Saturday, July 13, 2013

Kingdom Patience

In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a little story:

He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4:26-29)

This little story reveals some important truths about the nature of the Christian life.  In a reflection of the Sabbath rhythm of night and day, sleep and work, this order suggests that the first thing we do after scattering seed is to go to bed.  That emphasizes that the one who really causes the growth is God.  There is nothing we can do to make a harvest come except to faithfully plant and cultivate, then wait for the miracle of growth. 

Sometimes it’s hard to wait for the kingdom to grow.  It seems it should be more obvious, more overwhelming.  We want more of the kingdom now.  But God has chosen to plant his kingdom like a seed—present and growing, but still just in process.  The full glory of the kingdom is yet to come, and so we wait with hope, and sometimes with impatience. 

May the Lord give us faith when what he is doing is hidden to our eyes in these complicated times.  May he help us to live as citizens of the kingdom, rejoicing in the small growth even as we look for the crop that is to come. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Our Opportunity: Living for Christ Here and Now

There’s a creative tension in the Christian life.  The tension is to live in the world and for the world without being defined by the world, but rather by Jesus Christ and his Word.  We can swing to different extremes; if we’re too optimistic about the world, we allow ourselves to be pushed into its mold and we lose our Christian identity.  That is happening to many people in churches today.  They can no longer perceive that which is distinctive about the Christian world view.  But if we grow too pessimistic about the world, we forget that Jesus is the Savior who loves the world, and that he wants us to share in his mission to it.

There is no lack of evidence that our world is dark and lost apart from God who is its Creator and Lord.  We only need contemplate the art, music, media, or politics of our culture; though we find there evidence of the longing for the divine, and even of God's presence, we cannot escape the impression that something is drastically wrong.  We see indications of sin, evil, depravity, and nothingness.  But if we have eyes to see what the Lord is doing in the world, our perspective changes.  All is not lost.  Far from it!  God is saving the world and bringing people into his family through the finished work of Jesus in his death and resurrection and through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. 
God's grace is seen in that he calls us into life, into covenant partnership with him, and in that he gives us an ongoing work to do in the world.  This is our vocation in the place God has put us.  So let us work, create, and invest for the good of the city as we look forward to our work's completion and confirmation in the revealing of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My brother Russell is a writer who has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Japan Times, Moscow Times, South China Morning Post, the Atlantic Monthly, etc.  He also authored books published by University of Notre Dame and Iowa presses, as well as many literary publications. Best of all, he is a thoughtful, engaging, and above all an entertaining writer.  I include his first post for your reading pleasure.

Losing it

6 April
  Last month my wife, son, and I lost nearly all of our books. We were moving back from Southern California to suburban Chicago, and a friend suggested we mail them. The rates were cheap, and shipping them would open up space in our U-Haul box. I had quit a job I hated; money was tight.

We cleared out our apartment in Irvine, carting everything that didn’t matter to the Goodwill: a coffee table, pots and pans, a blender, bags of clothes, cheap Ikea dressers and bookcases that crumbled into sawdust as we dissembled them.

And books. We ruthlessly pared our literature down to eleven large apple boxes’ worth. We kept the Tolstoys (in Russian and English), the Chekhovs, the Rushdis, Michelle Huneven’s Blame, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, our eight-year-old’s astronomy books. I got rid of all those LeCarr├ęs I had read back in the ’80s, and second and third copies of most books. I decided that I would be able to live a full life without having The Unbearable Lightness of Being to illuminate my way.

At the Irvine Post Office a postal clerk scowled as Nonna and I wheeled up our cargo, stacked higher than our heads on a cart. The heaviest was just over seventy pounds. (We would have to take a couple books out before we mailed it.)

I heaved the first box onto the counter. “Heh-heh!” I said. “Looks like you got the short straw!”
Wordlessly the clerk weighed the box and pasted on a sticker. She grabbed it, staggered a few steps, and hurled it with a crash into another cart. I remember thinking I should have taped it up better.
Of the eleven boxes that went out, only one arrived at our condo in Illinois. It contained Russian-language literature and half a set of Great Books of the Western World (Montaigne to Freud) that my dad gave me nearly thirty years ago. Inside the box was a form letter. We learned that the rest of the boxes had broken open in a postal transit center three miles from our home. Ever helpful, the post office then shipped everything to a recovery center in Atlanta...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chocolate Evangelism

Driving up the Central Coast to a meeting today, Evelyne and I espied a bright little chocolate shop. We marched inside, and the young woman behind the counter—the owner—struck up a conversation. She then naturally and warmly segued from talking about her shop into telling the story of the shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one that was lost. She said, “I used to be lost just like that sheep, but the Shepherd found me.” It was a beautiful way to share about Jesus.

I asked how many times a week she gets a chance to do that, and she said, "Usually about three times."

What's the response? "Some say, 'I'm an atheist--I don't want to hear that!' I just ask them their name and silently commit to pray for them. Some are interested and want to hear more. And lots of people break down in tears because they feel lost and can't imagine the Shepherd coming to look for and rescue them."

We bought a couple Easter bunnies, then the shop owner asked if she could pray for us. Her two young children, assistant confectioners, emerged from behind the counter, took our hands in theirs, and bowed their heads for the prayer. When their mother finished they said together “Amen.” The young mother gave us a small paper bag of sample truffles, and sent us on our way smiling.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Night on Barth

One of the ways we keep our faith and ministry fresh is to keep growing intellectually. It is worth our time to become acquainted with the best thinkers in the Christian tradition. I challenge you to take a thinker, not necessarily a contemporary voice but one tested by time, and get to know him or her through their writing. One way to do this is to see who has influenced those who in turn influence others.

One such writer is Karl Barth, the Swiss pastor and theologian, who lived from 1886 to 1968, one of the giants of Christian theology. Certainly he ranks among the great theologians of the modern era, and perhaps of the whole Christian tradition; Pope Pius XII maintained he was the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). His magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, stretches to 9000 pages broken into 14 volumes, written over 35 years. With a relentless Christ-centered focus, it addresses the Word of God and the doctrines of God, Creation, and Reconciliation. His purpose was “to take all that has been said before and to think it through once more and freshly to articulate it anew as a theology of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”

For Barth, everything “works from Christ outward” in that what we can know of God is only possible in the revelation of God in Christ. Scripture as the Word of God bears witness to Christ, both in the Old Testament (in anticipation) and in the New Testament (in fulfillment or recollection). Ethics and theology, he insisted, cannot be separated.

This latter idea would take on special importance as Barth taught in Germany during the time of the Third Reich. Barth took a leadership role within the resistance Confessing Church movement, which opposed Nazism and the official “German Church.” Because of his resistance he was stripped of his professorship at Bonn University and forced to flee the country in 1935.

Barth would repudiate the ideas of his earlier liberal colleagues and insist on an evangelical or Word-centered theology that made its way through the errors of both modernist or liberal Protestantism on one hand, and Roman Catholicism, which elevated tradition and the authority of the church above that of Scripture, on the other. Barth maintained that the Word of God finds expression in three-fold form as the Word preached, written, and revealed (in Christ). His work continues to nurture scholars and preachers alike.

Come join us as we consider Barth, focusing on the message of his concise manual of faith and doctrine, Dogmatics in Outline. This is a friendly and accessible introduction to a Christian thinker of major importance who will stretch your own thinking.

Working on Faith: Great Books That Everyone Should Read
with Dr. Randy Working

"An evening with Karl Barth"

Thursday, March 15, 2012 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.

At The Bookstore, 1137 N H St # Q (behind Carrow's Restaurant)


Refreshments will be served and Barth's books available for purchase

Dr. Working is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lompoc and the author of From Rebellion to Redemption (NavPress) and Breaking Free: A Devotional Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Reformation Press, 2012). Dr. Working has taught at Westmont College, Seattle Pacific University, and Ashland Theological Seminary. He holds a BA from Whitworth University, an MFA from University of Washington, and MDiv, DMin, and PhD (ABD) degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Come for a warm evening of stimulating conversation on ideas that matter. Bring a friend!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Good Books on the Christian Life

A friend recently asked if I had any suggestions of books for a personal project of hers. She is embarking on a year of study and reflection about being formed in the character of Christ, and intends to focus for a dedicated period of time on a different subject. The works are both old and new, from various perspectives but mostly Reformed. I thought it was a great idea, and I share it for your own discipline of reflection upon Christian wisdom. What would your list include?

Meditating on Scripture: Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

Criticism/Encouragement: Leroy Koopman, Beauty Care for the Tongue

Gentleness: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Anxiety: Jennifer Carter, Daily Readings for Difficult Days: Daily Devotions for Christian Women Going Through Difficult Times

Trust: Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections

Gossip: Os Guinness, Steering through Chaos: Vice and Virtue in an Age of Moral Confusion, and When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image

Delighting in children: Gary Thomas, Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls

Loving a spouse
: Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life; Bryan and Kathy Chapell, Each for the Other: Marriage as It’s Meant to Be.

Complaining: Kris Lungaard, The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin

Gratitude: Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace

Prayer: Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Resting, Embracing, Feasting
Joy; Shane Clairborne, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

Speaking truth: Mark Roberts, Dare to Be True: Living in the Freedom of Complete Honesty

Contentment: Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewell of Christian Contentment; Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life

Speech: J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness: Taking every thought captive to Christ; James Edwards, Is Jesus The Only Savior?; C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Let's Talk About Narnia

Celebrating our wedding anniversary in Peru

Happy New Year!

This has been a year of challenge, change, and great blessing. In 2011 we made trips to Peru (teaching), Washington, D.C. (Theology Matters board meeting), and to the Swiss Consulate in Chicago (passport renewal). The year also included a drive across the country, taking in bison, Black Hills, my mother’s birthplace, and a lovely visit with friends at First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue on the way.

In the past couple years I’ve been in Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Maine, Georgia, West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Indiana, Illinois, Utah, Arizona, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and California, as well as Switzerland, France, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Peru. Take it back a couple more years, and the list includes Israel, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Spain, and Mexico.

A great way to travel without ever leaving home is to immerse yourself into a new imaginative realm through reading. In C. S. Lewis’ children’s stories The Chronicles of Narnia, four schoolchildren leave the dreariness of wartime England for adventures in a magical land where a white witch rules and animals talk. Countless millions of children have lost themselves in the geography of the mind through this enduring literature.

I’m currently settling into a new job as pastor of a wonderful congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Lompoc in Santa Barbara Presbytery. In you’re in the area, come join us tomorrow evening. We'll trace themes of creation, fall, and redemption in the Narnia tales. Here’s the invitation:

Working on Faith: Great Books That Everyone Should Read
with Dr. Randy Working

"An evening with the children’s writings of C. S. Lewis"

Thursday, January 19, 2012 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.

At The Bookstore, 1137 N H St # Q (behind Carrow's Restaurant)


Refreshments will be served and Lewis's books available for purchase

Dr. Working is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lompoc and the author of From Rebellion to Redemption (NavPress) and Breaking Free: A Devotional Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Reformation Press, forthcoming). Dr. Working has taught at Westmont College, Seattle Pacific University, and Ashland Theological Seminary. He holds a BA from Whitworth University, an MFA from University of Washington, and MDiv, DMin, and PhD (ABD) degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Come for a warm evening of stimulating conversation on ideas that matter. Bring a friend!

Spend some time in a great story this year and see where it takes you! And whether you’re in Lompoc, Bellevue, Switzerland, Santa Barbara, Santa Paula, Ohio, Pasadena, or Mexico City, we pray for the Lord’s great blessings on you this season and in the coming year.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Vows that Anchor Us: Responses to Questions for Ordination

My family and I recently moved to Lompoc, California, where I began responsibilities as pastor of First Presbyterian Church. In our denomination, a pastor is not a member of the church he or she leads, but rather of the presbytery, or the regional association of Presbyterian churches. First Pres Lompoc belongs to the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, known for its care in examining candidates for ordination as well as ministers transferring membership into the presbytery. Thus, along with writing a statement of faith, agreeing to a document of "essential tenets," and submitting to an interview by the Committee on Ministry, I had to respond briefly to the questions of ordination. In doing so, I renew the vows I took at my ordination over 20 years ago. The questions are as follows:

Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

I trust in Jesus Christ alone for my salvation. As the Apostle Peter bore witness before the teachers and elders of the law, “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” He reveals the one God in three persons, or modes of being, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally existent in a fellowship of love between the persons, distinct and yet united.

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

The Scriptures are the authoritative Word of God, infallible in all matters of faith and salvation. The cosmos and everything in it was called into being by the Word of God; everything in it is dependent on God and his Word for its very existence. The Word calls the church into being, and constitutes its life. Humans are constitutionally unable to hear the Word, until God works a miracle of grace to enable hearing, which is the same as regeneration or new birth. Where the Word of God is heard, there is the church.

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

I affirm the Reformed confessions of our Book of Confessions to be reliable expositions of the saving message of the gospel contained in Holy Scripture. I am and will be instructed, informed, and taught by the confessions as I carry out my ministry of the Word and sacrament.

Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?

I will. I recognize the Word, rightly understood in the tradition of the Reformation, and neither church hierarchy, nor tradition, nor mystical insight, nor human experience, to be our only final authority for life and ministry.

Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

I will make myself accountable to the church of Christ, in its collegial relationships, as the instrument of discerning the will of God for our common life.

Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

As we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, convictions of our faith must be “worked out in fear and trembling.” This takes place in the context of our relationships: with God through Jesus Christ, with neighbors (where we experience the presence of Christ which both judges and ministers to us in grace), and with the wider world. I will seek to be faithful to my calling and the trust given to me in each of these spheres.

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

I believe we have a responsibility to enhance the harmony and joy of our calling in the body of Christ, yet not at the expense of the purity of Christ’s church, which must take priority. Practically speaking, it behooves us nonetheless to speak always the truth in love, tempering our words with grace.

Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

I will. Glorifying the living God in the midst of his people and sharing in the mission of God is the purpose of my life. I aim to do this with excellence, but even more with truth and love.

For minister of the Word and Sacrament) Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

With God’s help, I will.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is the Bible Really Clear?

I received some questions about my last post, and I share my answers here:

Dear Robert,

I am for ministering to gays out of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. I am not in favor, however, of affirming what Scripture calls sin, nor of disregarding ethical requirements of leadership in the church. Like all sinners, gay persons find life not as an entitlement or affirmation of our instincts, but when we turn to Jesus in faith and repent from our old life.

As you suggest, some portions of Scripture are difficult to understand, but the message of salvation (how we find life by being rightly related to God through faith in Christ), is indeed clear. This is summarized by Jesus' answer to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“God...gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life”) and by passages such as Peter’s admonition that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Also clear are the ethics of the kingdom (how we are to live in gratitude for the gift of salvation.) Jesus fleshes out the characteristics of kingdom living in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and in his teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19, for example. We also see echoes of the kingdom in Micah’s call to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Jesus shows the link between theology and ethics, or what God has done to save us and what we should do in response, when he recites the Great Commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 38). Paul address how we become members of the kingdom and what we do to live in light of it in Romans and in his other letters to the churches . One example is in Ephesians 2:8-9, when he maintains an inseparable link between authentic faith that saves and good works.

The teaching on sexual standards fits into this, as Paul makes clear in his sin lists, such as in Colossians 3:5-9, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and Galatians 5:19-21. (For a sin list from Jesus, compare Mark 7:21). Our Lord did not specifically address homosexuality since it was not an issue in the Jewish community, but he indeed clearly affirmed the template of one male and one female in marriage as God’s pattern for humanity (Matthew 19:4-6).

There are passages from the Old Testament that are difficult for us to understand today, including the commands to genocide in Joshua (which were not universal, but in context of the conquest of Canaan.) Tremper Longman has written helpfully about that issue: Making Sense of the Old Testament, or Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide:

But Jesus said he came “not to abolish the Law or the prophets... but fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Elsewhere, Jesus sets aside food laws as no longer necessary—“In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean” (Mark 7:19). It is helpful to make the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws to come to a Christian understanding of the Old Testament. Civil and ceremonial laws were put into place for the time of the judges and the later monarchy, but have been completed in Jesus Christ, as Hebrews 7 shows, especially verses 22-28. So the laws of the Old Testament which were reaffirmed as essential for the Christian community in the New, those laws that pertained not to governance or temple worship but to moral principles, those laws are binding for us. The exclusive male-female pattern for sexual expression is among these. That is implicit in the seventh commandment “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20: 14).

The best way to understand whether a certain interpretation of the Bible is a core teaching is the degree to which is it “pervasive, absolute, strongly held, and counter-culturally held,” to use Robert Gagnon’s words. The Bible’s insistence on the two-sex model for marriage and against homosexual practice falls within that category. Geological claims do not, and in fact were only speaking in the language of the day to make points about God’s gracious salvation and his claim on his people. The Bible speaks God’s Word infallibly in all it affirms, but that doesn’t mean we are troubled by language that reflects the world view of a pre-scientific culture. I don’t have time to engage here with the issue of women’s role in ministry except to say this is not an analog for homosexual behavior. For one thing, Paul affirmed women’s roles in other places (for example Romans 16:1-2, 7), as did our Lord (Luke 8:1-3, Matthew 28: 10), and for another, being female is not a behavioral issue. Homosexual practice is, no matter what your understanding of the underlying causes of homosexual orientation.

Many persons today change their views on what the Bible says or on its authority for Christian living based on their personal experience with gays. That’s about as consistent as saying “I know some nice alcoholics so I conclude that the Bible’s teaching on drunkenness is irrelevant.” You ask “Have you experienced true fellowship with gay and lesbian Christians? Have you eaten with, prayed with, worshiped with, depended on, loved anyone who identifies as gay or lesbian? Have you talked with a gay or lesbian Christian about their faith and the journey that led them to God?” My answer is “Yes, I have.” I have had and still do have persons I love and care for who identify themselves as gays. This does not negate what the Lord expresses as his will for humanity and it does not lessen the fact that if we love him then we will learn to obey his commands. (John 14:15)

Paul is not hard to understand in the first chapter of Romans, when he insists that same-sex sexual relations degrade the image of God in humans and contravene the created order. The Bible never lets us accept the notion that if we have certain impulses, we are bound to act on them. Instead, we are to sublimate our passions, sexual and otherwise, and live for God. Paul makes that clear in Galatians when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Our identity as Christ-followers is not constituted by our gender or sexual orientation, but by what God has created and redeemed us to be. When we trust that, we also come to understand that his grace is enough for us.

Thank you for your courteous letter.

Every blessing,

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Counterfeit Gospel

This essay of mine appears in the September/October issue of Theology Matters:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:18-23).

The flashpoint in our denomination’s Kirchenkampf has been the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. As those who live and minister amidst the culture wars of our larger society, this struggle has been perhaps unavoidable. But as crucial as sexual ethics are for the integrity of Christian life and witness, the larger issue is how we perceive the person and will of God. For Christians in the Reformed tradition, humans are unable to access the divine, yet God in grace makes a way for us to know and approach him in fellowship. Therefore, our theology does not begin from the ground up, but from the top down. It is not speculative, and attempts to construct doctrines and ethics apart from the means God has given us are idolatrous.

To be sure, many are conflicted because someone we love is in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. We want always to be pastoral, but must realize that pastoral means giving both comfort and warning.

Against Speculation

Nevertheless, what we proclaim, we know from the Bible, the normative experience of God’s word and work as declared by the prophets and the apostles. Speculation contradicts the classic Christian and Reformed understanding of revelation, which comes to human beings miraculously, as a human impossibility, from above. To grope for truth on our own is to make determinations based on a priori assumptions. One’s attention may then turn to experience, tradition, rationalism, or mysticism. These modes of thinking can be valid ways of discerning truth. As means of knowing God, however, they ultimately prove to be futile. Attempting to understand the divine through these methods constitutes what the Reformed tradition calls speculation. This includes bringing preconceived principles against which we evaluate the teaching of Scripture, reframing it in our image. In so doing, it is possible to disregard major themes of the Bible, such as when the verse “God is love” is turned into “love is God.” When we say that, we make love itself, or rather our definition of love, into an idol. God is indeed love, but he is not defined by words or values beyond himself and to which he is answerable. To say this is to base our faith not on the authority of Scripture as it infallibly witnesses to Christ, but rather on our own experience and reason. In so doing we attempt to control God, and therefore worship a false god of our own contrivance.

Conservatives ask incredulously how it is possible that so many in the churches fail to grasp the clear, countercultural, pervasive, and absolute directives of Scripture. The answer lies in failing to surrender to the Lordship of Christ.

“Mingled vanity and pride appear in this, that when miserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves as they ought to do, they measure Him by their own carnal stupidity, and neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge their curiosity in vain speculation. Hence, they do not conceive of Him in the character in which he is manifested, but imagine Him to be whatever their own rashness has devised. This abyss standing open, they cannot move one footstep without rushing headlong to destruction. With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship and obedience can have any value in His sight, because it is not Him they worship, but instead of him, the dream and figment of their own heart. This corrupt procedure is admirably described by Paul, when he says that “thinking to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). Calvin, Inst. I.4.1

Calvin insists that conjecture does not lead to an understanding of the truth because it is motivated by “vanity and pride.” In consequence, this does not lead to revelation, but only makes clear our “carnal stupidity.” This amounts to human sinfulness clouding our spiritual vision. We do not discern God or his will for us in our own efforts. Our apprehension of the divine in the created order is not salvific; it is not enough to bridge the divine/human divide, but only to make us responsible and to condemn us.

Fundamentally Different Views of Scripture

In consequence, conservatives and progressives cannot come together on an understanding of revelation. We read the Bible differently, and hence, not surprisingly, arrive at divergent views of crucial issues like homosexuality, abortion, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity of personal regeneration.

According to Karl Barth, the attributes of God are not abstractions, but expressions of his relational character speaking and acting in divine love and freedom. Under the category of God’s love are his perfections of mercy, grace, patience, holiness, righteousness, and wisdom. Under the category of his freedom are the perfections of his eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence, unity, constancy, and glory. The meaning of these is not derived from speculation on God’s attributes, but in illuminating the character of God for us in Jesus Christ.

We see Jesus Christ in the Old Testament in anticipation and the New Testament in fulfillment, revealing the God who lives and makes himself known in word and action. As the Barmen Declaration declares, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, whom we have to hear and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” That affirmation contrasts with a negation that follows. If one accepts by faith the lordship of Christ, then one repudiates all other sources of revelation: “we reject the false doctrine that the church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and beside this one Word of God, yet other events, historic powers and truths as God’s revelation.”

The Spirit of God and the Word of God cannot be divided, and so we do not expect a revelation of God through an inner experience of the Spirit apart from the historic witness to him in Scripture. The Spirit is our guide in reading Scripture, certainly, but no religious experience can substitute for the revelation of God which is both objective (from above) and subjective (our inner reception of it.) What one receives from the Bible is not to be measured in the first instance against what is rational, but against the wisdom of the repentant, renewed heart.

Scripturally, biblical conservatives are closer than progressives to the Reformed Protestant hermeneutic of sola scriptura and solus Christus. For the former, the valid way of developing theological dogma in the church is deductively. This method grounds itself in the text itself, and assumes that the Bible contains the data and the truths necessary for constructing theology for the church. Only what we might find in Scripture using clear deductive reasoning is valid. Other sources and authorities may indeed instruct us in devotion and in governing the life of faith. However, these other voices are subordinate to and must be corrected by the written Word of God.

Progressives, in contrast, look to experience as the lens through which to view the Bible. The Bible is not read for propositional truth, but for a record of religious experience that reflects the context from which it arose. It serves as an analogy to epitomize a message of liberation. From nineteenth century attempts to remove supernatural aspects of Scripture to the work of the Jesus Seminar, these efforts indicate a human-centered, naturalistic approach to revelation that is irreconcilable with Christian orthodoxy in general, and Reformed orthodoxy in particular.

The conviction that God has spoken for himself in the person of Jesus Christ leads in a distinct direction. God is transcendent and mysterious, but the center of the message of the church is simple and clear. The greatest truth is that the world is lost, and that Jesus Christ was born to rescue sinners. This means that the Word does not stay an abstraction. He is not mainly a mystical feeling, not a mere example of religious enlightenment, not a case study of social or economic liberation. He is, as Barth stressed, an event, the noetic becoming ontological, experiential, and personal, the Word become flesh who dwelt among us. We know God because of what Jesus did, which was to live and die on our behalf on the cross.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The first chapter of Romans shows us that a sovereign, living God created all that is. God speaks, and creation comes into being. God redeems humanity out of sheer grace through the instrument of our faith. Act and being, the Word and work of God are united in the person of Jesus Christ. That means that the Bible speaks, that it actually communicates and conveys the reality of God. Creation and redemption integrate in anticipation of eschatology, the grand conclusion in God’s design for the world. Many in culture and in the churches today would escape God’s call to honor and obey him in our mortal bodies, as they would seek to transform the meaning of Scripture’s clear teaching and transcend the limitations of the flesh. This tendency is either libertine or Gnostic, ancient heresies that once again trouble the church. The protection against this danger lies in respecting the parameters of Scripture. We are not free to speculate into areas God has not revealed. We are not to contravene the clear directives of Scripture. Instead, we are to keep close to its center, which is Jesus Christ who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8b).

What do we do when some in the church offer a counterfeit Christian faith? We must hold in tension Jesus’ instruction on church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17 with his parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43, where he reveals there will be both saved and unsaved, righteous and unrighteous (“all who do evil”) within the church. The final word on the fate of those in the church will only be spoken on the day of judgment, when the character of each will be disclosed. We must temper accountability, as Paul demonstrates when he hands “Hymenaeus and Alexander...over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20), with making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Might we even see an analog for remaining in fellowship with liberals in the story of Hosea? The prophet is told to marry a promiscuous woman, “for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the LORD” (Hosea 1:2). Later, the LORD calls him to redeem her, saying “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites though they turn to other gods” (3:1). The adulterous woman can be seen as a type of the Bride of Christ and a contrast with the longsuffering love of Yahweh for idolatrous Israel.

I advocate staying in the PC (USA) for the time being for the following reasons: we have a responsibility to bear witness to God’s grace and truth in the church as well as to the world. We are inheritors of a historic Reformed and evangelical tradition that should be preserved. We are stewards of the work and resources of generations of Presbyterians, which should not be simply turned over to our progressive and liberal adversaries. We are not yet assured that congregations will be allowed to take their property if they exit. There is the real prospect of loss of connections with like-minded conservatives who feel led to stay. We should not think that transition to another confession will protect us from the issues currently plaguing us; they surge around us in the wider cultural waters in which we swim. Eventually, all churches will likely have to face the same issues.