Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

love one anotherThe Bible’s a funny thing sometimes. It doesn’t always say what I expect it to. I mean, for instance, we all know that the Bible teaches us to love and not hate, right?

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:7-9)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” -(Matthew 5:43-44)

Texts like this could be multiplied a dozen times over. It’s pretty basic. God is love, so Christians love and don’t hate, right? Except for there are these other types  of verses I run across in the Bible (that could be multiplied) too:

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

 I hate them with complete hatred;

    I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)

Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)

Welp. I guess it’s not that simple now is it?

I mean, with Psalm 139 you could point out that they have to do with Old covenant expressions of loyalty to a covenant Lord. He ‘loves’ his Lord, therefore he ‘hates’ his opponents in the sense that he will  oppose them insofar as they oppose God. Also, this could be the kind of thing that Jesus overturns in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. That’s harder to do with Psalm 5 talking about God’s ‘hate’ for evil-doers, but you could write it off as hyperbole, or again, OT stuff. I’d be careful about that, but I can see the move being made with some plausibility.

But what about those next two? I mean, in Romans Paul explicitly tells us to let our love be sincere. Later in the very same passage he tells us to forgo vengeance and retaliation against our enemies, even quoting Jesus about ‘blessing those who curse you’ (12:14-21). So he clearly knows Jesus’ teaching. But here, in the same earlier verse, he tells us to ‘hate what is evil’ as a way of describing how we ought to love. Apparently the inspired witness to the Risen Christ saw no contradiction there.

And what about Jesus? Because you know that’s who is talking in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus is giving a message to the Church in Ephesus (the same church that is receiving the letter of 1 John, by the way), and the one thing that he commends them for is ‘hating’ the works of the Nicolaitan, “which I also hate.’ Evidently hating the right things was the only way they were properly imitating Jesus.

So what gives? Which is it? Love or hate? Because it’s not just Old Testament versus New Testament. The question is sharper. Is it Paul or Paul? Is Jesus wrong or is Jesus right?

Dead-End Distinctions?

The issue came up for me as I read an interchange of articles between Jonathan Parnell over at Desiring God and Micah Murray over at Redemption Pictures. Parnell made the argument that our love for sinners and enemies must, paradoxically must include a hate for sinners. It’s not so simple to separate out sinner from sin and so precisely because their sin contributes to their own destruction and self-damnation we must lovingly, in some sense, hate them. Murray then pointed to the clear testimony of God’s love and lovingness in Scripture and said that this is basically the kind of logic only a Calvinist who’d put system ahead of Jesus’ could embrace. The idea that love could include hate is such an obvious dead-end that should tip us off we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Now, initially I get Murray’s apprehension. Aside from the fact that he’s definitely not a Calvinist and predisposed to disagree with anything coming out of Desiring God, it’s initially an off-putting thought. For the most part, it seems like people don’t need to be taught to hate their enemies. That sort of comes naturally to sinners. Also, Parnell’s piece was rather a short, undeveloped article liable to confusion. Lord knows I’ve written a couple of those. I’m unsurprised there’s maybe some cross-talk going on. Still, both are good men trying to love Jesus, honor the Scriptures, and live the Christian life well. So what are we to think?

Given the biblical evidence I surveyed above, it seems worth analyzing the dispute at a few levels. One is how we understand the different senses of the term ‘hate’, how we understand God, and how we understand the nature of love itself.

‘Hate’ and Hate 

Jesus talkingOn the first point, it should be unproblematic to say that that the term ‘hate’ is used in different ways at different times for different situations. I mean, one of the most troubling texts in the Gospels has Jesus saying:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Most commentaries will point out that Jesus is using a hyperbolic idiom here that means something along the lines of “if you don’t love these things less than you do me.” It’s forceful, and shouldn’t be minimized, but Jesus isn’t straightforwardly commanding hate of our parents.

Still, much of the time when God’s hatred is mentioned in Scripture it is a much stronger understanding than merely “like less.” It is his strenuous, moral disapproval or opposition to. It is his righteous, judicial displeasure at evil, often involving his desire to remove the object of his displeasure. Louw-Nida describes the word for ‘hate’ that Jesus uses in Revelation, this way:

μισέω: to dislike strongly, with the implication of aversion and hostility—‘to hate, to detest.’ οἱ δὲ πολῖται αὐτοῦ ἐμίσουν αὐτόν ‘and his fellow countrymen hated him’ Lk 19:14. [1]

The implication is the whatever the Nicolaitans are teaching, it’s detestable and the only appropriate response is the same extreme displeasure that Jesus has with it. James Dunn notes that Paul similarly uses a very forceful word in Romans 12:9, implying a clear, forceful rejection of evil in our use of the gifts in the community.

While we need to be careful about taking sinful, human ideas and experiences of hate into things, it appears that the Bible gives a place for it. Even Jesus does. So, I guess an appeal to language doesn’t quite get us off the hook.

God and ‘God’ 

One other part of the problem is that we have trouble thinking about God having anything more than a strict, black or white, love or hate relationship with creation. We have trouble thinking of him in more than one role at a time. We are people with flat imaginations and so we try to come up with a flat God that suits us.

Thing is, the Scriptures give us a multi-dimensional God, with multi-dimensional relationships to the world and his creatures. I mean, we see this right we when open up the first few pages of the Bible. We find out right off the bat that God is a Creator, one who speaks all things into existence out of love and delight (Gen 1-2). We also learn in very short order that God is also a Judge, discerning right and wrong, condemning and cursing rebellion and sin, while at the same time proving to be a merciful Redeemer (Gen 3). Creator. Judge. Redeemer. Three dimensions to his relationship to his Image-bearers right there in three short chapters.

I hold to at least some form of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God isn’t something we can chop up in parts and say, “this is his love, and that part over there to the left is his holiness” or something. God’s love is holy; God’s righteousness is merciful; God’s power wise. Is it really that hard then to think describing the infinite God’s attitude towards us might require a more than one or two words, some of which might seem initially contradictory? As I noted the other day, God used more than one name to describe himself and we need all of them.

The other factor at work is that we must remember that God’s emotions are not strictly like our emotions. God is impassible, which means that his emotions are more appropriately thought of analogically as expressing his judgments about certain states of affairs, rather than adrenaline-laced flare-ups of the divine blood-stream.

Love and ‘Love’

Typically modern culture thinks of love in terms of total acceptance and affirmation. To love is to accept and affirm the beloved totally and without reservation. Following off of what we’ve seen above, the more we think about it, the more plausible it is that God’s love includes his intense displeasure towards some things in the world he loves. As I’ve noted before, Miroslav Volf  (not a Calvinist, btw) writes about the appropriateness of God’s wrath because of his love:

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pg. 139

Christina Cleveland made much the same point in talking about the rage of some in the black community over the recent injustices in Ferguson, MO: “the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.” It’s entirely appropriate to feel that same intense displeasure towards systemic racism that God does–to hate what God hates precisely because God is love.

Let’s push further, though, because the reality is that this injustice isn’t some abstraction floating off in the ether; it makes its dark home in our hearts.

God made us in his Image and so he does love us. And yet, there’s a point where it makes sense to say he hates what we’ve made of ourselves. It’s as if you knew a young man with scads of artistic potential, training, and a natural eye for beauty, who could reach the heights of a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and yet, because he took up with drugs, addiction followed and he’d be reduced to ravaged shell of his former self, barely able to scrawl out a stick figure. You still love him. You’d pity him as well. But there’s a very real, honest sense in which you could say that because you love him, you hate what he’s made of himself.

Or again, it’s like a master painter who works tirelessly on on a work of art, leaves it on a trip, and upon coming home he finds that it’s been smeared and torn up. He loves what he made, but he hates the smears and the tears that now form a part of it. Augustine says something similar here:

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

God loves us as his Image-bearers, and yet God is right to hate the way we’ve destroyed the Image. Think of it this way. Imagine God speaking to a young man in this fashion:

“You know little Johnny, that part of you that lies, is racist, and leads you to abuse women? You know what I’m talking about? Well, I want you to know it’s precious to me. I love it because I love you–all of you, just the way you are.”

Wouldn’t that be terrible? Does anybody imagine that a good, kind, gracious, just God would ever love the part of me that leads me to self-destruction? Can he? Can we? No. It’s precisely because he loves little Johnny that he is completely and bitterly opposed to that part of his character that is abusive to women, lies, and loves violence. He loves Johnny though he is racist, though he deplores the reality of his racism. Precisely because he’s good and loving he has to deplore that part of his current character. Most moral education presupposes this. I may love my little son, but I hate that he lies and will lovingly discipline that lying streak out of him if I can so that he doesn’t ruin his own life.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis (also not a Calvinist) says something similar in The Problem of Pain about what we know to be true in our own experience of guilt:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God – it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink. (pg. 51)

Or again, I love my wife soul and body and because of that, I would hate any cancer cells that were a part of her threatening to destroy her. In that sense I could say that I hate her body that was destroying her. But I only do so because I love her and her body. Actually, my wife has said that during the years when my body had been breaking down and was causing me a good deal of pain, stress, and was a continual burden, she hated my body as it currently was precisely because of her love for me.

Take Care

We need to take real care about these things and a blog post, even a long one, can’t treat the subject with the patience it deserves. A full discussion would need to address ideas like the jealousy of God as well as the very prominent theme of God’s particular love for his people Israel.

That said, language about hate and God are both dangerous when taken out of their proper biblical context. Whatever Paul means by ‘hate’, he is very clear in the passage that he doesn’t mean it to lead to retaliation or violence, but rather prayer and good in response to evil.  What’s more, I don’t really see much in the way of Scripture commanding Christians cultivating hate in their heart for persons. In fact, most of it, quite intuitively, runs the other way. The real danger of distortion and abuse means we need to tread lightly here.

At the same time, we need to take care that we don’t dispense with proper biblical teaching because of over-quick reactions to counter-intuitive truths. Some might be sniffing saying, “Really? This sounds like a roundabout defense of the despicable old ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ canard.” And you may be right to a degree. Separating sin from sinner is a difficult business. But are our other options much better? “Hate the sinner and the sin”, full stop? No, that’s not right. Or, even more foreign to biblical thought, “Love the sinner and love the sin?” You can hear Paul crying from heaven “May it never be!”

I suppose I’ll end where I started: the Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to, even when it comes to love. Then again, I’d be suspicious if it did. My love is so weak and so paltry at times. It’s really a tired, half-hearted thing if I’m honest. When I come to the love of God, the surprising, counter-intuitive love of Jesus displayed on the cross, the cross which exposes all my darknesses and shames, should I not expect to find some edges I’d never imagined?

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (762–763). New York: United Bible Societies.

Why Should Evangelicals Care About Gungor’s Doubts? How Should They Talk About Them? (CaPC)

gungor-622x414Earlier this year, Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine caused a bit of an uproar after he tweeted some questioning things concerning same-sex marriage. Now it appears that Gungor is the latest popular evangelical musician to be caught in the middle of a theological controversy, thanks to some interview comments and his project with The Liturgists, a group that includes people that evangelicals often find controversial (e.g., Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans).

World Magazine sounded the alarm:

The band’s new ideas are more clearly set forth in a blog post titled, “What do we Believe?” Here the author chafes that a close friend no longer considers him a Christian: “Why? Not because my life looks like Jesus or doesn’t look like Jesus. But because of my lack of ability to nail down all the words and concepts of what I exactly BELIEVE.” Then he nails down exactly what he doesn’t believe—in Adam and Eve or the Flood. He has “no more ability to believe in these things then I do to believe in Santa Claus.”

This theological ambivalence is on display on Gungor’s latest project—a collection of EPs released under the name The Liturgists. Working with Pastor Rob Bell—author of Love Wins—and various poets, Gungor creates ambient music to accompany spoken word poems on religious themes.

Predictably, the conservative Internet blew up. Tweets were tweeted, tears were shed, and sad/angry farewells were bid. Also, from the other side, mournful recriminations against the narrow-mindedness of the aforementioned were issued as well.

I suppose I should have seen it coming. Gungor’s been buddies with Bell and recommending his books for a while, and when I saw The Liturgists’ God Our Mother EP a while back, I thought “Well, that’s just asking for some sort of reaction.” Still, despite the lack of surprise I’m feeling, it seems appropriate to reflect on some of the institutional and pastoral realities that these incidents reveal.

You can go read them at Christ and Pop Culture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Stealth Calvinist Ninjas (Or, Throw Me a Bone Here)

The title of this blog is ‘Reformedish’, and while I’ve traveled deeper into the Reformed tradition since its inception, I’ve tried to remain something of a “friendly Calvinist”, as my buddy Morgan put it. I know that the Christian tradition is broad and extends widely beyond the Reformed world. What’s more, there are a great number of non-Reformed theologians–Wesleyans like Fred Sanders, Thomas Oden, and my own prof Donald Thorsen–whose work I profit from greatly and would commend to anyone.  In other words, I try not to be “unreasonably Calvinist” about things. I don’t think I’ve written a post in the two years I’ve been blogging picking on, or even arguing with Arminians. I’ve even been the guy pleading with my Reformed compatriots to extend grace, be humble, and so forth.

Calvinist ninjas trained by John Piper to come take over your church.

Calvinist ninjas trained by John Piper come take over your church.

I say all that to caveat my comments on Roger Olson’s recent foray out from scholarship (some of which I honestly have found very helpful, insightful, and even-handed) into conspiracy-theory: “Beware of Stealth Calvinism!” (Subtle title, I know.) In the post he outlines a scenario in which Calvinists are sneakily trying to take over and convert innocent Arminian churches under the guise of combating Open theism (the view that God does not have an exhaustive foreknowledge of the future). What apparently is happening is that Calvinist pastors are drafting belief statements that are putatively designed to rule out an open theist view of foreknowledge (or lack thereof), and in the process are sneaking in statements that actually rule out Arminianism as well:

Under the guise of attempting to exclude open theists the denomination has asked its member churches to affirm the following:

We believe God’s knowledge is exhaustive; that He fully knows the past, present, and future independent of human decisions and actions. The Father does everything in accordance with His perfect will, though His sovereignty neither eliminates nor minimizes our personal responsibility.

…my main objection is that no Arminian should sign such a statement and any church that adopts it is automatically affirming Calvinism—whether they know it or not. Only a Calvinist (or someone who believes in the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty) can say that God’s knowledge is independent of human decisions and actions. Even a Molinist cannot say that and mean it.

Now this, Olson takes it, can only be an act of incompetence, or is evidence of a nefarious intent to convert unsuspecting Arminians to Calvinism. He continues:

This appears to me to be another case, on a grander scale, of stealth Calvinism.
…This statement (above in italics) is probably being promoted as a guard against open theism, but it’s much, much more than that. If adopted by my church I would have to give up my membership—not because I’m an open theist (I’m not) but because whether intentionally or not it excludes classical Arminianism. It makes any church that adopts it automatically, de facto, Calvinist.

Arminians—beware! This tactic is continuing among evangelicals. Privileging Calvinism is already the case in many evangelical organizations that have always included both Calvinists and Arminians.

Olson’s a competent theologian, so I won’t argue with his contention that he’d have to give up his membership at the church should they adopt the statement. I suspect some theologians might dispute his judgment and say that an Arminian could affirm it, but I’ll let that alone for more qualified hands than my own.

What I want to point out in the middle of this is the bald-faced cynicism of the post. Here we don’t simply have a theological correction, dispute, or caution about inadvertent theological drift. No, here we have a warning about Calvinist tactics in general, about their alleged strategic maneuvering to crowd out and stamp out divergent thought by “stealthily” taking advantage of people’s ignorance.

I know I’m a lot younger, but if we’re dealing in anecdotes, I suppose part of the reason I find the whole thing silly is that three out of the four Christian colleges nearby me, including my own seminary, are explicitly non-Reformed, and the fourth is definitely blended. Fuller has, maybe a few Reformed theologians, certainly not of the militant sort. They’re not cranking out Calvinists ready to take over churches there. But maybe that’s just a Southern California thing.

In any case, like I said, I’ve been the guy who’s written the “Hey Reformed guys, stop being jerks so people will pay attention” post. I’ll be honest, I don’t regret writing it for a moment. I stand by it and would continue to issue a plea for helpful humility in conversation with our brothers and sisters in “other rooms of the house” as Lewis put it. What I will say is that posts like these give the lie to the idea that Calvinists are the only ones running around making accusations, imputing false motives and so forth, about their fellow believers. I don’t doubt there’s some churches here and there where something like this has happened. I mean, just about everything has happened in church before. But Olson is here taking about some widespread conspiracy to take over churches by subterfuge and deceit. Honestly, it’d be silly if it weren’t so shameful–especially for a scholar of his stature. At best it’s uncharitable, and at worst it’s cheap slander.

I’m reminded of a post by Todd Pruitt a while back writing on the ‘mean Calvinist’ trope:

But I don’t buy the hype. I suppose we could trade anecdotes. For example I could write posts about the fact that the meanest and most self-righteous people I have ever encountered are Arminians. But what would that accomplish? Honestly, some of these posts sound a bit like, “I thank you Lord that I am not like this mean Calvinist.” What is more, until prominent Arminian theologians stop publicly comparing “the god of Calvinism” with Satan, then the reports of mean Calvinists are going to ring a bit hollow.

(By the way, Olson’s one who keeps going on about the God of Calvinism as “the devil”, or a “moral monster.” For an alternative approach to arguing with Calvinists, see this essay by Fred Sanders.)

Where am I going with all of this? Well, I guess what I’m saying is, if you want Calvinists or Reformed types to cool it, be charitable, and so forth, maybe don’t give credence to, or traffic in this sort of thing. Calling for a unified line of attack on the other side usually doesn’t do much for the two linking arms for the sake of the gospel.

In other words, I’ll do my part, but throw me a bone here?

Soli Deo Gloria

“I Used To Believe X For Reason Y…” And the Failure of Intellectual Imagination

thinking homerWe seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others. One of the most glaring (and personally annoying) examples of this is on display in many modern “intellectual conversion” narratives. It could be about any issue really, whether politics, or religion, or broader ethical issues. It’s very common to find a thread along the lines of:

“I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful Reason Y.  Reason Y must be only reason to believe position X.”

While it’s the kind of argument you can find in just about any type of conversion article, I see it most often with stories about conversion on the issue of same-sex marriage in the church, or just in the culture at large. It’ll be an article by a post-Evangelical, or someone else, that goes something like:

You know, I used to be like the rest of my coreligionists. I used to hate gays, and was taught that they were worse than anthrax. I was very insecure about the issue because I felt that they threatened my whole way of being. If I admitted they were properly human, or whatever, then, my whole world would collapse. But that was because I’d never actually met one. Now I have and I realize that they’re kind, gentle, loving people. Also, I found out there are books with Christians who say that same-sex relationship are okay according to the Bible. I never heard any of these arguments, but now I have. So, I’ve changed my mind.

Now, I don’t bring this up to settle the issue of same-sex marriage here. (Honestly, if you try to argue about it in more than a tangential way in the comments, I’m simply going to ignore it or delete it. That’s not the point.) Nor am I saying there isn’t a case to be made along those lines. What I am saying is that the move that comes next is simply a failure of intellectual imagination. You see, what often follows is something like:

See, that’s where people are. This is the only place they can be. These are the only reasons that someone could hold the position that I used to hold.

Because they used to be hateful and insecure in their former intellectual position, everybody must be. Because their opinion was held on the basis of flawed, prejudiced reasoning, everybody’s must be. What never seems to occurs to them is that you could hold a moral opposition to same-sex marriage all the while having no lack of personal warmth, goodwill, and so forth towards gay people. Or, that you could read some of that same scholarship and simply disagree on other intellectual grounds. And yet that really is the case. It’s like a child who only used to believe the earth revolved round the sun because his mom told him it was spun about by great strings and wires, but upon discovering that there were no strings and wires, thereby came to believe there were no other reasons to believe such a notion.

Again, this happens in other areas too. There’s many an article on Calvinism or Arminianism that covers the same, familiar steps. “I used to be an Arminian because I thought Calvinists were mean and I’d never read Romans 9. But then I read Romans 9 and met a nice Calvinist.” Or, “I used to be a Calvinist, but then Roger Olson told me about free will and John 3:16. If only people would read John 3:16 and read Roger Olson, nobody would be a Calvinist.”  Of course, these are ridiculously simplified, but you get the point.

This, as I said, is a failure of the intellectual imagination, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and I’d love others to weigh in on), it’s one that seems increasingly common. I will say that I’m fairly sure it has something to do with the narcissism of human experience. The story we know best is our own and our human tendency is to shrink the world to fit our experiences. We take our personal stories, and instead of seeing them as one, particular, unique experience, we expand them out and unjustifiably universalize them. Did you have a bad time in a repressive, stale, and abusive Evangelical church? That must be all of Evangelicalism. Did your belief in God’s sovereignty collapse in the face of tragedy? Everybody’s must.

I suppose this is merely another angle on the problem with the absolutizing of personal experience that Alastair Roberts has brought up before, and serves to reinforce his argument that we maybe need to pump the brakes on how much we press the importance of personal narrative in theologizing. Still, I don’t want to entirely rule out the valid place that our own story has to play in the discovery of truth. My friend Preston had a very thoughtful post yesterday on the idea of midrash in exegesis. Ironically enough, though, it highlighted from a different angle the danger that occurs when we place an overemphasis on our own story as the locus of truth and meaning. By assuming everyone’s intellectual experience must be just like ours, we end up invalidating the intellectual and moral experiences of others that don’t fit our paradigm.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is another reason to prioritize Scripture in our theological reasoning. As Bavinck reminded us, personal confession and experience is inevitably part of our reflections. Still, by focusing our reasoning and reflection on Scripture, we are submitting our own experiences, logics, and so forth, to the only Story or Word, that has any claim to be comprehensive enough to include, correct, and make sense of them all–God’s own.

Well, once again I’ve rambled far longer than I intended. For what it’s worth, don’t be an intellectual narcissist. Before you go extrapolating your own former experiences, thought processes, and prejudices to those who hold positions you used to, stop, have an actual conversation with them. You might be surprised at the results.

Soli Deo Gloria

Dating Advice You Actually Need (TGC)

I’ve been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I’ve fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I’ve heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins’ get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they’ve resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.

Realizing that practical steps matter, most often they want tips or steps they can take to build their relationship in Christ. “Should we call each other and pray daily? What about a devotional? Should we buy a devotional and go through it together? Maybe have a weekly Bible study?” If the young man’s of a theological bent, he shows up with a potential 10-week preaching series already outlined. (Protip: this last one is definitely not a winning approach.)

At that point, one of the first things I usually tell them is that there’s really no “biblical theology” of dating tucked away the book of Relationships 4:5-20. There are some rather obvious tips like praying for each other in your daily devotions, encouraging each other to read the Scriptures, setting appropriate boundaries (emotional, spiritual, and so on), and pursuing sexual holiness. But aside from that, there’s no real, hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing.

Still, over the years I’ve come to see that there is one key mark of a maturing relationship centered and continually centering itself on Christ: both of you are absolutely committed to each other’s involvement in the local church.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Quick Thoughts on America, the 4th, and The Gospel

This was originally going to be a few quick thoughts on Facebook, but apparently that’s impossible for me. So, here are a four quickish thoughts on America, the 4th, patriotism, and so forth.

1. I love America. It’s my home and I know I’m blessed to live here for a number of reasons whether historical, political, economic, and so forth. The freedoms granted and the high ideals (however poorly executed at times) bound up with the American idea stirs the heart. I’ll admit, I pledge to the flag and still stand when I hear the national anthem. I don’t think loving Jesus, confessing him as Lord of all creation, means I have to hate or disavow my country, or refuse to celebrate it in any way shape, or form. In fact, to refuse to do so entirely may be a form of gross ingratitude towards God. Nor do I think it rules out being a good citizen, praying for my nation, voting, and so forth. In fact, it probably requires those things as part of my duty to love my neighbor through promoting the common good.

2. America is a gift from God, not God. Think that through. God is eternal, self-existent, holy, loving, righteous, pure, omnipotent, gracious and my sole hope, strength, savior, final end, and source of all good. America is not. It is a finite, created, thing and needs to be evaluated as such. It is a “power” that participates both in the common grace blessings of God as well as the fallenness common to both human and non-human reality this side of the 2nd Coming. Those who can’t see the good, glory, and blessing in America’s history and structure have an overly pronounced Nietzschian squint. Those who can’t see the sin, the shame, and darkness in it probably need to take off their Red, White, and Blue colored glasses.

leithart3. America is not “God’s New Israel”, nor is it in any sense analogous to the Church. Without delving too deeply in on the subject, I’ll just say that the only options for orthodox Christians looking to be faithful to God’s word is to see Israel as Israel, or, as I hold, the transnational, universal Church as the Jew + Gentile reality of the new Israel brought together in the body of the Messiah, the True Israel. I’m sorry, but the US figures nowhere in biblical eschatology. Any attempt to paint America’s redemptive-historical place in world history as anything more positive than a modern-day Persian Empire (think Cyrus), used like any other nation in God’s providential ordering of history, is false to the Bible and possibly an ecclesiological heresy Peter Leithart has termed “Americanism.” If this is something you’re tempted towards–especially on American Holy Days where we celebrate our creation myths, laud our national saints, and participate in American liturgical ceremonies–I’d recommend you pick up his book Between Babel and Beast and get to repenting, right quickish. While I don’t follow Leithart everywhere he goes, but it’s edifying and eye-opening read.

4. America is not who we worship at Church. I’ll admit, like a lot of other young Evangelicals, I’m a bit allergic to patriotic services. At an old church of mine, I had to walk out of one in an attempt to hold on to my breakfast because “America! America! All the America!” was the gist of the whole thing. I’ve also got a strong sense that having an American flag up on stage next to the Cross of Christ borders on sacrilege. Still, I’m not opposed to a prayer for the nation (which is biblical, cf. 1 Timothy 2:2), and maybe a song of gratitude or something. That said, if you’re a pastor planning on having a patriotic service, please slow down and consider at least 3 questions before you proceed on Sunday:

  1. Do your parishioners know the theological difference between the Kingdom and the Nation, and the proper ordering of their loyalties?
  2. Would Christians of other nations feel utterly bewildered and unwelcome in your service?
  3. Would people be tempted to conclude that God’s election of America as a nation is the greatest saving event in history, or the life, death, and resurrection of the Son is?

What, then, is the end of the matter? Go ahead and have fun tomorrow. Be grateful. Light off fireworks. Eat good food. But in the middle of the BBQs, parades, and fanfare, remember that God is God, Christ is Lord, and America is a finite, temporal gift to be grateful for, but never worshipped or set apart in the heart as a final end in itself.

In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:23)

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Transgender Question

Well, on this week’s Mere Fidelity cast, Alastair, Matt, and I continue our conversation through O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? by wading into the transgender issue that’s been on everyone’s mind of late.

Mere FidelityHere’s the big quote we read at the beginning:

The sex into which we have been born (assuming that it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as a gift of God. The task of psychological maturity–for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire–involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems.  Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations.  

Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial.  No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.  

Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits.  Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature–to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given. And that implies that we must make the necessary distinction between the good of the bodily form as such and the various problems that it poses to us personally in our individual experience.  This is a comment that applies not only to this very striking and unusually distressing problem, but to a whole range of other sexual problems too. 

Also, as usual, feel free to subscribe at iTunes, or leave a review or rating. Thanks!

Soli Deo Gloria

Naming the “New Calvinism” And What Counts As One?

Dr. Jones and Daniel Montgomery also authored this very helpful book on grace.

Dr. Jones and Daniel Montgomery also authored this very helpful book on grace.

Over the last few months there’s been an uptick in online conversation about what to call the movement associated with organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, readers of John Piper, and so forth. Actually, ironically enough, it’s mostly the critics who need a name–most people in the movement don’t really care. Still, some would call them New Calvinists, or Neo-Calvinists, or Neo-Puritans, or for those with sharper knives, even Neo-Fundamentalists. For my money, the best entry into the discussion comes via Dr. Timothy Paul Jones who argues for some sort of “Neo-Reformed” moniker.

After a lively historical intro, tracing why the other terms are all inadequate, Jones says we’d probably have to name it “Neo-Dortianism” since what we’re seeing is a the disembedding of the theology of salvation articulated at the Synod of Dordt (held in response to the Arminian Remonstrants), from its original Reformed home. Still, since that probably won’t get much traction, Neo-Reformed will do:

That said, it seems to me that the most accurate descriptor would be “Dortianism” or, if some prefix must be affixed to denote the distinct contours of the current movement, “neo-Dortianism” (see chart below for this taxonomy). Unfortunately, I don’t expect “Dortianism” to blossom into anyone’s preferred terminology anytime soon.* The events at Dort are too obscure and the term itself sounds too distasteful to end up emblazoned on anyone’s book cover. (Do you really think that Young, Restless, Dortian would have attracted anywhere near the number of readers that Young, Restless, Reformed did?) And so, of the options that are intelligible beyond a handful of theologians and church historians, “neo-Reformed”—though not without its difficulties—probably remains the least problematic nomenclature in an ever-multiplying pool of possibilities. And perhaps part of what the less-than-ideal “neo-” prefix could connote is the spread of Reformed soteriology not only within but also beyond the historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

This movement is best seen, though, as one minuscule current in a much broader stream that may be traced back into church history through an early seventeenth-century gathering of pastors in the Dutch city of Dort. Seeing the Reformed resurgence in this way turns our attention away from the latest parachurch conferences and star preachers and toward a far more vast and variegated history filled with events none of us could have planned and progenitors we would never have chosen. Recalling this crazy history in which the Remonstrants shaped the Reformed and “Calvinism” somehow leaped from caconym to compliment keeps us from slipping into smug self-satisfaction with passing illusions of success. It calls us to remember that we are nothing more than a few grains of sand in a majestic divine plan that’s far greater than any of us but that somehow by grace includes us. It calls us to bow in worship as we remember anew that we serve a God who is inscribing on everyone who rests in him—not only the Reformed but also the partly Reformed, the non-Reformed, the anti-Reformed, and a multi-hued multitude that’s never heard of the Reformation—the only name that ultimately matters: his own name and the name of his crucified Son (Revelation 22:4). “For what do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if everything you have was given to you, why brag as if it wasn’t a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

After that edifying ending, I’m sure you’ll want to read the whole thing here.

There is one question I have, though, and that’s “What counts as a Neo-Reformed type?”

I ask mostly because I’ve never really considered myself having come fully into the “neo-Reformed” or “New Calvinist” paradigm in the usual way. I mean, for me it was “Reformedish” by way Plantinga, Calvin, Vanhoozer, and some Keller, rather than Piper and so forth. (Nothing against Piper.) What I mean is that I was far more drawn in by Calvin’s view of the Supper, union with Christ, and so forth before providence, and only more recently have I been reconciling myself to more classic soteriology. Still, I write for TGC and have a twitter account, so I guess that makes me part of it?  Is it that I’m under 40, male, enjoyer of hoppy beverages, and bearded? (Conditions which all obtained before I considered myself Reformed, thank you every much.)

I guess I still don’t know exactly what makes you neo-Reformed as opposed to simply being new at being Reformed.

Feel free to read the article and then weigh in below!

Soli Deo Gloria

Death Without Hope in Japan’s Valley of the Dolls (Think Christian)

Japan-valley-of-dolls-150x101There’s a village in Japan where there are more dolls than people. Fritz Schumann’s short documentary Valley of Dolls, embedded below, tells the story.

Nagoro, a small town situated in the Shikoku valleys, once was prosperous and lively, thriving off of the local industry connected to the nearby dam. Hundreds dwelt there. When Ayano Tsukimi returned to her home village 11 years ago, though, she found it dwindling, as older residents had passed away and the young had moved out to the cities in search of work.

In order to fill time on her return, Tsukimi decided to make a life-size scarecrow based on her father. Now, 10 years later, she’s made more than 350 of these beautiful and haunting dolls to replace the people who have died or moved away. The figures fill the town.

You can read my reflections on this town over at Think Christian.

Soli Deo Gloria