Friday, December 28, 2007

One way I agree with the Federal Vision proponents

One of the controversies brewing in the ranks of the PCA is concerning a theological perspective now known as "Federal Vision". Many will be aware that the PCA's General Assembly appointed a study committee in 2006 to examine Federal Vision theology, and that committee returned in 2007 with their report which was received by the Assembly (though not without some controversy).

This issue is an incredibly difficult one to understand; this is partly because, until very recently, there has not been any clear statement of exactly what it means to adhere to a Federal Vision position-- and, in some people's view, the study committee report mentioned above did not solve this problem, because there were no members of the committee that actually held the position. Others claimed that the committee's report made equivocations between the Federal Vision and other controversial perspectives that are not necessarily associated with Federal Vision. Our own Covenant Presbytery recently bumped into this as an ordained PCA Pastor, in good standing with another presbytery, met significant resistance to his transfer into Covenant Presbytery because of his sympathy toward paedocommunion (offering the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to any baptized child of any age); there seemed to be some concern among a few members of presbytery that his sympathy toward the one (Paedocommunion) automatically cast him in the category of the other (Federal Vision sympathizers). (Thankfully, there has been a document released, called "A Joint Federal Vision Statement," that summarizes their perspective.)

But I digress. In a recent dialogue with others on the blog that a friend of mine writes, I learned a good deal about the structure of the arguments that the Federal Vision (or FV) proponents bring to the table. What I believe many do not realize is that they actually make TWO arguments:

First, they assert that the Westminster Confession of Faith, as helpful as it is, does not offer exhaustive definitions for the terms that it uses to categorize theological concepts. In other words, just as there are often several ways (or definitions) that a word may be used, though we only mean one of those at any particular moment-- so it is with theological terms. They claim that the Bible itself makes use of many terms in broader ways than the Westminster Confession does; thus, they say, the terminology of the Confession is useful, but it isn't exhaustive or comprehensive.

Second, they stipulate that there are other uses for certain terms, and that these other uses could (and, if they are correct, should) change the way that we understand things like church membership, practices of the sacraments, and even how we judge whether someone is justified before Christ.

It is the second argument that has gotten all of the press and attention-- but the first argument has mostly been ignored! This has led to inevitable confusion, because without the first argument then the FV proponents appear to be making all sorts of logical errors and fallacies (when, in fact, they are not).

As far as I have read and learned, I cannot agree with the FV positions on the second argument. However, as far as the first argument goes, I wholeheartedly agree. I love the Westminster Confession, and agree with it almost completely (and Covenant Presbytery has indicated that the ways that I disagree are not even substantial enough to be considered exceptions). But I do not believe it is a sufficient and comprehensive measure of truth; in fact, the Confession itself claims that it is not so. We need the Bible for many reasons-- and one of them is that it presents us with a richer, fuller sense of what theological concepts mean than what any systematic theology can offer.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wildlife Watch, 12/27/07

As I was walking out to the mailbox, about half-way up the sidewalk, a large doe jumped out of the thicket behind the big oak. She stopped and I stopped. We stood there, looking at each other, for a few minutes-- then she jumped off into the woods without looking back. She showed no signs of fear or alert-- I guess the HWPC grounds truly are a sanctuary!

I also saw a grey fox cross the field out back.

Theological worldview quiz

I took a quiz today on "what is your theological worldview?" I'd be interested to know: how did you score on this quiz? If you would, take the quiz and list the top three, including percentages. Thanks!

The results, for me at least, are not very surprising:

What's your theological worldview?
created with
You scored as Reformed Evangelical

You are a Reformed Evangelical. You take the Bible very seriously because it is God's Word. You most likely hold to TULIP and are sceptical about the possibilities of universal atonement or resistible grace. The most important thing the Church can do is make sure people hear how they can go to heaven when they die.

Reformed Evangelical




Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic




Classical Liberal




Modern Liberal


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wildlife Watch, 12/26/07

I literally just watched six does playing tag in the field behind the church. It was quite a sight.

Merry Christmastide

Merry Christmastide!

