Monday, October 5, 2015

God's Unfathomable Goodness

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  (Rom 3:22-25)

And here pious Christian hearts justly ought to consider the unspeakable goodness of God, that God does not immediately cast from Himself into hell-fire this corrupt, perverted, sinful material, but forms and makes from it the present human nature, which is lamentably corrupted by sin, in order that He may cleanse it from all sin, sanctify, and save it by His dear Son.

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration I.39

He Spoke. You Weren't Listening

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.  (John 1:14, 18)

“But,” say my opponents, “if Christ was God, why did He appear in human shape, and why was He cut off by death after the manner of men?”

Could that power which is invisible, and which has no bodily substance, have come upon earth and adapted itself to the world and mixed in human society, otherwise than by taking to itself some covering of a more solid substance, which might bear the gaze of the eyes, and on which the look of the least observant might fix itself?  For what mortal is there who could have seen Him, who could have distinguished Him, if He had decreed to come upon the earth such as He is in His own primitive nature, and such as He has chosen to be in His own proper character and divinity?  Therefore, He took upon Himself the form of man; and under the likeness of our race He enclosed His power, so that He could be seen and carefully regarded, might speak and teach, and without encroaching on the sovereignty and government of the King Supreme, might carry out all those objects for the accomplishment of which He had come into the world.

“What, then,” says my opponent, “could not the Supreme Ruler have brought about those things which He had ordained to be done in the world, without feigning Himself a man?”

If it were necessary to do as you say, He perhaps would have done so—because it was not necessary, He acted otherwise.  The reasons why He chose to do it in this way, and did not choose to do it in that, are unknown, being involved in so great obscurity, and comprehensible by scarcely any.  You might perhaps have understood if you were not already prepared not to understand them and were not boldly preparing yourself for unbelief before what you sought to know and to hear was explained to you.

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans, I.60-61

Friday, October 2, 2015

We Believe, Teach, and Confess

In the Lutheran confessions, The Epitome of the Formula of Concord regularly uses the phrase “we believe, teach, and confess” to explicitly state doctrinal points held by those within the Lutheran branch of the reformation.  The authors of the document are to be commended for the regular usage of these words as they give a threefold understanding of how we are to grasp the faith and make it known.  In this post I would like to examine what it means to believe, teach, and confess.

What we believe is based on the accumulation of facts and propositions.  As data are assimilated, adjustments can and will be made in order to properly categorize the input into relevant models for further mental processing.  When the data agree with already held views, the sorting process occurs rather easily, even subliminally.  Where conflicting, however, the individual must either abandon the new data as fallacious or make shifts in order to recategorize and reestablish systems of thought.  Even when no new fact becomes available, we review our understanding according to our environment and make adjustments accordingly.  Also, because belief is individual, there can be as many variations of comprehension and opinion as there are combinations of stimuli.  In order to establish a consistent system, a focused, disciplined pattern of instruction orients the person through a combination of truth claims and conclusions—one building on another.  As the individual grasps the concepts, the mind is ordered accordingly, so that new data and stimuli are more properly evaluated.

Belief systems manifest themselves in the way we order our lives and interact with one another.  The interactions teach, both implicitly and explicitly, what the beliefs are.  The setting is of no consequence.  Whether a teacher-student setting or a conversation, beliefs are communicated.  The instructor (i.e., the one communicating beliefs) will offer what has been learned through a combination of formal instruction and experience.  It is the former that should be prominent when laying down precepts, while the latter is useful for example or application.  This is an important distinction.  The reverse leads to unreasoned (and unreasonable) thinking, therefore instruction is be rooted in a framework serving as the reference point from which the data and concepts flow.  In a codified form, this framework digests and systematizes the body of knowledge from an objective base.  Multiple professional fields utilize such documents to standardize their bodies of knowledge for future instruction and reference.  These bodies of knowledge are created collaboratively by experts in their respective fields as standard works.

