Saturday, January 26

More Sympo Thoughts

John Witvliet had some great stuff to say today about liturgical theology. What I found the most helpful was a comment that he made at the end, saying that the biggest divide in worship today is not between traditional and contemporary, it's between worship that is expressive and worship that is formative. People who say we shouldn't say a prayer of confession unless we mean it, like really mean it, are people who think worship should be expressive of what we're already feeling. And then there are the folks who think that we should say the prayer of confession even when we don't feel like it so we can grow. He said in like five words what I've been trying to tell people about why I made the low-to-higher church hop. Liturgy has words for us to grow into.

The other workshop I really liked was David Rylersdaam's talk about children and the Lord's Supper. He gave a great presentation that was compelling and biblically and theologically sound. If kids are members of the covenant, why deny them participation in the Lord's Supper? I have to admit I remember being and feeling hurt and left out as the grown-ups passed the elements over my head and down the row. This is one thing the CRC should change pronto. The Eastern church has always communed children. In fact, in the case of two of my professor's children, their first solid food was Eucharist. Isn't that just beautiful?

So anyway, after coming from this workshop, I went to the closing Communion service. The Table liturgy included a Q&A session with a child and a pastor about what Communion was for and why we did it. It incidentally made me mad, because that is the format that is used during the Passover meal in the Jewish tradition. Traditionally, the youngest child asks the questions about what the meal means and then they celebrate Passover. What's the difference? In the Jewish tradition, the children, no matter how young, can participate. The CRC, however, does not commune its covenant children until they've made public profession of faith. So why act all kid-friendly when you're not going to commune most of them? This made me ornery enough that I felt that I shouldn't participate. But I don't want that to be my last word, because it really was a beautiful service. I loved the Taize chants, and there was also this really beautiful song from Ireland that brought tears to my eyes.

All in all, it was a good experience. I remembered again how much I love relating worship to the doctrine of the Trinity, I'm even more convinced that the CRC should commune kids, and I can't wait to read my Ken Bailey book. ;)

Thursday, January 24

Worship Symposium: Day 1

My first day at Worship Symposium started out with a seminar on lament by Michael Card and Calvin Seerveld. I don't know if it was my lack of coffee or what, but it was a little hard to follow. But from what I caught, I appreciated their insights. Calvin spent quite some time talking about the laments of vulnerable people; women who are raped and children who are abused. Sickness and disease is one thing, but the gross misuse of power just strips people of their humanity. Yup, something to lament all right. I think that they took the right tack by not trying to develop theodicies or justify why these things happen. They simply emphasized the fact that God became one of us and shared our pain and suffering. We need God to show up, and he came to us in the Incarnation, and he's coming again.

Next was the plenary by Dallas Willard. I had never heard of the guy, but apparently he's the biggest name here. He talked about weaving worship into the fabric of our lives. I was really tickled right off the bat because he emphasized the fact that we worship a triune God. I spent way too many years simply paying lip service to the Holy Trinity, but it's one of the richest doctrines in Christianity and it has huge implications for our understanding and worship of God. (For a superb treatment of this topic, see Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace by T.F. Torrence.) Part of his talk was about "praying without ceasing" and orienting ourselves to the worship of God in our everyday lives. He talked about one guy who wrote a book about trying to center himself on God minute-by-minute. I just got done reading a book about monastics on Mount Athos, so it immediately struck me that this was a very old idea. Many of the monks pray the Jesus Prayer constantly..."Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." They pray it hundreds of times a day, until it is internalized and their hearts "pray by themselves"(don't ask me how that works). We evangelicals are just beginning to get on board with some very ancient ideas.

I went to the Vespers service that was the piano and organ concert. It was one of the loveliest half-hours in recent memory. Maybe I'm just partial to the piano after playing it for so long. The combination of the two was so powerful. Hopefully I can go to their full-length concert.

