The Jerusalem Council: More Law, Random Rules, or Something Else?

acts of JesusOne of the key interpretive puzzles in the book of Acts comes towards the end of chapter 15 with the famous decision of the Jerusalem Council on the inclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus’ commission to the disciples to be his witnesses to the gospel in the power of the Spirit in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), meant that eventually some Gentiles were going to hear the gospel. And, as we might expect given the power of God, many responded positively in faith and confessed Christ as Lord. This raised a number of questions: on what basis are they to be admitted into God’s people? Is the Mosaic law still binding on them? Must they become Jews (get circumcised, eat kosher, keep Torah), in order to be justified?

Resolving these questions takes up a great deal of the narrative of Acts. Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10-11, makes it clear that certain food laws don’t apply. As a part of the new stage of history brought on by Jesus’ life death, resurrection, and ascension, God seems to have abrogated or set aside key food laws and has cleansed the Gentiles like Cornelius who confess faith in Christ through the forgiveness of sins and by faith.

That’s not the end of the story, though. In Acts 15 we read that some Jews from Judea had come down to Antioch and began stirring up trouble in Paul’s church by teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (v. 1). Obviously, Paul wasn’t having it, so they had it until they all decided to go up to Jerusalem to have the council of apostles and elders sort out the issue for them. In council, in the face of opposition, Peter stands up, gives a solid defense of justification by faith, not Torah-keeping (vv. 7-11), and eventually the council basically sides in his and Paul’s favor. The Gentiles are saved by grace as well as the Jews and so they shouldn’t be “troubled” by being made to keep the Law in detail, certainly not by being circumcised.

All the same, there is a caveat. James says:

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write them to abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (vv. 19-20)

Okay. So no need for circumcision—the covenant isn’t restricted to Jews or strict Torah-keepers—but it still seems like some of the restrictions of the Law are in play. Now this doesn’t seem like this fits into the classic categories that Protestants typically use to think about the way the Old Testament Law does and doesn’t still apply to New Testament believers (moral, ceremonial, and civil). There seems to be a couple that are moral (sexual immorality, things polluted by idols) and a couple that are clearly ceremonial (strangled food and blood). And why those moral categories? Why is sexual immorality mentioned and not stealing or murder or something?

What gives?

Three Options

Alan J. Thompson, in his work The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, notes that there are a number of options put forward by scholars (pp. 184-187).

Some think that these restrictions are a sign of the Law’s continuing binding authority drawn from Leviticus 17-18 that govern the behavior of Gentile sojourners in Israel. But that wouldn’t cover the strangled animal issue and there are a bunch of laws elsewhere covering sojourners.

Others have suggested that requirements are kind of on the spot laws picked because they were particularly offensive to Jews. So, this isn’t a requirement of the Law, but more like pragmatic commands just to suit that time and those groups. So, salvation by grace, but don’t offend your Jewish neighbors. The problem with that, though, is that it “overlooks the general applicability of these requirements to all the Gentiles in 15:19 and 21:25” (185).  And the language used about them refers, not to preferences, but binding “decisions” made by the council.

The final view that Thompson notes and opts for is Ben Witherington’s which is that, essentially, these form a restriction on idol practice. Witherington observes that all four of the practices were all associated with pagan temple practices at the time. He notes that the language used of “Gentiles turning to God” in Acts 15:19 is similar to that of 1 Thessalonians 1, where Paul talks about turning from idols to God. Also, there’s a very strong link between food practice and idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8-10, especially where Paul says to “flee from idolatry” (10:4). Beyond that, this fits with the polemic against idolatry in Acts, Paul’s preaching, and early Christianity.

Thompson summarizes the twofold thrust of the council’s decision this way, then:

The Jerusalem Council therefore clarifies two issues involved in how Gentiles may be saved: (1) Gentiles do not have to become Jews; salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is by grace alone through faith in the Lord Jesus alone. (2) However, Gentiles cannot remain pagan idolaters either; they must turn from their pagan idolatrous past. (p. 187)

This option makes sense out of the general applicability of the commands, the fact that they’re not to be seen as just a pragmatic grouping of requests, and the fact that it shouldn’t be seen as a continuation of the OT covenant Law’s binding character on the Gentiles.

Moving Forward

What comes of this? Well, I’ve seen it argued that this text is a good example of the somewhat arbitrary approach to the OT law, or the moral commands of the New Testament. It’s then taken, in some cases, to be part of a case for seeing the New Testament’s commands about sexual immorality to be of the same category as the temporary and apparently pragmatic as the food laws. In which case, now that we’re in a different situation, we’re free to thoughtfully move past them as we have the food restrictions.

Of course, this is all too brief. Still, I think this way of viewing the Jerusalem council’s decision is quite helpful, though, in understanding the way that commands of both sorts—perennial moral commands grounded in the norms of creation and what seem to us to be temporary ceremonial ones—can be coherently grouped together under the broader, perennial concern about idolatry. And this is without falling into the view that we are still partially under the Old Covenant, or that there is no significant difference between the New Testament’s restrictions on sexual practice and food practice.

Insofar as eating food that’s been strangled or with blood in it is connected to idolatry, it is always wrong. On the flipside, given that there are a number of different lines of reasoning behind the prohibition against sexual immorality (porneia), just because it might not be connected to explicit idolatry as in Temple prostitution, that doesn’t mean it’s now okay. As we might expect, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

While there are a number of lessons we could draw here, once again are faced with the reality that we must be wary of constructing our moral and theological frameworks on the basis of single texts or narratives. We have the whole New Testament—narratives, epistles, and so forth—for a reason. While individual texts must be heard, studied, and paid attention to in their own right, this is a case where issues regarding the law, authority, sexuality, and so forth, must be judged in light of the broader canon given to us through the apostles and prophets. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Huckabee’s Heart-Change And Ours: Millennial Issues With Love, The Body, and Marriage

weddingA couple of weeks ago the SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell ruling that made gay marriage the law of the land and the universe was engulfed in a sea of rainbow-colored joy. Or anger. Or grief. Or ecstasy. Honestly, there were about as many reactions as there were colors in the dang rainbow. In any case, a swarm of articles on the subject have gone up, both by non-Christians and Christians of all persuasions. Articles full of arguments, historical narratives, questions, answers to questions, cartoons, and God knows what else.

And, honestly, I have tried to avoid them. Pretty much unsuccessfully, but there you have my vulnerable confession of how little I’ve wanted to have anything to do with the subject online. It’s a difficult enough issue to discuss in person, let alone online, especially when you want to be pastoral. What’s more, this is not a hobby-horse for me. In the last four years of ministry, I’ve explicitly taught on the subject twice, and only because the biblical text in question forced me to.

One of the most recent of these articles was by Tyler Huckabee–an Evangelical writer, blogger, and former editor of Relevant magazine–in which he wrote about his change of heart on same-sex marriage. It’s a personal narrative of sorts, with an articulation of his reasons thrown in, and a closing appeal at the end.

What I’d like to do in this piece is offer some incomplete analysis and commentary on his post.

Now, some of you might be asking, given that up until now I’ve kept my trap shut, why this? Why his piece? In a lot of ways, I think many millennials are resonating with this one in a particular way. It is representative of the reasoning and feelings of a many of the youngish, Evangelicals on the fence who might read the piece and say, “Ya, man, that’s kind of the deal for me too. Thanks for articulating it for me.” This is a niche that seems worth addressing. Also, we are in similar positions. Unlike guys like Gagnon and Brownson, or DeYoung and Vines, I haven’t written academic or a popular book on the subject. Neither has Huckabee. We’re both bloggers and ex-somethings. He’s the ex-editor of a major, Christian magazine and I’m a soon to be ex-college pastor of a not-so-major college group. Also, everybody says Huckabee is a sweet, reasonable guy, so I figure he’ll be a good conversation partner.

To start, you probably ought to read his article before this one, or what follows might not make sense.

Appreciation. First, there are a couple of things I appreciate about Huckabee’s article.

Obviously, he clearly thought about it slowly and maturely, and I can appreciate that writing it can’t have been easy given the church friends he’s had/has, or the way this might affect future publishing opportunities in the Evangelical world. It will certainly make other spheres of influence easier to navigate, particularly the much broader culture outside Evangelicalism, but there will certainly be some cost. Some might cynically say that the timing is suspicious, but I think that would be unfair. It’s clear he’s been chewing on it for a while.

The other thing I really appreciate is that he doesn’t just do the full “conversion to the light” narrative, and run to seeing traditional Christians holding a classic view of marriage as obviously bigoted, or motivated by some deep-seated animus. That’s something many who adopt an affirming stance only recently can’t seem to stop themselves from doing. And I hope, if Huckabee doesn’t change his mind back, that’s something that he’ll influence others to understand as well.

That said, I’ll try to give you what I take to be the heart of Huckabee’s argument, and offer up some assorted criticisms and questions in no particular order. To be clear, for me, the issue in this article is the affirmation of same-sex marriages or relationships as the church, not the State question, which is an interesting and important, but fundamentally distinct issue for another time.

The Main Argument. The heart of Huckabee’s argument, rooted in his reading of Genesis 2, is that the main aim of marriage is not procreation or the propagation of the human race–the relational God is more romantic than that—but rather to deal with the fact that it is not good for man to be alone. Of course, the procreative function is there, but for Huckabee, it is not primary, nor central, nor even necessary to the definition and reality of marriage as an institution or practice. No, Huckabee sees the issue of loneliness as the pressing one in Scripture, and our focus on procreation has misled us on this point. For this reason, we have unfortunately restricted those with same-sex attraction to the position of irredeemable loneliness solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. And Huckabee admits that he can’t do that anymore.

The rest of Huckabee’s arguments, or emotive stories about the way his textbook Bible college theology crumbled in the face of real people’s struggles, are aimed at shoring up that contention.

The first real comment worth making is that his entire argument for the acceptance of gay marriage is premised on the assumption that marriage and sex are the main or only viable relationships to deal with being “alone.” For Huckabee, close friendships, parental relationships, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, extended families, or even the community of God given to us in the church, are just not in view as part of God’s remedy for man being alone. And this is where I think Huckabee’s main argument shows some real inconsistency.

Huckabee rejects that the claim that the narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 gives us the normative standard for marriage as the man/woman pair. Adam and Eve’s obvious, bodily complementarity, highlighted linguistically in the Hebrew pairing “ish/ishah” in the outburst of Adam’s poetry “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman / because she was taken out of Man” after having Eve plucked from his side (2:23), nor the earlier command in Genesis 1 to be “fruitful and multiply”(1:26-28), nor even the later indications of Torah and Tanakh that marriage and procreative possibility are linked (levirate marriage, Mal.2:15, etc), are relevant. None of these things point Huckabee absolutely to the idea that marriage and the uniting of two to become one flesh is only about a man and a woman. It’s only and primarily about “being alone” and finding someone to fix that problem.

If that’s the case, then why restrict the solution to the problem of “being alone” to the specific relationship of marriage with its spiritual and physical union, just because that’s specifically what happens to occur in the text? In other words, if all these other features of the narrative don’t figure in determinatively as a normative part of the solution to Adam’s “being alone,” why should the sexual union part of it figure in either? Why not just see it as a story of God giving one sexually-non-determinate person another sexually-non-determinate person to be friends with?

I actually think that’s a valid question, in general. Even a traditional reader might affirm the importance of sexual differentiation (all those other feature I just listed) and still note that Adam and Eve together form the basis and beginning of human community in general, which provides a basis for all those other relationships that give humans whole, meaningful lives that don’t have to be spent “alone”, even outside heterosexual marriage.

It is here that Huckabee, like so many of us, has bought into the cultural (and dare I say, “Evangelical youth group”) myth that marriage and sex is the only possible completion of our human experiences of love and wholeness. Ernst Becker pointed out that in the modern period, with the loss of belief in God, we’ve idolized the sexual and romantic Other so that it has become nearly impossible to imagine a full, whole, or even joyful-though-costly life without one. And this conceit I find to be entirely untrue on the basis of Scripture, reason, and not to mention, experience.

While Huckabee worries that the procreative view insults or diminishes those couples experiencing barrenness—which I’d argue it doesn’t—I am quite sure his view ends up diminishing and deeming as lesser the experiences of millions of single, celibate men and women in the Church, both gay and the vast majority who are straight, throughout history down into the present. I refuse to believe the contemporary narrative which sees them as “cursed” by God simply because they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in this life, something they may even deeply desire. There’s more to be said here, but let’s pass to the next subject.

Scripture and the Meaning of the Body: One of the main themes that comes up is Huckabee’s handling of Scripture and the body. One of the bits that stood out most to me was his handling of the apostle Paul’s thought on the matter. Of course, that’s not a surprise. If you’re going to change your mind on sexuality and marriage, you’re going to have to reckon with Paul’s many statements on the issue.

Some of his responses are fairly common these days. He raised the often-mentioned and often-answered question of whether Paul “knew” about the kinds of gay relationships we’re talking about now, only to assert that we can’t know either way. I think Paul did, but even if he didn’t, it actually wouldn’t matter given the way Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is thoroughly rooted in his reading of Genesis 1-3. But, we can’t settle that out here.

This section was far more interesting to me:

Paul was a bit reserved about marriage to begin with: “To the unmarried and the widows,” he says in 1 Corinthians. “I say it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry.”

This is a rather dim view of sex, which isn’t all that surprising, considering Paul. He seemed hugely unbothered by anything that wasn’t strictly spiritual. I love him for this, but I can’t help but think he would scratch his head at a good deal of the fuss made about marriage in modern Christianity.

Having spent the last 9 months preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students, knee-deep in commentaries on the subject, I must admit I found the comment rather bizarre. What can Huckabee mean by Paul’s preoccupation with “strictly spiritual” matters? Surely not the idea that Paul didn’t care about both body and soul? That’s the point of the argument in 1 Corinthians 5-7. Read any commentary by Thiselton, Hays, or Wright. I mean, heck, in the chapter right before, Paul says to the Corinthians to honor God in your body (6:20). Why? Because resurrection means the body is for the Lord (6:13), to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19), which is why God bought it at a price (6:20). For Paul, you shouldn’t eat idol food because food can be a form of worship, and, indeed, even eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God (10:31). Everything is “strictly spiritual” for Paul.

This brings me to Huckabee’s criticism of Matt Anderson’s massive article on marriage, procreation, and same-sex marriage. As you might guess, central to Anderson’s point is that eros, the romantic love central to marriage, finds its fulfillment in procreation, as the child becomes an icon of the parents’ love. What I find interesting was that Huckabee criticized it as a “crude materialism” that reduces love to “flesh and function.”

That’s a rather odd criticism of Matt’s piece and there are a number of ways’ of responding to it. The one that’s relevant to us comes in view when we connect this criticism to his comments on Paul, as well as his earlier reading of Genesis 1 and 2. When we do this, Huckabee’s critique reveals a rather semi-Gnostic, anti-materialistic view of humanity as body and soul, flesh and spirit, and his failure to appreciate the way the Creator has written a moral and spiritual grammar into the body itself.

For those who chafe at that idea, remember, Christianity is something of a crassly materialistic faith to begin with. God makes dirt. Then he shapes and breathes life into a man out of the dirt. Then he makes a woman from the man. Then, God becomes a man born to a woman as a gendered Jew in the 1st Century. That’s all very materialistic. Again, our two sacraments involve or are analogues of the processes of flesh and function–dunking the body into the waters of death and resurrection, and consuming the broken body and shed blood of the covenant. It should come as no surprise, then, that marriage is an irreducibly physical reality where two become “one flesh” as a biologically and spiritually complementary pair. Here the physicality and the spirituality are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual meaning depends on the physical and vice versa.

In fact, it is precisely this meaning that is at the heart of one of other Pauline texts that Huckabee doesn’t deal with:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)

As Paul reads Genesis 2, God takes uses the sign of marriage, specifically in its binary, male and female, complementary-flesh-uniting character to point to Jesus’ own love and union with his Bride. And here’s where we come to one of my points: even leaving procreation aside—which I don’t think you should for very long—you can’t alter the pair of man and woman in marriage without altering the grammar, the syntax, the meaning of marriage and it’s God-ordained purpose of pointing to Christ’s saving love for his Church through the “crudely materialistic” processes of “flesh and function.” Childbearing or not, marriage as a sign-post of the gospel is entirely dependent on the sexual grammar of male and female.

Incidentally, can we all agree that anybody with this depth-dimension to their view of physical union can’t have a “dim view” of sex? Instead, Paul gives us a complex view of sex with a double-movement. First, he de-idolizes our sexual desires and reminds us that they are not ultimate, nor devastating if unfulfilled. He is a contented celibate man, just as his single and celibate Lord Jesus was. He too has the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:40). Second, he points us to the unique, Christologically-charged meaning of the sexual act and the body that finds its expression in appreciating the glory of sexual difference in marriage. It is precisely such glorious tensions that I love him for.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin, and Loving the Loves of Others. We’ve all heard that phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Nobody actually has a problem with this saying when it comes to something like, say, racism. I mean, think about it. Love the racist, hate the racism, right? Otherwise, what are your options? Love the racist and his racism? Hate the racist and the racism? No. Love the racist and hate his racism seems about the only option, unless you want to go into some other sort of pattern like “love the racist, feel mutely about his racism”, or “love the racist, understand his racism non-judgmentally and be open to a conversation about these things”? Obviously not.

Huckabee says that in this particular case it’s very difficult because the “sin” is part of their identity in such a way that it is categorically different, raising all sorts of problems. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But, I would quickly point out that the gospel is fundamentally about gifting us new identities in Christ. I would say, rather, that in the case of same-sex desires, too often we have accepted the modern mode of identity-construction via sexual desire, which, to my reckoning, is an entirely unbiblical assumption.

Pressing on, Huckabee writes:

But I know that faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love. And a love that must hold people’s identity at bay is an imperfect love—a love that refuses their own loves. If someone were to say they loved me but saw my own marriage as an affront to God, I would say that that person does not then really love me. I could not abide that sort of love in my life. I just could not.

Huckabee says here that he could not abide the sort of love that refuses to love his loves, to affirm his marriage. But does that really make sense? I know he’s been married for a year, and so he’s thinking in relation to his own marriage, but what if we thought about children? I’m not a parent, but I work with students, and if there’s one reality that I’m acquainted with well about them, it’s that they quite frequently love the wrong thing, person, or persons. Or, they love them in the wrong way. In fact, that’s at the heart of one of our most classic definitions of sin and idolatry: disordered love. In other words, at the heart of sin lies the fact that we often love the wrong things, or we love good things wrongly, with the wrong intensity, aim, or way.

Thirty years ago, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Can love ever be sinful? The entire tradition of Christian doctrine teaches that there is such a thing as inverted, perverted love. Human beings are created for love, as creatures of the God who is Love. And yet that divine appointment is corrupted whenever people turn away from God or love other things more than God.

So, take the mother who loves her children above God. That’s an idolatrous love. That’s a wrong love. Or let’s switch back to romantic loves. Maybe the young man who loves his girlfriend possessively and obsessively. Or the woman who loves the husband of another woman as she ought to love her own. Or, take the case of the disordered love of incest. I don’t mean to say incest and same-sex attraction are the same, but simply to bring up a case we still mostly recognize as wrong in our culture. Brother and sister are supposed to love each other, even passionately. But the problem is that we all sense that it’s not supposed to be in that particular way. Even love that has an appropriate object can be wrong if it’s the wrong sort of love for that object.

Each of these cases is of a love—a real, honest love—we are actually called to, out of love, not love and affirm in its entirety. No, at the proper time and context, if we love the person, we cannot love their loves because they are, in some way, destructive. They are another manifestation of the way that all of our loves have gone wrong this side of Eden.  (Note, I say “in its entirety”, because a man can show tender, thoughtfulness to another man, just as the couple involved in adultery can, excepting the act of involving the other in sin, be quite loving to the other.) But here’s the thing: love can, love does, in fact, at times, love must question our loves.

The fundamental question is, “What has God said about our loves in Scripture?” Remember, this is the God of love who created us, who we rejected for the sake of other, lesser loves, and who yet pursued us in love to redeem and bring us back to himself while we were yet sinners at the cost of his Son’s life (Romans 5:8). We must trust that his love moves him to reveal to us the proper patterns and parameters of marital love. And this is true even when it doesn’t feel like it, as any parent who has ever said no to one of the many destructive loves of their children knows. How much more, then, ought we acknowledge that the Infinitely Wise Creator God knows and loves perfectly, even in a way that our finite and fallen minds may find difficult at times? It is here that our generation has yet to truly struggle with the counter-intuitive love of God.

Have I Considered That I Could Be Wrong? Huckabee closes his confession with a final appeal. He tells us that he knows he could be wrong on this issue. Christians disagree here as they have in other places, and he thinks that God won’t condemn either those who affirm a traditional position or a progressive one in the end. But the question he asks is this: 

However, I do urge you to consider: If you are wrong, what is the cost in the here and now? A life condemning others for something they can’t change about themselves? A life judging love?

That’s the wager. It’s not one I’m willing to make.

I have to admit, I’d hate to be wrong here for that reason, if that’s really the gamble. But is it? First, I’ve already dealt with the “judging love” objection above, and to be clear, the relevant question is not my judgment about love, but God’s. But is it really only the traditionalist like me who has a scary wager to make?

Huckabee quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9, earlier, but he doesn’t manage to connect the dots here:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…

Huckabee asks us to consider the consequences here and now. And those are real, though I think even there Huckabee fails to consider the consequences even here and now if he’s wrong. But still, what about then and there? Do we really want to play the “consider the stakes” game, then? Because the thing Huckabee’s argument doesn’t consider is that you might be telling someone to continue walking unrepentantly in one of the many sins that Scripture says constitutes a rejection of the grace of eternal life. What if God agrees with Paul, the apostle Jesus personally appointed by knocking him off his horse and calling him to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles?  Or the way the Church has been reading him for the last 2,000 years and not a minority of white, wealthy, post-Enlightenment Christians in North America and Europe at the beginning of the 21st Century? What if, right?

See, that is just not a wager I can make.

Wrapping It Up. To sum up, I haven’t actually made full-blown argument for natural or traditional marriage. Nor have I dealt with even half of Huckabee’s concerns, nor even my own. All the same, I think his piece reveals much about the problems we Millennials seem to have with issues concerning the meaning of the body, Scripture, and even the nature of God’s love. I pray that if you’re on the fence on these things—a position I can certainly understand—that this article and analysis help in some way.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those look for more resources, I’d recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book on the matter. Or, for a heavy academic work, Robert Gagnon’s. Or, if you want a more personal meditation, I’d highly recommend Wesley Hill’s thoughtful work. Finally, on the subject of sexual differentiation in marriage, Christopher Roberts’ book is fantastic.

Bavinck On Inequality: Culture or Sovereignty? Rousseau or Calvin?

Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)In 1913 Herman Bavinck penned a little essay “On Inequality”, in which he directed his attention to the subject of social inequality, especially the tragic sort. The study begins by examining the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the modern period, was the first person to really broach the question, and do so in such a way that his thought has reverberated throughout revolutions and societies ever since. After giving a sympathetic brief biography and exposition of his thought–especially his basic answer that the wicked development of human culture has corrupted natural human equity–in an arresting passage Bavinck unexpectedly turns his attention to set up a contrast between Rousseau and another intellectual titan of Geneva:

The name “citizen of Geneva,” as Rousseau liked to call himself after his second discourse, makes us think of another man who lived and worked in Geneva two centuries earlier: the powerful Reformed John Calvin. But what a tremendous contrast arises the moment these two names are mentioned together. Calvin, the classically formed humanist, a man distinguished in manners and appearance, with sharp mind and an iron will; over against Rousseau, the restless wanderer, who was often moody, whose thinking lacked logic, whose life was rudderless, who was a dreamer and a fanatic, and the first great romanticist of the eighteenth century! Both experienced a transformation in their lives, but with Calvin it consisted of turning away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and an embracing of the truth and the freedom of the gospel, which with Rousseau it was no more than a breaking with all culture and return to the instinctiveness of nature. Calvin had learned to see human nature as culpable and polluted in the light of Scripture, while Rousseau taught that nature, before it was contaminated by culture, was good and beautiful and without any corruption. Calvin sought the cause of all misery in sin, which was a personal act consisting of disobedience of God’s law. Rousseau blamed society and civilization, and he was moved to tears when he thought of his own goodness; no one had ever existed who was as good and compassionate as he! Calvin did not expect anything from nature but expected everything from God’s grace in Christ. In one word, Calvin cast man and all creatures in the dust before the overwhelming majesty of God. Rousseau, on the other hand, put man on the throne, himself first of all, at the expense of God’s holiness and justice.

–“On Inequality” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (pp. 155-156)

Clearly Bavinck had his preferences. But aside from the excuse to pen a bit of stunning prose, why bring up Calvin? Well, to set up a bit of a paradoxical contrast in their approaches to the issue of inequality.

Calvin, according to Bavinck, was also concerned with inequality, but contrary to the social leveler, Rousseau, it was religious inequality that bothered him most. Why do some respond to the gospel and others turn away in their sin and folly? Calvin, Luther, and others, after examining Scripture and all the other options, could ultimately only acknowledge God’s sovereign good pleasure.

Beyond establishing the certainty of faith, Bavinck says that this insight into the sovereignty of God as the deepest cause of all things gave Calvin foundation from which to build a theology of multiplicity, difference, and yes, even inequality. Nature, culture, and human choice do play their roles, but underlying them all is the sovereign good pleasure of God which sustains nature, culture, and even human choice.

Of course, Bavinck knows this isn’t an immediately palatable thought; only “a strong generation can accept” it. Still, Bavinck thinks it offers a number of blessings. First, it teaches peaceable acceptance, submission, and contentment in times of struggle and hardship. Rousseau stirred up rebellion and resentment in their hearts by blaming society and culture, which set people up for the disappointment that inequality still exists on the other side of the Revolution.

Second, Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty assures believers that no matter how opaque or inscrutable his purposes may be, they are where they are by the will of their loving Father, who cares for them and has provided a gracious salvation in Christ, not blind fate or pitiless nature. These are the comforts of the martyrs, the imprisoned, the simple suffering children of God, which Rousseau’s gospel could never offer.

At this point, Bavinck points up a third and initially surprising contrast between the two philosophies, or rather the two thinkers. Rousseau might have indeed complained, stirred the populace with his fiery writings, and turned people against their monarchs, but at the end of the day, he walked away from them. He ended up retreating to reclusion “without moving a finger to reform society.” Calvin, on the other hand? Well, he got down to business. While some might see predestination and sovereignty as cutting the nerve of social reform, it actually funded it:

If we steadfastly believe that the will of God is the cause of all things, then our reverence for that same will, which has been revealed in Scripture as the rule for our lives, must compel us to promote its dominion everywhere and as far as our influence reaches. If you believe, with Rousseau, that society is the cause of all evil, then you have pronounced its death sentence; you have given man the right to execute people, and you have legitimized the Revolution. But if you believe with Calvin that the will of God, his will of good pleasure, is the cause of all things, then that same will becomes his revealed will and the moving force and rule for our living. The words “Your will be done” encompass and provide not only the strength to acquiesce but also strength to act. (158)

A bit later he goes on to substantiate his point further by pointing out the substantial reforms initiated in Geneva and the admirable commonwealth to be found there. Indeed, in Bavinck’s opinion, Rousseau was proud to be a Genevan largely because of the ripple effect of the Reforms initiated by Calvin’s very different theology of culture, nature, and inequality.

Now, at this point, some of us may question Bavinck’s presentation of Rousseau. I suspect some of us–especially us Americans–might not understand his hostility to the Revolution, or understand the horror with which many Europeans regarded it. Still, it’s a remarkable essay and a paradoxical argument worth considering. A strong appreciation for the sovereignty of God can both keep us from the anxiety that causes us to revile the good gifts of God by identifying them with the source of evil (culture), comfort us in the midst of its difficulties, as well as the moral energy to work for its good.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

When Was the Last Time You Talked Baseball With Your Enemies?

baseballI’m not a communications expert, but it’s a subject I think about a lot. I preach (almost) every week, blog here, tweet, Facebook, meet with students, and do all the regular sorts of communicating most humans do (because I am a human too). One of the dimensions of communication I’ve wrestled with most is how to talk to people you don’t agree with, maybe dislike or even consider an ideological enemy. It’s also one of the things we Christians seem to be particularly bad at in our internet age. I don’t need to describe this in detail. We’ve all see one too many Facebook updates blow up into a rehash of the Schisms and the Crusades to doubt that this is a problem.

While there are a number of reasons this should not be so, one of the important is Jesus’ command to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those with whom we are opposed. If we can’t do that with people with whom we share the household of God, how are we supposed to do that with those outside of it?

So, how can we love, honor, and treat with Christian dignity those with whom we disagree? How can we love someone all the while contending for a truth that is of significant moral and personal interest when they are forcibly set against you?

Sometimes I wonder if we hear this standard and are struck with this overwhelming challenge to love in its most difficult, highest form, come to the summit of the mountain, and stop because it seems all too impossible. But what if there was a simpler first step? What if we could begin with something as simple as small talk?

For instance, when was the last time you chatted baseball with your atheist cousin? Or Christopher Nolan films with your friend who watches Fox News (or MSNBC)? Or how about favorite Mexican foods with that blogger who always seems to pick the wrong opinion on every theological issue?

Phatic v. Emphatic Speech

I’m not just throwing out a bit of silly advice here. I mean this seriously. I’m not a communications expert, but one of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Timothy Muehlhoff’s book I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love was the distinction between “phatic” and “emphatic” speech (pp. 45-46).

Muehlhoff draws on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who discovered the importance of “phatic” communication for healthy relationships. Most of the conversations we have about difficult issues are “emphatic.” But that’s not most of the conversations we have with friends and family. Phatic speech is all those small interactions talking about daily routines, shared interests–small talk, basically. Healthy relationships need a significant amount of conversations dealing with the weather, sports, the price of tires, favorite sandwiches and TV shows.

Think of it this way: every relationship we have has a sort of emotional temperature to it. If you only ever talk to someone in order to argue–engage in emphatic speech–the emotional temperature is always cranked up, so every conversation only gets more heated. Too many of those in a row and things are likely to blow. Phatic speech about shared interests, innocuous cultural items, and so forth, lowers the conversation temperature so that it is less like to reach that boiling point where you finally throw up your hands and say, “That’s it! I can’t talk to this person anymore!”

I have seen this in my own life. I have found myself in a number of conversations and even friendships with people on very different sides of the theological spectrum over the years. I’ve noticed that I always make more headway–or at least less damage–when it’s someone that I have managed to find common interests, jokes, and so forth. I’ve also noticed that when one of these relationships gets strained, I can usually look back at the last few weeks and realize that all of our interactions have been in the “emphatic” mode. In that sense, willingness to trade a joke or two on Twitter can go a long way in forwarding communication between opposed camps.

I think also of one discussion group that manages to be a decent space for discussion of difficult issues: Christ and Pop Culture’s Member’s Group. (For those who don’t know what that is, Christ and Pop Culture offers a paid membership and one of the many privileges is being part of a private Facebook group to chat about issues with writers and other members.) What’s funny about the group is that discussions range from Sufjan Stevens’ last album to the latest Evangelical cultural blow-up to RFRA and things manage to stay pretty loving. I mean, people disagree plenty, but there’s such an interesting mix of phatic and emphatic speech in the group that the conversational temperature says pretty healthy and constructive. That, and the fact that when things get heated, Alan Noble swoops in with a Kermit GIF to defuse the tension.

Remember They’re Human

Why is this sort of small talk so important? Well, on top of the emotional temperature, the mix of phatic and emphatic speech in our relationships reminds us of our shared, common humanity in concrete ways. It’s not just that your “enemy” is a Democrat, or a Fox News Watcher, or a Progressive, or a Calvinist, or whatever. They’re also the person who agrees that Batman is smart enough to beat Superman and both of you have kids who, for some reason, can’t manage to eat anything that’s not a peanut butter sandwich. This is not just the “marriage revisionist”, but someone else who was also suffering last Tuesday when the dry weather was killing your sinuses.

When you know this, it changes the character of the big, real issues that stand between you. It’s not that they go away or become any less important. It’s that it is harder to reduce the person to the issue on which you are ideologically divided. It’s harder to put them in an entire different category of humanity (or non-humanity), beyond the realm of possible persuasion and hope. This, I think, maybe a communication theory spin on remembering the basic theological realities of common grace and the Image of God. I’ve written about this before, but it’s one of the reasons Chesterton was so good at staying in healthy relationships with his foe/friends like Shaw–he knew they were more than their ideas.

So, do I think that talking baseball with my ideological opponents will heal all the wounds of the Church in an internet age? No. That sort of thing can only be accomplished by the Spirit of God, supernaturally working his Word into our souls. Still, it might be one small step towards following Paul’s admonition, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

Sometimes the attempt to live peacably includes chatting with your opponent about Opening Day.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: The Resurrection, Ethics, and Natural Law

Mere FidelityGiven that it’s the week after Easter, Alastair, Matt, and I decided to ask “What has the resurrection to do with how we think about ethics?” as well as the limits and possibilities of natural law reasoning. We consider (tangentially) this essay by James K.A. Smith, this fascinating story from Conor Friedersdorf, and this tome by Oliver O’Donovan. I think we cover a lot of important and relevant material here, so I hope you enjoy it.

Soli Deo Gloria

In this Case, Father Elfert Does Not Know Best. No, Fornication is Not a Great Idea.

So, on April Fool’s Day, there was an installment of Rev. Martin Elfert’s “Father Knows Best” column on Religion New Service that I originally hoped was a joke, but sadly was not. A young man (LC) wrote in confessing that he and his girlfriend had been engaging in premarital sex, but had recently confessed and decided to swear it off until marriage. Good for them. Now, the LC’s question is a typical, understandable. follow-up that just about any college or youth pastor has gotten before, “But does the other stuff (oral, manual, etc) count? Can I do that instead? Because, really, things are tough here.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten that question in the last 8 years.

What was Rev. Elfert’s answer? Well, at one point he very clearly and rightly says the other stuff is still sex. It’s in the technical names of the terms (manual sex, oral sex). Beyond that, the structure of the acts themselves as well as the results (orgasm, etc.), make it clear that these are species of sexual activity.

But that’s not the whole of his answer. This, actually, is his primary response:

My educated guess, LC, is that you are writing in the hopes that someone will give you and your girlfriend permission to have sex. If that guess is right then consider this column your official authorization to fornicate. Go forth with my blessing and hop into the bed or the back seat of the car of your choosing. I promise not to tell anyone.

He continues on:

The overwhelming majority of couples at whose marriages I officiate and/or for whom I perform premarital counseling are already sexually active and already living together. And for the life of me, LC, I can’t figure out why I need to be troubled about that. While I recognize that there was a time when the moral norm was to be — or at least was to be pretend to be — celibate up until your wedding day, I don’t find the arguments for preserving or restoring that norm persuasive.Indeed, I can think of at least two pretty solid reasons that being sexually active before a wedding is a good idea.

His two reasons? First, sex is important and you have to know you’re sexually compatible. You don’t want to live a life of sexual misery do you? Second, you can’t think straight when you’re horny, so you want to be sure your head is clear when you decide to get married. You don’t want to just get married so you can have sex.

Yes, apparently this man is ordained as a Christian pastor somewhere, in charge of caring for souls in the Church Christ bought at the cost of his own blood. Take a moment and grieve, if you need to.

Now, I’m not sure if LC will ever see this response, but I figured it would be worth my time to quickly respond to this little bit of silliness in hopes that he or someone else confused by Elfert’s piece might run across it.

Who Cares About Fornication? Jesus. Paul. Pretty much everybody in the Bible. 

First, why should Rev. Elfert be troubled enough about extra-marital or pre-marital sex to say something about it to the couples he’s counseling? Why should he not tell people to fornicate? Well, what does the Apostle Paul (guy inspired by God and personally knocked off his horse by the Resurrected Christ) say?

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:13-20 ESV)

Just to be clear, the term “sexual immorality” is the Greek term porneia.  Most New Testament lexicons and commentators will point out that the term includes a variety of practices including adultery, prostitution, unlawful sex, and certainly sex outside of marriage. Often it is translated “fornication.” So, the NRSV actually renders verse 18 “shun fornication!”

This kind of thing is apparently a big enough deal that Jesus himself condemns it (Mark 7:21) along with a laundry list of sins like theft, unclean thoughts, murder, etc. In fact, Jesus cites it as one of the only legitimate grounds for initiating a divorce (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). And Jesus really hates divorce.

So maybe, Rev. Elfert ought to be concerned because according to Jesus, fornication is a sin to be repented of, not to be encouraged. LC, your instinct to go to confession and then repent was the right one.

What’s the Problem? Sex is good. Sex is powerful. Sex works. 

So why is it a big deal? Not because God doesn’t like sex. Rev. Elfert had that much right. God created the original desires, instincts, bodily functions, nerve endings, and so forth that make sex pleasurable and a source of joy. He’s the one who say “Be fruitful and multiply”, knowing full well how that multiplication happens. But the reality is that he created sex to function within the context of marriage. This is what Paul is getting at in the passage above when he says,

“Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.'”

Quoting Genesis chapter 2, he notes that sexual intercourse is the process by which “two will become one flesh.” Jesus himself quotes this same text when teaching his disciples about the inadmissibility of divorce:

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:5-9)

This “one-flesh” the author of Genesis, Jesus, and Paul are talking about is the reality that sexual intercourse creates a bond between people at multiple levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. It’s a deeply beautiful act, that in the context of a marriage, functions as a promise: I love you, I accept you, I will be faithful to you, and I will share my life with you. In the context of the Bible, it’s a covenant renewal ceremony, that’s why Timothy Keller has called it “covenant glue.”

Another way of putting it is that it’s a powerful commitment apparatus. Having sex with someone bonds you to them in a way that going to the movies, having long conversations, or even spending months together does not. Nakedness does something to the relationship.

This is why Elfert’s second reason for having sex with someone before marriage is beyond counterproductive and verges into the downright idiotic. Having sex with someone does not clear your head about them; it bonds you to them. This is at the heart of why God is against fornication. He made sex, he made it good, and he made it powerful. It works and it works great in the context of marriage. But when you have sex outside of marriage, you’re promising yourself, bonding yourself, and committing yourself to someone you’re not actually committed to. Sex divorced from marriage becomes an exercising in lying to yourself and your partner. Even though you may rationally not be promising something, your body and your emotions, in a sense, believe deeper than your mind.

Can you see how sexual engagement in -order-to-figure-things-out is just complicating an already complicated decision? Sex doesn’t clear your head so you can make a thoughtful decision. It fogs it up. This, by the way, is part of why you see so many confused relationships that last way too long, or those breakups that are inexplicably devastating. You’ve bonded to the person in a significant way, despite what judgment your reason might have made about the person and now its hard to think straight about them or let go when you need to. Certain sociologists have compared the process of ending relationships in which there has been sexual intercourse with a mini-divorce. So, having sex, breaking up, having sex, breaking up, and so on, until you find the right person can be the psychological equivalent of experiencing multiple mini-divorces, leading to serious consequences for your emotional health.

This is not a matter of being “sex-positive” or “body-positive”, either. It’s about being “sex-realistic.” Believe me, I’m quite positive about sex and so is the Bible. Just go read Song of Solomon. But just because something is good and positive, that doesn’t mean we can’t be wise about how we use or engage it. Sex is good and it is powerful. This is why God put the guardrails around it that he did with marriage vows of life-long fidelity and exclusivity. He’s not a prude–he’s a good Father who doesn’t want us getting hurt.

What About Sexual Compatibility?

I’ll try to be quicker here, but a few points. First, you need to remember that marriage is about far more than just sex. This is difficult to fathom in a culture that idolizes the experience of sexual fulfillment.

Second, if you’re not sleeping with a number of people, what’s your reference point to compare your spouse to? One chap put it this way: “sexual compatibility” as the culture currently defines it, ends up meaning that your bag of tricks you picked up from your partners along the way, and their bag of tricks matches up. But if you have no bag (or a smaller bag) to start? I’ve talked to a number of people who regret this aspect of their life before their marriage, precisely because they wish they only knew and grew with their spouses.

Third, sexual practice, style, and so forth, is not some static, unchangeable thing, like plastic Lego pieces you’re trying put together  You have your whole life to find out how to serve, love, please, enjoy each other better in your sex life. Practice makes perfect. (Also, there are such things as sex therapists. Help can be had here.)

Grace

My final point is to remember there’s grace. LC, if you’re reading, I need you to know that as serious as sex outside of marriage (along with a whole bunch of other activities) is, God’s forgiveness is greater still. Sexual sin is not the one, unforgivable sin out there. As Paul says just a few verses earlier,

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

The message of the gospel is that Jesus came to us while we were still doing everything wrong, in order to die on the Cross, remove our guilt, our shame, reconcile us to God, and give us the power to live new lives by the Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Finally, this is a set of somewhat silly practical tips I give to my college students for keeping a lid on things with your girlfriend before marriage. Most people have found them helpful.

Also, check out Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage for some helpful insights into marriage, sex, dating, and so forth.

Two Murders, Two Cities, Two Loves

William_Blake's_Cain_and_AbelAccording to Augustine, it is common that earthly cities are founded by murderers. Fratricides to be exact (City of God, Bk. XV.5). In Scripture, we learn that the first city Cain who slew his brother Abel was the founder of the first earthly city. He was jealous of Abel’s favor before the Lord in offering a right sacrifice and so the sin crouching at his feet overwhelmed Cain as he overwhelmed his brother.

It’s no wonder, then, that he was followed in this “by a kind of reflection” in the founder of the archetypical “capital” of the earthly city of Rome. As the founding myth would have it, there were two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Disagreeing about which hill to build their future city on, they quarreled and Romulus slaughtered his brother, founded the city, and named it after himself. After that, Romulus built his armies, legions, and spread from there.

The two foundings, while similar, also reveal different conflicts at work. In the case of the second pair, Augustine thinks it is obvious what the root of the issue is: both Romulus and Remus were citizens of the City of Man whose aim is self-glory.

Both sought the glory of establishing the Roman state, but a joint foundation would not bring to each the glory that a single founder would enjoy. Anyone whose aim is to enjoy glory in the exercise of power would obviously enjoy less power if his sovereignty was diminished by a living partner. Therefore, in order that the sole power should be wielded by one person, the partner was eliminated; and what would have been kept smaller and better by innocence grew through crime into something bigger and worse.

As the lust for glory provokes Romulus to kill Remus, it would spill into further violence and bloodshed. The lust for dominance and glory is insatiable, and once it has found a crack in the wall, the dam inevitably bursts forth.

But what of Cain and Abel? There was a difference there, right? Cain was the founder of the first city and a representative of the City of Man, but Abel was a citizen of the “Eternal City” of God whose glory is the love of God. There was not “the same ambition for earthly gains”, and Cain was clearly not jealous of Abel’s power–he was a poor shepherd and their was no city to be founded yet. Instead, Augustine says that “Cain’s was the diabolical envy of that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil.”

Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself; while the conflict between Cain and Abel displayed the hostility between the two cities themselves, the City of God and the city of men. Thus the wicked fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked.

The city of man built on love of human glory and power is inherently destructive. It not only opposes the good, but eventually tears itself apart. Because human glory is a limited resource, those who desire it cannot share it. And, what’s more, they even hate those who do not seek it, because it seems to diminish their own pursuit of it. Try to opt out of the competition and it makes the prize at the end seem all the less desirable.

But what of the love of the city of God? What of the desire to possess goodness?

A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.

Love of good and the God who is the Good is an inherently social love. Those who have it naturally seek out fellow citizens who with whom to delight and rejoice together. And this is the joy of the Heavenly Jerusalem that descends from above. There the citizens of the City of God will have their eternal good and delight together in their unchanging possession of, or rather, possession by, the Infinite, Unlimited Subject of their affection.

 

Soli Deo Gloria