Tuesday, January 20, 2015

If theological work becomes sterile

    ...[T]he service of God and the service of man are the meaning, horizon, and goal of theological work. This goal is no gnosis floating in mid-air and actually serving only the intellectual and aesthetic impulse of the theologian. It is neither a gnosis of a speculative and mythological kind like that of the major and minor heretics of the first centuries, nor a gnosis of a historical-critical kind like that which began to flourish in the eighteenth century as the sole true theological science and which today is preparing to celebrate, if appearances do not deceive, new triumphs. If the proclamation or adoration of strange gods lurks behind the first kind of gnosis, skepticism or atheism lurks behind the second. After his fashion, Franz Overbook no doubt was right when he pursued the way of this modern gnosis to its end and became wholly disinterested in theology as service. Although a member of the faculty of theology, he wanted to be and to be called, no longer a theologian at all, but--as may be read on his tombstone--only a "professor of Church history."
    If theological work is not to become sterile in all its disciplines, regardless of how splendidly it may develop at one point or another, it must always keep sight of the fact that its object, the Word of God, demands more than simply being perceived, contemplated, and meditated in this or that particular aspect. What is demanded of theological work is the service of this word and attendance upon it. This may not always be its primary goal, and often it is the most remote one, but it remains its ultimate and real goal. 
    As a further delimitation of our theme, a second remark must be made here. Since theology is called to serve, it must not rule. It must serve both God in his Word as the Lord of the world and of the community, and the man loved by God and addressed by God's Word. It may rule neither in relation to God nor in relation to men. ...If theology is not ashamed of the Gospel, it does not need to excuse itself to anyone for its own existence. It does not need to justify its actions before the community or the world, either by constructing philosophical foundations or by other apologetic or didactic devices. Precisely because of its character as service, theological work should be done with uplifted head or not at all! 
-- Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction [Chicago, IL: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; 1963] pp. 187-88

Monday, January 12, 2015

More thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:8-16

As the title suggests, this is part two of a series on Psalm 34. My thoughts continue from a previous post, starting at verse 8.

8. O taste and see that Yahweh is good; happy are those who take refuge in Him.
9. O fear Yahweh, you His holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10. The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing.
11. Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of Yahweh.
12. Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
14. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15. The eyes of Yahweh are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.
16. The face of Yahweh is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the land.

This section also seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, being entirely proverbial and didactic in its presentation, unlike the first seven verses. Interestingly, verses 17 through 22 mirror much of the first section's themes, so I suspect that because verses 8-16 are central to the structure of the Psalm, they might also be of central importance for understanding David's theology of praise.

The opening words of this section are interesting. "Taste and see" Yahweh's goodness, David says. Much can be said about experiencing God's goodness in such practical ways as tasting and seeing, but this phrase especially reminds me of Israelites literally tasting and seeing Yahweh's goodness (although, admittedly, there are other ways of viewing such metaphors). This reminds me of Israelites tasting the peace offerings and seeing the ministry of God's servants within the courtyard of His House. There, in the midst of Israel, the people of Israel could flee for refuge and literally taste and see Yahweh's goodness. If such a regular and personal encounter with God in His Tabernacle is in the background of David's metaphor, this adds another dimension to the Psalm.

David wrote this Psalm with the events of Achish in mind, yet David was not in Moses' tabernacle at that time (David is describing past events which took place in a Philistine territory named Gath), nor was Moses' tabernacle a central place of worship after David returned to Israel with the Ark. As David reminisces upon that past, his theology of drawing near to God is apparently not limited to a physical building or sanctuary. There in the city of Gath David "took refuge" in Yahweh himself as though the physical, earthly tabernacle was symbolic of a much more real place. Refuge could be found in that tabernacle--the true tabernacle where Yahweh dwells--regardless of the physical, earthly structure's condition (which was in disrepair since the Philistines took the Ark).

David also makes some remarkable promises in this Psalm. David says that "those who fear him have no want," and "those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing." He also says that "The eyes of Yahweh are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry... [but] The face of Yahweh is against evildoers...." To be sure, I think it's important to receive great comfort and assurance from passages such as these; however, I suspect that many people who read these passages overlook David's point. Many people might skip over what David meant by "fearing" Yahweh and merely find comfort by applying such promises to those who are "righteous" and who "seek" Him. In other words, it might be a mistaken presumption to pair together those who "seek" God with those who are constituted "righteous" (likewise, those who are constituted "righteous" might be mistaken for those who "seek" God). But it seems to me that, in this context, fearing Yahweh and seeking Yahweh go hand in hand just as much, especially if one is to receive personal comfort and assurance that is not in vain. Notice the qualification David himself provides about those whose cries are actually heard and accepted by Yahweh (and not just prayed at Yahweh, and rejected by Him): those people are seen by God as "righteous," and such "righteousness" is not at all described as "imputation" of a legal verdict (as those in Reformed theological circles might suggest). Those who are "righteous" are those who fear (not just those who seek) Yahweh.

What then does it mean to fear Yahweh?

David goes on to explain this in the following verses. David says he will teach what the fear of Yahweh looks like. He begins by asking the question, "Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?" This is obviously a rhetorical question designed to teach what the fear of Yahweh is supposed to look like. Everyone wants to enjoy life, and the whole notion of enjoying peace, freedom, security, and the other good blessings of life are coveted by all people. Such were the particular promises given to Israel too. If they loved and obeyed Yahweh, His covenant blessings, such as "many good days" to enjoy, would attend their life. But David follows through with this additional note of clarification: 
"[Then] keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it."

Here the "fear" of Yahweh looks like something particular, something Godly. Fearing Yahweh means desiring the life He wants us to live, the life which keeps its speech away from evil and deceit, and pursues good, seeking peace (presumably in both word and action). Fearing Yahweh means respecting God's desire for our lives, and respecting His authority over our lives. If He loves us, He will chasten us for our sins of speaking evil and deceit, the kind of hateful and foolish behavior which harms our neighbor's reputation and livelihood. The eyes and ears of Yahweh are on the righteous because the righteous are fearing Yahweh in these ways. Those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing because because they are seen by Yahweh as those who fear Him, those who seek peace and pursue it because they know that pleases Him, and they also know that life under his love is a life of many good days. But the face of Yahweh is against those who devise evil in their heart, those who speak deceit and promote evil; those who sow seeds of strife and cultivate enmity.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the Greater David, teaches against this sort of thing too. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder', and yet whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the fiery Gehenna."

Jesus even endorses the kind of ethos which David seems to be describing in this Psalm. Again, Jesus said "first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (to God). Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge...". In other words, fear God. Seek peace and pursue it. Depart from evil and do good. If you are angry with your brother without a just cause, yet you are pleading to God for deliverance from trials and afflictions, don't be surprised if your cries to Yahweh for deliverance are not heard. Learn that God sets his face against evildoers; so don't pursue evil; flee from it. Don't sow presumptuous seeds of strife, and don't use your knowledge of God's commandments (i.e. "Thou shalt not murder") as an excuse to sow discord among brethren, even if your brother appears to be guilty of a lawless deed (like rumors of murder). You should seek peace and pursue it. As saint Paul says in Romans 12:18, "so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people."

Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:1-7

Today is January 2nd, 2015, and in this post I would like to share some of my thoughts about the assigned Psalm for morning prayer today, Psalm 34. In order to spare my audience from this appearing like a tome, in this post I'm just going to comment on one section of this chapter that stood out to me this morning. I also intend to post more thoughts on other sections in the future.

[A Psalm] Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek,1 who drove him away, and he left.
1. I will bless Yahweh at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.

2. My soul makes its boast in Yahweh; let the humble hear it and be glad.

3. O magnify Yahweh with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4. I sought Yahweh, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5. Look to Him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6. This poor soul cried, and was heard by Yahweh, and was saved from every trouble.
7. The Angel of Yahweh encamps around those who fear him, and delivered them.

This section seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, and also seems to be a personal testimony of David about Yahweh delivering him from troubles in a time of great distress and fear of what Achish, king of the Philistines, could have done to him (I Sam. 21:10-15).2 One of the aspects of this Psalm that interests me is the way David begins to speak. His focus is not entirely upon himself, or even his own joy. It seems as though David considered his own personal praise to be, first and foremost, an inadequate expression of the praise that Yahweh is worthy of. Yahweh delivered him, which is what this Psalm addresses (as the opening title states), but Yahweh's deliverance is worthy of far more praise than he alone--or any single person--can offer. All of God’s people are then encouraged by David to praise Yahweh together. From another angle, it is also true that the people ought to rejoice in David's deliverance because David had become Yahweh's anointed king, Saul's successor, and his deliverance ensured future hope for the kingdom of God.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the allusion to Moses' encounter with Yahweh at Sinai, whose face became radiant upon His visitation. (I recognize that translations differ in this verse.) Perhaps David's exhortation to "Look to [Yahweh] and be radiant" is a counter example to the shame which Israel encountered as the glory of Yahweh came down Sinai to them (in the face of Moses, to confront them for their sins in worshipping a golden calf). That is, without any further reflection, the first thought which comes to my mind. If this was David's intended allusion, then not only could the people of Israel remember the shame they felt upon seeing Yahweh's radiance in Moses' face, but even more to the point, David would likely be portraying himself as one who, like Moses, was visited by Yahweh and was comforted, not destroyed; one whose face became radiant, and not ashamed; and if Israel would follow after that example of David, as they should have with Moses, not being found committing lawlessness as they were at Sinai, they too could look upon Yahweh's face and be radiant. 

Finally, the promise that the Angel of Yahweh will encamp around "all those who fear Him" is interesting. Upon reading it I was immediately reminded of Yahweh's message to Israel at Sinai in Exodus 23:20 (LXX): 
Behold, I Myself am sending an angel before your face in order to guard you on the way, that He may lead you into the land that I have prepared.
Such an allusion is particularly fitting in David's situation because Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23 referred to Israel's future hope of conquest within the promised land (a conquest which had not been completed until David captured Jerusalem, brought the ark back to Israel, and built a permanent Temple in that city). If David was alluding to Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23, then his message of personal deliverance was also, again, rooted in a concern for the whole kingdom of God's people. His focus was not on God receiving praise from him alone, but rather the praise due to His name, a praise that is offered up by all those who fear Him. And as the next sections of this Psalm show, "fearing" God has less to do with emotions (terror, trembling, awe, reverence. etc.) and more to do with an ethos which pleases God. In the context of this Psalm, those who "fear" God are doing specific things that they know are pleasing to Him (i.e. "keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." vv. 13-14). I am personally convinced that David was trying to inspire Israel to good character and good works so that their praise and hope for Yahweh's deliverance would never be in vain.

I will post more of my thoughts on the next section of this Psalm in the future. 

1.  Abimelek was a title among Philistine kings, much like "Pharaoh" was a title among Egyptian kings.

2.  Compare the title of the Psalm with the names mentioned in 1st Samuel 21.