I caught up with Joyce, who has been away in England, and I got to meet my blogosphere buddies Bob and Bethany in living color. I also got to eat dinner with three other people from the church I went to as a child, including my former pastor. I moved when I was ten and pretty much started all over again, so it was weird running into non-family members who know all my history. My pastor buried my dad and baptized me and my siblings, so those ties aren't easily forgotten. It is really fun to run into people after so long and compare notes. It'll be fun in Heaven when we can see our old friends, share our stories, and see how our lives affected each other.

The worship service in the FAC featured guests from China and Africa singing in their own languages. I couldn't help but get a little misty when we were singing "O, for a Thousand Tounges to Sing" in like five different languages. Maybe it was because I spent the majority of the day lamenting. That day when we all bow before God together can't come soon enough, but those eschatological snapshots we get every now and then pack a punch full of grace.

Tuesday, January 22

God, Glory, Love, and the Doctrine of Election

EDIT: Here is another great Trinitarian quote that speaks to the issue of the Trinity and ethics.

Last semester when we were talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, our prof. encouraged us to use the Trinitarian nature of God as a starting point for all the theological concepts we deal with. He demonstrated by talking about omnipotence and gracious use of power, and after class I decided to tackle a toughy: hell! "Ok," I thought, "we have a God who is eternally love within God's self...perfect self-giving and other-recieving love. How does God pre-ordaining the damned fit into this picture? Uhh...."

One common argument given to defend double-predestination is, "If it glorifies God, it must be ok!" So, what is God's nature and how is he glorified? As I was pondering and googling, I came across a couple quotes from John Piper and Karl Barth over at Der Evangelische Theologe that illustrate how two theologians explain the relationship between God's love and God's glory:

“God’s ultimate goal therefore is to preserve and display his inifinte and awesome greatness and worth, that is, his glory. God has many other goals in what he does. But none of them is more ultimate than this. They are all subordinate. God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of his glory. To that end, he seeks to display it, to oppose those who belittle it, and to vindicate it from all contempt. It is clearly the uppermost reality in his affections. He loves his glory infinitely. This is the same as saying: he loves himself infinitely.”
“God’s loving is an end in itself. All the purposes that are willed and achieved in Him are contained and explained in this end, and therefore in this loving in itself and as such. For this loving is itself the blessing that it communicates to the loved…Certainly in loving us God wills His own glory and our salvation. But He does not love us because He wills this. He wills it for the sake of His love. God loves in realising these purposes. But God loves because He loves; because this act is His being, His essence and His nature. He loves without and before realising these purposes. He loves to eternity. Even in realising them, He loves because He loves.”

At the risk of oversimplification, it seems like what it comes down to is:

Piper: God loves his glory!
Barth: God's love is his glory!

I guess for Piper if God has some hidden purpose for damning people from the beginning of time, it's ok if it contributes to his glory. Barth, on the other hand, sees God's glory in his perfect love and forgiveness of all people. You can probably guess that I'm more partial to the second reading. I don't know...I feel like Piper's God has to somehow protect his reputation by only electing a select few. Why wouldn't God be just as glorified if he elected everybody? Piper doesn't really define God's glory; it's sort of this terrifying, hidden thing. I think Barth's view of God's glory is rooted in where God's glory is most fully revealed: the cross of Christ. His glory is not his ability to exercise power as he pleases, but humility and perfect, self-giving love.

But what do I know...I'm not a theologian. Thoughts?

Monday, January 21

Not Again!

This is the second time this sign has shown up on! These people need to get their act together and come to Worship Symposium.

Friday, January 18

"Lord, what must I do to be saved?"

The question of religious plurality and Christian exclusivity came up in class today. We were talking about how Eastern monastics do all sorts of funny levitating things because they're holy, and apparently holy people can do those sorts of things. And I said, "Do these sorts of things happen at Buddhist monasteries too?" And my professor said probably. So we talked about Christ and other religions for the next half-hour.