Christianity has a body of knowledge that is similarly assembled in that it has multiple writers that added their works over time, however a key difference is in the direct hand of God as Author and Editor overseeing the entire project.  The Lord revealed Himself at the beginning, and as time wore on, further revealed His nature, immediate plans, and future hope.  This historical backdrop,though appropriate for revealing the story of man’s redemption in Christ, requires those who understanding this unfolding aspect to accurately teach what the Almighty had given and to Whom and what He was pointing.  The final product is a largely narrative recounting of a Divine hand moving man toward a final end of full and complete reconciliation, restoration, and renewal of all things in Christ.

Because of Scripture’s narrative nature, men have attempted to assemble concise statements as useful tools for both learning and communicating the faith.  In the time of the early church, three were written that continue regular use today: Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  These creedal formulae range in length depending on the degree of specificity needed to ensure understanding and clarity of the subject matter and would later be incorporated into larger confessional documents.  Over time, larger confessional documents (e.g., Augsburg Confession, Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], London Baptist Confession of Faith [LBCF]) were constructed, reflecting the framers’ understanding of Holy Writ within the context of cultural and theological struggles within the Church.  Even those denominational bodies with no stated confessional document (“no creed but the Bible” or “no creed but Christ”) operate in accord with the twentieth-century multi-volume work The Fundamentals, edited by A. C. Dixon and later by R. A. Torrey.

This does not absolve responsibility to know the Scriptures themselves.  Only by being constant and regular in their study do we maintain a steady course.  The Scriptures are the norm by which all confessions are normed (norma normans, Latin for “the norming norm”).  Confessional statements must be formed and checked against God’s word to ensure trustworthy transmission and correct understanding.  However, before the invention of the printing press, personal copies of the Bible were not available, therefore the creeds, along with liturgies and hymns, were invaluable to communicate Law and Gospel.  Even with the modern proliferation of Bible editions available today those ignorant or immature in spiritual matters need systematized collections to group the major truths of doctrine.  Similarly, those mature in the faith find the confessions and creeds useful for teaching the doctrines of God, aiding the ability to hold fast to and pass along the truth.

When Worlds Collide
While we order our belief systems to make sense of all we have received, there are times when logical contradictions arise.  Somewhere within the stream of Bible – Confession – Teaching – Belief there arises a disconnect, internally to the body of doctrine or externally through interrelation with the world, so that two or more held facts or conceptions come into conflict.  What should be a self-checking system of discipleship moves gradually off course, resulting in beliefs that do not adhere with what is taught, or teaching what is not confessed, or confessing what is not inscripturated.  Individuals and groups stray from the truth delivered to them, choosing to improve what has been given with input from paganism, naturalism, etc.  What remains is a fractured body of believers, each doing what is right in his own eyes.  While affirmations are given both to the Bible and confessional statements, individuals practice a personal religion.

In order to accommodate the individuality, denominational bodies shift their teaching to allow for the diversity of opinion.  Where a conflict arises with a confession, the document is relegated to an historical status much as a museum piece—interesting to look at, but irrelevant for the present—and where the conflict is with the Bible itself, interpretations are manufactured to soften the clear word of God in favor of the contemporary focus.  There is now no end of confusion and discord: Presbyterians jettison the WCF; Baptists ignore the LBCF; Lutherans cast off the Book of Concord; and Roman Catholics discard the canons.  This manifests itself with individuals and groups within a denominational framework advocating for positions opposed to the confessions they supposedly hold onto.

