Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Dale Bruner’

Loving our enemies means liking them, too

February 16, 2017

brunerAs I said in my sermon on Sunday (which I’ll post soon), when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about loving our enemies, he isn’t mostly talking about the Russians, the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists; he’s talking about the “enemy” who passes you on the street (or in the church hallway). As he implies in Matthew 5:47, our enemy is the one whom we “greet” (or fail to do so). Our enemy is someone we know personally, someone with whom we interact.

With this in mind, theologian Frederick Dale Bruner objects to a distinction that we Christians often make: that we can love enemies without liking them.

A frequent dodge must be noted. It is sometimes said that the agapē love commanded by Jesus is not erōs love; that agapē means “to wish well to” but it does not mean (as erōs does) “to feel affection for.” By this distinction some disciples allow themselves to continue heartily to dislike their enemies, to feel no affection for them at all, and yet by a kind of steel-cool Stoicism to believe that they are keeping Jesus’ Command.

While agapē is more than erōs, it is nothing less. For it is not true that erōs is a hot thing and agapē cold. We are not to be satisfied that we have kept Jesus agapē Command when we treat our enemies with semi-civility. We are to pray, and to pray some more, until we feel something of God’s love for problem people. (And before the holiness of God, are not all of us, even the best disciples, really problem people?) Granted, a miracle is required for agapē to happen, but God is good at miracles. Therefore, we must even beware of the sometimes good counsel that “you can love without liking,” if this should mean that we should block any liking or any natural affection at all. Disciples will permit God’s own powerful agapē so to forgive and affect them that they will actually find themselves with warm feelings, and not just steel wills, when they deal with enemies.[1]

Bruner goes on to say that agapē doesn’t mean we love “the enemies’ character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.[2]

But I like this a lot: We should have “warm feelings, and not just steel wills.” Notice also he refers to “feeling God’s love” for problem people.

Did you catch that? God feels love for problem people—including sinners like you and me. Are we sometimes tempted to imagine that God’s love for us is a matter of “steel will” rather than affection? What does it mean that God not only loves us (as if that’s what God were supposed to do, however reluctantly), but that God also likes us?

I could benefit from telling myself, “God likes you, Brent, in spite of your sin, in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses.”

What about you?

As for loving our enemies, here’s a possible rule of thumb: we are not loving our enemies sufficiently until we have warm feelings for them. These warm feelings may take a miracle on God’s part, but as Bruner says, God is good at miracles. Start with prayer.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 271-2.

2. Ibid., 272.

Bruner on infant baptism

January 14, 2017

brunerIn his masterful theological commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner reflects on infant baptism, as part of his discussion of Jesus’ baptism by John in Matthew 3:13-17 (my text for this Sunday). As a Presbyterian, he, like me and my fellow Methodists, is part of a tradition that practices infant baptism. And like me, he was “converted” to the practice later in life: he didn’t grow up believing in it.

Was he Baptist? He doesn’t say. But I was. As I tell former Baptists who join my church: “Like you, I was baptized by immersion. So at least we’re saved!”

To Bruner’s credit, he gives good arguments on both sides and admits that he is “of two minds” on the subject. Truthfully, I am as well. But it’s not as if I’m more evangelical or evangelistic than my Reformation ancestors Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley; I’m not more of a champion of “justification by faith alone” than they were. Yet each of them still believed in infant baptism. (It was those darn Anabaptists who were the weirdos!) For that reason alone, I’m willing to set aside my doubts and accept the consensual teaching of the universal church, which—as far as we can tell—practiced infant baptism (without controversy) from nearly the beginning.

Bruner marshals plenty of scripture from Old and New Testaments to support the practice (I might blog about this later), even as he acknowledges that the explicit order in the Book of Acts shows repentance and faith preceding baptism. (Like me, however, he believes that we can infer that infants—or at least children too young to “comprehend” the gospel—are baptized, for example, in Acts 16:14-15, 31-33.)

Regardless, he believes, along with me, that our view of baptism is a secondary matter; it need not affect our essential unity. And I’m not aware that it does—except among some “restorationists” of the Stone-Campbell tradition. (Some within the Churches of Christ, for example, wouldn’t recognize most Protestants, evangelical or otherwise, as authentically Christian—not to mention Catholics!)

For those of us who practice infant baptism, however, let’s face facts: It often seems to make no difference in the lives of people who were so baptized. There’s often little evidence of conversion in the person’s life, aside from the most nominal kind of faith. And plenty of people who were baptized as infants later reject the faith. What do we make of this?

I find these words of Bruner helpful (emphasis his):

Where faith is not sustained in the hearts of baptized children, the gifts really given by God in baptism are left unused in an unopened section of the human heart. The gifts can even be rejected, and apparently they are by most (see the important discussion of this sad fact of “most” in 1 Cor 10). And then there is only judgment, as John’s Fire Sermon makes clear—and makes clear to believers. But when the faith given in baptism is maintained and confirmed, when baptized persons turn to Christ in fresh decisions of faith, they find that Christ has always turned earlier to them, as early as their baptism.

The earliest delivery of the passion in our own lives occurs ordinarily in baptism. And for all we know (and Luther liked this view…; cf. Calvin’s only slightly different understanding…) a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism. (Therefore infant baptism can be believer baptism.) No one should laugh (Gen 17-18). “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14 RSV). Then the weekly invitations to re-receive the gifts previously given to the people of God at baptism happens again and again in the preached Word and Supper with their fresh gospel messages of faith and repentance.

Why did the Reformers, and especially Luther and Calvin, the great champions of justification by faith alone, so stubbornly fight for the retention of infant baptism for believers’ children? The Reformers knew that infant baptism celebrated and communicated the one reality that is more important than anything we do—the prevenient grace of God, of a God who does saving things for people before they can do saving things for themselves, even when they are very young. If appearances do not deceive, we seem as infants to be rather bewildered by what is going on when we are baptized. But God is superior to all appearances; inwardly God gives faith (or, in Calvin’s expression, “the seed of future faith and repentance”). This ambience in infant baptism is so much like the rest of the gospel that it helps us to believe that this seemingly common event is God’s way in the church of arriving in human lives. Infant baptism looks very much like the lowly feed-bin manger in which Jesus arrived. Infant baptism has been cherished in the historic church, I suspect, because it is shaped like the gospel.[†]

In this view, saving faith is really given to a child through baptism. God makes it possible for even an infant to receive it (“a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism”). Therefore, we can be confident a baptized child will go to heaven, for example, if he or she dies before professing faith for himself or herself. But this same person can also later reject this same faith—and it’s hard to argue with Bruner that “most” will. (Wesley certainly wouldn’t!)

Bruner’s view, please note, is more congruent with the Wesleyan tradition, which doesn’t hold to eternal security; which believes that backsliding is possible.

Thoughts? Are Bruner’s words persuasive?

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 112-3.

“Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks”

January 10, 2017

brunerIn his commentary on last Sunday’s scripture, Matthew 3:1-12, Frederick Dale Bruner, a Presbyterian, argues that John the Baptist’s “Fire Sermon” is a “sustained attack on a false eternal security (‘once saved, always saved’), an attack my own Calvinist tradition needs to hear.” One scholar he quotes puts it this way: “The Christian equivalent of ‘We have Abraham as our father’ is ‘We have Christ as our Savior.'”

Is that true? While my Protestant tradition doesn’t hold to the doctrine of eternal security, I’ve at least been inching in that direction for many years now (as my friend and blog reader Tom, who himself holds loosely to the doctrine, and I have discussed). So Bruner’s words are a challenge to me, too.

But maybe they should challenge us all. While I laughed out loud at this recent Babylon Bee article (headline: “Arminian Feeling Pretty Saved Today”), I’m not sure it reflects reality. After all, I’ve known few Methodists who’ve worried about the state of their soul. Why? What is the source of their confidence? Perhaps all of us need to reevaluate our security in Christ—be it “eternal” or, for many of us Wesleyan-Arminians, a shade or two more provisional.

Bruner continues:

Whenever I teach this verse and the sense of privilege that Israel felt in belonging to Abraham, I think of my own relation to the Reformation and my heritage in the theologies of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. And I squirm. Do I stand in an advanced relationship with God because I stand in this heritage? John the Baptist wants to disabuse me of this conviction for a moment. My relationship with God does not depend on the heritage to which I belong, but on something deeper. It is a great privilege to be an heir of Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. I believe that to imbibe Luther is to imbibe catholic theology at its best. And yet if I advance my Lutheran, Calvinist, or Reformation heritage before God as a kind of shield behind which to hide the reality (or unreality) of my faith in Christ, then the Baptist point his long, bony finger in my face and says, “Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks!”[†]

In my current situation in the United Methodist Church, I know the spiritual pride of identifying as a “theologically conservative evangelical.” It can easily become my way of saying, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other Methodists are—progressives, open theists, ‘red-letter Christians,’ or even those United Methodist ‘centrists.'”

Not too many years ago, God rescued me from the precipice of hell by convicting me of my sin and pointing me once again to the cross of his Son. While the theological liberalism of the Candler School of Theology played a harmful role, the main problem was in my heart, not my head. In other words, plenty of evangelicals whose hearts are in the right place make it through Candler just fine.

So if I’m going to be proud of anything, let me be proud of what Christ did to save me, not the theological camp in which I now stand as a result.

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 93-4.

The ministry of the law as a “sin-damning institution”

January 9, 2017

brunerI’ve said this before, but Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew, The Christbook, is a masterpiece. In fact, I wanted to preach a new series on the Gospel of Matthew in part because I wanted to explore Bruner’s commentary more deeply. One angle of my new series will be to explore the relationship between God’s law and the gospel. I had an intuition that Bruner could help me with this—and so far so good.

The ministry of the law is being restored to our preaching—not as a people-saving institution but, first of all, as a sin-damning institution. There has been too much “accept ourselves” (or “God-loves-us-as-we-are”)  preaching that ignores the tough notes of God’s law and even of Jesus’ gospel. We need John; we need the law of God. “For through the law,” writes the great preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles, “comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). Consequently, if Christians, too, are to experience salvation from sin, then we Christians must again and again allow ourselves to be addressed by the stinging indictment of God’s law. This law has the cheek to tell us that we are the enemy, that the enemy is not primarily other people. The law warns us; it condemns both the spiritually serious and the socially sophisticated in the people of God, the religious right and the religious left.[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 91-2.

“Only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem”

December 15, 2016

brunerI’ve made this point before, but never so eloquently. Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew is a treasure (so far)!

The Magi story can also teach a little doctrine of revelation. (1) The star (“revelation by creation”) leads the Magi to (2) Israel’s Scripture in Jerusalem (“revelation by Scripture”), which in turn leads them to (3) the Child in Bethlehem (“revelation by Christ”). It is interesting that the star (of creation) does not lead the Magi directly to Christ. There is an intermediate stop in Jerusalem in the Israelite church where Scripture is opened; and only then is focus finally given to the star’s light and so direction to the Magi’s search. The star brings us to Jerusalem; only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem. Creation can bring us to the church; the church’s Bible bring us to Christ. To be sure, the star reappears, but, significantly, only after the Scriptures say “Bethlehem!” (2:4-9). God’s revelation in creation raises the questions and begins the quest; God’s revelation in Scripture gives a preliminary answer and directs the quest toward the goal. Finally, God’s revelation in Christ satisfies the quest. Creation’s revelation can bring human beings only halfway; scriptural revelations has the power to bring us home—to Christ. God in his goodness is the author of both revelations and uses both.[†]

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 59.

If the one who sins against us is “possessed,” then can we find compassion?

February 17, 2015

brunerLast Sunday, I preached a sermon on the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Nearly all modern translations rightly understand that, contrary to the traditional language of the King James, Jesus is referring not to evil in general, but to “the evil one,” the devil. The ESV follows the KJV but indicates in a footnote the alternate interpretation.

The expression in Greek (tō ponērō) appears in two other places in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first (Matthew 5:37), everyone agrees that it refers to the devil. In the second, just two verses later (Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”), all translations assume tō ponērō refers to an “evil person.”

In his commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner disagrees that Jesus is only talking about evil people, offering the following insight:

I hear in the words “the evil one” [in Matthew 5:39] both (1) the human evil one and (2) the spiritual Evil One, in that order; both the possessed and the possessor, the enemy person and the enemy power. The significance of the double meaning is this: the evil ones whom we encounter in daily life are “possessed” by the Evil One; so, while we are rightly agitated by their wrong, have a heart—they are not entirely “themselves.” There is an Evil One behind every evil. In interpersonal relations we rightly “get even with” the devil by not trying to get even with evil people—that is the greatest paradox of our Command.

After citing Church Father Chrysostom, who also endorses his interpretation, Bruner writes:

While the Evil One works in the evil one, “possesses,” as we say, nevertheless the possession does not absolve the possessed of responsibility. But the possession does reconfigure one’s perception of the other person (and of oneself!). For our profoundest war, as the apostle reminds us, is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and so ultimately against the cosmic Evil One himself.[†]

So when someone sins against you, can it rightly be said that that person is under the influence of the Evil One (“possessed” seems a bit strong)? If so, then we have to also accept that when we sin against someone, we are under Satan’s influence. Paul himself hints at this when he describes the plight of unredeemed human nature in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Again, as Bruner says, this doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our sins, but reminding ourselves of Satan’s influence over us helps us summon the pity or compassion that we need to forgive others (and ourselves).

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 250.

Follow-up on last Sunday’s sermon… more on “forgive us our debts”

February 13, 2015

Last Sunday, in my series on the Lord’s Prayer, I preached about the petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that makes reference to something that we’re supposed to do—forgive the debts (or sins) of others. And this has caused distress among some interpreters over the centuries.

Is God’s grace conditional? Does God’s forgiveness of us depend on our forgiveness of others? If we don’t or can’t forgive someone, are we therefore unforgiven—excluded from God’s kingdom, bound for hell?

I hope not! 

These are important questions, made even sharper by Jesus’ postscript to the prayer, in verses 14-15:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I confess that I am extremely Reformed in my outlook on these words: In my mind, Jesus can’t be saying that we have to forgive first in order to be forgiven. For one thing, that would make forgiveness a kind of meritorious work, a contribution that we make to our salvation, which cuts against the grain of so much else in the New Testament (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather, our forgiveness of others is a response to God’s prior forgiveness (or justification) of us.

As Bruner writes in his commentary, Jesus already assumes that within the lives of his disciples—the ones to whom he’s addressing these words—a “prior massive forgiveness” has already taken place, as seen in their answering his call to discipleship and being baptized. This prior forgiveness “precedes and makes possible disciples’ praying the Lord’s Prayer at all.”

We would not even be able to address God as Father if we had not first been given the Father through Jesus and then authorized to ask the Father for the several gifts of this prayer. Only the Father’s forgiveness mediated here through his Son makes it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer at all.[†]

He then quotes Augustine: “For what will He not give to His sons when they ask of Him, who has given them that first that they should be sons?”

Nevertheless, as in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), if we have an unforgiving spirit, such that we’re chronically unable or unwilling to forgive others, then it proves that we haven’t understood the enormity of our own sin, and God’s costly forgiveness of it. In which case, our inability or unwillingness to forgive may be a symptom of the fact that we remain unregenerate, that we still need to receive God’s justifying grace.

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 310-11.

What does “as it is in heaven” mean?

January 28, 2015

brunerWhile I didn’t have the opportunity to work it into last Sunday’s sermon, the following insight of Frederick Dale Bruner about the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” was helpful to me:

The expression “as in the heavens” teaches us that God has some kind of lively enterprise going on with angels and spirits and that the earth is not all there is to history (cf. 2 Kings 6). There is some kind of exciting invisible world at work in perfect obedience to God, where God’s name, kingdom, and will are treated with the respect they deserve. Moreover, this phrase asks us to believe that something like heavenly worship and obedience can also touch earth—the bold “as” permits us to think so. We are not to inquire too curiously about the nature of the heavenly activities; we are simply to pray that the name, kingdom, and will of the Father shall come to rights here on earth.

Do you believe in this “lively enterprise” of an angelic realm as he describes here? I do (although I confess to my shame a time in my life when I didn’t)! And I believe in the flip side of this realm—one in which angelic beings who, like human beings, rebelled against God are exerting a destructive influence in our world. (I don’t see how it’s possible to believe in one and not the other.)

In my sermon on Sunday, I dealt briefly with the age-old question, “Why does an all-good God allow evil and suffering?” In the interview I cited in my sermon, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to grant that God’s desire for human beings to have free will answers the question of human-made evil (which, indeed, accounts for most suffering in the world). But what about so-called “natural evil”—like natural disasters, pestilence, and disease—which seems to have little to do with human freedom?

I say “little” because in a world free of sin, in which human beings are living in perfect harmony with God, with others, and with their own bodies, who knows how differently we could respond to these threats, granting that, in a pre-fallen world, they existed at all. Remember that humanity in the Garden of Evil wasn’t inherently immortal—at least according to most scholars. There was, rather, a tree of life of which they could avail themselves to enable them to live. Could it heal them of disease and injury? It seems likely.

(In saying this, I’m not insisting that we treat the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 strictly literally. But even if you say the tree of life is figurative, it still has a literal, concrete meaning in the physical world with which we must contend, right?)

All that to say, given that spiritual warfare is our gravest threat in the world, I believe that the demonic realm can and does play an important and underappreciated (as in, hardly appreciated at all) role in creating or fostering natural evil. Even when Christian apologists tackle the question, I’ve rarely seen them resort to the devil as one explanation for evil. But why not? If we believe in Satan, evil, both human and natural, makes so much more sense!

Michael Green, in his magisterial book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, makes this point emphatically.

I believe the Christian doctrines of God of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilization history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1