An Outsider’s Perspective on the SBC’s Resolution 9 and Critical Race Theory

I am not a Southern Baptist, but I am Baptistic, at least with reference to a doctrine of Baptism—grew up as a Conservative Baptist. So, I am somewhat outside of the current dust-up happening as a consequence of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. In this meeting they successfully pushed through Resolution 9, which has to do with the affirmation of so-called Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality; both hot-topic realities in the broader cultural moment. For the remainder of this post we will engage with Resolution 9, and offer some critical comment with reference to its appeal to ‘general revelation’ as the basis for justifying its affirmation of CRT and Intersectionality; even as the committee attempts to curtail and delimit CRT and Intersectionality by sub-ordinating it to the authority of Holy Scripture.

Here is Resolution 9 in full:

WHEREAS, Concerns have been raised by some evangelicals over the use of frameworks such as critical race theory and intersectionality; and

WHEREAS, Critical race theory is a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society, and intersectionality is the study of how different personal characteristics overlap and inform one’s experience; and

WHEREAS, Critical race theory and intersectionality have been appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith, resulting in ideologies and methods that contradict Scripture; and

WHEREAS, Evangelical scholars who affirm the authority and sufficiency of Scripture have employed selective insights from critical race theory and intersectionality to understand multifaceted social dynamics; and

WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message states, “[A]ll Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried” (Article I); and

WHEREAS, General revelation accounts for truthful insights found in human ideas that do not explicitly emerge from Scripture and reflects what some may term “common grace”; and

WHEREAS, Critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin, yet these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences; and

WHEREAS, Scripture contains categories and principles by which to deal with racism, poverty, sexism, injustice, and abuse that are not rooted in secular ideologies; and

WHEREAS, Humanity is primarily identified in Scripture as image bearers of God, even as biblical authors address various audiences according to characteristics such as male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free; and

WHEREAS, The New Covenant further unites image bearers by creating a new humanity that will one day inhabit the new creation, and that the people of this new humanity, though descended from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people, are all one through the gospel of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:16; Revelation 21:1–4, 9–14); and

WHEREAS, Christian citizenship is not based on our differences but instead on our common salvation in Christ—the source of our truest and ultimate identity; and

WHEREAS, The Southern Baptist Convention is committed to racial reconciliation built upon biblical presuppositions and is committed to seeking biblical justice through biblical means; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11–12, 2019, affirm Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to redress social ills, and we reject any conduct, creeds, and religious opinions which contradict Scripture; and be it further

RESOLVED, That critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks; and be it further

RESOLVED, That the gospel of Jesus Christ alone grants the power to change people and society because “he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6); and be it further

RESOLVED, That Southern Baptists will carefully analyze how the information gleaned from these tools are employed to address social dynamics; and be it further

RESOLVED, That Southern Baptist churches and institutions repudiate the misuse of insights gained from critical race theory, intersectionality, and any unbiblical ideologies that can emerge from their use when absolutized as a worldview; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we deny any philosophy or theology that fundamentally defines individuals using categories identified as sinful in Scripture rather than the transcendent reality shared by every image bearer and divinely affirmed distinctions; and be it further

RESOLVED, That while we denounce the misuse of critical race theory and intersectionality, we do not deny that ethnic, gender, and cultural distinctions exist and are a gift from God that will give Him absolute glory when all humanity gathers around His throne in worship because of the redemption accomplished by our resurrected Lord; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That Southern Baptist churches seek to exhibit this eschatological promise in our churches in the present by focusing on unity in Christ amid image bearers and rightly celebrate our differences as determined by God in the new creation.[1]

Identifying A Hermeneutical Problem

At first blush it reminds me of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (with its thousands of qualifications). Resolution 9 so qualifies its appropriation of CRT and Intersectionality (CRT/I) that you start to wonder why they feel compelled to even use it as the ‘analytical tool’ they say it is at all. This makes me think that they want to have official space to deploy CRT/I that they wouldn’t have outwith their resolution. In other words, it makes me think that the committee that drafted R9, and the ‘Messengers’ who ratified it through vote, see more value to CRT/I than they are letting on. It is actually really easy to assert that a group of Christians will always subordinate a creed, confession, catechism, or resolution to Scripture; but when it comes to the actual practice of this sub-ordinating, the waters become almost immediately murky.

On analogy I’ll refer us to the Westminster Confession of Faith. For many Reformed churches, particularly the Presbyterian churches, the WCF (and other confessions etc), de jure, are said to be subordinate to Scripture. But when we begin to engage with such Christians what we quickly come to realize is that they maintain that the most faithful and historic reading of Scripture they know of is deposited in and thus regulated by adherence to the WCF. In other words, it becomes almost impossible to critically disentangle Scripture’s teaching, simpliciter, from the WCF’s confessing insofar that the latter is understood to be univocal with the former; at least when we are in orbit with Christians who are confessionally bound by submission to the WCF.

Similarly, I believe proponents of R9 among the SBC have the same problem to overcome; it is a hermeneutical problem, indeed. Who is to say, under the conditions of R9, where the clear teaching of Scripture leaves off, and the analytical virtue of CRT/I pick up? Many of us have heard of what sociologist, Christian Smith, has called Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism (PIP); i.e. the phenomenon of pluriform and multitudinous interpretations of the same respective texts of Scripture. I think it would be safe to say that the SBC is not immune to this phenomenon, as such how will the practitioners of R9 recognize when their exegesis of Scripture is sub-ordinating CRT/I for its analytic value, and when CRT/I is in fact shaping said exegesis of Scripture? In other words, in my view, it seems that R9 opens a can-o-worms in the sense that there is some serious latitude for circular reasoning (petitio principii) to obtain. It seems as if R9 leaves the line between faithful exegesis of Scripture and deployment of CRT/I up to the subjectivities of the respective interpreters. This seems like a real dilemma that needs to be addressed in the resolution itself, but the resolution doesn’t address it. It is a hermeneutical dilemma, which leads me to my next observation/critique.

The Problem of General Revelation/Natural Theology

As an Evangelical Calvinist I repudiate, in principle, the idea of natural theology, or what some more benignly call ‘general revelation.’ It isn’t just Evangelical Calvinists who repudiate natural theology, indeed, there are other classically Reformed Christians who similarly reject Natural Theology; some in a more qualified sense.[2] Yet, the R9’rs make natural theology the basis for their justification of appropriating CRT/I as an analytical tool. The appeal to the axiom ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ But this axiom is rather circular sense it premises that ‘all truth’ is discernable as true apart from establishing said truth as true in critical ways. In other words, axioms or anecdotes like this only work in a superficial way; when we begin to move into critical engagement towards identifying what is true, and what is not-true, we are always pushed up against a hermenutical/epistemological dilemma. In other words, how can we know what is true or not-true; what warrant do we have, for example, for asserting that CRT/I offers valuable analytical tools for critically ascertaining the human experience as that is understood, in particular, among the ‘minority’ and belittled segments of humanity? Does nature itself, bear within itself, the resource for explaining to us what ails the human condition? Or maybe more minimally, as I think the R9’rs would probably maintain: does CRT/I, grounded in nature as it is, present us with categories that help us ‘organize’ and index the problems facing minorities and the belittled better than Scriptural Revelation can? This seems to be the contention of the R9’rs; they seem to think that nature itself has the ratio of God inherent to it. As such, they further seem to think that CRT/I has discovered something latent within nature that can help supplement Scripture’s teaching on race, human sexuality, and other sundry things.