Peace for Our Time—Only in Christ
Read your confessional documents.  I am constantly surprised by those who refer to themselves as being of groups with well-defined confessions and catechisms but have never read any beyond what was required to be confirmed. Then abide by your confessional documents.  If you no longer agree, affirm the difference, leave that confessional stance, and find a group more aligned to your beliefs.  If you no longer believe in Reformed principles, go to the group most closely aligned with your principles.  Do not call yourself Reformed (or Lutheran or Baptist or whatever you are leaving).  Instead, people want to stay within their respective bodies, hoping to influence it away from its moorings.  This tactic has a storied history in Christendom.  Montanus, Arius, and Pelagius were early purveyors of new ideas within the Church who needed to be resisted.  And lest there be a bit of Pharisaical pride in the non-confessional camp for not being like “those groups” feuding over confessional statements—the “non-con” wing of Christianity seems more likely to be cock-eyed pragmatists, working toward Christian unity for the sake of unity regardless of harmful the instruction by wolves fomenting discord.

Regardless of our opinion towards confessions, read your Bible.  Listen to it being taught.  Study it in context.  Memorize it.  Bind God’s word as a sign on your hand, and let it be as frontlets between your eyes, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:8-9).  The commands of the Lord should be ubiquitous—a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (Psa 119:105).  Shepherds, be faithful in leading the flock to green pastures and still waters.  Make disciples: baptize and teach all that the Lord  has commanded.  We have been given a sure standard.  Believe.  Teach.  Confess.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Down Deep, We're Good?

[Original sin] is an entire absence or lack of the created state of hereditary righteousness in Paradise, or of God’s image, according to which man was originally created in truth, holiness, and righteousness.  At the same time it is an inability and unfitness for all the things of God, or, as the Latin words read: Desciptio peccati originalis detrahit naturae non renovatae et dona et vim seu facultatem et actus inchoandi et efficiendi spiritualia; that is: The definition of original sin takes away from the unrenewed nature the gifts, the power, and all activity for beginning and effecting anything in spiritual things.

That original sin (in human nature) is not only this entire absence of all good in spiritual, divine things, but that, instead of the lost image of God in man, it is at the same time also a deep, wicked, horrible, fathomless, inscrutable, and unspeakable corruption of the entire nature and all its powers, especially of the highest, principal powers of the soul in the understanding, heart, and will.  So now, since the Fall, man inherits an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, evil lust and propensity.  We all by disposition and nature inherit from Adam such a heart, feeling, and thought as are, according to their highest powers and the light of reason, naturally inclined and disposed directly contrary to God and His chief commandments.  Yes, they are hostile toward God, especially as regards divine and spiritual things.  For in other respects, as regards natural, external things which are subject to reason, man still has to a certain degree understanding, power, and ability, although very much weakened, all of which, however, has been so infected and contaminated by original sin that before God it is of no use.

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration I.10-12

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Our pastor is leading a study on prayer, and this past Sunday he used Psalm 145 as a text, emphasizing the two reason why we pray: God is worthy, and we are needy.  In other words, praise and worship is as integral within prayer as the requests we bring.  During discussions at our small group Sunday evening, one person mentioned in passing that there are times of agony rather than worship.  Later, I thought of a piece by Chad Bird earlier in the week: I Don’t Know How to Pray.  There are times when we do not have the words.  When those times come, there are not even enough words for the request much less any worship.  Psalmists occasionally found themselves in such situations.  Consider Psalm 88.  The closest bit of worship that might be found is in the opening line: O Lᴏʀᴅ, God of my salvation.  That’s it.  From there, Heman the Ezrahite pours out his heart in sorrow and anguish, pleading for the Lord to intervene.  There is no explicit praise but a silent acknowledgment of who God is and what He has promised, so the worship is implied.*  Your agony poured out to God is a personal act of worship for the same reason.  You are convinced by Scripture that God is faithful to His word and will intercede for our good.

In a similar vein, if you have spend enough time in the Psalms, you will notice a great deal of whining.  Most complain about a situation wherein the psalmist that God needs to handle, but interwoven within them is an acknowledgment of God’s person and work.  Another psalm is Psalm 83 in which the Asaph asks God to squash His enemies like a bug.  To what end?
Fill their faces with shame,
    that they may seek your name, O Lᴏʀᴅ.
Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever;
    let them perish in disgrace,
that they may know that you alone,
    whose name is the Lᴏʀᴅ,
    are the Most High over all the earth.  (Ps 83:16-18)
The point of the psalm is that the nations might honor and praise the Lord.  This is not exactly your typical outreach program, but again the end is the worship of the one true God.