It's easy to draw clear lines and say, "If someone doesn't confess Christ, they're going to hell and that's it," but I think that experience and common sense should cause us to question this. There are tens of thousands of followers of other religions who live holy, self-sacrificing lives and an embarrassing amount of professing Christians who don't (myself included, most of the time). God's not going to say,"Gee Ghandi, thanks for all the good you did for my creation, but you're heading for eternal torment anyway while all these folks that created are going to enjoy my presence forever." It's an extreme example, but extreme examples help point out what happens when you take something that doesn't seem so ridiculous at first to its logical end. Moreover, drawing the line at those who explicitly confess Christ doesn't bode so well for babies, the developmentally disable, or the mentally ill--all groups that Christ would have compassion on!

As much as Pelagius makes me shudder, I think he might have been on to something, even though he took it a bit too far. When Jesus talked about salvation, didn't he always mention doing something? He told the rich man to sell everything he had and give to the poor, and he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If someone doesn't believe in Christ but they're following the 2nd Greatest Commandment, shouldn't that count for something? I think it does, and the Bible does hint at it. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, some of the sheep were completely flabbergasted to hear Christ say, "What you did unto the least of these brothers of mine, you did unto me."

In the Eastern tradition, they talk about salvation as participation in the life of God. I think this concept helps when thinking about other religions, because maybe it is possible to participate in the life of God even if you aren't aware of the fullness of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Think about Forrest Gump. He played college football even though he had absolutely no clue how to play football. All he saw was the sign, "Run, Forrest, Run!" and he ran. His coaches and teammates knew the big picture and they orchestrated the plays. God is big and he's in the business of loving and redeeming his entire creation. Maybe some people don't have the whole picture, but as Romans 1 say, "God has set eternity in the hearts of men." Maybe if they follow the signs pointing to God, they're headed in the right direction. I don't think God will overlook the fact that they're helping us win the game. Maybe there will be a lot of people in Heaven like Forrest, oblivious to the fact that they're about to meet the president and downing bottle after bottle of Dr. Pepper. Indeed, maybe Christians will be even more accountable for the plays that didn't go so well.

Monday, January 14

The Inescapable Love of God: Considering Universal Salvation

If you grew up in any way like me, the words “universal” and “salvation” in the same sentence automatically raise a number of red flags. “But God is just, he has to punish sin,” “we deserve hell,” “Jesus talked about hell,” and “what about the lake of fire in Revelation?” But also, if you’re anything like me, all this eternal damnation business makes you wonder: “how can a loving God send people to suffer eternal torment?” “What about people who have never heard of Christ?” “Does grace really win the day if a large percentage of humanity is lost forever?” This certainly is a sticky bunch of questions. However, some reading I have been doing lately has forced me to consider that maybe the case isn’t as open-and-shut as I had once thought. Consider the following.

Precedence in Church History

The idea of universal salvation was not a new one for the early church. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius the desert monk, and St. Isaac the Syrian were all early Christian writers and proponents of the hope of universal salvation. Origen was condemmed at the Fifth Ecumenical council, and while most people assume it implied a condemnation of his universalism, it should be noted that he held other strange and un-orthodox beliefs such as the pre-existence of souls and a pre-cosmic fall. His student, Gregory of Nyssa, abandoned Origen’s ideas about the pre-existence, but was still an outspoken universalist. Not only was his teaching never condemned, he remains a beloved saint in the Eastern Orthodox church to this day.

The Demands of Justice?

Much of the debate surrounding universalism centers on the idea that wrongdoing demands punishment and therefore eternal conscious torment is just as a punishment for our sins. Bishop Kallistos Ware outlines Origen’s analysis of punishment in his piece, “Dare we hope for the salvation of all?” The first is the retributive argument: those who have done wrong should suffer in proportion to their wrongdoing (hence the “eye-for-eye” formulation in Leviticus). But, Christ rejects this principle in the Sermon on the Mount. “If we humans are forbidden by Christ to exact retribution in this way from our fellow humans,” writes Ware, “how much more should we refrain from attributing vindictive and retributive behavior to God. It is blasphemous to assert that the Holy Trinity is vengeful.” Not to mention that eternal hell would be exacting an infinite punishment for a finite offense.

The second view of punishment is as a deterrent. The threat of hell-fire is the best way to hold us back from wrongdoing. But wouldn’t a threat of bad, but not eternal, punishment work just as well as a deterrent? In any case, it appears that the threat of eternal hell-fire is working badly as a deterrent. One only needs to read a couple testimonies from disgruntled fundamentalists to see that this teaching many times has the opposite effect!

The third view Origen outlines is the reformative understanding of punishment, which he considers the only view to be morally acceptable. It is a punishment that is not retaliatory, but remedial. Parents punish their children to change them for the better, states put criminals in prison (for the most part) to rehabilitate them. Just as a doctor may sometimes have to subject us to painful treatment and amputate a limb, so God is the physician of our souls.

Hell: a Refiner’s Fire

If we are to subscribe to this third vision of justice, how do we apply it to hell? Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University suggests that hell will be us exposed to the natural consequences of our behavior, like in the parable of the prodigal son. Once we get tired of living in the muck and are completely ashamed of ourselves, we will come home, no coercion required. St. Issac the Syrian calls hell, “the scourge of love…the contrition that comes from love is the harsh torment.” God will expose us to the consequences of our behavior, but he will always give us the opportunity to repent. C.S. Lewis espoused a view similar to this in The Great Divorce and remarked that hell would be locked “from the inside.”

In my opinion, this is a much more morally coherent way of viewing hell and God’s punishment. In theology we are faced with a challenge: to reconcile a God who is eternal self-giving love within himself with a God who has been wronged and demands justice. Traditionally, Christians have reconciled these two things by comparing God to a parent. Yes, he is angry, but the more important thing is that he loves his child. However, this analogy seems to break down when we approach the subject of punishment. We instinctively know that any parent who would beat their child for stealing a candy bar should NOT be a parent, but we still think it’s ok for God to torture people FOREVER for something they did in their 80-something years on earth. Moreover, what parent could be happy if any of their children were lost forever? William Barclay makes this point in his essay, "I am a Convinced Universalist."

"If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father - he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God."

Lost in Translation

What then, may you ask, of those pesky passages that talk about eternal punishment? There are many passages in the Bible that deserve a better treatment than what I can give them, obviously, but I do have one brief translation note. The Greek word aionios, which we translate “eternal” in fact means simply “age-long.” It could be eternity, or just the next age or two. Who knows. 

The Triumph of Grace

For as little as I know about hermeneutics, I know it is quite the balancing act. You have two passages that seem to contradict each other, so you weigh them each in context and decide which one you’re going to go with. My point is, that for as many passages that talk about God’s apparent wrath, there are a wealth of passages that speak of God’s mercy and his desire that all people be saved.

Ezekiel 33:11 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die?
1 Timothy 2:4 [God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
1 John 4:9-10 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
John 3:17 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
John 12:32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
1Corinthians 15:21-28 Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive... The last enemy to be destroyed is death... so that God may be all in all.
Romans 11:32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
2Corinthians 5:15 Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
2Corinthians 5:19 God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.
Ephesians 1:10 [God will] bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 1John 2:2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

While it would be foolish to underestimate the reality of punishment and consequences for our sins, I think it would be even more tragic to limit the scope of God’s grace. We should hope for the salvation of all, and pray for the salvation of all. While it is true that Universalism has been the minority position throughout Christian history, it doesn't mean we should discount it. (May I remind you, dear reader, that women were one precious step above swine for most of human history according to majority opinion.) Especially as Reformed Christians, we should be examining our teachings to see if they square with the biblical witness and God's revelation in Christ. Am I completely biblically and theologically convinced that God will save everyone? No. But I wouldn’t put it past him. ;)

And I leave you with this poem by Anne Bronte:

And, oh! there lives within my heart
A hope, long nursed by me;
(And, should its cheering ray depart,
How dark my soul would be!)

