If everything is sacramental, is anything a sacrament? (creation, disenchantment, and a tweet)

wanderer above sea fogLast week I was feeling puckish, so I tweeted out, “What if, and just go with me here, what if only the sacraments are sacramental?”

I think most people got that I was being somewhat playful.  Still, some folks were, well, they weren’t entirely pleased. So I wanted to quickly unpack some very rough, very semi-developed, in-transition thoughts on that, which also happen to dovetail with last week’s short post on “disenchantment” narratives.

First, let me clear the deck and just say I am very much pro-sacraments, value baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, and understanding them to be doing something more significant than mere memorialism. I went Reformed partly for Calvin’s strong doctrine of the sacraments. They have become central to my understanding of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel, and the practice of the faith in a way they never were before.

That said, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit suspicious of a certain sort of spirituality of “sacramentality” that’s hot in, well, semi-nerdy, theology circles. Of late it’s been hot to talk about “sacramental ontology” and how terrible it is that it’s been lost due to whatever cause (Protestantism, nominalism, univocity, etc.–though often not technology, which is probably the biggest culprit), and how we need to regain it, and so forth.

The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.” Nor am I entirely sure others do when they use it.  At least, people seem to be much potential for equivocation and confusion in the midst of all the excitement. To quote the great philosopher Chazz Michael Michaels, “nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative; it gets the people going.” And so, yes, I was poking fun at that. (Maybe that’s unfair, and not really academic, but it’s Twitter, so what do you expect?)

Still, I think I get why some were annoyed. For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment. Last week I talked about one thread, or version of the “disenchantment” narrative having to do with the loss of belief in the supernatural, spirits, fairies, God himself, etc. But another thread has to do with a sense that the universe becomes a different sort of space in the modern period. Creation becomes mere nature, organism becomes mechanism, and the sense of wonder one has at beholding the stars is reduced from being a functioning of the sensus divinitatus to mere physio-psychological epiphenomenon. If you take your eyes off your phone long enough to even look up at the stars.

How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.

Now, so far as that goes, I’m all fine with that. David hymns God for the way nature declares God’s glory in Psalm 19. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the world testifies to God’s existence and power. And the seraphim remind us in their hymn the Lord in Isaiah 6 that the whole earth is full of his glory. So Calvin: “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Leaning into a solid, biblical doctrine of creation will push back on much of that sense of disenchantment.

And so, yes, from a certain angle, you can argue that one of the key advantages of the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, precisely in its rejection of transubstantiation, is a defense of created bread and wine as actual elements wherein God meets his people. In doing so, it sort of assumes this anti-disenchantment portrait of creation having a communicative telos to it. 

Some of you may be thinking, “well, Derek, if you’re willing to concede all that, then what is the complaint about?” Well, a couple of things, both of which I will admit may be (probably are) anecdotal senses to things.

As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one. 

Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc. 

Those may indeed be corollaries down the line. But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant.

But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments. Or, to quote The Incredibles, when Elastigirl tells Dash, “everybody is special, Dash,” he replies, “which is another way of saying nobody is.” My worry is that when we’re entranced with everything being sacramental, nothing will be a proper sacrament.

As I said, this is all too brief and not very carefully worked out, but there it is. I’d be happy to read folks follow-up, additional thoughts, clarifications, and so forth. But for now, I here tweet, and I can do no other.

Soli Deo Gloria

When You Sort of Miss Disenchantment

myth of dis

People who read Charles Taylor talk a lot about “disenchantment.” Well, other people to do too, but those are the folks I know. I am/have been one of them. The notion is contested, but very, very, very roughly, the idea is that part of what makes the modern world “modern” is that it’s chased out belief (and the sense) that we inhabit a world of spirits, fairies, goblins, deities, and possibly even the greatest supernatural reality of all, God.

Now, there are all sorts of explanation for what that means, why it happened, whether it’s good or bad, and so forth. One popular one says it’s largely bad and has pushed us towards a technocratic, rationalistic society that’s lost a sense of creation as a place of wonder, mystery, and so forth. And then, when you come to find out what did it, well, wouldn’t you know it’s Protestantism with its rationalistic (read ‘non-Roman’) doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that evacuated our sense of the cosmos as ‘sacramental,’ meaningful, etc., or Protestant doctrines of sovereignty that killed all sense of mediate, spiritual agencies.

I go back and forth on this quite a bit. When I read Taylor years ago, I was all in on seeing this as a thing. I had some doubts about big narratives as a whole (especially pinning the blame on Protestantism), but it sort of fit a long-running one you’ve been hearing about the West and modernity for years in various settings, so you just kind of go with it.

Then last year I read Jason Josephson-Storm’s excellent work, The Myth of Disenchantment, which casts doubt on whether things are so tidy. You can read a fantastic summary engagement with him, John Wilson, and Doug Sikkema over at The New Atlantis right now that is a welcome introduction to his thought and the wrinkle he puts in the debate.

He points out a number of problems with the big story we tell ourselves about disenchantment. For one thing, we’ve been telling stories about the loss of the fairies and so forth since about 13th century. It’s a recurring narrative trope suggesting a loss of the sense of the “magic” of the world has been with us for a very long time–at least a couple of hundred years before Calvin was born.

Second, many of the theorists of disenchantment weren’t all that disenchanted themselves. Freud believed in telepathy. Madame Curie was attending seances when she was conducting her scientific experiments. Max Weber, the grand theorist of disenchantment in the early 20th Century palled around with all sorts of spiritual weirdos. “Spiritualism” is a 19th Century, post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Indeed, Josephson-Storm suggests there is often a paradoxical relationship between theorists of disenchantment and the phenomena itself. Some theorize about it in order to bring it about, while others tell the story as a precursor to a program of re-enchantment, and so forth.

Finally, (for us), the big data point is that folks don’t really seem that disenchanted right now. People all across Europe and even the US have become less “religious”, but they have not necessarily become more “rationalist”, “secular” in the sense of completely rejecting the supernatural, etc. That’s too clean of a blank slate, replacement narrative. No, many recent studies have charted a rise in all sorts of alternative spiritualities instead.

A recent post over at Quillete, “From Astrology to Cult Politics” highlights this well:

Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.

Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.

And, of course, you can see this trend strongest in the least traditionally religious generation, the youngest:

Young adults, being less religious, are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance and spiritual energy. But it also can be observed geographically: The parts of the United States where secular liberals are predominant tend to be the same areas where the market for alternative spiritual experiences and products is most lucrative. Even prominent media outlets such as The New York Times and (in Britain) The Guardian, whose readership consists primarily of secular liberals, frequently publish articles about topics such as witchcraft and astrology—even if they are careful not to legitimize the claims made by proponents of these beliefs.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth the survey.

I remember seeing this transition in real life, as a kid I grew up with in church started to carry crystals right about the time he began expressing doubts about Christian orthodoxy. Jump over to websites like the Goop and you’ll find articles on how to purchase and select the right sort of ethically-sourced crystals that give off the right energies. You can go to upper-class neighborhoods in LA and find bookstores that sell instruction books for how to arrange them around your house for the proper spiritual effect, right next the section with artisanal cookware.

Where am I going with all this? Mostly just noting a trend pastors and observers of contemporary culture should be aware of. When it comes to “disenchantment”, be careful about confusing skepticism about Christianity or traditional religion with hard-nosed, atheistic, rationalism. Most of it isn’t.

Second, you really need to be aware about this when it comes to dealing with the spiritual challenges in your congregation. The threat of syncretism isn’t just metaphorical in the West right now. You probably have folks in you congregation who come to hear you preach on Sunday, but seriously check their horoscopes on Monday, and get worried about Mercury going into retrograde, talk about a sense of their energy being off, and so forth. It’s probably time to start reading up on apologetics against new age spirituality, astrology, issuing serious warnings about witchcraft, etc.

Yes, you need to push on late-modern, expressive-individualist consumerism, but also how easily that can coexist with checking your star sign, thinking white magic is cool, and trying to find just to right crystal to balance your energy. There is more to it than that, but these modes of thinking fit hand-in-glove.

Which is to say, when it comes to preaching out of Colossians or Corinthians, talking about Christ’s defeat of the powers, not being captive to empty philosophy, or participating in pagan feasts, you may not need to find “modern”, metaphorical analogies for your applications. All of a sudden, Augustine’s sections in The Confessions refuting astrology are worth quoting from the pulpit. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start consulting with our brothers and sisters in less “advanced” countries about how they preach the gospel to their neighbors caught up in the worship of spirits, and so forth.

Finally, returning to the earlier conversation, whether or not you buy the disenchantment narrative, it’s worth remembering that for much of the early church “disenchantment” was good news. Only they had a different word for it. It was called “exorcism”, and it was the defeat of Satan, unclean spirits, and the dark, pagan gods who haunted their nightmares and held them in bondage to sin and terror.

We may begin to miss “disenchantment” in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I completely forgot this recent piece by Ross Douthat on the “return” of Paganism, both Left and post-Christian Right. Also worth the time.

Why We Should Have Utter Confidence in Prayer

compendiumAt the tail-end of his uncompleted Compendium of Theology Aquinas treats the question of why we must pray to God for what we hope. First, he notes that we belong to him as an effect does to a cause. He has made us with a purpose in mind which it is his aim to see fulfilled. If a pot were rational and could hope, it should hope in the potter who shaped him. “Thus we are told in Jeremiah 18:6: ‘As clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.'”

But Aquinas does not simply want us to know that we should pray to God our Maker, but how we should pray to God: with complete and utter confidence.

The confidence which man has in God ought to be most certain. As we just intimated, a cause does not refrain from rightly controlling its product unless it labors under some defect. But no defect or ignorance can occur in God, because “all things are naked and open to His eyes,” as is said in Hebrews 4:13. Nor does He lack power, for “the hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save,” as we read in Isaiah 59:1. Nor is He wanting in good will, for “the Lord is good to those who hope in Him, to the soul that seeks Him,” as we are reminded in Lamentations 3:25. Therefore the hope with which a person trusts in God does not confound him that hopes, as is said in Romans 5:5. (Compendium 2.4)

Why should we have utter confidence in prayer? As it always seems to be with Aquinas, because God, that’s why.

Soli Deo Gloria

On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

(Yes, I’m sorry, this is a piece about Millennials.)

listeningHonestly, I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the biggest things the recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials. But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one very clear message we’ve heard for years from both experts and Millennial spokespersons is that the Church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the Church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel who see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happens. And now, it’s also suddenly very clear “political silence is complicity.” Those very same experts (voices of a generation), assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet in the face of injustice. So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are just now figuring out what they really wanted was a different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ quip about the fickleness of his own generation, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” (Luke 7:32) When John came preaching, they called him prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

Now that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. (I think there’s probably a good case for that.) But apparent turnarounds like this raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York Magazine just had a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another recent study of Canada’s youth split my generation up into six types like “New Traditionalists”, “Critical Counter-culturalists”, or “Bros and Brittanys”, who all have seriously varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

Even more importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be a lot of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives and so are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the problems of the Church. More than that, they’re not interested in going to Churches that don’t take that seriously.

While I think there’s something to this, it’s important for Churches not to confuse an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or even worse obey them. (“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).

The fact of the matter is we’re young and we really could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. To resolve to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly–the naïve leading the blackmailed.

What’s more, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the Church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (2:28). Both groups will be doing this at one and the same time—the young and the old are empowered by the same Spirit to serve.

I want to suggest, though, that much listening to Millennials (at least by older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This begins to get at an important dynamic of the listening process. There’s nothing more exasperating as a child than feeling like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get your way, simply being taken seriously as a member of the family goes a long way. I do think that Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—but treated as real, contributing members in any church community. (At least the ones who commit to actually being members.) They’re not only the future of the Church, they are a powerful part of its present.

