What Hath Benedictine Monks to do with the Mammon of Capitalism?

I just started rereading a book we read in undergrad worldview class back in 1998; the book is the late Neil Postman’s Technopoly. He makes an interesting observation about the invention of the clock and capitalism/mammon. He is noting how there are unseen consequences to the development of technology that can be both good and bad; I like the way he interprets how the clock was turned into a bad as it was put into the service of worshiping Mammon rather than the living and Triune God (which was its original intent). He notes:

But such prejudices are not always apparent at the start of a technology’s journey, which is why no one can safely conspire to be a winner in technological change. Who would have imagined, for example, whose interests in and what world-view would be ultimately advanced by the invention of the mechanical clock? The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not forsee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. “The mechanical clock,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.” The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.[1]

While this is noting a negative in regard to the mechanical clock, it doesn’t emphasize the various positives the clock has also brought. Nevertheless, I thought the juxtaposition was an interesting one, and one that we all live under the weight of in our daily lives for good or ill. It illustrates how a medium can be used for good or for bad; in this case the mechanical (now digital) clock served to help revolutionize society as a whole—in such a way that we couldn’t even imagine living in a world without one that is regulated by the Almighty Clock.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 14-15.

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Chalcedonian Logic and the Diminished Christology of The Nashville Statement

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

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

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

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

Application

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

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

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

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.

Did Hank Hanegraaff Convert to Greek Orthodoxy on Palm Sunday, April 9th 2017?

I came across this picture, ostensibly of the Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff. He was someone, I’m sure like many, who I listened to and even relied upon some 22 years ago as I was struggling with doubts and had new theological and biblical questions I needed answered (even though I was raised in the church)—this was all before I attended Bible College or Seminary. Anyway, this picture (there were actually 2) was posted on St. Nektarios’ Greek Orthodox Church’s Facebook page. After I “grabbed” this particular picture I went back to take a look later and the picture (and another one of Hank) had been taken down. It is a rather shocking picture, at least for me, because I really had no inkling that Hank had ever considered becoming Orthodox; that is until recently (like within the last couple of weeks) when I was alerted to how Hank answered a question about theosis on his BAM broadcast. He almost sounded defensive of Orthodoxy in the clip I listened to of him, and now that would make sense if in fact the picture I have of him is indeed legitimate. I shared it on Facebook, and some folks have voiced skepticism about the picture being authentic. But I found it by simply browsing St. Nektarios’ Facebook page, and there are no signs of it being foul play. If it was foul play why would they bury it on an obscure Facebook page that is not even in the public eye? I see no evidence of the picture being fake thus far, and I am currently waiting to hear back about my inquiry to the Christian Research Institute (CRI) as to the veracity of the picture and whether there is reality to this picture or not. But I thought I would share the picture; I think if Hank has in fact converted to Orthodoxy, along with his wife, that it could have some serious blow back on his Bible Answer Man broadcast (which is a kind of staple of popular evangelical apologetics), and the Christian Research Institute in general. This might explain, if in fact Hank has converted, why they would want to keep it as hush-hush as possible.

I don’t have any insider’s knowledge, or secret source giving me the inside scoop on this. But the picture itself, if authentic (and I see no evidence as to why it wouldn’t be), speaks for itself. Here’s the blurb that was posted above the catalog of pictures I found this picture of Hank in on St. Nektarios’ Facebook page:

On Palm Sunday, we commemorate the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem. At this morning’s services we blessed the palms during Matins, witnessed the Chrismation of four new members to the Orthodox Church during Liturgy, and concluded services with the traditional Palm Sunday procession.

Addendum: A guy named Fr. Thomas Soroka, an Eastern Orthodox Priest, is also announcing that Hank Hanaegraaff, his wife Kathy, and two sons have indeed been Chrismated into the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He wrote this on his Facebook wall:

Many years to Hank Hanegraff (aka “The Bible Answer Man”) and his wife Kathy, newly Chrismated Orthodox Christians as of this morning in Charlotte​, NC.

Barth to the Hungarian Youth of 1948: On Human Freedom

Freedom is such a misunderstood concept, by believers and non-believers alike. To be sure, in the Bible, when human freedom is referred to it is not in reference to some sort of abstract, philosophically conceived idea of ‘free-will’ or some such nonsense; no it is in reference to what it means to truly and genuinely live before God. In our modern/post-modern 21st century we have barthsoldierall become mired down by being so “free” that we haven’t stopped to notice that we actually live in bondage to ourselves. This is precisely what Barth was attacking as he finished up his talk with some Hungarian youth back in the Spring of 1948. He said:

I have almost finished. If your freedom is to be strong and genuine it will have to have a foundation. What was called freedom in the European age now passed collapsed, and was bound to collapse, because for a long time and at an amazingly deep level it had degenerated into a freedom for godlessness and inhumanity—not merely in its secular and evil form but in its religious and moral form too. Do not hesitate to describe and treat anyone as a ‘reactionary’ who attempts to commend this kind of freedom to you under whatever name. Freedom means freedom for God and one’s neighbor. Wherever it is something different from that it is not freedom for responsibility. In the freedom for God and one’s neighbour you will find the right words and instinctively take the right steps and grow into defiance against the idols of yesterday and those of today. You will not become doctrinaires! The New Testament calls this freedom the freedom of the children of God, our freedom in Jesus Christ. Why? Because as true God and true man Jesus Christ has brought God and man together. ‘If the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed.’ This Word was also spoken to our generation. We did not understand it very well. Will it be granted to your generation to understand it a little better? May it be granted to you! What is certain is that we the old and you the  youth of today, are members one of another as we listen to the Word.[1]

[1] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946–52 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), 61.

Barth’s Admonition to the Millennials and All of Us in the Information-Age: The Danger of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

Karl Barth shared this at some talks he gave in both Sarospatak and Budapest in March and April of 1948; some talks to the youth of that day. I was struck by how relevant what he is exhorting the youth (the “millennials”) of his day with; he might as well be talking to our youth—if not all of us in our information age. Barth said:

barthipodA younger generation confronted by so much emptiness will inevitably be tempted to yield to certain fears remote from freedom and responsibility. I should not be advising you well if I did not implore you to resist them. One of them might consist in trying to drown the miseries of the time with as much technics, sport and aesthetic amusement as possible, with all the worldly pleasures that are still available. No one will begrudge you for wanting to make up for long years of darkness by indulging in one or two pastimes of that kind. But see that you do not repeat the error which the younger generation before you certainly made. By over-indulging itself in technics, sport, and aesthetic amusements it developed a state of mind or rather mindlessness in which, through neglecting its responsibilities, it also lost its freedom and fell an easy prey to the slogans and catchwords of the charlatans and dictators.[1]

While Barth is speaking to the “youth” he might as well be speaking to all of us in our techno/info age. The point is to stay vigilant, particularly and especially in light of all the distractions we have before us. Neil Postman wrote his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Barth anticipates that line of thought here in his talk to the Hungarian youth.

[1] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946–52 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), 58.

Cultural Christianity’s Shielding Itself From Its Source: Søren Kierkegaard’s Critique of Soft Cultural Christianity

Christianity in America, in the West, and pretty much everywhere, at one point or another, and in one period of history or another always ends up collapsing in its particular culture so deeply that it is hard to distinguish between what is actually Christian and what isn’t. I think it would be safe to say that we currently inhabit a time in human history, and in my personal experience in North kierkegaardAmerica, wherein Christianity has really become more of a folk and cultural expression rather than an expression that is given its primary shape by the Gospel and biblical reality itself.

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard experienced this same type of Christianity in his own day and age in 19th century Denmark. There are many parallels between the type of folk and/or cultural Christianity that he critiqued, and the cultural Christian in 21st century North America that needs similar critique. It is critique, primarily, of Christians who have fallen victim to the spirit of this age by syncretistically conflating this age, and all of its mores, or lack thereof, with the Gospel itself. It is a critique of a cultural Christianity that shies away from the determinations and implications of the Gospel in favor of a softer, gentler, more “gracious” Gospel that is like warm buttermilk and sandwiches to the soul.

Stephen Backhouse in his recently released book Kierkegaard: A Single Life (which I’ll be writing a review of soon), offers insight on Kierkegaard’s critique of his Danish Christianity. In Backhouse’s development of Kierkegaard’s critique he offers two quotes that illustrate just how Kierkegaard went about his critique. I offer this up with hopes of spurring us on unto love and good works. Backhouse writes:

Søren’s long-held antipathy to Christendom hardens during the silent years, as does his conviction that it is now beyond redemption. Ultimately, it is the Christendom over which Mynster [Kierkegaard’s family pastor] and his successors preside that is the issue, more than any one priest. The official relationship of state and church, whereby clergymen were effectively civil servants of the country and agents of civilization is clearly a problem for Kierkegaard:

A modern clergyman [is] an active, adroit, quick person who knows how to introduce a little Christianity very mildly, attractively, and in beautiful language, etc.—but as mildly as possible. In the New Testament Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt to a man, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale—and now the clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing; and when he can do it perfectly, he is a paragon like Mynster. How disgusting!

Yet “Christendom” does not begin and end with the established church. In short, the “established church” might well be Christendom, but not all “Christendoms” are established churches. Christendom is a way of being, thinking, and feeling that has far more to do with the cultural appropriation of Christianity than it does with any specific legal agreement between church and state. Christendom is what happens when people presume they are Christians as a matter of inherited tradition, as a matter of nationality, or because they agree with a number of common-sense propositions and Christianised moral guidelines. Kierkegaard sees Christendom as a process by which groups adopt, absorb, and neuter Christianity into oblivion, all the while assuming they are still Christian. Christendom is adept at shielding itself from its own source, for Christianity’s original documents offer a deep challenge precisely to the form of civilized life that Christendom represents.

The matter is quite simple. The New Testament is very easy to understand. But we human beings are really a bunch of scheming swindlers; we pretend to be unable to understand it because we understand very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly at once. But in order to make it up to the New Testament a little, lest it become angry with us and find us altogether wrong, we flatter it, tell it that it is so tremendously profound, so wonderfully beautiful, so unfathomably sublime, and all that, somewhat as a little child pretends it cannot understand what has been commanded and then is cunning enough to flatter Papa. Therefore we humans pretend to be unable to understand the N.T.; we do not want to understand it. Here Christian scholarship has its place. Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the N.T., to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the N.T. come too close…. I open the N.T. and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come and follow me.” Good God, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the pensioners, the whole race no less, would be almost beggars: we would be sunk if it were not for … scholarship!

During this time, Søren begins to sound out medicinal, frequently gastroenterological, ways of talking about the situation. An 1854 entry reads simply: “Christianity in repose, stagnant Christianity, creates an obstruction, and this formidable obstruction is the sickness of Christendom.”[1]

What Kierkegaard critiques is what I inhabit, by and large, in North American evangelicalism, in particular, and in North American Christendom in general. We need to repent, and not be afraid to say so. We need to understand the Ultimate we are up against in the living God, in the Lord Jesus Christ and simply cry out Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy!

 

[1] Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 171-73.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

‘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.

A Reflection on the Church and Science conference, and Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Creation

Today I attended the Church and Science conference sponsored by New Wine, New Wineskins which is a theology of culture ministry that Dr. Paul Metzger initiated at my alma mater, Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Multnomah has partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science who has provided Multnomah Seminary with a sizeable grant to work on producing theological curriculum that is attentive to the discipline of science in the 21st century. We had two plenary sessions, the first was Dr. Se Kim, of the AAAS; and then Dr. Rod Stilt of Seattle churchandsciencePacific University, he is a historian of science’s development as a discipline. There was also two workshop sessions. The first one I attended was offered by Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass, he is an Assistant Professor of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, and his presentation was entitled Is Jesus Greater than Anti-Evolutionism? The second workshop I attended was offered by Derrick Peterson and Dr. Michael Gurney, Derrick has his MDiv and ThM from Multnomah Biblical Seminary (and is a friend), and Mike Gurney has his PhD from Highland Theological College, University of Aberdeen (also a friend and former prof in undergrad) — their presentation was entitled “When Galileo Goes to Jail”: Rethinking What Galileo’s Controversy with the Church Means Today (Derrick presented the paper, and Mike moderated and facilitated the Q&A following).

I mention all of this because it leads to what we will consider in this post; in other words, the discussion from today at the conference has motivated me to write this post. I just happened to have read something from Bruce McCormack last week on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation, and in particular, about Schleiermacher’s qualified belief in the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. I actually think that this topic would be an interesting one to explore at a conference like the one I attended today at Multnomah.

I am going to share from McCormack at length. The first piece from him is providing context for why Schleiermacher developed his doctrine of creation the way that he did. Here’s McCormack:

At the dawn of the modern period in theology, Schleiermacher was concerned that the day might come when the natural scientists would be in a position to provide a complete explanation not only of the movements of heavenly bodies but even of the origins of the physical universe. He writes,

I can only anticipate that we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity. I am not referring to the six-day creation, but to the concept of creation itself, as it is usually understood, apart from any reference to the Mosaic chronology and despite all those rather precarious rationalizations that interpreters have devised. How long will the concept of creation hold out against the power of a world view constructed from undeniable scientific conclusions that no one can avoid?

By means of his heuristic and critical norm, he found a way to limit a theology of creation so as to obviate a conflict with the exact sciences but also to make a reasoned use of the creation story found in Gen. 1.[1]

Schleiermacher was anticipating what later came to be known as full blown naturalism and/or metaphysical materialism; where all of reality can ostensibly be reduced to physical reality and “natural” (i.e. observable) phenomenon. Schleiermacher was concerned with providing a kind of apologetic basis for Christian theology that elided the potential (in his day) findings of the natural sciences. As the direct quote from Schleiermacher illustrates he wasn’t concerned with the minutia of various biblical interpretive approaches, but instead he was concerned with the macro issue of origins itself. He was trying to provide a rigorous theological basis that would be impenetrable from the attacks of the natural sciences; as he perceived their development in his day in the 18th and 19th centuries.

McCormack distills for us in four points the way that Schleiermacher attempted to develop a genuinely Christian doctrine of creation that would out-pace Schleiermacher’s antagonists in the natural sciences. McCormack writes of Schleiermacher (at length):

This is not the place for a comprehensive exposition of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation. It will suffice here to allow Schleiermacher to describe his approach in his own words and to briefly sketch its results. “The doctrine of creation is to be elucidated preeminently with a view to the exclusion of every alien element, lest from the way in which the question of Origin is answered elsewhere anything steal into our province which stands in contradiction to the pure expression of the feeling of absolute dependence.” Since everything that exists must be absolutely dependent upon God, a Christian doctrine of creation must oppose “every representation of the origin of the world which excludes anything whatever from origination by God,” and it must oppose all conceptions of the origin of the world that would place “God under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world.”From this state of affairs, Schleiermacher draws the following conclusions, all of which are supported by exegesis of Gen. 1: (1) God does not work with preexisting materials in creating. For if God found material ready to hand that he himself had not created, such material would be independent of him and the feeling of absolute dependence would have been destroyed. So the idea of a Divine Architect is ruled out of court. (2) If it is the case that the Christian doctrine of creation excludes anything that would place God “under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world,” then God could not possibly be seen as having deliberated before acting. To be sure, creation is a “free” act of God, but divine “freedom” is wrongly construed where it is seen to entail “a prior deliberation followed by choice” or as meaning that “God might equally well have not created the world.” To define “freedom” in God in this way is to play it off against “necessity”—which is to bring God under an antithesis that is proper to the conditions of life in the world God creates. God’s freedom consists in his “otherness” and in his capacity to be who and what he is in all of his activities. It does not consist in a choice among options over which he must first brood before deciding upon the one he thinks “best” (as Leibniz had it). And in any case, as Spinoza put it (in a passage Schleiermacher would have approved), “because in God, essence and will are one, then the claim that God might possibly have willed a different world would be the same as saying that he could have been Another”—that is, a different God.(3) God cannot be conceived as having begun to create. Now this might seem to make creation “eternal,” but Schleiermacher resists this formulation of the relation. The reason is that if we say that creation is “eternal,” we seem to make it independent of God, which would destroy the feeling of absolute dependence. So Schleiermacher wants to uphold two values: (a) that God has never been without the world, and (b) that the world has always been absolutely dependent upon the divine activity for its existence. His conclusion is that God alone is “eternal” (in the sense of transcending time); the fact that the world does not transcend time but is structured by it is sufficient, in his view, to preserve a proper distinction between Creator and creature. But how then to speak of a creation that has no beginning without resorting to the term “eternal”? Alexander Schweizer would later use the word Sempiternität (from the Latin sempiternitas—meaning “everlasting” or “perpetual”) to describe the existence of a world that knows of no beginning. Such a world is “everlasting,” but God alone is “eternal.” I should add, perhaps, that this is not a linguistic trick but a real distinction, rooted in the differing kinds of being that God and the world are (God as a being transcending time and the world as a being structured by it). (4) Schleiermacher is willing to use the phrase creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) so long as its meaning is restricted to the understanding that God used no instrument or means in creating. That, he believes, is the force of the New Testament phrasing according to which God created “by His Word” alone. Such a phrase is to be taken in a critical sense, rather than as a positive explanation of how God works.[2]

Schleiermacher was obviously concerned with maintaining his principle of ‘feeling’ as the locus for his theological methodology; again motivated by his desire to move beyond the rationalism of his day and find a “safe place” as it were for theology to take place (unfortunately this ended up having deleterious consequences for subsequent theologizing, even if there is something also latently pregnant and valuable within this move of Schleiermacher). The point here though is that Schleiermacher desired to keep God distinct from his creation, and at the same time leave room for encounter or ‘feeling’ of God to happen in his creation/creatures.

I would like to say more, but this is running a bit long for a blog post. Suffice it to say, I think that Schleiermacher actually has the potential to provide some fruitful place in his doctrine of creation for some of the things considered today; particularly with reference to Dr. Josh Swamidass’ presentation. But also, Schleiermacher also helps to illustrate how conflict was happening, even for him, between the natural sciences of his day and his own theological development and methodology (which was something being considered at the conference today in general; i.e. the conflict or “warfare” between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ and how that might be mitigated and in fact used as a place where fruitful engagement might happen between scientists and say Christian theologians/pastors and lay people in the church).

P.S. There is much more to say, particularly with the place that Schleiermacher has in the development of the continued rift between science and religion. Does he help soften that rift, or contribute further to it? Questions like that. Not to mention the kind of theological space he might create for folks like Dr. Josh Swamidass who would like to focus on ‘experience’ and ‘encounter’ for evangelizing scientists in the public square and beyond (although I believe Barth provides a better more orthodox and constructive basis for a theology of encounter via his analogy of faith/relation).

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 21.

[2] Ibid., 22 scribd.