‘Reading Reflections’

Pastor Michael Bowman

“All That Is In God”

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At some point in 2021 I read James Dolezal’s book “All That Is In God” which is a short book defending Classical Christian theism. The Doctrine of God can at times be very difficult for us because we are creatures trying to speak about the Creator, we are finite and speaking of the infinite. This is why much of what the Church says in speaking of God has historically been through the use of negative statements. But this book is a great primer if you are interested in the topic and I would highly recommend it.

            Much of what Dolezal writes against is what he calls “theistic mutualism” which is quite common within Evangelicalism today. He defines mutualism as, “a symbiotic relationship in which both parties derive something from each other.” That might sound almost right to you depending on how you have thought of God, and yet we would not want to say this of the relationship that we have to God. God as God cannot be dependent upon us in any way. He cannot be in need of something from us, and we can not be able to take something from him, as far as his being is concerned. God doesn’t need us. Many, for the sake of what they think of as an authentic relationship, want to make God more like us. They want him to grow and change. They want the relationship that we have to God to be just like the relationships we have to one another.

            While the Bible does use the language of personal relationship to describe how we relate to God we want to be careful to realize that in His revelation God has used language that we will understand. This language is not meant to be exhaustive of the being of God, our language can’t do that. To fully explain God would be to show he is limited in some way, and thus not God at all. God has accommodated his revelation to our limited minds and creaturely nature and so when discussing God’s being we need to be extremely cautious and proceed only with great humility.

            In contrast to the modern theistic mutualism by which God is made to be more like us, “Classical Christian theism is deeply devoted to the absoluteness of God with respect to His existence, essence, and activity. Nothing about God’s being is derived or caused to be. There is nothing behind Him or outside Him that could increase, alter, or augment His infinite fullness of being and felicity. For this reason, He cannot subject Himself to changes because every change involves a cause that brings to the subject an actuality of being that the subject lacks in and of itself. Causes, simply put, make things to be. Therefore, if God is wholly uncaused and self-sufficient in the plentitude of His being, then He cannot be moved to some further actuality. This would suggest some imperfection or absence of being and goodness in Him” (Dolezal, 10-11).

            I want to write here on why this all matters. This matters first and foremost because we are talking about God, our Creator and Heavenly Father. To know Him, to glorify Him, to enjoy Him; this is what we were made for. So thinking about who He is is perhaps one of the foremost duties of every Christian. Secondly this matters, I believe, because it changes how we approach God. I have often said that we don’t really have the fear of God that we should, and this comes out most in how we approach God, and how we speak of him. For many God is a homeboy. He’s a pal, a romantic partner, just another one of us. This is at least the way many speak about God. But the God who has revealed himself in Scripture as a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) and he is not to be trifled with or thought of lightly.

            God is not a bigger version of you. He is not like one of us but smarter, more beautiful, less limited. He is transcendent and completely holy, that is to say set apart. He is not a creature like us bound by time, space or anything else. God is not in need that you would add anything to him. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?’ For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).

“Eastern Orthodoxy”

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“The church is an earthly heaven in which the heavenly God dwells and moves.” St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople.

Each year I try to read up on some other religion or Christian denomination and as I write this (in December, 2021) I recently finished a study I conducted on Eastern Orthodoxy. I have little contact with EO (although they have one church here in La Crosse) and so it seemed like it could be of benefit. Usually when I read about other traditions I have a split personality. On the one hand I want to hold my Reformed Presbyterian bonafides strongly and defend my ground. On the other hand I have a bit of an ecumenical spirit, at least as far as thinking that I can learn a lot from these other traditions. I really enjoyed the time I spent reading on Eastern Orthodoxy and thought I would share here some of the things I was most impacted with.

            First a few caveat. First, I only read about EO on my own and so it is very possible I will misrepresent what they believe here in one way or another. Secondly, most of what I read was from a western perspective. I read “The Orthodox Church” by Timothy Ware, as well as “Eastern Orthodox Christianity” and “Eastern Orthodox Theology” by Daniel B. Clendenin. Ware was a Bishop but in a Western context, and Clendenin was a westerner trying to help particularly Evangelicals understand the EO. I say all of this to make it clear that I am far from an expert. This is a reading reflection and not a comprehensive view. My guess is that a westernized EO is going to sound much more agreeable to my ears than if I experienced it in a completely different cultural context in Russia for instance. Thirdly, I am not here trying to critique EO. There is plenty of room for that. The soteriology, sacramentology, and many other areas of the Orthodox faith (such as the, in my eyes, the idolatrous use of Icons) is full of errors. But my focus was really more on what I can learn than what I can reject.

            With the caveats out of the way, we can begin. I want to share 3 things that I find insightful in Eastern Orthodoxy. First is the deep love for and importance placed upon the Trinity and the Incarnation. Though of course all Christians worship the Triune God, and the Second person of the Trinity who was made flesh, yet what I like of what I have read from EO is the self-conscious way that everything is rooted in these great truths. They are often wrong in conclusions, but starting with the reality of who God is and the glory of his incarnation as a matter of first principles, and then building out to other areas of theology, seems to be the correct starting point. These are the bedrock, foundational truths of the faith.

            Secondly, I was struck by the fact that there is very little in EO of what refer to as “Systematic Theology.” The understanding seems to be that theology is not primarily written about and systematized, but rather it is known through the worship of the church. The liturgy of the church becomes the focal point of theology. The Orthodox don’t seem to divide things the way that we do as if someone could study theology without a true heart of worship. This no doubt comes in part due to their emphasis on the writings of the early church Fathers. Athanasius near the end of “On the Incarnation” speaks this way when he encourages the readers that if they would like to understand the Scriptures like the apostolic father did then they will have to live lives like them. Worship and theological reflection are not to be bifurcated as if they were separate endeavors. The Orthodox would critique the West (whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, which they don’t see as all that different) and say that we are too rationalistic. Reason has taken too central a role in our determinations of the faith and the supernatural elements have been removed. This is not a completely unfounded claim and I think it would do us a service to think about where it might be true of us. As Clendenin quotes from one Orthodox thinker, “… Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the living God.”

            The third and final insight that I want to share deals with apophatic theology, or negative theology. I wrote a little about this in the reflection on James Dolezal’s book, “All That Is In God.” The apophatic approach to knowing God takes seriously our human limitations intellectually and linguistically. There will always be mystery when dealing with the transcendent, creator God. Our minds and words cannot contain him. There are some things we can know, so you don’t want to take this too far, but you need to recognize your limitations.

            On this point, Clendenin quotes Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Eastern Church Father, and I think it is worth sharing what Nyssa said in this regard:

            “Imagine a sheer, steep crag with a projecting edge at the top. Now imagine what a person would probably feel if he put his foot on the edge of this precipice and, looking down into the chasm below, saw no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. For here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place, nor time, neither measure nor anything else; our minds cannot approach it. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is nonnatural with it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.”

            There is much more I could probably add that I learned through my study of Eastern Orthodoxy, and there is more that I want to study (especially having heard there was a brief entrance of Calvinism to EO during the Reformation) but for now these are some of my gleanings from the material that I had. There are many reasons I am a Protestant, and reading in Orthodoxy only strengthened that resolution in me, but I did find some the items above helpful correctives from a different perspective.

“Concerning the True Care of Souls”

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This past year I read Martin Bucer’s book ‘Concerning the True Care of Souls’ which is book on pastoral care and theology written in 1538. This was quite honestly one of the better books that I have read on shepherding and it would be hard to limit myself to one or two things that I took from it. Instead, I am going to just have some general musings on various quotes and ideas that Bucer shares.

‘For the fellowship of the Christian church consists not in ceremonies and outward practices, but in true faith, in obedience to the pure gospel, and in the right use of the holy sacraments as the Lord has ordained them. Everything else each church has to arrange as it finds best for itself.’

You see here that Bucer was not a schismatic or what I often think of today as a brawler. There are many reasons that people leave churches and break fellowship, and most of them have to do with things that are not primary issues of truth and faith but usually preference.

‘He (the Lord) is and dwells with his people until the end of the world – although not in a tangible sense or in the way of this world, which he has left behind, but nonetheless truly and actually…. Therefore no-one is to claim the Lord’s governing authority for himself; for the Lord is never absent from his church, but is always personally present, personally doing and performing everything in all things.’

Christ himself is the only head of the Church. He is the one that ordains how it is to operate, what role each plays. Keeping in mind the Lord’s presence in the Church is a helpful guard against the abuse of power and authority. The Church is Christ’s body and he is the one working through it.

‘This is why all pious Christians should use the texts we have set out to guard themselves against the wholly pernicious error which despises the church’s ministry of word and sacrament as a superficial and unnecessary thing, and would have everything given and received from Christ in heaven without using the means which the Lord himself desires to employ.’

Recently (at the time of this writing) I mentioned in a sermon that one of the ways we challenge God is by not taking him up on his promise to meet us in certain ways and instead want him to meet us on our terms, as if we held the cards and could dictate to God what he must do to prove himself to us. This is not a new problem, it is a human problem. God has promised to meet his people through his Word and through the Sacraments and we tell him we would like to meet him at our home, in online church, by ourselves etc. Though God may work in gracious ways through other means, the primary means that he has ordained to communicate to us the benefits of his redemption are the means of grace, primarily Word and Sacrament.

‘Now all this (shepherding) is to be achieved and attained solely through teaching, exhorting, warning, disciplining, comforting, pardoning, and reconciling to the Lord and his church: in other words the proclaiming of the whole word of God.’

In a different context he says:

‘Therefore since all sicknesses and weaknesses in the Christian life stem from the weakness and stupidity of faith, and faith comes from the word of God and is strengthened and encouraged by it, all strengthening of the weak and ailing sheep depends on the word of God being faithfully set forth to them, and them being led to listen to it gladly and have all their joy in it.’

Bucer puts a large emphasis on the role that God’s Word takes in the care of the church. Why is that important? Because when God’s Word is proclaimed, it is God himself who is speaking to his people. By the Spirit’s work of illuminating the Word, God speaks directly to each of his people. It is easy to be side-tracked and look to other aspects of church life, and even look outside of the church, for what we can receive most centrally from the Scripture. This is why proclamation of the Word needs to be the center of the mission of the church.

Marriage in itself promotes the work of godliness, it does not hinder it. For although marriage involves temporal concerns, troubles and affairs which might be a hindrance to the work of the ministry, it also has many advantages in enabling the minister not only to live a disciplined and blameless life, but also to be more free of temporal cares and affairs and to serve the Lord more faithfully, zealously, and without hindrances…. This means that all those who abstain from marriage without being called to do so by the Lord are not thereby made more free of worldly affairs and attached more devotedly and freely to Christ the Lord, but rather sink even more into worldly affairs and are estranged from Christ the Lord;”

This is wisdom at work. During the Reformation the primary issue was with celibacy in the priesthood and whether that was a requirement for ministry. Today this is not an issue in our churches, but there has been a strange idea of “the gift of singleness” that has come up as though to be single was a virtue in itself. The Bible does speak of being gifted with celibacy, but it is not in anyway to be thought of as normal. That is to say that it is out of the ordinary while the ordinary way that God orders ones life is through marriage. As Bucer shows here to neglect marriage if you are not called to celibacy is actually to add burdens to yourself not to free yourself. True freedom comes in ordering your life according to God’s Word. In another section Bucer speaks of how early Fathers of the faith spoke lowly of marriage and highly of celibacy and it helped me realize that really we each want to praise what corresponds most to our own lives, but God has outline a proper standard for us and it isn’t our own lives.

The Church’s ministry requires many sorts of gifts, therefore it is necessary to have many sorts of people in it. But because the Lord does not give all these gifts and skills just to one, two, or three, churches have always had a good number of elders, and these not all the same in what they do and what they are.’

This is one of the reasons that having a plurality of Elders is so important. Not all of the Elders at Christ Covenant are the same, have the same skills or gifts, or employment, or inclinations etc. God has made each different and through the deliberations of a diversely gifted group there is often greater wisdom. Each has different blind spots and strengths and each helps fill up where the others are lacking. Bucer does not seem to be elitist in this way and seems to me to make a good case for our Presbyterian polity.

Martin Bucer

‘And no-one is immediately forgiven when he turns away from his transgression and says he is sorry; because this punishment, discipline and penance make the people really reluctant to do wrong, and the mischief is somewhat removed from their flesh, and also others are deterred from sinning.’

This is a good reminder that discipline in the visible church is not just important the for individual as it is an aid in his Christian walk and may help to preserve him in the faith. It also matters for everyone else. Discipline faithfully carried out is a benefit to each of us as a bulwark against temptation. Bucer shows that with lack of discipline there is also a growth in a casual view of sin. Discipline makes clear the seriousness of sin. Discipline (or penance in Bucer’s words) is not without its dangers though:

‘Because so much danger attaches to penance, as it does to everything that is useful and necessary, great diligence and true spiritual wisdom and astuteness are necessary in order to impose and moderate penance in such a way that people are caused, moved, and brought and encouraged to exercise genuine, childlike faith and amendment of life in accordance with true faith; and that no-one should either be driven completely away from the church, which is the first danger with penance, not taught to play the hypocrite by an outward show of penance, which is the second danger, nor plunge into despair, which is the third danger.’

There are significant dangers if church discipline is not carried out properly. This is why we have within our polity significant chance of appeals to other courts and accountability throughout the system. You don’t want someone to be hardened against the church or driven to despair for their souls from too harsh of discipline. You don’t want people thinking that they should just pretend and hide their sin, which is what can be easily taught when there is law but no love. Discipline is not done for the sake of forgiving sins, you have that in Christ if you have believed. It is, as Bucer puts it, ‘medicine for present and future sins, not past ones.’ It is a help in sanctification. One of the examples that he gives of this is how God forgives Adam and covers his sin after eating from the Tree, but he is still not allowed to enter back into the garden. So, the forgiveness of sins doesn’t remove the need for discipline.

I could keep going on with all of the beneficial material that I gained from Martin Bucer in this book. It was a particular benefit to me as a Shepherd to God’s people, but even if you don’t have that role, you may find it helpful. I’ll close here with one more great quote:

‘As for those who are still in error with regard to worship and think that various outward ceremonies and practices are essential for worship, although they are not required by the Lord, like those at Rome who were weak in the faith and are spoken of in the third text: they do not yet understand the gospel aright and do not know completely what is to comfort them in Christ; that is, the fact that he brings salvation by his merit alone, and requires nothing else of them but that they steadfastly believe and acknowledge this, and then out of thanksgiving to him be and become to their neighbor everything in order that he, too, may be encouraged to the same faith and be kept and strengthened in it.’

“The City of God”

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“I think I have now, by God’s help, discharged my obligation in writing this large work. Let those who think I have said too little, or those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough join me in giving thanks to God. Amen.”

Introduction

I recently finished reading “The City of God” by St. Augustine. I started reading this book a long time ago (well over a year) and stopped at about half-way through. Finally I got around to finishing the rest of it. It’s a large book, and can be pretty demanding, but was very rewarding to work through. I would highly recommend it for anyone that is interested.

This book may be of special interest in helping us diagnose our current moment in history. Many of us see that our culture seems to be imploding and something new is taking shape. It’s a time of fairly seismic changes in the social order, and that is what was happening when Augustine was writing. He wrote this book in response to the fall of the Roman Empire. For many this seemed like it was the end of the world, the end of all things. Many of the pagans in Rome blamed the somewhat recent growth and acceptance of Christianity throughout Rome for its collapse. Augustine in “City of God” is responding to both the collapse itself, as well as the claims that Christianity brought it all about.

The over all purpose of the book is to show how the City of God is not coterminous with the city of Man, and that God has been building his city since the days of Adam and it will continue until the coming of Christ when he establishes the New Heavens and New Earth in their fullness. Augustine traces these two “cities” or kingdoms and how they have interacted over history, in his present day, and what scripture speaks of the future of each.

I want to write here about a couple of reasons I found this such a helpful work.

Pastoral Wisdom

First in reading through City of God, I was struck by its pastoral wisdom. Augustine is one of the greatest Theologians the church has ever had, but he was no mere academic. He was a Bishop, and so he was a pastor. His pastoral care comes out in many places throughout the book.

He speaks at one point to those who experienced the trauma of Barbarian invasion, specifically for those who were raped or in other ways sexually violated. In this large theological tome Augustine takes time to counsel these people. They were concerned that their chastity had been violated, but Augustine encourages them that they need not see themselves in that way because their chastity of soul that comes from Christ could not be touched and taken away from them.

Augustine also sets out a great example of Apologetics. Most of this work is defending the faith. He does so by both speaking to the truth of the Scripture, as well as the problems with the pagan deities of Rome. It is both offensive and defensive. Perhaps the hardest part of reading this book is Augustine spends large amounts of time critiquing specific gods and religious practices as well as Roman history and philosophy. Without knowing the context the reader can find themself lost. But even here there is significant benefit. He can be sharp at times, but also shows his desire to reason with others to help them come to an understanding of the truth. He at times speaks to the absurdity of pagan worship as it is held up against the Scripture, while also attacking these beliefs on their own basis quoting their own history and philosophy to refute them.

There is also a wide array of social issues that Augustine touches on in regard to what the Faith teaches. The nature of virtue and justice, the death penalty, just war theory, nationalism vs. empire building, piety for civil leaders, and God’s sovereignty over all of that happens in a nations history. These and many more items are addressed.

Biblical Basis

The second thing that sticks out is the Biblical basis of Augustine’s project. As mentioned already the primary goal of the work is to show the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. To do this Augustine literally walks through Biblical history, from Genesis on, showing the growth of God’s city as it is contrasted with what Man is trying to build in rebellion to God.

Everything is woven together by quotations of scripture, and the primary sections of the book are a slow walk through redemptive history showing how God was building his kingdom. From Adam to Noah; from Abraham to David to Christ and more. Much of City of God could be understood as a whole Bible commentary.

Prescience

Third and finally I think of this book as being very prescient. Not that Augustine knew the future but he understood what Scripture says about God’s kingdom and the kingdom of this world, and in speaking of this he speaks much wisdom for our day. It’s great to read older books that were not written in the modern age because it can help give us perspective.

He explains that the City of God, though in the world and working itself out here, is not ‘of the world.’ So when empires rise and fall (whether that be Rome, the British Empire, or perhaps the American Empire) this is not reason to think that God’s kingdom has failed. You have to be willing to trust God not only in times of plenty but also in times of collapse.          

Augustine gives great examples for how to speak to those who would ask like the enemies in the Psalms, “Where is your God?” How do you respond to such mockery? Augustine has us covered:

“for the family of Christ is furnished with its reply: our God is everywhere present, wholly     everywhere; not confined to any place. He can be present unperceived, and be absent without moving; when He exposes us to adversities, it is either to prove our perfections or correct our imperfections; and in return for our patient endurance of the sufferings of time, He reserves for us an everlasting reward. But who are you, that we should deign to speak with you even about your own gods, much less about our God, who is ‘to be heard above all gods? For all the gods of the nations are idols; but the Lord made the heavens.’”

And what advice can Augustine give us in order that we might stand firm at a time of societal collapse? There is more than I could reprint here (as it would entail republishing the book). Things that come to mind is the reality that people bound together by higher loves will be stronger. In the church we are bound the highest of loves, and so we should allow and work within that love to establish strong community and fellowship. Whatever may happen to our culture we will go through it together.

Second, we should remember with Augustine that God is not surprised by any of this. He is sovereignly working out all things, even the actions of the wicked who stand against his people.

“It is true that wicked men do many things contrary to God’s will; but so great is His wisdom and power, that all things which seem adverse to His purpose do still tend towards those just and good ends and issues which He Himself has foreknown.”

Ultimately, we look forward with Augustine to the fullest establishment of God’s city, his kingdom, at the coming of Christ. That final and glorious rest. I will end with what Augustine ends City of God with, something to give us hope: “There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end?”

“Church Reformed”

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I’ve just finished the book “Church Reformed” by Pastor Tim Bayly. Bayly is a pastor in Bloomington, Indiana who also happens to have been a Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Pardeeville, Wisconsin, a church in our own Presbytery (this was many years ago). This book is a call to the reform of the church, but more than that it is a book centered on the need to love the Church.

One of the things that I appreciate most about reading Pastor Bayly is summed up by the forward in this book. The author of the foreword says, “Too many books are written by hirelings rather than by real shepherds.” In other words, there are too many both pastoring in the church today and far more even writing books about church work that are not really shepherds of the sheep. They don’t love the church like Christ does. What can you learn from someone like that? A daycare worker does not love the children in their care as a mother does. The high school student doing chores around the neighbor’s farm doesn’t love and know the animals like the farmer himself does. Many who write about the Church today simply do not love her. Tim Bayly loves the church, and not just in the abstract but in its messy local expression, and that comes through on almost every page of this book.

In many ways the book is simple. Most books calling for reform in the church are full of new ideas of how to better do the work. New systems, techniques, technology or tricks. New cultural movements the Church can join to better appeal to those outside. Often, they are full of screeds against what the author sees as the worst parts of the church that need to change according to their personal preference. Bayly really has a back to the basics approach. He explains who the church is, the need to better understand the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, fellowship and prayer.

There are two other things that come to mind as I reflect on this book that I believe make it a very helpful resource for today. First is that it is full of stories, real stories, of the ups and downs of life and church ministry. They aren’t just run of the mill, rehashed circuit preacher stories either. They are clearly real, with real names of real people. It is not an attack of others, most of the stories of sin and failure come from Bayly’s own life, and most of the godly examples from the lives of others. This is not a book detached from the real life of the church where ideals are flying around in the ether without a place to land on the ground. This is real life and what the church really needs today.

Second, Bayly doesn’t do the typical Reformed move of talking about all the problems with “those Evangelical” churches. He does that, and it’s not wrong to point out problems in the broader Christian world, but his sharpest rebukes are for people like himself. People like us in the Reformed world. He speaks to our sins, the things we like to divide over and break fellowship over. Many want to find a way to coddle us in our sin, this book points it out, makes it clear, shows how ugly it is, but at the same time reminds the reader of the grace of Christ which is for sinners.

Despite calling out the many sins and needs of Reform in the church today, as I said above, love for the Church is the central cry of the book. Bayly even mentions at one point that he has waited a decade to write this book because he was concerned that it would be used by some men as a justification for their schismatic attitudes. The Church, with all of her faults and sins, should be an object of our love as it is an object of God’s love. You cannot love God but hate his bride. I’ll close with the beginning of the final chapter “Church Reformed” which makes this point:

“We’re nearing the end, but there’s something that needs to be hammered straight before we’re done. The Church is a gift – a precious gift from our heavenly Father – and we must fix that in our minds and hearts. Dear brother and sister, never take the Church for granted. Many millions of souls across history have lived without the fellowship, love, and corporate worship of the Church and it was a terrible thing they suffered.”