Careful Reader

close readingCareful readers of Scripture see instruction in every turn of phrase. That’s how Calvin read the text. Trained as a humanist scholar, he was attentive to both the content as well as the form in which we receive it. Actually, more accurately, he understood that the way the authors said something was part of what they were saying. Commenting on Paul’s greeting to the Colossians, Calvin draws out the significance of his prayer of thanksgiving for the believers:

He praises the faith and love of the Colossians, that it may encourage them the more to alacrity and constancy of perseverance. Farther, by shewing that he has a persuasion of this kind respecting them, he procures their friendly regards, that they may be the more favourably inclined and teachable for receiving his doctrine. We must always take notice that he makes use of thanksgiving in place of congratulation, by which he teaches us, that in all our joys we must readily call to remembrance the goodness of God, inasmuch as everything that is pleasant and agreeable to us is a kindness conferred by him. Besides, he admonishes us, by his example, to acknowledge with gratitude not merely those things which the Lord confers upon us, but also those things which he confers upon others.

Commentary on Colossians 1:3

He notes first the rhetorical purpose of the greeting: to encourage his readers to faith and perseverance and endear himself to the readers at Colossae by assuring him of his warm affections for them. Calvin reads the text understanding that, though inspired and having apostolic authority, Paul writes at the human level as one who still uses common language, specific rhetorical forms, and rational approach to persuade his reader.

Next, and this is the significant portion, Calvin calls attention to the fact that when Paul wants to encourage them, he doesn’t congratulate them, he thanks God for them. Calvin not only sees what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Typically we would congratulate someone on their faith, hope, and love. Not Paul—he knows the true source of our goodness. Instead, Paul thanks God to acknowledge the theological reality that all blessings come from comes from his fatherly hand. Not only that, it points to a brotherly love grateful even for those things which don’t come directly to us. Again, even the shape of his encouragement is pedagogical.

Calvin was not a cursory or careless reader, and just as Paul teaches us in the way he encourages the Colossians, so Calvin gives us an example in our studies of the Word. Convinced that we are reading more than just an ancient text, but God’s own self-disclosure through human speech, we read that human speech with reverent sensitivity to every detail.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Wise As Serpents, Even On The Daily Show (CaPC)

Screen-Shot-2013-07-18-at-12.29.00-AMDid you hear about that Evangelical pastor who got skewered on the Daily Show for claiming that Christians are bullied and gays beat up straights? Well, if you haven’t already, you should. In fact, you know what, just take a few to watch it:

So, there you have it. Dumb Evangelical pastor Matt Slick gets shown up as a silly, bigoted fool for thinking that Christians are persecuted in our country. We’re the majority religion with hundreds of thousands of churches, presidents claiming our faith in the halls of power, so on and so forth. Christian fears are nothing but simple fantasy and an immature tantrum because, for once, they have to share power and rights with a real, persecuted minority. Slick is scared that he might actually get some push-back for saying horrible things against them. And that’s the whole story.

Except for it’s not–Slick has his own side to tell.

You can read Slick’s side and my thoughts about Christian engagement on this subject over at Christ and Pop Culture.

The Flesh, A Couple of Gnostic Bogeymen, and Self-Control

temptation and fallThere are always trends in our discourse about sex and sexuality. Some themes are pretty constant while others come and go. The whole ‘purity culture’ discussion is of fairly recent vintage, but seems likely to stick around, growing and developing with time.  It’s already begun to take some interesting turns.

For instance, Dianna Anderson recently criticized a new trend in sexual discourse within Post-Evangelical culture. Pointing to posts by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary (JVM) and Rachel Held Evans, she worries that their efforts to retain a fairly conservative sexual ethic when it comes to pre-marital sex, while recasting the discussion in terms of ‘self-control’ and ‘holiness’, will inevitably re-inscribe some hierarchy of holiness between those who waited and those who didn’t. Hermits are still closer to God than the rest of us.

An ethic of ‘self-control’ still carries the taint of a heretical Gnostic dualism haunting the landscape of Evangelical ethics, so obsessed with a denial of the flesh that it denies our embodied humanity in the process. Like the purity culture ethic that precedes it, we find a narrative where a weak soul loses control and gives in to the evil, physical flesh. The flesh with its natural bodily desires is not recognized for what it is, God’s creation, and integrated with a holistic conception of the embodied self, but is demonized as a ‘bogeyman’ extrinsic to the self, needing to be subdued by the soul. All the attendant evils of shame and self-loathing follow.

Now, I have no particular beef with Anderson, so I don’t enjoy the idea of focusing on a particular article. Still, this one manages to draw together a few issues worth dealing with if we’re interested in developing (or maintaining) a faithful, Christian sexual ethic.

Collapsing Flesh and Body
As a big fan of Irenaeus and, well, the Bible, I can’t help but appreciate the affirmation of creation against the Gnostics. This is God’s good world and when he made us in his Image, he created us male and female, sexually-differentiated beings whose bodies mattered, and it was very good. (Gen. 1:27) We don’t have a good God and a bad world, or a good soul needing to be set free from a bad body. That said, there is an unfortunate failure to distinguish the ‘flesh’ and the ‘body’ in Anderson’s piece that lead us into some harmful confusions.

In the New Testament, the two words are distinct, sarx being ‘flesh’ and soma being ‘body.’ There is some linguistic overlap between the two at times–for instance, ‘flesh’ can refer to simple physicality, as when Jesus is descended from David ‘according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:4), and the body is, well, the body for the most part. Still, in a large number of cases, perhaps the majority, sarx refers not to our physicality but rather our fallen nature as a whole, spiritual and physical. As Paul says, “the works of the flesh are evident” and goes on to list “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” (Gal. 5:19-21c) Obviously, these are not only physical activities, or normal, created, bodily impulses to be accepted and integrated within a holistic sense of self, but sins to be put off. Most of them can be comfortably accomplished away from prying eyes, within the recesses of the soul.

Dealing with ascetic proto-Gnostics in Colossae, Paul explicitly teaches us to observe the distinction between the body and the flesh:

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:21-23)

The problem with the false teachers troubling the Colossians was that they were denying the body instead of the flesh. It’s possible to do the one without the other. Instead of curbing gluttony, they denied appetite. Instead of submitting distorted sexuality to Christ, they denied the good of sexuality entirely.

Now, what I would note here is that to deny the flesh isn’t necessarily to deny the body.  The danger with collapsing flesh into body, is that we are left without categories for appropriately distinguishing between a proper, created, physical-appetite, and its sinful distortions. In affirming creation, we are tempted to forget the corrupting influence of the Fall that has wreaked havoc in God’s good world, including our embodied selves. There is a real, good sexual appetite that God has given us, and there has been a real, bad, disordering of that appetite through sin, that is to be denied and fought against.

This is why we cannot simply uncritically affirm every impulse as part of our created nature, but must construct our ethics in light of the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Christian morality is a storied-morality, in that sense. That was the Gnostic’s problem–they skipped Creation and went straight to Fall. It can be equally dangerous to act like the Fall never happened.

Which Gnostics?
At this point, it’s also important to remember that there’s more than one bad conclusion to reach after you’ve confused the story. This is certainly the case with those particularly bad story-tellers, the Gnostics. Attention is frequently called to the Gnosticism whose dualism led to an ascetical impulse–purify the body to set the soul free, etc.. As prominent as that was, Ireneaus, that great patristic foe of Gnostics of all stripes, also famously condemned differing Gnostic groups whose metaphysics led them to sexual libertinism instead of asceticism.

Once again, Paul’s dealings with proto-Gnostics, this time in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, are instructive. For the Corinthian Gnostics, a denial of the importance of the body led them to to the conclusion that they could do what they want with it. An impulse is just an impulse, “food for the body and the body for food”, and God is going to “destroy both the one and the other”, so just go along with it (v 13). Paul retorts that, in fact, the body does matter for the Lord took a body, died, and was raised in one (vv. 13-14). We aren’t to do with it as we please, not being “mastered” by our desires, but only what glorifies God–that’s why he paid out such a great price for it (v. 19).

When Paul teaches us to flee “immorality’, or ‘fornication’, (v. 18) he shows there is a proper and an improper use of the body. Appealing to the garden, Paul tells us that sexual intercourse is for uniting two into “one flesh”, teaching us that it is a covenantally-ordered act between man and wife (v. 16, cf. Gen 2:24). Corinthians are not to visit temple prostitutes, giving in to their distorted desires, for that is a degradation of God’s purpose for the body.

It is not Gnosticism, therefore, to note a proper place for curbing the ‘flesh’ in our sexuality, but precisely an affirmation of the goodness of the body and its redemption. The battle against the flesh is the confession of our need for a future resurrection in which all will be put right.  Until that day, we are called to put to death the works of the flesh, in hope of the day when our bodies will be raised into righteousness and peace with the rest of God’s new creation (Rom. 8:11).

Self-Control and Mutual Consent 
Of course, all of this will require self-control as JVM and Evans have spoken of. Again, this makes Anderson uncomfortable, as self-control discourse implies that those who do not wait, lost control or something, thereby preventing them from owning their sexual decisions. It paints all decisions to engage in pre-marital sex in an immediately negative light, an action of souls losing control of bodies, preventing understanding of our sexuality as autonomous, consenting persons, as well as growth in healthy sexuality.

Once again, Paul sheds some light for us, this time in his instructions to the Thessalonians:

 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)

There are a couple of key points to make here. First, Paul clearly tells us to exercise control over our bodies and abstain from sexual immorality. Engaging in sexual immorality, porneia, fornication, is not exercising self-control, but giving in to Gentile passion by definition. Self-control in this text is framed primarily vertically, as a regard for God and his commands, and only secondarily with respect to our impulse control.

To exercise sexual ‘choice’ in ways that violate God’s creative order and will, is to give in to our own distorted desires; it is to make our bellies our god (Phil.3:18).  “Lack of self-control” does not always imply my choice of sexual intercourse outside of the bonds of marriage wasn’t conscious, rational, and autonomous, but that it was not submitted to my Lord in obedience, according to His created purpose. Whether it was a long process of deliberation (rationalization), or a thoughtless moment, I didn’t control my self”s desires, physical or spiritual, but gave in to them in violation of God’s will.

The second point the passage suggests is that consent-based ethics are not enough. (I don’t see Anderson necessarily advocating for one in the post, but that sort of thing is being floated in some post-Evangelical circles.) Mutual consent is somewhat of a lowest-common denominator, “do whatever you want as long as nobody gets hurt” kind of morality that appeals to our late-modern, individualistic, therapeutic-utilitarian instinct. I mean,  don’t hear me knocking consent–it’s baseline for me when it comes to these discussions. Still, mere consent falls far short of a Christian ethic of love rooted in Christ’s commands and the Spirit’s work in our lives.

As Paul shows us, it cannot be loving to mutually-consent to sin, to engage our souls or bodies contrary to God’s own loving purposes for them. He tells us that God is “an avenger” in these things because participating in sexual immorality is to transgress and wrong our brothers/sisters in these matters, no matter how consensual it might be. I am not loving you by inviting you into a sexual relationship or encounter, contrary to God’s purposes. I might have enlightened intentions, a great desire to honor you, to express my soul to you, but the form is inherently unloving. Any love involved is misdirected at this point, a love that is not according to knowledge (Rom. 10:2), because it ignores the fabric of moral reality.

No, instead we are called in holiness to exercise self-control by the power of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to Jesus’ good commands for his being-redeemed people.

The Hope of Glory
I wish I could address the issue of shame that seems to be the driving factor underlying all of these discussions. I tried and realized I couldn’t in a post already too long. For now I’ll simply say that freedom from shame comes not through submitting to the false commands and judgments of legalists who distort or add to God’s word, nor through denying the real moral boundaries which God has lovingly woven into creation, but only through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He bore our shame on the Cross, died, was buried, and left it in the grave so that we who are united with him bear it no more, but only the sure hope of resurrection glory (Col. 1:27).

Soli Deo Gloria

The God-Shaped Box of Scripture

cardboard_boxI’ve already reviewed Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent little book, The End of Our Exploring at Christ and Pop Culture. One of my favorite sections in the work is his critique of clichés in Christian discourse. CThey stop thought, end discussion, and function as a short-cuts to truth that prevent us from actually engaging with the difficult questions involved with God and life.

In the midst of this discussion, he manages to dispatch one particular cliché that, whenever I encounter it, something in me dies just a little:

One of my “favorite” clichés is that we “shouldn’t put God in a box.” That may be true on one level. But what if God has put Himself in a box, like a Scripture-shaped box? What then? Is the problem the box or the shape? If it was a circle-box that were infinitely large, could God fit inside of it? What if we have to be able to say this and not that of something in order to know it? If we say “God doesn’t judge,” does that put God in a box? (Yes, I just dropped one cliché against the other.) If God isn’t in a box, even a Jesus-shaped box, can we know Him? Does God know He lacks a box? Is He able to communicate to His creatures the shape of a box He could fit in? I think the cliché means something like “God is ineffable,” a beautiful word that simply means “beyond speech.” But does God have a language for His own ineffability? Can He teach it to us? That is a barrage of questions, I realize, but they come like a flood every time I hear someone say not to “put God in a box.” I don’t know the answers, but I do know that the cliché short-circuits the process of finding them. The cliché is of the soul-shrinking, mind-denying variety.

The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith, pg. 130

What if God has put himself in a ‘box’ indeed? What if the unknown and unknowable God wants to be known and does something about it like engaging with a particular people throughout history? Maybe he reveals his character through great and mighty acts? Or becomes incarnate and walks among us? Or maybe he does all of those things and has the whole thing written up in Text so that we could know something about him? Is it arrogant to take him at his word? Is it presumptious to say God is X, if God has told us he is X? More importantly, is it presumptious to say, even with the intention of being humble, that we can’t know that God is X, if he has told us he is?

I’m all for proclaiming God’s incomprehensibility and the necessary gap in our knowledge of God. Still, these are some questions to think about before you too quickly complain about putting God in a box–it might be one he chose for himself.

Also, go buy the book.

Soli Deo Gloria

That Time C.S. Lewis Got ‘Total Depravity’ Wrong (Like Everybody Else)

Yes, Gollum is a Tolkien character, not Lewis. I don't care.

Yes, Gollum is a Tolkien character, not Lewis. I don’t care.

Cliché Evangelical confession: I love C.S. Lewis. Probably too much. His influence on my life and intellectual development as a disciple is hard to gauge. For a while there in seminary, next to the Bible, you were apt to hear me quoting “St. Clive” (as one of my professors dubbed him) more than any other thinker. This is why it pains me to admit that he was slightly misleading about something in his writings, namely Calvinism.

Actually, let’s make that more specific. He got one letter wrong of the Anglo-American acronym that has come to represent ‘Calvinism’ in the minds of most people who have heard the term: the ‘T’ in T.U.L.I.P. , standing for ‘total depravity.’

In his work The Problem of Pain, Lewis discusses the nature of our moral knowledge, and the distance between our judgments and God’s. After making the case that the term ‘good’, when applied to God, is apt to mean something a bit different than we usually think of, he doubles back to say that it can’t be completely different:

On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what”. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship. –The Problem of Pain, pg. 29

While Lewis is making a very a good point about our analogical knowledge of good and evil, he happens to do so by trading on a widely-popular caricature of the doctrine of total depravity.

Most people are introduced to the teaching by hearing something along the lines of, “That John Calvin, he was such a pessimist. Did you know that he taught that we were totally depraved? That all of us are about as awful as it gets, none of us knows right from wrong, and we’re born simply and utterly wicked? No wonder he was a downer.” Or something like that.

The problem is that is neither what total depravity, properly understood, nor John Calvin teach with respect to human nature. (Although, I do grant that Calvin probably was kind of prickly.) Actually, as a matter of history, Calvin nowhere mentioned the acronym ‘TULIP’. Being dead at this point, he didn’t even know about the Canons of Dordt, the 17th century document that the 19th century acronym is trying to summarize.

So what do Calvin and total depravity teach? Richard Muller sheds some light for us:

Calvin’s references to the utter deformity or depravity of the human will and human abilities were directed against forms of synergism or Semi-Pelagianism and refer to the pervasiveness of sin — reducing this language to the slogan “total depravity” endangers the argument…“Total depravity,” at least as understood in colloquial English, is so utterly grizzly a concept as to apply only to the theology of the Lutheran, Matthias Flacius Illyricus who an almost dualistic understanding of human nature before and after the fall, arguing the utter replacement of the imago Dei with the imago Satanae and indicating that the very substance of fallen humanity was sin. Neither Calvin not later Reformed thinkers went in this direction and, to the credit of the Lutherans, they repudiated this kind of language in the Formula of Concord. What is actually at issue, hidden under the term “total depravity” is not the utter absence of any sort of goodness but the inability to save one’s self from sin.

-Richard Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”?, pp. 8-9 (HT: Alastair Roberts)

As you can see, Muller isn’t much of a fan of TULIP, mostly because of the easy tendency towards caricature (I mean, even Lewis didn’t explain it properly.) Still, his explication of Calvin’s thought on the subject also serves for the better articulations of total depravity taken up by current Reformed theologians.

To be clear, the doctrine does not teach that all humanity is as “depraved” as possible. “Total” refers to the scope, not depth, of the problem of sin. It affirms that there is not a single area or part of our nature that has not been subject to sin’s corrupting influence; though created good, not our mind, will, reason, bodily instincts, or anything else that could be singled out, remains untouched by the Fall. As such, there is no leverage or foothold in human nature whereby it might reach up to God, or present any merit, without having first been enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s power. As Michael Horton says, “there is no Archimedean point within us that is left unfallen, from which we might begin to bargain or restore our condition” (The Christian Faith, pg. 433). Nor is there any impulse or instinct that is not subject to correction from God’s Word.

This is true of the vilest criminal, or the sweetest, kindest neighbor that most of us would describe as a “good guy.” None has a chance of saving themselves by drawing on their own inner, moral resources. But, as we said, that doesn’t mean that they’re as bad as they can be. We are “not incapable of any justice or good before fellow humans” (Horton, ibid, pg. 433). No, in fact, we do have an active, if defective, conscience that points to right and wrong, as well as accuses and defends us before God (Rom. 2). Calvin himself quoted pagan philosophers approvingly, at times, when they concurred with Scripture’s moral judgment. We are able to do relatively good, yet not saving, acts through common grace and common virtue. Good of this sort is nothing to be sneered at and is a testimony to the permanence of the Image of God as well as the gracious, restraining work of the Holy Spirit.

Where does this little crash course in one, highly-misunderstood, aspect of Reformed anthropology, leave us? Well, for one thing, you can say you know something that C.S. Lewis didn’t about the history of Christian doctrine. But seriously, it serves as an important lesson against making any theologian, pastor, or author, even someone as wonderful as Lewis too authoritative in your intellectual life. As great as someone might be, if you’ve never disagreed with them, you’re probably not reading them critically enough.

Most of all though, it serves as a reminder of God’s redeeming, regenerative grace. For every inch of you that’s been ‘depraved’ or, rather, bent through sin, is being restored and resurrected whole and new in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

The End of Our Exploring (CaPC Review)

end

Humans question things all the time, but why? What’s a question and how does it work? Beyond that, makes a question good? Are there bad questions? Should I question everything? Who says? Is there ever a time to stop questioning? When do you know you have an answer? Where is God in our questions? Is he prosecutor, witness, defendant? Are all questions ‘doubts’? Are all doubts bad? Where does faith come into our questions? What would it look like to make questioning a habit, a lifestyle, a disposition, a formative discipline?

Finally, where can I find a book about all of these questions? Who would take the time to write such a thing? Until recently I wouldn’t have had an answer for those last two. Thankfully, Matthew Lee Anderson, lead writer over at Mere Orthodoxy, published his wonderfully querulous little book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faithtaking up all these questions and more.

You can read the rest of my review of this excellent book at Christ and Pop Culture.

 

Studying Doesn’t End With Classes (The Gospel Coalition Piece)

studying-300x168The funny thing about answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” is that I was often told those things, but I simply didn’t hear them. Which is why I don’t imagine I’m going to tell you anything a good seminary professor hasn’t already attempted to say. If I had to boil down my advice, I’d say that studying doesn’t end when classes are over—it’s only begun. Faithful ministers need to be continual students of the Word and of their people.

You can see what I mean by that over at The Gospel Coalition.