Standing Firm

“But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55)

I don’t pretend as though I have the strength and fortitude of someone like Stephen. I’ve never been persecuted; I’ve never been surrounded by an angry mob; no one has ever tried to stone me. Yet in this life we face similar threats, though they may present themselves in different forms.

I’ve never been persecuted. Yet there unseen forces of darkness that work night and day to destroy us, and we are all born with a nature that will stop at nothing to implode in upon itself. I’ve never been surrounded by an angry mob. Yet every day we are bombarded with temptations and pressures to relent, to give in, to give up. No one has ever tried to stone me. Yet in this life we encounter obstacles and frustrations and difficulties, things that pound on us without any compassion or mercy.

I am no Stephen, this is true. But thanks to Stephen I at least know how to live in light of the persecutions, temptations, and difficulties.

The answer: “But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” If there is any hope in this life to have strength, power, and purpose it is in the Holy Spirit who shows us the Son at the right hand of the Father. In Stephen’s dying moment, he was filled with the life and person of the Holy Spirit, and in this moment his vision was saturated with the intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son. It is this vision, that the Holy Spirit alone may provide and make real to us, that is our hope and our strength. It is this vision that empowers us to fight the enemy of our soul and our soul itself. It is this vision that emboldens us to make the right decisions in the face of insurmountable odds. It is this vision that helps us through the difficult times of trial. Until this Reality becomes our reality, we have no hope of ever standing firm.

Let that be your commitment this day. Be committed to God. Pray the dying prayer of Stephen, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Give him all that you are, be filled with His life, and let the Trinity fill your horizon.

Generational Holiness

This was sent to me this morning by my sister-in-law, Shellie. I thought it was rather witty and dead on the mark (click the image if you’re having trouble reading it):

The fallout of the bad parenting decisions of the now aging Baby Boomer generation has yet to be fully felt. But the initial consensus is that the next generation of young men and women, IE. my own, may be the most narcissistic ever. After being raised to believe that everyone wins and no one is wrong, many who are close to my age think they are the epicenter of the universe. Parents who try to be their children’s ‘friends’ instead of their parents — you know, the ones who opt for “time out” instead of a good old fashion spanking — are creating a whole generation of vain selfish little monsters who are soon to be in control of the world. It’s already bad enough that my generation is inheriting our parents’ touchy-feely overly-emotionally-oriented self-help therapeutic me-and-Jesus religion. Now it just seems like the whole country is going to be overrun with young men and women who’s worldview is only me-and-me. Exaggerated? No. Scary? Yes.

I know what you’re thinking… “Sean, don’t you fit into this category?” The answer is no. Thank God that my parents spanked me when I was bad, told me to be quiet when I was talking in church, encouraged me to win (but to do so with integrity and in good sportsmanship), showed interest in my education, punished me when I had a check mark in the “talks too much” box on my elementary report cards, made me do chores around the house (including shoveling snow that didn’t belong to me), be responsible with my money, carry my dinner plate into the kitchen after I was through, clean up my bedroom, and more. And thank God that there are other parents out there like them. Granted, they still managed to pass along some of that touchy-feely overly-emotionally-oriented self-help therapeutic me-and-Jesus religion that I mentioned earlier, but at the very least they taught me to believe in and love God. The truth is that I owe much of my manhood/adulthood/personhood to my parents. The question now is what kind of parent will I be to my own children?

The answer: I want them to be more holy than I am. Just as my goal is to replicate all that is good in my parents while avoiding the things they did wrong, I hope in turn to raise my children in such a way that I am not half the person that they will be. Is there a more beautiful offering to God than godly children who love the Trinity and hate sin? Perhaps that is the moral to this post, and maybe even the moral to all of life. Perpetuating godliness is the antithesis of the spirit of our age, the spirit of rabid narcissistic individualism, which is the spirit of antichrist.

I conclude my little rant by pointing you to a good sermon on this topic by WBS alum and board member, Mr. Charlie Artmann. He beautifully articulates all that I am trying to say here, so I recommend you take the time to listen to it.

Some Thoughts on Infant Baptism

If by seeing the title of this post you are expecting a formal treatise on infant baptism, you are mistaken. That has been done elsewhere by much smarter people than I. All I’m interested in is providing a basic starting rationale for why, as a Wesleyan, I like infant baptism.

Becca and I will be having Savannah baptized in just a few weeks. It has been quite a journey for me to agree with infant baptism. The idea of it sounded ludicrous to me just a few years ago, but that was because I only understood it in the Roman Catholic sense. Traditionally Catholic theology of the sacrament asserts that unbaptized babies either go to Hell or “limbo”. As a Protestant, this is one issue that I simply don’t agree with the RCs on, but did you know that all the Protestant Reformers including Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin held to infant baptism, as did John Wesley? Did you know that infant baptism, properly understood, has been the practice of the historic Christian church since the Apostolic period? In other words, as long as the church has existed Christian parents have baptized their infant babies, a practice given to the Church by the apostles themselves.

The evidence is there in both Scripture and in church history. In fact, baptism, as the sign of the New Covenant, is the New Testament equivalent to the sign of the Old Covenant, circumcision, in the Old Testament, which, as you know, was offered to every baby boy in Israel on day 8, not as a result of their personal faith, but as a sign of God’s covenant of grace with Israel. But more on that in a bit. My point here is that infant baptism is not some obscure practice observed by Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox alone, but rather a deeply celebrated sacrament of Christ and His Church universally observed from the very beginning.

But what about “dedication”? Infant dedication, while a practice allowed by all Protestant evangelical bodies, does not have a celebrated history. It is a recent practice that springs from reactionism to the concept of infant baptism in the Catholic church. Besides, Becca and I don’t like dedication because it seems to be more about what we do as parents than what God has done in Christ, which is what baptism is all about.

In my own estimation, there are two factors at work in the general Protestant opposition to infant baptism: 1. Hatred of Catholicism, and 2. The influence of Baptist theology. Because so many Protestants hate Catholicism (mainly baby boomers and their parents), and because Baptist theology has influenced all Protestant denominations in some way, the general thing to do is react to infant baptism so strongly that we want to do away with it altogether. I was once there. But as I have learned more about what baptism is I can see now that “believers baptism”, while a perfectly valid option, is not the only way.

God has extended His life to all people in the world — white, black, red, yellow, male, female, Republicans (and Democrats), old, AND young. The benefits of this extension of His life do not begin in Heaven, but here and now in the life of His Church. While it is true that adults who are able to make a profession of faith are baptized after the fact, God has made a provision for those who are unable to have faith for themselves to experience the full benefits of life in Him and His Body. It is this life in the Church, or “ecclesial life”, that is Life in Christ. There is no life apart from Him in His Church.

John Wesley himself points out that there is no biblical mandate forbidding the baptism of children or infants. On the contrary, since God directed circumcision for eight day old infants (Gen. 17), and baptism was given in place of circumcision, scripture allows it. Consider also Christ’s command to his disciples that they not refrain from bringing children and infants to Him (Luke 18:15-16). Consider also that all of Israel entered into the covenant with God, not just the ones who were mature enough to enter into it on their own volition (Deut. 29:10-11). Furthermore, the blood on the doors of Jewish families that first Passover (Exodus 12) saved the children inside. God’s saving grace was given to children (who could not make decisions for themselves) based on the faith of their parents! Wesley also points out that on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when thousands believed and were baptized, it is reasonable to think that the Jews would have brought their entire households, including infants, to be baptized. Plus, it was their manner to include their entire households in the salvation experience (Acts 16). So for us we take serious the words of Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Infant baptism does not negate the need for personal faith in Christ. Savannah will arrive at that point in her life as she grows up. In that day, and through confirmation, she will choose whether or not to live up to her baptism in Christ, just like Jewish men chose to assume the mantle of the covenant when they reached the appropriate age.

Historically and theologically there is room to think about infant baptism. We usually have either a hyper-Catholicism which removes all personal decision about salvation, or the other side that says it’s all about our belief that saves us. If you are living in the fullness of what the Church of Christ in the Spirit is, that is salvation. Contrary to modern self-centered American spirituality, it is never just “me and Jesus”. Your experience never makes you a Christian, it’s your life in Christ and Christ in you that saves you. His life saves me, and that life is always communal. We tend to only ever focus on the will. But what is a baby and it’s place in the church? Are babies only important when they can make a decision? Why can’t they be a constant symbol of all our lives in Christ? Of never being able to do anything on our own? Life in Christ is not “I believe without anybody else’s help!” but rather, “I believe,” but only in the context of someone blessing me with grace before I ever knew.

Perhaps if we posed the question a different way we’ll arrive at a better understanding. The question isn’t “can a baby will” but “can a baby receive“. Baptism is NOT about “my decision” but about God’s grace in Christ freely offered to all to receive. I wholeheartedly believe that Savannah, in her own unique way as a baby, can receive the life of Christ now, just as she receives her physical life from Rebecca. We don’t force food down her throat, she freely receives it. Something in her body, call it hunger, prompts her to swallow. One day she may choose to not eat, but right now the hunger in her body yearns for sustenance and she gladly receives what is freely offered. If her body hungers so much, how much more does her young spirit? And if Becca is capable of meeting her bodily need, how much more can Jesus meet her spiritual need? I believe that Jesus offers himself to her in his fullness now and will feed and nourish her spirit, even before she can ever “have faith”. She may one day choose to reject him, but so could an adult.

There are many, many more reasons (theological, doctrinal, practical, ect.) to support infant baptism, but I’ve said enough for now. I have offered you biblical, historical, theological, and practical reasons for the practice as an orthodox Wesleyan evangelical. I’ll leave you now with some links to a couple great articles on the topic. Please take the time to read these. Once you are done reading and thinking about what you’ve read, I am open for dialogue.

-Keith Drury has a piece on his blog titled “Why We Baptize Babies”. It’s a nice short defense of infant baptism by a Wesleyan scholar in laymen’s terms.

-Steve Blakemore has a much more technical piece titled “By the Spirit Through the Water: John Wesley’s ‘Evangelical’ Theology of Infant Baptism“.

-For a previous discussion on fetal personhood, see my previous blog topic, “Is a Fetus a Person?“.

Merry Christmas

I would like to wish all my readers a very blessed, safe, and merry Christmas.

Just like last year, I leave you with the lyrics of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” but this time with the original 1739 lyrics.

God bless you.

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”

Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb!
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

One in Three, or Three in One?

One of the more perplexing concepts for Christians is the notion of the Trinity. For many, this “doctrine” (if that’s what you must call it) is a marginal issue that is to be dealt with after all the important ones are mastered, and even then it is more of an inconvenience imposed on them by dogmatic tradition. Granted, most Christians would never say such a thing, yet I am confident that is truly where many of them are. There are many contributing factors to this situation, none of which I am concerned with here. But this is where I believe we are, and relegating the Trinity to the margin is a sad state of affairs.

Who God is means everything. Our prevailing notion of the nature of God frames all the structures of our thoughts and beliefs. Who you think God is will touch every subsequent belief, bar none. This isn’t just true of Christianity, but of any worldview. Whatever is most ultimate in your system of belief will determine how you view everything else. Nothing is left untouched.

It is in this vein of thought that I want to bring the Trinity back to the center. As we do that, what shall we say? Shall we say God is One in three Persons? Or shall we say God is three Persons who are One? Maybe this doesn’t trouble you or seem significant. But I find it very significant.

We’re not just splitting theological hairs here. And I suppose that ultimately both ways of stating it are true. But do these two options have any implications for all the rest of our Christian belief?

Those who say that God is One God in three Persons always tend to emphasize the “oneness” of God over and above His threeness. This usually lies in a preexisting commitment to some static philosophical notion of oneness. They point to the emphatic teaching in the Old Testament that there is one God as opposed to many. But I would like to advocate for an alternative.

Let’s not begin our view of God with any preconceived notions of static being. What is being anyway? Is being something static that we have to somehow divide in order to make room for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Can this lead anywhere other than an inescapable modalism? Maybe being isn’t something that precedes a communion of Persons. Perhaps being is constituted by a communion of Persons. Perhaps we could think of being as communion. When we begin our view of being as communion, suddenly personhood is not the key to God’s division, but to His unity. Rather than being forced to figure out how on earth we make room for distinction in our Platonic oneness, let’s allow God’s tri-personhood to be the key to just what exactly His oneness is. Rather than saying, “How on earth can one be three?” let us say, “Communion is how the three are one.”

When we start to think this way, suddenly things are put into a new perspective. It all starts to make sense. There was never a time when God was not a Trinity of three Persons. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always been three Persons who in their inner communion of self-giving holy love are One. This does not diminish God’s oneness, but clarifies, makes sense of, and (in my estimation) glorifies it. Suddenly both the Old and New Testaments make more sense. Yes, in the Old Testament God is fighting for the reorientation of the minds of the Hebrews toward monotheism within a pagan culture. But Jesus, in his glorious incarnate life, makes clear to us just what exactly the oneness of God is. It is not static impersonal being divided by three, but rather a dynamic interrelated loving communion of three divine Persons. This rules out any notion of tritheism or modalism. He is three Persons who are One. Bless His holy name!

What is the orienting center of all your Christian beliefs? What is your base truth? What is your dogma? What is ultimate reality? If it is static divided oneness then I challenge you to consider reorienting your mind and follow that change to its logical conclusions. I believe your life just might be changed. Take the red pill and see just how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

The Possibility of Perfection

I love Oswald Chambers. Granted, every now and then I think he stresses an idea a little too much (for example, he tends to place emphasis on the individual at the expense of the corporate), but for the most part his writings are amazingly insightful.

I was reading from My Utmost for His Highest the other day and came across the following thought. It comes from the entry for July 26 called “The Account With Reality” (Matthew 15:19). Listen to how insightful this thought is:

If I will hand myself over to him, I need never experience the terrible possibilities that are in my heart.

To think that by handing ourselves to Christ we can escape from the sinful inevitabilities of an evil heart. Incredible.

I absolutely believe in the idea of Christian Perfection. I believe that a life lived in Christ can be one that is lived with a perfect love for God and others. I am not talking about an Absolute perfection (only God is absolutely perfect). I am not talking about an Adamic perfection (we bear the marks of the history of sin). I am not even talking about a sinless perfection (as long as we’re talking about sin “improperly so-called” and not sin “properly so-called”). But I do believe in a Christian perfection, not because of some over-valuation of human potential or capability, but because of who He is. It is because of who He is and what He wants to do that I believe in Christian perfection as the goal of and norm for Christian experience.

Has He perfected your heart?

-See my outlines of two of John Wesley’s sermons on Christian perfection here and here. (WARNING: PDF links) The second one is better.
-See other outlines of Wesley’s work on my “Interests” page here.

Time for Intellectual Excellence

Life as a seminary student can sometimes be overwhelming. Trying to balance family life, work, and graduate school can undoubtedly be a daunting challenge. Every now and then, I need to be reminded of just why I put myself through the challenges, frustrations, and difficulties.

It’s in times like these that I turn to nothing other than…the Internet. For you see, it is on the Internet that I am reminded of why seminaries even exist. Allow me to demonstrate.

On a popular Christian web forum, I asked the following two questions:

1. What is the Trinity?
2. How does your answer to question number 1 affect how you live your life on a day-to-day basis?

Below are a few of my personal favorite answers.

zinthos answered,

The trinity is not biblical. it doesnt make sense and started in Babylon.

JustVisiting answered,

1. The Trinity is a purely man-made concept that never has, never does, and never will be supported by Scripture and is simply a way for Christians to justify calling Yeshua Hashem without actually saying it.

2. Well, it affects my life quite well because I worship One G-d, not three in one. And its a comforting thing, to me.

Swinny89 answered,

1. the trinity is an attempt to understand the connection between God the father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

2. it has no affect, because i have no strong opinions about it.

These are just a few samples of what the answers are like. They come from the minds of normal every day Christians, generally youth. To me they represent a growing problem throughout the life of American Christianity and are a vivid example of why the church needs people who can think rightly now more than ever.

But do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that only seminarians can think rightly. I am only speaking from my own context. The point I am trying to make is that we need to be intellectually sharp in this sad day of theological, biblical, and moral ‘illiteracy.’ I say “sad” because it is sad indeed when the Trinity is regarded as unbiblical and irrelevant for Christian life. What should be central has been moved even beyond the margins into the realm of unnecessary man-made conjecture.

Will you commit with me to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? Will you seek to know Him as He has revealed Himself? And will you seek to be a beacon of intellectual excellence no matter what level of education you are at in this point of your life?

The church needs you.

The world needs you.

Is a Fetus a Person?

Recently I had a discussion with some friends of mine concerning fetuses and personhood. Since then I have given a lot of thought to the topic, and I thought I’d make a sandbox post here for you and me to throw some ideas around.

Before I dive in, however, I would like to make something clear. At no point am I debating when or whether or not a fetus is a human being. I believe that fetuses are as human as you or I, and that it is so at the moment of conception, and as far as I am concerned there is no room for debate here. I fundamentally oppose abortion, and the question of personhood in this context has nothing to do with wavering doubts about my position. Let it be known from the onset that I am interested in personhood from a theological point of view, not biological. So the question I am pondering here is not, “Is a fetus a human?” but rather, “Is a fetus a person?” Please do not badger me on whether or not I believe in the sanctity and full humanity of the unborn. I am interested in a theological (philosophical) notion of personhood.

As my astute readers already know, the theological concept of ‘person’ owes its origin to the early discussions on the nature of the Trinity during the first four centuries of church history. The questions that emerged had to do with just exactly “what” or “who” the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are, how they relate to one another, and how can they at once be both distinct yet one. Enter the notion of “personhood.” The final analysis asserted that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God in three distinct persons – one in their divinity, three in their person-ality. The Father is the Son and Holy Spirit in every way except He is the person of the Father and not the person of the Son nor the Holy Spirit, and vice versa (2x). Using these categories to describe the nature of humanity, sin, and salvation means that humans were created for relationship, sin is the individualization (de-personalization) of humans, and salvation is the personalization of individuals. So, within this context, what can we say about fetuses? Are they persons too, or are they just individuals? Let me offer the following VERY rudimentary thoughts…

-At first I found myself wanting to say that fetuses are not persons, but rather individuals. After all, they cannot willfully relate to another, nor can they necessarily love another outside of themselves. They’re just sort of floating around in amniotic isolation. Their world is dark, relatively quiet, and generally devoid of thought or reason.

-But then I got to thinking about some things. I had to ask myself, “Isn’t there more to personhood than simply awareness, reason, or will? Does personhood hinge on these things alone? I realized that my answers to these questions fundamentally altered my whole point of view. I concluded that I absolutely believe that there is more to personhood than reason and will. I believe that personhood is just as much about relationality, life-to-life transference, and finding one’s identity in another as awareness, reason, and will. The fetal condition, then, could very well be one of beautiful personhood.

-As for relationality, does human life get more intimate (physically) than in pregnancy? Whenever else do we ever live completely in another person? When else do our lives ever fully exist in someone else who is not us? Granted, the fetus may not immediately be aware of this relationality all along the way, nor is the awareness the same as the mother who feels life growing within her. But is this not also true of our relationship to God? He is aware of us long before we are of Him, and in much more depth as well. That does not make us any less persons, does it? Therefore awareness cannot be the sole determining factor of personhood.

-The fetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for nourishment. The umbilical connection is one of supreme perichoretic significance. The persons of the Divine Family share life interpenetrably, one in the other – always connected, always sharing life, never apart. Where else in human reality (aside from sexual intercourse, perhaps) do we see this image of Divine Reality? The life of mother and child is so intricately connected that it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins, and yet never are we unable to distinguish mother from child. There is oneness and distinctiveness all at once – a beautiful picture of personhood.

-Each person of the Trinity finds their identity in the other two persons. The Father is the Father because of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the other way around. Each person’s true individuality is found in another. That, by definition, is what makes them persons. Now think about a pregnant woman. Her identity is forever changed due to the life that is in her. The fetus’ identity is bound up intricately with the mother’s (and father’s). There is no birth certificate that suggests otherwise. Once again, even though the fetus may not be able to acknowledge and ponder this reality doesn’t make it any less true or real.

-One of the most personalizing moments in redemption for a human being is when he or she comes to the realization that they are fully 100% dependent upon God. Is there is a relationship on earth any more dependent than that of mother and fetus?

But there are several objections I would like to raise at this point. For starters, doesn’t a person both receive and give? And isn’t the fetal condition one of supreme isolation?

-First let us consider the issue of receiving and giving? Is the fetus in this relationship only ever receiving, which is the essence of individualism, of a life centered solely on self? The answer, in my mind, is no. First of all, the relationship of mother to child is one of dependence (on the part of the fetus) by nature (and if you think about it, all human beings derive their “being” from God who IS Being. But that exclusively dependent relationship doesn’t diminish our personhood. Personhood is lost as persons begin to willfully become oriented around themselves, which is not the case with fetuses), so it’s not as though the fetus is somehow choosing to be centered on the self, it is only receiving life by necessity. Furthermore, it would be incorrect to assume that the fetus isn’t giving anything in return. Whether the unborn child is aware of it or not, it has much to give to it’s mother, father, and many others, in terms of joy, pleasure, pride, satisfaction, meaning, purpose, etc. Once again, awareness is not the only factor of personhood.

-And what about isolation? Is the isolation of the womb truly an isolation? Not when the fetus can hear every beat of the mother’s heart, feel every vibration of voice, experience every moment of the mother’s life from the inside-out. God does not exist in personal isolation. He has always existed as persons in communion. At no point does a fetus exist in isolation, but rather always in deep, intimate, personal communion. Dependent? Yes. Willful? Maybe not. But that doesn’t necessarily diminish personhood.

Obviously there is much more to say than this. There are other factors of true personhood that I have not mentioned. While I take the opinion that fetuses are persons, perhaps they are persons in a unique sort of way. After all, God alone is Person(al). All other personhood is derived from, images, and/or participates in the Divine Archetype. A married couple images God’s personhood in a different way than a single. The issue is whether or not we can ascribe any kind of personhood at all to the unborn, and I think the answer is a resounding YES.

(There are many other issues that spring from this discussion, not the least of which is at what point does a fetus/newborn/child become depersonalized by sin, etc. That, for the sake of simplicity, is for another day and time, as are all the many implications this topic may have for other issues.)

I know that there are probably more holes in my logic than a block of Swiss. I’m sure you could scrutinize every jot and tittle of what I have been saying. Perhaps I am wrong altogether. That is where you, my beloved reader, come in. What do you think? Have I missed anything, stressed the wrong things, said too much, not said enough? What say you? Feel free to contribute what you want. Like I said, this is a sandbox topic, at least for me. I have not worked it all out. Perhaps together we can arrive at an answer.