Ignoring the PR Department

Christ was crucified between two thieves, and the statement made by this appears to have been that He was the principal evildoer. The one who associated with sinners during the course of His life was also associated with them in His death, as His enemies tried to make it into a slander—He died with criminals, with criminals on either hand.

But there was nothing here that Christ would reject. It was the purpose of God that we Christians would have a message like this to preach—our Lord was tried by Bible-believing conservatives, by religious establishment liberals, by civil rulers concerned for the public peace, and then He was executed. This is the message that the Christian Church has been commanded to glory in to the end of the world. We gather weekly to proclaim it as a congregation, as we partake of the bread and wine. Nothing is plainer than that God did not consult with any of His PR staff or marketing experts when He came up with this. This body and blood is not a symbol of ultimate sacrifice acknowledged and applauded by everyone. This is a greater sacrifice than that. This is the body and blood of a condemned malefactor, rejected by virtually every entry in Jerusalem’s Who’s Who.

When God gave us this gospel, He gave us one that has to preached uphill. When God gave us a Savior, He gave us one who would naturally and readily draw the animus of the worldly-wise. There is an institutional drift or mindset that is at odds with the gospel. But we are commanded to bring all the nations of men to Christ. And this is where we should see the importance of partaking of this meal rightly.

We are to bring the institutions of men into this; we are not to bring this into the institutions of men. The context of all future civilization must now be a recognition of the affinity that civilizations naturally have for conducting murderous travesties—like the one that gave us this Table.

A Clash of Faiths

Why should Christians learn about Islam? Why teach on it? Why discuss it? Why stir up yet another debate or controversy?

One time, during the debates over the formation of the U.S. Constitution, someone proposed that the United States be prohibited from having a standing army of more than 15,000 men. I forget the exact number; my inaccurate anecdote will still illustrate the principle. At that point in the debate George Washington leaned over and whispered to a companion that the motion needed a rider, to the effect that the United States would never be invaded by a force of more than 10,000 men.

The point is that we don’t have the luxury of choosing our enemies, or of deciding the nature of the times we will live in. The history of our world is in the hands of God — He will determine the course of all events. Our lives, and the lives of our grandchildren, are not a “choose your own adventure” novel, where we control the flow of events. And if God has determined, as it appears that He has, that the conflict of the 21st century will be between Islam and the West, it will do little good to wring your hands and wish you were elsewhere. I was born in 1953, smack in the middle of the Cold War, and neither I nor my family had any say over it. We could be engaged thoughtfully or not, but transfering out to an alternative world was not an option. So my formative school years included drills where we all headed down to the basement “in case of nuclear war,” a thing thankfully missing from the upbringing my children had. On the other hand, when I was a kid, there were no security screenings at airports.

The conflict, as I mentioned, will be between Islam and the West. But the West is conflicted — torn between its Christian heritage on the one hand and its secularized (and apostate) caricatures of Christian values on the other. Islam is also conflicted — between its Westermized (read, Christianized) moderates and its back-to-the-Koran fundamentalists. The situation is enormously tangled, and the fundamentalists have done more than a little surrpetious borrowing from modernity as well. More on this later.

Christians have to study, think and learn. They have to learn how to oppose the claims of Islam without shilling for the bastardized Christian values found in what some call the values of “modernity” or “democracy.” The god of American civil religion is a unitarian god, just like Allah, and we will not get anywhere by trying to show how these two idols really have a lot in common. They do, and that’s a problem.

As we give ourselves to study this subject, we need to begin with thanksgiving. The triune God of Scripture, the one who controls every aspect of history, has placed us in these times, and he expects us to become men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do. The temptation will be to look at Islam from a distance, draw the caricatures, and offer up a cartoonish response. Many American Christians feel that Muslims are simply inscrutable — scary inscrutable — just like one of those Islamic characters in a Jorge Luis Borges short story, distant, vague, foreign, alien. But Muslims were not created by Allah, but rather by the triune God, and they bear His images, despite whatever the Koran might say. This means that Christians can hear them speak, and understand, and it also means that Christians, having heard, may speak the gospel, and be heard themselves.

The great blessing in this is that the contemporary crisis in the Islamic world provides the Christian Church with a reductio ad absurdum for virtually all the important questions that face the Church today. These are questions where the Church, confronted with the demands of modernity, has been compromising, wavering, capitulating, waffling, noodling, backfilling, and more. Enter fundamentalist Islam, providing outlandish answers on these questions, and thoughtful people look around, wondering if there is a third option. When it comes to our junior high daughters, do we have to choose between burkas and the skanky-wear on sale at fine stores everywhere?

The rise of an Islam in crisis bring the questions home to us. They include but are not limited to: the centrality of Trinitarian faith in the formation of a healthy culture, the Jews, the state of Israel, and Zionism, the role of women, the necessary conflict between Sharia law and biblical law, and the fact that, Fukuyama notwithstanding, modernity is a hollow shell, incapable of answering the demands of militant Islam. That job, if it is to be done at all, will have to be done by Christians, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

The Glory of Ham for Easter

How we bear the name of the Lord your God is closely related to how we eat. Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves . . . (Deuteronomy 14:1-21a).

This passage begins the commentary in Deuteronomy on the third commandment, which prohibits bearing the name of the Lord God in vanity. The chapter begins by noting the fact that Israel does in fact bear His name—they are His children (v. 1). Because of this, their behavior must differ from that of the surrounding pagans. They must not mourn for the dead the way the pagans do (v. 1). They are a holy people (v. 2). Their separation includes what they may and may not eat—they may not eat any abominable thing (v. 3). The list of foods follows the order of creation—land, water, air. Specifically, they may eat certain animals (vv. 4-5), but the rule is then given. The animal must have a cloven hoof and chew the cud (v. 6 ). One criterion by itself is insufficient (vv. 7-8). As far as the creatures in water are concerned, the food must have fins and scales (vv. 9-10). Of the birds, a specific rule is not given but rather several lists (vv. 11-20). One principle might be that carrion fowl are prohibited—birds that eat unclean food are themselves unclean.

The people are called God’s children, and includes both sons and daughters. “. . . because of the provoking of his sons, and of his daughters” (Dt. 32:19). The same thing is true in the New Testament. “And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18). We may place this passage as an exposition of the third commandment because of the emphasis of vv. 1-2. The people of Israel are God’s children, and children carry the name of their Father. But we see in the second verse that they are to bear the holiness and glory of the name, and not just the fact of it.

But there is always a tug toward paganism; we must always deal with that pagan bent . . . Those without hope and without God in the world gravitate to certain predictable manifestations of their despair. Certain believers, clueless as always, are tempted to imitate them. Even though it was not always obeyed (Jer. 16:6), this law forbids it. But for the pagan, self-mutilation has a strong attraction. “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them” (1 Kings 18:28). Piercings and self-mutilations — expressions of disgust in the image of God — are a cultural expression of fundamental unbelief. But more is involved in this — with what goes into the mouth — than just that tongue stud.

The dietary regulations of the Old Testament are clear enough in themselves, but how this relates to us in the New Testament has not always been so clear. We need to consider two aspects of the question—the symbolism of the required behavior in the Old Testament, and the nature of this fulfilled symbolism in the New.

The fact of a change is clear. “The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:8-10). And of course, we have the famous passage from Acts: “And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:13-15; cf. Mark 7:15-19).

The dietary regulations of the Old Testament were part of what we call the holiness code. The code taught the importance of making distinctions in the light of God’s Word. “This, not that.” The apostle Paul plainly teaches us about this code. “That at that time ye [Gentiles] were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise . . . now in Christ Jesus ye . . . are made nigh by the blood of Christ . . . who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man” (Eph. 2:11-17; cf. Col. 2:16-17).

How are we to put these requirements from Deuteronomy into practice? How will this make a difference in our lives? First, with regard to self-mutilation—paganism begins in the heart but it never ends there. We reject unbelief in the heart, of course, but we also reject it in its tattooed, glued, and screwed manifestations. We also look to be obedient to this text in our approach to the dinner table. How then shall we eat?—we are Gentiles, and are therefore invited to have ham for Easter.

Outside Gallio”s House

Someone over at Reformation21 thought of a funny, and twisted it like a washcloth until it was dry enough to serve as pulpit supply in some churches that could be mentioned.

But in the course of his excursus into humor, the writer developed a new accusation that merits some response, however brief. Speaking in the faux-guise of an advocate of the “foetal vision,” he says this:

“if it becomes clear that we have a majority in the church courts, I would say to our opponents “Yo, you bunch of spineless apostate losers! Charge us if you think you’re hard enough. And Ligon Duncan – if you’re out there, just bring it on, man, BRING IT ON!!!!!” If, on the other hand, it emerges that we don’t seem to have a majority in the church and might lose our jobs as a result of unconfessional practice and belief, I would plead with our brothers, in the love of Christ, to show forth Christian love in unity, to acknowledge the rich diversity of the Reformed tradition, and to walk together with mutual care and respect, and live at peace for the sake of the kingdom.’

In other words, the federal vision folks, who have brought charges against no one, and are currently trying to drive zero opponents from their pulpits, and who are blocking no candidates at all in presbytery exams, are nevertheless to be blamed because that is no doubt what they would do if ever given the chance. Thus we see the doctrine of hypothetical retaliation and justification, which really is a problematic use of that last word. This kind of “justification” sees launching an unprovoked attack as “retaliatory in principle” because, “even though they didn’t do this unto us, they will do it if they ever have the chance.” To the pure all things are pure, and so it makes sense that to the aggressive all things look aggressive.