Secondly, churches need to take Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation in the Lord. If you don’t know where Millennials are, what concerns they have, what they commonly struggle with, you probably won’t be very adept at instructing them in the way of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, etc. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right ways. I suppose we can file this under “training”, but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons to bless the congregation, and so forth. This involves actually inviting them to do some of these things. (I mean, this shouldn’t be that crazy as some of us are already planting and leading churches anyways.)

Still, in established congregations that involves risk. But all parenting does. Which is why all of this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see his all of his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

Five Ways to Spoil the Gospel

ryle 2J.C Ryle was a prominent Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th century. An advocate of the Evangelical cause in the Church of England, he penned an insightful article laying out what he took to be the essence of Evangelicalism, clarifying confusions and myths, and proposing a road forward for the Church.

Briefly, defined Evangelical religion as marked by five major commitments:  (1) the supreme authority and truthfulness of Scripture, (2) the grave condition of humanity in sin, the centrality and absolute necessity of Christ’s redeeming work in life, (3) atoning death, and resurrection, (4) the necessity of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, (5) the necessarily transformative work of the Holy Spirit in leading to personal holiness and an active life of faith. (It’s interesting to see how much this overlaps with the Bebbington Quadrilateral.)

He also clarifies a number of things that Evangelical religion is not, but as interesting as that is, what I wanted to call our attention to today was a latter section in the work. Here, he tries to lay out why so much religion in the Church is un-Evangelical and confusing. He’s not even necessarily talking about outright heresy or false teaching, but the sort of thing that “spoils” the Gospel and robs people of it despite our best intentions.

Ryle then lays out 5 distinct ways to spoil the Gospel:

You may spoil the Gospel by substitution . You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith,—Jesus Christ; and to substitute another object in His place,—the Church, the Ministry, the Confessional, Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, and the mischief is done. Substitute anything for Christ, and the Gospel is totally spoiled! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

You may spoil the Gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honour, and the mischief is done. Add anything to Christ, and the Gospel ceases to be a pure Gospel! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

You may spoil the Gospel by interposition. You have only to push something between Christ and the eye of the soul, to draw away the sinner’s attention from the Saviour, and the mischief is done. Interpose anything between man and Christ, and man will neglect Christ for the thing interposed! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

You may spoil the Gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the parts of truth, and truth soon becomes downright error! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the Gospel by confused and contradictory directions. Complicated and obscure statements about faith, baptism, Church privileges, and the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, all jumbled together, and thrown down without order before hearers, make the Gospel no Gospel at all! Confused and disorderly statements of Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all! Religion of this sort is not Evangelical.

This is all excellent and I think to be heeded as wisdom. A few comments, though.

One point I’d make about the distortion by disproportion is that it can occur in other ways than losing sight of the main thing. What I mean is that when you make the “main thing” the “only thing”, the proportions are still wrong. So, a proper understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is crucial and central. But it only properly makes sense against the backdrop of the doctrine of creation. Creation is not the gospel, but without it, you don’t really understand what sort of gospel you’re dealing with.

I mention this because I think a good deal of the problem pop-Evangelicalism nowadays is a shallow understanding of the gospel, the central things, partially because we have little sense of the backdrop, the broader sweep of Christian doctrine and the broad narrative of Scripture. Just something for preachers and teachers to keep in mind.

Second, the point about clarity is an important one. This is probably less an issue for popular Evangelicalism which usually has the simple, five or six-point belief statement up on the website (Trinity, Scripture, Christ, Salvation, Minimalist Eschatology). But in Ryle’s late-19th century Anglicanism, I’m sure the danger for confusing blends of statements is probably more necessary. And I think that may still be true for some wings of uber-intellectual, or confessional Christianity.

Attuned to the dangers of minimalist presentations, we want to get complex, demonstrate nuance, stretch our people’s minds, expand their boxes, and so forth, so that we forget at times to preach a clear, simple gospel. It’s wonderful for pastors to read and address issues with complexity and nuance when that’s required. Read the difficult books, grapple with exegetical nettles, try to push your people into the great mysteries of the Faith like the Trinity and the person of Christ. But do all you can to strive to be clear.

