The Church Failed Millennials, Just Not in the Way You Think (CaPC)

churchIf you hadn’t already heard, millennials are leaving the church in droves leaving many church leaders scratching their heads as to what to do about it. Rachel Held Evans came out with a piece on CNN.com stepping into the gap to explain why they are leaving Apparently it struck a nerve; it was shared over 170,000 times. Speaking as the voice of a generation, she raised issues like our exhaustion with the culture wars, poor handling of teaching on sexuality, gay marriage, science and religion, and putative weakness on social justice. Instead, millennials want, and need, a deeper encounter with Jesus.

Of course, as the college and young adult guy at my church, as well as a millennial myself (freshly 27), I read her piece and the follow-up with great interest. I saw a number of those 170,000 shares in my Facebook feed, with loud cries of “Amen!” and some disgruntled nay-saying. I probably uttered both as I read it. While there were a number of insightfulreassuringly critical, and helpful interactions with her piece, addressed to the churches and readers in general, I wanted to briefly address myself more directly to my fellow millennials here.

You can read the rest of my piece at Christ and Pop Culture.

5 Tips for Finding Your Theological Balance

TightropeIf I had to name my theological pet peeves, right near the top would be what I’ve called pendulum-swing theology. You grow up hearing one particular view of something, you get sick of it, and you swing to the opposite extreme. Grow up a hyper-Calvinist, something happens and you swing to Open Theism. This happens a lot in atonement theology too. Sometimes when Evangelicals who’ve grow up on a steady diet of penal substitutionary preaching find out that Jesus did some other things, like defeat the powers, demonstrate God’s love, and so forth, instead of integrating them all into a holistic doctrine of reconciliation, they end up chucking PSA altogether.  Luther described the history of theology as a drunk man getting on his horse only to fall off the other side, only to repeat the process. This irks me.

Of course this means that finding even-handed treatments of just about any subject is one of my greatest delights. A sense for balance is one of the highest virtues a theologian can possess, while a lack of balance is a serious vice. In trinitarian theology, focusing on God’s oneness over his threeness, or vice versa, leads to either modalism or tritheism, neither of which really works well with the Gospel. Actually, they both destroy it. In Christology, the Chalcedonian definition is bedrock because it keeps us from tipping into an overemphasis of the Son’s divinity or his humanity to the exclusion or distortion of the other. Again, lose your balance, you lose the Gospel. God is both immanent and transcendent–tip one way or the other and you end up either in a soggy pantheism or a cold deism, neither of which leads to Gospel. You see how that works?

Now, that said, it’s important that we be balanced even our love of balance in theology. Bruce Ware explains this for us in his foreword to Rob Lister’s excellent, balanced book on the doctrine of impassibility:

Theological balance, like physical balance, is normally a sign of health and well-being. The reason such balance is “normally” but not exclusively best is simply that, in some situations, imbalance is clearly required. So physically, balancing equally on both legs with sustained upright posture is normally best, yet if one wishes to dive into a swimming pool, one must embrace the imbalance of leaning altogether forward–a position that if done “normally” would result in endless bloody noses and skull fractures. –God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion, pg 16

In all sorts of areas then, balance is good. Sometimes, though, there is no balance to be had. Ware reminds us specifically of the Reformation solas. Christ is not one among many mediators, or else he is not Savior. We aren’t saved by by divine grace and our own human merit and if faith is supplemented by works, the Gospel is confused with Law. It can’t be God’s glory and ours. And, of course, as soon as we elevate other authorities alongside of Scripture, we begin to lose sight of this.

No, there are times when balance is no virtue, but a Gospel-destroying vice. The Gospel requires a few head-long plunges. In other words, a true sense of balance will recognize that there are times for both/ands and times for either/ors. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial to avoiding heresy and preserving the Gospel. Finding your theological balance can be difficult, so here are five tips for those still in process:

  1. Read your Bible like crazy. I mean, really, you can’t know the Scriptures too well. And by “knowing the Scriptures” I don’t just mean the canon within a canon you’ve chosen for yourself out of 3 of Paul’s epistles and a Gospel, or the book of James and Matthew. Get a few prophets, OT narratives, and maybe some Torah in there. God gave us 66 books to reveal himself, so ignoring bits will inevitably leave you off-balance. Get this one wrong and the rest won’t matter.
  2. Read more than one theologian. Focusing on that one pastor or thinker you found that you connect to, to the exclusion of all others is a recipe for imbalance. As a limited, fallible human, they’re going to be myopic somewhere. Expand your horizons a bit. Read outside your tradition a bit. Maybe even wander outside your century. Who knows what gems you’ll find.
  3. Read the key irenic, broad-focused theologians. Every theologian has their hobby-horses and pet issues, but some are well-known for their controversies and some for their broad, even-keeled treatments of issues. Look for those theologians who are widely consulted even across traditional boundaries. If there’s a Methodist or Catholic being quoted by a Reformed theologian, like a Thomas Oden, go ahead and pick him up.
  4. Read the key polemical theologians. I’ve recently set myself the task of reading some of the key theologians in the early church controversies. Ireneaus against the Gnostics, Athanasius against the Arians, Cyril against the Nestorians, Augustine against the Pelagians, and so forth. These teachers demonstrated an ability to defend or preserve some necessary tension, or holy imbalance, in the faith. The ability to defend one issue clearly is often-times a sign of having a good grasp of the whole.
  5. Read about more than one subject. This one should be obvious, but if you fixate on one issue, no matter how central it is, you’ll have balance issues. It’s okay to give sustained attention to key or interesting subjects, but if I’ve only ever read about the cross and never a treatment of the resurrection or the ascension, I’ll have a skewed view of Christ’s person and work. What’s more, usually you won’t have as good of an understanding of the couple of subjects you do study since every doctrine takes it’s meaning within the framework of the whole.

I could easily list more (and if you have any ideas, feel free comment), but the point is, don’t be that drunk guy falling off of his horse. Study widely, read deeply, and constantly check yourself against the whole of Scripture. Do that, and you may just begin to find your balance.

Soli Deo Gloria

“No One Knows the Day or Hour”–Why Keep it a Secret?

secretIn the Gospels Jesus tells us that no one knows the day or the hour of his coming, not even the Son himself (Matthew 24:36), and a good many of us have often wondered why. Why would Jesus keep us in the dark about that sort of thing? It seems awfully important and helpful information to know. In fact, some of us are so curious we try to figure it out anyway, despite Jesus’ warning.

It turns out that people in the early church were curious about those verses as well, but for different reasons. The Arians were in the habit of pointing to it as evidence that Jesus wasn’t divine and coeternal with the Father. How could he be if he didn’t know at what time these things had been ordained to pass? Athanasius has no patience for this and points out, again, that we need to think more deeply about what it means for the Son to take on flesh. He not only assume a human body, but human weakness, hunger, exhaustion, and yes, even ignorance at times. While he knows these things according to his divinity, in the economy he accepted a properly human ignorance for our sakes.

As it happens, though, in answering a Christological challenge, Athanasius sheds some light on another question, like, for instance, why God doesn’t tell us the final day and hour. He gives us two good reasons:

  1. “For it is profitable to you to hear so much [that the Son doesn’t even know] both of the Angels and of the Son, because of the deceivers which shall be afterwards; that though demons should be transfigured as Angels, and should attempt to speak concerning the end, you should not believe, since they are ignorant; and that, if Antichrist too, disguising himself, should say, ‘I am Christ,’ and should try in his turn to speak of that day and end, to deceive the hearers, ye, having these words from Me, ‘No, not the Son,’ may disbelieve him also.
  2. And further, not to know when the end is, or when the day of the end, is expedient for man, lest knowing, they might become negligent of the time between, awaiting the days near the end; for they will argue that then only must they attend to themselves. Therefore also has He been silent of the time when each shall die, lest men, being elated on the ground of knowledge, should forthwith neglect themselves for the greater part of their time…For who, knowing the day of the end, would not be dilatory with the interval? but, if ignorant, would not be ready day by day? It was on this account that the Saviour added, ‘Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come;’ and, ‘In such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh.’ For the advantage then which comes of ignorance has He said this; for in saying it, He wishes that we should always be prepared;”

Four Discourses Against the Arians, 3.49

Jesus wants us to be able to tell false prophets from the true Word of God, and he wants us to be prepared. He knows the schemes of the enemy as well as our weakness, so he gives us protection and encouragement.

These might not be the only reasons God holds back a knowledge of the day and hour of his return, but it’s a good place to start. Quit trying to peer into the day or hour God has appointed by his secret plan, but rather prepare yourself to live at all times in light of his coming, whether it is 2 days or 200 years away.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wait, I Thought N.T. Wright Said That First?

New Creation WrightOne of my favorite things about reading the Reformers, or the Fathers for that matter, is finding that the best insights I’ve loved in modern scholars aren’t really that new at all. Take the concept of ‘new creation.’ For many of us, N.T. Wright is probably the modern scholar who brought our attention to the theology of new creation. At least for me he did. In his many works on Paul, the Resurrection, and Christian Origins, again and again, he calls us to hear the proclamation that in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection all things, the cosmos as a whole, have been renewed. God wasn’t simply concerned with saving souls off to an ethereal heaven, but rather faithfully rescuing the world from the decay into which it had fallen. Resurrection isn’t just for people, but the universe as a whole. This is bracing and beautifully good news.

As great as learning all of that is, however, one of the unfortunate side effects of reading Wright, and other modern scholars, is that we’re tempted to think that cosmic element to the Gospel had been entirely screened out and forgotten until about 20 years ago. And yet, here I ran across it in Calvin’s comments on the Christ-hymn in Colossians:

He is the beginning. As ἀρχὴ is sometimes made use of among the Greeks to denote the end, to which all things bear a relation, we might understand it as meaning, that Christ is in this sense (ἀρχὴ) the end. I prefer, however, to explain Paul’s words thus — that he is the beginning, because he is the first-born from the dead; for in the resurrection there is a restoration of all things, and in this manner the commencement of the second and new creation, for the former had fallen to pieces in the ruin of the first man. As, then, Christ in rising again had made a commencement of the kingdom of God, he is on good grounds called the beginning; for then do we truly begin to have a being in the sight of God, when we are renewed, so as to be new creatures. He is called the first-begotten from the dead, not merely because he was the first that rose again, but because he has also restored life to others, as he is elsewhere called the first-fruits of those that rise again. (1 Corinthians 15:20.)

Comment on Colossians 1:18

Calvin Said it FirstOf course, the concept was biblical first–he is commenting on Paul. In that sense it’s always been silly to think this was a new idea. Still, here we see Calvin, 500-something years ago, teaching us that Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of a ‘new creation.’ Way back when, in the hey-day of the Reformation, back when everybody was allegedly too pre-occupied with debates about justification and the salvation of the soul, one of its chief architects was preaching redemption as the act of the God who made all things and is now restoring them, indeed, bringing them to the completion he had always intended. Go figure.

As grateful as I am for scholars like Wright who highlight these themes, giving them new life, deeper connections to their 2nd Temple historical settings–I’m all for development and additional heft–it’s good to know that you can still go back to the greats of theological history and find most of the framework’s been in place for a long time. Indeed, the Reformers would probably say they’re only repeating what the Fathers taught us. And, of course, the Fathers would probably say they’re only repeating what the Apostles said, pointing us faithfully back to the Scriptures.

All that to say, don’t be scared to pick up a commentary published earlier than 1950, or even 1550 for that matter.

Soli Deo Gloria

Distorted Application Doesn’t Nullify Good Doctrine

Inevitably, something like this was going to be the picture.

Inevitably, something like this was going to be the picture.

In my online forays, I’ve observed that its increasingly common for someone to explicitly reject a doctrine, or the notion of orthodox teaching in general, on the basis of its abuse. You’ll quite often read something along the lines of, “I grew up in a church that had a heavy emphasis on doctrine X (depravity, judgment, sola scriptura, etc.). My pastors and elders used that to berate people, cow them into submission, or excuse horrible evils.” So, now, whenever they hear that, they can’t accept it because they know (feel) it’s a tool being used to control them, or some other harmful result. In fact, some will go further and turn into a principle of theological methodology to the point where, if a doctrine could be or has been used to hurt or damage someone, it’s to be rejected out of hand.

First off, I want to say: I get the impulse. For someone who’s been beat down with the Bible like it’s a weapon, or doctrines like they’re billy clubs, when they see someone pick them up, even as agents of healing, some PTSD is understandable. It can be hard to distance or differentiate a doctrine from its uses, especially if that’s all you’ve ever known. It doesn’t matter if someone’s trying to offer you an oxygen mask, if someone used one to choke you out in the first place, you’re going to flinch when you see it, even if it’s what you need most.

Everything Get’s Twisted
What I want to point is something very simple, though: just about any doctrine can be distorted or misused to harm others. Tim Keller makes this point in The Reason for God when speaking about the way Christianity has been distorted throughout church history. Many would look at the way Christianity’s been used to justify horrible evils as evidence of it’s inherently flawed character. Keller points out that even universally praised values like reason, freedom, and equality have been the battle-cry of unjust regimes like the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France. Instead of seeing the abuses of Christianity and Christian theology as evidence of their falsehood, it rather points to the fact that something is so wrong in the human heart that it can take anything, no matter how good and true, and use it for wicked ends.

This is true not only of the types of teachings we culturally are more apt to reject like judgment, original sin, or inerrancy, or the types that we typically find appealing.

For instance, we tend to like the idea of a gracious, nonjudgmental God. A deity who loves us and affirms us unconditionally, mess and all, seems kinder, gentler, and difficult to imagine as a tool of oppression or power. And yet, this is the kind of doctrine that criminals use to justify their own crimes. If God doesn’t judge, then how dare we? If God would never punish, then how can we punish oppressors? In the same vein, I’ve seen people excuse their glaring character defects like pride, narcissism, harshness, and insensitivity to the fact that “it’s just my personality; God made me the way I am.”

Or take classic teaching on forgiveness. Christians are told that God is a forgiving God, having forgiven all of our sins in Christ. We then are told to forgive those who sin against us as Christ has commanded. Now, the problem here is that people have taken this teaching on forgiveness and used it to force victims to ‘forgive’ their abusers in ways that basically brush over sin and ignore the reality of justice.

Again, pick almost any doctrine you can think of (creation, fall, grace, etc.) and there is some way it can be abused and applied improperly. Given this reality, if our main criterion for accepting or rejecting doctrine whether or not it can be used to harm others, we’ll be left with a two-word creed: “I believe…”

Abusus Non Tollit Usum
This is why one of the most important rules I’ve had to learn in my theological studies is abusus non tollit usum, or “abuse does not take away use.” The basic point is that just because fire can destroy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for cooking or keeping your home warm; an oxygen mask can still save your life, even if someone choked you with one; scalpels can still cut out cancer, even if someone was injured with one. In the same way, doctrines can still be good, true, beautiful, and helpful despite the ways they’ve been abused or misconstrued in the past.

As always, Jesus points the way forward in this regard. When correcting the Pharisees and Sadducees’ distortions of scriptural teaching, he didn’t do it by chucking Scripture, but by quoting it, and pointing them to its true meaning. (Matt. 9:12-13; 12:1-8; 19:4; 22:29, 41-45) In the Sabbath controversy, it wasn’t a denial of the Sabbath command that brought relief, but a renewed, deeper understanding of what the command was always about. Or again, when Paul wanted to correct the Judaizers who were saying the Gentiles weren’t full members of the covenant by faith alone, but needed the practice of Torah as well, he didn’t reject Torah. No, he went back to the Scriptures to make his argument (Gal. 3-5)

As difficult as it might be (and I get it, it’s really difficult sometimes) Jesus shows us how important it is to strive to distinguish the true doctrines of the Christian faith from their distorted applications and expositions. There will be things you might end up rejecting after the process. Often-times there is some bad theology that has to be rejected being taught along precious truths to be held firmly. I would encourage you to search the Scriptures, though, before rejecting something only on the basis of your negative experience with it. It may take some years of books, conversations, good churches, and maybe a good counselor, but it’s worth it to make sure you’re not rejecting some key truth of the Gospel because some wicked teacher ruined it for you.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Royal Baby Fever Points to a Royal Longing (Or: Yes, This is a #JesusJuke)

unionSo, in case you weren’t on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or seen every tabloid from here to kingdom come, Prince William and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, had a healthy little baby boy (name unannounced at the time of this writing) yesterday–and people have completely lost it. Royal Wedding fever was one thing. Royal baby fever is quite another.

Now, there are a lot of different social factors at work. For one thing, babies are adorable. I see them and I instinctively start making ridiculous noises and faces no matter where I am—even at peasants. Also, British people are fascinating to Americans. I mean, it doesn’t matter how stupid a statement may be, if it’s uttered in a British accent, Americans are likely to think it’s brilliant. (Think Richard Dawkins.) Finally, and closer to the point, our obsession with celebrities—their doings, controversies, health-food purchases—whatever it is, we eat it up.

But why are we so obsessed with celebrities? Simply put, it’s because we have no royalty.

Find out how I drop the #JesusJuke over at Christ and Pop Culture.

Mistaking a Stick for the Son

sunpaintingEver run across those verses with God kind of loudly declaring “I am God, acknowledge that” and so forth? You find them in Isaiah (43:11; 45:5), Ezekiel (12:15; 2044), and places like that. I remember when I first read them in my studies, I was kind of put off. I didn’t get it at first. God seemed awfully narcissistic and insecure to be going on about himself like that, kind of like the awkward guy who refers to himself in third person. (“Derek doesn’t like mayonnaise. Derek is the greatest.”)

Well, later on, I read a bit more, understood the context, and began to deeply love these declarations of God’s sovereign uniqueness. He truly is the LORD, and compared to him there is no other. I love the bold, forthright assertion of his His kingly ‘colossal self-regard’, to use Walter Brueggeman’s phrase. What’s really amazing about it is that there’s actually something very humble about God coming to us and declaring himself to a rebellious people. Given our willful blindness to the truth, why should a great and mighty Creator bother with us at all? Yet in these statements God invites us to relationship with a true and living God, not the false little idols we’ve made for ourselves.

Athanasius paints helpful picture for us when it comes to understanding these passages:

And this account of the meaning of such passages is satisfactory; for since those who are devoted to gods falsely so called, revolt from the True God, therefore God, being good and careful for mankind, recalling the wanderers, says, ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘I Am,’ and ‘Besides Me there is no God,’ and the like; that He may condemn things which are not, and may convert all men to Himself. And as, supposing in the daytime when the sun was shining, a man were rudely to paint a piece of wood, which had not even the appearance of light, and call that image the cause of light, and if the sun with regard to it were to say, ‘I alone am the light of the day, and there is no other light of the day but I,’ he would say this, with regard, not to his own radiance, but to the error arising from the wooden image and the dissimilitude of that vain representation; so it is with ‘I am,’ and ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘There is none other besides Me,’ viz. that He may make men renounce falsely called gods, and that they may recognise Him the true God instead…

Discourses Against the Arians 3.8

Our idols are like finger-paintings of the sun posted in our windows. There’s no comparison to the real thing. In his mercy, God reveals himself to us that we might turn from these darkening idols to the true light of God.

Now, Athanasius is dealing with this text in his disputes with the Arians.  They were contending that in light of these, it’s blasphemy to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father. Athanasius goes on to give the passage a Christological shape in order to expose their confusions:

Indeed when God said this, He said it through His own Word…For the Word of the Lord came to the Prophet, and this was what was heard; nor is there a thing which God says or does, but He says and does it in the Word. Not then with reference to Him is this said, O Christ’s enemies, but to things foreign to Him and not from Him. For according to the aforesaid illustration, if the sun had spoken those words, he would have been setting right the error and have so spoken, not as having his radiance without him, but in the radiance shewing his own light. Therefore not for the denial of the Son, nor with reference to Him, are such passages, but to the overthrow of falsehood.

-ibid.

Just as its ridiculous to think that the sun could shine a light without its own radiance, Athanasius says it’s a mistake to think of God saying “I am the LORD, apart from me there is no other” without His Word. The Son is not some thing external to the Father, but is of his own essence. From all of eternity God has been the Father of the Son. Which is why, when he wants to make himself  known, God declares himself to us through Jesus Christ, the Son. The Son is how God calls us away from the worship of false gods of our own making, speaking light into all of our darknesses.

Soli Deo Gloria