I Have a Chapter in a New Book: ‘Our Secular Age’

Our SEcular Age image.jpg

Our Secular Age, a new volume edited by Collin Hansen on the tenth anniversary of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, has just been released by the Gospel Coalition. Taylor’s work is one of the most significant works on the problem of secularism, culture, and philosophy of religion in the new millennium.

In this volume, Hansen has gathered together some helpful essays by both academics and pastoral practitioners both engaging and applying Taylor’s insight for theology and ministry in our Secular Age. With historical and theological essays from Michael Horton and Carl Trueman, practical engagement from John Starke (preaching), Mike Cosper (pop culture), Jen Pollock Michel (flourishing), and my Mere Fidelity compatriot, Alastair Roberts (liturgy), and many more, there’s plenty to glean from, even if you haven’t yet read Taylor’s book yourself.

Indeed, part of the hope is to take some of Taylor’s best insights and make them accessible to those who may not have the time to wade through all 750 pages of Taylor themselves. Much of Collin’s introduction can be read here.

Now, as it happens, I also had the privilege to contribute an essay on applying Taylor’s insights to ministry to Millennials growing up in the Super-Nova of belief and the internet age, (and really anybody inhabiting our cross-pressured age). Here’s one clip:

We’ve reached the point where everybody has to preach apologetically, even if your congregation isn’t mostly millennial. To be clear, I don’t think such preaching is simply a matter of incorporating in every sermon arguments for the resurrection, or the existence of God, and so forth (though some of that might help). Instead, we need to actively answer objections to the gospel from inside the mindset of our cross-pressured culture on a regular basis as a part of ourscriptural exposition.

We need to show the consistency, coherence, and comeliness of the gospel to this generation. But it is not enough to simply defend the gospel. Present the way it interrogates the dominant, unquestioned narratives of our hearers—on meaning, money, sex, power, politics, gender, and so forth—and actually makes better sense of the world than any other view on offer.

If you want to see my first ever chapter in print, you can buy copies of the book for yourself and for all of your friends and family members at Amazon.com or WTS bookstore.

If you need more encouragement, here are a couple of the blurbs:

“Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a landmark book, and the essays collected here ponder it intelligently and charitably. Some echo Taylor, some extend his ideas, some contest his claims, but all engage his argument with a seriousness that
the book deserves—and that Christ’s church needs.”

-Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University and author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

“To be secular, says philosopher Charles Taylor, is to have no final goals beyond this-worldly human flourishing. This is only one of the many insights from which pastors can profit from Taylor’s work in their ministry of the gospel to an age that has substituted spirituality and authenticity for religion and doctrine. The essays in this helpful volume do more than borrow from Taylor: they engage, question, develop, and occasionally criticize his influential account of our complex cultural moment in which we all—moderns and postmoderns, millennials and non-millennials—are trying to live, move, and have our being as disciples of Jesus Christ. Reading and applying the insights of those who have read and applied Taylor is a salutary exercise in understanding oneself and others in an age that is not only secular, but fragile, frustrated, and confused.”

-Kevin J. Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology,
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

And, finally, here’s a nifty book trailer:

‘Our Secular Age’ Book Trailer from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: On the Value of Controversy

Mere FiOn this week’s show, Alastair, Matt and I consider the nature, ethics, and benefits of theological controversies. As we seem to get into controversies on a more regular basis than we’d probably like, we wanted to take a week to dig into how and why one might want to do so. Andrew was not included since he has been too uncontroversial of late.

Beyond that, next week’s show will be a discussion of Book 1 of Augustine’s Confessions. If you’d like to read along–which we encourage you to do–Henry Chadwick’s translation is available widely at a reasonable price. I have already read book 1 and let me tell you, I am so excited about these shows. If we succeed in doing nothing but encouraging you to finally pick up the Confessions our work is done.

If you like the show, please do leave us a review on iTunes. We are also available on Google Play.

If you’re interested in supporting the show financially, you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Sexual Ethics, Orthodoxy, and A thought on the Nashville Statement

Mere FiIt’s been a few months, but the Mere Fidelity crew (Alastair, Andrew, Matt, and I) is back in the saddle again. For our debut episode, we decided to talk about the Sex Ethics and Orthodoxy conversation that a few of us have been participating in. Is marriage an issue of ‘orthodoxy’, or something less than that? Or is that even the right word for this sort of subject matter?

Well, that was going to be interesting enough, but the day before we record, CMBW decided to release the Nashville Statement. So, we couldn’t just ignore that either. Given that two of us had signed it and two of us haven’t, going into some of the whys and why nots was an enlightening conversation.

