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Archive for February, 2016


I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.

It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.

The first paragraph is familiar:

“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.

The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.

This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.

Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them.  This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.

As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.

Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)

But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”

We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).

Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.

“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”

The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”

“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”

 

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Year ago Charles Barkley made all kinds of waves with his “I am not a role model” commercial. It makes a pertinent point. Athletic ability is not to be confused with character. Although this commercial is over 20 years old, we still struggle with this concept.

Some athletes appear to be teflon. Their indiscretions and/or alleged crimes are quickly forgotten, or never earnestly discussed. Others face a lifetime of disdain from the public for their indiscretions and/or alleged crimes.

I used both terms because some people do some things that are morally evil but which are not crimes. For instance, when Tiger Woods crashed his car that day we learned that the man who is possibly the greatest golfer in history is also a sex addict and deviant. As far as we know he didn’t break any laws. His actions, however reprehensible, were between consenting adults.

And then there are the allegations against Kobe Bryant. Only God, Kobe and the hotel worker know what actually took place that night in Colorado. He managed to avoid criminal charges but it ended up costing him quite a bit of money, including that huge diamond to make atonement to his wife.

Neither Tiger nor Kobe are reviled today. At his last All-Star game this weekend, Kobe was applauded and honored. He was a great basketball player, and should be honored for that. Yet it also seems that we’ve somehow forgotten about that night in Colorado (and I’m sure he’s glad about that). Mike Tyson has some how become viewed as popular and desirable again even though he was convicted of rape (the actors in The Hangover were reported to be excited to work with him, but despised Mel Gibson). Director Truman Capote remains in Europe an admired artist with a statuary rape charge hanging over him. Bill Clinton survived numerous allegations and impeachment to remain a celebrity President.

Other athletes don’t have it so easily. Pete Rose is a divisive figure. There is a small group that wants to move on from his gambling on baseball, but most people seem to want his role as pariah to continue. Barry Bonds is still not liked by most baseball fans. John Edwards became politician non grata.

Why is it that we give some people a pass, and make others pay the rest of their lives?

It isn’t about how nice the celebrity or star appears. Tiger was never known for being congenial. Kobe doesn’t have a reputation for being an all-around great guy.

It isn’t about talent alone. Bonds was the greatest player of his generation but remains a largely hated figure.

This is quite the confusing conundrum. Why do we disremember (choose to forget) the indiscretions and crimes of some celebrities and public figures, but not others? We somehow omit these events when we talk about them. This is not just compartmentalization- separating their personal and professional lives. We don’t say x is a great athlete/politician/actor but a horrible person. We extend their greatness to include their character, even if it is not warranted.

Another interesting conundrum is the tipping point for particular celebrities and public figures. For years the rumors regarding Bill Cosby were ignored. Suddenly they began to matter. The man behind many beloved figures- Fat Albert, Dr. Huxtable and more- was suddenly one of our most hated men. Why do we suddenly re-remember, making those events a part of that person’s history again?

Some of that is shifts in public perceptions regarding the alleged offense. Sexual assault is now taken more seriously. But this doesn’t explain everything. The example would be Kobe. So perhaps it was the overwhelming number of allegations that sunk Cosby.

Another factor is the advent of social media. Stories that died rather quickly in the past can take on a life of their own now as people share information (whether fact or rumor) on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. This can impede our attempts to disremember. Or, in some cases, aid them thru mass disremembering as people reject the allegations.

We all have actions we regret; parts of our personal history that we want to omit. Some of us are haunted by them. Some of us are able to deceive ourselves into thinking those events never happened. For instance, in 2003 Val Kilmer played adult movie star John Hughes in Wonderland, which was about the murders in Hollywood connected with Hughes. The premise of the movie was that Hughes played a role in leading the killers to the house, and actually participated in the robbery and murders. He dis-remembered, telling himself it didn’t happen until he actually believed it. Some of us have mastered it in our personal lives.

As a Christian I have to deal with those parts of my story that are unpleasant. I can’t be haunted by them, but I can’t pretend they never happened either. Confessed to God, they are pardoned because of the work of Christ. When I remember them I have to also remember His pardoning work precisely so they don’t haunt me and control me. But I don’t pretend they don’t exist. I acknowledge them as a part of my story, the ugly part which displays the mercy and patience of God with me in Christ. I incorporate not only my sin but Christ into my story.

Public figures who are Christians can be honest about their pasts. They speak with regret, not gladness. But they have no need to hide it. They don’t need, nor do they need us, to disremember it.

We need to change our relationship with our heroes, and celebrities. Rather than compartamentalize or disremember, we can integrate their stories. We can see their virtues, and their foibles. We don’t have to expect them to be perfect, and we don’t have to deny their wrong-doing. But we can evaluate their wrong-doing. It is okay to get rid of your Aaron Hernandez shirt. There can be points beyond which you can’t go, so to speak. Our desire should be to know, and act upon, the truth. It should not be to deny the truth. We don’t need to “shut down” allegations, but rather evaluate available evidence as best we can.

The issue for us isn’t the avalanche of noise created by social media, or the media. The issue should not be the shifting sands of public morality. We don’t have to follow the crowd like a pack animal. We can be principled, wise and gracious. Being gracious is not ignoring the offense, but acknowledging it while determining this isn’t the sum total of the person. This also means that we treat others fairly, not favoring particular people and castigating others who’ve been alleged (or have actually done) far worse. This means we don’t ignore the allegations against Christians who are famous. In all cases we let the evidence speak, and then evaluate how we will respond to them. This is because no one is “all good” nor “all bad”.

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ThessaloniansThis weekend our community groups begin our study of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. We will be utilizing the study guide by John Stott, but I tend to supplement those study guides. Due to procrastination on many fronts and by many people, the guides are not in. That is okay because I’ve got my other resources, and this is a great opportunity to talk about the background to the letters, meaning the 2nd missionary journey and some info about Thessalonica.

Here are the resources I’m using:

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians by John Stott in the Bible Speaks Today series. This was a no brainer since we are using Stott’s study guide. I love this series as well. A good balance between the academic and the practical marks this series. I’ve rarely been disappointed by any volumes. Stott’s commentaries themselves are often among my favorite accessible commentaries.

Epistles to the Thessalonians (now 1 & 2 Thessalonians) by Leon Morris in the Tyndale Bible Commentary series. This series has meaningful and concise commentaries. Leon Morris is another of my favorites from the same generation of scholars as Stott. I am currently using his big commentary on John for my sermon series.

1-2 Thessalonians by G.K. Beale in the IVP New Testament Commentary series. I bought this because of his commentary of on Revelation. This is not nearly the size, but I anticipate some of the same OT background to help understand Paul’s theology. (It is not in the picture. I must have mistakenly given it to one of the elders instead of the new copy of Morris.)

Teaching 1 & 2 Thessalonians (From Text to Message) and Introducing 1 & 2 Thessalonians: A Book for Today by Angus MacLeay. This is part of the “Teaching …” series. I found the volume on Isaiah very helpful for the study we just completed. I was disappointed by the volume on John.  This looks more like the former, and not the later (very short).

Since this is for community group, I didn’t want to read a very technical commentary. I would if I were preaching. I also wanted resources accessible to the other men leading our community groups.

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I decided to read Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul for a reason. We are still in a bad place with race relations in this country. As the white middle class father of two African-American children, I wanted to listen to how some African-Americans view the problem.

Like many people, I find discussions about race difficult. It is hard to build up the trust to speak honestly without judgment. It is awkward and difficult. So when I saw this book available for review I thought I’d get a copy, as if Eddie Glaude Jr. and I were sitting across the table from one another in a beer-less summit of sorts.

He is a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. He also teaches in the religion department.

There are many good things about this book. He tells it like he honestly sees it (which means it can be some unpleasant, painful truth). Politically, he doesn’t portray Democrats as perfect, or even President Obama, not Republicans as all evil (though he disagrees strongly with many policies). We will get to that later.

The strength of the book, for me, was chapters 2-4. He attempts to get to the heart of the long-term, on-going race issues in this nation. This has to do with the value gap, racial habits and white fear. From the beginning this nation has valued blacks less than whites. The end of slavery hasn’t ended it. The end of Jim Crow laws hasn’t ended it. It is a matter of the heart that is worked out in society. I think some of his examples are flawed. For instance, on page 31 he addresses the diseases that kill blacks at a higher rate than whites. But heart disease, cancer and AIDS get plenty of press and research money. It isn’t like these diseases are ignored because they kill blacks. Unfortunately he doesn’t bring up abortion which kills a disproportionate number of black babies, but is consistently protected by the white liberal establishment. But I agree with him that there is a value gap. Generally speaking, black lives don’t seem to matter as much in our society. The rates of incarcerated blacks is not just about poverty and crime, but also a flawed criminal justice system.

His discussion of disremembering is particularly helpful. This is the collective memory of a society which leaves out some of the ugly realities of our history or particular events. We do this, as a culture, to think the best about ourselves. He doesn’t get to its root in pride, but this is something not often discussed.

“When we disremember an event, an egregious moment in the past, we shape how we live in the present. … Disremembering is active forgetting. … What we put in and leave out of our stories tells us something about who we are.”

As a part of this, even when a challenging aspect of our past is brought us, we tend to objectify it. Those people are bad, but we rarely, if ever, think “I could do that too. If I were there I may very well have been one of the perpetrators.”

“Rather, inequality comes from the habits we exercise daily- habits that aren’t revealed in racial slurs and blatant acts of discrimination, but in the choices we make and the lives we live, even when those choices and lives seem to have little to do with race”

The little white boy across the street from him learned on day one that he was not supposed to play with “niggers” (his word, not mine). We all pick up unspoken ideas about race. “Racial habits are formed by the outcomes we see in the world rather than by the complex processes that produced those outcomes.” With so much poverty in the African-American community, many assume that they are lazy. He talks about “opportunity hoarding” in which a majority culture tends to keep the good stuff. We are often blind to the “way social networks reproduce inequality: white individuals benefit from being part of white social groups.” He talks about how we often get jobs through social networks, but think we “earn it.” Of the 14 jobs I’ve had over the years (at times working more than one) all but 2 were the result of knowing someone. When we consider it, that is astounding. This points to the need for internships for minorities so they can develop a social network AND the skills to get better jobs (think the NFL which has the Rooney Rule for minorities and women but doesn’t actively recruit them for lower tier positions so they can gain skills and connections).

One of those habits we pick up is that of masking, particularly how we feel about racial matters. We don’t want to talk honestly about race at Starbucks, or anywhere else. Blacks are afraid of being labeled the angry black man, and whites are afraid of being labeled a clueless racist. Additionally, we participate in the racial theater led by prominent civil rights leaders, and even our President. A theater that doesn’t actually resolve anything, but seems to just keep picking at the wounds.

“White fear is the general frame of mind that black people are dangerous, not only to white individuals because they are prone to criminal behavior, but to the overall well-being of our society.”

White fear is a political fear, and an economic fear. I recall as a young person being afraid of losing out due to affirmative action and minority scholarships (which I hope and pray my kids get!). It is largely about self-interest. Those in the lower economic or social ladders tend to fear those above, and those in the middle and higher tend to fear those below supplanting them. This has been common in our culture with new immigrants (Italians, Polish etc), but African-Americans have persistently been part of that perceived threat while other groups have moved up the ladder and began to share in white fear. Political fear “takes fears based in narrow concerns and gives them a more generalized fear.”

In addition to the Great Black Depression (the recession hit black communities far harder than white ones), we’ve seen the dissolution of the black social structures that have enabled black people to think and grow in relative safety (black churches, colleges, press etc.). In some ways they are losing their voice.

His chapter on President Obama and the Black Liberals is a good history of black political thought and groups in America. He discusses the shifts, and failures. Ultimately they have capitulated to white supremacy and the lie of “color-blindness”. It is the idea that if we just get the right person in power the plight of the African-American community will end. The liberal politician becomes a messiah figure. Don’t worry, white conservatives (and liberals) do this too. He notes the failure to hold politicians accountable as part of the problem (this goes far beyond black democratic life).

“The whole business of black politics becomes the political project of black liberals, with their latent desire for the disappearance of black America. Looks like we have been accomplices in our own demise after all.”

While this book was very helpful for me, I saw some fundamental problems as well. In his book Bloodlines, John Piper notes that for a minority culture everything is seen as a race issue, while for a majority culture nothing is seen as a race issue. The truth, obviously, is somewhere in the middle. There are things that Glaude sees as race issues, or solely as race issues, which may not be. His thinking is reductionistic at times. One example is voter ID laws. He sees this as an attempt to suppress the black vote. My own approval of voter ID laws has to do with addressing voter fraud (but I’d be what he calls a right wing extremist). I see room for compromise in how the laws are written so that the black vote is not suppressed (free gov’t IDs for people on welfare for instance). I don’t want to exclude any citizens from voting (black, Asian, Hispanic, Democrat, Independent etc.). I do want to prevent people from voting more than once, and from non-citizens from exercising the rights of citizens.

His solutions don’t seem compelling to me, though at times I am also tempted to vote “none of the above” too. As someone who teaches religion, I’d hope he would bring some theology into play. No, I’m not talking simply about forgiveness. For instance, the answer to the value gap is the imago dei. He seems to have no objective reason for our equality, a problem expressed in the existential ethics of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and other places. It is not simply a white/black thing but one that plagues every culture.

I do agree we need to have some difficult, honest conversations. We have to stop masking, but this can only happen in an atmosphere of overall acceptance. The value gap stands in the way of that, as does white fear. I see little hope of actually moving forward without the gospel which affirms the dignity (imago dei) and depravity (we all sin) of each person, while providing acceptance thru justification by faith, and power to put to death the misdeeds of the old man in Adam (like racism) through the power of the Spirit because our minds are being renewed ( we see where our sin is, and what righteousness is).

All this does mean we have to build relationships with people different from ourselves: ethnically, economically, religiously. As we experience them as real people with real feelings, strengths and weaknesses we can move forward. But if we remain in our peer groups, behind the walls of fear, and differing values, nothing will change. Nothing will change if white people think they have to fix is all and “save” African-Americans. They needed to be invested with power, not simply allowed to share the same space.

This was a very helpful and insightful book despite its flaws. It is a book I’d recommend to others to help better understand the history of race relations and politics in this country. While I’ll disagree with him on a number of points, I’m better for reading it. It would be nice to sit across from a table from him, over beer, even if we raise our voices at times.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.)

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