thinking back to my own experience. The last time I went to a Boy Scout camp I was thirteen. One of the major activities was building a twenty-foot tower. It took our troop most of the day to lash the wooden poles in place and make platforms that were sturdy enough to hold our weight. I remember the pride of accomplishment we felt when the job was done. From atop the tower we were lords of the Earth. We wanted our structure to last forever, but at the end of the day it had to be disassembled so the next group of campers could build their own tower. I’m sure each troop thought their tower was the best, but in fact they were all very much a like. Some were a little taller than others, some a little sturdier. But they were all made with the same materials and techniques, and the differences were more superficial than substantive.

Boy Scouts aren’t the only ones who build towers. Theologians do too. They build beautiful systems, logically lashed together. Each group defends its own tower, claiming superiority of craftsmanship and fidelity to Scripture. Built on an Aristotelian foundation, these systems thrive on defining themselves against the other: sacramental vs. non-sacramental, predestination vs. free will, Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Orthodox, and so on. Such systems provide certainty and security for their adherents but they also foster a kind of theological agoraphobia, a fear of wandering outside the safety of one’s own system. Stepping outside one’s theological boundaries can be as terrifying as stepping off a twenty-foot tower.

But what if truth is greater than any one theological system? What if truth isn’t like building a tower but like triangulating on a location from different towers? What if truth isn’t propositional and logical at all but personal and mysterious?

The Bible doesn’t tell us to put our faith and trust in theological systems. We are told to believe in a person – Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

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The Difficult Doctrine of the Trinity

Trinity Rublev

Trinity, attributed to Andrei Rublev, 15th century, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Thomas Jefferson considered the doctrine of the Trinity bunk, because it goes against reason. In a 1810 letter he called it “a mere Abracadabra.”

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is only one God who eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three gods. Not three personalities. One God; three Persons. All three Persons are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll admit it strains the intellect to say 1+1+1=1. Then again, it also strains the intellect to think that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, that he rose from the dead, or that God spoke the universe into existence.

The supernatural world has its mysteries as does the natural world. A human being is an incredibly complex organism. Can anyone fully comprehend how a single cell can grow into a human baby in just 40 weeks?  By all rights a hummingbird shouldn’t be able to fly, but it does fly – forwards, backwards, sideways, upside down, and can even hover.  How do you explain the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to sustain life? If it were just a little closer to the sun, the oceans would boil away. If it were just a little farther away, they’d freeze.  The natural world is full of mysteries. It’s not surprising that spiritual world is too. One of those mysteries is the Trinity. It cannot be fully comprehended by man’s sin-tainted, fallen intellect. But it can be grasped by the mind and held by faith.

The doctrine of the Trinity is challenging to me for a different reason than it was to Thomas Jefferson. It doesn’t offend my reason (even if I can’t full comprehend it), but it does challenge my doctrine of religious authority. Baptists aren’t a creedal people and we believe that the Bible alone is all the religious authority we need. We hold to the Protestant doctrine of “sola scriptura,” which means that our religious authority is in the Bible alone – not in popes, church councils, or any extra-biblical authority. I wonder, Would I believe the doctrine of the Trinity on the evidence of Scripture alone? Maybe. Maybe not. The Trinity is a doctrine derived from Scripture. It’s mainly an inference from what the New Testament teaches about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, worked out by theologians and church councils over the first few centuries of Christian history. If I didn’t already know the doctrine as it developed over time and as it is expressed in the creeds, and if I had only the Bible to guide me, Would I be able to arrive at to the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed?  If not, I am left with one of two unsettling possibilities: either my doctrine of the Trinity is wrong or my doctrine of religious authority is wrong.

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June 17, 2014 · 3:14 pm

Babel Undone

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited
Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565)

On the Day of Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit breathed life into the church, just as he had done at creation when God breathed the breath of life into man. When Jesus had appeared in his resurrected state, they could see him and touch him. But when the Spirit showed up, they couldn’t see him. He was invisible. But they could hear him. The Holy Spirit blew in with the sound of a hurricane, only there wasn’t any storm. I imagine the windows and doors banging open and the disciples looking around frantically. Then flames shaped liked forked tongues appeared and danced above each disciple’s head, not just the apostles’. Wind and fire. These were the auditory and visual signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The sound of rushing wind gave way to the sound of human speech, a cascade of strange syllables flowing from their mouths. Jews from all over the Mediterranean and Near East, who were visiting Jerusalem, rushed in to see what all the commotion was. They were gob-smacked when they heard these Galileans speaking in their own mother tongues. This was no gibberish or ecstatic speech. It was real language. Their language.

The miracle of Pentecost represents a reversal of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The people in Genesis wanted to build a tall tower for two reasons: for pride and permanence. The Bible says they wanted to make a name for themselves and they didn’t want to be scattered all over the world. They came together for a selfish purpose. But the Jews in Acts 2 came together for an unselfish purpose: they gathered in Jerusalem to worship God and celebrate the Feast of Weeks.

God punished the builders of the Tower of Babel by confusing their speech. On Pentecost God reversed this curse by allowing people from many nations to hear the disciples speak in their own languages. And instead of divine punishment, God’s blessing was poured out—not to keep people from a task, but to empower them for the most important task: spreading the Gospel to the uttermost part of the Earth. But the reversal of the confusion of languages on the day of Pentecost was temporary and limited. The gift of tongues wasn’t meant to become a universal translator, an evangelical Esperanto.

This motif of Babel reversed raises some interesting questions. God punished the builders for coming together for a selfish purpose. “What if humanity came together in the light and spirit poured out at Pentecost?” as Seraphim Sigrist asks in his book A Life Together. Might it be possible to become of one heart and mind and repair the fragmentation of humanity? Maybe, just maybe, God is hinting to us that in the Spirit we can come together to do great things, to reverse God’s curse on sin and to bring about a new world order . . . to bring about the kingdom of God. Maybe we should do more than just pray the words, “Thy kingdom come.”  Maybe we should also work for God’s kingdom to come. Work for a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Work for a world where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid in peace and safety. Work for a world where there’s a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Maybe God didn’t give us prophetic visions in the Bible just to whet our appetite for a remote future world but also to give us a blueprint for how we should be working to remodel our current world into a place of God’s justice, peace, and healing.

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The Way Up Is Down

Rembrandt Ascension

Today is Ascension Sunday when many Christians celebrate Jesus’ miraculous return to Heaven. It has inspired great Christian art like the Rembrandt painting above and musical masterpieces such as Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”

If it weren’t for Luke, we’d know almost nothing about the ascension. He gives us a brief description at the end of his Gospel and an extended one at the beginning of the Book of Acts (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11). Matthew and John don’t mention the ascension at all, and Mark simply says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19b). But this verse is in the disputed longer ending that’s not in several of the oldest manuscripts of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). There’s even a difference between the way Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts describe the event. The Gospel identifies the location as Bethany; Acts implies that it was on the Mount of Olives “about a Sabbath day’s journey away” from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). (Why did the disciples leave Jerusalem after Jesus had ordered them not to? Acts 1:4, cf. 1:12). Acts suggests the ascension took place forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 1:3); Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of this forty-day period and gives the impression that it took place at the end of the first Easter Day. I hope you won’t let these facts trouble you or cause you to doubt the importance of Jesus’ ascension.

The ascension completed Jesus’ journey from heaven and back again. He descended from heaven to earth and from earth to the grave – down, down, down. Then he ascended from the grave to the earth and back to heaven – up, up, up. The Apostle Paul says, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). In his descent and ascent, Jesus demonstrated the paradoxical truth that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14). Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Through humility you may ascend to sublimity.” The way up is down!

The ascension can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual progress. Ascent was easy for Jesus because he wasn’t weighed down by sin. It’s difficult for us because our sins weigh us down like an anchor. Jesus floated up to heaven like a helium-filled balloon. We have to climb Mount Everest. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come suddenly and unexpectedly like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It comes from years and years of hard work, through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, spiritual reading, fasting, and Christian service. How will we know when we’ve arrived? When we come to that perfect love of God that casts out fear. Love is the hallmark of spiritual ascent, because God is love (1 John 4:8b). The closer we get to God, the more the love of God is perfected in us.

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