Indeed, as Lewis pointed out long ago, your ability to be clear about an issue is likely a measure of how well you’ve grasped it.

I suppose I’ll close this out by noting how all of these issues are connected to having a solid grasp of Biblical and Systematic theology. Beyond the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, having a sense for the matter and substance, as well as the emphasis, the balance, and the interconnections of various texts and doctrines, and the ability to communicate that clearly, is a matter of disciplined. familiarity with Scripture as a whole.  And that takes time, study, and diligence.

But learning not to spoil the gospel of Jesus Christ is worth it. So get to it.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Basil’s Doxological Spirit

holy spiritI’ve already written a little bit on Basil the Great’s idea of the work of the Spirit in the ministry of the Son. In that light, it’s very clear that Basil thinks of the Spirit economically, or historically. Much of On the Holy Spirit is caught up showing that the Spirit is active, along with the Son and the Father, sharing their one creative and salvific work, the same level of (undivided, divine) being, and names.

The pay-out for Basil, though, is that the Spirit is ranked with Father and Son,  In which case, he deserves to be glorified along with Father and Son.

Basil’s pneumatology is therefore doxological—and this is many ways.

First, in the straightforward sense that purpose of the treatise is to defend the worship of the Spirit in the doxology under attack by the Pneumatomachians (Spirit-fighters). Recall, the Pneumatomachians objected to Basil’s use of the two doxological forms, “to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit” as well as “to the Father, with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” (1.3).

At one point, after recounting many of the Spirit’s divine works and titles, he asks, “In this matter, which should we fear, that we will overstep his dignity with excessive honor?” (19.49). Theologically and Scripturally, he has shown that it is entirely appropriate to give glory to the Spirit alongside the Son and Father. But more than that, at the rhetorical level, it is as if Basil is banking the fact that contemplating the work of the Spirit cannot but induce his readers to worship.

Another couple of doxological dimensions are suggested by a passage late in the text, where Basil’s explaining the propriety of using both formulas mentioned above. He says,

“Therefore, when we consider the Spirit’s rank, we think of Him as present with the Father and the Son, but when we consider the working of His grace on its recipients, we say that the Spirit is in us.”

Basil moves on to explain the two senses in which it is appropriate to think about the term “in the Holy Spirit.” First, when we say “in” the Spirit, we’re actually referring to our own weakness. Or rather, we’re speaking to the Spirit’s role as the sanctifier and illuminer—it is only because of the aid of the Spirit who indwells believers that they are able to offer sacrifices of praise to God, being insufficient to the task in themselves  (26.55).

Basil comes to a second sense in which we might take the phrase “in the Holy Spirit.” I’ll quote it at length:

We learn that just as the Father is made visible in the Son, so also the Son is recognized in the Spirit. To worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened. Consider the words spoken to the Samaritan woman. She was deceived by local custom into believing that worship could only be offered in a specific place, but the Lord, attempting to correct her, said that worship ought to be offered in Spirit and in truth. By truth He clearly meant Himself. If we say that worship offered in the Son (the Truth) is worship offered in the Father’s Image, we can say the same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in Himself reveals the divinity of the Lord.

The Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot he separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you. Once you see the Image, you cannot ignore the light; you see the Light and the Image simultaneously. It is fitting that when we see Christ, the Brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit  (26.64).

When we speak of the Spirit as the illuminer, Basil wants us to think of him less as the One who turns on the light by which we see, and more as the Light himself in whom we see the Son who is the invisible image of the Father and are able to worship. This is why “the Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship.” For Basil, as for Paul, it’s only by the Holy Spirit that we confess ‘Christ is Lord’ (1 Cor. 12:3).

And so we can see that whatever else we might say about Basil’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit, it’s doxological through and through.

Soli Deo Gloria

To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria