Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Category: Holy Spirit

Thoughts on Reading the Psalms

Here are just a few things that I find helpful on a very basic level with regard to reading the Psalms as a Christan.

  1. Read the Psalms regularly. One of the reasons the Psalms can be so little help to some Christians in their time of need is simply this: We’re not familiar with them. They’re a different type of literature than we’re used to reading or hearing preached (usually a gospel or an epistle). When times of hardship and suffering, or feelings of guilt and depression, or seasons of joy and exuberance come, we don’t know how to use the Psalms because we don’t know where to look in the Psalms to find a suitable song for our emotions. Familiarizing ourself with the basic contents of the book and the different types of songs in the book will help us be quicker to flee to the Psalms in whatever season.
  2. Think hard through the Psalms. There are some tough passages and some tough expressions of anger, some strong words of love, some passionate promises to God… how much of this can we agree with? Can we apply it all? How much of what David writes is simply poetic expression (i.e. hyperbole, simile, metaphor, merism, etc.) and how much of it is ‘literal’? Is it appropriate to pray these particular things as a member of the New Covenant? These are good questions to ask regularly–they are tough issues that each Christian will need to work through. Unfortunately, since there are some tough questions attendant with reading the Psalms, this often scares some Christians away. But it shouldn’t!
  3. Develop a plan for reading the Psalms. Here’s mine, that I’ve used several times. To read through the whole book of Psalms (a seemingly daunting task) really isn’t that hard. You can do it no problem in a month. On the first day of the month (i.e. July 1), I read Psalms 1, 31, 61, 91, 121. On the second, I read Psalms 2, 32, 62, 92, 122. Today I read Psalms 3, 33, 63, 93, 123. There are 150 Psalms, so 30 days at this pace will get you through quite easily. Reading this intensely will help with both 1. and 2. above as well.
  4. Get help. Pick up a commentary if you need to. Ask one of your elders or a mature Christian you know well to help you through some of the tough questions that will come up.
  5. Pray. It’s the word of the Lord, and therefore, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to illuminate and to apply. Ask him in faith, with no doubting, and he will.
  6. Ask to identify, not just understand. Sometimes we can become accustomed to just trying to ‘understand’ the words of the Bible. The Psalms will have nothing of that. If you’re not affected in your heart by the truths of God and his work in revelation and redemption, then the Psalms won’t make sense to you. Pray that the Spirit of God would give not just insight, but a heart that is genuinely affected by what it sees. Hearts affected by God’s truth, for God’s glory is the goal of the Psalms.

Hopefully I’ll be able to post more on the interpretation of Psalms and how to ‘get to Christ’ from the Psalms shortly.

Tertullian and Contemporary Biblical Ethics

Tertullian lived ca.150-ca.225 AD. He was born in Carthage, which is in North Africa (so he was probably a little darker than the picture would suggest). He was a man brilliantly gifted by God for writing. He wrote extensively on things like apologetics and ethics and often wrote polemically against the heretics of his day (eg. Marcion and Praxeas). He ably defended both Scriptures and the Trinity. In his writings–which are easily dated from the end of the second and early third centuries–Tertullian quotes from the New Testament, plainly citing it as being on par with Old Testament Scriptures, thus indicating an already accepted Canon, long before Nicaea.

All that said, Tertullian was not perfect (as no saint has ever been). Tertullian was associated with a movement in his day known as Montanism. Based on the teachings of a ‘Prophet’ named Montanus, this group believed that the age in which they lived was the dispensation of the Holy Spirit (the Old Testament was the dispensation of the Father, the Gospels were the dispensation of the Son). Since this was the age of the Holy Spirit, they relied heavily on prophecies and other miraculous revelatory gifts for their doctrine and ecclesiastical practice.

Citing John 16.12-13, Tertullian and the Montanists claimed that the ethics Jesus declared were not finally absolute, nor fully developed, but that they were all that the disciples were able to handle at that point in redemptive history. The Holy Spirit, who was to come, would then have the ministry of revealing a heightened ethic to Jesus’ followers in the days and years to come.

It is absolutely essential to notice, however, to what end Tertullian and friends used this position. They argued for the insufficiency of Scriptural ethics in several areas: namely, marriage / remarriage, and flight from persecution. Whereas Jesus had made allowances for both of these, the Holy Spirit was now teaching them to advance beyond what Scripture had revealed to a higher ethic.

Why in the world would they choose these areas? Because that’s what their culture demanded. Asceticism was the philosophical milk Tertullian had been raised on, and persecution had become the norm for Christians of their day. For Christianity to be consistent, relevant, and morally / ethically contemporary with the philosophical ideals of the day it needed to be advanced from what Scripture had revealed.

The irony, of course, is that looking back from about 1800 years later it seems absurd to us (in a completely removed culture) to suppose the Holy Spirit would counsel against marriage (or even remarriage after one’s spouse dies) or that he would specifically command that Christians not flee, but rather, seek persecution.

Since we don’t breathe that air, it smells real funny to us.

But here’s the thing: People today insist on making the same mistake as Tertullian and the Montanists. No, not with the marriage / remarriage thing or the persecution thing (in fact, we’re tempted to loosen the biblical commands here rather than tighten them), but rather, with the ordination of women to the position of elder, or to accept some forms of homosexuality as legitimate lifestyle alternatives.

People argue now, like Tertullian argued then, that the Bible’s ethics are unfinished; they merely establish a trajectory that we must follow, and by the guidance of the Spirit (and by finding the ‘spirit of the text’) we can ultimately determine a better ethic than the one laid out in Scripture.

But it’s all hoogly! I would be willing to bet–if any of us could be around–that 1800 years from now people will look back on our times and wonder why in the world we would think the Scriptures were insufficient in these areas.

Just like we look back on Tertullian and see him reading Scriptures and conforming Christianity to his culture, so we must see that we ourselves are always being tempted to do the same. The simple fact is that we live in a profoundly feminist, pro-gay culture. The pressure we face is always to accept these things. We have been raised and educated, indoctrinated from our youth to accept these things. The ‘highest’ of ethics in our culture is an accepting one that does not place boundaries on other people, especially when it comes to gender or ‘sexual preference.’

Those are our ‘hot-button issues’, just like Tertullian’s were asceticism and persecution. We must not be like him. We must stand firm and stick to the Scriptures. It is them alone which are able to make us wise for salvation, and them alone which equip us for every good work.

The real questions we must ask are not about whether women should be ordained as elders or homosexuality should be accepted; we already have the answers to those questions!

The real question that needs to be asked is this: Am I willing to stand on the authority of the word of God alone? Do I have enough faith in God to base my ethics on it, even when it makes me appear ‘morally backward’ in a culture of acceptance? Is God’s word enough?

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For a fuller treatment of ‘Trajectory ethics’, see here.
For another post on the influence of asceticism on Christianity, see here.

Gleanings on the Spirit from Acts

I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but if you are, then you probably wonder from time to time why you have to learn something so many times before it finally sinks in. This morning, as I was reading through Acts, I couldn’t help but be struck with the reality of my need to regularly read big chunks of Scripture at a single sitting.

This is true for lots of reasons. For one thing, it’s the way Scripture was meant to be learned. Luke didn’t write Acts in handy little chapters and verses so that we could read a little bit each day. He wrote it as one story to be read aloud or to oneself in one sitting. If we want to understand a book of the Bible, we need to read it like it was meant to be read.

Following on that reason, it brings out a lot of the bigger themes that you’re so prone to miss in a book if you don’t see them repeated over several chapters. Call me an idiot, but it blew my mind to see this time through the book just how big a role the Holy Spirit plays in this book. It’s plain to see, I know, but our need of the Spirit, the necessity of the Spirit going where the gospel goes, the sovereignty of the Spirit in determining where the gospel goes, the role of the Spirit in guiding and protecting believers, the role of the Spirit in redemptive-history, the necessity of the filling of the Spirit for any effective ministry… over and over and over again the Holy Spirit (or ‘the Spirit’ or ‘the Spirit of Jesus’) is emphatically spoken of as essential to the gospel-cause.

That’s something that I need to hear more of. In the cessationist circles I’ve always moved in the Spirit is viewed with a funny kind of suspicion–as if he really actually did have something to do with those whacko tv-preachers. Obviously that’s not who he is. But the temptation, of course, is to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that we leave the Spirit no room in our lives or churches.

In fact, I dare confess that there have been times in my life when in my own theology I have made the Spirit out to be a sort of demi-God, under the Father and Jesus who are truly God. I mean, I would never have said this, but it seems to be the way I viewed the world. I looked at God working in this world as if the Father could or would do anything without doing it through his Holy Spirit.

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