Monday, October 31

School Daze

"I am much afraid that schools will prove to be the great gates of Hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, engraving them in the hearts of youth." Martin Luther

Soli Deo Gloria

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483. He was descended from the peasantry, a fact in which he took great pride. His father was a copper miner in the mining area of Mansfeld—but humble as he was, he determined to procure a sound education for his children. Thus, Luther received a Brethren of the Common Life education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1502 and his master's degree in 1505. He then intended to study law, as his father wished. But in the summer of 1505, he suddenly abandoned his studies, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. Later in life, Luther explained it by recalling several brushes with death making him astutely aware of the fleeting character of life. Luther made his profession as a monk following year and was ordained as a priest the year after that.

After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities. The following year he was assigned by Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, to the University of Wittenberg which had been founded just six years earlier. He was to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. Two years later, he had the opportunity to visit Rome and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy.

Increasingly concerned about corruption within the church—both material and spiritual—Luther suddenly became a public and controversial figure when he published his Ninety-Five Theses, on this day in 1517. They were supremely academic in character—Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences were being sold to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter's in Rome. The Theses caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely distributed. Luther's spirited defense and further development of his position through public university debates in Wittenberg and other cities resulted in an investigation by the Roman Curia that led to his condemnation three years later and his excommunication a year after that in 1521. Summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons.

By that time, it was clear that the protesting churches—or the Protestants, as they came to be called—would not succeed in reforming the whole church as Luther had wished, and so they established a new ecclesiastical structure rooted in the idea of the three Solas: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), and Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Thus was born the Reformation. Soli Deo Gloria!

Sunday, October 30

Where the Battle Rages

"If I profess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I maybe professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle field besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point." Martin Luther

Saturday, October 29

Reformation Before the Reformation

Even before the Reformation, there were many varied reformations led by many varied reformers. Among those early Gospel pioneers who bravely pushed Biblical reform forward, Jerome of Prague (c.1365-1416) stands out as a champion of the first order. This year as we celebrate Reformation Day, it would behoove us to remember him and the resplendent legacy he left for us all.

According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he was one of the greatest heroes “for the cause of truth in the whole of the history of the church.” Living through the very difficult final decades of the fourteenth century, he saw the wrenching cataclysms of the Great Schism, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Hundred Years War, the Mercantilist Revolution of the Hanseatic League, and the pandemic of the Black Death. The glories of early medievalism very nearly collapsed under the weight of apocalyptic devastation. Wars and rumors of wars, famines and plagues, natural disasters and unnatural ambitions seemed to conspire together against all hope. Through it all, Jerome maintained the faith with unflinching ardor and steadfastness. Preaching the doctrines of the Reformation almost a century before Martin Luther, his life and death offer us rich testimony to the “Gospel hope in the covenant of redemption.”

He was already a respected philosopher and theologian at the Charles University of Prague, when his colleague, Jan Hus, began to popularize the ideas and writings of John Wyclif. In short order, it seemed that all of Czech Bohemia recognized the necessity of addressing the systemic corruption of the Western Church. Like so many others, Jerome was convinced by Wyclif’s stirring call for reform and began to seriously think through its practical implications.

At Hus’s suggestion, Jerome sailed to England for further study at Oxford—where the first generation of Wyclif’s disciples continued to develop his ideas. He read widely, corresponded with a wide range of other reform-minded thinkers, and visited all the great centers of learning—from Paris to Jerusalem, from Vienna to Moscow, and from Budapest to Cologne. In a very real sense he became traveling ambassador for the fledgling reform movement. Eventually, his wide-ranging contacts enabled him to become very active in public affairs throughout Christendom.

When he finally returned to his native Bohemia to teach at the university, he sided with Hus and the Czech nationalists who were demanding sweeping Biblical reforms not just in ecclesiastical affairs but also in political affairs. Needless to say, the bitterly divided authorities suddenly were united in opposition to such notions. Hus and Jerome were soon marked men. When Hus was arrested and charged with heresy at the Council of Constance in 1415, Jerome secretly followed, hoping to mount some sort of a defense. He soon discovered though that not only would he not be able to defend his friend, but that he was in great danger himself. He fled to neighboring Idelberg and sought a guarantee of safe conduct. But unwilling to stand idly by while grave injustices were perpetrated, he had placards posted throughout Constance saying he was willing to appear before the bishops, that his character had been maligned, and that he would retract any error which could be proven against him. All he asked was a pledge of security.

When no pledge was forthcoming, Jerome dejectedly set out for home. Along the way however, he was seized and sent in irons to appear before the Council. John Foxe records that over the course of the next three hundred and forty days he was “dragged about like a wild beast” and forced to endure “insults and examinations” after which “he was conveyed to a tower, and fastened to a block with his legs in the stocks.” After Hus was burned at the stake, Jerome was threatened with further torments if he would not recant. By now terribly weakened and dangerously ill, he yielded.

Still he was not released however. Instead, a second recantation was demanded. He said he would only make such a confession in public. But at the public "recantation," he took back his earlier recalcitrance and demanded a hearing to plead his cause and that of “the Gospel’s revelation of the covenant of redemption.” The corrupt Council refused this plea. Indignantly he protested, “What barbarity is this? For thee hundred and forty days have I been confined in a variety of prisons. There is not a misery, there is not a want, which I have not experienced. To my enemies you have allowed the fullest scope of accusation: to me, you deny the least opportunity of defense. Not an hour will you now indulge me in preparing for my trial. You have swallowed the blackest calumnies against me. You have represented me as a heretic, without knowing my doctrine; as an enemy to the faith, before you knew what faith I professed. You are a general council: in you centre all which this world can communicate of gravity, wisdom, and sanctity: but still you are men, and men are seducible by appearances. The higher your character is for wisdom, the greater ought your care to be not to deviate into folly. The cause I now plead is not my own, it is the cause of men: it is the cause of Christians: it is a cause which is to affect the rights of posterity, however the experiment is to be made in my person.”

Embarrassed and enraged by his eloquent steadfastness, the Council promptly scuttled him away and condemned him to die in the flames just as Hus had. Then, for two more days the council kept him in suspense, hoping to somehow frighten him into a capitulation. The cardinal of Florence personally cajoled him with threats, derision, and scorn. Jerome remained unshaken. When the Canon of Notre Dame made a paper cap him, decorated with prancing red demons, Jerome declared, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, when he suffered death for me, a most miserable sinner, did wear a crown of thorns upon his head; and I for His sake will wear this adorning of derision and blasphemy.”

Led to the place of execution, Jerome embraced the stake with great cheerfulness and resolution. The executioner circled behind him to set the pyre ablaze. But Jerome rebuked him, “Come here, and kindle it before my eyes; for had I been afraid of it, I had not come here, having had so many opportunities to escape.” When the flames began to swirl around him, he sang louder and louder with apparent glee. Such was his comprehension of the great covenant of redemption that he entered eternity with no trepidation, only joy.

With his final breath he declared, “Hanac animam in flammis affero, Christe, tibi! This soul in flames I offer, Christ, to thee!”

Thursday, October 27

King's Meadow Newsletter

The latest edition of the King's Meadow newsletter is now available online as a PDF download file. Catch up on all our doings!

Bless This Food

One of my favorite collaborations with Karen has just been re-released in a beautiful french-fold, over-size paperback. Bless This Food is a scrumptious cookbook, a guide to seasonal celebrations, an anthology of prayers and blessings, a cofee table display book, and a theology of food all rolled into a single volume. Besides that, it has my favorite cover of any of our books. Available in most fine bookstores and online services, the attendees at the King's Meadow Film Conference this weekend will have first shot at it here in Franklin--just in time for holiday giving!

Tuesday, October 25

Saint Crispin's Day

Crispin and his brother Crispinian were Christians who were martyred during the persecution by the Emperor Maximian in Rome. They were humble men who preached Good News to their neighbors during the day and made shoes at night in order to earn their living. Their sterling example provided a model of courage and persistence against overwhelming odds for the generations of Christians who came after them. This day has therefore been celebrated as St. Crispin's Day ever since.

Of course, for many of us St. Crispin's Day does not so much bring to mind Crispin and his brother as it does the Hundred Years War. It was on this day in 1415, during that calamitous war, that England’s King Henry V defeated the overwhelming force of French Army in the fields of Agincourt inspiring Shakespeare’s famous monologue:

"If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer the men, the greater share of honor. God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more. This story shall the good man teach his son, and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us on St. Crispin’s Day."

Monday, October 24

Controversy and Hope

This coming weekend, Vision Forum Ministries will host the Second Annual San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival and Jubilee Awards at the Lila Cockrell Theater and Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. The festival will feature more than forty independent Christian films presented on four screens over a three-day span. Once again, I have the privilege of being one of the judges—though I will not actually travel to San Antonio this time. Indeed, King’s Meadow will actually host a companion film conference here in Franklin. But, I have had the chance to view all of the films submitted to the festival and I am even now working on reviewing each of films of the finalists. I am taking my responsibilities seriously. The stakes are high, after all. The “Best of Festival” winner will receive the $10,000 Grand Prize Jubilee Award.

All this is quite timely and quite important. “The mission of the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival is to encourage Christian filmmakers to neither retreat from society, nor to synthesize with paganism--but to do God’s work, God’s way, from the ground level up,” explained Doug Phillips, the festival’s founder. “We are urging filmographers to force the antithesis between cultural righteousness and cultural evil.”

Last year’s inaugural festival drew more than seven hundred attendees, including filmmakers from England and Scotland. More than twelve hundred are expected to attend this year’s event.

“We are pleased that the call to take a stand for Christ in the critical arena of film has resonated with filmmakers across the globe,” remarked Phillips, “What this festival showcases is a groundswell of interest on the part of aspiring Christian filmographers to chart a new path and to define success using a biblical criteria--not to except the scraps from Hollywood’s table.”

“Our film festival is controversial,” continued Phillips,” not because it seeks to be avant-garde or push the envelope of visual acceptability. It is controversial, because it dares to proclaim that the Lordship of Christ applies to our methodologies as well as our ends. It is controversial, not because of the offensive things you will see, but because of what you will not see.”

In addition to the film screenings, the festival will offer workshops with seasoned filmographers, including veteran producer Geoff Botkin, adventure cinematographer David Rasmussen, and composer Ron Owen, who wrote the score for “Beyond the Gates of Splendor.” Bible teacher R.C. Sproul, Jr. and radio host, Kevin Swanson, will also address the gathering.

Festival attendees will be treated to outdoor entertainment at the Riverwalk’s enchanting Arneson River Theatre with dramatic presentations by narrator and actor, George Sarris, and rousing ballads with maritime balladeer, Charlie Zahm.

While some may not agree with the standards advanced at the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, organizers believe the event provides a forum for hope for Christian filmographers, “Those who take part in the festival you will not only hear a message of hope,” explained Phillips, “but they will witness the fruits of the hopeful -- men and women laboring to advance the crown rights of Christ in a medium of defining significance for twenty-first century Christians.”

Festival passes are $125 for adults, $100 for students. Passes allow access to all the festival events. Space is limited. For more information on the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival and Jubilee Awards, please visit the vision forum film festival web site .

