A Lie About God is a Lie About Life

liesOur culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heresy’ used on your average blog or article it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It is thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m clueless. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians? Maybe frighten some physicists?)

In some quarters, heresy is sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that we entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness.

So Why Does Jesus Think Differently? So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Because they do. Very differently. A sampling:

Jesus: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Paul: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

John: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we are to care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

To sum up, we might ask a final question: “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” Because He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

My Top 12 Reformedish Posts of 2013

2013It’s been a year and half since I started this blog, but 2013 was my first full calendar year of writing. Because “Top 10″ pieces are kind of a staple, and I saw all the other hip bloggers doing it, I figured I’d offer up my own summary post highlighting my biggest 2013 pieces on Reformedish as well as the posts I think did best on other sites. This will give some of you newbies a chance to catch up, and saves me the trouble of having to actually write some new thoughts.

Reformedish Posts – One thing I will note is that these are not necessarily my favorite posts, nor the posts I worked the hardest on. They are, for whatever reason, the ones that got shared, viewed, argued over, and so forth.

  1. 12 Tips on Keeping It Clean In Your Dating Relationship – This one went kinda viral, hitting 63,000. Kinda funny, hopefully helpful tips on keeping the sexy stuff in check.
  2. 7 Tips on How to Meet Reformed Men – Joke blog that’s pretty self-explanatory.
  3. 5 Things My Mom Taught Me About Theology – My mom is probably the biggest non-professional theological influence in my life. Parents, you have a bigger impact than you know.
  4. That Time C.S. Lewis God ‘Total Depravity Wrong’ Like Everybody Else – C.S. Lewis was awesome, but even he, like so many others, misunderstood Reformed doctrine.
  5. Christian Guy, Stop Trying to Date Yourself – Dudes, just…stop.
  6. The Cure that Killed the Patient, (Or, Sorry Zahnd, Marcionism Isn’t a Better Option) – In which I put on my argumentative Reformed hat and ‘dialogue’ with Brian Zahnd on pitting the Old Testament against Jesus.

Other Sites - Here I am kind of guessing. I don’t have the actual numbers, but these seem to have been shared and discussed the most out of the posts that I’ve written for other websites.

  1. ‘Who Are You Sleeping With?’ My Conversation with Timothy Keller (CaPC) This one got me in sooo much trouble. I mean, with topics like sex, doubt, and Tim Keller, it was kind of expected. Still, for giggles go ahead and read all the comments. Things got crazy.
  2. I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake (CaPC and TGC) This was my first big piece. Some reflections on being Arab in the American Evangelical church. Plus some theology.
  3. How Much Theology Should Couples Agree On Before They Get Married? (TGC) Surprisingly important question.
  4. False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy (TGC) Here I reflect on the reality that Millenials have trouble making choices, the meaning of freedom, and our need for community.
  5. The Church Failed Millenials, Just Not In the Way You Think It Did (CaPC) The Church failed us, it’s true–it unfortunately never taught us to love the Church.
  6. Faith in Humanity Just Took Another Hit: A Horrifying Holocaust Revelation (CaPC, TGC) A few thoughts on some horrifying bits of Holocaust history, the doctrine of original sin, and the Gospel.

By God’s grace it’s been a fruitful year. I can only pray that my toils in 2014 yield a greater harvest for the Lord’s church.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Tips for Keeping It Clean In Your Dating Relationship

awkward dateSo, I work with college students. Sometimes they like to date each other. Being human, with normal, God-given (but fallen) physical desires they also want to do stuff together while they’re dating. You know–sexy stuff. Of course, most of them who’ve been around long enough have learned that the Bible says the sexy stuff is God’s good, beautiful, and pleasurable idea for knitting a man and a woman together in marriage. In the meantime then, I’ll have couples approach me wondering if there are ways that they can continue to build their relationships in holy, appropriate ways, and avoid temptation.

Now, I remind them that it’s not just about not breaking rules–it’s an issue of the heart. I remind them of the grace of the Gospel for any past or future failure, and that this is not the one, irrevocable sin.  I encourage them to look to Christ, develop their relationship with him, and all the good spiritual, foundational stuff. But then, well, I get “practical” and offer them a few (slightly humorous) tips that helped my wife and I during the (four!) years we were dating.

I can’t emphasize enough that these are not laws, but general guidelines that help you obey God’s laws for your good. These are not hard and fast unbreakable rules. They are wisdom, though. Some of them may seem childish or nit-picky. You might think read them, roll your eyes, and think “Really? Come on, I’m not an animal!” True, but you’re not an angel either, and following these can help you honor God in your dating relationship:

  1. Clothes are not optional. But seriously, stay fashionable–in your clothes.
  2. If no one’s home, you’re not home. This might narrow your hang-out options initially, but it forces you to be creative. I really can’t stress this one enough.
  3. Cars are fun when you’re driving. When stationary, you can get in an accident.
  4. Give someone you trust absolute authority to speak into your life and talk to you about this area whenever. Also, don’t lie to them.
  5. Consider the consequences on a regular basis.
  6. Pray at the beginning of your dates.
  7. “Napping” together is stupid. Falling asleep during a movie is one thing, but otherwise…nah.
  8. And God said, “Let there be light…”
  9. Private porn usage always makes a public appearance. Eventually, porn shapes the way you act with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Avoid it at all costs.
  10. Spas are fun group activities.
  11. God gave you legs for a reason. Run when you have to.
  12. Have this conversation often. Re-affirm and re-commit to biblical guidelines and standards for your relationship.

Above all of these, of course, is to constantly be chasing Christ. Tips and rules can help for a while, but it’s the deeper holiness comes through the Spirit of Holiness changing our affections from within through the grace of the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

When God is Like Alfred Hitchcock

hitchcock3 (1)If there’s one thing I hate, it’s not knowing things.  Well, certain things. Some things I genuinely don’t care about, but usually, since I’m kind of narcissistic, I like knowing what’s going on. This is frustrating because there’s a lot that I don’t know and never will. I am small, limited, and, at times, quite foolish. Also, I’m only 27–that’s the definition of not knowing a bunch of stuff about life (aside from being 19, which is a particularly ignorant year in your life, precisely because you’ve got a year of college under your belt so you have the illusion of knowledge, while still not really knowing anything).

This is part of why I read Calvin–he reminds me of truths that keep me sane. In John 2:17, we are told that the disciples remembered a passage of Scripture that applied to Jesus when he was clearing out the Temple (“zeal for your house…”). Calvin moves to address the fact that some people might be perplexed as to how the disciples could have remembered a passage whose meaning they couldn’t have originally known. Calvin says that we shouldn’t be surprised at this, because the Holy Spirit revealed it to them after much after the fact. I mean, that is the Spirit’s job, to reveal Christ.

After making this comment, he moves on to make a general point about God’s revelation:

And, indeed, it does not always happen that the reason of God’s works is immediately perceived by us, but afterwards, in process of time, He makes known to us his purpose. And this is a bridle exceedingly well adapted to restrain our presumption, that we may not murmur against God if at any time our judgment does not entirely approve of what he does. We are at the same time reminded, that when God holds us as it were in suspense, it is our duty to wait for the time of more abundant knowledge, and to restrain the excessive haste which is natural to us; for the reason why God delays the full manifestation of his works is, that he may keep us humble.

–Commentary on John 2:17

The line that kills me is “when God holds us as it were in suspense.” In authoring the grand drama of redemption, God can be like Alfred Hitchcock–at least when it comes to my bit of the story.

Of course, he has that right. He’s the producer, director, author, main character, and editing team all rolled into one. I don’t have the right to demand God to answer me or explain himself to me. I still watch cartoons, forget to brush my teeth sometimes, and laugh at jokes a junior higher would roll his eyes at. I am not the pinnacle of knowledge and wisdom. And so it’s good that I remember that God’s time-table of revelation might be a little different than mine. My place isn’t to sit in judgment on God’s works, or God’s decision to inform me about his works, but to humbly and patiently wait for God to reveal what he deems fit and the right time.

I make no bones about the fact that this is a simple post with a simple point. That said, sometimes simple is best. All too often we are tempted to forget the simple truth of God’s transcendent goodness and wisdom, leading to all sorts of dismay and folly. Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons God keeps us in suspense about some things. Try and remember that today. Go read Job 38-42 or something.

That said, God has not kept us completely in the dark. Kind of like the blanket you cover your face with in the middle of a scene you just can’t take, he has provided a focus for us in those moments where the suspense is killing you: his unfailing love and grace towards us through Jesus Christ in the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘Substance’? ‘Hypostasis’? But Those Words are Un-Biblical!

MostHolyTrinityStudying church doctrine can be a challenging endeavor for many of us, even those of us with a deep knowledge of Scripture and a desire to grow deeper in the faith. One issue that comes up frequently for students of a more Biblicist bent is: why all of those goofy, non-biblical words?

I mean, if you’re not familiar with, say, trinitarian theology you end up with all kinds of Greek and Latin words like ‘substance’ or ‘hypostasis’, ‘persona’, and later on, ‘perichoresis’, and so forth. They start to make sense once you’ve read someone explain them about 20 times. Thing is, though, most of those words don’t show up in our translations of the Bible, and when they’re there, they seem to be used in different ways. Or, heck, the word ‘trinity’ doesn’t show up at all. Shouldn’t we be ‘biblical’ in the way that we speak and think of God? How can we do so with terminology taken from surrounding Greek and Latin philosophy and thought?

Calvin tells us that he wrote the Institutes partially so that he wouldn’t have to go into extended doctrinal discussions in his commentaries. Welp, that didn’t really slow him down from writing 4 or 5 pages on John 1:1, expositing the text and defending it from various heretics old (Sabellian, Arian), and new (Servetus.) In the middle of this fascinating discussion, he touches on the issue of non-biblical language.

Now, conservative Reformer that he is, not given to excess or speculation, you might think he would want to do away with all of this jargony mess. Thankfully, he was smarter than that:

I have already remarked that we ought to be sober in thinking, and modest in speaking, about such high mysteries. And yet the ancient writers of the Church were excusable, when, finding that they could not in any other way maintain sound and pure doctrine in opposition to the perplexed and ambiguous phraseology of the heretics, they were compelled to invent some words, which after all had no other meaning than what is taught in the Scriptures. They said that there are three Hypostases, or Subsistences, or Persons, in the one and simple essence of God. The word; ὑπόστασις (Hypostasis) occurs in this sense in Hebrews 1:3, to which corresponds the Latin word Substantia, (substance) as it is employed by Hilary. The Persons (τὰ πρόσωπα) were called by them distinct properties in God, which present themselves to the view of our minds; as Gregory Nazianzen says, “I cannot think of the One (God) without having the Three (Persons) shining around me.”

–Commentary on John 1:1

He points out what Fathers like Athanasius and Augustine had before him: heretics can use ‘Biblical’ language too and use it in ‘ambiguous’, ‘perplexed’, and non-Biblical ways. For that reason, the Fathers were compelled to take language and deploy new words in order to save the meaning of the Biblical record. These were new words used to say more clearly in a foggy and confused time, what Scripture was saying. They did not do this at random or haphazardly. Nor did were they careless to leave undefined, or distinguish the sense in which they used the term from other possible senses.

I think it was N.T. Wright who somewhere used Copernicus as an analogy: say Copernicus had never given a term to his system at which the sun was the center of the universe instead of the earth, and 200 years later someone came along and dubbed it ‘heliocentric.’ Have they misrepresented Copernicus by using that new term that he did not? By no means. They simply gave it a new name in order to keep it clear. In the same way, the Fathers of the Church, guided by the Spirit, in conformity with the Word, developed ways of speaking that preserve and protect the content of Scripture even when not directly drawn from it.

This is the truth that Calvin recognizes and calls us to appreciate here. For that, thoughtful students and spiritual descendants ought to be humbly grateful: both for the work of early teachers like the Fathers, as well as for faithful preservers of the tradition like Calvin.

Soli Deo Gloria 

For more similar thoughts check out:

B.B. Warfield on the ‘Unbiblical’ Doctrine of the Trinity
Vanhoozer and Calvin on the Creeds and Scripture

Tim Keller on Judges and OT Violence

KellerLast week I wrote a post engaging with Brian Zahnd on the issue of the authority and inspiration of the Old Testament. In dealing with the issue of the conquest narratives in Joshua and other places, a lot of people have trouble dealing with the apparent tension of the grace, love, peacableness, and forgiveness found in the New Testament with God’s commands to judge and destroy the Canaanites in the Old. Some will quickly move to justify the texts, not dealing with the understandably troubling nature of the narratives, while others will simply write them off as remnants of a more savage time to be left behind now that we have Jesus.

Well, the question came up again this week in Matt Smethurst’s interview article (and by the way, he does great interviews) over at the Gospel Coalition with Tim Keller on why Keller had written a study guide to the book of Judges:

Smethurst: The Israelite conquest of Canaan appears to give warrant for imperialism, holy war, and genocide. How can enlightened modern people take a book like Judges seriously?

Keller: Yes, in teaching the book of Judges you simply have to deal with this issue—you can’t ignore it. And in this brief space I can’t even list the issues and the various objections and answers. Maybe the most fundamental thing to say is that if you believe the rest of what the whole Bible teaches—that there’s only one true God, that for a period of time he spoke directly to Israel through prophets and through the Urim and Thummim in the priest’s breastplate, but that now, since Christ, he speaks to us through his inscripturated Word—then the conquest of Canaan makes sense.

Why? First, God alone has the right to judge people—only he knows what they deserve and what they will do if not stopped. He alone has the right to take a life. Second, in “holy war” Israel did not seek to imperialistically expand its wealth and power but acted as an instrument of God’s judgment on a particular set of people. Third, if you believe in the authority of the Bible as the only infallible way to know God’s will for us—then holy war today is impossible. God gives no warrant for it. That’s what we see when reading the Bible is read as a whole, with the New Testament completing and fulfilling the Old. Jesus specifically forbids Christians to take up the sword in his name, to spread the Christian faith by force. In short, if you believe the rest of the things the Bible teaches, the period of holy war makes sense. Holy war is not, therefore, a reason to reject what the rest of the Bible says about God.

Note very clearly, Keller says that there are more concerns and more objections to be dealt with. Away with any suggestion that Keller deliberately ignored a host of problems. What he does do is raise three that help to address the charge that the OT narratives are indefensible and encourage violence.

  • God is the final, trustworthy judge.
  • Holy war served a limited, focused purpose in God’s economy: the judgment of people with whom he had been patient for hundreds of years.
  • The narrative logic of the whole of Scripture forbids violence to Christians for spreading the faith.

That last one deserves a bit more comment. Often-times you’ll see a biblical critic point to a particular text and say, “See, there, that story encourage X behavior (misogyny, violence, ecological carelessness, etc.). We can’t trust it and must move past it.” Or, they’ll simply use it as evidence that the Bible as a whole is flawed. The problem here is, yes, a problematic text, but even more, the fact that atomistic readings can distort the shape of any kind of text. This is one more example of why historical, narrative, and canonical context matters. You don’t know the meaning of any story, or really, any scene in a story, until you’ve reached the end.

And what do we see in the book of Judges when we reach the end of story, the full story that finds its climax in Jesus Christ? Keller says we can’t help but see Jesus:

He’s the ultimate judge—the perfect and unflawed Gideon and Samson. He is the ultimate king we don’t yet have but whom we need. Even at the terrible end of Judges, where a man gives up his spouse to death to save his own skin, we can’t help but think of Jesus our true husband who gives himself up to death in order to save us. Jesus in Judges, as usual, is everywhere.

This is why we need to be careful when dealing with the OT. If you simply rush to judgment, writing things off quickly because of a contextless, atomistic, moralistic reading, you might miss Jesus in the middle of it.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. I’d commend the whole interview to you here. Also, again, I’d commend this article by Paul Copan dealing with historical issue with the Canaanite conquest and OT violence.

Either Way You’re Gonna Get Cut

vine“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” -John 15:1-2

Jesus tells us here that, whether you bear fruit or you don’t bear fruit, either way, you’re gonna get cut. “Come again?” If you’re someone just sitting in church, hearing the Gospel but not responding, not growing, not developing the faith and showing no signs of spiritual life you’re going to be cut by the Lord. AND, if you’re someone who has responded in faith, is growing, developing, deepening in your love by the Spirit’s power, and showing the good fruit of good works, you’re going to be cut by the Lord. This is straight from Jesus’ mouth.

The Gardener, The Vine, and the vines
But why? Because God is a Gardener, the Great Vine-dresser attending to the health and growth of the Church which draws its life from the Son, the True Vine. To get where this is going, you have to understand the image of the vine. The image Jesus uses here is one drawn from the OT. Israel is often compared to a vine that gives or does not give the fruit of true obedience. Here, Jesus tells us that he is the True Vine, the one that Israel was always supposed to be. He will do all that Israel should have done and be all that Israel should have been.

Now, building on that, he compares as branches that have been grafted onto a good vine. As Calvin reminds us, Jesus is using this image to tell us “that the vital sap — that is, all life and strength  — proceeds from himself alone. Hence it follows, that the nature of man is unfruitful and destitute of everything good; because no man has the nature of a vine, till he be implanted in him.” (Commentary on John 15:1)  On our own, we can do some relatively (outwardly) good things, yes, but to work truly spiritual works, those that are pleasing to the Father, producing true fruit, we need to be dependently drawing on the grace of the Son. In other words, the goodness of the Messiah only flows to us as we’ve been made a part of his people, being united by faith with Christ.

Here’s the thing, when you’ve been around long enough, you start to see that there two kinds of branches appearing to be connected to the vine. There are some branches that bear fruit and some that apparently have only been outwardly grafted on. Some people have joined up with the Messiah outwardly, but never started to draw life from him. Instead, at best they’re harmlessly taking up space on the branch, or at worst, they’re impeding the growth of the other branches. Others have taken hold of Christ by faith, or rather been grasped by Christ, and they’ve begun to take on the character of the original vine and are producing real fruit.

Thing is, as a good gardener, God cuts both. The dead branches get cut to clear them away for the health of the whole. If it’s not growing and giving off fruit, it’s dead wood.  The live vines he prunes so that they might give more fruit.

The Cutting Tool
Now, the interesting thing is that he uses the same tool to do it: adversity. It doesn’t say this explicitly in the text, but I think it’s a legitimate inference from the surrounding context. Jesus is preparing his disciples to deal with his absence. He talks to them about the comfort of the Holy Spirit, their need to remain in him, the opposition they’re going to face in life because of his name, and so forth. One of the main themes of the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17), is comfort in the face of adversity.

Adversity will often-times reveal the character of our faith; is it merely superficial, that of dead branches, or deep and true, one that draws life from the vine? How do we react when the bills start stacking up? Or marriage stresses? Or a difficult semester? Maybe a break-up? Divorce? Death? An unruly child? A church community divided against itself? Hostility from co-workers? Unrelenting health issues? I could go on for pages here, but you all know the adversity that life brings–the cuts.

And the cuts reveal the character. So, when adversity hits, do we get bitter, or cling harder? Do we shake our fist up at God for “failing” to give us what he never promised, or dig deeper into the gospel-blessings that he has provided for us in Christ? Do we feel robbed by God, or held by God? Does our faith deepen and grow, or die and grow cold? Do we strive for greater obedience and hope, or plunge ourselves into rebellious apathy? Will the cut lead to death, or deeper life? The same cut, the same adversity reveals the nature of the branch.

Believers need to know that Jesus never promises protection from the ordinary troubles of life, or the particular problems that attend with following him in the world. They need to understand that, so when the Gardener’s pruning tools go to work they accept it as the perfecting work of God in their life, instead of his careless abandonment. Again, either way, you’re gonna get cut–but for the person who has truly been in-grafted, they can know that the cuts come from the good hand of the master Vine-dresser whose aim is to cut away the dead parts of your life. We need those cuts so that the new, true life of Christ can flow more freely and result in even great fruits of righteousness and life. Trust the Gardener when the cut comes and remain in the Vine.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus Wasn’t a Stoic (Or, the Difference Between Socrates and Christ)

spok

Spock, the perfect Stoic. Kinda, not really.

It’s often remarked that the Christian moral ethic we see in the New Testament and the Fathers shares a great deal of similarities with Ancient Greco-Roman philosophies on offer at the time such as Platonism, and especially Stoicism. And it’s true, that superficially, there are. I remember in one early medieval philosophy class, reading Augustine’s comments on how much closer to Christianity the Stoics were as opposed to the Epicureans, who were universally condemned by the Fathers, (and, well, anybody not Epicurean).

That said, while many of the moral precepts are shared across the two systems, Christianity and Stoicism, their moral grounding, or logic, are structurally in different universes. Charles Taylor highlights this difference with respect to “affirmation of ordinary life” and the two systems’ “asceticism” or ethics of self-denial:

Christianity, particularly in its more ascetic variants, appears a continunation of Stoicism by other means, or (as Nietzsche sometimes says) a prolongation of Platonism. But for all the strong resemblances to Stoicism–for instance, its universalism, its notion of providence, its exalting of self-abnegation–there is a great gulf. In fact, the meaning of self-abnegation is radically different. The Stoic sage is willing to give up some “preferred” thing, e.g. health, freedom, or life, because he sees it genuinely as without value since only the whole order of events which, as it happens, includes its negation or loss, is of value.  The Christian martyr, in giving up health, freedom, or life, doesn’t declare them to be of no value. On the contrary, the act would lose its sense if they were not of great worth. To say that greater love hath no man than this, that a man give up his life for his friends, implies that life is a great good. The sentence would loses its point in reference to someone who renounced life from a sense of disenchantment; it presupposes he’s giving up something.

Central to the Judaeo-Christian notion of martyrdom is that one gives up a good in order to follow God. What God is engaged in is the hallowing of life. God first called Israel to be a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But the hallowing of life is not antithetical to its fulness. On the contrary. Hence the powerful sense of loss at the heart of martyrdom. It only becomes necessary because of sin and disorder in the world…to turn to the paradigm Christian case, that Christ’s teaching led to his crucifixion was a consequence of evil in the world, of he darkness not comprehending the light. In the restored order that God is conferring, good doesn’t need to be sacrificed for good. The eschatological promise of Judaism and Christianity is that God will restore the integrity of the good.

This is, of course, what makes the death story of Jesus so different from that of Socrates, however much they have been put in parallel. Socrates tries to prove to his friends that he is losing nothing of value, that he is gaining a great good. In his last request to Crito, to pay his debt of a cock to Asclepius, he seems to imply that life is an illness of which death is the cure (Asclepius being the god of healing whom one rewards for cures.) Socrates is serenely troubled. Jesus suffers agony of soul in the garden, and is driven to despair on the cross, when he cries, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” At no point in the Passion is he serene and untroubled.

-Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 218-219

In Christianity, the world is good and so are the world’s goods. God made them and to suffer their loss is true suffering. While there is evil in it, and the satan works corruption throughout it, creation is still of inestimable value.  And so, self-denial, when it involves something other than sin, is not a denial of the goodness of those things we give up.

This is why Jesus was not a Stoic. When he gave up his life for us on the Cross, he was truly giving something up–it was a real sacrifice. This was no mere, cost-less martyrdom for the truth, but a painful, arduous self-giving for our sakes. In giving his life, he was affirming the value of life and working to restore it to its intended glory. But, of course, this leads us to the truth of the Resurrection. Christ’s sacrifices of the good for us was total, but not final. It was not an end in and of itself, but a means to a greater end–the redemption of creation.

The same is true for us at a microcosmic level. We sacrifice all things, excepting sin, with a knowledge that, while a real loss, all that was good about it will be received from God’s hand once again: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”(Matthew 19:29) That actually puts Christians in the ironic position of being able to more readily sacrifice natural goods–for others, for righteousness sake, etc.–while still appreciating them in a way that a Stoic never could. We should enjoy them with great joy while we have them, grieve them when lost, joyfully anticipate their restoration in the glory to come.

All that to say, Jesus wasn’t a Stoic–neither are his followers.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cure that Killed the Patient (Or, Sorry Zahnd, Marcionism isn’t a Better Option)

tumblr_mr9zzaTmj01rj8v6zo1_400A while back John Piper put out a video that defended God’s right to judge the Canaanites by the hand of the Israelites in the conquest narratives of the OT. He said something along the lines of “God is God, he made you and doesn’t owe you jack, so if he takes your life, you really have nothing to complain about. Also, God can use whom he pleases to do so.” Roughly.

Predictably, some people got mad. I mean, I get that. It’s a tough subject and any answer is going to be kind of awkward (although, honestly, at this point Piper could say that God loves kittens and somebody would snark, “But only elect ones, right?”). Beyond just general Facebook furor when it hit, it recently provoked a frontal-assault/response from author and pastor Brian Zahnd. For those who don’t know, Zahnd has been a rising voice on the Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Left since his book “Beauty Will Save the World” came out last year. I actually read it and loved it, even if I did have some qualms about the pacifism peeking out here and there.

Well, pacifist though he may be, Zahnd came out guns blazing with accusations of voluntarism, the monstrous God of Calvinism, and, just the slightest bit of Muslim-baiting in his provocatively titled, “John Piper and Allahu Akbar.” As you might have picked up, I didn’t love this post quite as much as the book and I’ll get to why in a minute. But first, a few quick caveats:

To be clear, I don’t particularly care to defend Piper’s views here as he is a big boy who can defend himself. Nor is this is denial that the OT narratives involving the conquest and destruction of the Canaanites require some serious consideration. They do. Actually, while we’re on the subject, I’d commend Paul Copan’s work on the subject in the book “Is God a Moral Monster?” or this summary article paying attention to historical, genre, and canonical considerations here. Finally, I too am very concerned about the misuse of Scripture to promote violence.

What I do want is to look at is Zahnd’s reponse, which, to mind, left something to be desired in terms of theological honesty as well as, well, ‘soundness of teaching’? (I don’t want to say orthodoxy, given his clear, robust Nicene and Chalcedonian faith.) Yes, I’m putting on my argumentative Reformed hat again, which I do try to stay away from, but, in all fairness, Zahnd shot first.

Well, without further ado, here are a few points in no particular order:

Yeah, never taught that.

Yeah, never taught that.

Calvin’s “Ism” – Zahnd found a cute short-hand for Piper’s theology of sovereignty, or rather, that of “Calvin’s disciples”, which he dubbed “Calvin’s Ism.” He then proceeded to rail on it, lamenting the way Piper and others would go to such great lengths to defend the “Ism” to the point of creating a monstrous voluntaristic God whose will is what it is, simply because it is, and so forth. Don’t you know that we should look at Jesus, not what Calvin thought about Jesus?! Away with such Greek-philosophy-influenced, metaphysical barbarisms!

scumbag girardIt’s typical anti-Calvinist boilerplate that fires up the troops and so forth, so I get it. As one of “Calvin’s Disciples” though, I simply wanted to stop and point out that, as a matter of historical fact, Calvin strongly repudiated the overly-voluntaristic tradition popular in his day at the Sorbonne flowing from theological giants like Scotus and Ockham. (Incidentally, I always find it funny when guys who basically riff off of French social theorists like Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory when it comes to the Gospel, have the gall to call out “Greek philosophical categories” in more traditional theology.)

Calvin explicitly rejected a view of God’s unrestrained will, or absolute power, divorced from God’s justice or God’s goodness. While he unabashedly defends God’s complete sovereignty over human history, he simultaneously condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power.” (Institutes 1.17.2) That’s just one among many examples.

Again, it’s a fun phrase, and when you’re driving the punch-line home, why not pick a baddie to rip on your fanbase already doesn’t like? Calvin’s perfect for that, especially since most people haven’t actually read him much. But, in this case, Zahnd should probably find another whipping boy to pin the voluntarism charge on.

Killing is Not Always Murder – Moving more to the point, Zahnd tells us that God could never have ordered the conquest and judgment of the Canaanites in the way the narratives portray it because that would involve killing which is murder and God would never order murder.

So for some this next point might seem basic: while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder. For others, this is a basic false distinction that they rejected as un-biblical a long time ago.

I’ll just say that a prima facie reading of the Scriptures, especially the OT legal code (Exod. 21), shows that while God hates human death, the law that he handed down seemed to recognize a distinction between killing and murder. Actually, very early on in the narrative of the Torah, we find out that the reason he allows for some killing is precisely because he hates murder (Gen. 9:6). Murder is unjustifiable, but executions and judgments seemed to be accounted for and even commanded by God himself in various places in the OT law and the subsequent narrative. Of course, that raises the issue of the reliability of the OT on this point.

Which brings us to the really big issue with Zahnd’s post.

Marcionism isn’t a Better Option  – See, for Zahnd, we shouldn’t let something like the Old Testament slow us down when we’re thinking about these things:

And don’t let the Old Testament work you into a corner. You don’t need to defend the Old Testament to the extent that you find it necessary to justify genocide. God forbid! We can simply say this…

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ.

This is a perfect example of what Andrew Wilson has called the “New Marcionism“, which, while not explicitly repudiating the OT the way Marcion did, insists on seeing such a radical discontinuity between the God we see testified to in the OT and that of the NT that it has much the same effect.

Let me unsympathetically paraphrase Zahnd for you to see the problem: “The ancient Israelites who wrote the Holy Scriptures got some stuff wrong, but we know better now that Jesus came. We know that Jesus would never order something like that, so we know that God didn’t order something like that, so just don’t trouble yourself about it. The verses are just wrong. I mean, sure, Jesus said that the Scriptures all pointed to him (John 5:39), and the law is to be perfectly fulfilled (Matt. 5), and we can assume he read those parts, but he couldn’t possibly have meant all of it. Sure we have parallels in the NT with Revelation and God raining down judgment, etc. not to mention Jesus himself casting down judgment of his own, but again, don’t let that trouble you. Nevermind the deeply pervasive theology of God the Warrior who goes before Israel in battle that informs much of the OT, and depends on some of those “mistaken assumptions”–just try and skip those bits. I mean don’t worry that this even figures into Luke’s telling of Acts as a conquest narrative. Just squint until you see it properly. God wouldn’t do anything like that. I mean, don’t bother trying understand the difference between God’s administration of covenant justice in Israel v. the Church because of Christ’s ushering in a new phase in redemptive-history. It’s not that the same God can manifest his eternally good and beautiful character in consistent, but historically-distinct ways. We have the much easier option of saying the Israelites just got it wrong. Simple as that. Don’t worry about what that does to undermine the authority of the OT and its ability to actually point to Jesus Christ. Please don’t trouble yourself with the way this sort of crypto-Marcionism might spill into the subtle anti-Semitism of viewing the Old Testament as an inherently inferior text like the old-school German Liberal scholars who made this sort of argument popular back in the early part of the 20th Century. I mean, no big deal.”

In a dispute with the Pharisees in John 10:35, Jesus tells us that the scriptures cannot be “broken.” The Greek word there is luo which can be translated “to destroy, to tear down, the break to pieces” (Louw-Nida 20:35).  Essentially, it can’t be ignored, released, explained away, or rendered null or void. Except, that’s exactly what Zahnd suggests we do with those uncomfortable bits.

On ‘Christocentric’ Readings (Or, The Cure that Killed the Patient) Here’s the thing, when your “Christocentric” reading of the Scriptures leads you to ignore or deny parts of Scriptures the way Christ says shouldn’t happen, you might be doing it wrong. Realize that this isn’t about whether we’re going to read the Bible in light of Jesus, but about how. Does the revelation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen shed light on and transfigure the testimony of God’s dealing with Israel, or simply deny, or downgrade its validity by cutting chunks out?

Of course, this goes to the deeper theological question who we’re going to allow God to be? Will we allow him to reveal himself as a God who, though simple in essence, is narratively-complex in his self-rendering in the history of Israel?  “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) Do we let Jesus be both the one who longs to shelter Jerusalem under his wings to save them, all the while forcefully proclaiming God’s impending, violent, judgment on their sins (Matt 23:29-39)? Do we allow for the full picture of Jesus to emerge, or the one we’ve shoved into our pacifistic Procrustean bed, and shave off the verses that don’t fit?

Tom needs a drink after that.

Tom needs a drink after that.

While some of us are tempted to take Zahnd’s path of essentially rejecting prior revelation as the mistaken assumptions of our spiritual fathers, Might I suggest a surer, admittedly less comfortable, course? It is a route that N.T. Wright offers up in his answer to Wilson on the issue of the New Marcionism:

“There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going.

“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”

Of course there’s more to say, but I’ve already said too much for what’s an allegedly short blog post. (May God forgive my lies.) The end of the matter is that while Zahnd may find Piper’s alleged voluntarism to be a gross misrepresentation of Jesus by distortion, his own neo-Marcionism leaves us with a highly-abridged Bible, and therefore an abridged Jesus, which is hardly an improvement. While offering a solution to the Bible’s problematic texts, Zahnd is inadvertently administering the kind of cure that kills the patient.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus is the Beginning, the Middle, and the End

way“I am the way, the truth, and the life” is Jesus’ (in)famous reply to Thomas’ request for directions to the Father (John 14:6). The text has been in dispute ever since, especially in light of disputes about salvation, exclusivism/inclusivism, and the sole Lordship of Christ.  What does it mean for Jesus to be the “way, the truth, and the life”? How can a person be a life? Or a way? Or the truth? How are they connected?

Once again, Calvin cuts to the core of the matter and sheds an illuminating (and worship-inspiring) light on the text:

The way, the truth, and the life. He lays down three degrees, as if he had said, that he is the beginning, and the middle, and the end; and hence it follows that we ought to begin with him, to continue in him, and to end in him. We certainly ought not to seek for higher wisdom than that which leads us to eternal life, and he testifies that this life is to be found in him. Now the method of obtaining life is, to become new creatures. He declares, that we ought not to seek it anywhere else, and, at the same time, reminds us, that he is the way, by which alone we can arrive at it. That he may not fail us in any respect, he stretches out the hand to those who are going astray, and stoops so low as to guide sucking infants. Presenting himself as a leader, he does not leave his people in the middle of the course, but makes them partakers of the truth. At length he makes them enjoy the fruit of it, which is the most excellent and delightful thing that can be imagined.

-Commentary on John 14:6

These are not primarily words of divisive exclusion (although they do testify to Jesus’ exclusive role as Savior), but of assuring grace.  We might be tempted to look to our own plans, prayers, righteousness, special knowledge, inner strength, or find multiple mediators.Jesus here is telling us that he is the beginning, middle, and end of our salvation. It’s not just that we can’t turn anywhere else, but that by the mercy of God, we don’t need to.

When it comes to gaining the life that is truly life, there’s no way around, or above, or away from Jesus.  He himself is the source of that life. We don’t start by Jesus and do the rest ourselves, or move on to something deeper to get to life. No, at every step of the way, it is Jesus moving us along. He is the one who recreates us, brings us to participate in the truth that leads to life, and guides us by the hand to that life that we would not be able to find on our own strength.

Soli Deo Gloria