A Biblical Theology of God’s Design for Man and Woman

Oct 24, 2014 | Justin Taylor

9781433536991Matt Smethurst interviews Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger about their new book, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway, 2014). This is one of the few books to approach the issue from the methodology and organization of biblical theology. Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview:

In what ways can evangelical Christians be in danger of confusing conservative cultural expectations with biblical complementarity?

Scripture doesn’t give a lot of detail as to how God’s design for man and woman is to be worked out, so a traditional division of labor (women in the kitchen, changing diapers; men at work letting women do all household chores) doesn’t square with the biblical design (we’ve discussed the inadequacy of labels here). It’s true that God’s design assigns primary spheres of activity, but Scripture calls the husband not only to provide for his wife materially but, more importantly, to love her sacrificially. There is flexibility within the basic framework, and each couple has unique circumstances in which to work out God’s design and plan for them personally, both leader and partner. The biblical pattern is loving, self-sacrificial complementarity where the couple partners in conscious pursuit of God’s mission. Marriage is part of God’s larger purpose of reuniting all of humanity under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Did working on this book together cause you to rethink any view you previously held?

A fresh and focused look at the overall teaching of Scripture on God’s design for man and woman has given us what we think is a more balanced paradigm for men and women. Succinctly put, the overarching model that many have implicitly understood in recent years has been male leadership and female submission. Though true in essence, we believe that this approach may unduly constrain the woman’s role and contribution in marriage and the church. We might rather categorize the biblical teaching in these terms: male leadership and female partnership. Holding these two patterns in tension without denying or diminishing either is vital. Many unfortunately deny male leadership, which is indisputably and pervasively taught in Scripture, while others—in practice if not in principle—diminish the real sense of male-female partnership in keeping with Scripture’s depiction of the woman as the man’s counterpart and as his fellow heir of God’s grace.

You can read the whole thing here.

Here are a few endorsements for the book:

“Models the best of Christian discernment about matters of gender, theology, justice, roles, and gifts. It is faithful in its representation both of God’s character and our own propensity to sin, pastoral in its application of faithful biblical hermeneutics, insightful in its explanation of original word usages and their application, concise in its framing of hot-button issues and the hermeneutical fallacies that often fuel them, and charitable in its handling of the motives of those who disagree.”
—Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured Professor of English at Syracuse University; author, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert; mother, pastor’s wife, and speaker
“The brilliant and respected Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger are wise experts, guiding us through the Bible for a substantive, gospel-rich, and pastorally applied theology of masculinity, femininity, and the goodness of our differences by God’s design.”
—Russell D. Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; author, Tempted and Tried
“Scriptural, thorough, scholarly, irenic, and practical, this vital resource will help any serious student of the Bible understand God’s good, wise, and wonderful design.”
—Mary A. Kassian, Professor of Women’s Studies, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild
“Moving beyond debates that discuss men’s and women’s roles in isolation from one another, Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger take a biblical-theological approach that seeks to understand God’s design for men and women from the progressively unfolding narrative of Scripture. Responding to the profound influence of feminism, the authors call on men to exercise leadership in ways that exhibit genuine care and responsibility for those they are charged to nurture and protect.”
—Daniel I. Block, Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College
“Whenever we consider our God-given design, we must do so with humble hearts. What a gift to be able to appreciate how the triune, eternal God made us! This study on God’s design will be useful in every field of Christian work all over the world.”
—Gloria Furman, Pastor’s wife, Redeemer Church of Dubai; mother of four; author, Glimpses of Grace and Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full
At the Crossway page you download some sample material and a study guide.


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70 Years Ago Today: The Conversion of J. I. Packer

Oct 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

On Sunday, October 22, 1944—seventy years ago today—it is doubtful that anyone noticed a soft-spoken, lanky, and decidedly bookish first-year university student leaving his dormitory room at Corpus Christi College and heading across Oxford for an evening Christian Union service at a local Anglican church.

18-year-old Jim Packer had arrived at Oxford University less than three weeks prior, a single suitcase in hand, traveling east by train from Gloucester using a free ticket available to family members of Great Western Railway employees.

He later described himself at this stage of life as ”immature,” “shy,” “introverted,” “awkward,” “intellectual,” and an “oddball.” He was an “outsider” who was “bad at relationships” and “emotionally locked up.” He was also a “churned-up young man, painfully aware of himself, battling his daily way, as adolescents to, through manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration.”

Packer came from a lower middle-class background and a nominal Anglican family that went to St Catharine’s Church in Gloucester but never talked about the things of God or even prayed at meals. As a teenager Packer had read a couple of the new books coming out by C. S. Lewis (fellow and tutor in English literature at Oxford’s Magdalen College), including The Screwtape Letters (1942) and the three BBC talks turned pamphlets that would later become Mere Christianity (1942-44). During chess matches with a high school classmate—the son of a Unitarian minister—he had defended Christianity.

Packer thought of himself as a Christian. But the events of that evening would convince him otherwise.

On this cool autumn evening, he made his way west across Oxford, past Pembroke College, and into St Aldate’s Church, where the Christian Union occasionally held services. The lights in the building were dimmed so that the light emanating from the building would be no brighter than moonlight—a recent relaxation of England’s “blackout” regulations to avoid air-raid attacks in World War II.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 9.12.38 AM
He entered the doors of the church a dead man walking and was to leave later that night as a resurrected man, knowing himself to belong to Christ.

The following narrative is adapted from Leland Ryken’s forthcoming biography, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), which Mike Reeves calls “now the definitive, most up-to-date biography of J. I. Packer.”

A schoolboy friendship with Eric Taylor was an important part of Jim Packer’s final year at Crypt School in Gloucester, England. While Packer spent his third year in “sixth form,” Taylor made the transition to the University of Bristol. During his first year at Bristol, Taylor became a Christian. He wrote letters to Packer about his new-found faith. Packer did not fully understand the letters, especially the one that contained an exposition of the final verses of Romans 3 on justification by faith. Jim was puzzled by references to “saving faith.” During the following summer vacation of 1944, Taylor and Packer had a series of conversations about the Christian faith. The discussions left Packer feeling that something was lacking, but he was mystified as to what it was.

Eric Taylor did not bring Packer to faith, but he did the next-best thing by encouraging Jim to make contact with the Christian student group at Oxford called the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU, an Inter-Varsity organization).

Front quad of Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

Front quad of Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

Christian student groups at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were highly active in the middle of the twentieth century. The Christian Union at Oxford followed a practice of arranging a social event in the respective colleges for new students at the beginning of each academic year. These were informational meetings designed to attract the participation of students in the meetings of the Christian Union of the university as a whole. Nearly everything at Oxford University is traditional, and the opening recruitment meeting of the term

Jim Packer (top center), with members of OICCU in Trinity Term 1948 at St Ebbe's Rectory. Elizabeth Lloyd-Jones (now Lady Catherwood) is sitting in front of Packer.

Jim Packer (top center), with members of OICCU in Trinity Term 1948 at St Ebbe’s Rectory. Elizabeth Lloyd-Jones (now Lady Catherwood) is sitting in front of Packer.

happened specifically on the Thursday evening before the start of the academic year.

Ralph Hulme, the Corpus Christi OICCU representative, initiated contact with Packer and invited him to the introductory Thursday meeting. Packer accepted the invitation, having already determined that he would attend. The first meeting was eminently forgettable, as evidenced by the fact that the only thing Packer remembers about the event was that it failed to spark his interest!

Despite the low wartime enrollments at the University, OICCU president David Mullins (a medical student) was determined to maintain the evangelistic staldatesthrust of the Christian Union. The weekly agenda was ambitious. On the University level, there was a Bible exposition every Saturday evening and an evangelistic sermon every Sunday evening (known as “Sunday evening sermon”). Individual colleges then sponsored their own weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings. These options were presented to Packer at the informational meeting. The first week he decided to attend the Saturday evening Bible exposition but not the Sunday evening evangelistic service. He did, however, attend the evangelistic service the next Sunday, October 22, 1944.

The sanctuary of St Aldate's church in Oxford, c. 1940s.

The sanctuary of St Aldate’s church in Oxford, c. 1940s.

The service at which Packer was converted occurred at St. Aldate’s church, an Anglican church in the center of the city. It was one of the larger Oxford churches and was noted for its student ministry. We might note in passing that St. Aldate’s is a “stone’s throw” from Pembroke College, where fellow Crypt School alumnus George Whitefield (1714-70) attended college and was converted.

The service began at 8:15 PM. The preacher was an elderly Anglican parson named Rev. Earl Langston, from the resort town of Weymouth. The first half of the forty-minute sermon consisted of biblical exposition that left Packer bored. But the second half was a personal narrative of how Langston had been converted at a boys’ camp. The key component of that conversion had been a challenge posed to the youthful Langston by a camp leader as to whether or not he was a Christian. Langston had been jolted by this question to conclude that he was not actually saved. That, in turn, led to his coming to personal faith in Christ as Savior.

This autobiographical narrative was riveting to Packer, who had entered Oxford believing himself to be a Christian. Packer suddenly saw his own story in Langston’s narrative and realized that he was not a Christian. It was a traumatic realization. It was accompanied by an imagined picture that Alister McGrath reconstructs as follows:

He found a picture arising from within his mind. The picture was that of someone looking from outside through a window into a room where some people were having a party. Inside the room, people were enjoying themselves by playing games. The person outside could understand the games that they were playing. He knew the rules of the games. But he was outside; they were inside. He needed to come in.

Packer was particularly convicted by the latter awareness: “I need to come in.” So by the Spirit’s prompting he came in. The sermon ended as evangelistic services in the Oxford milieu (and more universally) did—with the preacher emphasizing the need to commit oneself to Christ and the singing of the hymn “Just As I Am.”

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt;
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Packer states simply, “I had given my life to Christ.” He also recounts, “When I went out of the church I knew I was a Christian.”

Packer went back to his room at Corpus Christi and wrote his parents to tell them what had happened.

More than half a century later, Packer could attest regarding his conversion that “I remember the experience as if it were yesterday.”

Thank God for his saving grace. Seventy years later, Packer continues to instruct the church on the beauty and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who saves us just as we are but begins to transform us into what we will someday be, all to the praise of the glory of his grace.

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What Did the Old Testament Writers Know about the Unfolding of the New Testament?

Oct 21, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Writing in 1936, J. Gresham Machen wrote:

The writers of the Bible did know what they were doing when they wrote. I do not believe that they always knew all that they were doing.

I believe that there are mysterious words of prophecy in the Prophets and the Psalms, for example, which had a far richer and more glorious fulfillment than the inspired writers knew when they wrote.

Yet even in the case of those mysterious words I do not think that the sacred writers were mere automata.

They did not know the full meaning of what they wrote, but they did know part of the meaning, and the full meaning was in no contradiction with the partial meaning but was its glorious unfolding. (Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World [reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947], 55)

Greg Beale, in a forthcoming article for the Westminster Theological Journal on “The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors”—adapted as an appendix in the new book co-authored with Ben Gladd, Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery (IVP Academic, 2014)—agrees with Machen and offers an evocative metaphor to describe the relationship:

Machen is referring to meanings of Old Testament authors that lie at the “edges” of the widest part of their cognitive peripheral vision. There is a blurring at these edges, just as there is with the peripheral vision of our literal eyes. Because of this blurring, one can, therefore, say that these authors may not have been very aware at all of these meanings; but God, who inspired them, was explicitly aware, and when this meaning becomes explicit in the New Testament, the “blurred vision” becomes clear and it is truly something that is organically “unfolded” from the Old Testament author’s original meaning. (p. 364)

Here is Professor Beale delivering this lecture for his inauguration as the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (September 25, 2013):

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An Interview on Early Christian Martyr Stories

Oct 20, 2014 | Justin Taylor


Bryan M. Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the author of the new book, Early Christian Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations
(Baker, 2014).

He recently answered some questions I had about his new book.

What kind of stories do you cover in this book and what is the time frame that is treated?

Well, the title says the book is made up of ‘stories’ but it’s really more than that. There are a variety of ancient church texts that speak about persecution, a number of different genres, not just the actual stories of martyrs themselves. But that’s the core of it: the martyrs before their accusers.

I begin with one like that, the account of the seven Maccabean brothers and the scribe Eleazar. They aren’t Christians, they’re Jews. But they’re dying for their faithfulness to the one true God in the BC period. This text was very influential on the early church, it shaped later narratives in a profound way.

Then we have the stories of several famous Christian martyrs. Peter and Paul are included here, and I like this a lot, I think it’s a great feature of this book. Usually the narrative of martyrdom in the ancient church doesn’t start with them, but it should, these texts are early second century in origin. I think Christians today want to know where the legends of the apostles came from, that Peter was crucified upside down, or that Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Way, etc.

There’s probably a kernel of truth here, but these stories are legendary for the most part.

Next we come to more reliable texts, such as Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and the classic martyr stories of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, Perpetua and Felicity. These are the earliest and most reliable texts, at least many scholars still think they are, though that has been called into question by some. But I think they’re basically reliable historical documents.

And then I include some of the church’s theological reflection on martyrdom:

  • Why is it happening?
  • How should Christians respond?
  • What should be respected about martyrdom?
  • What’s the wrong way to do martyrdom?
  • Why is it so important to see the thing all the way to the end?

I include Tertullian and Origen reflecting deeply on the phenomenon of giving your life to maintain your confession of Christ.

I also thought it would be important to have some historical texts about the Great Persecution, kicked off by Diocletian in 303 AD. What happened and why? In this context, I translate the conversion story of Constantine, where he sees the cross in the sky and his army fights in the power of the cross. And after this is the so-called Edict of Milan, which is really a symbol of a tipping point that occurred in the fourth century.

Finally, I conclude with Augustine of Hippo preaching a sermon on Perpetua and Felicity, talking so fondly about these godly women who found the path to “eternal happiness.” He’s making a pun off of their names. He clearly cherishes these heroines, it’s neat to see.

So really, this book spans the whole spectrum of the ancient church’s experience of martyrdom. It covers different genres and narratives. It’s designed to give the whole picture of what was really happening. Everybody knows that “the Romans threw the Christians to the lions”—but what’s the real story here? What happened and why? Now you can read it for yourself firsthand.

Why do we need a book like this? Aren’t all of these stories already readily accessible?

Very good question. I asked myself that question before I started writing this book. All of these texts already exist in English translation somewhere. But the key word is “somewhere.” Does the average Christian know where to find them? Probably not. They’re not all under one cover like they are here, gathered into one place to tell a consistent story from beginning to end. And when you do find them, they often have old fashioned translations, or they have Greek and Latin on the page, which is intimidating. Those kinds of books are expensive. Well this one isn’t. It’s a good way to own a book that gives the whole martyrdom story in one inexpensive volume. That’s what I was going for.

These translations are brand new, and as I worked through each one, I asked myself, “How would this writer express this thought if he or she were writing today?” I think of these martyr stories as being somewhat like the ESV Bible, which is a great balance between actually translating the text but doing it in a smooth and modern-sounding English style. I tried to find that happy medium. I truly believe there is a need for a volume on martyrdom that puts the best texts under one cover, in an accessible way, and with helpful notes and an introduction to explain what’s going on. I definitely hope to serve the church with a book like this.

A leading scholar of early Christianity, Candida Moss, recently wrote a book on The Myth of Persecution, arguing that a number of these early martyr stories were exaggerated, invented, or forged. Is there any truth to her argument?

The funny thing about that book is, much of the stuff she says is nothing new at all. So not only is there much truth to it (as you said), it’s actually a truth that scholars have known for a long time. She is rebutting a Sunday school picture of martyrdom that all historians know is false, and then it’s like a big revelation has been made. I’m talking about the idea that there was an age of constant persecution, that the Christians were in danger at every turn, relentlessly being pursued by Roman soldiers day and night. We know that isn’t correct. No one in academia thinks that, but Professor Moss still rebuts it. So I guess that’s helpful for what it is.

Candida Moss is an impressive scholar with a real mastery of these texts. I don’t question her erudition, I respect it a lot, and I’ve learned from it. What I take issue with is her method of radical skepticism. Usually with history, there is a kind of bell curve of probability, and when enough facts are brought in, you find the middle of the curve is the right place to be. But Moss interprets everything with such a skeptical eye that she skews everything toward the later end of the timeline. Over and over, she puts the facts out there and then interprets them with the most extreme position that it’s forgery, forgery, forgery. So she pushes all the texts like Polycarp or Lyons and Vienne toward a much later time. But it’s not probable that the extreme interpretation is the right one again and again, for every martyrdom text, like there was a colossal conspiracy to make up stories all across the Empire. Classical historians don’t handle texts like this, the way some early Christian scholars do, with this skeptical agenda of turning everything into later forgeries instead of what they claim to be.

And there’s lots of counter-evidence that Moss doesn’t include. Like, “The Christians want to collect Polycarp’s remains. Look! That’s third century relic veneration! This text must be from that later time period!” Wait a minute, why does it have to be third century? It doesn’t. Christians and Jews always wanted to bury their people in every century. We see it right at the beginning with the effort to bury the body of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb. Actually, honorable burial was a big deal to everybody in Roman times. There is first century legislation that says you should give a condemned criminal’s body to his relatives after he’s been killed in the coliseum. This was the normal practice, the Romans made laws about it. What the Martyrdom of Polycarp says about collecting the martyr’s body is perfectly consistent with the date that the text claims to be written, in the mid-second century. In fact, there’s definitive archaeological proof that Peter had a monument over his presumed grave at that exact time. So it’s no big deal if Polycarp would have a respectable tomb as well. That isn’t proof of later burial practices, it’s par for the course in the second century. Moss should put that evidence out there too. But that’s what I’m pointing out here, the way she spins the evidence to the extreme and doesn’t acknowledge and rebut counter-evidence. It’s not neutral history. There’s a political agenda in that book she wants to advance. I’m not making that up, she’s pretty clear about it, and that’s why the book takes the positions it does.

How do you envision the church today—which is witnessing continued persecution of its brothers and sisters around the world—using a book like what you have written?

Well this is where my book is not a completely neutral book of history either. I too have an agenda that I want to advance. I want to encourage the body of Christ with these stories.

What I was trying to write here was basically a textbook that could be used in Christian colleges and seminaries and online courses all over the English speaking world. I want everything in it to be true and unbiased. I want to do good history. I want to take a respectable scholarly look at a historical phenomenon, Christian martyrdom, which is a type of “noble death” in the ancient world. This is something that should be studied in academia.

But I don’t want this book to be just that, just a dry and dusty textbook from the days of yore. I want it to be spiritually encouraging, to give insight from the past, to provide wisdom from the ancients. This is the same thing I tried to do in my earlier book Getting to Know the Church Fathers, and I have had many people tell me they appreciated it. So I praise the Lord that it could be used that way, and I hope Early Christian Martyr Stories can do the same thing. There is a spiritually uplifting aspect to this book that isn’t always found in textbooks. That is why I think everyday Christian readers will enjoy this book as well, not just students in a course.

I definitely want to be very careful about drawing exact comparisons to persecution today, especially in America. This is one place where I think Moss has a good reminder for us. Let’s not develop a martyr complex when our Christian school group is denied access to a classroom, for example. By all means, fight for your rights. Freedom of religion is vital to this country. The mayor should not be able to censor your sermons. Censorship is the first step in oppression. But persecution is a spectrum. I think the ancient church is much more parallel to the ISIS situation, where you have one powerful religious group killing and torturing and shedding blood and stealing properties from a weaker religious minority. Those things happened to the ancient Christians too. It was a clash of two religions, just like what is happening today in many Islamic areas.

Just to be clear, my book isn’t a handbook on how to endure persecution, how to be a martyr. It certainly doesn’t presume to give advice to the persecuted church today. What it is, at its heart, is a book about being committed – I mean totally, completely sold out – to Jesus Christ. That is how we are like the martyrs: when we press on for Christ no matter the cost. Maybe bloodshed isn’t going to be demanded of us, but we can still have that 100% commitment to the Risen Lord. We can be inspired by the martyrs of the ancient church just as we can by the witness of faithful Christians in Iran or Syria or Nigeria or North Korea. Martyrs die for Jesus, meaning they physically die. If they can do that, often under terrible tortures, then maybe we can die to this world and all its attractions. It’s like Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If we start thinking like that, we’ve taken the first step down the martyr’s path.

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C. S. Lewis on Why You Should Read Fiction: Get In and Get Out

Oct 15, 2014 | Justin Taylor

CSL reading in chairC. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961):

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being.

We want to be more than ourselves.

Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—­would be lunacy. . . .

[W]e want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . .  We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in'; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three.

In love we escape from our self into one other.

In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity.

In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are.

The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself.

The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.

In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’. (pp. 137-38)

Lewis goes on:

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. . . .

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . .

[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (140-41)

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The Passover Song

Oct 14, 2014 | Justin Taylor

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A Historian’s New Interpretive Study of Billy Graham and American Culture

Oct 10, 2014 | Justin Taylor

BGI just received my copy of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap/Harvard, 2014) by Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian History at Duke University Divinity School.

The gold standard of Graham biographies has been William Martin’s Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (W. Morrow, 1991). Wacker refers to this as “magisterial” and “by far the finest and most comprehensive biography” of Graham, and notes that its revision is scheduled for imminent release from Zondervan.

Professor Wacker explains that his book is “an interpretation rather than a strictly chronological account of the evangelists’s life.

The rise, singularity, and longevity of the career of a lanky farm kid from North Carolina help us understand how Americans constructed and experienced leadership.

More important, Graham’s story sheds light on the formation of a moral vocabulary that expressed the grievances and aspirations of millions of people. Graham’s voice helped guide that process.

And most important, his story reveals the influences of religion, especially evangelical religion, on larger trends in the culture. After all, Graham intersected with many of the most compelling public events of the era, including the growth of a celebrity ethos, the geographical expansion of Southern habits, the galvanization of the evangelical movement, the normalization of religious cooperation, the awareness of military threats, and the quest for global justice. His tenure also coincided with the public discussion of many of the most compelling private events of the era—aging, loneliness, broken marriages, wayward children, and, of course, the ever-present fear of death. Though private experiences of this sort had marked American life from the beginning, people described them in the vocabulary of the time.

This book provides a tool for making sense of the complexities of American culture in the six decades following World War II.

Here are some early commendations for Wacker’s work:

“A striking and authoritative account of one of the most influential Americans of recent times. Wacker writes gracefully and offers a fund of astute insights. By exploring Graham’s background, his character, his beliefs, and his work, he reveals how Graham could move so comfortably among the powerful and at the same time always be able to speak effectively to so many ordinary people. Both Graham’s admirers and his critics will come away from America’s Pastor with a fresh appreciation of the man and his world.”
—George M. Marsden

“Grant Wacker has given us a superb—and richly detailed—portrait of Billy Graham, presented in the context of a solid cultural and historical analysis of the era in which Graham served as the kind of religious leader we are not likely to see again. And all of this from a marvelous storyteller. Wacker’s deeply moving epilogue can stand alone as a model of inspiring prose!”
—Richard J. Mouw

America’s Pastor is a masterful study of the life and influence of Billy Graham. With power and grace, Grant Wacker explains who Graham was, how his message and organization developed, and why he came to exercise such extraordinary influence in America. It is the most incisive—and accessible—study of Billy Graham that has been written.”
—Nathan O. Hatch

“Billy Graham has finally gotten the book he deserves. Written by one of the finest American religious historians of our time, this book is as captivating as Graham himself: eloquent, incisive, witty, and empathetic. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Catherine A. Brekus

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An Interview on “Fallen: A Theology of Sin”

Oct 09, 2014 | Justin Taylor

fallenThe Theology in Community series , edited by Christopher Morgan (California Baptist University) and Robert Peterson (Covenant Theological Seminary) is published by Crossway. The fifth volume of six (thus far) is entitled Fallen: A Theology of Sin.

Jason Meyer of Bethlehem Baptist Church calls this book “the most far-reaching, well-rounded modern treatment of sin that I have ever read,” and Fred Sanders of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute says it “may be the most complete resource on the doctrine of sin in this generation and will certainly serve well as a comprehensive introduction to this neglected topic.”

Below is some interaction with some of the contributors and the editors:

  • Don Carson
  • Paul House
  • Bob Yarbrough
  • Gerald Bray
  • John Mahony
  • Sydney Page
  • David Calhoun
  • Bryan Chapell
  • Chris Morgan and Robert Peterson

Peterson-ColorChris Morgan and Robert Peterson 

1. This is the fifth volume in the Theology in Community series. What are some of the other books in the series?

The first four volumes in the Theology in Community series are Suffering and the Goodness of God, The Glory of God, The Deity of Christ, and The Kingdom of God. The sixth volume, Heaven, is fresh out, published only days ago.

2. What are the goals of the series? Why is it important? How is it distinct?

We named the series as we did for two reasons.

First, Theology in Community means we want to promote clear biblical thinking and godly responses to theological issues, both historic and contemporary. As we examine issues central to the Christian faith, we strive not only to follow a sound theological method but also to display it. Chapters addressing the Old and New Testaments on the book’s subject form the heart of each volume. Subsequent chapters synthesize the biblical teaching and link it to historical, philosophical, systematic, and pastoral concerns. Far from being mere collections of essays, the volumes are carefully crafted so that the voices of the various experts combine to proclaim a unified message.

Second, Theology in Community seeks to do theology in teams. The teachings of the Bible were forged in real-life situations by leaders in God’s covenant communities. Theology was formulated by the church for the church. This series seeks to recapture that biblical reality. Scholars from many backgrounds, disciplines, and experiences with academic credentials work together. They have a high view of Scripture, robust evangelical convictions, and love grace. They are personally involved in ministry, serving as teachers, pastors, and missionaries. They stand in continuity with the historic church, care about the global church, share life together with others in local churches, and aim to write for the good of the church.

DACDon Carson

1. In your chapter “Sin’s Contemporary Significance,” you develop a section “Sin Is Deeply Tied to Passages that Disclose Important Things about God” (pages 24-26). What passages stood out to you, and how did they shape your thinking?

What I was trying to say is that sin and God do not occupy individual silos in biblical theology. They are intertwined. Some of the most probing biblical texts on sin simultaneously disclose utterly wonderful things about God, and many of the glories of God in the Bible expose the appalling awfulness of sin. For example, the God who is slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin,” yet he “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod. 34:6-7)—a tension not resolved until the cross. David’s profound confession of sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah focuses on his recognition that he has sinned against God (Ps. 51:4). And what shall we make of Isa. 53:4-5, 10, of Hosea 13:4 and 1 Cor. 15:55, and countless other passages?

2. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

Sin is painfully complex; it is twisted, wretched, often deceitful, sometimes violent. Like the grave, it always yearns for more. If we take what the Bible says seriously, sin should never surprise us, but it should constantly horrify us. The more clearly we see sin’s horror, the more we shall treasure the cross.

house_paulPaul House

1. In your two chapters on sin in the Old Testament, you utilize Exodus 34:1-7 as a key aspect of your methodology. Why?

Exodus 34:1-7 is one of the Old Testament’s most-quoted passages, so it is clearly a core passage in Old Testament Theology. Its statement about God’s character includes his forgiving nature, which includes specific names for the behavior he forgives: transgression, iniquity, and sin. Later passages like Joel 2:12-17, Jonah 3:10-4:2, and Nehemiah 9:1-38 quote Exodus 34:1-7 as reasons enough to believe God will forgive in those settings.

2. What material from the prophets does the contemporary church need to hear afresh related to the corporate aspect of sin?

The prophets stress that judicial injustice, mistreatment of the widow, orphan, and immigrant, and physical and economic enslavement have both individual and systemic elements. Passages like Amos 1:3-2:7 indicate that whole societies are held responsible for sins they commit together. I think today the prophets would likely denounce, for instance, China’s forced relocation of 250 million rural people in the name of economic reform and the United States’ unseemly debates over and treatment of political refugees at our border crossings. Might not the prophets claim God will bless those who show mercy, particularly to the helpless?

3. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

I continue to wrestle with the nature of sin. Sin is so persistent, at least in my life. It is like a genetic disorder that keeps causing illness. I am slowly becoming more and more grateful for Christ’s atonement and more in awe of God’s daily grace through the Holy Spirit.

Yarbrough-ColorBob Yarbrough

1. In your chapter on sin in the New Testament, you note the invitation to repentance and conversion as “indirect evidence of sin.” How is this important, and why did you begin with that?

We’ve all heard the expression, “there’s more caught than taught.” We learn not just from what a teacher says but from that teacher’s underlying assumptions and attitudes. Well, when it comes to sin, figures like John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostles are our teachers. Yes, they explicitly identify and condemn sin. But they do more: they assume their whole nation (Galilee, Judea, by extension the whole Roman world) is guilty of it. Even at Athens, Paul told hearers that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Biblical figures and writers call every single person, no exceptions, to turn from their crooked ways. And, just as important, each must turn to the true and living God who is present in Jesus and his teaching.

I began with that because that’s the truth that the NT starts with: John the Baptist, and Jesus in his wake, came preaching repentance and the dire need to enter God’s kingdom. That is at least as instructive regarding humankind’s “fallen” condition as all the NT’s various words and statements about “sin” proper.

2. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

I used to be amazed how people can do the kinds of things we read about or see in the news—beheadings, abductions, maimings, desertions, thefts, deceptions, deprivations, cruelties, other criminal or immoral acts. My amazement was a sort of question: Whoa! How can this be?

The older I get, the more I see how I could be or almost have been guilty of these kinds of things myself. Part of it is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount insight that to entertain an immoral act (murder, adultery) brings the same divine displeasure as committing it. Part of it is admitting how close I have been, over my 60+ years, to grave wrongdoing. God has mercifully prevented many a lethal misstep.

Why? How? For what purpose? Questions like that were my main personal takeaways from my study of sin. Why does God forgive, and in particular forgive my sins? And then by extension, the sins of small groups and families and churches and nations? One of the most-repeated confessions about God in the OT is: slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Why?

I am still trying to get to the bottom of two things: 1) roots and symptoms of my own corruption; 2) divine resources for redeeming what is fallen and recreating it for holy deployment. I expect to be wrestling with questions in these domains as long as I have breath—always making progress, but conscious that just as God’s goodness is unfathomable, so are the machinations of human darkness in which I am sadly implicated.

chris-morganChris Morgan

1. Why did you focus on the biblical story in your theology of sin?

For four reasons.

First, I do not recall seeing sin treated in this way. Second, I was surprised at how most of the key issues concerning sin emerge in the broad storyline. Third, I think the storyline itself and the major events (Creation, Fall, Redemption, New creation) shed much light on the doctrine of sin. Fourth, the storyline helps us see sin in proportion, not as the key theme but as a backdrop and context of God’s grace.

2. What do you mean by the “domain of sin and death” (page 149-150)?

Romans 5:12-21 joins Adam’s sin, humans constituted as sinners, universal guilt, universal death, and the domain of death. The domain of sin and death is the macro-environmental condition in which life occurs; the particular human corruption is a part of the personal and individual aspects of the domain of sin and death. Herman Ridderbos captured the idea:

So sin has entered in, here represented as a personified power (cf., e.g., v. 21); through and with sin death has come in as the inseparable follower and companion of sin…. [T]hat the share of all men in the sin of Adam is indicated, however, and as its consequence they have been brought under the dominion and power of sin and death. The presupposition of the whole chain of reasoning lies in the inclusion in the supraindividual situation of sin and death represented by Adam. Here again the basic structures of Pauline theology are not individualizing, but redemptive-historical and corporate. It is a matter of two different modes of existence, that of the old and that of the new man, which are determined by two different aeons, and concerning which an all-embracing decision has been made in Adam and Christ…. Death is thereby not only a punishment that puts an end to life, but a condition in which the destiny of life outside of Christ is turned into its opposite…. In addition to the future, however, sin brings forth death already in this life. . . . Thus death works itself out in the sinful life of man. (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 96, 99, 112-13)

3. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

Why would I have a tendency to measure myself or others by achievements when all I contributed to salvation was my sin? What do I have that I have not received? I need not only to believe in the fact of God’s super-abounding grace, but also accept that it is my primary identity via the saving work of Christ.

gerald_bray_0Gerald Bray

1. In “Sin in Historical Theology,” you cover a vast terrain. In your estimation, which theologians most ably captured the heart of sin and why? Who missed it and why?

To my mind there is no doubt that those who most ably captured the heart of sin were the greatest theologians of the Western tradition-Augustine, Anselm, Luther and Calvin. The basic reason for this is surely that they saw beyond the surface. Most people think of sin in terms of actions that we commit, which makes it impossible for them to think of a newborn child as a sinner, for example. But the great theologians I have mentioned understood that sinfulness is a state of separation from God. The actions that a person does merely reflect that more fundamental alienation. Even if they are good in themselves, they cannot bring us closer to God because our relationship with him has been broken by something that goes deeper than that.

Unfortunately, there have been many people who have not grasped this fundamental point. Pelagius, whom Augustine opposed, would be an obvious one, but there have been many others, and it is probably true to say that most people today would fall into this category. To them, sin is a moral failing which they try to put right by changing their attitudes and behavior. It is well meant, of course, and that is the problem. They trust in their own righteousness, as the New Testament puts it, to save them, and not in that of Christ. The fact that it is often assumed rather than articulated makes it more widespread—and more dangerous.

2. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

For me, the hardest thing about sin is dealing with the fundamental fact that it is a spiritual separation from God. I struggle with this in my own life because I am always trying to set goals for myself, as if righteousness were some kind of fitness training program. The problem is that there is nothing wrong about leading a morally upright life. Indeed, we are meant to do that as far as we can. The apostle Paul has told us that it is absurd to go around sinning just in order to see God’s forgiving grace at work in our lives, and I have to remember that. But at the same time, I also have to bear in mind that however hard I try, my success or failure in this does not determine my standing before God. He loves me in my sinfulness, and Christ has united me to himself in order to give me his righteousness, which I cannot acquire on my own. It sounds fine in theory, of course, but putting it into practice on a daily basis, especially when I am tempted to think that I have achieved something that God will be proud of, is the hardest thing to deal with. How can God love me when I have done nothing to deserve that? This is the deepest mystery of our faith, and the thing that I struggle with most of all.

John Mahony

1. In “A Theology of Sin for Today,” why did you begin with the “post-fall reality” of sin?

The “post-fall reality” is the present state of existence of all humankind. The fall of Adam is the fall of the entire human race. The Bible records that tragedy for us as well as an account of its devastating results. It occurred to me that the “post-fall reality” is also the post-fall perspective for all of us, even the biblical authors. So the question this raises is: do we as fallen beings have a true sense of the awful nature of sin as we read the account in Scripture?

2. What do you mean by the “pre-fall paradigm” and how does covenant play into it?

The “pre-fall paradigm” refers to the two covenant heads, Adam and Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). “In Adam” the human race fell; “in Christ” believers participate in a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Again, for me, the issue is the nature of sin. The only two humans who experienced “sin-free” existence are the two covenant heads. Thus, how desperately bad is sin if righteous humans can be tempted by it?

3. What questions about sin arose for you or still linger for you?

Many questions about sin remain. First, is sin a privation/absence only or does it actually come into existence with each thought or action that doesn’t conform to the moral will of God? Also, is the perpetuation of wickedness in society (prejudice, greed, injustice) sin as well? Is culture a projection of the sin of its people or is culture morally neutral? What is the relationship between human sin and an individual’s mental states? How does this influence counseling?

Sydney Page

1. Your chapter “Satan, Sin, and Evil” fills an important gap in books on sin. What myths about Satan do contemporary evangelicals need challenged?

Evangelicals tend to fall into one of two errors when thinking about Satan. Their devil can be too big or too small. On one hand, they can get caught up in a speculative interest in him and so exaggerate his role that they compromise either God’s sovereignty or human responsibility. On the other hand, they can ignore or downplay the biblical teaching about Satan, with the result that they fail to do justice to the cosmic conflict between good and evil and what Christ accomplished through his victory on the cross.

2. How does Satan relate to sin?

Satan’s fall into sin antedates the fall of humankind, and as a fallen being, he seeks to lead others down the path he has chosen. He does not have the power to compel others to sin, but he can and does entice them to do so. The battle with sin is ongoing, and complete freedom from it will be achieved only when the devil receives his final punishment.

3. What aspect of the biblical teaching about sin and Satan did you find most surprising?

I was struck by the subtlety with which Satan operates. For instance, where we might be inclined to detect the activity of the devil behind licentious living, Paul refers to how Satan might take advantage of people who embrace an ascetic lifestyle in 1 Corinthians 7:5. Similarly, a passion for the purity of the church is admirable, but it can degenerate into an unwillingness to forgive, which according to 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Satan can exploit.

