The Importance of a Genitive in Your Practical Theology of Church

thiseltonWhile it’s easy to gloss over the introductions to Paul’s letters in everyday reading, virtually every commentator would say that’s a disastrous approach to reading Paul. The Apostle is very careful in making every phrase count, setting the theological stage for his later corrections and encouragement to whatever church he happens to be addressing. The intros and thanksgivings are like theological overtures dropping hints at themes to be developed at length in the broader symphony of Paul’s argument.

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthian church in this way:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Though there are many riches to be gleaned from this particular intro, the phrase that caught my eye in my study this week was this little genitive ekklesia tou theou; the first thing Paul calls the Corinthian gathering of believers is “the church of God.” Anthony Thiselton notes in his massive commentary that this phrase is ‘possessive’. Paul will say many other things about the believers in Corinth, but the first thing he tells them is this: you are God’s. Thiselton continues:

The church, Paul insists, belongs not to the wealthy, or to the “patrons,” or to some self-styled inner circle of “spiritual people who manifest gifts,” but to God. –The First Epistle to the Corinthians (pg. 73)

It pays to reflect on that reality. At the risk of exaggeration, I’d say that most of the current pathologies plaguing our current church practices, or at least the worst ones–consumerism, over-authoritarianism, individualism, pragmatism, etc–have their root in the fact that we have forgotten to observe this little genitive: “of God.”

How often do think of the Church as something other than the body which God purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28)? How often have we thought of our church primarily in terms of the fact that it’s the place we’ve grown up? Or the church ‘I’ve decided to attend’? Or, the ‘building I helped pay for’? Or in terms of its denominational affiliation? Or how many times have we asked “oh, whose church is that up the way” with its pastor in mind?

Or even more, pastors, how often have we let that attitude creep into our own thought? Have we slipped into the attitude of confusing our call to a congregation with our possession of a congregation? Do we tend forget that we are but ministers of the Gospel, not its authors? Are we constantly remembering that we are but construction managers under the great Architect and Lord of the house? That we are under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd and owner of the flock?

Whatever else we might say of the Church universal, or the local body that instantiates is, Paul reminds us that first and foremost we must recognize it as God’s. Any other description insofar as it is uttered apart from this confession is thereby transformed into falsehood. We are his inheritance, accomplishment, and achievement. He has called us, redeemed us, and sanctified us for himself. The Church’s existence is to, by, and for Him.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 Reasons the Resurrection Matters

resurrection jesusOne of the things I love about reading Bavinck is that he continually disabuses me of the notion that recent challenges to the faith are really all that new, or that the sound, biblical theology that forms an answer to it was only recently discovered by a few insightful, North American (or British) scholars in the 1990s or something. Instead, Christian theologians have been taking up the charge to defend the faith, and pass on the richness of the biblical vision for a long time.

I was reminded of this when reading through Bavinck’s lengthy treatment of the Resurrection. In it he discusses various alternative, modern hypotheses, that would turn the Resurrection appearances into mere, subjective visions, or even divinely appointed projections of the risen Christ. Or, again, more agnostic accounts that would say the physical resurrection is really of no theological import as long as we affirm Christ’s current Lordship in either case. Besides not being historically satisfying accounts, Bavinck says they’re also theologically disastrous being a rather gnostic, dualist approach to the gospel.  He then goes on to explain how the Resurrection presents us with thick, rich approach to salvation that is indispensable or Christian faith and quickly lists 8 reasons it is absolutely crucial to affirm:

Scripture, however, proceeds from a totally different view. It teaches that both heaven and earth, spirit and matter, have been created by God; that the body belongs to the essential being of humans and in its way exhibits the image of God; that death is a consequence of and punishment for sin. For Scripture, then, everything depends on the physical resurrection of Christ. The that is integral to the how: if Christ did not arise physically, then death, then sin, then he who had the power of death has not been defeated. In that case, actually, not Christ but Satan came out the victor. According to Scripture, therefore, the significance of the physical resurrection of Christ is inexhaustibly rich.

Briefly summarized, that resurrection is

(1) proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13–15; 5:31; 10:42; etc.);

(2) a seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3);

(3) a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son (Acts 2:23–24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; etc.);

(4) the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9; etc.);

(5) the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25);

(6) the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12);

(7) the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; etc.);

(8) the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff.).

I’m sure we could all think of more reasons. Indeed, Bavinck himself does in other sections as well as this one. Still, even this brief list demonstrates how inextricably the benefits and accomplishment of salvation, not only of individuals, but the whole cosmos is tied up with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This isn’t only about the coming back to life of one particularly good, holy man, but literally the redemption of the whole world. All of this only serves to confirm Paul’s affirmation that the totality of Christian faith rises or falls with the Resurrection of the Son:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19)

Which is why I thank God for Paul’s next pivot–it’s one of my favorites in all of Scripture:

 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (v. 20)

Take some time to meditate on the Jesus’ glorious resurrection today. Maybe work your way through Bavink’s 8 reasons. Stop to think about each for a minute or two, and just praise him for what he’s done. More than that, praise him for who he is: the Resurrected Lord of All Creation.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson (TGC Review)

age of atheistsPeter Watson. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 640 pp. $35.00.

After Plato’s allegory of the cave, Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman is probably the most famous in all of Western philosophy; indeed, the Madman’s declaration “God is dead and we have killed him” has probably penetrated its consciousness at a far deeper level. Nietzsche asked an intellectual culture still living off the borrowed values of a Christianity it no longer professed: “How do we live in a world that has lost its central conceptual, moral, existential focus? What do we make of meaning now that we know God doesn’t exist?”

Through two major works, Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that in the wake of Nietzsche the onslaught of scientism, rationalism, and secularism has thinned out the moral world we moderns inhabit. As a subtraction story secularism disenchants the world, emptying our sense of transcendence and pushing us into an “immanent frame” of living that’s inevitably hollow and existentially impoverished. Other secular thinkers such as Luc Ferry and Ronald Dworkin have, in their own ways, joined Taylor in this judgment.

In The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God Peter Watson hopes to change the narrative by pushing back on Taylor’s impoverishment thesis. In this massive and thoroughly entrancing work of intellectual and cultural history, the prolific London-based author aims to recount hitherto-untold drama of the multifarious and rather “thick” ways we’ve tried to “live without God” ever since we discovered his death about 120 years ago.

You can read the rest of my review of this fabulous book over here at The Gospel Coalition

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Cultural Presuppositions and the Practices that Embody Them

Mere FidelityIn this chat Matt, Alastair, and I discuss our common cultural presuppositions and the particular actions which might embed them. We begin with the issue of in-vitro fertilization, but we move on to other subjects.

This is the bit from O’Donovan that started us off:

“It may, of course, be wondered whether such subtleties are beyond the understanding of most couples who participate in the IVF programme, and whether such a practice can only have the effect of enforcing the widespread view of procreation as a project of the will.

It may even be thought that the cultural influence of the practice is likely to be so bad that IVF should be discouraged for that reason alone. To such a suggestion perhaps we are in no position to put up a strong resistance. After all, the experience with contraception makes it highly plausible.  It is possible that a wise society would understand IVF as a temptation; it is possible that a strong-willed society would resolve to put such a temptation aside.

But this takes us beyond the scope of our fairy-tale, in which no cultural consequences need be feared. These cultural questions are different from the question of whether there is something intrinsically disorded about IVF. And to that question we have not found reason (speaking simply, of course, of IVF as practised by fairy-godmothers in fairy-tales) to return a negative answer.”

40 Days That Make Sense of the New Testament

Jesus talkingMany know that after he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples to manifest his resurrected glory and commission them for ministry. What is often forgotten is that Luke tells us in Acts 1 that he spent 40 days with his disciples instructing them about the kingdom and preparing them. Because Luke only mentions this in the one verse, we often forget about this dimension of his earthly ministry. Herman Bavinck makes the case, though, that we forget these 40 days at great peril to our ability to make sense of the shape of much of New Testament teaching and preaching:

After he had suffered, he not only presented himself alive with many compelling proofs for forty days but also spoke to them of the things pertaining to his kingdom (Acts 1:3; 10:40–42; 13:31). All too often this instruction that Christ gave to his disciples between his resurrection and ascension is ignored, but it fully deserves our attention. Those who do not take account of it create a large chasm between what Jesus himself taught before his death and what was later preached by his apostles. These men, certainly, linked up with the instruction given by Jesus to his disciples specifically in that forty-day period. Jesus did not appear to his disciples in order from that point on to leave them to their own reflection and reasoning, but in those forty days impressed upon them much more clearly than he could do earlier the significance of his death and resurrection, of his person and work. For before his death and  resurrection, his disciples did not understand him. Over and over they misconstrued his intentions. They would only understand them afterward. But after Jesus died and rose again, appeared to them in another form, and spoke with them about the kingdom of God, they learned more in those forty days than in the three years they had daily associated with him. Only then did they for the first time understand the words he had spoken to them earlier.

Of the greatest significance were the things in which Jesus now further instructed them. They concerned—briefly to mention the most important—the necessity and significance of his suffering (Luke 24:26–27), the explanation of the prophecies of the Old Testament in light of their fulfillment (Luke 24:27; 44–46), the glory and power to which he was now being raised (Matt. 28:18). Additionally, his enduring presence in his church (Matt. 28:20), the equipment of his apostles for the office of their ministry (Mark 16:17–18; Luke 24:48; John 20:21–23), the restoration of Peter (John 21:15–17), the proclamation of the gospel to all peoples (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8), the nature of faith in his name (Mark 16:16; John 20:29), the benefits to be obtained by it (Mark 16:16; Luke 24:27). Finally, the meaning and administration of baptism (Matt. 28:19), the future of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7), the promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5), his own deity (John 20:28), and the full revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt. 28:19).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pg. 444

Though scholars like N.T. Wright have accounted for the apparent differences in emphasis between Jesus’ proclamation in the Gospels and that of the apostles (Kingdom –> Risen King),  when we begin to take seriously the account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection instruction, we can start to appreciate how much the apostles’ teaching was still rooted in the words of their Lord. It’s not that after his Resurrection, the apostles all of a sudden, under the inspiration of the Spirit, had a burst of theological creativity. Jesus himself revealed to them truths they could not see before, and clarified for them the reality of what he had been instructing them in all along. The disciples didn’t just have to sit back and remember “Now what did Jesus mean when he said…” when they were writing the Gospel. Many of the interpretations of Jesus’ ministry as the fulfillment of prophecy were probably taken from Jesus’ own lips as he spent time teaching them about the kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, but this offers me great encouragement to my faith in the authority of the rest of the New Testament witness. Even without bringing in the strong theology of inspiration I already have, the New Testament is not merely the disciples’ witness to the Risen Christ, but likely the Risen Christ’s own witness to himself.

And on that note, I think I’ll wrap this up and go crack open my Bible. Seems like the right application at this point.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

debateLast week Zondervan hosted a live-stream debate between some Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones) and some Non-Calvinists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). Now, while I was excited to watch, it just so happened that my internet was slow that day, so I only caught snippets and twitter commentary while it happened. Immediately afterwards I had a trip to get prepped on so I didn’t get to watch it until this week.

Still, because a few people in different theological wings have asked me to comment on the debate for some reason, I figured I’d give it a shot. I tried to keep this brief, failed, but even with its length, I’ve limited it to some focused observations and reflections on a few issues with the first section of the debate, because that’s all I really have time for. This is by no means exhaustive and I won’t even try to comment on all of the issues. Indeed, I’m sure many will find this utterly dissatisfying. If that’s you at the end of this, I have to say I entirely agree, which is probably why I won’t argue in the comments section under this. I’m far too busy this week in any case.

To begin, a word about the players.

The Players And Confirmation Bias

I’ll be honest, going into this, I already had some ideas about it. For one thing, I knew very little about Austin Fischer. I knew he wrote a book about no longer being Young, Restless, and Reformed, but not much else. I thought Kevin DeYoung had a pretty incisive review of it, but honestly, I haven’t had time to read it. As for Brian Zahnd, while I was blessed and challenged by his book on beauty (which I still highly recommend), I’ve criticized him heavily before on other issues. Based on his online writing, his rhetoric towards positions with which he disagrees, especially the Reformed, is honestly, kind of belligerent and prone to violent caricature. He’s a powerful preacher who’s got a way with words and a heart for Jesus, but I wasn’t expecting much of a fair shake there.

With Montgomery and Jones, I was predisposed to root for them. Not only do I find myself in their Reformedish camp in general, I’ve favorably reviewed their book PROOF, and have been impressed with them even in their handling of serious brotherly criticism. Though I’ve never met them, I consider them friends.

I go into all of this simply to make one point: I definitely had a side going in, and that affected the way I watched the debate. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case with anyone who was interested in the event, even if you didn’t know any of them. With the subject of Calvinism, like the subject of God, you’re never neutral about the arguments. One of the most perceptive comments on the whole thing came from Mike Cosper: “If you want to see some wonderful examples of confirmation bias, check out the hashtag.” A lot (most?) of us went in pumped to see Montgomery school Fischer, or Zahnd lay down his linguistic hammer on Jones.  We already knew the right answer, we just wanted to be publicly vindicated.

Debates

Which leads me to the format of debate. I’ll be honest, in my view public debates are pretty limited. Not enough space or time can be devoted to the various pertinent issues involved, so most of the time both sides come away thinking of the other side, “Is this the best you’ve got?” To which I’d respond, “No, of course it’s not.” I know for sure that’s not the best Montgomery and Jones have. I’ve read their book. What’s more, I’m sure it’s not the best that Zahnd or Fischer have. They hinted in the direction of some more serious arguments beyond the rhetorically-freighted, oneliners they were throwing out there. Indeed, Fischer actually did some serious, responsible, exegetical work in his response to Jones on Romans 9, which made me suspect there’s more where that came from.

Calvin and Calvinism

Next, I’m going to say something that may shock most non-Calvinists, and indeed, many Calvinists as well: Calvin did not invent ‘Calvinism’.

Whether you’re speaking solely of the doctrines concerning election and salvation as they were defended and codified at Dordt (which Calvin was already dead for), or the broader complex of thought with respect to covenant theology, ecclesiology, etc, referred to as the broader Reformed tradition, you have to know that it goes beyond him. There are many other stars in the Reformed sky such as Bucer, Vermigli, Ursinus, Knox, and a host of scholastics who delved into these issues at length. I love Calvin, but as Kenneth Stewart has demonstrated in his 10 Myths About Calvinism, his exposition of election is not the only standard or normative one for the confessionally Reformed. Indeed, most of these theologians could point back to a number of top medieval theologians including Thomas and Augustine as representatives, or precursors to their own expositions.

In other words, it’s okay to be Reformed and then think you may have to adjust your exposition of election according to Scripture with respect to double, or single predestination. Many have, even while remaining non-Remonstrant (Arminian), and so forth. So, trotting out a Calvin quote doesn’t mean that Montgomery isn’t really being a good Calvinist, even if he’s cutting things in a way that Calvin wouldn’t have agreed with. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s going to say Herman Bavinck isn’t a good Calvinist because he humbly pushes back on the fairly common claim that the decrees of election are definitely about the revelation of God’s glory.

As a side-note, speaking of “Calvin’s system” as “beginning with philosophical theism” is, to be blunt, a blatant absurdity to anyone who’s read the current secondary literature, and knows about Calvin’s humanistic and vocally anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of God. One of Calvin’s most common targets were the theologians of the Sorbonne who engage in abstractions instead of the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, unlike most modern systematics, the Institutes almost doesn’t have a doctrine of God philosophically considered, but instead treats the Trinity, and the nature of God as revealed in his works as Creator and Redeemer. To assert otherwise is only possible through ignorance of the subject, or in the face of the evidence.

Which brings me to the next point.

Jesus Rules and Philosophical Systems

Most Reformed are not intentionally twisting texts to get to a conclusion we’ve already decided on when it comes to the doctrines of grace. I certainly wasn’t. I still feel the weight of the arguments against it. I’ve said it before, but over the years I have only slowly inched closer to the Reformed side on this issue, quite reluctantly and usually through the side door of some alteration in my view of regeneration, providence, or something else that has a role to play here. Why? Because of a struggle to affirm all that Scripture affirms about God’s sovereignty, our choices, his decrees, our responsibility, his grace, and so forth.

See, despite ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’, most Calvinists don’t give ourselves the option of affirming an “internal conflict” within Scripture, as Zahnd talks about, and then using a very specific Jesus Hermenuetic to pick which parts of the Scriptures got it right. Because of the way we see Jesus approaching and affirming all of the Scriptures, we believe Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate affirmed and inspired the Scriptures as the Word of God written. All of it. So we’re trying to get it all in at once. I’ve made this point against Zahnd before, but if your so-called “Jesus-theology” causes you to shunt to the side texts that Jesus affirmed, or dismiss as ‘biblicistic’ efforts to incorporate all the texts to which Jesus constantly appealed, you might be doing it wrong. (Now, this isn’t to say that most Arminians do this, or even that Fischer would have done it, but still, coming back to my earlier point, this is the kind of important methodological dispute that a debate like this doesn’t give space to address.)

Plain Readings and Finding the Wright Escape Hatch

Easily the most commented on line of the night was Daniel Montgomery’s about a “plain reading” of Ephesians 1.  It was provoked by Zahnd’s earlier invitation to make sure we’re paying attention the “best” scholars, such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Karl Barth, and so forth when we make these theological judgments. Montgomery, in a response section, later said basically, “Yes, I understand we need to read Wright, Barth, and characters like that” but really, it’s hard to understand Ephesians 1 as speaking of anything else but unconditional election on a ‘plain reading’ of Paul, which is what we ought to get around to doing more often. To which Zahnd’s retort was, “Sure, it’s plain in your theologically-rigged ESV, with your horn-rimmed Calvinist lens, translation isn’t it?” At which point, I have to admit, I laughed. Touché, Zahnd.

Now, all of the twitter commentary about this was explosive and apoplectic. And to some degree I get it. Even though Zahnd kind of came in kind of waving his hands about “scholarship” and so forth, seemingly writing off scholarship like that and referring to Wright & Co. as a bunch of ‘characters’ rubs me the wrong way. Still, I suppose I heard it differently because, I mean, I’ve read their book. Of its 200 pages their were nearly 40 pages of endnotes showing their work in the Greek, the commentaries, and so forth (including a number of citations of Barth! in the German!). They did their exegetical and theological homework. Certainly Jones is no academic slouch. So maybe we should think Montgomery’s advocacy of a ‘plain reading’ isn’t quite what it initially sounded like. If it was, though, his practice is certainly a lot better than that.

Here’s the thing that struck me, though, with Zahnd’s earlier call for attending scholarship: Wright, McKnight, Hart, and Barth won’t necessarily save you from a Calvinist reading of Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 (or indeed, the rest of the Biblical witness to God’s sovereignty.) I mean, take myself. I’ve read D.B. Hart, and you know what? He’s mostly great, but I’ll be blunt and say he also seems to never know what he’s talking about when it comes to what Calvin or Reformed types actually say about things. When it comes to Barth, I’ll be upfront and say that I haven’t read his full doctrine of election in the Dogmatics. It’s several hundred page (600-700 at least), and it’s Barth so I haven’t had time. Indeed, I’d be surprised if Barth had the time. Still, I’ve read the Epistle to the Romans, as well as competent, sympathetic distillations of the Dogmatics, and so forth and, you know, I’m not convinced Paul is teaching us Christ is the only Elect or Reprobate one ruling out individual election. 

Beyond that, I’ve actually read McKnight on the warning passages in Hebrews, and pretty much everything what N.T. Wright has to say on the subject, including his big Paul book. I’m a huge Wright fan, in fact, and back when I was very hostile to Calvinism, I dug into Wright’s big Romans commentary, especially his stuff on Romans 9-11 hoping to find an escape hatch from election. I even dug into James Dunn’s commentaries, just about everything he’s written on the New Perspective, and waded through the readings like those offered by Walls and Dongell in Why I Am Not a Calvinist looking for a way out of my Reformed friend’s articulations.

Now, In the process I found a lot of good stuff. After that, I was much better able to set the passage in the broader framework of God’s purposes for Israel, Paul’s vindication of God’s name when it seemed that his promise to Israel had failed through their unbelief, and so forth. That said, none of these things rule out, or necessitate a non-predestinarian reading. In fact, I think they largely fit well with the older insights. And that’s a conviction I came to hold when I was fighting tooth and nail in my soul to write off more classically Reformed readings.

Finally, more positively I’ll just say there’s a lot of good, top scholarship out there that disagrees with Zahnd’s top scholarship on the issue. For every N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you’ve got a G.K. Beale, or a Michael Bird. For every Barth, you’ve got a Bavinck. For every D.B Hart, there’s a Kevin VanHoozer whose trinitarian theology in Remythologizing Theology just as philosophically-sophisticated, aesthetically-appealing, and, I think, more Biblical than Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (although there’s much overlap). So inviting us to consider the great, “the best” scholars of our day, and then ripping off the names of top scholars who you think agree with you doesn’t really get you places–Calvinists have plenty of names too.

Job, Lewis, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

Finally, one of the big issues of the night was the challenge by Fischer and Zahnd to explain why God would intentionally pass over, or create someone in order to be passed over for salvation. Now, leaving aside the problem that unless you’re a Universalist or an Open Theist still faces a similar situation, I was fascinated by the response on twitter, as well as by Fischer to the appeal to Job and mystery.

Faced with that challenge, Montgomery recalled what happened when Job challenged the justice of God’s judgments, or his wisdom in allowing Satan to torment him. What is God’s answer there? Well, read Job 38-42 and you’ll see it’s basically a long way of saying, “I’m the infinite God. You are a very finite, sinful human. You don’t have a scale for the difference between us. I was fine-tuning the galaxies, hanging up the Milky Way in the vast reaches of space, before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye. Why would you ever think yourself competent to understand my secret judgments?”

Ironically enough, Lewis makes a helpful point in this direction arguing for God’s rationality in the risk of gifting humans with free will:

Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

-Mere Christianity, The Shocking Alternative

To some this sounds like a cop-out and I can get that. Still, I do find it interesting that Reformed theology gets dinged for being a too rationalist system, with a cold logic that leaves no room for mystery, and yet, when the Reformed do argue from Scripture that God himself says we ought not to expect to understand the mystery of his judgments, they’re charged with obscurantist irrationality.

This is why I’ve almost come to see this as sort of theological-aesthetic judgment. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering election, or you don’t.

Now, to this, Fischer may reply “I still can’t see how anyone could argue it’s beautiful.” Sure. But most of us don’t initially see the Cross as beautiful, or wise either, until our hearts have been shaped and conformed to the paradoxical logic of the gospel. I’m not saying you have to buy election to see the beauty of the Cross. I am saying it’s not surprising that things which initially seem puzzling, weird, or terrifying to us, could eventually become beautiful to a mind submitted to the logic of Scripture.

Which is why I’d have to say I found Zahnd’s little line about rebelling against a Calvinist God a la Ivan Karamazov–returning God’s ticket, so to speak–so unhelpful. Back when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now, when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case, I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness, to call him a devil, and so forth, is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.” Best to articulate the God of Scripture as faithfully as I can and leave hypothetical moral stands against the Creator to those atheists who have the time to fantasize about such things. My heart is rebellious enough without such a morally tempting exercise, despite its rhetorical force. (For more on the same topic, I’d suggest Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders piece here.)

At this point I’ve said far too much and yet not much at all. I hope I’ve not been too persnickety. I really do understand the trouble people have with these issues. What’s more, I have a terribly high amount of respect for the many thoughtful Christians who see this another way. At the end of the day, though, let me just say this: our basic posture here must be humility–to God and before the Scriptures which he has inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify to the saving Son who reveals the love the Father has decided to lavish on his children since before the world began.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

Head in HandsChristians can be terrible. As a reader of the New Testament, this doesn’t surprise me. One of the major premises of the Christian faith is that humans are so flawed, so broken, so rebellious, and so unable to redeem themselves that the eternal Son had to incarnate himself, live, die, and rise again in order to fix them (Romans 1-8). I suppose what does shock me is that Christians are still surprised when other Christians are terrible.

For instance, every time some news report comes out about a pastoral failure, or a fiasco in Evangelical culture, or abuse in the Church, it’s common to see Christians of various stripes updating and bewailing said fiasco. While that’s fine, and probably necessary to some degree, the one attitude I find myself chafing at rather regularly is the “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian” anymore impulse.

It’s as if this person were introduced to Christianity by having them read bits of Acts, without reading Paul, the Gospels, or heck, even the rest of Acts. As if they were promised a Christianity with nice, cleaned up people, with perfectly cleaned up story arcs where all the sin is “back there” in the past, never to rear its ugly head, so that you don’t have the bear the ignominy of being associated with such foul stupidity and wickedness. Then when they meet real Christians–you know, the sinning kind–they suffer a sort of whiplash on contact.

Well, in order to prevent the kind of whiplash I’m talking about, I’d like to present an incomplete list of sins, wicked behaviors, or assorted troubling phenomena that the New Testament notes happening in the early years–in just 1 Corinthians alone:

  • Arguments about personality cults (ch. 1-4)
  • Lawsuits between believers (ch. 5)
  • Incest, or sexual immorality so gross that even the pagans are shocked (ch. 5-6)
  • Visiting prostitutes, or sexuality that’s basically just pagan (ch. 6)
  • Bizarre confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (ch. 7)
  • Confusion on gender issues in relation to culture (ch. 11)
  • Inequality and pride based on social and economic distinction (ch. 11)
  • People getting drunk at church before communion (ch. 11)
  • Gross spiritual pride related to the gifts (ch. 12-14)
  • Confusion on eschatology and core theological issues like the resurrection of Christ (ch. 15)

How about some other Pauline epistles?

  • Syncretism and mix and match spirituality (Col 1)
  • Legalism and false ascetic restrictions (Col 2; Rom 14)
  • Ethnic particularism and pride (Galatians)
  • Arguments between solid, believing Christians (Phil 4)
  • False teachers perverting doctrine and lying about godly pastors (2 Cor 10)
  • Free-loaders who won’t work, but leach off the community (1-2 Thes)

Honestly, we could just keep going for a while here. These are the kinds of things that the authors of the New Testament, the Apostles who regularly performed miracles and such, had to warn their congregations about.

Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin”, told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class.  In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church. What’s more, apparently these are the kinds of warnings they expected might come in handy for future believers as well, otherwise they wouldn’t be in Scripture (1 Cor 10).

All that said, I suppose I want to say a few things.

First, yes, sin in the life of the believer is many senses shocking. It’s shocking in its flagrance. It’s shocking in its ingratitude towards the Savior. It’s shocking in its resistance to the Holy Spirit who now empowers the believer to a life of obedience. It’s shocking because sin, at core, makes no sense. Yet should it be surprising? Not to anyone who has taken the time to read the New Testament it shouldn’t be.

Second, keep in mind Jesus tends to save all sorts. He saves people from healthy family situations that predisposes them towards basic, moral, sociability that we enjoy. He also saves people out of broken social situations, drugs, prostitution. He saves them out of hyper-religious legalism. He saves them out of sexual addiction and rage. Given all the different pits Jesus manages to drag people out of, don’t be surprised to see varieties of dirt and muck still clinging to them as he sets himself to the slow task of cleaning them up again.

Finally, have a care for your own pride. As Paul says,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Remember where you came from. You weren’t on the spiritual a-team either. You’re still not. And yet you don’t want to be ‘associated’ with those people because you’re name is such a big deal? Paul says to us here, “if your name is anything, it’s only because “in Christ” you have gained wisdom, righteousness, and so forth. It is because holy Jesus was willing to identify himself with what is low, foolish, sinful and broken”–you know, you and I. If you have any great shame, any great disgust at the sin of your fellow believer, make sure it is because you care about his name not yours.

And then praise his Name when you remember he’s willing to share it with all sorts.

Soli Deo Gloria