Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Read Old Books

Hindsight is 20/20. So shouldn't long distance hindsight be even clearer?

As far as literature goes, the older the book the better. This is not necessarily true for the content, but it is certainly true for the reader's ability to sift through quality ideas (which are universal) vs. culturally influenced trends.

While perusing John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion a 21st century reader can easily discern between content that is solidly biblical (of which there is much) and content that is loaded with emotional baggage regarding Catholicism or the Anabaptist movement. While this doesn't mean Calvin's points concerning differing theologies are illegitimate, our cultural distance from the author enables easier detection of the his faults.

I am less able to do this with recent North American literature because I likely share the cultural and emotional starting point as the modern author. I see many of the same issues with evangelical Christianity (consumerism, apathy, biblical illiteracy, over-contexualization, etc.) and so it's likely that I have already arrived at similar conclusions.

A prime example of this can be found in one of the foundational documents of our denomination: the Heidelberg Catechism. You're reading along and when you get to Q&A 80 (which goes out of its way to bash the Catholic mass) and you realize the catechism has overstepped its purpose. On the other hand, the relevance of the rest of the catechism and the other reformed confessions shows their Spirit-led authorship and, in my view, means they succeeded in remaining close to the eternal and universal words of Scripture.

Perhaps the biggest reason I love to read old books is that it makes me feel connected to the Church. The giants of theology dealt with the same things I face as a pastor. Augustine was surprised at the amount of grief he felt when his friend died. Aquinas preached to people who were religious but not holy. Calvin struggled to continue his journey because of setbacks and controversy. These aren't modern problems. They're human problems. And there's a reason the answers these guys gave are still being taught in classrooms.
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." - Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Idol Factory

I was wondering recently how it was possible that the Israelites turned from God at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses was receiving the 10 commandments. After all they had seen they still thought a golden statue would meet their spiritual needs. We look back and say, "How foolish! A piece of shiny metal can't compare with the Most High God."

The Israelite reply would have been simple. "At least we can see the golden calf."

Why is that rebuttal still so powerful thousands of years later? Combining the innate human desire to worship with our preference for anything simple, tangible, and measurable is a deadly recipe. This universal mindset caused John Calvin to quip, "The human heart is a factory of idols."

God seemed "up there" while the golden calf or a gold medal or a gold ring is right in front of me. The roar of the crowd for the athlete, the bi-weekly paycheck for the bread winner, and the grateful words for the pastor are predictable and immediate while the ultimate approval of the Lord requires faith and patience.

What is the believer to do? Pray that the Lord would replace "all the vain things that charm me most" with himself. Praying to God is taking a huge step away from the immediate gratification offered by idols.

It also helps to remember the inadequacy of idols in comparison with the complete sufficiency of Christ. Can a paycheck really give you what you desire? Can a vacation truly take your burdens upon itself? Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. rightly observes that the problem with idols is that they can't support the weight we place on them. The marketing department of the idol factory makes promises that the production department can't possibly deliver on. However, Christ's lofty promises have been fulfilled.

"[The idolator's] end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself." - Philippians 3:19-21
To believe in Christ is to replace destruction and shame with transformation and glory. What an offer! What a Savior!


For an excellent sermon on this topic listen to Neil Plantinga's message on Exodus 32.