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.

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

Rachael Denhollander and Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Like many of you, most likely, I watched Rachael Denhollander’s powerful testimony and statement made at Larry Nassar’s sentencing for his molestation of not only her but of more than a hundred other USA Gymnasts; he was the team doctor. Denhollander, I’ve since found out, is now a lawyer, and I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that she was largely motivated to become a lawyer to pursue Nassar through legal means (I’m sure there is more to her choice to become a lawyer than that). Be that as it may, Nassar was sentenced to over a hundred years for his molestation of countless young female gymnasts under his care for years and years; but he did not leave the courtroom without hearing from many of his victims, and not without hearing most eloquently and forcefully from Rachael Denhollander herself (she was the first one, as I understand it, to break her silence about Nassar and bring charges against him).

Someone else shared a link to this story on Facebook, and here is what I shared there:

It sounds like she has been reading Luther. I watched the video of this earlier (TGC shared it). It is powerful; her words are cutting and right; and she deploys Law/Gospel in a way that I think would make Luther, if not the Apostle Paul proud. Beyond that, it is sobering to hear the power of God—the Gospel—proclaimed in such a context as this.

If you listen, or read her statement you might see why I was left with this impression. Here is the full transcript of the pertinent part of her statement to Dr. Larry Nassar:

You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.

Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says:

My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?

Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.

When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love. Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity you for it. You could have had everything you pretended to be. Every woman who stood up here truly loved you as an innocent child, real genuine love for you, and it did not satisfy.

I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing, and I pity you for it.

I have been there for young gymnasts and helped them transform from awkward little girls to graceful, beautiful, confident athletes and taken joy in their success because I wanted what was best for them. And this is a joy you have cut yourself off from forever because your desire to help was nothing more than a facade for your desire to harm.

I have lived the deep satisfaction of wrapping my small children up in my arms and making them feel safe and secure because I was safe, and this is a rich joy beyond what I can express, and you have cut yourself off from it, because you were not safe. And I pity you for that.

In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.[1]

The reason her statement brought Martin Luther’s Law/Gospel and theology of cross thinking to mind, primarily, is because I just finished reading Mark Mattes’s really good book on Luther’s theology of beauty: Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. Let me share an excerpt, and section that I think is pertinent and corollary with the sentiment that Denhollander expressed in her statement to Nassar. Mattes writes this of Luther’s theology:

Already in Luther’s early theology of humility we see the beginnings of what would be his unique approach to theology: God must kill us as sinners before he makes us alive as new creatures, ones with clean hearts. God forensically regards those who are nothing on the basis of their own merit as the raw material of his new creation. Luther’s whole approach in the theology of humility is one increasingly governed by a forensic approach to the human relationship with God. That is, what counts in the human relationship with God is how God evaluates us. As we admit our nothingness, so are we embraced by God. Through his study of specific mystics, such as Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300–1361), Luther claimed that the core Christian identity before God—as all human identity—is one that is wholly passive. New creations are active with respect to their fellow creatures, their neighbors, by serving others in their need, but before God they know that they are entirely receivers. Hence, the humility of the earliest phase of Luther’s theological career is transformed over time into a theology of the cross, Through various “trials and sufferings” and the accusing voice of the law, God is crucifying the old Adam or Eve so that humans lose confidence in the old being’s claims for its own self-deification and ability to control life. As a result, sinners put their trust in God’s goodness—and beauty—granted in Jesus Christ. But such beauty is hidden. It is grasped by the eyes of faith alone. Smug sinners appear to their own thinking as beautiful but in fact coram deo are ugly. Accused by God’s law, repentant Christians know their complete dependence on Christ, who before the world had “no form or comeliness” (Isa. 53:2 KJV) but who grants them the beauty of his righteousness. Such beauty is trust in God’s word, which as law reduces sinners to their nothingness and as gospel allows them to claim Christ’s righteousness of their own. Thus, rid of self-justifying egocentrism as definitive of the core of their being, they live extrinsically, outside themselves, first in Christ in whom their confidence is centered, but also in their neighbor in whose service they now become “Christs.”[2]

All of the themes we see in Luther’s theology we see Rachael Denhollander hit upon and emphasize in her statement to Nassar. Her statement bore witness to a power not her own, but one that is contingent upon the power of Godself; the power of the Gospel. We see her statement emphasizing the work of the Law, but then the Gospel; we see goodness and beauty hit upon in Rachael’s statement in contrast to the ugliness that the Law reveals. Her statement was powerful because it did not mitigate the reality of what happened, it did not wash away what Nassar did (indeed it magnified it), but it became powerful the moment repentance and the Gospel were elevated as “greater thans” than the evil Larry Nassar perpetrated upon these innocent young girls. The Gospel ultimately brings life, not death; but it doesn’t pretend like death and its ugliness is not a reality, nor present. The Gospel magnifies the ugliness of sin and death by providing light and exposure that the darkness of sin and death cannot finally overcome. This is what Denhollander’s statement eloquently underscored and communicated; it communicated the power of God, the Gospel; and it allowed Rachael to become a “Christ” to Nassar and the watching world.

[1]Source. [emboldening mine]

[2] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 85-6.

Rachael Denhollander and Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

“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.

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

‘The Greatest Threat to Faith Today is not Hedonism but Distraction’: ‘Being Human’

The following quote from Andrew Sullivan[1] might sound, at a theological level, rather pelagian; but I think it represents some rather good cultural commentary on where the church is at in the 21st century—particularly for those of us in low church North American evangelicalism. Sullivan’s article, from which the following quote is taken, is a lament on the devastating effects the smartphone beinghumanculture has had on western societies; he calls it “living-in-the-web.” He is lamenting the impact that technology has had upon the human psyche, such that quiet places and silence (in our heads) is a thing of the past. Indeed, Sullivan himself, refers to himself as a social-media addict, and he actually went to “treatment” to disabuse himself of it (which cost him money, since he made money as a social-media and business personality). What I found striking about his critique was how he applied it, in the following paragraph, to the church; as an evangelical this insight hits very close to home, and resonates deeply with my own lived experience. Sullivan writes:

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.[2]

There has, of course, been a kind of movement called ancient church that has indeed attempted to resource some of these types of contemplative and even mystical spaces from the past. But of course, when something like that is artificially generated, among evangelicals in my case, it loses that actual space we are seeking; it becomes all too self-focused, and identity driven. Anyway, I thought Sullivan’s point about ‘distraction’ versus ‘hedonism’ was a valid one; even if the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the way he seems to intimate.

 

[1] H/T: Jason Goroncy, he shared the link to Sullivan’s article via his blog in his post: ‘i used to be a human being.’

[2] Andrew Sullivan, I Used to be a Human Being, accessed online 10-22-2016.

‘The Greatest Threat to Faith Today is not Hedonism but Distraction’: ‘Being Human’

Some Thoughts on Planned Parenthood and Its Reception

The Center for Medical Progress’ YouTube video featuring an undercover meeting with the director of Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, has stunned many today (July 14th, 20015). In the video The Center for Medical Progress dispatched two actors who posed as interested buyers of aborted fetus (baby) body parts. In the video, Nucatola plannedmakes very clear that Planned Parenthood is in such a business, and that it would be no problem for them (PP) to provide these buyers with whatever body parts these potential “buyers” wanted (including livers, hearts, and various other tissues and organs).

And of course, rightly so, this video has once again reminded everyone what we have learnt to live with ever since Roe V. Wade and the legalization of abortion. We know it is there (abortion); we know millions upon millions of babies are being mutilated and murdered every year through abortion, but it is as if, as if to cope, we have collectively attempted to not dwell on what appears to be an impossible evil to ever overcome (through legal maneuvering etc.). And so when confronted, once again, with this kind of reprehensible darkness that clouds our nation (among many other evils), we shudder in horror and disbelief. We call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood by our government, and act once again as if we never realized that the trafficking of human body parts and tissues hasn’t been an ongoing reality in the abortion industry.

It is this that I am trying to highlight in this post; this idea that we as evangelical Christians are somehow shocked in horrid disbelief. As if we never realized that such things took place, and now as a result of this video we ought to push for the defunding of Planned Parenthood! Are you kidding me?! Yes, I agree, Planned Parenthood ought to be defunded, and they ought to be thrown into jail, all of them, as mass murderers. Planned Parenthood’s history started with its founder Margaret Sanger, and her eugenic vision of sanitizing the world of all of the unlovely and unwanted. Sanger wrote, “The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”[1] Planned Parenthood’s very genesis has been rooted in systemic evil and Darwinian social ethics (thus eugenics) from the very beginning; Sanger’s vision was to erase the world of the poor and weak among us (you know ‘survival of the fittest’). So it only makes sense that a century later that the organization that she founded has come full circle and devised the most heinous and calloused of ways of not only exterminating the weakest and most vulnerable among us (the unborn baby), but that they have also figured out to make a major profit off of it; not only by procuring Federal (tax) funded monies, but also, as this undercover video reveals, by way of selling fetuses and babies (their body parts, tissues, etc.) to the highest bidders.

Again, I simply wonder though why this is surprising to any evangelical Christian. We have all known that this has been the ugly reality (in regard to Planned Parenthood) for years and years. Yes, we might be being confronted once again with the repulsive reality that we would rather not dwell upon, but I guess I just don’t understand the shock and awe and apparent surprise of all of this. I guess the best thing that this video can do is once again reignite the drive and motivation in all of us who claim to be pro-life to give this reality its rightful attention once again! At the very most it ought to cause us to pray to God to have mercy on us, and most importantly upon these unborn babies who are being slaughtered and mutilated in holocaustic form right in front of our faces everyday!
[1] Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race  (Eugenics Publ. Co., 1920, 1923).

 

Some Thoughts on Planned Parenthood and Its Reception

It is Okay to be Shocked at SCOTUS’s Decision on Gay Marriage

SCOTUS’s (Supreme Court of the United States) decision to federally legalize gay marriage has radically changed everything. The response to it from Christians (evangelicals primarily, my tribe) has been mixed. The mixed response is somewhat understandable given the gravitas of this situation, and what it means for humankind (not an overstatement I don’t think). It is this response that I want to reflect on throughout the remainder of this post.

The primary response I have been seeing on social media, in particular, is somewhat disappointing to me. Personally I am an in an utter state of shock still; I think the ramifications of what just happened were a tipping point of biblical proportions. And yet the response I have seen from many evangelicals has been to simply take it in stride as if we all should have saw this coming. I find this response to be disappointing because it reflects an attitude of conditioning; conditioning by the culture in which we live, and it is this kind of attitude that I would say culturally has contributed to the culture we live in today in the USA. It is an attitude of indifference, defeatism, and really one, as I see it, of attempting to cope with the reality on the ground. So this is one response, and I think it is wrong!

Another response can be typified by Christianity Today’s response to it. Again, this is similar to the first response I just noted; there seems to be a desire to cope with the reality on the ground, but not a desire to confront it. What I gathered from the Christianity Today article on this was that they believe we live in a pluralistic society and so the best way for us to cope with that is to learn how to co-exist with others in a respectful manner. I do agree that we need to be respectful of others, and that we shouldn’t elevate homosexual sin to a level that makes it different than other sins (which was also part of the CT’s piece and point in their article). But I found CT’s response all too typical of the kind of bland vanilla response (in tone) that I have become all too used to as an evangelical Christian in North America.

I think the response should be one of shock! It is okay to be shocked at sin. I think we need to be that frog who jumped out of the kettle through looking to Jesus Christ and his Word, and understand that we are not of this world; we are for it in Christ, but indeed, in Christ. And I think this is really the problem; not the ‘in Christ’ part, but the part where the evangelical church has been conditioned so much, and learned how to cope so much, that things like the legalization of gay marriage simply become something we weren’t shocked by, or something that we need to learn how to co-exist with. Neither of these things are true! We are to be light in the world, exposing the darkness through our witness to Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4). True, we don’t want to elevate particular sins to an elevated level, but when a particular sin becomes a systemic reality (like homosexuality), then we ought to, as Christians, as light, articulate how and why this is incommensurate with the way the LORD ordered his reality, his creation.

The basic point I am wanting to get across is that it is okay to be shocked! Who cares if you saw this coming, who cares about coping with it; we don’t want to blunt God’s holiness, and when we simply nod our heads at stuff going on in society (like because we feel defeated), we are not reflecting the actual reality. The actual reality is that Jesus has overcome this world, he appeared to destroy the works of the flesh and the devil, and we must resist then these demonic attitudes that have us simply wanting to cope or coexist with the way of the culture. We are part of a Kingdom that is unmovable, unshakeable; if so, it is okay to be shocked at a culture that is on the move, and moving at a pace (away from God) that is quickly heading to destruction (or in fact is living from it).

It is Okay to be Shocked at SCOTUS’s Decision on Gay Marriage

Deus dixit ‘God has Spoken’. The Antidote to Evangelical and ‘Liberal’ Apologetics Alike

Is there a place for Christian apologetics? I grew up (and still largely culturewarsinhabit) in the North American evangelical sub-culture where J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, along with the fellows of the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design are common fare. I grew up where a whole hermeneutic developed out of an apologetic against the perceived threat of ‘Liberal’ higher criticism; a hermeneutic based upon positivism and empiricism (where biblical prophecy and its fulfillment become somewhat determinative towards proving the veracity of Scripture, etc.) – and of course there are more sophisticated developments, but still, along positivist lines, at least in response to the perceived threat of Enlightenment, rationalist higher criticism. So because of this I grew up in a Christian sub-culture that is always on the defense; always on the defense for God, as if God needs to be defended. But is this what God needs? And is this the best way to approach these types of macro-concerns, as if God needs us to be him (of our choosing, not his), to be who he is for us?

Swiss theologian Karl Barth doesn’t think so, and I have come to heartily agree with Barth on this issue. It isn’t a matter of being anti-intellectual; just the opposite! It is a matter of thinking ‘after God has spoken’ and as if he has before we start trying to speak for or about him. Barth grew up right in the heart of the development of so called ‘Liberal’ theology in World War I German theology; and his response (when he repented!) to ‘Liberal’ theology wasn’t to try and deconstruct it based upon its terms, but instead to turn to God and allow him to set his terms as the means and categories through which Barth was going to attempt to do his theological thinking and preaching. Barth writes:

In detail, of course, dogmatic thinking will everywhere be made up of partly historical, partly psychological, and partly philosophical elements. But if things are to be done aright we must never for a moment let these elements, the stocheia tou kosmou [Col. 2:8], become independent or a presupposition. In dogmatics we cannot for a moment think seriously in historical, psychological, or philosophical terms. We cannot fail to make Deus dixit the presupposition, or do so only questioningly or partially, trying to think our way up to God had not spoken, as though God were a problem and not the ground of all problems and also, whether we have eyes to see it or not, the solution to all problems. From the roots up dogmatic thinking is either kata ton Christon [Col. 2:8] or it is not dogmatic, theological thinking. Let us be on guard not against criticism or doubt or skepticism — these are not the enemies — but instead against apologetics, against trying to get at the matter by detours, as though God could be known without God, as though he could be the second thing, as though he were not already quite unambiguously the first.[1]

I would seriously submit that evangelical Christianity in North America is dying right before our very eyes for the reason that Barth identifies; even if Barth is talking about his attempt to do Christian Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) in a German theologically liberal context. Indeed; exactly. North American Evangelicalism continues on in the Fundamentalist heritage of its recent past; which means that it does theology and lives Christianly from the same pietistic inward turned individualistic premises that so called German theological liberalism lived from (or close enough).

The antidote to this is to REPENT! We need to turn to God, and think from Deus dixit (i.e. ‘God has spoken’) as the premise of our Christian lives. We don’t need to be apologetic about being ‘in Christ’. God is God. He works from what is perceived as weakness and foolishness (in the world); we don’t need to assert ourselves in order to think Christianly. It is okay to be laughed at when the one you are talking about, talking to, and proclaiming holds all of reality together by the Word of his power; remember Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’)!

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion. Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 289.

Deus dixit ‘God has Spoken’. The Antidote to Evangelical and ‘Liberal’ Apologetics Alike

Left Behind’s Theology?

October 3rd, 2014, the event everyone has been waiting for: Left Behind with Nicholas Cage will go live in a movie theater near you! What is all of the hype about in regard to the story line that funds the Left Behind movies and books (coauthored by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye)? Glad you asked. The story line behind Left Behind, in case you didn’t know, comes from a theological (and hermeneutical: biblical interpretive) approach called Classical Dispensationalism; which is always characterized by these component parts: Pretribulational view of the Rapture, and Premillennialism. Pretribulational rapture theory is what is most prominent, and indeed the very premise of the whole Left Behind empire; the theory is that Jesus will come secretly for his church and snatch her away (i.e. rapturo) to be with him during the 7 year tribulation period that various biblical exegetes believe will happen leading into the second coming of Jesus which will happen after all hell breaks loose on earth; when Jesus comes back, according to the Pretribulational view, it will be at this point that he sets up his millennial kingdom on earth (Revelation 20), where he will rule and reign for a literal 1,000 years with his glorified bride, the church, over the remnant of people who make it through the 7 year tribulation period. It will be during this period that the Davidic Covenant (II Sam. 7; etc.) will be literally fulfilled, and God’s first covenant people (his earthly people), the Jews will finally have what was promised to them: the Land.  These are the basic contours of thought behind the theology of Left Behind. Since the church, according to Pretribulational teaching, is not appointed to God’s wrath (cf. I Thess. 5.9), and the 7 year tribulation period represents God’s wrath (i.e. ‘the Day of the LORD’), and since the church is not Israel, all of this added together; the Pretribulational theory logically concluded, requires that the mechanism of a rapture be in place so that all of these other prophetically given events can unfold in the literal and orderly way in which the Pretribulational interpreter has come to expect.

Personally, I used to hold to Pretribulational/Premillennial Dispensational teaching; I no longer do. I see serious exegetical and theological problems with the whole approach, but I will have to save why I have problems with it for a later date. Here is the ‘Left Behind’ movie trailer. Enjoy.

Left Behind’s Theology?

We Need More Christian Dogmatics and Less Apologetics

I am just rereading John Webster’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology on ‘Theologies of Retrieval’. As he begins his essay he sketches how theologian Eberhard Jüngel engages this mode of theological endeavor in his book God As the Mystery of the World. In his sketching, Webster highlights Jüngel’s primary thesis overriding his book, and that is […] “The book is best read as a set of analytical soundings in the modern history of the relation between theology and philosophy, seeking to show how the rise of atheistic philosophy is parasitic upon decay in Christian thought about God….” (Webster, p. 586) This is a very intriguing point, and one that Christian Fundamentalism, which has now come of age in American Evangelicalism would do well to take heed to. I say this because in many quarters of Evangelicalism—and I say in the quarters that make up the academic side of Evangelicalism, mostly found in seminaries, and then parachurch ministries—there is still to be found the ‘fighting Fundy’ spirit. That is, Evangelicals are consumed with matching wits with their atheist and “Liberal” counterparts by engaging the atheist (or whomever) on their own terms; nary realizing that maybe the terms set by the atheist panoply might be a result of Christians (Evangelicals or otherwise) not taking care of proper business in their own house. Namely, that Christians, in their abandonment of the doing of actual Christian Dogmatics (Theology) have in this vacuum created space for antagonists to the Christian faith to bottom feed off of the waste produced or not-produced by Christian thought today. Webster writes further of Jüngel’s thesis:

apologetics

[W]hat is most noteworthy in Jüngel’s diagnosis is its focus on the mismatch between the authentic content of Christian faith and the conceptual version of itself by which it sought to retain its authority in the face of modern critiques. ‘Atheism’ is as much a child of theology’s theistic self-alienation as of philosophical unbelief. Jüngel’s presentation of this authentic content is undoubtedly dogmatically compressed, appealing to only a narrow selection of doctrinal material; and his historical narrative can lack complexity and nuance. The book’s appeal is, indeed, as much kerygmatic as historical. What gives strength to his account is his insistence that the crisis of Christian thought and speech about God ‘is to be worked through in terms of the particular character, the proprium of the Christian faith’ (Jüngel 1983:229). What is required is not a more effective apologetic strategy but a better dogmatics. [emboldening mine] [John Webster, The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Chapter 32 Theologies of Retrieval, 587.]

Maybe if Christians, and Evangelicals in particular, got back to engaging with actual positively shaped Christian Dogmatics (instead of following the ‘negative way’), and abandoned the current trend of continuing to engage with a god largely shaped by classical theism (still!); then maybe atheists and the rest of the unbelieving crowd would lose the traction they currently have in the culture today. It is much easier for an atheist to argue with a conception of god that is humanistically constructed based on philosophical reflection and abstraction of the universe versus dealing with a God, who by definition, is shaped by His own internal Self-presentation and revelation through Jesus Christ. If ‘apologists’ were to become theologians, instead of philosophers, atheism might fade away; and if not fade away, it would at least have to reconsider how to assail the conception of the Christian God who resists philosophical manipulation, and instead contradicts it (by the wisdom of the cross!). We need more Christian Dogmaticians, and less Christian philosophers of religion.

We Need More Christian Dogmatics and Less Apologetics

What the Hell [or Heaven]; what do you think?

This question, which for some should simply be abandoned as a non-starter [for people who would rather not think], continues to be one, at least for me, that should be dealt with. It is not because I hellhaven’t concluded something on this, personally; it is because I think this question occasions an even more important one that lies underneath or behind it. That is, who is God? The way we deal with this question will largely be shaped by what we think about God and how he reveals and deals with his creation, or us.

But before we get to who God is, lets deal with this issue; the issue of whether or not hell should be understood as a place where people who are reprobate (so to speak), or unbelievers when they die (or maybe not so limited?), end up for an eternal, and conscious, and tormentuous time. I have been reading, slowly (relatively speaking), David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies; and while his major focus is not this particular quagmire, he does broach it. And it is his broaching that I want to use as the portal into dealing with this question (or not, maybe it’s a non-starter for you). Hart doesn’t commit to anything, himself (he is Eastern Orthodox, so he probably tends towards a Universalism of sorts, but maybe not!), but he does sketch this in a way that might place some question marks, or at least moments into this query that should make some of us pause more. He writes:

[…] The threat of eternal torment is an appeal solely to spiritual and emotional terror, and to the degree that Christians employed it as an inducement to faith, their arguments were clearly somewhat vulgar. The doctrine of hell, understood in a purely literal sense, as a place of eternally unremitting divine wrath, is an idea that would seem to reduce Christianity’s larger claims regarding the justice, mercy, and love of God to nonsense. But, even here, one must take care to make proper distinctions, for it is not at all clear to what degree such an idea was central or even peculiar to the preaching of the early Christians. The earliest Christian documents, for instance—the authentic epistles of Paul [editor’s note: they are all authentic, Hart … don’t play that trope!]—contain no trace of a doctrine of eternal torment, and Paul himself appears to have envisaged only a final annihilation of evildoers. The evidence of the Gospels, moreover, is far more ambiguous on this point than most person imagine; even Christ’s allegorical portrait of the final judgment in Matthew chapter 25 allows considerable latitude for interpretation, and patristic theologians as diverse as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh saw in the phrase aionios kolasis (typically translated as “eternal punishment,” but possible to read as “correction for a long period” or “for an age” or even “in the age to come”) no cause to conclude that hell was anything but a temporary process of spiritual purification. Indeed, it the testimony of several of the church fathers is to be believed, this “purgatorial” view of hell was far from being an eccentric minority opinion among the Christians of the first few centuries, especially in the Eastern reaches of the empire. All that said, though, one must grant that the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked or for unbelievers formed part of Christian teaching from an early date. But one should also note that the idea of eternal punishment was not a uniquely or even distinctively Christian notion; its pagan precedents were many; it was an idea well established among, for instance, the Platonists; and it is not wholly fanciful to suggest that its eventual ascendency  in Christian teaching was a result as much of the conventional religious thinking that Christianity absorbed from the larger culture as of anything native to the gospel. Whatever the case, it is doubtful that Christian teaching succeeded much in exacerbating fear of death or the afterlife. All the documentary evidence suggests that the special attention attraction of Christianity in ancient society lay elsewhere, in aspects of the faith that clearly set it apart from other contemporary versions of reality. [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 154-55.]

One of the reasons I like this quote from DBH is because it compresses major disciplinarian ways into this doctrine of hell; i.e. Historical Theology, Exegetical Theology, and Dogmatic Theology. This elicits something, or it should, that there are more ways into considering this issue than a simple commitment to scripture all by itself (solo scriptura, nuda scriptura) will, or can, yield. There are fields of meaning and context that need to be considered when discerning this issue of hell.

The grammatical/exegetical aspect is not as cut and dry as Hart demonstrates (quickly); the history of interpretation is not as precise as us conservative evangelicals would like, and the Dogmatic reality of God as love is thrown into relief when we consider what this means for the eternality of hell (maybe it is temporary).

We all have to come down somewhere (some choose to remain agnostic, but that’s no fun!), and all of the above needs to be considered as we begin our descent downwards to ‘somewhere’. God is love, is hell a loving place; is a concept of eternal unremitting divine wrath (as Hart phrases it) commensurate with the grander doctrine that God is love? Can creation be said to be fully redeemed (Romans 8) and death put under foot (I Cor. 15) if hell continues to be an eternal unremitting reality?  Is there an eternal shadow side of God, or is God unremitting light in Christ? Is the koine (NT) Greek able to bear the weight of this question all by itself (lexically, grammatically, and syntactically)? Do earlier Christian thinkers have anything of value to say on this? What did Jesus think?

These are all questions that I won’t try to answer here, I’ll just leave them dangling and let you. I will say though that it won’t do to simply yell your position louder; not if you are serious.

What the Hell [or Heaven]; what do you think?