Thursday, October 20

Those 'Stros

I was sitting in my first Major League Baseball game--between my father and my grandfather--in the old Colt 45s stadium in Houston, Texas. I still remember the ceremony during the seventh inning stretch when Judge Roy Hofheinz announced to a jubilant crowd that he was building a new "super-futuristic domed stadium." I looked back over my shoulder to the place where the Astrodome, the "Eighth Wonder of the World," would be built and began then and there to dream about going to a World Series to watch "my" team take on Mickey Mantle and the Yankees.

Things never quite worked out that way though. Indeed, until last night, the Colt 45s-turned-Astros have been a paradigm of post-season futility. Now at last, they are on their way to the big one. Alas, they are going having dispatched the other team that figured into my childhood, the St. Louis Cardinals (the team from my dad's hometown and thus, the only baseball team we ever really talked out loud about at home--unless it was to curse the Yankees).

You can imagine my delight when my good friend, Bob Donaldson, sent me the following late-night, post-game rumination about baseball, theology, and Texas:

You know ... I was dozing in and out last night after the game ... that time of day when the most convoluted and obscure philosophical problems seem to suddenly become crystal clear ... and it occurred to me that sports ... and baseball in particular ... are a wonderful confirmation of the principles of federalism. After 43 years of waiting, "we" are going to the World Series. "We" have suffered from several near misses though the years ... as well as extended period of genuine mediocrity ... but now "we" are about to be ushered into the promised land. How is it that the "we" includes people like me; he of the .037 Little League batting average; he whose slow-pitch softball career came to an end two decades ago; how is that possible? Clearly, the principles of federalism are at work. The current crop of Astros represent me and my aspirations for victory in battle and the attendant glory. I cringe with them when things go wrong; I share their despair when victory is wrenched from their expectant grasp by a ninth inning homerun; and I somehow actually participate in the glory of ultimate victory ... taking to myself some reflection (at least) of the praises that they have earned on my behalf. I didn't elect them to be my federal representatives, and they certainly did not invite me to the party in any formal sense; somehow it was just part of the natural order of things ... ordered, that is, by the One who orders all things.

When I try to capture these thoughts now in the light of day, they seem somewhat less profound ... less helpful as an insight into the meaning of life. But last night, it seemed that I had hit on an essential truth ... we want to be "included" ... we want to share in the glory ... and that is what God invites us to do through Jesus Christ, our federal representative, who has earned eternal glory and invites us to join with Him in the eternal celebration of that victory.

Maybe it's just baseball. Maybe it's just entertainment. But for a moment last night, it seemed to me to be the ultimate metaphor.

Amen, and amen.


Oh, and then there is this from my friend Bob Phillips (for all those 'Stros fans who are still having a hard time getting over the Pujols three run shot at the end of game five or all those Cards fans who still can't believe the last game has been played in Busch Stadium):

"Baseball breaks your heart; it's designed to break your heart." A. Bartlett Giamatti

Monday, October 17

Positively Medieval

Tomorrow morning I wil be lecturing on the rise of Feudalism and how that remarkable social order laid the essential foundations for Medieval Christendom. It is one of my favorite subjects precisely because like faith, the Feudal culture of the Medieval age was a perpetually defeated thing that somehow always survived all its conquerors.

Feudalism was forever a paradox. It was a romantic riddle. On the one hand it was marked by the greatest virtues of morality, charity, and selflessness; on the other hand it was marred by the flaming vices of perversity, betrayal, and avarice. It was often timid, monkish, and isolated; oftener still, it was bold, ostentatious, and adventurous. It was mystical; it was worldly. It was tenderhearted; it was cruel. It was ascetic; it was sensual. It was miserly; it was pretentious. It gripped men with a morbid superstition; it set them free with an untamed inquisitiveness. It exulted in pomp, circumstance, and ceremony; it cowered in poverty, tyranny, and injustice. It united men with faith, hope, and love; it divided them with war, pestilence, and prejudice. It was so unstable it could hardly have been expected to last a week; it was so stable that it actually lasted a millennium.

Whatever its strengths or weaknesses--and however much it paralleled our own strengths and weaknesses--the most obvious fact about the strange and unfamiliar Feudal world of Medieval Christendom is that it is indeed, strange and unfamiliar--at least, it is to us Moderns.

The Road Leads Ever On

At long last. It is 4:30 AM and I have arrived safely home after a wearying journey back from New England. At various times in the last twenty hours or so I have been in Somersworth, NH, Boston, MA, Charlotte, NC, Atlanta, GA, Chattanooga, TN and then finally home! I'd love to tell the whole sordid tale of bad weather and worse airlines--but at this point, the details are really not very important. Sleep is.

Thursday, October 13

King's Meadow Film Conference

For those of you who haven't heard, King's Meadow is hosting a Film Conference here in Franklin on October 28th and 29th. To be held at the downtown Christ Community Chapel, the event is the vision of Greg Wilbur and the wonderful office volunteers here at KM. Movies and discussion, popcorn and seminars...only a Study Center would think to put those things together and know how to make it a fun time of learning! Follow this link for more information or you could e-mail Amy Shore:

Hope to see many of you there! AS

Tuesday, October 11

Heed the Call

He didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. Nevertheless, his counsel proved to be invaluable. He somehow was able to wrench my indecision and uncertainty out of the realm of the individual and the subjective and into the much surer and securer realm of the covenantal and the objective.

I had been wrestling with the issue of calling for months when I walked into a dusty little antiquarian bookshop and providentially discovered a frayed, foxed, and frazzled copy of a booklet entitled Heed the Call. It had actually been written for a now practically-forgotten ecclesiastical crisis in 1844 by Thomas Chalmers, but it seemed to me to be more relevant than ever as I carefully poured over its brittle pages.

Like Chalmers before me, I was then engaged in academia and publishing but I was weighing a call to return to the pastorate. And like Chalmers, I often wondered if I was making wise choices in the process--or rather, if I had somehow failed to heed God’s call at critical points along the way in my life and ministry. What were the Biblical and covenantal criteria for a call to the Gospel ministry? Was my calling somehow diminished by the fact that I was not then opening the Word to a congregation week by week? Was I missing God’s best? Had I neglected the central gifting and calling upon my life? How could I know for sure?

Drawing on the great heritage of the Reformation and the inestimable riches of Scripture Thomas Chalmers not only answered my plaguing questions, but afforded me a perspective of calling that all my years before, during, and after seminary never did.

The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers lived from 1780 to 1847. During the course of his long and storied career he served as the pastor of three congregations, taught in three colleges, published more than thirty-five best-selling books, and helped to establish more than a hundred charitable relief and missions organizations. He practically reinvented the Scottish parish system as well as the national social welfare structure. He counted such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, King William IV, Thomas Carlyle, William Wilberforce, and Robert Peel as his friends and confidantes. Indeed, he was among the most influential and highly regarded men of his day.

Even so, at the end of his life, when his reputation was well-established, his contribution to the life of Scotland, England and Ireland fully recognized, and his fame spread around the world he did not hesitate to involve himself in--and ultimately lead--a movement that was to divide the Church of Scotland, and to set him in apparent disregard of the authority of the highest civil court in the land.

With the disappearance of Roman Catholic authority in Scotland in the sixteenth century, Reformers worked hard to replace it with a faithful national Church. Their struggle for spiritual independence had been a long and costly one under the leadership of John Knox, Andrew Melville and Alexander Henderson amongst others. At long last, in 1690, their Reformed Church was legally recognized by the crown as the established Church of Scotland. The danger of such an establishment was that the state might attempt to manipulate the internal affairs of the Church.

Sadly, that danger was realized when Parliament imposed conformity with the standards of English patronage upon the Scottish Church. In reality, patronage was hardly different from the Medieval practice of lay investiture—it gave lords, lairds, and landowners the right to appoint a parish a minister who might or might not be Biblically qualified for the post or acceptable to the elders of the congregation. The patronage conflict in came to a head in 1838 when several ministers were forced on congregations opposed to their settlement and the Court of Session and the House of Lords ratified the appointments. Many, including Chalmers, believed that the integrity of the Gospel was at stake.

At about the same time, it was decided by Parliament that the Church did not have the power to organize new parishes nor give the ministers there the status of clergy of the Church. She had no authority to receive again clergy who had left it. And perhaps worst of all a creeping liberal formalism was slowly smothering the evangelical zeal of the whole land—in large part due to the assumption of pastoral duties by men altogether unfit for such a solemn vocation..

In other words, there arose in the land a crisis over the issue of what constituted a legitimate call to the ministry, how it was to be recognized, and how it was to be maintained.

Alas, despite repeated requests, the Government refused to take action to deal with the threat of spiritual atrophy that a deficient or subjective view of calling inevitably produced. After a ten year long struggle to regain the soul of the church, the evangelical wing, led by Chalmers and others, laid a protest on the table of the Assembly and some four hundred ministers and a like number of elders left the established Church of Scotland on May 18, 1843, to form the Free Church.

When the General Assembly of the Free Church was constituted that grave morning, Thomas Chalmers was called to be its Moderator. He was the man whose reputation in the Christian world was the highest; he was also the man whose influence in directing the events leading to what would eventually be called “The Disruption” had been greatest.

Obviously, if the conflict had been provoked by a faulty view of what actually constituted a call to the Gospel ministry, it was incumbent upon the evangelical leaders to articulate the correct view. Chalmers wrote Heed the Call to do just that.

He argued that there were essentially “only two guiding principles for the affirmation of any doctrinal standard, yet which are of particular relevance to the current discussion. They are but the plenary objectivity of Holy Writ and the living appurtenance of parish life; again, they are but the authority of Scripture and the parameters of the covenant.” In other words, he believed that it was not necessary to depend on either the predilections of the rich and powerful or the inclinations of the people at large to determine who was or who wasn’t called into the ministry. The Bible was, is, and always shall be clear in detailing specific criteria and prerequisites for vocational service in the Church. But not only that, covenantal communities serve as the proving grounds for those criteria and prerequisites so that there is a kind of checks and balances system at work.

Chalmers asserted that the Bible makes it plain that any candidate for the ministry as well as the members of his immediate family must evidence constancy of character and virtue over the course of time (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). He must also demonstrate particular pastoral gifts and aptitudes in the handling of the Gospel (Eph. 4:4-16; 2 Tim. 2:15-16). As he said, “The Word of God countenances as requisite both a testable sanctification and a notable endowment.” And such mandatory capacities are observable within the context of everyday parish life (Philem. 4-7). He said, “An affirmation of the ministerial calling is the inevitable result of a life rightly lived, gifts rightly shared, and proficiencies in handling both Scripture and adversity amongst those who might best be able to judge a candidate’s sincerity: his neighbors.” Accountability is thus assured.

He believed that by holding candidates for the ministry to this twin standard, both “the integrity of the Church’s divine offices” and the “vitality of every other calling to which believer priests might be appropriately inclined” would be preserved.

The result was that mere desire, or opportunity, or inclination, professional preparation, or even obvious aptitude alone was insufficient to commend a man to the pulpit--or, as he called it, "the sacred desk." And despite the need for faithful pastoral servants, all manner of haste in discerning the authenticity of calling was carefully avoided (1 Tim. 5:22). Ministry was thus maintained as an vital organism rather than as a mere organization. The Biblical precepts set the standard and then the community of faith affirmed and confirmed compliance with that standard in the life and work of every candidate.

When I first read the almost too-simple prescriptives of Chalmers in Heed the Call, I was flooded with a sense of relief. The issue was not nearly as complicated as I had made it out to be. I was able to rest in the assurance that there was no mystical override, no metaphysical trump, no divine notary that I had somehow overlooked or misread. Instead, I could rely on the clear mandates of Scripture as confirmed by those God had providentially placed around me in my own local congregation by my own session of elders. As Chalmers proclaimed, “Word and covenant: the one true foundation with its one true environ; they surely are the only, yet fully sufficient, provisions at our disposal for the discernment of purpose in this poor fallen world by which we might duly heed the call.”


I will be on the road the next several days, ministering. Today and tomorrow, I will be in beautiful Chattanooga to speak at First Presbyterian Church's annual missions conference. Then I fly to Boston Thursday morning. After an afternoon haunting Harvard Yard (and hopefully snagging a few good antiquarian books) I will drive up to New Hampshire with my good friends from Tri-Cities Covenant Church. I spend the rest of the weekend there speaking several times at the church and at the local Crisis Pregnancy Center--with only a brief respite to run a 10K road race: Portsmouth's Bridges 4 Friendship. Then, it is back to Boston, on to Chattanooga, and the drive back to Franklin.

Monday, October 10


Thus far, I have withheld comment on the recent doings at the Supreme Court--largely because I’ve simply not had enough information about the newest nominee to the court to make much of a judgment one way or the other. Apparently, I am not alone. My dear friend Rod Martin, Chairman of Vanguard PAC, one of America's leading conservative groups, released a press briefing, which expressed extreme disappointment in President Bush's choice of Harriet Miers to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“No one is more grateful for the President’s leadership and conservatism than I am,” said Martin, editor and co-author of last year’s Thank You President Bush: Reflections on the War on Terror, Defense of the Family and Revival of the Economy. “But this appointment is an enormous disappointment, and while we won’t oppose it, we can’t support it.”

Martin went on to assert, “For twenty years, conservatives have waited for this moment to really change the course of the court. They’ve organized, they’ve convinced America, and they’ve won majorities at every level of government. And conservative legal minds have slaved away to become truly exceptional, and our appeals courts are filled with them, in part thanks to George Bush. Now, at the very moment when one of those truly tremendous judges could finally ratify America's elective will--someone we could count on, someone with a track record known to anyone outside the White House inner circle--the President instead appoints someone who’s never been a judge, never left a paper trail, and never given any of us the slightest reason to believe she’ll be the kind of judge who’s worth fighting for.”

He concluded, “I trust George Bush. I believe in George Bush. And I won’t oppose his nominee. But we won’t back her, at least right now; and we call on all conservatives to keep their powder dry until someone gives us at least some reason to do otherwise.”

Interestingly, Martin and Vanguard PAC mobilized tens of thousands of activists across America in support of Chief Justice Roberts’ confirmation, and Martin had last week publicly promised to greatly intensify those efforts in support of what he called “a serious conservative nominee like Scalia or Thomas.” At this point, it appears that Harriet Miers is not such a nominee.

Notable and Quotable

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence--it is force.” George Washington

“We do not need to get good laws to restrain bad people. We need to get good people to restrain bad laws.” G.K. Chesterton

“The essence of government is force: whatever its end, its means is compulsion. Government forces people to do what they would not otherwise choose to do, or it forces them to refrain from doing what they would otherwise do. So, when we say ‘government should do x,’ we are really saying, ‘people should be forced to do x.’ It should be obvious that force should be used only for the most serious reasons, such as preventing and punishing violence. The frivolous, improper, or excessive use of force is wrong. We used to call it tyranny. Unfortunately, too many people think that calling for the government to do x is merely a way of saying that x is desirable. And so we are increasingly forced to do things that are not genuine social duties but merely good ideas. The result is that the role of state coercion in our lives grows greater and greater.” Joseph Sobran

“The worst thing in the world, next to anarchy, is government.” Henry Ward Beecher

“Two characteristics of government are that it cannot do anything quickly, and that it never knows when to quit.” George Stigler

“When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” G.K. Chesterton

“Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.” Calvin Coolidge

“An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, the power to destroy.” Daniel Webster

“The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” Albert Einstein

“No party is as bad as its leaders.” Will Rogers

“Government does not produce wealth: it consumes it, squanders it, and redistributes it. Ultimately, that is still theft even if it’s done in broad daylight, in elegant surroundings, by majority vote.” Howard Phillips

“If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” Harry Truman

“You can’t even trust the dogs in this town.” Clarence Thomas

“I belong to no organized political party--I’m a Democrat.” Will Rogers

“Goodness without wisdom always accomplishes evil.” Robert Heinlein

“The most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Ronald Reagan

“Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely expressed for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent busybodies.” C.S. Lewis

“We must beware of reducing society to the state or the state to society. For the state to take over the tasks of society and of the family is outside its jurisdiction and competency.” Abraham Kuyper

“There is no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” Will Rogers

American Exceptionalism

“Government is but a tool. If ever we come to the place where our tools determine what jobs we can or cannot do, and by what means, then nary a fortnight shall pass in which new freedoms shall be wrested from us straightway. Societal problems are solved by families and communities as they carefully and discriminately use a variety of tools." Henry Cabot Lodge

"The Constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government--lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” Patrick Henry

“The principles of the Constitution form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.” Thomas Jefferson

“Every word of the Constitution ultimately decides a question between power and liberty.” James Madison

The English pundit G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Other nations find their identity and cohesion in ethnicity, or geography, or partisan ideology, or cultural tradition. But America was founded on certain ideas—ideas about freedom, about human dignity, and about social responsibility. They are objective ideas—as must be the case if they are to take the form of a creed—codified in a sovereign standard of law, a constitution.

It was this profound peculiarity in the affairs of men and nations that most struck Alexis de Tocqueville during his famous visit to this land at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He called it “American exceptionalism.” Sir Henry Maine, the renowned British historian simply called it “the evident genius of the American Constitution.”

No other instrument of government—ancient or modern—produced such stability, offered such freedom, enjoyed such prosperity, or conveyed such hope as this one document. And amazingly, during more than two centuries of social, cultural, political, and technological revolution throughout the entire world, this Constitution has endured, fundamentally unchanged.

All the other European social contracts, manifestos, national charters, and constitutions of the eighteenth century have long since been consigned to the dust bin of history. The lofty ambitions ensconced in the constitutions of Latin America drawn up in the halcyon days of their new-found independence have all vanished. All the nationalist declarations drawn up in the heady days following the First World War are likewise gone. Those constitutions promulgated at the end of the Second World War have hardly fared better. And there is little doubt that the same fate yet awaits the emerging democracies that have begun dotting the maps of Europe, Asia, and Africa following the collapse of Communism.

Through it all, the American Constitution has flourished. It is a creed that has withstood every test.

Drawing on a great wealth of sage knowledge and practical experience, the Founding Fathers codified in their national charter a whole host of carefully wrought provisions designed to preserve the freedoms and liberties of the people. They designed the government with a series of interlocking checks and balances—not only were the executive, legislative, and judicial branches given spheres of authority over which the others could not interfere, localities, regions, states, and even individuals were afforded certain hedges against the imposition of tyranny. Powers were carefully separated. Authorities were circumspectly delineated. Rights were vigilantly secured.

Rather than yield to the inherent weaknesses of pure democracy, absolute monarchy, elitist oligarchy, radical republicanism, or haughty aristocracy, the Founders created the Constitution as a bastion of a kind of mixed government known as Federalism. It was to be a confederation of accountable spheres and covenantal sovereignties. It provided the nation with a government of laws, not rulers. It established a legacy of limited government, as Jefferson asserted, “laced up straitly within enumerated powers.”

History has proven the brilliance of the plan. Hardly the fruit of an antiquarian system meant for an agrarian people, the Constitution’s genius is that it is, as president Calvin Coolidge once asserted, “grounded upon a firm foundation of enduring principles, applicable to any society for any time.” It is a creed. It is the very quintessence of American exceptionalism.

Thursday, October 6

Quacks and Conycatchers

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I ran across this little blurb from something I wrote fifteen years ago:

"Sozzled with preposterous false expectations and bedazzled by a ceaseless chatter of well meant platitudes, the media has told the truth about the falsehood that they tell. Like all the other quacks and conycatchers now crowding the public trough in Washington, their suppositions drift ethereally above normal logical processes and pass into the murky domain of transcendental metaphysics. Such is to be expected. That is their job. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not the rest of us will be willing to give up our lackadaisical political canoodling and simply take up the difficult task of restoring the standards of justice, mercy, and truth in our land."

Hmmm. Nuff said. Still.


And now abide faith, hope, and politics, these three; but the greatest of these is politics. Or so it seems. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the smothering influence of ideological politics is everywhere evident. It has all too evidently wrested control of every academic discipline, of every cultural trend, of every intellectual impulse, even of every religious revival in our time. From Nazism and Stalinism to Pluralism and Multiculturalism, from Liberalism and Conservatism to Monopolism and Socialism, the modern era has been an epoch of movements beguiled by the temporal seductions of ideological politics.

Nearly every question, every issue, every social dilemma has been and continues to be translated into legal, juridical, or mechanical terms. They are supplied with bureaucratic, mathematical, or systemic solutions. If there is something wrong with the economy then government must fix it. If family values are absent then government must supply them. If health care provision is inefficient then government must rectify the situation. If education is in disarray then government must reorder the system. If a fierce storm brings devastation to a community then government must restore the possessions, rebuild the homes, and stabilize the economy--in addition to rescuing the stranded, relocating the displaced, reestablishing law and order, and reconstructing the infrastructure. Whatever the problem, it seems that government is the solution.

Virtually all social historians agree that this is indeed the most distinctive aspect of our age: the subsuming of all other concerns to the rise of political mass movements based upon comprehensive, secular, closed-universe, and millenarian intellectual systems. Thus, at one time of another, Henry David Aiken, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Isaac Kraminick, Frederick Watkins, Barbara Tuchman, Antonia Fraser, Paul Johnson, Russell Kirk, and Murray Rothbard have all dubbed this the "Age of Ideology."

The name of the ideological game is power. With all the cool detachment of wintry witchery every other consideration is relegated to a piratical humbug. G.K. Chesterton observes, “There is, as a ruling element in modern life, a blind and asinine appetite for mere power. There is a spirit abroad among the nations of the earth which drives men incessantly on to destroy what they cannot understand, and to capture what they cannot enjoy.”

According to philosopher Eric Voegelin, this awful tendency "is essentially the politics of spiritual revolt.” It is, he says, a kind of a "psychic disorientation," a "metastatic faith," a "modern promethianism," a "secular parousianism," or, perhaps most accurately, a "dominion of pneumapathological consciousness."

