Archives For Discipleship

Come, let us reason together

November 12, 2015 — 4 Comments

If we, as a denomination, are going to move forward then it is necessary that we have the integrity to name what we believe and to stop hiding behind ambiguous language. If you’re a universalist then be one, openly. If you believe in definite redemption–say so. Trust cannot exist where there is always some suspicion that we’re not telling the truth or that we’re playing games with our theology to suite the crowd we’re in front of.

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Precisely twice in my life a conversation partner has warned me lest I be guilty of worshipping the Bible. It’s an interesting warning and, depending upon the context, there could plausibly be some merit to it. By and large, however, it’s a red herring. In my case, there is rather more danger to be had from worshipping popular interpretations of the Bible than worshipping the Scriptures themselves.

Ours is an age not given to the discipline of reading. We are functionally literate. We can complete forms. We can read and respond to emails. We can read one to two verses from the Bile or a page from a classic. We can follow printed instructions to assemble a new stand for our flat screen television. Beyond this, however, our literacy is sadly lacking. We haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of the classics of Western Civilization, let alone other races and cultures. And the Bible? The Bible demands way too much from us in order to understand it. Better to simply follow the guidance of someone who will confirm your pre-existing bias.

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John Stackhouse makes precisely this point in his recent post at the blog of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The wave of evangelical defections to affirm and endorse GLBT+ as normative is based not a new and closer reading of the Scriptures. There is virtually nothing in any of the documented “conversions” that evince a careful study of the Bible. Rather, most come from a reorganizing of the Scriptural witness to place a higher and broader value on Biblical witnesses the affirm values consistent with those predominant in culture today: unconditional love, acceptance, inclusivity, etc. 

These verses and witnesses become the lens through which other, more specific witnesses are dismissed as somehow inconsistent with Jesus’ message of unconditional affirmation. To borrow the title of a book by J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus have I loved, but Paul…? 
Everyone loves Jesus; some get bent out of shape when the apostle applies Jesus message to the specifics of messy lives in the ancient church.
And once your favorite pastor has endorsed the GLBT+ message then those who follow him–who, incidentally, rely upon him for their knowledge of the Bible–immediately and easily turn the corner to believe as he does and in line with the culture. It’s as easy as stopping swimming against a current. Off you go; it feels so easy, so natural. And yet it is so wrong.

If we consider briefly what the Bible says of itself, we may set aside some of anxiety some have regarding our esteem for it.  The Bible’s purpose is to provide guidance in our belief and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). It is a rod that prompts us to remain faithful as we follow our risen Lord. This guidance isn’t arbitrary or entirely culturally bound. The Bible’s guidance flow from it’s source, which the Bible itself and the earliest church affirm is God himself. 

The Bible is a efensive weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Paul refers to the Scripture as “the sword of the Spirit.” It is the weapon the Spirit uses to do his convicting and sanctifying word. When wielded toward us this sword is and any wound is superficial and short-lived. Wielded against the world, the flesh, and the devil the blade cuts through to the heart of the matter delivering us the counsel of God and the grace to persevere.

The Christian who uses the Bible often and as the source of his beliefs shouldn’t be too concerned about the charge of worshipping it. It is, after all, the word of his master and his lord and should be esteemed as such.
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FlanneryI would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.

Source: Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, 17.

The nation’s largest churches are now churches that meet across several sites. Some criticize the practice. Is there merit in their objections?

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One of the most puzzling articles in the Apostles’ Creed is the sentence “he descended into hell, the third day rose again from the dead.” As our congregation has started to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the reformed tradition I’ve started to receive questions about what some of our confessions mean. What does this line of the Creed mean?

For most people the problematic word is “hell.” In popular theology hell is a literal place designed to punish people. It seems problematic the God’s Son should “descend” into a place designed for punishment. And it raises the question, why is Jesus going there? Is he being punished? Is he being purified? Just what exactly is he doing?

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Reformed Christians are deferential to the creeds and confessions. I like to say that we assume the veracity of our confessional standards unless and until a clear, compelling, and widely-received counter argument is produced. And since the Reformed tradition teaches that confessions are subordinate standards–that is they rank below God himself and God’s revelation of himself in Scripture–we should seek to understand the Creed in light of the Bible.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ words to the thief who believed him seem to call the Creed into question. Christians who affirm Jesus’ descent into hell often argue that it took place after his death and before his resurrection (i.e., on Holy Saturday). What do the Gospels recount. One contains a promise that Jesus and a criminal crucified would be in paradise “today.” The others barely mention the event or ignore it completely.

Luke is unique in recounting that one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus petitioned Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Jesus’ replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (43).

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t record Jesus’ encounter his two fellow convicts and Matthew simply states that the robbers insulted Jesus (Matt. 27:38, 44).

John records that two men were crucified with Jesus, but not that they were robbers or that they interacted with Jesus at all (19:32).

If we are to interpret passages of Scripture that appear to be unclear or ambiguous in light of those that are clear then we have to find some other biblical evidence that supports the Creeds’ assertion and clarifies what Jesus is recorded to have said from the cross.

A passage that seems to meet that description may be found in the first letter of Peter. In 1 Peter 3:18-19ff.:

For Christ dies for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison….”

Of course, Peter isn’t entirely clear as to who these “spirits in prison” are and he doesn’t make clear precisely what Jesus preached, why he preached it, or what the outcome was. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus didn’t descend to hell to suffer. He had already declared that his work of atonement was finished.

In all likelihood his purpose was as R. C. Sproul puts it, “He goes to hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints.” the Old Testament saints being those, who like Abraham, believed in God before Christ’s advent and their belief was credited to them as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22).

So, yes Jesus descends into hell. However, the English word “hell” isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful translation of the original Greek and Latin versions of the Creed. The hell referred to in the Apostles’ Creed isn’t a place of suffering, but more about that in our next post.