1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

NOTE: This is a review of an assigned excerpt from Kaiser’s book for a doctoral class. You shouldn’t construe it as a review of the entire book.

Walter Kaiser’s Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament is an excellent primer for why the First Covenant is important. He published it in 2003. More recent works have made the compelling case that the situation has not improved![1]

He begins by making the case for the First Covenant. In short, it is the foundation for everything. The New Covenant cannot stand alone.

Nowhere in the New Testament can one find evidence advocating that the writers went outside the boundaries of the Old Testament text to gain their view of the Messiah, or that they just rejected outright what these texts taught about the coming one. The “story” the early church told was the story of the promise-plan of God and the line of the “seed” that would end in David’s final son, Jesus. This was the gospel they proclaimed.[2]

Indeed, Kaiser explains, this is the “master problem of theology.” His solution is to see it as the foundation for the entire bible story through his well-known “promise-plan” motif,[3] from Genesis 12:3.[4] Kaiser then remarks that expository preaching is “one of our oldest styles of preaching,”[5] but fails to note we have no examples of Jesus and the apostles employing this method. He defines expository preaching in a manner Kuruvilla would likely approve:

An expository sermon or lesson is one that takes a minimum of a full paragraph (a scene in a narrative or a strophe in poetry) and allows the biblical text to supply both the shape and the content of the message or lesson from that text itself.[6]

However, Kaiser then contradicts himself by quoting Greidanus thus: “the preacher’s task is ‘to view the whole counsel of God, with all its teachings, laws, prophecies, and visions, in the light of Jesus Christ.’”[7] If the text really determines the sermon shape and context, then Christ cannot be the center of every sermon! He then provides some tips for pastors, which are a mixed bag:

  1. Find the extent of the pericope. Don’t atomize the text—preach the whole natural episode.[8]
  2. Find the “big idea.” I am less and less sure this is a wise move.[9]
  3. Find the “key word.” Kaiser does not explain the rationale for this step, but assumes it. It is unclear what he wants.
  4. Make application relevant and contemporary.
  5. Make a final appeal.

Remarks on narrative

Kaiser devotes a chapter to understanding the building blocks of narrative text,[10] and here is where he becomes less helpful. The harsh reality is, if a pastor does not read widely, he will never interpret the scriptures competently because he will never understand literary genres. No amount of spilt ink or saved megabytes of Kindle text will change this. Thus, Kaiser’s survey of the elements of narrative are good, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Without an intuitive literary radar honed by years of reading for pleasure (fiction and non-fiction), Kaiser’s discussion of dialogue and characterization will remain stale and academic to the poor reader.

His suggested five-step process from text to sermon[11] is depressingly mechanical. His suggestion of block diagramming, identifying topic sentences in each paragraph, then keying paragraph syntax to that topic sentence[12] is unacceptably atomistic and completely at odds with his own definition of expository preaching. What happened to the text determining the shape of the sermon? Kaiser is inconsistent, here.

I generally view biblical interpretation and preaching as gifts from God. One must “have it” in embryo form; it largely cannot be taught ex nihilo. I confess I have no idea how one can “teach” people to understand how setting, plot, dialogue, and characterization interact. You only learn this by reading a lot. It becomes intuitive. It is the same with crafting a sermon. It is not a mechanical process; there is an indescribable art and “feel” at work. Perhaps it is not Kaiser’s fault he cannot adequately replicate that process on the printed page. Perhaps no teacher can.

Still, this is a helpful book that will encourage the pastor to preach from the First Covenant.


[1] See, for example, Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).

[2] Walter Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 24-25.  

[3] “If there is a key that unlocks this quest for an organizing center, what is it? I contend that it is to be found in the promise-plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 31). Also, “My solution is to understand the two testaments as part of one continuing, unified plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 37).

[4] “If I were to choose a text of the Old Testament that most succinctly states the divine mind and brings together all the multiplicity of themes, I would choose Genesis 12:3. It reads: ‘In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (my translation). There is the organizing plan of the whole Bible,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[5] Ibid, p. 50.

[6] Ibid, p. 49.  

[7] Ibid, p. 51.  

[8] Ibid, p. 54.

[9] See, for example, Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018).

[10] “The central elements in the total package of literary devices used in narrative include: (1) scene, (2) plot, (3) point of view, (4) characterization, (5) setting, (6) dialogue, (7) leitwort, or key-wording, (8) structure, and (9) stylistic and rhetorical literary devices employed,” (Ibid, p. 64).

[11] “The process I advocate here and in Toward an Exegetical Theology includes five basic steps in preparing a text for preaching or teaching: (1) Contextual analysis, (2) Syntactical analysis, (3) Verbal analysis, (4) Theological analysis, (5) Homiletical analysis,” (Ibid, KL 3061).

[12] “Place the topic sentence all the way out to the margin that you have just drawn. Then, show how each clause, phrase, and sentence is related to that theme sentence by indenting the clause, phrase, or sentence to fit under (if it follows the theme/topic sentence in the paragraph) or above it (if it precedes the topic sentence),” (Ibid, KL 3129).

On starry eyes and cosmic temples

On starry eyes and cosmic temples

I updated this review on 09 December 2020

I first encountered T. Desmond Alexander at seminary, years ago, via his tome From Paradise to the Promised Land. It was then I first encountered the theory of “Eden as cosmic temple.” His work From Eden to the New Jerusalem features that same theme. It’s a theme that seems to fill Alexander with starry-eyed wonder.

His aim is to set the whole biblical story into a framework; a story people can understand and “see.”[1] Alexander suggests a helpful framework for seeing Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 as bookends on the same story. Just as God originally dwelt on earth among men,[2] so the end of the story has God returning to a new and perfect creation to dwell with man once again![3] I had never considered this parallel of “God with us” before. Rather, I had always focused on the old creation/new creation motif.  

However, while he makes a promising start, Alexander is less helpful with the details of this framework. Like biblical theologians sometimes do, he falls prey to the siren song of parallel-o-mania and makes incorrect conclusions predicated on illusory evidence. One representative example is his insistence that Adam was a priest in God’s original temple sanctuary.  

Adam as a temple priest?

To paraphrase Sen. Diane Feinstein, the documentary hypothesis lives loudly within Alexander.[4] He relies on the work of authors who suggest parallels between the building of the temple and the six days of creation. He believes Genesis 1-2 “reflects matters of priestly interest.”[5] Likewise, Alexander refers the reader to monographs which purport to show parallels between Genesis 1 and dietary regulations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[6]

Thus, Alexander sees “a strong basis for believing that the Garden of Eden was envisaged as part of a divine sanctuary.”[7] This assumption is predicated on the idea that Genesis 1-2 was compiled by a later editor in the exilic period and crafted to reflect priestly concerns.[8] But for whom, pray tell, was Adam mediating before sin entered the world? Not to worry, Alexander assures us. “Since no one had yet sinned, there was no need for atonement sacrifices.”[9] It is fair to say this is an inadequate rejoinder!  

The Fall, Alexander declares, was when the first couple “fail[ed] to fulfil one of the main priestly responsibilities placed upon them.”[10] What is the basis for this intriguing claim? Well …[11]

  1. God orders Adam to “keep” the garden (Gen 2:15),
  2. and this verb could also be rendered as “guard,”
  3. and the Israelites were later instructed to “guard” the Sabbath (Deut 5:12)
  4. and the Levite priests were to “guard” Aaron (Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6),[12]
  5. and so, Adam and Eve were priests.

