A Palm Sunday Sermon by Fleming Routledge, “The New World Order”

I have been reading a beautiful and challenging collection of sermons by Fleming Routledge, The Undoing of Death. Here is an excerpt from her 1991 Palm Sunday sermon titled “The New World Order.”Image

Of all the days in the Christian year, this is certainly the most disconcerting. Even the most seasoned churchgoers tend to forget, each year, exactly what we are in for when we come to church for this occasion. We start out in gala mood; Palm Sunday has always been a crowd-pleaser. The festivity of the triumphal procession, the stirring music, the palm branches, the repeated hosannas all suggest a general air of celebration. It comes as a shock to us, year after year, to find ourselves abruptly plunged into the solemn, overwhelmingly long dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. It’s a tough Sunday. Its begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe. We come in prepared to part, and we leave as if we were going to a funeral. We come in joyful and we go out stricken. All in all, it is a most perplexing day – and for those who are unprepared, it can be downright threatening.

It would be tempting, on this day, to follow good American practice and tone down the depressing parts – “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Many American congregations have attempted this. Were it not for the ancient liturgical wisdom given to the church, it would be perfectly possible to go to Sunday services two weekends in a row – Palm Sunday and Easter Day – without ever having to face the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal on the Friday between. Our historic liturgy, however, guards against this fatal misunderstanding. […] In this way, the church announces for all the hear that the Crucifixion of Jesus is the main event. There is no passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday. […]

This week, the church of Jesus Christ gathers around the heart, the center, the guts of its claim to know the truth. Continue reading

Texts on the Christian Life

Hello all, Kent and I had a wonderful time at ETS/AAR in San Francisco. We had a great dinner with Myk Habets, met up with old friends and some new ones, and talked extensively with publishers. In light of all of that, I wanted to put a question to all of you. Kent and I were trying to start a list of the great doctrinal treatises that deal directly with the Christian Life, and we wanted your help. What texts are the “must read” texts from the entire tradition and why?

Augustine, the Image, and the Fall

I’ve been reading Keith E. Johnson’s fantastic book, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment, and I came across this quote from Augustine:

This Trinity of the mind is not really the image of God because the mind remembers and understands and loves itself, but because it is also able to remember and understand and love him by whom it was made (De trinitate 14.15).

Johnson notes that Augustine is affirming here the idea that the divine image is actualized only in the context of redemption. This, however, made me reflect on the fall a bit. If Augustine is right, that when God said, “Let us made man in our image,” then that image must reflect the “our” in that passage, and is therefore trinitarian (as opposed to Christological), then there is link between that point and the one made above. Satan, in other words, was right when he seduced Eve, telling her that eating the fruit would make them like God. This likeness is a mind remembering, understanding, and loving itself, because, in the life of God, he is perfect beauty (not to mention all that is prior to creation). What Satan left out was the fact that for creatures, this is a fallen reality. Being “like” God, in this sense, is not a good thing, but is turning in on oneself as the greatest good when that is not true of who you are. It is an attempt to grasp God’s inner-life without his goodness, truth, or beauty.

This is just some musing on this passage in Augustine. Any thoughts?

Perseverance in Corinth

Despite having to address several egregious problems in the church, Paul opens his first epistle to the Corinthians on a remarkably high note:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, because in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and knowledge – even as the testimony of Christ was established among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will establish you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:4-9).

If we are ever plagued by doubts as to whether we can persevere in faith, this should be a comforting text.  Given that the gospel was established among even this band of unruly believers, Paul was confident that Christ would then establish them until the time of the parousia.

This is not a terribly elaborate defense of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, but it is significant that Paul hangs the final blamelessness of the Corinthians on the faithfulness of God.  In a complementary text, Jesus announces, ‘It is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me’ (John 6:39).  Should we gather, then, that to deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is to call into question the faithfulness of God and the commitment of Christ to fulfill his Father’s will?  Thoughts pastoral, polemical, or otherwise?

Orderly Theology as Imitatio Dei

When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people.  At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.

Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it.  He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead

[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8)(“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)

Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road.  At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.

Any thoughts here?

Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.'” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading

Staring at the Sun

I recently came across these poignant comments from Stephen Charnock in his The Existence and Attributes of God:

Some think a curiosity of knowledge was the cause of the fall of devils; I am sure it was the fall of Adam, and is yet the crime of his posterity; had he been contented to know what God had furnished him with, neither he nor his posterity had smarted under the venom of the serpent’s breath.  All curious and bold inquiries into things not revealed are an attempt upon the throne of God, and are both sinful and pernicious, like to glaring upon the sun, where, instead of a greater acuteness, we meet with blindness, and too dearly buy our ignorance in attempting a superfluous knowledge.  As God’s knowledge is destined to the government of the world, so should ours be to the advantage of the world, and not degenerate into vain speculations.

Any thoughts on it?