I’d like to highlight two articles in that regard. First, this is the article we mention on the show in which Matt Anderson gave his reasons why as a conservative he didn’t sign it. You should read it if only to understand what he means by “what I have written, I have written.”

Following that, here is Alastair’s second follow-up (he wrote two) in which he defends his signing all the while noting the various conservative criticisms of the statement. It’s notable because, up until now, it’s the only written defense of signing it which fully acknowledges the real conservative criticisms of it, without ignoring, waving them off, or simply acting as if we were only dealing with unfair, hysterical progressive criticisms. I won’t say more than that except that in their rush to occupy their office of “defender of the faith against the progressive hordes”, some of the conservative defenses have been less than impressive on that score.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Judgment and Doing Justice (Zahnd Review Follow-Up)

crucifixion rutledgeA couple of days ago, I wrote a very lengthy review of Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Since then, I’ve received a number of questions of various sorts, but there has been a cluster of them I wanted to briefly speak to right now.

One of the main concerns motivating many who are attracted to the message of Zahnd and associates of his is the social justice component. They’re vocal advocates online and in the world for pressing issues of social justice such as poverty, government violence, criminal justice reform, war, trafficking, and a number of other of the issues which plague our world. They connect this concern, this activism—rightly!—to their commitment to living out the ethic of Jesus. Jesus didn’t just come to live and die to get rid of individual sins but to challenge the principalities and powers, to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.

Now, the inverse of that is that many (especially on the younger end) are concerned because the Evangelical churches they’ve grown up in seem to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to the social issues which concern them. They vote for Trump. They vote for war. They support torture. They seem to be (and often truly are) apathetic to issues of White Supremacy, police violence, and don’t seem to care about anything but abortion or gay marriage.

For this set, reading my review, the question is, “Okay, you’ve defended retribution, penal substitution, and even God’s wrath, but now what? What real-world impact does your theology make?” A program of non-violence stemming from a non-violent God taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seems to lead directly to non-violent action, while there seems to be a direct link between the theology I’m defending and, well, everything that’s wrong with Western Christendom.

I can’t give a full answer to that here. To do the job properly would involve a few chapters of corrective historiography, a deep dive in issues of just war theory, and a half-dozen other points. I actually think (once again) Joshua Ryan Butler’s books, Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion, Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and even John Stott at the tail-end of his classic The Cross of Christ (and his works on ethics which stand consistent with it) are a far better resource at this point. Still, I’d like to sketch a few points.

But first, two caveats.

Points of Theological Order

Abuse does not remove proper use. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just about every Christian doctrine can be abused in some way that leads to terrible consequences. Teaching on forgiveness—a concept we all believe in—can lead to views of cheap grace which let people off the hook for caring about a life of discipleship and justice. Or, they can be used to short-circuit the work of confronting offenders with their sins, or retraumatizing victims by making them “reconcile” with their offenders too quickly, or without regard for proper concerns of safety and wisdom. That said, we don’t want to scrap forgiveness, but teach it properly.

What I am saying is that misapplication can happen easily for a variety of reasons. People are sinfully inconsistent, for one thing. Also, they happen to be very good at drawing faulty conclusions from true premises. What’s more, they can actually just sin and willfully turn from their stated beliefs when it is in their interests. I think this must be born in mind when it comes to certain historical cases people make to tar teachings on these subjects.

Second, the connections between various doctrines is not always as tight as people like to make them. For instance, I happen to believe in penal substitution as well as Just War theory. Someone like Darrin Snyder Belousek would argue that this comes from my buying wholesale into the same retributive package. He argues that accepting the one means you have to accept the other (and by implication, distortions such as aggressive criminal practice and militarism). But that’s not necessarily true. The issues are certainly related, but their justifications can actually be distinguished (theologically and Scripturally) from each other.

For instance, it’s fully possible to reject penal substitution as a moral confusion and affirm just war as a moral necessity for governance in the world. If I’m not mistaken, I believe Nicholas Wolterstorff holds such a view. Conversely, Miroslav Volf has held just the opposite and argued quite forcefully that it’s precisely the promise that God will repay, will handle justice in this life or the next, that allows for the practice of non-violence here and now. To quote Volf:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

-Exclusion and Embrace, p. 304

Similarly, Preston Sprinkle and my own podcast mate Andrew Wilson are pacifists who hold views of atonement, divine retribution, and OT authority of the sort I defended in the Zahnd review. So they read key verses in the Gospels and the Epistles differently than ones I do that have to do with human responsibility, citizenship, and so forth.