What is Christmastide, perhaps you are wondering? In most protestant churches, we tend to ignore the "seasons" of the church that have historically been set apart as the flow of the calendar for Christians, but in some Christian churches (protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic alike) a liturgical calendar guides how the different seasons of the Christian year are distinguished. Christmastide is the brief season from Christmas Day to January 5.

Also called Yuletide or simply the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmastide marks the season during which the church has historically reflected on the significance of the incarnation. If Advent is a season of anticipation, then Christmastide is a season of fulfillment and a beginning awareness of what that fulfillment means.

Christmastide includes consideration of the various early events of Christ's life, including visitation from the shepherds, the visitation and gifts of the Magi, and the circumcision of Jesus. It ends on what has traditionally been called Twelfth Night, which is the eve of the day of Epiphany (which is sometimes called Three Kings' Day). Just as Advent is a season that culminates with Christmas Eve, Christmastide also culminates with the eve of the next season.

I think it is very helpful to observe the seasons, rather than simply celebrating the days and having a gap of time in between. For me, all that happens in anticipation of Advent is more than I want to contemplate all at once, so I'm thankful for a season of four weeks or so to consider it. Likewise, the significance of the incarnation is more than I want to try to think through on just one day (Christmas Day), so I appreciate having a season for reflection on that.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Electability and the 2008 Presidential race

We're a long way from the 2008 presidential election-- indeed, we're still a good ways off from many primaries. Right now, it's anyone's guess who will emerge as the final set of candidates a little under a year from now. Based on the way things appear now, I wouldn't be surprised if something like Montgomery Brewster's "None of the Above" campaign could gain some serious momentum over the next 11 months.

That said, here's an early read on the status of the current leaders. [Disclaimer: This is IN NO WAY an endorsement of any candidate, personally or as an organization. I certainly do NOT speak on behalf of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church in this assessment, and even personally this is not a claim of how I will vote or even my inclinations. This is merely an assessment of how I see the race taking shape.]

The candidate that will win the 2008 election must find a way to appeal to the all-important middle-ground moderates-- a growing segment of our population. At the same time, they must strike certain chords with either politically conservative or progressive voters on certain issues; ideally, the candidate would be able to appeal to both extremes on some issues. I think it's safe to say that no Americans (or at least, very few) want to see the country divided as strongly as the 2000 Bush vs. Gore race.

Right now, the front-runners of the Democratic Party-- Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and John Edwards-- are not leaning enough toward the center to woo as many moderates as they will eventually need to court. This is probably because they are (smartly) thinking primarily about the next vote only: they realize that they must win the nomination of their party in order to move ahead. (I recall hearing President Bill Clinton making this argument at some point-- maybe on David Letterman?)

But many voters from all points on the political spectrum are paying attention to both sides. Perhaps more than ever, the claims made during Primary campaigns will matter throughout the general election. Thus, any of these Democratic front-runners are in danger of marginalizing themselves with general election voters, or appearing to waffle on important issues down the line.

On the Republican side, many of the candidates are doing the same thing, in a slightly different way: some are following the same path and skewing too far to the right for a lot of moderates (I think Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson fit this category), while others (Rudy Giuliani and John McCain?) have moved to the middle so much that they have made a lot of the "far-right" conservatives uncomfortable.

Mike Huckabee, however, seems to have found a bit of balance here: he resonates with the conservatives on a handful of key issues, but appeals to moderates (and even some of the more "liberal" voters) on others.

Huckabee still has a long way to go. If he continues to succeed in his campaign, however, it may prove interesting to see if my read on this is accurate. Back in 2000, I thought a really interesting race would have been John McCain vs. Bill Bradley-- both were moderate enough to pose a significant "threat" to the other in the middle-ground. Will we see the same thing this year? Maybe Mike Huckabee vs. Bill Richardson...

Keep in mind, I'm not talking who should win, but who could. Often, "should" and "could" are different, at least in politics. Why? Because "should" is inherently subjective; my idea of "should" is inevitably different from yours. So the only way that "should" will win (or become "could") is if enough people generally agree with me (of course, that may mean that "should" doesn't win from your vantage point).

So why does this matter? To begin with, Americans-- and especially Christians-- tend to think far too individualistically about the world, including politics. I've heard too many times from Christians, "if so-and-so is elected President, I'm moving to Canada." Why is that? Aside from the fact that these Christians may not like Canada's leadership any more than the U.S.'s, perhaps they need to ask why they believe the election is all about them.

In fact, elections aren't about anyone in particular-- they are about all of us together. Sometimes what is best for a community is not what is necessarily best for any particular individual member of that community. So it is with a nation, as well. I'm all for contributing to the costs of paving roads I'll never use, and police and fire services I hope I won't have to use, because those roads, policemen, and fire fighters keep other people safe. And I need to realize that the best man-- or woman-- for President of the United States may not be the one among all candidates who will "benefit" me the most.

So "could" matters, even if the pundits tell us that we shouldn't vote based on electability. Rather than a "take my marbles and go home" attitude, Christians should lead the charge in supporting electable candidates who are good for the nation, state, and local community-- even if their worldviews differ somewhat from ours.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wildlife Watch, 12/19/07

I saw a doe this morning. It was sort of cheating on my wildlife log, because it was just inside the edge of the woods as I was walking out. I've started being extra-quiet as I leave, so that I don't spook any critters that are about, and I was able to watch her walk for a few minutes as I walked down the sidewalk.

How Christians view marriage, part 1

...Protestants traditionally have interpreted marriage as a necessary way to quell the temptations of the flesh or as a natural union that will be dissolved in the afterlife...

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, in "A Mormon President? The LDS Difference" from The Christian Century, August 21, 2007.

While I'll admit that this statement is not intended to be comprehensive-- and, in context, emphasizes an important difference between Protestant Christian views on marriage from Mormon views-- I would argue that Ms. Maffly-Kipp misses much of the core meaning of marriage for Christians, and thus misrepresents marriage entirely.

The view espoused by Ms. Maffly-Kipp is taken primarily from a single verse, 1 Corinthians 7:9, wherein Paul is discussing how unmarried and widowed believers should approach singleness. Paul says, simply, that for the service of the Lord it is better to remain single (v.8)-- this removes the divided focus of attention that marriage and family inevitably brings. Paul says, though, that if self-control is an issue (and here he means, subtly, sexual control) then they should marry, for it is "better to marry than to burn with passion."

Thus, one can argue that the above claim about the Protestant view of marriage is biblical. Why do I claim it to be inaccurate?

If for no other reason, than this is a chief concern: we should be very cautious (as in, I'll stop just short of saying "never do it") about deriving doctrines and positions from single verses. One of the key principles to understanding the Bible that we should all regularly employ is to let Scripture interpret Scripture-- in other words, the Bible, collectively and in context of itself, will instruct us on how to understand the meaning of texts.

In this case, one could argue that 1 Timothy 5:11 supports this claim of doctrine or position-- thus letting Scripture interpret Scripture. But in the whole context of the New Testament (and, indeed, the whole Bible) a much bigger and fuller sense of how and why Christians should marry emerges. In fact, a more comprehensive-- and I would say healthier-- view of sex emerges, as well.

Perhaps that's what bothers me the most about this quote: it seems to take a fairly cynical view of both sex and marriage, neither of which are portrayed in the Bible as the sort of annoyances that Ms. Maffly-Kipp seems to imply.

In a future post, I'll work through what I see as the "fuller sense" of how the Bible portrays marriage. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wildlife Watch, 12/17/07

Six does this afternoon. You might think that all six were moving together-- but you would be mistaken. They met up for a little mid-field frolicking, then the pair (maybe a mother/daughter pair?) that move together went their way while the others went theirs.

I've been watching these groups of does all fall-- the larger group was a group of five; I wonder if one met an early end. All of them are fairly young and pretty small, though there is one doe that is much bigger than the rest.

Every now and then, the bucks that hanker after them show up-- but these bucks are quite young, too; you can tell by the spread of their antlers they aren't but a year or so old. One buck, though, will be huge when he matures: his antlers are very narrow, but he's already a six-point.

Haiku #6 (Advent Haiku #2)

The Incarnation
an amazing and awesome
truth for God's people

Friday, December 14, 2007

Internet communities article

I've always been fascinated with technology, and over time I've developed a lot of thoughts and ideas about how faith and technology collide. A few of these thoughts made their way into an article that I recently wrote for ByFaith magazine, which ended up being called, "Looking for Love in a Few Wrong Places". That article, which focuses particularly on how technology and the Internet allow communities to be built in new ways, is now available on the ByFaith website, in case you're interested.

By the way, if you don't already subscribe to ByFaith, I would highly recommend it (and not just because I write for them)-- it is a good magazine that offers a helpful look at many diverse topics.

Code, ambiguity, and understanding each other

Yesterday, Marcie and I were planning to do some Christmas shopping after we drove the kids to school. Out of the blue, she said to me, "do you think that store would have that thing?"


We smiled and laughed, and eventually she gave me enough hints to decipher what she meant.

But it got me to thinking: a lot of times, one of us (in the church) will say something we think is entirely clear, and it will come across to others like Marcie's statement did for me. It's way too easy for misunderstandings to occur, and we need to be willing to give the benefit of the doubt in times like that-- and quickly work toward understanding.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wildlife Watch, 12/12/07

Lou and I saw a red fox this morning, with a very bushy tail.

I also saw two does.

Hobbes lives at our house

If you've been around our son Jack for long, you probably know that he dearly loves his stuffed dog, appropriately named Puppy Dog (often just "Puppy" or "Pup"). He also has a number of other dogs (depending on the context of his life, these other dogs take on various functions: baby puppies for Puppy Dog, rescue dogs of all sorts-- police, fire, etc., or just a crowd of companions to have along, his own personal entourage). But Puppy is the special one. He loves Puppy Dog with a true Velveteen Rabbit love. If you've ever seen the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, then you have a sense of how special and alive Puppy is for Jack.

A couple of days ago Jack commented that one of his dogs had knocked him over! This was hard to dispute-- he was literally picking himself up off the floor as he said so. Marcie and I laughed, and commented again about how prescient the Calvin and Hobbes comic was. Surely, Watterson had a boy like Jack.

That reminded me of the first time I made this connection. A couple of years ago (Jack was probably barely 3 years old), I was watching football, and for the first time Jack took enough interest to ask what they were doing. As I explained a very basic version of the game to Jack, I mentioned tackling, and he said, "Daddy, what is tackling?" I told him what tackling was, and he said, "Puppy does that to me all the time, and I DON'T LIKE IT!"

We're so thankful for Puppy Dog-- Jack's life (and ours) would be a little less without her.

Kate Snodgrass

Marcie has mentioned Kate Snodgrass to many of you; Kate is someone we know from a St. Louis church where we were members. She has been battling cancer for some time now, and she has chronicled her struggles (and the lessons God has taught her through them) on a blog.

If you're interested, you may read Kate's blog at this link.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Haiku #5

Tom turkeys flapping,
strutting, showing off for the
hens ignoring them

Wildlife Watch, 12/10/07

One of the "perks" of my job as Pastor of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church is the view I have from my office window. I often get to watch wildlife eating, playing, or just moving around in the field behind the church property. I rarely tire of taking this in, and I keep a pair of binoculars by my desk to facilitate.

I want to keep a log of what I see, mostly for me-- though some of you might find it interesting too. So I'll keep my log on this blog. Here's the list for today:

16 wild turkeys, including 3 really big toms, 4 jakes, and 9 hens!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Stem cells and life issues

One of the issues that has confused Christians for nearly a decade is that of stem cell research. While many of us have heard the claims that "stem cell research will cure the world's diseases and afflictions," these claims are sometimes challenged, often unsubstantiated. And just as the issue was moving to the fore of public interest, the 9/11 terrorist attacks (rightly) took our attention off of it.

What is going on with the stem cell question? Proponents have long argued, as I mentioned before, that the key to solving a great many medical problems may lie in investing in stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research. In fact, they have maintained that only embryonic stem cells offer the possibilities that medical science hopes for. Opponents claim that, in the case of embryonic stem cells, there is a moral/ethical sticky wicket involved: in order to obtain these cells for research, a human embryo must be destroyed. Since many believe that human life begins at conception, this means that, a human life must be taken in order to perform the research. This was the state of the debate 6 years ago, and for a long time there was little change in this impasse. Immediately prior to 9/11, President Bush issued an executive order substantially limiting stem cell research, and that further ceased any progress in the discussion.

Fast-forward to June of this year: a bill (one of a series) was passed by Congress to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research, and President Bush vetoed it. At that time, he put forth the argument that he (and many other opponents) have offered before: there are other, better sources for stem cells than living human embryos, and these offer as much possibility as any embryonic cells do. While many proponents snickered or jeered at Bush's dogmatic take on the research, a few scientists (specifically in Kyoto, Japan and Madison, Wisconsin) plodded ahead with just such an effort.

This fall, they announced their success in two medical journals (Cell and Science): they had succeeded in creating human stem cells ("pluripotent" ones-- meaning they have the potential to take many forms) from existing human skin cells. What is more, because these stem cells are created from a human's own cells, they theoretically offer better potential at organ replacement, for example, because of a lesser likelihood that the organs will be rejected. And this obviously removes the ethical concern, as no embryos are required for this process. They declared their discovery an "ethical and political win-win."

This advance, however, is not welcome news to the ears of everyone interested in this medical technology. It turns out that other implications have emerged from this research, as well: stem cell research may not be the promising cure-all that many hoped it to be. Instead, it may simply contribute to the study and advance of existing cures for diseases, rather than offering exciting and near-miraculous new approaches to curing things like paralysis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or heart failure.

Many still claim that embryonic stem cells still offer this promise. Yet the truth is starting to come out: as Paul Nurse (a medical Nobel winner) said at a stem cell conference, "Creating cell lines for transplant is unlikely to come down the pike any time soon. Opponents recognized that this was an overselling of the technology" (Newsweek, 12/3). Even if the strongest opponents are right about embryonic stem cells, that still leaves the ethical dilemma of the use of embryos for research purposes. Thus, this revelation (about the realistic limits of stem cell research) at best puts us back to the stand-off that has been status quo for the past six years.

Two things need to occur to reasonably advance this issue for Christians and others: first, attentive thought should begin to debunk the myth that "funded stem cell research = cures for all our ills." Until our world begins to understand this more fully, no profitable discussion on the matter can really take place.

Second, however, is the imperative that everyone, even (and especially) Christians, must begin to accept: the bio-ethical issues of the value and sanctity of human life, so core to many Christians' understanding of how we understand things like the abortion issue, needs to be explored more fully. We must not accept a weak, inconsistent application of life-value, but must realize the full extent to which this value applies to our world. It includes (but is not limited to) embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and abortion; but it also includes questions about elder care, certain fertility efforts, and even warfare. From my perspective, we (as a Church) have been careless about thinking through the consistent application of our claims to be "pro-life" in the big-picture sense.

"Where they stand" by Richard Ostling, in World magazine, December 15, 2007 issue.
"Reality Check on an Embryonic Debate" by Sharon Begley, in Newsweek magazine, December 3, 2007 issue.
"Scientists Produce Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin" by Joe Palca, on All Things Considered, November 20, 2007 episode.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Food for the hungry

My friend Megan posted a challenging post on her blog a few days ago. It turns out that Megan read an interesting article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the struggles that many food banks and food pantries face around this time of year: they simply run out of food, and are forced to limit their services or close doors altogether.

The article points to the unexpected downside of our technological advances: the accuracy of inventory systems in grocery stores means that stores seldom over-purchase, and food packagers don't over-produce, in the quantities that they used to. The net result is that food banks and food pantries don't have the supply of food from the grocery stores and food packagers that they used to. As a result, they run out of inventory themselves.

Megan asks a hard question: what is their personal family responsibility for this problem? I love this question, as it reveals Megan's faith as real and practicable. I also love it because it forces me to consider this for myself, and my family.

In her post, Megan invites interaction about this subject, and I wanted to bring that discussion here, as well. I've also invited my friend Russell Smith to join the conversation. I'd like to work together toward some real answers to this problem-- something that we (as a community) can put into practice on a regular basis.

What do you think? We have a food pantry right here, through Fayette Cares-- my guess is that they are facing the same struggle. How can we answer? What should our personal responsibility in this problem be?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts on the Golden Compass

Philip Pullman's fantasy novel, The Golden Compass, has been made into a movie and is slated for release this weekend. This movie has created all sorts of hubbub in the Church, mainly because Pullman has been quite candid about his opposition to Christianity and to organized religion in general, and his novels (The Golden Compass is the first novel in the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials) are sort of the anti-Christian answer to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. The backlash from this movie so far seems to point to the potential for it to be the next Da Vinci Code in terms of the Church's response to it.
It's a reasonable question to ask: how should Christians handle this movie (and others like it)? I'm sensitive to the need for better understanding on this, and I'd love to provide a comprehensive guide to understanding The Golden Compass from a Christian perspective.
The problem is, I haven't read the books, nor have I seen the movie. I'm not certain I will, either-- fantasy is not usually my genre of choice. So instead, I'd like to point you toward those who are familiar with these, and encourage you to benefit from them.

  • My old friend Russell Smith, a pastor in Cincinnati, Ohio, has also blogged about the movie in a post entitled, "Why is the Golden Compass a big deal?" Russell offers brief but solid advice for how to think about this film and the lack of good NEW stories being told by Christians.

  • Dave Burchett writes thoughtfully about many things, and I appreciate his perspective on why this movie shouldn't be a big deal. His post, "Christians Shouldn't Lose Their Bearings Over a Golden Compass" (which gets extra marks for a clever title) is a great effort to disarm the threat, and also a call to more cultural engagement.

  • Those who want to understand the underpinnings of the story, and how Pullman is both an excellent writer and an effective apologist AGAINST the Church, need go no further than Mars Hill Audio. The most recent edition of Mars Hill Audio's Audition podcast is a very informative conversation with literary critic Alan Jacobs about Pullman's writing and stories. It will serve not only as a helpful orientation to Pullman's fantasy world, but also helpful advice about understanding the story without getting sucked into its worldview.

I'm grateful to these men and the resources they provide. I hope you, too, will approach this movie (and other cultural artifacts like it) thoughtfully and willing to engage culture, and not run in fear from culture.

Faith and Anxiety (and other emotional struggles)

Faith and anxiety are not absolutes. That is, if you experience one, you do not eliminate the other. Faith can keep company with many sets of ordinary feelings that can be handled and lived with but never removed. Those who insist on a "pure faith" unstained by human emotionality make the denial of reality a condition of faith. But the encouragement of the Scripture is to "take heart," not take cover. We take heart because we believe that human life in its totality becomes enormously fruitful in the hands of God through the power of God's gracious promises.

Peter L. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Haiku #4 (Advent Haiku)

Anticipate Christmas
God descended from heaven
to be our Savior

Monday, December 3, 2007

Why amen?

Why do we say, "amen?" We read it in the Bible. We say it when we pray privately, and when we pray together. We find it many times in our worship service. It used to be common to end every hymn with a sung "amen." Some might even be inspired to shout it in response to part of the sermon! What does this mean?

Literally, the word "amen" means "truly" or "verily." When we say this in response to something someone else has said, it means, "I fully agree" or even, "may it be for me as he has said." It is as if someone has issued a statement and we are, so to speak, signing our name to the bottom to demonstrate our agreement.

Interestingly, Amen is more appropriate as a response by others than as simply a conclusion by the one speaking. If someone is praying, we might agree with them in prayer by saying, "amen" when they have concluded (or even during their prayer, in a subtle and quiet way). If someone proclaims a needed or particularly poignant word in preaching, someone might call out, "amen!" to show their embrace of that word. It is an act of participation. This is why those leading a group in prayer might conclude with an invitation to the group to say, "amen" by saying, "and all of God's people said..."