Evangelicals and the Church Year

I grew up knowing almost nothing about the church year.  I say “almost nothing” because my childhood Southern Baptist church did celebrate Christmas and Easter. Unlike some other traditions, our church had no principled aversion to seasons of reflection on certain aspects of Christ’s life.  We just didn’t know about anything but Christmas and Easter. And these two seasons were so predominant in the broader culture that their legitimacy was never in question. I suspect this is a common story for many Baptists and low-church evangelicals.

In recent years, however, many evangelicals have started to expand their embrace of the church year.  Many churches are focusing more intentionally on the seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent, respectively.  But I think there is benefit in embracing the whole-kit-and-kaboodle (is that still a recognizable phrase?), that is, celebrating the whole year: from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all the way to Ordinary Time (also known as the season of Pentecost).

A couple years ago, Daniel Montgomery, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a helpful post titled, “Why We Observe the Christian Year at Sojourn.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s an important bit:

In our narcissistic culture, we ignore the wisdom of the Ancients and the traditions of those who came before us. We act like we’ve invented the wheel and we’ve got this whole thing figured out.

You see this in contemporary church services. You see it in the “latest and greatest” songs we sing, in the haphazard way we order our services, in the easy-come, easy-go mentality of our people and the consumer-culture mentality of our service planners. And you see it in the way we’ve laid aside and then forgotten the wisdom of our church fathers, who devised the Christian Calendar.

Rightly understood, there is nothing mystical about the Christian year. There is nothing about it that requires us to treat the Christian year as if it were commanded in scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. Yet there is nothing about it that requires us to steer away from it or regard it as an unbiblical intrusion on our services and our daily lives.

It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel. More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ.

Let me pose some similar questions here that Montgomery poses at the end of his post:

  • Have you been a part of a church that celebrates part or all of the church year? If so, how have these patterns of worship and reflection helped you in your spiritual growth?
  • Do you see any danger in celebrating the church year?
  • If you are convinced that there is benefit in the church year, how might we encourage our churches to move in this direction?

Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Social Injustice Are Gospel Issues

I continue to hear and read comments like “race isn’t a gospel issue.” This could not be further from the truth.

Race is a gospel issue because our world, though one in Adam, is divided by ethnicity, nationality, tribal distinctions, and social classes. We are one people in our common parentage, but we are not one in the way we treat each other. We are not one when we plunder one another, fight one another, oppress one another, and destroy one another. Someone might say at this point, “yes but this is a matter of simply recognizing the image of God in each other. That’s not a gospel issue.” What gives you the eyes to see and ears to hear the image of God in your fellow man clearly and truly *other than* the gospel? Christ is the new and better Adam, and only by seeing his life can we see and understand true life and all the lives around us. Common grace is given by God, to be sure, but until our eyes are opened by the power of the Holy Spirit and the light of the gospel we only see one another through a glass darkly. Sin clouds our minds and our thoughts about one another. Race is a gospel issue because only by the light of the gospel can we truly understand our diversity and unity in Adam and, for those who are believers, in Christ.

Race is a gospel issue because the Old Testament says it is. God *makes a race* out of Abraham and Israel, his chosen people. Israel does not exist as an ethnic group or nationality *until God makes them*! God has chosen to redeem the world through one particular ethnicity, indeed through one man from that particular ethnicity, and through that one man to bless the nations. God, through one race, draws all races to himself. Every tribe, tongue, and nation. The good news of the gospel is through one race and for all races, so that at the coming of our Lord Jesus every knee from every race should bow and every tongue from every ethnicity should confess that Christ is King.

