The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

The Best Apologetics Is Good Systematics

o'donovanYesterday’s post on the shape of atonement doctrine raised the issue of how the wrong sort of apologetic mindset when it comes to preaching and forming doctrine can distort our understanding of how and why we believe what we do.

After the fact, I recalled some comments by Oliver O’Donovan about how to think about apologetics as a form of Christian thinking. He has been situating his own project and notes that in the contemporary context (2005), one of the secondary values of engaging political theology is for its apologetic value. Given the loss of intelligibility of political institutions and practices, the fact that Christian political reasoning can shed light on these matters in a way secular philosophies no longer could might prove attractive to nonbelievers.

In that context, O’Donovan issues a corrective explanation of just what does and does not separate apologetics from other modes of theology:

Now, apologetics is not a distinct genre of religious thinking. There are no apologetic reasons and arguments that do not belong in the ordered exposition of Christian belief traditionally known as “doctrine.” The only satisfactory reason to believe is the reason of belief. If I could think out for myself a total and rationally coherent account of all my beliefs, I would have found all the reasons I knew for anyone else to believe as I believed. If I were then to urge some other reasons for believing, it would have to be a pseudo-reason that I did not myself believe, and I would be a charlatan.

Apologetics is, on the other hand, a distinct genre of exposition. For dialogue’s sake I may organize my account of my beliefs in relation to somebody else’s doubts or counter-arguments. The rational equilibrium always remains the same: a reason for an unbeliever not to be swayed by an argument against belief is at the same time a reason for a believer not to be swayed by it. Yet different trains of theological thought may acquire greater or lesser apologetic weight circumstantially, as the crises or doubts of the culture may dictate at any moment.

The Ways of Judgment (xiii)

Another way of putting this is to say that your apologetic theology should just be your systematic theology arranged in a different order, so that its inherent logic and justification is more clearly defensible against contemporary attacks (or attractive to the current moment). But it’s not a different theology, or your theology plus extra reasons to believe. It is the same truth with the same justifications, not ones we’ve simply adopted for their usefulness in the moment.

I’ll simply add that O’Donovan’s clarification is well-made as this is where the danger of the apologetic endeavor looms large for confessional theology.

Without a sense of your theology as, in a sense, prior to your apologetics, it becomes ever more tempting to succumb to the pressure of presenting a doctrine “defensible” at the bar of whatever is currently passing itself off as universal human reason (which is the liberal theological impulse). There is a shift in balance from presenting Christian truth in a way that is more accessible to the current moment, to deciding what Christian truth is on the basis of its acceptability to the current moment.

But when the Lord tells Ezekiel to preach, “Thus says the Lord God”, he tells him to do it, “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek. 3:11). Why? Because the the Word of the Lord is the Word of the Lord whether we hear it or not.

Putting things more positively, when I was younger, I was concerned with theological issues more as apologetic issues, and so my dives into systematic theology were usually aimed at answering some objection. As time progressed, I realized that some of the most satisfying apologetic answers I found were found by pursuing a solid grasp of systematics in itself. Most of my apologetic encounters ended up being a clarification of basic misunderstandings of Christian doctrine anyways.

Of course, as I continued to study, it became clear that some of the best systematics come, not from trying to figure out which doctrine is most defensible to the day’s most aggressive skeptics, but from striving to discern as best as possible the coherence, beauty, and truth of God’s Word in its own positive right. In other words, the best apologetics is just a good systematics.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Biography, Theology, and Ad Hominem


Nietzsche was the master of the ad hominem.

I’ve been thinking about arguments again, but this time with respect to the turn to first-person narratives in the broader internet landscape, and within the online, Evangelical world. One of the persistent features of these sorts of essays is the move from “personal story to general point.” You tell your harrowing, or odd, or funny story, etc. and then move to what you learned from it (and maybe what we can all learn). In church circles, we often make theological points this way, especially if we can tie it to a major change of mind on some issue.

It’s an engaging way of making a point and so it has come to dominate much Internet publication culture. But more than any other style, it also tends to tie people to their positions in a way other modes of writing (a persuasive essay, inductive argument, etc.) do not. That’s true in the broader cultural phenomenon as well as theological writing in Church circles.

Now, I don’t have space for a full-on analysis of this style, its benefits, its grounding, or how much it actually connects to Biblical narrative, or even Evangelical testimonials. I just want to make two or three points about what it seems to do to our ability to talk to one another in a dispute.

Reactive Reading. If you have been trained, either by reading or writing this way, to sort of insert yourself into the argument all the time, this tends to make people reactive readers. In other words, you may be prone towards assuming you’re the intended audience, or target of a piece, when you couldn’t be further from the author’s mind.

This matters because it may cause you to misread the piece. For instance, you may fill in bits of the argument from your own (assumed) analogous experience, and thereby change the shape of what an author is saying. I have seen this happen and have had it happen to my own arguments more than once. (This is actually why I am prone to excessive caveating.)

In any case, this bogs down communication and understanding horribly.

Argument confused with Ad HominemConnected to this is the tendency to confuse arguments with ad hominems. If your story is your argument for X (Calvinism, Gay Marriage, a Trump Vote, vaccines, etc.), then if I argue against X, it’s very easy for you to feel hurt, be offended by the “tone”, or to take it as a personal assault or insult to you. And this could be the case even if I very studiously avoid commenting on your story at all.

And this hinders discussion in at least two ways: it injects an extra note of personal hostility where none may exist. Second. it confuses the nature of the argument immediately. So instead of dealing with the various premises put forward by one person, we’re now focused on managing the feelings of the second, and none of the issues are actually clarified.

Argument replaced with Ad Hominem as Conversation-stopper. Finally, this tendency encourages us to actually replace arguments with ad hominems. The more theology is reduced to biography without remainder, the quicker we are to reach for ad hominems in the middle of an argument. “Well, you would say that since you’re X…”

There is, of course, a point to noting nobody is an identity-less thinker. I’m a married, 30-year-old, bilingual, tri-cultural, Arab, Hispanic male who lives in the States, grew up in SoCal, and is in grad school for theology. There’s a story there and it impacts my perspective on the world and even my theological development and positions. Perspective does matter. Hear me say that.

But simply noting these facts about perspective logically cannot (and morally should not) stop an argument dead in its tracks. Especially when it is used to leap-frog over arguments entirely.

This move has the effect, first, of reducing persons to key identity-markers and not recognizing them as individual, Image-bearers in any conversation. Second, it is unsatisfying and likely to backfire in the long-run, because the quicker you shut down the conversation this way, the more likely it is that you have left the argument (and the arguer) unanswered. And so they (and onlookers) may be cowed into silence for now, but the issue is still there festering.

Or, again, it encourages us to rely heavily on the argument from inconsistency or hypocrisy, “How can you say Y, when you have done X?” Now, there may indeed be an inconsistency in a person’s position or life, but that doesn’t immediately invalidate an argument. It just means the person is a hypocrite, or a sinner (ie. human), or maybe you’re just being massively unfair.

In any case, this happens all the time in online debates, and I suspect it is connected to this tendency to first-personalize every issue. Arguments about issues are not arguments about truth, but power-grabs and defensive moves. We tend towards the “what this really means” defense.

(And let me note from the examples I mentioned above, this tendency isn’t just about theological conversations in Evangelicalism. It is everywhere. Watch how quickly someone on the political Right spits out the word “elitist” at someone when the argument isn’t going their way.)

Golden Rule Reading (and Arguing)

I have passed over too many details and nuances too quickly. Still, I think these brief considerations ought to give us pause. I’m not saying we ought to ban first-person narratives, nor think about the relation to biography to theology, nor am I even rejecting the appropriateness of an ad hominem from time to time. I am simply encouraging us to take notice of these tendencies and be careful of them.

Do I tend to insert myself into articles or arguments too quickly? Am I prone towards narcissistic reading?

Do I tend to feel insulted by arguments all the time? Are people constantly needing to explain their meaning to me all the time to clarify their lack of ill-intent?

Do I tend to reach for biographical or ad hominem arguments quickly? Do I tend to do so before I actually engage the argument under consideration?

Again, it comes down to an application of the Golden Rule in our reading and our arguing: Read as you’d like to be read.

Soli Deo Gloria


Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

communion with GodHistorian Richard Muller points out that if Reformed Orthodox theology had a “central-dogma”, contrary to most popular perceptions it wasn’t the doctrine of election, but that of the Trinity. That made intuitive sense to me when I read it. Even though I haven’t always been Reformed, the charge that it’s a sub-trinitarian tradition has never made sense to me.