Calhoun-David-2002-e1336682520484David Calhoun

1. What are common misconceptions related to temptation?

Since the matter of temptation is constantly facing us, we are “tempted” to think that it is not something that we can do anything about. We just carry on and hope for the best. But the Bible says a lot about temptation, and it behooves us to listen carefully.

2. As you wrote this chapter, what stood out as helpful to your own walk?

I cannot avoid temptation, but I can be prepared for it. I can study the wiles of the devil (Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is a good primer). At the same time I must not so focus on temptation and the devil that I forget my main resource—Christ who dwells within and enables me to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. 3. What questions about sin and temptation arose for you or still linger for you? It is difficult to determine the exact line between temptation and sin. Luther makes the line quite clear, but Calvin brings the two much closer together. We should constantly pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” throughout the experiences of our daily life.

620x400_Bryan-ChappellBryan Chapell

1. How did you come up with the title “Repentance That Sings”?

So often repentance is presented as entailing an attitude of grief. It is certainly that, but not completely that. There is no repentance where there is no grief for sin, but when repentance is complete, the heart is unburdened, released and made joyful. Repentance certainly involved conviction of sin, but repentance is not complete until there is convincing of grace. If repentance is only a matter of feeling bad for a sufficient amount of time, then we are depending on our feelings rather than on the atoning work of Christ. If holiness is only defined by somber acknowledgement of our lowliness and filth, then we actually deny the efficacy of the blood of Christ.

2. As you wrote this chapter, what stood out as helpful to your own walk?

I often hear “true” repentance described as “turning from sin.” But, if this is the definition of repentance, then it is essentially a work of human effort and merit—we stop being bad and start being good to get God’s grace. The Reformers were more careful in their definition, indicating that repentance is “turning from sin unto God.” This means that repentance is not dependence on our goodness, but a forsaking of all that is in us and a total reliance upon God’s grace. The fruit of repentance is new obedience, but the cause of forgiveness is not our better performance, but God’s unconditional mercy. Repentance is not so much a “doing” as a “depending”; not so much a “reform of behavior” as a “reliance upon mercy.” Repentance defined only by a corrected behavior is actually a fresh descent into pride; repentance defined by total dependence upon God’s grace results in humility and hearts yearning to please him.

3. What questions about sin and grace arose for you or still linger for you?

Since “God’s kindness is meant to lead you repentance” (Rom. 2:4), I am always wondering how to keep that kindness so present and powerful in my own heart (and preaching) that sin loses its allure—and consequently its power—without creating sinful presumption upon the grace of God.

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Praise: Inner Health Made Audible

Oct 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor

C S LewisC. S. Lewis:

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least.

The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read.

The healthy and unaffected man, even if luxuriously brought up and widely experienced in good cookery, could praise a very modest meal: the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all. E

xcept where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.

Nor does it cease to be so when, through lack of skill, the forms of its expression are very uncouth or even ridiculous. Heaven knows, many poems of praise addressed to an earthly beloved are as bad as our bad hymns, and an anthology of love poems for public and perpetual use would probably be as sore a trial to literary taste as Hymns Ancient and Modern.

I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (orig., 1958; 1986), 94-95.

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7 Responses to the Strategy of Church Silence during Ethical Confusion

Oct 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor


Andrew Wilson:

I’ve heard rumours of a silent trend beginning to take hold in some city churches in the UK and the US. I don’t just mean a trend that takes hold silently; presumably most trends do that. I mean a trend towards silence: a decision not to speak out on issues that are considered too sticky, controversial, divisive, culturally loaded, entangled, ethically complex, personally upsetting, emotive, likely to be reported on by the Guardian or the New York Times, uncharted, inflammatory, difficult, or containing traces of gluten. Since I do not attend a city church, but am a proud member of the backward bungalow bumpkin brigade, this is coming to me second hand, and it may turn out to be a storm in the proverbial teacup, or even (for all I know) entirely fictional. But let’s imagine that there were such things as well-written booklets which had been discontinued simply because they were about sexuality, and leaders who were avoiding making any public comments at all on controversial ethical issues, or churches whose lectionaries or sermon serieses were systematically avoiding passages which addressed pressing contemporary questions, presumably in the name of being winsome or wise or likeable or culturally sensitive, because of the number of Influencers and Powerful People in the area. Without knowing any of the behind-the-scenes discussions that had taken place – all well-intentioned, I’m sure—what would I say then?

Wilson outlines his response in seven steps:

  1. Winsomeness is a good servant and a terrible master.
  2. Likeability stops at the water’s edge.
  3. Pastors are to proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the parts that won’t cause any fluttering in the Fleet Street dovecotes.
  4. Ducking difficult ethical questions leaves churches in confusion when they most need clarity.
  5. Ethical confusion makes church discipline much, much harder.
  6. Silence unwittingly reinforces the dominant cultural narrative.
  7. Those of us who instinctively cheer when we read the previous six points are probably in the greatest need of hearing what the advocates of silence have to say.

You can read his explanation of each point here.

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I Wish I Had Held Her Hand More

Oct 07, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Old-hands-holding (1)

R. C. Sproul Jr., reflecting on his deepest regret: that he did not hold his wife’s hand more when she was alive:

It’s not, of course, that I never held her hand. It is likely, however, that I didn’t as often as she would have liked.

Holding her hand communicates to her in a simple yet profound way that we are connected.

Taking her hand tells her, “I am grateful that we are one flesh.”

Taking her hand tells me, “This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”

It is a liturgy, an ordinary habit of remembrance to see more clearly the extraordinary reality of two being made one.

It would have, even in the midst of a disagreement, or moments of struggle, communicated, “We’re going to go through this together. I will not let go.”

It would have also reminded us both of that secret but happy truth we kept from each other, that hidden reality that is equal parts embarrassment and giddy joy: that we’re just kids. Bearing children, feeding mortgages, facing adult sized hardships never really changes what we are inside. Holding her hand was like skipping through the park. Holding her hand was winking at her, as if to say, “I know you’re just a kid too. Let’s be friends.”

On the other hand, holding her hand more would have communicated to us both my own calling to lead her, and our home.

