Category: Theological Ideas

In 2018 fate has put Ash Wednesday on the same day as Valentine’s Day. Men nervously scour the pink laden aisles of Target and Kroger for last minute gifts for their wives or girlfriends, thereby observing Valentine’s Day as the national holiday of romantic love. Simultaneously, this year Christians will begin Lent, that solemn journey of penitence and remembrance that culminates at the Cross of Jesus. A smudge of ash on the forehead is an odd juxtaposition with the arrows of Cupid.

Yet the Bible more than once waxes nearly erotic in describing God’s longing for a
relationship with his wayward people. The Presbyterian theologian and preacher Francis Shaeffer once remarked, “This is the biblical picture, one that we would not dare use if God himself did not use it.” More on this in a moment.

In the Old Testament, one need look no further than the “Song of Solomon”, a poetic book full of sexual imagery, which is generally interpreted as a metaphor for God’s love for us. The book opens with the maiden (God’s people) waxing rhapsodic about her lover (God):

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
    for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
    your name is like perfume poured out.

    
Elsewhere in the Old Testament we see numerous passages likening God to the husband of Israel. God’s relationship, his covenant, is essentially that of marriage. Isaiah 54 states “For your husband is the One who made you.” Hosea 2:15 states “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.”

In the New Testament, Christ also compared himself to a bridegroom. For example, when the Pharisees criticized Jesus for not fasting, he replied: “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Mark 2)

In Ephesians 5, we have a clear statement of this metaphor:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:25-33).

Here is a more expansive version of that earlier quote from Francis Schaeffer:

The picture here is overwhelming. As the bride puts herself in the bridegroom’s arms on the wedding day and then daily, and as therefore children are born, so the individual Christian is to put himself or herself in the Bridegroom’s arms, not only once for all in justification, but existentially, moment by moment. Then the Christian will bear Christ’s fruit out into the fallen, revolted, external world. In this relationship, we are all female. This is the biblical picture, one that we would not dare use if God himself did not use it. (From The Church Before The Watching World, 1971; text available here).

Unfortunately, in this relationship we humans have long been the unfaithful party. As Jeremiah stated (in his eponymous book, chapter 3):

Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, “Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. … Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not look upon you in anger For I am gracious,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not be angry forever.

This topic would not be complete without a mention of the strange case of Hosea the prophet. As the book of Hosea opens, the prophet is asked by God to marry an actual prostitute, as an object lesson of the relationship between God and Israel:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”

At the outset of the covenant, God knew that we would blow it. From the beginning, therefore, He planned a drastic measure to try to get us back. The Cross of Jesus is the end of that journey. It is God’s ultimate valentine to the world.

As Francis Schaeffer stated in his meditation on those opening verses of the Song of Solomon:

  We will remember the love which suggested the sacrifice of yourself; the love which, until the fullness of time, mused over that sacrifice, and longed for the hour of which, in the volume of the Book it was written of you, “Lo, I come.” We will remember your love, O Jesus, as it was manifested to us in your holy life, from the manger of Bethlehem to the garden of Gethsemane! We will track you from the cradle to the grave, for every word and every deed of yours was love. You, wherever you did walk, did scatter loving kindnesses with both your hands. As it is said of your Father, “God is love,” so, surely, you are love, O Jesus! The fullness of the Godhead dwells in you; the essence of love, nothing else but love, is your incarnate person.
  And specially, O Jesus, will we remember your love to us upon the cross! We will view you as you come from the garden of your agony, and from the hall of your flagellation. We will gaze upon you with your hands and your feet nailed to the accursed tree. We will watch you when you could, if you had willed it, have saved yourself; but when you did, nevertheless, give up your strength, and bow yourself downward to the grave that you might lift us up to heaven. We will remember your love which you did manifest through your poor, bleeding hands, and feet, and side.
  We will remember this love of yours until it invigorates and cheers us “more than wine,”-the love, of which we have heard, which you have exercised since your death, the love of your resurrection, the love which prompts you continually to intercede before your Father’s throne, that burning lamp of love which will never let you hold your peace until your chosen ones are all safely housed, and Zion is glorified, and the spiritual Jerusalem is settled on her everlasting foundations of light and love in heaven. We will remember all your love, from its beginning in the eternal past to the eternity that is to come; no, we will try to project our thoughts and imagination, and so to remember that, long as eternity shall continue, even forever and for evermore, so long shall your love exist in all its glory, undiminished in its luster or its force. “We will remember your love more than wine.”

(Schaeffer’s sermons on the Song of Solomon are available at GraceGems).

Christians in many traditions celebrate on January 18 the “Confession of St. Peter”, or “The Good Confession”:

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
(Matthew 16: 13-19, Holy Bible, King James Version)

Peter’s statement, which is subsequently praised by Jesus, is a breathtaking pronouncement of Jesus’ exalted status. It has been used and repeated by Christians down the centuries as a kind of “credo”, and in a broad sense Peter speaks for the Twelve as well as all of us here. (As recently as last year, I have witnessed this used in Evangelical churches as a profession of faith at the time of baptism). Here, Jesus is identified by Simon as “the anointed one” (the awaited “messiah”), and also “the son of God”.

Jesus turns about and gives the disciple a fresh identity, and engages in a bit of a pun. Simon was from henceforth to be “Peter” (“Πέτρος” meaning “stone”), and declares that his community of believers would be founded upon this rock (“πέτρᾳ” or “boulder”). One strand of interpretation has been to identify the church as being founded upon Simon Peter. The foundation stone is more likely not Peter himself but rather his confession, his belief.

In the words of one Dr. James Boyce, Professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN:

Peter speaks for the disciples, for Matthew’s gospel and the community to which it is first addressed, and certainly for us, announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:15-16). Jesus confirms this “confession” by Peter as a mark of God’s blessing and as the “rock” upon which he will build his church (16:17-18).
(The full comments on this are available online at this site).

We are God’s Hands

image

The other day I was dropping my son off at wrestling practice when a lyric from a song on the radio jumped out at me and grabbed my attention. It was from the Matthew West song “Do Something.” The singer describes awakening and seeing the moral evils of “a world full of trouble,” including poverty and children being sold into slavery.” The following words grabbed my attention:

The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you”

This is s sobering reminder that we–you and I–are God’s hands. If we are fulfilling God’s mission for our lives then we are part of the body of Christ, the current physical manifestation of God on earth. Paul advises us of this in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12. An old Anglican prayer puts it so beautifully: “We are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son.”

One of the first things that came to my memory as I drove away from the school was that joke, of unknown authorship, which I have heard more than once as a sermon illustration. It is called “I sent you a rowboat”.

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”
“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

The corollary of this story would be this: Do you want God to rescue that man on the roof of his house? Then go grab your boat. Do you want God to do something about poverty and other ills? Find out what efforts might be underway already, and cooperate with the churches who are working in this area. Encourage and support others. One pastor elicited from me a large pledge and inspired me to launch this website–to add my voice to the public square in some small way–by simply inviting his audience in a sermon to “take the plunge”.

Is the problem that you have noticed, that is currently occupying your worries, something that no one else is trying to solve right now? Then, “tag, you’re it.” Pray for empowerment. Then roll up your sleeves.

C.S. Lewis had this to say about being the body of Christ, in his book Mere Christianity:

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more. (pg. 64)

(Image credit: “Jesus Christ–Christus Statue”, Jan 2006, posted at FLICKR, by midiman, available under Creative Commons license).

Yoda

Yoda, from Lucasfilm, (fair use)

As we enjoy the release of the next installment from the fantasy movie universe known as “Star Wars”, it seems a good time to meditate upon some of the themes that resonate with Christianity, that can be traced through many of these stories.

1. There are unseen realities that govern the visible universe.

That’s a pretty generic religious assertion, but it fits the Christian worldview, in contrast with a purely atheistic and materialistic worldview. In the “Star Wars” universe, an invisible Force governs the fate of the galaxy. Foreknowledge, and other kinds of supernatural powers are available to mortals. The Force often preserves the lives of the just, and thwarts the malignant designs of the evil.

