Misquoting the Westminster Catechism

John Piper likes to misquote the Westminster Catechism. And out of everything I have heard him say, this misquotation has shaped my thinking the most.

The Westminster Catechism declares that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. While Piper affirms the truth of that statement, he says it is of secondary importance. Our starting point should be that “the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever”. So when Michael W. Smith sings that He “thought of me above all”, he’s wrong. God is concerned with His glory above all else, not mine. I don’t think it is possible to understand much of scripture if we don’t start with this presupposition. For example, if we are what God thinks of ‘above all’, how do you explain the genocides he commanded in the Old Testament? How do you explain the story of Uzzah in 1 Chronicles 13? What about the injustices we see around us today?

Dan Haseltine, lead singer of Jars of Clay, recently did an interview with Christianity Today talking about their new album that releases next week, Good Monsters. He touches on this subject of God’s justice and our concept of it in this excerpt:

We just spent some time in Rwanda, and real violence makes me ask those questions too—the all-out violence of man to man. We visited this church in Rwanda where they’d set up a memorial to what happened in the genocide in ’94, where 800,000 people were killed in less than a hundred days. Five thousand people died in this one church, and they’d left the bodies there; now it’s just bones.

Gary Haugen from International Justice Mission was with us. He was the head of the UN investigation into the genocide, and he had actually visited this church in ’94 and had to go through the bodies and do the forensics of the situation. He was describing the way people would get up in the morning, and they’d kill, kill, kill, then stop, have lunch, go back, kill some more, and then have dinner. Very systematic. It began as these quick killings, and then it turned into something more primitive as the restraints came further off. It began to be torture and humiliation and mutilation. It takes a long time to kill 5,000 people in a church. Think about being in there with your family as these murders get closer and closer, and to hear the screams.

I’m sure those people weren’t praying, “God, please help me have a better car, or please increase my land.” It was, “God, please stop the hand of our aggressor,” and it didn’t happen. That prayer wasn’t answered for anybody in that church. And this wasn’t the military doing this violence; it was their neighbors. That kind of stuff really sent me into a spiral: “What is going on? How does this fit in?” It does two things. It causes a bit of a crisis of faith, and at the same time, it also makes me realize there has to be a God, because my own sense of justice does not have a context for this. Only God’s greater story of redemption can fit something like this into it, for 800,000 people to die, you know? God promises that there is redemption, so where is it?

If I am the most important thing to God and He doesn’t work the way I think He should or doesn’t bring redemption where He promised, I am left with no other honest option but to stop believing in Him. But what if we cannot put Him in a box and define his every response, as many today believe? What if I can only see a small part of His plan, and He can see the whole picture with His glory in the center of it?

Piper has written frequently about the supremacy of God, and in his classic work Desiring God – Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (which you can read online here), he builds his argument from this misquotation of the Westminster Catechism. Here is an excerpt of the first chapter:

The ultimate ground of Christian Hedonism is the fact that God is uppermost in his own affections: The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.

The reason this may sound strange is that we are more accustomed to think about our duty than God’s design. And when we do ask about God’s design we are too prone to describe it with ourselves at the center of God’s affections. We may say, for example, his design is to redeem the world. Or to save sinners. Or to restore creation. Or the like.

But God’s saving designs are penultimate, not ultimate. Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These he performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment he has in glorifying himself. The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God’s allegiance to us, but to himself.

Here is an interview with Piper where he addresses this issue, if you want to read more.

One last thing. I think the root of misunderstanding God’s character can be traced, in large part, to an inability to understand anthropomorphic language, that is, conception of divinity as being in human form or having human characteristics. Arguments such as the classic Armenian “God is a gentleman” line come from this misunderstanding. J. I. Packer explores this more fully in his contemporary classic Knowing God in the chapter on God’s wrath:

What God’s Wrath Is Like
The root cause of our unhappiness seems to be a disquieting suspicion that ideas of wrath are in one way or another unworthy of God.
To some, for instance, wrath suggests a loss of self-control, an outburst of “seeing red” which is partly if not wholly irrational. To others it suggests the rage of conscious impotence, or wounded pride or plain bad temper. Surely, it is said, it would be wrong to ascribe to God such attitudes such as these?
The reply is: Indeed it would, but the Bible does not ask us to do this. There seems to be here a misunderstanding of the anthropomorphic language of Scripture – that is, the biblical habit of describing God’s attitudes and affections in terms ordinarily used for talking about human beings. The basis of this habit is the fact that God made us in his own image, so that human personality and character are more like the being of God than anything else we know. But when Scripture speaks of God anthropomorphically, it does not imply that the limitations and imperfections which belong to the personal characteristics of us sinful creatures belong also to the corresponding qualities in our holy Creator; rather, it takes for granted that they do not.

Let us all strive together as we seek to know God more, but most importantly we must remember that all our theology is useless if it does not at some point becomes doxology.

Remembrance

I’ve decided to start uploading some of the music I write here. I’ll probably try to post something new each week.

Last year, I produced a poetry CD for Voices in Wartime that featured poems from the documentary film Voices in Wartime and the companion anthology. I wrote underscore music for about half the CD, including the final track, an instrumental, Remembrance.

Click here to listen to Remembrance

You can find out more information about this project here.

Like a Square Peg in a round hole…

I’ve written here before about the Square Peg Alliance, a group of 13 singer/songwriters here in Nashville. It includes Andrew Osenga, Andy Gullahorn, Andy Peterson, Billy Cerveny, Chris Mason, Derek Webb, Eric Peters, Jeremy Casella, Jill Phillips, Katy Bowser, Matthew Perryman Jones, Randall Goodgame, and Sandra McCracken. They have been doing a residency on Tuesday’s evenings at The Radio Café in east Nashville for the past couple weeks, and are planning to continue it throughout September. The format is “in a round”, meaning five or six of them (in this case) take turns singing one of their songs, and they go around a couple times. All three shows have been great so far, and Geof Morris has been kind enough to take the time to bootleg all the shows (with their permission), and upload them to http://indieriver.net. It might take a little bit of time to figure out how to get around IndieRiver and use BitTorent, but it is well worth it to hear the shows.

Check out Andy Osenga’s blog for pics from this week’s show.

To find out the latest news about the Square Pegs, check out www.squarepegalliance.net.

In related Square Peg news, starting Friday Derek Webb will be giving away his latest record, Mockingbird, for free! Go to www.freederekwebb.com for more information. This is one of my top 10 favorites CD’s of last year. If you haven’t heard it yet, here’s your chance. I especially recommend A New Law, A King & A Kingdom, My Enemies Are Men Like Me, and In God We Trust.

Wearing the old ruts deeper

Quote of the week:

There is little to be gained by wearing the old ruts deeper. The creeds, symbols, and liturgies of Christianity were framed originally to convey not a sense of beauty but a meaning. We hold on to them now because they are beautiful—and we wonder what they mean. Altogether too much of the faith and worship of the Christian religion is couched in archaic language, so that the most vital transaction a man can have is carried on as though he were living in the Middle Ages and wearing doublets. Accordingly, we have to explain what ought to be self-evident. We have to invest old concepts with new meanings, so that we say one thing but mean another—and the force is lost. We are handicapped by the survival of religious issues which were once of paramount importance but are now irrelevant. If the Church, therefore, is to fulfill its redemptive function in the contemporary world, it will have to be set free from such inherited traditions as do not speak directly and convincingly to modern minds and bring about life changes on the part of those who share in them.

James M. Lichliter, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Webster Groves, Missouri, from the preface to his first book “Whose Leaf Shall Not Wither”, written in 1946.

Consistency

As I work through what I believe and why, one area I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently is consistency. I’ve found that far too often we don’t consider the full implications of our arguments. It is illogical to use one argument as why you support an issue, and then turn around and use its antithesis as to why you disagree with another issue.

For instance, I have heard people argue against the Gap Theory, which says there is a gap in time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, by saying that you cannot add something that is not there. The same people then turn around and argue that there is an indeterminable period of time between the 69th and 70th weeks in Daniel’s prophecy (see here) in which the Church is a parenthesis (re: Dispensationalist Theology), and that the writers of the Old Testament never spoke of the Church or knew anything about it. So, to sum up their arguments, they say you’re dishonest and don’t believe scripture if you insert time at the beginning of Genesis, and also say you can’t understand scripture and interpret it ‘correctly’ if you don’t insert time in Daniel.

I recently came across another example of this logic. Many of those who argue against embryonic stem cell research do so because they believe life is sacred. To quote the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, “We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” Their argument goes something like this: “Because we believe all life is sacred, all types of stem cell research should be banned. Even though there are promising possibilities of finding cures for many different diseases that would save hundreds of thousands of lives down the road, it is not worth it if other lives are taken in the process.”
I have then heard the same groups turn around and give their unreserved support for the Iraq War by saying “The civilian causalities in this war (an estimated 40,000 currently) are worth it, because it may save lives in the future.” So which is it? Is life sacred, or is it not?

Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, and Oversimplification

I heard a sermon Sunday on the Lord’s Supper that reinforced one of the points Shaun Groves made when he taught on the same subject recently in IKON.

Shaun was talking about the differing views of what happens while taking the Lord’s Supper and how different groups explain it. The three main categories he mentioned are as follows:
Catholics – Transubstantiation
Lutherans – Consubstantiation
Baptists – Oversimplification

The church I was at was Baptist, and so, not surprisingly, the pastor’s approach was to oversimplify the ordinance, basically claiming that it was nothing more than remembrance. (For those interested, he cited Huldrych Zwingli’s interpretation as the one he believes in.)

When I was checking my e-mail yesterday, I noticed I still had one of John Piper’s sermons in my inbox waiting to be read (they are sent out each week by e-mail), and the title was “Why and How We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper”.

Here is an excerpt I found interesting:

Where does this idea of “partaking of Christ’s body and blood . . . spiritually . . . by faith” come from? The closest text to support this is in the previous chapter: 1 Corinthians 10:16-18. As I read it, ask, “What does ‘participation’ mean?”

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ (koinōnia estin tou haimatos tou Christou)? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ (ouchi koinōnia tou sōmatos tou Christou estin)? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar (koinōnia tou thusiastēriou)?

Here is something much deeper than remembering. Here are believers—those who trust and treasure Jesus Christ—and Paul says that they are participating in the body and blood of Christ. Literally, they are experiencing a sharing (koinōnia) in his body and blood. They are experiencing a partnership in his death.

And what does this participation/sharing/partnership mean? I think verse 18 gives us the clue because it uses a similar word, but compares it to what happens in the Jewish sacrifices: “Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants [a form of the same word] in the altar?” What does sharer/participant/partner in the altar mean? It means that they are sharing in or benefiting from what happened on the altar. They are enjoying, for example, forgiveness and restored fellowship with God.

So I take verse 16 and 17 to mean that when believers eat the bread and drink the cup physically we do another kind of eating and drinking spiritually. We eat and drink—that is, we take into our lives—what happened on the cross. By faith—by trusting in all that God is for us in Jesus—we nourish ourselves with the benefits that Jesus obtained for us when he bled and died on the cross.

If you are interested in songs written about Communion, check out Andrew Peterson’s “Flesh and Blood” that he co-wrote with Ben Shive. I recently transcribed it for Andrew, and you can find the sheet music on his website at the bottom of this page.

At the risk of self-discovery…

I recently read Anne Lamott’s novel “Crooked Little Heart”, and as I was finishing it I came to the conclusion that all of her writing could be summed up in this way: We are messed up people, living in a messed up world. We screw up all the time, but some of us are able to hide it better than others. And life is still beautiful. We are selfish, caring only about ourselves and our needs. We do whatever it takes to try and make ourselves comfortable, no matter who is hurt by it. We go to great lengths to protect our illusions of perfection. But every once in a while we help a friend, we allow ourselves to be inconvenienced, we put aside our rights. And life is beautiful.

In today’s culture, it is impolite to tell someone if they are doing something wrong. We avoid straight talk at all costs; we even choose our churches by looking for masturbatory teaching. We are afraid to show others who we really are, in part, on the chance that they won’t like us any more or want to be around us. But I think Sara Groves is getting at something in the chorus of her song “Every Minute” when she sings “And at the risk of wearing out my welcome / At the risk of self-discovery / I’ll take every moment / And every minute that you’ll give me”. We are more afraid that we will discover ourselves than we are that others will know who we are. Why else are we afraid of silence? Why else do we surround ourselves with music, T.V., and the radio every minute of the day? If we search our hearts, what will we find?

We need to remember that life is lived in community and growth comes through sharing. In Sara’s song “All Right Here”, she sings “Every heart has so much history / It’s my favorite place to start / Sit down a while and share your narrative with me / I’m not afraid of who you are // I’m all here, and you’re all there / Some of this is unique, and some of it we share / Add it up and start from there / Well, it’s all right here”.

So we have a choice to make. Will we admit that we are not perfect and let others share in this beautiful mess of a life that we live? Will we allow ourselves to love, even though we know it could end in hurt? Or will we pretend that life is perfect, that we have it all together and everything is great, that we need no one else?

Sara Groves ~ Every Minute

I am long on staying
I am slow to leave
Especially when it comes to you my friend
You have taught me slow down
And to prop up my feet
It’s the fine art of being who I am

And I can’t figure out
Why you want me around
I’m not the smartest person I have ever met
But somehow that doesn’t matter
No it never really mattered to you at all

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me

And I can think of time when families all lived together
Four generations in one house
And the table was full of good food
And friends and neighbors
That’s not how we like it now

Cause if you sit at home you’re a loser
Couldn’t you find anything better to do
Well no I couldn’t think of one thing
I would rather waste my time on than sitting here with you

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me

And I wish all the people I love the most
Could gather in one place
And know each other and love each other well

And I wish we could all go camping
And lay beneath the stars
And have nothing to do and stories to tell
We’d sit around the campfire
And we’d make each other laugh remembering when
You’re the first one I’m inviting
Always know that you’re my friend

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me
Every moment and every minute that you’ll give me