Salvation in Stone-Campbell Theology

February 22, 2017

Paul describes salvation in three tenses—past, present and future. We have been saved (Ephesians 2:8), we are in the process of being saved (2 Corinthians 2:15), and we will be saved (Romans 5:9-10). Theologians have generally summarized these “tenses” as “Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification.” The Stone-Campbell Movement has recognized each of these, but different people at different times have stressed one over the other.

Alexander Campbell identified the three tenses as holy state (justification, pardon), holy character (progressive sanctification), and holy new creation (hope as physical regeneration through the resurrection of the body and the renewal of heaven and earth). Campbell describes salvation in this holistic manner in his Christian System and his essay on “Regeneration.” A change of state involves a new birth (pardon and adoption) that produces a new life (a change in character through the working of the Spirit) that terminates in full redemption at the resurrection (eternal life understood as “physical regeneration” on a renewed heaven and earth). Consequently, salvation, which is the function of the whole remedial system, includes the past, present, and future.

This holistic understanding of salvation is present whenever Stone-Campbell authors explain the Remedial System (Hiram Christopher) or the Scheme of Redemption (Robert Milligan). But while this holistic picture never disappeared from the theological landscape within the Stone-Campbell Movement, the present and future aspects of salvation generally receded into the background.

Campbell, for example, most often stressed the past dimension of salvation. His corpus is primarily concerned with the assurance and enjoyment of forgiveness. Even his “systematic” discussions often leave little space for present and future soteriology. This emphasis is understandable given Campbell engagement with the frontier’s search for the assurance of forgiveness and the importance he attached to baptism as God’s “sensible pledge” of salvation. Often the emphasis on justification was polemical. For example, Campbell’s Christian Baptism identifies the “consequents of baptism” in terms of past tense soteriology. The Campbellian emphasis on baptism, so dominant in the Stone-Campbell Movement, effectively conceived salvation as a past event.

This is particularly true among the Churches of Christ. Three authors illustrate the point. T. W. Brents’ The Gospel Plan of Salvation (1874) is wholly concerned with justification as it never mentions the present and future aspects of salvation. Even when discussing the new birth and the Holy Spirit it is wholly concerned about conversion as an event in the past. David Lipscomb’s Salvation from Sin (1913), edited by J.W. Shepherd, focuses on Justification. While a few chapters discuss eschatology and pneumatology, the discussion is oriented toward understanding the necessity of obedience to divine law at the converting moment. K. C. Moser’s The Way of Salvation (1932) defends an orthodox Protestant understanding of justification though sanctification and pneumatology are not altogether absent but eschatology is. Contextual factors, of course, contributed to this emphasis. Brents and Lipscomb were polemically engaged with Calvinists and Baptists, and Moser was responding to the legalism he perceived among his own people. Nevertheless, this context moved Churches of Christ toward a primarily past and legal (though not necessarily legalistic) understanding of salvation. Salvation is primarily justification, that is, the pardon and forgiveness of sins.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, however, has at times emphasized the present dimension of salvation. While Barton W. Stone often reflected all three tenses of salvation, he emphasized the transformation of the believer into the character of Christ as the primary experience of salvation. Union with Christ did not mean the imputation of Christ’s legal righteousness, but the transformation of the character by participation in the nature of Christ. Salvation was conceived primarily as sanctification that would result in ultimate justification. Thus, in the end we would be declared righteous because, by the power of the Spirit, we would be made righteous through a change in our character. This manifested itself in Stone’s willingness to commune with the unimmersed at the Lord’s table (their character is more important than their baptism) and his insistence that the only kind of union that would stand the test of God’s intent was “fire” union, that is, a Spirit-shaped character that loves God and his children. Salvation, then, was more a process than a past event.

Robert Richardson pursued this emphasis on spiritual transformation in his Office of the Holy Spirit (1873) though he discusses conversion as a past event and briefly acknowledges a future “hour of redemption.” Richardson urges the “restoration of the Spirit” to the Stone-Campbell Movement’s soteriological message. The presence of the Spirit, he contends, effects a tremendous change in the moral nature of humanity.

Salvation as process rather than event, or as moral rather then legal, gained prominence among the Disciples of Christ in the early twentieth century. Salvation, as Edward Scribner Ames described it in his The New Orthodoxy (1918), is oriented toward persons rather than “states.” Salvation is not primarily a state, but a movement toward the divine ethic embodied in lived out faith. Similarly, Herbert Willet pointed out that the new life, “the possession of the mind of Christ, a character such as his,” was the most important dimension of faith (Basic Truths of the Christian Faith, 1903). Absent from many discussions of salvation in the early twentieth century among Disciples is eschatology. Given the social context of Fundamentalism and WWI, as well as higher critical views of Scripture and the emergence of an imminent understanding of the kingdom of God in the Social Gospel, eschatology dropped out of the common language of salvation.

What the nineteenth century church shared, however, was a primarily individualistic understanding of salvation. Though they sought communal unity and portrayed the coming kingdom as a cosmic event, salvation was primarily forgiveness from personal sin and the development of a holy character. While the Disciples often expressed this through social ethics in the twentieth century, the Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches fostered an individualistic focus on salvation.

Contemporary Disciples have adopted a transformational understanding of salvation. In fact, as many Disciple theologians move toward and embrace Process and Liberation theology, salvation as process is the dominant model for understanding God’s redemptive work. In this context salvation is conceived in cosmic terms rather than anthropocentricity. The cosmos is in the process of becoming as sin is eradicated. Thus, transformation is understood as part of a cosmic community rather than relegated to the individual life of the believer.

Independent Christian Churches shared the mixed atmosphere of Disciples and Churches of Christ. The “double cure” (justification and sanctification) was present in much of its literature as discipleship received a greater emphasis than in Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, the dominant concern has been justification and the experience of forgiveness, particularly as it related to baptism. Given the rise of Dispensational Premillennialism, the positive dimensions of eschatological soteriology were lost as churches reacted negatively to the new Fundamentalism.

Churches of Christ, prior to the practical expulsion of premillennialists among them, often had a healthy eschatological emphasis though it was subordinate to the past and present dimensions of salvation. R. H. Boll, for example, perhaps best modeled the portrayal of salvation as past, present and future. However, by the mid-twentieth century, the Churches of Christ along with the other segments of the Stone-Campbell Movement had essentially lost the eschatological emphasis in their soteriology. Of course, hope functioned as part of their religious life, but the attention it received did not compare with the past or present experience of salvation and it did not shape soteriological reflection.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, then, has usually stressed the past and present dimension of salvation, and mostly from an individualistic vantage point. It either emphasized salvation as a legal state (thus past) or a holy character through transformation (present process). Though eschatology was part of this picture, especially in the nineteenth century, it was largely lost because of the Movement’s polemical (debates over baptism) or social (institutionalism, anti-dispensationalism, and emphasis on social transformation) interests. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the Stone-Campbell Movement, in all of its segments, was moving more toward a communal and holistic understanding of salvation with a balanced stress on all the “tenses” of salvation.


Faith and Repentance in Stone-Campbell Theology

February 21, 2017

Frontier Calvinism emphasized the necessity of regeneration as well as repentance before faith. The Spirit awakens godly sorrow that leads to faith. Consequently, the regenerate person mourns, regrets and despairs over sin and then comes to saving faith through some kind of religious experience.

From the beginning the Stone-Campbell Movement rejected this conversion narrative. In his “Compendium of the Gospel,” which appeared in the Apology of the Last Will and Testament, Barton W. Stone argued that “faith,” which is the belief of testimony, “produces regeneration” and “necessarily precedes it,” and that “faith produces reformation.”

The standard understanding of the ordo salutis in Stone-Campbell theology is faith, repentance, baptism, regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and then reception of the Holy Spirit. The elderly Stone wrote that faith purposes “to repent, reform and obey the gospel in order to justification, pardon and salvation” (Christian Messenger [1842], 329).

Alexander Campbell carefully distinguished between two Greek words in the New Testament. One, metamelomai, means mere regret or remorse. The other, metanoeoo, means a change of mind. Campbell preferred to translate the former as “repent” and the latter as “reform.” Evangelical repentance is not mere regret, but a reformed life or a change of direction. One may, in Campbell’s language, repent without reforming, that is, they may regret their mistakes without turning to God. The biblical definition of repentance is reformation and it is a necessary condition of salvation. The sin-offering of Christ is ineffectual without repentance.

Repentance, then, involves a regret for sin (a feeling) and a reformation of life (action). Both, however, are the effect of faith. The belief of God’s testimony about Jesus produces a sorrow for sin (feeling) that then leads to reformation (action). Campbell stringently maintains the psychological sequence of fact, testimony, faith, feeling and then action. Action involves “works worthy of repentance,” including restitution when possible. Actions evidence sincerity. “True repentance is, then, always consummated in actual reformation of life” (Christian System). The first act of repentance is to undergo the baptism of repentance and experience the “bath of regeneration.” Repentance, according to Campbell, “is intimately associated with Christian baptism.” Acts 2:38 functioned paradigmatically not only for baptism but also for repentance in Campbell’s theology.

Campbell’s ordo salutis created tension with his Calvinist contemporaries. They believed repentance preceded faith, but Campbell argued that faith preceded repentance. Frontier Calvinists appealed to Mark 1:15, “repent and believe the gospel” (as well as Acts 20:21). Campbell explained that this was addressed to covenant people who already believed in God and thus repentance was demanded on the basis of that faith. Since faith is the belief of testimony for Campbell, it is “one of the mysteries of mystic Babylon” how one can “repent of a sin against a God in whom he did not believe, or against a Christ of whom he had not heard.” Repentance is the “first fruit” of faith; it is an effect of faith.

The Stone-Campbell understanding of repentance is dependent upon Campbell’s foundational exposition, but the lengthiest articulation is found in Walter Scott. He presents repentance as a change of mind regarding Scripture, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and consequent moral conduct. Faith as an acknowledgement of facts and repentance as a change of mind regarding God’s moral authority and Jesus’ Sonship in Scripture, leads to repentance (moral reformation) and obedience to the gospel (and consequent reception of the Spirit). The significance of baptism as repentance, however, emerges strongly in Scott. Moral reformation without obedience to the gospel in baptism demonstrates “deference to the facts” but at the same time a rejection of divine authority regarding the “positive institute of baptism” (Gospel Restored, 318). The promise of God attached to baptism is the reception of the Holy Spirit and thus the power and strength for a holy, reformed life.

Subsequent discussions of repentance followed the lines of Campbell and Scott. For example, J. W. McGarvey’s Lard’s Quarterly exposition depends upon Campbell, and N. B. Hardeman practically reproduces McGarvey’s sermon on repentance. The discussions, however, became more pronounced against Calvinism or more defensive of baptism. T. W. Brents, for example, not only objects to the theory that repentance precedes faith but that repentance is a direct gift from God. Brents rejects any understanding of total depravity that undermines a person’s ability to repent when God has commanded it. God induces repentance through facts (faith) and persuasion. Guy N. Woods stressed that some place repentance before faith in order to preserve “the dogma of salvation by faith only” since if people are saved at the moment of faith and repentance is necessary for salvation, then repentance must precede faith.

However, Stone-Campbell theology is not uniform. Robert Milligan, for example, identified repentance with the change of will rather than mind. Faith involved an intellectual (mind) change that generated an affective (heart) change. Love for Christ engendered repentance (a change of will) that then led to a change of conduct (conversion). Repentance is not a change of conduct, but “it consists properly and essentially in a change of the will, effected by means of godly sorrow in the heart.” Repentance is the submission of the human will to the will of God. Milligan’s conditions of church membership were faith, love, repentance, conversion, prayer, confession and baptism.

Those who define faith as trust in Christ for salvation have tended to see repentance as logically prior to faith. Focused on Acts 20:21, Hiram Christopher argued that repentance toward God in the sense of both sorrow for sin and a change of mind precedes faith in Jesus which leads to obedience in baptism. The order is faith in God, repentance from sin, faith in Jesus and then baptism. Also in the light of Acts 20:21, K. C. Moser believed the order was belief in the facts, repentance toward God, and trust in Christ. Moser insisted that faith was more than belief of testimony. Rather it was a trust in the redemptive work of Christ. Consequently, repentance preceded faith because the penitent sinner who has renounced sin seeks redemption from sin through acceptance of Christ’s work through trusting in him. Though “repentance logically precedes faith in the sense of trust,” they are actually “inseparable.” For Moser this penitent trust in Jesus is expressed in baptism. Baptism embodies the sinner’s change of mind and his full trust in the atonement of Christ.

Where faith is defined primarily as “belief of testimony,” then it precedes repentance. Thus faith can exist without repentance as the will stubbornly refuses to submit to reform. But where faith is defined primarily as “trust,” then it follows repentance since one does not trust in what one is not willing to follow. Contemporary discussions generally recognize that evangelical faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. They are so intertwined that the logical sequence is inconsequential. Even Milligan notes that “faith and repentance have always a mutual and reflex influence on each other.” Faith and repentance are practically a single event and ultimately one does not exist without the other if faith is understood as an affective trust and repentance is understood as a change of mind and life.

Bibliography: Alexander Campbell, “Repentance,” Millennial Harbinger Extra 4 (August 1833), 345-48; “Reformation,” MH Extra 4 (August 1833), 349-51; “Tracts for the People.—No. IV. Repentance Unto Life,” MH 17 (April 1846), 181-92; “Repentance and Faith? Faith and Repentance,” MH 32 (January 1861), 14-18; Walter Scott, The Gospel Restored, 315-412; J. W. McGarvey, “Repentance,” Lard’s Quarterly 1 (1864), 172-82; “Repentance,” in Sermons, 97-108; T. W. Brents, “Repentance,” The Gospel Plan of Salvation, 234-48; Robert Milligan, Scheme of Redemption, 456-60; Hiram Christopher, Remedial System, 269-76; N. B. Hardeman, “Repentance,” in Hardeman Tabernacle Sermons (1922), 196-203; K. C. Moser, “Repentance and Faith,” in The Way of Salvation, 60-76; and Guy N. Woods, Questions and Answers, 249-252.


I Will Go See “The Shack: The Movie”

February 17, 2017

While some have perhaps read The Shack as an actual account, the title page identifies the piece as a “novel.” This is a fictional story. But…it is nevertheless true. The movie, too, is fictional…but true.

Read The Shack, watch the movie, and walk with me into the world of spiritual recovery, a journey into my shack and your shack (Meeting God at the Shack, my new book). That is what The Shack is about.

The book, as well as the movie, is a modern parable. Like a parable, the events described are fictional though possible (that is, it is not science fiction). And, like a parable, it becomes a world into which we step to hear something true about God, life, and the soul. 

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15), for example, is a fictional but true story. As fiction the story has no correspondence in fact, that is, it is not a story about a specific, actual family. No one walked up to Jesus after the parable to ask the name of the son, which family he came from and into which “far country” he went. Whether it is actual history or not is irrelevant. It is a fictional tale. But the story is nevertheless true. The Prodigal Son says something true about God and his relationship with his children.

A parabolic story draws the listener or reader into the world of the parable so that we can see something from a particular angle. A parable is not comprehensive theology, but a story-shaped way of saying a particular thing. As a piece of art rather than didactic prose, it allows a person to hear that point in an emotional as well as intellectual way. It gives us imagery, metaphor, and pictures to envision the truth rather than merely describing it in prose. Rather than analyzing propositions, we become part of a parable’s narrative. We are free to experience our own life again as we are guided by the storyteller.

Parables, as the parables of Jesus often do, sucker-punch us so that we begin to see something we had not previously seen about ourselves, God or the world. They speak to us emotionally in ways that pure prose does not usually do, much like music, art and poetry are expressive in ways that transcend discursive or academic descriptions. This enables the right side (the artsy side) of our brains to connect with what the left side (the analytical side) of our brain thinks about. We can feel these truths rather than simply think about them. As a result those truths can connect with our guts (our core beliefs about ourselves) in ways that our intellect cannot reach. The truths, then, can settle into our hearts as well as our minds.

The Shack is, I think, a piece of serious theological reflection in parabolic form. It is not a systematic theology. It does not cover every possible topic nor reflect on God from every potential angle. That is not its intent. That would be too much to expect from a parable. The “Prodigal Son,” for example, is not a comprehensive teaching about God.

Rather, the focus of The Shack is rather narrow. Fundamentally, given my own experience and hearing Young talk about his intent, I read the book as answering this question:

How do wounded people journey through their hurt to truly believe in their gut that God really loves them despite the condition of their “shack”?

The parable is about how we feel about ourselves in our own “shacks.” Do we really believe—deep in our guts, not just in our heads—that God is “especially fond” of us? How can God love us when our “shacks” are a mess? The parable addresses these feelings, self-images and woundedness.

The theology of The Shack engages us at this level. It encourages us to embrace the loving relationship into which God invites us. Consequently, it does not answer every question, address every aspect of God’s nature or reflect on every topic of Christian theology. Instead, it zeros in on the fundamental way in which wounded souls erect barriers that muzzle the divine invitation to loving relationship.

So, I invite you to reflect on these themes—to process them within your own journey, out of your own woundedness, and in relationship with your own God. I invite you to walk with me through my own spiritual journey of recovery and perhaps illuminate your own walk with God.

May God hear our prayers for healing, meet us in our shacks, and love us so profoundly and deeply that our wounds become scars rather than festering sores.


Jesus, Psalm 22:1, and the Cross

February 4, 2017

Early Christians in the second century understood the cry dereliction as Jesus’s feelings of despair in the face of death in view of the fact that the Father had abandoned (forsaken) him to death. The Father did not rescue him from death, even though ultimately God rescues him through death when the Father raises Jesus from the dead

The cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), is an authentic expression of Jesus’s emotions and heart. It gives witness to the depth of his human experience. It is an honest exclamation and an authentic question. However, it does not accuse; it laments. This arises from the intimacy Jesus shares with the Father as the Son is willing to express his heart fully while dying upon the cross.

Some hear the cry as a kind of relational abandonment where the Father “turns his back” on Jesus because Jesus had become sin at this moment or because he bore the weight of sin in this moment. This is important, for example, in some popular articulations of penal substitutionary atonement.

Some hear the cry as an expression of some sort of tear or pathos within the Triune God where God experiences alienation within God’s own life as the Son experiences a “Godforsakenness” and the communion between the Father and Son is, in some real sense, broken. This is important for some because in this way the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) suffers as God as well as the incarnate Son, and through this the Triune God becomes fully empathetic with humanity in its suffering.

On the one hand, I affirm the reality of divine suffering through the cross. The Father mourns the death of the Son. Further, through the experience of the Son who shares fellowship and intimacy with the Father, the Father also suffers with the Son through the Son’s suffering. Also the Spirit, who rests upon the Son, groans with the Father and the Son in this moment. The pathos of suffering is not alien to God, that is, God is not incapable of suffering. Through the Son, God suffers, and God suffers as Father, Son, and Spirit. The cross is the mourning of God.

On the other hand, the unity and relational fabric of the Trinity is not ripped apart in this moment. Their communion does not waver. The Son trusts the Father, and, as Luke clarifies, the Son commits himself to the Father (Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:6). The Father does not abandon Jesus in death, and neither does the Son lose faith in the Father. The Triune communion remains in tact.

Rather than relational abandonment, the cross is the moment where the Son is embraced by the Father’s love through the resting of the Spirit upon him. This is wonderfully depicted by Masaccio’s fresco (1425-1426) in the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy.

http://www.italianrenaissance.org/wp-content/uploads/masaccio-holy-trinity-detail.jpg

The fresco is high on the wall, and the work is viewed from a low point rather than directly. Consequently, we raise our eyes to view it, and as we lift our eyes we first see Jesus hanging on the cross, then we see the Spirit (as a dove), and then finally the Father who stands facing the cross within the sacred space of the chapel. We see, then, the Holy Trinity gathered—one on the cross, one resting on the head of crucified one, and one towering over the scene. The three occupy the same space, engaged in the same moment in time, and fully invested in the event itself.

The Father stands behind the cross with his arms stretched out practically embracing the Son as he hangs on the cross. Far from turning his back on the Son, the Father loves the Son, encircles—as it were—the Son, and thus assures the Son of the Father’s love. The Father is not distant but occupies the same space as the Son. Indeed, the Father supports the Son with his arms as if he is holding him up. There is no abandonment or rejection here.

The Spirit is represented as a dove, which rests upon the Son. Just as the dove descended on the Son at his baptism and anointed him with power, and just as the Spirit led the Son into the wilderness and throughout his ministry, so now in death the Spirit is still with the Son. There is no abandonment or rejection here.

The Father, indeed, abandoned the Son to death, but the Father did not abandon him on the cross. The Father abandoned the Son to death, but the Father did not abandon him in death. The Father abandoned the Son, just like the Father does us, to the grave, but he did not abandon the Son in the grave. By the power of the Spirit, who rests upon the Son, the Father raised the Son from the dead, just as the Father by the power of the Spirit will raise us from the dead in the likeness of his Son.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Allelujah.

 


The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

January 17, 2017

1 John is organized around two central truths: “God is light” and “God is love.” Both are known through the manifestation of the “Word of Life,” which is the central message of the Christian Faith.

This is the message (aggelia): God is light (1 John 1:5).

This is the message (aggelia): God is love (1 John 3:11; 4:8, 16).

This is what we proclaim (apaggellomen): the Word of Life (1 John 1:1-3)

God is light; therefore believers walk in the light. God is love; therefore believers love each other. And we know God is light and God is love because “the Word of Life” was revealed those truths in the enfleshed life of the Son of God, who is Jesus the Messiah.

1 John 1:1-3 is a single sentence in Greek (as well as many English translations). The main sentence is this: “That which we have. . .we proclaim to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us.” The object is the “what,” the action is the act of proclaiming or announcing, and the purpose is fellowship or communion (koinonia). In other words, John writes this is what we proclaim so that you might enjoy the fellowship we enjoy, and, importantly, our fellowship is with the Father and the Son!

What is the what?

What was from the beginning,

            what we have heard,

            what we have seen with our eyes,

            what we have beheld, and

            what we have touch with our hands,

                        that is, the Word (logos) of Life!

What we proclaim is “from the beginning,” and “it” has entered creation and participates in the empirical reality of creation itself. That which is “from the beginning”—from the beginning of creation itself or from the beginning of the Christian movement—is part of creation and shares in its creatureliness. Humanity heard “it,” saw “it” with its physical eyes, and touched “it” with its hands. “It” was tangible; it was really here, both seen and touched. And it was not momentary. We “beheld” it, that is, we took in its presence with long gazes. This was no blimp on a screen; it was a presence within the creation that we saw, heard, touched, and over which we lingered.

What is “it”? It is the “Word of Life;” it is the Logos, which is the same language we find in John 1:1 as well as John 1:14 which describes how humanity “beheld (gazed upon) the glory” of the enfleshed Logos.

The “it” is the incarnation of the Logos (Word), who is Life, the life of God or “eternal life” (1 John 1:2). This i the central proclamation of the Christian Faith. God has come in the flesh; the Word became flesh.

This is such an astounding claim that John interrupts his sentence in order to elaborate what he means by the “Word of Life.” When Word becomes flesh (what we saw, heard, and touched), “eternal life” was revealed. The incarnation is the revelation of God’s own life within the creation as a creature.

This “eternal life” was “with (pros) the Father. This statement echoes John 1:1, which describes the Word as “with (pros) God.” When the Gospel of John affirms the Word was “with God,” it means the Word was “with the Father,” as 1 John 1:2 states.

Significantly, the word “pros” (with) reflects an important aspect of divine life. The One God—the Word is God just as the Father is God, according to John 1:1-18—includes a relationship where the Son (Word) is pros the Father. Pros involves movement; it is not about spatial proximity in the sense of “alongside of” but relationality. The Father and the Son are “with” each other, that is, they are engaged in dynamic movement toward each other. In other words, they share a fellowship or communion, a koinonia.

This one, whom we saw, heard, and touched and who was “with the Father” from the beginning, is “eternal life.” This is a clear statement of the eternal nature of the Son, and that the shared life between the Father and the Son is an eternal one, which now the Father and Son share with humanity. Their communion (koinonia) is eternal.

The central message of the Christian Faith is that the One who shared life with the Father became flesh—what we could see, hear, and touch—so that we might participate in the fellowship of the Father and the Son, which was “from the beginning.” God became flesh so that we might participate in the eternal life of God. God became flesh so that we might share in the fellowship of the Father and Son.

The incarnation of the “Word of Life” reveals the truths that “God is light” and “God is love.” Because God became flesh as Jesus the Messiah, we understand what it means to walk with God who is light. Because God became flesh as Jesus the Messiah, we understand what it means to love one another as God has loved us.

The incarnation, then, is the foundational and fundamental revelation of God; particularly, “God is light” and “God is love.” Because we believe God became flesh as Jesus the Messiah, we love as God loves and we walk as God walks because Jesus showed us how God walks and how God loves.

In this way, when we walk in the light and love as God loves, we know authentic joy.


Traditional, Complementarian, or Egalitarian?

January 11, 2017

[An audio version is available here (under January 8)]

In this post I have no interest in advocating for any position, and my taxonomy is primarily applied to the historically controversial question about what function/role may women serve in the public assembly of the church gathered to communally praise/worship God. Rather than advocating a position, my goal is to further mutual understanding, that is, what positions have Christians typically held, and what hermeneutical reading strategies have grounded these positions in Scripture?

For me, the “labels” simply facilitate discussion by providing a way to locate particular understandings. I attach neither a pejorative nor an affirming meaning to any of these terms. They are only descriptors.

There is, of course, much more one could say about each of these positions both historically and theologically as well as exegetically (what do the biblical texts actually say?). My goal is to summarize rather than to fully articulate these positions in all their nuances.

1.  Traditionalists assert a “strong” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) and interpret this to mean that women are not permitted a “leading” voice in the assembly. This not only includes reading Scripture, preaching, or presiding at the table but also excludes women from making announcements, audibly requesting prayers, voicing a prayer, asking questions, or testifying about an answered prayer.  In other words, women must be “silent” in the public assembly of believers; women may not audibly lead the assembly in any way. Consequently, women have no “voice” in the assembly other than singing with the congregation (including, for some, responsive readings) or their public confession of faith before baptism (which usually consists in a brief answer to a question, such as, “Yes” or “I do”).   This is also extended beyond the assembly as women are excluded from other leadership functions in the church structure or ministries. For example, typically and historically, women cannot chair committees on which men sit, teach in any setting where men are present, or  vote in “men’s business meetings.”

Among Traditionalists, there are some variations and exceptions.  For example, in some congregations (particularly African American ones) women are encouraged to make prayer requests or offer testimonies in the assembly.  Generally, however, women may not “speak” (audibly lead) in the public assembly.

This is an historic position among Churches of Christ.  For example, both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believed women should not speak in any public way when the church was assembled for worship because they thought the Bible taught such. However, they did encourage women to teach all who would listen (male, female, children) privately in classes and homes. They believed the distinction between public and private settings was key for the application of traditionalist principles (for more on this, see this blog).

For Traditionalists, like Lipscomb and Harding, women were also excluded from the vote, public leadership of any organization, and some even objected to their entrance into some professors (e.g., Lawyer or Doctor).  They believed the “order of creation” (Adam was created first, then Even) applied not only to home and church but also to society and culture as well. (For more information on this, see this link or this blog).

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology?  Essentially, it is something like this. Biblical texts are timeless and normative statements to which every situation and culture must conform. Every statement in Scripture is absolute and is never relative to or dependent upon the circumstances, situations, or occasions in which they are written except those that apply to dispensational distinctions (e.g., “Mosaic Law” in contrast to “New Testament” instructions). Thus, every application contained in Scripture should be reproduced in our situation.

As a result, texts like 1 Corinthans 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are understood as normative, timeless statements of God’s intent for women in the public assemblies of the church.  These function as explicit directives or “positive laws” (to use Harding’s phrase) to which the church must conform in order to remain faithful to its calling, and these laws are rooted in creation itself since God created man as the head of woman from the beginning, which is reflected in the order of creation as well as the reason for creation (woman was created for man, not man for woman).

2. Complementarians assert a “soft” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) in terms of role and function. Typically, they think of this leadership or headship in terms of responsibility and accountability rather than some kind of strict authority. Men are not empowered to order women to conform as much as men are accountable for the spiritual health of the community. As such, men, as Christlike “heads,” should  serve women, empower them, and sacrifice for them. Consequently, it maintains many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom God permits and encourages. As a result, this group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and in the assembly since, importantly, not every form of leadership bears a “headship” function.

For example, Complementarians do not regard every function in the assembly as a “headship” function.  When Scripture is read, the authority lies in the text; when prayers are prayed, this serves the community rather than exercising authority over it; and whoever passes the trays, serves the community rather than standing over it.

There are a wide range of applications within this group.  Some are fairly limited in this permission and stand closer to Traditionalists while some encourage a broad inclusion, including exhorting the church, teaching in its theological schools, teaching Bible classes in the church, etc. Some churches encourage the participation of women in the assembly in every way except as senior minister (the “regular preacher,” some might say) and as (ruling) elders within the community.

Churches of Christ have known such Complementarians in its history. For example, the churches north of the Ohio who were influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Sommer regarded the participation of women as both a privilege (the honor to participate) and a right (a matter of justice). They encouraged women to read Scripture, lead singing, and exhort the church on occasion, though preaching as well as ruling as elders was not permitted. There were also similar congregations in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (For more information, see this link.)

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially, it is something like this.  Biblical texts contain the principles (theology) to be applied though the application of those principles may vary from culture to culture. We read Scripture to discern theological principles. Today we apply the principles rather than necessarily duplicating the applications. The same principle may yield different applications given different circumstances (both in the past and the present).

A key principle for Complementarians is “headship.”  Their understanding of the principle, however, does not entail exclusion from all leadership functions in the assembly. For example, they believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 addresses an assembled community where women audibly prayed and prophesied even while they honored their “heads.”  In other words, male headship–drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3–does not deny women all forms of leadership.  Women in Corinth, for example, prayed and prophesied in the assembly without subverting headship or dishonoring their heads. This means women may have a voice in the assembly as long as they honor their heads when they do so, and men–when they are Christlike heads–empower women to participate because it is their privilege and gift to participate.

The principle of headship is rooted in creation. Complementarians believe the original vision for humanity included male headship, which is then played out in the history of God’s people (priests are men, Jesus called only male apostles in his ministry, and men serve as elders in the early church), and when this leadership is abdicated (as in the case of Adam and Eve) serious consequences follow.

Though the principle is the same (male headship), the application is both different and the same.  While head-coverings are no longer required, women still have the privilege of exercising their gifts in the assembly as long as they honor their heads.

3. Egalitarians assert the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position opens all functions in the church/assembly to women according to their gifts though the intent is to advocate for such with cultural sensitivity and deference to local customs or traditions.

Egalitarians seek to open all facets of the church to the inclusion of women. While some couch this primarily in the language of rights and justice, others frame it in the light of gifts and privileges, and still others emphasize both. At the very least, Egalitarians suggest the inclusion of women’s gifts is for the common good of the body, and if the Holy Spirit gifted women in  particular ways (just as the Spirit gifted men as well), then the Spirit calls the church to use these gifts for the edification of the body of Christ.

To what degree cultural sensitivity comes into play is difficult. On one hand, some assert a kind of justice which demands inclusion irrespective of local customs and subcultures.  However, many affirm, for the sake of love and unity, a more sensitive approach which calls for mutual formation toward the goal of full inclusion. This acknowledges that the cultural path to equality in some congregations is a long one.

On the other hand, the cultural situation in the United States calls for the full inclusion of women. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture of the early Roman Empire, the inclusion of women is not a cultural scandal, which biblical writers both accommodated and subverted to some extent. Rather, the exclusion of women is a cultural scandal in the present United States, and if Egalitarians are correct in their understanding of biblical theology, it is the church who oppresses women when it should be liberating them.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Egalitarians typically read Scripture as a witness to the goals of God.  Scripture points us beyond its own circumstances and specific applications through “seed” texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28), paradigm shifts in the story (e.g., the pouring out of the Spirit on women in Acts 2), and the original vision of equality in creation fulfilled in new creation (Genesis 1-2). This approach suggests God calls us to live in the future Scripture imagines.

Scripture address people within a culture. For example, the Torah addresses what to do with women who are captured in battle, or how women inherit from their parents (which they do not unless there are no male heirs). These encultured case laws assume cultural values (e.g., patriarchy) while at the same time seeking to subvert them in mild ways, and contemporary Christians recognize the problematic patriarchy in such texts. Yet, the mild subversion of some patriarchy in some of these texts point us to something beyond culture.  Deborah is an example of this kind of “seed” vision within the text which empowers women beyond cultural (patriarchical) constraints.

Egalitarians believe Scripture points us toward a new vision of humanity–a new creation–where humanity is one. This captures the original vision of creation itself, and it moves us into a new age (new creation) where men and women are equally empowered for ministry and service in the community of God as expression of the priesthood of all believers. Some in Churches of Christ now advocate this perspective (see this blog), and some congregations have embraced it.

Slavery was accommodated in the biblical text (and subverted in significant ways), yet we understand that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. In a similar fashion, Egalitarians believe patriarchy was also accommodated (and subverted in significant ways as well), yet the gospel contains the seeds and vision for its abolition. Consequently, the seed texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28) and vision texts (e.g., Acts 2) call us into a future where God’s people are one rather than divided by gender in the ministry of the body of Christ.

I imagine within many congregations of the Churches of Christ Traditionalists, Complementarians, and Egalitarians live side-by-side in their communities.  Congregations vary in their practice, and discussions will become ever more explicit as culture raises the questions for us and presses the church for a response.

Our first task, it seems to me, is mutual understanding. We must first listen and listen carefully. Do I understand what the other is saying, how they read Scripture, and what their desire for the church is in love and unity? We cannot talk if we do not first listen.

May God have mercy!

Below are some questions for possible use among those who want to discuss these thoughts in their community.

  1. How do you see these same three positions mirrored in various cultures throughout the world? For example, in some cultures, “Traditionalism” is still practiced in society. How has this changed in US culture over the years?
  1. Given these three positions, how has this changed in “church” cultures in the last few centuries or even decades?
  1. What do you regard as the key point—whether biblical text, cultural situation, or theological idea—in each of these positions?
  1. In what ways are you able to appreciate each position? State how you may complement each position and value something in each?
  1. One goal is “mutual understanding,” that is, we understand why each holds the position they do and we can appreciate the reasons why they do. How is that working for you?

On Reading 1 John

January 10, 2017

Though 1 John is anonymous, tradition associates it with the Apostle John or perhaps Elder John who are both connected to churches in Asia Minor in the late first century. Whatever the case (and I will call the author “John”), it is rather immaterial to the themes and meaning of the text.

1 John begins and ends like a “tract,” or even homily (sermon). It does not have the form of a letter (unlike 2 John and 3 John). It is more like a community handbook intended for a region of congregations. We might imagine the author seeks to provide perspective given the recent turmoil congregations in Asia Minor (or a larger region) have experienced. Consequently, the “letter” (I use term accommodatively) functions as a handbook for communities as a way of orienting them toward the central truths that should shape their communal life.

These congregations have recently suffered a division where some left and established alternative communities. They seceded from the original congregations in order to maintain their own theological agenda. At the core of this secession was the belief that Jesus did not come in the flesh, or what is called “Docetism” in the early church (1 John 2:19-22; 4:1-2, 7). Interestingly, when Ignatius of Antioch pens letters to several congregations in Asia Minor around 112 CE, he recognizes there were competing congregations in the area, and some of those congregations were “Docetists,” that is, they denied the Son of God had come in the flesh. The author of 1 John considers this a denial of a central truth of the Christian community, and bids the secessionists farewell as long as they persist in this belief.

John addresses this situation by reminding these churches of two important truths, which fundamentally ground Christian communities. These two truths organize the “letter,” which is an exposition and application of these truths to the post-secessionist situation in which these churches find themselves.

The first truth is: “God is light” (1 John 1:5). This is, as John writes, “the message we have heard from him and declare to you.” It is, literally, “the announcement” we “announced.” It is a fundamental message of the Christian community.

This is intimately connected to the claim that Jesus has come in the flesh. God, in whom there is no darkness, has entered the world through the incarnation (taking on flesh) as light in the midst of darkness. Through this light, God reveals eternal life, shares eternal life, and cleanses humanity from sin so that humanity might participate in that life and light. John believes the claim that “Jesus has come in the flesh” is essential to the revelation of this truth, that is, “God is light.”

1 John 1:5-3:10 develops this theme. The light of God is revealed in the incarnate Jesus, who calls us into a life of purity, truth, and righteousness as we walk in the light as Jesus lives and reveals that light. Consequently, we recognize the Christianity community is fundamentally different in its values and mission than the rest of the “world” (as John uses the term) precisely because this community is founded on the light that Jesus revealed through coming in the flesh.

The second truth is: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The second “announcement,” that “we should love one another,” is grounded in this truth (1 John 3:11). Indeed, this is the “new commandment” that shapes the Christianity community (1 John 2:7-8).

We love one another because we participate in the life of God who is love. We know the love of God because God sent the Son into the world by which God loved us so that we might learn to love others. When the love of God fills our hearts, we love each other; when we know God, or experience God, or participate in the life of God, then we also love each other as God has loved us. The second “announcement,” then, is actually an exposition of this truth: “God is love.”

1 John 3:11-5:12 develops this theme. The love of God is revealed in the life and death of Jesus, who calls us to love each other just as he has loved us. In fact, this is fundamentally what it means to walk in the light because just as God is light so also God is love. When we walk in the light, we love one another. Again, this is how the community of Jesus is fundamentally different from the “world.”

These two truths—“God is light” and “God is love”—are revealed in the incarnation, ministry, and death of Jesus the Messiah. The church confesses Jesus as the Messiah who came in the flesh, and this coming revealed the light and love of God. This is the heart of the Christian faith, and it is this message (“announcement”) that makes a community an authentic, living embodiment of God in the world.

Indeed, as the prologue (1 John 1:1-4) and epilogue (1 John 5:13-21) make clear, Jesus is the “eternal life” through whom God is revealed and through whom we participate in the life of God. We enjoy “eternal life” as we participate in the light and love of God experienced and known through Jesus. Consequently, we “know” that light and love when we entrust ourselves to God through Jesus and become children of God (1 John 5:13). As children, we walk in the light of God, and we love each other.


May 21 — A Day of Grief Shared Between My Family and John and Maggie Dobbs

May 21, 2016

May 21, 2001 and May 21, 2008 have something in common, and I remember that today, May 21, 2016. Those are the days on which our children died–my son Joshua and John & Maggy Dobbs’ son John Robert. The memories are painful and today we will each remember, commemorate, and reflect.

I pray for peace for John & Maggy today, but I know it will come with great difficulty. They will remember in their own way. I will remember today in my own way.

In memory of Joshua Mark Hicks and John Robert Dobbs, I am republishing a post from May 24, 2008 which expresses my own protest, pain, and disillusionment after I learned of John Robert’s accident. It still rings true for me, though I have revised it a bit.

May the God of peace and comfort be with you all–the world is much too broken to live in it alone. Romans 15:13

John Mark Hicks

Defending God

When a cyclone kills over 130,000 in Myanmar and an earthquake snuffs out the lives of 80,000 more in China, I have little interest in defending or justifying God.

When my son (Joshua Mark Hicks) dies of a genetic disorder after watching him slowly degenerate over ten years and I learn of the tragic death of a friend’s son (John Robert Dobbs)–both dying on the same date, May 21–I have little interest in defending or justifying God.

How could I possibly defend any of that? I suppose I could remove God from responsibility by disconnecting God from creation but I would then still have a God who decided to be a Deist. That’s no comfort–it renders God malevolent or at least disinterested. Or, I could argue that God has so limited God’s own self that God becomes impotent in the face of evil, especially particular evils over which the people of God have prayed. But that cuts the heart out of prayer in so many ways. I would prefer to say God is involved and decides to permit (even cause–though I would have no way of knowing which is the case in any particular event) suffering. I would prefer to hold God responsible for the world God created and how the world proceeds.

I’m tired of defending God. Does God really need my feeble, finite, and fallible defensive arguments? Perhaps some need to hear a defense–maybe it would help, but I also know it is woefully inadequate at many levels. God does not need my defense as much as God needs to encounter people in their existential crises. My arguments will not make the difference; only God’s presence will.

I know the theodices and I have attempted them myself (see my old “rational” attempt which is on my General Articles page; I have also uploaded the companion piece on the Providence of God). A free-will theodicy does not help me with earthquakes, genetics and cyclones; it certainly does not explain why God does not answer the prayers of people with compassionate protection from such. A soul-making theodicy does not explain the quantity and quality of suffering in the world; suffering sometimes breaks souls rather than making them. There are other theodicies and combinations, but I find them all existentially inadequate (which is an academic understatement!) and rationally unsatisfying.

At the same time, I am not the measure of the universe and God cannot fit inside my brain. I must rest in the reality that the reality of suffering is something beyond my rational abilities to justify God, but that does not mean God does not have reasons. It only means I don’t know them, and human finitude, fallibillity, and egos are to limiting to know them or even understand them.

My theodic rationalizations have all shipwrecked on the rocks of experience in a hurting and painful world. My theodic mode of encounter with God in the midst of suffering is now protest.

Does God have a good reason for the pervasive and seemingly gratutious nature of suffering in the world? I hope God does–I even believe God does, but I don’t know what the reasons are nor do I know anyone who does. My hope is not the conclusion of a well-reasoned, solid inductive/deductive argument but is rather the desparate cry of the sufferer who trusts that the Creator has good intentions and purposes for creation and within creation.

Lament is not exactly a theodicy, but it is my response to suffering. It contains my complaint that God is not doing more (Psalm 74:11), my questions about “how long?” (Psalm 13:1), my demand to have my “Why?” questions answered (Psalm 44:24), and my disillusionment with God’s handling of the world (Job 7:9ff; 21; 23-24). It is what I feel; it is my only “rational” response to suffering.

I realize that I am a lowly creature whose limitations should relativize my protest (as when God came to Job), though this does not minimize it. On the contrary, God commended Job’s honesty and his willingness to speak “right” to God (Job 42:7-12).

Learning from Job and the Psalmists, I continue to lament–I continue because I have divine permission to do so! Of all “people,” I must be honest with God, right? I recognize that my feeble laments cannot grasp the transcendent glory of the one who created the world and I realize that were God to speak God would say to me something of what he said to Job. But until God speaks….until God comforts…until God transforms the world, I will continue to speak, lament, and protest.

But that response is itself insufficient. I protest, but I must also act.

As one who believes the story of Jesus, I trust that God intends to redeem, heal, and renew the world. As a disciple of Jesus, I am committed to imitate his compassion for the hurting, participate in the healing, and sacrifice for redemption. I am, however, at this point an impatient disciple.

Does this mean that there are no comforting “words” for the sufferer? No, I think the story itself is a comfort; we have a story to tell but we must tell it without rationalizing or minimizing creation’s pain. We have a story to tell about God, Israel, and Jesus.

God loves us despite the seeming evidence to the contrary. God listens to our protests despite our anger and disillusionment. God empathizes with our suffering through the incarnation despite our sense that no one has suffered like we have. God reigns over his world despite the seeming chaos. God will defeat suffering and renew creation despite its current tragic reality. The story carries hope in its bosom and it is with hope that we grieve.

My love-hate relationship with God continues…I love (trust) him despite my unbelief. God, I believe-I trust; help my unbelief–heal my doubts. Give light to my eyes in the midst of the darkness.

May God have mercy.


“Say Among the Nations” (Psalm 96:10)

May 16, 2016

It is rather distressing to see Christians wringing their hands over the state of the nation. Facebook is populated by “Christian rants,” which reflect a state of anxiety, anger, and angst. Many live in fear.

Believers, however, worship God.

Perhaps the contrast is not apparent. Perhaps Christians are so filled with fear, it is difficult to see how faith-filled worship subverts fear and projects confidence.

It is not, however, a confidence in whether a particular political party will win an election, nor is it a confidence that a particular law will be enacted or reversed. It is not confidence in the political system.

It is confidence in God, which is reflected in Psalm 96.

The people of God gather to worship–to sing “a new song” (because God is always doing new things), and they invite “all the earth” (both nations and creation itself) to join in the chorus. In this worship, we declare the God’s glory and saving works, and we confess God is the “maker of heaven and earth.”

This worship bears witness and addresses to the nations (Psalm 96:10):

  • Yahweh, the Covenant Lord of Israel, is king.
  • What God has created remains secure.
  • God will establish justice among the peoples.

In other words, God is sovereign, God upholds the creation by God’s power, and God will set things right.

The future of creation and justice among the nations are not, ultimately, in human hands. This rests in God’s hands.

Worship, when we are gathered with others to honor and praise God, reorients our anxieties. In community, among fellow-believers, the lenses through which we see the world are corrected. Instead of wallowing in the turmoil that envelops the nations, we approach the face of God to see the enthroned Lord who assures us that the earth is secure and justice will prevail.

Amidst the anxiety and angst of the political season as well as the distress that fills the world with terror, violence, and economic pain, we affirm the sovereignty of God, the stability of the earth, and the certainty that God will set things right when God comes to judge the earth.

In response to this assurance, the heavens and the earth rejoice, the seas–and everything in it–celebrate with a roar, and the animals, who fill the fields, along with the trees of the forest sing for joy!

God is coming to judge the earth; not only to rescue humanity from its own chaos and injustice but also to rescue the earth from its bondage to decay.

Yahweh is king!

Yahweh secures the earth!

Yahweh will set things right!

This is the confidence in which believers rest, and, therefore, we are not afraid.


A Call to Worship in a Day of Fear (Psalm 33)

May 11, 2016

Psalm 33, a hymn of praise, expresses hope and joy in a time of fear.

Israel’s circumstances, whatever their precise character, generated a deep need for God’s help and protection (“shield”) in the face of death and famine (Psalm 33:19-20). This fear was possibly occasioned by the threat of war or battle (Psalm 33:16-17).

Given recent terror attacks and the threat of ISIS, fear abounds. The US political situation has also generated fear among many. Some respond with threats; others respond with hate. Still others respond with despair and worry. Psalm 33 calls for worship.

The Psalmist responds to Israel’s dire situation with a call to joyful praise. This is appropriate for the people of God who are characterized by a rightful trust in Yahweh (Psalm 33:1, 21-22) and place their hope in their Creator and Redeemer.

The Psalm opens with five imperatives, each a different verb (Psalm 33:1-3).  Each one is a call to worship because “praise” (tehilla) adorns and befits God’s people, even amidst their worst fears.

  • Sing joyfully in Yahweh (v. 1)
  • Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (v. 2)
  • Sing praise to Yahweh with the harp (v. 2)
  • Sing a new song to Yahweh (v. 3)
  • Play music skillfully on the strings with loud shouts (v. 3)

While fear seems the most prudent response to difficult circumstances–and we all experience such fear, the Psalmist calls Israel to worship.

Why this call to worship when we are surrounded by fear? Psalm 33 explains.

We worship because….

  • The word of Yahweh is upright, and all Yahweh’s “doing” (making) is done in faithfulness (Psalm 33:4-9).
  • The plans of Yahweh stand forever, and Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts” extend to all generations (Psalm 33:10-12).
  • The eye of Yahweh is set upon those who trust and hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:13-19).

We worship, even in times of fear, because Yahweh’s word is powerful and faithful, Yahweh’s intentions are permanent, and Yahweh’s care is interminable.”

First, the word of Yahweh” does not describe inscripturated propositions. The Psalmist is not talking about the Torah, though other Psalms do. Instead, the “word of Yahweh” is God’s active presence as Creator and Redeemer.  The “word of Yahweh” here is God’s performative speech

Performative speech actualizes something. For example, when the officiant says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” that language actualizes the union’s reality. The language has power; it does something.

God speaks, and it is done. What God speaks is done, and what is done is established as a firm, immovable rock. What God does is characterized by faithfulness (Psalm 33:4) and it stands (Psalm 33:9).

The word of Yahweh, then, is an active, living voice which actualizes what God intends, and nothing can resist it. God made the heavens and gathered the waters. God’s speech acts actualized the heavens and the earth. These words are the breath of God, which yield life, order, justice, and righteousness.

This creative work, and the redemptive work in the Exodus which this language also echoes (cf. Exodus 14:31; 15:6-8), arises from God’s love for righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5). The divine goal, expressed as a confident reality in hopeful worship, is to fill “the earth” with “Yahweh’s steadfast love” (Psalm 33:5).

Israel worships Yahweh because the word of Yahweh accomplishes what it speaks by its powerful love.

We do not fear because the living word of God effects God’s righteousness and fills the earth with God’s steadfast love.

In the light of this, “let all the earth fear Yahweh” because Yahweh’s love is universal and Yahweh’s work is awe-inspiring.

Second, the plan of Yahweh is permanent. Yahweh’s intentions are evident to Israel; every generation knows what Yahweh plans will happen. Nothing can frustrate Yahweh’s goal, Yahweh’s “thoughts” (Psalm 33:11).

The nations believe they control their own destiny. They use their power to secure their own ends. What the nations plan, however, is no match for Yahweh’s plan. Yahweh “breaks” and “frustrates” the “plan of the nations.”

Whatever it may seem, however it may appear, the plans of the nations are subservient to the “counsel of Yahweh,” Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts.” Ultimately, Yahweh’s intentions are realized no matter what the nations may do. God is sovereign over the nations.

When fear pervades a people, they have lost their trust in God’s sovereignty. When worship fills our hearts, we trust in God’s powerful, redemptive, and loving work.

This is our blessedness. When we confess Yahweh as our God, we confess God’s election. Yahweh loved us, and Yahweh chose us, and we are Yahweh’s inheritance or heritage (Psalm 33:12).

This is not simply the confession of Israel. It is, in fact, the hope of the nations. One day, Isaiah promises, even Egypt and Assyria will be a “blessing in the midst of the earth,” and Yahweh will call them “my people” and “my heritage” (Isaiah 19:24-25).

Consequently, we do not fear because God’s intent is to bless all the nations so that the whole earth becomes Yahweh’s inheritance.

Third, the eye of Yahweh covers the earth to deliver from death those who hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:18-19).

This “eye” is not passive but active. Yahweh is no mere observer. On the contrary, the eye of Yahweh (Psalm 33:13-15):

  • looks down from heaven
  • sees all humankind
  • watches all the inhabitants of the earth
  • forms every human heart
  • discerns every one of their deeds

In other words, Yahweh is intimately engaged with human hearts and lives. Yahweh “forms” hearts just as Yahweh “formed” adam from the ground in Genesis 2:7 (same Hebrew term). Further, God “understands” or “discerns” humanity’s deeds. God not only knows what is going on, but God also discerningly considers what humanity does. God is attentive–shaping human hearts and probing their deeds.

This is a function of God’s sovereignty since Yahweh is enthroned above the earth from where Yahweh “watches” and “forms” all humanity.  The repetitive use of “all” (kal), used three times in Psalm 33:13-15, underscores the universal reach of God’s work.

Consequently, no king, army, warrior, or war horse can “save” by its own “great might” (Psalm 33:16-17). This once again echoes the Exodus narrative where no king or warrior saved Israel from Egypt’s mighty army. Instead, Yahweh redeemed Israel and delivered her from death.

The Yahweh of the Exodus is still Israel’s God, and Yahweh will yet deliver those who “fear him” and “hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18).

Therefore, we do not fear because Yahweh reigns over the earth, forms human hearts, and acts to redeem those who trust in God’s love.

We are not afraid because we know and have experienced God’s redemptive love in our lives, and we trust the one who has loved us.

The Psalmist dispels fear through worship because worship calls us into God’s story.

  • Yahweh’s word is powerful and actualizes what it commands.
  • Yahweh’s plan is firm and immovable.
  • Yahweh’s eye is squarely upon us for our redemption.

As a result, we “wait for Yahweh” because our God is our “help and shield” (Psalm 33:20).

We even learn to rejoice in the middle of fearful circumstances “because we trust in Yahweh’s holy name” (Psalm 33:21).

This patient endurance (“waiting”) and hopeful worship spawns a wish-prayer. It is the only word addressed to Yahweh in the whole Psalm. It functions like a blessing, a benediction, or a corporate response from the assembly. It is a prayer we should make our own.

Let your steadfast love, O Yahweh, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

Amen.