Saturday, June 16, 2012

Monday, February 14, 2011



The book of Exodus divides logically into two large sections. The first section may be viewed as closing with the great song of Moses in chapter 15 where the triumph of Jehovah in delivering his people is celebrated. On the other hand, it could be seen as closing with the final stages of the march from the Red Sea to the foot of Sinai in chapter 18. In either case the first section of Exodus primarily concerns itself with the election of a chosen people, the sovereign acts of God's mighty judgment on sin, and Israel's redemption from bondage as prefigured in the death of the first born of the Egyptians and the gracious intervention of God in the Passover sacrifice on behalf of his chosen people.

The second section of Exodus may be said to begin with the arrival of Jethro at the Mountain of God and the appointment of leaders among the people of God in chapter 18. Or, the second section may commence with Moses' first meeting with God on Mt. Sinai in chapter 19. In any event the second great division of the book primarily concerns itself with the giving of the moral laws of God that define the covenant relationship of Israel with Jehovah and the plan and construction of the Tabernacle along with the institution of an attending priesthood.

Two great spiritual institutions then, the Law and the Tabernacle, dominate the second and final section of the book of Exodus. First, the written laws of God are given along with their applications to the personal, societal, civil and religious life of Israel. (Exodus 19-25) Hard following that, the design, construction and use of the Tabernacle and its various elements is shown to Moses on the Mount. This sanctuary is ultimately constructed and set up in the midst of God's people. (Exodus 25-31; 35-40)

The great shrine of the Tabernacle casts a large shadow over the life of the nation from its earliest days of wilderness wandering until the cataclysm of 70 AD when the Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and dismantled the temple. The temple, it should be remembered, had been the intended recipient of the various elements of worship first put forward in the portable Bedouin shrine of the Tabernacle. From the first God had designed that Israel should enter the land of Canaan and erect a "house" on Mount Moriah.

This was the vision of Abraham:

Abrahahm called the name of that place, "the Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."

Thus Moses sang:

"You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, The place, O Lord, which You have made for Your dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established..

And ultimately Jehovah confirmed:

Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. (Gen. 22:14; Ex 15:17;23:20)

In all, the elements of the Tabernacle as they embodied the moral truth of the Law of God, dominated Israelite worship for more than 1,500 years. These elements had the most profound impact on the historical period in which divinely inspired scripture was produced. Issues of the Tabernacle and the Temple cultus remain a volatile question in the religious life of the restored nation after it returned to Palestine in 1948. These issues continue to concern Christians, Jews and Moslems in the mounting cultural and religious tensions of our modern world.

The crucial relationship of the moral law of God with the ceremonial imageries of the Tabernacle are often overlooked. Umberto Cassuto rightly pointed out the vital link of the Law given at Sinai to the ongoing pattern of worship begun in the structures and ceremonies of the Tabernacle.

"The nexus between Israel and the Tabernacle is a perpetual extention of the bond that was forged at Sinai between the people and their God. The children of Israel, dwelling in tribal order at every encampment are able to see, from every side, the Tabernacle standing in the midst of the camp, and the visible presence of the Sanctuary proves to them that just as the glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, so He dwells in their midst wherever they wander in the wilderness." (Exodus, p.319)

The provincial superstitions of henotheism, the belief that certain gods could only inhabit certain localities, had a powerful influence on the thinking of the early Israelites. For good or ill we see it from the fears of Abraham in Egypt to the doubts of Jacob in Paddam Aram. Though the God of Jacob reveals his transcendent power to Joseph, a foreign prisoner in Egypt, and will ultimately destroy the armies of the strongest nation on earth in the Red Sea, this superstition will raise its head again in the incident of the Golden Calf where the Israelites invoke the familiar gods of Egypt for fear that the God of Moses would be unable to sustain them. The Tabernacle was a powerful demonstration of the fact that Jehovah, the true and only God, was with this lowly remnant of redeemed slaves. It was a palpable demonstration of God's abiding presence with his people wherever they were.

