To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and a whole bunch of other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something a perichoretic overload.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think, Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in personality, and establishing a fairly standard Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then, he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. At that point, when the dance image gets invoked, it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

Answering Jacobs’ Questions On False Teaching and Teachers

false-teachers

I think this is the standard blog image for false teaching posts. No watch-blogger should be without it.

What follows is a reply to the always-thoughtful Alan Jacobs who replied to Andrew Wilson who replied at TGC to his follow-up to a post by Steve Holmes after ETS. Go ahead and read those before proceeding.

Jacobs says Andrew has avoided the most important questions he raised about how we adjudicate disputes about sex ethics in the Church. Jacobs then lists five rather lengthy ones. Andrew has responded a bit on Twitter, but since I’ve gotten too big for my britches lately, I figured I’d give it a bit of a go myself.

First, though, I’ll answer as proposed, but I want to offer a re-situation or two at the end that I think matter. So do please stick around. 

Q & A on Protestant Problems

Jacobs #1: How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture, which we are all guilty of, and “false teaching”?

Carefully.

But seriously, this basically goes back to the very old issue of establishing what deviations in teaching count as heresy as well as the importance of dogmatic rank (first tier, second tier, etc.) as a concept in theology. At that point, the question is sifting how nested a particular teaching is within the broader fabric of Christian theology, and what implications it has for our basic gospel confession. It’s not an easy one, but presumably the same process that is used for sifting through disputed matters in Christology can likely apply here as well.

It takes deep study of Scripture, discernment, listening to the Church through history, prayer, and patience. Because this teaching hasn’t been challenged for nearly 2,000 years of church history, we maybe haven’t had to explicitly draw all the lines between these doctrines, but the process is not new by a long shot. 

Jacobs #2: How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture and sin? (Presumably not all errors are the product of sin, though some are.)

Again, carefully.

The problem is that the question is so fuzzy. Your error in interpreting Scripture might be a result of a willful desire to avoid what Scripture says–a somewhat conscious suppression of the truth a la Romans 1–or it might be much softer. Your sin may lie much farther back, layered over with broader plausibility structures, family dynamics, and personal histories that have levels of guilt within them, but are not directly leading you to twist the truth. Unraveling that mess takes more insight into the human heart than most of us have.

Now, I do think there are smaller, mid-level, “non-sinful” errors. But the question I wonder about for Jacobs is whether we are ever culpable for our “good-faith” beliefs? So we might, through a series of unfortunate educational events, come to believe the Bible teaches polytheism. And we believe this “honestly” and in “good faith.” This is an “error” in interpretation. All the same, this belief is materially gross idolatry and sin, despite the fact that you arrived at it in conscious honesty. The belief itself is what is objectionable and culpable beyond the processes by which you arrived at it and the earnestness with which you pursued the question. 

It takes care, then, but it seems that sort of judgment can and must be made at points.  

Jacobs #3: How do we distinguish between the accountability of those who promote erroneous interpretations and the accountability of those who believe those interpretations? (The argument that those who affirm same-sex unions are “leading people onto the highway to hell” implies that God will damn people for being badly catechized. That’s an implication that requires some scrutiny.)

As Andrew pointed out online, James 3 has some things to say about this. I would also think the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, etc), which lay out the qualifications for elders and teachers in the church, do as well. Applied more broadly, theses might be expanded to include theology professors as “doctors” of the church.

The distinction between teachers and others matters and I’m glad Jacobs raised it. There is a great deal of difference between those who are confused in the pews and those doing the confusing. But honestly, I don’t think this is as complicated as Jacobs seems to imply by raising it as an issue Andrew has just brushed past. Presumably Andrew has a functional theology of teachers and eldership that’s in play. 

Beyond that, Jacobs raises the point that Andrew’s position might suggest that someone could end up damned because they were badly catechized. I think Jacobs has put the question badly and brought us back around again to the previous answer. Will people be held account because they were badly catechized, or rather is it because of the grievous practices they engaged in, in part, because they were badly catechized?

Yes, Scripture holds teachers to a higher account. But it seems to hold everyone to some account. God warns Ezekiel that he will be accountable for the blood of anyone he does not warn, but he never says that he will be accountable in the place of that person (Ezekiel 33). He will be accountable alongside them for the sin of not holding them accountable for the grievous sins he should have.  

Now, I do think Lewis’ comment in Mere Christianity likely is on the mark. God will judge us differently according to our time, place, upbringing, socio-historical context, and so forth. It’s plausible to think that for many in the pews, and even some in the pulpits, the intellectual conditions under which we live make certain errors more likely and less culpable than if they were made in other times and places. But not entirely.

This brings us to Andrew’s article listing out the various consequences for flagrant disobedience. The point wasn’t simply to argue against “antinomianism” in general, but rather to call attention to the fact that Scripture connects the violation of specific commands with the threat of disqualification from the kingdom of God in a way that presumably doesn’t violate sola fide, in which case Holmes’ appeal to it doesn’t quite settle the matter.

It may be that there is a different level of culpability in God’s sight for certain violations according to time, place, and so forth. But that’s not anything to bank on when we have very forceful, very direct texts on the subject.

Jacobs #4: While, as Andrew points out, there are many passages in Scripture that emphasize the importance of correcting erroneous teaching and calling out sinful behavior, under what circumstances may we say that someone who teaches error, or who commits certain sins habitually, is not a Christian at all and that we must say so? If we do believe that we can and should make this judgment, how then do we interpret the parable of the wheat and the weeds?

This question is a good one, but again, I’m somewhat puzzled by it, simply because it’s just the question, “How should we practice church discipline?” under a different form. It seems relevant to point out that the same Jesus who told the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13) is also the one who gave us instructions for how to deal with a sinful brother in the context of the Church and gave the disciples the power to bind and loose (Matt. 18). He also empowered his apostles to give some instruction on the matter (1 Cor. 5, etc.). I personally have found Calvin’s warnings against ecclesial perfectionism or libertinism to strike a pastoral and eschatologically-realistic balance (see the Institutes Book 4, chapters 1 & 2). 

Of course, these are prudential judgments on the basis of Scripture to be made with fear and trembling. What’s more, they’re best made in an ecclesial setting. And thankfully, most ecclesiastical traditions with ethicists, ecclesiologists, canon lawyers, etc. seem to have a lot of material on the books in that respect. 

Jacobs #5: Presumably those who denounce interpreters who affirm same-sex unions as false teachers who are leading people on the highway to hell would readily acknowledge that they themselves are sinners — but redeemed sinners; people not on the broad path that leads to destruction but on the narrow way that leads to salvation. How do they distinguish between their sins and those they are denouncing? Why does Jesus’s contrast between the speck in your brother’s eye and the long in your own not apply to them?

I think Jacobs muddies things a bit with a general appeal to “we’re all sinners” moving to “what makes your sin different from theirs?” There may be all sorts of things. Two seem particularly relevant.

The first is that those doing the denouncing may be sinners in all sorts of ways (arrogant, angry, boastful, etc) and yet not actually be teaching anybody to do such things. At least not explicitly. They may be awful examples, but given that the conversation is about false teaching, there is a relevant difference between being a glutton and an Arian. And so with respect to the charge of false teaching, that their sin is not a species of teaching (true or false) seems important.

The second and main answer to this question–and I do wonder somewhat at its status as a question and not a rhetorical jab–is whether those sins are being repented of or not. That’s probably the biggest and major difference between them. Hopefully the teachers who are doing the “denouncing” are not falling afoul of Paul’s warning in Romans 2 against hypocritical condemnation. 

In the context of teaching, that means that if someone comes to them and corrects them on a point of doctrine and interpretation where they are wrong, then they will repent, turn from this teaching, and teach something else. So if they find out about a speck or a log, hopefully they’re plucking it out–even if it feels like taking an eye–in order that they might not lead any of Christ’s little ones astray.

Of course, that doesn’t settle the question entirely, because we’re still left with the issue of “who says?”

But this is where I have to admit I’m just a bit puzzled over all the questions in general. For taken together they are essentially the question of Protestantism, Scripture, and ecclesial authority. They’re real questions, mind you. (And if you don’t mind, here’s a shameless plug for my advisor’s new book on just that issue!) But they’re not new by a long shot. I have a suspicion it’s mainly the pastoral difficulty of the presenting issue (sexual practice) that makes it seem very different and tempts us to pose them that way.

Warning Brothers Who Teach Falsely Against Becoming False Teachers

Now, I have been talking as if I am very strong and rigid and clear on all of this. In practice, I’m not really. I have friends and acquaintances that I love talking to and engaging who believe all sorts of things I disagree with–heresies, false teaching, variances of opinions, etc. I’m not very interested in running around and labeling them heretics, cutting them off, or wagging my finger at them. I like getting along and I haven’t found that waving a big stick is all that effective in conversation anyways. (Though, a good scrap from time to time…) 

I too am skittish about drawing a straight line between someone teaching something false and calling them a “false teacher” in an absolute sense–as if that is the determinative judgment upon them for now and into eternity. I’m reminded of the fact that Abraham Kuyper was once a resurrection-denying heretic in school and that gives me pause. It also gives me hope to patiently pray, argue, and engage with people I have profound disagreements with on serious issues. 

That said, my question for Jacobs is whether it’s possible for us to look our friends in the eye, the ones we honestly believe love Jesus deeply, and say, “Look, I’m not calling you a false teacher, but what you are teaching is false–dangerously so. And if you persist, if continue down this course, instructing others in this way, you will indeed be a false teacher. And that is a heavy thing for which God will hold you eventually accountable. This is not simply an ‘agree to disagree’ issue.” (Incidentally, that’s part of what was at issue in ETS having a panel that, intentionally or not, functionally treated the issue of same-sex relationships as if it was in that category.)

I think we have to be able to say something like this warning to our friends who are teachers, or we ignore the weight of the warnings against false teaching in Scripture. One text I have been thinking of is Romans 1. Not verses 26-28, but verse 32 which follows the broader vice list condemning the Gentiles, not only for practicing all the vices listed, but precisely because they “give approval to those who practice them.” It is against such things that Paul says the wrath of God is being revealed. 

Or again, I think of Galatians 2, a text which Jacobs rightly raises in his first post. He uses the example of Paul confronting Peter as an example of lovingly confronting someone in deep error, not walking in conformity with the gospel, but yet confronting him as a brother. I want to say that’s a good word and an excellent example.

But what I wonder about is what would have happened had Peter persisted in that error and enabled the Judaizers to mislead the sheep? What if Peter continued to refuse fellowship with the Gentiles even if only for fear of the Judaizers and not even agreement? Do we not think Paul would have eventually looked at him and said, “You are falling under the anathema of God for denying the Gospel and giving place to those who do” (Gal. 1:8-9)?

Those are the questions I’d be curious to see Jacobs answer. Indeed, they’re the questions all of us with teaching voices in the Church will eventually have to answer.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Election and So Forth

Mere FiWe decided it was a good idea to talk about the Election and what it means. We had the full cast and crew for this one to talk about our reactions,the implications for the church in North American, Evangelical witness, as well as our responsibilities as Christians, disciples, neighbors, and so forth. We hope this will be a challenge and an encouragement. We know it was for us.

By the way, Alastair has written an absurd amount of analysis on the election.

Here are a few posts: 10 Sets of Questions to Ask Before Voting For Donald TrumpThe Social Crisis of Distrust and Untruth in America and EvangelicalismHow Social Justice Ideology Gave Us Donald TrumpFurther Thoughts: How Social Justice Ideology Fuels Racism and SexismA Crisis of Discourse—Part 1: Cracks in the Progressive Left, and A Crisis of Discourse—Part 2: A Problem of Gender.

Agree or disagree, there’s always plenty to think about with Roberts.

Well, here it is.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

“Jesus Came To Die”: Notes on a Gospel-Twitter Spat

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Debates on theological Twitter are somewhat Sisyphean affairs. You have 140 characters per tweet to lay out your position, or parts of it, which means that inevitably something’s going to be lacking in precision or comprehensive balance. One such spat flared when Bethany Jenkins, one of TGC’s editors tweeted, “Yes, Jesus is compassionate, kind, & just. But centering our faith on his ethical teachings is dangerous. He came to die. That’s the gospel.”

This set Twitter aflame with much consternation and quote-tweeting. I don’t know how many people I saw, especially on the Progressive/Post-Evangelical Left, referencing the tweet and commenting on what a muddle it was, or how it was perpetuating troubling dichotomies between Christ’s life and death, or ethics and theology, etc. And I get it to a degree.

Bad gospel dichotomies do happen. I have read Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, and plenty of N.T. Wright, so I know all about the dangers of sidelining the gospel of the kingdom, or turning it into a mere transactional accomplishment, neglecting the resurrection, and so forth.

And if that’s what I thought Jenkins was doing, I might be shaking my head alongside everyone else. We must not be reductionists about the person and work of Christ. The good news is truly cosmic in scope.

But was it, really? I don’t think so.

Savior, then Teacher

Allowing for the limitations of Twitter as a medium, I saw this and took it to mean something along the lines of, “Christ must be a Savior before he is our Teacher, otherwise you’ll be set up for failure.” Essentially it was a very short warning against the kind of move that has been made for years–trying to take Jesus as a Teacher, but not as a Savior. And if you scroll down the Twitter thread, Jenkins clarified something along those lines. I suppose others didn’t take the time.

Now, the issue Jenkins is addressing is a perennial problem. J. Gresham Machen warned against it in Christianity and Liberalism. You might see some of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans as a broadside against Liberalism’s reduction of the gospel to FOGBOM ethics (Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man). C.S. Lewis formulated his famous “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument in Mere Christianity against it. More recently, Tim Keller’s always going on about how if you take Jesus as an example without accepting him as a Lord, it will crush you. Mostly because without forgiveness, the power of the Holy Spirit–the gifts of God’s unique, saving work in Christ–you simply can’t live out Jesus’ kingdom-ethics.

Reaching farther back, Martin Luther said something similar in his preface to the Gospels, “What to Look For and Expect In the Gospels.” He says we are to read the Gospels and see two levels in its teaching about Christ. He is our example as well as our gift. But there is an order:

The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself. See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.

As the saying goes, the gospel is good news, not good advice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we forgo taking Christ as an example, or taking up our own cross, or attempting to live the kingdom-life that he modeled. No, he continues:

Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things. Therefore make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian.

In which case, you can see the motive for frontloading Christ’s work as Savior before we get to Christ’s work as Teacher. That would just be to turn Christ “into another Moses” as Luther put it–in his very Lutheran way.

On “The Gospel” and Shorthand

Okay, so maybe you can go along with all of this, but what about reducing the gospel to “Jesus came to die”? Well, a few points.

First, as we already noted, it is Twitter. It’s a limited format. You can’t say everything all at once. I can’t even do that in this blog.

Second, scholars argue about the lexical range of the term “gospel” all the time. In the NT, we have it variously associated with the kingdom, his death, his resurrection, etc. often without mention of the other elements. I think one helpful way of thinking about it is understanding that you can talk about the broader content of the gospel (the kingdom of God, new life, reconciliation, etc) as well as its narrower enactment, or the means by which it is made available (Jesus’ unique, saving life, death, and resurrection). The word has some flex to it.

Third, even within that, older theologians like Calvin note that Paul and others will often invoke one element of the story of Christ as a stand-in for the whole. It’s a metonymy (or synechdoche, which I always confuse). So, Paul will talk about knowing “Christ and him crucified” among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2), when surely he talked to them about Christ and him crucified, risen, and ascended as a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-7).  In Pauline usage, at least, the cross implies the resurrection and vice versa.

In which case, it seems perfectly fine in a loose context to speak of Jesus coming to die as a stand-in for the whole of his work as its culminating climax. Paul spoke of justification and eternal life coming through “one act of righteousness” (Romans 5:18). Indeed, it’s particularly fitting if the point you’re trying to make is the unique, punctiliar nature of Christ’s work accomplished on our behalf.

Jesus himself, right before being handed over to be crucified, prayed before the Father and “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).

Surely nobody would accuse Paul or Christ of being reductionists about Christ’s gospel? Well, then in that case, it seems permissible from time to time to speak of it in a focused, metonymic way.

Especially on Twitter.

Interpreting Like Jesus 

I don’t usually write posts about Twitter spats, but Jenkins is a friend and I have to say, I found the multiple-person, Twitter-mobbing, pile-on to be unfair (even if some were more reasonable and inquisitive than others). I suppose this is something of an exercise and a plea for interpretive charity. Especially across tribal lines. To paraphrase a textually-questionable saying of Christ’s “Let he who is without Twitter-infelicities cast the first @.”

Or drawing from Jesus’ ethics more positively, “read as you’d like to be read.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Voting and Getting Along After the Election (w/ John Stonestreet)

Mere FiThis week we finally decided to take up the election, so we had the President of the Colson Center, John Stonestreet, on to chat with us. The election will be here in two weeks, so the we figured it was about time.  More specifically, we took up a couple of related questions. First, what are some of the ethical issues involved for particular voters? What should people be pondering as we enter the voting booth?

The other, possibly more interesting one was what are we going to do with each other after the election. Tensions have run high among Christians this year. The behavior of some of our putative leaders has surprised and appalled us. What will reconciliation look like on the other side? What about responsibility? We might forgive, but need we trust them?

We hope this conversation sheds more light than it does heat.

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Soli Deo Gloria

The End of Protestant Denominationalism and the Beginning of Regionalism?

end-of-prot-2According to Peter Leithart, the history of God’s people is a process of being creatively torn apart and put back together again in new, complex, more holistic ways. With each stage in the LORD’s dealing with his people, beginning from Adam after the fall, Noah after the Flood, Moses after the Exodus, down on into the present, there are separations and reunions. These result in new forms of arrangement, liturgy, and worship according to God’s good pleasure. Single sacrifices become altars, altars become Tabernacle, Tabernacle becomes Temple, Temple becomes Christ, Christ becomes Church, and so forth. Biblical history moves from “glory to glory” in that regard.

In Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, he argues the time has come for American Protestants to recognize that we must move forward once again.  While we should gratefully acknowledge the role denominations have played in God’s good history, they could only ever have been a temporary configuration. Jesus prayed to his Father for unity, but denominations institutionalize division, even if it’s a friendly one, that fails to display the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. And so we know another form of the church—a more unified one—is still to come.

Against the backdrop of church history, biblical theology, and discussions of the global and contemporary church, Leithart wants to offer up an interim program for Protestants (since he knows Catholics and Orthodox probably aren’t listening). He calls them to abandon their tribalism and to pursue a program of reform and ecumenism at the national, international, and local levels to help lead towards the church of the future. His vision is of a “Reformational Catholicism” that calls us to live out now what we will one day surely be.

In some ways, this amounts to calling for an “end of Protestantism.” It is its end insofar as it calls Protestants to die to the identity of being “not Catholics” or “not Orthodox.” It’s also its end in that it may result in new reforms, reunifications, and configurations that aren’t exactly “Protestant” in the way we typically recognize the concept. Finally, it’s the “end” of Protestantism in that it would fulfill what Leithart takes to be the initial thrust of the Reformers—the reformation of the worship of the Church of God according to the Word of God.