That as in Adam all have died,
In Christ shall all men live;
And ever round his throne abide,
Eternal praise to give.

That even the wicked shall at last
Be fitted for the skies;
And, when their dreadful doom is past,
To life and light arise.

I ask not, how remote the day,
Nor what the sinners' woe,
Before their dross is purged away;
Enough for me, to know

That when the cup of wrath is drained,
The metal purified,
They'll cling to what they once disdained,
And live by Him that died.

Universalism Links:

Could Hell be Redemptive?
The Fire and the Rose: Universalism in the Blogesphere
William Barclay: I am a Convinced Universalist
Universalism and the Bible

Saturday, January 12

What's Your Theological Worldview?

Geez, this Eastern Orthodoxy class has got me bouncing all over the theological map. :)

What's your theological worldview?
created with
You scored as Neo orthodox

You are neo-orthodox. You reject the human-centredness and scepticism of liberal theology, but neither do you go to the other extreme and make the Bible the central issue for faith. You believe that Christ is God's most important revelation to humanity, and the Trinity is hugely important in your theology. The Bible is also important because it points us to the revelation of Christ. You are influenced by Karl Barth and P T Forsyth.

Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Reformed Evangelical


Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal






Monday, January 7

Why am I in church, anyway?

I had a conversation with my dad recently about church and liturgy that sort of caught me off-guard. The main gist of it was something like this:

Me: We celebrate the Lord's Supper every week at church because it is a proclamation of one of the central tenants of our faith.

Dad: Well, Rob is teaching us how to live out our faith.

By Rob he means Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church and the NOOMA series and by "live out" he means doing lots of social justicey things. I think that what my dad was saying without really saying it was, "what does going through a liturgy and celebrating the Lord's Supper matter if you don't care about other people?" I didn’t have a response right at that moment, but the discomfort has been percolating for a couple weeks and I realized that it comes down to one question: “What is church for?”

The way I’ve observed it during my forays into various facets of Protestentism it seems that church (services) are for one of three things:
1. Evangelization with theology-lite presentation of the gospel (“Seekers, come get coffee!”)
2. Rallying the troops (“Jeannie, why don’t you talk to us for a half-hour about the neighborhod children’s ministry?” Or worse yet: “Jesus wants you to succeed at your job and your marriage.”)
3. Proclaiming the Gospel and celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist.
4. Some combination of the above

It seems to me that my Dad and others are mostly concerned with #2…so now that we are Christians, what do we do about it? It’s not an illegitimate question; in fact it’s a good one and an important one. What I’m wondering is whether it is a question that is, ironically, distracting us from the gospel itself. Do we spend so much time talking about what we should do that we forget about what Christ has done? Do we spend more time thinking about what God wants us to do rather than who God is?

I would say yes. By the time I got to my Christian Theology class sophmore year of college I was starving for the basics. Hearing the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation articulated and receiving the Lord’s Supper every week infused my understanding of God with a richness I didn’t know was there. I’m studying Eastern Orthodoxy right now, and the other day our class took a look at the earliest description of Christian liturgy from Justin Martyr. It was very much centered around the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. The liturgy wasn’t an evangelistic tool, it was for Christians! It wasn’t for strategizing or self-congratulations, it was for worship!

When I heard this, my remaining evangelical sensibilities sounded the alarm bells. “What good is ‘going through the motions’ if you’re not reaching other people?” First of all, as my professor pointed out, these were the people who evangelized the world…and they didn’t have “seeker services!”Second, isn’t right doctrine foundational to right practice? We forgive because we have been forgiven, we love because we have been loved, and what better reminder of that love is there than the Eucharist? Mostly, I think that Evangelicalism in America is underestimating the simple power of the Gospel. We would do well to quit with all the moralizing and start by proclaiming the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. If not, everything will just become about social justice, anti-racism, and good parenting with Christ tacked onto the end.