Devotional Warmth & Academic Rigor

In the book The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, D.A. Carson provides this helpful advice on combining devotional warmth and academic rigor when approaching the Bible. He shows that the common disjunction made between these two ways of approaching Scripture is a misnomer.

Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible. The place where this tension first becomes a problem is usually at seminary. Students enter with the habit of reading the Bible “devotionally” (as they see it). They enjoy reading the Bible, they feel warm and reverent as they do so, they encounter God through its pages, some have memorized many verses and some chapters, and so forth.

Seminary soon teaches them the rudiments of Greek and Hebrew, principles of exegesis, hermeneutical reflection, something about textual variants, distinctions grounded in different literary genres, and more. In consequence, students learn to read the Bible “critically” or “objectively” for their assignments but still want to read the Bible “devotionally” in their quiet times.

Every year a handful of students end up at the door of assorted lecturers and professors asking how to handle this tension. They find themselves trying to have their devotions, only to be harassed by intruding thoughts about textual variants. How should one keep such polarized forms of reading the Bible apart? This polarization, this disjunction, kept unchecked, may then characterize or even harass the biblical scholar for the rest of his or her life. That scholar may try to write a commentary on, say, Galatians, where at least part of the aim is to master the text, while preserving time for daily devotional reading.

My response, forcefully put, is to resist this disjunction, to eschew it, to do everything in your power to destroy it. Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble—the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 am at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 pm.

If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.

Washington’s First Presidential Act

In George Washington’s first inaugural address he expresses deep humility regarding the task at hand and publicly turns his attention heavenward as the first step in his journey. Washington’s first presidential act is an instructive moment in history.

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station; it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

All Good Men Were Once Bad

Augustine, the early church father (354-430 A.D.), was on of the most significant theologians in all of church history. In this post I have selected a number of quotes from a few different works.

“Hence it is not the case that every bad man will become good, but no one will be good who was not bad originally.”

“He that becomes protector of sin shall surely become its prisoner.”

“It is this Good which we are commanded to love with our whole heart, with our whole mind, and with all our strength. It is toward this Good that we should be led by those who love us, and toward this Good we should lead those whom we love. In this way, we fulfill the commandments on which depend the whole Law and the Prophets: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind’; and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ For, in order that a man might learn how to love himself, a standard was set to regulate all his actions on which his happiness depends. For, to love one’s own self is nothing but to wish to be happy, and the standard is union with God. When, therefore, a person who knows how to love himself is bidden to love his neighbor as himself, is he not, in effect, commanded to persuade others, as far as he can, to love God?”

“Now the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, “Knowledge inflates: but love edifies.” The only correct interpretation of this saying is that knowledge is valuable when charity informs it. Without charity, knowledge inflates; that is, it exalts man to an arrogance which is nothing but a kind of windy emptiness.”

Locating Joy: Fellowship with God

In the previous posts on joy we looked at the Triune God as the true source of all joy and the biblical theme of joy in God’s presence. The New Testament pushes us one more step in understanding the dynamic of joy. Take a look at 1 John 1:3-4.

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

The good news that John proclaims is the message that links people to the Triune God. Gospel trust leads to Triune fellowship. This is where joy is made complete. Of note, it is fellowship with the Father and the Son that completes our joy.

In other words, joy is experienced as we know relationship with the distinct persons of the Trinity. The ultimate gift of the gospel is God himself—he gives the fulness of himself to us. That means the Father gives himself, the Son gives himself, the Spirit gives himself.

When acted upon by God we experience the grace of the entire Trinity. The relationship that God creates through our redemption is marked by communion with the entire Trinity. As we engage all three persons, joy awaits.

 

Locating Joy: God’s Presence

The Trinity is the source of all joy, it follows that nearness to him correlates to our experience of joy.If you read through the storyline of Scripture with an eye to the theme of joy there is a discernible pattern that will emerge—joy and celebration are consistently experienced in the presence of God.

The symbol of God’s presence in the Old Testament was the tabernacle and temple. In the stories where the tabernacle and temple are built there is great joy. We see this in every tabernacle/temple building or re-building narrative.

The book of Psalms, likely the book with the most references to joy, is focused on the the worship of God in the temple. The destruction of the temple is the occasion for the book Lamentations, clearly showing that sorrow is directly connected to distance from God’s presence.

This theme carries through to the New Testament where Jesus tabernacles among us (Jn 1:14). We become the temple of the Holy Spirit. And we await the time when the entire earth will become his temple. Every time God takes up residence with his people joy is the response. The Psalmist could not be more clear: “In Your Presence is fullness of joy” (Ps 16:11).

Circumstances do not dictate joy, presence does. You see, for the Christian there are two constants in life: pain and presence. We live in a world wracked by the curse and faltering under the weight of sin. It is our reality and it causes us great sorrow in our souls.

Yet, we who have trusted in Jesus Christ have the Holy Spirit residing in us and the promise that God will never leave us, which means he is always Immanuel. He is God with us! His presence is connected to joy, hence the possibility of rejoicing in the midst of sorrow. It is his presence that enables us to know joy in impossible situations.

Christmas & Unexpected Majesty

The Christmas story is filled with all kinds of unlikely, unexpected twists and turns. The sleepy town of Bethlehem, a teenage virgin, a stable, a crowd of animals and shepherds, a crib—are we sure the one promised to reign and rule, the one coming in might and majesty, the one promised to save and shepherd his people has chosen such a strange entrance?

Yes! We must step back and realize that Christmas is as much about God’s showing work as it is about his saving work. The nativity story is a divine autobiography. God is telling us about himself. He is revealing to the world just who He is and what He is like. The reason the story is so unexpected is because the majesty of our God is unexpected.

The nativity helps us recognize that the glory of God is seen in humility, passion and generosity. It is glimpsed in the paradox of the “Ancient of Days” taking his first breath as a new born baby. Augustine in one of his Christmas homilies beautifully captures the majesty of God in the paradox of the incarnation as he explores the Creator of all knit together in Mary’s womb.

The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born In time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day [set aside] for His human birth. In the bosom of His Father, He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly Mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day. The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Grape, might be crowned with thorns; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Courage might be weakened; that Security might be wounded; that Life might die. To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who ‘existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits. Begotten by the Father, He was not made by the Father; He was made Man in the Mother whom He Himself had made, so that He might exist here for a while, sprung from her who could never and nowhere have existed except through His power.

Remember, the greatest gift of Christmas is always getting more of God. It is about glimpsing more of his majesty and wonder. May he grant us the joy of the angels on that first Christmas day, the gratitude of the Shepherds who welcomed into the world and the persistence and wisdom of the Magi to seek him with our whole hearts. Merry Christmas!