The theme of God dwelling in the midst of his people constantly reoccurs in the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus.

"And let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them.

"And there I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.

'…the tent of meeting before the Lord, (is) where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. And I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; … I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God. (Exodus 25:8; 25:22; 29:42-46)

One of the more common Hebrew words for the Tabernacle, mishcan, is the nominal form of the verb "shacan" to dwell. From it comes the familiar though non-biblcial term "the shekinah glory", i.e. the abiding glory of God.

The triumphant fulfillment of the imagery of the Tabernacle is found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is ultimately the archetype to which the types of the Tabernacle point. Thus John carefully articulates the deity of Christ and his eternal presence in the midst of his people by saying "the word became flesh and dwelt (literally "pitched his tent" or "tabernacled") among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14) The Tabernacle was a physical embodiment of the moral truths of God's holy law. The Tabernacle was a physical portrayal of the person and work of the invisible God. The Tabernacle points, as does the Law of Moses, to the person of Jesus Christ. This correspondence emboldened John to make the claim of his deity. This correspondence makes it clear why the writer of Hebrews saw the veil of the Temple, rent in two at the crucifixion, as the very flesh of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.
Hebrews 10:19-20

Monday, February 7, 2011

Simply Augustine


There are fewer philosophical issues more hotly debated than the question of God's complete control over the future and the troubling question of man's so-called "free will". As usual Augustine comprehended the truth of both issues and expressed the matter succinctly. Christians, he said, affirm both God's complete sovereignty over all things and man's freedom to choose. We affirm "... the former to believe well and the latter to live well." (City of God, Book 5)

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Poetry, contrary to popular prejudice, is the art of saying the most with as few words as possible. Far from gilding lilies with unnecessary encumbering words, poetry, at least good poetry, encompasses truth with a sharp and swift observation. When considering the gnarled cypresses along the Monterey and Carmel coastline of central California, one poet asked "is it as clearly in our living shown, by slant and twist, which ways the winds have blown?" In that question lies a world of discourse, a host of issues. To exhaust them completely would require many tedious volumes. The poet did it all in eighteen words. Like formulae from great mathematicians or theoretical physicists, profound truth is best expressed in elegant brevity. Thus Archimedes told the world A = pi r2 and Einstein shook the world, literally, by saying E = mc2. Poets go such postulates one better. They add aesthetic beauty.

Poetic truth can be found in the most surprising places. Take, for example, the harsh eloquence of Laura Nyro's lyric made famous by Blood, Sweat and Tears, "And When I Die."

I can swear there ain’t no heaven,
but I pray there ain’t no hell.

These words speak volumes of her life and experience and posit the existence of evil without a single spoken proof. Evil's existence is axiomatic. It is a sure-as-shooting Socratic self-evident syllogistic postulate. And Ms. Nyro does this in an unexpected venue, a rock and roll lyric. With surgical precision she denied a hope of heaven and left only a fear, dare I suggest a near certain fear, of just punishment in the life to come, obviously for evil rendered. And, in yet another case of life imitating art, Laura Nyro learned the answer to her prayers when she died ten years ago of cancer at the age of 49.

Some have suggested the problem of evil is the most serious philosophical challenge to a Christian view of God and the world. Before considering the "problem" it should be pointed out that in fact evil is a problem to every view of God and every view of the world with or without a deity. The problem of evil challenges any and all attempts to argue existence has meaning at all. And though a few hearty souls might insist such is the truth, that existence has no meaning, only sociopaths and the psychotic among us live consistently according to this view. It only takes a holocaust or a national disaster or a single rampant cancer cell to give the lie to such denials. Evil is a reality. Evil is not right, especially when it happens to me. And therefore evil is a problem for everyone.

Christians have wrestled most successfully with this universal human "problem." Mystic pagans try to ignore evil's existence. Stoics and skeptics for millennia have tried to deny evil's existence. The best that pagan minds have come up with are questions about evil's existence. They have little constructive to say about why it exists or how it can be avoided, and nothing effectively to say about how it can be eliminated.

Historically, it seems to me, the problem of evil has been divided by the skeptic into two serious questions for Christian theology. And, after defining the "problem" in terms of these two questions, Christians have historically posited two very satisfactory answers.

Question number one: How could a good and holy God create moral evil?

Question number two: How can an infinite and all powerful God allow evil to exist?

Of course these two questions raise issues that interpenetrate one another, but it is best for the sake of lucid discussion to separate these two points.

As for the first question, no better answer has ever been posted than the answer of Augustine. Doubtless drawing from his pre-Christian Manichaean days and tempered as a Christian with the logic and power of Scripture, Augustine said God did not create evil. Evil is, in a sense, a no thing, nothing. By that, if we can use the language of modern physics, Augustine meant evil does not exist in and of itself. It is not a "thing" to be created. Evil is a "Field-effect." It is the uncreated result generated, if you would, by certain other realities. As sure as dark, the absence of light, is not created per se, evil, the chaos that results from choices and actions contrary to the moral will of a good and holy creator, is not a "thing" but a "result" of other things. With the notorious imprecision of language we may call this or that action "evil." But, in fact, we mean that this or that action causes evil, or comes from other actions that produce evil. And even then, a thing or action is accurately called "evil" only over and against the nature of a holy God who alone defines what is good. God did not create evil. God cannot create evil. That which we call "evil" is the result of creation's inevitable instability and vulnerability. Creation, after all, is finite and capable of imperfection. God, the uncreated perfect one, is not. "Evil" is generated by the moral rebellion of creation's sub-regent, mankind and by the actions of mankind's greatest adversary, Lucifer. Both are created beings. For this reason, as Paul argues clearly in Romans 3:3-9, God holds the evil doer accountable by virtue of His inherent nature as the moral judge of all reality. We alone are the culprits. Paul, in his argument gives the question its time honored title, "theodicy" (the justification of God), when he cites a pastiche of Scripture and declares God is "justified in (his) words," and prevails "when (he is) judged." (v.4) The modern Dutch theologian G.C. Berkower noted the age old question of Latin theologians, "unde malum" ("whence cometh evil"), is a very dangerous question. It is not a question to be directed at God but at man. In demanding God give account for evil it is implied that the questioner is unaware of the answer to the question and is not responsible for the problem. In fact we know from whence evil comes, it comes from us. And, asking the question is, in a certain sense, an attempt to exculpate the questioner. Moreover it is often a thinly veiled accusation levied against the Creator.

Of course this brings us inevitably to the second question: how can an infinite, all powerful God allow evil to exist? The answer is clear in Scripture. It is not found in man's so-called "free will" but in God's sovereignty. God does not "allow evil to exist." In fact, God drives it from his presence. He will not "look" upon it, and, even as I write this, to quote Daniel 9:24, God is finishing "the transgression" and putting "an end to sin" by atoning "for iniquity" and bringing in "everlasting righteousness." As with everything God does, he is doing this for his glory. We can thank John Calvin and a host of clear thinking Puritans who followed his lead for this undeniable view of the God of the Bible. God does everything "sola Gloria Deo" ("for the glory of God.") To the eternal and infinite ever existing Jehovah, evil "is finished." Satan has fallen. Victory has been won. To time-bound creatures, mortal and finite, it appears to be a process. However it is viewed, this bringing an "end" to evil is for God's glory and our good. To borrow the words of Jesus to John the Baptist, when facing the sorrow and pain of evil in the world we must "suffer it to be so to fulfill all righteousness." When noting the sad spectacle of a man born blind in John 9 the disciples asked "Why?" Jesus told them, and so instructs us all. This is so, he said, "that the works of God might be manifest in him." Even the field-event of evil exists for the glory of God.

