Trading in Our Patriotic Hymns for Songs of Lament

crossWith the Obergefell decision weighing heavy on our minds, I have been wondering how churches in America will worship this Sunday. Will they go on as usual singing patriotic hymns? Or will they, in light of recent days, reconsider their song selection?

For those involved in music ministry and church leadership, this is not a new question. And honestly, the Obergefell decision should not be the deciding factor. However, that ruling has solidified concerns Christians have with America, and thus raises the question again—Should a church incorporate patriotic hymns in a service of worship?

Thinking on that subject, I believe a church has 1 of 3 options—no incorporation (option #1), selective incorporation (option #2), and unqualified incorporation (option #3). I think the first two options are valid with #1 outweighing #2, while option #3 is troubling and in need of revamping—something that could be done as soon as tomorrow. Let’s consider together. Continue reading

Typological Pairs: From Suffering to Glory

david solomonConcerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
— 1 Peter 1:10–12 —

What does it mean that the Spirit of Christ foretold of the Messiah’s suffering and glory?

Surely, there were many ways, as Hebrews 1:1 indicates. Nationally, the people of Israel regularly experienced enemy oppression (after they sinned) followed by powerful deliverance that set God’s elect over his enemies. Individually, Joseph, Job, David, and Daniel all experienced humbling affliction before being exalted. Textually, there are some individual passages displaying a suffering-to-glory theme—e.g., Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant’s humiliating death (vv. 1–9) only to close the chapter by announcing his glorious reward for his vicarious suffering (vv. 10–12). Or see the pattern in the Psalms; both the whole Psalter and some individual Psalms (see especially Psalm 22) reflect this pattern.

It seems that everywhere you look in the Old Testament you find (1) God’s people suffering, followed by (2) cries for mercy. In response, (3) God hears their prayers, and (4) responds with saving compassion in the form of a deliverer—a Moses, a Samson, or a David. The result is that (5) the people are saved and the mediator is exalted.

In the light of the New Testament, these incidents are illuminating shadows of Jesus Christ himself. In fact, in the words of Peter, it’s not too much to say that the Spirit of Christ is a cruciform spirit, who leads his people (under the Old Covenant and the New) through valleys of death to bring them into places of honor and service. This is the Christian way—to be brought low unto death, so that God can raise us up to life (see 2 Cor 1:8–9).

That being said, I am persuaded that there is another way in which suffering-unto-glory might be seen in the Old Testament. Instead of containing the pattern to the nation, individuals, or texts, there are some pairs of people who display the pattern. That is, repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, there are individuals related by kinship or ministerial calling whose composite lives function to display the pattern observed in 1 Peter 1. In other words, the Spirit of Christ was directing their lives such that the first person foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ and the second person reflected his subsequent glories.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen this proposal written down anywhere. So, I’d love your thoughts. Does it work? I think there is merit in the proposal and am writing it out (in part) to explore the idea. (That’s what blogs are for, right?) I think, in the end, such pairs may help reflect the binary nature of Christ’s ministry–first in weakness and humiliation, then in power and glory. Or at least, that’s what I will try to show below. Let me know what you think. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 1): Rightly Dividing Truth from Error


It is not a word that we often associate with church life, or if we do, the connotation is probably not positive. However, I think the word has great potential for helping us understand and promote unity in the church—local and universal.

In its original context, triage “means the process of sorting victims to determine medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors.”  While the term is usually placed on the battlefield or in the wake of a natural disaster, it also has an important application in the church for knowing how to rightly hold the doctrines we believe.

Applied to biblical doctrines, the term has been labeled by Albert Mohler as “theological triage,” and it basically indicates that we should sort out three different kinds of biblical belief—(1) those that separate Christians from non-Christians, (2) those that separate different churches and denominations, and (3) those that individuals may disagree about but which are overcome by greater unity on more primary matters.

Today, I will consider the first level, and later this week days I will follow up with the second and third levels to help us think about our relationship with other faiths, other churches, and other individuals in our church. Continue reading

Reconsidering “Above All”: How Hermeneutics Must Intersect with and Inform Our Hymnody

aboveallYesterday, I raised concerns with the popular song “Above All” by Michael W. Smith. For some time, I have taken theological issue with the central lyric of the song:

Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall / And thought of me
Above all.

Those last two lines have always made me stumble because of the way they seem to eclipse God with humanity. I’ve always heard them as making the claim that Christ thought more of me than he did of God—which I argued reverses the God-centered nature of the universe and the cross.

For that reason, I was theologically opposed to the song. While I could sing the rest of the song with delight, I always cringed as the chorus neared. Hence, I set out to write these reflections so as to expose the errant chorus. However, a funny thing happened along the way—I read the lyrics again (and again) and this time in context.

Unlike any time before, I read the chorus in light of the whole song. Not surprisingly, reading it context provided greater light. But surprisingly, I had to adjust my thinking for I realized that if I (or we) let the song define its own terms—a principle of general hermeneutics—it does not ascribe humanity to a place higher than God. In fact, the song rightly retains a high view of God’s sovereignty and the dignity assigned to humanity, as the pinnacle of creation. Continue reading

From Performing in the Flesh to Panting for the Spirit

vinePerforming in the flesh is shorthand for doing work unto the Lord in your own strength, by your own wisdom, and with your own will power. In short, it is service without spiritual grace, and Satan loves to seduce you with it. Such Spirit-less service may be outwardly beautiful, relationally effective, or even successful, but because it is done without faith, it displeases God (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:6) and bears no lasting fruit. Sadly because our hearts are deceitful we may even call such unbelieving service good, when God does not. For that reason, it is always right to return to the Word and ask: What does God say?

What service does God find pleasing? What counterfeit performances originate in unbelief? And how can we tell the difference? Continue reading

A Heart for Christmas or for Christ?


“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”
– Jesus –

The Christmas music played in the background as Rod wrapped packages. While the music brought back many happy memories, recent events took his mind in another direction.

Work at the courthouse was increasingly difficult. Last year they removed the Ten Commandments. This year county employees received a memo requesting everyone to tone down “Christmas” rhetoric. They didn’t outright censor “Merry Christmas,” but they might as well have.

Closer to home Rod received his yearly Christmas list: Put up the tree. Buy non-perishables for the church’s homeless offering. Put up the crèche. Have some holiday cheer.

“Very funny,” Rod thought to himself. “My wife thinks of everything: Have holiday cheer!”

And she did. She knew the pressures of work and the added stress of church had made Rod more than just a “grouchy bear,” as she liked to call him. Only two weeks remained until Christmas, and he was overwhelmed with Christmas events at church. And as a result his Joy to the Lord was out of tune. So to spark his Christmas spirit, Rod’s wife put him to work on the crèche he loved. It worked marvelously. Continue reading

How the Lord’s Supper ‘Saves’ the Church

lord's supperYou cannot care for me with no regard for her,
if you love me you will love the church.
Derek Webb –

As Derek Webb’s song (“The Church”) points out, to love Christ without the church is like loving a man and loathing his wife. Such inconsistency isn’t socially acceptable. Neither is it spiritually permissible. Those who have been born again are joined to God’s family (1 Tim 3:15) and are called to submit themselves to a local church (Heb 10:24–25; 13:17).

The opposite problem is also possible. It is very possible to love the church more than Christ. Now, when this sort of thing happens, Christ is never denied, only demoted. And typically, it doesn’t happen by conscious choice or designed effort. There is never an advertising campaign to elevate the church above Christ. It happens the way that gravity causes bodies to sag—time and spiritual lethargy work together to pull the heart away from Christ.

Leaving our first love, as Revelation 2:4 puts it, doesn’t come through a traumatic event. Instead, it is what happens when members and pastors of a church focus their energy and conversation on church business, church budgets, church activities, church methods, and church growth.

Church, church, church. If all attention is given to the bride, the bridegroom will be lost.

