Witherington on Piper…

Last Wednesday, Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) posting a very fine, interesting response to a John Piper interview about the perceived arrogance and negativity of Calvinists.  Having been raised in, studied in, and served in Calvinistic circles for many years before coming to Lutheranism, I found some of Dr. Witherington’s comments both striking and brilliantly perceptive.  He writes:

For whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

As an engineer, Air Force officer, and otherwise pretty anal-retentive and over-analytical person, the “intellectual certainty” was a very big draw of Calvinistic theology for a very long time.  I wanted answers.  I wanted precise answers.  I wanted a black-and-white, crystal clear understanding of not only the Bible but of God too.  Reformed theology offers just this sort of approach in many areas and really fit me quite well.  The trouble is, as Dr. Witherington continues:

But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.

As much as it hurts to admit it…I think Dr. Witherington is spot on.  Yes, the Reformed world does a marvelous job forming a precise, logically coherent, systematic theology, but it draws “the circle much too small” and leaves out “all the inconvenient contrary evidence.”  It doesn’t take much looking over the prooftexts of the Westminster Confession (for one) to see that many inconvenient passages of Scripture speaking to a certain tenet are conveniently left out.  I discovered this truth primarily while working on my ordination paper and personal confession of faith required for my Ordination Vicinage Board.  As I poured over the great Reformed confessions in order to style my own in a fashion similar to the WCF, the Three Forms of Unity, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and others, I found that all too often, they simply failed to acknowledge passages that failed to fit into “the system.”

Does the Book of Concord provide a wonderful explanation of what it means to be Lutheran?  Yes.  Is it always tidy, neat, and logically coherent?  Not really.  That said, I’d rather hold to a confession that holds closely to the testimony of Scripture, even at the expense of 100% logical coherence.  As Dr. Witherington also writes:

While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on.

The best professors I had in seminary, Calvinists many of them, were humble enough to recognize this great truth and cling more tightly to their copy of Scripture than to their Confessions.  We would do well to be of the same mindset as these!

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Luther on the Danger of Public Praise

In many liturgical Christian circles, the rites of Morning Prayer or Matins often begin with these words from Psalm 51:

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

As innocent as this invocation may sound, Luther suggests that there is quite a bit more to David’s request than may first meet the eye.  He writes:

By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God.  This is something God demands of us (Ps 50.14).  Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this.  If we could see all of Satan’s traps, we would know why David prayed for the Spirit’s strength and asked the Lord himself to open David’s lips.  He wanted to tell the devil, the world, kings, princes, and everyone about the Lord.

Many things can keep our lips shut:  the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends.  The devil uses these ways to stop us fromoffering thanks to God, as I have often experienced in my life.  And yet, at important times, when God’s honor was threatened, God stood by me and opened my mouth in spite of the obstacles…

Whenever Scripture talks about praising God publicly, it’s talking about something extremely dangerous.  This is because announcing his praise is nothing other than opposing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature, and everything evil.  For how can you praise God without first declaring that the world is guilty and condemned?  All who condemn the world are asking to be hated and put themselves in a very dangerous situation.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:393)

While many will no doubt agree that praising God publicly is sometimes risky,  I confess that I have never thought about praising God in this manner…never made the link betweeen my praise of God being an explicit condemnation of the world, etc.  And yet, as usual, I think Luther got it right here.  For us to open our lips to speak of Christ is to ally ourselves with him and his word, which is first a condemnation of the world (Law) before it is ever a consolation to the convicted (Gospel).

It goes without saying that such an alliance, at all times and in all places, is a dangerous business indeed!

Merciful and everlasting Father, You did not spare Your own Son but delivered Him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross.  Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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Questions on the Economy and the Bailout

OK, I need help understanding the current state of the economy and how the proposed bailout will help make things better.  Once again I freely admit to being an engineer and a theologian, not a politician nor an economist…with that in mind, I have been mulling over the following thoughts and am looking for an education.  Here goes:

First, my summary of the present economic situation:

  1. Both the original and current bailout plans have been all about jump-starting the economy by jump-starting the credit market in one way or another
  2. A major contributor to the economic mess is Americans living well beyond their means and wracking up huge amounts of credit debt (either via ARMs or credit cards) on which many are finding it impossible to make payments (esp. ARMs)
  3. A consequence of the current mess is that creditors are unable to continue lending money (despite the fact that I’m still getting multiple credit card offers in the mail each week)
  4. Since lendors cannot lend, consumers cannot consume…end result, the economy slows

Now, my understanding of the proposed solution:

  1. Dumping $700 billion + into various areas of our financial system will allow banks, etc. to begin offering credit and lending opportunities again
  2. Increased lending and credit will allow consumers to increase spending, reviving the slowed economy

Assuming my understanding of the problem and proposed solution is correct, I have two questions, that I hope someone can answer:

  1. How will extending additional credit to people who are presently unable to pay off the debt they owe provide a long-term fix to the economy?  Won’t this actually make things worse in the long run when they are then unable to make payments on a larger amount of debt?
  2. Philosophically, isn’t the whole idea of economic growth through the encouragement of our citizens to bear increased levels of debt irresponsible and/or immoral, especially given the fact that this crisis was caused or at least worsened by people defaulting on current debts?

I’m having a really hard time understanding how the proposed bailout plan is anything other than a poorly crafted band-aid fix that will ultimately leave us worse off than we are now.  Please, will someone with some economic and political savvy provide understandable answers to my questions?

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Walther on the Crucifixion

The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (John 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners.  The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God.  The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails of the cross on Golgotha.  As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life and blessedness to all people.
C.F.W. Walther, God Grant It

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Our New Space Program

When people ask what I’m involved in at NASA, I usually tell them, “the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and Constellation.”  The last answer usually draws a blank stare, as NASA (IMO) hasn’t done a very good job publicizing or creating public interest in our next efforts in space–a return to the moon.  I stumbled upon this video this afternoon, which sums things up nicely.  Enjoy!

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Go, Endeavour! Go! (STS-126)

At 6:55 pm (CST) last night the shuttle Endeavour lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and made a safe, flawless, and beautiful ascent to space. In about an hour, the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, gave Endeavour a ‘Go for orbital ops,’ meaning that all essential tasks to turn the shuttle from a rocket ship to a space ship had been successfully completed!

STS-126 Liftoff

According to NASA Public Affairs, “The prime objective of the 15-day mission is to prepare the International Space Station to accommodate six members for long-duration stays.  Four planned spacewalks will focus on servicing the station’s two Solar Alpha Rotary Joints, or SARJ, which are needed to track the sun for electric power.”

Unlike every other shuttle flight over the last two years, I will be sitting on the sidelines and not playing any part in the mission at all.  Because of my current mobilization in the Texas Air National Guard, I’ll be watching this mission on NASA TV…just like the rest of the general public.  It’s a bittersweet moment, because as much as I’m enjoying my current ministry opportunities at Ellington Field, I absolutely LOVE working shuttle flights!

As we continue to ask God’s blessing and care over our shuttle and station crews in the days ahead, let me keep with my custom here and take some space for this hymn from the Book of Worship for United States Forces (1974). (BTW, while the words are new to us, the tune for this hymn is familiar and is that for “The Navy Hymn” and “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” found here.)

Bless Thou the Astronauts Who Face

Bless Thou the astronauts who face
The vast immensities of space;
And may they know, in air, on land,
Thou holdest them within in thy hand.
O may the small step each doth take
Aid others giant leaps to make.

How excellent in all the earth
Thy name, O God, who gave it birth;
When first upon the moon man trod,
How excellent thy name, O God.
The heavens thy glory doth declare;
Where-e’re we are, Lo! thou are there.

We still upon thy laws depend
As our dominions thus extend,
While from the nations triumph rings
When we mount up with eagles’ wings.
Grant on each planet, far and near,
To all thy glory may appear.

Give all men, for all time to be,
The blessing of tranquility,
As galaxies and quasars share
The knowledge that our God is there!
May future aeons call to mind,
“We came in peace for all mankind.”

How Can I Find Peace With God?

“How are we made right in the sight of God?”  “How can I find peace with God?”  “How can I right the many wrongs I have done in my life?”  Left to answer these and similar questions from reason or some other faculty, man inevitably conjures up some sort of works, either to accomplish or from which to refrain, in hopes of finding peace with God.  All human efforts to find favor in the eyes of God surely fail, as we are all corrupt in heart and soul, word and deed, thought and desire.  Martin Luther rightly recognized from the Bible that the answer to all of these questions is found only in Christ Jesus, in whom (by faith) is our hope, peace, trust, joy, and salvation.  He writes:

As St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.

And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ.  Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glories, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well.  We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true. (Smalcald Articles, XIII)

The simple truth of the Christian faith must never be obscured and can never be compromised.

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