Among the more jaded ministers of the Gospel there is told a old story of a candidate for ordination who was questioned by his session of elders. "Young man," a stern Calvinist elder asked, "would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?" After due thought, the glib candidate replied "Sir, I would be willing for this entire Presbytery to be damned for the glory of God." Excuse my jaundiced humor, but in a sense both the time honored question and the flippant remark have value. God has solved the problem of Evil for all creation! It is solved by the Lamb of God, "slain before the foundations of the world." Jesus Christ is the answer to the question of evil. In the face of the so-called "problem of evil", this cruel and vexing "no thing," the people of God are to show forth triumphantly their savior's praises and sing of his amazing grace until he returns and "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Chirst."

I was encouraged to think again about the problem of evil by a sermon I recently heard by my son on the temptation of Christ. It was, as usual, an excellent message primarily because he opened up the text and clearly expounded the Word of God. In that familiar story the devil assaults the physically weakened son of God with three temptations. The first temptation attacked the common human fear of want and poverty. This is a fear that rises from suffering and unsatisfied needs. Jesus was hungry. "Turn these stones to bread" the devil cunningly demanded, "if, indeed, you are the Son of God." When we indulge our fears of want and poverty we disobey God who said "fear not, for I am with you." When Satan tempted Jesus it was as if God had never thundered from heaven "Thou art my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." This should prove no surprise to us. The devil has always questioned the Word of God. From the beginning his questions served his evil purpose. Satan desires no answer when he asks as he did of Eve "Hath God said?" He simply wants doubt. He desires the creature to react in panic out of fear and not out of faith in the promises of God. Evil comes from such fear-based actions. Jesus counters effectively reminding the devil that "man must not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from God's mouth."

In the second temptation the devil transports Jesus to the highest point of the tallest building in Jerusalem, the pinnacle of the temple. "Jump from here, God has promised to protect you, hasn't he?" At this juncture Satan is probing man's universal fear of his own physical well being. It is a fear that rises from the evil of death and pain. We tremble in the face of human mortality. We mourn when life inevitably ends in death. Whether the humanity of Jesus recoiled from the emotion of fear as he stood on that high place I do not know. What is clear is that Jesus dismisses this temptation to sin by saying "do not tempt the Lord your God!" We should never try to force God's hand nor court the sin of self destruction.

Finally, as if exasperated, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, all its glittering prizes. "This is yours if you worship me," he boasts. The blasphemy of this direct remark often overshadows the nature of the sin it invites. The chief end of man, says the Westminster Divines, is to love God. Satan is subverting the very purpose of the creature's existence. We are to "show forth the praises of God's glory." Satan sought to destroy the very soul of the Son of Man by perverting his purpose as a man. What could be said other than what Jesus said in response? "Get thee hence! Thou shalt love the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve!" The first commandment is clear: Love God! The command carries an even clearer definition of this duty: true love is true worship in his service. The purpose of the devil's temptations seem to be to enmesh mankind in a web of evil actions and place him under their inevitable consequences at the hands of a just God who most certainly will punish sin. Much like a master chessman Satan would maneuver man into checkmate, so to speak, and accomplish his destruction by the very "rules of the game." This is at the heart of the problem of evil. The wages of sin is death.

At the end of my son's message on the temptation our church came to the Lord's Table and shared communion. It struck me like a thunderbolt. Here is the answer to the question of evil. Here is the solution. Jesus gave us the answer in the very elements of the supper we share together. At the heart of evil is the fear of want and suffering, the fear of pain and death, and the question as to our purpose on earth as conscious created beings. To these three universal problems, want, suffering and the meaning of life, Jesus offers himself. And, in so many words, he takes bread, which signifies to us his body saying "Take! Eat! My body is food indeed. If you eat of me you will never hunger." Again, "Take! Eat! If a man eats my body, he shall never die." And finally, "Take! Eat!" As the Apostle said, "In so doing you show forth the Lord's death." This last remedy declares our purpose. We are to live for "the praise of his glory." In his sacrifice our Lord Jesus solved the problem of evil. In our humble reception of his sacrifice we are delivered from the consequences of our own personal evil and understand at last its resolution.

As with the preacher who wrote in the margin of his sermon "this point is weak, holler!" so the skeptics, who have never successfully shouted down the gospel, simply raise their voices. They hammer at "the horror, the horror" like Conrad's Mister Kurtz. But the Gospel replies, "This horror results from your sin. Repent!" The fall of man into sin jeopardized the entire race. God in infinite mercy and grace has provided a way of escape in the cross of Jesus Christ. The true horror is not that 6 million died at the hands of the Nazis in the death camps; it is not that nearly 2,000 souls perished in a single morning on 9/11. The true horror is that all men will die and the "wage of sin is death." The problem of evil is not the Christian's problem. It is the problem of the one who refuses God's grace and insists on facing his creator at the end of his life with no answer for his own wrong doing and his rebellious heart's defiant attitude.

Labels: Evil, the problem of evil, theodicy imported

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

                                                   "The Death of Demosthenes"

                                               CIVIL DISCOURSE BE DAMNED

"I grow old," lamented Eliot's Prufrock. Well, don't we all. Frankly seniority, if it has little rank these days, nonetheless has great privileges. Approaching my 8th decade I find fewer and fewer people to whom I am accountable or obligated to please save for my own pleasure. I no longer have employers or boards or oversight committees to satisfy and be critiqued by. No wonder the elderly often become crusty and contentious. Who's stopping them? This position is liberating. I seldom look back over my shoulder as I state what's on my mind. Free speech is a profoundly satisfying liberty.

Into the bliss of my declining years has come the common media harangue that America must return to a kinder and gentler day. Was there ever such a day? We must turn down our strident voices, soften our indignation, and treat the opinions of those with whom we might disagree with greater respect. Why? I will submit to the divine command to love your neighbor. But nowhere stands it written to respect your neighbor's opinion no matter how absurd, no matter how crass, no matter how much it contradicts the values you hold dear or the logic of simple common sense.

The latest crisis the current administration and its supporters are taking full advantage of is the tragedy at Tucson where six innocent lives were taken by the evil actions of a wicked man. One would think the horror of such an event would speak for itself. This was not allowed. First the shock troops went over the side with fierce salvos against talk radio and other right-wing media. "They have promoted a climate of hate," they intoned. With all manner of twisted logic and clever innuendoes the guys and gals at MSNBC, for example, began to place the blame for such violence at the door of their competitors at Fox News and of course at the horned and hairy feet of every liberal's favorite demon, Rush Limbaugh. As might be expected this storm of irrationality began to fall of its own weight even before the arguments against it were reasonably fashioned and carefully put forward. Blaming talk radio and the exercise of free, if angry, speech for providing incentives for acts of evil was painfully seen as nonsense by most. Insanity needs no outward motivation. Evil impulses and evil acts, since the days of Cain are self generated in the main. "Lead me not into temptation," said the wag, "I can find it quite well by myself."

But now we see the true genius of the craftier left wing politicians emerge. Rising in the dignity of his office, our President, mindful of the need to recapture the center of the spectrum and raise the flagging numbers of his popularity polls, took the rostrum the other night and spoke to those who attended the pep rally, excuse me, the memorial service that was held at the University of Arizona. With measured words he told us that political rhetoric did not cause the tragedy. Most of us had figured that out already but he went on. Sounding something like a modern day Lincoln-wannabe, our President said in effect it is for us the living to make for a kinder and gentler world of political discourse, a world that would better befit the sacrifices of those who were slain last week. Who could take issue with that? Well, as a dyspeptic ornery old man, I could.

To begin with the President's seeming magnanimous concession absolving right wing rhetoric had all the trappings of the old joke that goes "have you stopped beating your wife?" It establishes as a fact the very sin that will be absolved with no evidence of its commission. It’s a win/win proposition. The allegation is both established and tolerated and the President appears, well, quite presidential through it all. The fact remains that the only people who are upset by alleged incivility of discourse are those against whom the discourse is directed and those who don't care much about the issues involved but simply grow uncomfortable over any conflict.

