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Archive for July, 2011

I picked up at the library yesterday Larry Hurtado’s book on early Christ-devotion in the church, Lord Jesus Christ (2003) hoping to buff up a little on elements of what I think could be a good argument against the minimalist view that the Son’s divinity was not believed until after the written gospels started showing up.

I might have to check out Dunn’s (more recent) book on the subject later, but I already have Dunn’s book on The Theology of Paul (1998), and thought
I should avoid the distraction until after Hurtado.

I also grabbed Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel (2009) on the monotheism issue, because I think early devotion to Jesus would be huge if a context of strict monotheism could be shown for first century Judaism – also think it good fun to be able to harass the defenders of the idea that the Jesus cult
was just Judaism as usual until John’s Gospel showed up.

The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (ed. Bauckham and Mosser 2008) is another book of interest I’m looking into.  I also picked up Paul N. Anderson’s Christology of the Fourth Gospel (1996) because I’m hungry for authors who are willing to argue that John is an eyewitness source.

Meanwhile I have a new interest in the spiritualized approach to theology attempted by Hans Denck and Dirk Philips (early sixteenth century) to add to my theme of ‘getting over’ the Reformation (without going Catholic).

Henry Ward Beecher was one of my five favorite preachers of the nineteenth century (and no, the names Finney and Spurgeon and Moody are not
anywhere on my list).  I took home Beecher’s first ‘Plymouth Pulpit’ series (1868-69).  Another source of inspiration will be Fr. Pierre Charles (S.J.), Prayer for All Times (1922).

Found a 20th century  theologian of interest, the late John McIntyre; I have been reading his Theology after the Storm (1996).

Also excited about Sergei Bulgakov’s Bride of the Lamb (1945/2002).

Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth (2010) looks like it will be both stimulating and frustrating.

Lots of new reading – and this bunch is only part of my total 40-book check-out limit.

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The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily the tables can be turned to transfer the ‘onus’ from Gospel-hearers onto the heads of Gospel-preachers whose method and theologies limit our ability to hear and enter into the Kingdom.

“You may as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road,” Jesus seems to say (Mt 13:18), “if you present to men a Kingdom of God having so little of the flavor of my Spirit that it is perceived as either humdrum or humbug” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines are either spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible and therefore misunderstood by large numbers of people.

“On the other hand,” we hear him saying (Mt 13:20-21), “if you think emotional hooks will frighten people into the Kingdom with threats covered by cheap grace, or entice them in with promises of great beds of roses, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“And it is a mistake,” he seems to imply (Mt 13:22), “to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.

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I was helped recently by some lines from American poet Walt Whitman while contemplating problems of prayer and providence which I addressed in two posts earlier this year.

Warning:  Whitman is famous for his optimism (and often criticized for it), but I like to reserve judgment on the ‘optimism’ of great poets, because they sometimes enjoy the prospect of horizons that lie beyond our own poor curve of earth.   The theological critic especially should check for signs of the optimism of the Gospel – the metaphysical ground of all really good news.

It was in the poem “Assurances” that I found this:

I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men
are provided for,

and that the deaths of young women and the deaths of little children are provided for,

(Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the
purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)

I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the horrors of them,

no matter whose wife, child, husband, father, lover, has gone down, are provided for, to the minutest points …

Leaves of Grass,  Book XXX)

At first glance these lines sound like the standard theological justification for evil – that God trumps present evil by blessings (or woes) in an afterlife.  But reading with my own questions about providence in mind, I saw a useful distinction between provision for and provision against evil which takes the problem to the next level.

The concept of divine intervention which looks for an external power to fend off specific material evils is such a very old idea that we may call it not just ancient but even pagan or superstitious – this is the idea that God provides against calamity.

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?  Whitman’s concern is with the extreme case of innocent death – but taking the set of all possible evil events in a life, how would the distinction work?

What’s different about the idea that God provides for calamity is that it suggests to me a divine intervention functioning on the level of an inner spiritual presence or ‘help’ that is universal and personal and constantly available for the task of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

If God has bestowed a  spirit  of  presence  to be with  us  in all  our  afflictions,  even as  he  is  afflicted  with  us  (Isa 63:9), there is no need of vain doctrines about protective shields intervening between ourselves and all possible evil contingencies.

This is not a providence that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil.  But neither is it hoped for after the evil, as compensation.  It is instead available in the very moment in which we are literally swamped by the evil – after we have done every material and moral thing we possibly can to avoid it.  Such provision for evil brings a consolation that is hidden not beforehand or afterward but in the very moment of calamity.  This is a providence of  the present moment – where we find God truly meeting and providing for every time-space contingency in the only truly Godly way – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.

Surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss will I think vouch for this inner truth whenever they have been able to see the evil of the moment overcome by good.

(to be continued)

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I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me

Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (1441), Book III, Chap 1

Book III of The Imitation of Christ contains teaching so high and unusually bold, it is easy to imagine that the text was purposely ‘hidden’ after Books I and II – two books full of admonitions and warnings – in order that readers might be ‘screened’ for humility, to be sure they are worthy to behold Book III.

The quote above is actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – but a’ Kempis trims it down to the pure gold of personal inner experience.  The Bible verse is more general; check it out:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

(RSV – Ps 84 in some Bibles)

‘The gift of ears,’ is of course not among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul, but I think the New Testament provides grounds for a  more general recognition of the authenticity of inspired ‘hearing’.  Back to The Imitation:

Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.

(Book III, Chap 2, trans. Justin McCann, 1954)

But would-be prophets should understand that a gift like this “divine whisper” is for individual admonition and enlightenment only – not a word by which we may ‘lord it over’ neighbor or church.  Only the individual Christian is justified in risking such a prayer as this, which the author makes for himself:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase.

(Book III, Chap 2)

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is perhaps the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit – yielding to each individual the precious boon of judgment, of righteousness, and conviction of sin.

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth, lest I die and prove fruitless, if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within; lest I be condemned at the Judgment because the word was heard and not fulfilled, known and not loved, believed and not observed.

(Book III, Chap 2)

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