The Wilderness and the Desert: Images for Christian Living?

41XiJWC3cPL._AA160_Two of the most lasting images used by the Christian church to describe the spiritual life, especially among the desert fathers and mothers, are wilderness and the desert. Had I not learned these two images in the early 1990s I am not sure I would have profited so deeply from my own spiritual journey.

First, the feeling of God’s absence became real to me during the late 1990s and all through the first decade of this century. I had known God’s presence in some remarkable ways previously but around 1998 this sense of his presence began to recede. I felt what the ancients called abandonment. I felt like I was wandering in a wilderness, a desert. I felt God was testing me. I felt a devastating absence for prolonged times. I read the account of my Lord suffering in the wilderness and identified with his heart in some ways.

Second, these images suggest an arid spirit but in reality I learned the opposite to be the case. I was being powerfully renewed in the desert. In Exodus, when the

Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Part Four)

UnknownA friend has asked me, “John, can you market a seminary today without suggesting that we are the really faithful heirs of our particular tradition?” He added, “Could a school market itself as a loving, caring, and biblical community and still succeed?” My answer is that this is the only way in which I think a school will survive, and thrive, in the next two decades.  I am persuaded that the next generation of young students will not buy the old way of selling a school’s uniquely distinctive views as over against other similar institutions that are not that remarkably different from each other. In the conservative Reformed world there has been a vast expansion of total seminaries since 1970, including at least eight new schools opening in the last forty years or so. But of the thirteen schools that come to mind in this part of the church ten of these seminaries are non-aligned in terms of church affiliation; the three aligned schools are Calvin (CRC), Erskine (ARPC) and Covenant (PCA). Does this independence lead toward another evidence of the function of

True Friendships (3)

The goal of life for every Christian should be the kingdom of God. The gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God. Tragically, we have settled for what Dallas Willard calls “the gospel of sin management,” a gospel which is something far less than the gospel of the kingdom.

UnknownVery early in the church’s history a group of men and women, fearing the devastation to the soul brought about by the breakdown of spiritual culture inside the church, went to live in the desert in order to learn how to practice the Christian life with greater clarity. Robert Wilken (photo), the famous church historian and patristic scholar, has written, “In their writings the phrase used most often to depict what one strives for in life’s daily struggles was ‘purity of heart.’ Without purity of heart, all yearning for holiness and all desire for God come to naught, for hour by hour, even minute by minute, we are bent and shaped by distractions and wayward thoughts, many good and legitimate, that drive our minds and take our

By |January 16th, 2014|Categories: Forgiveness, Liturgy, Patristics, Sports|

A Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue at Moody Bible Institute

Unknown-2Today, at 3:00 p.m. (CST), I will speak before a student-sponsored gathering at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. I was asked, several months ago, if I could arrange an ecumenical dialogue and discussion that would feature me alongside of a prominent Catholic theologian and author. My first thought was to invite my friend, Fr. Robert Barron, to join me for this event. When he agreed to the invitation, and we found a suitable time for us both to be on campus with these students, we accepted their gracious invitation.

Unknown-3Our dialogue tomorrow will begin with a welcome by a Moody student leader which will be followed by an introduction given by our moderator, Dr. Bryan Litfin (Ph.D. in the field of ancient church history at the University of Virginia). Dr. Litfin is a professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Bryan is also a first-rate patristics scholar and has often encouraged Christian dialogue as a part of his teaching. He is the author of Getting to Know the Church

What Does Christ’s Victory Mean for Understanding His Death?

anastas1The New Testament is filled with material concerning the victory of Christ over the powers of evil, a victory finally accomplished, and announced, through his death and resurrection.

One of the seminal texts that comes to mind here is in Matthew’s Gospel.

22 Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. 23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” 25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27 If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if

How the Enlightenment Took the Church Away from Jesus & Him Crucified

The ancient church did not debate ideas about “appeasing the wrath of God through Christ’s death.” The Christ they worshiped, as we’ve seen, was the victor over the powers. They expressed this in their worship. This can also be discovered in their hymns, in baptism, in their preaching, at the eucharist, and in the recorded prayers of the earliest Christians. It runs like a scarlet thread throughout. If this were understood at all I believe the present evangelical wars about the atonement would be stopped almost instantly.

UnknownMany examples of my point about the early church can be offered but one that has helped me is found in the oldest prayer of thanksgiving we have that was said over the bread and wine in the eucharist. It is the prayer preserved for us by Hippolytus in The Apostolic Tradition, a work written around A.D. 215. This particular prayer points to the theme of Christ’s victory. Here is an important sample of this ancient faith congregational prayer:

Fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people, he

Ancient-Future Faith: What Has It to Do with the Atonement?


The Holy Spirit seems to be working new convictions –based on ancient ideas about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit – into the younger evangelical generation. My generation was attracted to the details of mastering a theological system and often thought in either/or terms about what was true and false. I was trained by evangelicals who were drawn to the details of theological debate while they were (often) passive about social concerns like peace, war and justice. My generation of evangelicals gave us the Moral Majority and a host of culture warrior Christian spokesmen. (They were mostly “males” so I use the word “men” here intentionally!) My formal training was shaped by science, philosophy, and communication theories. We built churches that were attractional and shaped by programs that fed (not always intentionally) our consumerism. The new generation is geared toward change and dynamic ways of expression. (These are generalizations, I admit, but they are helpful when understood correctly.)

Well over a decade now my late friend Robert E. Webber wrote, “The kind of Christianity that attracts the new

How Shall We Understand the Atonement?

814099_5It must be stated, before we even consider several of the ways Christians have traditionally understood the atonement (the meaning of Christ’s death) and its relationship to our sin(s), that all Christians believe this great central truth – Christ’s death reconciles us to God. Whatever else you read, or think you hear me saying in the next few days, please return to this statement and believe me when I say I stake my entire salvation on the death of Christ for my sins.

The word atonement is itself an English translation, as several noted in their comments on my posts last week. But the word atonement is not a bad word because it is an English translation, even though it is a word far too easily misunderstood. That Christ gave his life as a ransom for mankind’s sin is crystal clear in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). What is not nearly so clear is what this ransom (sacrifice) means. This is especially true in terms of the payment that was made and the person

St. Cyril of Alexandria – Our True Unity Flows from Divine Diversity

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not pray only for his twelve apostles, who became the solid foundation of the Christian church. He also prayed, as we read in John 17:20-24, for all who would believe in him in every age since the apostles. He prayed for all of those who would yield to him and obey the words that call them to be holy by believing on him as the Christ, the son of the living God. We see his will in this matter revealed most plainly in these astounding words:

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[a] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world

Mary in Ecumenical Perspective

Registration Table for NWCUI mentioned yesterday that I attended two seminars at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) in Columbus, April 8–11. The second was titled: “Mary in Ecumenical Perspective.” It was taught by one of the leading liturgical scholars in North American Christianity, Dr. Maxwell Johnson, Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Johnson was marvelous. He was engaging, interesting, lucid and very funny. No one seemed bored for one moment and the room was alive. When he was done the questions flowed out of his outstanding presentation. Let me explain, very briefly, his thesis.

While many Protestants believe Mary presents a rather significant barrier to Christian unity Dr. Johnson believes the exact opposite is the case, both in our respective church traditions and in a growing awareness of Mary’s role in Christian life and devotion. A major source for Johnson’s argument was rooted in Martin Luther. This was the strength of his paper since he is a Lutheran himself. He showed, quite plainly, how Luther honored Mary and retained all the ancient-faith


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