A few thoughts on Charlottesville, Race, and Church Practices

I did not say much about the horror in Charlottesville over the weekend beyond a few things on Twitter. Many wiser, clearer heads had spoken and were speaking and it made more sense to share their thoughts. After church yesterday, though, I was left with a couple theological meditations on the practices of the church and the issue of race. They are small and incomplete, and yet I offer them such as they are.

The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus left us a prayer and it’s one my church prays every Sunday. We ask God our Father that he hallow his name–set it apart as Holy and unique–among us and in all the world. We expand on this by asking him that his kingdom come, his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To ask God for his kingdom to come is to pray for many things, but central among them is the gift of justice. To know God as Holy is know God as the just in all his judgments (Rev. 16:5).

What’s more, this prayer is a self-involving prayer. Praying the Lord’s Prayer cultivates in us a desire, a longing, to see the justice of our God done here and now in this world. We make these petitions of God recognizing that if justice is to come in this world, however much is possible before Christ’s final advent in justice, it is only and ultimately by his hand and will.

And yet, God’s hand works in and through us. God involves his children. Working for justice is not opposed to trusting in the Lord for justice. We do not bring the kingdom of God, but we work for it nonetheless, and trust God to give the growth (1 Cor. 3). And this is true of our work to oppose the works of darkness in our hearts and communities, including racism, and in this country, the lasting legacy of white supremacy.

One more point. In the second half of the prayer, we also pray for God’s provision (“our daily bread”), protection (“keep us from the evil One”), and transforming grace (“forgive us as we forgive”). All of these are essential.

We work in God’s strength. What’s more, we need to recognize that we work against opposition. Not primarily the flesh and blood racists we can see, though, but against the principalities and powers which stand behind them, blinding the hearts and minds of those under their thrall (Eph. 6). So we pray. And we remember to forgive as God has forgiven us our own sins. It is in that forgiveness we hope that just as God transformed our stony hearts, he might transform theirs as well as we witness to the Gospel of Jesus.

It is only as the Church depends on God’s provision, protection, and transforming grace that our work for justice can be the kind which demonstrates the Name of our Father.

The Lord’s Supper

We also celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. As one body we share one loaf and one cup with our one Lord through whom our one Father feeds us in the one Spirit we share. In it we hear the promises of the one Gospel. One Supper flows from one Gospel. This one Gospel is the good news of our one Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the Son become man by taking on our one humanity, putting it to death, and raising it to new life again in his resurrection. And it is this one humanity that is made in the Image of our one God.

It is precisely this oneness that any doctrine of racial supremacy and superiority violates. For that reason, I do not think it wrong to speak of such teachings such as white supremacy, not merely as sin, but as damnable heresy. It violates so many doctrines in the faith and practice of the Church, there is simply no gospel left on the other side of it.

The Supper stands, then, as testimony that now there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white, but all are one in Christ who redeems and restores the original unity of humanity in a higher register. To practice the Lord’s Supper is to tacitly condemn the sin and unrighteousness of racial exaltation or subjugation. A racially-divided Supper is no Supper at all.

And yet the beauty of the Supper is that it is not primarily condemnation. It also stands as a witness to the gospel. It is an invitation out of these divisions into the unity of the body, into the family of God who share the feast of the Father’s forgiveness. Here in the Supper we begin to taste the justice and reconciliation of our God.

Of course, for people to hear the invitation out of sin and into life, it must be articulated as such. Which means sin, including racism, must be named as sin. This will take courage and wisdom. But then, so do most of the Christian life and ministry. Our God is faithful, though. He will direct the path of those who call on him and strengthen the voices of those who cry to him for aid. His Kingdom shall come, his Will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. For all his children.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

On Smith’s Proposal for “Orthodoxy”-language and SSM

nicea-2.jpgYesterday James K.A. Smith had a post on whether to talk about SSM as an issue of “orthodoxy” or not and, of course, it provoked some discussion online. Alastair Roberts has already weighed in with a rejoinder worth considering on what it means to be “creedally-orthodox.”

I have a few thoughts on it that I figured I’d lay out in no particular order. First, though, I’ll just state at the outset, I benefit greatly from Smith’s work, respect him as a scholar and a Christian. Nor am I at all worried this is an attempt at moral revision or something like that. And I hope anyone reading this (including Smith himself) will read this post in that light.

To begin, I’ll just say I find myself quite sympathetic to Smith’s concerns. A few years ago I wondered aloud whether we needed another term to flag what sort of error SSM-affirming is. I’m certainly in no rush to declare new heresies or label anybody as a heretic. I have enough friends who I am convinced are trying to love Jesus but honestly differ from me on this issue that it would be painful and costly to do so.

That said, I’m not sure Smith has been fair to or grasped the point of those who have been using the term this way.

For some who insist this is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy, the point is same-sex marriage is and assumes a denial of a broader theological vision of creation and the meaning of the body assumed by the whole of the Christian church and the creedal tradition itself. It’s a functional denial of doctrines like creation and the Christology implied by the resurrection of the body. For them it is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy by “good and necessary consequence”, so to speak.

Second, some would object to this sort of trimming of the concept since it tends to imply an un-Biblical bifurcation between dogmatics and ethics. Paul’s admonition against fornication and sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6 is grounded in the creation of the body, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection (“the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body”). It is an explicitly Christological sexual ethic. I don’t think Smith intends this bifurcation, but it seems to be a danger inherent in his thin creedalism.

Beyond that, it does not seem those whom Smith suggests are “stretching” the markers of orthodoxy are “oddly selective.” They are reactive to particular, current movements to normalize behaviors in the Church which have been scandalous to it for 2000 years. Now, there may be a selectivity about it worth critiquing, given other scandals we may think are occurring without much notice. But there’s nothing unintelligible or suspicious about the reaction this issue, since on no other issue does there appear to be such a full-court press towards revision and acceptance in both society and the Church.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem their focus on sexual immorality is out of place with the focus it was given in the life of the early church. Consider the first church council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Whatever you make of the proscription against consuming blood, one of the first rules the Apostles laid down for the Gentiles to be seen as Christians in good standing is to abstain from “sexual immorality”, a term which in 1st Century Judaism was largely informed by Leviticus 18 including its proscription of same-sex intercourse. This actually tells you how central sexual ethics was to the practice and understanding of the gospel it was in the 1st century.

If you jump into the writings of the Fathers, this focus is similarly not lacking. In fact, the Councils themselves had various canons attached to them which included much moral and ethical instruction beyond the specific definitions and creeds we usually associated with them.

Beyond that, the danger most are reacting to is that if we don’t label something a matter of orthodoxy, it tends to become minimized to an adiaphora or an “agree to disagree” issue. Smith is not trying to do that. He says this linguistic change doesn’t signal it’s a matter of indifference. And yet there is a danger of doing just that when he asks this question:

“Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o “orthodox Christianity?”

There are couple of problems with this question. One is running the issue of SSM right in there with women in ordained office and violence. The exegetical and traditional witness on women’s ordination is in such a different place than that of SSM. Even starker (at least in the tradition) is the difference on the matter of nonviolence and Just War. By putting them in the same category it falsifies the difference between these three issues and (unintentionally) moves the boundary towards a similarity in treatment.

Second, though, I think we fail to consider that the battles over orthodoxy in the first few centuries were all among people who had way more agreement between themselves on the broad Christian story than with the surrounding Pagan culture. For instance, the sixth council which ruled on the issue of Monothelitism was making some fairly fine distinctions about the nature of Christ’s two natures. All the participants could plausibly say, “Hey look, we’re all Nicene and Chalcedonian Christians here.” And certainly someone from the outside would look at it as distinctions with barely a difference.

At this point, then, you have a dispute between Christians who affirmed the supernatural tenets of the gospel, the resurrection of Christ, the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father and so forth, grace, and yet this very fine distinction about Christ’s two wills was deemed a marker of orthodoxy, because if it wasn’t affirmed, it functionally and materially undermined all the rest. I think we need to consider that reality when we think about Smith’s questions and our unwillingness to use strong language about the issue.

As I said, though, I don’t mind using a different term. So long as we all agree “orthodox” only means, “signs off on the right propositions on some foundational issues settled by church creeds and definitions.”  But what needs to be made absolutely clear at that point is that “orthodoxy” is now an extremely limited concept for ecclesial boundaries and distinguishing normative Christian belief and practice. It is necessary but nowhere close to sufficient for flagging the totality of their beliefs within the ecclesially-acceptable spectrum of normative Christianity.

Let me put it this way, on this thin view, it’s a coherent and acceptable statement to say, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes adultery can be Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes bearing false witness is Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes coveting is Christian behavior.” None of those statements is incoherent if “orthodox” just means “formally aligns on key Nicene and Chalcedonian propositions.” And yet it’s obvious in each case, somewhere Joe is severely out of line with the gospel. My point is that it’s clear whatever extra term we have, it needs to have some real, normative force.

Otherwise, while we may say this isn’t an issue of indifference, the more we repeat sentences like, “Well, this is an argument between ‘orthodox’ believers”, the more the line is moved and we all begin to hear, “Well, this is a discussion between believers who are all basically in line with the gospel.” Smith’s thin definition of orthodoxy will still carry the thicker connotation it has typically had with all of its boundary-defining force.

Now, with that said, what different word will do? I suppose traditional could work, for the reasons Smith mentions. But it seems to lack something of the moral and ecclesial force it needs to in order to flag the importance an uniformity of opinion on the issue in church practice and history. What’s more, the implied binary term “un-traditional” still manages to carry with it a bit of sex-appeal and cachet in our culture that is unhelpful.

I’m tempted to suggest a difference between a “catholic” sexual ethic v. an un-catholic or revisionist one? It’s close enough in sense to traditional, but gives clearer testimony that this view is one of the only ones that could plausibly fit the Vincentinian Canon (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) in both time and space. In which case, someone could be “orthodox” creedally, while “revisionist” as to ethics, and we could have a better sense of the situation. There was a reason no less than Wolfhart Pannenberg thought churches who revised on the issue were formally schismatic.

Of course, I am not married to that language. Perhaps “apostolic” could do. Or maybe I’m being too finicky and “traditional” is enough. The point, though, is that whichever term we choose, it needs to be an unambiguously clear way of signalling this is a very, very serious deviance from historic Christian belief. And it’s one that if gotten wrong, has serious moral and spiritual repercussions.

How we have the conversation does matter. We do need to conduct it with the love, grace, charity, and courage of those whose lives are marked by the confession of God’s forgiveness. And yet, we need to be clear on exactly what sort of conversation we’re having.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Nature of Divine Necessity for the Cross (A Quick Response to Vreeland)

the crossDerek Vreeland just wrote a follow-up to my response to his original blog-post. I’ve you’re interested, you can read those posts first. I appreciate the friendly conversation, but I do think Vreeland has mischaracterized my position, so I wanted to offer a little rejoinder on this important point. I’ll just quote the relevant section and then respond.

(I will just add that I am not for a moment claiming that the penal or retributive aspect of atonement is the only one at work. I gladly affirm the various historical motivations, Christus Victor aspects, and so forth. I do simply want to clarify things on this point.)

Here’s Vreeland explaining my position and offering an alternative:

In his amiable response to me, Reformed thinker Derek Rishmawy argues that “It is entirely possible to love someone and be angry with them. And not just in a petty way, but precisely out of love it is possible to absolutely be furious with someone’s self-destructive choices which hurt themselves and others.”[1] I agree it is possible for human beings to love and be angry simultaneously, but it would be morally reprehensible to say that I both love someone and react to that person with “judicial retributive anger” particularly if that anger took on the form of retributive violence.

Here I see no actual argument for the proposition that it is “morally reprehensible” for a person to both love someone and yet exact “judicially retributive anger”, just an assertion. This is problematic not only as an argument, but also because its an assertion that runs contrary to Scripture, which constantly depicts YHWH as both loving Israel and yet executing his retributive and just anger against it.

There are literally dozens of chapters in the Prophets–the very same ones where God proclaims his love for Israel–in which he says he will pour out his wrath, judgment, and anger on Israel for her gross sins. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7.  The coming exile is described precisely as the execution of wrath, judgment, anger in accordance with the wicked ways of Israel–the Israel God loves! In which case, we have to write off Ezekiel as a prophet for having a morally reprehensible conception of God. Probably Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea as well.

Rishmawy further claims I create a false binary when I argue God is always extending a yes to humanity and never a no. Rishmawy contends that God’s disposition is indeed yes towards us but no towards our sin—an important nuanced description that I did not find in J.I. Packer’s logic of PSA. So in Rishmawy’s view, the death of Jesus was necessary in that God has a “moral need for satisfaction.” In other words, someone has to pay the price in order for God to be able to forgive. This view, which is standard in Western (Roman Catholic/Protestant) theology, makes God accountable to something other than himself, a nebulous force which Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexandre Kalomiros called a “gloomy and implacable Necessity.”[2]

There are at least two confusions here. First, I don’t exactly say that “someone has to pay the price in order for God to be able to forgive.” Rather, I have argued that God pays the price in Christ precisely as the means of forgiveness. God doesn’t forgive as we do precisely because God is in a different position from us as the Creator, King, Judge, and ruler of all the world. And so, we might expect his forgiveness to look a bit different than ours.

Second, nobody’s talking about a “gloomy and implacable” necessity, and certainly not anything outside of Godself. To speak of God’s “moral necessity” is simply another way of speaking to God’s faithfulness to his own perfect goodness. God is not “bound by the chains of his own justice.”

Let’s put it another way. It is not a deficiency or lack of freedom that Paul is charging God with when he says “God cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 3:13). God’s inability to lie is the free expression of his essential nature as truthful in all of his ways. God is absolutely free to act in accordance with his fundamental nature as faithful and true. Similarly, to speak of God’s moral necessity to punish sin–to address injustice, to redress grievance, to name sin what it is through judgment–is not to speak of a lack of freedom, or a compulsion to some impersonal necessity outside of himself, but rather to name an expression of his freedom to be fully himself, just in all his ways.

One point that Vreeland fails to note (that I emphasized in my post) is precisely the point that God is not just any person. God is the Creator of the universe which sets him in a unique relationship of King, Judge, and moral guarantor of the order of justice within it. And he has committed himself and covenanted to treat righteousness and sin in certain ways within it. God has given himself responsibilities in that regard. In which case, God is bound by his own word, as it were. And a God who can just break his word whenever he wants isn’t a trustworthy God.

God is not compelled by anything other than love. As seen throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus, God can forgive sins at any time. As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice. The issue was not ‘who has paid the demands of justice’ but rather ‘who has the authority to forgive?’ Jesus—as God in human form—had the authority to forgive, and He did (see Mark 2:5-12). While it may be possible for human beings to express both love for a person and retributive anger, it is not possible for God because God is not a mixture of pure love and “holy” wrath. The requirement for retributive justice isn’t a part of God’s nature.

The question here, of course, is what notion of love we’re speaking of. If we get our notion of love from what God has revealed of himself on the basis of who he has shown himself to be and what he has said in history, then that is a love which is apparently not contrary to justice, including retributive justice. Of course he is not a “mixture” of love and holy wrath. But again, nobody is claiming that and I remember specifically rejecting such an utterly silly, caricatured formulation. I say that God is perfectly simple, in which case all of God’s attributes are mutually defining. God’s love is holy, his faithfulness is just, his power is wise, and so on and so forth. What that does mean is that we can’t lift one attribute out of the context of the revelation of all of God’s other attributes, bend it out of shape, and then make it defining in such a way that it perverts the shape of all the rest.

Indeed, when God gives the meaning of his name on Mt. Sinai after the Golden Calf incident, he declares himself to be “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) I mean, he puts retributive justice alongside mercy and forgiveness right at the center of his self-description at one of the most defining moments in Israel’s history. This is a tension, yes, but one that is enacted and clarified historically on the cross. One of the glories of penal substitution (and satisfaction) theories is precisely that they affirm both forgiveness, mercy, AND satisfaction of retributive justice, recognizing both sides. Vreeland’s false binary forces us to choose.

As for Jesus’ ability to forgive sins, I totally agree he has that. But if I had time, I would argue he enacts that on the basis of his own future sacrifice, just as God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins through the Temple system was all pointing to and dependent on Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the Cross. In that sense, the efficacy of Christ’s work is trans-temporal. (This is one of those places where having a metaphysically-built-out conception of God helps you think through your soteriology).

Otherwise, you have to see that Vreeland’s argument–just like the Socinians who originally made it–is essentially a radically and crassly voluntaristic conception of God’s justice. When you unchain it from his nature and you just make it an prerogative he has, God can sort of judge retributively or not, based on his mood. Some sins he punishes, others he doesn’t.  Again, this makes God inconsistent and undependable.

Instead, on something like a satisfaction or penal substitution view, whenever we see God not judging or restraining punishment, we can see as a wise exercise of his patience or forbearance towards someone even though all sin will one day be dealt with (Romans 2:4; 3:25; 2 Peter 3:8-10). All sins are punished and even still, mercy and grace are extended towards repentant sinners.

God isn’t indifferent when it comes to sin. God is a God of judgment, and God’s judgment flows from his love. God will hold us all accountable for our sin, but God’s mercy is not dependent upon His own “moral obligation” to see that someone is punished for sins. God’s mercy is dependent upon His love alone.

I’ll just wrap it up and point out a few last things.

First, I really don’t see that Vreeland has properly disentangled the notion of judgment flowing from love from the notions of punishment or retribution.

Nor have I seen him explain why retribution–God treating sin as it deserves, in accordance with the truth of what it is–is a bad thing. Scripture affirms all over the place that God will indeed “render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom. 2:6-8) Indeed, Jesus himself teaches this retribution in many of his parables (Matt. 25, esp. 31-45). I could list out dozens and dozens of verses, but you get the point. 

Second, mercy is actually a notion conceptually dependent on retributive justice. The implication is that you deserve judgment, but God in this moment doesn’t treat you as you deserve and as God (in some way) ought to. Yes, love is the motivation of mercy. But again, on a penal substitution view, God gets to be everything he says he is in Scripture. He gets to do everything he says he will: he punishes sin while forgiving sinners and so much more.

And that’s ultimately what I’m after: a God who gets to be all of himself in all that he does–love, mercy, and even justice.

Well, I’ll wrap it up there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria