Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Christmas Critique

Please allow me to confess that I have a tendency to critique and criticize, which is a kind way to say that I am quick to complain and judge. Some things deserve judgment and complaint, and constructive criticism can prove quite useful, but my attitude often dips into these more negative aspects of such practices. Thus, there is a constant temptation for me to complain about the secularization of Christmas and the Advent season. I do not mean the tendency for stores to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" or the many, many movies concerning Santa Claus. No, my temptation is to point out the crass commercialism of the Christmas season, the way it is inaugurated by "Black Friday" two days before the first Sunday of Advent on which humans act inhuman in order to acquire goods for low prices, or the tension-building stresses that invade our patient expectation of the coming Messiah.* There is no denying that Christ is often lost from Christmas, that the child Jesus is too often overshadowed by merry old Saint Nick, that Starbucks sells Advent calendars which eventually open to the 25th to find Santa, and that many people who celebrate Christmas do it for reasons which have nothing to do with the Nativity. It is worth noting, though, that the unique nature of the problems with the way Christmas is celebrated in the West today highlights the continuing impact of Christ on Christmas, even when He is removed from the central focus.
Take for example the problem of commercialism and consumerism. We spend so much money this time of year, particularly on non-essential items, and people are encouraged to make lists of things they want. The negative connotation here is obvious, but consider that this is the one time of year in which the great majority of people ask others what they want and use their time and money in order to give good gifts to others. Although consumerism exists, it is for a time altered to show concern for others instead of oneself.
Although many people believe that the point of Christmas is not the birth of the Incarnate God, they at least mistakenly believe that love, generosity, family, friendship, and human interaction are the "reasons for the season." Surely the birth of Jesus and God's love for mankind should properly have pride of place in the Christmas and Advent season, but at least those who forget this tend to replace it with a focus upon values better than those they hold to the rest of the year.
Let us not forget the common unofficial "Christmas Day Truces" which broke out throughout World War I and resulted in soldiers from both sides of the conflict temporarily ceasing their hostilities and enjoying meals and games together. Christmas also inspires many to care for the poor and homeless in their communities with food and clothing. Relatives who rarely speak to one another come together for a short time of fellowship that stands at odds with their usual routines.
The impact that God's self-giving, sacrificial, peacemaking love makes this time of year, even amongst those who have forgotten Him, declares Christ's perfect reign so that even those who are not listening might yet hear. Merry Christmas.

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*Note that I still managed to subtly complain about these very things. I really do have a problem.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Old and the New

Let me first apologize, again, for having gone so long without updating. I am now getting back into the swing of my studies and have more inspiration for writing but less time in which to do it. Hopefully I will begin posting more frequently. For now, though, I would like to announce a second, conjoined blog called Pray for the News. It struck me this morning as I read about the potentially devastating impact of Hurricane Ike that I should pray for the people who would be affected by the hurricane, to pray that God works in the midst of the storm and protects the people, and that the hurricane might lose most of its force. It further occured to me that I almost never think to pray for the many situations badly in need of prayer in the news. By regularly highlighting one news story, I hope that I can be used to help draw attention to the importance of prayer for the many tragic and potentially tragic situations in the world, that we might band together in prayer and see God do great things.
It should be encouraging for us to note that so far neither the Georgian-Russian conflict nor Hurricane Gustav were nearly as horrendous as they might have been, and that I think can be largely attributed to God's sovereign work through His people's prayers.
Furthermore, in addition to our prayer, maybe some of us will be moved to use our resources to become involved in God's answer to these prayers, by providing relief, aid, money, medical care, and more to those who are hurting.
Let's get going.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Dream Church

Have you ever decided to make a list of all the qualities you wish for in your dream guy or girl? Maybe you want to find someone who is intelligent, good-looking, enjoys playing badminton, and can never say no to a midnight run for Fourthmeal. You might have compiled a list so specific and outrageous that strict adherence to it will keep you from dating at all, or a more generic list touching on only the most important factors. I know that I once thought up a list, decided that a list beyond the most basic points (e.g. dedicated Christian, intelligent, etc) was a bad idea, and then found someone who is far better than I had hoped for. I will refrain from going into much detail on that point so that I don't make you jealous, but I would like to present you with a different list.


It is no secret that I hope to one day be a church-planting pastor, and believing that I am called to that while also believing that God can do astounding things through His Church constantly leads me to dream of those qualities that I hope to see in the church that God wants me to plant as well as in every church. Today, I offer you the first two qualities of my dream church with more to follow soon:



1. A Church of All Ages

The church is a place in which God brings about profound unity in the midst of diverse people, using every individual's different gifts to benefit the whole. The Church is a body made up of many parts. One area in which American churches now struggle (although many excel on this point) is in bringing together people of all ages into a single church. Different styles of music and conducting a church service tend to appeal to different age groups, and with so many churches in any given town people are presented with the opportunity to choose a church that lines up with their preferences. Unfortunately, this can have the by-product of separating different broad age groups from one another. Christians of all ages need Christians of all other ages, and every age group can be of benefit to all other age groups. Children bring a refreshing innocence, vitality, simplicity, and perspective to those who are older. Babies bring a special kind of joy, along with the opportunity for the rest of the church to remember that we are called to care for those who cannot care for themselves. Teens can bring an energy, a passion, an excitement, and a holy discontent to the church that can help all the members to ask whether or not they are missing the mark as a church in any ways. Those who are older in the church bring experience, a lifetime of discipleship, and wisdom to the rest of the church. There are more age groups, of course, but the point is clear that all ages can benefit all others and are meant to be drawn together to fully represent Christ.