What this kind of thing does is blur the difference between offense and defense, between which team has the ball and which one doesn’t. The suggestion is made here that we in the federal vision are only making nice because we don’t have the upper hand, but, when we do, then the TRs will all be hauled off for a little presbyterial bastinado. The problem with this little thesis is what the federal vision folks have actually done. The catholicity of the federal vision (which is an important and under-reported emphasis in it) is not merely hypothetical; it is no temporary ploy. And, for the record, that catholicity has to include TRs. It makes no sense to try to develop ecumenical bridges to other distant communions while starting fights with your next door neighbor. We understand this. For just one example, the CREC, which is accused by some of being a haven for federal vision refugees, is also a denomination of Reformed churches which allows the London Baptist Confession as one of its six reformed confessions. For those not following the details of this, baptists are generally un-federal-visionish, if that’s a word.

It is one thing for our adversaries to decide that a fight is necessary for the sake of “the truth.” If that what someone’s conscience demands, then that is what he should do. But the fight should be justified on the basis of the facts, examined in the clear light of Scripture, and not on the basis of an imaginary scenario in which is it assumed that the other side wants the fight just as much as you do, and in the same way. This latter approach, far from demonstrating the robust insight of Athanasius dealing with the snaky charm of an Arius, rather indicates the reluctance born of a bad conscience, that of a decent guy maneuvered into beating someone up outside Gallio’s house, and all over “words, and names, and your own law.”

A Memorial Before God

Poor translations can sometimes create a world of difficulty. The rendering of the word repentance by “do penance” was a famous stumbling block for Luther.

In a similar way, we are all familiar with this phrase from the words of institution in the Lord’s Supper—”do this in remembrance of me.” This is taken as though we are to use the Supper to help us remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. While this element is necessarily involved in the Supper, and it is certainly part of what we do, much more is involved than this.

The phrase should actually be rendered as “do this as my memorial.” Presenting a memorial to God is quite a different thing than remembering God. In a memorial, as with many memorials throughout the Old Testament, we are calling upon God to remember. As we do this, we certainly remember as well, but much more is involved in this than simply providing a reminder for us.

This Supper is a liturgical prayer, a ritual request. God is our covenant God, and we are pleading the covenant with Him. By partaking of this meal, we are presenting His promises back to Him. We might argue with this and say that God does not need such reminders. Of course not, but He nevertheless commands us to approach Him this way. The rainbow is a memorial before God in just this sense. He will never again destroy the world, and we are invited to plead the rainbow as we consider our sinfulness. He has determined to save the world through Jesus Christ, and so we proclaim the death of Jesus Christ every time we partake, as we do so because His death is the only possible salvation for the world.

Not only do we proclaim this to the world, but we also present it to God.

Goodness to God; Gladness to Man

We are here because we believe the Word of God. We are here because God has summoned us. We are here because God promises to forgive us our sins as we confess them in Jesus’ name. We are here because God is dealing with us; God is at work in our midst.

But there are always endless temptations to slip off the point. The point is that God saves sinners, and that He has done so in Jesus Christ, and only there. Human pride is thrown down, and God’s salvation is exalted. But fifteen minutes after this doctrine of divine sovereignty is established, we find those who take pride in affirming it. They are proud because unlike those fools throughout the rest of Christendom, they know that there is nothing to take pride in. The human heart is truly a marvel.

The only one who can keep us from this is the Holy Spirit of God, and He will keep us by constantly reminding us that He does not share His glory with another. He works in us, and He expects us to do what He has worked into us, and He truthfully praises us when we have done it. We are no puppets. But when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we say, “But we are unworthy servants, we have only done as we were commanded.” And when we learn to say this, we must then learn not to treat it as the password, a combination of sounds that need not have any meaning. We are fully capable of thinking ourselves worthy because we have affirmed that we are unworthy.

A true reformation in the hearts and manners of a people will be manifested in this: all the glory and goodness goes to God, and all manner of gladness is found in man. When glory goes to God, but morbidity is found in man, someone is twisting the gospel. When glory goes to man, and man is glad in it, someone is throwing away the gospel. So what should we say as we come to worship. The child’s prayer will suffice.

God is great, God is good,

Let us thank Him for our food.

Complete Reversal

“The impotence of the Islamic world confronted with Europe was brought home in dramatic form in 1798, when a French expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte invaded, occupied, and governed Egypt. The lesson was harsh and clear—even a small European force could invade one of the heartlands of the Islamic empire and do so with impunity. The second lesion came a few years later, when the French were forced to leave—not by the Egyptians nor by their Turkish suzerains, but by a squadron of the Royal Navy commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson. This lesson too was clear; not only could a European power come and act at will, but only another European power could get them out” (Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? p. 31).

Metaphor as Ultimate Reality

“But the greatest metaphor, for Taylor, is Christ Himself, the living link between grace and nature, God and man, the metaphor who uses metaphor and whose union of earthly and divine is figured through another metaphor, the Lord’s Supper” (Daly, p. 181).