Even when believers champion orthodox belief and defend biblical practices, men and women will still fall in love with a church more than Christ. Because our hearts are deceitful and naturally unbelieving (Jer 17:9; Heb 3:13), even the most committed churchmen are susceptible to loving the church more than Christ. In fact, the ones most committed to church are the ones most likely to love the church more than Christ. Continue reading

Christ, the Firstfruits of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

firstAfter testifying to the reality of Christ’s resurrection (v. 20), the second thing Paul address in 1 Corinthians 15 is the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated by his resurrection. Verse 20 says that the Jesus who was raised from the dead is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

The Feast of Firstfruits

The word “firstfruits” is a harvest term. It is the produce that first arises from the ground. In Israel it was to be dedicated to the Lord, as an offering of thanksgiving. For instance, Leviticus 23 commanded Israel to bring an offering of firstfruits in a festival that followed Passover and preceded Pentecost (vv. 9-14).

Historically, the feast which occurred on the “day after the Sabbath” after the Passover (v. 11) corresponded to the day when Israel was brought out of Egypt as God’s firstborn. Notably, this timing indicates part of the significance of this festival and the meaning of “firstfruits.” One old commentator writes,

The offering unto God . . . commemorated Israel’s separation from the nations, as a firstfruits of redemption. [It] symbolically signified the consecration of Israel unto God as the first-born unto Him from the nations, the beginning of the world’s great harvest. (S. H, Kellogg, Studies in Leviticus, 468)

In Israel’s history, this feast was meant to remind Israel of the Exodus and how that event confirmed their status as the firstborn son of Yahweh (Exod 4:22). That Christ would be called the “firstfruits” in 1 Corinthians 15:20 corresponds to this reality. He is the Son of God; not only in his divinity but in his humanity. His resurrection designates him the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 1:3-4; 8:29-30). Continue reading

“For the Sake of My Name”: Why God’s Pursuit of ‘His’ Glory Secures Our Good

gloryUnderstanding the glory of God and God’s purposes in salvation history can be hard. First, the God’s singular pursuit of his glory is hard to accept because it crushes our innate man-centeredness. Second, the glory of God is hard to understand because it requires a wide-ranging biblical theology to see how God pursues his glory in salvation and judgment.

And yet, because glory stands at the center of God’s character (Isa 48:9-11), his creation (Ps 19:1), his purposes for humanity (Isa 43:6-7), and his plan of redemption (Eph 1:6, 12, 14), it is vital to see how God’s glory relates to salvation.  Indeed, it is necessary to relate God’s glory and humanity’s redemption, because Scripture repeatedly speaks of his glory as the ultimate reason why he suspended his judgment on Israel, sent his Son for the world, and poured out his Spirit on the church.

To see how God’s glory relates to God’s loving act of redemption, let me draw your attention to a theme that runs throughout the Psalms and Prophets. It is the repeated refrain that God saves, forgives, and guides his people for the sake of his name. 

Instead of commenting on what that means in each instance, let me simply list a number of verses and draw a couple implications at the end. Continue reading

Exploring Kenotic Christology: A Book Review

This review goes back a couple years, but it gets at an issue that continues to be espoused—namely the idea that Christ “emptied” (kenosis) himself of some of his divine attributes.

Evans, C. Stephen (ed.).  Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 360 pp. $34.95.

Exploring Kenotic Christology is a compilation of 12 essays edited by Stephen Evans.  From start to finish the goal of the book is to make a place for the “kenotic view” of Christ’s incarnation alongside, or in replace of, the “classical view.”  Introducing the writers, Evans writes, “Most of the authors can fairly be described as advocates of kenotic Christology, at least in the sense that they are convinced that this approach is a promising one to explore, even if not all of them are convinced of its final adequacy” (5).

In the assigned essays, this statement holds up.  While making a case for kenosis as a viable doctrinal interpretation, the authors do so with modesty and regard for the history of the church.  They recognize their position as the minority view and are very conscious of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon.  They frame their works within the boundaries prescribed by these historic councils, and they seek to demonstrate how their views better develop the confessions of 325 and 451.

The topics in this book range from biblical interpretation to doctrinal formulation, historical and systematic, to philosophical implications and complications.  The dialogue centers around classic Christology, that which has been espoused since the early church, and the more recent development of kenotic Christology.  Thomas Thompson chronicles the rise of this theory in 19th century Germany with Gottfried Thomasius “first articulating this new approach” (78).  His name, along with Wolfgang Gess and Hugh Mackintosh, are mentioned frequently in the book as the forebears of this approach.

The differences between the classical view and the kenotic view are as follows: Classical Christology posits that when the Son of God became man, he added humanity to his divine nature, but he never lost any of his divine attributes.  His deity was veiled in humanity, but he was all the while God incarnate.  This view follows the Chalcedonian formula of “one person, two natures” and has been explicated through the centuries by theories such as Thomas Morris’ two minds view.  Often this approach appeals to mystery and ineffability when considering how humanity and deity coinhere, and when more specific details are pressed theologians often appeal to the communication idiomatum.  While giving an answer for how deity and humanity are conjoined in Christ, kenotic Christology wants to go further.

Appealing to the term ekenosin in Philippians 2:7, kenotic Christology emphasizes Christ’s “emptying.”  It is not that the Son took on flesh (cf. John 1:14), but in order to do so he had to leave behind certain properties or aspects of deity.  Looking to explain the manner in which deity took on humanity, kenoticists are dissatisfied with appeals to mystery.  They appeal to the Bible to find ways of describing God the Son’s humiliation.  They charge classical views with grounding their claims in views of God that are found outside the Bible—in natural theology and philosophical presuppositions of what God must be like.

Assessing their arguments, it seems that a kenotic view of Scripture does agree with orthodoxy.  Mackintosh’s four axioms, for instance, suppose “(1) the deity of Christ; (2) his personal pre-existence; (3) his true humanity; and (4) the unity of his person” (91).  Likewise, Gordon Fee’s chapter, “The New Testament and Kenosis Christology” appeals to Philippians, Hebrews, and the Synoptic Gospels to support his doctrinal claims.  Likewise, the overall argument of the book, while recruiting philosophy and theology, does aim at explicating Scripture.  In fact, some of the arguments against classical Christology’s reliance on natural theology and philosophy, while narrow, have a certain Sola Scriptura appeal.  So there are positive elements to the book.

With that said, there are some troubling features as well.  First, many of the authors appeal to God’s self-limitation to explain how the Son could “empty” himself.  They admit to the (temporary) loss of divine attributes of omniscience or omnipotence and explain it by God’s divine power to limit himself.  However, this radically reshapes who God is and opens the door to all kinds of unwanted entailments.  Open Theism being just one.

Second, with self-limitation comes a whole new formulation for God.  Kenotic Christology is willing to redefine immutability, simplicity, and even our understanding of the Trinity to a more social model.  In fact, the whole subject of divine attributes is brought into question, so that God’s “omni’s” may be accidental attributes, not essential.  This radically deforms Christianity’s understanding of who God is.  While they appeal to the Bible for a more “biblically informed” doctrine of God, they disregard these doctrines too easily.  They construe them as extra-biblical accretions from the natural theology of Anselm and others.

Third, while rejecting classical views of God and the incarnation on the basis of faulty philosophical positions, Evans et al are just as guilty.  Frequently, Evans sequesters free will theism and incompatiblistic freedom to advance his argument, yet in doing so he relies on a faulty belief system.  These Arminian notions do not best articulate Scripture’s teaching about God, his creation, and the people made in his image. Therefore, any doctrine built on their foundation will be skewed.

Overall, the kenotic model, while picking up many important and biblical elements of Christ’s incarnation, does not make sense of all the biblical data.  It keys in on the change in the incarnation, but it does not retain Christ’s unchanging deity (cf. Heb. 13:8; Col. 1:19; 2:9)  Even in the primary prooftext, Philippians 2:7, kenotic proponents fail to recognize that “emptying” is coupled with addition, “taking on the form of a bond-servant.”  Therefore, to single out Christ’s loss is to consider only one side of the equation.

Likewise, the systemic effect of reshaping other doctrines to fit this model demands too much.  Better to synthesize the self-sacrificing, humbling work of the incarnation with the unchanging, all-glorious, omnipotent Son of God, than to throw out his deity because it makes more sense.  There is a mystery to the incarnation and one that should be explored, but one that should not minimize Christ’s deity or devalue his humanity.  In the end, the kenotic theory of the incarnation does the former, it brings into question the sustained deity of Christ and it misshapes the whole Godhead.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss