What does it mean to be ‘inclusive’ like Jesus?

exclusion and embraceAccording to one telling of the gospel narrative, Jesus came to end exclusion and preach the inclusive kingdom of God.  Certainly that’s part of what he came to do and arguably the feature of his ministry most appealing to our contemporary culture’s moral sensibilities. In Jesus, the outcasts of society have hope. Those long marginalized, kicked to the curb (figuratively and literally) can look up to see Jesus extending a hand, inviting them back into the community of the truly human as objects of dignity and divine affection.

Of course, issues of inclusion and exclusion are at the heart of our society’s most contested social issues. Whether it’s the dynamics underlying much of the racial tensions built up and released in our cities, or the heated theological discourse on sexuality, we need to come to grips with the realities of inclusion and exclusion. Which is why I decided to recently revisit Miroslav Volf’s justly famous meditation on the subject Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It’s a fascinating theological account of the issues of forgiveness, truth, justice, and, yes, exclusions that gains a particular poignancy set in the context of his wrestling with the exclusionary violence that destroyed his own home in the Balkans.

Nuancing Inclusion. Right off the bat, though, I was struck by his nuancing of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion or, rather, ministry against exclusion. In some accounts of Jesus’ ministry of radical inclusion, his invitation was to all and sundry, with no requirements, no prohibitions except those who sin by way of exclusion. Exclusion is the aboriginal sin and any construction of binaries, ins and outs, wicked or righteous, sinner and virtuous is simply ruled out by the gracious kingdom of God. To follow Jesus is simply rolling back boundaries, deconstructing binaries, and flattening every moral and social hill before the coming of our inclusive God.

According to Volf, though, it’s not that simple. While it’s true that much of Jesus’ work included transgressing “social boundaries that excluded the outcasts, demonstrating that these boundaries themselves were evil, sinful, and outside of God’s will” (72), he goes on to say:

“it would be a mistake…to conclude from Jesus’ compassion toward those who transgressed social boundaries that his mission was merely to demask the mechanisms that created “sinners” by falsely ascribing sinfulness to those who were considered socially unacceptable. He was no prophet of “inclusion”…, for whom the chief virtue was acceptance and the cardinal vice intolerance. Instead, he was a bringer of “grace”, who not only scandalously included “anyone” in the fellowship of “open commensality”, but made the “intolerant” demand of repentance and the “condescending” offer of forgiveness (Mark 1:15; 2:15-17). The mission of Jesus consisted not simply of re-naming the behavior that was falsely labeled “sinful” but also in re-making the people who have actually sinned and suffered distortion. The double strategy of re-naming and re-making, rooted in the commitment to both the outcast and the sinner, to the victim and the perpetrator, is the proper background against which an adequate notion of sin as exclusion can emerge. (72-73)

This duality in Jesus’ method of ending exclusion or practicing inclusion is so important for us to grasp, if we’re going to think clearly about how to follow Jesus and what the call to be an inclusive Church really means. So what does Volf have to say about these two halves of Jesus’ ministry?

Renaming. First, he tackles re-naming. When Jesus declares all foods clean (Mark. 7:14-23), or heals the woman with the flow of blood (Mark. 5:25-34), or points to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God, Jesus ends certain boundaries that divide people into the categories of clean and unclean. As Volf states it, “by the simple act of re-naming Jesus offset the stark binary logic that regulates so much of social life: society is divided into X (superior in-group) and non-X (inferior out-group)” (73). In this, Jesus upsets a false system of exclusion that divided people whom he now set on the same plane and brings into the mutual community of the clean.

The bit that I think is missing from Volf’s analysis here, is the further dual dimension this work of renaming can be split into. Jesus’ ministry of renaming often worked at both the level of correction as well as that of covenantal dispensation. Some of Jesus’ acts of renaming were aimed at correcting distortions within the Rabbinic or Pharisaic halakhah that had slowly emerged over time, and had aggravated the exclusion inherent in the ceremonial law of Torah (which inevitably still happens in nearly every church situation). Others, though, were Jesus’ declaration that because of the New Covenant, that which was ritually unclean before no longer is unclean because these distinctions (between Jew and Greek, Kosher, etc), have served their purpose in pointing to Christ and are now to be dispensed with. Jesus renames the distinction, not as evil, but rather as covenantally-irrelevant (Acts 10:5).

Remaking. But what about re-making? “In addition to removing the label “unclean” placed on the things that were clean, Jesus made clean things out of truly unclean things” (73). Jesus cast out unclean, sinful, tormenting spirits that held people captive and drove them to behaviors that excluded them from community (Mark. 5:1-20). But he also dealt with “people caught in the snares of wrongdoing”:

…people who, like tax-collectors, harm others in order to benefit themselves, people who, like prostitutes, debase themselves in order to prosper or just survive, people who, like most of us, are bend on losing their own souls in order to gain a bit of the world–such people were forgiven and transformed (Mark 2:15-17). (73)

In other words, Jesus ended their exclusion through the kind of grace that acknowledges there is something about the person, a condition, a habit, a disposition and behavior that is self-excluding and needs regeneration and forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is an including act that inherently contains within it an act of condemnation of the reality being forgiven. What’s important to see here, though, is that he doesn’t rename evil as good or indifferent, but instead tackles it head-on, by destroying its root in the human heart.

It’s important, at this point, to note that this is the more fundamental dimension of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion. Many suffer under regimes of unjust exclusion on the basis of gender, socio-economics, race, stigma attached to mental disorder, and so we praise God that Jesus offers hope and gives us a mandate proclaim that the social divisions are relativized in Christ (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11). But the reality is that not everyone was, or is, in a situation that needs to be renamed. That said, we all have fallen short of the glory of God, excluded ourselves from communion with God, and so stand in need of Jesus’ work of remaking or reconciling us to through the blood of his cross. Everybody, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, stands in need of Christ’s remaking work in our lives. Indeed, one of the main ways that Jesus, Paul, and the apostles undermine systems of exclusion based on false social categorizations, is on the basis of that shared new name that is the sign of a shared new heart, as we move from being “in Adam” together to being “in Christ” together.

Two Kinds of Inclusion. I took the time to outline this, because I think a failure to appreciate or apply the distinction between renaming and remaking in the Church’s call to practice inclusion is at the heart of so many of our hottest disputes. While I’d like to address, in a future post, issues more closely related to race and diversity in the Church, obviously, this comes up on the sexuality question.

All too often, progressives on the issue set this up as a debate between those who understand Jesus’ radical message of inclusion and those who simply want to hold onto the old, excluding binaries like the Pharisees and the Judaizers; we’re given a choice between those who want to exclude and those who want to include. And how fun is it to play Jesus v. the Pharisees, right? With Volf’s categories in place, we can see that the more appropriate question, though, is which method of inclusion applies in this situation? Where progressives see a situation of renaming akin to the Gentiles, the Church has traditionally seen inclusion requiring a kind of remaking (which, connected to sexuality, needs careful parsing–don’t read certain psychological programs into my use of the term). Still, according to the historic position, to rename, in this case, would be to call evil good.

This is is where the irony comes in. Traditionalists are often accused of being gatekeepers seeking to exclude people from the kingdom of God. But if they’re right here, and treating sexual behavior as another one of those old, sinful categories to be renamed is a mistake, ultimately the danger is that many will not be called to repent from the kinds of behaviors that Christ, the apostles, and the prophets say lead to their self-exclusion from the kingdom of God. It’s precisely out of conservatives’ drive to include, that they’re opposed to the wrong sort of inclusion. It’s precisely because they hate the idea of anybody being excluded from the kingdom of God, that they insist we not offer up inclusion on false premises.

In the end, it’s like two people explaining to a visitor how to get into a building. One says they must enter the main gate while the other tells them to enter through a side-door, which is much closer, because they fear the gate is too far away and difficult to enter. Initially, the second person seems to be making it easier to get in while the first is imposing the harsher standard–that is until you find out there is no side-door. The second person’s efforts at inclusion are well-meaning, but ultimately they function as another way of keeping the visitor out.

 Soli Deo Gloria

Protecting Pigs At the Cost of the Liberating the Oppressed

pigsThere’s often an economic cost to the freedom Jesus brings and the World typically doesn’t like that. I was struck by that reality against as I reflected on the story of the Demoniac Jesus encounters in Gerasa in the area of the Decapolis in Mark 5. In this case, the cost is a side-product of the liberation. For years, this man has been bound and filled with demons who have dehumanized him to the point that he’s living out in by the tombs, talking gibberish, away from his family, normal human community, and alienated from his own mind. When Jesus casts the demons out, they flee into a nearby herd of pigs, driving them mad, and causing them to leap off a cliff and be drowned in the lake.

Of course, various commentators assign different significance to the drowning of the pigs and the fact that the demons identify themselves as “Legion.” Some see an anti-imperial undercurrent, with Jesus posing a threat to the political principalities, drowning them in the sea, much as God drowned the armies of Pharaoh. Others have connected the pigs as a challenge to the gods of Greece–I can’t remember how it worked at this point. Whatever the undercurrent, at the end of the day the herd pigs drown in the sea and apparently this is all the village people can focus on because, instead of rejoicing the grand miracle God had wrought in setting this man free, they beg Jesus to leave the area of the Decapolis.

The Kingdom of God breaks in, disrupts the economic peace of the World, and the World insists the Kingdom see itself out the door again.

Another story that comes to mind is Paul’s liberation of the pythoness in Acts 16. After a couple of days of harassment in the streets by this young women possessed of a demonic spirit, Paul casts out the demon and sets her free. This lands Paul in hot water because the young girls’ slave owners used to make a lot of money through her ability to predict fortunes and so forth. Her bondage and slavery to the demonic powers was a source of material income. Her liberation means they’re out of a meal-ticket. And so they call on the Roman authorities to deal with these disturbers of the peace, have them beaten, and thrown into prison. Again, instead of rejoicing at the newfound freedom of this woman, the loss of economic gain provokes a hostile response to the messengers of the Kingdom of God.

Or once more, when Christianity spreads to the whole city of Ephesus, we read that the idol-makers become worried about the drop in sales (Acts 19). There are so many new worshippers of Jesus who aren’t buying their shiny new, late model gods, that it’s become really bad for business. Under the pretense of piety–worry for the great name of Artemis–the idol-makers stir up a mob and accuse Paul and his companions of slandering the goddess with their preaching of Christ. As people turn from the worship of false idols, without any explicit political or economic organizing, the economic and social order become upset.

Of course, it takes little more than a few seconds thought to think of a half-dozen ways that same dynamic is at work in the world today. Aside from situations of explicit oppression and bondage–situations which are devastatingly all too common–much of our consumeristic culture is dependent on people remaining in various levels of spiritual slavery and bondage.

In other words, somebody is making money off of a generation captive to the idea that personal identity can be achieved or reinforced by getting your hands on the newest, shiniest toys, accessories, iPads, designer jeans, and so forth. Our persistent dissatisfaction with our level of material comfort, our fear of falling behind the Joneses, and our loss of any sense for the virtue of simplicity and the vice of material excess, means someone is getting rich.  (Can we say, “Apple Watch”? Oh, but it’s okay, Christians don’t need to worry about frivolous purchases because now I can use the better version of the Bible app on it.)

Or again, a generation of porn addicts, convinced that the good life is to be found between the sheets of that next sexual conquest, is going to be an easy target for any advertiser who promises you their product will get you there. A large segment of the economy is invested in keeping us sexually aroused, so we will buy what they’re selling. A population that is spiritually bound is economically lucrative. Not to sound like some sort of Marxist theorist, but I think it’s worth asking questions about who stands to gain financially from the currently regnant sexual ideologies presented to us as the liberation of desire from shackles of prudery and repression.

And these are just two examples.

Hear me here: business is not inherently evil, nor do I believe that capitalism as an economic system is either. But the demonic forces at work in the world and in the human heart will inevitably take them (and every other economic structure). corrupt them, and leverage them in such a way that it is in people’s financial interest to see their neighbors, their brothers and sisters, captive to desires and ideologies that do not promote human flourishing. We have an interest in protecting pigs at the cost of liberating the oppressed.

And this is just one more reason that the gospel of Jesus is often opposed so fiercely by the powers that be. When the Kingdom of God breaks in, it liberates us from the idolatries that keep much of the current, sinful structures of economic (and political) reality propped up. When your identity is firmly caught up in Christ’s, and your chief desire is to seek the righteousness of the Kingdom of God, it’s that much harder to make you a shill for or sucker of the kingdoms of this world.

That will make people angry. As people hear the good news of Jesus, walk away from their idols and stop buying into the system, there will rise opposition. There will be fear. There will be slander. There will be accusations. We should count on it.

And yet, there will also be opportunities for witness. I think back to the Demoniac. Though his town asked Jesus to leave the area, the man who had been restored to his senses was set free and given the call to witness to that freedom among his old neighbors–the same ones who were frustrated and scared of Christ. What happened to him?

Well, Mark 7 and 8 records Jesus returning to the Decapolis, only this time, we see that crowds gather for him to heal the sick, the lame, and for him to cast out demons. The crowd is so great that he even has to perform another feeding miracle–the feeding of the 4,000. I don’t want to veer into unbiblical speculation, but it seems possible that as the shock of the loss wore off, and the beauty of the liberation Christ brought into his life was known, the people of the Decapolis began to see something different. Maybe they were that much more prepared to receive with great joy the costly, challenging liberation of Christ.

It may be that in our own day, as more and more of us opt out of idolatries of our neighbors, as church communities live in ways that point to the economy of the Kingdom of God, so to speak, we begin to live concrete lives of witness that not only challenge, but invite our neighbors to discover the King who sets us free.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

 

 

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

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

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

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

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

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

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

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

 I hate them with complete hatred;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead-End Distinctions?

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

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

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

‘Hate’ and Hate 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God and ‘God’ 

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

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

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

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

Love and ‘Love’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Care

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

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

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

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

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

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner? Two Parables, Same Jesus, Same God

Jesus and the crowdsIf you’ve been reading this blog for more than a short amount of time you’ll know one of my consistent themes is the importance of a multi-layered, non-reductionistic view of the God of Israel. Heck, I just wrote about that yesterday. The Scriptures don’t present a flat portrait of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so neither should we.

One of the most popular ways of flattening and distorting our picture of God is through the violent/peaceful, or loving/wrathful dichotomy. While in the past this was done in a more straight Old Testament v. New Testament split, contemporary proponents focus more on what Andrew Wilson has called the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. Essentially, you take the person of Jesus, or the peaceful teachings of Jesus as you understand them, and then propose to strain out whatever bits of the OT, or even the NT, contradict the loving portrait of God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus’ picture of a Fatherly, non-violent, ‘Abba’-God who loves his enemies to the death ought to be normative, relativizing all other portrayals (even those in Scripture) in light of its purity and ultimacy.

Let me be clear here: I’m all for Jesus being the ultimate revelation of God. I’m also all for reading the OT and the NT through the person and work of Christ, as Andrew and I have said before. But it’s important that we actually pay attention to all of Jesus’ teachings, because more often than not they cut across our too-simple dichotomies and boxes. Take for instance his presentation of God in the parables.

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner?

Most of us are familiar with his teaching on the parable of the prodigal son, or rather, the two lost sons (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus here teaches us about the astounding, category-shattering grace of the Father for his lost sons. Both prodigals and Pharisaic humbuggers are invited to experience the humbling, forgiving, and astonishing love of God. He truly is an ‘Abba’, a Father we can run to despite our worst sins, fears, failures, and shames, who take us up and embrace, covering us in the finest robes of his righteousness and restoring us to full rights as sons and daughters. God here holds no grudges, suffers shame in our place, and reveals his welcoming and inclusive heart. We need this parable. need this parable. It’s one that I cling to and teach joyfully to my students on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s another parable later in the same Gospel, that doesn’t get quite as much airplay when talking about the kind of Father Jesus reveals. I’ll quote it in full here:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said,

“What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
(Luke 20:9-18)

Here Jesus tells a parable against the religious leaders of his day and in this too he speaks of God the Father. He teaches first of mercy and grace of God in the person of the vineyard owner who continually sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, to warn wayward Israel and especially the tenants who were supposed to be keeping watch over, but instead wickedly spurn his cautions and entreaties. Finally, as a great act of mercy and peacemaking, he sends his own Son, the heir to all that he has to plead with them and turn from their ways. But what do they do? They kill him in hopes of holding on to power.

What then does Jesus say the vineyard owner will do in response?

“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

God the great Vineyard Owner is also He whom Jesus came to reveal. God is merciful, long-suffering even to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies. And yet, he will not suffer them forever. If they will not repent, or seek the pardon made available in the Son, he will put a just end to their violence and injustice.

This is Regular Thing

What’s more, this angle on God isn’t a bizarre aberration in his teaching in the parables. We find Jesus’ parable of the Great Wedding Feast where those who don’t come, or come without the proper dress, are cast out into the darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). Or again, the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart”(Matthew 18:21-35).

I remember being shocked the summer I taught through them with my students as story after story he gives us both the grace, mercy, and a significant dose of the judgment of God. I guess I shouldn’t have. Sounds just like the God of the Old Testament and the rest of the New.

Returning again to the parable of the Wicked Tenants, in itself it forms an argument against narrowly restricting our Jesus hermeneutic solely to the time of his first coming. There’s Dominical warrant for the idea that we must read his peaceful first coming alongside his more forceful Second Coming where he will, as the creed puts it, ‘judge the quick and the dead.’

From angle after angle, then, these overly-restrictive ‘Jesus’ hermeneutics end up falling against the stone of the Son and dashing themselves to pieces.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Ridiculous Entry into Jerusalem

ridiculous entryToday we begin Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry, by celebrating Palm Sunday and his Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Here is the standard account in Matthew:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matt. 21:1-9)

To ears trained by a couple thousand years of church history to hear these Hosannas as those of glorious choirs, and the donkey as a dignified steed, we miss the glorious irony of this most ridiculous of all entries. John Calvin highlights how foolish the whole thing would have been:

This would have been a ridiculous display, if it had not been in accordance with the prediction of Zechariah, (9:9.) In order to lay claim to the honors of royalty, he enters Jerusalem, riding an ass. A magnificent display, truly! more especially when the ass was borrowed from some person, and when the want of a saddle and of accouterments compelled the disciples to throw their garments on it, which was mark of mean and disgraceful poverty. He is attended, I admit, by a large retinue; but of what sort of people? Of those who had hastily assembled from the neighboring villages. Sounds of loud and joyful welcome are heard; but from whom? From the very poorest, and from those who belong to the despised multitude. One might think, therefore, that he intentionally exposed himself to the ridicule of all.

And yet, this was necessary because:

…in consequence of the time of his death being at hand, he intended to show, by a solemn performance, what was the nature of his kingdom. So then, as his removal to heaven was at hand, he intended to commence his reign openly on earth….But as he had two things to do at the same time, — as he had to exhibit some proof of his kingdom, and to show that it does not resemble earthly kingdoms, and does not consist of the fading riches of this world, it was altogether necessary for him to take this method. (Harmony of the Gospels, Vol 2, Comment on Matthew 21:1)

This is the way the King came announcing his kingdom: in humility, poverty, absurdity, and weakness. And yet, because of this, we see all the more clearly that it “does not consist in the fading riches of this world.” The gold and the pomp we might have expected would have only obscured the true glory of our King.

So then, as we sing our hosannas today, and lift our palms to the King of glory, let us recall his humble, and, indeed, ridiculous entry into Jerusalem.

Soli Deo Gloria

And This is Why I Read Bavinck: Jesus–the Miracle of History

Jesus 3Yesterday I posted a killer Gospel quote by Calvin that basically sums up the glory of Christ in the Gospel and simultaneously explains why I read him so much. I ran across a passage in Bavinck over the weekend that similarly serves to point us to Christ, and hopeful whets your appetite to read him:

The coming of Christ is the turning point of the ages. Grouped around his person is a new cycle of miracles. He himself is the absolute miracle, descended from above, and yet the true and complete human. In him, in principle, the creation has been restored, again raised from its fall to its pristine glory. His miracles are the signs (semeia) of the presence of God, proof of the messianic era (Matt. 11:3-5; 12:28; Luke 13:16), a part of his messianic labor. In Christ there appears a divine power (dynamis) that is stronger than all the corrupting and destructive power of sin. This latter power he attacks, not only peripherally by healing diseases and performing all kinds of miracles, but centrally, by penetrating the core, breaking and overcoming them. His incarnation and satisfaction, his resurrection and ascension are God’s great deeds of redemption. They are in principle the restoration of the kingdom of glory. These facts of salvation are not only means of revelation by are the revelation of God himself. Miracle here becomes history, and history itself is a miracle. The person and work of Christ is the central revelation of God; all other revelation is grouped around this center.

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 339

Soli Deo Gloria