Calvin: Troubler of Israel?

Calvin trouble.jpgIt seems obvious enough to say that trouble is often a matter of perspective. In a marriage, one spouse might think everything is hunky-dory (a phrase whose original meaning still escapes me), while the other is thoroughly convinced that things are in need of an intervention.

From another angle, even when you both may agree that there is trouble, that there are “tumults”, but there’s no consensus about who the main “troubler” is. Indeed, some of our biggest disputes from childhood on revolve around the question “who started it?”

Concerns such as these are, in part, what motivated John Calvin to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While later editions were intended for a variety of purposes like introducing theological students to the proper entryway for reading Scripture, he initially wrote his brief outline of the Christian faith as a defense, an apologia, of the new Evangelical faith of his fellow-believers against violent persecution, especially in France.

Indeed, in his preface to King Francis I, he states this is part of his goal, and then within the preface he sets about answering a number of the charges typically lodged against the Reformation of his day such as novelty, the violation of custom, and so forth. The preface as a whole is classic Calvin and worth your time. (I enjoy the section on the Fathers, in particular).

What caught my eye this read through was his segment on the charge that the Reformation brought about “disturbances, tumults, and contentions” that preaching Evangelical doctrine seemed to produce. In the eyes of their critics, Medieval and contemporary, the Evangelical reform was a destructive event, disturbing the peace of the Church. Obviously, true doctrine would not have such negative effects on the holy Church of God.

Calvin’s response is instructive.

First, Calvin takes the objection and flips it. He says that instead of blaming the Evangelicals, critics should have blamed “Satan’s malice.” Because it is “a certain characteristic of the divine Word, that it never comes forth while Satan is at rest and sleeping.” While the Word was buried, Satan “lay idle and luxuriated in deep repose.” But now, one of clearest signs that this Evangelical preaching is the work of God is precisely the tumults that the Word is provoking! Just as it was in the days of Jesus, when the strong man assaulted the kingdom of darkness, so now, Satan stirs up trouble from all sectors to stop the movement of the kingdom of God.

Second, and this is the part that caught my eye, Calvin notes that it’s frequently the case that the Word of God stirs up accusation against it.

Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [1 Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. The charge of stirring up the people was laid against the apostles [Acts 24:5 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [1 Kings 18:18].

When Elijah went preaching in Israel and proclaimed the drought against it for its idolatries under Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab called him “you troubler of Israel.” In Ahab’s mind, if Elijah weren’t around, things would be running smoothly. The drought is Elijah’s fault. A similar situation was true of the apostles’ preaching and, of course, Jesus himself.

But Calvin’s point is that the critics have it exactly backwards. The truth is not the source of the trouble. It only shines a light on the darkness, exposing what has hitherto gone unnoticed. Yes, it is the occasion of outrage, but it is not the true cause. Ahab and the Baals he supported were the true troublers of Israel. Or again, it wasn’t Christ who troubled Israel, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who had the people following the traditions of men as the Law of God. It wasn’t the apostles who were at fault for proclaiming the true God in the face of the pagan idols, but the idolaters.

In other words, “we didn’t start the fire.”

Calvin’s counterpoint is interesting because the charge against the Reformation of inciting “tumult” of various sorts is still with us. Only now we’ve got scholarly monographs arguing that the Reformation with its doctrines of the clarity of Scripture, sola Scriptura, and so forth, unleashed tumults of a different sort: individualism, skepticism, rationalism, and the evils of the Enlightenment. Brad Gregory’s widely-influential (even among Protestants prone towards guilty conscience) and widely-criticized The Unintended Reformation is one such work.

In an older review to which I return regularly with great delight, Carl Trueman makes a Calvinian point about Gregory’s criticism of all the ills following the interpretive diversity fostered by the doctrines of sola scriptura and the clarity of Scripture. He points out a number of objective, unpleasant facts about the Papacy of the Medieval period prior to the Reformation (disorder, multiple popes, corruption, etc). And then he drops this humdinger of a paragraph:

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

In other words, even if you grant that the Reformation troubled the Church, it was the trouble that follows another, arguably deeper trouble by way of response.

I wouldn’t dare claim that the Reformation was without its faults. Nor do I think that Luther, Calvin, and the crew were necessarily on par with the apostles. Nor am comparing the whole Medieval Catholic Church to the teachers of the Law, or Israel under Ahab. (And actually, in that same preface, Calvin himself refutes the idea that the Church was absent until the Reformation.)

That conceded, I do think it’s worth stopping and considering whether in our dismay about some of the ills of Western Christendom, we have paid enough attention to Calvin’s logic in defense of the Evangelicals: when the Word of God goes forth, we ought to expect tumults, both from the light it shines as well as the opposition it provokes.

I’ve written about moving past my shame-faced Protestantism before, so I guess what I’m saying is that the more I read and study, the less I’m convinced we ought to buy the line that Luther and Calvin were the troublers of God’s Israel, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria  

Mere Fidelity: Alan Jacobs and “Christian Intellectuals”

Mere FiA couple of weeks ago, Alan Jacobs wrote a widely-discussed piece on the disappearance of the “Christian Intellectual” from the public scene. We thought it was a great piece, but we wanted to take a deeper stab at the issue. So here are Matt, Andrew, Alastair, and I analyzing and arguing with Jacobs, each other, and possibly persons unknown.

We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. What’s more, we hope our small conversation contributes in some small way to the very important one Dr. Jacobs has begun.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Olympics and the Ethics of Watching Sports

Mere FiOn this episode of Mere Fidelity, Philosopher Michael Austin joins us to discuss the Olympics, sport, and whether we should watch any of it anyway. Austin is the editor of a variety of volumes on philosophy and sport, is a frequent writer at Psychology Today, and is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University.

The excerpt Alastair read is below, and is taken from this article:

In their beliefs, Coubertin and his followers were liberals in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. Deeply suspicious of conventional theistic religions, they promoted Olympism as a substitute for traditional faith. “For me,” Coubertin wrote in his Mémoires Olympiques, “sport is a religion with church, dogma, ritual.” In a radio address delivered in Berlin on August 4, 1935, he repeated his frequently expressed desire that the games be inspired by “religious sentiment transformed and enlarged by the internationalism and democracy that distinguish the modern age.” Nearly thirty years later, Coubertin’s most dedicated disciple, Avery Brundage, proclaimed to his colleagues on the International Olympic Committee that Olympism is a twentieth-century religion, “a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion” (pp. 2-3).

Here’s the show. We hope you enjoy:

Soli Deo Gloria

Theology As Discipleship by Keith Johnson (Themelios)

theology as discipleshipThere are few laments more frequently raised in the evangelical academy than the divorce between the academy and the church, or between the life of piety and that of theological scholarship. Indeed, it is not uncommon for pastors to admit that seminary was one of the most spiritually difficult times in their lives, precisely because the pursuit of academic rigor in theology, by its very nature, seemed to choke out the spiritual life. Moreover, the relevance of the theological task seems distant from the life of faith for the average congregant.

Drawing on years teaching theology to undergraduates, in Theology as Discipleship, Wheaton College professor Keith L. Johnson attempts to articulate a vision for the theological task as “integrally related” to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ (p. 12). Aimed at introductory theology courses, pastors, and interested lay-people, the result is an elegant, biblically-attuned, classically-oriented, yet uncluttered text inviting the novice (as well as the seasoned initiate) to view theology in the sweep of God’s saving economy to renew all things through Christ and the Spirit.

You can read the rest of this review online in the latest issues of Themelios.

Soli Deo Gloria

Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne

rankinThe heart of the New Testament gospel is the idea of union with Christ. All of the benefits of salvation (justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification) we only receive as we are “in Christ.” It is the doctrine without which all these other truths is not good news.  Unsurprisingly, then, you can’t read Paul, John, Peter, or even the words of Jesus himself without tripping over these references.

And more and more, theologians and biblical scholars are recognizing this and putting it at the center of their expositions of Scripture and biblical truth, with a number of helpful volumes on the subject having been written in the last few years. For instance, just this year, Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ was an excellent entry into putting “union with Christ” back at the center.

Sadly, though, it seems to have been a very slow trickle-down effect for this glorious recovery reaching the practical preaching of the pulpit and the life of the pews. The books are aimed at either other theologians, or at pastors who might grasp the value, but struggle to work the riches of this biblical truth into their regular preaching.

It is at just this point that Rankin Wilbourne wants to step in with his new book Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God. His aim is to take the doctrine of union with Christ out of the murky shadows and place it front and center, not only of the discussions of academics and theologians, but everyday Christians wanting to learn how to close the gap between what they read about the Christian life in the New Testament and the reality they experience in their regular walk with Jesus.

(Now, you may be wondering, “who is Rankin Wilbourne?” Wilbourne’s a pastor at Pacific Crossroads Church in LA whom I only know about because my pastor used to work with him and because of his awesome cowboy name. In any case, when my pastor handed me his book and told me to read it, I gave it a shot since I figure he knows I don’t have too much time to waste on cruddy books during my summer of learning German.)

I have to say, I’m very grateful that he did. Wilbourne’s book was a great read for me and came at just the right time. I mostly read it in the mornings before studying and, like with Jen Wilkin’s book, it proved to be a real source of spiritual assurance and up-building during that time.

What’s in the book, then? Well, a little bit of everything to be honest. Wilbourne covers a wide range of topics, precisely because he (rightly) knows that union with Christ touches just about everything.

So, of course, there’s chapters on union with Christ in the Bible, and chapters on union with Christ in church history (turns out its all over it), and a couple of chapters on why we struggle with the concept (very helpful for cultural observers, by the way). But the bulk of the book is how union with Christ affects your real life, covering everything from your identity, to your approach to spiritual practices, to suffering, and even the way you look at the Church.

With that terrible summary out of the way, I’ll give you a few highlights or reasons you should give it a shot.

First, Wilbourne knows the importance of the imagination for spiritual life. Right of the bat, actually, Wilbourne shows you that he knows we think, we feel, we live out of the depths of our imaginations—our ability to piece together the world, or whatever reality we’re thinking of, into synthetic wholes. Which is why, he notes, the New Testament gives us so many metaphors, so many pictures, for our salvation in union with Christ.

Wilbourne leans full tilt into that reality by spending time unpacking biblical metaphors, creating and deploying helpful, lively new pictures of his own to drive home and inhabit these spiritual truths. I’ve never heard him preach, but I think I have a fair idea of what it would look like now.

And actually, preachers, this is something you ought to pay attention to (especially if you’re a youngster like I am)—learn the art of the key illustration that helps your congregation actually grasp the truths of Scripture in a vital, living manner. This book is full of good examples of how to do that.

Also, this means that this is a book you can put in someone’s hands without worrying if it’s going to be too over their heads, or jargon-filled, or technical.

Second, Wilbourne is a pastor. To be honest, I don’t think he says much “new” when it comes to the doctrine itself. He’s basing it on a lot of the most recent scholarship (Billings, Campbell, Letham, etc) as well as what the classic teachers of history (Calvin, Owen, Scougal, etc) have said. What he does do that’s “new” is the application of these broad truths to our late modern culture.

I know I keep beating this horse from different angles, but the ability to take and apply this deeply Biblical truth to a broad variety of questions and struggles that actual members of our churches are working through is a great gift. Wilbourne has that gift in spades.

To sum up, if you want to understand the good news of union with Christ, to walk into the heart of enjoying God through Christ, Wilbourne’s Union with Christ is a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity – Satire: Its Uses & Abuses (w/ Karen Swallow Prior)

Mere FiSatire has been around for a while. It’s taken a new life, especially, through the rise of sites like The Onion. But it has been something of a hot topic lately for Evangelicals with the rise of the new site, The Babylon Bee. So we decided to have a little chat about it with our friend and literary expert, Karen Swallow Prior. This was a very fun show and I think you’ll enjoy it.

We mention Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal” on this show,  as well as this analysis of ‘punching up’ in American comedy.

If you enjoy this, please feel free to tweet, share, etc.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Understanding Meritocracy

Mere FidelityOn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Alastair, Andrew, and I discuss a recent article by Helen Andrews on the subject of meritocracy and the way it has replaced (and in some ways replicated) the older Aristocratic order. You should take the time to read it. It’s a fascinating piece. In any case, we take it up and discuss it more broadly and then in relation to the church. Because that’s what we do.

Hope you enjoy.

Soli Deo Gloria