The Idol in the Sanctuary

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A few blog posts ago, I wrote about the push in the Episcopal Church to feminize the name of God.  I made a statement towards the end: “If that is not already idolatry, we can be confident that idolatry will be the final fruit.”  But, of course, things do not always happen in a linear fashion.  They may not have yet succeeded at changing the prayer book, but two years ago they displayed a crucifix with a female “Christa” in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York.

As the New Yok Times relates, the deteriorating Episcopal Church (the article said “Evolving,” but I fixed it for them) has decided that while the fundamentalist 1980s may have been too soon to display a female version of Jesus in the cathedral, the enlightened 2010s are a different story.

The cathedral’s dean back in 1984 was willing to display the sculpture, but “A controversy erupted, complete with hate mail attacking it as blasphemous;” now, it might have been “hate mail” indeed, but if the only thing supposedly hateful about it was that it labeled this sculpture blasphemous, it would be more accurately referred to as ‘truth mail.’  In the end, New York had a bishop sensible enough back then to override the dean’s authority and sent the abomination packing.

Not so in 2016.  “It was startling then [in 1984],” said the sculptor, “Now?  Well, we have women bishops now.”  Indeed, that might be a connection worth exploring; minimally, it suggests that once you surrender the hermeneutical battlefield, it’s only a matter of time before you lose the doctrinal war.

The blasphemous sculpture is quite welcome by the NY Episcopal hierarchy of today.  Grief and righteous anger are both appropriate responses to the current Episcopal bishop of New York’s statement that “In an evolving, growing, learning church we may be ready to see ‘Christa’ not only as a work of art but as an object of devotion, over our altar, with all of the challenges that may come with that for many visitors to the cathedral, or indeed, perhaps for all of us.”

The first ‘challenge’ that comes to mind is the combined blasphemy and idolatry.  A specific ‘challenge’ that having the sculpture as an object of devotion in the cathedral might pose for the dean, bishop, etc., would be something along the lines of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:6, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (NIV)

But the deepest challenge is the theological message.  True, the statue was sculpted on a whim, and it is hard to tell how much forethought went into considering whether or not to display it.  But there is a necessary background of theological distortion needed for people to undertake something so obviously blasphemous.  It requires a sense that God’s revelation is arbitrary and ours to distort at will, a sense that we may freely mold the Son of God into a shape of our own choosing.

The similarity to the attack upon masculine names and titles for God is obvious, but Christa is an even more explicit instance of revolt against revelation.  For Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate self-revelation to mankind.  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1-2).  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

We cannot improve on God’s perfect revelation.  We cannot change Jesus for the better.  But we can distort the Word of God, as in the case of Christa—to the spiritual harm of those who are influenced by it, and the shame of those who promote it.

Yet for the faithful there remains a comfort in the midst of chaos.  People can only distort a presentation of Christ; they cannot distort Christ Himself.  He remains the promised Savior, the one the prophet foretold, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), and who will yet return, as envisioned by John the evangelist, and be seen by all as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19:16).

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Sufficient Praise

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“O most merciful God, whose mercies are as high as the heavens, great and many as the moments of eternity; fill my soul, I beseech Thee, with great thoughts of Thy unspeakable blessings, that my thankfulness may be as great as my needs of mercy are.  Let Thy loving-kindness endure for ever and ever upon me; and, because I cannot praise Thee according to Thy excellence, take my soul, in due time, into the land of everlasting praises, that I may spend a whole eternity in ascribing to Thy Name praise, and honor, and dominion.  Grant this for Jesus Christ’s sake–Amen.”

-Jeremy Taylor, quoted in Great Souls at Prayer, 326.

God the King

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“I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever.” (Psalm 145:1, NIV)

One of the central concerns of theology is learning to speak rightly of God.  At its most basic level this is not such a hard thing to learn when we follow God’s lead and listen to what He has said.  But when secular culture is allowed to lead, you can very quickly get very far off track.  ‘Too many chefs spoil the pudding,’ and in theology two is too many.

Case in point, the discussion in the Episcopal Church this summer.  As described by this article in the Washington Post, there are parties within the denomination advocating revisions to their Book of Common Prayer to make references to God gender-neutral.  Thus far the measure has not succeeded, but high-level voices advocating it are there.

The Washington Post article is informative on many levels.  Note the lack of integrity, that Wil Gafney (Episcopal priest and professor at Brite Divinity School) admits to changing the words used in worship, despite this being against her church’s rules.  Note the driving interest given to contemporary social justice concerns.  Note the interest in more autonomy for local ministers (if that’s what you want, why are you Episcopalian?).

But the main issue is the movement away from male terms for God.  Calling God Father, or King, etc., is thought to stand in the way of gender equality or communicate a wrong picture of God–at least, unless such titles are counter-balanced with feminine titles.  This is motivated by a sense that exclusively masculine language for God is grounded in outmoded traditions, and that with contemporary understanding a change is due.

The guiding force is the secularization of the Episcopal Church.  The social concerns of our culture are given priority over the teachings of Scripture.  The wisdom of the world has displaced the wisdom of God.

But the Bible is God’s written Word, inspired, truthful, and trustworthy.  In Scripture we have God’s teaching about how we ought address Him–and that teaching leads us to address Him with exclusively masculine titles and pronouns.  It is not tradition but divine revelation that leads us to call God “Father” instead of “mother.”

There are occasional feminine images related to God in the Bible, as when God compares His kindness towards His people to the care of a mother for her child (Isaiah 66:13).  But these images constitute neither feminine titles of address nor feminine pronouns of description; such images do not nullify the fact that in the Scriptures God is always He, not she, always King, not queen, always Lord, not lady.  That does not mean God is male.  That does not mean women are less valuable than men.  But it does mean that God has expressed His names and identity in a certain way, and we ought to pay attention.  God’s own self-description comes in masculine titles; we are not on safe ground to reject this.

As an interesting aside, there is mention of a “Queen of Heaven” in the Bible–five times in the book of Jeremiah.  Her worship is listed among the pagan practices of idolatrous Judah.  Goddesses in general are mentioned many times in the Bible, always as pagan deities in contrast to the one true God.

Now, the revisionists are not entirely lacking in references to revelation.  But there is a selectivity in their approach to Scripture that shows it to be a secondary, not a foundational element in their theology.  Episcopal theologian Kelly Brown Douglas contrasts masculine language about God–which she seems to describe as “very limited, finite images of God which we are creating in our own image”, despite the fact that they clearly emerge from Scripture–with other biblical descriptions of God.  Instead of the biblical image of God as Lord, she wants “The God whose voice comes through the whirlwind”, which the article makes clear is a reference to Psalm 77:18.

“Wow!  Who is that God?” she asks.  Providentially, the same Psalm tells us, in verse 2, that this God is “the Lord.”  If her question was rhetorical, was she counting on us not reading the whole Psalm?  If her question was not rhetorical, the Scriptures have the answer, for those who will listen.

Really, the keys to the problem can be found in the article itself.  Language matters; “Our theology is what we pray,” says Jeffrey Lee, an Episcopal bishop.  Indeed, and that fact underlines the serious theological revisionism behind this proposed revision to their denomination’s prayer book.  For Kelly Brown Douglas, titles of God such as Lord are “static nouns that don’t tell us anything anyway.”  But they were supposed to tell you something; the problem is a failure to listen.  The title ‘Lord’ was supposed to tell you that God is in charge, that things should be done His way and that we should honor Him by speaking rightly of Him.

The root of the problem is rebellion against God’s authority.  That is the root of all sin.  The first budding blossom, in this case, is an attack upon the names of God.  If that is not already idolatry, we can be confident that idolatry will be the final fruit.

It may prove to be the case, in our time, that using exclusively masculine titles and pronouns for God becomes one of the litmus tests of orthodoxy.

The Holy Spirit

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Sinclair B. Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit (IVP, 1996) is an excellent introduction to pneumatology.  Ferguson is always insightful; in this case he provides a profoundly exegetical theology, well-reasoned even where one may disagree with him.  He makes a strong case for cessationism (regarding the gifts of prophecy and tongues), addressing the key passages in the debate and drawing on broader contours of history and theology.  Very good.

Who Provides the Table?

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Over at RNS, Yonat Shimron has published an interview with Eboo Patel, where he calls for a shift in our national narrative “From ‘Judeo-Christian’ to ‘Potluck Nation.’”  The basic point would seem to be that rather than identifying as a Judeo-Christian nation we should seek to be a religious potluck where everyone brings their dishes to the table.  Our nation has a history of deplorable racism that continues to rear its ugly head in recent times, but I think Patel has misunderstood both the problem and the solution.

A Christian nation would welcome immigrants and denounce racism in all its forms; the problem with America is not that we are too grounded in the Judeo-Christian heritage; it is that we have never been as grounded in that ethic as we should be.  The Old Testament consistently taught Israel to treat the foreigners living among them justly, and gave what Jesus Christ declared the two greatest commandments: to love God wholeheartedly and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Judeo-Christian morality is not the problem—it is the solution.

The ‘Potluck Nation,’ on the other hand, is highly problematic.  In Patel’s vision, “This is a country that welcomes the contributions of people of all identities to the American table because if distinct communities do not contribute, the nation does not feast.”  There are (at least) two problems with this picture.

One is that it assumes everyone is bringing good food to the potluck.  That is the basic assumption of pluralism—there is no governing standard, yet somehow everything will be good.  But what if some people bring poison?  Let’s be realists for a moment.  All identities?  Really?  ISIS is a distinct community; where shall we put their atrocities on the table?  What would the National Democratic Party of Germany contribute to the feast?  What if the Hindu caste system or Sharia law are put on the table?  Or perhaps someone wants to revive religious practices of the past, and cook up some Spanish Inquisition, forced conversion of native peoples, or Aztec human sacrifice for the potluck?

At this point the genteel pluralist would throw up their hands and say ‘of course not!  I didn’t mean that any of that should be put on the table!’  But why not?  Pluralism has no foundations, no rational reason to exclude one group or another, because its entire rationale is inclusion.  That’s why you don’t see any actual pluralists; you see people who are pluralists on the surface, but underneath (usually not very far underneath) lies some other ethical system.  In the west, it’s usually the Judeo-Christian ethical system (with pagan alterations)—even for people who are avowed atheists.  Genuine pluralism would be a feast of death.

Which leads directly to the second problem, that Patel seems not to notice that someone must set the table.  Someone must lay the base for all our cultural dishes to set on, and, indeed, police which dishes get put on the table and which are thrown out.  Green bean casserole?  Yes!  Rat stew with cyanide sauce?  No!

The desperate pluralist objects, why do we need a table?  Why can’t we lay our feast out on the earth?  We can, but all that means is we’ve moved from talking about a society to talking about the world, and that is why we live in the world we have, where some societies have freedom and others have oppression.  No, if you want to talk about a society you have to ask who is setting up the table.  The Judeo-Christian table has given us a nation with tremendous freedom.  Replace that with an atheist table and you will get the freedom one sees in China or North Korea.  Replace it with a Muslim table and you will get the freedom you see in the Muslim world.  Replace it with a pluralist table and you will get chaos as it comes crashing down because it hasn’t a leg to stand on.

That attempt to have a pluralist table is one of the reasons our society is experiencing so much turmoil.  A free society will indeed allow all kinds of unhealthy dishes on the table, within limits, because freedom means people get to believe and express foolish ideas.  But when you let foolish and wicked ideologies start to mess with the table, when you let the chef who brought the rat pie help decide what dishes get a place on the table, you’re in real trouble.  Patel’s potluck is a pipe dream, because it assumes everyone will bring good food and set a solid table together.

Of course, there will be a day when everyone brings good food to the table, because God has eradicated all evil.  God will set the table on that day, and everyone’s contributions will be part of a wonderful feast.  But on that day there will only be one religion, the Christian faith.  Pluralism will be no more.

So That We Will Not Die

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Numbers 17 contains an intriguing little story about God’s kindness and power.  The setting is the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, in a period where they have been especially prone to rebellion.  Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses’ authority, and Miriam was temporarily cursed with leprosy (Num. 12).  Not believing God’s power to give them the promised land, the Israelites first refused to enter, then when condemned to wander the desert they tried to enter without God’s permission—resulting in defeat (Num. 14).  Then some leaders of the people challenged God’s selection of Moses and Aaron, and suffered destruction (Num. 16).

All of this remains a warning to us not to reject God.  In chapter 17, God takes the initiative to forestall further rebellion.  He offers a sign to show the people He has chosen Aaron as priest and that they should follow him.  Each of the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel is to write their name on a staff and place them in the Tabernacle, and God declares He will cause the staff of His chosen one to sprout—bringing life out of dead wood.  This He does; in fact, Aaron’s staff “had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds” (Num. 17:8, NIV).

The lesson is not only what this told the people at the time—that God had chosen Aaron—nor just about His miraculous power, but also about His love.  God did not need to prove Himself.  He gave this sign out of kindness to the people, so they would believe and obey and not suffer punishment.  In verse 10 God says, “This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.”

We may not be given such overt miraculous signs, but we have been given the gift of Scripture, which tells us of God and His ways, teaches us good from evil, directs us in the way of salvation.  But there is a tragic tendency in some Christian circles to find God’s word burdensome or offensive.  Scripture is an embarrassment to some, rather than a source of joy and a reason for gratitude. 

We should always remember that God has spoken to us for our good—so that we will not die.  Sin brings death.  He has made the way for us to be forgiven, and declared to us the way of salvation, calling us to repent and believe so that we will not suffer the consequences of our sin, but will receive His forgiveness and life.

God of Small Things

God of great things:

Mountains towering,

Raging seas,

Storms fearsome and overpowering,

Stars outflung,

Cosmic depths,

Music celestial spheres have sung.

God of great things,

Glorious,

Be forever praised.

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God of small things:

Little feet,

Grasping hands,

Little hearts serene and sweet,

Little voices,

Cheerful squeals,

Babbling tongues and precious noises,

God of small things,

Glorious,

Be forever praised.

The Solace of Hope

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In Psalm 13, David cries out to God:

“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?  How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2, NIV)

            Perhaps you have felt such heart-wrenching pain.  Perhaps you have known what sorrow, depression, despair feels like.  It’s a dark and lonely place to be.  It’s a place of fear, and perhaps the worst thing about it is that there’s no end in sight.  “How long, Lord?”  Will this last forever?  Is this the last word in my life?

            When we cannot see the end, we can still know that God is with us whatever we go through.  Hope is a comfort in the darkest day, and Christians have a hope that cannot be shaken.  To the Christian who is depressed, grieving, in the grip of despair: you will be better one day.  The darkness will not last forever.  Your enemy will not triumph over you.  Christ has triumphed over your enemy.  The Spirit has come as your companion in the journey.  God holds for you an unshakable hope, a future of glorious light.

            And even while you walk in the darkness, you can cling to the same solace that David found in his despair:

“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.” (vv.5-6)

Nihilism and Wasted Time

Recently, the news picked up on a decadent trend of parents hiring tutors to improve their children’s skill at the popular video game Fortnite.  No doubt any number of sensible people regard this as a mildly disturbing excess in our culture’s entertainment obsession.  What is more interesting than the practice itself is the worldview it suggests–a worldview where meaningless entertainment is elevated above relaxation into something worth really investing in.  Such a worldview undergirds our excessive investment in a wide swath of entertainment industries.

But one article on the Fortnite tutors phenomenon ended with remarkable honesty.  Writing for Variety, John Irwin quoted his interaction with Tom Whipple: “‘Fundamentally our entire existence is pointless,’ Whipple reminds me, ‘So how we fill our time between being born and dying is nobody else’s business.'”

A truly depressing statement, which highlights the problem rather well.  The nihilist, who sees existence as meaningless, declares all activities equally justified.  It’s “our time”, and we are accountable regarding it to no one.  You cannot waste time that is meaningless.  Only in a theistic universe can time be wasted.

Thankfully, God exists.  This is His universe, and we get to live in it.  Time has a meaning, a purpose; time can be spent well or it can be wasted.  Relaxation has its place in the rhythm of life, but so does productive and purposeful activity–and we are accountable for all of our time.  How we spend it is God’s business.  So let us honor Him.