Excerpts on the Sabbath

While a theology undergrad, debates about the Sabbath would occasionally rear their head. For most of my life I had not attended many church services on Sundays and had almost always taken a good break from the week on Saturdays. This meant that I struggled to understand the potential significance of and contentious positions about the Sabbath. Here is not the place to go into the latter, mostly because it remains something I have not given much thought to. But in the years following college I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of resting, which possibly correlates with my aging. While I do not yet possess a firm position on the Sabbath, I do believe that important practical principles can be gleaned from it. Below are just a few that I have come across in my own reading.

Marilynne Robinson Firstly, in her essay titled Decline, from The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson contrasts the Sabbath with our capitalistic drive and economically regimented cultures. “The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of economics. Its benefits cannot be commercialized. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialized. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress. Sabbath is a way of life, one long since gone from his country, of course, due to secularizing trends, which are really economic pressures that have excluded rest as an option, first of all from those most in need of it.”

Claire Diaz-OrtizSecondly, in Barna’s Greater Expectations, Claire Diaz-Ortiz quotes Matthew Sleeth’s 24/6 on the necessity of Sabbath practice for frenetic modern lives: “Just as the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, we have become slaves to our technology. Our technological tools allow 24-hour productivity and connectivity, give us more control, and subtly enslave us to busyness itself. Sabbath is about restraint, about intentionally not doing everything all the time just because we can. Setting aside a day of rest helps us reconnect with our Creator and find the peace of God that passes all understanding. The Sabbath is about letting go of the controls one day a week and letting God be God.” Whether it is a day or a couple of hours, the Sabbath calls us to give up productivity and trust God.

Bruce WaltkeThirdly, Bruce Waltke (in An Old Testament Theology) comments how time set apart for worship and reflection, allows us to do far more than rest. We were made for much more than dominion over our world by working in it; we are made for communion with God. “As human beings exert sovereignty over space and matter, which they build with and possess, the sanctification of time reminds them that there is something transcendent beyond matter and space. The critical moments are not the one spent building, possessing, and controlling, but the times set apart for quiet, reflection, meditation, and worship. Religious people who see Sabbath rest as a religious obligation miss its meaning”

Finally, let us conclude with Augustine, who concludes his Confessions by returning to that most famous point, ‘You made us tilted to toward you, so our heart is unstable until it stabilised in you’ (1.1.1). “This beautiful cosmos, made up of creatures, ‘eminently good,’ in their entirety, has an appointed course to run to its end — its dawn will have its dusk. But no dusk comes to the seventh day, its night will never fall, since you have made it holy and abide forever. You, who are always at rest, nonetheless ‘rested on the seventh day’ after completing your works — or so it is said in your Scripture, to signify that when we have completed our works, which were your works made ‘eminently good’ in us, we can rest with you on the eternal seventh day” (13.14.50-51).

Dominus Regnavit: Donald Trump and the Idolatry of Politics

Dominus RegnavitLast week Wednesday signified a paradigmatic shift for America and perhaps the whole world. Though I personally followed the electoral race closely, in TIME – explaining my incredulity that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton – discussions and debates around the two candidates were unavoidable, even on the distant shores of South Africa. When the result was announced my social media feeds exploded, with everyone seeming to feel that their opinion now needed to be heard. But the American system (that is, the electoral college and not the slim majority who voted Clinton) has elected Trump president for the next 4 years, regardless of how much people spew and spit online. There are no take-backs, despite some of the drivel being shared online that suggests otherwise. Instead of contributing to the sound and fury, largely signifying nothing, I found myself looking for meaningful commentary on the results and America’s future, even the future of geopolitics.

In God’s providence I was down to preach Psalm 97 last Sunday. The psalm has the Latin title Dominus Regnavit, meaning ‘the LORD reigns,’ but you do not have to be able to read Latin, for the first verse says just that. Belonging to a small collection within the psalter (Psalms 93-100), the psalmist is celebrating God’s cosmic kingship; James Hutchinson says these kingship psalms reassure God’s people that Yahweh is “the world’s Creator-Ruler-Judge” (The Psalter as a Book). Preaching on Sunday, I commented on how many Christians are taking to social media to remind each other that the LORD is still enthroned, even though Trump will take the helm of America in January. Unfortunately, my guess is that the truth that God reigns is only being touted by those who feel they lost in these elections. But God’s sovereign rule and ordering of our world should always determine our confidence for the future, win or lose. Our God is enthroned: “justice and righteousness are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2), and the heavens speak of his justice (97:6). For the Christian this is not a cliché, but real assurance that God is working all things for his glory and good of those who love him. And for the Christians who voted Trump it is a corrective, reminding them where their real hope lies. That the LORD reigns is not cheap consolation for the political losers, nor is it to be confused with the rulers of the political winners.

Christians ought to know this. But then why are so many speaking as if they do not? The answer can be found in Timothy Keller’s excellent work on idols, Counterfeit Gods (see his chapter titled The Power and the Glory). Keller observes how American politics has become hugely popular and powerful idol. The indications he cites are numerous, with all of them having been remarkably apparent in the recent elections. The opposition – candidates and policies – are demonized. Despair, bordering on a kind of existential death, is felt by supporters, when the result does not match their hopes; they can be heard exclaiming “This is the end! There is no hope,” in defeat. Fear and disillusionment flow from an unfounded dependence on the outcome. Reactions to the results are extreme, with people openly talking about emigration. Observing the trends is fascinating, but Keller goes deeper, arguing that the overblown hype and radical expectations are the result of investing in political leaders the kind of hope that was once reserved for God and the work of the gospel. He then quotes philosopher Al Wolters, “The main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identity something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good.” The heated and hateful fallout in America – and across the world – only reveals that we struggle to believe that the LORD reigns. We look to our idols for the security that he provides.

William BlakeRussell Moore makes a similar point to Keller in an article well worth reading, “The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics. We can hear this idolatrous pull even in the apocalyptic language used by many in this election.” The religion of politics will in the end thoroughly disappoint those who hoped in it, for ‘all who worship idols are put to shame, those who make their boast in anything that is not God’ (Psalm 97:7). Again, that verse cuts both ways, comforting the losers and warning the winners. The Christian takes their stand first with the LORD who reigns, rejoicing in his universal dominion (97:1, 12) and resting in his just judgments (97:8). These emotions do not leave no space for feelings of anxiety, wariness, and deep concern, but they must temper them. Dominus Regnavit.

Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Leaving Narnia

When Caspian tells Edmund and Lucy of his task aboard the Dawn Treader, he speaks of Reepicheep’s “higher hope” for their voyage: to find Aslan’s country (p433). As the Dryad verse goes: “Doubt not Reepicheep,/ To find all you seek,/ There is the utter east.” Though C. S. Lewis deliberately wrote flawed characters – allowing for the majesty of Aslan to shine incomparably, as well as conveying fallen human nature – many exhibit redemptive traits. Reepicheep, who we met in Prince Caspian, is one such character: imperfect but increasingly drawn to and transformed by his hope of being with Aslan.

The Magician's NephewIn one of the more peculiar prefaces to an academic commentary (The Prophecy of Isaiah), Alec Motyer notes Reepicheep’s “endearing bumptiousness.” If you were about to look up the word bumptiousness, it means presumptuous and annoying confidence, even pride. We need only cast our minds back to the end of Prince Caspian where Aslan searchingly says to Reepicheep, “I have sometimes wondered, friend, whether you do not think too much about your honour” (p412). This, at times, insufferable decorum is well portrayed in the recent film adaption. Reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we learn that Reepicheep’s “mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands” (p455). Later, approaching the Dark Island, against the uncertainty of the experienced sailors he boldly asserts, “So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventure” (p507). Prodigious in courage despite his unimpressive stature, Reepicheep is both proud and presumptuous; he is not the hero of Lewis’ narrative. Yet, for all his shortcomings, Reepicheep demonstrates a remarkable devotion to his promised homecoming and an unending future with Aslan.

Upon discovering the remaining three lords, murmurs grow amongst the volunteer sailors. They see their task as completed and think they should set sail for Cair Paravel, back in the west, rather than continuing east. Lucy asks Reepicheep what he will do and his answer never fails to move me: “While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise” (p524). Though decorated with “undying glory” for his exploits in the second battle of Beruna (p430), Reepicheep longs for another world. Caspian and his crew would return from their journey as heroes, immortalised in the history of Narnia, but Reepicheep longed for immortality, beyond Narnia.

The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderWhen Reepicheep says goodbye he attempts sadness, for the sake of the children, “but he was quivering with happiness” (p539). Reepicheep leaves Narnia overwhelmed by joy, at the fruition of his hope and imminent realisation of all he had ever desired. Elsewhere, in Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote this: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Reepicheep was made for another world, and so are we.

Anyone who has read Narnia would have undoubtedly felt the pull of Lewis’ glorious world, brimming with colour, and replete with immense characters. But nothing there outshines Aslan. So Reepicheep points us past Narnia, to Aslan; and this was – as I argued earlier in this series – the hope Lewis wrote into his masterpiece. Narnia is not the world we desire, for there is another beyond it. And merely glimpsing that world, Lucy said, “It would break your heart,” not because it was sad but because it was all she had ever desired (p539). Once Reepicheep disappears over the crest we learn that the children will never return to Narnia. Lucy despairs for Narnia is the only place they have ever encountered Aslan. But he promises they will see him again: “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there” (p541).

Three Critiques of Stuart Olyott on The Trinity

Stuart OlyottA few months ago I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s useful and short book, What the Bible Teaches about the Trinity. In that post I raised two areas where I felt the work fell short: meaningful application and developed understanding of the Holy Spirit. Both of those criticisms may be a little unfair, considering the brevity of Olyott’s book. But upon further reflection I became convinced that some of Olyott’s material warrants more detailed interaction. So under the three points below, I will raise some of my concerns and respond to them.

Blasphemy Against the Spirit

In a section on the full deity of the Holy Spirit, under the heading, The Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and honoured (p47-8), Olyott touches briefly on blasphemy against the Spirit: “Blasphemy is insulting the honour of God, and if the Holy Spirit were not God, it would be impossible to blaspheme against him. As it is, this sort of blasphemy is the most serious of all, and can never be forgiven (Matthew 12:31–32).” While the potential to blaspheme against the Spirit is a convincing argument for his deity, Olyott’s point is both pyric and inconsistent.

For starters, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son of Man will be forgiven. By this logic, we could question Jesus’ full deity. Secondly, Olyott fails to interpret these verses in the context of Matthew’s gospel, resulting in a position that has caused much harm and anxiety over the years. Quoting Isaiah 42, Matthew identifies Jesus as God’s Spirit empowered servant, who embodies God’s promised rescue and hope (Matthew 12:17-21). He then triumphs over an afflicting demon, prompting the question pervasive to the Gospels, ‘Who is this? Can this be the Son of David?’ (12:22-23). The reader of Matthew knows the answer, because of the quote from Isaiah, but the Pharisees are predictably suspicious and dismissive claiming Jesus was only capable of such feats because he was a servant of Satan (12:24), rather than the suffering servant of Isaiah. Jesus highlights the folly of their accusation (12:25-29), and significantly in his defence states that he is empowered by the Spirit of God (12:28).

Mihaly MunkacsyWhat does any of this matter? Just before he mentions blasphemy of the Spirit, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (12:30). The Pharisees failed to recognise the beginning of Satan’s defeat and the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the ‘eucatastrophy’ they longed for. For they opposed the one who had come preaching the good news, partnered by God’s Spirit. Blasphemy against the Spirit is therefore not some abstract offence, or loose word I might have muttered only to never be forgiven; it is the deliberate rejection of God’s Christ, to set oneself up against the Spirit empowered servant. Apart from him there is no forgiveness of sins.

Praying to the Son and the Spirit

In chapter 3, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Olyott writes, “Prayer to God is not to be addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, but to the one who is distinct from him—the Father” (p25). Later, while discussing the established Trinitarian heresies, Olyott labels thanking God for dying on the cross or for his indwelling presence Modalism (p86). Admittedly Olyott is defending the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, cautioning us against saying of the Father what can be said only of the Son or of the Spirit. But this does not mean we cannot address the Son or the Spirit in prayer. Both clearly receive worship and praise. Why then do we prohibit prayer to the Son or the Spirit?

