Thursday, November 30, 2017

Because I can't look away



Pajamagrams are the cure to anxiety over "The Democratic Republic" of Korea's nuclear ballistic missile program. Now I look forward to the dystopian nightmare.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Revelation, text & redemptive event

Francesca Aran Murphy has been writing a biweekly blog for First Things on religion. In "Everything Is Outside the Text," she makes this provocative assertion:

If, as Brague says, “the relationship of secondarity toward a preceding religion is found between Christianity and Judaism and between these two alone,” what links Christianity and Judaism is that neither of them is actually a “religion of the Book”—neither of them has sacred scripture at its very heart and core. Both Judaism and Christianity are “commentarial,” midrashic traditions because both regard scripture as a secondary witness to something infinitely greater, namely, the presence of God with his people.
In other words, we believe not in the Bible, per se, but in the redemption revealed in and by the Bible.
With that, we neatly dodge the facetious charge of "bibliolatry" flung by the cultured despisers of orthodox Christianity: we worship not the witness, but the one whose acts are witnessed.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Has man been abolished?

Our congregation's reading group recently finished discussing C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, a collection of three lectures he delivered in 1943. In the first ("Men without Chests"), he observes how a presupposition that all values are subjective was being propagated in the British schools of his day. (And now in the American public schools of our day, where children are taught to classify "the sky is blue" as "fact," and "God is good" as "opinion.") In the second ("The Way"), he refutes the theory that values are subjective, and labels as the "Tao" the objectively real virtues which have been discovered, recognized, and taught by all cultures across time and space. In his third lecture (the titular "Abolition of Man"), Lewis explores the consequences for humanity should his society's elites succeed in their project to condition all people to believe values truly are subjective. (Spoiler alert: said consequences are not good.) While the book is a warning against a possible abolition of man, this last lecture strikes a fairly pessimistic note (at least to my ears).

The Abolition of Man is widely praised as a rigorous piece of moral philosophy, and justly so. I've always thought of it as the theoretical background for That Hideous Strength, which is hands-down my favorite of C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy novels. Still, I wondered whether, seventy-some years on, western anglophone culture continues to move in the direction projected by Lewis. If anything, culture seems to be much more atomized and individualistic as the control of elites (in politics, entertainment, education, etc.) has been eroded by the media explosion birthed by the webernet’s arrival. If elites no longer dictate the culture's direction, then they cannot condition our beliefs.

Hence, I am grateful to be reading together with other thoughtful Christians. One of our interlocutors asked whether the transhumanist movement, which seeks to transcend human limitations by genetic tinkering and such, represents a rejection of humanity itself. With that, a penny dropped in the vast and vacant recesses of my mind. 

Over the last few years, I've become accustomed to reading stories in Denver's journal of record which begin with something like "Dylan was assigned as a male at birth." Give heed to that verb, "assigned." One is assigned to a homeroom class at the beginning of high school, and to a cabin at the beginning of summer camp. No one in the history of the entire human race, or of any other mammalian species while we're at it, has ever been "assigned" a gender. Rather, the gender of every single human being has been DISCOVERED by a cursory visual inspection. While gender expression is a subject fraught with tension and subject to cultural variety, in human society gender is universally controlled by one's sex, full stop.

This editorial cartoon gets the matter exactly right. If a girl can be a Boy Scout, there is no meaningful relationship between the thing and the thing's descriptor. There is, then, no way to determine what a thing is; instead, the thing's essence is fluid, undetermined, and defined only by whim. Accordingly, there's no way to determine what a thing is because it has no essence. Instead of a square knot, we have only a tangled mess.

In logic, the argument from the lesser to greater holds that if a statement is true regarding the lesser thing, it is all the more true for the greater thing which encompasses the lesser. It seems to me that in the realm of objectively discovered fact, gender identity is far more obvious, and easily discoverable, than moral truth. If our culture is now at a point of rejecting the objective reality of gender identity, then that of moral truth was long ago abandoned.

As Westminster Shorter Catechism #10 helpfully reminds us, mankind images God precisely in his moral attributes of knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). If morality has no fixed content, and our bodies have no fixed identities, then humanity is not in the image of the eternal and unchanging God.

In other words, there's no point in heeding Lewis's warning that the abolition of man is coming. Man has already been abolished.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Après cela, le déluge

This brief notice from WORLD magazine signals what could very well be the beginning of the end of the way of life assumed by countless evangelical congregations across these United States. The vast majority of Churches are small (under 100 members) and entirely self-supporting; even those which are part of denominations rarely receive regular budget support from broader ecclesial bodies. The clergy housing allowance tax exemption is a little-appreciated mechanism by which they're able to stretch their dollars a little bit further.

The housing tax exemption evolved as a way to level the playing field between Churches which provide parsonages for their pastors, and ones which expect the pastor to provide for his own housing. In the first case, the Church owns the pastor's house, and so the government does not tax it. In the second case, the monies paid to the pastor to enable him to pay rent or a mortgage (and the costs of maintaining a domicile) are not taxed. If this ruling in Wisconsin is upheld on appeal, Protestant clergy could lose their right to the housing tax exemption and congregations would have to have to pay them that much more to compensate for the additional tax burden. Yes, that would be only a few thousand dollars more a year. However, given the extremely thin margins of most Church budgets, that additional tax burden could easily put a full-time pastor out of the reach of many small congregations.

I've written at length on the implications of such a development for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in my "Manifesto for the OPC." This court case may be the chink in the conservative Churches' dam against the rising flood of legal hostility to the cause of Christ. Remember: Noah built the ark before the rains began.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Some belated aggregating

I've had some webpages bookmarked for a while now to share with my vast worldwide audience, so it's well past time for me to clear out the backlog. If these articles share a theme, it's that they each introduced me to new arguments which made me think more deeply on a topic than I had before.

While the Presbyterian Church in America lacks a denominational magazine, they have a close substitute in the byFaith website. "Prisoners in the Pew" documents how some congregations are working to uncover and remediate domestic abuse of all sorts. It provides food for thought for sessions of all presbyterian traditions.

"Prejudice and the Blaine Amendments" was published a few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Trinity Lutheran of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. (This is the playground resurfacing case.) Philip Hamburger does admirable historiographical work to demonstrate that amendments to state constitutions which now appear to have been intended to require government neutrality in religious matters were in fact designed to institutionalize the then-dominant forms of liberal cultural Christianity. In our day, that has effectively morphed into the institutionalization of an anti-ecclesial bias.

In a two-part review of the book Executing Grace, James R. Rogers carefully examines Christian arguments against the death penalty and sets forth a Biblical argument for its judicious use. From a redemptive-historical framework, he shows that death is an appropriate sanction for the attempt to extinguish God's image by killing an image-bearer.

These aren't short essays, but they're well worth your time if you'd like to think more carefully about these issues.

Monday, October 2, 2017

It's the little things

Last night I enjoyed my first pumpkin beer of 2017 because the only people who drink pumpkin beer outside the Oct. 1 to the-day-after-Thanksgiving window also wear white trousers before Memorial Day (in other words, satanists).

This morning I awoke to learn that the Denver Post has dropped Fred Basset from its comics section.
As Ice Cube might say, it's a good day.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Authority, charisma & charism

As my presbytery has debated and discussed various pastoral matters (by which I mean issues which arise out of, or directly affect, local congregations) over the last eighteen years, I've suspected there's been an (although by no means the) underlying theme, but only recently have I been able to put a finger on it. What seems to come up, again and again, is a concern to maintain and enforce the authority of the pastor and/or session of the local congregation. I think I've had a hard time identifying this theme because it's simply not a concern I share. I've been mystified as to why some care so much about this issue, but I've come to suspect the difference may lie in an American perspective on the basis of personal authority.

In many areas of life, Americans tend to grant authority to individuals on the basis of personal charisma. Here, I'm using "charisma" to refer to the ineffable qualities which induce others to trust an individual. There's the charisma which draws us to prefer certain dining companions, and then there's the charisma which leads us to believe this person's views on Spiritual affairs should be respected. The pastor's charisma is not that of the actor's, but there's certainly a general gravitas we expect of ministers of Word and sacrament. It may be ineffable, but most think they've identified it when they tell a young man they think he should pursue the ministry.

Charisma is a powerful force, not to be underestimated, but its great weakness lies in its very ineffability. Tom Hanks is America's most beloved movie actor because we all believe him to be self-effacing and charming. Should a video surface of him kicking basset hound puppies for sport, no one would watch Sully ever again. We would all be angry that he had deceived us with his charisma. (I hasten to add that I, personally, am certain Tom Hanks is uniformly kind to children and small animals. CERTAIN.) Charisma is a double-edged sword: we want to be seduced by it, but then are angered by its seductive power.

So, too, with a pastoral authority based on charisma. If a pastor on some occasion acts, well, unpastoral, his charisma is called into question. If charisma is but a fleeting mirage, then the authority founded on it quickly evaporates. I remember well my fear as a new teacher (so, so many years ago) that my control of the classroom would disappear if even a single student successfully challenged my authority. That fear can motivate a reactionary posture in which all perceived opposition must be vigorously put down lest it spread like a contagion. Sadly, I think I've seen this in more than one pastor's or session's attitude toward the congregation.

To be clear, I'm not commenting on the legitimacy of the opposition. The person challenging the pastor's preaching may be entirely out of line and not a little bit crazy. (More than once, a person has accused me of saying something I did not say in a sermon, then refused to listen to the audio to double-check.) Even in those cases, the man of God must pursue gentleness: it's the only way to fight the good fight with those who are wayward and confused (2 Timothy 6:11-12). Frankly, those people are the bruised reeds our Lord would not break (Isaiah 42:3): they're done no good when they're punished for questioning the elders' authority.

Now, it's all well and good to suggest the pastor ought be like Jesus and not return reviling for reviling (1 Peter 2:23), but won't doing so undermine his authority in the eyes of the congregation? If authority rests in charisma, yes indeed. But his authority cannot be undermined if it rests on a charism.

"Charism" means "gift," and all presbyterian Church officers should remember they received one at ordination: "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you" (1 Timothy 4:14). The Spiritual charism granted by ordination is an objective reality, and cannot be removed or undermined by challenges to authority or questioning of charisma. During our Lord's earthly ministry, his authority got challenged plenty, but (obviously!) he never lost it. Similarly, the authority granted to elders by ordination is a durable thing, easily able to survive any opposition. A challenge to my authority to preach would be like a challenge to the blueness of my eyes: silly, and not worth quarreling over.

Church officers do well to remember all Church power and authority is ministerial and declarative: it is exercised as delegated by and on behalf of our Lord Jesus, and can only set forth that which is set forth by the Word of God. So long as I exercise my charism of authority according to those very presbyterian principles, my charisma (or, frankly, lack thereof) is utterly beside the point. Authority  in the Church is lost only by those afraid of losing it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

My philosophy of ministry

[I, Paul,] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God. (Colossians 1:24-25)
While every Christian is called to share in the sufferings of Christ (Luke 9:22- 26), over the years I have learned, experientially and exegetically, that this call is given particularly to ministers of the Gospel. This fact is modeled for us in the pastoral work of the Apostle Paul, which was for him a ministry of suffering. If his admonition “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ,” (1 Cor 11:1) is to all believers with regard to their use of earthly things, it is much more so with regard to pastors in the discharge of their office. The Scriptures, which teach the man of God all he needs (2 Tim 3:15ff), were so inspired by the Spirit to give us the Apostle to the Gentiles as our most comprehensive model for the Christian ministry, and so it is to his example that we should look. 
Paul’s pastoral suffering is summarized perhaps most poignantly in 2 Corinthians 3:2-3: “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being revealed that you are a letter of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone, but in tablets that are hearts of flesh.” The Corinthians’ Christian conviction was a testimony to the successful labors amongst them of Paul, who was held in low regard by many in that congregation, as both 1 and 2 Corinthians amply demonstrate; in other words, he was rejected by those he had blessed. When Paul speaks of his sufferings for the Gospel (2 Tim 1:8), he no doubt includes the many beatings and persecutions he endured. Still, it seems to me the greater pain of the pastor is to be rejected by one’s own friends and disciples (2 Tim 1:15), just as our Savior wept most bitterly over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41-44). 
Note that both Paul and Jesus were faithful in their ministries; they suffered and were rejected not because of personal fault, but because men were through them rejecting God himself (Lk 10:16). Pastors must not desire the reward of being well-thought of by their congregations, though our Lord is kind in allowing many this experience. In helping their people become conformed to the image of Christ, they must be willing to endure patiently anger and bitterness, much of it entirely misdirected. They must accept disrespect and ingratitude, the aggravation of one’s wise proposals being ignored or derailed by one’s session. They must even accept blame for the pastoral malpractice of others and be extraordinarily slow to defend their Ninth Commandment rights to a good name. They must patiently and silently suffer injustice so they may be free to do the one thing on which they can in no way compromise: proclaim the grace of God through the Cross of Christ. 

This suffering is itself a proclamation of God’s grace because it testifies that the pastor only needs the Lord’s good testimony of him, and his confidence of that is not based on his accomplishments or recognition received. He can tell his people to rely solely on the Cross for all things without fear of being accused of hypocrisy. Over time, his people will learn to think less well of themselves as they think more highly of God’s grace, which in turn may reduce their tendency to attack their pastor when their self-esteem seems threatened. However, that result comes about only as the fruit of much patient labor, usually over some period of time and through the endurance of several trials. For these reasons, pastoral ministry is only for those prepared to rejoice when they are called to complete what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his Church.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Insert dope joke here

A couple months ago I participated in a discussion of the impact of marijuana's legalization on Colorado and the Churches here. An edited transcript is the cover story in the most recent Reformed Presbyterian Witness.

I should also note that the RP Witness's editor sent me a copy of The Book of Psalms for Worship as a thank-you gift, so I totally recommend participating in any discussion to which you're invited by your Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America pastor friends.