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book list envy, theological flaws, & the grace of God

October 29, 2011

This is a quick post, partly for my own reference.  I stumbled across a friend of a friend’s blog post of her summer reading, and quite a few of the titles are very intriguing to me:

  • Hipster Christianity
  • Reboot: Refreshing your faith in a high-tech world
  • The Devil in the White City
  • Anti-Blackness in the English Religion
  • Open Friendship in a Closed Society
  • Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians 1946-83,
  • Blood Done Sign My Name
  • Welcoming Justice
  • Through His Eyes: God’s perspective on women in the Bible
  • Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity

I’d only read the last two in her list, so I’ve added the others to my list of prospective reads.  I guess you could say I have book list envy.  I’d love to have a job that enabled me to dig into topics like that to better understand how we’re shaped by our theological beliefs.

I’ve just recently ordered a couple used books, including Allan A. Boesak’s Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition. Ever since taking a modern theology class a few years ago in which we ran across a letter in which Karl Barth warned Abraham Kuyper that his theological system could lend itself toward racism, I’ve been curious of the possible connections and/or weaknesses in Reformed theology toward justifying institutional racism in Dutch reformed South Africa under Apartheid.  To what extent does American reformed presbyterian theology share the same weaknesses?

On that question, and specific to southern American presbyterian theology and practice, I found a review and long comment stream about the history of the sin of racism in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).  I read the comments, was saddened to see unrepentant, unchanged racists leaving these churches rather than change their view by becoming more like Jesus (Joel Belz provides the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article and sidebar on this), but was encouraged in the same report that church discipline was exercised by the highest courts of my denomination against racism.  There’s also a lot of good work against racism coming through First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  God’s grace is powerful, able to change us and overcome our deeply rooted individual and social sins.

There are a few comments that stood out to me: Professor Stephen Taylor’s comment concluding that there’s a well developed version of Reformed theology which results in “a self-congratulatory segregated community impervious to critique, internal or external,” and blog author Anthony Bradley’s response,

“The PCA’s theology on issues of race and culture is deficient because it’s derived primarily from a context of privilege and elitism. What concerns many of us is the unwillingness for many in the PCA to admit that there is a major biblical and theological flaw in how the denomination thinks about these issues.”

Wow.  A context of privilege and elitism.  Other words for that would be forgetting the gospel, or not understanding grace.  I’ve seen this and been there myself far too often.  How quickly we forget the heart of the gospel: God didn’t pick us because we’re better than anybody, but simply because he loved us.

“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”   (Deuteronomy 9:6-7 ESV)

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”   (Deuteronomy 10:12-16 ESV)

If we forget we were slaves in Egypt, if we forget we are poor, destitute, without hope or status apart from Jesus, we are not believing the gospel, and we quickly fall into an ugly assumed privilege and elitism.

Peter Slade, the Methodist author of the book that really got this recent discussion going in the PCA, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, points out in his comment, theology does shape practice, and there are encouraging signs of change within the PCA.  Covenant Seminary professor Nelson Jennings, suggests in his comment a number of helpful points to hold on to during this discussion.

Issues of sin and race are tricky, our hearts deceptive, and we take good things like theology and find subtle ways to twist them to condone or even justify our sins.  We’re not that different from the stubborn people of God in Deuteronomy, but God hasn’t changed, so we can cling to the gracious promise he gave his people that he would one day change our stubborn hearts:

“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV)

God kept that promise when Jesus came, the only man without a stubborn, sinful heart, went to the cross for us to purchase by his blood from every ethnicity and race for God.  Racial reconciliation is central to the cross, and is one of the central reasons we have to worship Jesus:

 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”   (Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)

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