This is not how language works. You cannot play “gotcha” by drawing a parallel between verb usage without considering context.[13] How about context? Their job was to exercise dominion over creation (Gen 1:26-30). The text says nothing about a priestly role. Yet, to Alexander, dominion (he prefers “viceroy”) is almost an afterthought.[14] The cosmic temple paradigm drives his interpretation.

Indeed, this cosmic temple motif is the prism for understanding Alexander’s project. Everything is related to God wanting a cosmic temple. Eden was a cosmic temple; a “divine sanctuary.”[15] The patriarchs created makeshift, mobile temples when they offered sacrifices.[16] The “arboreal” features in Solomon’s temple hearken back to that original, long-lost “temple” in Eden.[17] Even the colors of fabric in the temple represent the cosmos; they are a model of the cosmic temple to come.[18] On this last point, Alexander meekly admits “the case for this is not beyond dispute …”[19]  

Thus, “the fulfilment of God’s creation project requires the existence of priest-kings who will extend God’s temple-city throughout the earth.”[20] Of course, Christ is the ultimate priest-king, and Alexander ably explains this motif in later chapters.

And yet, the Pentateuch:

  1. says nothing about a cosmic temple
  2. says nothing about Adam and Eve being priests
  3. says nothing about Adam and Eve having any reason to mediate anything
  4. says nothing about Abraham constructing a mobile temple sanctuary
  5. identifies no “arboreal” nexus between Eden and Solomon’s temple
  6. says nothing about the temple as a model of the cosmos, and
  7. attributes no significance to the colors of the fabric in the temple

Pastors model bible study by the way they preach. Bible scholars do the same by what they write. With his “cosmic temple + Adam as a priest” motif, Alexander personifies the worst stereotypes about biblical theology, models irresponsible use of the text, and pushes an implicitly allegorical hermeneutic. His book is not recommended.


[1] “… the concluding chapters of Revelation offer a window through which the main themes of the biblical meta-story may be studied,” (T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008], p. 7).

[2] “The opening chapters of Genesis assume that the earth will be God’s dwelling place. This expectation, however, is swiftly shattered when Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from his presence. While people continue to live on the earth, God’s presence is associated with heaven. From there he occasionally descends to meet with selected individuals, although these encounters are always relatively brief and sometimes unexpected,” (Ibid, p. 15).

[3] “As the book of Revelation reveals, there is yet to come a time when all that is evil will finally be removed from the present earth. At that stage, when God makes all things new, his presence and glory will fill a rejuvenated earth,” (Ibid, pp. 18-19).

[4] Alexander has an extensive analysis of Pentateuchal criticism in general in From Paradise to the Promised Land, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), pp. 1-112. He declares “… it seems best to conclude that the Pentateuch as a literary whole … eventually took shape in the exilic period. Though the traditions contained within the Pentateuch clearly existed before this time and were obviously viewed both as ancient and authoritative by the final editor of the Pentateuch, it is exceptionally difficult to demonstrate that the Pentateuch itself existed in its entirety as a literary unit before the sixth century B.C.” (Promised Land, p. 109).

Conservatives will find a much more faithful ally in Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2012), pp. 36-150.

[5] “Weinfeld suggests that the special interest shown in Genesis 1:14 for feast days, weeks and years, and in Genesis 2:1–3 for the Sabbath, reflects matters of priestly interest,” (Ibid, p. 24).

[6] “Blenkinsopp, picking up on the anthropological studies of Mary Douglas, sees a connection between the division of the cosmos into sky, earth and seas in Genesis 1 and the categorization of animals, birds and fish as clean or unclean in the ‘priestly’ dietary regulations of Leviticus 11:1–47 and Deuteronomy 14:3–21.27,” (Ibid).

[7] Ibid, p. 25. 

[8] See footnote 4, above. 

[9] Ibid, p. 25.

[10] Ibid, p. 26. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 34. 

[13] It is probable that Alexander’s context is that (as I mentioned earlier) the Pentateuch is an edited document compiled during the exile and deliberately fashioned to reflect the priestly concerns of the so-called “J strand” of material.

[14] “In Genesis 1 – 2 Adam and Eve are endowed with a holy or priestly status that enables them to serve in the temple-garden and have direct access to God. In addition, the human couple are appointed as God’s viceroys to govern the earth on his behalf,” (Ibid, p. 76). Emphasis mine.

[15] Ibid, p. 25. 

[16] “While the various sacrificial sites mentioned in Genesis 12 – 50 are not viewed as permanent sanctuaries, they clearly foreshadow the tabernacle and temple,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[17] “Since the garden is a place where divinity and humanity enjoy each other’s presence, it is appropriate that it should be a prototype for later Israelite sanctuaries. This explains why many of the decorative features of the tabernacle and temple are arboreal in nature,” (Ibid, p. 25).

[18] “… this is conveyed through the use of fabrics that are blue, purple and scarlet in colour, representing the ‘variegated colors of the sky,’” (Ibid, pp. 38-39).

[19] Ibid, p. 37.  

[20] Ibid, p. 80.

Why did Mary run away?

Why did Mary run away?

That’s the title of the advent sermon this coming Sunday, from Luke 1:39-56. Here is my own translation of this beautiful passage:


Then, in those days, Mary set out to travel into the hill country with haste—to the city of Judea. And she entered into Zacharias’ house and greeted Elizabeth.

And it happened, as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt for joy in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a great shout and said:

You’ve been blessed among women,  and the fruit of your womb has been blessed, too! And how has this happened to me, that  the mother of my Lord has visited me!?

Listen! As soon as the sound of your greeting [came to] my ear, the baby in my womb leapt with great joy! And blessed is she who believed, because what was told to her by the Lord will be fulfilled!

And Mary said:

Oh, how my soul praises my Lord! And my spirit rejoices in God, my savior!

Because he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed!

For the Almighty has done great things for me, and His name is holy.

His mercy is from generation to generation, for those who fear Him.

He has done great miracles by His mighty power. He’s scattered the arrogant ones—the ones with the proud thoughts in their hearts.

He’s cast down rulers from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

He has satisfied the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.

He came to help His servant Israel, and remembered to be merciful.

Just as he promised to our fathers, to Abraham and to his children forever.

Now, Mary remained with her for three months [and] then returned to her home.


Here’s the sermon, and here are my notes:

Kill the lecture! A better way for preaching?

Kill the lecture! A better way for preaching?

Abraham Kuruvilla’s A Vision for Preaching is a wonderful, refreshing book. I am aware this is at odds with my lukewarm review of his contribution to Hermeneutics and Homiletics. In fact, Kuruvilla’s essay in that volume is a precis of this book. This book is much better.

Kuruvilla’s work is an exposition of one statement:[1]

Biblical preaching, by a leader of the church, in a gathering of Christians for worship, is the communication of the thrust of a pericope of Scripture discerned by theological exegesis, and of its application to that specific body of believers, that they may be conformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God—all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I will focus on two aspects; (1) the thrust of the passage,[2] and (2) how to apply scripture.

The sermon—bullet or buckshot?

Like many pastors, I read Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching at seminary. In that classic tone, Robinson explained his “big idea” approach to preaching:[3]

A major affirmation of our definition of expository preaching, therefore, maintains that ‘expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept.’ That affirms the obvious. A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.

Kuruvilla is against this approach. The sermon, he argues, is not an argument in service to a particular “point” in the text. That is the “old” homiletic,[4] where “the point” drives the structure of the sermon:[5]

Craddock’s wry observation (noted earlier) in this regard is worth repeating: ‘The minister boils off all the water and then preaches the stain in the bottom of the cup.’ Thereby, sermons turn out to be ‘didactic devices,’ more about arguments to persuade listeners to buy into these propositions, and less about texts and what they (or their authors) are doing. All this may even imply that once one has gotten the distillate of the text, that is, the reduction of the text into one or more propositions, one can abandon the text itself.

This, Kuruvilla, insists is not the way. Instead, the sermon is about what the author is doing with the passage. The preacher is a tour guide, a docent,[6] and his role is to point out what the biblical author is doing with the text—not to re-package it into a “point” or “big idea” to be argued to the congregation.[7] The text is not a plain glass window the preacher points through towards some “big idea” beyond. Rather, it is a stained-glass window the reader must look at.[8]  

So, Kuruvilla argues, the author is doing something with the text. There is a layer behind the onion of the simple words. For example, pretend my wife says, “the trash is full!” She is indeed telling me the trash is full, but she really wants to move me to action—she wants me to take the trash out![9] So, Kuruvilla’s point is there is no “big idea” or “big argument” or “series of points.” There is only the preacher as tour guide, showing what the author is doing, in his context.

Application

This means, for Kuruvilla, application is always based on the theology of the passage.[10] “Specifically, the ‘theology’ in the “theological hermeneutic” proposed here is pericopal theology, not biblical or systematic theology.”[11] Each text has a message for God’s people. It might be more than one “big idea.” Whatever the passage communicates, whatever the author is doing with his message, that is the basis for application.[12]

Ironically, Kuruvilla manages his best explanation of his view (his “Big Idea,” perhaps!) in an academic article, not in this book:[13]

What is needed in the pulpit, then, is a creative exegesis of the text undertaken with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing—pericopal theology—enabling their experience of the text + theology.

The sermon is not a lecture; “my three points this morning are on the screen!” The sermon is where the pastor pulls back the curtain and show what he found behind it in his own study.[14] This is the great challenge—to structure sermons in an engaging, inductive way to let the congregation “see” the theology of the passage.

Kuruvilla’s book is a tour de force. It is a breath of fresh air from the redemptive-historical and other biblical theology approaches that seek to impose a framework for application into each text. Bryan Chapell recommends we use “gospel glasses” to see redemption in every text.[15] This is incorrect—some passages just are not about redemption, and to make them so will rip them out of context.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 7. 

[2] I will routinely use the phrase “passage,” whereas Kuruvilla prefers “pericope.” His definition is more expansive than normal. “Though the term is usually applied to portions of the Gospels, I use it in this work to indicate a slice of text in any genre that is utilized in Christian worship for preaching. In other words, a ‘pericope’ is simply a preaching text, regardless of genre or even size. It is through pericopes, read and exposited in congregations as the basic units of Scripture, that God’s people corporately encounter God’s word,” (Ibid, p. 116).

[3] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 35. 

[4] “The modus operandi of the ‘old’ homiletic is to put the text through a grinder and then preach, in points, the pulverized propositional products that come out of the contraption,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, pp. 95-96).

[5] Ibid, p. 99. 

[6] “… we must reconceive the role of preachers. I propose the analogy of a curator or docent guiding visitors in an art museum through a series of paintings Each text is a picture, the preacher is the curator, and the sermon is a curating of the text-picture and its thrust for the congregants, gallery visitors. A sermon is thus more a demonstration of the thrust of the text than an argument validating a proposition. A creative exegesis of the text is undertaken in the pulpit with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing. The sermon unveils the author’s agenda. The distillation of the text into points and propositions is thereby obviated. Instead, as Long describes, the preacher is a “witness” of the text, to the text—equivalent to my analogy of the preacher being a curator of the text-picture,” (Ibid, pp. 103-104).

[7] “Thus, for the longest time, preaching has been conducted as a forensic argument that proves the putative proposition of the text for the congregation—an act of reasoning, a parceling of information, and an appeal to the cognitive faculties of listeners to bring them to a rational conviction about that proposition,” (Ibid, pp. 100-101). 

[8] Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018), 831.  

[9] This is actually Kuruvilla’s own hypothetical example from his conversation with Hershel York on York’s Pastor Well podcast. “Episode 36: Abraham Kuruvilla discusses hermeneutics and the gift of singleness,” (19 August 2019). Retrieved from https://equip.sbts.edu/podcast/episode-36-abraham-kuruvilla-discusses-hermeneutics-gift-singleness/.

[10] “What the pericope affirms in its theology forms the basis of the subsequent move to derive application,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, p. 121).  

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 122. 

[13] Kuruvilla, “Big Idea,” 842.  

[14] Ibid, 843.  

[15] “A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Bryan Chapell, “Redemptive-Historic View,” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics, ed. Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018], p. 16).

Cuomo, COVID and the Notorious ACB

Cuomo, COVID and the Notorious ACB

Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Cuomo had imposed to combat COVID-19. The vote was 5-4. If the late Justice Ginsburg were on the bench instead of Amy Barrett, it would have gone the other way.

This is not a permanent decision. Justice Kavanaugh explains:

Importantly, the Court’s orders today are not final decisions on the merits. Instead, the Court simply grants temporary injunctive relief until the Court of Appeals in December, and then this Court as appropriate, can more fully consider the merits.

Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 1.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, along with some Orthodox Jewish synagogues, asked for injunctive relief from Gov. Cuomo’s order that “imposes severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as ‘red’ or ‘orange; zones. In red zones, no more than 10 persons may attend each religious service, and in orange zones, attendance is capped at 25,” (Decision, p. 1).

It has always been tricky to weigh religious freedom and the State’s legitimate authority to protect public health. In a recent article, I explained my own thoughts on this matter (for now, anyway) in my own context in WA State. This SCOTUS decision is very helpful because it crystallizes much of what I’ve been thinking for some time.

Strict neutrality. If you don’t treat religious institutions with strict neutrality, then a State will likely have a problem. You can’t single churches out for harsher treatment than other organizations:

In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as “essential” may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of “essential” businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities

Decision, p. 3.

What is the rhyme and reason for these determinations of “essential” vs. “non-essential?” I’m sure there is an alleged reason, and I’m also certain a binder exists even now in the State’s emergency management office that explains everything. I also know Gov. Cuomo made a moral distinction, a value judgement, when he drew those lines. A garage is more important to society than a church. This is not neutrality.

Irreparable harm. The decision notes:

There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. ‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’ Elrod v. Burns, 427 U. S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion).

Decision, p. 5.

This is a point many Governors don’t understand and many Americans don’t understand. Religion is quaint, cute, mysterious and ultimately annoying to so many people today. They don’t understand it, so they don’t value it, and thus marijuana dispensaries are “essential” and houses of worship are not.

Public interest. Here, we have an especially compelling point.

But even in a pandemic,the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.

Decision, pp. 5-6

Justice Gorsuch issued a concurring opinion in which his tone was sharp and he appeared more than a bit … miffed. He proclaims:

At the same time, the Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pickup another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?

Gorsuch concurring opinion, p. 2.

A liquor store and a wine shop are not analogous to a worship service, but I take his point. It’s a shame Gorsuch wasn’t similarly outraged in Bostock v. Clayton County. He continues:

The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.

Ibid. Emphasis added.

Seemingly on a roll, Gorsuch now scales the heights of righteous indignation and observes:

In recent months, certain other Governors have issued similar edicts. At the flick of a pen, they have asserted the right to privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, and casinos over churches, mosques, and temples. In far too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears.

Ibid, pp. 2-3.

We cannot defer to Governor’s executive orders indefinitely, Gorsuch argues.

Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical

Ibid, p. 3.

Justice Kavanaugh echoes his colleague:

In red and orange zones, houses of worship must adhere to numerical caps of 10 and 25 people, respectively, but those caps do not apply to some secular buildings in the same neighborhoods.In a red zone, for example, a church or synagogue must ad-here to a 10-person attendance cap, while a grocery store, pet store, or big-box store down the street does not face the same restriction. In an orange zone, the discrimination against religion is even starker: Essential businesses and many non-essential businesses are subject to no attendance caps at all.

Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 2.

However, Kavanaugh goes further and insists States must explain why houses of worship are “excluded from that favored class” of businesses which can operate with fewer restrictions:

The State argues that it has not impermissibly discriminated against religion because some secular businesses such as movie theaters must remain closed and are thus treated less favorably than houses of worship. But under this Court’s precedents, it does not suffice for a State to point out that, as compared to houses of worship, some secular businesses are subject to similarly severe or even more severe restrictions.

Ibid.

To my knowledge, this point has not yet come up in a meaningful way in a COVID-19 context. This flips the entire script from “may I please stay open?” to “prove to me why I can’t stay open!” as follows:

  • Wrong: You can’t just say, “gyms are closed completely, while churches can stay open subject to restrictions, so there is no discrimination.” This isn’t good enough.
  • Right: Instead, you must say, “I know Walmart is open and the parking lot is always packed to the gills, but churches can’t do that because … (insert reasoning here).”

Thus, Kavanaugh tightens the screws:

Rather, once a State creates a favored class of businesses, as New York has done in this case, the State must justify why houses of worship are excluded from that favored class. Here, therefore, the State must justify imposing a 10-person or 25-person limit on houses of worship but not on favored secular businesses

Ibid, p. 3.

COVID is certainly dangerous, Kavanaugh admits. But the great danger, he warns, is if the judiciary continues to defer to the State. This cannot be:

But judicial deference in an emergency or a crisis does not mean wholesale judicial abdication, especially when important questions of religious discrimination, racial discrimination, free speech, or the like are raised. In light of the devastating pandemic, I do not doubt the State’s authority to impose tailored restrictions—even very strict restrictions—on attendance at religious services and secular gatherings alike. But the New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the circumstances given the First Amendment interests at stake.

Ibid, p. 3.

However, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan disagree. They wish to continue to defer.

Thus, according to experts, the risk of transmission is higher when people are in close contact with one another for prolonged periods of time, particularly indoors or in other enclosed spaces. The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the State has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges.

Breyer dissent, p. 4.

I suspect (but, of course, cannot prove) these Justices simply do not appreciate the importance of religious worship and are therefore incapable of adequately protecting it. I’m unmoved by stories about how Joe Biden (et al) have “deep Christian faith.” The Christian faith isn’t play-dough to be molded and appropriated by the owner. It’s objective. It has content. It has meaning. The ideologies of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (and, for that matter, President Trump) largely do not comport with the Christian faith and message.

The dissenting justices continue:

We have previously recognized that courts must grant elected officials “broad” discretion when they “undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties.” That is because the “Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States.”

Breyer dissent, p. 5.

Sotomayor, in her own dissent, writes:

I see no justification for the Court’s change of heart, and I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn (Diocese) will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering

Sotomayor dissent, p. 1.

To her, the nature of religious activities make it more dangerous.

But JUSTICE GORSUCH does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID–19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time

Ibid, p. 2.

Sotomayor epitomizes this deference to public health authorities. No sane person would deny these individuals have expertise. The dispute is over whether public health concerns can trump religious freedom, and if so for how long. Can, as Gorsuch quipped, the Constitution actually take a sabbatical? Sotomayor apparently believes it can:

Unlike religious services, which “have every one of th[ose] risk factors,” bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time. Id., at 7 (“Epidemiologists and physicians generally agree that religious services are among the riskiest activities”). Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.

Sotomayor dissent, p. 3.

I wonder, then, why States do not issue edicts forbidding potlucks at Baptist churches because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 655,381 Americans died from heart disease in 2018. One could marshal precisely the same public interest arguments for abolishing potlucks and communal meals at all houses of worship. Of course, that’s absurd. Why is COVID different, given the COVID death rate in 2020 (262,158) is only approximately 40% that of heart disease?

I can only see this continued judicial deference to the State as a sophisticated extension of the “stay safe at all costs” mindset that is so common, today. Sotomayor concludes thus:

Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights. States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today. The Constitution does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives

Sotomayor dissent, p. 5.

Predictably, Gov. Cuomo dismissed this injunction as a partisan political move by SCOTUS. However, the decision signals how the Court will likely rule on similar cases that come its way, and lower courts may well use these same arguments to rule in favor of houses of worship.

Legal experts said that despite the governor’s assertion that the decision was limited to parishes and other houses of worship in Brooklyn, the court’s ruling could be used to challenge and overturn other restrictions elsewhere. “The decision is applicable to people in similar situations,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s applicable to any synagogue, any church, to any mosque, to any religious setting.”

Jesse McKinley and Liam Stack, “Cuomo Attacks Supreme Court’s Emboldened Majority Over Virus Ruling,” in New York Times (26 November 2020). Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/378Wmwp.

In its amicus brief to SCOTUS, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission asked for clear guidance on how lower courts should weigh public interest and the free exercise of religion:

This Court’s guidance is needed, and, in its absence, the lower courts are left grasping for whatever they can find. Indeed, a search of Westlaw reveals that the concurring opinion in South Bay (declining to grant the requested injunction) has been cited 118 times in the past five-and-a-half months, leading to a hodge-podge of results across the United States and uncertainty as to what standard the lower courts should apply … It is time for the Court to weigh in and provide clear rules for lower courts struggling to resolve these questions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ERLC amicus brief, p. 4. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/39gWDjp.

Well, SCOTUS did just that. Whatever else they may feel about his fitness for office, all people of faith owe President Trump a debt of gratitude for appointing Justice Barrett, a convictional and faithful Roman Catholic, to the Court. This decision is a wonderful victory for religious liberty, and I suspect 2021 will see many of these executive orders struck down State by State.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on …

Happy Thanksgiving.

The pit of despair …

The pit of despair …

Homiletics and Hermeneutics, edited by Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim, is a great primer for weighing various homiletical approaches. The editors explain, “This book is about teasing out the theological presuppositions of approaches to preaching. That is, we want to explore the hermeneutic that lies behind one’s theology of preaching.”[1] The four views they present are:

  1. Redemptive-Historical (Bryan Chapell)
  2. Christiconic (Abraham Kuruvilla)
  3. Theocentric (Kenneth Langley)
  4. Law-Gospel (Paul Wilson)

This issue here is not about preaching methodology. It is about the presupposition behind the methodology. The authors disagree about the unifying theme behind scripture. Where is God going. What is He doing? What has He been doing?

  • Is the story of the bible about redemption and the Cross? Chapell explains, “Christ-centered preaching, rightly understood, does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every biblical text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ’s ministry.”[2]
  • What about God? Is all scripture about Him and His glory? Langley insists, “Theology proper is the preacher’s best lens for seeing and displaying the unity of the Bible. Other lenses, like covenant, law-gospel, or redemptive-historic, elucidate some texts but not all, or at least not all texts equally well.”[3]
  • Sanctification? Is that the great telos of God’s story? Then go with Kuruvilla. “Jesus Christ alone has comprehensively abided by the theology of every pericope of Scripture. Thus, each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ (a facet of Christ’s image), showing us what it means to perfectly fulfill, as he did, the particular call of that pericope. The Bible as a whole, the collection of all its pericopes, then, portrays what a perfect human looks like, exemplified by Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the perfect Man: the plenary image of Christ.”[4]
  • What about law and Gospel? Wilson writes, “Every text already implies both law and gospel, even if every preacher has not been taught to recognize them.”[5]

The authors agree on much, and perhaps talk past each other.[6] This book’s value is in letting the pastor seehow a unifying theme may (or, may not) act as a straightjacket on the text. I propose a simple test:

  • If the interpretive grid will not let Song of Solomon 4 and Genesis 38 say what the text so plainly says, then it is invalid and ought to be discarded.

