Cautioning the Evangelical Justice Movement: Will the Real Pro-Lifers Please Stand Up? (Part 2)

The Evangelical Justice Movement and the Whole-Life Movement

In my first post on the contemporary evangelical justice movement (which I dub EJM), I explained that I am skeptical. Justice is important, sure. And lots of what EJM is fired up about are serious issues. But I doubt that much of EJM possess wisdom. I think its members have made logical, theological, and philosophical mistakes in the carelessness of passion. First I looked at some of these which involve the relationship between justice and the Gospel. Now, I move on to one of EJM’s most important big issues, namely the whole-life movement.

If you haven’t heard of the whole-life movement, it is ostensibly a corrected upgrade of the pro-life movement. The argument goes that the old pro-life movement is too narrow. It is really just “pro-birth.” If we want children born, but we don’t do what it takes to make sure they can go on to live healthy lives, we aren’t really pro-life at all. Some would say the hypocrisy is especially bad if we support the death penalty.

The fix, whole-life EJM proponents argue, is to support life in many other ways. We need strong social safety nets for families. Universal healthcare should be on the table. The lives of refugees and immigrants should be a major concern. If we don’t do these things, we’re not really about life. We’re just about making women give birth. In that case, we should pack up and go home.

Crucial Issues

You Can Say “No” without All the Answers

then figure out what to do with them. That’s how sane people respond in any other life-or-death scenario.

Pro-Life Libertarians and Tea Partiers Aren’t Insane

But this brings me to the second major failure in whole-life thought. I have shown that it’s okay to discuss abortion without answering what to do with the rest of the children’s lives. I also want to show that it is okay to want abortion ended even if you oppose all possible social programs. The common argument is that it is cold-hearted hypocrisy, just “pro-birth” instead of pro-life, to want children born without programs to feed, house, and care for them post-birth. This, I’ll admit, sounds plausible, but it’s still wrong.

The problem with this is that most of the people who oppose welfare and other such things still care about children. They only disagree with the whole-lifers about who should be meeting their needs. Many whole-life proponents assume that, if you don’t want the government to do something, you don’t really want to make sure it’s done. But this is wrong. Sometimes it’s the opposite of the truth. For many principled small-government types, it is because they care about meeting children’s needs that they don’t want the government involved. They don’t trust the government to do good effectively or wisely or honestly. So they’d rather see churches, families, and charities take care of people.

Whole-Lifers: Don’t Hate

Now, we can argue all day about whether they’re right about government. We can argue all day about whether single-payer healthcare or more private solutions will keep our rescued infants healthy. We can scream about whether their food should come from bureaucrats or neighbors. But we all share the same goal. This is what matters. Despite slander on both sides, we all want the following:

  • Whole-lifers and welfare-skeptical pro-lifers both want infants to survive their time in the womb.
  • Whole-lifers and welfare-skeptical pro-lifers both want children, once born, to have food and shelter.
  • Whole-lifers and welfare-skeptical pro-lifers both want solid and affordable healthcare to keep children healthy.

The only real disagreement is over how to do these things. Now, I’ll admit the stakes are still high. We could cause or prevent a lot of suffering depending on how we answer these questions. But in priciple, the whole-life movement and the rest of the pro-life movement are still pro-life for the whole life. They only disagree about the best methods.

Of course, not every EJM participant is part of the whole-life movement, and not every whole-life advocate is part of EJM. But there is a lot of overlap, and (it seems to be) a lot of self-righteous indignation from whole-life EJMs about the backwards, hypocritical Christians who hate abortion and oppose welfare. This is very wrong. Everyone who agrees that God loves infants and doesn’t want them butchered in the womb should be on the same side. We might have some disagreements, but we should recognize the well-meaning of both sides.

Addendum

As an aside before I wrap this post up, I want to also address the death penalty rhetoric of the whole-life movement. You’ll often hear them say that there is something hypocritical and inconsistent about opposing abortion but supporting the death penalty. To be blunt, this is stupid. What makes killing infants wrong is justice: they have committed no crime, therefore they do not deserve to be killed. What makes killing murderers right is also justice: they have committed a terrible crime, therefore they deserve to be killed. You might possibly disagree with this last statement, but if so, it is a disagreement about the principles of justice. But there is nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about holding this particular conception of justice. It might be right, or maybe not, but it is honest and consistent.

Next in this series I will look into another big EJM issue, namely immigration and the refugee crisis.

Cautioning the Evangelical Justice Movement: Justice and Gospel (Part 1)

My Purpose in Writing

Due Compliments First

First things first: justice is extremely important to Christianity. The Gospel is fundamentally a declaration of God’s saving justice revealed in Jesus Christ. This justice will also involve Christ’s visible rule over the nations. He will bring them to reflect heaven as increasingly just and Christian societies. So the work of justice is tied to the Great Commission. We must disciple all nations, which includes teaching them to observe everything Christ has commanded. And Christ has commanded justice.

With this in mind, the current evangelical justice movement is a welcome corrective to a certain handicapped understanding of the Gospel and the Bible more generally. This misunderstanding has infected large swathes of conservative American Christianity over much of the last couple centuries. We could summarize its error as “Only heaven matters.” This is terribly unbiblical. It’s not true that all that matters is getting people to heaven. The Gospel is not about flying from earth, leaving everything behind. And we have to admit that the Gospel has stuff to say about social justice. That’s not the same as a heretical, humanistic “social gospel” which considers niceness and fixing society our whole religion. But a true Gospel must have social implications because it is about God’s gracious work for humans. (In case you’ve never noticed, humans are social all the way down.) The Gospel speaks about justice because a world without justice is a world without good news.

The Catch

All that said, the current evangelical justice movement, which I’ll abbreviate EJM for now, is far from perfect. It actually seems very confused. Out of the four cardinal virtues—justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude—it seems to have only the first (it’s much too soon to know about the last). And it only has some of the first, because no virtue is complete without the others. I think EJM lacks temperance and prudence, or, more plainly, self-discipline and wisdom. And the most important problem is certainly the latter. Justice is never fully just without wisdom. Justice involves setting right whatever is wrong. But without wisdom, we are likely to confuse both where things are wrong and what it will take to make them right.

This kind of confusion is a huge problem when people are ready to take action, when passions fly and people are rallied to move. This is where EJM veers into danger. And if that were not enough, there is a lot of theological confusion on both sides of the issue, things like Law and Gospel, or justice and natural law, or eschatology. This keeps EJM and its critics from having productive conversations. Like Paul and his unconverted Jewish brothers, “I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”

My Intentions

Of course, it’s a bit bold for someone as young and inexperienced as myself to charge that EJM lacks wisdom and understanding. This is especially true when so many faithful Christians of every age champion its cause. But I don’t make my objections with a smile. I have no desire to condemn others or exalt myself. I simply wish to provide some caution. Perhaps I may convince a few people here and there to take a deep breath and think carefully about the controversies currently raging. To put it biblically, I want everyone to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, lest the Church hurt herself more than her enemies are able to do. Please, then, consider what I am saying now.

For the most part, EJM does not have a single defining issue, except “justice” considered broadly. But there are three major areas of interest with lots of heat and little light. These are the whole-life movement, immigration, and sexism. This trio seems to be the practical core of EJM at present. They cause the most argument and confusion, and they seem to involve the least careful thought. My intent for this post series, then, is straightforward. I will highlight exactly how I believe the EJM approach to each of these issues reflects a lack of wisdom, sketch some ideas for moving each discussion in a more constructive direction, and conclude with some general warnings and suggestions about EJM and its future. Before any of that, though, I need to start with some clarification on the general relationship between justice and the Gospel.

Is Justice a “Gospel Issue?”

Worship and Real Sin

Injustice in the world is a result of sin. It even is a sin. But injustice is not the first sin or the root of sin. The alpha and omega of sin is refusing to worship God. Since God is our Creator and made us primarily to know Him, we owe Him true faith and love. When we refuse to give Him this, it is the ultimate sin. This is very different from how most people think. In modern liberal society, we think of religion like an add-on to life. We have real life, where people can do things that are really bad, and then we have religious beliefs, which aren’t really good or bad, or at least aren’t as important as the good and bad things that make up real life. Everybody has a different religion, but not everyone is a bad person, so who you worship isn’t a big deal.

This view is exactly backwards. Human life begins and ends with worship. It is the end-all, be-all. Everything else flows out of worship. People can be genuinely good and do genuinely right things on a certain level regardless of what or who they worship, of course. But even the best we have to offer is horribly tainted if we do it with a heart of wrong worship. We do everything out of worship for something, and the worship of the true God is necessary to fill everything we do with true goodness. Without this worship of God, even acts which are by themselves good become corrupted.

Even Real Justice Can Be Tainted

The above point is important. It is possible for acts and structures to exist which would be just in and of themselves but are only corrupted by the failure of worship. This means that from an earthly, human perspective, we can count such acts and structures as true justice. This is still true despite their sinfulness to God.

Imagine a teacher who praises and rewards her most diligent and well-behaved student. It’s perfectly right to do this even if it turns out that he only behaves at school because he is trying to earn something from his parents. Maybe mixed motives taint his good behavior, but as far as it counts in the classroom to teachers or students, it is still good behavior worthy of praise and imitation. Likewise, it is possible even for non-Christians to do truly just things. These won’t qualify for heaven due to their worship corruption, but they’re perfectly well suited for all earthly purposes. So real justice can exist in all societies with or without right worship.

Unbelievers can do what counts on earth for genuine justice and virtue because they have natural law. There is a moral order built-in to creation every bit as real as the sun and the grass. Anyone with a working mind can see that some things are right and others wrong. They can tell differences between justice and injustice. In a fallen world, unbelievers (and believers, for that matter) don’t do this perfectly by any means, but they can do an impressive enough job. This has important implications.

Justice: A Law Issue

All of this is to say that justice itself is primarily a matter of adhering to the natural law, something possible to all kinds of people and societies. In one important sense, we don’t need the Gospel for justice. The great “Gospel issue” is worship and relationship to God. The Gospel is intended to reconcile people to God through His Son. Many of these people might already live very just and virtuous lives in relation to human society. Jesus died so that they inherit the eternal life of knowing God. No works of justice they do can give them a leg up before God, so they need the Gospel. But these works of justice count for something on earth. They are real, anyone can get to them by natural law, and people naturally are inclined to do so.

So, in this sense, justice isn’t a Gospel issue. It’s a natural human issue. Indeed, it is a natural law issue. Like all kinds of law, it is not actually the same as the Gospel. Justice is a law, so it can’t by itself bring any good news. It shows how we should live, it keeps things from getting out of control, and it exposes our sinfulness. We have to be very careful about calling justice, or any other moral obligation, a Gospel issue. When we do this, we run the risk of legalism and setting up people to think, “If I don’t have the right views on justice issues, or if I’m not active enough in social causes, I’m not saved.” Perhaps worse, we ~~might set people up~~ are setting people up to judge others in that way.

Conclusion

The Gospel is a promise of good news. God rules the world through His Son, Jesus the Messiah, who has freed us from sin and idolatry and reconciled us to God by removing His wrath due for our ingratitude and unbelief. He is God’s justice on display, and one day He will subject all nations to this justice. This is good news, a declaration we can receive by faith. None of our efforts at making justice happen have any part to play in this.

On the other hand, we have God’s law, which demands justice from human societies. The demands of justice are largely known through natural law, which can be understood with the Gospel. Justice is then a human responsibility which can be, up to a point, humanly attained.

This has a few important implications for EJM:

  1. We must avoid constructing a legalism which encourages people to distinguish between true and false Christians based on their handling of justice issues.
  2. Do not compromise sola fide and the evangelical reality that worship is at the heart of the Gospel by beating people up about justice issues. There is a place for conviction and rebuke, but we must administer those carefully and precisely, like brain surgery.
  3. Since justice is part of natural law, reason can investigate it. This means we must even examine Jesus’ teachings on justice with rational precision, not just point at them at say, “God has spoken!” with the assumption that the impression one person gets is the same as everyone else.
  4. Christians should not expect a large amount of difference between biblical teaching on justice and those of clear-headed, rational unbelievers. Since natural law is evident, plenty of rational unbelievers can do a good job understanding justice. Sometimes they are even able to correct Christians who get justice issues wrong by misintepreting Scripture.

Next in this series, I will examine the big issues of EJM. First will be the whole-life movement, on which I have much to say. In the meantime, keep the peace and unity in Christ. Farewell and go in peace.

Two-Stage Preterism

A skeletal explanation and defense of “two-stage” preterism:

The New Testament envisions three basic eschatological events: the conclusion of the Old Covenant with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70, the conquest of the pagan Roman Empire by the Messiah, and a day of final judgment and new creation. Two of these events have already happened, thus two-stage preterism. Jesus, as the last prophet to Israel, was primarily concerned with the first of these. Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles, was primarily concerned with the second (something which many forms of preterism miss). The book of Revelation, as the great charter prophetic text of the New Covenant era, is concerned with all three in chronological order.

Jesus’ prophetic ministry was largely about AD 70. The Old Covenant era was ending. Under the Old Covenant, Israel had incurred the full measure of God’s wrath. They had a final chance to rally around the Messiah, repent, and enter the New Covenant, but they largely failed to do so. Jesus prophesied that if they did not repent, they would be destroyed by Rome and (partially literally) cast into Gehenna, the burning valley of refuse outside Jersualem. But Jesus began rebuilding Israel around Himself with the Apostles, and they would be the core of a reborn Israel who would escape the wrath to come and carry on the existence of the people of God into New Covenant. The Olivet Discourse is simply about this prediction. The Son of Man would symbolically come on the clouds (as Yahweh came with the clouds to judge in the Psalms and prophets) and be vindicated as God’s Messiah and the leader of the true Israel.

Jesus’ Messianic victory, however, was not simply for Israel but was intended to bless the world and bring the nations under the reign of God. The Gentile world, embodied in the Roman Empire, reveled in idolatry and oppressed Israel and the Church. God would use their armies as He used the Babylonians and the Assyrians in the past to punish His faithless people, and after that He would punish them for their own sins. Jesus’ people, following His lead, began a campaign of conquest through the witness of preaching and martyrdom. They shed their own blood to defeat the Beast, and defeat him they did. By the time of Constantine and Theodosius, they had largely won the war. The pagan empire converted, and the nations came to confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of God the Father. Shortly thereafter, the Roman Empire was more or less deceased, but Christ was still honored as King throughout the known world.

Even under Jesus’ rule, however, the nations would be subject to death and the curse. This is partially undone in the present life of the Church but awaits a final conclusion. Creation needs to be freed from its bondage and futility. Humans need glorifed bodies. Inexhaustible life and glory still need to fill all that God has made, and heaven and earth still need to become one place, where we can again touch and see God in Jesus. This will happen at the end of history after an unprecedented final rebellion.

Biblical support for all of this is found primarily by reading Jesus, Paul, and Revelation in light of the Old Testament prophets. In the prophets, catastrophic cosmic language and many vivid and stange symbols were used to describe massive socio-political events like invading Gentile armies or return from Exile. The sun, moon, and stars being affected represents changes in authorities and governments. The earth being affected represents changes in the common people. One like a son of man ascends up the cloud to the Ancient of Days to receive a kingdom over all kingdoms, and this represents Christ and His people being vindicated and receiving the kingdoms of the earth. The language of New Testament prophecy links tightly with the language of Old Testament prophecy and helps us to see how it is largely of the same nature: apocalyptic descriptions of massive events in history.

The book of Revelation in particular follows the general pattern of many Old Testament prophetic books. It first addresses the people of God in the present, moves on to discuss the judgment God will be sending on His own unrepentant people through pagan armies, turns to prophesy the eventual judgment of the pagan powers themselves for their many crimes, and finally promises an ultimate restoration and happy ending for those who persevere in faith through it all. That the seven seals match closely the disaster lists from the Olivet Discourse shows that the destruction of Jerusalem is the first prophesied event, the clear identity of the Beast with the Roman Empire shows that its conquest by the witness of the martyrs is the second prophesied event, and the millennial gap and abolition of Death and Satan show that a final consummation lies at the end of it all.

At this point, I won’t attempt any more detailed defense of this two-stage preterism, but I think it makes very, very good sense of the biblical data. It accounts easily for everything Jesus, Paul, and John say about eschatology. It respects the Old Testament background and takes its symbolism seriously as interpretive keys to New Testament apocalyptic. Perhaps most importantly, as with all orthodox forms of preterism, it allows Jesus’ and John’s words about events which would take place soon to have undiluted force while also giving a strong place for final judgment and the eschatological Resurrection.

Women as the Glory of Glories

As a general rule, feminists think that Paul was a misogynist. Evangelical feminists tend to either deny Paul’s misogyny while still being embarassed and confused by him or try to spin him into a proto-egalitarian limited by a sinfully patriarchal culture. All of these views, I believe, are terribly mistaken. But not everyone is so wrong. Rebekah Merkle, author of Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity, understands Paul and the Bible in general much better than any of these groups and even more than the majority of complementarians. She’s definitely not a feminist (much of the book is about how and why feminism gets biblical femininity wrong), but she recognizes that the place women are given in Scripture is mind-blowingly superior to either the place feminists give them (i.e. all the worst places men dwell) or the place many complementarians give them (i.e. on a pedastal in a tidy kitchen). In Eve in Exile, she explores many biblical issues surrounding gender, but my favorite part was her handling of 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, a famously (infamously?) misunderstood key to Paul’s thought.

Now, Mrs. Merkle did an infinitely better job explaining this passage than I could, so I’ll let her speak pretty much entirely for herself:

After he describes who is the head of whom, Paul restates it another way. “For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man” (vv. 7–8). This, again, sounds suspiciously like women are getting the short end of the deal here. God is glorious, of course, and then man is the image and glory of God, and then the woman is the glory of man. Once more we find the women at the bottom of the glory totem pole. The glory is sort of emanating out from the center, which is God, and getting progressively weaker the further it gets. So if men are like a shadow of God, then women are like a shadow of a shadow, the smallest ripple at the farthest edge. The super badly pixelated image. If we want to know what the glory of God is like we should look at the men because they’re closer to it than the women are, right?

But to read it this way is to read it directly backwards. A quintessentially biblical and very Hebraic way of expressing a superlative is to use the form the Song of Songs or the Holy of Holies. We tend to read this Corinthians passage as if the glory is getting more and more diluted the further it gets away from the center. But stop and think in more biblical categories for a second. If Adam is the crown of creation, then Eve is the crown of the crown. Women are the glory of the glory. When you read of the Holy of Holies in Scripture, are you on the furthest fringe of the holiness, or are you closer to the center? Obviously the holiness isn’t getting weaker as you go into the Holy of Holies, it’s getting stronger, more distilled. Man was created as the image and glory of God, but then along came the woman—second—in an even more concentrated form. The glory of the glory of God. If men are the beer, women are the whiskey. The most potent, strong, and intoxicating version of the glory of God, not the weakest and most watered down. And ironically, this is exemplified by her being created second, as an equal but a helper, as an equal who willingly submits to her head.

Women are not second-class glory. They are the glory of glories, as Christ is the King of Kings and as awards are given to the best of the best. Interestingly, Merkle goes on to connect this directly to the command for wives to submit to their husbands (random tangent: she points out multiple times that, biblically, a wife submits to her own husband, not women in general to men in general):

In fact, that submission itself is what is so glorious, and that is because the willing submission of one equal to another—a submission offered out of love and not out of servitude—is a submission that pictures Christ. Christ, who, as Philippians 2:6 tells us, “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6–8). Christ was equal with God, but willingly humbled Himself. He offered Himself up in submission to God the Father, but not because He was inferior.

When a woman submits to her husband, her head, she is picturing that. She is picturing Christ, willingly submitting, as an equal, to the Head. But what is the end of the story when Christ submits to the Father, even to the point of death on the cross? “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11). That submission ends in exaltation. It ends in glory. He is lifted up and given the name that is above every name.

Of course God the Father and God the Son are equals. More than that, they are not just equals, they are one—but at the same time distinct from each other. In a similar way, of course Adam and Eve are equals. Eve is Adam after all—when he sees her he says, “this is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” She is him, separated from him, glorified, brought back to him to become one with him again. Of course they are equals.

Women need to stop being so offended about being asked to submit to an equal. Christ did not consider it robbery to humble himself and submit to an equal, and neither should we, because when we picture that submission we are picturing the most potent form of glory that there is. We are enacting the story that is at the very heart of all history, the most glorious story ever told. This is not a weak, watered down, pitiful little glory, the one the furthest away from the center. It is the most powerful, the most magnificent, the most intoxicating, the most concentrated picture of glory that can be found in creation. And we are privileged to be the ones asked to do it.

Not everyone will agree with everything that Rebecca Merkle has said here or elsewhere. But gosh dang, it’s better than most everything I hear about women in the Bible.

Easter and the Last Vapor

“Vapor of vapors!” Solomon once said. “All is vapor.” On a day as festive as Easter, we aren’t usually quite up to taking this to heart. Solomon tells us that life is short, fleeting, enigmatic, impossible to grasp, eluding our control. We find this frightening, so instead we like to focus on the brilliant, the fun, the happy, and the festive. Why would we give any though to death and the curse on the day we celebrate our freedom from both?

Yet this can only be an excuse. We don’t usually give much thought to life as vapor even on other days. We don’t like it, and most of the time we prefer to deny it. distract ourselves from it, or bargain with it. This is unhealthy, though, and as perhaps the worst possible tragedy, it actually saps Easter of its power. Easter is only as brilliant as it is because life is as weary as it is.

Easter, see, follows from Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The death and burial of Christ are the context for His resurrection. And this context is not just a perfect illustration, but the very climax, of life’s vaporous nature. When Jesus headed into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, His vaporous life was beginning to thin. Like the fog under the rising sun, everything was beginning to evaporate. Jesus had lived for thirty years, spent the last three of them prophesying to Israel, creating a counter-Israel around Himself with a core of twelve apostles, challenging leaders, transforming Law-keeping, and preparing a revolution in humanity’s relationship to God. He did the work the Father gave for Him to do. The destiny of Israel, and indeed the destiny of whole world, hinged on these final hours, the finish line of the Messiah’s race.

But Jesus, having a full human nature, has a fully human mind. And this fully human mind was quite finite, limited in all the normal ways, on that dark night. All He had to cling to was faith: trust in His Father by the Spirit. He could not, from within His humanity, bring anything to completion. His flesh being as much vapor as yours or mine, He could not see straight through the mist of life to the glorious ending of God’s plan. He had a promise to which He could only cling by faith: the promise that He was the beloved Son, who the Father would justify and deliver even after death, whose movement the Spirit would carry on through the Apostles even once He left the world. But unless He shook off the limits of His humanity and executed a divine cheat, He could not make any of this happen. If He had gotten anything wrong, if He had in any way failed, if His disciples were too weak or God’s sovereign will different than He expected, His life’s work would dissolve into nothing. He could only pray, wait for the guards to take Him, speak the final words given to Him, and commit His spirit into His Father’s hands. Once He made this last pledge of faith, He had nothing left within His own human power. The vapor of His life passed away into the wind, and He had nothing left but promise and faith.

But of course, the promise held true. Christ’s faithful faith bore fruit. The Father was pleased with the Son and was willing to publicly justify Him by resurrection. The Spirit did come on the wind and take the Son’s fire to the ends of the earth. Easter happened, and everything Jesus had ever done somehow survived the dissipation of death itself and condensed into an everlasting kingdom. For the first time, life under the sun found itself brightened by the Light from beyond the sun, the light which turns vapor to rain which brings forth an eternal crop and a tree of indissoluble life.

This, then, is our own hope. Indeed, it is our only hope. As Solomon said, our life still is vapor. We can’t control it, can’t see through it, and can’t make it last. As we walk under the sun, Tolkien’s haunting tune is right: “Mist and shadow / Cloud and shade / All shall fade / All shall fade.” Mere optimism can’t fix this. Nor can hard work. Everything we do is vapor, just like our lives. Our best efforts can fall apart. Wise or foolish, good or evil, successful or failure: we have no ability whatsoever to reach into the future and make it work for us, or even to gain true profit and control from the present. All of our plans are beyond our reach to complete. We cannot fulfill our own hopes and dreams, especially those for the longest term. The world, the future, is a fog which eludes our grasp and understanding.

But there is a light which pierces through the vapor. Even in the midst of the mist, we can make out a single golden ray from beyond, a ray which carries a promise. “Die with me,” the voice says, “evaporate into the wind of my Spirit, and I will condense you into living water.” Today may be the Friday of impending dissolution, or it may be the Saturday when everything has already dissipated, but the Father has appointed a Sunday. If we are willing to trust in Jesus, giving up all of our claims to power, ability, and control in this life, yielding our pretensions and our work into His hands, He holds the one way out of the fog. His broken body and shed blood is the ark which carries us through the last vapor, and on the other side, if we believe, the resurrection of the dead dispels the mist.

The Evangelical Heart of Wright’s Atonement

I just finished N. T. Wright’s book on atonement, The Day the Revolution Began. As with every Wright book, it’s about 60% stuff he’s said a dozen times over, 25% helpful and enlightening ideas for reading and understanding the New Testament, and 15% things that you just end up unsure about. And as always, that 25% that is helpful and enlightening really is worth the reading.

In the case of The Day the Revolution Began, part of that 25% is the way he handles the relationship between sin, worship, and atonement. See, many (especially younger) Christians today are reacting strongly against a reductive Gospel that is about nothing more than Jesus paying the price for our sins so that each of us can go to heaven when we die if we believe with our ~~feelings~~ hearts that He is our personal Savior. I myself have opposed such a small picture of the Gospel. But most widespread reactions become overreactions easily. They rightly try to correct the tiny Gospel by emphasizing what the Bible teaches about the social and creational aspects of life in Christ. In all too many cases, however, this can become an increasingly temporal and tangible focus until the point where only the visible counts, worship is an afterthought, and supporting social justice or the environment or the poor becomes in this life becomes the only real concern. In trying to rescue the Gospel from a pie-in-the-sky God, these Christians end up leaving the real God Himself tucked into a corner.

N. T. Wright has been accused on some occasions of being one of these people because of how strongly he emphasizes the goodness of creation, the worth of work we do in this life, and the need to pursue temporal justice as we do the work of the kingdom. But his account of atonement in The Day the Revolution Began makes it impossible. For Wright, the atonement’s dealing with sins must be at its heart and root a strike against idolatry. It is corrupt worship from which all other kinds of sin flow. Most of what we name as “sin” is not the disease, but a symptom of the real disease, which is a failure to honor God in love and be His image-bearers. As he explains on page 75:

The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear—though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t just that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences. When we worship and serve forces within the creation (the creation for which we were supposed to be responsible!), we hand over our power to other forces only too happy to usurp our position. We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.

So the basic problem of the world is not sin in a generic sense, but rather broken worship, which prevents human beings from being truly human and puts off from God. Man is first and foremost a worshiping creature, and it is thus the worship of non-divine beings, forces, and elements which generates everything else which we know as sin. So in Wright’s account of the atonement, a heavy emphasis is placed on the overthrow of idols, the cleansing of impurity, and the paving of a pathway back to worshiping God. We must be freed from false worship to be saved, and the Cross makes this freedom possible by forgiving sins and toppling false gods.

Now, if evangelical means anything, it means the absolute necessity and centrality of missions, and not just “missions” in some generic sense, but specifically as declaring the Gospel of Christ. To be evangelical, more than anything else, is to insist that all people need true worship more than anything. And this is exactly what Wright affirms. While he certainly emphasizes the social and creational aspects to the Church’s mission, he recognizes that what men need most is to worship the one true God embodied in Jesus the Messiah. Salvation simply is restored life as God’s image-bearers, the ones who worship Him, receiving His glory into themselves so that they can reflect it into the creation. No amount of effort toward social justice or any other cause, however important they may be and however directly they are entailed by the Gospel, can be or become ultimate or the essence of the Christian life. They instead follow from faith in God and His Son, the faith which is ultimately loyal love and worship.

This applies every bit as much, by the way, to people who aren’t inclined to the error of a purely social Gospel or merely temporal works. Because for plenty of people who err on the “traditional” side of a Gospel simply about me and Jesus, there is a strong tedency to make moral behavior, decency, social propriety, abstaining from drink or illicit sex, voting Republican, or church attendance the “real stuff” of the Christian life. This is just as incorrect. Prayer, thanksgiving, immersion in Scripture, partaking of the sacraments, and all other forms of direct worship are primary. Without Christ we can do nothing. God is the Gospel. Let this be our creed. Let this be our life.

James Jordan and the Tribal Gospel

I just read James Jordan’s little book, Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future. It was terribly interesting, and of mixed convincing power, but the prescriptions he made in it for the Church today seem to me of massive importance. In the end, his suggestions boil down to this: saturate Christians in the Bible, learn from the Charismatics the importance of enthusiastic worship (though giving prime place to God’s worship songs, the Psalms), and put the Communion table as a fellowship meal back into the heart of Christian gathering. By these practices the Church can become the true tribe, the healthy tribe, which persists and gives stability for lost and lonely people in this neo-tribal age. This I love, and it is for this reason that I recommend the book.

I’ve reviewed Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future on Goodreads, so check that out if you are interested. Here’s an excerpt:

What I found most helpful in the whole book is Jordan’s prescription for the Church in such a time. The Church is called to be the true tribe, the good tribe which is protected by God’s law from the evils tribalism tends to generate. The best part of tribal cultures is that they center around local community, shared festivity, the common table, and the common song. Jordan argues that the Church today must be proactive in becoming the model tribe, forming by Her close community, intimate love feasts, and cheerful signing of hymns and Psalms (especially Psalms) a healthy kind of Christian community on which the foundations of the coming ages of civilization may be built. If we do this, true worship will flourish and the seeds will be laid for a fruitful tree of Christian culture in the centuries to come. So the Gospel should come to people wandering broken in this neo-tribal age as this:

You are living in isolation, loneliness, despair, chaos, and bondage. But there is a New World! There is a New Creation! There is a New Kingdom! You can leave behind your old horrible life and come into the warmth of the Church. You can join us at the table and sing the psalms with us. You can come under the oversight of our elders, and be part of a new family.

Women

Today is International Women’s Day. Yay for my favorite half of the human race! Sadly, though, today is tainted with hype for much of modern feminism’s worst features. In that sense, International Women’s Day celebrations tend to be stunted by worship of antifeminity and other such disasters. But in the spirit of celebrating women as women, at their best and their most mundane (for that is everyone’s best), I’m here rounding up some of my favorite blog posts about women with links and brief excerpts. Three are my own, and two are from elsewhere. So without further ado, my tribute to the feminine.

  • Feminism Wishlist – The Nicene Nerd

    I’ve never really identified with feminism for various reasons….But, hypothetically, I could identify with, or at least offer my affirmation to, a feminist subgroup if it abstained from certain key errors which affect the majority forms…I will call this kind of feminism which I could hypothetically affirm a “natural feminism,” because I believe the problem at the heart of most forms of feminism is a denial of the natural order of creation…

    A natural feminism would detest pornography and all kinds of sex work as degrading. It would understand that the commodification of women’s bodies desacralizes them, objectivizes them, and even consensually exploits them. No room would be made for the hypocrisy of a society that wars against rape and sexual harassment while simultaneously selling to men a lifestyle of viewing women as impersonal sex objects.

  • Joan of Arc: Her Story and Challenge – The Nicene Nerd

    [St. Joan] was only an ignorant, illiterate, and humble peasant girl, yet she felt called by God to accomplish great things, and following faithfully all the way through. Through dangers, political opposition, and severe injuries (she was once actually shot in the neck by a crossbow!), she persevered. She never yielded to the pressures of fear and intimidation. Her faith in God always remained strong, so much so that the only leverage her enemies could use against her was her desire to continue taking Communion. She was committed to her personal purity, and the purity of her entire army. She made her soldiers pray and worship on a regular basis. All reports show she was selfless as could be. Even when the king offered to give her anything in repayment for her help in his coronation, she asked for nothing but that the poor people of her hometown, which she never saw again, be free of taxes…

    Basically, Joan of Arc was more noble, brave, persistent, and faithful than I am, and than many of us could ever hope to be. Even if she was crazy, or a heretic, or what have you (a question I think C. S. Lewis would have something to say about), the standard she sets is amazing and deserves emulation. We could all use to be a little more like Joan of Arc.

  • The female form is a fountain – In Whom Christ Plays

    The female form is the fountain of life, then. This is its, and thus her, nature. Woman are life-givers in a way that men aren’t. The man helps create life in a one-off action, and the woman nurtures and grows it in an ongoing manner. This is like the relationship between God and man, in which God is, as Father, the one who creates us ex nihilo and the Church, as mother, nourishes and teaches us that we might grow up into the image of our elder Brother, who was Himself grown in the womb of the Church when she was known as Israel. This is why the Spirit is also the only member of the Trinity who is sometimes referred to with a feminine pronoun in the Scriptures, for God as the Spirit uniquely continues in the ongoing action of sustaining and forming human life towards its fullness.

  • The Revolutionary Work of Motherhood – Alastair’s Adversaria

    The labour of the mother in making her home is a labour of love, a type of labour driven by, bound to, and creative of something particular and unique, apart from and distinct from all other things in the world. You can’t mass produce or replicate homes. The mother is the spring of life at the heart of the home. Her very body is the site of union and our very first home. The life that she produces through her maternal labour and love is the life by which her entire household grows. It is also a life that spreads out beyond her household into her wider community and society bringing communion and fruitfulness, as she expresses her distinctively womanly power to make the world into a home.

  • Liturgical Man, Liturgical Woman (Part 1 and Part 2) – Biblical Horizons

    My thesis is that the differences between men and women are, by creation design, fundamentally liturgical and only secondarily biological and psychological. To put it another way, my thesis is that the physical and psychological differences between men and women are grounded in their differing liturgical roles…

    Word initiates; glory completes. Adam was made first, then Eve. Humanity began with a man; humanity ends as a Bride, the New Jerusalem. Jesus, who had no form or comeliness, initiates the Church; but at the end the Bride is all glorious within and without. At the end, human males will all be part of a glorious Bride who interacts with the Supreme Male, Jesus Christ.

    These differences between initiation and glorification play out in history the differences between Son and Spirit. And they are integral to liturgy, which is the human reflection of the worship of the Father by the Son and the Spirit. Men alone may teach and lead in the dialogue of worship because they are created for this initiating purpose. But women must participate and thereby lend glory to worship. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and it is not good for worship to be done exclusively by men. The glorifying voices of women must be heard responsively in prayer and song.

    It is the liturgical differences between men and women that account for their other differences, not the other way around. Men’s voices are generally an octave lower than women’s. A musician can tell you that lower notes are more foundational and higher notes are more decorative. The harmonic or “totality” movement in homophonic and polyphonic music is directed from the bass line, while the glory and decorative aspects of the music, including the melody, are in higher notes. Men’s voices (low notes) control the direction of the music, but women’s voices (high notes) glorify it.

Also, two nifty theological books by female authors:

Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God – Suzanne McDonald
From Amazon:

In Re-Imaging Election Suzanne McDonald offers a fresh approach to the doctrine of election from a Reformed perspective, first by seeking greater acknowledgment that election is not only “in Christ” but also “by the Spirit,” and second by building on the scriptural and theological links between the doctrines of election and the image of God. McDonald here combines an analysis of John Owen and Karl Barth with those links to develop a constructive proposal that posits representation (representing God to others and others to God) as a fruitful category for understanding the nature and purpose of election. In doing so, she seeks to restore the robust pneumatology characteristic of the earlier Reformed tradition without losing some of the central insights from Barth’s christological re-orientation of the doctrine.

While Re-Imaging Election is firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition, the re-expression of the doctrine presented here opens up new possibilities for dialogue across the theological spectrum and offers suggestive directions for reclaiming an often-divisive doctrine in the life of the church.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ – Fleming Rutledge
From Amazon:

Though the apostle Paul boldly proclaimed “Christ crucified” as the heart of the gospel, Fleming Rutledge notes that preaching about the cross of Christ is remarkably neglected in most churches today. In this book Rutledge addresses the issues and controversies that have caused pastors to speak of the cross only in the most general, bland terms, precluding a full understanding and embrace of the gospel by their congregations.

Countering our contemporary tendency to bypass Jesus’ crucifixion, Rutledge in these pages examines in depth all the various themes and motifs used by the New Testament evangelists and apostolic writers to explain the meaning of the cross of Christ. She mines the classical writings of the Church Fathers, the medieval scholastics, and the Reformers as well as more recent scholarship, while bringing them all into contemporary context.

Widely known for her preaching, Rutledge seeks to encourage preachers, teachers, and anyone else interested in what Christians believe to be the central event of world history.

 

 

Peter Leithart on the Wisdom and Folly of Postmodernism

I just read Peter Leithart’s excellent little book, Solomon among the Postmoderns. It is, as the name implies, a Christian investigation of postmodernism, using Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes as a tool for comparing the postmodern way to the biblical one. I just wrote a review of it on Goodreads, which I would encourage you to read to see if you might be interested in what I think is a very helpful assessment of the current phase of the world. Here’s the beginning of my review:

Postmodernism gets a really bad rap in conservative Christian circles, and while some of this is justified, much seems to stem from caricatures and misunderstanding. I’ve suspected this for some time, thinking that perhaps postmodernism actually has some helpful things to say, and Peter Leithart has essentially confirmed that suspicion in Solomon among the Postmoderns. In it, he seeks to examine postmodernity/postmodernism carefully by comparison with the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.

Read the full review here. And here’s a quote from the book’s introduction:

When I started Solomon among the Postmoderns, I was aiming it mainly at anti-postmodern Christians (let’s call them APCs). By presenting central postmodern themes in a way that postmodernists would recognize, I hoped to isolate the specific places where Christians must challenge postmodern theory. Many of the most vocal APCs highlight epistemological issues, challenging what they perceive as postmodern “relativism.” Epistemology is not, however, as central as many APCs suggest, and at least the most sophisticated postmodern writers rarely mean to say the outlandish things APCs attribute to them (e.g., “texts can mean whatever we want them to mean”). Simon Blackburn has wisely commented that there is no “recent philosophical movement that could have been stopped in its tracks by pointing out that it is easier to find your way about in daylight than in the dark, or that if someone tells you that a bottle contains gin and you act accordingly, you have a beef against him if it contains kerosene.” While admitting that some postmoderns “might have carelessly let loose remarks that seem to imply the opposite,” he suggests that “they probably misspoke themselves as they tried to say something more interesting.” I’ve wanted to discover those more interesting things that postmodernists are trying to say, and as I pursued those more interesting things I increasingly found that eschatology is far more central to postmodernism, and to the Christian response to postmodernism, than epistemology.

God and Ganon

What is spirit, exactly? This question has come to mind for me on a handful of occasions, but until recently I generally took it primarily in negative terms with respect to matter. Matter has time, space, energy, maybe mass, etc. Matter is tangible or at least physically detectable. Spirit, on the other hand, refers to kinds of being which lack all of those qualities. If matter is tangible, spirit is intangible. If matter is visible, spirit is invisible. And this more or less worked for me.

Or at least I thought it did. It led me into a number of polemics, most notably strong writing against the notion that the “heaven” of the intermediate state would involve any kind of experiences which we could associate with any of our senses. And in addition to this, it frequently made me scoff at talk of spirit beings in ways which treated them as having any qualities I would consider physical.

One rather random place that this scoffing came up was in Zelda. Despite Zelda being one of only two or three game franchises I care for, and probably my favorite, I couldn’t help but at cringe at the way that Zelda games frequently refer to beings which are most notable for physical characteristics as “spirits.” Some appeared as dragons, or fish, or other things, but they almost always held a physical form for at least most of the time. Of course, I have always realized that spirits are supposed to be able to appear in a temporary physical form, but in these games, the lines between the spirits qua spirits and their physical form were often loose and unclear. In the most recent addition to the franchise, Breath of the Wild, this comes up a few times.

The absolute final battle of the game is with Ganon, the series’s regular big bad. As in most Zelda games, you fight him in multiple forms, and (spoiler alert!) the last form is a gigantic, boarlike monster. What’s weird about it is that this form isn’t treated so much as a physical beast but rather seems to again be a kind of spirit, since Zelda and the game itself both speak as though Ganon was trying to take on a physical form again, but failed and unleash his true, inner, apparently not-quite-physical self. But of course you still fight him by shooting arrows at him and he still fights by spewing fiery energy beams that burn up fields and forests.

This, of course, seemed silly to me (at least philosophically), but what occurred to me that other day is that the Bible itself seems to play this same fast and loose game with the line between the spiritual and the physical. Angels and God Himself (even before the Incarnation) appeared on many occasions no different from men, and they could eat, fight, touch, and speak. Visions of heaven, currently a spiritual place (or at least one would think), often include rich colors and sounds, even smells. Mention is made of people seeing God’s feet, back, or robe. And of course, throughout the Bible, God speaks to people, and while this may not always have involved an audible voice present as sound waves in the air, there can be no doubt that it at least did sometimes.

So what gives? Is this stuff just the product of the imagination of people too philosophically unsophisticated to distinguish reasonably between spirit and matter, as the Zelda incidents could be? Or were the Japanese myths and folklore behind Zelda in fact closer to the Bible than I’d have guessed?

I don’t have a comprehensive or definite answer, but I’m starting to think along these lines. God is spirit, and the physical world is meant to express His glory. This means that, whatever spirit actually is, the physical world is designed from the beginning to be a vehicle of its expression. Taking this seriously should make it no surprise, then, that spirits would make free use of this expressive capacity of the physical realm. Another way of putting it might be as projection. A spirit is able to really project its presence into the tangible world. Talk of expression and projection together allows for two important points. First, the physical appearance and features the spirit manifests are not arbitrary, or completely divorced from what it is as a spirit. Rather, since the physical world is meant to really express spiritual realities, there is an authentic correspondence between what we might see and touch of a spirit’s appearance and what the spirit is in itself. On the other hand, since spirit and matter are still quite different, we cannot imagine that the physical appearance a spirit uses would be at all exhaustive of its personal nature. Like a projection of a shape or an image on a wall, a dimension (among other things) is necessarily lost.

The difference between us, then, as naturally embodied creatures, is that we are anchored in physicality. While we “have” spirits, our spiritual being is linked with, even woven into, our flesh and blood. Our bodily changes can affect us spiritually, and our spiritual changes affect us bodily. And unlike beings of spirit, which do not need their projected bodies and naturally exist without them, we are made for embodiment and radically lack if we are without flesh (i.e. after death).

If it is unclear here, I think the key shift I’ve made in thought is from spirit as negatively associated with matter (i.e. defined in opposition to material properties) to spirit as transcending matter but analogous to it. Thus, for example, color is not simply something which spirits lack, but rather represents tangibly something which spirits have. Spirits do not simply have material size and shape, but those qualities really do correspond symbolically to qualities which spirits possess.

I am not sure what all this means or implies. I doubt very much that it is as trivial and academic as it sounds, for very few points of theology actually are. If nothing else, I think it may provide some direction for understanding the relationship between angels and miracles, though that would take another post to explore. Any thoughts or comments? Let me know, because I’m interested. And in the meantime, maybe Ganon’s true form as a giant boar isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Myth, folklore, and fantasy do have a tedency to be wiser than anyone gives them credit for.