Eikons and icons

I’ve been thinking a little about Greek the word eikon, from which we get “icon.”  In Paul’s¹ letter to the Colossians, Jesus is said to be the eikon (image) of the Father, and that thought could lead to hours of meditation and worship.

On the other hand, centuries of iconography in the Episcopal/Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox traditions continue to leave me in the middle ground between bored and aghast.  Today I had occasion to scan an article in the Rochester, NY newspaper about religious shrines in private homes, and some Lutheran adherent from Nashville was mentioned as enjoying icons in his home.  Why?  Because, he said, a council in the 7th century said it was OK and related them somehow to the incarnation.  (Oh, man.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to contain myself.  What blog fodder!)

In the meantime, I choose to try to focus on the reality that was found in the Christ.  Tomorrow, Lord Jesus, may my household, and like-minded friends with us, find especially meaningful ways to do just that.


¹ I could call him “Saul” or “Paul” or “Saul-Paul,” but I opt out of calling him “St. Paul.”  Somehow I doubt he would prefer being set on a pedestal in that way.  We’re all saints, he would say.


Founder as foundation

Viola and Sweet, in their new book Jesus Manifesto, point out that in a few major world religions, the founder is important (see p. 82).  That makes sense.  Think Siddhartha Gautama, Mohammed, Confucius, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy. I don’t know about Scientology or Swedenborgianism.  In Animism or Atheism, in the sense that those are religions, relationship with the founder seems negligible.

In none of these other religions–and let it be stated that Mormonism is chiefly other than Christianity, along with Hinduism and all the others–is relationship with the founder crucial.  Think about that.

In Colossians, the centrality of Jesus is significant from the outset.  He is lauded and praised and given credit and honor and is generally placed at the core.  Paul’s placing of the Savior at the center seems to be an answer to something in Colossae’s situation.  In other words, whether it was Gnosticism, or some hybrid form of it, or the beginnings of the apathy that later surfaced in the nearby Laodicea, or a plethora of threats to authentic doctrine about the Christ . . . whatever it was, Paul wouldn’t have said the things he said about Jesus if it weren’t called for by the situation he was addressing.  This is an occasional letter–one addressed at a specific time for a specific purpose or set of purposes–not a formal epistle.

It has been noted by scholars that the wording in Colossians of a certain Christ-expression is emphatic, if not unique.  Chapter 2 verse 6 has this:  ton Christon Iesoun ton Kurion (caps added)–which, when literally, awkwardly translated, means the Christ Jesus the Lord.  The reiteration of the article “the” provides the special emphasis:  The Christ Jesus (who is) The Lord.  This word formulation, I suspect at this early stage of studying Colossians, is just one indication of the centrality of Jesus the Christ.  “Christ,” a scholar noted, has by this time in history become part of a formal proper name and not only an adjectival description of Jesus’ identity.

Given Jesus’ centrality, we must of course seriously consider how to begin — and stay in — relationship with Him.

Topics and lyrical content: reflections and dreams

Have you ever sung a song that expressed fear in the presence of the Almighty?  Or one that was written from the perspective of the cherubim or of the four living creatures around the throne (Rev. 4)?  Songs about events in Jesus’ life would seem to provide wonderful springboards to worship and praise.  We have a few that appeal to the record of His calming the storm on Galilee and beseeching Him to calm our internal storms today, but it would be nice to have a song about power in even the hem of His garment, or about His indignation at the treatment of God’s temple, or about the healing of blind people (what a lyrical possibility that brings … spiritual sight as well as physical sight!), or about the beatitudes.  We could go on. . . .

And go on we will!  Outside of the worship and praise (here I refer to lyrical content, not to any modern genre) that arena . . . I have heard a song or two that are centered on the banquet or feast that He has invited us all to, but what about a song of solidarity, of togetherness as believers?  I suppose there are enough songs of gathering and departing, but then again, maybe those areas are precisely where we need some renewal.  Maybe you would try your hand at writing a song that acknowledges the stresses of getting kids ready for “church,” piling in the car, driving through traffic lights, and then entering the glow of the assembly of Christians?  The underlying impetus behind the “Songs of Ascent” in the Psalms may be more applicable in our day than we think.

I have a sense that very few of our songs really deal—at least in any thorough manner—with sin and how we deal with it in life.  (My perception of this scarcity might indicate only my personal disinclination to delve into self-examination when in a large group.)  There are phrases here and there in our repertoire that throw a bone at the notion of sin-confession and weakness—”purer in heart help me to be,” “my spirit is hungry, but my flesh is so weak,” “change my heart, O God,” and “forgive our foolish ways”—but nothing comes to mind that really probes the darkness and pervasiveness and significance of sin.

Songs to the Holy Spirit[1] are found in small number, and with good reason:  there is really no New Covenant precedent for addressing anything to the Holy Spirit.  Personally, I am often bored by those three-stanza songs that seem to have three stanzas only because one is addressed to the Father, one to Jesus, and, oh, yeah, we need one to the Holy Spirit, too.  But on the other hand, we could use more songs about the Spirit’s work in the lives and hearts of those who are in Christ.

Speaking of last stanzas, there are lots of older songs that fall into a pattern of a requisite last stanza that deals with heaven and/or the second coming.  This is not always a bad thing to think and sing about, mind you, but it can be monotonous if you have two or three of those songs in a sequence, and they all follow the same pattern.

“Heaven songs” is a category that needs more depth; in the contemporary-style vein, it probably just needs more songs, period.  I wonder if today’s evangelical songwriters are a bit too caught up in the political and material struggles of this world to think about our true, ultimate home.  And why don’t we sing more of our security and comfort in God (like “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance”)?

There may be enough songs about grace and mercy; on the other hand, a lot of the modern expressions are cliché, and those topics are theologically fundamental, so let’s stimulate the writing of more!  It will not be “vain repetition,” and we can not exhaust the grace of the Lord lyrically.

There are comparatively few songs being written about communion today, it seems.  The ones we have are, by and large, very good in terms of lyrical content, but we could use more.  Songs about mission and ministry seem to be confined to a century or so of authorship (from the middle 1800s to the middle 1900s).  Songs of meditation and introspection aren’t always that popular, but maybe they should be.  And how about a really good, new song on obedience to God?

Songs of spiritual battle.  Hmmm.  “Encamped Along the Hills of Light” and “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” come to mind.  Maybe more is needed there.  And as I survey a couple of topical indices, I note that most of the songs on Christian living, in general, were written 50, 100, or more years ago.  That obsolescence is even more marked in the category of “invitation” or “altar call” songs.  In my teen years, I developed a strong aversion to invitation songs (and to the whole practice of the post-sermon invitation, actually . . . I’ll write a little more on that later).  But as I mature, I think we probably need more of those—as long as we use them well.  Perhaps it is this category more than others that deserves more contemporary lyrics.  When we are attempting to reach hearts by calling them to greater heights in discipleship, we can’t expect much effect if a past generation’s heart language is being used.

Have you ever sung a song taken directly from Old Testament prophecy?  One that credits God’s work in history, such as at the Red Sea, in Eden, at Mount Carmel, at Jericho, etc.?  I get excited thinking about the possibilities and wish I had enough time and skill to write all these songs.

This particular installment has probably served more to inspire me than to reflect for the benefit of others.  I do hope, though, that readers will be encouraged to consider, more frequently and deeply, the lyrical content of songs.

[1] In one way of thinking, the Spirit may be described as the Essence of God.  The scriptures, as far as I can discern, do not present a precisely trinitarian view of Deity so much as a multifaceted one in which God seeks relationship with His creation and takes on different “faces,” different roles in order to communicate with humankind.

