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Were You There?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:49 AM

Courtesy of the CyberHymnal, a traditional African-American spiritual that is always hauntingly appropriate for Good Friday:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?

Good Friday Meditation: Jesus's Perfected Sign of Jonah

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 10:39 PM

Following my annual tradition (2005, 2006), I have posted a Good Friday meditation online today. You will find this year's meditation over at Open for Business.

The SBC and "the Journey"

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 2:39 AM

If you are in the St. Louis area, you probably know about a current controversy between the Southern Baptist leadership and “the Journey,” a church they helped fund. The point of contention is an innovative program they came up with to have theology discussions at Schlafly Bottleworks, a brewery. That doesn't jive well with the SBC position on alcohol, but the Journey sees this as an important outreach opportunity.

In context of this, one of my professors, Dr. Lucas makes some interesting remarks on his blog:

For example, if the church (or a particular denomination) is meant to stand for “conservative evangelicalism” and that means standing for certain political or cultural positions, or standing for those positions in a harsh or insensitive manner, then the “emerging” generation will have none of it. As Darrin Patrick, the pastor of The Journey, put it in the article, “When you're stricter than God about what he commands and permits, younger pastors are not going to play ball. They're not going to take one for the denomination” (emphasis mine). I actually think this stance of “not taking one for the denomination” could be a good thing—if it forces church leaders to reorient themselves to Gospel priorities and attitudes.

This, of course, impacts not only the SBC but other evangelical denominations. Moreover, it intersects with an issue that I find especially interesting and actually wrote about for another class's weekly reading response: adiaphora, or things indifferent. To what extent is this an issue of refusing to permit people to have a “nonchalance of faith”? As Evangelicals, as Reformed, as Christians in general, how do we deal with things not specifically prohibited or encouraged in the Bible or which are up to different interpretations? How do we hold onto the particular interpretations we value without “essentializing” non-essentials?

All Things that Move Between the Quiet Poles

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:35 AM

For my Spiritual and Ministry Formation class, each student has to post a response to the week's reading on a class forum. I thought I might repost some of my entries here (prewritten blog material, woo-hoo!). The following one is responding to a section from the first half of Sinclair Ferguson's Children of the Living God.

Ferguson relates problems coming after adoption by God to a battle where biological parents try to gain back the child they gave up to be adopted (37). Just as the natural parents attempt to argue why it is much better for the child to be returned to them, so too Satan tries to persuade us that we would be better off returning to the kingdom of the world. The deceiver tries to persuade us, Ferguson explains, by attempting to show us “how much […we…] have lost by” accepting Christ and convincing us that even attempting to live up to God’s standards will accomplish nothing other than to make us hypocrites (38). Ferguson reminds us that Satan does these things out of futile desperation and to remember that this is normal.

Human nature has always strived to go beyond what God has intended for us, thinking we are missing out on things if we do not. From the fall, after the temptation of the serpent (Gen. 3.6), onward, one of the Devil’s best tactics has been to suggest that humans are missing out on something good and worthwhile by listening to God.

I think perhaps one of the most poignant, powerful portrayals of this comes from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the story – surprisingly enough – of Dr. John Faustus. Faustus yearns for knowledge, and after becoming bored with philosophy, medicine and theology, is drawn to the occult. The books that grant him knowledge of how to control the spirit world are “heavenly,” and Faustus says of his new pursuit, “Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires” (1.49). To gain the ultimate in power, he strikes a deal with Mephistophilis to sell his soul for a limited time of gaining power over “all things that move between the quiet poles.” He has fallen to the temptation that Ferguson points to in our book, and he believes the testimony of the “evil angel” that tells him he is missing out on “all Nature’s treasure.” And so, he sets out on his deal; but he comes to realize it was a trick and by the end of his deal, he remarks, “For vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity” (14.16).

Too often in today’s world we take the attacks of our adversary to be purely metaphorical, the stuff of morality plays (a tradition Marlowe draws on for Faustus) and other more “primitive” modes of expression. We must keep this in mind and, as Paul tells us, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6.11 ESV). Ultimately, the devil cannot separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8.35-38); as Ferguson notes, “we need not fear” (38). Nevertheless, it is still good to recall that we are in the midst of battle, for that helps make sense of the problems we face and the temptations that come our way.

To use the cliché, the grass always does seem greener on the other side. How is it that temptations about how much better it would be to commit this or that sin can seem so true at first? Perhaps, as Ferguson notes, I have “an ingrained sense that it is the old family, not the new, to which [I] belong naturally” (37). Though I am adopted by God, the affects of my sinful nature are still “biologically there.” And then there is the second salvo after one succumbs to temptation, which Ferguson puts aptly to words as, “you simply can’t keep up these standards … and you would be a hypocrite if you gave the impression you were really wanting to” (38). Despite being called on to fall on the love of Christ by those around him, Faustus listened to the devil’s lie (16.11). At the times I should run back to God in repentance it is often that second temptation to think that I simply cannot repent and turn back to God that is worse than the first! Again, the only thing that can help is to turn to Grace and be cleaned by it. Like Peter, I may fall many times and appear very hypocritical, but the amazing, awe-filling message of the Gospel is that Satan is wrong when he tries to suggest my inability to become perfect means I should give up!

Joining the Local Chapter

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:10 AM

Well, as long as Jason is doing it, I might as well too.

Hi, I'm Tim. And I'm a Calvinist.

I think Jason makes an astute observation about the inconsistencies that can occur in theology when one rejects total depravity. It strikes me that every theologian that comes to my mind that has actually created a systematic, consistent understanding of the Christian faith has generally had to accept the basic understandings of the state of humans and election that the Reformed faith eventually claimed as its own. I myself struggle at times with parts of TULIP, and have only in recent years accepted that I am clearly unable to will my own way out of Calvinism (that's a joke, folks), but in the end, the things I cannot explain in Reformed doctrine are not nearly as difficult as those things I would need to deal with should I reject this stream of theology.

Total depravity is probably the easiest of the five points to accept for me. It may be that humans are capable of mortal good, or the appearance thereof, but I thoroughly believe that humanity is capable of absolutely no spiritual good without the inner working of the Holy Spirit.

So, Jason, did you bring the donuts for the meeting?

Times of Crisis

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 2:23 AM

The following thought amused me the other day.

About seven or eight hundred years ago, something happened that disrupted theology as it formerly was: the Greek classics, and, particularly, Aristotle, took the universities by storm and suddenly there was a growing rift between the arts and theological faculties. Suddenly, theology lost its grip on explaining things as people trusted in human understanding over God's understanding. To heal the rift, someone needed to show that it was possible to bridge the worlds of reason and faith — to show, in fact, that they were not two separate worlds at all. Someone stepped up to the plate and did just that.

About a century ago, a similar problem occurred again. New and improved techniques of scholarship had lead people to further separate authority from theology, and particularly from Scripture. The Church had become a weak shadow of itself, wallowing in shaping God in man's image. More than just giving up its authority to explain the world, theology had conceded explaining itself entirely to human devices. To heal the rift, someone needed show that it was possible to bridge the worlds of reason and faith — to show, in fact, that they were not two separate worlds at all. Someone stepped up to the plate and did just that.

Of course, regular readers of asisaid will know I am talking about none other than the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. Aquinas synthesized Aristotle to show that his highly rational, realistic framework for just about everything worked well with the teachings of the Church. Likewise, Barth showed that one could accept higher criticism and other tools that came out of nineteenth century theological liberalism and still accept the essential doctrines of the Church. In both cases, the effect was to show reason and faith are not disjuncts.

Aquinas's synthesis suffered its share of critics in the time immediately after its genesis, and I'd suggest we are currently seeing something very similar falling out with Barth. Some reject Barth's willingness to accept scholarly techniques, such as higher criticism, and others reject Barth's adherence to orthodoxy. Whatever the particular tiff, Neo-Orthodoxy, at least in the U.S., is relatively a weak force compared to its neighboring systems on either side of the theological spectrum.

The question for us in this twenty first century is what will become of theology? If Barth continues to follow the example of Aquinas, then this is the century that Neo-Orthodoxy will revitalize theology. Ed probably wouldn't pick the world “revitalize” for such an occurrence, but in the great theological revival of the twenty first century, he'll see the light. ;) Perhaps soon we will be able to refer to the Swiss theologian by a nice, honorary title too (if only Protestants used such titles).

Biblical Christianity

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:11 AM

Biblical Christianity is a title I'm getting tired of hearing about, because, quite frankly, it is meaningless. Generally, it is only useful in as much as it lets one group make itself feel superior to whichever group it deems as not being biblical. It is extremely rare that such a designation actually distinguishes those who follow the Bible from some group of Christians that (clearly to everyone else) do not.

Tonight I ran into a site objecting to neo-orthodoxy. Now, some folks have proper objections to neo-orthodoxy and that's perfectly fine. Neo-orthodoxy's lack of insistence on a “literal” interpretation of the Bible is usually what rubs people the wrong way. But even that is difficult to say, because it is not that neo-orthodox theologians typically seek to interpret literal parts of the Bible metaphorically, but rather a debate exists on whether this or that part of the Bible was intended to be interpreted literally. Everyone (or nearly everyone) interprets some parts of the Bible metaphorically (parables being the clearest example). Regardless, part of the misunderstanding of neo-orthodoxy is judging it by the standards of its foes, the neo-orthodox Christian could very well have perfectly Evangelical views on the Bible and still adhere to the basic beliefs of neo-orthodoxy. That neo-orthodoxy does not insist on such does not mean it is anti-Bible or anything like that.

But, I digress. Neo-orthodoxy has its set of claims, and the objector I ran into tonight was busy defending a differing set of claims as “Biblical.” Now, one might ask, how does one define Biblical? I would expect the person would race off to Scripture and try to demonstrate their position as Biblical by, well, using the Bible. But, as often is the case, the person did not, they simply quoted a statement of faith that objected to neo-orthodoxy's views. The reader was expected to assume neo-orthodoxy was unbiblical because an extrabiblical statement of faith said so. Oooookay.

Now, if someone responded by quoting another extrabiblical source — oh, let's say the pope — precisely how do you think this guy would response? I betcha he'd say “Sola Scriptura!” Never mind the fact that he himself was happily quoting authorities outside of the Bible for his own purposes.

The term Biblical Christianity just isn't useful. Every Christian probably thinks he or she is part of “Biblical Christianity.” So, for starters its useless. The fact that often claims in support of “Biblical Christianity” come from places other than the Bible just serves to increase the absurdity.

No End to Studying God

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:11 AM

Here's a little appetizer from Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics that I found poignant tonight:

“We now emphasise two further biblical attributes [“the Patience and Wisdom of God”] of God, both individually and in their interconnexion. We must try to understand them as expressions of the perfection of His love. As we do so we are again reminded of the fact that all further consideration of the divine attributes can but move in a circle around the one but infinitely rich being of God whose simplicity is abundance itself an whose abundance is simplicity itself. We are not speaking of a new objection but allowing the one object, God to speak further of Himself. We are continuing to contemplate the love of God and therefore God Himself as the One who loves in freedom. What end can there be to this development? We are drawing upon the ocean. We are therefore faced by a task to which there is no end.” (2.1 406)

The Simplicity of God

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:17 AM

I'm working on an interesting project at the moment; it is a paper on the subject of the Simplicity of God in general, and Aquinas's view of such in particular. It is interesting because simplicity isn't a doctrine that comes up very often, and yet, Aquinas uses it as the foundation of his discussion of God's nature. Simplicity in this sense isn't an indication of God being “uninteresting,” but rather a suggestion that God is not made up of “parts.”

I've been digging into Barth to try to find his thoughts on the subject; so far I haven't found a lot, but at least from a basic standpoint, Barth's emphasis on God's total freedom (to be Himself) relates quite well to Aquinas's doctrine of Divine Simplicity, I think.

I'll have to talk more about this as I progress on the project.


By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:24 AM

My church officially launched its Alpha Course pilot tonight. We had nearly 200 people attend. I have to say so far I'm impressed. I'm already familiar with Nicky Gumble from a professor of mine being a so-called “alphaholic,” but it is interesting to experience the course first hand.

I'll post more thoughts as I go through the course.

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