Maybe that’s because one of the first books I read when I started getting into Reformed theology was John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. In it, the Puritan giant’s main aim is to present his readers with an understanding of how we are called to communion and union with the Triune God. And not just the Trinity as “God in general.” Owen shows that we are also called to appreciate and commune with and worship each person distinctly in a manner appropriate them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s really a phenomenally warm piece of Trinitarian devotional spirituality derived from sermons he preached to his congregation. I can tell you that it had a great impact on my spiritual life when I read it and I would recommend it highly.

What I didn’t know early on was that this wasn’t Owen’s only piece of Trinitarian theology. In fact, he’d written numerous volumes on it one way or another, including a number of heavily apologetic defenses like his lengthy Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined  in which he refutes the Unitarians and Socinians as well as his later A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity. These are far more technical and polemical (at least the former is) pieces aimed at dispelling error and refuting heretics carried out with great passion and meticulous care.

The thing that’s key for us to see, though, is that these two kinds of works are just two sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, it’s very common to distinguish between writers of “spirituality” and “pastoral theology” and those who care about defending doctrine and carrying out polemics. But this was far from the case for the Puritan writers like Owen and his contemporaries.

For them, the polemics protected the spirituality and the spirituality drove the polemics.

In fact, some historians like Paul Lim suggest it’s at least partially because of his polemical context that Owen was driven to pursue and lay out such a rich Trinitarian spirituality. At the time there was a tendency on the part of the Socinians (and even some Arminians) to downplay or denigrate the Trinity as useless, false, or not of fundamental importance, since it was spiritually impractical. And so authors like Owen pressed to give a counter-response and left us with rich treasures of devotional trinitarianism. You can see the same thing in Herman Witsius, for instance.

Of course, when you stop to take in the broad sweep of Church history, that can’t be too surprising. Doctrine is often clarified, developed, and re-appropriated best at precisely those times when it comes under pressure from skeptics. Without them we wouldn’t have the polemics or devotional spirituality of Athanasius on the deity of the Son, Basil on the Holy Spirit, Augustine on Grace, and on down the line we could go.

In the history of the Church and even in the Scriptures (Paul, John, Jesus, the OT prophets…), those who care most passionately for the true worship of God often end up being those who argue for it most forcefully, looking to cut off idolatry and protect true worship. Those theologians of the Church deeply invested in the spirituality of the Church have been the most passionate in her defense. In the long run, then, spirituality and polemics are not at odds.

Indeed, they actually fuel one another. Knowing the good defenses of the faith and key doctrines can often serve to make them more secure in our minds and hearts moving us to worship. At other times, worshiping in Spirit leads us to pursue a deeper knowledge of the truth, which includes its defense.

And this is why I think we should not always be dismayed or discouraged beyond comfort when doctrinal fights break out. Nor should we always avoid it for the sake of a false peace. Yes, there is something distressing about it. But we should take comfort in knowing that God can (and often will) bring great fruit from these episodes.

That said, I think there is an order which should be maintained in the long run. Polemics are conducted for the sake of worship, not the other way around. That should be obvious, and I doubt any would deny that explicitly. All the same, I think the distaste some people have for reading clear, polemical theology comes from encountering those who have made the argument the point.

Thankfully, John Owen doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

Soli Deo Gloria



Nyssa: The Recovery Must Fit the Disease: (Or, Not Everyone Is A Youth Group Refugee)

nyssaEarly on in my theological reading, I gained the impression that contextualizing our presentation gospel was a new concept that Lesslie Newbigin came up with in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not. Understanding the unique challenges that each culture, or sub-culture, or philosophic and religious tradition poses to the gospel is a task that has been with the church since its inception.

Case in point: Gregory of Nyssa. Reading in preparation for my courses this week, I ran across this fantastic little passage on contextualizing our presentation of the faith in the prologue to his The Great Catechism.

The presiding ministers of the “mystery of godliness” have need of a system in their instructions, in order that the Church may be replenished by the accession of such as should be saved, through the teaching of the word of Faith being brought home to the hearing of unbelievers. Not that the same method of instruction will be suitable in the case of all who approach the word. The catechism must be adapted to the diversities of their religious worship; with an eye, indeed, to the one aim and end of the system, but not using the same method of preparation in each individual case…The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease. You will not by the same means cure the polytheism of the Greek, and the unbelief of the Jew as to the Only-begotten God: nor as regards those who have wandered into heresy will you, by the same arguments in each case, upset their misleading romances as to the tenets of the Faith. No one could set Sabellius right by the same instruction as would benefit the Anomoean. The controversy with the Manichee is profitless against the Jew. It is necessary, therefore, as I have said, to regard the opinions which the persons have taken up, and to frame your argument in accordance with the error into which each has fallen, by advancing in each discussion certain principles and reasonable propositions, that thus, through what is agreed upon on both sides, the truth may conclusively be brought to light.

Gregory is preparing this catechism to be used widely, so he reminds potential pastors and apologists they need to be flexible in their presentation. In their catechetical classes where inquirers and initiates come to learn about the faith they will be dealing with a wide variety of hearers. Some are traditionalist Jewish monotheists offended at the incarnation. Others are Greek, folk polytheists tempted to chop up God’s unity into a diversity of gods. While still others are semi-Christian heretics of various varieties, many influenced by leading philosophies of the day. Which means you can’t count on the same formula, the same order of presentation to work every time, even if you’re teaching the same truth at the end of it.

It is the same today. For some, you’ll have to tackle philosophical questions about ethics, while others are interested in the Bible and science, and still others care about where the gospel speaks to their deep, existential questions about meaning or the trauma they’ve suffered. Without ultimately surrendering the content, or key principles, we need to learn a certain flexibility as ministers of the gospel in our instruction and proclamation.

I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffles over how to present the gospel raised by the Tim Keller interview with Nick Kristof. There were plenty of complaints coming from all angles. For me, a lot of the complaints seemed variations of a frustration that Keller didn’t present things the way they would have to the particular audience they were concerned with. He’s speaking to progressive New Yorkers and they’re thinking about their friends in the conservative youth group they grew up in.

Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.

Now, that may be so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.

My point is not that Keller’s way in the interview is the only possible or right way to respond to skeptical questions. It’s not even a defense of his interview. (Though, I thought Scot McKnight’s response to most of the critics was well-put, and that most didn’t consider the nature of the interview carefully anyways.) My point is simply to highlight the fact that we need to take care to not reduce all those who we’re trying to reach for the gospel to one pure type. Nor should we imagine the apologetic tack you would use for one group is obviously suited for all.

Of course, the key figure giving us warrant for “contextualizing” the gospel in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul. To Jews, he quotes Scripture to prove the Messiah; to Greeks, he engages in a bit of “worldview” evangelism before he comes to the figure of Christ (both in Acts 17). In the freedom of the gospel and under the Lordship of Christ, he makes himself all things to all people for the sake of reaching some (1 Cor. 9). But I would imagine that to those trying to reach Greeks, his approach with the Jews would seem narrowly Biblicistic and dogmatic. While to those concerned with Jewish outreach, his broad philosophical appeal might seem too initially accommodating.

Not every skeptic is a youth-group refugee. Nor are they hard-core atheist apologists. Some are squishy, New-Agers. Others are pragmatic, business-types. Still others are people who already think themselves properly “religious” and chafe at the notion they need an upgrade. And in our post-Christian society, some are just curious inquirers without all the hang-ups about which we might be worried. We need, then, to heed Gregory’s wisdom: “The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease.”

In which case, some of us should be slower to condemn those who are skilled in administering the medicine of the gospel to patients different than those we typically treat.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Making Sense of God Interview with Tim Keller

tim-keller-12-10We are delighted to have a preacher some of you might have heard before on the show: Tim Keller. He joins us to discuss his (excellent) new book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. We had a blast chatting with him. He answered all of our questions, some of which tried to get into the nuts and bolts of apologetics, the difficulty of Christian belief, and how we should go about sharing the good news of the gospel with our skeptical neighbors.

We hope you enjoy and are challenged by the conversation.

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

If you’re interested in supporting the show (you know, with money), you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.

But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.

Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”

Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our  — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”

Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.

Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s.  Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).

Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.

Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.

Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)

Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.

Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”

Soli Deo Gloria