Of course no one could possibly dispute the direct statement that our world could be kinder and our conversations gentler. But please, someone, somewhere, rise to point out that American political discourse has never been kind and gentle. I grow increasingly more nauseous as self styled moralists, largely without any demonstrable morals, decry the terrible state of our present discourse. It is absurd to suggest that today is the worst time in our history for angry protest and harsh language.

From the days of the Boston Massacre in the 18th century to the shooting up of congress by Puerto Rican separatists in the 1950's, from the sturm and drang of the Viet Nam era to the shouts against Watergate when various leaders were dubbed everything from crooks to despots; Americans have always been passionate and sometimes murderously stupid in their dissent.

I suggest that the current hew and cry about our public incivility is a ruse by those who know better. It is a cynical attempt to tacitly grant respectability to the horrific left wing attacks of the past 30 years on the Judeo-Christian values of our nation. I realize that our President told the world last year that America is not a Christian nation but he was an ass to say that. And so they continue. "Let's stop getting upset", many on the left-wing piously cry. "Get over it and get on with it." Their unstated assumption is that the things a vast majority of Americans feel deeply about are no longer worthy of vigorous opposition and even angry protest. Well, I say to hell with civil discourse in this age of moral blight.

How can we seek a more civil discourse when the left continues to defend the right of the individual to dismember and destroy infants through abortion on demand? How can we who care deeply about the values of Christianity be placid when our President repeatedly lauds gay "heroes" and brazenly strikes a noble pose while supporting their predilections for sodomy as members of our armed services? When I see our President and other congressional leaders carefully maneuver the passions of one segment of American society against the other, when they pit the poorer of us against the rich, when they paint those who care about the security of our borders as enemies and racists and do all this with loud and largely self-serving claims of compassion and deep concern for the needy among us, I grow angry. I will raise my voice in appropriate protest. Don't tell me to be civil. Don't presume to dictate the manner of my exercise of free speech. Stop arrogantly attempting to set my agenda and politically correcting and fine tuning my vocabulary to suit a certain secular level far below the moral values of a Judeo-Christian world-view.

Much is said about civil discourse today by people who talk softly and yet trample down moral values like barbarians. Are we becoming overly mannered in the face of such hypocrisy? The late William F. Buckley, more than 60 years ago, lamented that in the face of moral evil Americans were increasingly becoming an obliging generation. With his typically dry humor, Mr. Buckley noted that Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Mr. Hitler is certainly no gentleman." The faint damning of evil by Mrs. Roosevelt would be laughable were it not for the fact that our current President continues to speak with a mouthful of unmelted butter. He no longer likes the term "terrorist". He refuses to acknowledge a war against terror. He would try foreign mercenaries captured on the field of battle with all the constitutional benefits granted American citizens though these enemies despise our freedoms and indiscriminately murder our people. I fear this President's civility is approaching insanity. It is all too apparent that his civility is crafted to gain political advantage. Who knows the true convictions of his heart? In the meantime our Republic under his leadership is becoming more like the infamous Lord Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield, Dr. Johnson said of his fickle patron, had "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master." How uncivil of the good doctor! But if the ballet slipper fits one must wear it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Friday, June 4, 2010

Simply Augustine


A poem by St. Ambrose (337-397) Bishop of MIlan quoted by Augustine (Confessions, Book IX, Chapt. XIII) in his account of grieving the death of his mother Monica and the night's rest he took following her burial.

"O God, the world's great architect
Clothing the day with beauteous light
And with sweet slumber silent night
When wearied limbs new vigor gain
From rest new labors to sustain;
When hearts oppressed do meet relief
And anxious minds forget their grief."

-- Freely translated from the Latin by
John Cook, 1660.

"He gives his beloved sleep." - Psalm 127:2