A Friendly Rejoinder to a Response to a Reply to a Defense of the Term “Savages”

Last week Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan wrote a piece defending Chris Kyle’s use of the term “savages” to name his opponents. I followed it up with a piece questioning some aspects of that defence. This week Andrew had a friendly response to my critique. If you haven’t already, please read these before going further as I won’t be recapping the arguments. Also, please note, if you comment in a way that indicates you have not read the articles, I’ll likely ignore you.

That out of the way, what I want to do is just give a quick, friendly follow-up to clarify my points in contrast and agreement with Walker.

First, I hope I did not give the impression that Christians ought not name evil in stark, appropriate terms. Indeed, I noted that I was grateful to Walker and Strachan for making that broader point. Naming actions as wicked, evil, idolatrous, violent, and so forth are necessary for proper Christian speech. So, just to be clear, I have no problem labeling the atrocities recently perpetrated by ISIS as wicked, grotesque, cruel, and utterly appalling. In that sense, I find a larger, broader agreement with Walker and Strachan in the principle of naming evil as evil.

What I was suggesting was a nuance on the point. I proposed that we ought to be sure we take into account the historical dimension of speech, paying attention, not only to the dictionary denotation of a term, but the socio-cultural connotations of a particular term like “savage.” Walker disputes that point:

Implied in his criticism of us is that naming something as evil or “savage” can or should be conditioned or governed by externalities that have nothing to do with the evil being perpetrated. On this, I simply disagree.

As Walker says, evil is no respecter of persons and our naming of evil should not be. Our naming of evil should be carried on without fear of social and cultural realities as long as we’re equal-opportunity offenders:

And I agree, fiercely, with a recent headline “When ISIS Ran the American South” from Rod Dreher, who linked to a story out of The New York Times that described the barbaric, savage practice of lynching in the American South. I’ll willingly be an equal opportunity offender: Those Americans who perpetrated lynchings acted as savages, driven by irrational motive and employing brutal tactics that were unspeakably awful (and what is incalculably terrible is that many who professed Christ were the evildoers. Maranatha!). I’m not concerned about the feelings of any American who felt they were somehow justified to commit barbaric acts against their fellow citizens because of their skin color. I want to confront that past evil, name it, and work to end future occurrences of it.

Where evil is practiced, let us call it evil, barbarous, and savagery—regardless of culture, race, or ethnicity. Let not the troubled conscience of past sins erode our ability to name evil for what it truly is. Let us be aware of the points of vulnerability, but let not that impede the opportunity to speak in morally stark terms that seeks to restrain the evildoer and rescue the innocent.

I appreciate Walker’s egalitarian approach to condemnation and discernment, as well as Dreher’s willingness to remind Americans of their own possibility of descending into “savagery.” Indeed, in my pastoral care, I repeatedly remind my students of those age-old gospel truths of the universality of judgment and, correspondingly, of the opportunities of grace.

Still, my point is that church leaders need to take care about those “points of vulnerability” in which our chosen terms of moral condemnation can carry a weight that gets away from us. Speech-act theorists have noted the way that the utterances we use (locutions) to say what we want to say (illocutions) can have an effect (perlocutionary force) that carries beyond what we intended. What happens when we invoke terms like “savage” are a good example of that.

When I wrote the initial article, some people were skeptical that race was or even could be a dimension in the use of terms like “savage” for Iraqi soldiers and so forth. In their minds, it was clearly linked to acts of particular political actors associated with particular ideologies and so the condemnation stops there. Let me, at this point, be even blunter than I was in my article. For a lot of people that’s simply not the case.

What do I mean? I know this is a bit anecdotal, but not four days ago, when a woman at a coffee shop found out I was a Palestinian and a Presbyterian, she asked me with great shock about my conversion from Islam. Because that’s obviously what happened. I’m an Arab, so I must have been a Muslim growing up. For her, me saying “Palestinian” just meant “Muslim.”  For many there is an utter lack of awareness of the longstanding history of Christianity in Palestine or the large percentage of Arab Christians in the region as well as the US. Despite what I said, her own preconceptions based on her culture, history, and so forth, determined the meaning of what I said. My illocution had an unintended, but predictable perlocutionary force. This why my dad has historically described himself as a “Christian Palestinian” to forestall the nearly inevitable misunderstanding.

Now, this is a fairly innocuous example. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes trolling through Twitter, Facebook groups, or even just local political commentary at the water-cooler, to see that for a number of Americans and Westerners, even some sitting in certain churches, there is an indiscernible mass of Muslim/Terrorist/Arab/Enemy/Violent-Degenerate. It is for that reason that I raise a caution about the way holding up possibly language about “savages” as morally exemplary can play into this sort of thing.

And this is where I do something that I don’t particularly enjoy doing because of how staunchly conservative I was raised. Returning to the point about being an “equal opportunity offender” on this score. One friend (not Walker) pointed out after my last article that my ethnic background seemed to be playing a role in my reasoning. I agreed. It does. My rejoinder was that so did his. When it comes to the language of “savages”, that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not the brown guy whose ancestry, religion, and culture have historically been the ones under suspicion in the majority culture.

I suppose that’s the sort of sensitivity I’m talking about. I’m not saying we ought to neglect moral language. I’m saying take care of the context in which you use it and choose your terms carefully. Precisely because we want to avoid becoming a “respecter of persons”, it pays to be respecters of context.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Living Through the Church’s Exile

There’s been a lot of chatter about the need to “counter-cultural” Christians in order to prepare for the coming exile of the Church in North America. We decided to take up that subject in this week’s Mere Fidelity. I have to say, this might be one of the most fun and important chats we’ve had in a while. I hope you’ll give it a listen:

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin’s Multi-faceted Atonement (TGC)

cross calvinIf there’s one thing anybody knows about Calvin’s doctrine of salvation it’s that he taught the doctrine of double-predestination. If people venture beyond that, according to the popular picture of 20th-century theology, Calvin is basically the creative chap who invented penal substitutionary atonement as a variation on Anselm’s theme, and most of his thought was concerned with Christ satisfying the wrath of God. End of story, right?

Contrary to this opinion, Calvin was not a one-trick pony when it came to the expansive work of Christ’s cross. Robert Peterson wrote an excellent book on Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement, attempting to exposit the great reformer’s thought in order to display the multi-faceted, biblical character of theology of salvation. In three early chapters, Peterson establishes a foundation that Christ’s work first of all rooted in the free love of God. He didn’t need to be persuaded to care for us, but of his own initiative, God sent the Son to save us. What’s more, it is a work grounded in a solidly soteriological and Chalcedonian doctrine of the incarnation of the Son; the Son became the Godman that he might save sinners. Then, he moves on to show the way that Christ’s atonement accomplished this in his role as the mediator who redeems us in each of his offices of prophet, king, and priest.

Beyond that, Peterson highlights six key biblical themes Calvin used to explain Christ’s work on the cross. While the six are clearly intertwined, nonetheless, they all do specific work in Calvin’s thought. Following Peterson’s framework, I’d like to introduce and highlight selected quotations from Calvin in order to show that he taught a densely woven tapestry bright with the many threads of our redemption.

You can read the rest here at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Careful About Being Too Careful of What You Read

questOne of the things I’ve learned over the last few years of reading theology is that caution and discernment ought to be exercised in our caution and discernment in our sources for theology.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me give you an example I ran across while reading Stephen Holmes’ excellent work The Quest for the Trinity. (I highly recommend this so far!) Tertullian was a church leader in Carthage in the North of Africa in the early part of 3rd Century and one of the greatest theologians in the West up until that point.  His writings are voluminous and he was a staunch apologist and defender of the faith against such heresies as those of Marcion, the Gnostics, and the anti-Trinitarians.

Ironically enough, later in life, embraced the teachings of Montanism–a “New Prophecy” that ended up being condemned by the Church as a heresy. It was during that time that Holmes says Tertullian penned an important text entitled Against Praxeas, which ended up becoming one of the most important texts for solidifying and shaping Latin Trinitarianism. While Holmes contends that Tertullian didn’t essentially add anything new to the doctrine of the Trinity, or work it out fully, he still refuted a number of dangerous heresies and he basically cleaned up the discussion and gave the Western church the language it needed to codify it and protect it (trinitas, person, substantia, etc).

This is all the while being technically a heretic in another area of doctrine.

What are we to make of this? Well, I think it serves as a caution that we ought to be careful about being too careful about who we read, or even who we think can teach us truth. There is a a healthy care that students of theology should take in who they select as their main sources of theological inspiration. For instance, if your major inspiration for theological development, or your only precedent for a particular position, are the rationalist Socinians in the 16th Century, that’s a good sign you’re probably on the wrong track.

Still, the Church Father Origen said some really weird things that were eventually rightly condemned by the Church. But his concept of eternal generation, in the right hands, was gold for theology, and his commentaries, defenses of the faith may still be read with intellectual and spiritual profit. God can and has used even those theologians and philosophers whose views have suffered serious deficiencies and flaws to strengthen the faith of the Church.

I’m a pastor, so I take care about the books I tend to recommend, especially with my students. If I suspect that it will lead unsuspecting students astray, I won’t recommend it. Or if it has a redeeming value beyond some issues, I will strongly caution about the aspects of a work that are could distract from its overall value. Yet pastors and other students of theology need to beware of cloistering ourselves in the comfortable halls of our own favored theological neighborhoods. I can admit in my own life, when I’ve found out that a certain author espouses a view on the atonement or God’s covenants I find defective, I’ve been tempted to simply steer clear altogether and not “waste my time.” But that would be a mistake.

We ought to be careful about dismissing the theological offerings of theologians who differ from our favored tradition in theology. As a Reformed Christian I can (and have!) read Wesleyans, or even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians with great profit, both in areas of overlap as well as areas of theology I strongly differ. Just because I disagree with them on justification or the nature of sanctification, that does not mean I can’t glean insights or have my own theological convictions sharpened and strengthened.

My brief point, then, is: be careful of what you’re careful of. Be a discerning reader. Know yourself well and have friends and mentors who can challenge you and keep you on the rails. But for the student of theology, hyper-active fear of reading the “wrong” material might be something to be something to guard against as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Justification in the Already-Not-Yet and the Costco Card of Works

 He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:6-11)

 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:4-5)

These texts and a few others like them (James 2:14-16, 2 Cor. 5:10) seem pretty problematic for the Protestant defender of justification by faith. Many of us who are raised hearing the message of justification in Christ being received as a gift of grace by faith alone–good news that I wholeheartedly affirm–often stumble when we run across these verses that seem to link our justification to our good works in some way.

Various options have been presented, with one of the most popular suggestions being that texts like Romans 2 are only talking about a hypothetical judgment on the basis of works that nobody attains. Sort of setting up works in order to knock it down with faith kind of thing. While this is a broad and complex subject, I wanted to just briefly outline and quote an alternative proposal by G.K. Beale and others that I’ve found quite helpful.

costcoJustification in the Already-Not-Yet and the Costo Card of Works

Pointing in a couple of directions, Beale, Richard Gaffin, and a few others talk about a two-stage or double-justification of the believer. Drawing on the already/not yet dimension of New Testament theology, they say there is a sense and dimension of our justification which is already fully accomplished. And yet, there are texts that point us to the idea that some part of our judgment and justification still awaits and that the Spirit-inspired works that we engage in through union with Christ will play a part of that.

Drawing on Jonathan Edwards, Beale talks about this as the difference ‘Initial’ justification and also of ‘manifestive’ justification. The first is received by union with Christ through faith in the final work of Christ in his life, penal death, and justifying resurrection. Christ’s work is the “basis”, the cause, the foundation for our justification and nothing else. That said, the next stage of ‘manifestive’ justification–demonstrating before the world that a believer truly has been united to Christ–is “in accordance with” our works, or lines up with the fact of our Spirit-wrought obedience.

If you’re confused, Beale has a helpful section and analogy spelling it out. And really, this example is the whole point of my post:

How can believers be said to “judged by works” and yet be justified by faith? There is much more to be said that can be elaborated on here about the believer’s righteous works in connection to this consummate, manifestive stage of justification, and the following is just the beginning of an answer to that question. An illustration must suffice for now to summarize my own view of this connection. In the United States there are large discount food stores that require people to pay an annual fee to have the privilege of buying food there. Once this fee is paid, the member must present a card as evidence of having paid the fee; only then is entrance to the store allowed. The card is necessary to get into the store, but it is not the ultimate reason that the person is granted access. The paid fee is the ultimate reason for the entrance, and the card is the evidence that the fee has been paid. We may refer to the fee paid as the necessary causal condition of entrance into the store and the evidence-testifying card as the necessary condition (but not the necessary causal condition). The card is the external manifestation or proof that the prior price was paid, so that both the money paid and the card are necessary for admittance, but they do not have the same conditional force for allowing entrance…

Likewise, Christ’s justifying penal death (together with his imputed obedient life through identification with his vindicating resurrection) is the price paid “once for all” (Heb. 9:12; cf. 26-28), and the good works done within the context of Christian faith become the inevitable evidence of such faith at the final judicial evaluation. –G.K. Beale, “Resurrection in the Already-And-Not-Yet Phases of Justification”, in For the Glory of God’s Name:Essays in Honor of John Pipereds. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor, pp. 204-25

In other words, Jesus pays the price connected with our initial and ultimate justification. Our Spirit-wrought works are the Costco card we will inevitably have in our hand as our manifestive justification, proving, or giving evidence that we have indeed accepted Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and have been united with him. Beale’s whole article is worth reading in the way he spells out the importance of the resurrection of the body and works for the public vindication of believers.

I think a reading like this actually makes quite good sense. It secures the essential, unique, fundamental work of Jesus Christ for us, outside of us that we gain access to only through trusting faith. It also makes sense of the sorts of texts in Romans 2 and in the Corinthian letters that speak of the necessity of works for our final justification, without resorting to writing them off as hypotheticals. By faith we are united to Christ, justified by our gracious God, and filled with the Holy Spirit who enables us to do works which manifest that faith.

For more on this, I suggest Beale’s big book on NT theology, or, shorter and more quickly at hand, Richard Gaffin has a helpful related article on justification by faith with works in Calvin over at Reformation21.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Mere Fidelity: The Skeleton’s in God’s Closet

A few months ago I review Joshua Ryan Butler’s new book The Skeletons in God’s Closet. You can read that here.

Well, we decided to have him on an episode of Mere Fidelity to have a chat. That episode is here.

And yes, for those of you who were wondering, this podcast is still a thing. We just needed a new sound editor.

Enjoy!

 

Calvin v. Sadoleto on Justification, Sanctification, and Union

CalvinCalvin’s theology of salvation is all about the double-gift of grace given to us in union with Christ. This is why he can so strongly insist that justification is by faith alone, not by works, and yet there is no danger of cutting the nerve of pursuing personal holiness. No matter what has been said in pop Reformed circles, there is no room for license or true antinomianism in Calvin’s thought. “Christ justifies no one he does not also sanctify.” Justification does not mean there is no room for works at all in the Christian life.

One Calvin’s most concise articulations of that understanding comes in his celebrated reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in September of 1539. The Cardinal had been trying to win back Geneva into the fold of the Roman Catholic church and wrote a letter arguing the Reformers, their theology, and their efforts. After an invitation to respond by some worried Genevans, Calvin replied while in exile in Strasbourg. At the center of his reply was his parry against Sadoleto’s charges at a Reformed understanding of justification:

You, in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. That doctrine, then, though of the highest moment, we maintain that you have nefariously effaced from the memory of men. Our books are filled with convincing proofs of this fact, and the gross ignorance of this doctrine, which even still continues in all your churches, declares that our complaint is by no means ill founded. But you very maliciously stir up prejudice against us, alleging that, by attributing every thing to faith, we leave no room for works.

I will not now enter upon a full discussion, which would require a large volume; but if you would look into the Catechism which I myself drew up for the Genevans, when I held the office of Pastor among them, three words would silence you. Here, however, I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject.

First, We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sift his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if  given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.

What have you here, Sadolet, to bite or carp at? Is it that we leave no room for works? Assuredly we do deny that, in justifying a man, they are worth one single straw. For Scripture everywhere cries aloud, that all are lost; and every mans’s own conscience bitterly accuses him. The same Scripture teaches, that no hope is left but in the mere goodness of God, by which sin is pardoned, and righteousness imputed to us. It declares both to be gratuitous, and finally concludes that a man is justified without works, (Rom. iv. 7.) But what notion, you ask, does the very term Righteousness suggest to us, if respect is not paid to good works? I answer, if you would attend to the true meaning of the term justifying in Scripture, you would have no difficulty. For it does not refer to a man’s own righteousness, but to the mercy of God, which, contrary to the sinner’s deserts, accepts of a righteousness for him, and that by not imputing his unrighteousness. Our righteousness, I say, is that which is described by Paul, (2 Cor. v. 19,) that God bath reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ. The mode is afterwards subjoined — by not imputing sin. He demonstrates that it is by faith only we become partakers of that blessing, when he says that the ministry of reconciliation is contained in the gospel. But faith, you say, is a general term, and has a larger signification. I answer, that Paul, whenever  he attributes to it the power of justifying, at the same time restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respect to works. Hence his familiar inference — if by faith, then not by works. On the other hand — if by works, then not by faith.

But, it seems, injury is done to Christ, if, under the pretence of his grace, good works are repudiated; he having come to prepare a people acceptable to God, zealous of good works, while, to the same effect, are many similar passages which prove that Christ came in order that we, doing good works, might, through him, be accepted by God. This calumny, which our opponents have ever in their mouths, viz., that we take away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness, is too frivolous to give us much concern. We deny that good works have any share in justification, but we claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous. For, if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ, and, at the same time, Christ never is where his Spirit in not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration. Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches, (1 Cor. i. 30,) has been given to us for justification and for sanctification. Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life. On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness is not in vigour, there neither is the Spirit of Christ nor Christ himself; and wherever Christ is not, there in no righteousness, nay, there is no faith; for faith cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.

Since, therefore, according to us, Christ regenerates to a blessed life those whom he justifies, and after rescuing them from the dominion of sin, hands them over to the dominion of righteousness, transforms them into the image of God, and so trains them by his Spirit into obedience to his will, there  is no ground to complain that, by our doctrine, lust is left with loosened reins. The passages which you adduce have not a meaning at variance with our doctrine. But if you will pervert them in assailing gratuitous justification, see how unskillfully you argue. Paul elsewhere says (Eph. i. 4) that we were chosen in Christ, before the creation of the world, to be holy and unblameable in the sight of God through love. Who will venture thence to infer, either that election is not gratuitous, or that our love is its cause? Nay, rather, as the end of gratuitous election, so also that of gratuitous justification is, that we may lead pure and unpolluted lives before God. For the saying of Paul is true, (1 Thess. iv. 7,) we have not been called to impurity, but to holiness. This, meanwhile, we constantly maintain, that man is not only justified freely once for all, without any merit of works, but that on this gratuitous justification the salvation of man perpetually depends. Nor is it possible that any work of man can he accepted by God unless it be gratuitously approved. Wherefore, I was amazed when I read your assertion, that love is the first and chief cause of our salvation. O, Sadolet, who could ever have expected such a saying from you? Undoubtedly the very blind, while in darkness, feel the mercy of God too surely to dare to claim for their love the first cause of their salvation, while those who have merely one spark of divine light feel that their salvation consists in nothing else than their being adopted by God. For eternal salvation is the inheritance of the heavenly Father, and has been prepared solely for his children. Moreover, who can assign any other cause of our adoption than that which is uniformly announced in Scripture, viz., that we did not first love him, but were spontaneously received by him into favor and affection?  –Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto

I think Calvin’s said enough for himself. But, just in case, you may also want to consult this summary by Robert Letham of what the doctrine of union with Christ does to secure and link firmly our justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Soli Deo Gloria