2. A Church of All Economic Backgrounds

It is a sad truth that as the number of churches increases in any given place, the tendency to separate by socio-economic background is more easily given into. Groups with varying amounts of wealth may not feel comfortable around each other and fear coming into too close of contact. The wealthy and middle class may fear that they will feel guilty for their possessions around their neighbors with fewer material possessions, while those who are poorer may fear that they will be judged as inadequate by their neighbors with multiple flat-screen TVs. It may be true that none of these groups feel particularly comfortable around their homeless neighbors. The truth of the matter is that these different groups probably are not physical neighbors at all, but also live in different parts of town. While this is a bleak perspective on the separation of classes, it is all too often accurate, but it cannot be justified for Christians. We, as Christians, are all brothers and sisters in Christ, all children of one Father, are all members of one body, all partakers of one baptism, all neighbors, and all followers of one Lord. We need to not only be acquainted with those of different economic backgrounds, but to really know them, to love them, to be concerned for them as people made in God's image and brothers and sisters in Christ. Those with wealth are called to share their material blessings with their poor neighbors, and those who are poor are called to share their spiritual blessings with those who are rich. We must take care of one another, and to do that we must live in community with one another. The dream church needs the homeless, the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy.

Check back soon for more qualities of the dream church...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Street Preachers

One evening a few years ago, my friend Michael and I were headed to downtown Modesto for some Starbucks, when we were confronted on a corner by three young men: two passing out small cards and one reading into a microphone on a portable PA system. If you have ever been in a similar situation, you have already guessed that the small cards were tracts and that the book being read was the Bible. The three young men were street preachers. As we walked by, they handed us their tracts, which on the front had a picture of the Starbucks logo (or at least very similar to it) and said something along the lines of "Good for One Free Coffee." If you turned over the card, however, you would find it explaining that the tract was not actually good for a coffee, but something even better... eternal life!
Now, don't misunderstand me. I firmly believe that the salvation offered through our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely more valuable than a cup of coffee, and you cannot convince me otherwise. Still, I was pretty disappointed to find that I was not going to be getting a free cup of coffee. If I, as a Christian, was upset by that tract, I cannot help but wonder what a nonChristian would think. I am guessing that they would not be impressed by the most eternally beneficial bait-and-switch of their life, but would instead be angry about not getting a free cup of steaming coffee. I could be wrong, but that doesn't seem like a particularly effective way of reaching anyone with the Gospel.
More recently, my sister and her husband also headed downtown, dressed to the nines, for a fancy dinner to celebrate their anniversary. On their way, they were accosted by a street preacher yelling at them while condemning them for their sins. He warned Justin (my brother-in-law) that he was leading my sister to sin by taking her downtown for a night of drunkenness and dancing which would lead them straight to Hell. Justin responded, telling the man that they were in fact Christians on their way to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The street preacher simply repeated his accusations and generally expressed disbelief that Christians could be headed downtown for anything other than street preaching or losing their salvation. Ok, I paraphrased what he said, but that was the point of it. The anniversary couple walked away, not feeling particularly fond of this speaker, and wondering what kind of impact he was having on the nonChristians unfortunate enough to encounter him.
At this point, you might be getting the feeling that I only have a negative view of street preachers, and that must be cleared up right away. I generally have mixed feelings toward them. On the one hand, I respect them for their boldness in opening themselves up to ridicule for the sake of sharing the Gospel and I wish that I had such a burden for the souls of those who do not yet know Christ that I would join them on their soapboxes. On the other hand, I worry that some of them do more harm than good and poorly represent Christ with overly angry and hateful approaches to evangelism.
I recognize that God is not only merciful and loving but also just and righteous, which means that He is also a God of wrath. A Gospel made up only of God's mercy is not a full Gospel, because a person must know of God's justice and wrath in order to understand why they need God's mercy. At the same time, however, a Gospel presentation that emphasizes only the coming doom of sinners is not the Gospel at all, for there is no good news included.
Open air evangelism has been used by the Church throughout its history and by no means should be allowed to disappear, but we must be careful in how we use it and ask ourselves if our approach represents Jesus well. I submit that lying about free coffee and condemning fellow Christians would not pass such an inquisition.
As for the rest of us, the Christians who do not participate in open air evangelism and street preaching, we can do better by learning to respect our brothers and sisters who do proclaim the Gospel in the streets and encouraging those who go about doing so in a Christlike manner. We can also learn to confront those who poorly represent Christ while maintaining a loving approach on our own part, remembering that we too are held to Jesus' standards. With prayer, patience, truth, and love, we may just see street preaching become an effective witnessing tool once again.

