My ordination and convocation

The next few weeks will mark some very important milestone in my life. I completed all my seminary classes. By God’s providence, I was blessed with the opportunity to serve as a pastoral assistant on a half-time basis at my home congregation. In the mean time, I have been awaiting a call to serve as a full-time ordained minister of the gospel, and now, the time has come.

I have been offered a Letter of Call to shepherd two small rural congregations. This Sunday, I will be ordained as a pastor and will have an official title of “Rev”. It’s hard to believe after all this time. I will also be busy packing, moving, and getting settled into a new place in the next several weeks. This means I’ll have less time for blogging in the next little while so don’t expect many posts but I will be back at my normal pace after I get settled. Peace and blessings to all my friends and readers of this blog.

Preserving Democracy by Elgin Hushbeck Jr.

Preserving Democracy
Author: Elgin Hushbeck, Jr.
Publisher: Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2009
ISBN: 978-1893729537 (hardcover)

Recently, I have been doing more reading than blogging, and I am enjoying it. I have just finished reading a new book, Preserving Democracy, written by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. It is published by a small but growing publisher, Energion Publications, and I wish to thank the publisher, Mr. Henry Neufeld, for a copy of this advanced edition.

I am a fan of the the U.S. Constitution because the Founding Fathers who designed the U.S. Constitution constructed the finest constitutional document, probably in the history of the world. To those who are critical of the United States, its ideals and its problems, I probably sound like I have been totally taken in or doofed by American propaganda (Note: I can say this because I am Canadian…and some of you know what it means to be Canadian). But to those who understand the history of the United States and who have read what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton reported in the Federalist Papers, one will appreciate the genius behind the framers of the Constitution. This document has become the model for many other national constitutions around the world. Americans should be very proud of the U.S. Constitution. If it wasn’t a great document and so intelligently put together, I highly doubt it would be held in such high regard by so many other nations.

Yes, America has not been perfect, and it still isn’t. Critics of the great American democratic experiment will be quick to point out the history of slavery and poverty; but this has existed in the histories of every country and I do not intend to condone any wrongs. However, I must ask: Is there any other country on earth where it has opened its doors to so many immigrants where so many have found freedom, equality and the liberty to pursue happiness, prosperity, and religious freedom?

In this book, the author defends the American democratic ideals. Hushbeck knows and understands the history of this nation from its Christian roots. He has helped to enlighten my eyes to what Thomas Jefferson really meant when he wrote to a Baptist group in Danbury, Conn.:

“I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State” (p.91).

Jefferson said this not to establish freedom from religion, but to establish freedom for religion. Today, the courts have twisted and corrupted the honorable intention of Jefferson such that many use this to mean that any public institution must be secular. This cannot be further from the truth. Anyone who doubts this piece of American history should read further into American history. Hushbeck has drawn his information from many sources and is well-informed about the history of the American Founding Fathers. I doubt that many history teachers know about this part of American history because many universities teach American history from a purely secularized perspective and is devoid of true “His-Story.” This is sad.

True freedom can only be experienced within the confines and protection of the Rule of Law, and when the laws of the law promote justice and equality. Freedom is not anarchy, nor do I believe it is libertarianism. Americans should never take freedom for granted because it is, and still remains, one of the freest countries on the face of the earth. It is so because of respect for Rule of Law. It is Rule of Law, and not laws, that give people protection and security under the law. However, these freedoms are being eroded today. I really like what Hushbeck says in the chapter on The Rule of Law. He defines what this concept is.

“The Rule of Law is not law. Laws have been around since before recorded history…. While laws are the rules of conduct of a society that are backed up by the authority of the state; the Rule of Law is a concept that deals with how law itself is to be understood and more importantly to whom it is applied. In its simplest form, the Rule of Law can be summed up in the statement: No one is above the law, not even the ruler” (p. 80-81).

In dictatorships, nations under Mao, Stalin or Hitler did not have Rule of Law because they dictated what the law should be according to how it best benefited them. This still happens today under tribal leadership and dictatorship, and it is abuse. However, they would not consider it abuse because they do not have a true understanding of Rule of Law.

What is truly important about Rule of Law is that it provides a basis for true democratic government. The author used an example of Saddam Hussein who acted as though he was above the law. He changed the way elections were conducted at his own whim. Therefore, democracy never actually existed under Hussein. This sort of thing still happens in other countries today. In false democracies, posed as democracies, their practices are underhanded, or even unashamedly open-handedly but corrupt.

Hushbeck says that the American democratic republic could fail if the U.S. Supreme Court continues in it dangerous trend of where court justices set dangerous precedents to define how new laws should be applied. Judges who see the Constitution as a fixed standard treat the Constitution as if it is a “living document” in the sense that it “can grow and be expanded to meet the needs of an ever-changing society.” Should it be able to be expanded? Should the American people ever change the Constitution? I mean, should one fix what is not broken? Some feel that rather than fixing it, it would be easier to reinterpret what it says. When judges base their ruling on their own personal views as to what is important or what ought to be, it can set a dangerous precedent; and it has. “In short, it makes the judge more of a ruler than a judge,” says Hushbeck. Undoubtedly, this weakens the public confidence in the Constitution, the Rule of Law, and respect for the laws of the land. It also allows for injustice.

There is so much more to say about this book that I would need more room and time to say it. If you have an interest in American history, the richness of American heritage, and are concerned about the state of the nation today, you should read Preserving Democracy. This book has just been released on April 15, 2009 and is now available for pre-purchase at Energion Publications and on Amazon.com. I am very glad to have read this informative and well-written book. Thanks.

Calvin by Willem Van’t Spijker

Calvin: A Brief Guide to His Life and Thought
Author: Spijker, Willem Van’t
Translated by: Lyle D. Bierma.
Publisher: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780664232252

I would like to begin by thanking Presbyterian Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

I have to admit that I am not a history buff and when given a choice, I would naturally prefer reading theology over history. When I started reading this book, I was expecting to read more about the theology of John Calvin but I realized that this was more of a historical biography than an explanation of John Calvin’s theology. Ten of the eleven chapters deal with the historical biography of John Calvin, which left only one chapter dealing solely with the theology of John Calvin. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading chapter 10 “Contours of Calvin’s Theology”. (In fact, I jotted many notes as I was reading this chapter because I felt that Spijker made many fine points on Calvin’s theology).

As I kept reading, I also began to realize the magnitude of Calvin’s struggles and challenges. Of the Reformers, I had only had prior knowledge of Martin Luther and a very basic introduction to the man of John Calvin through my studies in seminary about the history of the Protestant Reformation. However, after finishing his book today, I realized that I had only begun to scrape the surface of what lies beneath a great man of deep conviction and faith. I would opine that the accomplishments and influence of John Calvin is equal to that of the other great Reformer, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther.

The author, Willem Van’t Spijker, is one of the leading scholars on John Calvin. As I said, this book is not so much a book on the theology of Calvin as it is on the history of the person of John Calvin. The events and accomplishments of Calvin are presented in chronological fashion. Throughout the book, Spijker mainly talks about the events and actions of Calvin during his lifetime that created the Reformation in the early to mid 16th century.

Spijker takes his readers through the history of Calvin, from the beginning of the 16th century to Calvin’s early life and development, to his Institutes and the origins and formation of the church in Geneva, as well as, Strasbourg; then into his formation of the four offices, the independent authority of the church, and the completion of the Institutes in 1559.

A common theme that seems to occur throughout the pages of this book is the idea or practice of church discipline. For those who come without any prior knowledge of Calvinism and what it is, one might carry the image of strict ladies with hair rolled up in a bun, up tightness, and of law and obedience. That’s the negative stereotypical image of people who practice church discipline. After reading about Calvin’s theological reasoning behind church discipline, I realized that it is not such a far out, wild and crazy idea for a church to have. I understand that church discipline is required in any church and congregation and it must be carried out in order for the church to maintain some ecclesiastical and spiritual order within the body of Christ.

Yes, Calvin did support punishment of heretics by banishing them from the city of Geneva, or levying the heavy punishment of death upon those who disagreed with him. By today’s standards, this would obviously be considered extreme religious persecution and a strict violation of human rights. However, in his days, this was the normal practice of church discipline. It was also the experience of the other contemporary Reformers like Martin Luther.

For our many friends who are of the Presbyterian or Reformed persuasion, you would cringe at the thought of such practices and would even condemn those who do the same. Well, Calvin was not a tolerant figure and this shameful image is not what any of us would like to read about in our books on church history. However, it is good to know how our early predecessors from the Reformation past conducted themselves in the post-Roman age and learn from that era what we must not do in the future.

With this said as a prelude, I must admit that some measure of church discipline is necessary because of the chaos the Reformation created. The Roman Catholic Church was also fully immersed into the practice of church discipline and was the epitome of such practices. Spijker says:

With respect to church discipline, [Calvin] emphasized the principle that actions by the consistory out not to interfere with procedures in the civil courts. It was also his wish that people not be dealt with too harshly in church discipline and that there be no difference between the discipline of laypersons and office-bearers. The latter should be subject to the same punishments as the former” (p. 164).

I am not sure I would agree with Spijker’s statement here. Calvin’s practice of church discipline was guided by a distinction between the spiritual discipline of the church and the punishment of the civil government. He claims Calvin did not want to mix the two realms of civil jurisdiction and the authority of the church. However, both seemed to be heavy-handed at times.

Spijker does not hide Calvin’s leaning toward church discipline. He writes:

On the matter of church discipline as an effective means of combating sins and shortcomings, however, tension between the magistracy and the consistory continued to exist. On more than one occasion, Calvin was called upon to be more moderate in his preaching, as a means that he was using to propagate his belief about church discipline” (p. 99).

This book covers a lot more than church discipline. It also talks about how Calvin wanted to transform the City of Geneva under Calvin’s vision as a model of what a Christian society should look like. It is interesting that Spijker says Calvin felt that he failed in his plan to transform this city. Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms did not function in the same way as the Geneva model. Calvin saw both kingdoms under one Lord. Calvin thought his model was the only way and perhaps that is why he felt he failed in achieving a model Christian society?

La Résurrection by James Tissot

This painting called La Résurrection by French artist, James Tissot, is done in watercolor. It is held at the Brooklyn Museum. La Résurrection actually depicts Christ rising from the place of the dead. I like this painting because it depicts Christ’s amongst the dead and supports the theology that Jesus actually visited the place of hell after his death on the cross in order to preach to the spirits who had already died a physical death but who have yet to experience a spiritual rebirth.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits…” (1 Peter 3:18-19, TNIV).

In the Apostles’ Creed, the newer version states: “He descended to the dead.” I think “The dead” may be a more accurate interpretation because it connotes a place where the dead rests. (In the Greek, this place of the dead is called sheol in Hebrew or hades in Greek). In our contemporary language, we currently refer to this place as hell; however, it might also be called the place of the dead because it is where people go after they die.

Do you think the place of “the dead” or “hell” would be a more accurate description of what hades really is?

The Resurrection (La Résurrection)
Series: The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ)
Artist: James Tissot, French, 1836-1902

He is Risen! Hallelujah!

Hopefully, you have been encouraged this Easter Sunday morning of Christ’s resurrection. For me personally, Christ’s resurrection is the most important event and theological issue for the church. Moreover, I would consider one’s belief in the resurrection to be the most important factor in determining the current status of a person’s life and faith in Christ in that moment in time. You may have another.

L: He is Risen! Hallelujah!
All: He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah!

That is what we profess from our ancient church creeds; and that is what we proclaim to one another and to the world. In the Apostles’ Creed, we profess that:

“On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead….I believe in…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

There is a connection within our confession and profession of faith. It is because Christ has risen on the third day, has ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right of the Father, that we believe Christ will come again and we look forward to the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

If Jesus did not rise from death, there would be no reason our whole celebration of Christ resurrection, and therefore, no reason for Easter season.

Would there be a reason for Christianity if there was no reason for Christ’s resurrection, and for our own resurrection in the future?

Undoubtedly, there are many non-believers, and even amongst some self-professed Christians, who doubt the resurrection of Christ. If we have no reason to believe in the resurrection of Christ, we have no basis to believe in the future of our own resurrection from death. We would just be temporary living blobs of life who will live and die and never again experience life; nor will we have any memory of having lived life on earth.

Yes, I am one of these hopeful Christians who believe that we will rise again from death and retain our living memories of our time on earth and live again to experience life forever with God in Christ Jesus. Whether we will be resurrected in body form or another form is a non-issue for me personally.

The most important issue for me is that we will be resurrected from death into life, as in accordance to scripture.

Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb saying: “Mary…do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “’I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:16-17, NRSV).

The women Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome saw only an empty tomb and an angel dressed in white who asked: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6, NRSV).

Would you consider the resurrection to be the most important factor in determining the current status of a person’s life and faith in Christ in that moment in time?


HatTip: Eddie Arthur

Should we do away with "and the Son"?

Inspired my review of Alister McGrath’s book in my previous post regarding the theme of the Trinity, it prompted me to ask myself a question. If “and the Son” was removed from the Nicene Creed, would that bother me? For me personally? My answer from the gut would be: “No.” But then, many people thoughout the centuries have been accused of heresy for saying “No”.

You might be asking: “What in the world is the filioque?” The Nicene Creed, an ancient creed of the church, is accepted and recited universally by Christians around the world.

The Western Church (Protestants and Roman Catholics) recites the Nicene Creed with an addition of three words to one line (in our English translations). This is called the filioque clause; and it reads:

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son

The Eastern Church (Orthodox), however, recites the creed without “and the Son” (the filioque clause):

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”

It’s interesting to note that: “and the Son” was not originally in the Nicene Creed but was later added. Apparently, this filioque clause was added in the 6th century to prevent a doctrinal error called Arianism. But is it necessary today? Who is correct, the East or the West?

Furthermore, this addition seems to conflict with scripture (see John 15:26 below). Where does scripture say anything about the Son proceeding from the Father? Okay, we do know that the Son proceeds from the Father but is it necessary that it also be stated in the creed?

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (ESV)

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father–the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father–he will testify about me” (TNIV)

The Spirit should not be perceived as being born from the Son because all three has always been (sense of birth/generation). The Spirit can, however, be perceived as coming after the Son during Pentecost (sense of order/timing). I know all this can be confusing and I think I am still confused myself.

Do you think the Son proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit from the Son?

Or do you think the Son and Spirit have equal footing where both equally proceed from the Father?

What did you learn or recite in church? Or do you recite any creed in church?

Alister McGrath: The Christian Vision of God from Fortress Press

The Christian Vision of God
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008.
ISBN: 9780800637057

First, I would like to thank the fine people at Fortress Press for a copy of this book.

In his book, The Christian Vision of God, the highly regarded theologian Alister McGrath has combined his reflections of the trinity with Christian artwork. If I had to describe this book in one sentence, it might be this: “theological reflections of the Trinitarian God laid upon the canvas of Christian art.” I like theology but I’ve never been into art; however, I find this combination quite enjoyable. Also, this is a short book that can be read in one sitting.

His Trinitarian reflections are enhanced by his artwork. The artwork gives him a starting position from which to lead into some discussions about the trinity. It blends very nicely because it adds a bit of color to his theological reflections. McGrath’s reflections of Christian art is not the main emphasis. His commentary on the artwork sort of hangs merely as a backdrop; and it leaves his theology of the trinity standing out very boldly on the forefront within the pages of his book.

McGrath has chose to draw his Trinitarian reflections from seven items of art:

  • Pearl of Great Price, by Daniel Bonnell (b. 1955)
  • The Kiss, 1907-08 by Gustav Klimt
  • The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633 by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn
  • Pentecost, by Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli
  • Moses and the Burning Bush, by William Blake
  • The Holy Trinity with St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdelene, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1490-95 by Sandro Botticelli
  • Icon with the Trinity, by Andrei Rublev

I also wish to share a few insightful comments from this book. How can one describe the Trinity? The author puts it this way:

“… something incomprehensible, combining mathematical absurdity with theological obscurantism. We can do without this sort of thing, can’t we? Perhaps it is not surprising that most Christians rarely talk about the Trinity, even though they talk about God rather a lot” (p. 62).

I am glad the author understands the difficulty inherent in this doctrine saying that: “It is clear that many need reassurance that this doctrine is well grounded in the Bible, and that its apparent nonsensicality masks its capacity to be profoundly helpful in matters of faith” (p.74).

This question of the Trinity was perhaps the first question I struggled with in the beginning of my faith formation. I remember asking a pastor about the different theology the Jehovah’s Witnesses were teaching as compared with the theology he was teaching. He provided me great pastoral care and teaching that solidified my faith in the Trinitarian God who gave me salvation, life, and forgiveness.

Perhaps something that will help those who have trouble wrapping their heads around the Trinity is to develop a fuller model of a combination of a:

1) transcendent God who lies beyond the world, as its source and creator;
2) immanent God who is present and active throughout his creation; and
3) human face of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

McGrath believes that we need these three ways of visualizing God together if one is to have an authentically Christian view of God. I have heard some people argue for a predominantly transcendent God…and some for an immanent God. The debate goes on and on; but I believe this debate is endless and absolute useless because God’s character can include all three. I am glad I was able to figure this out early on in my Christian walk.

In The Holy Trinity, by Botticelli, the author insightfully recognizes that:

“The Spirit is represented in a curiously understated manner by a dove, hovering between the dominant figures of the Father and the crucified Son… Botticelli seems to suggest that the Holy Spirit is less personal, less important, and somehow less connected with us than the two central figures of the great drama of salvation” (p. 63).

I could not agree with McGrath more. I would also add that our theology of the Trinity has understated the importance of the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we do not think it is kosher to pray to God the Holy Spirit. I believe we can and should also include God the Spirit in our prayers. Moreover, I also sympathize with the thought that our limited human understanding of the Spirit prevents us from painting an accurate picture of the Holy Spirit in a way that does not even come close to glorifying and worshiping the Holy Spirit in a way the Spirit deserves to be glorified and worshiped.

On the Icon with the Trinity, McGrath states:

“their heads are slightly bowed towards the Father, in acknowledgement of his ultimate authority. The Father’s hand points toward the Son; the Son’s toward the Spirit. It is a symbolic representation of the great pattern of revelation that we find in the New Testament, especially in John’s gospel: the Father sends the Son; the Son sends the Spirit” (p. 80).

Since this is item of art is Orthodox in origin, I find it interesting that McGrath did not mention Vladimir Lossky and the Orthodox Trinitarian doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit (or more specifically, the issue of filioque). An Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit’s procession is different from that of the Western Church. This can be an endless debate of “who” proceeds from “whom”. On one hand, since the trinity is a mystery, maybe less commentary is better? On the other hand, though difficult to read, I do like Augustine’s prolific treatise, De Trinitate, which is a major writing on the Christian understanding of God. McGrath does not go as deep as the early church fathers but does give his readers many reflections to think about.

Concerning William Blake’s Moses and the Burning Bush, the author says:

“Blake appears to depict Moses as somewhat underwhelmed by his experience. He seems unmoved by what he observes; he gives little more than a sideways glance toward the ‘burning bush’; and he makes no attempt to remove his sandals as a sign of reverence. Blake seems to suggesting that Moses failed to realize the significance of what he observed, and challenges us to appreciate its mystery more fully” (p. 53).

In my observation, I would suggest that Moses was not unmoved by emotion. Blake may have depicted the specific moment in time when he first noticed the burning bush. Though this may be McGrath’s personal interpretation of Blake’s artwork, he does use his reflection as a lead into further theological discussion into the mystery of God.

This book is well done, and it will be a book that I will open up again, not just to admire for its artwork but also to further ponder upon the author’s Trinitarian reflections. Alister McGrath has adeptly used art to enhance his scholarly theological discussion on the Trinity, which I am sure will benefit others who are on a quest of forming one’s Christian vision of God.