Beyond this, though, the positive question is what does (or can) this theology do on the ground?

News for Victims and Victimizers

Well, first, I think it gives us good news for both victims and victimizers—and this in various ways.

It gives good news to victims of injustice. First, as I argued, it tells them that God takes their pain seriously. He hates what has happened to them as well. God is opposed to rape. God is opposed to racism. God is opposed to lynching. God is opposed to grinding dehumanization. He knows, he hears, and he has taken account of it. No matter who has ignored you, no matter what “justice” system has turned a blind eye to you, the Judge of the World has not—he has known you and your pain and has a will to do something about it. Indeed, he has become one of you—a victim—in order to do just that. As one friend puts it, God is in solidarity with the victims. That is part of the message of the cross.

And not only that—he brings healing with him. He has a will to put an end to such things and restore creatures to himself. Including you. God has come in the flesh to save the world. He has come to reveal God, to condemn sin, to bring resurrection life, healing and wholeness to all who would repent of their sins and turn to him. You can turn to him and be healed and not let vengeance consume you, but let him heal your wounds.

To the Victimizers

This brings me to the other side: it gives good new to the victimizers. The good news is that despite their darkness, despite their wickedness, despite the real depths of their injustice, God offers salvation to them who repent. To those who turn, they have the promise that all they have done can be blotted out. It can be dead and buried and they too can be reunited with God, have life, to have the fullness they chase through their sin. Some fear repenting because they do not know if there is any way to come back. They don’t think there is an atonement for what they have done and surely God cannot forgive it, so they persist and throw themselves headlong down the road of sin. The cross says, yes, even your sins—the sins of an oppressor like Paul, who counted himself the chief of sinners! (1 Tim 1:15)—can be put aside as well.

But, it also stands as a warning to them. We need to remember that the prophets inveighed most harshly against the political and religious leaders of Israel. Ezekiel condemned the shepherd for the waywardness of the sheep—for devouring them and letting them go astray unto death. Isaiah and Amos go after the rich who unrighteously take advantage of the poor and pervert justice against them. They condemn the priests and the prophets who allow the people to fall into idolatry (an injustice to their souls and to God), and sexual immorality (an injustice to their bodies and each other). They condemn nations who make war for glory, power, and might and warn that God’s wrath will come against them. And that same instinct sees most of Jesus’ harshest condemnations were for the religious and political leaders of his day who were either grinding the weak into the ground with burden, or the rich for their callous treatment of the poor.

Speaking plainly, the wrath and judgment of God against sin is a motivator to stop sinning. That’s how it is used in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Now, I don’t think that is opposed to showing people how sin eventually eats itself up, destroys itself, and is a way that just “naturally” leads to death either. But Scripture gives us more than one way to invite people to turn from their sinful oppression.

These two sides—the invitation and the warning—are important messages I think disciples of Christ need to be able to present as they follow their master in standing against injustice. We have a message of warning and hope. We have a message that says the world will not always carry on this way. The kingdom of God is coming in salvation and judgment, therefore repent as Zaccheus did and make restitution, do justice, turn from wickedness, and let the Lord transform you. Otherwise, your ways will lead to ruin—some of it visible in the consequences you may see in this life, or those you don’t think are coming in the next.

I don’t see these notions interfering at all with the work of justice in the world. I see this as fully compatible with motivating Christians to stand vocally against sin and oppression of all sorts, while simultaneously offering a vision of Christlike reconciliation.

Retributive Justice As a Check on Power and Vengeance

One point I want to underline is that this notion of justice is also a firm ground from which to speak truth to power. The judgment of God says that no matter how high or lofty, how powerful or mighty, dominant the powers that be, they will be held to account by God—either in this life or the next. This, I think, can give strength and courage to the reformer at work in City Hall, the protestor in the streets demonstrating peacefully for justice, the defense attorney working to protect the falsely accused and disadvantaged, the prosecutor trying to bring the corrupt to justice for oppressing the weak, and the resister who sets themselves, as Christ did, against unjust power. No matter the power standing against you, you will take up your cross and follow Christ, bearing the burden of opposition, from persecution against you from the powers that be.

Second, as I said, it is a warning to those in power in a variety of ways. For example, I think considering concerns about retributive justice can help spur productive action about criminal justice reform. Part of what’s so troubling about it is the rampant inequities we find, as well as the disproportionate nature of some sentencing which has landed, especially on people of color. Knowing that God is a God of justice who is opposed to false imprisonment, unfair and unjust treatment of inmates who are, nonetheless, Image-bearers—all of this should motivate Christians to either lobby, vote, or support efforts at criminal justice reform in those ways which God has called them, in whatever offices God has called them (voter, legislator, law enforcement officer, civil servant). God is “not a respecter of persons” (Rom. 2:11), favoring the strong or powerful over the weak, or one race over another, but is a true judge and demands right judgment from human representatives.

Which means also that those Christians who are at work in the justice and political system, all forgiven and cleansed sinners who stood condemned as well, should be moved to carry out their work without a spirit of retaliation. Mercy can temper even the work of justice in the world. The same patience that moves God to restrain his judgment so that men might repent (2 Pet. 3), can imbue our work with patience, keeping us from spiteful retaliation. It should make those in authority who wield the sword wary of coming under God’s judgment through the unjust treatment of those over whom they govern. They now govern and work as disciples.

Indeed, surprisingly enough, a concern for matters of retribution might slow us down in our march towards violent solutions to our local and global problems. Even for the Just War theorist, there needs to be a concern than in your duty to love your neighbor, or administer the sword (Rom. 13), you do so in a way that reflects God’s justice, which is never petty, never a matter of overkill, or lust for blood. It is about trying to secure peace, so that righteousness might thrive. If you really believe this, you have a strong motivation to seek whatever non-violent means you can to resolve or restrain evil until the point is forced.

Reconciliation

This brings me to another point about what this looks like on the ground. One chap brought up my Palestinian heritage. What does the gospel I’m looking to defend mean for the Palestinian people on the West Bank? Or efforts for justice in Charleston? Or Ferguson? I have to say, I think it can impact it in a dozen different ways I don’t have the space to articulate. I also think that beyond atonement, we have a number of other doctrines (anthropology, eschatology, union with Christ, ecclesiology) that should be shaping our thought here. I’ve said this before, but no every doctrine has to do everything. And trouble comes when we try to force them to.

With that said, as I mentioned above, I think seeing the cross as the judgment of God on sin—including my own—moves me to pursue justice in this world in a non-retaliatory way. I’m not out looking for vengeance—that’s God’s work (Rom. 12). I am out seeking to follow Jesus in bringing shalom to the earth by repenting of the ways that I participate in sin against God and my neighbor. And I am out looking for the best ways to invite my neighbors to do the same. I will extend the mercy of the gospel and work as best as I can to be at peace with all.

Indeed, I will aim to be a peacemaker, insofar as it is possible, not holding people’s sins against me against them in a pale imitation of the forgiveness God has shown me. Even when I attempt to hold someone accountable for their wickedness, or restrain them from committing more, I do it as a way of loving my neighbor who they are harming, as well as the offender himself, for I do not want him to destroy himself in sin. I think these principles can be at work in the streets of Ferguson, as well as the villages of Palestine, or any other place that Christians are called to witness to God’s grace and justice.

In other words, I don’t think any of my argument rules out disciples taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously as a road-map for discipleship for the church in the world. Indeed, even though I do affirm Just War theory and the distinction between public and private offices, I think there are even ways to apply the Sermon on the Mount to rulers and authorities in political office.

And as a member of the Church, I will do all of this as a way of witnessing to the complex, multi-faceted glory of the gospel which judges sin, saves sinners, liberates victims, and reconciles the warring nations within itself as it shares the bread and wine of God’s body broken and blood shed for sin.

This has gone long, and I still have left so much out. For instance, we could talk about the positive ways that an account of atonement such as the one I am advocating could incorporate some of Girard’s insights in order to stop scapegoating and weaponizing our victims (I have tried to do that here). All the same, I think you begin to see the way that none of what I’m arguing for need blunt the work of justice in the world. Preaching the cross as justice ought lead to just people.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

“Jesus Came To Die”: Notes on a Gospel-Twitter Spat

jenkins-tweet

Debates on theological Twitter are somewhat Sisyphean affairs. You have 140 characters per tweet to lay out your position, or parts of it, which means that inevitably something’s going to be lacking in precision or comprehensive balance. One such spat flared when Bethany Jenkins, one of TGC’s editors tweeted, “Yes, Jesus is compassionate, kind, & just. But centering our faith on his ethical teachings is dangerous. He came to die. That’s the gospel.”

This set Twitter aflame with much consternation and quote-tweeting. I don’t know how many people I saw, especially on the Progressive/Post-Evangelical Left, referencing the tweet and commenting on what a muddle it was, or how it was perpetuating troubling dichotomies between Christ’s life and death, or ethics and theology, etc. And I get it to a degree.

Bad gospel dichotomies do happen. I have read Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, and plenty of N.T. Wright, so I know all about the dangers of sidelining the gospel of the kingdom, or turning it into a mere transactional accomplishment, neglecting the resurrection, and so forth.

And if that’s what I thought Jenkins was doing, I might be shaking my head alongside everyone else. We must not be reductionists about the person and work of Christ. The good news is truly cosmic in scope.

But was it, really? I don’t think so.

Savior, then Teacher

Allowing for the limitations of Twitter as a medium, I saw this and took it to mean something along the lines of, “Christ must be a Savior before he is our Teacher, otherwise you’ll be set up for failure.” Essentially it was a very short warning against the kind of move that has been made for years–trying to take Jesus as a Teacher, but not as a Savior. And if you scroll down the Twitter thread, Jenkins clarified something along those lines. I suppose others didn’t take the time.

Now, the issue Jenkins is addressing is a perennial problem. J. Gresham Machen warned against it in Christianity and Liberalism. You might see some of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans as a broadside against Liberalism’s reduction of the gospel to FOGBOM ethics (Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man). C.S. Lewis formulated his famous “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument in Mere Christianity against it. More recently, Tim Keller’s always going on about how if you take Jesus as an example without accepting him as a Lord, it will crush you. Mostly because without forgiveness, the power of the Holy Spirit–the gifts of God’s unique, saving work in Christ–you simply can’t live out Jesus’ kingdom-ethics.

Reaching farther back, Martin Luther said something similar in his preface to the Gospels, “What to Look For and Expect In the Gospels.” He says we are to read the Gospels and see two levels in its teaching about Christ. He is our example as well as our gift. But there is an order:

The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself. See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.

As the saying goes, the gospel is good news, not good advice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we forgo taking Christ as an example, or taking up our own cross, or attempting to live the kingdom-life that he modeled. No, he continues:

Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things. Therefore make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian.

In which case, you can see the motive for frontloading Christ’s work as Savior before we get to Christ’s work as Teacher. That would just be to turn Christ “into another Moses” as Luther put it–in his very Lutheran way.

On “The Gospel” and Shorthand

Okay, so maybe you can go along with all of this, but what about reducing the gospel to “Jesus came to die”? Well, a few points.

First, as we already noted, it is Twitter. It’s a limited format. You can’t say everything all at once. I can’t even do that in this blog.

Second, scholars argue about the lexical range of the term “gospel” all the time. In the NT, we have it variously associated with the kingdom, his death, his resurrection, etc. often without mention of the other elements. I think one helpful way of thinking about it is understanding that you can talk about the broader content of the gospel (the kingdom of God, new life, reconciliation, etc) as well as its narrower enactment, or the means by which it is made available (Jesus’ unique, saving life, death, and resurrection). The word has some flex to it.

Third, even within that, older theologians like Calvin note that Paul and others will often invoke one element of the story of Christ as a stand-in for the whole. It’s a metonymy (or synechdoche, which I always confuse). So, Paul will talk about knowing “Christ and him crucified” among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2), when surely he talked to them about Christ and him crucified, risen, and ascended as a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-7).  In Pauline usage, at least, the cross implies the resurrection and vice versa.

In which case, it seems perfectly fine in a loose context to speak of Jesus coming to die as a stand-in for the whole of his work as its culminating climax. Paul spoke of justification and eternal life coming through “one act of righteousness” (Romans 5:18). Indeed, it’s particularly fitting if the point you’re trying to make is the unique, punctiliar nature of Christ’s work accomplished on our behalf.

Jesus himself, right before being handed over to be crucified, prayed before the Father and “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).

Surely nobody would accuse Paul or Christ of being reductionists about Christ’s gospel? Well, then in that case, it seems permissible from time to time to speak of it in a focused, metonymic way.

Especially on Twitter.

Interpreting Like Jesus 

I don’t usually write posts about Twitter spats, but Jenkins is a friend and I have to say, I found the multiple-person, Twitter-mobbing, pile-on to be unfair (even if some were more reasonable and inquisitive than others). I suppose this is something of an exercise and a plea for interpretive charity. Especially across tribal lines. To paraphrase a textually-questionable saying of Christ’s “Let he who is without Twitter-infelicities cast the first @.”

Or drawing from Jesus’ ethics more positively, “read as you’d like to be read.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mayors and Prophets: Both Servants of the Lord in Tricky Times

kingsAhab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.

What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.

In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:

As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.

1 & 2 Kings, 133-134

Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.

And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?

Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.

In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.

Texts like this are obviously relevant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descent of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.

For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria