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Written by Dave Dunbar Monday, 14 January 2013 00:00

My last post was a brief discussion of A Free People’s Suicide by Os Guinness. It is an appreciative analysis of the beginnings of the American experiment with freedom, but it is also a warning that liberty is not sustainable under current circumstances.

As I read the book, I could not help reflecting on the degree to which the present state of the church in America mirrors that of the broader culture. For freedom is not only a political issue—it is a gospel issue as well. Redemption is in part about freedom, whether we look at Israel’s exodus from Egypt, or the promise of return from exile, or the meaning of the atonement, or the ministry of the Spirit. And just as the founding fathers realized that freedom needed to be protected, so the early church (particularly the Apostle Paul) recognized that Christian freedom is always at risk of being distorted or morphing into something less than what God intends.

In the meeting of church and culture, influence goes both ways.  Sometimes this is good, and other times it is not. But if Guinness is correct that modern America has lost the founders’ robust understanding of liberty, might this also be true of the church? And might the future of the church as the “free people” of God be just as much at risk as the American republic? Is the crisis of the church in America today at least partly a crisis of freedom that stems from a distorted vision of Christian liberty?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is yes and that the current cultural understanding of freedom has adversely affected our understanding of the gospel. In particular the problem lies with too narrow an understanding of freedom. Guinness argues that many Americans today view freedom only in negative terms, as an absence of restraint, as freedom from. But the founding fathers understood that freedom from must be complemented by positive freedom, freedom for, freedom to live with excellence, integrity, and virtue.

It is in this narrowing of the idea of freedom that we see the unfortunate impact of the broader culture on the church’s understanding of the gospel. We have now raised up several generations of Christians who have been taught that gospel liberty is freedom from.  Jesus died to liberate us from the guilt and shame of our sins, from the righteous judgment of God, from the burden of the Law, and from “the power of cancelled sin” (to use Charles Wesley’s fine phrase).

All this is wonderful, glorious, and true.  But if we stop here, our vision of the gospel is truncated, and we miss the point and purpose of Christian freedom.  In Christ we are not merely free from, we are free for. Liberty is not only negative but positive. In the gospel we are free to be like Christ, to love God and to love our neighbor.

Martin Luther framed this beautifully in his classic treatise The Freedom of a Christian.  He wrote: “The Christian is the perfectly free lord of all subject to none. The Christian is the perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all.” This is the paradox of true freedom:  it is not absolute but constrained by our duty to others. Negative freedom  is joined with positive freedom (love for the neighbor).

Many Christians are pretty well convinced on the issue of negative freedom.  We have left most of our legalisms behind. We feel less guilty about our weaknesses and transgressions. We are less concerned about judgment. But it seems to me that we are also more self-focused and more narcissistic than we used to be. The divorce rate in evangelical churches is as high as or higher than the surrounding culture.  Consumerism and consumer debt is just a much a problem. Addictions of various sorts are also no stranger to our churches.

It seems then that the common view of Christian freedom is not sustainable. Freedom understood only as freedom from ultimately turns inward (freedom for me) and collapses upon itself. Sustainable Christian freedom must be focused outward. It is the freedom to be what God intends us to be. It is the liberty to follow Jesus, to love our neighbors, and to be people known for justice and compassion.

Os Guinness believes the American people need to return to the foundational ideas of the republic. So must the church hear again the full message of gospel freedom.


Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary. He has been married to Sharon for 42 years. They have four grown children and six grand children. 


 

 

Written by Dave Dunbar Friday, 11 January 2013 00:00

A recent book by Os Guinness (A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future [IVP, 2012]) raises the significant question whether the great American experiment with freedom has a sustainable future. The title of the book suggests that the endurance of the republic is questionable, and this is what the author believes.

The problem for America, says Guinness, is not external threats but internal. The title of the book builds off a powerful quote from Abraham Lincoln:  “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Freedom is sustainable, but only if those who are free give careful and continuing attention to the nature of freedom and those qualities that promote the health of a free society.

Guinness writes from a wide knowledge of classical authors and the writings of America’s founding fathers. He faults contemporary Americans for a lack of historical perspective and an inattention to the character and conditions which allow freedom to flourish. “Freedom can no more take a holiday from history than from gravity, and the plain fact is that it is harder to be free than not to be free, for freedom’s fire has not only to be lit once but must be kindled and rekindled all over again in each succeeding generation.”

One of the great omissions that Guinness finds in the current understanding of freedom is that Americans (both liberal and conservative) generally understand liberty as negative freedom, i.e. freedom from oppression, fear, constraint, tradition, etc.  Negative freedom is a fundamental component of what the Founders fought for, but it is a part, not the whole. Negative freedom must be balanced by positive freedom, which is not merely freedom from but freedom for.  Negative freedom alone ultimately degenerates and becomes bondage for individuals or societies. So unlimited freedom to indulge any and every type of behavior leads to a culture of addictions, and unlimited freedom to buy leads to a culture of debt.

But the founders understood that freedom is not absolute.   Freedom must be ordered; hence, the Constitution and the balance of powers.  But structure alone will not preserve freedom.  To structure must be added character or virtue, both in the private citizen and in the public leader. As Benjamin Franklin formulated it:  “No longer virtuous, no longer free; is a maxim as true with regard to a private person as a Commonwealth.” And John Adams wrote, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue. . . .” Liberty therefore is nurtured among people of character. Guinness states, “Freedom is not the permission to do what we like but the power to do what we should.”

A question then arises: what is the source of virtue? Guinness answers that the framers of the Constitution were clear also on this point:  virtue requires (some sort of) faith. This is true even for Deists like Franklin or Jefferson.  So these three--freedom, virtue, and faith--are intertwined and interdependent; together they form what Guinessn calls the golden triangle of liberty.

In America today a lack of understanding and appreciation for this interdependence puts the grand experiment at risk. We are naïve to assume that freedom will simply maintain itself by a kind of historical inertia. This book is a clear call to reinvigorate the public discussion of “first things” with careful attention to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.  Much is at stake. Guinness not only warns of decline, but charts a path toward renewal. May the call be heeded!
 

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grand children.

   

Written by Susan Disston Thursday, 10 January 2013 00:00

January is often a time for new beginnings. If deepening your awareness of the need for justice in your community or around the globe is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, I recommend Bethany Hoang’s powerful booklet called Deepening the Soul for Justice (IVP, 2012). It’s published in a print edition and an e-book edition, the latter being particularly desirable if you want to ponder the message of this devotional text throughout the day.

The book starts with a gentle admonition to seek the God of justice first before taking on major tasks and projects to act against injustice. Bethany points her readers to Psalm 1. The psalm is a description of how to be rooted in God and drink deeply of God’s living water. The psalm shows how rooted lives are anchored in God’s purposes, and Bethany explains how spiritually grounded people are better able to discern their preparedness for difficult work. “For followers of Jesus, the difference between a pursuit of justice that brings transformation for real people suffering real violence and a pursuit of justice that amounts to little more than good intentions is simple—perhaps even simpler than we want it to be. The difference is found at our starting point, every single day.” (p. 7)

The purpose of Bethany’s devotional is to provide her readers with a prayer-bathed pathway that prepares the soul for fighting injustice or other kinds of difficult work. The pathway she proposes is a personal journey with God in prayer. The journey strikes me as being a loop, so that each point is revisited again and again as a rhythm of life. There are six points on the loop are:  Stop, See, Choose, Ask, Proclaim, and Remember.

Each point is a kind of Sabbath rest where seekers are invited to meet with God, to listen to God’s Word and listen for God’s Spirit, to be honest about the self before God, and to be reoriented to the truth. “As we open ourselves to understand justice as it originates in the character of God, and open ourselves to understand how God would call us to respond in faith each day of our lives, we will likely come across stories that will create an ideal in our minds as to what our justice action ‘should’ look like … But the Scripture teaches us that there is not one sole way to do justice or one unique role that is more important than the others.” (p. 24)

Bethany reminds her readers that the difficult work of fighting injustice is a daily choice toward hope, that it is asking God to act, and that it is praising God in all things.  It is also about telling the stories of what God has done. Combined, the six points provide the strength to continue around the loop again and again as justice is pursued. “Both the work of justice itself and the daily work of discerning our roles in God’s movement of justice require thoughtful rhythms that will serve to sustain us and form each of us individually and as a body into the very likeness of Christ.” (p. 9)

The booklet includes thoughtful study questions for individuals or groups. Bethany compelling demonstrates that Christians can find the strength of heart and depth of soul to do difficult work. Deepening the Soul for Justice is available from IVP.


Susan Disston is assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary. http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/adjunct-faculty-theology

   

Written by Kyuboem Lee Wednesday, 09 January 2013 00:00

On Friday, December 14, a gunman walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot and killed 26 people, 20 of them children ages 6-7. All day long, I heard the emerging details of horror over the news. Then, that night, our family attended our 6-year-old son’s school Christmas concert, and watched children, many of them ages 6-7, sing worship songs to God who was born to us as a little baby boy.

In one single day, I was confronted both with news of unspeakable horror, and with news of great joy and hope--both involving little children. Both news was true. This world is wonderful and beautiful, filled with amazing joy and grace, but this world is also terribly and horribly broken, filled with incredible suffering and sorrow. Perhaps none could tell us better than the children. The gospel message of Christ declares both sets of news are, indeed, true.

I was thankful for the Christmas concert, because it enabled me to see this atrocity and all the other atrocities that go on in our fallen world through the lens of the Advent. Our world and our hearts were so lost in darkness that God himself needed to come and save us into his light. All the great Christmas hymns say so:

  • No more let sins and sorrows grow
  • nor thorns infest the ground:
  • he comes to make his blessings flow
  • far as the curse is found...

There have been a few things I’ve been meditating on since the shooting. The conversation about gun control and right to bear arms that comes up in times like this is an important one to have for us as a society. But for this post’s purposes, I’ve focused on some other things.

One has to do with my own participation in the fallenness of this world, and the need for my own redemption. The first reaction I had to the news from Connecticut was one of revulsion: “What kind of a sick, demented person would do this?” But that is too easy. It is a way of depersonalizing this evil as something “out there,” apart from me.

But if we are truly honest, if we have been attentive to the signs that crop up again and again in our lives, we have to admit that the seeds of death and horror live within our hearts too. I’m thinking of the anger, the frustration, the feeling that you’re the victim, the self-centeredness. You may know that you are a sinner in theory, but from time to time the doctrine of depravity actually comes to life, in our angry words of retaliation, in the boasting, in the put-downs, in the complaints of “Why me?”, and in the unnecessarily angry yelling at the kids.

These dark forces don’t always come out full-blown, thank God, but we know they’re there, lurking in the shadows of our own hearts. So the gunman is in a way a reflection of our flesh. It’s terrifying to admit that, but it’s what the Bible teaches, and it accords with our own experience. We are wonderful and beautiful in many ways, but we’re also broken and capable of so much fallenness. We need a redemption that is much deeper than a tighter hug for our children. We are in need of confession and repentance for our own fallenness. As the saints of old have prayed, “Forgive us my sins and the sins of my people.” 

Two has to do with how this shooting is, tragically, not all that extraordinary. This particular mass shooting was especially a shocker because the victims were young children. But we forget that mass horrors against children occur everyday all around the world.

We think of the civil wars in Congo and Syria. We think of suicide bombings in Iraq. We think of casualties of war in Afghanistan. Closer to home, we think of young people’s lives, many of them small children, lost to violence in our inner city neighborhoods. Some have wondered why the loss of the lives in Connecticut have provoked more outpouring of emotion and support than the losses experienced in other places.

The Newtown shooting was an evil that should not have been, but so are the acts of violence committed against children everyday all around the world (or even close by in our own cities) that too often go unnoticed and unmarked by many of us. Evil should never become banal; tragically, it has, except for a few stories here and there that capture our attention for different reasons.

May the Newtown shooting awaken God’s people to the horrors of our world, break our hearts, and give us fuel for petitioning the Lord persistently for justice and shalom to finally reign, instead of going back to business as usual. The message of the Advent is one of God who came to war against the evil going on everyday in our world, not one of inoculating us with a sentimental message of peace, peace, when there is no peace.

Three, God is not immune from violence. More accurately, he willingly condescended to share in our suffering at the hands of violence. We remember the slaughter of the innocents at the hands of a power-hungry King Herod. We remember the torture of the Messiah at the hands of soldiers. We remember the cross where God experienced a violent death and the violent loss of a loved One.

But we also cannot forget the empty tomb and the Spirit that the risen Christ has given his Church so we may struggle against the kingdom of darkness. We cannot forget the new world coming where death will have died its final death.

The Advent reminds us of all this and much more. There is a deep mystery to the message that God became flesh and blood so that it can be broken and it can be shed for the sake of rescuing us from this world of violence.

So seeing those children sing songs of worship to the baby Savior, that night after a day of darkness, gave me reason to be thankful in the midst of our brokenness; to strengthen my resolve in the struggle against the darkness in the world and in my heart; and to worship the God who came down to a world such as this. We don’t need to turn away from the horrors that inhabit our world and our hearts. Instead, we go to the Star of the Advent, and receive healing, hope, and courage. We are sent back into our violent world to be his light until his return.

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission.

   

Written by Charles Zimmerman Monday, 07 January 2013 00:00

Where have they gone & where are they now? 

In our Faculty Updates, we have moved from Biblical’s founding faculty to former faculty.  Thus far, in the former faculty category we heard from Jim Pakala and Robert Peterson and in this post we will hear from Gary Shogren. 

Gary taught at Biblical through most of the 1990’s.  What I remember most about Gary was that he was a NT scholar with a missionary’s heart and a fun loving spirit.  I can still picture Gary laughing in the hallway or in front of a class.  I am still impressed by the fact that Gary left the comfortable context of the US to teach theology in Costa Rica. 

1.  What years did you teach at Biblical? 

I taught at Biblical Seminary from 1990-1998. 

2.  What have you been doing since then? 

We moved the family to Costa Rica, spent a year in language school and have been teaching ever since at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica. My wife Karen and I both teach in Spanish.

3.  Tell a favorite memory from your Biblical days. 

It’s not so much an anecdote as a wonderful memory: from my very first day teaching at Biblical, my former professors who were still there – Bob Newman, Bill Harding, Bob Vannoy, Tom Taylor – absolutely treated me as their equal, even though I had been their student just a few years earlier.

 4.  Contact information:

Email: gsshogren@gmail.com.

Facebook is Gary Shogren.

Blogs are http://openoureyeslord.com (theology in English), http://razondelaesperanza.com (theology in Spanish) and http://shogrens.com (missionary website).

Charles Zimmerman is the Thomas V. Taylor Professor of Practical Theology.  He also serves as Teaching Pastor at Calvary Church in Souderton.  He is married to Kim and they have two daughters, Ashley and Megan.  See also his faculty profile

   

Written by Kyuboem Lee Friday, 04 January 2013 00:00


Recently, Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision, wrote “Goodbye, Christian America;  Hello, True Christianity” in The Huffington Post. He joins a growing number of evangelical voices calling on the North American church to wake up to the new reality of Post-Christendom and abandon the strategy of clinging to a world--the “Christian America”--that is passing away. Specifically, he advocates a shift in the church’s strategy, from trying to protect the symbols of Christendom (the Ten Commandments displayed at courthouses, public prayers in schools, etc.), to a missional engagement with the world and seeking shalom--the “love your neighbor” variety of Christianity. The story of a Tacoma, Wash., church that switched its focus from opposing the secularization of America to advocating for the hurting in Lesotho, in the process partnering with its neighbors, even with those who would have been its foes in the old paradigm (the gay community), provides a model to emulate.

Understandably, the prospect of such a direction is a cause of anxiety for many. It sounds too much like a surrender to the forces of secularization and liberalism. Ghosts of hard-fought old battles haunt the evangelical consciousness still. Dangers of apostasy seem to loom down this road.

However, are there positives in the new developments to be gained for the North American church that is committed to the exclusive claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ? I believe so. Here is a brief sketch:

One, the church has an opportunity to be purified from a Babylonian captivity to power and privilege. The effort to preserve the symbols of Christendom can betray a dependency on the tools of the kingdom of this world. But once the church renounces the pursuit of laws and powers that buttress its position in society, it is able to regain its proper role as a pilgrim and stranger in this world. It would be a transition from a triumphalist church to a suffering church. Such a role would better reflect the counter cultural nature of the kingdom of God.

Two, the church has an opportunity for a renewal of its mission. Evangelicalism has historically chosen the ministry of words over against the ministry of deeds as its focus. The general feeling has been to see social justice, for instance, as belonging in the domain of the liberals. Bible-believing churches focused on preaching the Word. This tendency to dichotomize word and deed has caused much damage to the cause of the gospel mission. But with the changing of the world, there can be a rediscovery of the holistic gospel mandate. I say this with the caveat that the pendulum can swing to the opposite extreme among many younger evangelicals, and the imperative of the preaching ministry can be the casualty. The new evangelical consciousness can too often embrace the adage, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Such sentiments are reactionary and will need nuanced balancing. However, a more fully orbed vision of the gospel is a welcome development.

Three, the North American church has the opportunity to deepen its communion with the worldwide church. For many years, the NA church has been the giver, not the receiver--of theology, material resources, technical know-how, leadership, and so on. The changed landscape more properly sees the NA church as having a seat among a plurality of peers, not at the head of the table in the communion of the global church. This development better resembles Paul’s vision of the one body of Christ made up of various members, and that is something to be celebrated.

I do not mean to suggest that the road ahead is not filled with tremendous challenges. The church will need to refocus its efforts on a robust theology of mission. Christians in Post-Christendom cannot rely on old answers to remain faithful in the new landscape, but pursuing Christ into uncharted territory has tremendous risks. Our most pressing theological agenda will be to navigate these waters.

The church must be faithful to its calling to proclaim in the new reality that "there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and do so with full recognition that the world it must love, and which the missionary God loves, is no longer a "Christian" one. However, one thing that the church cannot do: bury its head in the sand of the old Christendom. Instead, the church in exile will need to accept its calling to sing a new song in a strange land.


*The title doesn't reflect the current state of affairs; rather, it is a crude attempt at being "with it" through an obscure pop culture reference. Please accept the author's apologies.

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).

   

Written by Bryan Maier Wednesday, 02 January 2013 00:00

As we begin a New Year, we have a chance to think about our hopes, dreams and goals for the future. For many this is just a superficial set of “resolutions” that last only for a couple of days. But for others, it is a serious attempt to make changes. For example, the folks at my local YMCA report that memberships usually spike during the first of the year.  For many Christians, it is an opportunity to make a renewed effort to read the Bible in its entirety by reading through the whole Bible in one calendar year. I have been doing this off and on for most of my Christian life and I believe it is a great discipline to practice.  My average as an adult is to read the Bible through at least once every three or four years. The last time I did it was in 2011 just after my wife had gone home to be with the Lord in 2010. I read her Bible cover to cover and it was a wonderful blessing for me at many levels. I am sensing the need to do it again in 2013. This time I plan to read The New English Version to get a different perspective than my standard Bible.  I would like to share with you at least five advantages to such a reading plan.

First, you get to read every verse in the Bible at least once. Sure, there is nothing magical in being able to claim that you have read every word in the book of Numbers, but on the other hand, if we claim to cherish the Bible as God’s Word, it seems that somewhere in our Christian development, we ought to at least read every word some time in our life.  In this age of Biblical illiteracy, our knowledge of God’s Word should go beyond just a few pet passages.

Related to this is the second benefit. When you read the whole Bible, you get a sense of God’s big story – the way he chose to record it for history. The Bible does tell one grand story and if we don’t read it, we risk missing what the story is all about. Reading the whole story can also protect us from extracting our own pet passages apart from where God purposely chose to put them in his story. In other words, I believe merely reading the bible cover to cover can help us interpret the details more accurately.

The third and fourth benefits are more practical.  The third benefit is that regular Bible reading can establish a good habit. If I read the Bible every day for a year, chances are I will get used to reading on a regular basis and then the following year, that space and time is already reserved for Bible reading. In other words I am developing good habits.

The fourth benefit is that it provides structure to my Bible reading. Having a plan of what I am going to read ahead of time takes away the stress of trying to figure out what to read each day. If we are not engaged in a book study (another great way to study the Bible), then we have to decide each day what to read.

The final benefit is related to all the others. In our day, there are all kinds of helps available to keep us on task, plan out our reading, and even remind us to read (for example having scripture sent to our email or cell phone). My favorite tool is the two-volume set For The Love of God by Don Carson which takes the reader through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice during the year.

Whatever tool you use or how you do it, what Bible reading resolutions do you have for 2013?

Bryan Maier, Psy. D.,  is an Associate Professor of Counseling & Psychology in the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates.

 
 

   

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