Monday, January 30, 2006

Monday Morning Sermon

A sermon preached January 29th, which sets forth how Jesus fulfills God's promise to raise up a prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:14-22.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Happy 250th Birthday Wolfgang

As someone devoted to early music, I have to confess that sometimes I find Mozart's music a bit...well, frilly. As the Hapsburg emperor says to the maestro in the film Amadeus, one feels at times that there are a few too many notes.

Nonetheless, it seems impossible to disregard a genius of his order, and indeed, his mass settings, while elaborate, are heartbreakingly beautiful. I am listening to the Kyrie of the Mass in D minor (K.427) as I write this. It succeeds in uplifting one's soul to contemplate heaven, and to offer thanksgiving to God for placing on earth a composer of so many extraordinary pieces of music. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth began each day with a little Mozart before setting forth into the depths of his dogmatics. Perhaps it was because to write about God one needed to feel joy, if even for a moment, and Mozart is the quintessential composer of joy. Even his Requiem cannot constrain the undercurrent of joy which inhabits all of Mozart's music. Joy dances through his measures like a thoroughbred colt, shaking its head in amazement that it is alive and so gifted.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Shelter of the Most High

The desire to be liked, to have the approbation of one's peers, can be a narcotic. It has led us, at times, to feel sympathy for those whose positions on theological issues conflict with our own, even to the point of allowing our own settled convictions to be questioned. This is a component of the inner warfare Paul writes about in Romans 7. Heresy, tolerance of sin, backsliding, etc., can result not only from evil desire, but from that which is good and noble and true within us. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Satan's most powerful assaults come not necessarily through our vices, but through the distortion of our virtues.

What has so far prevented me from actually departing from Reformed orthodoxy is the spiritual sensation (for lack of a better word) of feeling vulnerable, exposed, and in danger. It is like a young bird in a nest. It feels warm and secure, and then suddenly the mother lifts her wing and the baby bird is exposed to a cold wind, and at risk from predators. This finds perfect expression in Mt 23:37 (and Lk 13:34), "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!"

Scripture is replete with warnings about deviations from the Narrow Way, which are not meant to frighten us so much as to preserve us. The simplest, and perhaps best, is "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps 111:10; Prov 1:7; 9:10). Fear is not a craven response of a cowardly spirit, nor is it the way of the weak, but rather it is merely common sense. I fear the painful effects of fire, so I do not place my hand upon the hot stove. Orthodoxy is not cowering before a divine bully, but recognizing that to ignore God's commandments is a prescription for moral, spiritual, and cultural catastrophe. Only a fool would not fear the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only a fool would desire to absorb the cold wind when instead he could take comfort in the shelter of the Most High.

"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, 'My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust" (Psalm 91:1-2).

Friday, January 20, 2006

What Our Bodies Are For

A sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, preached on 1.15.05, considering God's design for our bodies.

Monday, January 16, 2006

On David Bentley Hart

I came across a quote from David B. Hart, supposedly the "next big thing" in theology. Not in my house, however. Observe.

The following appeared in the most recent Christian Century, where Hart was promoting his new book on God and the tsunami (yes, I know, I have to cancel that subscription for the sake of my blood pressure).
"I quite explicity admit in my writing that I think the traditional Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty to be deeply defective, and destructively so. One cannot, as with Luther, trace out a direct genealogy from late medieval voluntarism to the Calvinist understanding of divine freedom; nevertheless, the way in which Calvin himself describes divine sovereignty is profoundly modern: it frequently seems to require an element of pure arbitrariness, of pure spontaneity, and this alone separates it from more traditional (and I would say more coherent) understandings of freedom, whether divine or human...Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted."

Let me begin by making a few corrections. First, Calvin's understanding of sovereignty was not modern, but Augustinian (early church!), and influenced by both scholastic and late Medieval theologians. For example, arbitrariness and spontaneity are hallmarks of Duns Scotus' doctrine of God. Has Mr. Hart not read Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1300-1358)?, who can serve as a representative of the entire Augustinian double predestinarian position. I would recommend that Mr. Hart read Reformers in the Wings, by David Steinmetz, before making any more comments on Calvin's "modern" view of God's sovereignty! Hart clearly has a limited grasp of the late Medieval period, and Calvin's place along the Augustinian continuum.