Openness of God (3)

[Several weeks ago, I mentioned in the course of an anecdote about gnats and arbitrary occurrences my intention to work through the book The Openness of God.  I’ve been doing just that, owing in part to the work some ten years ago of then-e-friends Brandon Fredenburg and Paul Woodhouse on the now-defunct RM-Bible discussion listserv.  Brandon and Paul, respectively, had synopsized the first three chapters.  I make no claim to doing such justice to this material but still would like to share a few insights from my reading.]

A new insight on the notion of logos appears within John Sanders’s chapter on historical considerations:  apparently Heraclitus used the term to refer to “the one thing that remains constant when everything else is changing.”  Intriguing, that.

A summary in Richard Rice’s first chapter giving the biblical support for the openness perspective is helpful:

At times God simply does things, acting on His own initiative and relying solely on His own power.  Sometimes He accomplishes things through the cooperation of human agents, sometimes He overcomes creaturely opposition to accomplish things, sometimes He providentially uses opposition to accomplish something, and sometimes His intentions to do something are thwarted by human opposition.

The will of God, therefore, is not an irresistible, all-determining force.  God is not the only actor on the stage of history. . . .  (38)

Practical implications of this view are the subject of the final chapter by David Basinger.  Such matters as the problem of evil and suffering, the implications of petitionary prayer, and social responsibility are arenas for continued thought and application.  “Divine guidance” caught my eye the most, though.  The advocates of the open view of God see God as possessing what they term “present knowledge,” which includes knowledge of the past but is not predictive.  It’s not as though God couldn’t know or determine the future; it’s that he relinquishes that type of sovereignty in order to allow interaction with created, loved humans.  God does not, according to the open view, possess “middle knowledge”:  He does not know or determine in advance what would/could happen if any of several options were chosen by one of us.

All this comes into play when considering how—or even whether—God guides our decision making.  Basinger rightly calls into question the second-guessing that occurs when a sincere believer believes God has opened/closed a door, leading to a specific course of action.  “God has led me here,” the Christian says, but then later, a door seems to slam in his face, so in his sincerity, he is forced to say, “Well, I must not have understood what He was saying to me,” or “Well, something in this must be good, but I just can’t see it.”  The God of the open view affirms His general will, but not a specific course driven determinedly into His willing subjects.  This liberty frees us from what can be a paralyzing quest for that comforting sense of being perfectly guided in every step, by God.

I’m in a mode of driving through projects and finishing them. Being somewhat of a perfectionist, I’m never satisfied with my thoroughness in such things, but have learned just to let a few things go after I’ve experienced them sufficiently.  Such is the case with The Openness of God and Note Grouping, both of which I’ve completed, to my satisfaction for the present.  I have grown musically, and I have grown spiritually in my consideration of these important writings.

Openness of God (2)

[Several weeks ago, I mentioned in the course of an anecdote about gnats and arbitrary occurrences my intention to work through the book The Openness of God.  I’ve been doing just that, owing in part to the work some ten years ago of then-e-friends Brandon Fredenburg and Paul Woodhouse on the now-defunct RM-Bible discussion listserv.  Brandon and Paul, respectively, had synopsized the first three chapters.  I make no claim to doing such justice to this material but still would like to share a few insights from my reading.]

Starting with yesterday’s post, I gave some of Clark PInnock’s ideas from his main (3rd) chapter, and below are a few more.  This book proposes an apparently radical, yet common-sense, approach to theology.  In so doing, the authors end up resisting much traditional theology,

The God of the Bible is not timeless.  His eternity means that there has never been and never will be a time when God does not exist.  Timelessness limits God. . . .   The Bible sees God as present to the flow of history, facing the future partly as an unsettled matter.  (119)

[God does not have to] overcome ignorance and learn things of which He should have been aware.  [God did, however, create] a dynamic and changing world and enjoys getting to know it.  It is a world of freedom, capable of genuine novelty, inexhaustible creativity and real surprises.  I believe that God takes delight in the spontaneity of the universe. . . . (124)

The picture of God that I receive from the Bible is of One who takes risks and jeopardizes His own sovereignty in order to engage in historical interactions with created reality. (125)

In his synopsis, Woodhouse had pointed up the missiological/practical significance of our understanding of God, noting Pinnock’s mention that “atheism has found fertile soil in the classical viewpoint because of its ‘existentially repugnant view of God’ as an “uncaring, aloof monarch.”  Traditional theology, says Pinnock (and Woodhouse), tends to lean more toward the transcendence of God than to His immanence.  Furthermore on the unbalanced, tilt of theology through the centuries, Pinnock says the “’biblical-classical synthesis’ has become so commonplace that even today most conservative theologians simply assume that is is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding … must be rejected.” (60)

Almost curiously, not one of the five authors represented in this book questions the notion of “triunity,” which is not presented as such in the scriptures.  Perhaps the authors figured it was better to affirm something traditional and to build on/around it rather than to turn that stone over, too, leaving everyone reeling instead of just upsetting them.  Pinnock in particular assumes God’s threeness and uses it to bolster his case—although less convincingly for me than in other areas.

Openness of God (1)

[Several weeks ago, I mentioned in the course of an anecdote about gnats and arbitrary occurrences my intention to work through the book The Openness of God.  Well, I have.  Keeping my word to myself feels good.  For the next three days I’ll give some thoughts based on this reading.]

This book proposes an apparently radical, yet common-sense, approach to theology.  In so doing, the authors end up resisting much traditional theology, which draws heavily on a synthesis between classical Greek thought and scripture.  This “open model” results in thoughts that are foreign to both Calvin and Arminius, for different reasons.  Calvin believed, for instance, and has by influence through the centuries led to much similar belief, that it is impossible for God to “change His mind.”

Among modern Protestants, one common line of thinking has two “levels” of reality—1) the actuality of God, and 2) the way He appears to us.  Many would say, for instance, that God always acts and must must react . . . and but perhaps that He appears to us to be reacting when in reality He was not responding in any way to the activity of the creation.

The following quotes are from Clark Pinnock’s key chapter on the theological implications of the open view of God.

The fall into sin was against the will of God and proves by itself that God does not exercise total control over all events in this world.  Evils happen that are not supposed to happen, that grieve and anger God.  Free will theism is the best way to account for this fact. (115)

Some have claimed that God is wholly actual and not at all potential and thus cannot change in any way.  They have equated the biblical idea of faithfulness with the Greek idea that requires any changes related to God to occur only on the human side.  This is the error that tempted some of the early theologians to explain the incarnation without admitting that God changed, and to explain away dozens of biblical references to God’s repenting and changing.  (117)

Impassibility is among the most dubious of the divine attributes discussed in classical theism, because it suggests that God does not experience sorrow, sadness, or pain. . . .  The suffering or pathos of God is a strong biblical theme . . .  “My heart recoils within Me, my compassion grows warm and tender (Hosea 11:8).” . . .  The idea of God’s impassibility arises more from Plato than from the Bible.  (118)

Any reactions to these ideas?  If they strike you poorly, don’t blame the messenger (although I’m inclined toward them, not away from them!).


On the heels of yesterday’s Monday Music song about the work of the Spirit, I thought it would be an appropriate time to mention our visits to two churches on Sunday.

One, known as Master’s Tabernacle, was identified by its associate minister as a “full gospel” church.  I probed that, pretty much knowing what I would hear.  The man didn’t seem to understand what he was suggesting with the “full gospel” label, so I probed again.  He affirmed that this church believed and practiced present-day miracles.  With a smile, I indicated that we didn’t want to limit God but that we wouldn’t be comfortable there, and I tried to wish them well and head out the door.  He didn’t understand at first, but then appeared mostly disappointed, with just a touch of smug “wish this guy was as complete a Christian as I am” thrown in.

He morphed his disappointment into an attempt to educate me, attesting to the “fact” that he himself was one living miracle, having fallen off the roof of the many-faceted, odd, build-along structure, and having been taken up as though dead.  Again, I won’t intentionally limit God’s ability or action, but apparently this gentleman had no idea that his mere suggestion to me that he was a miracle wouldn’t convince me of one iota of this questionable semeiological doctrine.

At any rate, this “full gospel” church was an instant reject for us, so on we drove.  I had to wonder what full-gospel churches think a “half gospel” is, and whether they have any idea that miracles and speaking in other languages (“tongues”) are not central to the gospel message.  A more apt term than “full gospel” would be charismatic.

It didn’t help that this building was rickety, and the website’s published times were outdated.  These things don’t help a church’s impression on visitors.

Next stop:  a “community church.”

MM: Our Blest Redeemer, Ere He Breathed

[The “MM” initials stand for “Monday Music”; I’ve been endeavoring to post on Mondays on the lyrics of hymns and other worthwhile Christian songs.]

When I began this series nearly half a year ago, I listed 15 or 20 songs and hymns that came into consciousness; every week or so, I share them, adding new titles as they come to me, as well.  Often I write about the song one or more days before the Monday the post goes up here on the blog, and often I paste in lyrics from the Cyberhymnal site instead of retyping.  But it is in fact today that I’m writing, and I will be typing the lyrics myself so that there’ll be more likelihood of personal spiritual growth and connection to God as I ponder these rich thoughts.

This song that’s been on my list for months keeps getting deferred, but it jumped out at me this morning.  Call it the move of the Spirit, or perhaps call it a sense of responsibility, or coincidence, but this one was the only choice for Monday Music this week.  This song is not a hymn but is a sort of historical narrative followed by a prayer.

Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed His tender, last farewell, a Guide, a Comforter bequeathed with us to dwell.

He came sweet influence to impart–a gracious, willing Guest, while He can find one humble heart wherein to rest.

And His that gentle voice we hear, soft as the breath of ev’n, that checks each fault, that calms each fear, and speaks of heav’n.

O God of purity and grace, our weakness, pitying, see; O make our hearts Thy dwelling place, and worthier Thee.

Apparently, the  author, Harriet Auber, not having pen or paper, had taken off her diamond ring and scratched the words on the window pane.  The pane was stolen after her death.  Although the subject of the hymn is the invisible, inner working of the Spirit of God, we can sometimes see its outward effects.  The permanent etchings in the glass, wherever the pane is now, seem appropriately emblematic of the Spirit’s means.  We can see the effect, but the holy mystery is that we can’t see it coming or where it’s going.

The teachings about the Spirit of God that emanate from these words seem quite biblically sound to me.  The title itself springs directly from scripture:  the historical mention of Jesus’ having breathed on the disciples (John 20:19-23) is a beautiful inclusion in this last canonical record of our Lord on earth, and breathing is connected to the spirit.  (The same Hebrew and Greek words, more or less, refer to spirit, wind, and breath.)  The 2nd and 3rd stanzas are a bit more ethereally subjective but don’t offend my sense of biblical accuracy.

Speaking of accuracy, it bears mention here that I don’t find Trinitarian (with a capital “T”) doctrine in scripture.  There are ample references to the Father and to the Son, of course, and many references to the Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Christ, etc., as well, but nowhere have I ever discovered that God wants believers to conceive of Godself as precisely tripartite.  Not that I would go on record saying that there are not three “parts” of the “Godhead” (an extrabilical, fabricated term), but it is much more important that we leave room for the mystery of God to be whatever God wants to be, and to work in whatever way He wants to work.  I’m grateful that God chooses to live in me, and now I just need to make more room for Him.

It’s also worthy of note that nowhere in scripture does a prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit appear.  For this reason, I generally opt out of the 3rd stanza of all those songs that have three verbatim repeats of thought, changing only the addressee from the Father to the Son, and then to the Spirit.  Poetic license would allow us to address the Spirit as God, but not finding a biblical address of the Spirit, I’m reluctant to address the Spirit in prayer/song, as well.

In the four stanzas of “Our Blest Redeemer” included in the hymnal I grew up with, no hint appears of the miraculous work of God–either in the 1st century or in the present day.  But in the original stanzas, “semblance of a dove” and the “tongues of living flame” are mentioned, but without overemphasis on the miracles and speaking of other languages; the intent of the Spirit’s coming is said to be “to teach, convince, subdue.”  I like that.  And even more, I like the last stanza that I’d never known before:

And every virtue we possess, and every conquest won, and every thought of holiness, are His alone.

God, be praised for Your holy intrusion into humanity … no, check that … for Your continued, holy intrusions You are characterized by gracious intent and the impulse of will that streams from love unceasing.

Wachet auf

A very thoughtful, high-profile scholar wrote this, in the context of a larger, philosophical question:

“The purposes of a Triune Creator who has created and gathered up all things in Jesus Christ and now perfects all things by his Spirit . . .”

… and I ask this:  when did a theory based more in history and tradition than in scripture get a capital letter on its adjectival form?  I’ve accepted that the Latin-derived Deity is often capitalized, so I suppose Trinity should be, too.  But “Triune Creator” suggests an even more thoroughgoing assumption of threeness that is not claimed in scripture.

I suppose there is a larger sanctification question in that short half-sentence, too:  does God’s Spirit really perfect all things now?

Sometimes ivory-tower, high-power theologians deserve critique, I think!  I’m not even sure what he means by “gathered up all things in Jesus Christ,” now that I think about it!

Praying to Jesus (and to the Spirit)

Growing up in a fellowship of Christians that believed strongly in obedience to God’s will has a lot of benefits.  I have reaped many of those and try to help sow a few myself.  Most of my Christian ties are with this group — a “people of the Book” — to this day, and that is no accident.  I find myself even more interested in “doing Bible things in Bible ways” today than 10 years ago, and I find quick camaraderie with others who are of that bent, no matter what group of churches they’re affiliated with.

There are always inconsistencies to be found, though, among those who say they’re “going by the book.”  I remember inquiring of a Texas Bible study group leader (who was, not incidentally, significantly more narrow-minded than I on points religious) about praying to Jesus.  I think this was in the context of a passage in John’s gospel (14:13-14?), but I’m not sure.  Anyway, there are perhaps a couple of NC references to asking things of the Son, and I wanted to elicit thoughts on why we didn’t typically hear spoken prayers directed to Jesus in our assemblies.

The dismissive response by the leader?   I remember it verbatim, and “tonatim” (the tone of his voice):  “Well, why would you want to pray to Jesus”?

That response was highly unsatisfactory to me then, and it still is.  Not necessarily because of the lack of manifest engagement with John 14, but because of the inherent inconsistency this man was unwilling to deal with.  Most Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and Wednesday nights at the Ridgewood Church in Beaumont, we sang songs directed to Jesus.  Many of them could be categorized as prayers.  Why not spoken prayers to Jesus?  I mean, this guy would have sung, with gusto and Texas twang, “Jesus, Hold My Hand.”  Personally, I was more interested in the likes of “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee” and “Jesus, Wonderful Thou Art” and “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” and maybe “In the Hour of Trial, Jesus, Plead for Me.”  The point is that we were in the habit of singing a lot of things to Jesus, asking things of Him, praising him — all in song.  Why did we draw an inconsistent line at spoken prayer?  Doesn’t seem to have been a biblically warranted conclusion, does it?

For comment: Do you pray to Jesus?  As much as, or more than, praying to the Father?  Are the prayers to Jesus perhaps confined to human experiences that He, as the once-incarnate, now-glorified intercessor, could share?  And what about praying to the Spirit?  (This relates to my questioning of orthodox trinitarianism, which I don’t find suggested per se in the scriptures, but I won’t get into that again here.)  Although we could fairly readily make a scriptural case for praying to the Christ, I don’t find any adoration of the Holy Spirit commanded or modeled in the scriptures.