Should there be regular times when we pour out praise to the Lord in prayer?  Absolutely, the Lord is honored and our minds are correctly adjusted when we do, but sometimes the most effective prayers—those garnering an immediate response—are closer to “Lord, do something” or Peter’s cry “Lord, save me!”

*  This is one reason why psalms are worthy for use in Christian worship.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

By Grace I'm Saved, Grace Free and Boundless

Because sometimes you just need to relish the abundance of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;
My soul, believe and doubt it not.
Why stagger at this word of promise?
Has Scripture ever falsehood taught?
No! Then this word must true remain;
By grace you too will life obtain.

By grace! None dare lay claim to merit;
Our works and conduct have no worth.
God in His love sent our Redeemer,
Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth;
His death did for our sins atone,
And we are saved by grace alone.

By grace God's Son, our only Savior,
Came down to earth to bear our sin.
Was it because of thine own merit
That Jesus died your soul to win?
No, it was grace, and grace alone,
That brought Him from His heav’nly throne.

By grace! This ground of faith is certain;
So long as God is true, it stands.
What saints have penned by inspiration,
What in His Word our God commands,
Our faith in what our God has done
Depends on grace—grace through His Son.

By grace to timid hearts that tremble,
In tribulation’s furnace tried,
By grace, in spite of fear and trouble,
The Father’s heart is open wide.
Where could I help and strength secure
If grace were not my anchor sure?

By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying;
In Jesus’ promise I rejoice;
For though I know my heart’s condition,
I also know my Savior’s voice.
My heart is glad, all grief has flown
Since I am saved by grace alone.

Text: Ephesians 2:8, 9
Author: Christian L. Scheidt, 1742, cento
Titled: “Aus Gnaden soll ich selig werden”
Composer: Kornelius H. Dretzel, 1731
Tune: “O dass ich tausend”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Get Educated about Worship

I admit to curmudgeonly responses when confronted with certain attitudes and actions surrounding worship.  (You’re welcome by the way.)  I figure that someone needs to be, since playing nice tends to be taken as affirmation of worship attempts that are strong and boisterous in volume and enthusiasm, but weak and feeble in content.  Matters are not always as dreary as I make them to be.

Recently, I came across three blog posts at Reformed Worship that deal with the relation of worship and education.  The first by Joy Engelsman, entitled Worship and Learning, is a response to someone who insisted that worship was to be experienced, not educational.  One good takeaway from the piece was this paragraph:
Learning is an integral part of worship in the reformed tradition because it reinforces key tenets of our theological understanding.  Learning requires integration of a person’s mind/body/soul-spirit rather than emphasizing separation.  Worship-learning is covenantal as we learn from each other and assist each other in the learning process.  Learning offers us the humility posture of discovering God in his Word and world.
I would replace “reformed tradition” with “the Church” but otherwise her thoughts are accurate.  She understands that worship is a time wherein we teach one another the truth of Scripture, and if the singing, speaking, teaching, etc. is not delivering or communicating the truth of what we confess, then the  message is the problem, regardless of medium.

Next, there are blog posts by Syd Hielema in a two-part series thus far: Reflections on Worship Education, and Worship Education Part II: Backdoor Worship Education.  The first describes what happens when a worshiper is educated on what worship entails and how critical-thinking skills develop to evaluate worship.  Proper instruction should deepen the worship because the experience is more informed than felt.  As the post states, “Our first responses to worship tend to be somewhat visceral; our “gut” guides our engagement.”  This is how too many congregations see worship—focus on the emotions.  The author rightly goes on to say
When that visceral response is partly shaped by an awareness of the biblical foundations of worship, its historical unfolding, the purposes of the various parts of the liturgy and the complementary ways in which different generations and varying temperaments enter into worship, that response will tend to be less reactive and hold a greater capacity for integrating one’s personal response within a corporate response.
In other words, when worshipers understand the scope, purpose, etc. of worship, they move from an individual response to a corporate response.