Hart's comments on predestination, however, are both offensive and dismissive of the positions of Christ and St Paul. I find it incredible to label blasphemous, a portion of God's Holy Word. Paul writes in Romans 9:14ff, "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So that it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." Therefore He has mercy on whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens. You will say to me then, Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted his will? But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this? Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another vessel for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show his wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had prepared beforehand for glory" (emphasis mine).

Calvin and all other Augustinians were not blaspheming when they took the Bible at its word and dealt openly and courageously with the knotty doctrine of predestination. If Calvin is blashphemous, then Augustine is blasphemous, and if Augustine is blasphemous St Paul is blasphemous, and if St Paul is blasphemous, Christ is also so guilty (see Mt 24:40ff.). The God of David Bently Hart is not completely sovereign, and therefore, not completely God. I prefer to stay with Calvin and Scripture, and acknowledge both the mystery and grandeur of God's perfect and universal sovereign will. Anything less will leave one lost in the mists of emergent relativism.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Essential Music For Pastors and Theologians

Several other blogs have continued their list-making for essential things every theologian or pastor should read, see, or listen to. I thought I would add my top ten pieces of music that I consider essential for the spiritually-minded person of taste (!). They are not listed in order of greatness or spirituality. It is a somewhat random list, with the exception of number one, which trumps all.

1. J.S. Bach, Mass in B Minor
2. Mozart, Requiem
3. Beethoven, Missa Solemnis
4. Ralph Vaughn Williams, Variations on a Theme By Thomas Tallis
5. Wagner, Parsifal
6. Thomas Tallis, If Ye Love Me
7. Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli
8. Rachmaninoff, Vespers
9. John Rutter, Loving Shepherd of Thy Sheep
10. Lassus, Lamentations
11. Kinky Friedman, They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore

I know I said "10", but I couldn't resist the last selection, which is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Heinrich Schutz: Musical Valium

I've been listening to a lot of my newer cds since Christmas: Dufay, Obrecht, Machaut, and last but definitely not least, Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672). According to the Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, Schutz spent most of his career in Dresden, as a court composer (Kapellmeister), and his output was almost entirely sacred music. He is described as the most important German composer of the 17th century, and a major figure of the early Baroque.

I mention him here because he is largely unknown beyond early music circles, and for the fact that I find his music to be some of the most soothing and spiritually helpful I have yet encountered. I say this because during a particularly stressful week, I found a meditative refuge in Schutz's solemn and beautiful pieces, especially his "German Requiem" (Musicalische Exequiem; Concert in Form einer teutschen Begrabniss - ie., "Concerto in the form of a German Funeral Mass). It is hauntingly beautiful, at times even tender, and a definite balm for the weary soul. I commend it to you with the highest regard.

Another cd of Schutz's music is the Psalmen Davids, eleven psalm settings of serene loveliness and spiritual inspiration. These were written early in Schutz's career (1619), and have a more Renaissance feel to them. The cd ends with his German Magnificat, which was written when he was 85, still giving thanks for God's grace. His epitaph reads: "the Christian singer of psalms, a joy for foreigners, and a light for Germany." Amen to that.

(Both cds are available on the Naxos label)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Theological Poets

Fred K., over at la nouvelle theologie, asked me to offer a list of poets essential for theologians. This is an interesting reqest, as it assumes poetry and theology have a relationship worthy of note. Do poems influence theology? Or is it simply that some poets have religious interests and presuppositions which appear in their poems? My two favorite "Christian poets" are R.S. Thomas and Geoffrey Hill, and yet I doubt they would appreciate the designation of "Christian poet," as it is somewhat reductionistic. I suspect most poets would like to be labelled as simply "poets," or perhaps merely as "artists."

