October 7, 2009

Positive theology: The Creative Word (iii)

I’m making my way into the second month at seminary and I’m glad to be writing this blog entry. It gives me a break from my studies and a chance to give away some of what I’m learning. This entry is called “The Creative Word” because I want to emphasis the creative power of words. I’ll do this from two texts: Genesis 1 and Ezekiel 37.

In Genesis 1:3 we find the power of the spoken word in creation. God opened his mouth and spoke creation into existence (if you have read the Chronicles of Narnia, he sung creation into existence). His voice created the material universe out of nothing, ex nihilo. On the first day: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” I don’t think this is mere poetry, although it surely is poetry. Neither do I think that this theopomorphism should be taken literally to mean that God had a mouth and when he opened it the sound waves made the physical universe. Both of those would take away from the author’s emphasis here. The image is that God used his word to create the universe. The creation account accentuates the power of the spoken word coming from God.

It may have been that this set up precedence in Hebrew thought towards the power of the spoken word. For the sake of brevity, I want to move ahead in the narrative to the time of exile to point out the power of the spoken word in redemption. Although many texts could be utilized for this point, I will focus on one.

In Ezekiel 37, the people of God had been taken away from their land. God had departed and they were taken into exile with little hope. Then, God takes Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones to show him the restoration to come. And this restoration comes through the spoken word—prophecy.

God asks Ezekiel (i.e. son of man) if the dry bones could live. Ezekiel says, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” And God commands him to prophecy to the bones: “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.” Three times Ezekiel prophecies to the bones (representing Israel) and in his prophecy God promises renewal and new life. They were dead and their branches were blackened, but God spoke through his prophet to give life, to create.

Conclusion: The power of the spoken word takes what was not and makes it as though it were. The power of the spoken word takes what was broken and makes it as though it were not.

This entry serves as background for understanding Jesus’ use of the spoken word. Then, I will close the series showing how important spoken words are for those who are in the Body of Christ.

September 29, 2009

Positive Theology (ii): the Spoken Word

This week I was talking with a Christian brother. I have not seen this friend in a long time because we met overseas three years ago and our paths haven’t crossed since. He has no one around him he can call a part of his Christian family... at all. We talked about school, jobs and life. Throughout the conversation I used the word “brother." I didn't notice that I was saying it really. I said things like, “Brother, it’s so good to hear from you” and “I miss you brother.” Then, after about 25 minutes, he broke the conversation and said something about how I was talking to him. He said, “I like it when you call me your brother.”

He caught me off guard because I didn’t even notice I was saying it. "Brother" just seemed appropriate in the conversation. When he said “I like it when you call me you brother,’” he confirmed something about which I have been musing recently: the power of the spoken word. He knew that we are brothers; I knew that we are brothers. But when I spoke what we both knew to be true, my words changed something in his soul. I wasn’t saying anything he didn’t understand or already know. I merely spoke what was true.

With the help of Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright and Mirslav Volf, I have developed this positive theology of the spoken word. So, you can be sure, my thoughts are not unique. They are profound, nontheless. Simply stated, this positive theology is that the spoken word has power.

Another phrase often elicits a similar reaction is “I love you.” These are some of the most powerful words that can be spoken, but they can be some of the most difficult, too. A big step in a dating relationship happens when a couple decides (intentionally or not) to say those words, “I love you.” Although we use the word "love" flippantly in America, we know that when directed at a person the words "I love you" are powerful.

I want to unpack this a little more because I think it has profound, practical implications. And since we tend to do a lot of talking, it may prove helpful for more than simply melancholy musing. I will talk first about the power of the word in creation and new creation. Secondly, the power of the spoken word in the life of Jesus. Lastly, I will address the power of the spoken word in the church. More to come.

September 22, 2009

Positive Theology (i): Grace and Peace

This semester I am taking a class on the letter to the Galatians and the professor opened my eyes to something deeply profound that I have read many times. Normally, the words "grace and peace" sound too cliche to pull off in normal conversation without sounding corny or hokey. While that phrase might sound cliche today, it wasn't at the time of the New Testament.

Grace, or charis, was the regular greeting that Greeks used. When a first-century Greek citizen greeted someone else, they didn't say "what's up?". They said "grace". Peace, or shalom, was the regular greeting of the Jews. So when a Jew would greet another Jew, the would often say "peace".

Two different ethnic and cultural groups with two different greetings.

This understanding becomes signficant when we look at Paul's greeting to the ethnically diverse churches throughout the Roman Empire (also Peter and John in different epistles). "Grace and peace" may be one of the earliest, most compact and profound gospel statements. And it was used to combat a major problem of the early church that still exists today: racism. The racism between the Greeks and Jews, in particular, was creating quite the problem. They were having trouble accepting each other as part of the new eschatological family in Christ. (If you want to know what racisim looked like in the first century, read Acts 10 or Galatians 2:11-15.)

So when Paul takes two standard greetings from two groups who were having serious problems of ecclesial exclusion and weds them together, it seems that he is doing far more than just saying "hi". He is proclaiming the gospel of reconciliation and inclusion of all nations into the people of God in Christ through faithfulness. Interestingly, Paul puts the greeting of the Greeks before that of greeting of the Jews: "grace and peace".

Not only is this a combination of two greetings (affirming both Gentiles and Jews), but it is one of the most compact forms of the gospel: the grace we receive from Jesus provides peace of life. But this peace is not individualistic meant for the spiritual naval gazer. It's a peace that starts with grace and looks towards. It's a peace that makes two into one.

May you be blessed by the good news of the reconciliation that is in Christ.

Grace and peace.

September 15, 2009


If there's one word that describes the last week of my life, it's "epic". I say that with a bitter sweet tone (in case you can't hear it). I started seminary at Asbury and I went to see U2 live in Chicago. By epic, I don't mean that I did anything epic or that my life itself is epic. I simply mean that it was far beyond my ability of grasping and comprehending. I feel like I was living in what Peter Buckland calls the "swirling vortex of weirdness".

What made everything feel like a swirling vortex of weirdness is the combination of events: I commuted from Nashville to Lexington for my first day of class, started learning Hebrew, found out my reading load is 3,000-4,000 pages this semester, drove back to Nashville, drove to Chicago, saw U2 in Soldier Field, drove to Nashville and drove back to Lexington only to start my second week of school. This is the beginning of an interesting semester of commuting to Asbury once a week from Monday to Thursday.

I hope that I can be blogging through what I'm learning during cemetary, as they call it. A person only does graduate school once, eh? Well, hopefully just once. This blog is because of the suggestion of Michael DeFazio, who influenced me to start thinking about Asbury four and a half years ago. Whether he knows it or not, he was the first one who planted Asbury in my Freshman mind while I was still at Ozark Christian College. So Michael, if you read this, thank you for planting that thought in my mind.

What I want to learn, now, is not how to maintain the epic. As I look forward to the next two and half years, I want to learn the art of the mundane. Please join me on this all too common journey chasing after an all too wonderful God.

P.S. As I typed the last word, Ben Witherington walked by and asked me if he could borrow my laptop so he didn't have to go up to his office. I let him. Looks like I'm off to a good start.

June 23, 2009

Exile (part 2)

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper and not to harm you." God spoke these words to his people, Israel, about a half of a millennium before Christ. Jeremiah was the prophet who delivered this message to a broken people who were falling apart.

I have heard a lot people lately with questions, deep questions, about the nature of the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. How does the God of Israel line up with the God revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth? And their questions are legitimate. I don't blame them because I myself struggle through those questions. Also, I think that for the most part Christian leaders and teachers today do not understand how the two work together.

I say that to focus on the above passage out of the book of Jeremiah (29:11), the oft quoted verse for life plans. Having recently graduated, I heard that verse quoted numerous times. I think one thing we can know about it for sure is that when God spoke to Israel at this time, we can see that God is one who plans. He thinks things through and has hope for humanity.

However, I ran into a problem as I read beyond Chapter 29 of Jeremiah today. The problem centers around this verse when Jeremiah speaks to the people of Israel on God's behalf: "Behold, I am watching over them for disaster and not for good. All the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt hall be consumed by the sword and by famine, until there is an end of them" (ESV 44:27). That's quite a change from Chapter 29 when God promised plans for prosperity and for good, not harm.

This goes to show the distortion that is prevalent in many church leaders and theological authorities today. They have not read the whole book. They didn't hear the argument, so to speak, before speaking. The sign of a prophet is that he has been with the LORD personally and has a message to bring, but I think some of our "prophets" today are only half listening. I can succumb to that. N.T. Wright in a lecture called "Jesus and the Kingdom" said that the sign of Christian maturity today is when someone listens to an argument all the way through. I think N.T. is wright.

The crux of the interpretation of Jeremiah as a whole and verse 29:11 and 44:27 in particular comes at the point God's voice touches their ears. What happened to change the mind and actions of God from plans for prosperity to plans for disaster? First of all, that was before Christ and New Covenant of the Spirit. Secondly, it was their hard-heartedness. They did not listen to the voice of God: "It is because you made offerings ad because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey the voice of the LORD or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his testimonies that this disaster has happened to you, as at this day" (44:23).

God is good and makes plans. But when we don't listen to his general will of obeying and not worshiping other gods, he is not able to go through with those plans. His promises are conditional. We can see that clearly and indisputably here. The question is what are the conditional upon? Is it our effort? No. Is it our abilities? No. It is listening to the voice of the LORD when he clearly speaks and responding with obedience. I'm not addressing that mysterious and specific will of God for vocation or location; I am talking about simple and single-minded obedience.