But what if nature isn’t accessible this way? What if the human condition is unable to discover things ‘from on high,’ and instead only are able to discover things from below that find their orientation from the ‘kingdom of darkness?’ How is an R9’r to know whether CRT/I offers analytically-rich contours for navigating through the choppy cultural waters of Race and other related issues? If proponents of R9, within the SBC, believe they are justified in affirming the purported analytical values present within CRT/I; then upon what basis are they claiming CRT/I actually has these values? You see the hermeneutical dilemma, right? You see the circular nature of their reasoning, correct? Their whole justification for affirming even a limited appropriation of CRT/I (although I’m not sure how limited that will be based upon the previous concerns I mentioned, in re: to PIP) is based upon an overly-simplistic axiom that ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ That axiom is fine as far as it goes at a superficial level, but when we press it more critically we come to recognize that identifying what in fact is “truth” is a much more complex venture; particularly as we consider the noetic effects of the ‘fall of humanity.’ Even if we wanted to affirm a theory of general revelation, a theory according to the R9’rs’ logic that maintains that unregenerate humans can discover God’s truth apart from regenerated reason/affections, how can we ever be sure that this ‘discovery’ is in alignment with God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ? Are we going to simply base the answer to that question on utilitarian, consequentialist, and pragmatic conclusions? That seems to be the depth of the R9’rs appeal to general revelation. They seem to be premising that CRT/I has yielded certain ideational consequences to the point that it has become utilitarianly useful as an organizational and analytical tool in regard to parsing out the issues of Race, Human Sexuality and other sundry issues.

Conclusion

I think the R9’rs have opened up a can-o-worms that requires much more responsible engagement. If I was a pastor (or professor) in the SBC I would be utterly confused in regard to how I was supposed to appropriate the ostensible riches of CRT/I that the R9 Committee seems to think is as self-evident as God’s truth is in nature. These are concerning things in my view, and ones that the SBC does not face alone. It is a hermeneutical/prolegomena issue that I think R9 proponents and the rest of the Christian world ought to recognize when attempting to engage with Scripture and culture in the translational effort we are all engaged in as witnesses to Jesus Christ. Are we going to walk by faith, or sight? If we walk by faith I’d venture to say that ‘the Kingdom of the Son of His love,’ that the Kingdom of Christ, apocalyptic as it is, has the capacity to break in on our puny machinations and “discoveries,” and contravene them with an antecedent and strange reality come from heaven above in Christ.

Personally, what I wonder is why the churches feel so compelled to find riches in Babylon, when we have already been set free to a Kingdom that has riches and depth of its own? I mean what is the motive for the SBC’s apparent need for appropriating CRT/I? It seems like revelation itself has other and powerful resources, even analytical ones, that can avoid being interlinked with ‘natural’ discoveries of “truth” as CRT/I purports to be. Sure, it might require greater and deeper theological work than simply appealing to ‘all truth is God’s truth’ offers the practitioner; but the power and love of the Gospel seem to invite the Christian to ‘toil’ (II Tim 2.15) in this sort of depth dimensional work. I don’t see this funding Resolution 9’s manifesto, and as such think it ought to be abandoned, or at least suspended until further and more theologically critical consideration can be given.

 

[1] Source.

[2] See Richard Muller’s PRRD where he treats this issue in and among the early and high Reformed theologians who gave ‘natural theology’ a very denuded place insofar as they believed there was enough general revelation given by God to the level that all people would be left without excuse at God’s eschatological judgment. But as Muller points out, these same theologians did not see a positive role for general revelation wherein a natural theology could be posited to the level that it might supply a material complement to what is given in ‘special revelation.’ This seems to be the way the Resolutioners of R9 are appealing to ‘common grace,’ as if the light of reason has the capacity to complement the light of revelation (to use some of Katherine Sonderegger’s Aristotelian/Thomist framework).

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Rachel Held Evans, An Icon of American Evangelicalism; Both ‘Right’ and ‘Left’

I want to offer another note on the death of Rachel Held Evans. After reading through the various ‘sides’ in relation to RHE over the past few days, and either the absolute praise, or the utter damnation of her, I wanted to offer another word (FWIW). Like I have indexed previously, I was a critic of RHE’s theology and mode as a spokesperson and galvanizing figurehead for the continuously emerging Progressive Christian Left in and among Exvangelicals. Like I’ve noted elsewhere, what is present in the Progressive Christian move is nothing different than what was present, as antecedent, in theological liberalism. When you have a theological movement that is largely in reaction to another theological movement, you don’t ever get a “positive” movement as a result. All you really end up with is a shadow movement of the other movement it is reacting towards. This is what, I would contend, Rachel was a figurehead for. Her open doubts, and troubles with evangelicalism resonated at just the right time for many others, such that it catapulted RHE into the limelight of the Progressives. It was the convergence of her doubts, her generation, and the internet, with blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. that thrust Rachel into a world, and into a spot that outwith these mechanisms may have never happened. RHE may have had harbored the doubts she did, the criticisms she had of her evangelicalism, but they would have been left between her, God, and her real-life interlocutors who may well have been able to point her to more constructive ways forward. But this is not the world we inhabit; we inhabit the world Rachel inhabited, shaped for better or ill by the monstrosity that the social interweb is. This is what made Rachel who she was over the last decade; the most formative years of her life, it might seem. But were they?

This is what I keep coming back to. As news to me, some of my former professors in seminary were good friends with Rachel’s parents back in the day; and they knew Rachel back then, and as she grew up. Rachel grew up seemingly in the same household that many of us did; right smack-dab in the middle of the evangelical sub-culture. Many of us know her story. Indeed, this is why she was so resonant, I’d contend, for so many. She was your average evangelical person growing up in the strange sub-culture that evangelicalism represents; and come of age she started to become (rightly) critical of many of the folkisms that count as orthodoxy in the evangelical world. So far so good. She was able to sense the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that shaped the evangelical world; she knew firsthand what the merchandising of the Christian world felt and looked like; she understood how gimmicks had displaced the depth dimension of the sacraments and the preached Word in the churches. She saw something that many of us saw, and continue to see; and this made her voice appealing to many. And yet up to a point, even until relatively recently, Rachel remained ‘evangelical.’ I find it interesting that what led Rachel to where she went was cultivated by legitimate critiques she had of the evangelical sub-culture. So, this is where Rachel was spiritually formed. She had a real life and intimate relationship with the risen Jesus Christ, but she had doubts because she saw a dissonance between who she knew—in Christ—and what she was largely experiencing (in the main) in the Church.

So, Rachel voiced all of these concerns, wrote a book, and was catapulted into the online social theological world where she had her greatest reach. And this, I would contend, is where she met people who would lead her further and further away from what she would have recognized as core convictions, and into the world of theological liberalism. This is where Rachel lived, but in a popular and populace way. The ideas she had about God, Scripture, and anthropology (inclusive of sexuality) are ideas that have been around since at least the 18th and 19th centuries; ideas that were fomented by the Enlightenment and the ‘turn to the subject.’ Rachel was a ‘seeker of truth,’ indeed, but where she went, as she self-consciously moved from her conservative evangelical past into her progressive evangelical future had antecedents in a theological world most noted for seeing humanity as the measure of reality rather than the living God. And this, I would argue, is where things went terribly awry for Rachel. As is definitional for a ‘progressive,’ they progress; and Rachel did just that. Most notably she opened up a place for the inclusion of homosexuals in the church[1]; in such a way that they were affirmed in their homosexuality rather than challenged to repent and recognize it for the sin that it is. As a result of this message to homosexuals Rachel served as a catalyst for many people who identify that way to ‘come back to the Church.’ Indeed, this was probably the most dominant theme in the tributes to her among her followers on Twitter. Many claimed that they wouldn’t be able to be in the church or be a Christian without Rachel Held Evans. But this leads us to an irony.

As I noted above, many of Rachel’s criticisms of evangelicalism, I think, were right on. In my view, the primary criticism Rachel operated from, thematically, was that the American evangelical Church has largely ceased from being genuinely Christian in any meaningful sense; with this I agree. I can agree with Rachel in the sense that the American evangelical Church, in the majority of its quadrants, has really become an American folk religion and not in any way resembling what a genuinely Christ conditioned notion of the Church should be. Yet, as I also noted earlier, what Rachel ended up finding solace in equally resulted in her turning to something that is just as folksy as what she left in evangelicalism. There is nothing immediately recognizable as ‘Christian,’ vis-à-vis the catholic understanding of the Gospel and its implications on a range, to be found in what Rachel had come to be the symbol and mouthpiece for. So, this is tragic.

I want to share more about Rachel’s death, and how I think it fits into the broader picture of God’s love and mercy for her; but I will wait. I’ll wait because I think my thoughts will be rather controversial (more controversial than what I just shared), and so I will wait for a time and a season to divulge further. But I wanted to share the above because it is the way I see the story of Rachel Held Evans, at least in a snapshot. I see Rachel as a sister in Christ who had good intentions, even right ones in regard to her criticisms, but who was taken in by people who ended up contributing deleteriously to her soul and spiritual well-being.

[1] This represents only one example of many issues that RHE endorsed in regard to what can be identified as progressive social theory.

A Critique of American Christianity with Reference to Charles Taylor and Karl Barth: The Emergence of Deism as an American Folk Religion

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the religion that Christian sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as the prominent religion of most Americans who claim to be, or in fact are nascent or cultural Christians. We might reduce the catchy language down to one word: Deism. Deism, by definition, entails both moralist and therapeutic; but we can understand why Smith would give us this amplification—for both rhetorical and descriptive reasons. Even so, I think it would be good to expand upon what Deism actually is. Without getting into its history too much (because of space constraints), I thought it would be instructive to allow Charles Taylor to give us further insight into just what Deism is, and even more significantly, how it functions as an ‘opiate,’ of sorts, for so many of us in the affluent North American context. Taylor writes at length:

But with the fourfold eclipse, the very notion that God has purposes for us beyond fulfilling his plan in the world, equated with our good, begins to fade. Worship shrinks to carrying out God’s goals (= our goals) in the world. So element (2) becomes weaker and weaker.

As to element (1), this was expressed principally in terms of a doctrine of grace. This was seconded in lay ethics, like neo-Stoicism, by a sense that the power to impose order on self and world is God’s power in us, which we have to recognize and nurture. With growing confidence, reflected in the new harmonious, economic-centred order, neither grace nor the nurture of God’s power in us seem all that indispensable. Space has been created for a shift, in which the power to order will be seen as purely intra-human.

 It is true that on the Deist view, God can also help us in another way. The very contemplation of his goodness in his works inspires us, and energizes us to do his will.

Thus as the calm and most extensive determination of the soul towards the universal happiness can have no other centre of rest and joy than the original independent omnipotent Goodness; so without the knowledge of it, and the most ardent love and resignation to it, the soul cannot attain to its most stable and highest perfection and excellence. [Frances Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, p. 217]

The strength that this can impart to us is not negligible, and perhaps most people will recognize the need for some source like this. But having got this far, it is not clear why something of the same inspiring power cannot come from the contemplation of the order of nature itself, without reference to a Creator. And this idea has recurred in exclusive humanisms.

And so exclusive humanism could take hold, as more than a theory held by a tiny minority, but as a more and more viable spiritual outlook. There needed two conditions for its appearance: the negative one, that the enchanted world fade; and also the positive one, that a viable conception of our highest spiritual and moral aspirations arise such that we could conceive of doing without God in acknowledging and pursuing them. This came about in the ethic of imposed order (which also played an essential role in disenchantment), and in an experience with this ethic which made it seem possible to rely exclusively on intra-human powers to carry it through. The points at which God had seemed an indispensable source for this ordering power were the ones which began to fade and become invisible. The hitherto unthought became unthinkable.[1]

Clearly, Taylor has other previous context he is referring to; with his reference to his points (1) and (2). Because it is too lengthy to elaborate on all that, for our purposes, we will press onto engaging what I did in fact share from him.

I think what stands out most clearly is the idea that in a world that is disenchanted—a major theme in Taylor’s work—of a world that is inhabited or suffused with the splendor of a mighty and benevolent Creator God; the world is still in need of some sense of Divine Transcendence. As Taylor helpfully underscores for us, when the personal Christian God is abandoned, the vacuum left is filled by collapsing ‘Him’ into the human-spirit writ large. Herein people still have a sense that in the after-life, based upon their own ethical imaginations and determinations, they will be rewarded with or despoiled of anything good and lively. But here, in the here-and-now, in this ultra-immanetized world, we are the divine sparks of all that can be good and holy; we just need to appeal to our inner-positive-resources, and usher in peace and well being into the world.

What Taylor describes as Deism can come in both hard and soft forms. What we get in the Christian version of Deism is the soft form. When Christians abandon sound orthodox doctrine what they must turn to is themselves; albeit, they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between themselves and the one they call Jesus Christ. It is in this framework that so called moralistic therapeutic deism takes on a life of its own; with a liturgy of nationalist and moralist folkisms in tow.

Interestingly, we have a case study of this in the history, not too far back, in the early to mid-20th century among the German Christians. Karl Barth, per John Webster’s analysis, noted this fall into a sort of deism among the nationalist fervor that took hold of so many Germans in the post WWI context. There was a wily fear afoot in the Weimar Republic that caused even the Christians to turn inward, and engage in this sort of collapsing of God into the inner-recesses of their own will to power; in their own capacity to determine what was right and wrong. Webster notes with reference to Barth’s moral theology:

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.[2]

Interesting that Barth’s primary referent was liberal Protestantism; interesting because I think this can equally apply to what counts as conservative evangelicalism today—and yes Mainlinism, and other religious iterations in the West as well. But Barth’s critique of his own German/Swiss context fits well with what Taylor is identifying for us as the Deist project. A project wherein God and the enchanted world He gives us is pushed to the side, and the disenchanted world takes its place with the primacy of the indomitable human spirit as its center.

It seems undeniable to me that this sort of ‘spirituality’ is the dominant one, even and maybe especially among the evangelical churches. It isn’t for lack of good intention, but lack of good, sound, orthodox doctrine among the churches that has led to this vacuum. Not to dog-pile on the conservatives, we see this Deistic impulse shaping so called Progressive Christianity just as surely; most likely because they operate from a shared anthropological and intellectual heritage. No matter its level of overt exposure, Deism as a powerful source of moral inflection in the world, as far as I can see, is only gaining speed. It can be corrected, but this will only come as Christians come to a point of ‘repentant thinking.’ But will they? In order for repentant thinking to occur, it is required that sound theological teaching is given. But I don’t see this, in the main, occurring in the churches. People are largely being fed a pabulum of individualistic spirituality that majors on the self, and minors on God. True, we do see a resurgence of Reformed theology; but I’d contend, at root, that its understanding of grace and election only plays into the sort of Deism that Taylor (and Barth) describe.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 233-34 kindle.

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

Responding to the Christian Despisers of All That Was Good About Notre Dame Cathedral

The burning of Notre Dame is tragic, as I noted earlier on my Facebook account: The burning of Notre Dame Cathedral is emblematic of the Church’s pervasive loss of historical Christianity in the main. There is no sense of the transcendent, or the layered reality of historical teaching (sacra doctrina) found within the halls of the ancient Church. All things have been domesticated, and essentially burned to the ground of our own subjective and culturally conditioned desires as Christians.” And it is out of this overly-domesticated sense of the Gospel that I don’t think many evangelical (and other) Christians appreciate just what something like Notre Dame symbolizes.

But why don’t many Christians appreciate what Notre Dame symbolizes? The branch of Christianity I grew up in is shaped by a commitment to a dispensationalist hermeneutic. This hermeneutic, as many of us know, operates from a dualistic (even Platonic) conception of eternity and time. One impact this has is that ‘this world’ is viewed as a shadowy existence that only shadows forth the really real existence back up in eternal form. The ultimate goal for this perspective is to gnostically escape this world, and start the eternal state [cf. Rev. 21–22] (but only after the Great Tribulation and Millennium). So, if this is the case, we can see why some Christians would have an indifference to ‘these worldly’ sorts of concrete realities; such as we have in the architectural masterpiece of something like the Notre Dame Cathedral. If this world, and all it contains, is ‘going to hell-in-a-handbasket,’ then who really cares if a structure like Notre Dame burns to the ground; as long as no souls are lost in the process, that’s all that matters.

But what if that isn’t the biblical view? What if the biblical view, on the analogy of the incarnation, thinks that ‘this world’ is in fact a good? What if the Christian perspective actually maintains that there is a continuity between this creation and the next? I would argue that based upon the analogy of the incarnation, where “eternity” and time are united in the hypostatic union of Divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, that this creation is good and redeemable. I would argue further, based on the analogy of the incarnation, that there is a continuity between this current iteration of creation and the one to come in the consummate re-creation that will be realized in the eschaton of God’s life in Christ. So, I would argue that Christians need to operate with a doctrine of creation that thinks from the eschatological reality it has in Christ. In other words, I would argue that creation’s ultimate purpose has always already been to be redeemed and recreated in the Christ event. The implication of this, one of many, is that there is purposiveness to this creation—inclusive of art, architectural feats, culture, industry so on and so forth—that finds continuous reality in and through the grace of God in Christ. Meaning that even something like the Notre Dame Cathedral carries forth the ingenuity that God has placed in His good and renewed creation as those who constructed it did so from the resources that God gave them to bear witness to His beauty through the artistry they participated in and from as they sought to glorify God in this architectural wonder. In other words, Notre Dame typifies the sort of good that will be carried into the eschaton, precisely because it is a work of artistry that finds its genesis in image-of the image bearers who did what they did from participatio Christi and as they were seeking to please and magnify the living God.

Just to drive this point home further, let me point us to the biblical text itself. Here is what the Revelator thinks about the continuity between this creation and the one to come:

22 But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. 24 And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. 25 Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there). 26 And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it. 27 But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.[1]

In particular notice verse 24. ‘The kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.’ What do you think that entails? Might the glory of the kings kingdom entail the works of art, architecture, industriousness their respective cultures produced as they participated in and from the glory or weightiness of God’s life for them in Christ? If we were to do a study of just exactly what ‘their glory and honor’ entailed in the Second Temple Judaism that this book was written in, I’d be willing to bet a lot that this honor and glory entailed just exactly what I just noted (indeed, just read the Old Testament, and see what sort of stuff shaped the glory of the various kingdoms therein).

This is what I am getting at. So next time you want to de-emphasize the value of something like Notre Dame Cathedral, and other like realities, think about these things from a genuinely Christian perspective. God in Christ came to redeem not just ghostly souls, but embodied persons who create things as they operate as images of the image of God in Christ. Do people matter more than buildings, ultimately? Yes. But that is a rather weighted and relative scale vis-à-vis God. The ingenuity and work that went into building something like Notre Dame Cathedral didn’t come from empty suits, it came from flesh and blood people working as unto God rather than unto men. As such, it reflects a work of art that magnifies and bears witness to the living God. As such, it has redemptive characteristics that God came to save not destroy. If this is so we ought to ache as God aches when death and destruction rather than life and shalom seem to reign.

There are other ways to look at all of this as well. But this represents one way.

 

[1] Revelation 21, NKJV.

Some Critical and Personal Thoughts on the Theology Offered by The Gospel Coalition

What is it about The Gospel Coalition that I don’t like? For starters, I’m not a fan of coalitions that use the language of the Gospel to modify them; it makes it seem as if they have the corner on the Gospel, and anyone who might disagree with their presentation is probably not an orthodox Christian. I don’t like the notion of “coalition” because it starts to function like a monopolizing corporation wherein all other comers, if they want to be part of the movement, need to sign onto the mission and confession statement to be included. Indeed, this is the effect it is producing among the many evangelical churches out there. TGC, because of its breadth have church resources, and packages for various programs for local churches to easily implement into the body life of their respective churches. But what has come along with that is the attending theology that funds TGC. Now, this might not pose a problem for many pastors and ministries out there, but I think it has indeed had a homogenizing effect; such that many churches and pastors who weren’t necessarily Calvinistic previously, have now become so. In fact, I personally know of more than one pastor out there where this is the case. Indeed, I think this was the desired hope to begin with; i.e. to introduce Calvinist theology into churches wheretofore this sort of theology was not necessarily on tap at the various evangelical churches. It has had an amazing impact over at least the last decade; the growth has been exponential, and people who never would have been open to Calvinist theology previously (say like at churches like Calvary Chapels) are now full-fledged Calvinists (or they’re at least on the way).

Clearly, not all evangelical churches have given into the machine known as The Gospel Coalition; I mean there are a variety of self-conscious Arminian and other sorts of churches out there. But this is the problem, at least for me personally. Movements like TGC have largely co-opted the conservative evangelical movement. In other words, if you want to be intentionally doctrinally oriented in your church, and you’re looking for resources in that direction, the only place really going is TGC (and like conference oriented movements). On the other hand, we have many evangelical churches, clearly, which are still stuck in the 80s and 90s focusing on church growth, being relevant, meeting felt needs types of churches. But this is the dilemma for us evangelicals out here who don’t want either of these alternatives. This obviously is not TGC fault, per se, but their ‘coalition’ model has helped contribute to this sort of polarity in the evangelical world. Of course, they think they are offering a really good product to the churches; they believe they do indeed have a corner on what the orthodox and Protestant Gospel actually entails; they think the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Post Reformation Reformed orthodox developments offer the best footing forward for the evangelical churches. But I don’t agree!

It is interesting; the appeal for many is that TGC still comes with the warm-hearted piety so many evangelicals have grown up with, historically and in their own lives. But what many unsuspecting churches don’t realize is that TGC’s mission is to get the Gospel, or the Doctrines of Grace, into the pulpits all throughout the land. My contention is that the piety they come with is not supported by the theology that stands behind them. The theology that stands behind TGC is what is called Covenantal or Federal theology. It starts with the Covenant of Works and ends with the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works presents a system wherein God relates to the people through a juridical/forensic frame rather than first relating to people as a God of Grace and Triune Love. The Covenant theology that gives TGC theology shape operates with a metaphysic of God that is legally shaped, decretally determined, and impersonally given. In other words, because God’s first relationship with Adam and Eve, in the Garden, was based upon a legal contract of obedience, between God and humanity, this then ends up coloring the whole theology as it develops in salvation history and eventuates in what Christ does in the Covenant of Grace; i.e. he meets the conditions set out in the Covenant of Works. The whole relationship between God and humanity, in this framework, is one that is based on a concept of God that emphasizes His monadic oneness, rather than emphasizing his filial threeness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a genuine problem that people don’t really understand when they sign on with TGC. But most evangelicals think this is the best thing going. And most evangelicals who are busy with life, attend church maybe bi-weekly or weekly, don’t have the strength or time or resource to critically evaluate what in fact they are being fed; even the pastors in most evangelical churches don’t have the background to critically engage with the history of ideas that have shaped the theology of The Gospel Coalition.

The ultimate problem with what is being presented by The Gospel Coalition, in my view, is their doctrine of God. As I’ve noted numerous times: get the doctrine of God wrong, and everything following will be wrong. Most proponents of TGC theology, the ones who have the time to study, teach and write for TGC, are operating in good-faith; and they think they have found something that is rich and wonderful for the churches. But I am here to protest that! I am conservative evangelical, but one who thinks that the piety I grew up with, of the sort where intimacy with God in Christ is of a premium, can indeed be better supported by alternative streams of theological inquiry available in the history of ecclesial ideas. In other words, and this is of course where Evangelical Calvinism comes in, I KNOW that there are a variety of developments in the Reformed faith that are distinct and fundamentally different than what is being offered to folks through the theology of TGC. If you read me for any length, you know who I think offers better ways forward; unfortunately, people like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have been smeared in many of the TGC quarters. People have been given the impression that Barth, in particular, cannot be trusted; indeed, people have been told that he does not trust the sufficiency of Scripture, among other things. Of course, none of this could be further from the truth.

But beyond this, the critique of Federal theology, as I have noted in a variety of my posts, comes from within the Reformed tradition itself; it comes contemporaneous with the developments that eventuated in the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith so on and so forth. But people don’t know this. Indeed, many of the folks, the theologians involved with the development of TGC theology itself don’t seem to be aware of the various antecedents and movements in the history of Reformed theology. They are spoon-fed by people like Richard Muller as their historians, and simply use his thinking, and others, as the foundation upon which they do their recovery work. This, in my view, is a tragic development, and one that unfortunately impinges upon TGC and what they then offer the churches, theologically.

I haven’t written much on The Gospel Coalition recently; I used to write about its theology quite frequently. But their annual conference is currently underway in Indianapolis, and so I was prompted to think about TGC’s impact once again. People in the evangelical churches need to know what they are getting into when they sign up with TGC, or at least allow their materials into their churches. They come bearing ideas, and their ideas have theological and real life spiritual consequences in the lives of the people you are ministering to (pastors). Now, again, for many of you this is a good thing. But I am writing for those who might not be aware of this, or for those who are, and yet haven’t fully thought out the implications of all of this as that comes to the impact TGC theology can potentially have in your churches, respectively. I would think we would want to introduce people, at a foundational level, to an understanding of God that is thoroughly shaped by an emphasis upon Who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and allow that Grace filled, relational life to bleed through all that you teach into the people’s lives in your churches. There is a better way, theologically, than TGC offers.

 

“Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. It contradicts it”: Barth’s Critique of Religion as Unbelief

Religion, a term bandied around by many. It is a word people use frequently, but aren’t totally sure what they mean by it. It has a cultural context, informed by an “understood” or colloquial meaning that is probably fleeting for most. If we were to go out on the street and survey people, we’d get a variety of responses; probably having something to do with “organized religion,” versus “unorganized” (whatever that might mean). The Epistle of James speaks about a genuine and true religion; which is to pay attention to the poor and widows among us. In this sense, religion is seemingly given shape by a prior ethical demand that is met when the “religious” go and do. But what is it that gives the Christian religion its shape; is it primarily a ‘moral imperative?’ Should we, as Christians, refer to our ‘faith’ as ‘religion?’ Does religion itself contain an a priori commitment to a ‘before’ God; that is does religion inherently operate with a sense of humanity’s own capacity to approach God, whoever that God might be?

Karl Barth is critical of any form of ‘religion.’ He sees religion as unbelief, as an attempt by human communities to reach out to God from their own resource, context, and circumstance. As such, he sees God come in Christ as a contradiction to all religions, even Christian expressions. This, I think, is right! But rather than falling prey to the common evangelical refrain of: ‘it’s a relationship not a religion,’ Barth, unsurprisingly, focuses on God’s Self-revelation; he sees Godself as the contradiction to all forms of human attempts to reach Him from their own capaciousness. There is a subtlety to this that I think might be lost on various Christian traditions. I think it would be safe to say that Christians, of all expressions, in good-faith, believe that they are operating from a place of submission to God; that they aren’t engaging in “religious” behavior, per se. But I wonder if this is actually the case? I mean, when we think about theological methodology, is it the case that the Christian traditions, and the Christian Tradition actually operates in and from a place where they are actually committed to a mode that, de jure, is seeking God’s living voice (viva vox Dei) prior to elevating their own? Barth writes:

The image of God is always that reality of perception or thought in which man assumes and asserts something unique and ultimate and decisive either beyond or within his own existence, by which he believes himself to be posited or at least determined and conditioned. From the standpoint of revelation, man’s religion is simply an assumption and assertion of this kind, and as such it is an activity which contradicts revelation—contradicts it, because it is only through truth that truth can come to man. If man tries to grasp at truth of himself, he tries to grasp at it a priori. But in that case he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he talks. If he did, he would accept a gift; but religion he takes something for himself. If he did, he would let God Himself intercede for God: but in religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief, i.e., an attitude and activity which is directly opposed to faith. It is a feeble but defiant, an arrogant but hopeless, attempt to create something which man could do, but now cannot do, or can do only because and if God Himself creates it for him: the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God. We cannot, therefore, interpret the attempt as a harmonious co-operating of man with the revelation of God, as though religion were a kind of outstretched hand which is filled by God in His revelation. Again, we cannot say of the evident religious capacity of man that it is, so to speak, the general form of human knowledge, which acquires its true and proper content in the shape of revelation. On the contrary, we have here an exclusive contradiction. In religion man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute, by taking away in advance the very thing which has to be given by God.

Non apprehendunt (Deum) qualem se offert, sed qualem pro temeritate fabricati sunt, imanginantur [They do not accept (God) as He offers Himself, but they imagine Him, rashly, to be as they have made him (Calvin, Instit. I, 4, 1)

He has, of course, the power to do this. But what he achieves and acquires in virtue of this power is never the knowledge of God as Lord and God. It is never the truth. It is a complete fiction, which has not only little but not relation to God. It is an anti-God who has first to be known as such and discarded when the truth comes to him. But it can be known as such, as a fiction, only as the truth does come to him.

Notitia Dei, quails hominibus restat, nihil aliud est, qualm horrenda idololatriae et superstitionum omnium scaturigo [The knowledge of God, as it is now among men, is nothing other than an abhorrent source of idolatry and all superstitions] (Calvin, Comm. on Jn. 3.6, C.R. 47, 57)

Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. It contradicts it, just as religion previously contradicted revelation. It displaces it, just as religion previously displaced revelation; just as faith cannot link up with a mistaken faith, but must contradict and displace it as unbelief, as an act of contradiction.[1]

We might say religion was invented the moment Eve reached down to pluck the forbidden fruit. The moment Eve and Adam plunged their teeth into that seductive produce human religion was seeded. It is only the invasion of God’s alien life in Christ wherein this root is dug out, and replaced with the seed of His life; it is here where religion is confronted, contradicted, and displaced with the only reality that can meet the human need for worship and purpose.

Barth’s critique of religion, if ever needed, is now! I write from the North American evangelical context. It feels as if we are so wayward from the living reality of God that we wouldn’t recognize Christ’s voice if it confronted us to our faces. If Barth ever needed an example of the sort of religion he is thinking of, then he needn’t look any further than the American evangelical church. She is awash in the grasping that Barth rightfully identifies as the definition of religion. The evangelical Church in America has lost her first love, and unless she is open to the Revelation of God in Christ she will never find her way back. But she has also lost the concept of Revelation; that concept in itself is ostensibly too deep for the evangelical mind these days. Kyrie eleison!

[1]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2 §17: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 105-06.

‘The Love of Many Has Grown Cold’: Bowing the Knee to the Lord Jesus as Our Life and Witness

This world is descending quickly; further and further into the abyss of chaos and destruction. It doesn’t seem to me, that what counts as Christianity today, in our Western enclaves of evangelicalism, has the capacity to cope with what’s going on anymore. It has lost any fortitude to stand in the power of God in Christ just as it has traded its birthright, won by the person and work of Christ, for the pottage of slop that the world has offered it in exchange. The pottage is filled with a God who looks nothing like the One we see in Jesus Christ, instead it looks like the person we stare at in the mirror every morning we wake up.

I was just involved in a thread yesterday, on Facebook, where I was ruthlessly belittled and vitriolically attacked simply because I offered an alternative position to the one that was being advocated for via satire. The audience in this group of people are largely “conservative evangelicals,” and yet their ‘love has grown very cold’; if in fact they’ve ever had that love. So, that’s one thing, but on the other hand we just are waking up to the horrific reality of the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooter is a self-proclaimed eco-fascist who would like nothing more, but to start a race and arms civil-war in the United States (thus triggering a global conflict); with the goal of thrusting us further into the cesspool this world currently lives in, even if it attempts to gloss it over through the various idolatrous facades we have available to us.

As you might be able to tell I am rather agitated. I am at a total loss. I am fully disillusioned by not only the chaos currently present in the world system, but in the chaos that is present in the evangelical churches. People are not being taught Christ and Him crucified; they are not being taught that Jesus is LORD, that Jesus is Lord and they are not! People have no fortification in themselves, because they seemingly are not being taught that God in Christ, the One who alone has an indestructible Life, is the esse or source of their life; and thus they simply cave into the most primal instincts of their fallen nature as they require resource to face the evil in the world out there; and the evil ‘in there,’ in their hearts. The Church is seemingly in full-on idolatry mode and have fallen for their fallen-selves rather than the One who has raised them from the dead in His new humanity. If Christians don’t know this, how are they to live this; how are they to be salt and light in a world that is in a flaming relationship with the devil himself? Christians, in the main, just as anyone, experience the fall-out that is currently ravaging this world; but if they cannot recognize the Shepherd’s voice among the many hirelings, then all they will really have left is their own voice who they will and do mistake for the Shepherd’s.

I am thoroughly agitated at the moment; and for good reason! Jesus say’s in Luke ‘will I really find faith on the earth when I return?’ Probably not. It doesn’t seem as if people understand that their voices only matter insofar as they are bearing witness to the reality of the living Savior; social media has falsely inflated the importance of all our voices. We have no voice without Christ’s! This is what Barth so eloquently fleshes out for us as he talks about the reality of the Church, and our reality in it; in Christ. He writes:

A second meaning of the description of the Church as Christ’s body is undoubtedly this: that the repetition of the incarnation of the Word of God in the historical existence of the Church excludes at once any possible autonomy in that existence. The Church lives with Christ as the body with its head. This means that the Church is what it is, because in consequence of what human nature and kind became in Jesus Christ, human nature and kind are made obedient to the eternal Word of the Father and are upheld by that Word. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (fellowship) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10.16f)? In and by this participation the Church lives. It lives by the fact that within it as the circumference nothing happens except a real repetition of what has happened in its midst, in Jesus Christ, to men and for men. It lives by growing up to him who is the head, Christ (Eph. 4.15), i.e. by receiving its whole existence, comfort and direction from Him and only from Him. He is always the subject of the Church. “What believest thou concerning the holy, universal, Christian Church? That the Son of God out of the whole human race gathereth, guardeth and sustaineth for himself an unworldly Church unto eternal life, by his spirit and word in unity with true faith from the beginning of the world unto the end, and that I am and shall eternally remain a living member of the same” (Heid. Cat. qu. 54). Our Lord Jesus Christ does not give us some instructions, like some-one teaching the alphabet to a child, and then gives him to a more excellent teacher. Our Lord does not speak to us in half-measures, but in complete perfection, such that both in life and death, he makes us persist in that which we have from Him, and to renounce that which comes from men. For there is no mixing without corruption . . . It is necessary that the Church be fortified such that Jesus Christ our head always has preeminence. For one wished to exalt men that Jesus Christ was thereby obscured, that would be a fearful construction, and which would bring only ruin and confusion. And in fact, if a man were to become as large as a pillar in this temple, and his head was like a fist, and it was concealed within his shoulders, that would be a monster. It would be much better that he keep the measure common to all (Calvin, Serm. on Gal. 1.11f, 1557; C. R. Calv. 50, 329 f.). “Asketh thou what the Christian Church thou must seek, not that it lie at Rome or at St. James or at Nuremberg or at Wittenberg or among countryfolk, townsfolk or nobility, but it saith, ‘the government shall be upon His shoulders’ … that a right Christian and true member of the Churches is he who believeth that he sitteth upon Christ’s shoulders, that is, that all his sins are hung on Christ’s neck, so that his heart saith, I known no other comfort save that all my sins and misdeeds are laid upon His shoulders. Therefore those who lie on Christ’s shoulders and let themselves be carried by Him, are called and are the Church and proper Christians” (Luther, Pred. üb. Jes. 9. 1 f., 1532. E.A. 6, 59 f.). Therefore, the right order of confession requires that the Church be subordinated to the Trinity, just as a house is to its dweller and the temple to God and state to its founder . . . Therefore neither the whole, nor any part of it should wish to be worshipped instead of God, nor should anything be God which belongs to the temple of God which was built by the gods, which the unmade God made (Augustine, Enchir. 56).[1]

If the Church, and its individual members (I Cor. 12.27) cannot come to terms with the reality that Jesus is Lord, and they are not, then we can count on our ‘love growing cold’ to the point that we seemingly are starting to see in our social-media culture. If Jesus were to come right now (please, Lord!), would He really find faith in His churches? In my experience the answer, in the main, is a resounding NO!

If Christians don’t realize that the source of their life is Christ, then how are they supposed to bear witness to this reality in the world; or even in the Church at large? The love of many has grown cold indeed. People have conflated the simplicity of the true Christ with a different Jesus (II Cor. 11) and called Him Lord. There is no love available there; only self-aggrandizement and the exaltation of the naveled-self as Lord. There is no power for “Christians” living under these sorts of anti-Christ terms, and as such there is no light to shed on the darkness we are plunging further and further into each day. The Church is to have a leavening effect on the culture; in this world system. It cannot nor will not till it starts to live in repentant-living; she isn’t, and probably won’t unfortunately. There is a corresponding relationship between the love of many growing cold, and the darkness we see on the rise as a result.

Pastors are responsible for proclaiming Christ and Him crucified to their congregants; this is a weighty responsibility for which there is stricter judgment coming. Pastors, and those of us who ‘teach,’ are responsible before God for the souls of those under our care. There is a general failure underway, especially in the evangelical churches, such that any ‘power of God’ we might participate in and with through Christ is absent. The absence of power in the Churches to live holy and bold lives before God in Christ, are directly corollary with our unwillingness to recognize that Jesus is Lord; in our unwillingness to live in obedience to Him.

My experience yesterday on Facebook, and now this shooting in New Zealand (not equating them, per se) has only illustrated to me once more how urgent things are! There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency among the people of God. The churches seem to be stagnating with no real power in the world at large; or even in their own homes and personal lives. There seems to be a lack of living into and for the ‘Great Commission’ that our Lord has commanded we follow Him in as He seeks to save the least and the lost. Lord! Maranatha

[1] Barth, CD I/2 §16, 14-5 [italics mine — these are the Latin phrases in their English translation].

Knowledge of God and His Holiness Brings Knowledge of Self: Learning How to Live a Counter-Cultural Life from the Culture of Heaven

I have been thinking lately about how easily we, as Christians, are seduced into the ways of the ‘world’; even when we are vigilantly attempting to live sanctified lives unto God. It is seemingly impossible to not be enculturated, at some level, to the point that our guard is taken down and the world system then seeps into the pores of our lives such that we become blind to the stark reality of God’s otherness and holiness; the holiness that He requires us to live into: ‘Be Holy as I am Holy.’ So what’s our hope? Can we have a daily knowledge of God which keeps us from being sucked into the ‘ways of the world,’ such that we have the capacity to not just resist, but discern the various snares set for us by the enemy of our souls?

John Calvin in the very opening of his Institute of the Christian Religion famously offers his thoughts on knowledge of God and knowledge of self. I think his words are a helpful way to think about our position before God, and how it is that we come to have a genuine knowledge of ourselves; just as we come to have a genuine knowledge of God through union with Christ. I want to suggest that it is as we inhabit this frame, on a daily basis, that we will come to have the proper perspective for doing ‘battle’ in a world system that seeks, at every turn, to take us captive to do its will rather than God’s. Calvin writes (in the 1541, French version of his Institute):

For this pride is rooted in all of us, that it always seems to us that we are just and truthful, wise and holy, unless we are convicted by clear evidence of our unrighteousness, lies, madness, and uncleanness. For we are not convinced if we look only at ourselves and not equally at the Lord, who is the unique rule and standard to which this judgment must be conformed. For since we are all naturally inclined to hypocrisy, an empty appearance of righteousness quite satisfies us instead of the truth; and since there is nothing at all around us which is not greatly contaminated, what is a little less dirty is received by us as very pure, so long as we are happy with the limits of our humanity which is completely polluted. Just as the eye which looks at nothing but black-colored things judges something that is a poor white color, or even half-gray, to be the whitest thing in the world. It is also possible to understand better how much we are deceived in our measure of the powers of the soul, by an analogy from physical sight. For if in broad daylight we look down at the earth, or if we look at the things around us, we think that our vision is very good and clear. But when we lift our eyes directly to the sun, the power which was evident on the earth is confounded and blinded by such a great light, so that we are obliged to admit that the good vision with which we look at earthly things is very weak when we look at the sun. The same thing happens when we measure our spiritual abilities. For as long as we do not consider more than earthly matters we are very pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, and flatter and praise ourselves, and thus come close to considering ourselves half divine. But if we once direct our thought to the Lord and recognize the perfection of His righteousness, wisdom, and power (the rule and standard by which we must measure), what pleased us before under the guise of righteousness will appear dirtied with very great wickedness; what deceived us so wondrously under the guise of wisdom will appear to be extreme madness; what had the appearance of power will be shown to be miserable weakness: so it is when what seemed most perfect in us is compared with God’s purity.[1]

Calvin’s thought here is a prescient word for our current moment in world history. As Christians, in the main, we have firmly planted our feet on the slippery slope of cultural appropriation to the point that genuine encounter with the living God has become fleeting; instead we typically end up encountering self-projections who we have conflated with divinity.

Some may read these words from Calvin, and read: Legalism or nomism. But if that’s the conclusion then Calvin’s point is only proven, not repudiated. Christians are so afraid of being legalists, that they’ve lost sight of the demand of God to be holy as He is Holy. Christians, unfortunately, have wrongly read legalism and God’s holiness and purity together; but this couldn’t be further from the reality. Legalism is a man-made standard, the very standard Calvin is attempting to marginalize and undercut, that elevates human-centered wisdom and righteousness to divine status, and then, if at all, attempts to live up to this artificial standard to achieve favor before God and men. But this is all wrong, as Calvin so insightfully identifies. God’s holiness is sui generis, it is of another sort; another world even. God’s holiness is set apart by His eternal Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in interpenetrative union. This is the knowledge that sets us free to see ourselves as we are; this is the knowledge that undoes our artificial systems of right and wrong. It is a knowledge of God that sets us free to see the world as it is, as God sees it for us in Christ; a world that, in God’s economy has come to have a cruciform shape, such that to think God rightly first requires a daily reckoning of ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in and from Christ.

It is possible to maneuver the terrain of the current world system as a Christian, and not be fully sublimated by the seductive siren calls of its minions of “light.” But it requires the sort of knowledge Calvin alerts us to. It requires a daily battle that we ourselves have no strength to fight; so it requires that we actively recognize our passive posture before God, with the hope that He, in His mercy, will supply us with the grace sufficient for us to see as He sees. It seems that, by-and-large, the church, even the so called evangelical churches, is failing at this in radical ways. If we are going to be ‘saved’ we must have to do with the real and living God, not with a god who is a manifest destiny of our own making. This is the challenge that Calvin leaves us with: Are we going to battle to seek God while He may be found; are we going to wake up each morning, and reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ? It is only in this Spirit empowered mode of living coram Deo that the Christian will have the resource to be an ‘overcomer’ rather than someone overcome by this world system.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 24.

Pastors Will Be Held to a Higher Standard than Group Think; The Elder Said ‘God just is Wrath’: Miscellanies on FaceBook Posts

This post will attempt to expand and clarify upon two FaceBook posts that seemed to cause some people confusion and even consternation. I mean this is usually the case on such platforms, isn’t it? People share context-less anecdotes, or enthymemic notions that are usually sub a greater and more fulsome context of meaning. This post will attempt to provide some of that for these two little ‘posts.’ Here’s the first one:

Much theology is adopted for purposes of pastoral polity and expediency, not necessarily because it represents the best alternatives critically available.

What I had in mind with this one isn’t all that profound, but here’s the context of thought: Growing up as an evangelical Baptist Christian, particularly as a ‘pastor’s kid’, it has made me sensitive to trends in the evangelical churches; as I’m sure it has for many of us. As someone who has been trained formally to be involved in some sort of Christian ministry, and been involved in pastoral and evangelical ministry over the years, what I’ve come to recognize in the Free churches, is that they are largely driven by trends. Usually because of time and personnel constraints, which is almost always driven by fiscal issues, pastors and leadership teams in churches are simply attempting to stay afloat among the rigors of daily ministry. As a result, there isn’t seemingly a lot of time for doctrinal reflection or development, so they fall back on whatever their ‘denomination’ or ‘tradition’ has adopted or gravitated towards. In the baptistic oriented churches, if they are wanting some sort of doctrinal bases, they seemingly have looked to outlets and ministries like The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur’s ‘Grace to You’, Mark Dever’s 9Marks, or even Paul Washer (so on and so forth); but something in this range of theological trad. What, of course, is common to these various outlets is that they are largely shaped directly by what I call soteriological (versus Federal/Covenantal) Calvinism. But this is what is expedient and in the air for those who want to be doctrinally astute, at least at some level. So, the churches are being fed this sort of theological fare, whether that be in a more aggressive or passive way, respectively.

This is really all I was getting at with my FB post. Most local churches, for mostly administrative reasons, and then the way that pastors are trained to think to be pastors these days, are caught in this doctrinal web. If not, then they’ve caught other trends, like: moralistic therapeutic deism, self-help, seeker sensitive, market-based churching. But my basic premise is: That churches, largely because of their pastor[s], end up going along with theological group-think, rather than being critically reflective on what in fact the Bible might actually teach; and then the attending theological grammar and thought that comes along with that. Pastors will be held to a higher standard than ‘group think.’

My second post was this (this one was more doctrinally focused):

We attended a church for a while where one of the elders, as he was going to lead us in prayer stated: we just thank God for His wrath. Everything has a theological background. Do you want to guess the theological background that would lead someone to say something like this, in an abstraction?

Knowing me, this one should be pretty clear already. The theological background I’m referring to is classical Calvinism, of the sort we’ve already mentioned in the last explanation. The stunning thing to me about this pronouncement, from this elder, was that there was no qualification. He just got up, and as a matter of fact, he simply stated what I’ve noted; I’d never heard, not even a Calvinist be so blatant in language like this before (that was actually our last Sunday at this church). Does God have wrath? Yes, but in the sense noted by Thomas Torrance:

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]

Or in the Barthian sense that God in Christ is the Judge, judged. The point being that God’s first Word of wrath is one of love. He first loved us that we might love Him, and in this God’s wrath begins to make theological sense. To simply state that we thank God for his wrath without explicitly grounding that first in His life of triune love gives the impression that God just is wrathful, full stop. But we know that this isn’t the case. We know who God is first, as Athanasius says (paraphrase): as Father of the Son; we know Him filially, and familially, as a child knows their parent—but in a primal, ultimate way. To unhinge God’s wrath from His love, from His being that is shaped by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to give the people a No-God; at least not a God who the Christian first has come to know as their Lord and Savior.

Clearly, there is an interpretive tradition this particular elder has been formed by; one that I’ve spilled much cyber-ink over. What this elder illustrated for me once again, is that theologies have consequences; of the sort that could potentially destroy people’s recognition of the true and living God; the God Christians only know, by definition, through the biblical reality who is the Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

 

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

Karl Barth is a Better Resource for Evangelicals Than Protestant Orthodoxy: Some Personal Miscellanies

I wanted to write a post on Karl Barth, off the top; which I like to do every now and then. Karl Barth for the evangelical has been a balm; at least for this evangelical. Some say that Barth, at least socio-politically, is more radical and progressive than many of us evangelicals; and this may well be so in some pointed ways (but not in general ways, I’d gather). But of course, that wasn’t the first hook for me when it came to Barth, the first hanger for me was and continues to be theological. It is here where I would argue, at great length!, that Barth’s theology is fitted to the evangelical impulse much better than what is being currently excavated by evangelicals today. I grew up in the Free church Baptistic (Baptist even) tradition, and in this tradition, we had certain contours of thought funding our conception of God and all things corollary. Primary of which can be captured in the children’s Sunday School song (which Barth famously responded with at a heady theological conference): Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. All the hallmark touchstones present in the Protestant Reformation are represented in that little song; i.e. the Bible, Jesus pro me, and God’s love (which implies a Trinitarian frame). Also present in the tenor of that song is the warm-hearted piety which funds much of the 20th century North American evangelicalism I was birthed into and formed by early on. Barth’s theology encapsulates and develops these sorts of themes in deep and theologically rich ways. These are some reasons why I was attracted to Barth’s theology, and why I would argue his theology is better suited for evangelicals than is the 16th and 17th century school theology of Protestant orthodoxy. It isn’t that the Protestant orthodox theology isn’t inextricably informative to Barth’s own theology, it actually is! It is just that Barth, in my view, does a better job of retrieving this theology, in constructive mode, in such a way that coalesces with the evangelical mood (that I’m aware of), than does the sort of repristination of that that is happening in the work of folks like Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Richard Muller et al.

Before this digresses into a polemical post, let me turn back to the positives of Barth’s theology, that have captured and captivated me for many years now. The primary hook for me—which I’ve mentioned before—is Barth’s reformulation of election/predestination. His, of course, is a Christ concentrated reification of double predestination wherein the eternal Logos, God’s Son, is not only the electing God, but the elected human for us. As such He assumes our humanity for Himself, and gives us His elect humanity which is realized in the resurrection and the ‘wonderful exchange’ (mirifica commutatio) II Cor. 8.9. There is more to unpacking Barth’s reformulation, but in a nutshell, this brought me into the influence of his theology. I could never accept the ‘classical’ idea of double predestination and election/reprobation therein; you know, the idea that God arbitrarily chooses particular individuals for eternal bliss, and the others (the majority of the world) he either passively or actively damns to an eternal hell (over their heads, without them even knowing any of this has happened before it’s too late). What allows Barth’s reformulation to work is that he eschews the Aristotelian metaphysics that funds the Protestant orthodox conception of double predestination, and the theory of causation therein, and opts for what came to be called ‘dialectical theology.’

Dialectical theology, or what can also be termed dialogical theology, is also another hook for me, when it comes to Barth’s theology. This mode of thinking moves beyond the typical boundaries set by analytical strictures, and allows the Christian thinker to think anew from the ‘rationality’ set down by the Gospel reality itself. This reality isn’t one that is ‘naturally’ discoverable in a pure nature, but instead it is sui generis, it is a ratio or logic that is recognized by faith; it is a ratio that comes with the Grace of the Gospel, as such it is relationally (analogia relationis) and thus dialogically oriented. Its orientation, in other words, is one that is grounded in God’s free choice to be for us and with and not against us in Jesus Christ. This sort of theology, grounded in the non-analogous reality of the Incarnation, necessarily is one that is driven by the event and ongoing encounter of this event of God’s life for us in the face of the risen Christ. In other words, it is a theology shaped by an I/Thou relationship; first and foremost, grounded in the eternal bond and singular person of Jesus Christ and the fellowship He has always already shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit. The character of this sort of theology, because of its relational nature, seeks to think its thoughts and articulate its words only after attentively listening to God speak; and only after the disciple has spoken to this God (in other words, it is a theology based in prayerful posture and life).

Another reason Barth’s theology is so significant to me is because of its Apocalyptical shape. In other words, Barth’s theology is grounded in the concept of God’s invading grace in Christ. As such, there is nothing stable in ‘this world,’ or ‘this creation,’ except for the fact that God’s Grace becomes present, afresh and anew in the encounter we (as Christians) have with Him in the parousia of Jesus Christ; something that for the intentioned Christian happens on a moment by moment and daily basis. Some might protest that this makes Barth’s theology a purely existentialist theology, but this would miss the definitive role that the doctrine of election plays in Barth’s theology; it would also misunderstand just how radical Barth’s overture was against the genuinely existentialist theology of his own day (and what he indeed was reacting against). Barth grounds His theology in the objective reality of who God is, as such, it is a theology from above, but one that is experienced from below as that comes to us in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is this coming that grounds the new-creation through which the Christian can think God in the world; and at the same time recognize the fact that God is antecedent and thus distinct from the world He has come to reconcile unto Himself (thus honoring the Creator/creature distinction). But it is this sort of ‘apocalyptic’ in-breaking that shaped Barth’s theology; one that grounds theological reflection in the eschatos of God’s life in Christ, and keeps the disciple vulnerable to God’s voice and wit rather than their own.

These are some of the reasons Barth’s theology has been and remains attractive to me. This was all off the top and very quick; too quick. But these represent some of my unpolished thoughts, and thus impulses that subconsciously drive me on a daily basis as a Christian. In other words, I have so internalized much of this thinking that it plays itself out in my daily Christianity. In other words, I have tacit thoughts floating around in my head and heart that have taken shape over years of reflection that help fund my Christian life and well-being. And at one time these thoughts were only tacit impulses, indeed; it wasn’t until I ran into Barth that these impulses were given words and a grammar to think from in more intentional and articulate ways. Solo Christo