I will apply this test to Song of Solomon 4. To be blunt, the text shows us two people who are eager for their wedding night. Of course, there is something more going on here. Something for the congregation to learn. Which model handles this text responsibly?

  • Redemptive-historical. Chapell would use his “gospel glasses”[7] to see how Song 4 reflected the Gospel message. Presumably, he would do something akin to “righteousness of marital love” + “fall” + “Jesus’ love for the Church” = redemption.
  • Christiconic. Kuruvilla would seek the “world in front of the text”[8] to explain how this sexual marital bliss helps Christians become more Christlike.[9] His application would focus on God’s plan for marital love, and suggest concrete steps towards action.  
  • Law-Gospel. Wilson would look for both “trouble” and “grace,”[10] and if necessary engage in mirror reading to fill out his “four pages” scheme.[11] At the risk of sounding crass, I must insist that for the protagonists in Song 4, there is no “trouble” on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  • Theocentric. Langley would take this marital bliss and tie it to God’s design for men and women in marriage, and close with doxology to a God who cares about His people.[12]

Kuruvilla’s model does the most justice to the text as it stands. To be sure, each author has interesting and helpful contributions. But, the Christ-iconic framework allows us to more consistently cast the hermeneutical straitjackets into the Goodwill donation bin and let the texts speak for themselves.[13] Langley warns us:[14]

Lay people learn hermeneutics from their pastors’ preaching. Whether we like it or not, they learn how to interpret Scripture from how we handle Scripture in the pulpit. So what do we teach listeners about hermeneutics when Jesus makes a surprise appearance in a sermon from Proverbs? When it turns out Song of Solomon is not really about God’s gift of married sex but about Christ’s love for his church? When redemption trumps creation as the theological underpinning of every sermon? When texts are not handled with integrity because every Sunday the preacher follows the counsel to “make a beeline to the cross.”

He continues:[15]

People have a right to expect that a sermon will say what the Bible says. But if we import Christology (or law-gospel, or kingdom, or any other theme) into texts, do we not unintentionally communicate that texts are pretexts for talking about something else?

Amen to this.


[1] Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.), xi-xii.

[2] Ibid, p. 7. 

[3] Ibid, p. 89. 

[4] Ibid, p. 59. 

[5] Ibid, p. 129. 

[6] For example, Kuruvilla scolds Langley in his response: “Sermon after sermon, week after week, one is left strumming, striking, and scraping the same few strings and chords of theological themes found in Scripture. Instead, I suggest that preachers expound the concrete specificities of the pericope in question and the particulars of life change it calls for,” (Ibid, p. 111). If every one of Langley’s sermons is indeed about God, then Kuruvilla is correct. I do not know if that is the case!

[7] “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Ibid, p. 16).

[8] “… the interpretation of Scripture cannot cease with the elucidation of its linguistic, grammatical, and syntactical elements: what the author is saying (semantics). It must proceed further to discern the world in front of the text: what the author is doing (pragmatics). And this projected world forms the intermediary between text and application, enabling one to respond validly to the text,” (Ibid, p. 54).

[9] “… each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ,” (Ibid, p. 59).

[10] “Sometimes I opt for alternate terms like ‘trouble’ and ‘grace,’ although the law is not appropriately reduced simply to trouble. Still, trouble and grace can provide a simpler route to the preaching of the good news,” (Ibid, p. 121).

[11] “This mirroring function of law and gospel is a principle of inversion,” (Ibid, p. 131).

[12] “Preachers may take up a variety of texts and topics, but they should take them up (and their hearers with them) all the way into the presence of God, so that listeners are instructed by the Word of God, convinced of the value of God, captivated by the holiness, grace, kingship, wisdom, and beauty of God. Preaching is all about and all for God,” (Ibid, pp. 81-82).

[13] Langley observed, “We may appreciate, for example, the kingdom lens, but find that it works better in the Synoptic Gospels than in large swaths of Scripture where the kingdom theme is not prominent. Or we may appreciate a traditional Lutheran lens, but discover that law and gospel are not present in every text,” (Ibid, p. 89).

[14] Ibid, pp. 96-97. 

[15] Ibid, p. 97. 

COVID, the Church, the State and a more excellent way?

COVID, the Church, the State and a more excellent way?

What to think about government public health edicts and the Church regarding COVID-19? In an outburst of representative frustration, a Southern Baptist theologian recently posted the following on Twitter in response to his Governor’s new lockdown restrictions which, among other things, forbade dancing:[1]

As the American philosopher Yosemite Sam has often remarked, “them’s fightin’ words!”

Basic principles

We begin with some principles to help us consider how to react to the latest public health directive from Governor Inslee.

  1. The Bible tells us we need community and relationship to be truly human, and the Church is God’s community.

God saves His people to join them to the brotherhood of faith so we can be in relationship with Him and with our new brothers and sisters in the faith.[2] This is why God gave us pictures of the Church as God’s bride (Hos 1-3; Ezek 16; Eph 5), His body (1 Cor 12), and His spiritual house (1 Pet 2). It means we are only complete in community and fellowship with each other. This cannot be done solely by Zoom or YouTube. Therefore, just as a marriage does not exist unless there is a spatial closeness and relationship, so the Church cannot long exist if it does not meet for corporate worship. There are reasons why long-term, long distance marriages often die!

For God’s people to not meet in community is to deliberately hinder the image of God that Father, Son and Spirit are refurbishing in our individual and corporate lives (2 Cor 3:18; cp. 1 Cor 15:49).

Therefore, the Church should close its doors only as a matter of extreme necessity, as a last resort.

  1. The Bible says God puts the government official in place.

We cannot forget this, no matter who is in office:

Daniel 2:21: “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.”

John 19:11: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”

Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

  1. The Bible says we must obey the secular authorities.

This also cannot be wished away.

We do it because we would be disobeying God if we disobeyed the authorities. “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid, God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience,” (Rom 13:5).

Paul told Titus to “remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities,” (Titus 3:1).

We do it for the sake of evangelism. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” (1 Pet 2:13-14).

  1. The Bible tells us we can disobey the authorities in certain circumstances.

The penultimate examples are Acts 4:1-22 and Acts 5:27-33. But, before we use these as the escape pod for which we have been searching, we must note three things:

  • The authorities singled the Christians out for discriminatory treatment. They treated the Church differently than other groups.
  • The State ordered the Church to not preach the Gospel. The State wanted to stop evangelism, not corporate worship.
  • The State did this maliciously and on purpose because it hated the Gospel.

We also think of Daniel and his friends who refused to compromise the way they practiced their faith—even after the State commanded them to do so (Dan 1:8). Would they have done so if there were a legitimate public health reason? Perhaps a famine, a crop failure, or something similar? We do not know. We do know the king’s order did not supersede God’s command, and Nebuchadnezzar provided no compelling reason for them to think it did. God blessed Daniel and his friends for their allegiance (Dan 1:17-21).

