Augustine: Verse for Christmas; Sermon 187

I praise you, Lord!

Through you, all things were made,
You who are made in the midst of all things.
Maker of the sun,
Made under the sun.
Ruler of the stars,
Nursing at your mother’s breast.

Reveler of your Father
Creator of your mother
Son of God without a mother
Son of man without a father.

You are greater than the Day of angels,
But small in the day of men.
The Word of God before all time,
The Word made flesh at just the right time.

Unfolding all ages at the bosom of the Father
Unfolded this day from the womb of your mother;
With Him you remain,
From her you come forth.

Creator of heaven and earth
You are born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
You are speechless.
Filling the world,
You lie in a manger.

 

 

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Augustine: Verse for Christmas

Adam created. God born.

In innocence you named all creatures
In infancy you cannot speak
You who made time; made in time.

In boundless bliss you plunged us into darkness
Born in night to seek life for him who died
Older by eternity than the world; younger than all who marvel.

Man wishing to be God lost
God wishing to be man found
You who made man; made man.

Pressed down by pride
Exalted in humility
Giving existence to all; given life by the Virgin.

Adam created, God born.

~~~~

The first (and because I am much better at starting than finishing, possibly last) in a series of poetic interpretations of Augustine’s Christmas sermons. For those keeping score at home: this is based on sermon 188 of the Benedictine/Maurist edition; English translation by Thomas Lawler in volume 15 of the Ancient Christian Writers series.

O Baseball, Late have I loved thee.

Tony DeMarco has a good article on why he will not be casting his Hall of Fame ballot for known or assumed steroid users. I know that football has conquered all sports and dominates America like none other. But baseball remains. (Go ahead and Google James Earl Jones and Field of Dreams now, I’ll wait.)

DeMarco’s article once again shows why baseball is a good lover but a poor wife: it often typifies what is worst in American society while simultaneously displaying the highest ideals of what a successful society should be like. The steroid era wasn’t just in baseball, it was America. Baseball just had its meltdown a little sooner than Wall Street.

It is a great paradox, but for the game of baseball to endure  it needs to constantly remind us that there are things more important than the game. We need Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens et al. We need them excluded from the pinnacle of the sport to remind us that doing something well cannot be done without also doing it virtuously.

Thank you for the reminder Mr. DeMarco.

Augustine on how to know when you are thinking and speaking rightly of God

 What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if you have been able to comprehend what you wanted to say, it is not God; if you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God. If you have been able to comprehend Him as you think, by so thinking you have deceived yourself. This then is not God, if you have comprehended it; but if it is God, you have not comprehended it. How therefore would you speak of that which you cannot comprehend?

How do you know if you are thinking and speaking rightly of God? In short, when you know that you do not know what you are thinking and talking about. Is knowing God possible? Yes, but only in the sense that He may be apprehended, but never comprehended.

20/20 Episode on Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) Churches. What should we take from it?

Those who are in IFB churches should be thankful that apparently either Elizabeth Vargas or her producers have very limited rhetorical abilities. I know what they were trying to prove, and they even alluded to it several times in the episode. But I found the episode’s narrative quite unconvincing. But I was not raised on MTV or Twitter. I am sure many found it emotionally compelling, but I have to imagine that people with critical thinking skills found little worthy of praise. For the most part it was sensationalism-which only hurts the victims in the end because sensation goes away but persuasion remains.

One example: the show’s claim that a male hierarchical authority structure fosters abuse and its cover up. Really? That is why there is abuse in IFB churches? That is the distinguishing characteristic? If that is the case we will certainly have episodes coming soon on a certain organization headquartered in Rome then. I believe reports of abuse in that group have been far more widespread and attempts at cover-up have been far more devious. And I am sure that there will be upcoming episodes on a certain organization centered in Mecca and the numerous rumors of child abuse, forced marriages, temporary marriages… All of the abuses mentioned are heinous and reprehensible, but they do not occur because of male-dominated authority structures. They occur because of the wickedness of the human heart.

Another problem with the report was Vargas’ seeming inability to grasp the concept of an “Independent” Baptist church. Pastor Brain Fuller attempted to speak to this issue on at least one occasion, but I am not sure Vargas ever really understood what he was trying to communicate. This is going to be a groundbreaking assertion, so brace yourself for it: but an “Independent” Baptist church means it is independent! One of the churches highlighted was First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. Also featured in the episode were numerous sermon clips from undisclosed churches. (Something quite irresponsible by the way. “Here is something someone said somewhere, trust us.”) In any event, I grew up in an independent Baptist church and went to college and seminary at two of the institutions referenced in the episode and at none of those three places did I ever associate or was I encouraged to associate with FBC Hammond or was I ever taught the kind of deplorable things pronounced in the anonymous sermon clips. The fact of the matter is that anyone can call himself an Independent Fundamental Baptist. When anyone can claim to be one, it is a mistake to assert that everyone believes like that one. Let ABC or 20/20 assert that all imams preach hatred and suicide bombings since some of them do. Would ABC or 20/20 do such a thing? But we are to believe that just because 20/20 can find outlandish sermons from a few, or even some, Independent Baptists that all believe and preach the same thing? Nonsense.

Yet this does point out a problem with far reaching implications. There is really no effective way for Independent Baptist Churches to definitively separate themselves from association with other Independent Baptist Churches. When you give yourself the same label as a pervert, a whacko, or a heretic gives himself- what else are people to think? A tremendous theological problem with such churches is their separatist ecclesiology.

The Independent Fundamental Baptist Church is a purity movement. As a purity movement it is not new, or unique. In the 3rd century, Cyprian faced the purity movement of the Novatianists. At the turn of the 5th century Augustine dealt with the purity movement of the Donatists. Cyprian and Augustine were clear that the ideals of purity and spiritual unity could not be used as excuses to break physical communion with the established, visible church. Scripturally this is perhaps seen nowhere more clearly than in Revelation 2 and 3. In addressing several churches with serious moral and doctrinal perversions, the Lord Jesus also addresses the faithful remnant in those churches. Jesus never tells them to leave to start a new church, but to remain and stay faithful.

In their pursuit for fidelity and purity, Independent Baptist Churches have actually cut themselves off from the mechanism that fosters and protects fidelity and purity: communion with other churches. A member of ABC Baptist church can run roughshod over innocent victims secure in the knowledge that he can always move on to XYZ Baptist church. A pastor can preach or do pretty much anything he wants secure in the knowledge that it is “his” church and no one else can tell him how to run it.

“One, holy, catholic, and apostolic” is a package deal. If there is not substantial communion and fellowship with other churches, there is no protection for holiness.

I have no idea what the fallout of 20/20’s report will be. But I do know this: Christ promised to build one church. Not a conglomeration of Independent churches. Perhaps this will be used to awaken eyes that there is something more important that “independence” for the sake of purity: fellowship for the sake of accountability.

As long as Trinity Baptist in Concord, NH; First Baptist in Hammond, IN; Marquette Manor in Downers Grove, IL; Colonial Hills in Indianapolis, IN; are all “independent” churches, they will continue to be collectively evaluated by their dirtiest scoundrel.

Bavinck on the Omnipresence of God and if God is always present why is he sometimes far away?

He is not “somewhere,” yet he fills heaven and earth. He is not spread throughout space, like light and air, but is present with his whole being in all places. . . . There is no place or space that contains him; hence, instead of saying that he is in all things, it would be better to say that all things are in him. Yet this is not to be understood to mean that he is the space in which all things are located, for he is not a place. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II.4)

In his discussion about the omnipresence of God, Bavinck offers a good reminder: a caution to help guide out thinking. God’s omnipresence is not just a function of his bigness. God is not everywhere simply because he is bigger than all things.

For a good portion of the day the sun shines on both Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon. Yet while the sun is shining in both places at the same time, it is never present equally and simultaneously in both places. God’s presence is not like this. God is everywhere, and he is wholly everywhere.

But Bavinck is honest with the evidence and with our own experience. While God is present everywhere, his presence is multi-form and variously manifested. Was God not in the wilderness before he indwelt the tabernacle? Had he been absent from Jerusalem before Solomon’s dedicatory prayer of the temple? Did Ezekiel really see God leave Jerusalem and leave it void of his presence until an itinerant teacher from Galilee entered its courts to cleanse it? So Bavinck is right to go on to say, “…in another sense God is present in his creatures in different ways. There is a difference between his physical and his ethical immanence. To suggest an analogy: people too, may be physically very close to each other, yet miles apart in spirit and outlook.”

So what explains this experience? If God is present everywhere, why are there times he seems close and others when he seems far? The second century Greek apologist Theophilus provides an answer:

All men have eyes, but some have eyes which are hooded by cataracts and do not see the the light of the sun. Just because the blind do not see, however, the light of the sun does not fail to shine; the blind must blame themselves and their eyes. So you also, O man, have cataracts over the eyes of your soul because of your sins and wicked deeds.

Just as a man must keep a mirror polished, so he must keep his soul pure. When there is rust on a mirror, a man’s face cannot be seen in it; so also when there is sin in a man, such a man cannot see God. So show yourself to me. Are you not an adulterer? a fornicator? a thief? a swindler? a robber? a [sodomite]? insolent? a reviler? quick-tempered? envious? a braggart? disdainful? a bully? avaricious? disobedient to parents? one who sells his children? God does not become visible to those who do such things unless they first cleanse themselves from all defilement.

All this brings darkness upon you, just as when a flux of matter comes over the eyes and they cannot see the light of the sun. So also, O man, your ungodliness brings darkness upon you and you cannot see God. (Ad Autolycum, I.2, Trans. Robert M. Grant)

A fitting commentary on Isaiah’s declaration in Isaiah 59:1-2, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” God is everywhere, but he does not dwell with sinners. Light has no communion with darkness. Therefore James counsels, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8-10).

When you want to do something bad, you withdraw from the public and hide in your house where no enemy may see you; from those parts of the house that are open and visible you remove yourself to go into your own private room. But even here in your private chamber you fear guilt from some other direction, so you withdraw into your heart and there you meditate. But he is even more deeply inward than your heart. Hence, no matter where you flee, he is there. You would flee from yourself, would you? Will you not follow yourself wherever you flee? But since there is One even more deeply inward than yourself, there is no place where you may flee from an angered God except a God who is pacified. There is absolutely no place for you to flee to. Do you want to flee from him? Rather flee to him. (Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms)

“There is no place where you may flee from an angered God except a God who is pacified.” Ponder this simply amazing truth. The only refuge you have from the fierce wrath of God against you and your sin is the fierce justice of God offered to you in Christ and his righteousness. Do not flee God. Do not push him away. He is the only one that can save you from his consuming anger. The mercy that is in Christ is greater than the sin that is in you.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

Herman Bavinck on the Incomprehensibility of God: or, On Knowing the Unknowable.

Bavinck begins God and Creation, volume 2 of his Reformed Dogmatics, with a chapter on the incomprehensibility of God. A pause to consider that subject gives just a hint of the difficulty of the subject. How do you write a meaningful treatment on something that is incomprehensible? But Bavinck does not sidestep the issue.

The central task of dogmatics is to know God. “…the knowledge of God is the only dogma, the exclusive content, of the entire field of dogmatics. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point. It is the knowledge of him alone that dogmatics must put on display.” And yet, “From the very start of its labors, [dogmatics] faces the incomprehensible One.”

But this does not mean that God is unknowable. Scripture everywhere asserts and assumes that God is known and experienced, even as it teaches he is incomprehensible and incomparable. That God is incomprehensible is necessarily so, for God “cannot fully impart himself to creatures. For that to be possible they themselves would have to be divine.” As Augustine states, “for if you comprehend him it is not God you comprehend.” So we have the summary statement that God can be apprehended, but not comprehended. As Job states, even the clearest and mightiest demonstrations of God are the mere edges of his ways (26:14).

What then is the point of theology? If the goal of theology is the knowledge of God; and if God is incomprehensible; then why pursue the study? Bavinck includes a glorious quote from Hilary, “The perfection of learning is to know God in such a way that, though you realize he is not unknowable, yet you know him as indescribable.” The joy of knowing God is the depth of his incomprehensibility. The knowledge of God is a spring of refreshment never exhausted with depths never plumbed. The hunger and thirst for God is only sated when the pursuit leads to an even greater hunger and thirst.

As Bavinck himself concludes, “It is completely incomprehensible to us how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.”