Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Thoughts on Christians in the Workplace

It has been suggested to me by a woman in my church that a series of lectures on the issue of Christians in the workplace would be helpful, for the issue of job dissatisfaction is being experienced rather accutely by many. In the light of this, I'd like to put the issue on the table, offer some thoughts (which I may unpack in detail in subsequent posts), and get some feedback from you, the faithful reader.

First, I take it as pretty much incontrovertible that all (legitimate) vocations, though common and not holy, are potentially God-honoring. Further, this involves no transformation or redemption of anything. Since adjectives are not adverbs, a non-holy job (accounting) can be done holily, thus glorifying the Lord while retaining the common and secular nature of the work itself.

Secondly, there is a built-in ache that accompanies all earthly toil. As Vos taught us, eschatology precedes soteriology, which means, among other things, that the frustration we feel is supposed to be there.

Thirdly, the nature of our market-driven society, in which we are forced to compete with one another for wages, for position, and for power necessarily compounds the frustration people feel. Work, for many Americans, is not just some thing we have to do for eight hours a day in order to have enough money to enjoy our extra-curricular lives, but it has become our lives.

Fourthly, many have reached a point where they have ceased even asking out loud whether they are working too much. If you are a manager, a partner, or an executive, you pretty much have to put in sixty-plus hours a week, right? The ladder only goes in one direction (up), so unless you want your personal stock to plummet, you'd better keep climbing.

Fifthly, the mantra that we must do all things "with excellence" is most often applied to those areas where excellence is rewarded in a visible and worthwhile way. In a meritocracy, a 10% pay increase is worth more than a "World's Greatest Dad" coffee mug.

Lastly, every culture has its blindspots, which make certain verses in the Bible seem non-sensical. In Uganda, it's the one about not starting to build a house without making sure you have the money to finish it. In Hungary, it's the one where Peter says that the disciples can't possibly be drunk since it's only 9am. Maybe for us capitalists it's the one that condemns the withholding of just wages from laborers for the purpose of living lives of earthly luxury and self-indulgence?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Overlap and Eschatology

I mentioned earlier this month that on one level it is impossible for anyone to hermetically seal off her theology from her views on matters civil and earthly. This is not due, however, to the line separating the kingdoms being blurred or erased, but to the fact that the believer herself straddles that line.

The overlap, then, exists not within the earthly and heavenly kingdoms themselves, but within us as we attempt to navigate them in this age.

For my own part, the overlap is probably most evident in my thoughts being drawn to the identity of the underdog, the powerless, and the oppressed. I recently re-read the words of black writer Langston Hughes in his 1930s poem "Lenox Avenue Mural":
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?

Or maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

There seems (to me at least) to be an affinity between the status of the civil and spiritual underdog. I'm not saying that to be powerless in one sphere is to be the same in the other (the two kingdoms remain distinct), but I am saying that it is not without significance that Jesus described the blessed man as the one who is spiritually poor, mournful, thirsty, and persecuted.

Since my theological convictions—particularly my amillennial eschatology, which I regard as simply code for "suffering now, glory later"—are such that I have come to consider the church's underdog status to be normative and even conducive to her health, it is only natural that my thoughts are also drawn to the powerless in the civil kingdom as well. In a word, I tend to side with the weaker of the two sides in most disputes.

And the flipside of this is that I can't help but wonder how those whose earthly affinities lie with the wealthy and powerful cannot necessarily be uncomfortable with a poor and powerless church?

Maybe others can be more "regally schizophrenic" than I can, but I would have a much easier time with the War on Terror if I were a postmillennialist.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Romney and Blair: Nutters Both?

Well, after much speculation, it is now official: British Prime Minister Tony Blair has converted to Roman Catholicism.

As when Dr. Francis Beckwith abandoned his post as president of the Evangelical Theological Society for the greener pastures of Rome, my reaction is to yawn, and then wonder what's for dinner.

I will make a few observations, though.

First, anyone who thinks that the Christian world is still divided between Catholics and Protestants is stuck in the sixteenth century. The Anglicanism that Blair jettisoned, much like Beckwith's former evangelicalism, is more similar to Catholicism than most care to admit, for various reasons.

Secondly, when our focus shifts from doctrine to piety, confessional Reformed theology is much closer to the Vatican than to Saddleback.

Thirdly, as Mitt Romney has been arguing, the minutiae of one's theology, despite our insistence to the contrary, has little bearing on his or her discharging of public duties. The next time we ask whether one who believes he will become a god one day is fit to have access to "the button," we should then pause to inquire the same of someone who believes that the earth stopped rotating for a day so the Amorites could be slain in Gibeon (is it not written in the Book of Jashar?).

The article cited goes on to say that "The former prime minister told the BBC this year that he had avoided talking about his religious views while in office for about 10 years for fear of being labeled 'a nutter.'"

I'm speculating here, but I'll wager that if Romney is elected, American evangelical culture warriors will expect the Latter-Day Saint to hold his tongue about the whole "Jesus is Lucifer's brother" thing. But if President Huckabee shies away from publically affirming that Jesus walked out of a grave on Easter morning, he'll be stoned for denying such a reasonable proposition.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Decentralization of All Power

Submitted by John Terranova (A.K.A. Johnny T)

Starting with a distinction between the sacred and the secular, I approach the question of government with the belief that both Christians and non-Christians have equal insight and wisdom concerning this realm. As a topic of general revelation, I tend to side-step questions about the divine intentions of government -- rather than trying to discover the "nature" of government, I think we are free to create what ever form of social organization we need to. Personally, the government that I like best is the government that does the best job of promoting peaceful coexistence with everybody (a sentiment I assume most people will share with me).

I think that Libertarian-Socialism offers some ideas that might help achieve this desired end. Basically, Libertarian-Socialism wants to decentralize power -- to diffuse power as much as possible. Classic Capitalist-Libertarianism shares this basic goal, but has failed to achieve it. Capitalist-Libertarianism stifles the centralization of State power, but it promotes the concentration of private power. Today, the largest multi-national corporations have more global power and influence than many countries. Just as unchecked State power can result in massive abuses, so unchecked private power can result in the same abuses -- power can be abused whether it is public or private.

Libertarianism tries to offer the individual as much personal freedom as possible. Capitalist-Libertarianism tends to judge personal freedoms in economic terms -- the more stuff people have, the more they can consume, the happier they are; it positions people as consumers, choosing our favorite brands in the market place.

Socialist-Libertarianism recognizes that people are more than consumers, and that in addition to certain economic needs, people also need free time, family and social interaction, quality of life, and quality of environment. Around 200 years of Capitalist experimentation demonstrates that concentrated private power reduces the quality of these non-economic aspects of our lives. Without labor laws, the free market creates extremely oppressive working conditions that dehumanize workers (examples include Victorian England, pre-labor law industrialized USA, and contemporary developing countries that expose their work forces to the Capitalist policies of the WTO, IMF and World Bank).

Libertarian Socialism seeks to protect individuals from oppressive public AND private power. To do this, the government would need to be strong and independent enough to resist private interests from hijacking public social structures. This strong government's role would be to ensure the public's freedom from both private and public institutions. The government would have the role of policing itself -- but since this creates problems of accountability, complete governmental transparency would be necessary. This transparency would allow for both public and private scrutiny of everything that takes place in the public domain.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Limited Government Defended

Submitted by Darryl Hart

In theory the two-kingdom position allows for any form of government, from monarchy to socialism conceivably. In practice though, many two-kingdom advocates like myself favor the American form of government which involves at its best constitutionalism, federalism, the separation of powers and limited government. Is there something inherently two-kingdom about this form of governance?

If you believe in the fallenness of man, and you don’t need to be a Christian to do so, then it follows that decentralizing power is a good thing. To consolidate power in one person, office, or government agency may and usually does result in abuse of power for unwholesome ends.

Historically, tyranny of the worst kind has resulted from unrestricted state power. Centralization of the state only makes such tyranny more efficient. Churches have suffered repeatedly from states without limited power. Efforts to make Puritans and Presbyterians conform to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rule produced an anti-authoritarian streak in Anglo-American Calvinism. A similar logic lays behind the concerns of those who would try to protect the authority of parents to rear children according to their own convictions.

Churches and families are not the only sort of mediating structures that suffer when states control more areas of society than they should. Voluntary associations of all sorts, from newspapers to baseball leagues, would not exist if the state were to regulate all aspects of social life.

Limited government is counterintuitive to some because it requires trusting others to oversee their affairs. It also assumes that a measure of order will emerge from a decentralized polity. The economist, Friedrick Hayek, talked about spontaneous order arising from the seemingly disparate efforts of actors with much less authority of the state taking charge of specific segments of society. This was order from the bottom up rather than the top down. If one believes that the health of local communities is crucial to the health of a nation, then limited government is an important way to protect the prerogatives of towns, counties and regions.

The particular aspect of the two-kingdom doctrine that lends itself to limited government is the inherent recognition of two powers, the church and the state (the family is also in the mix). When you already have two authorities you automatically have some limits on each. Living with the idea of two different powers overseeing your life could well explain why 2k folks lean toward the state’s power being restricted. Its power is not the only game in town.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The View from the Other End of the Club

It has been pointed out, correctly I think, that the world looks very different depending on whether you have your boot on your enemy's neck, or he has his boot on yours. While power is a sought-after commodity, there is also something to be said for the clarity that comes from being on the receiving end of the club.

Returning to Mitt Romney's appeal to allow the common morality that he shares with all people of faith to trump whatever theological differences there may be between him and evangelicals, it must be pointed out that the appeal for tolerance of minority positions is not uncommon for minorities to make.

After all, does not history demonstrate that the rights of those outside the inner circle are never bequeathed from on high, but must be won through popular struggle? Power, whether political, social, or religious, is often clutched with great jealousy lest it be lost. So if you're a woman, an immigrant, or in Romney's case, a Mormon, the clarion call is for civil liberty and the right to be treated as equals in the public square.

The evangelical church (err, excuse me: movement) has not had the best track record in according said civil liberties to those who are demanding them. You see, as long as we are in power, we will use all the muscle we can muster to win the culture war and defeat the godless, feminist, socialist Ivy-Leaguers who would just as soon surrender the American Dream to those A-rabs in the Middle East.

Sure, we can't define justification by faith if given a hundred tries, but by God we're gonna keep those gays at bay if it kills us.

Let's hope that if our millennial dreams shatter like the tables of the Decalogue and we are unseated from the corridors of power, the new occupants will be kinder and gentler than we were.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Romney, Rodney, and the Plea to "Get Along"

It was humorously pointed out in the previous thread that it apparently takes a Mormon like Mitt Romney to recognize the fact that the minutiae of one's theology has much less bearing upon his public service than the "common morality" that he shares with all people of faith.

I'm not sure if what lay behind Romney's appeal is an example of irony, or the most obvious thing in the world.

Think about it: Experience amply demonstrates that, generally speaking, it is the underdog who pleads for leniency and the outsider who calls for tolerance. In our nation's history it wasn't white people who were marching for civil rights, it wasn't Protestants who were calling for an end to religious bigotry, and it wasn't men demanding equal pay for equal work.

As Andrew Meyer can testify, it's the guy with the taser to his chest who cries, "Don't tase me, bro!"

Part and parcel of (fallen) human nature seems to be that one must find himself against the ropes before he will employ the Rodney King defense. Whether the humans in question are religious or not, once the powerless become the powerful, it is no longer time for "just getting along," but for brandishing the sword and taking the land.

If and/or when the church in America becomes completely marginalized in the public square, our religious leaders will begin to whistle a very different tune than they have heretofore. Instead of the sabre-rattling and rhetoric of dominion, we will begin to hear our evangelical leaders make the "live and let live" appeal that their enemies presently invoke.

The problem, however, is that anyone's appeal to the same civil liberties that he has been instrumental in denying the underdog for centuries cannot but sound hypocritical and hollow.

In a word, when Bellick gets sentenced to Fox River, whatever happens next, it won't be good....

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Why Split Doctrinal Hairs?

If you've not yet read D.G. Hart's piece entitled "Jeffersonians All" I would warmly commend it. In it, Darryl draws an interesting parallel between the sentiments expressed by our nation's third President and those of Mitt Romney, the Mormon campaigning for the GOP nomination, in his recent much-discussed speech.

Romney's "Jeffersonian moment," Hart argues, came not when he assured his hearers (as did JFK during his presidential bid) that if elected he would vow to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and not the Book of Mormon or the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Instead, Hart argues:
"The actual Jeffersonian moment came just before his appeal to the separation of church and state. Romney ran through the religious virtues of fellow believers, from the profundity of the Roman Catholic Mass to the prayer life of Muslims. He then said, 'It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions.' The 'great moral principles,' he explained, 'urge us on a common course.' Romney... affirmed Jefferson’s view that theology doesn't matter compared to ethics. An American may believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that there are three persons in one God, or that men and women have the potential to become gods. But as long as he or she believes in the nation's great moral principles they make darned good neighbors."
The irony of Romney's appeal to ethics over doctrine, Hart argues, is that it is usually only employed by evangelical Protestants, or Roman Catholics like Kennedy, whose churches at least affirm the Trinity and deity of Christ. But when a Mormon plays the deeds-over-creeds card, those Christians who are uncomfortable with the idea of a Latter-Day Saint in the White House all of a sudden become very theologically scrupulous and doctrinaire (I mean, the culture war is at stake here!).

For this turning of the faith-based tables Romney should be commended, for he has articulated what many have been thinking all along: Advocates of religion in public life have never cared about doctrinal precision, so as long as one's religion affirms the correct political ideals, then what's the harm?

After all, if the spiritual kingdom is destined to be the handmaiden of the State anyway, then why split hairs?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

On Hermetic Sealing, Overlap, and Boys Who Cry "Wolf!"

I have been noticing some misunderstandings with respect to the doctrine of the two kingdoms that I'd like to try to clear up, if I may.

First, two-kingdoms theology does not teach that one may not factor in any of his Christian presuppositions when considering an a-religious topic. As some of my faithful readers have ably pointed out, no individual can seal his various viewpoints off with such hermetical precision.

While we distinguish between what the Bible clearly teaches and that to which it may be loosely applied (think the Trinity and economics respectively), we still may say that my view of the latter may be informed by certain theological presuppositions about, say, the imago Dei. But we must also allow that another who shares those presuppositions may come to a different conclusion about the issue in question.

Secondly, two-kingdoms thinking does not deny that there is cultic/cultural intersection and overlap in discussion about difficult issues. But it is crucial to remember that the tension does not lie in the kingdoms themselves. The kingdom of Christ is concerned with spiritual and eternal affairs and advances by Word and sacrament. The kingdom of man, on the other hand, is furthered by carnal weaponry for earthly and temporal ends. Both are legitimate and God-ordained, but distinct nonetheless.

I, however, happen to live in both of them, and hence the tension. Though for the most part I can distinguish a secular issue from a sacred one, that doesn't mean that I can as easily identify where my own existential lines are drawn.

Finally, we must realize that the more contemporary issues to which we seek to apply the Bible, the less authoritative the Bible will become in the eyes of the world. In the same way that paying off our nation's debts by printing a few trillion dollars will devalue our currency, so citing chapter and verse to prove both justification by faith alone and the value of laissez faire economics will only serve to lessen rather than increase its relevance. If you're going to cry "Wolf!", there'd better really be one, at least if you want the townsfolk to take you seriously.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Hermeneutics of Convenience

I find it interesting how arbitrary we Christians can be with respect to what we think is Scripture's clear position on various hot-button issues. What most discussions amount to, at the end of the day, is that the Bible condemns all the things I don't like, while the things I approve of either enjoy the divine stamp of approval, or are at the most unaddressed, or murkily so.

So if you're an American evangelical, then the Bible obviously condemns abortion, while the War on Terror is tantamount to Israel's storming of Jericho. The fact that the former position rests on little direct biblical evidence while the latter rests on bad eschatology seldom comes up, if at all.

If you're a European or British Christian, on the other hand, you are most likely passionately in favor of movements like Make Trade Fair and movies like SiCKO (both of which are considered by Americans as rather liberal).

The same "wink, wink" tactics are employed in the political arena. While Republicans and Democrats disagree over whether the Iraq War is being fought correctly, there is little discussion over whether the U.S. has the right to invade other countries if it sees fit to do so. The two parties may differ on the degree to which the federal government should spend money on social programs for the poor, but there is complete agreement on the glories of the free market.

Regardless of which kingdom we're dealing with, and of what our personal convictions may be with respect to it, it is certainly a healthy thing to lay aside the hermeneutics of convenience every now and then and allow our sacred cows to be challenged. Maybe we'll end up standing our ground, but at least we'll have the benefit of saying that we weren't afraid of a little scrutiny now and again.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Invisible Hand, the Invisible Foot

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber drew a line connecting Calvinism and Capitalism, arguing that free-market ideology was much more likely to thrive in Protestant countries than in Roman Catholic ones.

I find it interesting that according to what has been called "The Protestant Work Ethic," the more financially successful a person is, the more we are supposed to believe that God has blessed him. "Look at how well-off Bill is! God must be blessing his business, for he sure seems to be doing something right."

Is it a mere coincidence that the two phenomena that share the metaphor of "The Invisible Hand" are Divine Providence and the Free Market?

Most Christians will acknowledge that God's Providence is outside the bounds of human control. Just as "the Spirit blows where he wishes," so "the Lord will have his way among the inhabitants of earth, and none can stay his hand or ask, 'What doest thou?'"

But is the Market equally "free"? Does it mysteriously bless whom it will, while passing by others with a sovereign aloofness and nonchalance?

I would question my Reformed Libertarian readers whether the giving of massive campaign contributions on the part of huge corporations in return for the ability to influence labor laws, thereby enabling companies to exploit workers, is an example of "free market principles," or whether it is the abuse of power for profit.

Further, I would question why a society that provides aid for the poor is labeled "a nanny state" while a culture that, through tax breaks and economic subsidies, allows its CEOs to make 400 times what their average workers earn is called a "democracy."

Could it be that the real question is not whether there should be welfare, but rather, who should get it?

Could it be that while the wealthy enjoy the invisible hand of the market, the poor feel nothing but its invisible foot?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Strict Subscription to the Constitution?

I argued in my last post that the Reformed penchant for limited government, particularly when appeal is made to Romans 13, seems to undermine the two-kingdoms position. For some, of course, this presents no problem whatsoever. But for many two-kingdoms proponents, libertarianism seems to follow as a matter of course. To these, I would ask why the civil and spiritual kingdoms aren't left distinct, but culture is forced to play its game within the confines of a cultic rulebook.

Some two-kingdoms libertarians, however, may respond that Romans 13 has nothing to do with their political persuasion that the government should be limited to a small handful of tasks such as punishing bad guys.

To these I would respond that the claim that Reformed Christians' desire for limited government is a-biblical certainly seems suspicious, given that the Good Book has a chapter in a pretty well-known epistle containing a limited list of functions for the "powers that be" to perform.

Moreover, If I had a nickel for every time Romans 13 was invoked in political discussion with fellow Reformed believers, I'd have a dollar, maybe even more.

Still, the appeal could be made not to the Bible but to the Constitution to substantiate a more limited government. "The Constitution," the argument goes, "only allows the government to do certain things. Going beyond these, therefore, is wrong."

Just as the limited government argument seems to apply the regulative principle of worship to the culture (thus disolving the distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms), so the argument from the limited warrant of the Constitution seems to apply the rules of strict confessional subscription to the documents that govern the State as well as the Church.

If we two-kingdoms folks are going to continue to boast in letting the Church be the Church, and the State the State, then whatever our political persuasions, let us justify them by an appeal to their own rules, and not to the rules of another kingdom altogether.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Regulative Principle of Culture?

The churches of the Reformation differ from their Lutheran, Anglican, and evangelical brethren in that they reject the claim that whatever the Bible does not prohibit in public worship is therefore permitted, but insist that whatever the Bible does not prescribe is therefore prohibited. In a word, God is not interested in our "strange fire" (just ask Nadab and Abihu).

The fact that there are two kingdoms, however, has led us to affirm the opposite with respect to the culture, namely, that what is not forbidden is (all things being equal) allowed.

Enter Ron Paul....

Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who is really a Libertarian in Republican dress, has become quite popular among many Reformed believers, particularly those with a strong two-kingdoms paradigm. The role of government, according to Christians sympathetic to libertarianism, is to be limited to those functions outlined in Romans 13:1-7 (to approve the good, to punish the evil, to bear the sword, and to collect taxes). Other functions such as public education, the postal service, and Social Security are to be turned over to the private sector since the federal government has no business meddling with these services.

Although two-kingdoms proponents rightly insist that the civil and spiritual powers remain in their respective God-ordained corners, it seems to me that limiting government the way Reformed libertarians do actually undermines the two-kingdoms position by forcing culture to play by a cultic rulebook.

If the sacred and secular realms are in fact distinct, and if the Reformed churches are correct in erecting a higher hurdle for what is permissible in the former sphere, then why must we limit the role of government exclusively to those few functions listed in Romans 13?

If culture must play by the church's rules as Christian libertarians insist, then why do you call yourself a two-kingdoms proponent? Or if the church may adopt the playbook of the culture as John Frame argues, then why do you call yourself Reformed?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Assurance Through Action

Because the soul is not only affected by the consideration of religious things, it must be remembered that the mere presence of affections does not prove the presence of true religion. Edwards listed various examples of affections which are neither proof of the presence of true religion nor proof of its absence.

Edwards argued that true religious affections arise only from those influences of the Spirit of God that are saving and not common. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s saving influences are not saving merely because they are to a high degree, but because they are of another kind. Therefore to have true assurance of salvation we must see to it that our affections arise from these influences of the Spirit that only true Christians can experience (for example, love for divine things for their inherent excellency, delight in the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things, &c.).

The supreme sign, according to Edwards, is seen when gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice:
"Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.... Holy practice is as much the end of all that God does about his saints, as fruit is the end of all the hubandman does about the growth of his field or vineyard."
My main critique of Edwards is that his entire schema gives rise to questions that simply did not seem to occur to Calvin, or more importantly, to Paul (questions like, "How do I know I believe?"). In fact, in my days as an Edwardsian I even began to wonder how Paul could make everything seem so simple.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Edwardsian Anthropology

"The affections," writes Jonathan Edwards, "are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”

Edwards taught that God has endued the soul with two faculties; the first is that by which the soul perceives, discerns, and views things (the understanding), and the second is that by which the soul does not merely perceive things, but is in some way inclined with respect to the things it perceives, either to them, or disinclined from them (the will / heart).

This second exercise of the soul happens in varying degrees:
"It is to be noted that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty that are called affections."
Furthermore, these affections, though they take place in the soul, inevitably effect the body:
"Such seems to be our nature, and such are the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the will or inclination of the soul without some effect on the body."
What is interesting to me about Edwards's formulations is that they arose in the context of a two-fold battle that he was fighting against the Awakening's enemies on the one hand, and against its friends on the other (and the case could be made that he was harder on the latter).

To those "enthusiasts" who understood any vigorous display of emotion as evidence of the Spirit's work, Edwards countered that while most emotion is merely common and not spiritual, true and genuine emotion must be the result of some fact, outside of us, that is grasped by the mind. In other words, gaining a fresh understanding of the sufferings of Christ or the eternal hope of the saint not only must precede genuine affection, but must produce it as a matter of course.

It sounds similar to the argument I was making some weeks back that the eschatological always precedes the existential, the historia salutis grounds the ordo salutis, and that "psalms of rememberance" lead to "psalms of trust."

Sure, Edwards gets kooky later in the book, but you have to admit that he does seem to be on to something here....

Monday, November 19, 2007

Jonathan Edwards and the Religious Affections

I entered Westminster Seminary California a pretty devout Edwardsian, and yet as I spent most of the summer of 2002 doing preparatory research for a directed study project with Dr. D.G. Hart on Edwards's versus Calvin's view of assurance (the paper was titled What Hath Geneva to do with Northampton?), my sympathies shifted from the eighteenth- to the sixteenth century, and from Massachusetts to Switzerland.

At present, the main thing I have in common with Jonathan Edwards is that I hate wasting paper....

Still, I have always appreciated his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Well, let me clarify that. That last part, you know, the part about how we can only know that we're true believers because we love God for his inherent excellencies, and not because of the benefits we derive from him? Not a huge fan of that part.

But his thesis at the beginning of the book is that true religion largely consists in the realm of the affections, which he defines as "the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul." In other words, an "affection" for Edwards is not saying "OK" when you are asked, "Would you like fries with that?" Rather, an affection occurs when the soul responds vigorously to information received (Think fainting upon learning you've won the lottery).

According to Edwards, things like love for God, hatred of sin, and hope in the fulfillment of divine promises are all affections, and he therefore argues that "as there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection."

I plan to interact with Edwards's treatise over the next few posts, but if you have some preliminary thoughts (and I know you do), let's hear 'em....

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Whipping-Boys and Collective Growth

"Revivals," insists John Williamson Nevin,
"... are as old as the gospel itself. Special effusions of the Spirit the Church has a right to expect in every age, in proportion as she is found faithful to God's covenant; and where such effusions take place, an extraordinary use of the ordinary means of grace will appear, as a matter of course" (The Anxious Bench, 15-16).
I have observed on several occasions the propensity of Reformed believers to define ourselves negatively, over against what we reject rather than according to what we actually affirm. The subtle perception is that we need a foil or whipping boy in order to figure out who we are.

"You instruct the members of your congregation to kneel during the confession of sin and raise their hands while singing the Gloria Patri? But Catholics and charismatics do those things!"

I can't help but wonder whether we do the same thing with revival.

Yeah, I get it: Finney was a bad guy and contemporary evangelicalism is obsessed with the Gnostic and novel over the tried and true. But if the highest of high churchmen, a man who lived to see the effects of revivalism first hand, was still willing to boldly lay claim to the phenomenon of revival despite its being highjacked by fanatics, then maybe we don't need to be so afraid of it.

Think about it this way: What is growth in the Christian life but increasing in faith, love, and various other graces through the proper use of the means Jesus has appointed for these ends? Well, is it not possible for growth to happen in a church in the same way it does for an individual believer?

And what do you call that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Antirevivalist Revival?

High churchman and general enemy of all things revivalistic John Williamson Nevin writes:
"It is a most unfair view of the system of the Catechism to think of it or speak of it as unfriendly to all special and extraordinary forms of action in the work of the gospel. The system, it is true, makes more account of the regular, the ordinary, and the general than it does of the occasional and the special....

"The extraordinary in this case, however, is found to stand in the ordinary, and grows forth from it without violence, so as to bear the same character of natural and free power. It is not the water-spout, but the fruitful, plentiful shower, causing the fields to sing, and the trees of the wood to clap their hands for joy. Such is the concept of a Revival.

"For such special showers of grace, it is the privilege of the Church to hope, and her duty to pray, at all times. To call into question the reality or the desirableness of them, is a monstrous skepticism, that may be said to border on the sin of infidelity itself.

"[Revivals] are the natural product of the proper life of the Church. Wherever the system of the Catechism is rightly understood, and faithfully applied, it may be expected to generate revivals in this form" (The Anxious Bench, 72-73, emphasis original).
I agree with the comments under the previous post to the effect that the term "revival" conjures up all sort of nasty images from unfettered emotionalism in general to barking in the Spirit in particular.

But such images would have been suggested even more strongly to people's minds in Nevin's day, and yet he refused to surrender the term, or to allow the phenomenon to be highjacked by well-meaning but fanatical revivalists.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Revive Us Again, O Lord

Iain Murray has described the phenomenon of revial as
"... an outpouring of the Holy Spirit... resulting in a new degree of life in the churches and a widespread movement of grace among the unconverted. It is an extraordinary communication of the Spirit of God, a superabundance of the Spirit’s operations, an enlargement of his manifest power."
A simpler way of puting it would be that a revival is an extraordinary degree of blessing upon the ordinary means of grace.

In his book Revival and Revivalism, Murray argues that a categorical distinction must be made between the revivals of the Great Awakening (c. 1735-1742) and the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1820-1830s). The leaders of the former - men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield - were staunch Calvinists, while the latter was led by none other than the outspoken Pelagian Charles Grandison Finney.

Critics of Murray argue that, while the theology of the first Great Awakening was undoubtedly preferable to that of the second, the seeds of excess and anti-ecclesiastical fanaticism were sown long before Finney rode into town.

So what do you think? Is Murray's thesis legitimate? Does revival, despite its abuses, have a genuine place in Reformed ecclesiology?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Doctor is In

Appeal has been made to Calvin's "four-office view" to legitimize theological innovation in our churches. "Is there not a place for 'doctors of the church,'" we are asked, "whose job is to labor in the Word, but from the study and not from the pulpit?" Furthermore, it has been urged in this connection that to the trailblazer should go the benefit of the doubt. In other words, if a man is sincerely seeking to further the theological or exegetical conversation, then back off and give him some space.

Some thoughts, if I may....

First, Paul does list "pastors" and "teachers" as abiding New Testament officers given to the church by the ascended Christ. Though many attempt to combine these two into one office using Granville Sharp's canon, the fact is that this Greek rule only applies to singular nouns joined by kai, and poimenas and didaskalous are both plural. It is possible, therefore, that Paul is arguing that there is a teaching office in the church distinct from that of pastor (and to those holding the traditional three-office view, this would not apply to those whom we call "ruling elders").

Secondly, the case could be made that seminary professors fill just such an office. They are ordained ministers of the Word, and yet they do not shepherd a particular flock, but are called by their respective presbyteries or classes to minister in the context of the academy.

Thirdly (building on my second point), these "doctors of the church" are called by their ecclesiastical communions to do what they do, they do not appoint themselves for the task.

Fourthly, "doctors of the church" who are called by their governing bodies to do theology must actually be trained in theology. If you are scratching your head wondering why I feel the need to mention something so obvious, just forget I brought it up and move on....

Given these qualifications, I think that a church's calling gifted and trained men to further our various biblical/theological discussions could be a healthy way to maintain our confessional identity without sticking our collective heads in the sand.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Semper Deformanda?

The ease with which we often throw around the supposed trademark slogan of the Reformation, "Semper Reformanda" ("Always Reforming") invites a couple questions:

What is the origin of this phrase? Who uttered it first, and where?

I don't know the answer, so I'm honestly asking. What I do know, however, is that those who quote the mantra thus are quoting it wrongly. The full phrase is "Reformata, Semper Reformanda," which means "Reformed, Always Reforming." So whether or not this slogan deserves its near-canonical status, it at least deserves to be quoted in full to say that before a church can be always reforming, it needs to first be Reformed.

There are a couple different reasons, it seems, why people quote this slogan. Some are carefully and skillfully advancing the Reformed discussion with fresh exegetical and systematic insight (Michael Horton's four-volume project comes to mind, as does the work of men like Vos, Ridderbos, Kline, and Moo).

Others, however, conveniently omit the first part of the slogan in what appears to be an effort to undermine whatever confessional content and theological identity the Reformed churches once enjoyed.

So if you think you might be a theological trailblazer, but aren't sure which of these two categories you fall into, a good way to gauge your situation is to ask yourself if your views have gained a hearing among the godly and wise men of the church. If the brethren to whom you've vowed to submit recognize in your work the advancement of the biblical and confessional conversation, then, as the Kiwis in my family would say, good on ya.

If, on the other hand, you've failed to gain even a marginal following among the various luminaries of the Reformed world, then it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

I think it was Samuel Miller who remarked that those who decry creeds and confessions are usually those whose views are condemned by them. The question of the hour, therefore, is which will it be, Semper Reformanda or Semper Deformanda?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

On Narrow Confessions and Broad Catholicity

It has been suggested in the comments under the previous post that our Federal Visionist brethren, since they borrow from a host of different traditions, are the least individualist and schmismatic people in the entire Reformed world.

But if early twentieth-century liberalism and late twentieth-century evangelicalism (or "evangeliberalism" for those of you who like combining stuff) have taught us anything, it is that having a "least-common denominator" approach to church is a bad idea, for if the prize goes to the folks with the most catholicity and fewest distinctives, then we can always find more fat to trim off to win it.

I'll see your total depravity and raise you the deity of Christ....

For my own part, I'd rather enjoy a spiritual, grassroots unity with all believers, while maintaining institutional and churchly unity with those who hold to the confessions of my church. And as for those who deny the gospel, well, I don't feel the need to have any unity with them at all (at least not in the kingdom of Christ, but if they want to sit down and talk about the Kobe/Shaq Lakers or when U2's last great album was released, I'll buy the ale).

But if we exalt the intangible and noncorporeal kind of unity to the exclusion of the unity that is embodied in actual traditions (you know, the kind with borders that define who they are), then whatever else we may call ourselves, we will have to add "Gnostic" to the top of the list.

So yes, like our "postmodern" emergent friends, the fellas in the Federal Vision camp love to pick and choose from various Christian traditions and weave it all into an interesting cloth. But like all those throughout modernity, the filter through which these various elements must pass is still the autonomous individual.

Maybe the biblicist apple doesn't fall far from the Kartesian tree after all....

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Watch Your Language!

The first time I ever spoke to a Jehovah's Witness I came away thinking, "OK, I know we're supposed to think they're a cult and all, but what's wrong with them, exactly?" I mean, they used all the right words, like "grace" and "Jesus" and "salvation," but they meant something completely different by them than I did.

One of the most challenging aspects of dialoguing with our friends in the Federal Vision camp is evident at this very point. So much preliminary work has to be done defining terms like "faith," "imputation," and "justification" that often the dialogue never really gets off the ground, and when it does, there's lots of talking past one another.

And calm down, I'm not comparing Federal Visionists to Jehovah's Witnesses (are Jay-Dubs even allowed to have beards?)

It is at this very point that the crucial and rarely appreciated distinction between "Tradition 1" and "Tradition 0" comes into play. If I have vowed allegiance to a particular confessional tradition, then I am bound, in some sense, to play that tradition's language game. So this may mean that I agree to emply confessional terminology, even if that terminology does not arise directly from the Bible, in order to avoid causing confusion and disruption in Christ's church.

So if the Bible teaches that the elect are savingly and inseparably united with Jesus, but that reprobates may also experience something similar for a time, I'll use one term for one and another term for the other. Or, if Scripture teaches that I am justified solely on the basis of Christ's work which is imputed to me by faith alone, but that I will also stand before God on the last day to receive according to what I have done in the body, then I am not going to use the term "justification" to speak of the latter.

If there's a better example of "American individualistic Bible only-ism" than gleefully throwing off the shackles of the church for the sake of trying out the nomenclature I learned during my own private devotions, I've yet to hear it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Deadbeat Dads and Latch-Key Kids (Or, Why We Need the Church)

"No one can have God for his Father," Cyprian insisted, "who does not have the Church as his mother." To our own Gnostic sensibilities, this statement is offensive and extreme. Sure, American evangelicals are all about healthy, two-parent families, but this only applies to the cultural type, not the cultic antitype. In other words, we're conservatives in the culture wars, but when it comes to the worship wars, we're ecclesiatical versions of Jeanine Gerofalo.

But while "tsk-tsk"ing those poor, inner-city (read: black) types for supposedly spawning scores latch-key kids, have we unwittingly made God out to be the greatest deadbeat Dad of all time?

The harsh reality, folks, is that Jesus is not here. Well, let me rephrase that: Jesus is no longer locally present with us, he has ascended to his Father's right hand in glory. This means that we don't get to refer to him as "the One we have seen with our eyes, whom we have touched with our hands" (I John 1:1).

Not that we no longer hear him or truly commune with him, we certainly do. But we do so in a mediated, not immediate, way through the ministry of his church. When your minister faithfully expounds God's Word, that is Jesus talking. When he declares the forgiveness of your sins, that is Jesus forgiving you. When he administers the bread and cup, that is Jesus feeding you his own body and blood. The keys of the kingdom have been entrusted to the officers of Christ's church for the holy purpose of opening, shutting, binding, and loosing (Matt. 16:19).

If Cyprian was right when he said that extra ecclesiam nulla salus est (outside the church there is no salvation), then despite our attempts at a Gnostic shortcut, we simply cannot have the Head without the Body.

After all, is it not a tad ironic for physical decapitation to be condemned by a group of spiritual Jack the Rippers?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

American Trinitarianism: Me, Myself, and I

In The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison argues that the "Radical Reformers" (i.e., the Anabaptists) went well beyond the position of the magisterial reformers regarding Scripture. The view of the latter – "Tradition 1" – was that the Bible is the only source of infallible revelation, that it is to be interpreted in and by the church, and that this must be done in a way consistent with the regula fidei (the oral tradition preached by the apostles before its enscripturization).

The Anabaptist view, which has been dubbed "Tradition 0" and is virtually identical to the contemporary evangelical notion of Solo Scriptura, insists not only that the Bible is the sole source of infallible authority, but that it is the only source of authority altogether.

If this view is correct, some pretty insurmountable problems arise. First, if the Bible alone is authoritative, then how do we define "the Bible"? Nowhere within the sixty-six books of Scripture is there a table of contents saying, "Now the inspired books are...." Solo Scriptura, therefore, may be able to assert that the Bible alone has authority, but it requires an extra-biblical declaration by a non-authoritative body (the church) to determine which books comprise "the Bible."

Another problem with the idea that Scripture is the sole source of authority (inspired or otherwise) is that without the general consensus of the early church, codified in the ecumenical creeds, there is no way to determine what the core of Christianity really is. Without the regula fidei functioning as our hermeneutical context and guardian of our exegesis, it is impossible to know what does or does not contitute heresy. If all we have is a Sacred Magisterium of One (me), then Mormonism's falsehood is only a matter of opinion, and the insistence that Jesus is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father is no more or less true than his being the brother of Lucifer who died on a pole.

(As an aside, if you think I'm embellishing for the sake of rhetorical effect, click here.)

Maybe Cyprian was right, and God doesn't raise latch-key kids. If you want God for your Father, you must also have the church as your mother, for extra ecclesiam nulla salus est.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Scripture and the Church: The Dual-Source Theory of Infallible Authority

I debated whether or not I wanted to devote an entire post to what Mathison, echoing Oberman, calls "Tradition 2," and in the interest of fairness I decided to go ahead and do it. Plus, there is something attractive about this position if you think about it long enough.

Mathison argues that in the first few centuries of church history one finds no hint of a two-source theory of inspired revelation. With Augustine and Basil, however, the idea that church tradition is co-equal with Scripture is first broached, and though it is debatable whether these men actually held to a dual-source theory, they would eventually be claimed by Rome as the initial proponents of what became official church dogma at Trent - the ex cathedra declarations of the Roman Catholic Church are, along with Scripture, infallible and authoritative.

If only....

I wish it were this easy. If Jesus had left behind an inspired and infallible individual, office, or institution that could just tell us exactly and perfectly what the Bible says concerning every possible issue, then we could all stop fighting, we could all attain visible unity, and we could all hold hands and sing "It's a Small World After All."

Maybe it's just me, but if the way most Catholics and evangelicals frame the debate were actually correct, and our only two options were Tradition 2 or hyper-individualism, I'd bypass Wheaton for Rome in a heartbeat.

The weaknesses of this position are easy enough to list, but what are its strengths?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Word, the Church, and the Regula Fidei

"For the first three centuries," Keith Mathison argues in his The Shape of Sola Scriptura, "we find a general consensus regarding authority." This consensus was that the Scriptures of the Old Testament, together with those of the New once they were compiled, were understood to be the sole source of inspired revelation.

"The Scripture," he continues,
"... was to be interpreted by the Church and in the Church within the context of the regula fidei.... The Church was the interpreter and guardian of the Word of God, and the regula fidei was a summary of the apostolic preaching and the hermeneutical context of the Word of God. But only Scripture was the Word of God."
As an example of the regula fidei ("rule of faith") Mathison lists the Apostles' Creed. Thus, while such a creed is not inspired or infallible, it does hold a derivative, secondary authority which allows it to function as a hermeneutical boundary-marker. So when an individual or a church interprets the Bible in such a way that contradicts the apostolic tradition (regula fidei), that interpretation should be viewed with suspicion.

This view has been dubbed "Tradition 1."

What are some strengths or potential pitfalls of this position?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Scripture and Tradition

I've been reading Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura (published, ironically, by Canon Press in Moscow). Although some of these these issues have been briefly touched on already, I want to revisit the discussion, especially in the light of the recent debate over at De Regno Christi concerning the relation of Scripture to tradition.

Building upon Heiko Oberman's paradigm, Mathison breaks down the issue of the Bible's relationship to tradition into three views that have been held throughout church history. The view of the early church was that the sole source of inspired revelation is the Bible, which must be interpreted in and by the church according to the apostolic witness, or regula fidei. This view has been creatively dubbed "Tradition 1," and was held virtually without exception throughout the first fourteen centuries of church history.

At Trent, Rome officially codified as dogma the view that the oral tradition of the church is on par with Scripture as a source of inspired revelation. This view is called (you guessed it) "Tradition 2."

The "Radical Reformers," or Anabaptists, took the view that all extra-biblical sources were not only lacking in authority, but were positively unhelpful and even dangerous, for they inevitably impede the voice of the Spirit as he instructs the individual during his own private Bible reading. This position Mathison, echoing Oberman, calls "Tradition 0."

The problem, as Mathison sees it, is that the radical view of the Anabaptists has all but highjacked Protestantism and has falsely claimed the mantle of Sola Scriptura. Rather than being seen as fighting two distinct battles, the Reformers are incorrectly thought to have advocated the staunch individualism that has come to characterize the evangelicalism of our own day.

I hope to look at these issues in more detail in the next few posts, so stay tuned, and comment away....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part VII

This is the last segment of Egypt's Unworthiness, enjoy....

“Eschatology Precedes Soteriology”

Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos famously stated that “eschatology precedes soteriology.” What he meant by this was that man’s desire for eternal life was resident within him even before his need to be saved from his sin. The implications of this insight are legion, but what is especially germane to our discussion is how this relates to the idea, so common in the context of modern evangelism, that before a person can be expected to repent and trust in Christ he must be convinced of his dissatisfaction with life as he presently knows it.

Many of us have encountered what I refer to as the “Jesus Is Better Than Drugs” method of evangelism. Aside from the fact that, if what is being compared here is the feeling one derives from Jesus on the one hand and drugs on the other, this statement is probably false, this approach also fails the test of eschatology. If Vos is correct, then the need that we often feel to invalidate all earthly pleasure in order to make Jesus appear the most pleasing option is wrongheaded to begin with.

All people—even the ones with nice houses and expensive cars—are equally plagued with a longing to escape the fleeting and temporal confines of this age. This is not due to their worldly happiness being a farce, which allows us to concede the point rather than secretly wishing we could slash their tires in order to prepare them to hear about “the happiness that only Jesus can give.” Rather, the angst that all people inwardly experience is due to their being created for eternity and hardwired for frustration with anything less. In fact, the apostle Paul even extends this sense of longing past the human heart into the very universe itself.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Rom. 8:20-22).
Our two malcontents, therefore, were not alone in their shared sense of burden. Even with the pleasures of the world’s most powerful kingdom at their beck and call, Joseph and Moses had a faith that penetrated the here and now and glimpsed the One who has entered the age to come as a “forerunner” for all who take up crosses and follow (Heb. 6:20). What the cosmos knows, and what the saints of Hebrews 11 understood, is precisely what many believers in our own day forget: It is the height of vanity to identify our lasting treasure with the stuff of earth. Our heavenly pedigree is set aside when we, like “that profane man Esau” (Heb. 12:16), forfeit our noble birthright because we are charmed by the trifles of time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part VI

Egypt’s True Alternative

Returning to Joseph’s and Moses’ refusal to identify their true treasure with the wealth of Egypt, we must ask ourselves what the alternative was. At first glance, of course, it looks like these men forfeited Egypt for Canaan, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” But Egypt’s boast of being the greatest kingdom in the ancient world would have been pretty empty if “milk and honey” were not among its bounty of delicacies. Moses would not have abandoned his royal status in Egypt in order to traverse a harsh wilderness to a land that promised nothing beyond what was already at his disposal, would he?

No, Moses was more than a national reformer and patriot, and his hope lay not a piece of real estate, no matter how lush and well-watered. Like the patriarchs before him, Moses “looked to the reward,” to “a homeland,” a “heavenly country” whose surpassing splendor made the pomp and pleasure of the kingdoms of this fleeting age appear as mere trifles in comparison (Heb. 11:26, 14, 16). Paul wrote to the Corinthians that those whose hope is in this life only “are of all people most to be pitied” (I Cor. 15:19). Moses was a lot of things, but pitiful was not one of them.

This is the point of Hebrews 11—a point often missed by much of what passes as “evangelism” in the contemporary church. For example, we often hear that if we give our hearts to Jesus we will experience love, joy, peace, and immediate fulfillment. The harsh reality, however, is that the Bible makes no such promise. In fact, evangelist and author Ray Comfort has often quipped that Christianity promises four things: trial, tribulation, persecution, and everlasting life. Moses did not give up earthly misery for earthly joy, he gave up earthly joy for earthly misery. Why would he do this? Because his faith provided him with “an assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). In other words, the only reason anyone would trade present comfort for present pain is because both of these are just that—present and passing, and will soon give way to a joy that is eternal, and that transcends the successes or failures of this age.

While it is true that the earthly lot of many believers does not necessarily improve the moment they look to Jesus, this is not the point. In verses 33-38 of Hebrews 11 we read:

[These saints] through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Notice how the writer moves seamlessly from his description of those whose faith resulted in their conquering kingdoms and stopping the mouths of lions to those whose faith resulted in their being imprisoned or sawn in two. The point of presenting so stark a contrast with such seeming indifference is stated smack dab in the middle of this section—neither the triumphs associated with the victorious saints of verses 33-35, nor the defeats of those described in verses 36-39, are “worthy” of drawing their subjects’ attention away from the enduring blessing that comes from “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part V

The Pointlessness of Piety

The Preacher’s sphere of reference—life “under the sun”—does not even offer meaning in spirituality, religion, or the search for God. Paul told the Romans that the study of nature (all things under the sun) is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient deity, but his conclusion is far from comforting. There is an almost palpable lack of joy in the closing words of Ecclesiastes:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:13-14).
Though the Enlightenment promised us a god we could discover through unaided reason, the deity we found was anything but a comfort to those wrestling with the vanity of their own existence. This deus nudus – or “naked god” – as he has been called, seems more like an it than a who, a piece of celestial machinery that allows 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Malcolm in the Middle, and countless other atrocities. Though the god we uncover by the efforts of our own rational deduction may inspire awe or fear, he certainly doesn’t make a very good case for why we should love or trust him. This God, the apostle explained to the Romans, does not save anyone, for the Book of Nature reveals a naked God of law, of justice, and of seeming indifference to human pain (1:18ff).

The existence of an x, a First Cause, or an Unmoved Mover who is more like “the Force” than like a Father may cause men and women to begrudgingly assent to his existence with their heads, but they will never trust him with their hearts. This generic deity does not invite trust in the truth but suppression of it, for the observation of brute facts and the “invisible hand” of Providence indicates that he cares no more for the good guys than for the bad or the ugly. Kreeft points out that “innocent little bunny rabbits and human babies do not fare well against predatory coyotes or leukemia…. The good die young, and the better you are, the more likely it is that you will be martyred.” It is for this reason that Solomon offered this advice:

Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time? (Ecc. 7:16-17).
Nature’s God appears as an absentee landlord, an insignificant Other who may be there, but who is certainly not here. A god who, like “the Truth” in The X-Files, is “out there” is far from being “a present help in time of trouble” (Psa. 46:1). And even if he is out there, he appears to be too indifferent to listen, too holy to help, too transcendent to touch, and too vengeful to invoke. This also is vanity.

The “time-ishness” of time, therefore, serves to rob even the most noble of earth’s pursuits of any ultimate value, for the bigger the barns we build to store our bounty, or the more abundant our moral bank account appears, the more damning will be the “Thou fool!” that we will hear from God’s lips on that final Day (Luke 12:16-21; Matt. 7:21-23).

Thanks Anyway, But I'll Take My Best Life Later

I plan to return to the topic of Egypt's Unworthiness shortly, but before I do I must point out that if anyone missed Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes, you missed a rather chilling experience indeed.

If Joel Osteen is a gospel preacher, then I am not one. If the gospel message is that God can be manipulated in order to secure for myself the things I want, then I reject the gospel. And conversely, if the message of the Reformation is in fact the biblical message, then Joel Osteen is a false prophet whose promise of "Peace! Peace!" when there is no peace is a farce at best, and damnable heresy at worst.

When a non-believing interviewer rebukes you for excluding the message of the cross from your gospel message and for saying nothing that can't be heard on Oprah or Dr. Phil, you know you're doing something seriously wrong.

And what confuses me to no end is when people in confessional Reformed churches express, even subtly, a sense of envy toward broad evangelicalism. Perhaps those who grew up in Reformation churches have seen the ugly side of Calvinistic elitism, but for this former megachurch evangelical, I take offense when the truths I actually had to pay a price to embrace are hocked, like Esau's birthright, for a bowl of my best life now.

Thanks very much, but I'll stick with a cross, an empty tomb, and some good old wine for these trusty old wineskins.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part IV

The Pointlessness of Philanthropy

If serving oneself is vain and fruitless, what about serving others? Surely it is in philanthropy—love toward our fellow man—that ultimate meaning and purpose are to be found. But Solomon tried this as well, turning from self-gratification through the pursuit of wisdom, pleasure, and power to the benefiting of others.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
But this, too, was to no avail. The reason is simple enough: if the pursuit of pleasure yielded vanity and void, what good is there in sharing these findings with others? A man may sincerely desire to bless his blind neighbor by offering to lead him by the hand, but if he himself is also blind, his efforts will yield no fruit (Luke 6:39). Kreeft writes, “How can the gift of vanity be any more than vain? … Once I find the summum bonum, it must be shared, yes, but I cannot share it before I find it.” Multiply zero by any other number, no matter how high, and the result will still be the same.

Another reason why altruism is pointless in the world of Ecclesiastes is that it is not only the one who seeks the good of others who is ignorant of the meaning of life, but so are those whom he seeks to help. “What good is it to hand down the mite of wisdom that I have attained if posterity is as foolish as I am?”

Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).
The good works we perform for our fellow man, therefore, are not only filthy rags in God’s sight because of his surpassing holiness (Isa. 64:6; Tit. 3:5), but considered on their own merits, they are not even helpful or worthwhile in any ultimately meaningful sense.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part III

The Vanity of Time

As odd as it may sound, it is precisely man’s identity as a malcontent that makes him unique among God’s creatures. As Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft has pointed out, fish do not complain that their natural environment is too wet, nor do birds inwardly resent the breeziness of the air. But we humans share a collective sense of frustration with the intolerable ticking of the clock. As the wizard Gandalf mutters when setting out on a pressing errand in the film The Two Towers, “For three-hundred lives of men have I walked this earth, and now, I have no time.”

Perhaps you have been haunted by the inexplicable feeling that your very environment, the only environment you have ever known (namely time), is foreign. Could time, the very stuff of life and building block of society that greets us every morning with the buzzing of the alarm clock, and then pushes us through each day, actually be an enemy? As bizarre as it sounds, I suggest that it is, and as the Preacher argues in the book of Ecclesiastes, this enemy adversely affects all of our toil under the sun. In a word, time renders all of man’s earthly pursuits utterly pointless. Let us consider, then, time’s effect on three of man’s greatest quests for meaning in life: pleasure, philanthropy, and piety.

The Pointlessness of Pleasure

In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 we read:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
The vicious cycle described here engenders the frustrated cry, “What profit does the worker have in his toil?” (v. 9). Being born and then dying, sowing and then reaping all argue for the vanity and futility of existence under the sun. It would seem to follow then—and millions would concur—that the only reasonable response is rank hedonism: “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (Ecc. 8:15, cf. Luke. 12:19). But is this answer valid?

At first glance it would seem so, for pleasure is one of those goals whose attainment is close at hand, exciting, and easy to obtain (it is almost the exact opposite of wisdom in this respect). In fact, Peter Kreeft has remarked that “wisdom is a mountaintop; pleasure is a plain. Wisdom is mysterious; pleasure is plain. Wisdom is a walking stick; pleasure is a plane.” In other words, of all man’s pursuits it is pleasure that offers the most immediate gratification.

How, then, could Solomon decry pleasure and insist that it contributes to man’s “vexation of spirit”? He had it all: He had wine, houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, fruit trees, pools, male and female slaves, singers, 700 wives, 300 concubines, herds, flocks, silver, and gold (Ecc. 2:1-11). And yet Solomon learned what all serious hedonists eventually learn: “Behold, all is vanity, and chasing after wind. Nothing was gained under the sun” (v. 11). As is nearly always the case, pleasure becomes need, fun becomes addiction, excitement becomes boring (a word, Kreeft argues, to which no ancient culture had any equivalent). Few today realize this, for the poor still hope that riches and pleasure will bring meaning. But the rich know better, for they alone have tried and failed. All the immediate gratification under the sun will be stolen away over the course of time.


Stay tuned....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part II

The Temporal and the Eternal

Thankfully, we need not burden ourselves with divining or decoding the reason for Joseph's and Moses' desire to abandon Pharaoh's land, for the text of Hebrews 11 spells out very clearly their reasons for refusing to give Egypt their allegiance, despite all it had done for them. What is only hinted at in Joseph’s mention of “the exodus of the Israelites” is made explicit in Moses’ own refusal to own Egypt as his true homeland: The “pleasures” of Pharaoh’s land were “fleeting,” and its “wealth” and “treasure,” though impressive to be sure, could not hold a candle to the “reproach of Christ” and the “affliction” suffered by the people of God. Because Moses “endured as seeing him who is invisible,” all the enticements of earth’s most powerful kingdom could not sufficiently capture his heart or affections, or distract him from “looking to the reward,” the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vv. 25-27, 10).

The real issue, then, was not whether Egypt was a place of comfort or oppression, or whether its pleasures were necessarily sinful (some undoubtedly were, while others most likely were not). The issue, according to the text, concerned not Egypt’s goodness or badness, but its worthiness of these saints’ devotion. Speaking of all the saints of Hebrews 11, verse 38 sums up the problem with a beautiful succinctness: “Of [these saints] the world was not worthy.”

The “unworthiness” of Egypt in particular, and of this present age in general, is defined throughout the New Testament in terms of their fleeting, passing, and temporal nature. Paul argues that the sufferings that characterize life in this world “are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us,” and that the “slight momentary afflictions” we face here and now only serve to prepare us for “an eternal weight of glory beyond all compar-ison” (Rom. 8:18; II Cor. 4:17). His own life and ministry bear this out. Upon his final departure from Ephesus to Jerusalem, where he would face immediate imprisonment and eventual martyrdom, Paul confidently assured his flock, “But none of these things move me, nor do I count my life dear unto myself” (Acts 20:24, KJV). It was utter folly for Paul—as for Joseph and Moses—to choose earthly comfort, which is fading, over eternal blessedness, which never ends. For two of these saints, however, this choice did not only mean the loss of present pleasure but the gaining of present persecution.

But given the fact that eternal concerns always trump temporal ones, the choice was obvious.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Egypt's Unworthiness, Part I

I plan to steer clear of FV-related issues for the time being, and since I've been somewhat uninspired of late, I'll offer (in bite-sized pieces) a rough draft of something I've been working on. As always, comments, and crticism are welcome.


Anyone who has seen Fox’s hit TV show 24 understands the concept of racing against the clock. The program revolves around the central character of Jack Bauer, an edgy and daring member of CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) who is constantly seeking to avert some new catastrophe or threat to our national security. What makes 24 unique—and gives it its title—is the fact that each full season takes place over the course of a single day in Jack’s life, with each of its 24 episodes occurring in one hour of “real time.” When a bomb is set to go off in 15 minutes, therefore, it will actually go off in 15 minutes (that is, of course, unless Agent Bauer can disarm it in time). Needless to say, each one-hour episode of 24 effectively shaves two hours off of the viewer’s life due to the stressfulness of the situations portrayed and the panic that ensues every Monday night from 9-10pm. In a word, time is a constant enemy, for there is never enough of it.

A Tale of Two Malcontents

But Jack Bauer isn’t the only one who would scoff at the title of The Rolling Stones’ song “Time Is On My Side.” In Hebrews 11 we encounter two others whose estimation of all things temporal was less than glowing. In verse 22 we read: "By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones."

This cryptic passage is referring to the account in Genesis 50:24-25 in which Joseph, the son of Jacob, said to his brothers: “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

At first glance it does not seem at all strange that Joseph wanted to escape Egypt, even if that escape were postmortem. After all, wasn’t Egypt a horrible place which Scripture everywhere describes as a “land of slavery” and a “house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2)?

Not for Joseph it wasn’t. We must remember that Egypt did not become a place of hardship and oppression for Israel until after he died, when “a pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). During Joseph’s own tenure there, Egypt was a place of bounty and salvation amid the famine that plagued the surrounding region, and Joseph’s status was that of being second only to Pharaoh himself in power, stature, and the respect of the masses. Whatever it was that caused Joseph to long for another land, it was certainly not Egypt’s difficulty or discomfort.

Another saint with similar misgivings about Egypt was Moses, whose experience of Egypt, like Joseph’s, was a far cry from that which characterized the Israelite slaves. He was an adopted son in the royal family of Pharaoh himself, and according to Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7:21-22, “Pharaoh’s daughter adopted [Moses] and brought him up as her own son. And [he] was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” Yet Moses’ pedigree notwithstanding, Scripture says of him:
… when he was grown up, [he] refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God…. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt… he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king… (Heb. 11:24-27).
What was it, then, that brought both Joseph and Moses to come to despise the land that symbolized such protection, pleasure, and power?


More to come....

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Federal Vision Report and the Pacific Northwest Presbytery

The following letter was submitted to the Pacific Northwest Presbytery yesterday:

Dear members of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery,

As you know, the PCA’s 35th General Assembly adopted the Ad Interim Study Committee’s Report on the theology of the Federal Vision, the third recommendation of which reads:

“That the General Assembly recommend the declarations in this report as a faithful exposition of the Westminster Standards, and further reminds those ruling and teaching elders whose views are out of accord with our Standards of their obligation to make known to their courts any differences in their views.”
In compliance with the report’s recommendation, TE Peter Leithart posted a public letter to the Stated Clerk of this presbytery, saying:

“… following the GA’s vote on the Federal Vision study committee yesterday… I am happy to discuss [my views] further with the Presbytery, and will also cheerfully submit to any decision the Presbytery might make concerning my fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder. I have tried to be clear and precise, but no doubt I've failed at various points, and I am happy to provide clarification.”
In the light of the report’s recommendation that those whose views may be deemed questionable inform their respective presbyteries (which TE Leithart has done), and in the light of the report’s further recommendation to those presbyteries to exercise care and discernment in seeking to preserve the purity and peace of the church, TE Peter Leithart and TE Jason Stellman jointly request that a committee consisting of three ministers and two elders be appointed to examine this matter further.


Jason Stellman

Peter Leithart

After some discussion, debate, and two substitute motions being voted down, this motion passed. The study committee consists of Rob Rayburn, James Bordwine, and me (three ruling elders will also serve). We are due to report back in January. Prayers for all involved will be appreciated.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Spirit, Flesh, and Christian Schizophrenia

The locus classicus of the flesh/Spirit battle is found in Galatians 5:17ff. Before anything is positively said about this passage, we must beware of interpreting this text in the light of our individual experience. Our existential concurrence with the "struggle" we perceive in this verse notwithstanding, it is exegesis, not experience, that must guide our hermeneutics. Gordon Fee writes:
"The flesh-Spirit contrast in Paul never appears in a context in which the issue has to do with 'how to live the Christian life'; rather, it appears in this case in an argument with those who have entered into the new eschatological life of the Spirit, but who are being seduced to return to the old aeon, to live on the basis of Torah observance, which for Paul is finally but another form of life 'according to the flesh' (cf. Gal. 3:3; 5:17-18; Phil. 3:3-6)."
In this semi-eschatological context in which Torah has expired and is no longer operative, Paul argues, the "law of the Spirit of life" is sufficient for holy living. "Flesh" versus "Spirit," therefore, do not refer to an internal/external or spirit/matter dualism, but an eschatological dualism between this age and that which is to come. Michael Horton writes:

"It becomes clear that this two-age model is concerned not with two worlds or realms, but with two ages, one inferior to the other not for any necessary or ontological reasons but for situational and ethical ones.... To be 'in the Spirit' is not to be ontologically spiritual as opposed to physical, but to be 'in Christ' rather than 'in Adam,' to belong 'to the age to come' rather than to 'this present evil age,' to be 'children of the resurrection' of whom Jesus Christ is the 'firstfruits.' The age of the Spirit is not contrasted with that of the flesh, says Ridderbos, 'first and foremost as an individual experience… but as the new way of existence which became present time with the coming of Christ.... This being in the Spirit is not a mystical, but an eschatological, redemptive-historical, category.'"
The crux of Paul’s flesh/Spirit contrast, therefore, is not that there exists within the individual believer an unceasing battle between his good and bad natures (rendering him somewhat of a spiritual schizophrenic), but that the believer, who is pneumatikos (spiritual), is called to live according to his spiritual identity and heavenly citizenship. This is new covenant sanctification, and is given the apostolic designation of "walk[ing] by the Spirit, and [not gratifying] the desires of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

On the Ordo- and Historia Salutis

I've noticed that, for some reason, I am more careful and nuanced with my formulations in the "comments" section than I am in my posts proper. For this reason, I want to clarify something.

In the Christian life, the existential and individual experience of the faith is rooted in the eschatological realities of that faith. To put it differently, redemption applied to me (ordo salutis) stems from redemption accomplished outside of me (historia salutis).

So the redemptive-historical shift from worship according to "the old way of the letter" to worship according to "the new way of the Spirit" accounts for the experiential differences between the saint of Romans 7 and the saint of Romans 8. Moreover, the horizontal movement from the old age to the dawning of the new is the background for Paul's dichotomy between the flesh and the Spirit in Galatians 5.

In fact, I am arguing in my current series of sermons on the psalms that it is the psalms of remembrance (like 136) that inevitably lead to psalms of confidence (like 91). So knowing that God "brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" leads the psalmist to say that "he who dwells in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty." The historia salutis grounds the ordo salutis, and redemption accomplished always leads to redemption applied.

This is all fine in theory, but it gets tricky when new indicatives make their entrance into the story (like, say, the resurrection of Christ and subsequent gift of the Spirit). When we ignore the ongoing development of God's redemptive plan, we are not only in danger of losing the contours of the biblical landscape, we are also susceptible to an under-realized eschatology that cannot but affect our daily Christian living.

What I'm saying is that both street maps (systematic theology) and topographical maps (biblical theology) are important. We can probably get by with one or the other, but we lose much more than we gain by such neglect.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Law and the Flesh

According to Paul, the plight of the "wretched man" (Rom. 7:14-25) is said to be coterminous with his living "in the flesh" and serving God "according to the old way of the letter" (7:5-6). Just to make sure you didn't miss that, I'll say it another way: For Paul, living "in the flesh" is connected with life "under the law."

Apparently the NIV is wrong, and being "in the flesh" is not simply acting according to our "sinful natures." Or, just as "under the law" is redemptive-historical rather than existential, so is "in the flesh."

The Hebrew word baśar (flesh) refers to the flesh of bodies (Gen. 2:21, 23). By extension it came to connote humanity, and more specifically, human frailty (Gen. 6:12; Ps. 78:39).

The Pauline appearances of "flesh" (sarx), however, rarely denote flesh in its physical form, but usually carry the extended notion of humanity (hence his use of "Israel" or "Abraham" "according to the flesh," meaning according to human genealogy, I Cor. 10:18; Rom. 4:1). Where Paul’s employment of the flesh/Spirit motif is unique, however, is in its eschatological formulation. For Paul, the work of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Spirit signaled the entrance into this age of the life and dynamic of the age to come. The primary element of heaven is the Spirit, whose proper domain is in glory. Hence the apostle's most commonly used description of holy living as walking "according to the Spirit," or, according to the coming eschatological age. In contrast to this is life lived "according to the flesh," i.e. existence that is in accordance with this present evil age that is passing away. Thus Paul’s use of "flesh" is unique in that it highlights the progression from denoting anthropological creatureliness (humanity) to theological creatureliness (sinful humanity), and finally to eschatological existence (life in keeping with this age).

This means that neither Romans 7:14-25 nor Galatians 5:16-26 are describing a struggle between the "good" and "bad" sides of our personalities. Don't get me wrong, a struggle is surely involved in both passages. The former, however, is between nomos (law) and ego (I), while the latter is between sarx (flesh) and pneuma (Spirit).

And both are eschatological rather than existential.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Law: Sin's Subtle Accomplice

Paul says in I Corinthians 15:56 that "the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law." His point, it seems, is that indwelling sin has an accomplice that aids its progress and furthers its agenda. This is why Paul could say in Romans 7:5 that "our sinful passions were aroused by the law" when we were living "in the flesh."

What is it about the law that brings about such seemingly counter-productive results?

For those who insist upon reading Paul's statements about law and grace in purely existential terms (i.e., "under the law" means a state of condemnation, "under grace" means a state of justification), the only way to make sense of Paul's negative statements about the law is to assume that he must be talking not about law as such, but about a Pharisaic legalism that distorts the law into a means to earn God's blessings (see how the NIV renders Phil. 3:6, for example).

But if we say, rightly, that "under the law" and "under grace" in Romans 6:14 mean under the jurisdiction of the Old- and New Covenants respectively, then we must conclude that there was something about the former that engendered bondage in its subjects.

What was it about the Old Covenant that led to the dominion of sin?

I think the only answer that makes sense is the law's works principle ("Do this and live"). As long as Israel was serving God according to the "old way of the letter" (Rom. 7:6), they were "no different than slaves," for while they were heirs to God's blessings, they were eschatologically immature and juvenile (Gal. 3:23 - 4:7). The Mosaic law, then, functioned as a "babysitter" to keeps close tabs on God's people until they reached maturity.

What, then, signals the saints' graduation from adolescence to adulthood?

If comparing Romans 7 and 8 gives us any indication, I'd say the answer is the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Was Paul a Carnal Christian?

Countless hours and gallons of ink have been spent discussing the "wretched man" of Romans 7:14-25, the debate often centering on whether Paul is describing a regenerate or an unregenerate man.

The answer is no.

Before we get to my position, though, I will address the more popular view, namely, that Paul is speaking of himself and his own battle with the flesh.

If Paul is describing his own personal experience in Romans 7:14ff, this creates a serious contradiction between his statements in 6:14, 7:14, and 8:7. According to this position, the apostle's conversion (his individual shift from being "under the law" to being "under grace") resulted in "sin… not hav[ing] dominion over [him]." But at the same time that Paul was allegedly free from sin's dominion (6:14) he was "sold as a slave to sin" (7:14). In other words, Paul’s so-called autobiographical account in 7:14ff is a perfect description of the condition that his so-called conversion in 6:14 is supposed to have precluded.

Furthermore, when we compare 7:14 and 8:7, the "autobiographical view" would force us to say that Paul's description of himself as "carnal" in 7:14 demands that he is therefore "hostile to God" and "not in submission to God’s law" (8:7). But this description appears inconsistent with his "delight[ing] in the law of God according to the inward man" spoken of in 7:22. These inconsistencies force us to reject the view that the "wretched man" of Romans 7 describes the normal condition of the believer.

Still, there is obviously some difference between the liberated saint in Romans 6:14 and the shackled man of Romans 7:14-25. What accounts for this contrast? Is the former a "victorious Christian" who has received the second blessing of the Spirit while the latter remains a "carnal Christian"? Is the so-called "saint" of Romans 7 even a Christian at all?

I would argue that answer is found, not surprisingly, in the text itself. The contrast is drawn in 7:6 between the person who serves God according to the old way of the letter (i.e., under the [Mosaic] law), and the person who serves God according to the new way of the Spirit (i.e., under grace [of Christ]). The distinction, then, is redemptive-historical rather than existential in nature (though the latter results from the former). The Old Covenant, therefore, produces bondage, condemnation, and death (as Paul argues in II Cor. 3).

This means that when we recognize ourselves in the carnal man of Romans 7, labelling this type of sanctification the result of "a theology of the cross" as Lutheran theologians are wont to do, we are stopping short of espousing the semi-realized eschatology of the New Covenant.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Law, Grace, and the Dominion of Sin

I have been arguing that the New Covenant gift of the Holy Spirit has concrete ramifications for the believer's sanctification, for the heavenly promise, of which the Spirit is the down payment, is no longer merely a part of the "not yet" of future hope, but in some measure participates in the "already" of our present experience.

Consider Romans 6:14 ("For sin shall no longer have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace"). The traditional approach to this passage has been to interpret the categories "under the law" and "under grace" existentially, as denoting our pre- and post-conversion situation.

Some problems arise from this view. First, "law" in Paul usually refers not to an abstract a-historical principle, but to the law of Moses in particular. In fact, his other uses of "under the law" (hypo nomon) leave us no other option. When Paul spoke to those Galatians who desired to be "under the law," was he talking to people who longed to be under the condemnation of the law? When for the sake of the Jews Paul became as one "under the law," does this mean he became as one condemned by the general principle of law? When Jesus is said to have been born "under the law," does it mean that he was born under the condemnation of the law? Of course not. "Under the law" means under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic covenant.

Secondly, if "under the law" and "under grace" are existential categories describing one's being either condemned or justified, then Paul's argument is a non-sequitur. Justification does not free a person from the power of sin, it frees him from the guilt of sin.

But if Paul's categories of "under the law" and "under grace" are redemptive-historical rather than existential in nature, then it makes perfect sense that the person living under the jurisdiction of the New Covenant would be less susceptible to the dominion of sin that the Old Covenant saint. After all, we have been indwelt by the Spirit of the risen Christ, whose law sets us free from the law of sin and death.

But don't take my word for it. Paul goes on to give us two vivid examples of what life "under the law" and "under grace" look like.

Just read Romans 7 and 8.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

An Ascending Son, a Descending Spirit

If what I have argued is true, and the cross and glory are not antithetical but organically related (the former being the means to the latter), where does that leave us today? Are believers under the New Covenant no closer to glory than those saints who lived on the other side of the cross, under the shadow of Sinai?

In order to answer this question we must remember that the cross was followed by an empty tomb three days later. The resurrection and ascension of Christ play an enormous role in our own sanctification, for it was these events in redemptive history that were the occasion of the Holy Spirit's descent upon the gathered church at Pentecost. Though Jesus prophesied at the feast of Tabernacles of providing "living water," "the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:39).

If the Holy Spirit is the "Spirit of glory" whose proper domain is heaven (I Pet. 4:14), and if this "Comforter" was sent by the now-ascended Christ as a down payment of the future (John 16:7; Eph. 1:13-14), then it follows that the saint on this side of the cross and empty tomb enjoys a fuller measure of his heavenly inheritance than was possible under the law.

To put it differently, the experience of the saint who "draws near" to God according to the "new and living way" that Christ has instituted is characterized by a lot more "already," and a lot less "not yet," than that of his Old Covenant counterparts. That's why it's called "semi-realized eschatology."

After all, we love to yell at the Catholics because their crucifixes all have a dead Jesus on them. But as Protestants, does our boast in an empty cross have ramifications for sanctfication, or only for church décor?