Appreciating the End

As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his blurb, “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book.” I was going to work my way through slowly, but I consumed it quickly this week, as the argument was engaging, the language fecund, and the theology provocative.

Typically, theologians find a natural partner in philosophical analysis, but Leithart mixes things up. One of Leithart’s unique gifts is the way he creatively sets biblical-theology conversation with sociological and anthropological sources. Indeed, those prove to be some of his most interesting sections in the work.

Two sections in his critique of denominationalism stand out as particularly helpful. First, I found his retrieval of H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the “social sources of denominationalism” (along the lines of race, class, culture) to be quite illuminating. Especially since he picks up and summarizes some of the most important work along those lines since then.

Also trenchant is his critique of the way the system of American denominationalism has capitulated and simply gone along with the American system. It’s tendency to allow denominations to play nice while not actually grappling with doctrinal differences fosters a civic religion that (counter-intuitively), plays down doctrine, practice, and therefore witness in the world. There is much to heed in this analysis.

Leithart’s section canvassing developments in the global church is another section worth pondering. This involves a survey of the varying forms of Pentecostalism growing worldwide, not all of which fit neatly under the moniker of “Protestant.” More interesting still are some of the unique new Christian sects (and cults) coming out of the African and Asian contexts, which creatively hybrid liturgical elements, theologies of healing, new festivals, and authority structures. New churches are being born whose members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions that don’t easily map into our typical boxes of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

In a sense, Leithart is calling us to realize that ripping and tearing, the unpredictable reunifications of the future are already happening around us. In which case, not only do we need to start taking the global church seriously as a theological conversation partner, we ought to be prepared to think about Christianity beyond the paradigm of American denominationalism. Whether you buy Leithart’s prescription or not, he’s surely correct in drawing our attention to the ecclesial significance of what’s happening outside our too-narrow, American imaginations.

Beyond that, his sociologist’s (and pastor’s) eye for the local situation, leads to any number of important insights that pastors and theologians looking to preach and pastor their people well in the 21st Century would do well to heed.

A Fuzzy, Regional End?

With all that said, I have to admit, I left the book feeling a bit…fuzzy. Leithart’s very upfront about the fact that he’s prognosticating future not easily pictured. Unsurprisingly, his imagined vision of a “Reformed Church” can feel like a jumble of open paradoxes. It’s sort of like asking to help plan for the 50th anniversary of a confirmed bachelor.

Of course, Leithart is too smart to be a foolish utopian. He openly owns that many, if not most, of his suggestions for implementing his “interim” ethic may just make things a bit messier in the meantime. There’s no guarantee. Which renders Leithart’s proposal pre-emptively impervious to critique. He’s probably conceded that any number of my worries are indeed possible, but insists that we should try anyways.

All the same, I think it’s worth imagining our way through some of his suggestions to see some potential problems down the road.

Among his many proposals, Leithart advocates an ecumenical Reformational Catholicism for pastors that involves a number of moves on the local level. Let’s imagine it for a minute.

Caught up in Leithart’s vision, the pastors from a number of local churches in Milwaukee from different traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran) start to meet, pray, and read the Scriptures together. Because Leithart rightly insists that doctrine matters, they have face to face debate and dialogue about real theological difference ready to receive wisdom as they try to share joint projects, and so forth. These go well enough they even reach the point where they work towards a common confession of faith, recognizing each other’s baptisms, sharing communion. They even take up the suggestion to form a local council of “Nicene Churches” for shared ministry, discipline, local political witness, and so forth. Overcoming their antithetical institutional identities, they’ve formed a functioning “micro-Christendom” within the city.

Here’s where my questions start.

Now that you’ve got this metropolitan gathering of pastors established, presumably there’s a strong chance some pastors in the same neighborhood did not sign on. Maybe they don’t share the Reformational Catholic vision. Or, maybe they do to a degree. But because Leithart (rightly) insists these conversations around doctrine are happening in light of tradition, history, and Scripture, despite all the prayer, meetings, and readings, one chap happens to stay confessionally Presbyterian.

And this not because he can’t imagine life as a “not-Catholic.” Perhaps he has read all the literature, but he still doesn’t think that New Perspective has brought us all that much closer to the Roman church on justification. Or on papal authority. Or the Mass. Or the saints. In other words, it’s not because he’s been squinting when reading all of the awkward verses in James, but because he thinks his tradition read James properly.

And yet half the neighborhood’s pastors are joining the lovely, new Reformational-Anglo-Catholic-Pentecostal Presbytery of Milwaukee. Including a couple of his fellows in the local Presbyterian Presbytery (who are now very excited about being Reformational Catholics and not every much about being Presbyterians). What of their unity? Or I wonder what the other Presbyteries will think of these councils at the General Assembly? Why is the local, Reformational Catholic unity more important than local or national denominational unity? (Rinse and repeat for the Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and so forth.)

I also wonder what happens with those practicing the sort of Reformational Catholicity Leithart is advocating in a different city, with a different makeup of pastors? The group in Milwaukee trends more Anglo-Catholic due to presence of several Anglican rectors in attendence, but the one in Topeka starts to look very Pentecostal and Baptistic. And who knows what’s been going on in the Portland region? So now we have new “Reformational Catholic” churches coming to a regional unity that varies from region to region. How do they start to get along?

In other words, I suspect Leithart’s suggestion for local reunion can’t help but initiate and institutionalize series of different divisions across the board. As these new “Reformational Catholic” congregations unite together, they end up becoming divided from their sister churches within the denomination within the same city that don’t share the vision, as well as from their national bodies. On top of that, they’ve set themselves on course to fall into a nascent regionalism of “micro-Christendoms” developing, possibly at cross-trends.

And this is a serious thing. One of the goods of national and international denominations, despite the social sources that may have originally helped form them, is that they keep us in contact with people who do not share all of our same, local myopias, temptations, and tendencies towards shared, cultural drift. Ironically enough, the regional Reformational catholicity of local metropolitan groups, if carried out in this fashion, may end up making them more parochial in a way that national and international denominations and communions help push back against.

My point here is that even if a large portion of the Protestant church in America, and even globally, signs on to become Leithartian Reformational Catholics, you’ve basically created a big, shiny, new polyglot (linguistically, theologically, liturgically), regionalist denomination that will exist alongside of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Anabaptists. Now, it might be the best, the most biblical, missionally-contextual, and deepest of all, but a new denomination it will be nonetheless.  And I only see things being exacerbated by the various global movements Leithart has charted.

I’m all for recognizing each other’s communions, being charitable, mutual prayer, and a host of the proposals Leithart makes. But I’m left wondering if this is really step ahead towards unity in comparison to the friendly relations between local ministries that often already exists in current denominationalism? Only this time, on top of denominational paperwork you have to do, you’ve got local, metropolitan paperwork as well.

I suppose my main impression is that many of his stimulating programmatic suggestions might work best if we had assumed a different, more classically Protestant sort of unity in the first place.And, of course, that would take rehabilitating and retrieving some of our Mere Protestant theological instincts.

Conclusion

While there is more to appreciatively explore as well as critique, I’ll leave things here and simply say that, as always, Leithart has offered up a stimulating meditation worth attending for all those who care about the future of the local and the global church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Is It Harder For Younger Generations to Commit to the Church? (TGC Video)

A few months ago, I was asked to film a couple of videos with The Gospel Coalition on working with young adults. In this one, I try to answer the question, “Why Is It Harder for Younger Generations to Commit to the Church?” I also try to seem not-awkward when talking direct to camera. Not sure how successful that was. Anyways, here’s the video.

Soli Deo Gloria