In Christ Alone

December 22, 2008

As long as my flight doesn’t get cancelled again, I should be in the glorious state of North Carolina soon — home for Christmas.

Here is my Christmas gift to all. This is the greatest hymn written in my lifetime:

“In Christ Alone”
Keith & Kristyn Getty at Shadow Mountain Church

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music

Getty

Buy album: In Christ Alone, Keith & Kristyn Getty

From God Above

December 21, 2008

To show you how much of a dork I am: When I first heard this song, I thought, “That’s a good Barthian chorus — the origin of the Son in the divine determination of the Father, for us to live for Him. Yes, good immanent life of God stuff going on there.”

Raphael_St Paul Preaching in Athens

The blog of the Evangelical Philosophical Society has an interesting interview with Paul Moser, professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago (published books). It serves as a good intro to Moser’s work, especially his formulation of, what he calls, “kerygmatic philosophy” (see The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology, Cambridge 2008). I particularly liked this bit from the interview:

Who are some thinkers that have influenced your reflection and development of kerygmatic philosophy and its significance?

My perspective on philosophy and epistemology is based on various New Testament writers, particularly Paul and John. I read the Gospel of John as an inherently epistemological gospel, offering the basics of an epistemology of human knowledge of God. I read some sections of Paul’s letters as similarly epistemological, for instance, 1 Cor. 1-2, Rom. 5, 8. It’s noteworthy that the New Testament writers show no need of arguments of natural theology. They do, however, make important cognitive use of the human experience of God’s call, and they acknowledge the importance of the human will in apprehending evidence of divine reality (see, e.g., Jn. 7:17; 1 Jn. 4:8). For some Pauline remarks on God’s call, see, for instance, 1 Cor. 1:9; cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 26, 7:17–24, Rom. 1:6–7, Eph. 1:18-19. For 20th-century efforts to preserve the central role of God’s call in philosophy and theology, see Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, and the works of two evangelical Quaker Christians, Rufus Jones and Thomas R. Kelly (especially the latter’s Testament of Devotion).

Vatican Museums

I took this picture somewhere in the Vatican Palaces. Click to enlarge.

A sobering judgment from Gerhard Nebel, a Protestant theologian much-admired by Hans Urs von Balthasar:

“Anyone who is concerned with the world in all its range, with forms and proportions, with man’s heroism, with morality, with the splendor of forms, with the exploration of the sphere of myth, will feel repelled by Protestantism. Luther destroyed the rich treasury of myth, and replaced it with an arid, official Institute. Anyone enamored of beauty will shiver in the barn of the Reformation, just as Winckelmann did, and feel the pull of Rome.”

Nebel, Das Ereignis des Schönen (Stuttgart, 1953), p. 188. Quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, I: The Word Made Flesh (Ignatius,  1989), p. 121.

Note: Tracey Rowland inaccurately attributes this quote to von Balthasar in Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford, 2008), p. 133.

Grand Central NYC

My claims are simple: (1) the Bible teaches that there is a “natural” knowledge of God, and (2) the Bible teaches that the “natural” man is responsible and judged according to his knowledge of God, which entails a knowledge of his will. By “natural” knowledge and “natural” man, I do not mean “apart from God” or “apart from the supernatural.” On the contrary, all of creation is “infused” with the living God, known “in the heart” according to the moral (and aesthetic) order of creation. As such, God is known apart from his special revelation: his covenants, wherein salvation is promised and, in Christ, given. So, “natural” man is man outside of the covenant people (Israel-Church). Natural knowledge of God is, thus, not knowledge of the Law given to the Israelites and fulfilled by Christ; but, as we shall see, natural man is capable of a knowledge of God and his commandments (his will) for his creation. This knowledge is sufficient for the salvation of the natural man, even though natural man has not received knowledge of the means for his reconcilement with God. In other words, the Mediator (Christ) need not be known on this side of eternity in order for a person to be judged righteous by God and accepted into eternal life.

The first two chapters of Romans contain the most explicit statements of this so-called “natural theology.” Though it can be understood also from the Old Testament, such as the righteous judgment of Job, a non-Isrealite, in the OT, a judgment according to a faithful obedience — a righteousness — accepted by God. It should go without saying that the Bible is unanimous in teaching both a present and eschatological judgment of righteousness which includes a manifest righteousness in the person. Paul could not be more clear on this in his pneumatology, and Christ teaches nothing else. All the same, there is no bare legal standard by which a wicked-or-righteous delineation can be discerned, and, furthermore, repentance itself is considered fundamental to a righteous standing (even before the works of the Holy Spirit have been manifest in acts of charity). Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the first chapter of Romans, wherein Paul is announcing God’s judgment against all, both Jews and Gentiles, who do not honor God:

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The Ontology of Grace

December 16, 2008

"Look Up to the Skies" by ikatedeviantartcom

Many theologians are inclined to view the primary function of grace as one of contradiction or disruption of present creaturely existence. The “new creation” (Paul) is an eschatological reality. It does have current manifestations but mainly by way of revealing (a noetic category) our present abidance in sin, little by way of transforming (an ontic category) our lives into a genuine holiness. John Webster is hard to pin down on this issue, but in the following passage he expresses this (typically Protestant) view:

…the Church’s holiness is visible as it confesses its sin in penitence and faith. The Church is consecrated by the Father’s resolve, holy in Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Such holiness is not achieved perfection, but an alien holiness which is the contradiction of its very real sinfulness. The Church is holy, not because it has already attained the eschatological state of being ‘without spot or wrinkle’, but because the promise and command of the gospel have already broken into its life and disturbed it, shaking it to the core. The Church is holy only as it is exposed to judgment.