- As a post-script, my sister and brother-in-law's story brings out a funny lesson for all of us: never condemn anyone for sins that you don't know they are committing, or for sins that aren't actually sins. While they were condemned for drunkenness and dancing, they were guilty of neither. Furthermore, dancing is not a sin. The end.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

10 Books to Read Before You Die?

Am I allowed to digress into a non-theological blog from time to time? I believe that I am, so that settles it.
Today on the AOL welcome screen, one of the headlines was "Books to Read Before You Die: 10 You Shouldn't Miss." I, of course, took the bait and wanted to see just what books were recommended, and now I present them to you:

1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
4. The Stand by Stephen King
5. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
7. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
8. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
10. The Holy Bible

To put it bluntly, this is not a good list of ten books you must read before you die. Of course I agree with the inclusion of the Bible in this list, as any person religious or not would have to. It is the best-selling book of all time and has had more impact on the world than any other. It is also the very word of God. That belongs on there.
The Lord of the Rings is a fantastic book series, one of my favorites, and arguably belongs on the list, but that could be my own bias coming through. It did jumpstart the fantasy genre of books in a time when most fiction aimed at realism, and that is a very good thing, but it may not have yet withstood the test of time.
To Kill a Mockingbird is also a fantastic read, and it is not hard to understand its inclusion in the list. The same goes for Catcher in the Rye, Atlas Shrugged, and Gone With the Wind (I've never read Atlas Shrugged or Gone With the Wind and did not like Catcher in the Rye but I know enough of the literary world to understand that they are truly considered great literature). A case can be made for these four books, although they are of course debatable members of such a list.
The remaining books: Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and The Stand are a different case altogether. They are all probably enjoyable and entertaining reads, I know. Perhaps they are more than just entertaining too (although I fundamentally disagree with their theological implications), but do they really belong on the list of ten books to read before you die? Not one of them has been given the chance to withstand the test of time, the most effective way to judge whether or not a book is strictly bound to its own time period, to a particular zeitgeist, to a fad or a trend.
It is also worth noting that every one of these books (with the exception of the Bible) was written within the last one-hundred years in English. Now, it is possible that nine of the ten most important books for you to read before dying were all written in the last hundred years in the English language (and seven of those nine in the United States), but drawing such a conclusion seems improbable at best and culturally and chronologically bound at worst. I understand that the production of this list was probably a last minute assignment, given to an already over-loaded writer at the last minute, but this hints that perhaps the books read by the average American are neither as wide nor as deep as we might hope.
Let us consider for a moment other writers and works that might have been given consideration (admittedly, this contains too high of a percentage of English and recent works, showing that I am part of the problem too):
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
Jane Austen's Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility
G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina
Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov
William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying
Albert Camus' The Stranger and The Plague
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica
Dante's Divine Comedy
Thomas More's Utopia
Erasmus' In Praise of Folly
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels
Voltaire's Candide
Plato's Republic
Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
Confucius' Analects
Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote
Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis
Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling
John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
...

Clearly this is not anywhere close to an exhaustive list of possible inclusions in our top ten, and it has drawn almost entirely from the Western World, and I have not read all of these works but the point is made. If we want to become better and more thoughtful people, we must read more works written by those who inhabited other time periods, places, and cultures. As an American in the twenty-first century, there are many biases that I unwittingly hold in common with other Americans and Westerners in general from the last hundred years, which can only be exposed by seeing the world through the eyes of writer's in other contexts. We can also discover what we have right by seeing the mistakes made in other cultures and eras. To end on a theological note as an example, my view of what the Church is supposed to look like is primarily informed by my geographical and chronological context, which is fine and has been the case for all people throughout time. It is likely, though, that some of the thought of my particular time period is mistaken and ungodly, and I can learn from the wisdom of the past to avoid some of mistakes of the present. Innovation is great, but wisdom requires that we couple it with tradition.
For those of you who have read this far, what books do you think belong on a ten-book list to read before dying? Can you make a case for some that I felt did not belong?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Trinity: A Primer



I have decided to try something a little different and post something that I have already written for use elsewhere. I am currently teaching a high school boys discipleship class in which we just learned about the Trinity. I used the following curriculum which I originally wrote for my Utah mission team and used last summer for a high school theology class. It is intended as a primer on the theology of the Trinity, and hopefully it will prove useful for other people as well.


The Trinity
Throughout the history of the Christian Church, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of its most distinctive and difficult characteristics. The Trinity is very hard to understand, but some sort of an understanding is not only important but needed for the Christian life. The struggle with the doctrine began in the early Church which saw itself as a branch of Judaism and monotheistic (believing in only one God; Greek mono = one + theo = God). At the same time, however, the Church worshipped not only God the Father but also Jesus Christ the Son as well as the Holy Spirit and their scripture also referred to all three with the characteristics of God. They apparently worshipped three persons but professed to worship only one God and so the doctrine of Trinity was, in a sense, discovered.
The doctrine of the Trinity would be refined over time by the Church, especially in the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian councils and creeds (statements of faith). The Church would find that the Trinity was best understood through a few statements of what it is, many statements of what it is not, and analogies that were able to help in some ways but were never perfect. Like the Church before us, we will look at the Trinity following this basic scheme.
Before moving on, though, it will be helpful to look at those sections of the Nicene Creed in particular that give insight into the Church’s understanding of the Trinity. They read:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father
[1], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

What can we say about the Trinity?

