Yesterday we pointed out that Lutherans are cool–at least in Cool, California! Today we received evidence from our Orange County correspondent that Presbyterians are hungry–at least in North Carolina.
Yesterday we pointed out that Lutherans are cool–at least in Cool, California! Today we received evidence from our Orange County correspondent that Presbyterians are hungry–at least in North Carolina.
Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life, will provoke considerable discussion and debate on many levels. Malick, 68, also directed The Thin Red Line and was one of the producers of Amazing Grace.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” After enduring the theological prattle and wrestling of Job himself, God finally steps into the conversation with that famous rhetorical question (Job 38:4,7). This verse opens “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three pre-teens growing up in Waco, Texas. Sean Penn makes a late appearance as the oldest son as an adult.
Perhaps “story” overstates the narrative character of this movie. Director and writer Terrence Malick puts the “cinema” back into movies with this controversial film. (The audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, ranged from ovation to boos, and it’s provoking similar reactions this week.) Astonishing vignettes are woven throughout the film of natural wonders from the Big Bang to, apparently, something like the Big Crunch, with volcanoes, seas, and dinosaurs in between. At first, these seem distracting, but it becomes clear that they are the “big picture” context for which the family story serves as a microcosm.
There isn’t much dialogue, which has been distressing to many initial movie-goers who expected more of the usual blockbuster film with these stars. However, it’s very philosophical—even theological. And there is definitely a story that, in my view at least, doesn’t get lost in but is rather deepened by the bigger questions.
Toward the beginning—I think it may be the opening spoken lines, the narrator says that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” “Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.” On the other hand, “grace” is “smiling through all things.” According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”
Artists like Malick will probably turn up their nose at attempts to summarize “what the film is about,, but that’s what this film is “about”: nature and grace. Besides the obvious reference to the “two ways,” the father—a strict disciplinarian—is “nature” and the mother—fountain of unconditional love and generosity—is “grace.” The last line in the movie (as I recall anyway) is the oldest son’s recognition, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.”
The father takes his family to church, occasionally prays, and loves music, but basically he failed to pursue his dream early in life. He takes out the frustrations for his own self-doubt on his boys, especially the oldest, who says in one moving scene to his father, “You wish I were dead, don’t you?” (In an interview at Cannes, Bratt Pitt said he was raised much like the son, in a conservative Christian family, with a graceless father. “It was a pretty stifling environment,” he said.)
Basically, the nature-grace thing is told with a pretty Roman Catholic twist, too. Malick, who was raised in the Bible belt (interestingly, Waco), attended an Episcopal school and went on to study philosophy at Harvard and Oxford (Magdalen College, with philosopher Gilbert Ryle as his supervisor). Reformed theologians have been tweaking Roman Catholic tails for some time now over the way in which the latter seems to turn everything into a nature-grace instead of a sin-grace problem. Briefly put, Rome teaches that grace elevates or perfects nature, raising it from its imperfect natural state into a supernatural condition. A perennial Reformed objection is that this makes nature—creation—inherently flawed and demands that it becomes something other than what God created it to be in order to be truly “good.” And that also means that grace is the infusion of divine goodness and love into the soul, to raise the creature from being trapped in earthly (material) things. In ever-ascending steps, the soul climbs the ladder toward the light of the beatific vision.
Something of this almost dualistic view of nature and grace forms the philosophical backbone of this story. After a tragedy in the family (can’t divulge that one!), everyone is asking Job’s perennial questions. Nature clearly has no answers, but grace stumbles, too. Much of the dialogue is directed from the characters to God. At no point is grace identified with Christ. In fact, it’s a version of salvation-by-love. The mother still trusts God’s purposes, while the father can’t understand why this has happened to him, since he prays and tithes regularly.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but it’s provoked by the film itself. Intentional or not, the movie exhibits some of the deep ontological flaws in Roman Catholic theology. It’s not just a doctrine here or there, but a worldview in which nature tends toward evil and grace, rather than being God’s favor toward sinners on account of Christ, is a cosmic-metaphysical substance infused into the world to make it, well, less worldly. Add to this the incarnation of the nature-grace antithesis in the father-mother antithesis, and you see some of the darker aspects of this system at a pretty deep level. Perhaps the heavenly Father, too, wishes we were dead? There is one particularly arresting prayer, “Why should we be good if you aren’t?” A close second is the simple prayer, in the face of despair, “Who are we to you?”
The nature-father vs. grace-mother business is underscored also by the powerful, arbitrary, and destructive forces of cosmic evolution in the stunning vignettes scattered throughout. At least in a lot of popular Roman Catholic devotion, Mary is larger-than-life, like the mother in this film. Wrapped in eternal light with angels in an assumption-like scene, the mother says, “I give you my son.” This is rather different from the biblical gospel, where the Father is the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….”
For all these reasons—and more, “The Tree of Life” is a stunning visual experience that weaves big questions about God, evil, and the meaning of life with a family and its setting so concrete in its details that you can’t help but sympathize with all of the characters. As a Christian parent especially, it reminded me once again how powerfully our father-images shape our experience of God, for better and for worse—not just on the surface, but in the depth of things.
We are slowly adding White Horse Inn study kits to our new online store. These study kits include full WHI audio, clips for use in a group setting, Modern Reformation articles, study questions, group activities, and a leader’s guide. We have a number of kits in the works, including some built around Mike Horton’s books.
There are two study kits currently in the store. One is built around our popular Galatians series. The newest one is built around our series on “The Preached Word.” For $18.99 you get a seven-part study discussing “The Preached Word” with the White Horse Inn and many special guests. This study explores the primacy of preaching “Christ and him crucified” from all the Scriptures. Included in this study are:
All the materials available in this kit are digital downloadable files (MP3 and PDF contained in compressed ZIP files) which will be available to you immediately upon purchase along with a license to create as many copies of the study guide as you need for the size of your group.
Take advantage of these new resources from the White Horse Inn. Send us an email to let us know how you’re using them, where they could be improved, and what study kits you might like to see in the future.
Lutherans have never laid claim to being a cool church. But now they can! Thanks to our Pasadena correspondent for this picture of “Cool Lutheran Church,” located in Cool, California.
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For your gift of any amount, I’ll send you a link for a free download of our brand-new Galatians Study Guide. This guide is based on our recent study of Galatians on White Horse Inn. It includes the entire White Horse Inn series, relevant Modern Reformation articles, study questions, a leader’s guide, and short audio clips for use in a group study.
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Dr. Horton was recently invited to speak about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins at the Richmond Center for Christian Study in Richmond, VA. His lecture and a time of Questions & Answers are available for free download on the Center’s website.
After declining several invitations, John Witherspoon (1723-94) finally accepted a call as the first pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church and president of Princeton College. At Princeton he also taught theology, history, and philosophy to many of the new nation’s leaders, including James Madison, Aaron Burr, and a host of supreme court justices and members of Congress. Besides being the only clergyman (and college president) to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon also drafted the Articles of Confederation and gave input on the U.S. Constitution. However, his lesser-known ministry in the Church of Scotland was just as active and controversial. Before emigrating, Witherspoon wrote a Ecclesiastical Maxims, a collection of maxims that employed satire as a way of illustrating the feeble sentiments of the Kirk’s “Moderate” wing. This one is too relevant to our own day to overlook. The views he targets here are often repeated in our day and this satire reminds us that in spite of the “postmodern” advertisements, anti-confessional arguments have varied little from their “modern” script:
John Witherspoon (Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Maxim III):
“It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man, never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints, that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.
“The Confession of Faith, which we are now all laid under a disagreeable necessity to subscribe, was framed in times of hot religious zeal; and therefore it can hardly be supposed to contain any thing agreeable to our sentiments in these cool and refreshing days of moderation. So true is this, that I do not remember to have heard any moderate man speak well of it, or recommend it, in a sermon, or private discourse, in my time, And, indeed, nothing can be more ridiculous, than to make a fixed standard for opinions, which change just as the fashions of clothes and dress. No complete system can be settled for all ages, except the maxims I am now compiling and illustrating, and their great perfection lies in their being ambulatory, so that they may be applied differently, with the change of times.
“…There is one very strong particular reason why moderate men cannot love the Confession of Faith; moderation evidently implies a large share of charity, and consequently a good and favorable opinion of those that differ from our church; but a rigid adherence to the Confession of Faith, and high esteem of it, nearly borders upon, or gives great suspicion of harsh opinions of those that differ from us: and does not experience rise up and ratify this observation? Who are the narrow-minded, bigotted, uncharitable persons among us? Who are the severe censurers of those that differ in judgment? Who are the damners of the adorable Heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antonius, &c.? In fine, who are the persecutors of the inimitable heretics among ourselves? Who but the admirers of this antiquated composition, who pin their faith to other men’s sleeves, and will not endure one jot less or different belief from what their fathers had before them! It is therefore plain, that the moderate man, who desires to inclose all intelligent beings in one benevolent embrace, must have an utter abhorrence at that vile hedge of distinction, the Confession of Faith…”
Last week (May 19, 2011), President Obama created controversy with his statement that any Israeli-Palestinian accord “must begin with a return to the 1967 borders.” Besides Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many evangelical leaders have been criticizing the statement over the last several days.
Foreign policy experts have been discussing and debating the conditions for a lasting accord, offering thoughtful analysis on complicated questions. However, they are often drowned out by the background voices of those who insist, on biblical grounds, that any pressure put on Israel to keep its past pledges is tantamount to heresy.
Lacking both the qualifications and the authority to pronounce on the policy questions, my focus here is on the argument that many evangelicals have made over the years since dispensational premillennialism gained ascendence.
In a recent post for Charisma Magazine Online, Jack Hayford, pastor of Church on the Way (Van Nuys, California), called President Obama’s announcement “a trumpet call from God’s Spirit: ‘Beware – Take Action!’” He adds, “We are living in a sobering moment in history that calls us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to take a stand with Israel. We could be people of the last hour.”
To his credit, Mr. Hayford warned against disrespectful or violent responses. However, he reiterated a familiar defense for a policy that would basically recognize Israel’s privileges as a “holy nation” and not simply as a secular nation that is one of the US’s closest friends. Inasmuch as it has been embraced (at least publicly) by several recent presidents, the “Bible-based” argument that Mr. Hayford offers has had some influence on foreign policy. But is it, in fact, biblical?
Like most dispensationalist brothers and sisters, Mr. Hayford’s main argument is the unconditional nature of God’s promise to Israel of an earthly land and kingdom. “Israel is a land about which God says uniquely, prophetically, redemptively and repeatedly in the Bible This is Mine. God refers to Israel as He does to no other land on Earth. Israel was raised up to be a light to the Gentiles.” He makes other arguments in favor of the special relationship of Christians and Jews. “Salvation comes from the Jews,” the first church was Jewish, and Gentiles are the “wild branches” grafted onto the tree. All of this is important to remember when we are thinking about the relationship between Christians and Jews. However, does it have anything to do with the nation of Israel and Palestine or the United States?
The deeper problem in the argument supporting Mr. Hayford’s urgent call concerns the nature of the promise that God made to Abraham. He writes, “The Lord selected a people … He began by selecting a man named Abraham. The Lord said that through the seed of Abraham (in relationship with his wife, Sarah, giving birth to the promised child, Isaac) all the nations of the Earth will be blessed … every human being having access to the divine blessing of Almighty God. In Genesis 12:3, the Lord says in the covenant He makes with Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
I can agree with the point that “This relates not only to a people (the Jews), but it also relates to a land (Israel),” and that God did in fact judge Israel’s enemies. Nevertheless, God’s covenant with Israel was itself conditional. It is not Israel’s land, but God’s, and if Israel breaks the covenant, then the land will “vomit out” Israel as well (Lev 20:22). God himself will lay the nation waste through other nations and send his people into exile “east of Eden.” The land will no longer be holy, but common, even though God continues to work through the holy line—the “stump of Jesse,” from whom David and eventually the greater David (the Messiah) would come. Throughout the law (especially in Deuteronomy), the temporal promise of “long life in the land” is conditioned on Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant it swore at Mount Sinai. It is distinct from the unconditional promise of everlasting life and peace through Abraham’s Seed, through whom all families of the earth will be blessed.
The way the Gospels, but especially Hebrews and Galatians, interpret these passages is to recognize that the Sinai covenant was temporary, conditional, and typological. It was a shadow of the things to come—namely, Christ and his kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces a “regime change” from the civil laws of the theocracy. Instead of driving out the enemies of God, the True Israel—those united to Christ—are to endure suffering for the gospel and to pray for their persecutors. God’s common grace is shed on the just and the unjust alike in this age. Having fulfilled its job, like a trailer for a movie, the old covenant is now “obsolete” (Heb 8:13). Christ’s ministry, far greater than that of Moses, fulfills the everlasting promise that God made to Abraham. Now, blessing has come from the Jews to the ends of the earth in Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the true and faithful Son of David, the true Temple.
The church has therefore not replaced Israel; rather, the borders of Israel have now been extended. No longer a geo-political nation, limited to one people, it is an international remnant “from every tribe, kindred, and nation” (Rev 5:9). So while I do believe that Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 leads us to expect a great outpouring of God’s Spirit on ethnic Jews in the last days, this has nothing to do with the state of Israel.
A lot more could be—and should be—said (I treat this at length in The Christian Faith [535-47, 729-33, 919-90] and elsewhere). However, it’s worth concluding this brief response by mentioning that not even Orthodox Jews believe that the modern state of Israel is holy. The messianic kingdom for which they long is strictly “from above.” It comes with the Messiah and cannot be a secular democracy. So they too realize that the state of Israel is not in any way a revival of the Mosaic theocracy. They are still living in exile, even in Israel.
To conclude: God’s promise to Abraham included (1) and earthly land and (2) a heavenly land. The central claim of the New Testament, anticipated by the prophets, is that although Israel (like Adam—Hosea 6:7) has thoroughly violated the conditions for inheriting the first, God has been faithful to keep history moving beyond the sinfulness of his human partner—including us. Through Christ, he has fulfilled this promise, bringing blessing to all the families of the earth. All heirs of this kingdom are “a holy nation,” living in the common nations of this age.
Especially given the legacy of Christian persecution of Jews throughout the medieval and modern periods, there is a special obligation of Christians to defend the common rights of the Jewish people to a flourishing existence. Yet, by acknowledging that God’s promise of a temporal, geo-political theocracy and land were conditional and that this covenant now lies in the past, we are free to support our friends in Israel and Palestine in their pursuit of a stable peace that will doubtless require trust and negotiation on both sides.
This post is actually written for followers of Harold Camping to read on May 22, after their leader’s failed prediction of Judgment Day on May 21 (today) passes.
Undaunted by our Lord’s explicit warning against predicting “the day and the hour” of his return and his warning about false prophets in the last days, as well as by his own failed speculation that Jesus would return in 1994, Mr. Camping has squandered enormous resources on full-page ads in national newspapers and billboards across the country for his new date.
Reared in the Christian Reformed Church (in which he was an elder), Mr. Camping owns “Family Radio Network,” with over a hundred stations and translators in the US, and others around the world, including Moscow, Istanbul, and in various parts of Africa. His organization also owns several TV stations.
I recall listening to Mr. Camping’s “Open Forum” as a teen-ager, hearing for the first time serious teaching on the doctrines of grace. However, since 1988, when he left the Christian Reformed Church, he has gradually adopted a variety of teachings. In biblical interpretation, he employes a hermeneutic in which there are multiple layers of meaning and, as in much of medieval speculation, the “spiritual interpretation” seems to be his preferred method. So it’s not surprising that he would mine the Bible much like a medieval alchemist, looking for the secret meaning.
Some of these teachings are well-represented in evangelicalism, but contrary to Reformed teaching—such as the distinction between a rapture of the saints and the second coming of Christ. Other teachings are odd interpretations that he claims to have received directly from God, although they resemble past errors in church history. In recent years, he has argued that there is no eternal punishment (hell is simply death) and so emphasizes God’s eternal decree that Christ’s work in history is merely a demonstration of what he already accomplished in eternity.
By the turn of the millennium, he announced the end of the “church era,” calling his followers to abandon their local churches. And many did. Years ago, as president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which sponsors James Boice’s “Bible Study Hour,” I met with Mr. Camping. He was asking us to delete any reference to the church in Dr. Boice’s sermons, which we refused to do. So many loyal listeners could no longer hear the broadcast. Resolute and self-confident in the meeting, Mr. Camping seemed for the first time to me then to have crossed the line from the idiosyncratic to the heretical.
Apostasy is a serious business. Nevertheless, Christ extends his open hand to Mr. Camping and his followers to return to him and his body. Tragically, some followers will be completely disillusioned on May 22. Having already abandoned the church, many will likely become skeptical of anyone who claims to teach Scripture, indeed even of Scripture itself. (I’ve even heard of one follower who said that if the prediction turns out to be wrong, then the Bible is wrong.)
Of course, Jesus may return tomorrow, or the next day, or long after we die. We simply do not know. However, we can be sure that the errors that he teaches—quite apart from his failed predictions—are enough to regard him, tragically, as a false prophet.
Also tragic is the shame that such movements bring to the cause of Christ. Predictably (no pun intended), atheists are planning “rapture parties” around the world. (BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13468131; NBC report: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2J0ce66hzQ
As for the rest of us, we’ll be in church this Lord’s Day, proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection, longing for his return…on his Father’s timetable, which none of us knows.