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?

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Cross and Glory: Friends or Foes?

This may seem poorly-timed in the light of my "Baby Steps to Holiness" post, but I've been doing some thinking about Luther's cross/glory antithesis (and what his followers have done with it), and I can't help but wonder whether the German reformer's pitting of the "theology of the cross" against the "theology of glory" betrays an under-realized eschatology.

The organic connection between the cross and glory that we find in the New Testament demonstrates that glory itself is not necessarily negative (for if it were, Satan's offering Christ the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, would have been meaningless), nor is the cross necessarily positive (after all, it is the cruelest form of execution ever devised). Rather, the cross is only good when it leads to glory, and conversely, glory is only bad when it circumvents the cross and shirks the suffering that it represents.

This is the point that the risen Lord was surely making when he asked his disciples, "Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:26). It is the very assurance of glory, therefore, that caused the Savior to set his face "like a flint" toward Jerusalem (Isa. 50:7; cf. Luke 9:51), and it is this same assurance of glory that causes his servants (who are not greater than their Master) to bear their crosses as well.

In a word, the cross is only half the story. Were it not for the "power of the resurrection" that results from the "fellowship of his sufferings" the people of God would be, of all men, the most pitiful. (Phil. 3:10; I Cor. 15:19). But we need not pity ourselves, nor must we accept the pity of the citizens of this age, for Peter insists that "the sufferings of Christ," by means of the resurrection, have inaugurated "the glories to follow" (I Pet. 1:11).

I would suggest that, in order to better integrate christology and pneumatology, we should label the New Covenant's semi-realized eschatology the "theology of the Spirit."

More to come....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Our Opinions Do Not Matter

Our discussion of the two kingdoms has turned, as it must, to the nature and bounds of ecclesiastical authority. I am reminded of the scene in The Big Lebowski in which the main character, The Dude, is told by a fellow bowler that he and his partner are going to be badly beaten in an upcoming bowling tournament. He responds, "Yeah? Well, you know... that's just like, uh, your opinion, man." A true sage indeed....

The Westminster Confession states that:
"The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (i.10).
Later on it adds:
"It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience.... All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times... may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth..." (xxxi.2-4).
When it comes to a church member seeking counsel, the session or pastor may "ministerially determine cases of conscience" using only what is found in Scripture, or what can be deduced from it by "good and necessary consequence." The church's authority, therefore, is only declarative and never legislative. We don't make up laws, we only repeat them.

And if you think about it, such a distinction between civil and ecclesiastical pronouncements is precisely what preserves the church's authority. If the church weighs in on this and rants about that, her voice will become a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." In a word, no one pays attention to the boy who constanly cries "Wolf," even if there really is one.

This necessarily means that the minister or session must, at times, hold their tongue when their wisdom is sought. Whether the issue is a church member wanting to join the military, block the entrance to an abortion clinic, or is simply seeking some sound career counsel, the temptation to think ourselves jacks-of-all-trades must be resisted.

The Church, it has been said, has no opinions, only declarations.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Is God Libertarian, Green, or Somewhere In Between?

In my post entitled "Eschatology Precedes... Pretty Much Everything" I raised the question of whether political activism would be more prominent in a transformational church, or in a church holding to a two kingdoms paradigm.

My guess is that most readers assume that my own position is that transformationists are more likely to be politically involved than 2K folks. I'm not so sure, though....

When the universal Lordship of Chirst over "every square inch" of the universe is (mis)used as an excuse to collapse the various spheres of his sovereignty (effectively forcing upon the Church the responsibility to transform every facet of culture from the arts to plumbing), politics becomes a lot more daunting than it would be if those spheres were properly recognized.

Think about it: If we jettison common grace (and common sense along with it) and convince ourselves that the Bible is our only source of economic and politcal wisdom, then any view that we adopt about anything, if it is to be considered a valid option for Christians to hold, must necessarily be the divinely-sanctioned position. Every political debate, then, will be over whether the Bible's vision is Libertarian, Green, or somewhere in between.

But if we are content to let the Bible be determinative only for those issues that it actually addresses in detail (like, say, the gospel), then the believer will be free to allow his conscience, study, and overall experience of the world to play a role in the forming of his own political opinions and involvement (or lack thereof).

Ironically, then, it is when the church refuses the burden of fixing the world that her members can be freed to play a role in improving it. But beware, their cars may not all display identical bumper stickers in the months leading up to November '08.

But then, what does that have to do with Christian unity anyway?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Baby Steps to Holiness

My more "optimistic amillennial" (read: postmillennial) readers may never forgive me for this, but I must point out that if the doctrine of the two kingdoms necessarily tempers whatever triumphalistic expectations that we entertain for the success of the church in this present age, it cannot but do the same for the individual believer.

As I argued in my last post, the apparent failure of Jesus' mission, demonstrated by his shameful death on the cross, was actually the rather ironic means of his powerful conquest. Just as in his earthly ministry he tread upon the Sea of Galilee's stormy water of which his disciples were so afraid (Matt. 14:25), so, on a deeper level, his defeat at Calvary actually becomes the pathway to his ultimate victory. "Through death," the writer to the Hebrews says, "he destroyed him who had the power of death, the devil" (2:14). In a word, Jesus actually uses that which instills fear in his people as the means of alleviating their concerns.

This is precisely why Paul could point to something as uncharacteristic as his weakness to illustrate his great strength (II Cor. 12:10). Likewise, we can derive comfort from our apparent failures, knowing that the cross of Jesus Christ calls into question the defitnition of "success" that the citizens of this age entertain. As our "emergent" brethren love to point out, it is better to live on the verge of falling than to boast in a Pharisaical sense of security, especially when the latter engenders pride while the former forces us to smite our collective breasts in humble recognition of our need for divine grace.

The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of "our best works in this life" as being "all imperfect and defiled with sin," reminding us that "even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this [perfect obedience to God's commands]" (Q/A 62, 114).

My point, therefore, is that if one desires to cling to a "theology of the cross" over against a "theology of glory," adopting a two kingdoms paradigm is a good place to start.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Subverting Success, Transforming Transformationism

When one arrives at a robust appreciation of the differences between the civil and spiritual kingdoms, his understanding of a church's "success" will be, err, transformed. Conversely, when our expectations for our churches mirror those of common cultural institutions, we give ourselves a very clear measuring rod for determining how miserably we fail.

I mean, what other conclusion are we to reach when our stated aim is to change the world, and the world just isn't changing?

It seems to me that it is precisely here that the cross should play a central role in shaping our definition of success. If the New Testament pattern of "the sufferings of Christ and the glory to follow" is at all germane to the discussion, then we surely must conclude that such concepts as power and weakness, boasting and shame, wealth and poverty, and success and failure should be utterly subverted and turned on their heads by what happened on that cursed hill outside Jerusalem all those years ago.

But they're not.

Instead, we hear that we must worship God "with excellence," which is code for worldly professionalism. Instead, we hear that the communities in which we worship should be so overflowing with appreciation for our service that they would beg us never to leave them.

One must wonder where we'd be if Jesus had "succeeded"? Peter, bless his heart, tried to properly motivate him, but instead of heeding his advice Jesus just yelled at him and then called him "Satan."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Cultic Worship, Cultural Withdrawal, and the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms

The history of American Presbyterianism is largely a history of Sabbatarianism. "If you would destroy the Christian religion," Voltaire is quoted as saying, "you must first detsroy the Christian Sabbath."

The various attempts to protect and preserve the Lord's Day—from the forming of The General Union for the Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath in 1828 to the institution of "blue laws"—all serve to reinforce the sentiments of the 1814 petition from the Presbyterian General Assembly to Congress urging Sabbath observance based upon the claim that it "contributes to increase the amount of productive labour, to promote science, civilization, peace, social order, and correct morality." In the minds of American Presbyterians, as goes the Sabbath, so goes the nation.

Now for something completely different....

For nineteenth-century postmillennialists, a rationale for Sabbath observance that focused upon its benefit to America's health and vitality makes good sense. But what about those of us whose understanding of the Church's mission does not include cultural transformation? If going to church and eating home-cooked meals on Sunday is not connected to winning the War on Terror, then why bother?

As I've been arguing, one's eschatology informs all of his Christian life. In keeping with this, why must an amillennialist need to see corporate worship as a means to furthering the American Dream? Why can't our cultic worship and cultural withdrawal on the first day of every week serve to subvert, rather than supplement, the grand visions of the rulers of this age?

If the Church seeks to be truly different from the world, then perhaps observing the Lord's Day is the way to do it. As Michael Horton has written, "This sort of observance would proclaim to the world that we are not slaves in Egypt, for we refuse to surrender this day to the tyranny of the clock and to the gods who amuse us."

To those who seek to commandeer the Lord's Day for the purposes of the kingdom of man (even if they are good), we answer that the Sabbath is not for sale.