This means that, far from being a matter of confident purity, holiness is visible as humble acknowledgment of sin and as prayer for forgiveness. ‘There is no greater sinner than the Christian Church,” said Luther in his Easter Day sermon in 1531. It is in repentance, rather than in the assumption of moral pre-eminence, that holiness is visible. …Realized moral excellence does not necessarily constitute holiness and may contradict it.

Holiness, pp. 73-74

Penitence is, thus, the primary function of grace, and as a penitent people, the Church witnesses to the one alone who is holy, Jesus Christ. Not I, but Christ. “Witness,” like “reveal,” is a noetic category, at least insofar as it is signifying not one’s own reality, but another reality. Other theologians, however, are more inclined to view the primary function of grace as both condemnation and constitution. Holiness can really be predicated of the Church. Of course, the Protestant fear of this typically Catholic approach is that the Church, the objects of grace, become the focus (“look how holy we are!”, “we are justified in our acts!”), instead of the giver of grace, God, from whom all holiness exists. Hans Urs von Balthasar understands the issue well (far better than I do!), as seen in such careful distinctions as “grace is a de facto property of nature, not a de jure property.” We do not merit the grace given, much less are we entitled to it, but in the grace given we in fact do partake in the life of God — His existence as love. Here is a passage where von Balthasar expresses this understanding, against the Protestant eschatologists:

According to Catholic doctrine, grace is that self-disclosure and self-communication of God in which God no longer possesses his own divine inner life for himself but now bestows it upon the world and thereby gives the creature a share in it. Now because God is both absolute spirit and absolute Being, this sharing in God’s life must also be both something conscious and ontically real: or what amounts to the same thing, it can only be understood as simultaneously involving both an event aspect as well as an ontological aspect.

If it were merely something conscious and cognitive — that is, if God were known in his self-revelation only as a truth about himself that the creature would have to accept and to believe — then even though we might think we had been enriched by this knowledge, the gain would prove to be entirely illusory. For really all we would have gained is a view of a world to which we were otherwise forbidden entry. But this kind of merely cognitive revelation of a divine world is inherently contradictory and impossible, because God’s truth is one with his Being (this is expressed in the statement that God is love). In other words, God cannot communicate his truth without at the same time giving us access to his Being.

…God’s revelation can only be an event if something actually takes place. …In fact, if nothing actual occurs between God and man that can be expressed ontologically, then in fact what happens is…nothing at all.

The Theology of Karl Barth, pp. 364-5

Of course, the problem remains, as von B notes elsewhere, that the Christian is indeed, in some sense, both sinner and saint. In our pre-resurrection existence, sin is real — but holiness is also real. Both penitence and charity can and do constitute the visible holiness of the Church, as indeed even John Webster notes the Church’s “constitutive character of its holiness” (p. 76) in its prayer for God’s enactment of his holiness in the Church.

Believing and Seeing

December 15, 2008

Roland Recht

Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals
by Roland Recht, Professor of Art History, University of Strasbourg
Translated by Mary Whittall
University of Chicago Press 2008, 392 pages, hardcover

This looks to be an essential book for any person with a love for the theology and philosophy of medieval architecture. Here is what Matthew Alderman (blog) says of it in his review for the latest issue of First Things (Jan. 2009):

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Under his watchful eye, we discover the physics and metaphysics of sight that defined the medieval experience of liturgy, as shown through the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the life of the eminently visible St. Francis. Through an examination of architectural precedent and contemporary texts, medieval architects and their patrons are transformed from naive Ruskinian builders and close-minded clerics to skilled, self-aware professionals such as the learned “doctor of stones,” Pierre de Montreuil, and intellectual clients and connoisseurs such as the antiquarian bishop Henry of Blois. Gothic architecture itself is released from the straightjacket of stereotype and allowed to stand on its own as a classically self-contained system with its own rules, geometries, and formulae, intellectual as well as liturgical.

At the same time, Gothic sculpture and painting is re-contextualised by the consideration of its various functions within medieval worship and society, re-establishing distinctions between various traditional artistic typologies previously blurred or ignored. We even get a glimpse into some overlooked aspects of the medieval workshop such as the highly paid craftsmen who, with polychromy and gilt, brought life to pale, stony sculpture. Along the way, we are treated to discussion of the interplay between reality and stylization, as well as the use and transmission of types and precedent. While Recht reminds us that the medieval artist was not creative in the modern sense of the word, the results of his labor could still be appreciated spiritually and intellectually on many levels.

What has often been reduced to pious simplicity by the faithful and secular alike is now rediscovered as vibrant, sophisticated, and flexibly intellectual. Whatever viewpoint one brings to Gothic architecture, one’s understanding of medieval art will be challenged and enhanced by Recht’s scholarly, measured panorama.

Scotland hills

December 12, 2008

Here are some of my pictures from a walk, back in the spring, through the Scotland countryside, about 30 miles west of Aberdeen. The Church of Scotland chaplain at Aberdeen voluntarily organizes these walks for any who want to partake. During the walk, I fondly remember arguing about T. F. Torrance with another C of S minister, and Phd. student, who thought Torrance had an undue influence on a generation of C of S ministers — blasphemy! I set him straight. And the weather was lovely.

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Click to enlarge.

Cows

hills

sheep

hills

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

There’s a new group of biblical scholars setting to determine points of consensus on the historical Jesus. They’re calling themselves, “The Jesus Project,” as the Christian Post reports. The CP quotes a former professor of mine at UNC Charlotte, James Tabor (author, The Jesus Dynasty): “the Jesus Project repudiates any theological agendas, special pleading, or dogmatic presuppositions.” That certainly sounds like Professor Tabor, who taught my New Testament course wherein he assured us that Jesus was just another failed apocalyptic messiah, whose corpse rotted long ago. Among his extensive work on NT origins, Tabor has been in the process of doing a new translation of the Bible because, as he told us, the NRSV and all other translations are too Christian, i.e., tainted by “theological agendas, special pleading, or dogmatic presuppositions.” I have to grant Professor Tabor one thing: he taught me that the Bible was a theological text, created by (broadly speaking) theologians. As a committed agnostic, his task is to simply recognize the theological intent as it shapes the history. Belief shapes facts; reverse this belief-shaped construction and discover the fact. Tabor, being a very smart man, is quite confident in his ability to discover the fact, with the help of his fellow scholars.

All of this leads to the interesting question of whether a secular university can have theologians on staff, which, given a broader definition, would include historians, literary critics, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, etc. who believe in a Christian interpretation of reality. Religious Studies departments in America have, with very few exceptions, rejected theology as a legitimate discipline in the public university, and, thus, they do not hire scholars engaged in constructive Christian dogmatics. Most other departments (history, philosophy, psychology, etc.) would likewise reject a candidate who explicitly claims Christian faith as integral to their hermeneutic. In order to be counted among the true scholars, you have to claim an agnostic/secular hermeneutic (i.e., a hermeneutic without God) tethered to a logical positivism of universally-accessible material. Christian scholars are caught in a predicament because they believe in a God known according to faith in a moral regeneration. As such, it is the “will” that determines truth for the Christian — at least, that is how our secular counterparts will interpret it, and they are right insofar as the will must change in order to recognize truth. But, the whole modern secular university is built upon the principle that the mind alone — reason alone — is the only legitimate faculty for claiming knowledge. Thus, only that which can be logically demonstrated is appropriate in the public university.

That is what virtually all of my professors believed, and, thus, we are in an odd predicament in America in that our tax dollars support educational institutions with a decidedly anti-Christian modus operandi. We have bought the lie that “secular objectivity” is a value-free and religiously-neutral concept. I will, as with most things, blame my parents’ generation. Thanks a lot, baby boomers! Idiots.

Some nostalgia

December 10, 2008

“Jesus Freak” by dc Talk was pretty much the  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana) for the Christian music world. If you grew-up in an evangelical household in the ’90’s, you know how influential this song and album were. Most contemporary Christian music (CCM) before the mid-90’s was awful — cheap music, shallow lyrics — similar to much of mainstream rock before Nirvana broke through. “Jesus Freak,” title track to dc Talk’s fourth album (released Nov. 21, 1995), signaled a major shift in CCM. Other equally talented bands, with creative and meaningful lyrics, rose at the same time, finally giving Christians some CCM worth listening to and passing on to friends: notably, Jars of Clay’s self-titled debut (Oct. 24, 1995), Newsboys’ Take Me to Your Leader (Feb. 20, 1996), and Audio Adrenaline’s Bloom (Feb. 20, 1996). All of these bands would dominate CCM until the “praise & worship” phenomenon of this decade (David Crowder Band, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, to name a few). So, contrary to many expectations, CCM has actually shifted toward an even more exlipicit Christian sound and lyrics with the hymn-like quality of praise & worship; although many bands continue in the tradition of dc Talk, Jars of Clay, etc. (such as Jeremy Camp, Brooke Fraser, Needtobreathe, to name a few).

So, there’s a brief history of CCM. And now the song that inspired a generation (well, of evangelicals):