Richard BauckhamOlyott writes, “The New Testament knows very little of praying to the Lord Jesus Christ” (p91). Yet we can clearly read of prayer being addressed to the Son. “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59-60). Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:12, writes, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus even invites his disciples to pray to him, in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” As Richard Bauckham points out, in Jesus and the God of Israel, “Acclamations and prayers addressed to Jesus go back to the earliest times…The New Testament evidence for personal prayer to Jesus as a regular feature of early Christianity has sometimes been underestimated.” Even if the prevailing practice was prayer to God the Father, Bauckham goes on to say, “Since Jesus was understood as the active mediator of grace from God…and as the Lord for whose service Christians lived, prayer addressed to him was natural.”

Orthodoxy and Salvation

Of the three points I make in this post, I imagine this last one might draw the most criticism. It also is not one that Olyott makes explicitly. However, he seems to make two contradictory statements about orthodoxy and salvation. Correctly he writes about Sabellius, most likely the father of what would come to be called Modalism, “Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks on our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. And yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God” (p86). I made a similar point in an old post on Origen. But a few pages on, Olyott undoes his generous statement about heterodoxy or heresy, lumping Modalists with Muslims, animists, and pagans (p87). “The only true God is the one who has revealed himself in the Scriptures, and this is what he has revealed…A belief in the Trinity is essential to salvation.” Bringing his book to a close, he states this point more emphatically: “There can be no salvation where there is no belief in the Trinity” (p90). I feel like I might lose my job by disagreeing with such a statement. But should we really base salvation on the grounds of orthodox Trinitarian belief? I know nothing of that in Scripture.

Roman TrialJesus is fully God, as are the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet the salvation he offers, the work he accomplished, was not the overturning of our ignorance about the Trinity but the forgiveness of our sins at the cross. It is ours by faith, not intellectual ascent. Belief is primarily, as I read it in the New Testament, trusting in God’s grace made known in Christ, long before it is believing the right things about God. Surely this is what Jesus means in John 17:3 when he said that eternal life is knowing the only true God, and Jesus whom he sent.

Responding to Challies: Is It Okay To Deliberately Not Have Children?

Christopher AshYesterday Tim Challies posted asking if Christian couples can decide not to have children. The article relies on and develops a few points Christopher Ash makes in his excellent book, Married for God. However, I cannot agree with the reasoning of either Challies or Ash. Having heard similar arguments in numerous conversations, I remain unconvinced that Christian couples must have children or that the decision not to is sinful. I have planned a series of posts on the topic, and we might call this short response some of the first fruits.

Challies’ first point addresses the false dichotomy between having children and serving God. Quoting Ash, “We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.” It is a true point: the married couple need not choose between having children and serving God, since rearing children is certainly one of the places married couples serve God. But that does not make it an essential means of serving God in marriage.

Later in the article, Challies presents his own false dichotomy: embracing children as blessing from God or calling them a curse. Really? When a friend chooses to remain celibate for whatever reason do we accuse him of calling marriage a curse? Or, let’s consider a passage often dragged into this discussion, ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children’ (Psalm 127:5). Does the couple that decide to have just two children call the “full quiver” (four, five, a Catholic dozen) a curse? We are not strung between calling children a curse or a blessing.

Finally, Challies makes a point that I really appreciated: children are uninvited strangers that couples must extend sacrificial hospitality to. Unlike our spouse or close friends we cannot choose children that suit us. However, reading this point did bring to mind another, made by Stanley Hauerwas, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do…give it a while and he or she will change…The primary problem [then] is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” On top of Hauerwas’ point, both Old and New Testaments encourage believers to entertain and care for strangers. Furthermore, if ever there was a place that forced unlooked for and very often inconvenient relationships it is the local church. Sure, children interrupt marriages causing sanctification and forcing hospitality. But they are not the only place where couples can practice hospitality and putting strangers ahead of themselves.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I hope to write more on this topic. I admit that this response is rushed and does not present any arguments in favour of deliberate childlessness, nor does it deal with the question of Genesis 1-2 and the creation mandate. Hopefully those will come. But in the mean time, it is frustrating to hear the poorly thought-out arguments mentioned above that prove nothing, yet somehow are persistently plied as if they did.