Hand holding is a way to say both, “You are safe with me” and “Follow me into the adventure.”

It would have reminded me that there is no abdicating, no shirking, no flinching in the face of responsibility. And as I lead it would be a constant anchor, a reminder that I lead not for my sake, but for hers.

Holding her hand more also would have spoken with clarity to the watching world. It would have said, “There’s a man who loves his wife.” It saddens me that so many only learn this after their wife is gone.

Perhaps most of all, however, I wish I had held her hand more so that I could still feel it more clearly.

I wish it had been such a constant habit that even now my hand would form into a hand holding shape each time I get in the car.

I wish I could fall asleep feeling her hand in mine.

I know all this, happily, because I did hold her hand. I received all the blessings I describe above. I just wish I had received them more. It cost nothing, and bears dividends even to this day. If, for you, it’s not too late, make the investment. Hold her hand, every chance you get. You won’t regret it.

You can read the whole thing here.

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The Shyness of C. S. Lewis in Speaking of His Longing for the Far-Off Country

Oct 06, 2014 | Justin Taylor

From C. S. Lewis’s beautiful sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” first preached in the [Oxford] University Church of St Mary the Virgin on June 8, 1941. It was published in Theology 43 (November 1941): 263-74, and then in 1949 by Macmillan in New York as The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses.

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.

Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, forever and ever.

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Making Team Secularism Look Bad by Comparison

Oct 03, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Ross Douthat writes about Brian Palmer’s piece in Slate, which

passively-aggressively complains about the fact that so many of the doctors fighting Ebola on the ground in Africa are …Christians … and worse still, Christian missionaries … and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but actually maybe there issomething wrong with that (“I’m not altogether proud of this bias—I’m just trying to be honest”), or at least Palmer wants us to know that he’s a little troubled by its implications (“some missionaries are incapable of separating their religious work from their medical work … I suspect that many others have the same visceral discomfort with the mingling of religion and health care …“) even as, broad-minded guy that he is, he concedes that “until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa,” the missionaries may deserve our grudging support.

Douthat offers his reaction:

The first time I read the piece, I was filled with a stuttering sort of rage, but reading it again it doesn’t actually merit that kind of click-bait outrage. Palmer seems less hostile to Christian missionaries and their work than he is confused by what they’re doing: He clearly has a set of ideological frames through which he sees the world, a set of assumptions (the separation of medicine and religion should be absolute, proselytization is wicked/backward/ignorant, helping people is what governments and secular groups are supposed to do) that simply don’t fit with what’s happening on the ground in Africa and who’s actually there, which in turns leaves him both unsettled and subtly resentful at all these Christian missionary doctors for unsettling him.

Palmer’s secular and scientistic worldview, of course, is not the worldview of the classical world, which was far more inegalitarian and cruel than the still-Christian-influenced secular humanism of our own era. But there is still a parallel, at once amusing and illuminating, between his tone in the Slate piece and the tone of some of the surviving comments on Christianity from Roman authorities, which so often married incomprehension, hostility and (eventually) resentment at being, well, shown up by these strange cultists and their zeal. In particular, there’s a little bit of Pliny the younger in Palmer’s essay — the 2nd-century governor of Pontus writing in bureaucratic bafflement to his emperor (in a tone that W.H. Auden borrowed, I suspect, for his King Herod in “For The Time Being”) — and a whole lot of Julian the Apostate, the 4th century emperor who tried and failed to restore paganism, and whose letters include various complaints about how “all men see that our people lack aid” from pagan sources, even as ”the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well.” 

Adapted to a globalized and (somewhat) more secularized age, that feels like Palmer’s real complaint: Not that the missionaries are necessarily doing something wrong (he won’t actually come out and say that), but that they’re doing something right in a way that makes his team, Team Secularism, look somewhat less impressive by comparison. Which isn’t really a reaction that Christians should be offended by. It’s one that should be welcomed, worn as a badge of honor, and joyfully provoked.

You can read the whole thing here.

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The Promise of a Horse and Buggy and the Fulfillment of an Automobile: G.K. Beale’s Illustration on OT Prophecy

Oct 02, 2014 | Justin Taylor

G.K. Beale, writing in The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Apollos/IVP, 2004), argues that “We should want to follow an interpretive method that aims to unravel the original intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities…” This means that “the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfilment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant” (p. 289).

To illustrate this, Beale asks us to imagine a father in the year 1900 promising his young son a horse and buggy when he grows up and marries:

During the early years of expectation, the son reflects on the particular size of the buggy, its contours and style, its beautiful leather seat and the size and breed of horse that would draw the buggy.

Perhaps the father had knowledge from early experimentation elsewhere that the invention of the automobile was on the horizon, but coined the promise to his son in terms that his son would understand.

Years later, when the son marries, the father gives the couple an automobile, which has since been invented and mass-produced.

Is the son disappointed in receiving a car instead of a horse and buggy?

Is this not a ‘literal’ fulfillment of the promise?

In fact, the essence of the father’s word has remained the same: a convenient mode of transportation.

What has changed is the precise form of transportation promised. The progress of technology has escalated the fulfillment of the pledge in a way that could not have been conceived of when the son was young. Nevertheless, in the light of the later development of technology, the promise is viewed as ‘literally’ and faithfully carried out in a greater way than earlier apprehended.”  (352-53)

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How We Know for Certain That We Are Currently Living in “The Last Days”

Oct 01, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The New Testament distinguishes between

  • “the last day” (that is, the coming day of salvation and wrath; see 1 Thess. 5:1-11) and
  • the “last days” (the period of time we are now in, between Christ’s death/resurrection/ascension and his second appearing).

In addition to “last days,” this present-day category can also be called “the last time/s” (Jude 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:20) or “the last hour” (1 John 2:18).

So when asked if you think we are living in the last days, you can assure the questioner that we are: we are living in between the two comings of Christ. But we do not know—indeed, cannot know—the day or the hour of the last day itself (cf. Matt. 24:36).

You can see the references for last days/times/hour below:

“Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)

“He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you. . . .” (1 Pet. 1:20)

“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11)

“But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Heb. 1:2)

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” (2 Tim. 3:1)

“In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” (Jude 1:18)

“. . . scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” (2 Pet. 3:3)

“Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.” (James 5:3)

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)

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