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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Vision Thing (3): The Import of the Visible

When people long for vision as I've defined it in these posts, it is not because they are physically blind. This is obvious, but it bears repeating. People are generally capable of seeing what is around them, but they often cannot grasp the meaning, value, and significance of what they are seeing. In large part, that is what vision is.

Some think and teach that any person can attain vision if they simply look more closely, more intently, more methodically, more deliberately at the world around them, if they don't just see but look at the world that passes before their eyes continually. There is a good deal of truth to this. I remember in a seminary class being assigned to list 75 factual (and thus easily demonstrable) observations about one verse in the Bible. It sounds impossible (and actually, I think it was), but it was amazing how much detail one can see if one takes the time to look at it. And from detail may spring insight.

But insight is not guaranteed. When it comes to seeing God's vision, close observation of the world he made and silently orders and directs may be a strong preparation for vision, and if God blesses someone with vision it may come through their close observation of the world—but only if God blesses them, only if he intervenes supernaturally. A person may spend a lifetime observing nature far more carefully than the average person does and yet never see God's nature reflected in it. A person may spend a lifetime scrutinizing the Bible far more than the average person does and yet never see the glory of God reflected in the face of the Christ revealed on every page. A church may spend thousands of dollars and man-hours gathering data about their community or target demographic and yet never see the ripened grain and the lost sheep and why it matters so much to God to bring them in or what bringing them in actually means.

Vision is truly seeing what is in front of your physical eyes, but true vision doesn't come merely by looking harder. It comes from a spiritual revelation that by default every person lacks, that only God bestows, that opens the eyes to see.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Vision Thing (2): Seeing God through Jesus

No one can have God's vision without first gaining a vision of God. But there's a problem: no one can have a vision of God, not a full and unobscured one anyway. God "lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see" (1 Tim. 6:16). "No one has ever seen God," says John. But the good news is that "[t]he only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known" (John 1:18). "We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father" (v. 14, emphasis mine). Whose glory? Jesus', the Word become flesh.

As "the radiance of [God's] glory and the representation of his essence" (Heb. 1:3), the Son's glory is the glory of the Father. In fact, it might be appropriate to say that the Son himself is the glory of the Father. But because of the incomprehensible fact of the Son's incarnation, we are able to see the Son even though the Father is hidden from us in light. Because the Son is exactly like the Father and represents him perfectly—all that is true of one is true of the other except that the Son is fathered by the Father—when we see Jesus the Son, we see God the Father. "[T]he one who sees me sees the one who sent me," Jesus said (John 12:45). "The person who has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9).

But a great difficulty appears. It seems impossible that we who cannot see Jesus with our eyes the way Jesus' twelve disciples did are able to see the Father. But after Jesus ascended to heaven God made a way that all people could see his Son. "God, who said 'Let light shine out of darkness,' is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). God implants the face of Christ, the radiance of God's glory, inside people's psyches so that even though they don't see him with their eyes, they see him just the same.

Furthermore, everyone who sees the Son not only sees the Father but also sees the Holy Spirit, and vice versa. "[T]he world . . . does not see him or know him," Jesus told the Twelve, but they saw and knew him, because he was with them in Jesus "and will be in you" (John 14:17). So the person with the Spirit within "sees" the Spirit, by seeing him sees the Son, and by seeing the Son sees the Father who cannot be seen.

Therefore, anyone who wants true vision, who wants to see things the way God sees them, has to begin by fixing their eyes on Jesus, because this is the only way to see the God who is the beginning and the end of all true vision. And steadily viewing Jesus is not possible without the knowledge that comes by the Holy Spirit.

So how does one get the Holy Spirit? That's easy—you just have to ask the Father! But I believe it's important (more for yourself than for him) to specify just what you're asking for. You are not asking for the Holy Spirit so that you can have a vision of what to do. You must ask for the Holy Spirit to give you a vision of the Son of God, the Word, so that in him you would see the Father. When the sole vision you crave is a vision of the Father, he will give it—and with it much more vision besides.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Vision Thing (1): Seeing God

Eugene Pluchart, God Appears to Moses as a Spirit in the Burning Bush (1848)

When churches (or other organizations or individuals) first grasp their need for vision, when you first hear people in them say something like, “We need vision,” it’s usually closely followed by something like, “ . . . because need to know what to do.” This is both right and wrong.

It is right because, for one, vision (as defined previously) usually (though not always) requires people to do something. It is also right because usually the people who say, “We need to know what to do,” truly don’t know what to do and really ought to be doing something different from what they’re doing.

But it is also wrong. If your attention to vision is entirely focused on what you are supposed to do, you will never find it and you are likely to make great mistakes.

Remember that vision, true vision, is what God sees. And what God sees first of all is himself.

In fact, there is a recurring pattern in Scripture, especially in the first ten books of the Bible, that we can expect of a true vision from God. Let’s look at Moses as an example.

In Exodus 3, as Moses, Pharaoh’s-adopted-son-turned-fugitive-shepherd is tending to the flock in the wilderness, he sees a bush on fire that doesn’t burn up. When he comes closer, God reveals that it is he, intoning, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6) So the first thing that Moses has a vision of is God himself.

Then God continues,
I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the region of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites [vv. 7-8].
Note that what God is telling Moses here is what God has been up to and what he plans to do next. So the second thing that Moses has a vision of is what God is doing.

It is only then that God says to Moses, “So now go, and I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (v. 10). Now at last, finally, the third thing that Moses has a vision of is what he is supposed to do.

To repeat, the pattern of vision is
  • God himself
  • what God is doing
  • what we are supposed to do
But this is easy for us to miss. It was even easy for Moses to miss. Because once God finished his statement, Moses’ first words were, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, or that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (v. 11).

Now see that Moses was both right and wrong. He did correctly hear his assignment—that was truly part of the vision—but he starts at the end: what he is supposed to do. That was the focus, as it ever is with us most of the time.

God addresses Moses’ concern by assuring Moses that he would be with him (v. 12), which also reminded him that God is really the one bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. Then God repeats the pattern of vision over again to see that Moses gets it.
  • In vv. 14-15 God reveals again who he is, God himself (“I Am Who I Am”).
  • In vv. 16-17, he tells Moses to bring together Israel’s elders and tell them what God is doing (“I have attended carefully to you . . . I will bring you up”).
  • Then in v. 18 God tells Moses what he is supposed to do with the elders (“go to the king of Egypt and tell him . . . ”).
Then, as a final encouragement to Moses, God returns to what he is going to do in vv. 20-22 (“I will extend my hand and strike Egypt . . . I will grant this people favor with the Egyptians”). Poor Moses is still wrapped up in what he is supposed to do, so 4:1-17 entirely revolves around Moses’ protests about what he is supposed to do and God’s replies to him about how he is supposed to do it.

You can see the same pattern of a true vision in a number of places. You see it with Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, Manoah, and Samuel. And you see it with Jesus. Jesus, himself God, the only one who had seen God the Father completely (John 1:18), said,
I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does, and will show him greater deeds than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes [John 5:19-21].
So even the vision that Jesus, the Son of God, had was first of God himself, then of what God is doing, then of what he is supposed to do.

The bent of humanity—the bent of sin—is to focus so intently on ourselves that even when we want to do good for God or others (or are called to it like it or not), we still focus on ourselves. But if you truly seek vision, the first thing is to surrender your attention to what you are supposed to do. Don’t even seek what God is doing. The first and most important thing to see is God himself. That’s where true vision begins.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Vision Thing (intro)

Hans Burgkmair, St. John Altarpiece: St. John the Evangelist in Patmos (1518)

Vision is cool. We want it from our leaders. Companies want it for themselves. Churches want it too. And when I say that vision is cool, I don’t just mean that vision is hip and trendy. I mean that vision really is cool when you have it or when you’re around people who have it or are in an organization that has it. As Will Mancini puts it, “[Vision] clarity isn’t everything, but it changes everything.”

A chosen group in my church is seeking greater vision clarity, and we are in a methodical process to discover it. Very helpfully, we began that process by going to the Bible to see what it says about vision. As it happens, it says quite a lot.

Stemming from my investigation of what the Bible says, I’m going to post 29 short, biblical meditations on vision. I’m defining vision as “human beings’ spiritual ‘sight’ to see things the way God does.” Before you pursue your vision, check out what God says about the vision thing.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Justification is not the entirety of salvation, but it is an essential component of it.

What is justification? The declaration that a person is innocent in the sight of God.

Who/what justifies? God the Father.

Why does he justify? His grace. (Note: “Grace” in the Bible may mean either the giver’s generous disposition or the gift itself. The former is meant here.)

How can he justify? The death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ, on people’s behalf and in their place.

Whom does he justify? People who place their sole hope for justification in Jesus (also known as “faith”) and profess it.

What is the evidence of justification? The believer’s obedience to the will of God.

Who/what produces that evidence? The Holy Spirit of God living in the believer.

This is the classic Protestant teaching on justification. The Protestant view and mine is that addition, subtraction, or modification of the substance (not mere wording) of these answers is not only an error but probably a fatal one.

Friday, December 7, 2012

You Must Read This Article (Not Mine)

Earlier this year I reposted my thoughts from last year on same-sex marriage. My friend strangedavid made the post better by thoughtfully pushing back in the comments section and driving me to explain more. Though I did not retreat from my argument from Christian theology that same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms, strangedavid forced me to admit that my secondary, secular arguments against same-sex marriage were weaker—as I put it, not a “stop sign” but a “speed bump.”

For this reason I’d like to introduce you to a secular stop sign. In their landmark article “What Is Marriage?” in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson clearly define what they call the “conjugal view” of marriage. They defend that definition as the only logically coherent one and the one most beneficial to the common good, and they press difficult questions on what they call the “revisionist view.” And they do all of this with no recourse to religious sources but rather purely based on biology, sociology, constitutional law, and logic.

Every person with an opinion on same-sex marriage, whether strident or squishy, ought to read this article. If same-sex marriage is correct, then the arguments of Girgis et al. can be confronted and demolished by reason, not merely dismissed as bigotry. But if they can’t be overcome by reason . . . .

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Witness of the Spirit

In 1736, 32-year-old John Wesley was on board ship on his way to the colony of Georgia to serve as the rector of the Anglican parish of Savannah and, he hoped, to preach the gospel to the Indians. But while he was hoping to save others, he also hoped in the process to save himself. He believed that he was not holy enough for God despite that most people who knew this extremely disciplined clergyman thought that his religious seriousness was freakishly extreme.

During the journey several severe storms blew up. One was so dangerous that the English on board feared for their lives as water poured below decks threatening to submerge the ship. This tempest occurred while a group of German-speaking Moravian passengers was holding a worship service. As the English shrieked, the Moravians calmly continued to sing, men, women, and children unafraid to die. Wesley was quite afraid to die and meet God, and his fear persuaded him that he truly was unprepared for the judgment.

At the end of their journey, once the passengers began settling in in America, Wesley asked August Spangenberg, one of the Moravians’ leaders, for counsel. Spangenberg answered Wesley’s question with questions: “Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” Spangenberg’s question came directly from Romans 8:16. John Wesley, M.A., Oxford fellow, had no answer. Spangenberg pressed on with his questions, and Wesley was unconvinced by his own replies. Spangenberg’s question about the witness of the Spirit gnawed at Wesley until he finally received the inner witness himself two years later.

I love Spangenberg’s question. Since I read this story earlier this year I’ve begun asking people the same question in similar words: “Have you heard the Holy Spirit tell you inside that you are a child of God?” Unsaved people, whether staunchly religious or totally inexperienced, look back at me dumbstruck. It becomes a terrific lead-in to contrast the milquetoast, worldly concept of “children of God” (stemming from blowing Acts 17:28 totally out of context and proportion) with the biblical demand that “you must all be born from above” (John 3:7).

So since I’ve become excited about Spangenberg’s question I was startled when I read a contemporary of his and Wesley’s, Jonathan Edwards, criticize the question ten years after Spangenberg and Wesley’s conversation. Apparently in Edwards’ neighborhood, at least by 1746, it had become a common thing for religious people to cite the inner witness of the Spirit as evidence that they had truly received God’s saving grace. But as Edwards observed the lives, especially the ends, of these people, he had grave doubts that their confidence was well-founded.

So Edwards takes a good bit of space in his Treatise on the Religious Affections to challenge the question and to drill down to what Romans 8:16 really means and how it ought to be applied (pp. 229-239 here). Edwards argues that the inner witness of the Spirit does not mean thoughts impressed upon the mind from an unknown source that whisper, “You’re saved; you’re a child of God,” even if those thoughts include quotations from Scripture. Rather, the witness of the Spirit is holy, divine, eternal life stamped onto the heart. It is the glorious life of God that believers will enjoy for eternity already present in them in embryo. It is not a message; it is hard evidence—not words but a quality or presence. It is not a birth certificate that claims God as one’s father; it is a DNA test that proves it.

So for you to answer the question for yourself, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” you need to look for three things.

First, do you yearn for God as your Father? Edwards points out that the immediate context of Romans 8:16 says, “ . . . you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father” (v. 15). Does your heart cry out to God as your Abba, your Daddy?

Second, do you resemble God as your Father? “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children—and indeed we are! For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). If the world didn’t recognize God, it won’t recognize his children, because his children resemble him just like children physically resemble their biological parents. Do you exhibit the character qualities of God? If so, the resemblance will only increase: “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (v. 2).

Third, do you act like God as your Father? “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness has been fathered by him” (1 John 2:29). The children of God are chips off the old block—they talk like him and act like him as surely as sons take on the vocal inflection and cadence and mannerisms of their fathers. Do you do the things God does?

This is the inner witness of the Spirit that you are a child of God: you yearn for God, you resemble God, and you act like God, because the Spirit of the Father is infused into your spirit.

If you see that you pass this paternity test, what a joy it is! If not, the remedy is simple (though perhaps not easy): believe in Jesus! “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been fathered by God. . . . [E]veryone who has been fathered by God conquers the world. This is the conquering power that has conquered the world: our faith. Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:1, 4-5).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What Are You Measuring?

Tomorrow (Sunday), for the first time in a long time, I’m not going to count our attendance at worship. I’m not going to care that no one else counts it either. I’m not going to record it or track it or input the average at the end of the quarter into my sweet, seasonally adjusted chart of attendance growth. The reason I won’t is a new (to me) concept of measurement.

I recently attended a workshop on measurement given by Jeff Meyer of the Auxano group. Meyer asked us what we measure in churches. The big ones are attendance and cash (“nickels and noses,” “butts and bucks”), but sometimes we measure certain program outputs (e.g., number of visitors to food pantry). Then Meyer asked us why we measure what we measure. If we like our numbers, we might measure out of ego. But often we measure these things even when the low numbers wound our pride. We measure them because everyone else measures them, or because we think we should be measuring something and these are quite simply the easiest or only things we know to measure.

But Meyer then asked us, “What would you measure if you could?” This intriguing question is based on another: “What kind of Christian is your church called by God to develop?” And that question is based on an even deeper question: “How has God made your church unique—what does he intend to do through your church that he won’t do through 10,000 others?” Put in the reverse order, a church’s unique identity informs what qualities the church is to develop in Christians, and the presence of those qualities is the measurement that matters.

My church is in the process of getting a clear understanding of our uniqueness, and our measures will emerge out of that process. But in the meantime I’ve given thought to my personal uniqueness and what outcome my life is supposed to produce. My mission is to speak the truth that changes the lives that change the world. So what should I measure? Changes in the world made by the people I speak to.

But what changes matter? I scanned the New Testament for answers and found five categories. These categories awed me and showed me how little I settle for in my life and in the lives of others. In the first century, people whose lives were changed by Christ:

  • saved the lost—they proclaimed Christ as they went to the nations, attracting people by their joy and character and amazing people by their personal testimonies
  • healed the sick—they cured diseases and expelled demons by the power of God
  • endured the persecution—their words and deeds provoked it, they both refuted and loved their persecutors, they encouraged the persecuted, and they ensured the gospel’s progress amid persecution by prayer
  • met the needs—they sacrificed money and possessions, labor and time for their fellow believers while some of them administered the church’s sacrifice
  • unified the church—they confonted sin and expelled the unrepentant, forgave and restored the repentant, and served and enabled upbuilding service according to spiritual gifts

If I am effective in my mission by the Spirit of God, people that I talk to will do these things. Therefore, every measure short of them doesn’t matter. Measuring worship attendance measures nothing about my ministry. It just measures how many want to hear me. If someone wants to hear me, that’s fine, but that is far short of them saving the lost, healing the sick, enduring the persecution, meeting the needs, and unifying the church. It is tempting to go a step further and measure virtues developed in Christians—do my hearers resist temptation more or enjoy God in worship more? But even these are inferior. It’s not that they’re superficial measures; they are quite important. But they aren’t the target that I am shooting at. My mission isn’t to make Christians into better Christians. It’s to make better Christians who change the world. Until they change their world by the power of God, my measures are zeroes, no matter how pure my hearers become.

I don’t want you to adopt my measures. I don’t want my church to adopt my measures. I want you to adopt the measures that measure what God has created and saved you to accomplish. And don’t measure anything less.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Are There Apostles Today?

First, it's important to note that before answering the question, "Are there apostles today?" we need to answer the question, "What is an apostle?" which in turn implies, "What was an apostle in the first century?" And that's not as easy a question to answer as one might think, because different NT writers used the term differently.

Most of the time that Luke uses the term apostle, he restricts his meaning to the Twelve (as in Luke 6:13). (Beginning in Acts 1 these are the Twelve minus Judas Iscariot plus Matthias.) Paul is much more flexible in his use of apostle. First, he repeatedly calls himself an apostle of the same rank as the Twelve because he too saw the risen Jesus and received a direct commission from him (see 1 Cor. 15:8-10). Second, Paul uses the term apostle to apply not just to the Twelve but to all the elders in the Jerusalem mother-church (note James in Gal. 1:19 and "all the apostles" in 1 Cor. 15:7). And third, Paul uses the term apostle to refer to any Christian sent out by a church on a mission, whatever it was (note 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). Perhaps it is on this basis that Paul implies that Apollos is an apostle (1 Cor. 4:6, 9).

So, are there apostles today? If by apostles you mean the Twelve, or the Twelve plus Paul, or all the elders of the Jerusalem church, then yes, but they are united with us in heaven and not on this earth. (Though perhaps you could argue that current priests and pastors in Jerusalem today are apostles by the last of those definitions.)

But if an apostle is any Christian sent out by a church on a mission, then there must indeed be apostles today. Every missionary is an apostle. Perhaps traveling shepherds of churches like judicatory clergy (district superintendent, etc.) are apostles. A church planter would be an apostle too, I think. Delegates from churches to consultative bodies might be considered apostles. People who bring financial or physical relief to afflicted fellow-Christians serve as apostles, at least while they're doing it.

At least one key in defining the term apostle is that an apostle is sent out to move beyond a home base, perhaps to return or perhaps not. Apostles aren't wanderers, but they are travelers. Wherever they're staying is just a temporary holdover in their process of going, and that's obvious to everyone.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Political Vision

The election is over. For me, the timing of the campaigns coincided with extended learning and meditation on “vision” (more on that in future posts), and that shaped how I went about deciding who to vote for. I’m not sure that it changed my votes, but it changed how I thought about the decisions.

Some people vote based on tribal affinity (party, race, religion, whatever)—I probably do more of that than my intellect wants to admit. Some vote on personality, others on experience or on intuitive guesses about a candidate’s leadership skills. But most Americans vote on “the issues”—or at least, this is what most Americans believe that mature, responsible, reasonable people do, so that’s what they claim to do.

For the first time, I’m not sure I agree that we ought to cast our vote based on the issues. That’s because, when you see what a candidate believes about “the issues,” the issues are put forth as basically unrelated. To the extent they are grouped, the groups are typically “foreign,” “economic,” and “social”—that is, where the issues present themselves. But does that mean they are unrelated across those categories?

And why do candidates have the positions that they hold on these different “issues”? And why do parties? What is it about a party that connects its positions on abortion and multilateral diplomatic organizations other than sheer coincidence? The more I study history and see different collections of positions on “issues” in parties in other times, the more random and arbitrary these collections appear.

Or maybe they just appear that way because of the candidates who espouse them. This is where “vision” comes in. Why could I scarcely find any vision among the candidates whose ads I saw? The lack of clarity was astonishing. Where were the persistent values, clear mission, and non-negotiable strategy that a politician might govern by over an entire career and that integrate his or her positions on the various “issues”? Where was the portrayal of a tangible, attractive future and a measurable intermediate step to get there? The muddledness and message vagrancy were so pervasive that I started thinking that any candidate who could exhibit clarity about governing would automatically win just by showing up.

But perhaps not. In one race, one major-party candidate was considerably closer to vision clarity than the other. But I voted for the other, because I didn’t approve of the vision that the one put forth. I reasoned that the unclear candidate, who will probably be ineffective over their forthcoming term, is less dangerous than the clear one. So vision clarity is not enough in politics—people also need to approve of your vision. This might actually be the reason why clarity is so hard to come by.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about what my political vision is. If I were running—or, more to the point, governing—what would guide me and serve as the intellectual basis by which I would approach each of the “issues”? Here is what I came up with: a list of six values that correspond to six strategies to realize those values. Some strategies could connect with other values than the ones I pair them with. In certain situations, values conflict, and it is difficult to arbitrate between them. And I don’t get into where exactly we should be going and what the first priority “rallying cry” issue is to get us closer to it. But nevertheless, what’s here is a tool I tried to use to measure the candidates I was faced with instead of scattershot, confused “issue” evaluation. This was not an easy thing to do, since none of them talk the way I talk here.

I’ll also mention that my sources for this list are a combination of theological principles, historical study, personal experience, and probably something else. But I won’t be giving any rationales here.

So here they are:

Value #1: The People are the Government. “The government” is merely the tool by which the People govern themselves. And like it or not, we’re all in it together. Strategy #1: Make it sustainable. If my home needed repaired, I’d fix it. If my bank account were draining, I would change how I spent my money and see what I could do to get more of it. If my commitments wore out my ability to keep them, I would change them or change my routine. And if things were bad enough, I’d try anything to keep my household afloat. The point: All the unsustainability in government isn’t government’s problem; it’s our problem and my problem. The more severe the crisis we are in or to which we’re heading, the more pragmatic flexibility we all should be motivated to employ to bail ourselves out of it.

Value #2: By the book. Laws aren’t suggestions. Neither is the Constitution. We live by what’s written there, not what we wish were written there. Strategy #2: Enforce it or change it. Living according to law is so important that if it truly is impractical or undesirable, change it. It damages the majesty of the law less to change it to fit the reality that it’s being flagrantly disobeyed than it does to ignore it either in principle or in enforcement.

Value #3: One and many. Americans are individuals. Americans are groups. Americans are one. None of these is more true than the others. Strategy #3: The closer, the better. Responsibility for well-being should be laid at the lowest level with the narrowest scope and the greatest diversity in which the responsibility can effectively be met, and that level must be given the complete power and freedom to do so. But if the lowest level possible is also the highest level available—the nation—then the national government needs that power.

Value #4: Equality of freedom. Freedom is both “freedom from” interference from the government and “freedom to” live a life or do a thing that the government may make possible. Every American deserves the same “freedom from” and “freedom to,” though outcomes of exercising those freedoms are never guaranteed. (Note: Defining the bearer[s] of freedom involves major interplay with Value #3.) Strategy #4: Power for the weak. Exertion of governmental power to limit freedom must always limit the freedom of the strong as the means to extend or protect the freedom of the weak (educationally, politically, economically, physically, etc.).

Value #5: Second chances. America should be (and at its best in fact is) the place where people can come to get a new start in life and where people who give something a shot and fail aren’t sunk forever. Strategy #5: Channel the market. The market is like a river. Damming it is an exercise in futility; allowing it to run unencumbered threatens devastation every time it floods. We establish boundaries—limits—on the market while employing market-based solutions for problems. Above all, provide people who get flooded the means to rebuild on better ground.

Value #6: America for the world. We don’t exist for ourselves. We are, so that the rest of the world would be better. Strategy #6: Lead ourselves. We can’t control anyone but ourselves, much as we are tempted to think we can. But because we can control ourselves, then functioning excellently within what we can control, despite the huge risks, is the lever by which we affect the destinies of nations. Try to get other nations into line, and we fail. Get ourselves right, and the world must adjust.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Buddha and Jesus

Let's face it: Buddhism is cool. I admit that. To a lot of people, any religion that involves Jesus is, in the tongue-in-cheek words of Christian Lander, "kind of trashy." (Note: I can't find this quote online anymore where it originally belonged, so I'm assuming he got too much criticism, which is too bad.) Buddhism (the Western adaptation, that is) seems to have all the selling points of Christianity without any of the turnoffs, hence its appeal. Buddhism seems to other people like the opposite of Christianity, hence its rebel mystique. It has some demands, and they appear to be all the demands that certain people want demanded of themselves without the demands they don't.

These perceptions are not far off. Tim Geoffrion, who has spent significant time in Buddhist Southeast Asia, writes,
Like Jesus, the Buddha is usually portrayed as a gentle and wise spiritual guide. By following his teachings and example, in pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from this world, Buddhists seek to detach themselves from all those desires that produce suffering. Along the way, they seek to live peacefully and to become more compassionate toward others. . . .
As Buddhists look to the Buddha for a better way to live and for hope for their lives, so Christians look to Jesus. Yet, Jesus’ way is different.
Read his full post to see why Buddha isn't just a cooler version of Jesus or someone who would have been besties with Jesus but Jesus' followers screwed his teachings up.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Wife of Jesus Thing

If you're wondering what my opinion is on this scrap of papyrus about Jesus' wife that you may have heard about, I haven't researched it enough (or had enough interest) to formulate one. But Ross Douthat has written an opinion that makes a whole lot of sense to me—and not only about this shocking revelation, but the several we've encountered in recent years—so for now let's call his opinion mine and save ourselves some time. Check it out.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What Choosing Sexual Purity Really Means

Jessica Harris has written a terrific piece on "Five Reasons Purity Rings and Pledges Don't Work." It's very valuable not just for parents considering how to raise their kids with respect to sex. It's also for people of all ages to consider what the essence of purity is—more than a choice, more than a physical disposition, and definitely more than a ring.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What Men Are For

I’ve discovered that in some circles it’s okay to despise men. Not just particularly despicable men, but men in general or even all men. And in some circles it’s not just okay to do this—it’s actually required as a sign of moral rectitude.

Now I don’t have hard evidence of this. I haven’t walked into a party where someone began deriding men and everyone eagerly chimed in, so if these circles really do exist, they are pretty detached from the circles I run in. But I see soft evidence of their existence online in articles and more tellingly in comments to those articles. Now I admit that people’s anonymous internet comments don’t count for much, because it seems that many people will say anything if no one knows who they are. But such online salvos seem to lack any awareness that any decent person would counter their scorn unless that person is him- or herself dangerously deranged. This suggests that for such a poster, their offline world is as supportive of their disdain as the online one.

One example of contempt for men that I saw online recently is a New York Times column entitled, “Men, Who Needs Them?” I must point out that the author, biologist Greg Hampikian, didn’t write with attitude or hatred. In a fairly easy-going tone he simply pointed out that if all men died today, we have enough in sperm banks to keep the human race going for a really long time, and he claimed that it would be no problem for women to manage things without men while the kids grow up, even if all the kids are daughters and repeat the process.

His assumption that biology is the only place to find a reason for men’s existence is rather appalling, but I don’t fault him for taking logical steps from lousy first principles. I’m more concerned that he offered the imprimatur of Science to disdain for men that arises from other sources, exemplified by his colleague who, when asked by him if there was anything irreplaceable about men, replied, “They’re entertaining.”

Contempt for men was more obvious in the comments following another Times column. In “Why Men Fail,” David Brooks describes how most men are falling short of most women in a variety of measures of achievement. Brooks then summarizes (without quite endorsing) Hanna Rosin’s recent argument that women are succeeding because, like immigrants, they are adapting rapidly to a rapidly changing world while men are clinging to obsolescent ways.

Now, one might think that the despisers of men would relish a piece like this that says that women are winners and men are losers. Judging by many comments, perhaps scorn is the most natural way for them to express their appreciation. They can be summarized thus:

  • “Men aren’t suffering at all. Women are still earning less than men and not getting promoted to high positions, you big jerk.” Translation: gender inequality is not the problem. Female inferiority is the problem. Women falling short in one area matters; men falling short in other areas does not.
  • “Women don’t start wars; men do.” That’s a popular theory that’s never been tested. Let’s make all the heads of government women and see what happens. (See also: Margaret Thatcher. See also your church, PTA, cheerleading squad, etc.)
  • “Men are as inflexible as the Republican Party; dump it.” Right—because the Democrats are really flexible about things like abortion on demand.
  • “Columns like this are a Trojan horse men use to try to drive women back into slavery.” Therefore, we flexible women are keeping the gates closed tight. If it takes deliberately ignoring boys failing school and skyrocketing male unemployment to keep women free, then so be it. We win; you lose.
  • “Boys don’t have a problem sitting still. They can sit in front of a video game for hours.” Translation: males are failing not because of social forces or genetic handicaps but moral inferiority to females exemplified by laziness.

Incidentally, these comments came from posters with male names about as much as from posters with female names. This buttresses my point that there are circles in which despising men is an essential part of good behavior. Some men have been convinced that they need to deride their own sex in order to belong just as women were convinced to do in prior generations.

Some men who commented made the same self-despising point by embracing their new role in society as roguish, doltish clowns meant for public entertainment. “College women supporting a hook-up culture of fun and sex, you say?? Where, David? We need actual names of universities!!” wrote one. “Hey, but we will always be better at changing a tire and pouring a beer . . . so there,” wrote another.

There were lots of other comments too. Some appreciated the article. More argued (usually with a political edge) that the statistics Brooks cited had more to do with broad and/or recent economic history than a difference between the sexes. But there were very few who said, as one woman did, that this article overlooks strengths that men tend to possess that women do not. Even fewer asserted that the unabashed sexism exhibited in many of the 402 comments is inherently repugnant.

Reading stuff like this makes me understandably uncomfortable. There’s nothing quite like encountering a group of people that take it as a given that you’re inferior. But it also got me thinking, what are men for? Setting aside the ethical questions about our reproductive technology, why does the world need men? What is man’s dignity when portions of the world find him despicable?

These are among the many questions that only have a firm answer to people who believe God’s revelation. Social scientific arguments may sometimes be persuasive but ultimately are in the eye of the beholder. By contrast, God gives a firm answer in the Bible as to why men are important.

Humanity needs men in order to see God. Humanity needs women for the same reason.

“God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Each male and each female reflects the image of God. But male and female together reflect his image too. In marriage, a man and a woman—two—become one flesh and produce a child who is also of the same flesh as the parents. Three who are substantially distinct but are one in essence—this is the image of the Trinity. The world does not see this image without women, nor is it visible without men.

There are always outliers: men with traditionally feminine qualities and women with traditionally masculine ones. But there are also averages, and the God revealed in the Bible perfectly displays both the typical masculine virtues and the typical feminine ones.

Moreover, it is not accidental that when God’s relationship to his people is illustrated in Scripture using the masculine-feminine dichotomy, God is always portrayed as masculine and his people collectively feminine. God plays the man toward humanity; humanity, male as well as female, plays the woman to God. (I’ll dig deeper into this in a future post.)

In all these ways, humanity’s grasp of who God is and what he is like would be lobotomized if there were no men (or, as I said, women). And if this is true in the fallen human race distortedly reflecting the image of God, how much more so in the glorified human race perfectly reflecting him!

Modern individuals may despise and even hate men for any number of reasons. But to the extent that our society as a whole denigrates men, seeking to marginalize them, and manhood, seeking to eliminate or pervert it, it’s for one basic reason. Our world hates men because our world hates God. Though few if any are conscious of it, this is the silent, overarching spiritual force behind the contempt of men, the very same force behind the degradation of women. Both phenomena arise from an attempt to obscure the image of God in his creation so that he might not be seen, feared, loved, and worshiped and so that we might not find the happiness that we can only find in him.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Men, Superheroes and Church

This post by David Murrow of Church for Men resonated strongly with me, because what he's describing men (especially young men) want is what I want. His description of the sociological forces that have developed over a century and a half that have put men in an unmanly predicament, though probably not comprehensive, is also compelling. Please check this out, especially if you are either a young man or a middle-age-or-older woman. I request this of the latter because some day you may be in a church with a pastor like me delivering a sermon like this that alienates you and you don't understand it. I want you to know why.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

God Loves a Cheerful Giver

When I belonged to a predominantly black church I experienced celebration in giving our tithes and offerings that made it one of the best parts of the service. It couldn't have been more biblical; I felt like I was rejoicing with Israel in the Old Testament. But I never saw anyone give his offering like this guy in a church in Africa.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Away with Them

It is a grim irony: in the Roman Empire before Constantine, the principal charge laid against Christians was that they were atheists, of all things, because they refused to worship false gods, including Caesar himself. In the second century, Polycarp, the old bishop of Smyrna, was captured and taken into the arena. Being threatened by wild animals and fire, the proconsul urged him to repent by saying, “Away with the atheists.” Polycarp gestured at the bloodthirsty crowd in the stands, who refused to worship the true God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and pronounced, “Away with the atheists!”

I have an image in my mind that I’m standing in a courtroom being threatened with severe punishment. The judge tells me I can avoid my fate by saying, “Away with the bigots.” I turn and gesture to the jury, the officers, the prosecutors, and the packed gallery and say, “Away with the bigots!”

They tried to burn Polycarp at the stake, but the flame wouldn't touch him. So they plunged a dagger into him and he died.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is America a Christian Nation?: A Letter from a Friend

The e-mail just contained this:

Dear C,

Thank you for sending me this video. Since you didn't make a comment on it, I don't know if it was just for my information or if you wanted my thoughts on it or something else, but since I do have some thoughts on it I thought I'd pass them along.

When it comes to the question, "What is a Christian nation?", Stuart Shepard clearly isn't satisfied with what he calls President Obama's "demographic argument"—the idea that a Christian nation is a nation composed entirely of Christians, and therefore, since America has lots of people that aren't Christians, it's not a Christian nation.

In its place, Mr. Shepard asserts what I would call the "origin argument"—the idea that a Christian nation is one that however long ago was founded by Christians for Christian reasons on Christian principles with Christian hope. He doesn't tell us why that's a better definition than President Obama's; he just puts it out there. But he does tell us that America's origins are Christian, and he gives examples on display around the National Mall to prove his point.

To a great extent I agree with him. Christianity has shaped this nation immensely, especially during particular periods (like the decades before the Civil War and the 20 years after World War II). It's sad and even disgraceful how often people try to tell our nation's story without talking about the huge influence of Christianity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who talks about our nation's history without talking about Christianity doesn't understand it.

But the argument Mr. Shepard makes has some big flaws. One of them is this: Of all the inscriptions in Washington that Mr. Shepard says proves that we're a Christian nation, how many of them mention Christ? None of them (although one inscription in the Lincoln Memorial quotes Jesus twice without mentioning him by name). The fact is, all those inscriptions just mention "God." But lots of people talk about God—Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and others as well as Christians, not to mention people who call themselves Christians but have no idea what the Christian gospel is.

And that's really the point. A Christian isn't someone who believes in God. A Christian is someone who has placed their entire reliance on the story of Jesus Christ, preexistent, incarnate, perfect, having died and been buried, risen, reigning, and coming again to save us from our sins and their consequences. You won't find that message on a single monument in Washington, D.C. You won't find it in the writings of many of our Founders and our most influential historical figures. Now, you will find it in some, and you will find in others (like Lincoln, for example) glimpses of some of it without embracing all of it. And you find it among huge numbers of people in our history who were never elected to high office but made a big impact on America. But "In God We Trust" in the House chamber and on the coinage does not make us a Christian nation, because you can't have a Christian anything without Christ.

So what does make a nation Christian? Is it the demographic argument, the origin argument, or something else? Fortunately, God answers this question in the Bible, so that's where we should look.

Before Christ, there was one nation that was specifically God's: Israel. Just before appearing on Mt. Sinai to give Israel the Law, God said to Moses, "And now, if you will listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6).

But it happens that after Christ came, Peter was writing to a group of Christians and he said that this promise by God applied to them: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God's people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet. 2:9-10). This group of people he called "a holy nation" wasn't from one nation, and they didn't have their own government or their own flag. They were a group of ordinary people who happened to live in the Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pet. 1:1). What made them distinctive from their neighbors in those provinces was that they were "chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ's blood" (1:1-2).

Peter shows us that once Christ came, God's nation wasn't an ordinary nation anymore. God's nation is a group of people from all nations scattered all over the world. God's nation is the group of people that he chose by the Holy Spirit to obey him and be forgiven through the death of Jesus Christ. That is the Christian nation—that is the only Christian nation.

So, is the United States a Christian nation? According to God's definition in the Bible, no, it certainly is not. A portion of the Christian nation happens to live in America; its members have dual citizenship. But the only Christian nation is scattered among all the nations, and none of those nations is wholly Christian.

Nevertheless, members of the Christian nation within this nation have for centuries wanted our nation to be as Christian as possible, and that's a good thing. Because "Christian/non-Christian" might not be just like "on/off." It might also be like "hot/cold"—you can always get hotter or colder. And we always want this American nation to be "hotter" than it is now—more Christian in its laws and its execution of its laws, its relationships with other countries, and the attitude and behavior of its people. I know that I want that, and I believe that you want it too.

So my concern not only for the President but for all American citizens is not that they admit that they are a Christian nation because of what our Founders said about God (and only sometimes Christ). I want him and all of us to see things in a more Christian way and to govern ourselves accordingly. But far more than that, I want him and all of us to be part of the only truly Christian nation—the nation that is bought by Christ and will, when he returns, be the only nation left standing when all others, including America, dissolve into ashes.

Grace and peace, and see you Sunday,
Pastor Cory

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Do You Know the Holy Spirit's Name?

Here's a profound meditation by Francis Frangipane on what the person of the Holy Spirit teaches us about humility. Check it out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


A few mornings ago I read 1 Thess. 3:12-13, which says, " . . . and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."

When I read this, I was struck by the connection between love and holiness. Paul prays that the Thessalonians would love people more, with the result that they would exhibit holiness in their thinking. Love is an essential characteristic of holiness.

Then I got to thinking about how sometimes I've heard people say that the supreme attribute of God is his holiness, because it is the only one predicated of him three times ("Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”—Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). Sometimes I have contested that claim with the proposition that if we have to pick a supreme attribute of God (which I don't think we should) that attribute is love, because love is the only quality that the Bible says God is (in "God is love,” not merely "God is loving”—1 John 4:8, 16). One could argue that God's triple holiness shows that that attribute uniquely reflects the Trinity. But on the other hand, the statement "God is love" reveals that the singular God is essentially plural, because love requires multiple persons, and therefore as a community God is love in his essence. Predictably, these arguments didn't go anywhere very productive.

But anyway, as I meditated on this text in 1 Thessalonians this morning, it occurred to me: What if God's holiness is his love? What if God's love is his holiness? This idea is mysterious and profound, but it also makes sense. We are told to be holy as the one who called us is holy. Likewise we are told that the greatest commandment, to love God, is inherently realized in loving people the way God loves.

I think sometimes people are prone to prefer God's holiness or God's love over the other, even when they know they're not supposed to and claim they aren't doing it. Most of the time it's accidental—we naturally gravitate toward what we were raised hearing emphasized or conversely toward what we believe has been neglected by the people around us or maybe just based on idiosyncracies of our personality. And when people gravitate toward one or the other, they usually don't reveal it in a broad, bold statement like, "The supreme attribute of God is ________," but in the general tenor of what they say when they're talking about God or about people (or perhaps in the pattern of the titles of the books on their shelves). To put it most crudely (please forgive this statement), people often seem to prefer a holy "Daddy God" or a loving "Mommy God." But of course, God is both triply holy and love-in-essence. And maybe by the common tendency to fix our attention on one or another aspect of God we miss that they are also aspects of each other, because the one-of-a-kind Triune God is the only, original, perfect actualization of both.

I think Jonathan Edwards got this, not just intellectually but experientially. He described one of his momentous mystical experiences with God around the time of his conversion at age 17 as "a sweet conjunction: majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.”

Monday, July 2, 2012

Don't Call Us Conservative

As I’m laying the groundwork for my research on Mansfield French I’m learning a lot about American slavery, such as, for example, how much of American life in all sections of the country in the first half of the 19th century was affected by it and even depended on it. I’m also learning about the brave people who began speaking out to oppose slavery. For example, I’ve learned that not all people who publicly opposed slavery were considered abolitionists. Many in the North and even in the South publicly opposed slavery; most were in favor of gradual emancipation by some means, and many were in favor of blacks leaving the United States to colonize Africa (which actually happened in Liberia). Only those who demanded immediate, universal emancipation with no compensation for slaveowners were called abolitionists, and they urged this radical solution at considerable risk to their lives.

As we look back on slavery today, it’s easy to view its end as an inevitability. “Of course slavery would end somehow—what, did they think it would really last forever? Of course there would be a civil war during which all slaves would be freed. Of course the United States would follow the pattern of emancipation set by all other nations of the ‘civilized’ world in the 19th century.” But as I read more about the antebellum era, the end of slavery does not seem inevitable at all. It certainly didn’t seem that way to those who fought to end it. In fact, the odds were extremely long. The political and economic might of those who relied on slavery in the South and the North was immense. The bulk of Americans who thought that it should end nibbled around the edges of the problem or thought that it was someone else’s duty to solve it or that it would get fixed in the undefined future. The balance of power arrayed against the first abolitionists could have made the cause seem hopeless.

But the abolitionists weren’t hopeless—in fact, anything but. They had great hope. Some of that hope was, in my view, misplaced. They had hope that God had birthed America with a special mission to usher in a millennial era of liberty, justice, and peace in the whole world and that he would see it through in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Most believed that once God perfected the world through America’s example and action then Christ would return. I think that this is a misreading of biblical prophecy, and as it happens there aren’t many today who still hold this view (a born-in-the-USA version of postmillennialism). But for the most part I think that their bold hope was well-founded, because their hope for the cause of abolition rested in the God who was strong enough to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, the God who enabled David, who defied Goliath, to slay Goliath, who defied God. Because as a matter of fact, although an important number of abolitionists were Yankee Unitarians and liberal Quakers, the bulk of the movement consisted of Bible-thumping evangelicals.

I mention their Bible-thumpingness to correct a common misunderstanding about that era. It is frequently observed that prior to the Civil War, Northerners would quote the Bible to denounce slavery while Southerners quoted it to defend it. This observation—which happens to be true—is used to prove a number of things, like that religious people never agree or that the Bible is self-contradictory or that anyone can make the Bible say anything they want so there’s no point in listening to anyone who quotes it or that the Bible is a tool of oppression and that Christians are always on the wrong side of progress and justice. (Oh yeah, and they’re hypocrites too. People love saying that.) But even though it is true that the Bible was employed both to criticize and to defend slavery, that truth standing alone is misleading.

When Missouri applied for statehood in 1820, a full 40 years before the Civil War, there was an unprecedented debate over slavery so intense that the Union seemed to be in severe danger of rupturing. During that debate, antislavery voices employed the Bible as one of their bases for argument. Proslavery voices did not, however; their arguments came entirely from the Constitution, public safety, and economics. It wasn’t for another ten to 15 years that defenders of slavery would appeal to the Bible, and that was simply to provide a rebuttal to the biblical arguments marshaled against them. Even then, Southern evangelical defenders of slavery argued that slavery was biblically permissible; they did not argue that slavery was a positive moral good. That argument, which emerged in the 1830s, was put forth by other Southerners on dubiously scientific racial grounds. Meanwhile, Southern evangelicals who defended slavery against Northerners simultaneously preached to slaveowners to treat their slaves humanely and with dignity and to teach them to read so that they could read and understand the Bible and be saved. It was not unusual for masters to hear this challenge while sitting in the very same worship services as their own slaves. However, most masters refused to teach their slaves to read (it was even against the law in some places) exactly because they were afraid that by reading the Bible slaves would learn their worth in God’s sight and then refuse to comply with the slave system.

In sum, evangelicals were leaders of the progressive side of the single most crucial moral and social issue in America in the 19th century. Even those evangelicals who fell on the conservative side of that issue took a nuanced position with profound potential consequences if it were implemented. But on the whole, evangelicals pushed America toward progress to become a more free and just nation, to become better than Americans thought they could be.

In light of this progressive heritage, it is truly remarkable how (white) evangelicals today—especially over age 30 or so—are so strongly identified with conservative politics. This is to some extent unfortunate. There are some issues in which I think our biblical faith demands that we stake out a progressive position or at least engage in some criticism of boilerplate conservatism: I’ve written on immigration as an example. Nevertheless, I think that there are other issues in which we are right to be conservative: I’ve written on same-sex marriage as an example of that. But as I compare the 19th-century evangelicals and slavery with evangelicals today, one issue seems more and more curious and paradoxical: abortion.

Are evangelicals truly “conservative” when it comes to abortion? That depends on how you mean it. In common parlance “pro-life” has gotten stuck with the “conservative” label, so in ordinary speech I guess evangelicals are conservative about abortion. But at its root, to be “conservative” means to “conserve” what is, to preserve the status quo. Roe v. Wade has been around for almost 40 years; it’s safe to say that abortion on demand is now the status quo. By that reckoning then, those whom we call progressives are the true conservatives. And obversely, conservatives who annoy and push the nation to be better than it is to the unborn are the true progressives.

In at least one respect, 19th-century defenders of slavery and 20th-/21st-century defenders of abortion/“a woman’s right to choose” are very different, and that is their convictions about the Constitution. The 19th-century planter aristocracy championed a strict construction of the Constitution, which would keep the federal government (especially the legislative branch) weak enough that it could not impose its will on the states and alter their slavery-based societies. Today, by contrast, pro-choice advocates believe in an expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment so that the federal government (especially the judicial branch) might be strong enough to impose its will on the states and prevent them from altering women’s access to abortion. The one thing that these utterly opposite constitutional theories share is that in both cases they fit conveniently with the policy objectives of the people that profess them.

In some other respects, however, these two groups, separated by a century and a half, are disturbingly similar. They both employ the natural-rights language of liberty to justify their use of power to revoke the liberty of people who are weaker than they are. The two groups are not exactly alike in how they do this. Revolutionary-era planters did not claim that their practice of slave ownership was in itself an act of defiance against oppressive tyranny the way that pro-choice advocates claim that aborting a baby or the right to do so if one wants constitutes a stand against the patriarchy. But the heirs of the Southern patriots did argue that a government that would deprive them of slaves—whose bodies generally made up the largest portion of planters’ wealth—would be a tyrannical government that unjustly tramples citizens’ freedoms. In other words, the naturally self-evident freedom won in the Revolution and enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom to dominate the destinies of certain other people if one so chooses. This is essentially the position of defenders of abortion as well. Moreover, in both cases the argument is buttressed by the contention that those who are thus dominated are not quite human, and that’s what makes the domination acceptable. Finally, all but the most extreme in both groups maintain(ed) that in a perfect world the thing defended wouldn’t exist, that it isn’t ideal, and that there should be less of it. Yet in this imperfect world they do not tolerate the slightest limitation placed on it though they express hope that somehow, someday, there will be no need for it so that in future generations it will fade away with no sacrifice required.

Meanwhile, evangelicals locked in an exhausting and frustrating struggle against bitter odds persist in making the same case as our spiritual ancestors. A human is a human. No just law grants a person the liberty to revoke liberty from another, and neither does the Constitution. Oppressors can’t justify oppression by pleading that they themselves are being oppressed. We cannot make our nation better by clinging to what is wrong. God is watching and will judge.

I pray to God that someday people will look back and think that the abolition of abortion was inevitable. They’ll say, “How could they have been so barbaric? How could they have argued that preserving the constitutional rights of women justified denying the constitutional rights of children? How could so many have gone about their lives and not taken a stand?” But those who look closely will also note the irony that evangelicals, called by their contemporaries “conservatives,” were the progressive voice of their time, the ones calling their nation to be better than Americans believed it could be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What They'll Be Writing When They Write about Us

As of a few weeks ago I’ve been posting a series of reflections on Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition, and this postscript is one final reflection, not on what Pelikan wrote but on what he didn’t write. Specifically, this is about what he might have written if he were writing his magnum opus 100 years from now.

Each chapter of The Christian Tradition is about a theological theme, either a doctrine or a movement. But each chapter is also about a period of time (usually about a century) during which that theme dominated the deliberations of the church. So as I read I couldn’t help but wonder, “If Jaroslav Pelikan were writing this from the future about the era we’re living in—say from 1965 to some unknown point in the future—what would the chapter be about? What would he call the issue (or issues) that dominates our time?” Below are four doctrines that I believe future historical theologians will believe we made history by talking about.

When a doctrine becomes prominent in the deliberation of the church for an extended period of time, it usually matters to history for one of three reasons. (1) A challenge from within the church or without (or both) requires that a doctrine be more clearly articulated than previously, perhaps for the first time, and once it is clarified it sets the boundaries for all future discussion. (2) Like reason (1), a challenge arises, but unlike (1) the discussion ends without complete or satisfactory clarification or settlement of the dispute, setting the stage for the same doctrine to be rehashed in the future, perhaps with new insight and perhaps not. (3) New insight emerges from within or without that either opens a new doctrine or a new way of looking at all doctrine. The doctrinal themes that I outline here exemplify all three reasons.

One doctrine about which our age is making history is the doctrine of humanity as male and female. As we live through it, we frequently fail to recognize this as doctrine-in-the-making in our era. We usually categorize the controversies as moral rather than doctrinal, and we usually fail to recognize the common rootage of the moral issues. But the ethical issues of our time that in some way pertain to human sexuality—in no particular order, gender equality, marriage, marital roles, divorce, women in ministry in the church, abortion, contraception, genetic selection, homosexuality and transgender, pornography, human trafficking, child abuse—all stem from the crucial doctrinal question, what does it mean that “God created humankind in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27)?

The process of answering this question is painful as churches are riven over it and as it touches intensely personal and vulnerable areas of individuals’ lives. But despite the pain, this is an exciting time. Currents in our culture have compelled us to examine and expound an area of doctrine that has not been systematically addressed in two millennia of church history! I pray that by his grace God would give his people insight to settle this question in a way that sets the boundaries for all future generations just as Nicea and Constantinople did for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Unfortunately, a second doctrine that we are wrestling with now is a rehash of earlier unsettled debates, and we seem to be making little progress toward resolving them—specifically, I’m referring to the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement first began to receive serious, sustained treatment in the West in the Middle Ages after the Great Schism separated it from the East. The doctrine received further development in the controversy of the Reformation and then was at issue again during the rise of the Enlightenment. Each time the doctrine was considered during or just after a major split in the Christian family, so fragmented confession and teaching about the doctrine has prevailed. Now, at least among Protestants, the same debate about penal substitution that took place during the Enlightenment is replaying itself. The only new component to the discussion in our day may be the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which itself is more related to the doctrine of the atonement than part of it.

A third prominent doctrine in our era is much more hopeful: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, particularly of his gifts and power. The person of the Holy Spirit received significant examination by the church when it was explicating the Trinity in the 4th century, and the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit appeared prominently in the explication of conversion during the evangelical/pietist movement of the 18th century. But it took until the 20th century for the doctrine of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit to begin to be expounded.

Given that Pelikan finished The Christian Tradition about 70 years after the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, it is a little surprising that it gets no mention whatsoever in the final volume his work. On the other hand, Pentecostalism, especially at its beginning, typically thrived among social, educational, and ecclesial underclasses that sadly often escape academic notice. For similar reasons, the movement has been slow to make the landmark, sophisticated confessional statements that a historical theologian would take notice of. Thankfully, several trends since the heart of Pelikan’s career have made this area of doctrine impossible to ignore. One is that the long gestation of Pentecostalism finally began producing noteworthy theologians and biblical scholars. Another is a new “wave” of outpouring of the Holy Spirit that struck established confessional churches—the charismatic movement. And the third is the rapid spread of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in the Christian boom in the Two-Thirds World. Another happy result of all these trends is that, despite significant skepticism that still exists, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has largely been accepted as a genuine (if to some perplexing) expression of the Christian faith unlike its ancient predecessors, the Montanists, who were eventually deemed heretics.

The final prominent doctrine under examination in our day is the doctrine of revelation, the question, does God speak, and if so, how? I talked about this in my last post about the Enlightenment and evangelicalism, and the debate today is in most ways the same as it was almost 300 years ago. But today’s deliberation is more than a simple rehash.

One new element is that the Enlightenment project, which began with total confidence that humans can discover the truth about God by their reason, has foundered into great skepticism about this proposition but without a corresponding conviction that God communicates convincingly to human beings who can’t find him on their own. This is the heart of the shift that took “universalism” and renamed it “pluralism” without changing its substance: it is the shift from the belief that all religions have found God to the belief that all religions are unsuccessfully groping for him. Similarly, the heirs of the Enlightenment have gone from believing that all reasonable humans can easily grasp truth to questioning what truth is, whether it exists, and whether logical consistency has anything to do with it.

Another new element is a new fascination with the concept of Story. The Enlightenment fascination with history and the parallel evangelical fascination with eschatology have recently coalesced with a wider cultural interest in the nature of story and the nature of humanity as a storytelling species. In the mid-20th century, scholarly interest in the biblical message as Story—not merely as a random assembly of stories or as narratival ore out of which doctrine is to be mined—began surging and transforming the theological disciplines. It is an interest that cuts across all traditions and is found (albeit differently) among both conservatives and liberals.

I am inclined to believe that if there is a unifying theme to the prominent doctrinal issues of our day, it is in the doctrine of revelation. Its questions—does God speak?, what is truth?—are so foundational that they go a very long way to determining the answers to the other questions. Objections to substitutionary atonement generally fall a lot closer to “I can’t accept it” than to “the Bible doesn’t say it,” and that presupposes one’s belief about revelation. The same feature is found in debates about human sexuality with the added complication of clarifying the relationship between the two testaments of God’s biblical revelation. And the assertion that the Holy Spirit presently gives power to prophesy to members of “all flesh” baptized into the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:17, 38-39) may be the strongest statement yet made against the Enlightenment rejection of special revelation and Christian exclusivity.

In all these cases, as we muddle through today, we may be supplying these questions with answers that will be relied upon by Christians for generations to come.

Friday, June 15, 2012

On "the Crisis of Orthodoxy," the Enlightenment, and Evangelicalism

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

Before the Protestant Reformation, a Christian in the West could generally feel comfortable that his or her church was the right one, because it was the only one, and that what that church taught was true. Authority and orthodoxy were united in the only show in town. But the late Middle Ages witnessed the increase of longstanding tensions within the church that developed into a crisis of authority. The Protestant Reformation not only magnified the crisis of authority, but it also spawned a crisis of orthodoxy. Four confessional streams emerged out of the Reformation—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical (subdivided into the Rationalist type and the Anabaptist type). If you count renewed contact between the West and Eastern Orthodoxy, it makes five. Each of these streams (and their spinoffs, especially among the Reformed) spent the 17th century carefully defining who they were and who they weren’t, what they believed and what they didn’t. Despite areas of agreement (especially between Lutheran and Reformed), each stream essentially said, “If you want to know what right belief is, here it is—we’ve got it.”

So if five different (general) groups claim to have right belief, how would one know who had it? If there is more than one claimant to authority, which authority does one trust? Pelikan sketches these 17th-century questions within the overall question of “Who is orthodox?” as follows.

The crisis of church: Who is in the church (all the believers, the clergy, or the spiritually alive)? Is the contemporary church truly a continuation of the primitive church? Are any of the visible churches truly churches or are they irredeemably corrupt? Could the Protestant churches unite? Could anyone win the war (or make lasting peace) over doctrinal divisions between Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy?

The crisis of doctrine: What is faith? What is dogma? How is new dogma explained if “new dogma” as such is not allowed? Is doctrinal uniformity even necessary or important? What are the doctrines that must be believed for salvation versus the ones that must be believed only because they are true? Is heresy everything that one’s church disagrees with? How do we know which controversies are simply arguments about language and which are arguments over substance?

The crisis of grace: What are the appropriate terms and categories by which to distinguish the different approaches to grace, law, predestination, and free will within each of the three wings of the faith (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox)? Which approach is correct? What are the proper ways (via word and sacrament) that grace is received?

The crisis of life: Does practice of the external forms of religion (sacrament or doctrinal confession) have any spiritual value without an inward devotion to God? How may the clergy be spiritually and morally reformed? What are appropriate boundaries for polemical activity so that charity is not ruined and the church be worse off as a result?

Even to the extent that all participants in the debate agreed on the questions, there was no agreement on the answers, and with fractured churches wedded to rival states, there was no sufficient common authority by which to arrive at answers. Efforts to reassert a single authority that would yield a single orthodoxy sometimes turned horribly violent (as in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and in waves of retaliatory persecution in England).

From the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th, two opposite answers addressed the crisis of orthodoxy, with its attendant anxious relativism and religious violence, that gripped Europe. Interestingly for this deeply riven time, both answers spanned all confessions (and even Judaism) although both answers were expressed more strongly in the Protestant churches than in Catholic or Orthodox.

The first answer was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment solution to the relativism of competing orthodoxies was to hunt for the few absolutes of “universal religion” and dismiss the rest as unnecessary nonsense. Enlightenment thinkers excised miracle and mystery from religious dogma as incredible and left off looking for authority for belief in a religious institution. They believed that truth could be found in critical historical research. Such research demonstrated that many supposedly ancient dogmas had in fact been more recent developments, and it also yielded (they believed) a portrait of a non-divine Jesus. In the end, the universal religion the Enlightenment proposed was the existence of a God who created infinitely valuable, immortal, essentially good human beings, and whose sole and lofty command was to love one’s neighbor. This was the “essence of true religion” that cut the knot of competing confessional claims about everything from ecclesial authority to the Eucharist by rendering them moot.

The second answer was the Evangelical/Pietist Revival. Its proponents were staunchly confessional, which inevitably limited how closely they cooperated with each other. But they all agreed that confessing the objective truths about God and his works was useless unless they were confessed subjectively as well—that is, not just that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again,” but that he does so for me. Truth is not merely to be assented to, but felt; the feeling comes from the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work of divine grace to transform the individual soul toward the goal of sanctified perfection. Thus, despite confessional differences that still mattered (in fact, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox who were all coming to similar conclusions still wouldn’t talk to each other for a long time to come), someone who had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit in this way found more in common with a confessional opponent who could testify to the same experience than he could with an unregenerate member of his own church.

Once both these answers, the Enlightenment and evangelicalism, emerged, their rivalry became fierce. Proponents of the Enlightenment disdained evangelicals for remaining mired in confessional superstition but even more for prioritizing the passions as the indicators of a different sort of “enlightenment.” In short, for Enlightenment rationalists, evangelicals were emotionally out of control, embarrassingly zealous, even deranged.

Of course, evangelicals were aghast at Enlightenment blasphemy in all its forms, but one that rankled them in particular was the Enlightenment view of human nature. Enlightenment thinkers saw humans as good people who do bad things because of their enslavement to irrational traditions, and thus education of the mind is the means to inculcating true virtue. But evangelicals insisted that humans are fundamentally broken and that no amount of learning could make them truly good. Only a supernatural, transformational work of God associated with utter, personal reliance on Christ—how they defined “faith”—would accomplish that goal.

Another huge and fundamental difference between Enlightenment thought and evangelicalism—in fact, probably the most important—was their different answers to the question, “Does God reveal himself, and if so, how?” (Interestingly, both sides extended, even radicalized, the rival positions in the medieval debate on the same subject.) For the Enlightenment, the world itself, and no more than the world itself, is God’s revelation. Scientific, historical, and rational philosophical inquiry are the means to discovering God and his ways. The initiative, then, is on the side of humans to find God by enlightened investigation and speculation.

Evangelicals concurred that God did reveal himself in his creation—in fact, those with Puritan rootage like Jonathan Edwards could be obsessed with cataloguing lessons God teaches through natural phenomena. But they believed that the created world isn’t sufficient to enable someone to know God truly; it certainly isn’t sufficient to be transformed, and it isn’t sufficient to indicate how a person could move from being an object of God’s righteous anger to an object of his mercy. Evangelicals insisted that God had revealed himself in the very person, not just teachings, of Jesus Christ, that that revelation was inscripturated in the Bible, and perhaps most importantly that God still actively reveals himself and his ways to individuals by the Holy Spirit. For evangelicals, especially about the knowledge that ultimately matters, the initiative is firmly on God’s side.

As time passed members of the two camps learned to adopt certain features of the other. Some heirs of the Enlightenment started to prioritize emotion and intuition in their systems of thought (as in Romantic theology and New England transcendentalism). Scholarly evangelicals came to appreciate some of the method and fruit of modern historical inquiry for the study of doctrine and Scripture. Moreover, on rare but crucial occasions they found they could work together. The American Revolution was driven by Enlightenment types (Franklin, Jefferson, and Thomas Paine being the most extreme examples), but as heirs of its English strain, most Founding Fathers had a more skeptical view of the tendencies of human nature than the thinkers on the Continent who would later birth the French Revolution. Their belief in limited, balanced government to restrain sinister features of human nature found ready support among most of their evangelical contemporaries (like Continental Congress delegate, clergyman, and college president John Witherspoon). An even stronger example of Enlightenment-evangelical alliance was the movement to abolish slavery by a coalition of enlightened Unitarians and evangelicals (both blacks and Northern whites). This alliance made a comeback in the Civil Rights Movement a century later when blacks (heavily centered in the evangelical strain but without that label) partnered with Enlightenment-descended liberals. Martin Luther King, Jr., reared in the evangelical black church but intellectually formed by an Enlightenment-infused theological education, personifies the alliance.

These examples of Enlightenment-evangelical cooperation are all American. That’s not only because that’s the history I know best, but it’s also because the United States is probably the only country in the world in which neither side can overwhelm the other. Not that they don’t try, which in fact is appropriate, because even if they can at times arrive at the same social conclusions from different bases, their ultimate programs diverge as sharply as they did three centuries ago. Committed heirs of the Enlightenment today believe that the way to end religious violence is to convince everyone to adopt sensible “universal religion” by affirming the equality (even equivalence) of all religions or to give up religion altogether. Committed evangelicals, by stark contrast, believe that the way to end sectarian violence is to spread to everyone the experience of becoming an evangelical Christian by convincing proclamation of the Christian message.

The basic questions are the same as they were three centuries ago. Does all that a person can know of God (if he exists) come through reasonable inquiry according to the judgment of each individual? Or has God actively revealed himself publicly in the divine-human Jesus and still uses the Bible to impress that truth on particular persons’ psyches in a way that they can’t deny it? Are human beings decent but unlearned, and what they most need is education to cast off the superstitions that bind them? Or are human beings intractably morally deformed and most need a miraculous spiritual renovation? Finally, does how one answers these questions determine one’s destiny beyond the limit of this mortal life?

Monday, June 11, 2012

On Nature and Grace

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

As it happens, I have skipped a speculative post I was planning to include in this series called “On Ousia and the Oneness of God, Christ as the Universal Man, and TheĆ“sis.” For one thing, it’s even further out there than the other posts, and I’m afraid to put it in public view. (Given the level of readers’ interest, I’m using the term “public” very loosely.) But also—and I admit that this might be strangely superstitious—the subject matter itself seems too holy for the internet. So instead, on to “Nature and Grace.”

Roman Catholics, stemming from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas, are comfortable using the terms “nature” and “grace” in a very specific relation. “Nature” is what was created by God as good and has been perverted by the Fall into sin, but still retains some of its original goodness. “Grace” is what has been newly re-created by God on account of the work of Jesus Christ. The typical conception of the relation of nature and grace is that grace is a superadded gift to nature. Nature is good but imperfect. Grace is nature perfected (or at least on the way to perfection).

On the one hand, I think there is a basic relationship here that is hard to argue against from Scripture. However, from a Protestant perspective—and perhaps more to the point from the perspective of someone who has read penetrating new appraisals of the social background of the NT concept of grace—I have a three-fold critique/correction/clarification.

1) It’s not really “grace”; it’s “graced.” What the Catholic tradition describes by “grace” is actually the state or result of nature having received God’s grace (both favor and the gift that concretizes that favor).

2) Even nature by itself is “graced.” For example, life itself is a grace from God. He didn’t have to give it, and nature doesn’t demand it. Nature doesn’t even require its own existence; that too is a grace from God. Though nature in its fallen state does not reflect the richness of the grace poured out in Jesus Christ, it still bears the evidence of God’s grace.

3) Grace doesn’t only add to nature. It also subtracts and transforms. Nature is not merely good-though-incomplete. Nature is perverse—not utterly perverse (because that’s impossible), but perverse nonetheless. God’s grace not only adds goodness to nature but subtracts badness and/or transforms it into goodness. The Catholic scholastic charitable view of nature (though not as rosy as that of Enlightenment rationalists and romantics) likely stems from a reading of Augustine that describes evil as the absence of good and therefore as “Nothing,” a lack to be filled up by addition, not a substance to be annihilated. But if Augustine (or for that matter the Bible) really considered evil to be not so much as the lack of good but as the perversion (twisting, warping) of good, then evil, though still not substantial in its own right, has a certain parasitic substance to be purged in the perfection process. Grace (or again, to be precise, the state of having been graced) cannot be accurately described without including this purging of evil alongside the addition of good.