I believe that very few poets have influenced theology. Dante and Milton, of course, are the great exceptions. Most theologians seem uninterested in aesthetics, and poetry is especially conspicuous by its absence in summas and theological monographs (which makes the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar even more important, given his emphasis on aesthetics). We suffer from an Aristotelian utilitarianism, where jargon and methodology have replaced beauty and poetry, and thus theology is mostly barren and incapable of moving the heart.

So here is my list, which I know will have many omissions, and which I will desire to revise when names bubble up into my brain later in the day. Since the other lists are chronological, I will try and follow suit.

Anonymous - this guy (or girl) wrote an enormous amount of poetry about Christ!
St. John of the Cross
John Donne
George Herbert
Henry Vaughn
Thomas Traherne
William Cowper
Charles Wesley
Isaac Watts
William Blake
John Henry Newman
John Greenleaf Whittier
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Emily Dickinson
Gerard Manley Hopkins
T.S. Eliot
C.S. Lewis
John Betjemen
W.H. Auden
R.S. Thomas
Geoffrey Hill
Jane Kenyon
Anthony Hecht
Richard Wilbur

Please be kind when you point out a glaring omission!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Christians In the Dock (Again)

If one needed any more proof that we are living in a post-Christian, openly hostile culture, then consider the plight of Father Enrico Righi. A militant Italian atheist named Luigi Cascioli has taken Fr. Righi to court after the priest denounced Mr. Cascioli in a parish newsletter for claiming that no reliable evidence exists which proves Christ even lived. Father Righi is being charged with "abusing popular credulity," according to the Times of London. This offense is an actual crime in Italy. An appeals court judge has ordered Fr. Righi to appear and prove that Jesus Christ existed.

The language of the case is interesting. In essence, Fr. Righi is being charged with duping people into believing something which is patently untrue. Now I doubt that Fr. Righi will do any jail time, given that Italy is still an overwhelmingly Catholic country, but the affair is more serious than it seems. Like the Apostle Paul, Christians are being brought into courts of secular justice to give an account of their faith and justify it according to the historical, scientific, and philosophical standards of our day. All of this signals the true demise of Christendom, and offers the Church an opportunity to witness (for which the Greek word is martyr) to Christ, and provide the reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Machen For the New Year

Today I had the privilege of preaching from Ecclesiastes 3:11, "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." My emphasis was that because God had placed eternity in our hearts, we would remain dissatisfied with earthly things, uncomfortable in time (it either moves too fast or too slow), and that we possess a longing for heaven which would only grow stronger as we age. Calvin wrote about man's innate sense of God's presence (sensus divinitatus), but Christians, by grace, also have a sensus aeternitatus - an awareness that our homeland is in heaven. "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:20).

Longing to be with the Savior, and for the heavenly perfection which marks our predestined communion, is the mark of a saint. Protestants don't officially canonize anyone, but there are individuals whose faith, dedication, and sacrifice make their lives seem like bright lights which illuminate our spiritual landscape, if only for a brief time. One such light, J. Gresham Machen, died on New Year's Day, 1937. He was only 55 years old when pneumonia took his life in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was given a glimpse of heaven on his deathbed, and said to his pastoral colleague, Samuel Allen, "Sam, it was glorious, it was glorious." John Piper has a rich tribute and analysis of Machen's life available at this link.

Machen believed the church was looking in the wrong places for solutions to its problems. The church was looking externally, to the culture for answers, when it should be looking internally, to the kingdom of heaven within, which offers eternal and unchanging truth and power.

"The Church is puzzled by the world's indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the questions of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God's grace, through His good Spirit, in His good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith" (Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 11, 1913).

At this, the turning of the year, I feel inspired to follow Machen into that secret place of meditation, and be empowered by the gospel to turn away from the tawdriness of the world, and gaze upon that glorious eternity where Christ sits enthroned in majesty. Machen was willing to give his life for that gospel, and so I can at least give my time and my attention.

"The world is lying in misery, we ourselves are sinners, men are perishing in sin every day. The gospel is the sole means of escape; let us preach it to the world while yet we may" (ibid).