Ethics

The Protestant Reformation as ‘Counterhistory’ and Analog for Witness Bearing Towards a Kingdom Made Up of All Races

I have really been struck by what has happened in Charlottesville, Virginia; as I am a sure most of us have been. I personally grew up in an environment where I was typically the minority, or a minority among the minorities who were the majority in my context. For my formative years I grew up in [North] Long Beach, CA which borders Compton, CA; my dad pastored a Baptist church there. As a result of this context, and my love for playing basketball, I spent hours and hours at the park playing street ball; it was at the park where I was almost always the only whiteboy present (indeed that’s what I was called: whiteboy). So at this impressionable age (my high school years and early twenties) this was my reality; I was confronted with race issues in a firsthand kind of way. We lived through the LA riots, and the tensions preceding and following that. I say all this to simply note that I have experience with race issues, albeit “on the street.”

Because of the Charlottesville debacle I have been prompted to once again pick up J. Kameron Carter’s book: Race: A Theological Account. I started it years ago, and just have never finished it; well I plan on finishing it now. As I am getting into it, just towards the end of the first chapter Carter is laying the ground work for the rest of what he accomplishes in this work of his. Part of his development involves detailing Foucault’s analysis on race, power, and human sexuality. Interestingly, as he is doing this he speaks about how Foucault talks about history and counterhistory, and how these two loci are used to identify the masters or the ‘sovereign’ in the narrative of history versus the oppressed or ‘ruled’ class of people. For our purposes, and fitting with the theme of my blog, as a blog that engages with Reformed theology in particular, I found it interesting how Carter develops Foucault’s vision of the Protestant Reformation as counterhistory, and as a movement that was operating in the spirit of modernity, as it protested against the ‘sovereign’ or Roman Catholic church. Here is how Carter treats Foucault here:

One discovers that the story being told in the lectures about the confrontation of counterhistory and history is actually another way of genealogically peering behind the Protestant Reformation and the principle of revolution it inaugurates so as a to view the Reformation not simply as a discrete historical event but, instead, as a religious disposition, a mythical posture, or (as he says in the essay “What Is Enlightenment?”) an “attitude,” the “attitude of modernity [itself] … [in its struggle] with attitudes of ‘countermodernity.’” It is important to observe that for Foucault, the Protestant Reformation, both as historical event and as exemplifying the principle of modernity, operates in this schema according to the analytic of the war of races in its resistance to “the power of kings and the despotism of the church [read: Roman Catholic Church].” The Reformation, in short, displays the attitude of modernity; the attitude of dandysme, of experimentation for the sake of self-realization and artistic self-elaboration; and lastly of “heroic,” rather than merely tragic, existence on the boundary of death so as to finally plunge the stake into the heart of sovereignty.[1]

So obviously since we are working with Foucault, through, Carter, we are getting a sociological account of what the Protestant Reformation was in the slide of history (and ‘counterhistory’). Nevertheless, I find the perspective interesting indeed. I have read other treatments that see the seedlings for modernity in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, but this is a pretty explicit account of that; and it is something that I think has teeth to it. Of course the only thing I would want to qualify is the Foucauldian idea of ‘self-realization,’ instead, more theologically, I think the Protestant Reformation was more about a Christ-realization, and a return to him as the immediate sovereign over his church rather than the church as the sovereign.

But I think this kind of, if you will, apocalyptic turn to the subject of Christ and its throwing off of an artificial superstructure of authority over the masses is the very kind of “counterhistory” that the church offers over against the polis (‘city of man’) that is ensconced within the darkness of its own heart. Try as society may they have no real “counterhistory,” they might find resonance with the spirit, say of the Protestant Reformation, on a purely sociological understanding, but without the vertical inbreaking power of the resurrection operative in such movements (against racism, among other systemic evils) all we’ll end up with is a kind of dualistic symmetrical Manichean type of struggle we see currently taking place between Altright and Antifa; violence against violence (which is simply an extension and logical conclusion to the ideals driving both sides).

Christians are the only ones who can genuinely offer a counterhistory to the history of man apart from Christ. We can offer them a new history by bearing witness to the inbreaking and coming Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is this history that the world has always been ‘purposed’ for in the election of God in Christ; in God’s choice to freely be for us and with us. As I have in my sidebar from David Fergusson “the world was made so that Christ might be born,” as such if there is a counterhistory to be realized it is the one that reverses and recreates, in the resurrection of God in Christ, the violent bloody world we see all around us and in us. The only reality that can and will bring concrete change is the power of God that breaks into the hearts of men and women boys and girls and replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh that pump in and from the living heart of God in Christ with his shed blood; the ‘life is in the blood.’ This might sound like a platitude, but it isn’t, it’s the truth, but I’m afraid it’s a truth that has unfortunately become a platitude indeed for many in the evangelical church (and other churches) in North America.

If we are to bear witness to the power of God, in concrete ways, genuine Christianity will stand in solidarity with the oppressed among us. We will walk as if the Kingdom of God in Christ has come; the Kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation where all are one in Christ; where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Let God be true and every man a liar. Come quickly Jesus.

[1] J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), loc 1729 kindle.

An Occasional Christian Reflection on the Systemic Plague of Racism

I want to say more on racism, and I will; I think the Virginia uprisings serve as an appropriate prompt to offer reflection, from a Christian theological perspective on the evil that has come to be known as racism. I lieu of a more developed reflection on this topic I thought I would simply share something I just wrote (on Facebook) in response to a good friend of mine regarding the ills of racism. You might be able to infer some of my friend’s points about how he views racism, and how he thinks we ought to approach it, by the way I respond. Here’s what I wrote:

I think “racism,” is actually a systemic issue so deep rooted in our identities as sinners that it has become normal for people. The Gospel says no to such “normalcy,” and says no and contradicts the principalities and powers that would have us remain complacent or defeatist about such things. So I actually think that racism is just as much a part of us as sinners as is sexual perversion (which the Bible calls us on over and over), as is classism, as is nationalism, as is elitism, as is so on and so forth. So we are in a battle, not just in our own homes, but in the world in general; the battle we are engaged in is cosmic in its proportions such that we walk by the Spirit making no provision for the “flesh” to fulfill its lusts (which would include “racism”).

In re to this issue: I actually think the White supremacy we see on display in Virginia is like the proverbial tip of the ice-berg, and that such attitudes are much more resident in all of us than we would like to admit. So I see this as an occasion, what’s going on in Virginia, to take a look once again, at how we might have allowed certain attitudes or perceptions to creep into our lives unawares. I mean that’s how sin works, it has a “creeping” function, it’s subtle, and before we know it we have outlooks and attitudes that are actually pitting us against the power of God, the Gospel, rather than bearing witness to it against the principalities and powers in this world system (that concept comes straight from Scripture i.e. “world system”).

Beyond that, the point of the resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that there is a continuity and/or correspondence between this world and the new world (Rev 21–22) to come; insofar as there is a correspondence between Jesus’s pre-resurrected body and his resurrected body as an analogy (and there is). So to think about things from that vantage point means that we don’t think about this world going to “hell in a hand basket,” but that we see a continuity between now and the not yet; and we allow the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God in Christ to form our “ethics” and perceptions now. So we walk by faith, not by sight. But we don’t give into the defeated idea that there will never be a country or time where there will not be hatred or racism; the Gospel says exactly the opposite—indeed that’s our hope. It’s not an abstract or “Platonic” hope; heaven is not a place removed from this world, but in fact heaven came to earth in Jesus Christ, and He’s coming again.

I agree we need to live our lives, impact those around us, raise our children right, do unto others, etc, but none of that is done in a vacuum; none of that is done, in the Kingdom, from an individualistic or purely utilitarian/pragmatic perspective. We live as principled creatures, creatures that live and participate in and from the principled and holy life of God in Jesus Christ. So we live our lives, but we live them realizing that they are not our own; realizing that we’ve been bought with a price, and as such we stand in the way of the evils in this world—whether that be in our homes, or globally. We pray. When we pray with our families, with those around us, we have reach into the system of this world that indeed has a “global” impact, one that will implicate not just those “out there,” but those closest to us in Jerusalem, then out to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. The Gospel is not just particular in focus, but it is universal and cosmic; we live from that. We live from a value center, so to speak, that is expansive and that has reach down to the bone and marrow of each and every person on this earth.

Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

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

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…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.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.

Conclusion

My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?

 

[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.

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.

 

Communism’s, Fascism’s and Other ‘isms” Problem of Scapegoating Considered through Thomas Torrance’s Revelation 6

We live in a time of great upheaval, a time unbeknownst to history before! Yes, the world has waned and travelled ever since the frustration of the original creation occurred (Genesis 3), but we live in an unprecedented time. We live in an interconnected universe through the internet, smartphones, planes, trains, automobiles, and a global community that flits and flutters upon the winds of the atombombslightest geo-political breezes to the disruptive gales of turbulent socio-economic jet-streams. We live in a time of religious and intellectual turmoil such that it is hard to keep track of exactly who’s who and what’s what; to the point that people quit caring unless somehow someone else’s beliefs impinge upon their personal space, their personal self-flourishing. In the 20th and 21st centuries we have seen the rise of fascist to communist dictators, from oligarchic democratically elected officials to self-proclaimed caliphs of Islamo-facist states. We have seen human evil spawned in the supposedly civil and modern age at such levels that no centuries past could hope to counter; we have come to the brink of self imposed destruction through atom bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and seen that realized in WW2. As the Apostle Paul declares, we live in an ‘evil age,’ but we do so among a people, enslaved to their own affections and desires, who can’t imagine that all of this has been brought about by their own human inclination. As such people will reek destruction at the highest levels, with mass scope of ruin, and then sit back in self-rationalization and try and find someone else to blame; they could never imagine that what they have done could be construed as evil—Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Mao, the Industrial Military Complex (IMC), among other people and groups come to mind.

Thomas Torrance in his sermon on Revelation 6 as he contemplates on the fifth seal has this to say about such things:

More terrible than the sword, more terrible than pestilence and famine and death, is the spectacle revealed by the fifth seal: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held” (v. 9). That is the heart-rending fact about human history, the ingrained enmity to the Word of God, and that all who profess the Word are attacked and wherever possible done to death. That is the apocalypse of evil, the unveiling of the secrets of world-evolution. At the heart of it all there is a malignant evil that hates God and is bitterly opposed the servants of God and of His Word.

In the opening of this seal we have revealed an attempt to eradicate the Church and to uproot the people of God. And what does that mean? It means that after the terrible calamities the powers of the world have brought upon themselves, they try to disown the fact that they are the cause of all the evil and commotion and so they turn upon God’s people and vent their rage upon them as scapegoats. Surely that is what the Nazis did in their persecution of the Jews and the Christian Church upon whom they put the blame for the chaos of the world. That is what militant Communism is still doing in its bitter and subtle attack upon the Christian faith and all that it stands for. But to solve the riddle of chaotic history by slaying Jews and Christians is only a desperate attempt to break open the seal of God’s book of destiny to discover by force the secrets of history, and by force to master the fate of the world. Such a course of history is bound to fail. In Germany we have seen already how it has shattered itself upon the rock of the Christian Church against which not even the gates of Hell can prevail. Have no fear, the same will be true of every new menace. Communism also will shatter itself upon the purpose of God. All such things are to be understood in the light of this chapter. Although the main trend of world history is revealed to be fighting against the divine predestination, God Almighty will not be thwarted. He is patient and merciful and holy. He will deal righteously with all wickedness, but at last He will bring the purpose of His holy love to prevail over every affliction, and every tongue shall praise Him.[1]

We all have this impulse in our natural hearts. But of course this is not the end of the story as the Christians know. Nevertheless, we continue to perdure through a season of time in world history where we see world leaders and the common man growing from worse to worse. We continue to see this pattern of scapegoating that Torrance highlights; and typically the Jews and the Christians remain at the top of this scapegoat list—at least globally considered. But that’s okay, because the Lamb slain yet alive is coming; this world is his, and the last enemy will finally be put under foot!

 

 

[1]Thomas F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clarke&Co. Limited, 1960), 54-5.

The Christian Bodily Hope as Commentary and Critique on Current Politics

What this current season of political carnival has worked into me is a sense of loss, of hopelessness. But this sense isn’t discordant with what I’ve already felt for a long time in regard to human government and institutions; indeed, this loss is associated with the human condition in general. This condition noted by the Apostle Paul in his own struggle when he asks: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[1] Humanity lives in a ‘fallen’ state, whether it recognizes it or not; that is God’s conclusion about humanity, and His ‘judgment’ is given in the
hillaryincarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ; the judgment, that indeed humanity is in a situation, left to itself: where there is no hope!

The fact that the two candidates we have before us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as a  fact is rather horrifying. But at the end of the day they seem to be types of a logical conclusion to the human condition, and so their arrival at just this time seems fitting relative to the extent to which the human condition has “flourished” in itself. A “flourishing” of humanity that is fitting with its own self-determined self-possessed path of homo incurvatus in se or narcissism; a path where liars are free to be liars, and larceny gets to run unabated. I know we all like to blame the elites for all of this, but in reality we are all at fault; the human condition, the fallen one, has so cultivated a society[s] such that it gives blossom to what we see in the “elites” of our world—something like self-expressions of our inner-selves projected outward and personified in the so called establishment.

Has the picture I’ve been painting caused enough despair yet? It has for me. Despair to the point that I can no longer handle looking inward; I can no longer sustain any hope in human institutions or personages who embody those institutions of self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. My eyes look elsewhere for hope; my hope is eschatological. It is the hope of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Christian hope of Second Advent; that Jesus, as He promised, is coming again (the parousia). I don’t hear enough Christians speaking about this in North America, but you would think that would be all we were looking to these days. It is what Jesus Himself comforted and reproved the many churches in Ephesus with through his letter to them found in the book of Revelation. Unfortunately things like Left Behind, and Dispensational theology have made many Christians reticent to even speak of eschatological hope when it comes to facing real life crises; such as we face in this current political season. But this shouldn’t be the case, Christians should boldly hope as Jesus wants us to and look to the heavens from whence, as the King James says, ‘our redemption draws nigh’.

To my encouragement this morning as I was doing some reading I came across something very edifying and hope-filled, especially in light of our two options (Donald and Hillary) as reminders of the human condition. I was reading an essay by Richard Bauckham called The future of Jesus Christ. As Bauckham usually does[2], especially when it comes to things eschatological, he provides prescient words for the weary Christian soul; he writes of the genuine hope that we have for the future, and how that hope breaks in on us trumpcurrently afresh and anew, and how that ought to offer us, as Christians, hope eternal and perspective for the moment that allows us to fulfill our vocation as witnesses for Jesus Christ. Here is Bauckham in extenso:

A powerful Jewish objection to the Christian identification of Jesus as the Messiah is that, when the Messiah comes, the world will be freed from evil, suffering and death. As Walter Molberly puts it, in chapter 12 above: ‘The heart of the Jewish critique is simple: if Jesus is the redeemer, why is the world still unredeemed?’ One form of Christian response, and unfortunate one, has been to ‘spiritualise’ redemption in a way that is alien to the Jewish religious tradition. Salvation is reduced to what Christian believers experience as forgiveness of sins, personal justification before God, and virtuous living, with spiritual immortality in heaven after death. But the Christian tradition at its most authentic has realised that the promise of God made in the bodily resurrection of Christ is holistic and all-encompassing: for whole person, body and soul, for all the networks of relationship in human society that are integral to being human, and for the rest of creation also, from which humans in their bodiliness are not to be detached. In other words, it is God’s creative renewal of his whole creation. Here and now such salvation is experienced in fragmentary and partial anticipations of the new creation, and these are only properly appreciated as anticipations of the fullness of new creation to come. But even these anticipations are not limited to a ‘spiritual’ sphere artificially distinguished from the embodiment and sociality of human being in this world. Significantly, what has most kept the holistic understanding of salvation alive in the church, when tempted by Platonic and Cartesian dualisms to reduce it, have been the resurrection of Jesus in its inescapable bodiliness and the hope of his coming to raise the dead and to judge, which makes all individual salvation provisional, incomplete until the final redemption of all things. Hope for the future coming of the crucified and risen Christ has continually served to counter Christian tendencies to pietism and quitetism, spiritualization and privitisation, because it has opened the church to the world and the future, to the universal scope of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

It has also been a corrective to absolutising the status quo in state or society: either the transformation of Christianity into a civil religion uncritically allied to a political regime or form of society, or the church’s own pretensions to be the kingdom of God virtually already realised on earth. In such contexts the Christ who reigns now on the divine throne has been envisaged as the heavenly sanction for the rule of his political or ecclesiastical deputies on earth. Resistance to ideological christology of this kind can come from the hope of the Christ who is still to come in his kingdom. The expectation of the parousia relativises all the powers of the present world, exposing their imperfections and partialities. This is why it has often been more enthusiastically embraced by the wretched and the dispossessed than by the powerful and the affluent. It embodies the hope that the world will be different, contradicting every complacent or resigned acceptance of the way things are. It offers an eschatological provisio and a utopian excess that keep us from pronouncing a premature end to history, as a tradition of Enlightenment thought from Hegel and Comte to Francis Fukuyama has encouraged people to do and as totalitarian politics is often minded to do in justification for repressing dissent. Thus the Jewish messianic critique of Christian messianism is a necessary one whenever the church’s faith in the Christ who is still to come falters.[3]

maranatha.

[1] NRSV, Romans 7.24.

[2] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation; and Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation.

[3] Richard Bauckham, “The Future of Jesus Christ,” in The Cambridge Companion To Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268-69.

A REFLECTION ON THE SYRIAN CRISIS, ONE KINGDOM POSTURE, AND THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE OF PRAYER

*Here’s a repost that I originally wrote on August 28th, 2013. As you will probably pick up I wrote this right in that moment when we had our warships off the coast of Syria and were about to start bombing Assad directly for “crossing the red line” of using chemical weapons etc. These were the thoughts I had about that then, and within the body of the post I discuss how I think the State relates to the Church and vice versa. I conclude with the thought that Prayer for wisdom is what Christians need to be about, and then acting out of the wisdom that God has given us in Christ (this can now be applied to the Refugee crisis currently underway).

This whole Syria thing is really a big deal to me, as I am sure it is for many of you as well. It reflects a genuine ethical dilemma for the Christian. And for me, things, unfortunately, are not as clear as they seem to be for others. I cannot obamaunclesamhelp, for example, to get the genocide that happened in Rwanda out of my head. I remember watching the movie that depicted it, Hotel Rwanda, and how the United Nations really was unable to provide substantial protection for the women and children being slaughtered all around them by the sharp edge of the machete. There are plenty of people, and Christian people, decrying the usage of military force to intervene in the Syrian crisis (which has been ongoing for 2 years); they are advocating for peace, and non-violent solutions. This is noble, and I do believe it follows the ethic of Christ to advocate for peace. But I still wonder what in the world can be done in order to help these people in Syria, who are being slaughtered, in a genocidal fashion, by their oppressive government? I really don’t know! And I do wonder why Obama, and cronies, at this moment, are all of the sudden doing an about face, and seeking to intervene in Syria with military force (but only in a way, apparently, that is intended to punish Assad, but not actually take him out—this would be like taking part of a cancerous tumor out, but not the whole thing. There must be something more going on than concern for the Syrian people. I mean over 100,000 people have already died (and counting) in Syria; how they died (by what material means), seems unremarkable (i.e. in the sense that whether they died by chemicals or bullets really is not the issue, the issue is, is that they are dead and dying).

And so upon further reflection, as I have been hashing through this on Facebook the last couple of days, and just in my own thinking; I have to wonder what this whole move by Obama is really all about? I mean there is a real potential for this to spark World War 3—Russia, China, and Iran have said as much. And so why would Obama, knowing this, risk all of this (WW3), just to punish Assad? This is really a strange thing …

Having said all of the above, there remains a clear and resounding reality in all of this; genocide is immoral, and it cannot be overlooked. I find it extremely naïve to believe that the United Nations is the answer—Rwanda (among other things) won’t allow me to conclude this. Obama’s plan (to start WW3), to merely “punish” Assad with a few hours of bombs, will actually only exacerbate the problem (and genocide), and not squelch it. This is a dilemma, indeed! Come Jesus!

And so this begs the question (one that I have been wrestling with, as I have noted, as I am sure you have been, over the last few days); how ought the Christian to respond? How ought the Christian think of her and his relationship to the State (whatever State that is for you)? I do believe with my brethren and sistren, that the ethic of Christianity is ‘peace’, how peace comes about is where we have debate (in the penultimate details, not in the ultimate detail … we all agree the ultimate is the consummation of Christ’s coming kingdom). I do not believe Obama’s apparent strategy will create peace, but then neither do I think the UN will either; so a dilemma. This said, I think Christians have a ‘witness’ bearing (if not prophetic) role to play in relation to the State. I follow a constructively conceived Barthian understanding (surprise) of the relation of Church to State, and as such, I see both Church and State in the one kingdom of God in Christ (in the sphere and orientation of His life in Christ for us, all of us!). And as such, using the hypostatic union of Jesus as the analogy, I see the Church and State as still distinct, and yet inseparably related one to the other. And so this has impact upon the way I think the Church should act towards the State. In this specific instance, I wouldn’t expect the State to act like the Church, and I don’t expect the Church to act like the State; and thus, we ought to avoid conflating the two, as if we think the State should make its decisions as if it were the Church, in a special relation to God in Christ. That said, given the distinctiveness of the Church, and its ethic of shalom (peace), realized in Christ, I believe, as the Christian Church (His bride), that we ought to model the eschatological life of God in Christ, which is full of grace and truth. We should picture for them, the State, how we, the Church, are known by love (which is sacrificial, and self-given); we ought to be able to point to an alternative reality from the broken one the State lives out of. How this takes concrete form, though, is hard to say (i.e. through activism, through modeling it somehow in a transparent way, etc.). But I do believe this is how it ought to work. Here is how a former prof of mine from seminary, Paul Metzger, sketches this kind of constructive Barthian understanding of the relation between Church and State, and with this I close:

. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere. . . . The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

I obviously have an inner tension, and conflict going on within me about this whole thing. I am highly concerned for the people in Syria (and for that matter, anywhere were people are living under repressive despotic regimes), and yet there seems to be no real and viable answer; except to wait for Christ. But ‘how’ we wait remains the question. We pray, but as the Lord of hosts said to Joshua:  ‘…“Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?”‘; so not only do we pray, but we act. But in this instance (of Syria), how, and what? That remains the question for me. Obama is obviously acting, but for some ulterior reason. What that is, I don’t really know; but it obviously is not out of concern for Syria, there is something else. The UN will act by way of its usual bluster, and hemming-and-hawing. There is really, at this moment, one act to be made for the Christian, we must pray for wisdom, and for the Divine intervention of Yahweh in Christ for, in this instance, the people in Syria. This is how we personally acted when I was faced with my cancer (for which there was no real treatment). We implored the LORD, and He acted in a way that only He could. And so I know He can do the same for the people of Syria, and I pray that He will!

The ‘Coming Out’ Party of the progressive Christians: An Historical-Sociological Sketch

I cannot but help to sense the ‘spirit’ of Friedrich Schleiermacher alive and well within my own Christian heritage in evangelicalism; but in its younger expression found in what some call progressive Christianity. It is almost as if the same record is being played again, in a way, although at a faster speed with some new notes and lyrics placed onto this old record.

Evangelicalism finds its roots, and mood, in and from within a German movement known as Pietism. Pietism was an attempt by certain Christian thinkers like Phillip Jakob Spener, Count von schleiermacherZinzendorf, et. al. to provide a counter style of Christianity to what had come to be perceived as the dry arid Christianity produced by the schoolmen known as ‘Post-Reformed-Scholastic-orthodoxy. Pietists wanted to return to a warm-hearted Christianity where an intimacy of Christian love of God cultivated by spiritual practices like devotional Bible reading was the emphasis. Note H.R. Mackintosh’s take on this:

The purpose which men like Spener and Francke had in their mind was not so much to remodel doctrine as to quicken the spiritual life. The fought the worldliness and apathy of the Church. Like the Methodists in England, they urged the necessity for a deeper devotional acquaintance with Scripture, and with this in view they encouraged the formation of private circles for Bible study, the tone of which should be devout rather than scientific. In addition, they called upon Christian people to be separate from the world and give up its ways. These principles were recommended by the establishment of noble philanthropic institutions, some of which persist to this day.

But the weaker men who followed in their train were apt to turn principle into narrow and bitter prejudice. Attendance at private Bible-circles came to be regarded as of more importance than Church fellowship. A meager and utilitarian idea of doctrine tended to become a favourite; nothing could pass muster except that which yielded immediate edification; and the rank and file soon forgot that there is such a thing as the study of Christian truth for its own sake. Again, the demand was frequently made that every believer must have undergone a certain prescribed series of conversion-experiences, in a prescribed order–so much in the way of legal terrors, so much new-found joy. Nor, as we might expect, was it long before certain representatives of the Pietistic school began to use expressions, imprudent or worse, which meant that these subjective experiences of the convert are the real ground of his acceptance with God. This was plainly the thin end of the legalistic wedge. It taught men to look inward, not upward, and threatened to silence that open declaration f the free and undeserved grace of God without which the preached Gospel has lost its savour.[1]

Without getting too deep into the history there are interesting parallels, even at a sociological level, that inhere between what is occurring today and what happened back in the day of the Pietists. Like I noted, the Pietists were reacting to the dry, arid Christianity, as they perceived that, produced as it was by the scholastic Reformed Christians. The scholastic Reformed Christians (like what we see given expression, theologically, in the Westminster Confession of Faith) were an institutionalizing group of Christian thinkers, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, who were in a ‘fight’ with Roman Catholic thought, and in this fight there was produced a body of Protestant Reformed teaching suitable for bringing up generations of Christian pastors, students of theology, and lay people who could have recourse to an identifiable and distinctly Protestant body of teaching. In this process, the schoolmen, used academic tools, inherited from their medieval forbears, and philosophical thinking such as could be found in: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Scotus, Agricola, Ramis, Ockham, et. al. They successively accomplished their task of producing an institutionalized Christianity, but for many, what they produced, again, was a dry, arid, and abstract Christianity that had no personal or intimate components that emphasized and helped to foster relationship with God in Christ; at least not at a felt level.

We can see this song being replayed in a way. At the turn of the 20th century, as a result of the Enlightenment (of the English and German sorts), ‘Liberal’ theology began to penetrate into the walls of and halls of traditionally scholastically Reformed, etc. seminaries. As a result, the ‘conservatives’ or who came to be known as the Fundamentalists reacted (like the original Pietists reacted against their perception of dry, abstract Christianity) against the intellectualist Liberalism of their day, but in the process, ironically, like the scholastic Reformed, produced a rigid form of ‘Fundamentalist’ Christianity that ended up, itself, being rigid, arid, abstract, and rationalist; it lost any type of felt Christianity wherein intimacy with God in Christ was emphasized or could be cultivated. As a result, even among the Fundamentalists, and within its ranks there was a turn, or reaction against the rigidity of rationalist Fundamentalism, without though a total abandonment of the intellectualism that was funding Fundamentalism. In other words, like the Pietists, evangelicals wanted to emphasize a warm-hearted relational Christianity that focused on personal Bible-devotion and intimate Bible-fellowship-meetings; nothing wrong with that.

But as we noted, just as the Pietists originally were reacting to the institutional Christianity they inhabited, part of that reaction involved a turn ‘inward’, a turn to the subject so to speak; a situation wherein the individual’s relationship and experience of God became the standard for Christian reality. It was within this milieu that, ironically, theological liberalism’s most prominent thinker was produced, and it his ‘spirit’ that I see living on among so named progressive Christians; not as a reaction from evangelical pietism, but as its logical extension. When the ‘subject’ becomes the norming norm for Christian doctrine and spirituality, when this is taken to its conclusion we end up with a radical form that wants to push off anything that sounds authoritarian or institutional; whether that be doctrinal, or whatever. Schleiermacher in the 18th century was Pietism’s logical extension then; progressive Christianity, in the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher is the logical extension of modern day evangelicalism/Pietism today. Note what Schleiermacher wrote in regard to the mood of Christianity he was attempting to promote:

You reject the dogmas and propositions of religion. Very well, reject them. They are not in any case the essence of religion itself. Religion does not need them; it is only human reflection on the content of our religious feelings or affections which requires anything of the kind, or calls it into being. Do you say that you cannot away with miracles, revelation, inspiration? You are right; we are children no longer; the time for fairy-tales is past. Only cast off as I do faith in everything of that sort, and I will show you miracles and revelations and inspirations of quite another species. To me everything that has an immediate relation to the Infinite, the Universe is a miracle; and everything finite has such a relation, in so far as I find in it a token or indication of the Infinite. What is revelation? Every new and original communication of the Universe to man; and every elemental feeling to me is inspiration. The religion to which I will lead you demands no blind faith, no negation of physics and psychology; it is wholly natural, and yet again, as the immediate product of the Universe, it is all of grace.[2]

For Schleiermacher anthropology was theology, and ‘feeling’ and/or human experience became the canon by which all Christian doctrine was developed and measured.

Conclusion

My little historical genealogical development, and attempt to parallel things did not correlate one-for-one throughout. But the point was simply to underscore that there are interesting patterns inherent in the history and development of ideas that provide precedence for what is happening today among former evangelical and now progressive Christians. It is a ‘spirit’, I would contend, the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher, and others too, that progressives (and that itself represents a continuum) imbibe and think from. What used to be sacrosanct, in regard to Christian holiness, is no longer binding because it does not meet currently with the standards of what counts as ethical and ‘holy’ in our 21st century context. Schleiermacher had a ‘coming out’ party in his day, and the progressives are having theirs today. There really isn’t a lot of difference between the two; our experience of God has become conflated with the Spirit of the Lord’s voice which allows movements in the culture to dictate new standards for what counts as ‘good’ (across all spectrums: doctrinally, ethically, etc.), and as if from God Himself.

[1] Hugh Ross Macintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 11-12.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher cited in Ibid., 43-4.

It Isn’t Just Roe v. Wade, It Is Doe v. Bolton Too

Roe v. Wade was not the only case back in 1973 that made abortions legal at a Federal level; no, there was another case that went along with it, a case that in fact might be more of a lynchpin towards ‘normalizing’ abortion as a woman’s health issue than Roe v. Wade ever was. The case was: Doe v. Bolton. It was this case, a case where the decision was handed down the same day as fetusRoe, that expanded the reasons for why a woman could get an abortion; essentially reducing abortion down to a matter, again, of the woman’s health, which included using it as birth control etc. J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae give us the background information here:

Since 1973, with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, abortion has been legal throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy. The Court in Roe arbitrarily divided up the nine months of pregnancy into trimesters with increasing protections for the unborn in the last trimester. In the first trimester, abortion on demand is legal. In the second trimester, the state can place restrictions on access to abortion in order to safeguard the health of pregnant woman. These include restricting the availability of abortion to licensed medical facilities and requiring them to be performed by licensed physicians. It is widely perceived in the culture at large that abortion is only legal up until the point of viability or, at the time of the Roe decision, roughly at the end of the second trimester. What is not widely known, however, is that on the same day that the Supreme Court handed down the Roe decision, it also handed down another abortion decision, Doe v. Bolton, which expanded the availability of abortion beyond what Roe by itself provides. The Doe decision expanded the exception clause in Roe that allowed for postviability, or third trimester, abortions in cases in which the life or health of the mother was in jeopardy. The Doe decision expanded the notion of the health of the mother in a way that could be interpreted to justify abortion for virtually any reason. The Court interpreted the health of the mother to include more than simply her physical health. It also included her psychological and emotional health, and it could be construed to include her financial health as well. The Court put it this way:

That statute [the Georgia law in question] has been construed to bear upon the psychological as well as physical well being [of the mother]…. We agree that the judgment [of the mother’s physician, as to whether continuing the pregnancy constitutes a threat to the mother’s health] may be exercised in light of all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health [of the pregnant woman].

Thus if in the judgment of the mother’s physician any of these factors, which include much more than simply medical indications, are present, a postviability abortion would be legal. Not only are the factors broadened well beyond medical indications—aspects of a woman’s health that here physician is not trained to assess—but also the judgment is the physician’s alone. The physician can authorize a postviability abortion for virtually any reason, ranging from a threat to the life of the mother (which rarely occurs today) to a range of nonmedical reasons that could include the mother’s financial ability to raise the child in question (familial factors, as cited by the Court). The well-publicized late-term, partial-birth abortion method is often used in these third tri-mester abortions, and though it is widely claimed that these are only performed when the women’s life or health is at risk, it is well documented that the majority of partial-birth abortions are performed for birth-control reasons and are not based on the risks of continuing the pregnancy to the mother. The combination of the Roe and Doe decisions opened the door to abortion on demand at virtually any point in pregnancy.[1]

The latest on the Planned Parenthood exposure should be understood from within its historical and juridical context. In other words, these revelations about PP’s trafficking in human body parts is all possible because of a prior reality; i.e. the legality of abortions in the United States of America since 1973 provided for by both the Roe and Doe cases.

[1] J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body&Soul: Human Nature& the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 237-38.

The Indomitable Human spirit. The Perversity of ‘Work’ and the ‘The American Dream’

I have been slowly reading through Herman Bavinck’s book The ubermenschPhilosophy of Revelation, and I am currently nearing its end. As I start to round the corner of the last that this wonderful book has to offer, Bavinck hits on something in regard to modern man and woman that resonates deeply with me; resonates in such a way that is not merely an academic abstraction, but a concrete and lived reality and experience that I observe everyday–it is something that we all experience on a daily basis as we live and work in this modern Western world of ours. The rest of this post will engage with Bavinck on this kind of common reality that you and I both experience, in particular, as we continue to live out the implications of the modern industrialized and informationized world.

Yes, this is something that I have noticed for quite some time, maybe you have too; I have mostly worked in bluecollar contexts in my working life, and as such the reality I am going to engage with, with Bavinck’s help, has to do with the absolutization of ‘work’ (and for me this gets exemplified in spades in the bluecollar context). In my experience and observation it has become readily apparent that people, whether it be bluecollar, whitecollar, or no-collar, find most of their identity from their work life; indeed, people will sacrifice almost everything to advance their careers, and their status within that kingdom, whatever expression that takes in the various types of career paths available. Work becomes a place, for many, where said person can pour all of their energy and strength into what they are doing, and be rewarded for it, materially. Indeed, having a strong work ethic is not a bad thing; it can be a virtuous thing, something through which God in Jesus Christ is glorified. But like with anything, when work and work ethic becomes the most virtuous thing, the greatest good, the ultimate expression of what it means to live well, then there is a problem (an idol-making problem). I would submit that we live in a society and culture[s] that have systemically taken shape by absolutizing work as an ultimate end for what it means to “live” life; that this view of ‘work’ assigns to humans what it means to be human (so an issue of anthropology, for one thing) on a completely horizontal level abstracted from any sense of the transcendent and vertical reality that life really finds its ultimate telos or purpose from. Herman Bavinck seems to agree with me:

In the measure in which self-confidence grew, confidence in God, belief in miracles, consciousness of misery, the urgency of prayer, and longing for redemption decreased, at least in many circles. Kant had boldly spoken the word–du sollst, also du kannst,–and the humanity which trod the stage of the nineteenth century adopted this motto. It is perceived in itself a necessity, a will, a power, and an obligation to reform the world; and with this pressure it felt its strength awaken, and an irresistible desire to set to work. The modern man no longer feels himself a miserable creature, who has fallen from his original destiny, and no longer regards the earth as a vale of tears, which has taken the place of the original paradise. He can conceive nothing more wonderful than this beautiful world, which has evolved itself from the, smallest beginnings and has reached its highest point of development in grand and mighty man. He is in his own estimation no mere creature, but a creator and redeemer of himself and society. More and more he becomes his own providence. And he is so, and becomes so through his work, for labor is creation. By labor men are divine, and become continually more godlike. Labor must therefore be the foundation of religion and morality, and also of the entirety of modern society….[1]

Further,

… But among such men as Ihering, Wundt, Höding, Paulsen, Spencer, and Sidgwick, we see ethics becoming more and more a section of sociology, which perceives in labor for himself and for others the calling and destiny of man. For labor reconciles the egoistic and social instincts and takes into captivity the whole human life. Labor is “the meaning of our existence.”[2]

We might start a conversation about Karl Marx right now, but let’s not. What Bavinck articulates quite presciently does not escape me and my experience; I can’t imagine that this seems very far away from your experience in day to day life either.

We live in a world that is saturated with living by sight; in a world that lives into its most immediate offering, into what is considered the societal good: into a world that takes what is fleeting and vanishing away (I Cor. 7) and makes it its ultimate purpose and end. We exert and glean our identities from our own personal kingdoms that we create for ourselves at work, and as a result through the fruits of our labor by earning money to further prop ourselves up in our personal kingdoms by way of home ownership (the “American dream”), financial independence, etc. We get caught up in this mode of immediacy even as Christians; our love grows cold.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.