The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

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Some Response to Billy Graham’s Critics

I think the first time I ever was confronted with hyper-Calvinism was as a young child, it was while I was watching a Billy Graham crusade. I remember seeing men outside of the stadium where the crusade was being held holding sandwich boards with the words ‘free will’ written out within a circle with a line through it. They were protesting the idea that they believed Graham’s mode of evangelism was contingent upon; the idea that human beings have the capacity to say a deliberative yes or no to the offer of eternal life, the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This struck me as strange, even as a young child (I loved Jesus even then); I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to protest the idea that Jesus loves humanity and wants to have a personal and intimate relationship with them. I felt, as I saw that, a kind of oppression come over me; what now I might call the ‘spirit of anti-Christ.’

But did Billy’s proclamation of the Gospel message require the type of theology that these protesters were presuming? Even for the hyper-Calvinist they were required to ‘respond’ in faith to the offer of salvation in Christ. It’s as if these guys conflated the mechanics of salvation, the inner-workings and logic of salvation, with the prima facie offer of salvation; an offer that itself required no understanding of the theological anthropological categories, how election and reprobation might function, how God may or may not work through decrees and theories of causation to actualize salvation one way or the other, so on and so forth. Graham was committed, I would suggest, not to a depth dimension and articulation of the theology of salvation, instead he was committed to simply pointing people to Jesus. As I have highlighted in another post on Billy Graham and Karl Barth, there is certainly space to engage with the theology of Graham, and how that got expressed in his mode of evangelization, but it would be in error, I would argue, to critique the message that Graham was somehow able to get into the public just because there might have been some deeper theological misgivings going on in the in-formative area of his theology, respectively. I don’t think Graham was trying to do anything else, but point people to the door of God’s Kingdom in Christ; as you peruse his writings, and other venues of communication, you rarely get much deeper than the consistent message of Gospel proclamation that we heard over and again in his ‘crusades.’ As I recently wrote on my Facebook wall: “Theologically if we were to pick Billy apart I’m sure his method had some flaws. But ultimately what came through in Graham’s message is the same thing that Barth elevated so highly as indicated by his favorite painting the Isenheim Altarpiece and the bony finger of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus Christ. I see BG in his own day and way accomplishing the same sort of witness bearing.” This in a nutshell is, I think, the primary basis upon which we ought to think of Graham.

Now, one could argue that Graham, just like other Western missionaries, had an effect upon the culture of Christianity precisely because of his mode of presenting the Gospel through grand-scale ‘crusade’ venues. Indeed an Indian Christian has noted just this when he wrote this about Graham visiting his country years ago:

.[1]

But this seems over-wrought to me. I am not sure this offers anything more than an anecdotal account of Graham’s impact on India in general. Maybe Graham did have this sort of negative impact, but I think this would be despite Graham’s intentions. While Graham could contribute to the sort of superficial Christianity this Indian brother is suggesting that he did, I don’t really think Graham necessarily led to this result. In other words, not only did Graham provide an altar call in good revivalist fashion to those in his meetings and crusades, but in the follow up literature and counseling he always emphasized that people get involved in a good church where they could be discipled and built up in the faith of Christ. My guess is that thousands upon thousands of people did precisely that; indeed to the point that they might later feel compelled to critique Graham along the lines of this Indian brother. But this is to the point: Graham was simply a John the Baptist pointing with his bony finger to the One who has reconciled the world to God in Christ; how growth progressed from there was just as much of a function of God’s providence, as was the message delivered.

As I have noted, there is room to critique Graham’s theology, most likely; there is room to critique the possible impact he has had upon a generation of Christians and the way a theology of culture was debased, potentially, from there (and continues to be). But I don’t ultimately think this is the measure of Billy Graham. I see Graham, as just noted, as something like a John the Baptist with a singular message and focus; I think Graham maintained that course through his life over, and as such should be commended. Can we draw back and maybe critique the theopolitics that developed contemporary with Graham’s life span? Yes, I think so; but most likely at that point we will only be critiquing our own theologies, and our own irresponsibility’s as we attempt to negotiate with the socio-cultural moment we find ourselves ensconced within.

Billy, requiescant in pace; in pace Christi

 

[1] h/t. John Flett, Twitter. 

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Written by Bobby Grow

February 22, 2018 at 11:57 pm

The False Disjunction Between Being a Practical Christian and a Theological Christian: Come on Evangelical Church, Be Evangelical!

We’re all theologians. The question is whether or not we are going to be good or bad theologians. In other words as Christians we are adopted into the life of God through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; we find our very being as human in the human being that Jesus became for us. In this mediation of life, by virtue of this mediation, we as Christians are those who desire to know God; to be growing into the life we are hidden in in Christ’s (Col. 3.2-3). A theologian is someone who “studies God”; a theologian is another word for a disciple of Jesus Christ.

But most Christians, especially those in my sub-culture in the North American evangelical low churches, are not encouraged to think this way; indeed most of the pastors in this tradition are not encouraged to think this way while in seminary. This is a travesty that the evangelical church has created and now must live with; there is a way out. People, pastors can begin educating themselves, and in so doing the spillover will be to raise the bar for those they are responsible for as pastors. I am not entirely sure what pastors think they are doing in the ministry; what do they think their job is? Is it to facilitate fellowship, and birth growing disciples? I think so. But so often this is simply affirmed and asserted in the abstract. Personally I have had a great emptiness as an evangelical Christian; I have not been encouraged to learn to think theologically, or even to study the Bible with depth as an evangelical Christian in evangelical churches. Instead I have been impressed with the idea that the real stuff of pastoral/churchly ministry is to minister to the needs of people in the church in practical ways. But I have often wondered what in the world difference there is between this, and what we see taking place in the various profane charitable organizations we see doing the very same thing for people. I don’t see how evangelical churches, in the main, differentiate themselves from the world except for tagging their various church programs, and even their pulpit ministries, with Bible verses and Christianese sounding language. I rarely if ever see an principial basis for the ministry being done by evangelical churches; I rarely if ever see an principial Christ-centrism shaping and grounding the work of the local church; and I mean at a methodological/theological level. I see lots of pietism doing work of the ministry that it really cannot bear, since this sort of pietism is typically grounded in the energies and experiences of the people rather than grounded in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ.

I digress a bit, but not too much. There is a relationship between people not being encouraged to be theologians in all aspects of their lives, and the weakness present in the many so called evangelical churches in North America and elsewhere. On this note I wanted to quote Karl Barth on the importance of Christians understanding themselves to be theologians; being people who study God, and are growing in that knowledge in such a way that it extends in every sphere of life they inhabit. Barth writes:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta [sacraments are rightly administered]! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point! Again, how disastrously the church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite untheologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics! Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find no time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole Church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.[1]

Does this resonate with you; does it make sense to you?! What is the business of the church about, but to be pressing people to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ? Jesus and the Apostle Paul seemed to think that this would happen through the supplication of the giving of pastors and teachers of the church (Eph. 4; John 14–16). It is very hard for me to stomach church body life when that body life is not actively being nourished on the living reality of God in Jesus Christ. This living reality is borne witness to through the proper explication of Holy Scripture, which involves the work of Dogmatic theology; Dogmatic theology itself being the organic regulative work of the church to ensure it is constantly operating in a mode of what Thomas Torrance has called repentant thinking. In other words, the church is a learning church; if this is not the practical stuff of the church, then do-tell what kind of ministry will the church ever be involved in but of the pietist sort. Yes, we can have churches filled with people feeling good about themselves, feeling like they are involved in the ministry, but if they are not being challenged to grow into the grace and knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, if they are not being challenged to grown into the very being and identity of their life in Jesus Christ, then do-tell, what kind of practical ministry is being undertaken; what kind of discipleship is happening; what kind of Christian formation is taking place? Piety can only get us as far as the end of our noses, and then it breaks off into the incurvature of the self over and over again. Christians are theologians by definition, by their life in Christ; as such the church maybe ought to consider what this means and attempt ministry that is beyond its own resources.

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 73-4.

Written by Bobby Grow

February 3, 2018 at 9:58 pm

Responding to Paul Tripp’s Sweeping Generalization against Christian Theologians and Academics: The Theology of the Cross as Antidote

[Qualification: My response in this post has more to do with the sentiment that the Tripp quote ostensibly communicates; it is a sentiment that I know many of us have experienced in our own ecclesial settings. The quote from Tripp is contextless for me, so maybe he qualifies or develops it in such a way that it eludes my critique; I hope that is the case. So read my comments more in the direction of targeting the sentiment of the Tripp quote (and how it was used from where I lifted it) rather than Tripp himself; even though I do tend to attach things to Tripp, in my post, that would make it seem like I have an absolute context I’m working with in regard to the quote, I don’t.]

I wanted to quickly respond to a quote from Paul Tripp I just came across on Facebook; shared by someone I know. It has to do with what he perceives to be the false-faith of evangelical academics (I wonder what he would think of non-evangelical albeit Christian academic circles?). Tripp writes:

True biblical faith is always something we live. If our faith does not reshape our lives, it is not true faith. I’m afraid that is what faith looks like in evangelical academic circles. But real faith radically rearranges our lives. Three examples of how real faith in God transforms the way we live 1. Faith redirects and recaptures the worship of our hearts. (Cain) 2. Faith produces in us hearts of obedience.  (Enoch) 3. Faith causes us to submit to the calling of God. (Noah)True, living, biblical faith causes us to submit all three of these shaping influences to God.[1]

There are at least a few ways into engaging with what Tripp writes: 1) His critique can apply equally across the board with all Christians (not just academics); 2) his critique helps to create a culture, within the church, of an us versus them (i.e. the laity/pastors versus the academics among them); 3) his critique, theologically, is grounded on soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) assumptions that flow from an experimental predestinarian approach. I will address the first two in this post, and leave the third way of critique for another post; or maybe I’ll never get into that one at all (even though I have multitudes of posts here on the blog in a variety of ways and developments).

All Christians& “Us versus Them”

The reality is, is that all Christian people struggle with walking faithfully with God in Christ; not just Christian academics. That’s what God’s grace is all about; the reality that no matter what our personal dispositions and personalities lead us to, in our fallen bodies, that his grace (in Christ) enters into our lives and redeems them from the inside out. The struggle for people disposed towards intellectual ventures is that they will struggle with not boasting in knowledge; indeed many folks will fall prey to such boasting for a season of time, if not their whole life. Nevertheless, God’s mercy and grace prevails, not just for folks oriented in this way (an “intellectualist” direction), but for any Christian; and any disposition. For some people the struggle is more relationally oriented; in other words, many Christian people will assert that what genuine Christian faith looks like has everything (in an exclusive way) to do with establishing good nuclear family life, and having good Christian “fellowship” all of the time. But when such things are elevated what happens is that the experience, the “good” itself begins to push God out of the center and elevates the good of family life and human relationships above God; or at least it names such thing as “God” (Focus on the Family and James Dobson comes to mind). My point is, is that all people, no matter what predisposition they have (they might be good at business, at real estate, etc.), all Christian people, I should say, have their own temptations, and their own struggles. And some times, as noted, some of those struggles are with things that are actually “good”, just as intellectual endeavor can be; the problem arises when that good is taken captive by our own sinful hearts and turned into an idol rather than a means or instrument for bearing witness to the reality of God in Jesus Christ.

So Paul Tripp is wrong to single out evangelical academics in his discussion; he ought to discuss, in a responsible manner, the dangers present not only for academics, but for anyone who is a Christian. The battle is real, and the “enemy” will attempt to take us out no matter what our place is in this life; no matter what our career is; no matter what our family and relational life is. It’s not Christian academia that is inherently evil; it’s that it is inhabited by sinful (but redeemed) people; just as every other sphere in the Christian world is.

Concluding Remarks

My concern with comments like Tripp’s are that the laity, when they hear this, are led to believe that any Christian academic they come across forthwith (say in their church context or elsewhere) will be profiled and labeled with Tripp’s sweeping generalization in regard to evangelical Christian academics (in the theological sphere; I’m imagining that’s Tripp’s target in this). This will have multiples of negative consequences for the local church. I.e. it will keep Christian theologians from wanting to attend churches where the culture of the church is antagonistic towards Christian scholars; it will keep these churches from benefiting from the gifts and knowledge God has given such individuals precisely for the purposes of edifying the local church; it will keep people who are predisposed this way, either from cultivating who they are as God’s children, or it will completely push them away from the church allowing them to reenergize their intellectual predispositions maybe (and most negatively) for tearing down the church (there are plenty of atheist academics out there with precisely this background).

Because of all of this, and more, I think Tripp’s comments are very dangerous, and at the least sloppy; but in fact both. A teacher in the church (who himself has a doctorate) should not be disparaging whole groups of Christians in the church just to make oneself look more noble than they (i.e. like you have escaped the lures and dangers of being a Christian academic in a nobler way than the others you are referring to).

Is the danger that Tripp notes a real one? Yes. Martin Luther, the original Protestant Reformer called such a danger a theology of glory; his antidote was what he called a theology of the cross. I know plenty of Christian academics and theologians who have chosen to go the way of cross; of course, yes, I know (or know of) plenty of others who have chosen the way of glory; and I know others who are struggling somewhere in between on that continuum. But we shouldn’t engage in sweeping generalizations, as Tripp has, just to elevate our own status as a teacher in the church that belongs to Jesus. Hopefully you can see why I’m so concerned; enough to write a post about Tripp’s remarks. I know the sub-culture he’s speaking into, and it only reinforces the wherewithal of said sub-culture; a sub-culture that could use the rigor and thought provided for by genuine theologians of the cross, who love Jesus, and express that, in their own way, as deep thinking and researching Christian people—people I would contend that Jesus wants to gift the church with.

 

[1] Paul Tripp, source unknown. Accessed from friend’s Facebook status, 10-05-2017.

Written by Bobby Grow

October 5, 2017 at 3:26 pm

Revised Edition: What’s the Difference Between solo Scriptura and sola Scriptura? And Interpretive Tradition, I Have Mine What’s Yours?

In this post I am offering a revision, of sorts. I am going to consolidate two posts that I’ve had up in the last few days, into one; and in the process attempt to correct some things that I said about the movement ReThinking Hell (RH), and at the same time explain a distinction between what I mean when I speak of solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura. Once I’ve accomplished that I will briefly touch upon the type of interpretive-theological tradition I’m committed to as an Evangelical Calvinist.

To begin with, let me make a correction, let me not speak of RH in global terms; let’s think of them in more partitive ways when it comes to their hermeneutical approach vis-à-vis its doctrine of Scripture. As the founder of RH (Peter Grice) has been letting me know via email, their approach is more diffuse, made up of the tapestry of hermeneutical approaches that characterizes the panoply of evangelical theologians and exegetes. Okay, I’m willing, at this point to grant him that. Nevertheless, there are some prominent voices in their ranks, such as Preston Sprinkle and Chris Date who forward what we might call, and what I am calling, the solo Scriptura approach. In light of that we will take a look at an emphasis that Sprinkle believes is valuable about the approach that RH takes to the Bible. He writes in endorsement of ReThinking Hell:

Hell is a crucial topic, especially for Evangelicals. And it needs to be revisited. For too many years—thousands, actually—believers have thought about Hell with closed Bibles. It’s time to reopen them. It’s time to think biblically, not confessionally or traditionally, about this misunderstood and debated doctrine. Rethinking Hell is doing the church a great service by stirring discussion and forcing us to read what the Bible says about Hell.[1]

If I were going to provide my own definition of what constitutes a solo Scriptura (or nuda Scriptura) approach I couldn’t be more precise than what Sprinkle offers. It is placing the Bible and its teaching in competition with confessionalism and church tradition; it is to buy into the enlightenment idea that we can read the Bible without the received understanding and permutations of the church in the history of the interpretation; that we can read the Bible without informing theologies “tainting” our exegetical conclusions. This, I contend, is the mood offered by a movement like ReThinking Hell (or at least by some of its most prominent voices); and they advertise it straightaway by lifting that type of spirit up through using Sprinkle’s endorsement of them as a place to go for undercutting the traditions (at least the tradition on hell) and confessions of the church by abstracting the Bible from its theological and intellectual context. Let me clarify, before we get ahead of ourselves; I’m not saying that contending with the tradition is bad, as we work it into dialogue with the scriptural witness, instead I am challenging the idea that we can or should read the Bible in an abstract way that is removed from the reality of its reception in the church’s history and the theology that that reception has produced. I am contending that solo Scriptura people, even if they claim otherwise, per enlightenment constraints, believe we can read the Bible “nakedly” (de nuda).

In contrast to this, sola Scriptura understands that it is not possible or advisable to read the Bible theology-less; and that the tradition of the church is an important aspect of engaging with the text of Scripture at an exegetical level. Angus Paddison offers some good words here, let’s listen in:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes that if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture . . . [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of the words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scan regard for the long and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of so-called “historical-critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’ [sic]. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

In the quote I emboldened: “often mutates into biblical scholarship alone.” This is the warp and woof of what constitutes a solo Scriptura versus sola Scriptura approach, as Paddison so helpfully develops for us as he engages with Calvin. And this, I contend, is exactly the type of approach that funds the work that ReThinking Hell is engaged in (or at least the work that is being done by some of its most prominent members); the Sprinkle quote suffices to illustrate this in spades. As I’ve listened further to some of RH’s spokesman in debate (Chris Date in particular), he goes out of his way to make sure that all he wants to know is how Scripture speaks of hell. What he means is what the solo Scriptura approach will produce for him. It is rooted, as Paddison helps us see, in the enlightenment project that seeks to move the church away from the church, ironically, as it reads Holy Scripture. This is the way of a naked modernity penetrating the church in such a way that it ends up distorting Scripture’s witness to Christ rather than enhancing it.

I believe ReThinking Hell’s approach (at least some of its more prominent voices) is less than desirable when it comes to engaging with Scripture. I don’t think the solo Scriptura approach is grounded in a rich Christology, nor do I think it thinks about Scripture’s place ontologically as that is embedded in a Christian Dogmatic way of thinking (as described by John Webster so well in his little book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). Do I think this is a problem that characterizes some of ReThinking Hell’s members alone? No. It’s a problem that the evangelical church at large is ensconced within; some of RH’s members simply reflect the evangelical culture they are part of.

What is My Interpretive Tradition?

As is clear for anyone who has read here for any amount of time this section is wasted on you; you know where I’m coming from. For matters of full disclosure, and anyone who happens upon this post who doesn’t know, let me make it exceedingly clear who informs my approach and why. My approach is largely funded by Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance.

I believe Karl Barth has done a revolutionary thing in regard to the categories and motifs he has offered the church. Yes, Barth might be a single man, but his reworking of election/predestination (as he inherited some of that from a French school of thought), and his style of Christ concentration is nothing more than an interpretive tradition in and  of itself; as explanatory and weighty as what we get from Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Athanasius, Augustine et al. So why would I attempt to do theological-exegesis from outside of a theological tradition that I think provides the greatest explanatory power when we come to consider some very basic realities as we get into engaging with the inner-logic of the text of scripture? Indeed, this isn’t just true for me, it’s just as true for those who claim to “just be reading the Bible;” this is the irony of the solo Scriptura approach, or at least of an approach that believes it can read the Bible without theology necessarily informing their exegetical conclusions. It is inevitable and inescapable that we all bring theological preunderstandings to the text (and I contend this can be a good thing if its good theology). The hermeneutic and interpretive tradition I work from is Barthian, Torrancean (Thomas Torrance), and one that attempts to resourcefully and constructively receive from the whole of church tradition; albeit through the broader framework I have already noted.

Conclusion

I don’t think the basis of ReThinking Hell’s approach, in general, really appreciates the role that interpretive tradition plays for them in coming to their own conclusions about hell. They can’t just read the Bible and come to those conclusions, there are too many other things going on. So my question to them is what do they think represents their theological tradition; what is their hermeneutical framework being funded by? Do they think this framework has anything to do with their exegetical conclusions, or do they believe that their exegetical conclusions have purely funded their subsequent development on a theology of hell? I am positive (because I’ve heard him say this over and over again now) that Christ Date, of ReThinking Hell, believes that biblical exegesis comes prior to and indeed supplies the furniture of any developing theological framework post exegesis. This is why I say some prominent voices at ReThinking Hell are solo Scriptura thinkers, because they absolutely are. Yet the irony remains, even solo Scriptura proponents have informing theological frameworks funding their exegetical conclusions, even when it comes to their theology of hell; it’s just that they haven’t been self-critical enough to admit that, nor transparent enough for others to recognize what that is. So it’s left to outsiders to attempt to identify what that is for them, and let others know what in fact is informing their approach; theologically. If for no other reason but that we are transparent about how we are approaching Scripture. That’s an important fact to know when we are looking to others to teach us what the Bible says.

 

[1] Preston Sprinkle, ReThinking Hell Endorsements, accessed 09-23-17. [emboldening mine]

[2] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 66-7. [emboldening mine]

 

Written by Bobby Grow

September 25, 2017 at 2:30 am

Chalcedonian Logic and the Diminished Christology of The Nashville Statement

When we separate the work of Jesus Christ from his person, or vice versa we will necessarily end up with not only a deflated expression of the Gospel, but also attendant with that, a weakened sense of ethics and holiness. It is the Chalcedonian logic to keep these two realities inseparably related—the person and work of Jesus Christ—while not failing to continually recognize that there is a distinction between the human and divine natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I just conflated two different things, but they too are related; I conflated a discussion about the two-natures/one person reality that Chalcedon sought to provide orthodox grammar for, with the idea that we should never separate the person and work and the work and person of Jesus Christ one from the other. The reason the conflation is present, I think, is by design. It’s the realization by the early church Fathers that any statement about God become man was one with deeply grounded soteriological impact. George Hunsinger, as he develops the Chalcedon logic, interacting with a pithy and elegant statement by George Herbert notes this:

“In Christ two natures met to be thy cure.” When George Herbert wrote these words, he captured the essence of Chalcedonian Christology, with all its strange complexity and simplicity, in a single elegant line. It is sometimes overlooked that the interest behind Chalcedonian Christology has always been largely soteriological. Herbert’s line, however, makes the point very well. It is the saving work of Christ—to be thy cure—which serves as the guiding intention behind the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, just as the definition of his person (following Herbert) — in Christ two natures met — serves as the crucial premise of Christ’s saving work. Change the definition of Christ’s person — make him less than fully God and fully human at the same time — and the saving cure Christ offers changes drastically as well. In other words, just as it makes no sense to have a high view of Christ’s person without an equally high view of his work, so a high view of Christ’s work — in particular, his saving death — cannot be sustained without a suitably high view of his person. The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work.[1]

Hunsinger in a following footnote comments further on the relationship between the person and work of Christ, and how, if diminished in any way, one from the other or vice versa, that diminishes one side of the equation or the other. Here, in particular, Hunsinger is offering elaboration in the last sentence we just read from him above:

This latter sentence, by the way, states a basic rule of all Christology, although as applied here it sheds light on a particular type, namely, the Chalcedonian. In any Christology, at least when internally coherent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: if w, then p; and if p, then w. Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ’s person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high conception of Christ’s saving work that Chalcedonian Christology is meant to sustain. Only a high Christology can state without equivocation, for example, that Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If Christ’s saving work consists in no more than his functioning as a spiritual teacher, a moral example, a symbol of religious experience, or even a unique bearer and transmitter of the Holy Spirit, a high or Chalcedonian view of Christ’s person is logically unnecessary. As modernist Christologies typically evidence (though not always forthrightly), such a saving figure need only be “fully human” without also being “fully God.”[2]

Application

This discussion can be taken in a variety of ways, but I want to take it towards ethics; I actually prefer a discussion on holiness, but ethics is a related loci (at least for the Christian). I simply want to state that: insofar as Christians talk about what it means to be holy before God, and more generally how that works out in a theory of ethics, that this should never be done in abstraction from the person of Jesus Christ. I think this is a symptom of a faulty theological endeavor; i.e. to somehow think the church  could ever talk about holiness without in the same breath tying that concretely into Christology. Without the person of Jesus Christ there is no work of salvation, and without the work of salvation there is no way for Christians to participate in and from the holiness of God; and without that participation there is no way to develop a Christian ethic.

I am really trying to get past the Nashville Statement, but I think this is another reason I really really dislike it so much. It actually reflects a way of thinking that thinks about things in abstraction from Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance would say that this is because of what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy,’ or a dualistic way of conceiving of God’s person and work in Jesus Christ. I see a lack of the Chalcedonian pattern and logic funding evangelical statements like the Nashville Statement, and maybe this all flows from my years and years long critique of evangelical and classical Reformed theology in general; indeed, I’m sure it does flow from this.

To attempt to speak about being holy before God is not possible without first speaking about the person and work of God in Jesus Christ. The picture is too flat, and Christologically speaking, too adoptionistic when Christians attempt to make statements about being holy (no matter what that entails: i.e. human sexuality, race issues, age issues, socio-economic issues etc.). If we sever, even in our speech, the work of Christ from the person of Christ, on the Chalcedonian logic we inevitably diminish the person of Christ. It’s interesting that many of those, or at least some of the more prominent signers of the Nashville Statement endorse the heretical view of the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. I wonder if there is a tacit relationship between that, and the diminished Christology we see functioning in statements like the one from Nashville?

I clearly have more work to do in regard to tying many of the loose ends I’m leaving us with together, but such is a blog post. I am seriously going to make this the last post I write on the Nashville Statement.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 131.

[2] Ibid., 131-2 n.2.

*I stole the picture of the Chinese Jesus from Paul Metzger’s usage of it in his post.

Written by Bobby Grow

September 2, 2017 at 6:31 pm

The Vancouver Statement as an Alternative to The Nashville Statement

Preamble.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” –II Corinthians 5:17

Evangelical Christians in the beginning of the 21st century find themselves betwixt a world that is now and not now; a world that is in-between the first and second advents of Christ. In this period of radical upheaval, in the collision of cultures and societies, there is confusion about what it means to be human. Some look to male and female as definitive for exegeting what it means to be human before God, and yet others attempt to chart a more radical course. As such it is important for the Christian, and non-Christian alike, to know just exactly where to look for what it means to be human before the God who has Self-revealed and exegeted himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It would only add to the confusion to ask people to look at other people as the matrix through which we might discern what genuine humanity is, and so as confessional Christians we know of another way; another canon through which true humanity might be discerned.

The following articles are an attempt to point people, Christians and non-Christians alike, to the only One who really knows what it means to be human; the One who created and recreated humanity in his image, in the image of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, so that humanity might find its proper orientation within God’s good and holy purposes. This statement will point all people, in the church and outside, to the reality of what it means to be human before God; we will appeal to what has been called a doctrine of the primacy of Christ. It is the primacy of this life, of God’s humanity, as it were, wherein humans can find a concrete expression of what it really means to be human both for now and for time to come, for all eternity.

This Statement, The Vancouver Statement*, is a statement in response to the so called Nashville Statement. The signatory of The Vancouver Statement believes that The Nashville Statement has an improper emphasis, and speaks too abstractly in regard to what it actually means to be human before God. It mistakenly focuses on gender distinctions, and then leads with a series of not only affirmations, but denials in regard to what it means to be human, both male and female before God. Because of the imbalance in the Nashville Statement, meaning its lack of clarity in regard to grounding a discussion of what it means to be human, whether that be male or female, in the ground and grammar of all reality, the Triunity of God’s life, and in an from the primacy of Christ’s vicarious humanity, the signatory of The Vancouver Statement felt compelled to offer an alternative account; to offer another emphasis that he believes foregrounds the discussion about human sexuality on better footing.

Article 1.

I affirm that based on who God is as Triune love—meaning eternally: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that he has graciously and freely elected in Christ to be for all of humanity in and from his vicarious humanity for us. It is from this relationship in the hypostatic union of God and humanity, in Christ, that holy matrimony finds its reality; i.e. the marriage of God and humanity, in and with Christ. Human marriage is holy, because it finds its essential reality in and from its reality as it bears witness to the ultimate marriage of God and humanity in the dearly beloved Son.

Article 2.

I affirm that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity for God, and fidelity for God; but only as that is possible in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; only because Jesus is God’s fidelity for us.

Article 3.

I affirm that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, as images of the image [who is Christ, cf. Col. 1:15], equal in their being coram Deo. Their dignity as humans, in their twoness, comes as it is grounded first and foremost in the threeness and oneness of God’s life; their twoness makes sense, and has order because of its participation in the multiplicity of God’s life.

Article 4.

I affirm that the distinctions between male and female find their purpose and orientation in and from the purpose and orientation of God’s life in Christ for the world. Without creation’s telos found in Christ, what it means to be male and female would make no sense. There is an order to creation, and recreation, and what it means to be male and female can only be found in and from that order.

Article 5.

I affirm that sexual organs as they are physiologically situated among the sexes only make sense as they find their purpose in and from God’s good purpose in the recreation of humanity in the resurrection of God’s humanity in Christ. Sexual organs, as they are found in the male and female sexes, only find their proper orientation in God’s Kingdom in Christ.

Article 6.

I affirm that all humans have dignity because of Jesus Christ; because of his humanity for them.

Article 7.

I affirm that God is holy, and that what it means for human beings to be holy, whether male or female, is only found in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Article 8.

I affirm that all humans, whether Christian or pagan, are sexually dysfunctional and can only find their proper orientation in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That the only way a person can be sexually righted is if they live in a continuously repentant state before God, in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and through his mediatorial life of intercession for them.

Article 9.

I affirm that Jesus, in the wonderful exchange, became the distortion of sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Article 10.

I affirm that it is sinful to presume that any person, whether Christian or pagan, has come to a place where they place themselves over against the other as if they have arrived somewhere the other has not. It is only by God’s grace in Jesus Christ that we stand; so each one ought to take heed if they think they stand lest they fall. Only Christ stands for us, and of all people Christians ought to bear witness to him alone as they have received his comfort, they ought to extend that comfort to the other.

Article 11.

I affirm our duty to speak the truth in love to one another, only as we first demonstrate that we have first spoken to God in Christ; borne witness to by our brokenness and humility before God and then others. It is as the church speaks to her Lord, realizing that he has first spoken to them in and from Christ that the world will see what God’s love and grace look like within the house of God. It is this testimony that will point people to the power of God; a power that looks like the cross of Jesus Christ.

Article 12.

I affirm that Jesus Christ is the power of God, and that all who desire to live holy lives before God can only do so as they participate in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Article 13.

I affirm that God’s grace in Christ, as both male and female participate in that through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, have the power to forsake their sins and live a repentant and resurrected life as that is oriented by God’s new creation in Christ.

Article 14.

I affirm “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.”[1]

Initial Signatory.

Bobby Grow
Co-author /editor of Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 1: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church and Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion.

 

[1] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

*The signatory, me, Bobby Grow, lives in Vancouver, WA; thus: ‘The Vancouver Statement.’

*See my initial post on The Nashville Statement: here.

Written by Bobby Grow

September 2, 2017 at 3:14 am

No More Social Commentary for the Evangelical Calvinist: Farewell ‘The Nashville Statement’

As a blogger you are always kind of interested in your blog stats; you always want to know how many people are reading your stuff. Well as the graphic below demonstrates for the dates August 29th, 30th, and the 31st my blog stats spiked; they spiked as corollary to my posts on The Nashville Statement. One of the posts produced some commenting, as you can see, but the real drama happened around that same post on Facebook. Someone I know on Facebook shared the link to that post, and it caused quite a bit of critical feedback. I spent almost all day, off and on, defending what I was actually getting at; since the critics seemed unable to actually engage with what I actually wrote. But what I have concluded is that engaging with things like this, online, are not worth it! Going forward don’t plan on any further posts engaging with The Nashville Statement, or with homosexuality in general. I might, at some point, in the future, I’m sure, talk about human sexuality so on and so forth; but I’ll try not to.

I have grown up my whole life in the evangelical sub-culture, and as far as I am concerned when it comes to anything substantive, theologically and thus socio-culturally it is pretty much bankrupt. It has failed me personally in more ways than I’d like to share here online, but I’ll just register that it has. Evangelicalism, as far as I’m concerned is imploding, and things like the Nashville Statement only continue to reinforce that to me. I am thoroughly exhausted by the posture of the whole movement; it is not about Jesus! And don’t get me wrong, when so many seem to, especially my critics from today, I take the trad view when it comes to homosexuality and human sexuality; I believe the Bible in its various books teaches against it, as does the tradition and chorus of the church. I just don’t think the Fundamentalist/Evangelical way of approaching this is the best way (and that’s what my last post was all about!).

So yeah, don’t come here for any cultural commentary; you won’t find it.

Written by Bobby Grow

September 1, 2017 at 12:22 am

What Kind of Church Culture Can Produce a Declaration like the Nashville Statement? Bearing Witness to Ourselves Rather than to Jesus Christ

I have had a chance, as the day unfolded, to reflect further on the so called Nashville Statement; the statement that a hundred and fifty evangelical signatories signed their names to. It seems to be their attempt to draw a line in the sand in regard to what they see as a pressing problem for the church, and in particular, their evangelical church. The problem for them, of course, is the progression and in-roads of the LGBTQ, homosexual gay agenda, as they see it transforming not only the body politic of culture in general, but its pressing into the church itself.

But I have a problem with it. For me, the problem has more to do with these leaders’s conception of how the church ought to operate in regard to its witness to the Gospel in relation to the world at large. As I see it, they are presuming upon an us versus them dynamic that the Gospel itself does not presume; instead, the Gospel is an equalizing reality. The Gospel as the Word of God in Jesus Christ stands as judge not just over those guys and gals out there, but as judge of the church itself; as Peter notes: “17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”[1] In other words, the Nashville Statement places itself in the place of God’s Word, as if its signatories are the judges; it actually and ironically displaces the Word of God with its own word over against others. If these signatories were to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his admonition to the American churches, as he saw it back in the 30s, they may well not have penned such a statement. Bonhoeffer wrote:

American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s “criticism” touches every religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. . . . But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ, must for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[2]

Do you see what Bonhoeffer is getting at, particularly when he references ‘natural theology?’ It is when churches displace her reality, founded in Jesus Christ alone, with a perception of herself as possessor of God’s absolute Word, and not just as possessor, but as dispenser, that she has presumed too much. She begins to elevate herself beyond the culture of which she is ensconced, and presumes that she has divined things, and thus has become able to pronounce things in absolute and damning ways, that in reality belongs to the Lord of the church alone; the living Word of God. Bonhoeffer’s point, is that when the church sees herself as coextensive with the Word of God itself, in an absolute way, that she actually loses her voice to bear witness to the living Word of God who not only stands in judgment of his church, but of the world at large.

Similarly, John Webster, as he comments on Barth’s critique of the liberal church in Germany is somewhat and ironically parallel with Bonhoeffer’s critique of the American church as he saw it. Here Webster, in line with Bonhoeffer points out how, in the thought of Barth, morality and ethics become too much aligned with the ‘moral and absolute self’ such that the Word of God loses its place for the Christian, and at the same time becomes coterminous with the Christian’s perception of the world at large and her pronouncements toward the world. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [3]

The Nashville Statement exudes this sense “of [the] absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness.” The Word of God has now been conflated with the Nashville Statement, as if a hundred and fifty signatories, backing fourteen theses on homosexuality are what God himself believes about the state of affairs in regard not just to homosexuality but other moral proclivities.

What concerns me most is the culture, in the evangelical church, that fosters the idea that such statements are healthy and good. In what way do such statements bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to the living Word of God? It ends up reducing the church to an organization of people who appear to be oriented around a cluster of ethical principles and mores instead of an organic reality who finds her sustenance in and from Christ. Whether or not homosexuality is contrariwise to the ethics of the Kingdom[4], the church herself should be more concerned with her own blights and inadequacies. The church should evidence humility before God wherein she is constantly crying out to him for his mercy and grace, such that this posture, before the world, bears witness to the reality of God in Christ. The church should avoid placing herself in positions where she appears to believe that she has become the absolute mouthpiece for God, in regard to perceived moral inequities, and instead submit to the personal reality of God herself. It is this repentant posture before God and the world wherein the power of God will be most on display. It is up to God in Christ to bring transformation into the lives of people; he alone justifies and sanctifies, the church does not!

Who do we think we are? Jesus is LORD, not the church!

 

[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (London: Fontana Library, 1970), 88-113 cited by George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 71-2.

[3] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.

“Seek your own welfare above all else”: How evangelicalism Has Largely Become a Faith for Utilitarians and Relativists

Utilitarianism and pragmatism have so saturated the mind of the North American evangelical church (and probably other churches in the West) that it has become difficult for the thinking Christian to navigate their way through these choppy waters. There is a kind of pervasive relativism afoot in the lives of so many good intending evangelical Christians, that they don’t even realize they’ve been taken in by it; because, indeed, it’s pervasive.

Maybe you’ve experienced this, and the impact of this in your own Christian experience; I definitely have, and in very real and concrete ways. For example, just the fact that I think deeply and reflectively about my Christian walk, just because I believe that there is an objective value to knowing God in and from whom he is and revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; often this is met with disdain. The disdain comes precisely from this adoption of the utilitarian and pragmatic psyche that has so infected the evangelical mind. If it does not become immediately apparent to such said psyche how and why dwelling on God in deep ways is pertinent to the utilitarian way, it will immediately seek to attack and finally reject such ways for knowing God. In other words, and maybe you’re sensing what I’m getting at, there is an anti-intellectualism, or anti-anything that appears to smack of anything that might challenge the “utilitarian’s” perceived way of living life in “real” ways; you know, like in ways where they feel comfortable, unchallenged, and can worship a God who makes them feel good, giving them experiences that only they can really understand. If such mindsets, if such people encounter other people, people who are committed to a way wherein the better way, for them, is to live an examined life before God, one that reposes in a love-duty like approach to knowing God, in and from the subject of God’s life in Christ, these latter people are actually ridiculed by the more dominant way of the utilitarian Christians.

Have I spoken abstractly enough for yet? The reason this might sound so abstract is because it is inherent to the culture in which many of us live. So, at least for me, it becomes difficult to try and articulate a way out of this quagmire; but I would go so far to say that most of us have an intuitive sense of what I’m getting at—even if that is only understood in gist. In order to help us negotiate our way through this in even more critical ways, let’s appeal to George Hunsinger (and this will once again be an extensive quote). We start reading with Hunsinger just as he has described the nonutilitarian way for living life before God in Christ; here he develops what the utilitarian and more dominant way, I would contend, for the evangelical psyche entails. He writes:

This nonutilitarian (i.e. biblical) version of Christianity stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing mores of our culture. As Robert Bellah and his coworkers have pointed out in Habits of the Heart, their fascinating study of the contemporary American middle class, utilitarian modes of thought run rampant. Although in respectable ethical theory utilitarianism is associated with a quest for the common good, in popular American consciousness the notion of the common good, if our researchers are to be believed, has all but disappeared. What one finds instead is a utilitarianism of private interest. White middle-class Americans describe their ethical and religious choices as depending on little more than a shifting set of personal wants and inner impulses. “Seek your own welfare above all else” has become the maxim of the day. Whether one’s welfare is defined in terms of wealth, status, and power or in terms of inner psychic satisfactions, either way one’s choices are grounded in virtually nothing more than a sense of the solitary, autonomous self.

Bellah circles around this problem again and again. For many, he writes with dismay, “there is simply no objectifiable criterion for choosing one value or course of action over another. One’s own idiosyncratic preferences are their own justification, because they define the true self.” Reliance on mere preference to define the self is something Bellah regards as symptomatic of the therapeutic style which has pervaded the values of our culture. At the center of the therapeutic style is “the autonomous individual, presumed to be able to choose the role he will play and the commitments he will make, not on the basis of higher truths, but according to the criterion of life-effectiveness as the individual judges it.” The ordering of all other goals to the goal of self-fulfillment, as determined by need and preference, is the hallmark of the therapeutic style.

What troubles Bellah is the stunning loss of any other criterion, any  higher truth, for moral judgment. “The right act,” he comments, “is simply the one that yields the agent the most exciting challenge or the most good feeling. . . . In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good and evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest, in other words, which so many of our contemporaries have espoused as their own, is largely sponsored by a pervasive sense of relativism—a sense that no values are ever more than arbitrary preferences grounded in the autonomous self. Bellah connects the seepage of relativism into our culture with a massive flight from communally transmitted authority and tradition as the vehicles of objectifiable moral criteria. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest and its connection with our surrender to relativism are nicely captured by a line which sums up the distress of Bellah’s book: “Utility replaces duty,” he writes, “self-expression unseats authority.”

The moral crisis Bellah describes has a religious and theological counterpart. At both popular and sophisticated levels of discourse, Christianity is widely regarded as instrumental to the attainment of various benefits or satisfactions. Biblical truth is sought not as an intrinsic good in itself, but as a pragmatic device for fulfilling wishes and desires shaped independently of faith. And utilitarian Christianity, in turn, is sponsored openly or secretly by an unhappy surrender to relativism—that is, by such an extreme departure from Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, that we regard him as an object not of obedience, love, and awe, but of our control and manipulation. . . .[1]

In my experience what Hunsinger, through appeal to Bellah, describes couldn’t hit the nail more squarely on the head. Indeed, in many ways these last many years of my life, coram Deo, has been an attempt to extricate myself from the utilitarian psyche. What I have found is that in this process many friends are lost, but many more are also gained. It is risky, in a utilitarian sub-culture, to attempt to go another way; to go the way of the cross. But the risk is worth it. Yes, we might be pegged as arrogant academic pin-heads who think they are better than others; but of course this, in principle, just is not the case. As growing and maturing Christians I think part of our job, for the broader body of Christ, is to bear witness, to our brothers and sisters that God is God and we are not. This means repenting of our utilitarian and/or self-centered ways, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus Christ.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 97-8.

Written by Bobby Grow

August 28, 2017 at 1:12 am

Messianic War Against this World System: Gaining Perspective on the Presidential Election 2016 from the Book of Revelation

If you’re an American, and unless you live in a corner, something that cannot escape you at the moment is the intensity of the presidential election (as I write this only two days away). Like many of you, I have been involved in various discussions and debates about who the best candidate is or isn’t; my conclusion is that there is no better candidate (between Trump or Clinton). They are both going to promote policies and aims that are anti-thetical to the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and as such it is impossible for me to vote for either one of them (from an ethical perspective as trumphillarya Christian). The reality is, is that they both have more in common than not. They both promote a horizontal vision of society and the world, whether that be an absolute form of nationalism (Trump), or an absolute form of anglo-globalism (Clinton). They both endorse policies that involve racism— whether that be informed by an inward obsession with Americana, and certain conceptions of what it means to be an American (Trump); or whether that be informed by supporting the House of Saud, radical Muslims in Syria, and elite globalists (Clinton). They both, like Israel, as the prophet Isaiah noted about Israel, have a covenant with death (Is. 29); Clinton, in this regard, more so than Trump, in some ways. They both are continuing the vision of ancient Babylon which is one of empire, and self-promotion (whether that be focused on the homeland [Trump], or globally [Clinton]).

What this presidential race has illustrated to me is how corrupt human government and politics are. It has concretely shown me that this world has been placed under a curse which it longs to be relieved of by the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8). Both Trump’s and Clinton’s visions of reality are purely informed by horizontal paradigms of thought, and have appeal only to the base impulses of natural humanity wherein the individual and its self-preservation is elevated to god-like status. But the good news is that there is hope; hope to come, and hope in-breaking currently.

Richard Bauckham, in his little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation provides prescient insight into the emphases and themes of that often misunderstood book. As he works through the theology of the book of Revelation what he unveils is a vision and hope for the world that is other-worldly, while being radically this worldly. He masterfully shows how the book of Revelation is a book precisely for moments like we are currently experiencing here in the States as we, as Christians, are attempting to maintain perspective relative to the “choices” we have in front of us for our leadership.

In the following Bauckham works through three themes that he sees at play in the book of Revelation; it will be the first theme that we will highlight in this post. This theme gives me much perspective as the reality of how messy of a thing humanward politics actually are in this present evil age. The victory has already been won by Jesus Christ; the victory over evil, horizontal conceptions of human government, and how that gets expressed in the world. As we will see, Bauckham underscores how the theme of messianic war in the book of Revelation functions, or should, as a place of hope and perspective for the Christian attempting to navigate through this evil age. What is presumed, of course, is that as Christians we do indeed live in a violent world, under the control of violent governments who we ought to take a militant posture towards. Note I said ‘militant,’ not violent. The only violence that has any purchase in the Kingdom of the Lamb of God is the violence the Lion of the Tribe of Judah already endured for the world at his cross. It is this reality wherein we as Christians, according to the Revelator, can take a militant stand against this world system. We stand in the power of God, which is the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and this is the victory we have to proclaim to the world. It is a prophetic word that God’s judgment has already come, and been realized for us in Jesus Christ on the cross; that the heart of human self-destruction and violence has been crushed with Jesus as he put it to death with him (Rom. 8:3) at the cross. And that there is good news of final victory, wherein the final enemy, death, will finally be put under Jesus’s feet as he comes again in his second advent (I Cor. 15). By proclaiming and living out this reality we participate in the victory of the Messiah by capturing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, of every race, tongue, and nation inhabiting this world. We also bear witness to the fact that indeed a violent, but final end is coming, the final realization of the death of death (cf. John Owen), when the Lamb of God comes with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19) finally crushing the kingdoms of this world (Dan. 2) by the Stone of his Kingdom; which is the Kingdom of kingdoms. It is this posture and place that we as Christians, according to the book of Revelation, have in this current world system. It is one of fighting, and the church militant; and our weapons of warfare are not fleshly but spiritual (II Cor. 10) through both word and deed, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will.

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

The first is the theme of the messianic war. This takes up the Jewish hope for a Messiah who is to be a descendant of David, anointed by God as king and military leader of his people. He is to fight a war against the Gentile oppressors, liberating Israel and establishing the rule of God, which is also the rule of God’s Messiah and God’s people Israel, over the nations of the world. Essential to this notion, it should be noted, is that the Messiah does not wage war alone: he leads the army of Israel against the enemies of Israel. Many Old Testament prophecies were commonly interpreted by first-century Jews as referring to this expected Messiah of David. The identification of Jesus with the Davidic Messiah was, of course, very common in early Christianity. It is very important in Revelation, partly because for John, as a Jewish Christian prophet, it is one of the ways in which he can gather up the hopes of the Old Testament prophetic tradition into his own eschatological vision centred on Jesus. But it is important also because it portrays a figure who is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by defeating the pagan powers who contest God’s rule. As we shall see, John carefully reinterprets the tradition. His Messiah Jesus does not win his victory by military conquest, and those who share his victory and his rule are not national Israel, but the international people of God. But still it is a victory over evil, won not only in the spiritual but also in the political sphere against worldly powers in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Insofar as the hope for the Davidic Messiah was for such a victory of God over evil Revelation portrays Christ’s work in continuity with that traditional Jewish hope.

The prominence of Davidic messianism in Revelation can be gauged from the fact that, as well as the two self-declarations by Christ that we have already considered (1: 17– 18; 22: 13), there is a third: ‘I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22: 16). The first of these two titles comes from Isaiah 11: 10 (‘ the root of Jesse’) and is used of the Davidic Messiah (‘descendant’ interprets the meaning of ‘root’, rightly giving it the same sense as the ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ of Isa. 11: 1, which was more commonly used as a messianic designation). The second title refers to the star of Numbers 24: 17, which (in the context of 24: 17– 19) was commonly understood to be a symbol of the Messiah of David who would conquer the enemies of Israel. ‘The root of David’ is found also in Revelation 5: 1, alongside another title evoking the image of the royal Messiah who will defeat the nations by military violence: ‘the Lion of Judah’ (cf. Gen. 49: 9; 4 Ezra 12: 31– 2). Further allusions to the Messiah of Isaiah 11, a favourite passage for Davidic messianism, are the sword that comes from Christ’s mouth (1: 16; 2: 12, 16; 19: 21) with which he strikes down the nations (19: 15; cf. Isa. 11: 4; 49: 2) and the statement that he judges with righteousness (19: 11; cf. Isa. 11: 4).

One of John’s key Old Testament texts, allusions to which run throughout Revelation, is Psalm 2, which depicts ‘the nations’ and ‘the kings of the earth’ conspiring to rebel against ‘the LORD and his Messiah’ (verses 1– 2). The Messiah is God’s Son (verse 7), whom he sets as king on mount Zion (verse 6), there to resist and overcome the rebellious nations. God promises to give this royal Messiah the nations for his inheritance (verse 8) and that he will violently subdue them with a rod of iron (verse 9). Allusions to this account of the Messiah’s victory over the nations are found in Revelation 2: 18, 26– 8; 11: 15, 18; 12: 5, 10; 14: 1; 16: 14, 16; 19: 15. To what is explicit in the psalm it is notable that John adds the Messiah’s army (with him on Mount Zion in 14: 1) who will share his victory (2: 26– 7). Probably also from the psalm is John’s use of the phrase ‘the kings of the earth’ as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1: 5; 6: 15; 17: 2, 18; 18: 3, 9; 19: 19; 21: 24; cf. 16: 14).

Also derived from this militant messianism is Revelation’s key concept of conquering. It is applied both to the Messiah himself (3: 21; 5: 5; 17: 14) and to his people, who share his victory (2: 7, 11, 17, 28; 3: 5, 12, 21; 12: 11; 15: 2; 21: 7). Once again we note the importance in Revelation of the Messiah’s army. That the image of conquering is a militaristic one should be unmistakable, although interpreters of Revelation do not always do justice to this. It is closely connected with language of battle (11: 7; 12: 7– 8, 17; 13: 7; 16: 14; 17: 14; 19: 11, 19) and it is notable that not only do Christ’s followers defeat the beast (15: 2), but also the beast defeats them (11: 7; 13: 7), so that this is evidently a war in which Christ’s enemies have their victories, though the final victory is his. We should note also that the language of conquering is used of all the three stages of Christ’s work: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3: 21; 5: 5), his followers conquer in the time before the end (12: 11; 15: 2), and he will conquer at the parousia (17: 14). Thus it is clear that the image of the messianic war describes the whole process of the establishment of God’s kingdom as Revelation depicts it. Revelation’s use of this image incorporates the fundamental shift of temporal perspective from Jewish to Jewish Christian eschatology. The messianic war is not purely future. The decisive victory has in fact already been won by Christ. His followers are called to continue the battle in the present. The final victory still lies in the future.[1]

Conclusion

In light of the perversion and corruption attendant to this presidential election, I hope this perspective, indeed, provides perspective. I see too many Christians settling, or even compromising for what they shouldn’t be compromising for; for the kingdom of man rather than the kingdom of Christ. The reality is, as the book of Revelation makes very clear, is that being human means being political; the issue is where we are going to get our politics from. Are we going to get them from the horizontal, or instead are we going to get them from the vertical? It is clear that the politics of heaven intersect with the politics of this fallen earth, just as God’s person in Christ intersects with our humanity in his assumption of ours. As such it is important, I would contend, for us to remember that we are at war; not with people, per se, but with the principalities and powers which inform the politics of man. We need to bear this in mind as we, as Christians, attempt to negotiate our ways through the muck of this world system. We need to keep in mind that earthly policy-makers all work from a vision of the world, at this point, that is informed by impulses that are indeed anti-thetical to the aims of the Kingdom of God. Thus it behooves us, as soldiers in Christ, to take a stand, and engage this political system with the weapons of our warfare which is to proclaim the Gospel of peace and hope for all who will hear.

It is always tempting to begin to conflate the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we see Israel engaging in this type of syncretizing activity over and again with the nations that surrounded them. But again, as the book of Revelation makes clear, we are part of another nation, a heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), which thinks from heaven rather than earth; it thinks from other-worldly and even foolish norms relative to the policies and “ethics” of this world system (I Cor. 1). Let’s remember that we are ambassadors for Christ (II Cor. 5; Eph. 6), and that our primary job as Christians is to bear witness prophetically that Jesus is King, that he has won the victory through his shed blood (I Cor. 6:18,19; Acts 20:28). Let’s not compromise the integrity of our positions as ambassadors for Christ by fighting for a kingdom, this world system, that has already been put to death by the cross of Jesus Christ. Let’s remind this world system that there is real power and real hope available in and from the One who was dead, but now lives (Rev. 1). Let’s remind our politicians that God wants us to choose life, not death (Ez. 32). As far as I can tell, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have chosen Life, instead they have both chosen death; as such their political policies and practices will only portend that. Policies that Christians, as part of God’s Kingdom, ought to be at war with, not in bed with.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition), 68-70.

 

Written by Bobby Grow

November 7, 2016 at 12:38 am