Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beloved, Theology is Not Easy

It occured to me the other day as I read a science article discussing the possible existence of dark matter and the merits of string theory that science has nothing on theology. Anyone who finds string theory invigorating would no doubt enjoy a lengthy discussion on Middle Knowledge, aka Molinism, and if you want to wonder about dark matter, try wrapping your mind around creation ex nihilo.

Yet, it never ceases to amaze me at how lightly the average evangelical takes theology. I would hazard to guess that the average church member has no idea what goes on in the average seminary, nor would they realize that it takes 96 semester hours after graduating college to receive a Master of Divinity. That's nearly another Bachelor's Degree. The majority of those hours are spent wading through Greek, Hebrew, Biblical exposition, and of course, Systematic Theology. That's not even touching upon Church History, the History of Christian Thought, Practical Pastoral classes, classes in evangelism, and classes on counseling. And though it does not count for credit, this does not count the nigh endless hours spent by would-be pastors and missionaries in local coffee shops debating the things that professors are teaching.

Theology is not easy, and why would we expect it to be? Theology, in essence, is the study of God. Good theology is the study of God through the lens of Scripture in order to lift our souls in worship in spirit and truth. We come at this study with many, many disadvantages. For one, we come to this endeavor with a soul that is blinded so thoroughly with sin that it would not know God if he slapped it in the face. Indeed, nothing short of total spiritual resurrection can even begin to open the eyes to the truth of God. Even after this rebirth, the soul must grapple with all sorts of besetting vestiges of sin that keep it from understanding and practicing truth. There is not one Biblical truth that the fallen flesh does not rage against. If a man ever comes to know one truth about God, it is only due to the fact that the Spirit of God has so victoriously assailed the citadel of pride that resistance has become futile and surrender is the only option.

Think of this: God is Trinity. This is one of the most basic concepts of Christianity. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Yet the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Son or the Father either. They are three is persons and one in essence. We will never, ever get to the bottom of this mystery. We can only glimpse it. The reason we cannot understand how the Trinity can be or what God looks like is because there is nothing in the creation to compare Him to. He is utterly and eternally and infinitely unique.

The Trinity is enough mystery to keep us occupied in worship for eternity, yet it is not the only mystery revealed in Scripture. We also know that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became fully man. How did the inifinite take on the finite? How does the Son of God die? Can God die? Is there a God part in Jesus and a man part? (No. They are one.) The two natures of Jesus exist in a hypostatic union. As if that explains the mystery!

In my own congregation, the great and glorious mysteries of God's election and predestination are currently matters of some discussion. This not only explains my lack of posting, but it also explains the last couple of posts. We know that God has said, "I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end form the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'" (Isaiah 46:9-10). There is nothing that occurs that God has not sovereignly guided. Not one sparrow has dropped to the ground, not one cancer cell has formed, not one soul has been saved or damned that God did not declare its destiny.

Yet we teach and proclaim that human responsibility is real and that we are not robots. Every name that was not written in the Lamb's book of life from the foundation of the world will find its doom in the Lake of Fire. Yet, every soul so doomed will know that it was their fault and not God's that they abide there. How shall we reconcile God's sovereign declaration to elect some from every tongue and tribe and nation with every person's responsibility to repent and believe? I can try, and I have some ideas. But ultimately, many of the answers safely rest in the mystery of God, and I am content to leave some of them there. Concerning this John Calvin wrote:
Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back form wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel...let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. You can find the quote in Book 3, Chapter 21, Section 1 of Calvin's Institutes.

I, for one, have no patience with a mystery-less Christianity. I love the mysteries of God, and it is my charge as a pastor to guard them. "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy" (1 Cor. 4:1-2). That means I do not monkey with mystery to make it more understandable if the truth proves difficult. God's mysteries are not the sort of mysteries that leave one confused. They are sort of like a venture to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The vastness of the place that you trod will make you dizzy, and putting your toe to the edge of reason will nearly overwhelm you, as if the awesomeness of the place will pull you over the edge. Yet, to the edge we are beckoned. From there, with feet firmly planted, we will have the best view.

I agree, with much fear and trembling, with this statement of the 2nd London Baptist Confession:
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predstinated or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of His glorious grace. Others are left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice. I wonder when Baptists stopped speaking like this? I wonder why we thought it wise to act like such doctrine could not be found in Scripture? I wonder when we decided to sell our doctrinal souls for a mess of pragmatic number counting and shallow humanism that has led to sermons with titles like, "Five Ways to Relieve Stress and be More Successful"?

Theology cannot be easy, not when our flesh groans so violently against the rule of the God we study. Every truth about God is repulsive to the natural man or it is misunderstood. Don't go into theology lightly, beloved. If you want something you can figure out, go study physics.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Vulgarity of the TULIP

Vulgar - Deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement.

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with the acrostic that, for many, defines what has come to be known as "Calvinism." The old acrostic is the "TULIP", and the TULIP is supposed to represent the 5 points of Calvinism. Here is what the acrostic stands for:

T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of the Saints

If defined correctly, I whole-heartedly agree with each of the 5 points of Calvinism. However, in an effort to make simple the complex, I have found that the TULIP itself can cause more trouble than help. I am rather envious that Arminians do not have a similar acrostic to put their feet to the fire. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons that a mostly-Arminian can remain so easily uncommitted to a system of theology that they so readily embrace.

I believe that the TULIP is vulgar. Not in the sense that it is slanderous or profane, but in the sense that it is common and lacks refinement. If one uses the TULIP as a teaching tool, a great deal of time must be spent undoing the very images that the acrostic conjures. Namely, you have to explain what you mean by "Total Depravity." Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace are also worded in an unhelpful way. Particular Redemption and effectual grace are far better, but I guess that TUPEP isn't as catchy as TULIP.

The real reason that I dread the acrostic is that people make the mistaken assumption that if you have memorized the TULIP then you know the sum total of Reformed theology. As if the mystery of salvation, and God's decrees, and the truth of predestination and election could be summed up neatly with an acrostic. I have a similar unpleasant reaction when people use the word "Calvinism" or even when I am labeled a "Calvinist." I love John Calvin. I have found him to be a profitable teacher even when I disagree with him. My book shelf is lined with Calvin's commentaries from Genesis to Jude, and I also have his Institutes. To think that such mammoth contributions to theology can be regulated to 5 points is, well, vulgar. Besides, Calvin would not have cared for my theology very much. He would have run me out of town for being one of those unstable "Anabaptists," so I doubt he would want me wearing his label. Indeed, he would probably be quite upset if he learned there were any "Calvinists" at all. His regard and affections were centered on the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in God's Word, I believe he would have found the term Calvinist repulsive.

Alas, I am afraid that there is no remedy for the dilemma. The TULIP is as good a start as anyplace to begin a conversation about God's sovereignty in salvation and man's inability to save himself. I'd prefer we start in John 6 or Romans 9 or Ephesians 1-2, but we'll make do with what we have.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Information on Calvinism/Reformed Theology

The issue of Calvinism and Reformation theology is swirling around in our church, and I thought it might be helpful to include a link to some places that explain the theology. This Wikipedia article might be a good start. You can also check out Bethlehem Baptist's statement regarding what they believe about the Five Points of Calvinism. John Piper is the pastor of that church, and he is probably one of, if not the most well-known evangelical preacher in the United States. This Ten Things List might also be helpful. If you have other helpful resources, feel free to post them in the comments.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Funny Quote for the Day

I got zilch in the creativity department, so I'll mooch off of others. This quote comes as a "critique" of the wardrobe choices in Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel of Matthew:

Some of the Jewish leaders have hats so ridiculous that even the Pope wouldn't wear them.

You can read the The 10 Worst Movies About Jesus for yourself. Funny stuff there.

HT:Evangelical Outpost