Race is a gospel issue because the New Testament says it is. Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection to *all nations,* to the *ends of the earth.* The gospel is for all people, which in the New Testament would be read as saying it is for all kinds of people, that is, all races, ethnicities, classes, etc. The book of Acts narrates this in dramatic form, with the gospel going first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians all explain the gospel *so that their readers will understand how both Jew and Gentile can be part of the one people of God.* Paul’s majestic explanation of the heighth and breadth and length and depth of Christ’s atoning work is set in the context of racial unity in the church! Galatians tells us that male, female, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free are one in Christ – these are socio-economic and racial distinctions. The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the unity of a once disparate group of people. Ephesians 2:15 tells us the same – we are one new man in Christ Jesus. That’s one new man made from different racial groups. The gospel speaks to race. In fact, if race wasn’t affected by the gospel, most of us [Gentiles] would still be without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). Philemon’s uniqueness in the canon is, in part, the fact that it applies the gospel specifically to social and perhaps racial divides between believers. 1 Peter 2:9-10, again speaking to us Gentiles, tells us that we who were once not a people are now his people. Why? Because the gospel transcends and subverts racial divides.

Race is a gospel issue.

More Reflections on #EricGarner

Last night and this morning I have been mostly encouraged by the reactions I’ve seen to the Eric Garner case, and specifically by those from friends who are not people of color. I am especially grateful for the responses by leaders in my own denomination, including Russ Moore, Danny Akin, and Al Mohler, as well as by other evangelicals. I am perplexed and discouraged, though, by those who still want to argue that there’s “nothing to see here.” I have heard and seen people argue, for instance, that Garner had broken the law and was resisting arrest (and therefore police were justified in their actions), that the officers did nothing wrong in their handling of the situation, and/or that race wasn’t a factor.

This is troubling to me for a number of reasons. First, in watching the video (if you haven’t watched it we have nothing to talk about until you do), two things are readily apparent. In the first place, if we all have the right facts, Mr. Garner is being questioned about selling loose cigarettes illegally. If this is true, why are there at least 7 armed police officers at the scene, a scene which involves an unarmed man and a crime that has more to do with retailers smuggling thousands upon thousands of illegal cigarettes into the state than it does with a man selling a few loose sticks on the street? Granted, if Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then there are consequences. But we need to ask ourselves whether or not one man selling a few loose cigarettes warrants the presence of 7 armed police officers. More importantly, in the video it is apparent that Mr. Garner is pleading for the officers to let him go his own way. Again, if there was evidence at the scene that Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then he theoretically should be arrested. But I would ask you this: how many of you have, when caught for speeding or (if you’re going really fast) reckless driving, haven’t plead with an officer to let you go? How many of you, in requesting that the officer let you go, haven’t done so with gusto or emotion or even anger? Maybe you’re angry or sad or emotional because “everyone else gets way with it,” or maybe it’s because you know the ticket you’ll receive will break your family’s bank, or maybe it’s because you genuinely felt you weren’t doing anything wrong. Whatever the reason, calling that “resisting arrest”, as I’ve seen some people do in Garner’s case, is, in my mind, unfathomable. Garner was talking. Garner was pleading. Whether he did anything illegal or not, it’s highly questionable to me to call his pleading “resisting arrest.” And when the officer comes from behind, seemingly unbeknownst to Mr. Garner, it’s unprovoked and without warning. What is clear from the video, then, is that there appears to be an excessive amount of police presence (which would get anyone amped up) and that Mr. Garner was in pleading, not “resisting arrest.”

A second reason I am troubled by some reactions I’ve seen is because they assume that, in this instance, the police officers are completely justified in the way they handled the situation. This relates to the previous point, but there is more to it. Not only was Garner not resisting arrest or threatening the officers at hand, he was subdued using an illegal take down, one that has been outlawed since 1993 in NYC. We cannot with any certainty judge Officer Pantaleo’s motives, but by the video it appears we can say that his take down method was illegal and has been illegal for over 20 years. Furthermore, the coroner ruled it a homicide. Why, then, is there no grand jury indictment?

This brings me to the final issue, which is probably the largest in most people’s minds. I’ve thankfully heard many call for more conversation on race and social injustice in our country, but I have also seen and heard some say that race isn’t an issue in this case (or in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc.). There are two problems for me here. The first specifically concerns Eric Garner, and it is that Officer Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, had previously been sued on two separate occasions for racially motivated actions while on duty. To say that race wasn’t an issue ignores Officer Pantaleo’s past and also the presence of 7 armed officers in the face of a minor crime by an unarmed man. (It also ignores the fact that a militarized police force showed up at peaceful protests in Ferguson.)

A second problem with the argument that denies the race element is that, whatever you think about specific cases, our African-American brothers and sisters, who bear the image of God and, if they are believers, are united with us by the Holy Spirit in Christ, are telling us that there is something wrong. How can we possibly ignore their cries of oppression and injustice? This is exactly what God calls us to do as the church – help the poor and oppressed as we seek to share Christ with the nations! This does not mean we have to buy into every narrative that the media or populist leaders give us, but it does mean, especially in the context of the body of Christ, that we need to *listen*. The gospel calls us “one new man in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:15), and this applies not only to Jews and Gentiles but to black and white, Hispanic and Asian, etc. We who have not had the same experiences in our upbringing should not be so ready to dismiss the cries of our brothers and sisters who have a (many times radically) different life experience than ours, and we should also not ignore the fact that the gospel speaks to issues of race and ethnicity.

May God give us the grace to be quick listen and slow to speak, so that when we do speak we speak with love, truth, and grace.

 

Some Gut Reactions to #EricGarner

It’s easy for me, given my background, to dismiss talk of systemic racism or social injustice. Frankly, I didn’t see it much growing up and I haven’t seen it much since (at least not in person). And yet that is most likely not the experience of many Americans, and especially Americans of color. I am nauseated and heartbroken by the ‪#‎EricGarner‬ video, and yet I am even more distraught over the fact that abuses like this, whether from police, business owners, educators, etc., happen every day. This isn’t a statement that every police officer, every white person, etc. is a racist or an oppressor. Of course I’m not saying that. But I am saying that I, as a white middle class male, have NO IDEA what it means to be “black in America.” My ancestors weren’t forcibly removed from their homes and treated like cattle. My great-great grandfather wasn’t treated as a slave even after slavery was outlawed through oppressive economic practices. My grandfather and grandmother weren’t attacked by dogs or broken against walls by fire hydrants in Birmingham, nor were they chased down, beaten, and killed by the Ku Klux Klan. They didn’t have to worry about the Dragon Master who was also the Mayor, or the racist Governor who wouldn’t let them attend the state university. My parents weren’t arrested, beaten, turned away from a business, etc. because of their skin color. And I have never experienced a sideways glance at a traffic stop or in a store because I’m white. And yet this is the family history and personal experience of many black men and women in America.

What is the answer? Of course it’s not riots, and of course it’s not more violence. It’s also not always suspecting the police or assuming every other white person is racist. (To be clear: I’m grateful for our law enforcement officers, and I know everyone isn’t a racist. Ok last time I need to say that.)

But for me and my house, the first step is to pray that the Holy Spirit would give me ears to hear and eyes to see the oppression of my fellow men and women and my fellow brothers and sisters. To grasp the deep justice that Jesus has already wrought for his creation through his death and resurrection and that will sweep over the cosmos like a flood at his return. And to pray to the Father that his name would be hallowed throughout the earth so that his will would be done *on earth* as it is in heaven. THEN after prayer to the Triune God to bring justice, it is the church’s job to model justice as they gather and work for it as they scatter.

I pray that God would give us grace to love him and love others.

#EricGarner

Some Observations about Hart’s The Experience of God

I’m currently 3 chapters into David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  Here are a few brief observations.

  • Hart offers here a timely and trenchant critique of the New Atheism.  He pulls no punches, referring to philosophical atheism as a kind of “superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.” Hart’s book is an extended version of a kind of transcendental argument against naturalism.  Being, consciousness, and bliss–all of which Hart identifies with the being of God–are necessary preconditions of our experience of the material world. Thus, Hart shows the irrationality of a purely physicalist understanding of reality.
  • Hart’s book also offers an able defense of classical theism and a critique of what Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism,” the latter of which understands God as simply one discrete (albeit maximally great) being among others. I agree with much of what Hart has to say here. His critique of these revisions to classical theism points up the limitations of analytic philosophical method as well as the dangers of rejecting the doctrine of divine simplicity.  If God is simply one logically possible being among others–even if the maximally great being–and if his being is composed of various, distinct properties, then how can God’s being remain unconditioned and independent? Wouldn’t God then be dependent upon some metaphysically prior reality and the properties that constitute his being? If the danger of affirming divine simplicity is reducing God to a property, as Alvin Plantinga has argued (a danger, in any event, only present given the self-imposed constraints of analytic method), then the danger of rejecting divine simplicity is positing causally inert properties as the ultimate reality, rather than God’s being itself.
  • Having said that, I am waiting (no doubt in vain, given Hart’s stated purpose for this book) for Hart to defend an explicitly Christian version of classical theism. The Christian tradition has simultaneously affirmed the classical conception of God that Hart is defending (a God who is infinite, a se, metaphysically simple, atemporal, immutable, impassible, etc.) and the biblical and creedal understanding of God as a tripersonal agent who loves, judges, and redeems his creation.  These latter affirmations aren’t merely metaphorical descriptions of the ultimately unknowable divine reality.  They are real (even if accommodated and analogous) self-revelations of the one true God, and are no less true of him than the philosophical affirmations of classical theism.  The need to show the consistency of this classical Christian understanding of God is especially pressing for Hart, who seems to conflate the theistic claims of all the major world religions, including Eastern pantheisms.

So far, I think The Experience of God is an important and helpful book in many ways, but one with some serious limitations from a Christian perspective. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.

The Four Gospels and the Rule of Faith

Steve Walton has helpfully summarized Simon Gathercole’s plenary address to the British New Testament Society here. Walton’s entire summary is worth reading, and I can only imagine how beneficial Gathercole’s actual paper is. Gathercole cleverly draws our attention to 1 Cor. 15:3-4, a text that many refer to as the first “rule of faith,” to show that the four canonical Gospels alone among their rivals give a full throated picture of Jesus that mirrors this early ecclesial confession. In other words, only the four canonical Gospels contain the following elements together:

  • the identity of Jesus as ‘the Christ’
  • Christ’s saving actions fulfil Scripture
  • the atoning death of Jesus
  • the resurrection of Jesus.

This is, to me, the most crucial and profitable argument one can make in demonstrating the uniqueness of the Fourfold Gospel corpus. When I lecture on the issue in my Jesus and the Gospels course, I hammer home one main point – the Gospel writers do not simply narrate the events of Jesus’ life, they also provide the Spirit-inspired (and therefore correct) interpretation of those events. Their interpretive lens is the OT, and they give four distinct but unified portraits of Christ. This is what distinguishes them from the non-canonical gospels – their use of the OT as an interpretive lens. (Or, in the lone case of the Gospel of Peter, which does refer to the OT, the particular conclusions about Jesus which the four Gospels draw when using the OT distinguish them from GPeter.)

 

CBU at ETS and SBL

The annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Philosophical Society, and Society of Biblical Literature will commence in a little over two weeks. Here’s a list of professors of California Baptist University who are presenting, along with their paper titles and session:

Evangelical Theological Society

Wednesday AM
Anthony Chute (Professor of Church History; Associate Dean, School of Christian Ministries)

Moderator, Baptist Studies: Baptists and the Church

 

Greg Cochran (Associate Professor of Theology; Director of the Applied Theology Program)

Church History I

“The Priority of Ministry to the Persecuted Church: A Reorientation of the Paradigm for Biblical Justice”

 

Matthew Emerson (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies; Chair, Department of Arts & Sciences (OPS))

AND

Luke Stamps (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies (OPS))

Baptist Studies: Baptists and the Church

“Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church”

 

John Gill (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies (OPS))

Ecclesiology: Theologians I

“Alexander Carson and the Church: An Ecclesiology shaped by Evangelical Concerns?”

 

Chris Morgan (Professor of Theology; Dean, School of Christian Ministries)

Baptist Studies: Baptists and the Church

“Baptists and the Unity of the Church”

 

Mark Rogers (Adjunct Professor of Christian Studies)

American Christianity: The History of Park Street Church
“Reclaiming Boston: Resurgent Edwardsianism and the Founding of Park Street Church”

 

Thursday AM

Matthew Barrett (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies (OPS))

Models of God: The Jealousy of God

“He Hardens Whomever He Wills: The Exodus, God’s Fame, and the Manifestation of God’s Jealousy
through Divine Sovereignty”

 

Thursday PM

Adam Co (Associate Professor of Theology)

Systematic Theology: General Studies 2

“Understanding the Doctrine of Union with Christ within the Kingship and Kingdom Motif of Scripture: Uniting Key Emphases in Paul and in Jesus Canonically”

 

Evangelical Philosophical Society

Wednesday AM

Scott Key (Professor of Philosophy)

EPS A2

“Toward an Epistemology of Value: Wisdom and Trust in Aristotle’s Ethics and the Gospel of Mark”

 

Society of Biblical Literature

Tuesday AM

Ash Melika (Associate Professor of Archaeology/Anthropology)

Egyptology and Ancient Israel
“The Founding of the Temple in Ancient Egypt and Israel”

 

Forgotten Saturday

I am knee deep in research for my LATC paper in January on the relationship between the burial of Jesus and eschatology. The day between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, or Holy Saturday, was until recently, in my experience and thought, relatively unimportant. Mark Davis’ words capture my, and perhaps many Christians’, view of this middle day.

. . . even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself (Int 60.1 [2006]: 76, emphasis mine).

My own opinion, though, is that there is much redemptive activity, theo-drama (to borrow a phrase from von Balthasar and Vanhoozer), going on. It may be behind the scenes and invisible to our fallible physical eyes, but I’m increasingly convinced that it is not arbitrary that Jesus spent three days (rather than 3 hours or 3 minutes or even no time at all) in the tomb.

There have been a number of options put forth throughout church history, and many are probably most familiar with the idea of the harrowing of hell. In this view Christ descends to the supposed limbo of the just (righteous Jews and pagans who lived before Christ) to release them into heaven, or maybe purgatory. Von Balthasar innovated on this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and said Christ descended, in Catholic cosmology, to the very depths of hell, where his whole person experienced the full wrath of God, separating him from the Father and the Spirit.  I find this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine to be a late medieval development and relying on unbiblical positions regarding covenantal continuity, justification, and cosmology, and von Balthasar’s innovation seems to me to be a Trinitarian impossibility.

Both of these positions, however erroneous they may be (and I find them both to be biblically unjustifiable), do still bring out an important part of Christ’s work, namely his defeat of death and Hades. Christians historically have confessed that this is the purpose of Christ’s time in the tomb on Holy Saturday. Luther captures what I think is the more biblical position on this matter when he says in his Sermon at Torgau (1533) that Christ descended to Hades and ” . . . destroyed the power of hell and stripped the devil of all his might.” Christ in his death – not only in his crucifixion but in his burial – defeated death, Hades (the place of the dead), and the devil. This is part of the meaning of Holy Saturday. We of course cannot separate the cross from the resurrection, and we also ought not to separate Holy Saturday from Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are each part of the one work of Christ, which stretches from his life, death, burial, and resurrection to his ascension and sending of the Spirit and ultimately to his return. Each piece accomplishes the unified but still distinct parts of redemption. While Christ’s crucifixion vicariously substitutes and his resurrection inaugurates the new creation, his burial is the defeat of death and Hades. While he is sealed in the tomb he is binding the strong man.

 

Creedal Discrimination

Yesterday Christianity Today published an article by Tish Warren, an InterVarsity employee whose experience at Vanderbilt University may be a proleptic look at where our current culture is headed unless someone puts on the brakes. Warren relates how her college ministry was forced to either allow anyone, regardless of faith commitment, to run for office in their InterVarsity chapter or face expulsion from campus by Vanderbilt. Warren and InterVarsity ultimately chose to leave instead of abiding by the administration’s policy.

One chilling quote comes from Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor:

Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.

In other words, religious groups cannot have requirements for leadership or membership that include any sort of faith commitments. My hunch is that these administrators are attempting to beat down the big bad wolf of American Christianity, but I wonder if they realize the implications of their actions for other religious groups. A Muslim group must allow a Jewish member to run for office, and a Jewish group must allow a Hindu member to stump for the presidency. A Sikh student organization cannot require members to abide by Sikh practices, nor can they bar a Bahai person from trying to get elected as treasurer or secretary.

Let’s move beyond student groups to organizations. Religious universities, whatever their faith, could not require faculty or staff to abide by their tradition’s or religion’s faith statement in order to teach or work there if discrimination is broadened to include “creedal discrimination.” Now we are talking not just about student groups but educational institutions, begun explicitly to train students through the lens of a particular faith, being required to hire anyone regardless of belief. Now it is not just a Catholic student group, but a Catholic university who theoretically must hire a Muslim educator if s/he is the most qualified. A Jewish seminary must hire a Bahai religious studies Ph.D. if they are the most qualified. Etc. etc. etc.

Do lawmakers in D.C. and administrators in secular educational institutions realize the implications of their disdain for Christianity? Do they understand the point of faith based institutions, no matter the faith? Do they understand the first amendment? There’s not much evidence these days that the answer to any of these questions is yes.

Our Papers at the Upcoming L.A. Theology Conference

Lamb

Matt and I both are both pleased to be presenting papers at the upcoming Los Angeles Theology Conference, which will convene January 15-16, 2015, at Biola University. The conference features a stellar lineup of plenary speakers (Michael Horton, Matthew Levering, Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, and Eleonore Stump), who will be presenting on the conference theme, “Locating Atonement.”

Matt and I will be presenting two of the nine breakout session papers.

Matt’s paper seeks to draw out the eschatological dimensions of the atonement implied by Christ’s descent to the dead.

My paper attempts to situate atonement in a dyothelitic (two-wills) understanding of the Incarnation.

One of the conference organizers, Fred Sanders, highlights all nine of the breakout session papers:

Matthew Emerson (California Baptist University): “He Descended to the Dead: The Burial of Christ and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement”

Joseph Jedwab (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) and Daniel J. Hill (University of Liverpool): “Locating Atonement in Punishment and Retribution Theory”

David S. Koonce, L.C. (Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum), “Atonement in the Act of Faith”

T. Mark McConnell (Laidlaw College): “Atonement and Shame”

R. Lucas Stamps (California Baptist University): “Atonement in Gethsemane: The Necessity of Dyothelitism for the Atonement”

Kyle Strobel (Biola University) and Adam Johnson (Biola University): “Atoning Wisdom: The Wisdom of God in the Way of Salvation”

Jeremy Treat (Reality LA): “Atonement and Covenant”

Adonis Vidu (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary): “The Place of the Cross within Trinitarian Opera Ad Extra”

Eric Yang (Claremont McKenna College) and Stephen Davis (Claremont McKenna College): “Atonement and the Wrath of God”

We’re excited to be a part of this and hope to see some of you there.

For more information, check out the LATC website.