In non-canonical but very helpful Jewish literature from the period between Malachi and Matthew, the theme of staying loyal to God in foreign lands was also a tough issue. The Book of Tobit is set during the Assyrian exile, and it is about a man named … (you guessed it) … Tobit, who struggled to be a faithful Israelite in a strange land. He explained:

Now when I was carried away captive to Nineveh, all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles; but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart (Tobit 1:10-12).

Like Daniel, Tobit loved God and so tried very, very hard to observe the dietary laws even in hard circumstances. As with Daniel, it was not about the dietary laws per se; it was about an honest desire to do what God ordered.[3]

What “certain circumstances,” then, allow us to disobey the State? Based on our survey, there are three triggers:

Considering COVID in Thurston County

This brings us to COVID, and Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 of 15 November 2020.[5] These are his new directives for congregations:

Governor Inslee explained during a press conference:[6]

This spike puts us in a more dangerous a position as we were in March … And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being, and to save lives. These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.

As of 15 November 2020, the Thurston County Health Department reports the following statistics:[7]

This data shows a 98.4% survival rate and indicates 6.4% of those infected have required hospitalization. The Thurston County Public Health Officer recently wrote the community[8] (p. 1, §7) that her recommendation to abandon in-person school instruction was “made based on our local patterns of transmission, rising transmission rates, hospital capacity, public health capacity, and our likely trajectory of disease going into winter.” It is reasonable to assume Governor Inslee’s proclamation is predicated on similar concerns.

As of 15 November 2020, the cumulative data for the State of Washington is as follows:[9]

This data shows a 98.1% survival rate and demonstrates 7.3% of those infected have required hospitalization. For comparison, here are the State of WA and Thurston County datasets side by side:

COVID and basic principles

We now turn to the triggers we previously discussed which allow the Church to disobey the government. We can eliminate one of these and further explore two others, as follows:

Discrimination?

The State has not engaged in intentional discrimination. Has it engaged in defacto discrimination? In this context, to discriminate means to “make an unjust or prejudicial distinction”[10] regarding the Church. To be unjust is to not behave “according to what is morally right or fair.”[11] Something is prejudicial if it is “harmful to someone or something; detrimental.”[12] Therefore, we can summarize and say Governor Inslee’s proclamation is defacto discriminatory against the Church if it draws morally wrong or unfair distinctions between it and other organizations in society, and these distinctions cause harm.

In his proclamation 20-25.8, Governor Inslee states (p. 3, §3):

These below modifications do not apply to education (including but not limited to K-12, higher education, trade and vocational schools), childcare, health care, and courts and judicial branch-related proceedings, all of which are exempt from the modifications and shall continue to follow current guidance.

Is this distinction morally wrong? Is it unfair to allocate the Church less societal value than a daycare? Is it morally wrong to say the Church is less valuable than an undergraduate institution which runs a course about the sociology of gender, in which students read texts that advocate transgender ideology?[13]

In this context every policy decision has, at its root, a moral calculus that weighs the organization’s value to society.[14] Governor Inslee has decided public schools, universities, trade schools, childcare, health care, the courts and their associated activities are more valuable than religious community. He has conducted a moral reckoning, and he sincerely believes his conclusions are correct.

But, the fact remains he has made a distinction. Is it an immoral or unfair distinction? According to Governor Inslee, both the organizations above are more precious than the Christian church. Thus, they may operate under current guidelines and are not subject to this new proclamation. According to the scriptures, gathering in community is not optional, it harms God’s people to prohibit it, and transgender ideology is a false construct of self-identity and humanity.

Therefore, we could say Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 is defacto discriminatory against the Church. However, he has not prohibited churches from meeting. He has set limits on the manner of worship, and he has set similar (financially) harmful limits on how other organizations conduct their operations. The State economy has been crippled and is only now beginning to recover.[15] It is safe to say this latest proclamation will rip the new scab off this wound for all manner of organizations, across all sectors. If Governor Inslee is explicitly or implicitly injuring the Church, even his foes must admit he is making a very clumsy job of it.

Evidence suggests the allegation of defacto discrimination against the Church is ambiguous and unclear.

We turn to the next issue.   

Adequate cause to change the manner of worship?

The question is about predication. In SKRBCs context, the weightiest issue from WA’s new restrictions is whether Governor Inslee has adequate cause to prohibit congregational singing in a worship service. Does he? In his press conference, Governor Inslee declared:[16]

We have a pandemic raging across the state. It is a potentially fatal disease. Left unchecked, it will assuredly result in grossly overburdened hospitals. It will keep people from receiving routine but necessary medical treatment because of the stresses our hospitals will be under.

Left unchecked, the economic devastation, long term, will be continually prolonged. And, most importantly, left unchecked, we will see continued untold numbers of death.

We will not allow these things to happen.

This brings us back to the datasets about COVID:

Just from this admittedly simple review, COVID-19 does not seem to be a serious disease. The number of WA dead (2,519) seems only to be so high because so many have been infected (130,419). And yet, this data masks the true horror of the virus. Even this seemingly modest amount of hospitalizations may overwhelm the public health sector:[17]

… in the hardest-hit areas, there are simply not enough doctors, nurses, and other specialists to staff those beds. Some health-care workers told me that COVID-19 patients are the sickest people they’ve ever cared for: They require twice as much attention as a typical intensive-care-unit patient, for three times the normal length of stay.

The article goes on:[18]

The entire state of Iowa is now out of staffed beds, Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Iowa, told me. Worse is coming. Iowa is accumulating more than 3,600 confirmed cases every day; relative to its population, that’s more than twice the rate Arizona experienced during its summer peak, “when their system was near collapse,” Perencevich said. With only lax policies in place, those cases will continue to rise. Hospitalizations lag behind cases by about two weeks; by Thanksgiving, today’s soaring cases will be overwhelming hospitals that already cannot cope. “The wave hasn’t even crashed down on us yet,” Perencevich said. “It keeps rising and rising, and we’re all running on fear. The health-care system in Iowa is going to collapse, no question.”

In the imminent future, patients will start to die because there simply aren’t enough people to care for them. Doctors and nurses will burn out. The most precious resource the U.S. health-care system has in the struggle against COVID-19 isn’t some miracle drug. It’s the expertise of its health-care workers—and they are exhausted.

Just how difficult is it to care for a single COVID-19 patient?[19]

A typical patient with a severe case of COVID-19 will have a tube connecting their airways to a ventilator, which must be monitored by a respiratory therapist. If their kidneys shut down, they might be on 24-hour dialysis. Every day, they’ll need to be flipped onto their stomach, and then onto their back again—a process that requires six or seven people. They’ll have several tubes going into their heart and blood vessels, administering eight to 12 drugs—sedatives, pain medications, blood thinners, antibiotics, and more.

All of these must be carefully adjusted, sometimes minute to minute, by an ICU nurse. None of these drugs is for treating COVID-19 itself. “That’s just to keep them alive,” Neville, the Iowa nurse, said. An ICU nurse can typically care for two people at a time, but a single COVID-19 patient can consume their full attention. Those patients remain in the ICU for three times the length of the usual stay.

Are some Christians so insulated in their echo-chamber of favored news commentators that they do not realize how awful COVID is? One public health worker recently lamented:[20]

Health-care workers and public-health officials have received threats and abusive messages accusing them of fearmongering … They’ve pleaded with family members to wear masks and physically distance, lest they end up competing for ICU beds that no longer exist. “Nurses have been the most trusted profession for 18 years in a row, which is now bull**** because no one is listening to us,” Neville said.

Add to it that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now concludes COVID-19 spreads through droplets in the air:[21]

Some infections can be spread by exposure to virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.

This kind of spread is referred to as airborne transmission and is an important way that infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox are spread.

There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.

In light of this, does the Church have cause to question the State’s motives in a public health emergency? Can it responsibly ignore the recommendations of public health experts? It seems the following guidelines should apply when considering public health emergency orders:

In the State of Washington’s context, the answers to these questions are, in order, No, Yes and Yes.

Does Governor Inslee therefore lack adequate cause to restrict congregational singing? Only if the Church believes the proclamation (and others like it from other Governors) is part of a conspiracy against Christ and His Church. Such theories abound on the internet, that warm incubator for so much cold darkness.[22]

Of course, these questions do not consider that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14) and rarely works in an overt way. He seeks to destroy the Church (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 12:17). “For we are not ignorant of his designs,” (2 Cor 2:11). We also must consider whether the Church is the proverbial frog in the pan that slowly boils to death … and never notices. Is the burner dial turning to “MED-HIGH” even now? 

We must remember we live in two worlds: the City of God and the City of Man. This world does not like the Church, does not respect it, does not value it, and never will. We must only go along with public health decrees that re-shape our community and our worship as long as we are reasonably certain there is no explicit or implicit evil motivating them.

Is there, in this case? With Satan, we can never be sure. But the evidence suggests no.

A more excellent way?

We make a mistake when we consider COVID and the State from the perspective of Satan as the moving force in the universe. Yet, that is what we have done. It is what we have all done. We forget the most biblical way to think of COVID is as God’s judgment on the world. Examples from scripture are too numerous to list, but here is one (Jeremiah 14:11-12):

The LORD said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, sand though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

God brings curses on a world that rejects Him. True, the world is not Israel. But the point remains—God brings judgment so people might repent. We do not know what His specific message is, but we can be certain it has to do with repentance and allegiance to His name.

While it is necessary to focus on the Church’s obligations to the State regarding public health orders, it is perhaps best for the Church to re-double its efforts to fulfill its mission. That mission is to preach the Gospel. To build bridges to the community in service of that Good News. To be innovative, creative, and winsomely aggressive in this outreach.

That is what God would have us do.

Notes

[1] See https://twitter.com/ostrachan/status/1328413157325410304. This was posted on 16 November 2020.              

[2] See the sermon “Made for Each Other? The Bible on Marriage” (preached 01 November 2020) for an exposition of Genesis 2:18-25. This sermon is essentially about the imago dei and how it is imaged in the covenant of marriage. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/BHZaV6YwXSg.

[3] See also 1 Maccabees 1:58-64 for a similar theme. 

[4] The case of defacto discrimination is well illustrated by Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan querying how he ought to handle Christians. This came about after Pliny issued a general edict outlawing political associations. Christians were then caught up in this administrative dragnet. This was not an explicit, but a defacto discrimination.

[5] Retrieved from https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/proclamations/proc_20-25.8.pdf

[6] TV Washington, “Governor Inslee Press Conference on COVID-19,” (15 November 2020). Retrieved from https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020111099.

[7] Retrieved from Thurston County Public Health and Social Services on 15 November 2020 from https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/phss/Pages/covid-19-data.aspx

[8] Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek, “Letter to the Community: 10 November 2020.” Retrieved on 15 November 2020 from https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/phss/phssdocuments/11%2010%2020%20letter%20to%20community%20FINAL.pdf

[9] WA State Department of Health, “COVID-19 Dashboard.” Retrieved on 15 November 2020 from  https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19/DataDashboard.

[10] New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010), s.v. “discriminate,” verb, 2; p. 497. 

[11] Ibid, s.v. “unjust,” p. 1893. 

[12] Ibid, s.v. “prejudicial,” p. 1378. 

[13] For example, see SOC 235 “Sociology of Gender” from South Puget Sound Community College. The assigned textbook is Lisa Wade and Myra Ferre, Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2018).

[14] “A man who acts, makes decisions, ranks things above or below, sets a high or low value on things, is acting according to definite principles—even though theoretically he may deny these principles—and he is acting with the consciousness—although in theory he would certainly deny it—that it is right to act in such a way,” (Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, trans. Olive Wyon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947], 18). 

[15] See State of Washington Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, Economic & Revenue Update – October 15, 2020, pp. 3-5. Retrieved from https://erfc.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/documents/publications/oct20.pdf

[16] TV Washington, “Press Conference,” 00:25 – 01:10. Retrieved from https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020111099.

[17] Ed Yong, “‘No One Is Listening to Us,’” The Atlantic (13 November 2020). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/11/third-surge-breaking-healthcare-workers/617091/.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How COVID-19 Spreads,” updated 28 October 2020. Retrieved on 16 November 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html. Emphasis added.

[22] These theories usually include varying amalgamations of George Soros, the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, microchips, a belief COVID-19 is not real or is being exploited for nefarious purposes, and conviction that there exists a coordinated, multi-national cabal of political and civil service conspirators ready to execute sinister orders from on high across the globe. I believe the latest colloquial term for this conspiracy at the moment is “the Great Reset.” You can read a short, breezy article skeptical of this theory here.

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

As I write this, on Friday morning 06 November 2020, it appears as if Joe Biden will win the Presidency. For many Christians, this is discouraging news. He is an older man, weaker in mind and body than he used to be, and at risk of being manipulated by the more radical people in his entourage. In order to secure his party’s nomination, he was forced to agree to policy agendas at odds with the scripture’s teaching on some of the most basic issues of life; abortion, marriage, what it means to be male and female, and more.

And yet, if the electoral college votes continue to go his way, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. This didn’t happen by accident. God is not in heaven above, biting his fingernails, pulling for Georgia and Pennsylvania to finish their vote counts. God knows the vote counts. He determined them. The 1618 Belgic Confession of Faith explains scripture well when it says (Article 13):

his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.

The confession goes on:

And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ.

If you’re demoralized and hopeless about the results of this election, know that God determined it. It’s His will. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but you do have to accept it. Even Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (Jn 19:11). There’s a whole lot in that sentence. Pilate is only there because God wanted him there. Jesus knew that.

It’s the same with Barack Obama, Donald Trump … and perhaps Joe Biden.

So, how to react? Since at least the 1960s, evangelicals in America have often framed their engagement with the world as “cultural resistance.” This framing casts the Church as the brave underdog, manning the ramparts with spears, crossbows and swords, protecting the Bride of Christ against “the world.” It was an attitude of isolationism; of defensiveness. This is why, about a generation ago, so many churches hurriedly passed bylaw addendums that explicitly identified homosexual “marriage” as illegitimate, and declared that no same-sex “marriages” could occur in its facilities.

Mission accomplished? Not really.

It wasn’t about the Gospel. It wasn’t about engagement. It wasn’t about taking the message outside. The ethos was about resistance, about building higher walls to keep it all “out there,” to protect ourselves from “the liberals.”

As we consider a Joe Biden presidency and all the freight it’ll bring with it, the Church’s role is not to build higher walls or buy more guns. Christ doesn’t expect His Bride to hunker down and dig. He expects us to advance, to sally forth into this world with a message of rescue, reconciliation and hope.

The Church is a forward operating base in enemy territory. Our job isn’t to build a bunker and wait for the cavalry. It’s to advance, to march onward, to get outside the walls and advocate for Christ in this community. Think about these statements:

“We’ve got to take back our country!”vs.“Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!”
“America has turned its back on God!”vs.“You’ll only find peace through Jesus Christ.”

The column on the left is framed from a perspective of cultural resistance, of defensiveness. It has no Gospel content. The column on the right is different. It’s the way the apostles preached. As we contemplate a Joe Biden presidency, the Church can’t retreat behind walls or use the same old tactics of cultural resistance. That isn’t evangelism; it’s isolationism.

Don’t give way to despair. Know God chose Joe Biden, and has a reason for doing it. Know He expects His Church to do its job and to advance onward with the Gospel. We can’t issue frightened cries from behind the castle walls. We can’t hide inside our shells like scared turtles. We have to go outside the fortress with the banner of the truth of the Gospel and tell people that old, old story. It isn’t about “taking back our country.” It’s about telling people about God’s country and God’s kingdom, so perhaps some of them might become citizens, too.

Singing the Ballot Blues

Singing the Ballot Blues

This Sunday, I preached a sermon about voting. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to telling Christians how to vote. I didn’t tell people “vote for Donald Trump or America is toast,” nor did I say “We must vote for Joe Biden!” I took a middle road, which is really the best road. It’s an uncomfortable road, because I believe a Christian ought to feel politically “homeless” in a world to which he doesn’t belong.

The Christian faith is about hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better us. Hope for justice. Hope that things are meant to be better than they are.

Hope that a God exists who is good, and that His Son Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again to fix this broken world, by the power of the Spirit.

The Christian faith is about hope that God will rescue some of us, so we can be with Him in the new community, as part of a new family, in the new and better world to come. Christians can live here in peace and joy because of this new relationship.

But, while we wait for all that good stuff to happen … we’re stuck here. We can’t withdraw from society and isolate in Tupperware containers. We can’t marry the Church to the culture. We’re in this uneasy middle ground, with the Church set apart from the culture but not isolated from it.

This produces questions about how the Church should interact with society[1]. The election is 03 November; what should you think about voting?

I tried to answer that, here. I provided three principles to follow when voting:

  1. God will fix everything … later.
  2. Vote to support all kingdom values, not just some.
  3. Realize God doesn’t care if you don’t like your leaders.

The uncomfortable bit is in the second principle. I’m essentially taking the approach Michael Svigel summarizes pretty well in his article The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism. He writes:

On the basis of God’s Word and in allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians speak and act on behalf of righteousness. Christians address political corruption, weigh in on social ills, take righteous action on behalf of truth, justice, and mercy, and do so in ways that refuse either to empower a “strongman” or take shelter in a bunker. All of this is done in a manner that reflects the fruit of the Spirit and the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Conscience Christians avoid any alliances or allegiances that would surrender their ability to speak prophetically to the “Herods” of their day. And they refuse to surrender the impartiality necessary to serve as the conscience of the kingdoms of their age.

This kind of approach almost always means withdrawing membership and loyalty to political parties and political action organizations, but it never means retreating from political, social, cultural, and moral engagement. It means boldly but lovingly speaking out against unrighteousness and injustice while promoting righteousness and justice—assuming, of course, that Christians are actually living out righteousness and justice themselves! In the Conscience of the Kingdom approach, the Church neither unites with nor retreats from the State; rather, she lives as the Church in the State and speaks as the Church to the State.

So, here’s the sermon. I think it’s pretty important:


[1] For an excellent discussion, see especially John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 697-736; esp. 711-714. 

Beyond sawdust theology

Beyond sawdust theology

I’m studying for the sermon tomorrow, which is titled “Singing the Ballot Blues: What Should a Christian Think About Voting?” I’m browsing through some systematic theologies to read what they have to say about hope in the context of eschatology.

Hope in a better time. Hope in a better king. Hope in a better place. Hope in a better future. Hope in a restoration of all things. Hope in judgment, mercy and holiness.

Hope that there’s something better than this place, and the 2020 election.

I’m disappointed at what I find.

I generally find sawdust.

I find sterile treatises trying to plot the timeline of events in the last days. I see dry, scholastic discussions about eschatology. I see lots of dogma, but no heart. No soul. No excitement. I see academia at its worst, and no joy in the age to come.

Ironically, I find the most joy, the most hope, the most irrepressible, starry-eyed vision of Jesus Christ’s return in European theologians commonly considered “liberal” or otherwise “neo-orthodox” by many conservative evangelicals.

So, I shall quote Jurgen Moltmann for a taste of this joy and hope. I think you’ll enjoy it (The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997; Kindle ed.], KL 67-97):

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional.

We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s `final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

Isn’t this right? Aren’t Revelation, and Isaiah’s visions, and Micah’s prophesies about so much more than “the end?” Aren’t they, in fact, about a new and better and oh so glorious new beginning?

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic `final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. ‘The end of Christ – after all that was his true beginning’, said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.

This has to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve read. Revelation 22 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. I don’t know if Moltmann was deliberately channeling Winston Churchill here, but it works. And, he’s right.

That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer took leave of his fellow prisoner, Payne Best, in Flossenburg concentration camp, as he went to his execution: `This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’ That is how John on Patmos saw the Last judgment of the world – not as annihilation, a universal conflagration, or death in a cosmic winter. He saw it as the first day of the new creation of all things: `See, I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21.5).

If we perceive it in remembrance of the hope of Christ, what is called the end of history is also simply the end of temporal history and the beginning of the eternal history of life. Christ can only be called `the end of history’ in the sense that he is the pioneer and leader of the life that lives eternally. Wherever life is perceived and lived in community and fellowship with Christ, a new beginning is discovered hidden in every end.

Amen and amen. What a vision. What a taste of the future that’s so much better than the sawdust scholasticism that characterizes too many Reformed systematic theologies. We need more of this.

I will close with Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, as he discusses hope:

When God in Christ says to man: ‘I love you,’ He says to him: ‘I have loved you from eternity and will love you to eternity.’ A love that does not long to be boundless is not love at all. Every laying down of limits is a denial of love, the proof of its lack of seriousness.

The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philidelphia: Westminster, 1960), 344.

Love is the object of our existence. It’s what God created us for – community based on love with Him and one another. This is why Brunner sees the Church as the brotherhood of faith. So, our hope is a total restoration of those relationships by perfect communion with God in eternity.

Brunner continues:

Hope is the certainty that this love lasts for ever and that it will not rest until is possesses us wholly. It does not possess us wholly so long as we are imprisoned in the ‘body of death’ and determined by the ‘form of this world.’ God’s glorifying of Himself which is identical with His self-communication in love only reaches its goal by dissolving this form of the world and transforming the world into the form of glory.

Ibid.

So, the Cross is the beginning of the end, just as Moltmann says. It’s where the Son accomplished the redemption of everything, even as we wait here for it to happen. “As an expectant mother carries within her the child that is to be born, and awaits with certainty the event of its birth, so faith carries the future within it. This future the believer expects wholly and solely from the coming of Jesus Christ,” (Ibid, p. 342).

So, Brunner writes, the Cross is where the world as God meant it to be becomes visible:

In the justification of the sinner the world that has become a stumbling-block to faith for the unbelieving man is also justified. In spite of all the cruelty and senselessness of the world, faith sees it as the creation transfigured in the fulfillment of the divine purpose, restored and approaching its consummation. the Cross as the eschatological turning point is the only theodicy possible and permitted for the Christian – the hope of the Consummation which the Creator and Redeemer God will Himself accomplish.

Ibid, p. 355.

This is the kind of hope we need. Not more end-times charts. Not more arguments about the minutiae, no matter how well-intentioned. We need some good, old-fashioned common ground to celebrate and rejoice about the hope all Christians have. This is theology with heart. With soul. With love.

Again, we could all do with some more of this.