The second post looks at how to educate people on worship, primarily during the worship itself.  The author points out that “Worship requires education.”  This is most certainly true, and most of the education will happen via the backdoor method of learning through doing and by snippets of teaching throughout.  For example, he mentions the following:
Worship leaders learn to slip short phrases and sentences as they lead that almost “trick” the community into growing educationally (but in a good way, of course).
At this point, I offer a caveat, in that some of the teaching points mentioned deal more with social justice than sound doctrine and practice, but the general tone is worthwhile.

Worship practice demonstrates our attitude towards the object of worship.  When we teach about ourselves in song and sermon, or do so according to personal taste, we are worshiping ourselves.  Let us be committed to teaching one another both of the God we purport to worship and what Scripture tells us is the proper conduct and content of worship.

Who’s ready for a study through Psalms?

We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lᴏʀᴅ, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.  (Psa 78:3-4)

Friday, September 4, 2015

Praise But Not Worship

Recently, I came upon a blog post by Christopher Smith, a Roman Catholic priest, entitled Let’s Revisit “Praise and Worship Music Is Praise But Not Worship,” in which he revisits to his blog post written four years prior critiquing and comparing Praise & Worship (P&W) music in relation to the liturgy.  I was fascinated by the enumerated points, because they gave more light to the problem of a P&W steady diet.  Here are his observations:
  1. P&W music assumes that praise is worship.
  2. P&W music assumes that worship is principally something we do.
  3. P&W music assumes as its first principle relevance.
  4. P&W music assumes as its second principle the active participation of a certain age group.
  5. P&W music self-consciously divides the Church into age and taste groups.
  6. P&W music subverts Biblical and liturgical texts during the Mass.
  7. P&W music assumes that there can be a core of orthodox Catholic teaching independent of the Church’s liturgical law and tradition.
  8. P&W music consciously manipulates the emotions so as to produce a catharsis seen as necessary for spiritual conversion.
  9. P&W music confuses transcendence with feeling.
  10. P&W music denies the force of liturgical and musical law in the Church in favor of arbitrary and individualist interpretations of worship.
  11. P&W music prizes immediacy of comprehension and artistic ease over the many-layered meaning of the liturgy and artistic excellence.
In order to understand his points more fully, you need to read the original post which fleshes out each point.  (Those of my readers firmly ensconced in Evangelicalism will look at this list in befuddlement, wondering what it has to do with them since they do not have a liturgy.  Of course, they do not realize that they actually do have one, however informal it might be, and things are communicated by the type of liturgy used.  But I digress.)  Do you notice the pattern?  P&W music is shown to be either an incomplete expression of worship or something antithetical to the purpose of worship.

He ends with a list of corrective to be remembered:
  1. The Church’s musical and liturgical tradition is an integral part of worship, and not a fancy addition.
  2. While Praise is a high form of individual and small group prayer, it is not Worship as the Church understands the corporate public prayer of the Liturgy.
  3. Worship is not principally something that we do: it is the self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit, the fruits of which are received in Holy Communion. Worship is Sacrifice and Sacrament, not Praise.  
  4. Relevance is irrelevant to a liturgy which seeks to bring man outside of space and time to the Eternal.
  5. Participation in the liturgy is principally interior, by the union of the soul with the Christ who celebrates the liturgy.  Any externalizations of that interior participation are meaningless unless that interior participation is there.
  6. The Church’s treasury of sacred music is not the province of one social-economic, age, cultural, or even religious group.  It is the common patrimony of humanity and history.
  7. The Church must sing the Mass, i.e., the biblical and liturgical texts contained in the Missal and Gradual, and not sing at Mass man-made songs, if it is to be the corporate Worship of the Church and not just Praise designed by a select group of people.
  8. Orthodox Catholic teaching on faith and morals must always be accompanied by respect for the Church’s liturgical and musical teaching and laws.
  9. The deliberate intention to manipulate human emotions to produce a religious effect is abusive, insincere, and disrespectful of God’s power to bring about conversion in the hearts of man.
  10. While music does affect the emotions, sacred music must always be careful to prefer the transcendent holiness of God over the immanent emotional needs of man.
  11. The Church’s treasury of sacred music inspires and requires the highest attention to artistic excellence.  It is also an unfathomable gift to the Church, and must be presented to the faithful so that they may enjoy that rich gift.
My readers will balk at number three and rightfully so.  Jesus is not being presented once again as an offering: that work is done. However it is useful to point out that where Evangelicals will see worship as one way (us to God), the historic view is that of dialogue.  Worship begins with God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, and we respond, then more revelation, then more response, back and forth throughout the service.

Read both posts.  You may not understand the terminology or moving parts of liturgy, but consider the points mentioned in view of what your local assembly practices.  Maybe something will shake loose in a good way.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

What of Crucifixes and Other Images?

This past Sunday, Tim Challies posted a piece entitled Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix.  Because of my social network connections, I saw several responses both pro and con on the issue.  The lines were typically drawn along lines with Protestants opposing images in worship or worship area (Challies’ use of Knowing God by J. I. Packer is standard reasoning) and Lutherans supporting (see here for an example).

Being one who enjoys rooting out the Early Church position on such things, I took to the Ante-Nicene Fathers for some explicit instruction on or interaction with Exodus 20:3-6 and Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 5:8-10, since most of the discussion revolved around these texts.

Irenaeus – Explaining Paul distinction between the true God and false gods in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6:
For he has made a distinction, and separated those which are indeed called gods, but which are none, from the one God the Father, from whom are all things, and, he has confessed in the most decided manner in his own person, one Lord Jesus Christ.  But in this, “whether in heaven or in earth,” he does not speak of the formers of the world, as these [teachers] expound it; but his meaning is similar to that of Moses, when it is said, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image for God, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  And he does thus explain what are meant by the things in heaven: “Lest when,” he says, “looking towards heaven, and observing the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the ornament of heaven, falling into error, you should adore and serve them.”

Clement of Alexandria – In a section explaining the absurdity of using images of created things for pagan worship:
But images, being motionless, inert, and senseless, are bound, nailed, glued,—are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved. The senseless earth is dishonored by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images.  For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand.  But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God.… For we are expressly prohibited from exercising a deceptive art: “For you shall not make,” says the prophet, “the likeness of anything which is in heaven above or in the earth beneath.”

Tertullian – Combating the argument of those who try to separate the use of idols from their manufacture:
Yet idolatry used to be practiced, not under that name, but in that function; for even at this day it can be practiced outside a temple, and without an idol.  But when the devil introduced into the world artificers of statues and of images, and of every kind of likenesses, that former rude business of human disaster attained from idols both a name and a development.  Thenceforward every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry.… God prohibits an idol as much to be made as to be worshiped.  In so far as the making what may be worshiped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make (if the worship is unlawful) the prior prohibition.  For this cause—the eradicating, namely, of the material of idolatry—the divine law proclaims, “You shall make no idol;” and by conjoining, “Nor a likeness of the things which are in the heaven, and which are in the earth, and which are in the sea,” has interdicted the servants of God from acts of that kind all the universe over.

Origen – In an effort to correct Celsus’ understanding Jewish responsibility to the righteous Law of God:
[I]f one will examine their polity from its first beginning, and the arrangement of their laws, he will find that they were men who represented upon earth the shadow of a heavenly life, and that among them God is recognized as nothing else, save He who is over all things, and that among them no maker of images was permitted to enjoy the rights of citizenship.  For neither painter nor image-maker existed in their state, the law expelling all such from it; that there might be no pretext for the construction of images,—an art which attracts the attention of foolish men, and which drags down the eyes of the soul from God to earth.  There was, accordingly, among them a law to the following effect: “Do not transgress the law, and make to yourselves a graven image, any likeness of male or female; either a likeness of any one of the creatures that are upon the earth, or a likeness of any winged fowl that flies under the heaven, or a likeness of any creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, or a likeness of any of the fishes which are in the waters under the earth.”   The law, indeed, wished them to have regard to the truth of each individual thing, and not to form representations of things contrary to reality, feigning the appearance merely of what was really male or really female, or the nature of animals, or of birds, or of creeping things, or of fishes.  Venerable, too, and grand was this prohibition of theirs: “Do not lift up your eyes unto heaven, lest, when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the host of heaven, you should be led astray to worship them, and serve them.”

From the above and other references not used, we can see that images were not forbidden, but the main concern was the use of images for worship as a representation of God, who had no form, as well as the fear of men worshiping the object itself or assigning divinity to a created being or object through the use of the image.  In summary, they saw the same danger mentioned by Moses (Deut 4:15-19) before Israel crossed the Jordan to possess the land.  Mankind is sinful and will misuse every good thing (compare Nu 21:8-9 with 2Ki 18:4; see also Rom 1:22-25).

Man’s propensity to use something to his own end does not preclude its proper use.  After all, Israel had multiple images before them as they worshiped through their annual cycle.  God had given explicit instructions as to what images were to be in the construction, but left the final impressions to the artisans in charge.

The period after Jesus’ ascension is more problematic with no explicit instructions concerning the use of images, though the book of Revelation is replete with imagery.  Whether one takes the book literally or figuratively, there is no mistaking the visual and aural effect on John, those under the throne, and the host of heaven, especially concerning the New Jerusalem and River of Life.  Couple this with Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple (Ezek 40 infra.)—again, whether it has a literal or figurative fulfillment—and we have a powerful display of worship imagery in the Final Kingdom.

Here some will counter that the aforementioned images were given by God Himself and are therefore permitted.  I agree that they were, but if we take that to its logical conclusion, no church building can have any ornamentation in its worship space: crosses, nativity sets, anything that can represent the Trinity or an individual Person, must be stripped from the room.

Or is the real reason that we do not like seeing the suffering, dying Savior in the act.  The crucifixion was a terrible thing for Him to endure, and modern representations actually sanitize the scene.  He was beaten mercilessly and was nailed to the tree naked for public derision.  So, yes, crucifixes misrepresent by making the scene socially acceptable.  I will grant you that one.

Another opposing argument is that the cross is now empty: Jesus came down and rose from the grave.  That reasoning has some merit, but He is also not in the manger, on the road to Emmaus, praying in Gethsemane, speaking with Mary outside the tomb, or in multiple other scenes typically found in worship spaces.  The work of redemption is complete, once for all time and all people.  I get that.  In order to offset this objection, maybe a small Ascension or Christus Rex cross should be placed in front of a crucifix to get the full effect of the redemptive victory.  There is at least one church building that has this arrangement.  Some juxtaposition of the two scenes could work powerfully.

I am neither an iconodule nor an iconoclast.  If images are used, they need to be used with utmost care.  I have always enjoyed a good mosaic or stain-glassed window depicting a biblical scene or text, but the wholesale veneration of icons agreed upon at the Second Council of Nicaea bothers me.  Do they aid worship?  Yes, they can.  Do they detract from worship?  Again, yes, they can.  I take a similar stance as Martin Luther, who initially was not certain that images were useful but finally concluded that they are adiaphora, so handle with care.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

And When You Fail …

The final chapter of the book of Joshua is rather sad.  The godly leader gave a farewell address in which he recounts God’s hand in leading Israel from past history to that time.  At the end of this, Joshua admonished the people to be faithful in following the Lord to which the people agreed.  Joshua then lowers the boom:
But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lᴏʀᴅ, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.”  (Jos 24:19)
Notice that Joshua did not say that the people would not serve the Lord, he said they could not.  Every good intention to obey the Law was summarily decimated as Joshua makes clear that they did not have the ability to follow through.  I will be the first to admit that every time through the chapter, I assumed that Joshua was following the same speech that Moses had used before entering the Promised Land:
Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.  For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are.  Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lᴏʀᴅ.  How much more after my death!  (Deut 31:26-27)
Both Joshua and Moses had strong rebukes for the people of Israel who went into the land of Canaan.  One wonders if those who entered were any better than their parents who died in the wilderness.

The people did not suffer from a lack of desire.  Just before Joshua gave his pronouncement, they assured Joshua that they knew Who had led them and fought for them.
Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lᴏʀᴅ to serve other gods, for it is the Lᴏʀᴅ our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.  And the Lᴏʀᴅ drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.  Therefore we also will serve the Lᴏʀᴅ, for he is our God.  (Jos 24:16-18)
They were confident in their ability to be faithful and continue in the way of the Lord, but history tells us that Joshua was correct.  What was the problem?

First, the people were blind to their condition.  Thinking they were standing, they failed to take heed and fell.  We can attempt to write this off as nominal believers gone bad, and we would somehow do better; but most of contemporary Western Christianity also prefers bending to the prevailing culture rather than stand firm on the truth of Scripture.  In other words, we are just as susceptible to corruption as the Israelites of old.  We fail, individually and corporately, in grand scale.  Nobody is beyond the truth that “sin is crouching at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7).  Election does not insulate from transgression.

Second, the children of Israel were ignorant as to the extent of their condition. Joshua is not just identifying a weakness in their resolve, he wanted to move toward the root problem: the bad with which they needed to deal came from within.  Moses recognized this about the people as he continued his discourse (introduced above):
Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them.  For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you.  And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lᴏʀᴅ, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.  (Deut 31:28-29)
Much later, God tells the nation through Jeremiah:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?  (Jer 17:9)
And finally, the Lord Jesus lays out the issue clearly:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.  (Mark 7:20-23)
We are naturally rotten.  We are our own worst enemies.  What we have from conception onward is utterly corrupt (Psa 51:5), being passed from one generation to another because of Adam’s sin.  You were born to fail.

As dismal the inevitability of perpetual failure might be, throughout the warp and woof of history is a thread of redemption and hope.  From the very beginning of sin entering this world, God had promised both a plan and one who would carry it to fruition.  He would set all things right.  A great irony in this grand plan is that the Word of God that the people of Israel, even all mankind since Adam, have spurned became the very thing that won mankind’s redemption and paid the ransom, once for all.  What was revealed to Adam, Noah, Moses, Joshua, etc. was not just a communication from God to man (as wondrous as that might be) but was the living Word of God.  The second person of the godhead, the Son, Logos of God, took on human nature and died at the hand of His creation that He might put to nothing all that Satan accomplished at the Fall and win mankind for Himself.  Not only that, He who is living and active inscripturated became incarnate, walked among us, and explained the Father to us that we might have the revelation that both qualifies us and makes us complete in Him.

What we lacked in ability to perform or tried to over-compensate for has now been accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord, who willingly went to the cross for our sin and made peace between God and man.  What love and grace!  Now, because we still have the old man working in us, there are times when we fail—we sin, but we have access before God to confess our sin and be cleansed of its guilt.  We have an advocate before the Father who ever lives to make intercession for us as our great High Priest before the Father, and His blood on the Mercy Seat speaks better things than all the animal sacrifices could ever perform on our behalf.

We will fail, and when we do, there is a loving God and Savior who bids us come, be cleansed, and rest in the joy of deliverance and peace.