7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write

zwingli

Poor guy didn’t know how much literature he was gonna ruin.

This last week Peter Leithart ruffled some feathers by claiming, in an admitted “gleeful fit of reductionism”, that Zwingli is the reason Protestants can’t write (poetry or fiction). You can read the two pieces here and here. What follows assumes knowledge of at least the first.

Now, once you read them, you see that he’s actually making a narrower, more specific claim. If Protestants take a certain view of the sacraments, the Real Presence, of the reality linking the sign and the signified in the Lord’s Supper, etc. that has an effect on the shape of your poetics, your literary abilities, your view of the way the world and literature connect up. People who take Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Supper with its thinner link can’t help but fall into bad writing because their options are limited, while Catholics with their thick views of the way that signs can do something are in a better position to cultivate the proper imagination, the proper poetics that leads to great literature.

There are many things to say, but before I say them, a few caveats are in order.

First, I actually love a bunch of Leithart’s work. I say this not as a total endorsement, but simply to set the context. I’m not a critic.

Second, I’m not a Zwinglian. I take Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and of the Real Presence and so forth. I’m in a church that takes the Supper every week. With real wine (sorry, Mom).

That said, I have tended to find that reductionism of any sort, gleeful or not, is unhelpful.

In this case, I find Leithart’s thesis unhelpful because I think it clouds our ability to actually see the phenomenon before our eyes, which is the apparent inability of North American Evangelicals with of the last 100 years or so (which is basically who he’s talking about, having ruled out Anglicans and other large swathes of Protestants who have “sacraments” and a Prayer book) to write the sort of literature that’s broadly recognized as quality. It’s too clean of a “just-so” story that hinders us from addressing the varieties of conditions that play a role in such a complex phenomenon as cultural production.

It’s also unhelpful because instead of drawing people towards the liturgical practices and theological convictions Leithart wants, this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the “Suicide Death-Cult” tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth. Or, for a certain sort, a quick dip across the Tiber to embrace their inner Dante.

Also, I’m really just dubious about the whole connection.

In what follows, what I’d like to do is simply re-complicate the account and briefly list a number of reasons Zwingli might not be the main cause for Protestants of a particular sort lacking literary capabilities. Some are other contributing factors and others are questions I have about Leithart’s account.

First, what of eschatology? It seems quite plausible to construct a narrative around shifting literary output and cultural engagement on the basis of the major shift in eschatology within Evangelicalism in the last hundred years. In other words, why not blame Darby and the Scofield Bible instead of Zwingli and Marburg? If you’re so busy trying to get people saved from a world that’s about to go up in flames after the rapture, what does producing subtle literature matter? Of course, I know Dispensationalists with lovely literary sensibilities over at BIOLA and so forth, but it seems a narrative of this sort could easily be written with some force.

Next, we might speak of one feature of Bebbington’s quadrilateral defining Evangelicals: conversionism. This contributes in two ways. First, building on the last point, if conversionism is at the heart of your religion, then there’s always a certain urgency of having better things to do with our time like save souls, than build culture. In which case, certain habits, sensibilities, etc. will be less likely to be promoted in our congregations. Second, it would contribute to a need to evangelize and edify in all that we do, quite explicitly. Think of God’s Not Dead, or the way Lecrae became suspect as a sellout in some circles once he hit broad-based appeal and didn’t make every song an explicit sermon. Though, this element doesn’t seem relegated to Protestants, since it’s a mentality that even the heroine of Leithart’s story, Flannery O’Connor, was pushing back against in her own sacramental, Roman Catholic context. Apparently, sacramentalism wasn’t as strong of a bulwark against moralism as all that.

Also, broadly following the Modernist/Fundamentalist fight, there’s the broader fundamentalist disengagement from culture for fear of its corrupting influences. Of course, that also limits exposure to the good sorts of cultural influences that you need to produce the proper literary sensibility for good writing. It’s not implausible to argue that we’re still feeling the effects of it. Indeed, Evangelicals still tend to do a lot of the silo, bubble culture thing with Christian music, literature, and so forth, which is even now affecting generations of young, possible future Evangelical Protestant writers.

We can also note here the prudery involved in almost all explicitly Evangelical endeavors. We created the websites with content ratings listing every “d” word and instances of “low cleavage”, in order to protect ourselves from the crudities of mass culture. And there’s some wisdom there, of course, but when you think about the constraints that general moralism can have on Evangelical artistry, you begin to see why some of it is stilted. This was one of the bits that Leithart was on to, but was rendered less plausible by tacking it onto the un-sacramental poetics.

Another possibility one could suggest is a tight focus on historical, propositional truth, facticity, and so forth, as well as the broader loss of narrative preaching. We’re recovering it now, but you could imagine that a church tradition caught up with the question “did it happen”—which is massively important—might lose sight of cultivating a broader sense for why it matters, reading for rhetorical shape, and so forth. I’m not at all sure about this one, but someone creative could probably make a go of this reading.

Of course, there’s the old Mark Noll stand-by of populism and anti-intellectualism having infected the Protestant-Evangelical mindset. That doesn’t tend to produce the sort of fruit in keeping with righteousness Leithart is looking for. Why not go there instead of long narrative about Zwingli’s long hands reaching out from Marburg to choke our literary talent?

Finally, and this is actually a big question for me: what of unbelievers? We can take this question in two ways. First, do unbelievers ever write great literature in the 20th Century? If so, what view of the Real Presence do they take? I’m being somewhat facetious, but I think the question raises the point that far too often we’re given to make these tight connections between doctrine and practice that are far messier out in the world. Second, from another direction, are there protestant sensibilities in unbelieving authors we’re not accounting for? I wonder how easy it would be to find great secular authors grew up in churches—churches with low liturgical and sacramental sensibilities—who might exhibit those tendencies in their own writing?

Of course, all of the foregoing presupposes that we should buy the basic premise that a certain sort of Protestant can’t or hasn’t written great literature. I’m not entirely sure that’s historically true, nor even true now, but I’m not much for going into the history of it here. My point, though, is that this thing is much more complicated that a clean story about the sacraments and we don’t do ourselves any favors by simplifying things to say otherwise.

Soli Deo Gloria

Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Machen(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners. That said, taken at a this-worldly level, he’s got a good point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth. What’s more, even at the historical level, yes, there are changes, differences made, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is basic human nature.

I bring all this up simply to make the point that the history of philosophy and theology, while constantly progressing, developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.

This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history—the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.

Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!

One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:

The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”

Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.

So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. So, how did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.

We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:

It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas. It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”

Now, of course, this not an exact parallel with the kinds of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)

If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts. Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:

But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.

And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.

All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Hillsong and “Hip Church”

Mere FidelityGQ ran a fascinating article last month entitled, “What Would Cool Jesus Do?” It was essentially a long-form investigation of Hillsong NYC, trying to figure out the phenomenon that manages to pull in thousands of young, cool New Yorkers including people like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. We figured that was worth discussing, so Matt, Alastair, and I took it up in this episode of Mere Fidelity.

Thanks for listening.

Soli Deo Gloria

Should Adam Have Atoned for Eve?

mountain of the LordReflecting on the nature of sin and desire in his Confessions, St. Augustine speculated that Adam sinned alongside Eve out of the bonds of natural human love. Eve was tempted by the Serpent and fell out of a lack of knowledge, but Adam knowingly chose to go down with her, since he could not bear to be parted with her. Reading Augustine’s account, we’re immediately sympathetic, recognizing the force of our bonds of love, whether married or not. My wife is “flesh of my flesh”, how would I not be drawn in with her?

Which raises an interesting question: what should Adam have done? To choose any created thing over God is idolatry. But what could he have done differently? Cut himself off from her? Let her suffer judgment alone in devotion to God? That also seems problematic for different reasons. Or maybe just difficult.

In any case, L. Michael Morales has a fascinating little excursus on the subject in his new book Who Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus.

But first, a word about the book. Leviticus is an oft-ignored book, shunted to the side in popular devotional reading and preaching largely because it appears to the book of arcane, pointless laws connected to the now-defunct sacrificial system. This is tragic because Leviticus is the heart of the first five books of the Bible and, in many ways, the heart of the story-line of the Bible.

Morales aims to open up the dense, confusing text by placing it in the broader story of the Scripture. Drawing on many of the advances in our study of the Ancient Near East as well as our undersanding of the narrative structure of Genesis, Exodus, and so forth, the sacrificial system of Leviticus stands as the answer to the question, “Who shall ascend to the Mountain of the Lord?” After our fall and expulsion from Eden and the presence of God, who will bring us back into his presence, into the House of the Lord? And how can we do so?

One of the key insights he builds on is the increasingly widespread recognition that there is a link between the Garden of Eden, the Mountain of God at Sinai, and the Tabernacle/Temple. Genesis 1-2, in differing ways, depict the creation of the world and especially the Garden as a cosmic house, the holy mountain where God himself intends to dwell. (I’ve listed 9 reasons the Garden was a Temple here).

In a sense, the two realities are mutually-informing. The Tabernacle and Temple both were to function as a renewed, miniature cosmos, with all kinds of creational imagery built into their structures. Much of the liturgy of the sacrificial system is aimed at restoring the relationship of worship and communion intended by God from the beginning. Honestly, I’m barely scratching the surface of all the various texts and theological problems this sheds light on.

Returning to the problem of Adam and Eve, one of the major takeaways from this recent Eden/Tabernacle connection is seeing the Priestly nature of Adam and the Adam-like nature of the High Priest. Humanity was created to be a priesthood within the Tabernacle of creation. The High Priest stands in the Tabernacle entering into the presence of God as a representative New Adam, of sorts, while the first Adam was an un-fallen high priest.

It is precisely here that Morales makes the suggestion that the text presents us with the possibility that Adam should have acted precisely as the priest he was, making atonement for Eve in his own self-sacrifice (181). While that can seem a bit speculative at first, Morales marshalls a number of arguments along that line, which I’ll briefly touch on.

First, Morales points out the priestly dimension to the reality of Adam and Eve’s “one-flesh” relationship. We have often missed how much of Genesis 2 points the priestly realities (gold, onyx, etc. are mentioned and just so happen to be material for the Tabernacle/Temple). Morales suggests that Adam naming the animals and recognizing that none are suitable helpers, none are ‘flesh of his flesh’, is at the heart of why it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats can take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). This is at the heart of the repetitive nature of the Levitical priesthood which only finds its fulfillment i Christ. But at that point, unfallen Adam is flesh of Eve’s flesh.

Second, the fact of the matter is that throughout the Torah the theme of sacrifice or the attempt to offer self-sacrifice by Adam-like figures is fairly frequent: Noah offering sacrifice after the ark, Abraham and Isaac, Judah’s offer to take the place of his brother Benjamin, or Moses offering himself up after the Golden Calf incident. It’s certainly not out of place in a literary sense, then, and theologically it’s certainly not (182).

Finally, there is the point we’ve already made: Adam is the “archetypal high priest” in the holy of Holies of the Garden of Eden. If not him, then who? Morales goes on to say, “arguably, the original audience would have readily seen Adam’s omission” (182). Indeed, given the fact that the Second Adam came to give himself for his bride (Eph. 5), is too wild to think this could have been an option for the First Adam?

I don’t know that I’m settled on this interpretation. I wonder about issues like Adam’s presence at the time of Eve’s temptation and sin. Or whether he was responsible for driving the Serpent from the Garden even before that. But the suggestion it’s fascinating nonetheless. I know I’ll be mulling it in the future.

In any case, I hope this has whet your appetite to pick up Morales’ book. It’s really a fantastic bit of biblical theology that’s illuminating, not only for the way you read Leviticus, but Genesis, Exodus, and the whole story-line of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Israel? T.F. Torrance and the Hermeneutics of History

incarnation_large“Why Israel?”

There are a number of angles from which we could ask this question. Why would God choose this nation among all the nations? Indeed, why should God choose any nation at all? That’s the question that’s often been termed the “scandal of particularity.” Western thinkers have often been offended that the salvation of the universe brought about by the God of the whole cosmos is given to us through specific, historical acts at a particular time and place. It all seems so narrow.

Push deeper and you’ll see there’s another question: “Why history?” Why should God waste all that time? Why thousands of years of slow interaction with the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of Israel? Why concern himself with the blood, sweat, and tears poured out in Ancient Canaan? Why should salvation come this way? And even more, why should we be concerned with such things? Now that Jesus has come and a universal salvation has come to humanity, why must we be bothered about such things?

T.F. Torrance tackles the subject towards the beginning of his landmark volume Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. (Yes, for those wondering, I’ve finally managed to get around to Torrance). One of the elements that clearly marks his theology of the Incarnation is just how hermeneutical you have to be, in order to grasp it. This is so in at least two ways. First, the Incarnation is a hermeneutical event in that the Word of God comes revealing God to us. Jesus is the exegesis of the Triune God (John 1:17).

Second, and this is where we return to Israel, it’s that we must understand the interpretive Word of God against it’s proper pre-history, the election of Israel (37, 40-41). As Torrance notes, “if you are to understand something you must have the conceptual tools with which to grasp it and shape the knowledge of your mind” (41). But how do you go about acquiring the right conceptual tools to grasp the infinite God? You can’t do it of your own effort, could you? No, God himself would have to provide them to you. And that’s exactly what he has done in the election of Israel to himself as a people .

Torrance essentially argues that the history of Israel–all of its centuries-long struggle with grace, rebellion, resistance, slavery and redemption, exile and judgment, cultus and worship, prophecy and song–all forms the necessary interpretive background for understanding the person and work of Jesus. God’s election, patience, grace, love, and judgment of Israel are (among other things), his way of furnishing his people with the proper conceptual tools for understanding the coming of the Son into the world. This is part of what it means for the Son to come “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4).

Why Israel? Because without Israel, we could not know mighty work of God in Christ. Torrance sums up the point in this magnificent paragraph:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all boundup inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures of the New Testament church, that the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour.

Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God: apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God’ apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we would not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus.

The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work out from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself. (43-44)

While a number of answers could be given to the question, “Why Israel?” and “Why History?”, Torrance points us to the very important hermeneutical one: without them we could not have the saving knowledge of God that we needed.

This is just one of the many reasons Marcionism and all those theologies that would belittle or leave behind the Old Testament are so damnably dangerous. Christ comes clothed in the gospel, as Calvin says, and the textiles and prints are drawn from the history of God’s dealings with Israel. When we strip Christ of these glorious garments, we inevitably clothe him in the idolatrous, conceptual patterns of our own making, robbing ourselves of the truth of God come in Christ.

In a sense, Torrance reminds us that understanding takes time. And so God accommodates himself to us by coming in Christ as the culmination of Israel’s very specific history. And this too is grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Spirit of the Red Letters and “Progressive Evangelicalism”

Daniel Kirk has moved to the Progressive Channel at Patheos. And that’s great for him. Really, I’m happy. It seems like it will be a good fit for him.

That said, without wanting to pick on him, I had a quibble about his recent post on why he’s a “Progressive Evangelical.” You can read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion that sums it up:

In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.

So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.

Okay. At first this sounds like an old-school, Red-Letter Jesus approach to things that pits the Red Letters of Christ over and against the Black letters of the average apostles and certainly the Old Testament. We follow Jesus, the true Word, who has the authority to interpret, fulfill, and even correct Scripture, moving us along in God’s plans and so forth. I think it’s wrong, but it makes a certain sense.

jesusbuddyjesusExcept there’s a quirk with Kirk’s position. He’s already on record saying that the Jesus of the Gospels got some things wrong. And not insignificant things, either. The meaning and nature of marriage is at the heart of the moral order of the universe.* And yet Kirk says we need to move past Jesus at this point.

In which case, it seems like reading the Bible in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is more than having Jesus as your authority over the Bible.

It’s not just the Red Letters v. the Black Letters. At this point, it appears we’ve got a Red Letters v. Red Letters situation. Or rather, a Red Letters v. “Spirit of the Red Letters as Read By Progressives At the Beginning of the 21st Century” situation.

Here I’m reminded of the quote often attributed to Albert Schweitzer, but which was apparently actually coined by George Tyrell, speaking of liberal theologian and church historian Adolf Von Harnack:

The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.

Conservatives have most certainly been guilty at times of recreating Jesus in their own image. (My buddy Dan Darling has a great little book chronicling a number of the ways we do that, by the way.)  So it’s not that this is only a danger with progressive theology. Far from it.

The problem is that Kirk’s approach virtually guarantees it.

When a conservative runs up against Scriptures that press on their economic preferences, or sexual hang-ups, or what-have-you, they at least have to go through the gymnastics of trying to explain them differently. The Jesus of the text is someone determinate to be wrestled with. His words and deeds must be reckoned with.

But once you decide that even they can be corrected, then what does it actually mean that Jesus is your authority, let alone the Bible which testifies him? Which Jesus is this? How can your admittedly fallible Jesus allow you to correct your fallible Bible? Which bits of Jesus’ teaching and life do you appeal to against the parts you’re suspicious about? I mean, what if it turns out you should be using the exact opposite parts of Jesus’ teachings and work to correct the parts you like, the way someone using the same method on a different continent might?

In other words, “Progressive Evangelicals” using Kirk’s same theological principles in Latin America, Africa, or Asia might correct the Bible in light of Jesus far differently than a White Westerner steeped in identity-politics. And at that point, how do you adjudicate in a way that isn’t just a blatant appeal to cultural prejudice? Or variable human reason? Or different human experiences?

To put it bluntly, the only real Jesus we have intellectual access to is the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible. Kirk’s model functionally ends up coming to something like, “God is still speaking, through people like me, who are inspired by our take on Jesus but not limited by the actual teaching of the actual Jesus.”

For that reason, I’m skeptical about the possibility of a progressive Evangelicalism with “a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible” when both the pages of the Bible and the Jesus you meet there are subject to your judgment.

Again, I say this with no spite or hostility. I really just want us to deeply consider what we’re signing on for when we adopt these positions. Their consequences are deep and far-reaching, and I think in the long-term, they’re inevitably corrosive to the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. Jesus says there is blessing for those who hear his words and keep them (Matthew 7:24). That’s pretty hard to do when you’re deciding which ones actually count.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Eyebrows have been raised about this phrase. Suffice it to say that from Genesis 1-2, onwards, the nature of male and female, marriage, and family are central to the biblical account of anthropology, society, and politics. Marriage is a main (though not sole) metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and his people (both OT & NT), and caught up in the warp and woof of biblical theology. So, if “heart” of the moral universe is a bit much, it’s certainly central and not merely tangential. For Jesus to get this subject wrong, then, is not a minor point.

Francis Turretin on Early Divine Christology

Francis-TurretinTheology is a historical practice. We’ve been reading the Bible and thinking about it for a long time. While that doesn’t entirely rule out advances, it does mean we shouldn’t be so surprised when we find that some of our modern studies (biblical, systematic, and practical) are at times only catching up or reworking old variations on a theme that’s been played throughout the history of the church. I’ve said something like this before, but I’ve been reminded of it recently with the recent works on Christology (teaching about Christ) in New Testament studies I’ve been digging into lately.

Scholars like Chris Tilling, Richard Bauckham, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Larry Hurtado, and others have bee mounting a case in that earliest Christology we have (in the New Testament documents) is a divine Christology. Unlike so many liberal scholars have thought, it’s not a matter of slow development moving from “low” to “high”, but that Paul, John, and the other apostles were already up in the nosebleed section of Christology, so to speak. They all are moving along a certain trajectory, focusing on the way the New Testament either ascribes worship to Jesus as only God should, has him doing the things only God in the OT did, receives the Name that God alone has, and so forth.

All of this reminded of Francis Turretin’s defense of the deity of the Son against the Socinian heretics in the 17th century in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Third Topic, question 28, paragraph V.:

That the Son is true God, both consubstantial and eternal with the Father, these four things ascribed to him (and belonging to God alone) invincibly prove: (1) the names of God; (2) the attributes of God; (3) the works of God; (4) the worship due to God.

And from there he goes on in precise, compact, scholastic manner to show the various names, works, attributes, and worship that are ascribe to God in the Old Testament being given to the Son in the New.

Now, of course, Turretin is not doing all of the careful work comparing the New Testament texts with parallels in 2nd Temple Judaism, nor are there extensive studies in the Greek (though he does treat a number of text-critical issues). What’s more, certain specific texts, we might want to read differently in light of recent work (like the fact the Son of Man is more of an exalted, divine title, and the Son of God, more of a royal, human, kingly one). The structure and much of the basic argumentation present in modern, New Testament studies is there all the same, though.

So, long before Richard Bauckham suggested we consider the divine identity in terms of the God-world relation, or the narrative history of God’s mighty acts, Turretin argued that the ascription of divine works to Christ (creation, redemption, etc), should be seen as proof of the deity of the Son.  Indeed, some of Turretin’s work on the issue of Christ sharing divine attributes seems to be underplayed in contemporary scene. Do a little digging in contemporary works on the 2nd Temple period and you’re well on your way to opening up a new line of inquiry in Christology.

Among other things, this is one of those reasons I’m grateful for the increasing attention certain biblical scholars and theologians are paying to the reception history and historical theology. We have nothing to lose in drawing on the exegetical and theological insights of our forebears and everything to gain.

Soli Deo Gloria