In “Star Wars” the exact nature of the force and any higher Intelligence behind it remains vague and nebulous. George Lucas borrowed richly from religious and mythic themes, but he was clearly about entertainment rather than theology.

Christianity proposes that the Universe has a living God, who is more than merely an impersonal force. We believe in a being of immense power and wisdom who has not only communicated with humanity but squeezed into human form and stepped into history as one of its players. More on that in a moment.

2. There is a cosmic battle between good and evil.

“Star Wars” boldly offers that there is a distinction between Good and Evil, between Light and Dark. As Yoda says in “The Empire Strikes Back”:

“But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”

When Luke asks if the dark side is stronger, Yoda replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Already this takes us in a counter-cultural direction. In the last few generations, at least in Western cultures, we have greatly weakened the concepts of Good and Evil. This idea finds consonance with Christian thought, though.

The apostle Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

As in “Star Wars” movies, this battle against evil is often desperate, and seemingly hopeless, but those who engage in it cling beyond reason to hope. In the original “Star Wars” movie, later named “Episode IV: A New Hope”, that hope is a possibility to overthrow oppression, specifically thanks to a transmission of secret plans that reveal a weakness in the fearsome Death Star. For Christians, it is a person, Jesus, who is our “New Hope”. He promises to overthrow oppression and liberate us from evil. Ultimately, however lost the cause may seem, the good will prevail, and the Light will vanquish the Darkness.

3. People can fall into temptation and evil.

Jedi warriors are sometimes tempted and seduced by the power of the Dark Side.  The major example of this is Darth Vader, once a good man who fought for the Republic. By the time his son, Luke comes of age, Obi Wan muses that Vader is “more machine now than man, twisted and evil”. In the prequel we are treated to another ex-Jedi turned evil, Count Dooku, who was formerly a pupil of Yoda.

Christianity goes a step further–all of us have succumbed to the darkness. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). However, there is hope for redemption.

4. There is a long prophesied “Chosen One”, who will put things right.

In the prequel movies, we are given the idea that a “chosen one” has been long prophesied. Qui Gon Jinn becomes convinced that Anakin Skywalker is the “chosen one”.

In the Bible, numerous passages of the Old Testament predicted the coming of “messiah”, literally the “anointed one”, or in essence “chosen one”. Anointing by oil is a sign that one has been chosen by God; an example would be the anointing of the shepherd boy David to indicate his selection by God to be the next king of Israel.

In the New Testament, which was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, we have the word “Christ,” which is identical in meaning to “messiah”.  (“Christ” isn’t a last name of Jesus, like “Smith” or “Johnson” or “Carter” might be for us, but rather it is an identification of Jesus as “the chosen one”).

We have this story of Jesus from Matthew 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

5. Sometimes a heroic character sacrifices self for the good of all.

We see numerous examples of this. In “Rogue One”, Jin and her colleagues bravely go to their deaths trying to retrieve the Death Star plans that may revive the flagging hopes of the Rebellion. In “A New Hope”, Ben Kenobi sacrifices himself to allow his comrades to escape from the Death Star. In “Return of the Jedi” Luke prepares to die at the hands of the Emperor in hopes of saving his father.

Christianity has as its central story the sacrificial death of Jesus to atone for our “manifold sins and wickedness” (Book of Common Prayer), and offer a way of reconciliation between God and humans.  He essentially pulled an Obi Wan that we might escape our metaphoric Death Star, which in the end is Death itself.

6. For even the baddest of people, there is an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption.

The main narrative of the first six movies is the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Initially a brave pilot and able Jedi knight, he is lured into the Dark Side through fear of losing his wife and anger at his mother’s death. He makes a “deal with the devil” in a sense, when he chooses to serve the nefarious Palpitine (who becomes the Emperor) and betray and destroy the Jedi. He becomes Death Vader, the black robed villain and chief hitman for the Emperor.

Ultimately, he turns from the dark path after his son Luke comes to him in “Return of the Jedi.” After dispatching the evil emperor by tossing him into the reactor core of the new Death Star, he is weakened and struggles to walk. Luke tries to get him to safety but Anakin collapses. Although he is about to die physically, he knows that his spirit has been saved, as emphasized in his final dialogue:

Luke: “You’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ ve got to save you.”
Anakin: “You already… have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister… you were right …”

7. This life is not the end.

Star Wars proposes life after death, as when Yoda remarked to Luke, “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”. In almost every movie dead characters speak or appear as apparitions to guide the hero on his quest, and to give a kind of glowing benediction at the end of the first movie trilogy. Yoda’s words echo those of one of my favorite Christian authors, C. S. Lewis, who elaborated on the Christian idea that we are beings who possess an immortal soul:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
(Lewis, The Weight of Glory, HarperOne, reprinted in 2001: pp. 45-46).

In a recent article in “Cracked”, author Kristi Harrison laments the “4 specific things you lose when you leave Christianity“. The author describes her own de-conversion experience from faith into agnosticism, which began with a disbelief in angels. “Once I realized I didn’t believe in human-shaped beings from Heaven who could appear on Earth to pass along Godmail before hightailing it back to Heaven, a domino chain of disbelief was set in place.

Having made the leap of faith into unbelief, she now identifies four things she really misses. We might turn the emphasis around to say that there are some specific things you gain when you enter the Christian faith. Here are the ones mentioned Ms. Harrison:

1. “Getting High on Worship”: The author found worship to be an “addictive and engaging” experience. She noted a CNN article reporting that “Religious thoughts trigger reward systems like love, drugs”. She concludes by saying “You lose your sense of self and feel like you’re blending in with the Universe or feeling God’s presence, depending on your cultural background and what you’re going for. If that’s not getting high, I don’t what is.”

2. “Culture and Community”: You have an organized support system that is like a family.

3. “Magic”: “The hook of Evangelical Christianity is that believers have access to the creator of Universe just by asking for it. You don’t have to be rich, literate, clean, pretty, smart, or a non-murderer to talk to Him. God is for everyone. The idea of a personal God who can take away disease and reunite you with loved ones after death is intoxicating. … The ability to hand over your deepest problems to someone else is Christianity’s killer app, one that has absolutely no equivalent in the secular world.”

4. A cosmic “Best Friend”.

Ms. Harrison stops there. Here are some more that we might add:

5. Health: People of faith are healthier, and this is seen in countless studies. Relevant Magazine opines “If religious faith could be packaged in a pill, the stock price of drug companies would soar. Religion, not merely spirituality, is a profound predictor of health. Spiritual practices can reduce blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and help stave off some effects of mental illness about as well as many drugs on the market.” (The article is entitled “The Surprising Link Between Faith and Health“). You can be a Christian and still die (we all do), but even in facing death and calamity, studies show that you will have more peace and less anxiety.

6. Truth: I don’t just mean that Christianity reveals truth about the universe, human nature, and our ultimate destiny. These are “truths” with a little T, many of which are unknowable and could only be revealed by a behind-the-scenes Creator (their relevance depends on accepting the premise that God is real and has “spoken though the prophets”). I mean to speak of “Truth” itself–with a capital T. Christianity emerged out of the only ancient culture where truthfulness had a religious basis. Christianity’s chief personage stated “I am Truth.” It could be argued that the truthfulness we expect of ourselves and others in society, while it has pragmatic value, is nevertheless also a hangover from prior generations dominated by Christianity and the “10 Commandments.” It is not universal.

Furthermore, arguments can be made that truth requires us to presume something at the outset of seeking it, something that inexorably implies some kind of God. To trust our senses and mental capacities to understand the universe is to assume God (see the design argument in Robert Taylor’s Metaphysics).

Additionally, the fact that the universe exploded into being from a point in time and space makes little sense without an eternal Godlike being that exists outside our universe–you can say, “uh-uh” all you like, but the alternative is some brand of spontaneous generation, which to accept is to embrace illogic and to mar truth at its intellectual foundation, and on a cosmological scale at the very origin of everything.

7. Meaning: Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and others have known and expounded on the lack of ultimate meaning and significance in a life free of God–you gain freedom to write your own rules but lose that sense of meaning. Their powerful writings have prodded many a Christian’s de-conversion experience (very nearly my own at one point, when I was a college student). I believe their thesis on this point. It is intellectually dishonest to cling to meaning after ejecting God from your life, and people really know this, deep down inside, in their moments of disquiet, which they try very hard to suppress. You have a choice to believe the Shakespearean line that our lives “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, or to believe that our lives have a higher meaning. We have written of this here. In the absence of clear proof, do you choose to embrace a dark story, or a beautiful story?

8. An answer to the “Problem of Evil” (Of course you get the “Problem of Evil” also): The dagger into the heart of Christianity is the problem of how God can be all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow suffering and evil. However the alternative, to dismiss suffering and evil as simply part of the human condition, is not very satisfying. Christianity gives you a God of love who deeply cares about you and wants your best. Most astoundingly of all, you have a God who suffered also, more than anyone can imagine. This brings us to Love:

9. Love: Above all, Love is the ultimate thing we gain when we embrace Christianity–Love on a cosmic scale that is simultaneously deeply personal. The Bible says that “God is love.” God’s love for us is a costly love, and its most powerful moment is the sacrifice of the Heavenly Father’s own Beloved on a cross of wood. God’s love is not cheap!

On the approach to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, some major efforts have been made to bridge the theological divide. In July, the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the Lutheran World Federation, Roman Catholics, and the World Methodist Council in accepting a common view of the doctrine of justification, one of the key issues of contention between the parties. The Anglicans have passed affirming resolutions in the Anglican Consultative Council, and in the Church of England’s general synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury plans to spend Halloween celebrating the accord during a service at Westminster Abbey on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. (See article from Christian Today.)

The Protestant understanding of justification states that we are saved through faith alone (“sola fide”) by God’s grace alone (“sola gratia”). No human cooperation is of any merit. This was central to Martin Luther’s teaching.

The Roman Catholic Church grappled with this idea and soundly rejected it in the 16th century Council of Trent:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.

At the heart of the new agreement is an attempt to formulate a statement on justification to which both parties can assent. As a Jesuit publication, American Magazine, summarized:

The Joint Declaration effectively closes the centuries-old “faith versus works” debate by merging the Lutheran and Catholic views on salvation rather than setting them against each other.
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

The Catholic church states that the anathemas in the 16th century Council of Trent do not apply to Protestants who agree with the Joint Declaration.

The Joint Declaration is not without criticism from both sides. One need not look too far to find Catholics who feel that this betrays the Catholic doctrines advocated in the 16th century Council of Trent. One example is the theologian Dr. Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas:

“In fact, I am quite concerned that many people–even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic–are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by “faith” apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified”.

Furthermore, he is concerned about the diverse views held by Lutherans:

“We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD’s claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?”
(Source: 2007 interview by Ignatius Insight).

A very good summary of the issues, and criticism of the accord can be found in a 1999 essay penned by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, entitled “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.”

On the Protestant side, there is considerable dissent as well. The more conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies (such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have repudiated it. In an essay entitled “Betrayal of the Gospel” Paul McLain charges,

“In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”

In the end, this accord is largely a symbolic gesture, but then symbols do matter. It is encouraging that the heirs of the disagreement that so bitterly raged centuries ago have agreed to seek common ground and soften their condemnations of each other. I don’t foresee Protestants and Catholics achieving institutional unity, as a great many other serious issues divide us.

Still, I might echo the statement of a prominent evangelical (who was recalling a similar rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics):

“There is enough commonality that evangelicals and Catholics with a living faith can recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with a common Lord and common grace that brought them together.”
(Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, quoted in Christianity Today).

When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.

Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others-to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type,” whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.

Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
― (M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil).

Romans 8:18 is one of those oft quoted passages which many find to be a source of comfort in their times of trial. Saint Paul weighs present day sufferings against a future glory so vast that everything that tempts us to worry and fret simply pales into nothing:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

I recently listened to an old podcast sermon by Tim Keller, and a particular quote really grabbed my interest, and reminded me of the power of perspective. The following isn’t an exact quote, but comes close:

“If you are a Christian, if you lose something in this world it’s like someone pickpocketed 25 cents off you, when you have billions somewhere safe in a trust fund.”

(This was a tossed off remark; the full sermon discussing the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which is the source of the term “strait and narrow”, is available online at Gospel in Life).

On Sept 26, 2010, a man was discovered hanging in the basement of the D.C. home he shared with his new wife. The man was an ace attorney who had been part of the botched government prosecution against Alaska senator Ted Stevens, and he was now facing a long investigation of his own role in the fiasco. In a fascinating article entitled “Casualties of Justice” the New Yorker magazine detailed the tragedy of Nicholas Marks:

Marsh woke up and went downstairs to the basement. At around three in the afternoon, Bermudez went to check on him, but he wasn’t in front of the television. He had hanged himself near the washer and dryer. There was no note.
Bermudez still lives in the home she shared with Marsh, and his voice still greets callers on the answering machine. “I don’t think I understood the depths of how the allegations affected him,” she told me. “He took his duties and his ethical obligations very much to heart. Even thinking that his career would be over was just too much for him. The idea that someone thought he did something wrong was just too much to bear.”

I find myself quoting pastor and author Tim Keller perhaps a bit too often these days, but this tragic story reminds me of some wise words he has said about work:
One of the scary things to me about this whole approach is that the culture’s approach weirdly enough is supposed to be liberating but it’s actually quite crushing. … But today in our modern culture, your work becomes your identity. How much money becomes your identity. It’s not just what you do but who you are! And that will crush you. (sermon transcript available here).

By all accounts Marsh was a very smart young attorney who had a bright future. He allowed a singular focus on career to become the entire locus of his identity, and when something went wrong it derailed him. This temptation to make an idol of career, to pin godlike hopes on it, is a common temptation, particularly in our culture. This is a tragic mistake. We are of course to work, and furthermore to “work as for the Lord”, giving our best efforts, striving for excellence; work is a good thing, but we shouldn’t let it become an ultimate thing. Our identity doesn’t come from what we do: “Our identity in Christ is received, not achieved.” (Keller)

The article about Nicholas Marsh concludes:

… Although Marsh’s reputation had suffered a severe and largely deserved fall for his actions in the Stevens case, skilled lawyers have rallied from far worse professional disasters. There is every reason to believe that he would have gone on to a distinguished career, and perhaps even to the judgeship he sought. But something in Marsh could not let the official system for discipline play out, and instead he imposed an unfathomably harsh punishment on himself.

Read more at The New Yorker.

Alfred Nobel was startled in 1888 to see his own obituary in the papers. His brother’s death had been mistakenly attributed to him. A French paper boldly proclaimed “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). It is thought that a sense of shame about his role in inventing dynamite led Nobel to establish the famous prizes that bear his name.

Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”, the inventor had reached back into the Greek language for a word that would forever after be associated with the immense power of his explosive: “δύναμις” or “dynamis”. It is the root behind the words “dynamo” and “dynamic”.

This same word is used in the Bible to describe the amazing power from on high that became available to the disciples of Jesus after his departure. Jesus had told them, “But you will receive power [dynamis] when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

About ten days later, the disciples were in an upper room in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, when suddenly that dynamism exploded upon them. As described in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
(Acts 2:2-12).

From that moment in a Jerusalem street, two thousand years ago, the church was suddenly born in a cataclysm–an explosion–of spiritual power that has propelled the “Good News” of Jesus through space and time, right down to us. The temporal powers that had tried to crush Jesus just weeks before this moment, were unsuccessful in stopping the new movement. They were no match for the “dynamis” of the Holy Spirit.

(Photo credit: “Boom goes the dynamite” by Aaron Merrell, at FLICKR, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons 2.0).

(Quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version).