Elaborating on those notions, political scientist Michael Franz has said, "Ideological consciousness is typified by a turning-away from the transcendent ground in revolt against the tension of contingent existence. In the modern era this revolt has taken many forms, all of which are expressive of dissatisfaction with the degree of certainty afforded by faith, trust, and hope as sources of knowledge and existential orientation. The great ideologists seek to displace Christian revelation by misplacing the transcendent ground within an immanent hierarchy of being, identifying the essence of human existence as productive relations, historical progress, racial compensation, libidinous drives, scientific rationality, or the will to power. Within the intellectual systems constructed around these misplacements of the ground, humanity appears as an autonomous, self-created species capable of assuming control of its destiny through the self-conscious application of new forms of knowledge."

In short, ideological politics is little more than a revived Gnosticism, an abiding Humanism rooted in the naked Politicalization of every detail of life. It is a worldview as thorough and as dominating in our time as was the Faith during the epoch of Christendom.

Thus Jane Addams, the radical urban social reformer during the uproarious teens and twenties, was hardly exaggerating when she said, “Ideology is the modern ecology. It is the landscape we see, the sound we hear, the food we eat, the air we breathe. It is the incarnation of truth for us and the emblem and impress of earthly harmony. It is the essence of modern beauty.”

But this modern notion is a far cry from the kind of worldview the American founders and pioneers maintained. They shared a profound distrust of central governments to solve the grave problems that afflicted individuals, communities, and societies. Certainly they believed in a strong and active civil authority--but only in its proper place. Thus, every brand of Statist ideology was abhorred by them.

Thomas Jefferson warned against the danger of "reducing the society to the state or the state to society." Patrick Henry argued, "The contention that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error." Gouverneur Morris insisted that the everyday affairs of society should be designed to avoid what he called the "interference of the state beyond its competence. While Henry Cabot Lodge insisted, “Government is but a tool. If ever we come to the place where our tools determine what jobs we can or cannot do, and by what means, then nary a fortnight shall pass in which new freedoms shall be wrested from us straightaway. Societal problems are solved by families and communities as they carefully and discriminately use a variety of tools.”

If anything, our modern politicians represent a paradigm lost. In the minds of the new elite, the dilemmas of the modern age are simply too grave to trust to free markets, free communities, and free institutions. The foundations of this great experiment in liberty are no longer sufficient. Instead they insist right along with the mob, "Government must do more."

Wednesday, October 5

Welcome Katie

Katherine Noel Shurden was born yesterday, October 4th at 10:09 AM, weighing 7.7 pounds and measuring 21¼ inches long. She is absolutely gorgeous, rivaled only by her two-year old big sister. Mom and Katie are happy, healthy, and due to head home with Dad sometime tomorow. Congratulations!

A Quixotic Journey

While incarcerated in a grim Spanish gaol for embezzlement, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra--a weathered old soldier then in service to the Spanish crown as a tax collector--conceived the story of a lunatic knight errant and his peasant squire. Enduring all manner of hardships and setbacks, he set the semi-autobiographical story to paper and thus was born not only a masterpiece of comic writing but the prototype of the modern novel as well.

That first edition of Don Quixote, published in Madrid on this day in 1605, was a huge popular success. In fact, it was such a blockbuster that a spurious sequel quickly appeared by an unidentified author. Undaunted, Cervantes demonstrated his inventive genius by turning disaster into a source of comedy; he published his own sequel writing the interloper into the plot, making fact into fiction just as his hero tried to make fiction into fact. Again, his efforts were rewarded by the wild acclaim of the reading public.

There was little about the life and the career of Cervantes that would have indicated a predilection to a successful literary career--in fact there was little that would have indicated a predilection to any kind of success whatsoever. He was born in 1547 in the Hapsburg domains of the kingdom of Castile, that vast Iberian tableland that would before long be united with the crowns of Aragon, Leon, Catalonia, Valencia Andalusia, Galicia, Asturias, Navarre, and Murcia to become the modern multi-national confederation we call “Spain.” His family had once been proud and influential but had fallen on hard times. Though his childhood was apparently fraught with difficulty, he was able to obtain an excellent education that filled him with aspirations to restore his family’s fortunes. The young Cervantes chose the life of a professional soldier--the surest and quickest path to fame, glory, riches, and royal favor.

Service to the king of Castile led him into the fierce conflict between Christendom and Islam, still raging after nearly a millennium. His participation in the great Battle of Lepanto, in which the allied forces of Austria, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Portugal, Venice, Lombardy, Genoa, Naples, and Rome surprisingly crushed the naval superiority of the Ottomans, marked him as a skilled and courageous warrior. During the fierce fighting he was severely wounded, permanently losing the use of his left arm. He was rewarded for his heroism and sent to Naples to recover.

It was there in the warm climes of the Italian renaissance, surrounded by vibrant academies, passionate salons, and literary cenacles, that the young soldier steeped himself in the writing of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bembo, and Aretino. He also became familiar with the innovative chivalric chapbooks written by Boiardo and Ariosto, whose style that would greatly influence him later in life. Once he had regained his full strength, Cervantes was assigned minor administrative duties that allowed him to continue to drink deeply from those cultural wells.

Sadly, this refreshing period of his life was cut short when he was captured by Islamic pirates and then sold into slavery in Algiers. For the next five years he was to suffer unmentionable tortures and atrocities in the Saracen prisons. Once again, he displayed exemplary courage throughout the ordeal: he escaped four times and became the tacit leader of the Christian detainees.

When at long last he was freed, he returned to a distressingly inhospitable Castile. His soldiering days were over and so he floated from one odd job to another, never able to stay more than a few steps ahead of the bill collectors. He spent a few years in Madrid and tried to make a living as a playwright. He clearly aspired to the literary life. Failing at that though, he pled the crown for some sort of appointment. It was all for naught. Finally, in desperation he accepted the noxious task of a roving commissary, or auxiliary tax collector. Apparently, Cervantes was entirely unsuited for the task. His accounting was indecipherable, his work habits were inconsistent, and his diligence was suspect. In other words, he was a frustrated writer caught in a dead-end job. When his ledgers failed to add up, he was arrested and charged with fraud. But what was obviously a personal calamity for him turned out to be a cultural accretion for the world.

