Creation: The Theater of God’s Glory

Can the Christian faith offer a richer, deeper account of the natural world than its pagan or atheist rivals? The importance of the question is obvious. Both the credibility and utility of the Christian faith can legitimately be called into question if it fails to offer a better account of reality than its rivals.

Christian theology offers a distinct angle of gaze, a way of seeing things which both discloses the true identity of nature and mandates certain ways of behaving toward it and within it. Theology enables us to see the fullness of reality, the world as it really is or could be. For contrary to what most thinkers of the Enlightenment believed, nature is not an autonomous, self-defined entity; rather, it is something that is always interpreted, whether consciously or unconsciously, from a theoretical standpoint.

…Christians see the natural world through a theological prism. In the eighteenth century many Christians chose to interpret nature through a lens that was deist, rather than trinitarian. God was seen as the creator of nature, whose involvement with the natural realm ceased thereafter. This encouraged the emergence of a functional atheism, in that God was, to all intents and purposes, thought of as being absent from the world. Yet during the twentieth century, through the influence of theologians such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, there has been a rediscovery of the coherence and explanatory power of a specifically trinitarian vision of God.

…If God created the natural world, does it not bear the divine imprint? Is not one of the implications of a trinitarian doctrine of creation that the natural world displays in some sense the marks of its Creator? {Which leads the author to point to Psalm 19:1.}

Israel already knew about its God, and did not need to look at the natural world for proof of God’s existence. Yet it saw God’s glory reflected in the creation. To use John Calvin’s phrase, the natural world is to be recognized as the ‘theater of the glory of God.’ God’s glory is stamped on the world by the act of creation; this is supplemented by the mighty acts by which God chose to redeem the world, which take place within this same theater of nature.

PassionateIntellectbookTaken from Chapter 5, “The Theater of the Glory of God”, in Alister McGrath’s book The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind (IVP, 2010), a book I picked for review a few years ago and have picked up again to continue reading.

While not agreeing with all that McGrath posits, I like his “apologetics” approach to the subjects treated in this book. He makes you think, and he makes you think about defending the Christian faith intellectually and rationally (of course, also by faith in God’s revelation of truth in the Bible alone), in the face of unbelief’s ridicule of our faith.

The title is still available for review if someone would like to do so.

What Do You Know About Athanasius? M. Haykin/Crossway

At the beginning of this week (January 7, 2018) Crossway publishers had a post by author Michael Haykin on the great church father Athanasius (c.296-298 to 373).

Athanasius-statueBy Giovanni Dall’Orto – Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4639224

Haykin has written a book published by Crossway titled Rediscovering the Church Fathers and his online article “10 Things You Should Know About Athanasius” is based on his chapter on this important church father.

Rediscovering the Church Fathers

So, what do you know about Athanasius? Do you remember the oft-used expression “Athanasius contra mundum” for his stand against the Arians and for the full deity of Jesus Christ? If you need a reminder of how important this early father is, then Haykin’s post will help.

Here are the last 5 things Haykin gives about him (find the other five at the link above):

6. He was exiled five times.
This was the first of five exiles, four of which were for his defense of the deity of Christ against Arianism. The two longest, from 339–346 and 356–361, were in Rome and the Egyptian desert respectively. It was because of these exiles that the saying “Athanasius contra mundum” (Athanasius against the world) was coined

7. He chose his words carefully.
It is noteworthy that Athanasius did not frequently use the term “of one being” (homoousios)—found in the Nicene Creed to set forth the deity of Christ, specifically in him being of “one being with the Father”—until the 350s. Up until then, Athanasius had used other statements and images drawn from Scripture in his defense of the divinity of Jesus.

8. He wrote the first treatise defending the full deity of the Holy Spirit in 358–359.
His close friend Serapion of Thmuis, a town in the Nile Delta, told him about the Binitarianism of certain individuals in his church who confessed Christ as fully God but argued that the Holy Spirit was to be included among the angelic beings. Athanasius’s three letters to Serapion were the first of a number of important defenses of the Spirit’s deity written over the next thirty-five years or so.

9. He wrote a best-selling biography.
Athanasius’s biography of the Egyptian monk Antony, written not long after the monk’s death in 356, was a “bestseller” in Christian antiquity and played a key role in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo in 386. Among the things that Athanasius related about Antony was his phenomenal memorization of the entire Bible. It is most likely the case that Athanasius had also memorized most of the Scriptures.

10. One of his letters contains the earliest complete list of New Testament books we’ve ever found.
Athanasius’s Easter Letter of 367 contains the first known list of the books of the New Testament that corresponds exactly to the modern listing of the New Testament canon. Along with the Old Testament, Athanasius declared such books to be the “fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.”

Living orderly and peacefully in “the great sea of Christian communion” – M.Horton

Increasingly, we prefer to lynch fellow shepherds via social media than to submit to each other and address concerns face to face in private or in church courts – doing everything ‘decently and in good order’ (1 Cor 14:40). Our soul is too noble, our insight too keen, and our vision too soaring to be confined within the boundaries of a communion. Some will not bend their opinions to the common consent of the church; others will not limit what they think everyone should believe to that common confession. Some abandon the church altogether, while others make their own little corner in it for a private club.

When we leave the great sea of Christian communion to colonize our own rivers and shorelines, the party we lead becomes captive to our own narrow interpretations, view, and plans. Timothy was accountable to a council of elders to help keep him on track. Yet accountability is something that people, especially in my generation and younger, find difficult to accept in concrete terms.

Jesus did not establish a movement, tribe, or a school, but a church. Whether our divisive ambition is determined by extraordinary ministers, scholars, or movements, it is completely out of step with ‘the pattern of the sound words’ that is help humbly and guarded as a ‘good deposit’ (see 2 Tim 1:13-14) that we all embrace because it is taught explicitly by the prophets and apostles as the ambassadors of Jesus Christ.

ordinary-MHorton-2014Taken from the next chapter I recently read in Michael Horton’s Or-di-nary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014). This was chapter 6 – “Practicing what we preach: no more super-apostles” and the quotation is found on p.113.

Though addressed primarily to pastors and church leaders, the principle driven home here is for all of us in the office of believer too. We are truly safe and at peace when we submit ourselves to Christ’s proper rule and order in the church. All of us as believers live best when we abide in the “great sea of Christian communion” and refuse to “colonize our own rivers and shorelines.”

Theological Humility – K. Kapic on St. Augustine

Humility reminds us that there is One far greater than us. We love and acknowledge this Lord who surpasses us in every way. Humility also bears in mind our finitude and fallenness. Our finitude constantly reminds us of our dependence on others and of the incompleteness of our theological constructions. Theological error develops not simply out of our sin but also because there are limits to our attempts at cognitive harmony. We cannot fathom how all things work together; every time we believe our accounts are exhaustive, we inevitably discover just how much we do not know or all that we have misunderstood. No divine reality can be flatly reduced to words, concepts, images or narratives. God is never less than these, but he is more than them. The reality of God always exceeds our expressions and our understanding of them. [pp.73-74]

And as a concrete example of this humility, the author points us to the great church father Augustine:

While Augustine is commonly considered the father of Western orthodox Christianity, he never saw his own conclusions as indisputable. In response to a letter that questioned ideas from one of his books, Augustine distinguished his own thoughts from those of Scripture’s binding authority. He described his theology as a work in progress, and he believed that since the goal was truthful reflection on God, he should constantly be open to revision. …It is the subtlety of ‘self-love’ that hardens us, keeping us wanting others to be wrong and preventing our spiritual development.

Near the end of his life Augustine put together a book titled “Retractions,” in which he looked at his own voluminous writings and revised countless claims he made earlier in his life. This was a sign of strength rather than weakness in Augustine’s approach. Anyone who stands at the end of his days and claims never to have changed his mind should not be praised for unwillingness to compromise but rather pitied for naïve pride [pp.72-73].

little-book-theologians-kapicTaken from chapter 7, “Humility and Repentance” in Kelly Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (IVP Academic, 2012), pp.64-70.

Trying to Understand the World without Reference to God and His Glory: “a pathetically parochial point of view” – J. Piper

…We live in such a pervasively secular culture that the air we breathe is godless. God is not part of the social consciousness. Christians, sad to say, absorb this. It combines with our own self-exalting bent, and we find ourselves slow to see the obvious – that God is a million times more important than man, and his glory is the ultimate meaning of all things.

The world thinks that because we can put a man on the moon and cure diseases and build skyscrapers and establish universities, therefore we can understand things without reference to God. But this is a pathetically parochial point of view. It is parochial because it assumes that the material universe is large and God is small. It is parochial because it thinks that being able to do things with matter, while being blind to God, is brilliant. But in fact, a moment’s reflection, in the bracing air of biblical God-centeredness, reminds us that when God is taken into account, the material universe is ‘an infinitely small part of universal existence.’

Those are the staggering words of Jonathan Edwards. To be impressed with the material universe and not be impressed with God is like being amazed at Buck Hill in Minnesota and bored at the Rockies of Colorado. If God wore a coat with pockets, he would carry the universe in one of them like a peanut. To ponder the meaning of that peanut, without reference to God’s majesty, is the work of a fool.

So, yes, the portrait of God in the Bible demands that we always read the Bible with the aim of seeing the glory of God. When Paul that ‘from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Rom.11:36), he did not mean ‘all things except the things in the Bible.’ He meant all things. And then he added, ‘To him be glory forever.’ Which means: it is God’s glory to be the beginning, middle, and end of all things. It is his glory to be the alpha and omega of all things – and every letter in between. And therefore his glory belongs to the meaning of all things. And would we not blaspheme to say that this glorious God is anything less than the ultimate meaning of all things?

Reading-Bible-Supernaturally-Piper-2017Quotation by John Piper, taken from Chapter 5, “Reading [the Bible] to See Supreme Worth and Beauty” in Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Crossway, 2017), pp.89-90.

God’s Temple – Immanuel, Maranatha

TT-Dec-2017We are overdue for introducing the December 2017 issue of Tabletalk, which this month focuses on God’s grand work involving “The Temple.”

When we hear that word, we probably think immediately of the Old Testament temple of Solomon, or perhaps of the rebuilt temple built during Herod’s reign at the end of the OT. But as this issue of “TT” shows, God’s work of making His temple is all-embracing, covering the original creation, the tent made during the time of Moses (tabernacle), that more permanent OT house of Solomon, but more importantly, Christ (Immanuel!), the church chosen as living stones in the Stone (a living temple!), and then at last the new creation, which will be God’s perfect abode with His people. As you can see, “the temple” is a rich biblical concept and reality.

And as such, God’s temple is a fitting truth to ponder in this Christmas season. Editor Burk Parsons demonstrates that in his introduction to the issue, titled “Immanuel.” In it, he writes in part:

We were made to be with God. God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He led His people Israel through the wilderness and dwelt among them wherever they sojourned, and He dwelt with His people in the tabernacle and temple. The earthly tabernacle and temple of Israel and all of their furnishings served Israel by manifesting God’s presence through symbols, types, and shadows. They pointed to the day when God—who is a spirit, sovereign, triune, transcendent, infinite, eternal, immutable, self-existent, self-sufficient, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and full of mercy, love, and truth—would condescend to us to dwell with us, among us, and in us. This truth is encapsulated in the name Immanuel, one of the most beautiful and comforting names that God reveals to us about Himself. Isaiah prophesied to Israel that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). The eternal Word, the Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us. God is with us, and He will never leave us nor forsake us.

Before this issue gives us separate articles on the various details of God’s OT temple (the altar of burnt offering, the curtain, the lampstand, etc.), Dr. Michael Morales presents a marvelous survey of the biblical teaching on the temple in his article “The House of God.” Here is a portion of his article, which also ties in nicely with the season:

The transition from creation to new creation and from temple as house to temple as household centers upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the prologue of John’s gospel, we read that the Son became flesh and “tabernacled” among us, manifesting His glory (1:14, author’s translation). Through the incarnation, the eternal Son becomes a temple, His humanity the dwelling place of God. As a temple, Jesus is also the way to God. His self-sacrifice on the cross of agony atoned for our sins, fulfilling the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. Quite fittingly, Christ’s crucifixion resulted in God’s rending the temple veil (Mark 15:38)—through the veil of Jesus’ flesh, the “new and living way” to God has been opened (Heb. 10:19–22).

So, as we celebrate Christmas this year, let’s consider God’s magnificent temple – the true Temple of Christ and His church, destined for life with God in His everlasting house in the new world – certain to be revealed when Jesus comes again. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Robert Charles Sproul, 1939 – 2017

RC_Sproul_Legacy-2017

On this Saturday night we end the week with a modest tribute to noted Reformed minister of the Word, theologian, teacher, and apologist, Robert Charles Sproul, (“R.C.”), who passed away this past Thursday, December 14 at the age of 78.

You may know that I count him one of the most significant and influential Reformed teachers and preachers of the past century, and I have personally benefited from his ministry, Ligonier, including his many books and Tabletalk magazine. Though not always in agreement with Sproul’s teachings, I nevertheless always knew what he taught and found him always expounding God’s truth on the basis of Scripture, the creeds, and the sound tradition of the church fathers. Few churchmen have the breadth of knowledge Sproul had and few communicate it as plainly and popularly (for the people) as he did.

You will find many tributes to “R.C.” on the web at present. I would start with Ligonier’s itself, if you are interested (and you ought to be).

If you want to listen to a fine speech Sproul gave some eleven years ago, I encourage you to watch the video below. It is vintage Sproul – powerful, passionate, and full of sound biblical teaching.

Having quoted Sproul many times since I started my blog, I did a quick search and found this gem from his classic work on God’s holiness. May it lead you and me to find our deepest joy and pleasure in worshiping the God whom “R.C.” now worships in perfection.

If people find worship boring and irrelevant, it can only mean they have no sense of the presence of God in it. When we study the action of worship in Scripture and the testimony of church history, we discover a variety of human responses to the sense of the presence of God. Some people tremble in terror, falling with their face to the ground; others weep in mourning; some are exuberant in joy; still others are reduced to a pensive silence. However the reactions may differ among human beings to the holiness of God, one thing I never ever find in scripture is someone who is bored in the presence of God, or someone who walks away from an encounter with the living God and says “that was irrelevant”.

There is no encounter a human being could ever have that is more relevant to daily life than meeting up with the living God. … You were not created to be bored by the glory of God, you have to be spiritually dead to be bored by the glory of God.
– R. C. Sproul “The Holiness of God”

*Nota Bene: Crossway Publishers is also offering for a limited time a free copy of Sproul’s book Justified by Faith Alone. Check that out here.

Prayer and Theological Study – K. Kapic and St. Anselm

little-book-theologians-kapic“One of the great dangers in theology is making our faith something we discuss rather than something that moves us. We lapse into this problem when we treat God as the mere object of our study rather than as the Lord we worship.

“…So how do we avoid depersonalizing our theological endeavors? How do we avoid not knowing the person we study? There is no substitute for prayer. Here we speak not merely of times set apart when we fold our hands and bow our heads, but also as a way of being. We are concerned not only to have a few minutes a day set apart for God but also to have a constant communion [with] him (1 Thess 5:17; cf. Jn 15:1-17). Whether eating, drinking, laughing or working, all that we do is done before the face of God. This is what undergirded the Reformation slogan coram Deo – living before God in all areas of life. This especially applies to our theological studies. Here we are on holy ground, and thus our attitude must be an attitude of prayer. If we are to be faithful, we must always be aware of his presence.

“…Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury, explored questions about everything from the incarnation to potential proofs for the existence and essence of God. Modern students who read extracts of his work, however, often do not realize that he framed some of his writings not as logical puzzles but as extended prayers. Anselm begins his Proslogion by calling his readers to pray while reading, as he does while writing. His prayer gives us a model for our own studies:

I acknowledge, O Lord, with thanksgiving, that thou hast created this thy image in me, so that, remembering thee, I may think of thee, may love thee. But this image is so effaced and worn away by my faults, it is so obscured by the smoke of my sins, that it cannot do what it was made to do, unless thou renew and reform it. I am not trying, O Lord, to penetrate thy loftiness, for I cannot begin to match my understanding with it, but I desire in some measure to understand thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this too I believe, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand.’

Taken from chapter 6, “Prayer and Study” in Kelly Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (IVP Academic, 2012), pp.64-70.

Augustine-hope-pic

As an aside, the words at the end of Anselm’s prayer are often attributed to Augustine (354-430), as this prized picture in my home office has it. Perhaps Anselm was only quoting his spiritual forefather.

New Reformation Books – Review – C. Castaldo

In today’s post we return to a Reformation 500 book theme – only a few weeks left in our year-long commemoration of the great Reformation of the 16th century!

In Christianity Today’s book review section pastor Chris Castaldo recently reviewed two new books that treat Catholic-Protestant relations in connection with the Reformation. About such a subject he has this to say by way of introduction:

During this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses—the Reformation’s start by traditional reckoning—we see extremes. Some Christians are foaming at the mouth like pit bulls, going for the jugular of their Catholic or Protestant opponents. Others are so open-minded that their brains fall out of their heads. Such variety is reflected in books, conferences, and in general discussion of things Catholic and Protestant. Two books published this year offer bright shining examples of how the conversation should be engaged—with warm hearts, respectful attitudes, and seriousness about theological detail.

We will skip the first one (treating Peter Kreeft’s Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?), and look at the second one, since that is also one recently added to the seminary library (after a profitable trip to Baker Book House in Grand Rapids).

Roman-not-Catholic-2017This is how Castaldo starts his treatment of the second book:

The second book is Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation by Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls, both evangelical Protestants. They share Kreeft’s gift for conveying theological substance with clarity, and their work is extraordinary for its far-ranging scope and depth of analysis. Focusing preeminently on Roman Catholicism, it is written to help Catholics become more informed and to encourage Protestants to more earnestly embrace their rich catholic heritage.

In another paragraph the reviewer summarizes the key points of the book:

Roman but Not Catholic addresses the most important questions in the opening chapters: What do Roman Catholics and Protestants share in common? How does Catholic tradition relate to the church’s various traditions? What is the role of Scripture? And is Rome necessary to enjoy the fullness of apostolic faith? Following from these important chapters are 16 more that probe the most significant topics, including church authority, revelation, sacraments, priesthood, papacy, popular Catholic apologetics, Mary, justification, and more. The conclusion, with the book’s title in mind, asserts that Rome’s exclusive claims inevitably lead to “sola Roma,” a self-referential position that detracts from the genuine catholicity of the church.

This looks to be a good read to me, but I am not sure when I will get at this book. But perhaps you will have time, and if this is the type of Reformation 500 book that interests you, Roman But Not Catholic may be the place to start. For the rest of the reviews of these books, use the link above.

I have read the reviewer’s own book on Protestant-Catholic relations (he is a convert from Roman Catholicism; cf. his Talking with Catholics about the Gospel), and found it profitable. If you are interested in more by him, He blogs at www.chriscastaldo.com.

Faith and Reason: Faith-ful Reason

little-book-theologians-kapicIn the last few months we have been sampling a small book on theology I recently came across – Kelly Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (IVP Academic, 2012). While the book is “little,” the theology found in it is large, as we have noted before.

As I continue to make my way through this easy but profound read, I just completed chapter 5 titled “Faithful Reason.” In this chapter Kapic tackles that “sticky” subject of the relationship between faith and reason. Philosophers and theologians throughout the history of the church have debated their proper roles in dealing with the major issues involved in true spiritual knowledge.

I appreciate the way Kapic relates the two – “faithful reason” is his understanding of the proper connection between faith and reason. This is how he defines that term and explains it:

I am advocating here an approach that might be called faithful reason. Our approach to God must acknowledge that our reason works properly only when it is full of faith. Reason apart from faith is empty, just as faith without reason can be blind and lead toward idolatry. Faith must precede reflection for true Christian theology to occur. God alone, as he has revealed himself, must be our firm foundation, and in particular, Jesus Christ, as he is made known through the apostles and prophets (1 Cor 3:10-16; Eph.2:20; cf. Lk 24:25-27). [p55]

A little later Kapic adds this:

Faithful reason is chiefly a matter of relating to the triune God in humble dependence on him. We find ourselves faithless when we see only pain and chaos and not the Creator and Redeemer. Yet, according to the Gospels, the only way to see and understand the truth of God is by the power of his Spirit. Not only does the Spirit empower God’s redemptive activities (e.g., Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Mat 1:18; Rom 8:11), but also it is the Spirit alone who opens the eyes and illuminates the heart to bring understanding (Eph 1:18).

About which he says further:

…the specific point of the Spirit’s revelatory action is to draw people to the Father through the Son. The Spirit leads us into the truth by solidifying the memory of Jesus Christ and drawing people to trust the crucified Lord (Jn 16:13-15; 17:17). The Spirit alone brings a person from the blinding bondage of sin to the freedom of faith and communion with God (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-16). In this way, the Spirit does not work against reason, but rather the Spirit empowers us, in and through our rational faculties, to acknowledge the truth by redirecting us to the trustworthy God as he has made himself known in his Word [pp.57-58]