The orthodox[2] Christian Church holds that the Trinity is one God in three persons. Each person of the Trinity is fully and completely God, is distinct from the other two, and is also completely and totally attached to the other two. Notice that we say the Trinity is “one God in three persons” and not “three persons in one God.” This may seem like a small point, but it helps us to remember a truth about the Trinity. We do not believe that if you add three persons of the Trinity together that you get one God, like God can be divided into three parts. God cannot be divided at all. Instead, we believe that the one God exists in three persons. By saying this, we remind ourselves that the Trinity is not a collection of three god-like persons who got together one day and decided to join forces. No, they have eternally existed together as one triune God.
Now on to the three members of the Trinity being distinct: each person of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is distinct from the other two. Thus, the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
With some basic groundwork laid, we can move on to looking at a few different questions that come up in dealing with the Trinity.

If the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and maybe the Son), then is the Father older than the Son and the Holy Spirit, and is the Son older than the Holy Spirit?

The orthodox answer is simply no. No member of the Trinity is any older than the others. In order for one to be older than another, it would require that at one point a person of the Trinity did not yet exist. Every person of the Trinity has existed eternally; there was never a time when any one of the three did not exist. The Father did not make or create either the Son[3] or the Spirit. If He had, that would mean that the Son and the Spirit would not in fact be God but would instead be part of creation.
Early on in the Church’s history arose a heresy that dealt with this, which was called Arianism after its founder Arius. Arianism[4] believed that the Son was the very first, most important and most perfect creation of the Father. The Holy Spirit was, in turn, the first creation of the Son. Obviously, the problem with this heresy is that Son and Spirit are no longer God but instead part of creation which means that it is sinful and idolatrous to worship them. As we will see in a later section, it also robbed Jesus Christ of the ability to redeem humanity because only creator God and not creation is capable of redeeming a fallen creation.
The language the Church has used in describing the relationships among the members of the Trinity has been that the Father eternally begets the Son and generates the Holy Spirit, that the Son is eternally begotten[5] of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (and maybe the Son). The language of “begetting,” “generating,” and “proceeding” has been specifically chosen because it hints at the relationships without implying that one person comes before another in time. For example, there is a world of difference between “begetting” and “making.” Human persons beget human persons, dogs beget dogs, fish beget fish, etc. Humans make other objects, such as art, buildings, tools, weapons, medicine, food, etc. One might say that like begets like and like makes unlike (that is, things beget things like themselves but make things different than themselves). Thus, to say that the Son is begotten of the Father is to say that the Son is of the same nature of the Father, whereas the universe was made by the Father and so does not share His nature in fullness.
C.S. Lewis offers a helpful analogy by telling us to imagine three books stacked on a table. The first book can be defined as being under the other two, the second can be defined as between the other two, and the third can be defined as being on top of the other two. Now imagine there were no table and that the three books had been like that forever. We can understand their relationships to one another without thinking of one existing before another.
Because all three members of the Trinity have existed eternally, it is not correct to speak of one member, say the Father, producing another, say the Son, through some sort of actual intercourse. Thus, while we speak of the Son as the Son, we do not mean that He is a literal child of God the Father. Furthermore, because the three members of the Trinity have eternally existed as God, we know that creatures do not become gods and that God has never existed as anything but God.

Are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit just names we give to the one God when He does different things and fills certain roles?

Once again, the orthodox answer is no. The idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different names for the one God in the different roles He fulfills was rejected early on by the Church as the heresy of Modalism. Modalism basically states that the one God changes from mode to mode depending on what role He is playing at the moment. Thus we might refer to creator God and the God who takes care of the details of life as Father; the mode in which God redeems and saves us as God the Son; and the mode in which God lives in us, transforms us and inspires us as the Holy Spirit.
There are three major problems with Modalism. The first is that the Church and the Bible both portray the three members of the Trinity as distinct, without a hint of their being the same person. The second is that no role is assigned to just one member of the Trinity; all three members were involved in the creation of the world, in the redemption of humanity and within the transformation of believers. It would thus be meaningless to refer to the persons in different roles if they in fact are all involved in all roles. The third is that if the three members of the Trinity are simply names for different modes of God, there might be many more modes of God and therefore it is wrong to speak of a Trinity when there might be four, eleven or an infinite number of modes of God.
At this point some might be confused by referring to three distinct persons of the Trinity. When we think of person we usually think of human beings, but obviously that is not proper when referring to the members of the Trinity. Instead, person in this sense stems back to its Latin root, the word personae. This was a legal term in Rome which referred to a possessor of property. In the case of the Trinity, each person of the Trinity possesses the property of deity (god-ness), the nature or substance of God. A problem that came from this term in the early Church helps to highlight the rejection of Modalism by the Church. When (poorly) translated into the Greek of the Eastern Church, personae became prosopon which implied a mask that an actor would wear in Greek plays. The Eastern Church recognized that this translation hinted at a form of Modalism and rejected it. They instead used the term hypostasis which better represented personae and referred to the nature of God as ousia, so that in the Greek the Trinity was defined as one ousia in three hypostases. Remember that hypostasis refers to personhood; it will come up again later.

Are the members of the Trinity in a sort of hierarchy, with one having a higher rank than another?

You guessed it, the answer is no. Although the Bible sometimes sounds as if the Father has a higher position and rank than the Son and Spirit, such as when it says that they do the will of the Father, no member of the Trinity has more power or a higher rank than the others. To believe that one member has a higher rank than the others is to buy into another[6] early heresy known as Monarchianism. Monarchianism basically holds that there is a hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity and generally places God the Father as the most important member. The name Monarchianism comes from the same root as monarch and monarchy and holds a similar concept of kingship.
One of the major problems with Monarchianism is that it tends to divide the members of the Trinity too much from one another. It is, of course, true that the Son and the Holy Spirit do the will of the Father but we should not understand that to mean that they submit their own wills to the will of the Father because He is more powerful. Instead, they do the will of the Father as they will the same things that the Father wills. All three are perfect and so they each have a perfect will and so will the same things. Beyond that, if we look at the Son as submitting to the Father because the Father is more powerful than we are viewing the Trinity through a worldly lens. In the fallen, sinful world power is used to dominate and must be submitted to. In the Trinity, as seen through the Christian faith, true power is exerted through submission and love. If in any way a person of the Trinity does submit to another, it is not a sign of weakness but of strength.
The Bible can be easily read in such a way that we see a sort of hierarchy among the members, and that may in fact be true. If it is, however, we must remember that it is because the persons of the Trinity lovingly submit to one another and not because any one member is more powerful or more worthy of authority. The persons of the Trinity are equal in their nature and god-ness.

Looking at a few models of the Trinity.

Because the concept of the Trinity is so hard to understand, many Christians have tried to make it more understandable by developing models or analogies for the Trinity. No model is perfect but most are helpful in one way or another so we will look at a few important models and dig in to what they have to offer us.

1. We can understand the Trinity as Lover, Beloved and the Love that exists between them. The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved of the Father and the Holy Spirit is the Love that exists between them. Without any one part, the whole no longer exists. If there is no Lover, there is no source of the Love and the Beloved is no longer Beloved. If there is no Beloved, there is nothing to make the Lover a Lover and there is no Love. If Love does not exist, it is meaningless to speak of a Lover or a Beloved.

This model was developed by St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians the Christian Church has ever known. It does a good job of capturing the importance of all the members for the existence of the whole and emphasizing the distinctiveness of each member (not to mention that it draws from the Song of Solomon). The model does suffer in a few important respects, though. It is not great for representing the essential unity of the Trinity. Although removing one member from the equation would dissolve the whole, the other members might still exist in some other way. If we removed Love, the Lover and the Beloved would still exist but they would be known by different names. This is unlike the Trinity in which the existence of each member is totally necessary. The second major flaw is that it downplays the personality of the Holy Spirit. When we think of Love, we tend to think of an emotion or possibly a force. We do not, however, think of an actual person with consciousness and a will and this analogy risks dropping the Holy Spirit to a mere force.

2. The Trinity is similar to water. Water is one essential substance but can exist in three different forms: liquid, solid or gas.

Most modern American Christians have probably heard this analogy before and it does in fact help to grasp the unity of three distinct things. It drives home the reality of God’s one essential nature. It really is not a great analogy, though, because it borders on Modalism as water simply changes from form to form but is in reality the same. It can lead to the misconception that the persons of the Trinity are just different forms of the one real unity.

3. The Trinity is like a family, with the Father as the parents, the Son as the children and the Holy Spirit as the love that binds the family together.

This model is basically an alteration of St. Augustine’s, but is not quite as useful. It has the strength of emphasizing the interpersonal relationships of a family within the Trinity, but fails in other areas. For instance, a family unit can greatly lack in unity and so the unity of the Trinity can be lost in this example. Beyond that, it does not seem that all of the members are necessary in order to make the whole, especially in a modern American context. Once parents have passed away, aren’t the children still a family? Is a married couple not yet a family if it has not yet produced children? Does a family need to be filled with love in order to be a family? There are really too many ideas of what constitutes a family for this model to be of much use.

4. The Trinity is like an electrical circuit, with the Father as the battery, the Son as the wire, and the Holy Spirit as the electrical current. If any one of these three is removed, an electrical circuit no longer exists.

The strength of this model is that it highlights the necessity of each part in order for the whole to exist. It also gives an example of relationships between the members of the Trinity and their intertwined nature. It fails to reveal a personal nature of any member, however, and although the removal of any one part means that the whole no longer exists the other parts do continue to exist.

In thinking about the Trinity, it is often best to hold many good analogies in mind at once, recognizing the weakness of each but counterbalancing their strengths. One model might put too much emphasis on unity at the cost of distinction whereas another might represent diversity well but fail in regard to unity. By holding these different models, as well as the basic orthodox rules for understanding the Trinity, together, we can maintain a tension that is faithful to the orthodox Christian faith.
As a final note on the Trinity, it might seem that the doctrine of the Trinity is too messy to be true and that it would be much tidier to have just one completely unified god or to have three separate gods. While these views would be tidier and easier to grasp, it is for that very reason that they seem inadequate. One uniform god makes sense, as do three separate gods, and so they seem to be the very sort of things that would be invented by humans who want to explain everything in a neat and tidy fashion. Why would early Christians have invented the doctrine of the Trinity, when it must have been just as hard to understand for them as it is for us? The answer would seem to be that they did not invent the doctrine, but held faithfully to it because it was the truth revealed by God.
We now know that light behaves in an extraordinarily odd way, with some characteristics of a wave and others of a particle, two things that we thought were totally separate. We only believe that light behaves this way because it has been observed to be true. It is too wild of a claim to invent. Similarly the triune God, whom we profess to be infinitely beyond our ability to grasp, has revealed Himself to be more complex than we would have guessed and that is simply a mystery of the Christian faith.

[1] In the Western Church this line reads “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” whereas the Eastern Church has only from the Father.
[2] When using the term orthodox in this work, we will intend it to mean the correct belief held by all Christians. If at some point we want to refer to specific orthodox Churches they will be named, such as “Greek Orthodox,” “Eastern Orthodox,” or “Coptic Orthodox.”
[3] Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-3, Isaiah 9:6, Hebrews 13:8.
[4] Interestingly, there are some major doctrinal similarities between the Arian heresy and today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[5] John 3:16.
[6] Notice that almost every form of heresy occurred within the first four centuries of the Church’s existence. Satan is not creative with his lies and simply recycles and repackages them again and again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wordle: Beautiful Word Clouds


KJV Old Testament KJV New Testament
This isn't a particularly theological post, but yesterday the Boundless Line noted the Wordle website, which allows you to enter a bunch of text and have a sweet word cloud generated showing the most common words from the text. You might notice my new logo to the right was produced this way, as well as these King James Version Old and New Testament Word clouds I just made. It's worth checking out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rumors, Smears, Lies, and Slander

Allow me to begin with a promise: This blog will not become dominated with the presidential race, although it may touch on it from time to time as the issues in that race collide with the Christian's pursuit of Christ.
When November finally arrives, I will cast my vote for Senator John McCain. I will do this because I agree with him on more issues than I do with Senator Barack Obama. I would really, honestly prefer that McCain win the election because I think he would be better for the United States and the world than Obama.
I make that clear primarily for the sake of integrity, because I abhor the rumors, smears and lies that are circulating already in this presidential race, mainly with regard to Senator Obama. There is no indication that Senator McCain is connected to the slander at all, and I commend both candidates for generally keeping their campaigns focused on issues and not personal attacks. The fact remains that rumors are arising at a grassroots level and are being propagated by people like you and me. For instance, haven't you heard that Obama helped finance his socialist, East Germany educated, cousin's presidential bid in Kenya; that he won't recite the Pledge of Allegiance, was or is a Muslim, or that he was sworn into office with his hand on the Quran; that his campaign is being financed by Hugo Chavez; that he has been endorsed by the KKK; that he attended a madrassa as a child? Haven't you been given a wink and a nod with regard to his name: Barack (a Swahili name that sounds Arabic) Hussein (remember Saddam?) Obama (rhymes with Osama)? The fact of the matter is that none of these claims are true, the truth is readily obtainable, and yet many people (Christians included) propagate these lies as if they are true or very well could be.
Why does this matter? Let us look back at that ninth commandment: "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." Should we try to weasel our way out by asking whether or not a presidential candidate is our neighbor, let us remember what Jesus had to say in response to a similar question. Think back to the many things the Bible has to say about false witnesses. Remember that we worship the God who once described Himself as being the Truth. Remember the apostle Paul exhorting us to buckle on the belt of truth as part of our spiritual armor. Remember that love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
If the Word of God teaches us such things, how can we take part in passing on lies, in bearing false witness against our neighbor? We cannot excuse ourselves for not knowing these rumors to be false, because we know better than to believe everything we hear without examination.
We might argue that we don't care how the right candidate wins the election, as long as they win, but this kind of utilitarianism does not mesh with the teachings of Christ. If we use evil in order to do good, we corrupt the good that we were once seeking. Do we have so little faith in God that we feel the need to sin so that His purposes might be fulfilled? St. Paul did not allow for that kind of thinking.
Let us all trust God's wisdom and pray that the candidate He desires to place in office should win the election. I am not demanding McCain from Him and neither should you demand Obama. Let's simply pray that His wisdom rules the minds of America's citizens and that our votes would reflect His desire.
Perhaps we can even begin to refrain from bearing false witness against other people in our lives: our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. With God's help.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Alcohol

When people find out that I don't drink they tend to fall into two camps, those who worry for a moment until they realize that I am not yet of legal drinking age and relax upon assuming that I will be drinking soon enough, and those who congratulate me for not giving in to the evils of alcohol. If I explain my position on alcohol any further, though, both camps tend to look at me with a wary eye.

The first camp becomes distressed because they discover that I do not just abstain from alcohol temporarily because I cannot yet imbibe it legally (although that would be enough to prevent me from doing so), but permanently as I have committed to not drinking alcohol (with two reservations, which I will address further down).

The second camp is unhappy because they soon learn that I am not abstaining from alcohol because I think it is inherently sinful and forbidden by God.

At that point, I usually hope that a complete explanation of my position will ease the tension with both camps.

Let me explain. I believe that drinking alcohol before you are legally permitted to do so is sinful because we are to obey the laws of our government unless they contradict the laws of God. Upon reaching the legal age, however, I do not think that consuming alcohol is inherently sinful. I realize this will ruffle some feathers among those who believe that such consumption is explicitly forbidden in Scripture, but I am thoroughly convinced through my study of the Bible that it is not: for example, wine was an acceptable offering to God in the Old Testament; abundant wine production was a blessing promised by God to His people; Jesus' first miracle was that of turning water into wine; Jesus used wine to implement the practice of sharing the communion meal; and Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine to help with his health problems. Saying that drinking alcohol is not inherently sinful does not mean that it is never sinful, however. The Bible soundly condemns drunkenness again and again. Drunkenness can lead to violence, sexual impurity, poverty, as well as woe, sorrow, strife, complaints, needless bruises, and bloodshot eyes. Paul directed Timothy not to appoint overseers or deacons who are given to drunkenness. Similarly, a person with a family or personal history of alcoholism is at least unwise to drink alcohol.

So why have I committed to abstaining from alcohol if I do not believe it is inherently sinful? I abstain for the sake of those who do drink and those who think it is sinful. The American culture is generally not one of moderation with regard to alcohol but instead one of abstinence or abuse. I hope to see a liberating moderation become the norm, however, and want to be an agent in bringing about that change. If I were to drink moderately and argue that moderate drinking was not sinful, I would be disregarded by those who believe all drinking to be sinful because I would be benefiting from my belief. My hope is that I can maintain a certain level respect from both camps through my stance and be used to bring about reconciliation.

I mentioned above that I have two reservations with my commitment to abstain from alcohol, and those deserve mention. The first is that I will drink wine when it is served as part of the Lord's Supper, because I could never in good conscience refuse that which was instituted by my God. The second is only a potential reservation that requires more consideration, but is loosely that I may take alcohol if I am ever abroad and could not help but offend my hosts if I were to refuse it.

After laying out my stance, I realize that this may not prove a terribly helpful post for others. What would I exhort my brothers and sisters in Christ to do with regard to alcohol, no matter which camp they are in? I would have them study this passage, and have those who enjoy alcohol in moderation do so in a way that does not put a stumbling block before those who cannot, and those who cannot believe that they can drink righteously refrain from condemning those who do in word or thought. Argue with one another about this in love, each seeking to come to know what Scripture teaches and to teach the other, but do not allow alcohol to drive a wedge through the Body of Christ.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Surrender

"That's it, I finally get it, I surrender."
It seems that for several years God has been moving me to this point in my life, a point in which I can recognize a truth that He has been wanting me to grasp for so long. The lesson really began early in my high school years (in my memory, it likely stretches further back in time) when I ordered my second book from K.P. Yohannan, the founder of Gospel for Asia. I had already read his first book, Revolution in World Missions, which I found offered for free online. This book had introduced me to the awesome power of native missionary movements and I wanted desperately to read something, anything else written by this godly leader. This led me to Road to Reality, which was life-changing for me in ways that I had not foreseen. The book made a compelling case, without inducing feelings of guilt or despair, that Western Christians have far more wealth than we need so that we might give it to our brothers and sisters in need around the world. Yohannan has a gift for bringing conviction of sin without condemnation; diagnosing spiritual disease without coming across as hypocritical; and warning of churches veering away from the heart of the Gospel without a hint of judgmentalism. As his focus narrowed from megachurches spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Christmas decorations instead of helping the hungry to individual Christians spending needlessly on hundreds of little things, I became increasingly convicted. Yohannan's point was not so much that we should feel guilty over every purchase, but instead that we have been given the great gift of wealth so that we might share it with those in need.
Moving forward a couple of years, I enrolled at Azusa Pacific Univerity (APU). Any APU student would laugh in agreement when I say that social justice is a big deal on campus. I had, of course, always learned from my parents, my church, and the Bible itself that as a Christian I have the responsibility of helping the poor and feeding the hungry. Still, I had not expected such a constant cry for social justice within our three-times-a-week chapel services. Although it has not been the topic every day, it is fairly safe to assume that at least one chapel a week will address the needs of the billions of poor around the world, their hunger for just enough food to survive, their thirst for clean water, their need for some sort of sanitary shelter, their lack of access to even the most inexpensive and basic forms of health care, and their cry for a break from systems of injustice and oppression. My hat is off to my university for forcing several thousand wealthy (at very least by global standards) young Christian students to remember that genuine suffering exists in this world and that we are responsible to help alleviate it. With that said, however, such a constant harping unintentionally drives many of us into a mixture of despair and guilt.
Could I ever even fulfill my responsibility to the poor if I tried? It's not my fault I was born into a wealthy nation. With so many problems in the world, could I even make a difference at all?
I do not blame this response on the chapel speakers, as they are simply seeking to do their part in mobilizing future Christian leaders for the sake of the suffering, but the response does occur. With this large of an emphasis on social justice from chapel, it was not surprising to find that it was similarly a common topic of discussion and conversation among my friends. My friend Adam, in particular, and I would debate from time to time concerning whether or not social justice was just as integral to Jesus' work as evangelism. My role has always been that which argues that evangelism is the key component to the Gospel and that seeking to help those who suffer is extremely important but far inferior to the message of salvation. After all, if you have the choice between helping with someone's eternal life or making their short earthly life better, don't you have to choose their eternity?
This brings me to the present, having just finished Art Beals's Beyond Hunger: A Biblical Mandate for Social Responsibility. This work chronicles the author's development in which he went from at one point thinking that the term "justice" was inextricably tied to theological liberalism (which I can tell you as a conservative evangelical is generally seen as a warning sign, whether or not it deserves it) to seeing it as a necessary concern for any follower of Christ. Although the book does not offer much in the way of systems which, implemented, could help the world's poor, it is better for it. What the book does do is convince the reader that any follower of Christ must be not only concerned but active in seeking to help the world's poor, that despair is foolish and crippling to the Kingdom of God which must remain hopeful, and that individual believers coming together in dedication to serving Christ can and do bring the Kingdom of God to those who suffer.
This brings me to my surrender. I must finally accept the truth. The Gospel is not a choice of evangelism or mercy and justice. The good news of Jesus Christ, the work of the Kingdom of God is a work of both evangelism and mercy and justice. Being a redeemed person, a member of the Church, a saint entails introducing people to God Incarnate. We must introduce others to Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers them. We must exemplify Christ's love as His Spirit indwells us, using us as His body in order to demonstrate love in the flesh. We are bearers of the good news, which touches all of life. To borrow a metaphor from Beals, we as Christians are concerned neither with ghosts nor corpses, neither souls alone nor bodies alone, but with human beings, just as Christ is concerned with the people made in His very image. It has been a long time coming, but yes, I surrender.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not just Baby Mama

Just a few days ago, "Baby Mama," a comedy about surrogate motherhood premiered. Today, while watching TV, I saw a commercial for SurroGenesis, a surrogacy agency which helps infertile traditional couples, homosexual couples, and singles to have children by pairing them up with surrogate mothers and/or egg donors. They offer two options, one in which the potential parents supply a fertilized egg to the surrogate mother, and one in which only the father donates through artificial insemination. Either way, the surrogate mother is handsomely rewarded with rates starting at $18,000, with many other additional expenses covered as well.
Before I continue, let me express that I understand that great sensitivity is required when dealing with issues such as infertility, and I further understand that I cannot understand the pain, struggle, and disappointment of infertile couples, as I have never experienced it. I may inadvertantly speak with insensitivity, but I will do my best not to. With that said, I must speak from an outsider's perspective, although simply being on the outside does not negate the potential truthfulness of my view.
Returning from my aside, the role of the surrogacy agency appears to be a godsend, a beautiful helping hand reaching out to provide children for those who cannot have their own on their own. At this stage of the game, the agency may very well be that exactly. The future of surrogacy, however, is quite worrying. Assuming the best of surrogacy at present, it is a system of donors who want to help others struggling with infertility and so provide them with children, receiving financial compensation for their increased expenses and effort. There are, of course, moral questions that arise from even such ideal circumstances. For instance, why should so much money and effort be directed toward surrogacy when there are children in need of adoption? Such a question must be answered, but it is still not this situation that so concerns me. I worry for the future of surrogacy, when it will undoubtedly veer away from such ideal circumstances.
A time will likely come when surrogate mothers are no longer simply selfless donors, but will have become a full-time profession for poor women while in their peak years of health. It takes very little imagination to envision the eventual creation of a "breeder" or "bearer" class, a debased form of indentured servitude, in which bodies are signed away for nine-month leases. If such a practice were to arise, one must also wonder when the surrogate mothers will ever have the chance to bear their own children, if their peak years are spent in the business of surrogacy.
It is not just among the surrogates that problems will likely arise, but also among those who hire them. Currently, infertile couples seek out surrogates to bear their children, but why must it remain that way? Surely market forces, coupled with the cultural worship of youthfulness, thinness, and bodily perfection, will eventually lead to wealthy fertile couples hiring surrogates so that the wife will not need to risk her perfect figure in order to enjoy the life of motherhood. Having another woman bear one's own children may, in fact, become a respectable sign of class, wealth, and prestige.
Such possibilities may seem farfetched to some, but unless the government intervenes to regulate surrogacy practices, market forces practically demand such a development. And that would be a scary step, indeed.

Finally Returning

Given the fact that a blog's popularity is tied largely to the regularity with which it is updated, I must assume that no one will read this post. In the off chance that someone does, thank you. I hope to begin writing regularly once again. As I neglected to explain a few months ago why my posting would die off, I will use this post to tell that tale, and hopefully soon return to more theological musings.
The fact is, I have been gone for three and a half months studying abroad in Oxford, England. Originally I had hoped to continue posting, but I neither had the time nor the desire to blog while there. "Why?" you might ask. I was kept busy learning to live in a new culture (surprisingly different than my own), doing more reading and writing than I have in any semester of my life save one, visiting famous sites, and falling in love. With a line-up like that, I hope that you can forgive me for my absence. The semester abroad was fantastic, and is almost impossible to recount in the blog medium (although a taste of my time can be found in my mom's blog, from the 11 days in which she, my dad, and I travelled around England together). For that reason, I will leave this post now, and hopefully return soon with a more theological post. Thanks again, anyone who might be reading this.