Everybody’s Marriage Impacts Everybody Else’s. That’s How Social Institutions Work.

By his own admission, David French has “flip flop flip[ped]” on gay civil marriage (of the secular legal, not his moral religious view). First, he was for it, then he was against it, and now he’s for it again. He’s writing because of his, surprising to some, seeming change of heart and open support of the recently passed Respect for Marriage Act that enshrines gay marriage into law.

In explaining his back and forth on this, he originally was for it as a civil libertarian, because, as he argued then:

For those who believe gay marriage is morally wrong for Biblical or other religious reasons, this decision changes nothing. Churches can still speak out against sexual immorality and can still choose not to perform gay weddings. The gay couple down the street in no way makes our own straight marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.

The negative sort of “legislate not unto others as you would have them not legislate unto you” logic of libertarianism seems to be the main driver of the position he held for many years. Then, like many others, he reasonably got spooked about religious liberty around Obergefell, so he was against it. But now that so many religious liberty cases have gone well, and we’ve got more ground constitutionally and legally, it appears he’s sort of back to his civil libertarian posture. He’s added other reasons, such as the concern for families that have formed since the Obergefell decision, but it does appear that once his concerns about religious liberty were answered, he defaulted to his prior position with an extra dose of reinforcement due to the nature of pluralism and so forth.

I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not the religious liberty situation is as rosy as French says it is, as I am not a legal scholar, nor will I mount a full case for natural or traditional marriage as a whole. (Though, for the record, I hold a traditional view for both church and society as a whole.) I do want to note one thing that is inadequate about his basically civil libertarian claim about the way “the gay couple down the street in no way makes our own marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.” I’ve seen the claim so often and in so many forms that it merits comment.

To be clear, nobody’s concerned that the definition of marriage is being altered in the eyes of God. Many are concerned that the legal redefinition away from marriage as it is defined by God to some other understanding will be detrimental to the institution within our society as a whole, for several reasons.

A number of Christians, possibly the majority, possibly not, are at least partially concerned with the common good. Whether due to natural law arguments, or convinced by revelation that running against the grain of God’s created order is bad for society, they legitimately think that ensconcing a modern, sexless definition of marriage into law will have far-reaching negative political, social, moral, and spiritual repercussions for all involved. And this is so for two reasons.

First, many will point out that the relationship between law and society is not a one-way street: the law instructs and shapes the way society thinks about reality.

Second, and this is perhaps bigger, this view works with a naively individualistic understanding of marriage as a shared social institution. The reality is that my neighbor’s marriage can and does have an impact on mine in several ways. That’s how social institutions work and part of why the State has had an interest in recognizing and building legal frameworks around them.

Take an example French himself mentions: the institution of no-fault divorce represented and instituted a shift in our understanding of marriage bringing about long-term consequences still with us, many conservatives see the legalization of same-sex marriage playing out in the same way. For your neighbor to be able to get a no-fault divorce, the law had to be altered such that you can now get a no-fault divorce. That means your own divorce is that much easier to acquire and thereby your marriage is potentially weaker in a moment or season of doubt and frustration. Indeed, the meaning of the vows you took and the devotion and resolution are socially retconned into something far less substantial than they were when you took them. The social and moral currency of marital vows was diluted once no-fault divorce was instituted.

Beyond that, however, while your neighbor’s divorce doesn’t effect your own divorce, or force you to get a divorce, it does make your own divorce more thinkable and possible. Every couple who has been married long enough and sees the first, second, third, etc. divorce hit their friend circle knows this, as does every 90s kid who got scared every time one of their friend’s parents got divorced. It made your own sense of your parents’ marriage that much weaker, that much less safe. Divinely instituted and grounded firmly in the nature of things though it may be, marriage is also an inescapably social institution. This is why we can coherently speak of marriage cultures and so forth.

In which case, it is very plausible that the legal redefinition of marriage away from a union between a man and a woman with procreation at least theoretically possible, or in view, towards a sexless union that is ontologically incapable of procreation (without massively expensive, ethically-questionable technological intervention), does have broad, society-wide, knock-on effects on our marriages as well as our children’s and our children’s children’s marriages. This is not insignificant given that historically (and currently) one of the main reasons the State has any vested interest in legally codifying marriage is precisely to support and structure a stable familial environment for the propagation and nurture of children–the future of society. Legally redefining marriage shifts our conception of what a marriage is and therefore its proper practice. Whether explicitly and consciously or subtly and unconsciously it inevitably shifts away from these ends and the practices that are conducive toward them.

Now, by introducing the issue of no-fault divorce someone may want to point out that even if it’s true that our neighbor’s marriage does impact ours, the cost of a society without no-fault divorce is worse than that of a society with them. Go aheaf and have at it. Make the broad argument. And, similarly to that of gay marriage, I suppose. Note, I’m not actually disputing that there are places where there is a proper distinction between acts that are proscribed for believers, but should not be by the State. Debates must be had about principles, their prudent application, and so forth. But as you do, especially around marriage, I’d just like to make the minimal point that you have to do better than this highly individualistic and libertarian understanding of things.

A Note on “Strategy” and the Three Worlds

Alan Jacobs was unconvinced at my argument that, even putting aside the individual merits of Renn’s Three World’s Thesis, that sort of heuristic or analysis, or asking the question “is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan?” is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice.

He writes:

No. I’m gonna say that the question is indeed irrelevant, and for several reasons. First, because within the Empire conditions for Christians varied from time to time and place to place. Even at the height of Christian power there were pockets of pagan dominance; and let’s not forget that the reign of Julian the Apostate came after Constantine. Historians may be able to look back and see clear patterns, but no one at the time could have had that kind of assurance. No one knew that Constantine’s support for Christianity would succeed, or that Julian’s opposition to it would fail. Christians then had to face whatever reality confronted them in any given place, at any given moment — as do Christians today. And sometimes adherence to an abstract account of the-situation-in-general can obscure what’s right in front of your face.

I’m emphasizing how contextually variable the circumstances of Christians always are because simplistic accounts lead to strategies. The most profound problem with the three-worlds account is not that it’s wrong, though it is wrong, but that it’s supposed to yield a strategy. And let me be blunt about this: Whenever Christians decide that they need a strategy, they’re writing a recipe for disobedience to the Lord Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas has always said in response to people who say that the Church needs a social strategy, “the Church is a social strategy.” And here’s Lesslie Newbigin:

When our Lord stretched forth His hand to heal a leper, there was no evangelistic strategy attached to the act. It was a pure outflow of the divine love into the world, and needed no further justification. Such should be the Church’s deeds of service.

The Church’s job is to be the Church, and the Christian’s task is to be like Christ, and strategies invariably get in the way of both. In fact, I believe that, generally speaking, though the people who hold them typically don’t realize this, that’s just what they’re designed to do.

So I spot three problems at least: (1) Not only are these heuristics reductionistic the even more incredibly contextual situations that Christians find themselves in, (2) they are inevitably blinkered given how opaque historical trends are, which can blind you to the clear obligations you have, and (3) they inevitably do that because they’re designed to produce “strategies”, which are always bad, because they’re unwittingly, “a recipe for disobedience to Jesus.” The Church should do what the Church should do because the Lord Jesus commands it, not because it’s part of some timely social strategy.

I know Dr. Jacobs is smarter and wiser than me, but I don’t think this rejoinder gets at my question, or is adequate at least, so I wanted to throw out one more note by way of response. Let me explain.

First, I think it’s possible to both account for broad and local contexts in someone’s analysis. I work as a campus minister and one of the big principles we constantly think through is local, university student context. A UCI student is not a Baylor student is not an NYU student. And yet, they’re all Gen Z, so it’s very likely there are some generational-contextual traits and challenges to faithfulness that most campus ministers should be accounting for, along with everyone’s personal, individual narrative. I often roll my eyes at generational analysis and the programs that are rolled out as absolutes, precisely because of the issue of context. Still, again, it’s not absolutely without value for the pastor to consider, preach on, or counsel on its basis.

Second, it is entirely possible and likely that such heuristics are intended to be more than merely descriptive, but generate prescriptive strategies, but it is not necessarily the case. Nor does it guarantee the shape of the strategy to follow, which is evident in how different the proposals we’ve seen appended to the model actually are. Still, I appreciate and entirely sympathize with the logic of “the church is a strategy whose life of Christlikeness is in need of no justification”, a la Newbigin and Hauerwas. (This is why I’ve long said all of these “return to liturgy as Millennial bait” justifications are silly. Take the Lord’s Supper because it is the Lord’s Supper and it’s right.) But here’s where I will suggest there has been a communication breakdown.

The question I’ve been asking is that as the Church tries to follow Christ and do those acts which need no strategic justification, should she be aware of the context in which she is ministering? Does it matter for offering a healing hand to the leper whether the leper knows his need for healing or not? Does it matter if one lives in a nation that increasingly sees leprosy not as a disease, but a normal part of the human condition to be left alone? If so, is it helpful, is it wise to be aware, warn, and instruct God’s people should be emotionally and intellectually prepared to engage with that understanding as a part of that call that we always have as the Church to love the leper or not?

Often doing so is precisely part of what gives people the requisite moral and emotional resilience to keep engaging in the acts of persuasion, the acts of love, the acts of fidelity required by Jesus in the face of negativity. Or again, in the positive world, it may lead to warning against presumption that your neighbor’s easy acceptance of your confession, shared morals or ways of living are necessary signs that you are definitely engaged in clear gospel ministry, fidelity, and so forth. The heuristic doesn’t change what you do but may give wisdom and situate your approach as you do it.

If suggesting we prepare people for this is a strategy and strategic thinking, I suppose I am guilty of thinking it is not inherently wrong, sinful, or a recipe for disobedience to do so. Warning a student about the potential situation they’ll face in the HR departments at major corporations they’re headed off to is not a strategy to disobey, but an invitation to count the cost of obedience. Recognizing that the non-Christian student who heads threw the doors cannot be assumed to recognize and share the basic values and goods promoted by the gospel is not an excuse to avoid persuading them, but a potential aid in the attempt.

Anyway, I’m still mulling the actual thesis, but for now, this is my explanation for why I don’t think it’s total a waste of our time.

Sure it’s All Negative World, But What Kind of Negative World?

Everybody’s been talking about Aaron Renn’s “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” thesis as well as the various uses to which it’s been put by folks like James Wood and others. The nutshell is that in pre-1994 U.S. we lived in a “positive world” where being a Christian was a net social positive, post-94-2015ish it was “neutral world” where, it was, well, a social status neutral, and now, post 2015, we live in “negative world”, where, again, obviously, it’s a social negative. I won’t rehash everything, because if you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re up on things.

In perhaps predictable “third way” fashion I’ve been of a both/and, or “this side has a point, but also so do they over here” mindset about it. For someone who has had the opportunity to revisit his own progressive university 16 years after having left it as a student in order to minister to its students as a pastor, it’s very obvious to me that something has changed. Whether that is simply the furtherance of a trajectory that was long set before I left, or something qualitative has shifted is something I haven’t quite decided. Consider what follows a bit of thinking out loud, then, to clear my own mind and perhaps help clarify things for others.

I was pointed to a recent, Alan Jacobs piece by a friend with whom I’ve been discussing such matters. Jacobs is forceful in his opposition to Renn’s thesis. Given his study of history, the US’s waning and waxing levels of church membership,“for much of America’s history, and in most of America’s places, whether someone was demonstrably a Christian or not really didn’t matter all that much.” The 1950s to the 1990s were sort of a goldilocks zone of public, Christian profession, which he takes to have cast a distorting lens upon the whole.

The problem for Jacobs goes deeper, though, for taken in a properly theological sense, being a Christian who attempts to obey all of Christ’s commands has always landed you in a negative world in some way. The 1950s South might have publicly respected Christina profession, its norms surrounding God’s creation of male and female, the nature of marriage, and so forth but giving a fully Christian affirmation of the full dignity of all of his image-bearers, especially the black ones, would have cost you dearly.

Jacobs is helpfully highlighting the difference between professing Christianity and publicly being a Christian in word and deed in a fully consistent fashion. On Jacob’s theological reading of history, the reality will be that no matter the context you live in, you will always live in a “negative world.” Actually practicing Christianity will cost you in every time and place, and so there is a sense in which the question doesn’t even matter. “Whether it’s a positive world or a neutral world or a negative world or a multiverse or just a crazy old world, my job is the same: to strive for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.”

There’s something that strikes me as obviously right and obviously wrong at the same time and it makes me wonder if there isn’t some confusion as to the level and types of claims being made and their political and pastoral significance.

It seems that it is fully possible to acknowledge that in some deep, eternal, existential sense, Christians must own that they are never fully at home in this world, that they must strive for faithfulness and resist the devil as well as the passions of the flesh which make war against their souls just as much in 40 AD as in 1940 AD. As Kierkegaard pressed the question, there is a contemporaneity of Christ such that the call to take up one’s cross and follow him is ever new in a world with devils filled. We should never imagine the 1800 years (from his time) that had passed since Christ had walked the earth did not erase the difficulty of that call. There is an absolute, spiritual and theological level at which, yes, one might say, “it’s negative world all the way down.”

Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice? Or, again, is there a relevant sense in which we could speak of a more negative stance of society and the state to Christian practice in China before or after the rise of the Communists? Or again, in Soviet Russia, or in post-Soviet Russia (I say that well aware of the state of the RO church and state persecution of non-Orthodox denominations.)

Again, the question is not whether in absolute terms, the potential cost of discipleship is different. The question is whether or not there is a politically and pastorally relevant shift that has occurred in the social conditions, social imaginary, state policy, or what-have-you, that makes the distinction of before and after, this time v. that time, worth noting and flagging in those types of terms (negative, positive, neutral)? Surely the prophets called Israel to fidelity and to keep from the idols which at all times were a threat to the people God, but is it entirely and utterly irrelevant whether it occurs in Israel or in Babylon? Do we think that pastoring our people towards the one, all-important, perennial goal of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus requires us to read the signs of the (admittedly non-eschatological) times, or not?

We might think of it as trying to think through what kind of negative world we live in: positive-negative, neutral-negative, and negative-negative? Does clocking those distinctions matter?

Let me put it another way: a while back I heard a talk by Tim Keller on evangelism in a postmodern age that profoundly impacted my way of thinking through the ministry task. He noted the way that evangelism changed back from the old revival model. Back in the revival days, you could basically go out and preach the gospel to people who basically “already believed it” in a sense—there was a “come home” or “come to your senses” element where you didn’t have to unpack and unbundle a whole bunch of baggage against the Church, or Christianity, and you could assume a fair bit of a baseline Christian ethic and metaphysic in your presentation. But now–after the postmodern turn, or the 90s, or whenever it was that Keller saw the change happen–you couldn’t do that anymore. You had to do full worldview evangelism, engage presuppositions, break down negative stereotypes, and come to understand the very different world your hearers inhabited intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

I think many folks didn’t like that idea because it seemed to give the impression that “people are more sinful now, evangelism is harder now” in some type of uniquely eschatological sense that empties the gospel of its power and accounted for things too much in terms of purely human energy, effort, etc. There is a simplicity to just saying, “people have been sinners for 2000 years and the gospel has been good news for 2000 years, so I’m just going to keep preaching it faithfully and not worry about all of that.”

But I don’t think Keller was saying that “evangelism is harder” in the absolute sense that the Holy Spirit had more work to do or something like that. It wasn’t an absolute qualitative change, but perhaps more of a relative qualitative, or even a quantitative shift that pastors needed to be aware of if they were going to be more effective in reaching postmodern individuals. You might say that Keller was trying to warn us of the negative world that had hit New York 15-20 years earlier than everywhere else. I think much of his success had to do with his ability to recognize something like that.   

None of this settles the question as to whether Renn is right in the main or in the particulars, or whether Wood is right about the way to deal with life in negative world if Renn is right. Obviously, Dr. Jacobs is also free to no longer waste his time on it and I’m sure whatever he does turn his attention to will be to our benefit. But I do think it’s worth recognizing that the question is not incoherent, irrelevant, or not worth exploring for those concerned with that very same aim of holding on in fidelity to our Lord Jesus.

Do As They Say

A while back I posted a longish essay on the problem with “consequentialism” in doctrinal evaluations; essentially, how we should and shouldn’t use Jesus’s fruits test for recognizing false prophets (Matt. 7:15-20). Used as an evaluation of prophets, it eventually holds up, but as a test of doctrines and their fruits, the issue is trickier. I won’t repeat myself, but you can read it here.

This morning in my Scripture reading I remembered a text that makes a kindred point from a different angle: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3). Jesus will go on to critique many of their actual doctrines, but his opening gambit concedes that much, if not most, of what the Scribes and Pharisees taught was doctrinally sound, but an empty confession. (One of the benefits of recent scholarship is highlighting just how close Jesus was to Pharisaic teaching in many respects.) They did not practice their teachings, nor did they teach in such a way as to enable others to enter in themselves. And yet, that did not mean their teachings were actually wrong through and through. Insofar as they sit in the chair of Moses and actually expound the Law truly, their false lives don’t actually invalidate the Law.

Similarly, Paul points out that “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry” (Phil. 1:15). They have bad hearts. They strive for power, for position, possibly money, and clout. They don’t care sincerely about the gospel, they just want to strike at Paul while he’s in prison (1:17). What’s Paul’s response, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18). He is unflappable. “Look, I know they’re trying to dunk on me, but they’re doing exactly what I’d love to be doing–getting the message of Jesus out–so I’m happy.” Don’t miss it–their bad motives, their sinful use of the gospel-preaching to try and get at Paul, doesn’t falsify their gospel. It’s still true no matter the bad faith of the preacher.

In a time when more than a few favored teachers sitting in the chair of Moses have taken a moral tumble, or have had their fleshly motives exposed, it’s worth remembering that neither morals nor motives actually make what is true false, any more than the good motives and sterling behavior of an Arian makes his doctrine true. There ought to be consistency between life and doctrine, but there is often not, and so the Scriptures warn us of this, giving us reason to cling to the gospel beyond the preacher, the message beyond the vehicle by which we have heard it.

Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that our faith really is in Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Making it Personal (Or, One and Half Cheers for ‘Abstraction’)

If you’ve spent much time discussing any ethical issue of great import, you know there are times when it’s appropriate to ask someone, “What if it was your kid? Would you still take this position? Or hold it this way?” as a way of personalizing and putting flesh on the dilemma under discussion. Nevertheless, there are corresponding moments where you need to ask, “Okay, what if it wasn’t your kid? Would you still look at it this way?” as a way of prodding folks to recognize the way their own personal commitments might be obscuring and biasing their view of the objective issues at hand. Which is to say, both personalization and abstraction, or depersonalization, have their place in the reasoning process.

This basic point is often obscured by much online discussion at the moment: the ability to distinguish people from positions and particular situations from general principles is good and necessary for all sorts of reasons. Even more briefly, abstraction can be good, actually. Depersonalizing and exercising critical distance might be healthy for us.

I offer a few rambling and incomplete thoughts in defense of the latter in what follows.

Skin in the Game and the Reverse Ad Hominem

There are a couple of different ways of personalizing an argument. One is to go on the offense with an ad hominem. “A bourgeoisie like you would say that, wouldn’t you?” In that case, you make the other person’s character, class, or some other personal marker the issue instead of the issue–or rather, you connect the two in order to undermine their argument. Now, that’s actually relevant if the argument is an appeal to authority and credibility based on their character. It also may expose a motivating factor in an argument, but it’s not always relevant, which is why it’s usually considered a fallacy. (Relatedly, as C.S. Lewis points out, even if you can expose someone’s motivating reason underneath an argument, eventually you still have to actually answer the argument.)

Another way of personalizing an argument is by inserting yourself (or perhaps a present, watching, third-party) into the argument—you identify your life, your choices, your own existence with your position. Now, this isn’t always bad. Sometimes personalizing the argument is a way of showing you have skin in the game. In a sermon, putting flesh on a point and demonstrating that you yourself have embraced this truth as a way of life can be valuable for the sake of modeling and purchasing credibility; you are not preaching anything you yourself are not trying to practice. It also may serve to awaken folks to the flesh and blood implications of their positions. Personalizing the argument can bring a qualitative dimension to quantitative analysis in the same way an interview with a subject puts a human face on an impersonal graph or a data set. Finally, a disengaged, abstracted stance is not the ultimate or final state of a rational evaluation of the truth of an issue. Especially when the principle to be applied impacts concrete, flesh-and-blood situations.

Nevertheless, even leaving aside the problem of choosing between normative narratives and experiences we invoke, there are dangers with this approach.

One is that it can easily turn into a way of daring your opponent to engage in an ad hominem of sorts against you. You so identify yourself with the position you’re arguing for, or you make your own story the argument, that nobody can critique the position without (at least implicitly) critiquing you personally. To say your position is wrong is to reject you, your values, your very self. “Refute, deny, or even question my argument, you’re questioning me.” Depending on the context and the participants, this easily becomes emotionally manipulative. “Unless you don’t embrace this doctrine, this social policy, this particular solution to our organizational crisis, you can’t possibly embrace me personally.” This quickly devolves from rational persuasion into relational coercion. It’s a conversation-stopper.

A move like this is especially powerful when done in front of a watching audience where you know you’re the more sympathetic figure. Indeed, the gambit may not even be aimed at the main dialogue partner, but as a way of choosing the audience to pick a side, “him or me?” threatening to functionally reduce rational dialogue into a high-school popularity contest. But people we like can be wrong and people we do not—even for good reasons—can be right. Think of the classic Clickhole article, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” We’ve all seen it happen.

On the Good of Critical Distance
All of this can be exacerbated when the personalized position is articulated within a narrative of trial and pain. When folks are sharing their struggles and pains, one healthy instinct is to want to validate their experiences—to let them know you hear, you care, and are committed to their health and well-being. Asking critical questions, breaking down premises and arguments, sitting back with what appears to be a dispassionate, cold assessment seems potentially emotionally triggering, painful, and communicate a lack of concern. It can also smack of arrogance—how dare you sit in judgment of my own evaluations of my experiences? Or it might be seen (and can often be) a self-defensive mechanism—especially when the narrative might imply an indictment of your own behavior. We should be aware of these things.

Of course, the problem is that we all know none of us is an infallible interpreter of any experience—even our own. How many abuse victims have wrongly blamed themselves for their own suffering? How often have we seen manipulators recount a story in such a way as to excuse their own engagement with others and come to find that they have convinced themselves that is actually the truth of the situation? Or in dealing with our own journeys of healing and sanctification, how often do you recognize that your 25-year-old self’s understanding of the dynamics at work in your own sin and temptation were too clean, too binary, lacking the depth, grain, and texture as you’ve grown in self-awareness, humility, and painful experience?

To take a morally neutral example, it has taken me close to 10 years to find out what actually went wrong with my body when I had something like a full-system collapse at 24. Over the years, as I tried new therapies, went to different doctors, worked my way through various exercise programs, and continued to read online about different joint conditions, I had a variety of evaluations of what the “cause” was: it was “tendinitis”, a doctor’s misdiagnosis, stress-induced over-exercises, spiritual attack, bad diet, poor movement patterns, mis-prescribed pain medication, and so on. Now, looking back at things 10 years on, I think it was probably a mix of all of these factors and a few more. But at any point in my journey, I would have had different evaluations and takeaways—normative prescriptions for how I and others should tackle this problem in the future based on my own self-understanding. And these were not things I held neutrally or at a distance—at times these diagnoses were explanations giving me clarity and hope to deal with my pain.

At just that point we find the value in being about to, at times, distinguish a person from their positions, their story from the moral they’ve drawn, or the validation of an experience as real from a corresponding evaluation of what that experience was. Every good counselor knows that there are moments in a session when what is needed is to listen and validate an experience of pain. They also know that there are moments when what a suffering patient needs is a liberating question, a new lens that helps them reframe their pain and its meaning because they’ve adopted a flawed, self-understanding (“I’m worthless,” “I’ve always got to do it myself”, “I’m the only one who knows what’s going on”), or a universalized maxim (“you can’t trust anybody”) that is warped and crippling their ability to heal and move forward.

In those moments, it is precisely the ability to distinguish a moral from a story, a person from their self-diagnosis, and actually offer substantive critical feedback that is helpful to them. At that moment, the value of a counselor lies precisely in being someone who has enough critical distance from the pain; to be an outside observer who can lovingly disagree.

Critical Distance and Love

This brings me to my brief, final point. I could go on to speak about how good this is for the public square and the churches, for the deliberative process whereby we reason together about issues of great social import, etc. But also on the more personal level, it’s just good for your ability to love those you disagree with (“I don’t agree with you on X, but I still love you”), and for us to recognize and allow folks who disagree with us to love us (“I get that we don’t see eye to eye on this, but I recognize you don’t hate me”). And this can go a long way towards helping us love our ideological enemies in obedience to Jesus’s commands.

We’re humans. We cannot, nor should we, always strive to make arguments impersonal—or rather, to hold our conclusions to those arguments impersonally, especially when they are matters of great ethical import. God gave us more than abstract reason as a mode of discernment. Nevertheless, it is one of his gifts to us, and it is one we neglect to our peril.

Thucydides Describes Politics in 2020-2021

I did not know Thucydides was a prophet as well as a historian.

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the
knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of
revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of
atrocities in revenge.

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual

What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the
courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.

Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone
who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at

Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more
ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the
benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the
members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious
communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the
party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had
no practical effect.

Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made,
they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and
remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the
one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the
sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it
was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior
intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simplemindedness
honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all
these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had
broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable – on one
side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy
– but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In
their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they
committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still.

Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an
illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour.

Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.

-History of the Peloponnesian War, Bk 3, par. 82

Stalin was good with kids

I’ve been listening to biographies for the last couple of years, just to branch out of theology and biblical studies. Having made my way through some of the big “good” WW2 allies (FDR, Churchill, De Gaulle), I figured it was time to work my way around to the other side, so I picked up Simon Montefiore’s work Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar. There’s much to be astonished at when surveying the life and legacy of this prolific butcher, statesmen, spy, tyrant, mass-murderer, and generalissimo, but I think the most surprising thing so far was finding out how good he was with kids. Apparently they loved him. At least early on.

Stalin had issues with many of his sons, but by all accounts he doted on his daughter Svetlana as a child. He used to tease his magnates’ children at the dinner table, throwing orange peels in their ice cream, joking with them, and so forth. Once, when one of their children called into the office asking for him so that he could help them on their math homework (could have been Malenkov, I can’t remember), Stalin told the child he was unavailable and then helped them with their homework over the phone. All of this while he was orchestrating the terror and having their parents arrested and tortured in Beria’s dungeons or something similarly horrible.

I don’t have a much say beyond two quick points.

Stalin being good with kids makes his legacy all the more terrifying. It’s one thing to think of a cartoonish, inhuman, supervillain being guilty of Stalin’s staggering crimes. It’s quite another to connect them with the face of a one-time friendly neighbor, a tutor, someone whom many plausibly experienced as “Uncle Joe”, (despite the fact that the Roosevelt admin gave him the name ironically). It chills the bones.

Secondly, this sure puts flesh on Jesus’s saying, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

Just Who did Isaiah See on the Throne?

Isaiah’s famous vision report in chapter six opens thus:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Obviously, the “Lord” is God. But the question is, “who” are we seeing? Classically, it’s been common for Christian commentators to hear a reference to the whole Trinity in the Trisagion, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory” (v. 3).

Cyril of Alexandria writes of the blessings which fill the mouth of the Seraphim:

They say “holy” three times and then conclude with “Lord of hosts.” This demonstrates the holy Trinity exists in one divine essence. All hold and confess that the Father exists, along with the Son and the Spirit. Nothing divides those who are named nor separates them into different natures. Just the opposite is true. We recognize one Godhead in three persons.

Theodoret of Cyrus comments similarly that as the seraphim praise “the title Lord singularly in this song, but repeat ‘holy’ three times (in reference to the Trinity), we know they are referring to the one essence of Deity.” If you see the tripling of ‘holy’ as a reference to the Trinity, then the praises of the seraphim seem to clear that up very quickly.

Some might be more skeptical of this, though, and not just modern commentators with prejudices against Christian readings of OT texts. Instead, it’s possible to think that what we’re seeing here is more strictly a vision of the pre-incarnate Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity by appealing to John 12:41. There John quotes Isaiah 6’s prophecy about Israel’s hardness of heart and says, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him”, referring to Christ.

Of course, read within the grounds of a Christian doctrine of God, to see the glory of the Son is to see the glory of the Father as it is one shared glory. As Calvin says here that while John teaches that Isaiah has a vision of Christ, “in my judgment, it is wrong to restrict this vision to the person of Christ, since the prophecy refers rather to God without differentiation.”

While Calvin’s logic is good on its own, Herman Witsius blew my mind this morning as I was reading his reasoning in the Economy of the Covenants (Bk. 4. chap. 3, par. V). He says that “Isaiah saw the whole Trinity, like a king sitting on a throne” and points not only to the more prominent passage of John 12:41, but also points to Acts 28:25-27, where Paul quotes the same prophecy about the hardness of heart from Isaiah 6 and says, “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet.” Witsius clearly reasons that if Isaiah saw the glory of the Son and heard the speech of the Holy Spirit and, “I imagine, none should excluded the Father”, then how can we not but conclude that Isaiah saw the whole Trinity represented to him in a vision? Seems about right to me.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tamar Was Righteous

Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, gets a bad rap. Often cited as one of the “scandalous” women in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:3), she’s famous for tricking her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by veiling herself and presenting herself to him as a prostitute (Gen. 38).

Admittedly, this is not the usual way of going about things and you can see why preachers tend to skip it in the middle of their series on the life of Joseph or whatever.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. Er is wicked in some unspecified way, so God puts him to death before he had given Tamar any children. At that point, it falls to Onan, his brother, to fulfill his obligation according to the levirate marriage laws and go in to her to give her a child so she could raise him up as offspring in Er’s name (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth). Wanting to avoid having to care for another heir, Onan famously only does a half-way job of it, for which he is also struck dead (Gen. 38:10). From there, it falls Judah to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar so that she can have a child by him–which he promises to do–but then reneges on because he’s scared that Shelah might be the hat-trick of dead sons married to Tamar.

After a while, Tamar comes up with her plan. She’s living at home with her parents, but she dresses up like a prostitute, veils herself so no one will know who she is, and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. He does and she persuades him to come into her. (Incidentally, the fact that she knew this would work speaks loudly to Judah’s character at the time.) He has no money, so she accepts his signet, a cord, and staff as a pledge that he’d pay later. Then, she ghosts with them.

Months pass and she turns up pregnant. At this point, Judah is indignant and calls for her to be stoned for she has been “immoral.” So she sends him his signet, cord, and staff and asks for him to identify him. Caught with his metaphorical pants down, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar is vindicated and gives birth to sons, Perez and Zerah.

The story is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that this is part of our Savior’s lineage, but in the 20th Century it might be referenced most frequently in debates around the meaning of the term “righteousness” in the Bible.

I won’t summarize the intellectual story here, but at the tail-end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century there has been a move to define righteousness as a relational concept instead of a “norm” concept. I first encountered it in the recent work of New Perspective scholar like James Dunn or N.T. Wright who likes to talk about righteousness as “covenant-faithfulness,” but the argument really took off over 100 years ago when Herman Cremer argued that the concrete, Hebraic conception of righteousness was a relational one as opposed to the abstract, Greek normative one. On this view, someone was defined as righteous, not because they measured up to some abstract, universal, ethical standard or norm, but because they had kept up their end of the bargain, been true to their word, or kept faith in the context of a relationship. Roughly.

Now, there are all sorts of shades and variations on this that develop after Cremer with different nuances and emphases, but most tend to trade on this same, basic assumption. (On all this, see Charles Lee Irons’s excellent dissertation The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation). While there all sorts of lexical and conceptual arguments made that I won’t go into, the Tamar escapade has been used repeatedly to illustrate the rightness of this basic approach. Why? Because at the end of the story, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Folks like James Dunn will point out that it seems pretty obvious that dressing up like a prostitute and tricking your father-in-law to get you pregnant can’t be seen as conforming to some abstract rule, or a even a public norm governing society. Instead, it must be read in terms of the relational righteousness reading. Judah was less righteous in keeping up his end of the bargain. She is more righteous than I, even if she’s not ultimately morally righteous.

But is that really the case? After reviewing the story in detail and revisiting the levirate laws, Irons makes a convincing case that Tamar basically did nothing wrong. I’ll quote part of his argument at length:

But is it true that Tamar formally violated the moral law? What action of hers could be construed as such? Perhaps it might be thought that she engaged in prostitution. But her “prostitution” was a one-time act for the purpose of getting pregnant in order to raise up seed in the name of Judah’s firstborn, Er, in fulfillment of the levirate obligation and, even more importantly, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham that he would have an innumerable seed who would inherit the land God had sworn to give to Abraham. Perhaps it might be argued that she committed sexual immorality by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. That is not quite accurate either, since she slept with Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. Obviously, it would not have been an act of sexual immorality to sleep with Shelah, since she was in fact legally betrothed to him the moment her second husband died. Since Judah was the one who obstinately refused to fulfill his duty and give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, Tamar took matters into her own hands and got herself pregnant by Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. This was not sexual immorality; it was the fulfillment of the aim of the levirate institution, namely, the production of an heir. As Dvora Weisberg states, “There is no indication that the union between Tamar and Judah is not a levirate union.” The only act, so far as I can see, that could in any way be construed as a violation of the moral law was Tamar’s act of procuring Judah’s seed by means of deception. Tamar deceived Judah into thinking that she was an ordinary prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law, and such deception is technically a sin. (173-174)

Thinking it through further, Irons notes Tamar isn’t even charged with deception. And beyond that, she only resorted to deception because Judah failed in his obligations (leave aside how often deception for lawful cause seems to be viewed lightly in the Old Testament). In the context of judicial case Judah brings against here, Irons says, “Tamar…is totally vindicated.”

What’s the pay-off here? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting for the sake of the broader conversation around righteousness in the Bible. I remember first encountering this argument in seminary and finding the Tamar incident to be a plausible illustrative case to drive home a broader lexical and conceptual argument I didn’t have the capacity to follow at the time. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in that and you have library access, Irons’s book is well worth your time). I’m foreshortening Irons’s argument here by a lot. He does say that the relational and saving righteousness reads do put their finger on some of the biblical data that should be considered part of our overall concept of righteousness, while nevertheless maintaining that the lexical meaning of righteousness having to do with a forensic status or ethical conformity to a norm.

Second, I’m tempted to see three connections to the gospel here (though I’m open to correction and expansion here).

On a first read, Tamar’s actions are scandalous and possibly immoral. Yet upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1). Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One. Third, I am increasingly convinced it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!

To sum up, Tamar was righteous. Thank God.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Covenant With the Body Too

In his debate with the Sadducees, Jesus proves the resurrection of the dead by appealing to the story of Moses at the burning bush, “where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Luke 20:37). Jesus says it should be obvious from this that there is a resurrection to come because, “he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (v. 38).

Now, this is a nice clean little argument that shut everybody up at the time and should set us to think on our Lord in wonder. Dutch theologians Herman Witsius actually took it a bit further in his day.

In his section on “glorification” in his Book III of The Economy of the Covenants, he sets out to refute the Socinians who deny that there is a soul that continues after death, which also feels, understands, lives, and is conscious. Now, Witsius goes about refuting it several ways, but fascinatingly enough, he appeals to this passage and reasons that when Jesus said that “do all live on unto God,” it is “not only to be understood of that happy life of the entire compound,” the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection, “but of the blessed life of the soul in a state of separation, which our Lord ascribes to them in the present time.”

He breaks down Jesus’ argument like this:

In order to prove the resurrection, he proceeds in this manner, as first, he concludes the soul survives and live, and then from that infers the resurrection of the body: because God’s covenant was not made with souls, but with entire persons.

I just want to briefly make a couple of points about this remarkable passage.

First, this is an ingenious reading of the text. Christ’s argument is properly for a resurrection, but Witsius sits with the text and recognizes what it presupposes, or rather, he appeals to Christ’s premise for his own conclusion. Not only does it get you a resurrection–it gets you a soul too!

Second, I just loved that phrase, “because God’s covenant was not made with souls, but with entire persons.” God made a covenant with Abraham–not just his inner essence–but the whole man, body and soul; the guy who stands 5’6″, with a beard, drooping shoulders, possibly very unsightly teeth, and who believed in God’s promises. God’s covenant is with him–and all his children, body and soul, who are sons by faith (Gal. 3:6-9).

I think of a similarly marvelous line in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

“And their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves.” How marvelous? Our union with Christ is body and soul, and even when our bodies lie in the grave, they are resting there in his care. Marvelous.

Incidentally, this is the kind of thing that ends up annoying me 10 years after the fact with so much of the rhetoric in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s still a great book, but the impression you get early on that everybody forgot about the resurrection until the tail-end of the 20th Century New Testament studies is…Well, let’s just leave that can of worms half-opened and recall that Herman wrote this four centuries ago.

For now, I’ll tell you go dig up Witsius. It’s really marvelous, biblical-theology and this chapter itself is great because it manages to do the thing that so many modern eschatologies do not: it keeps an eye on the material glory of the resurrection, while at the same time expounding the beauty of our glorification with its spiritual goods in view: holiness and delight in the vision of God.

Truly, his covenant is made with entire persons.

Soli Deo Gloria