With time on his hands, Cervantes began to explore life's confrontation between illusion and reality, ambition and satisfaction, romance and rejection, chivalry and economy, achievement and reward, style and substance--all themes that had haunted his long and frustrated life. Woven into the fabric of the tragi-comic tale of the hapless and mad Don Quixote, those themes spring to life into a universal quest for truth, justice, and honor.

The plot of the book is as erratic and as desultory as sixteenth century life itself. Thus, Don Quixote and his faithful sidekick, Sancho, meet with a whole series of unrelated chance encounters, intrigues, and challenges. The adventures--like those in the popular chivalric romances that Cervantes was deliberately parodying--tend to be repetitive and ritualistic in form, involving the hero’s hallucinatory heraldic world, fed by amorous reminiscences, but with sad realities that only others can see. The result is a collage of hilarious ambiguities and side-splitting conundrums.

Interestingly though, unlike so many modern works of comic cynicism--as in the fiction of, say, Woody Allen, Christopher Buckley, or P.J. O’Rourke--the book’s real literary stock-in-trade is not despair. Rather, the deep Christian faith of Cervantes leads him to find order behind the apparent disorder of a fallen world and sanity behind the apparent madness of a fallen race--as in the fiction of, say, Flannery O’Connor, P.G. Wodehouse, or G.K. Chesterton.

The achievement of Cervantes is stunning. With Don Quixote, he changed the shape of literature the world over. When he died in 1616--presumably the same year that William Shakespeare expired--he left a huge void in Spanish letters that has never been entirely filled.

The most accessible translation of this great classic is probably J.M. Cohen’s Penguin Classics edition--although it often over-simplifies complexities in the text, thereby losing a sense of the weight of the novel. For strict and accurate fidelity, the Oxford edition of John Ormsby’s 1885 translation is to be preferred--unfortunately the Victorian phrasing may be a bit awkward for some readers.

Whichever translation you choose however, you’re sure to savor many an hour delving into the glorious enterprises of that intrepid man of La Mancha.

Monday, October 3

Current Events

West and East Germany became one nation on October 3, 1990, less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell and European Communism was relegated to the dust heap of history. Amid the initial euphoria, there was a general realization that creating a unified Germany would be a long and difficult process. Exactly fifteen years later, that long and difficult process continues--as evidenced by the election deadlock that has gripped the nation for the past two weeks due to the lack of a mandate by either the opposition Christian Democrats or the ruling Socialists.

In the "Unity Day" speeches given today by both the marginal electoral winner, Angela Merkel, and the outgoing Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, the "extreme difficulty" in building "national consensus" out of the "bitter divisions Germany faces" was emphasized.

Interestingly, the great nationalist poet, playwright, historian, and philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) made that very same dilemma the central theme of William Tell, his final, and arguably his greatest work--published almost exactly two hundred years ago.

There is indeed, "nothing new under the sun." Not even in the most current of current events.


The Colloquy of Marburg—the first major council of Protestant Christians—began in earnest on this day in 1529 after two days of pleasantries and preliminaries. A number of prominent theologians and pastors had agreed to meet in an attempt to resolve controversies that had arisen between the two Reformers Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther. Strong disagreement had arisen in particular over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Church taught that in the ceremony of the mass, the bread and wine were transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. Neither Zwingli nor Luther found that view Scripturally supportable or acceptable. But while Luther held that Christ was actually and spiritually present in the bread and wine, Zwingli believed the whole ceremony of communion was a memorial of Christ's death for us, but that Christ was not actually present in the elements, either physically or spiritually (I know, I know, this is a gross oversimplification of the two postitions, but a simple explanation will have to suffice for the present circumstances).

In any case, neither Zwingli nor Luther could accept the other's viewpoint, and the debate often became harsh and unpleasant. Philip of Hesse, one of the German princes, had invited the Reformers to come to his territory to resolve their differences. Behind Philip's desire for peace between Zwingli and Luther was the hope that a political alliance of the Protestant states might eventually be made, thus weakening the Catholic Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. Peace was not to be had, however. Though the reformers could agree on the doctrines of the Trinity, the person of Christ, his death and resurrection, original sin, justification by faith, the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments, they could not agree on the nature of communion.

Martin Bucer, who had attempted to mediate between the two great Reformers (and who held to a yet another view of the Lord's Supper, later taken up by his disciple John Calvin), bitterly complained afterward, “Protestants might well face severe tumults for many years to come” if such “intransigence” were “left unchecked.” Never was he more the prophet.

Banner Day

October 3 has seen a number of notable historical events besides those aforementioned--including the death of St. Francis of Assisi in 1226 and his canonization just two years later in 1228. It was on this day in 1637 that Ben Jonson died--while he was a prominent poet and playwright himself, he would be best known as the man who purportedly identified the presumed author of Shakespeare's plays. It was also on this day that first Washington and then later Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day proclamations. It was on this day in 1929 that the hodge-podge kingdoms of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were officially unified and cobbled together into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But, in addition to all these bellwether historical events, in 1960, this day also saw the premiere of The Andy Griffith Show. That first episode, "The New Housekeeper," was aired by CBS on a Monday evening in prime time. While Aunt Bea won the heart of Opie after she came to live with her widowed nephew and his son, the whole cast of characters who inhabited Mayberry won the heart of America. The show went on to become a undisputed cultural icon.