Just in case any of you missed it, after a big fiasco involving a hack and a Google blacklist, I pretty gave up on this blog and started a new one. It’s called Theology Without Warranty, and you can find it at https://calebdixonsmith.wordpress.com/. Some recent post there in case they pique your interest:
[I wrote this for the sake of a discussion with friends. It got longer than I expected.]
Every command in Scripture is either a direct explication of natural law, including the general moral principles embedded in the way God has made humanity and the world and related them to each other and Himself, or positive law, a particular decree given in a particular context to bind the reader to act in a particular way, usually for a purpose which flows in some way or another from natural law.
Natural law is unchanging, whereas positive law can and does change. Positive laws, for example, include the command to circumcise sons, to observe the Passover, to flee Egypt, to abstain from certain foods, to offer animal sacrifices, to worship at the Tabernacle, to destroy the Canaanites, to bar eunuchs from worship, etc. Usually in Scripture, positive laws especially pertain to the life and order of God’s people in their visible assembly, whether in the days of Old Covenant Israel or the New Covenant Church. Positive laws do not necessarily have to be the way they are; they are specified as the best normative way for particular circumstances in order to realize goals that are usually grounded in the unchanging realities of natural law. In some cases, positive laws can be permanent inasmuch as the situation which grounds them never changes in history (e.g. the command to take Communion seems to extend until Christ returns).
So, every positive law has two dimensions: the binding of the letter, which is changeable and passable based on the circumstances for which the letter was made, and the value rationale behind it, which is based on universal natural law.
A second distinction we will need to make is between essential and normative. When it comes to many things, particularly when it comes to positive law and rites, there are three kinds of aspects to how they are followed: the essential, the normative, and the indifferent. The essential includes the basic elements without which something is simply not real or valid at all. For example, that which is essential to preaching the Gospel is that without which there simply is no possibility of a Gospel at all (e.g. God exists, Jesus is Lord, etc.). Likewise, being begotten of my father is essential to our father-son relationship: without that begetting he would not literally be my father. And if nothing is eaten or drunk, there is no Communion, therefore eating and drinking are essential to Communion.
The normative, on the contrary, is that which is proper to something as its most correct, appropriate, or even obligatory way or form, but without which it can still be itself. In marriage, for example, monogamy is normative but not essential, that is, a man should only marry one wife, but it is also possible for him to be truly married to more than one. Similarly, the use of wine is normative in Communion but not essential: wine is what we should use, but if someone uses grape juice, it is still the sacrament of Communion.
Finally, the indifferent is, well, indifferent. It does not in principle affect the genuineness, legitimacy, or appropriateness of a thing. Whether baptism is performed in chlorinated water or spring water makes no difference. A wedding is a lawful wedding whether or not they include the words “with my body, I thee worship.” And a pastor is neither a more or less genuine pastor, nor a better or worse pastor, based on whether he parts his hair or has no hair.
Next, we must distinguish (as always) between the two kingdoms. The spiritual kingdom pertains to the realm of God’s invisible and immediate sight and knowledge of our hearts and our relation to Him by conscience. The temporal kingdom pertains to everything else, everything visible and tangible and temporal. The Church exists in both kingdoms, as God’s genuine believers trust in Him and are justified in the spiritual kingdom, and come together for worship and service in the temporal kingdom. That this gathering act of the Church takes place in the temporal kingdom means that the visible Church is made up of earthly associations. Every local church is a human organization in a similar sense that of a business, a family, a club, or a political society. As such, it can be and must be governed and run in basically the same way as human communities generally are, only paying special attention to obedience to Christ. But its makeup is not particularly special, and its forms and offices and polity are in principle mutable to some degree or another according to circumstance.
With these conceptual distinctions in place, we can move on to what Scripture actually tells us about the place of women in the Church, especially in relation to preaching and/or the pastoral office. All such instructions, we can see before we read their content, pertain to the temporal kingdom and involve positive law. This means that, at least in principle, there is the possibility that they might change according to circumstance to some degree or another.
Let us, then, take 1 Timothy 2:12 as a paradigmatic example of a text that excludes women from offices of teaching and authority. In it, Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” The language itself, along with similar texts elsewhere in Paul, is pretty clear. Paul, by the infallible wisdom of the Spirit, gives a rule barring women from any such preaching, teaching, or authoritative office over men.
Now, this is certainly a matter of positive law, i.e. it is not itself a direct part of universal moral truth that females preaching to or leading males in the gathering of God’s people is inherently sinful. We can easily imagine God giving a different rule or handling it in a different way or providing for an exception. It does not violate any of the 10 Commandments which sum up natural law. It is a rule of order and polity for God’s people, a category of law which, as we have seen, can change and has often done so in biblical history. Israel’s firstborn were to be devoted to Yahweh’s service until the Levites took their place. We were to worship in a Tabernacle, but later in a Temple, and now in the Spirit as ourselves the Temple. What was once called unclean to eat, God has now blessed to be received with thanksgiving. Eunuchs were cut off from the sanctuary; now they feast at the Lord’s table. Israel was first ruled by elders, then judges, and then a king. So, in principle, the rule forbidding women from authority in the Church might be changeable. To determine whether it actually is, we have to examine its context and purpose. Positive law is never suspended in mid-air; it is designed to fulfill some good of moral or natural law in peculiar circumstances.
So, why does Paul forbid women from church authority? Citing the passage as a whole (1 Tim. 2) will be helpful here:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Paul’s first mentioned concern is a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified. Such a life pleases God because He desires all people to be saved, and such a life helps maintain the attraction and reputation of Christianity and its Christ. Paul’s concern for the evangelical use of a sound and respectable witness can be seen throughout his letters. He expects the Church to maintain a good reputation with outsiders inasmuch as it is possible without compromising the Gospel, so that people outside will not be put off by disorder, insanity, etc. He wants to avoid the situation where “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of you.”
In this case, Paul applies his desire to both men and women. Men are expected to be peaceable, to raise their hands in worship rather than their fists in quarrels. This corresponds to the peculiar nature of men: as creatures of strength and vigor, they must learn to channel this in gentleness to worship and edification rather than destruction. Women have their own, related charge. They are to dress respectably and modestly, not ostentatiously or expensively, competing for show. Instead of fashion contests, they are called to good works, quiet learning, and child-bearing. This again corresponds to the peculiar nature of women: as creatures of beauty and social sense, they must learn to channel this in humble generosity, hospitality, and nurture rather than a struggle for attention and status.
It is in this context that Paul forbids women to teach and assume authority over men. Why? The overall appeal, like the other things mentioned here, goes back to nature, though also partially mediated by social expectations. Women were already given an unprecedented level of access and participation in Christian worship; in the Temple and synagogues they had no real place. Many of them were undoubtedly inclined to take this, especially inasmuch as it included their equal access to gifts of tongues and prophecy (see 1 Corinthians), as an eschatological sign that they were entirely free of a gendered order. Equal worship surely meant equal right to teach and lead and do the like, right?
It is precisely this that Paul wished to cut off, which is why he insisted elsewhere on head coverings. He appeals both here and in 1 Corinthians to an order in nature: men are naturally associated with leadership, running first into the world in creation, with women following. God intentionally made man at the head and then gifted woman at his right hand. The natural order has not simply been overturned. Paul wishes to make this clear now, lest by rampant egalitarian practice the Church fall into ill repute as full of radical (and, possibly implied in public perception, seemingly promiscuous) women. (On this it should be noted that many ancient writers, and even Christians well into the modern era, considered female leadership an obvious disgrace. To risk having a shameful reputation without it being necessary clearly weighed on Paul’s mind.) Even Gentiles see the natural order and know that female leadership is at least something of an aberration. So Paul instead encourages them to hold to more edifying and important tasks like good works and child-bearing.
So we have two elements to consider. There is a positive law prohibition: no women in church authority. There is also a two-part rationale: (1) female leadership will hurt the Church’s reputation, because even pagans understand that (2) female leadership is basically unnatural, and the creation order favors male leadership.
I think this is enough to conclude that male leadership in church is normative, i.e. it is what should be done, at least at the level of general principle. However, it remains to ask whether male leadership is also essential, and whether the normativity should be understood as too strong to permit exceptions or contextual changes. Being essential, I think, is out of the question. Why? Because of the Reformed insight that all of the legitimate ministry of church leadership is essentially the ministry of the Word. The Word is what counts, enacted by the Spirit in the life of the Church through the work of the ministers. As such, the sex of the minister is not immediately and essentially relevant: the power of the Word lies in the God who speaks it, not the human voice and whether it runs through an Adam’s apple. The minister’s job is simply to present Christ, to stand in for Christ by speaking Christ’s Word on His behalf. This Word itself is what counts when all else is stripped away. Wherever the Word is preached and enacted in the sacraments, there is an essentially real ministry, no matter the sex of the minister. So it is at least possible for a female to actually fulfill this kind of ministerial role.
On the other hand, the same topic of the Word also strengthens the normativity of male leadership. The job of the minister is the be the mouthpiece of Christ, a male. The Word the minster proclaims is the Son, and he is charged to do so by the Father. The symbolism of the ministerial role is bound up with the concept of God as Father, and to a lesser degree as Son. The minister stands in for God, and the God-humanity relation is much more like the father-son relation than the mother-son or mother-daughter one. The relationship between Christ and the Church is like that of husband and wife. So both with respect to nature and to grace, the ministerial role is particularly associated with masculinity.
Taking everything together, then, we find that Paul’s positive law prohibition is actually very deeply rooted in natural law and broad principles pertaining to creation and redemption, even if in its exact particularity as such, it is potentially mutable and given to exception. It is not strictly essential, inasmuch as the ministry of the Word can be performed by a woman. The identity of the minister in all respects is secondary to the Word being preached and enacted in sacrament. Since the purpose of the ministry of the Word is the edification of the Church, building it up in faith by the voice of God, this even means that, when necessary, a woman’s ministry may even be a justifiable and legitimate exception, lest some difficult circumstances cause the ministry to be deeply compromised or neglected altogether.
Nonetheless, the normative force of male leadership is very strong. It is not defensible to claim its absolute normativity, in the sense that all deviations from the norm are necessarily sinful, but it is at least significant enough that it must not be lightly thrown aside even for seemingly important concerns. It must certainly not be set aside or excepted for no reason at all, or simply for the desire of inclusion. Both special and general revelation, both our vertical and our horizontal relationships, both nature and grace, consistently favor male leadership and discourage female leadership. One of the two aspects to the rationale for Paul’s prohibition—this consistent teaching—is still very much the case, which greatly strengthens the case for its continued force.
However, there is one factor we have not considered for contemporary application, namely Paul’s other concern behind his prohibition: the reputation of the Church. In Paul’s own day, rejecting the teaching of nature on gender in leadership would have brought unnecessary disgrace upon the Church. Pagans would have seen it as shameful and unnatural, and thus it would be an easily avoidable roadblock to the Church’s witness. Today is more complex. Modern societies generally do not hear and in fact reject the voice of nature. They often consider adherence to male-only leadership a blight on the churches which practice it, or even a vile evil and injustice. Though they may be wrong, this does raise the question of whether it would constitute a sufficient basis for an exception to the norm expressed in Paul’s prohibition against female leadership. Might not the public witness of the Church be enhanced and improved by dropping a controversial policy which is not properly essential to the ministry of the Word?
Though I think the question is worth raising, I also think the answer is basically “No.” There are many appropriate ways for the Church to adapt and contextualize and even loosen policies that raise eyebrows from time to time, but in today’s climate, the gender issues lie close to the heart of the error of the age and the abolition of man. Society is working towards atomized, degendered, interchangeable, androgynous people stripped of any connections to nature and free to reinvent themselves. It seeks a crushing and flattening kind of equality and the deconstruction of any hierarchies and orders except meritocracy. In such a context, making a concession on gendered leadership would be exactly the wrong kind of concession. The territory involved is too close to the capital city. The reality and legitimacy of nature, the order of which the true God Himself is the sovereign Creator, is the hill on which the Church of today must die. And only if she loses her life can she save it.
Throughout the ages, Christians have struggled with marriage. More than a few writers and pastors have taught a pretty negative view. For example, in some times and places, people have taught that marriage is basically a sadly necessary control for sexual passion. Sexuality is fundamentally corrupt, they imagine. So God had to find a way to band-aid it, and marriage serves this purpose.
Most Christians today are not likely to fall into that trap. It’s a dumb idea that quite obviously contradicts Scripture. It has a kernel of truth, of course. In a fallen world, our disordered desires need marriage to govern them. But that’s not the point of marriage’s original design, which has its roots before and apart from the Fall. Marriage is something God made with a positive goal. It serves to fill the world with life. It copies and replicates God’s glory throughout the earth as parents in God’s image create offspring in their image. Within marriage, there is a solid context to develop love, companionship, a household, and all kinds of other good things.
Nevertheless, even if marriage is good, the question remains how good it is. Is it better than staying celibate? Or is celibacy superior? Christian history is actually full of claims that celibacy is the better option. It is nice to marry, but to remain single and chaste is greater.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this belief. The idea of staying single can feel brave and countercultural. Sex is a powerful force, after all. Doesn’t staying free of it show the most self-control, plus other virtues? And sometimes Scripture seems to back it up. Jesus talked about people who live like eunuchs for the kingdom of God. He seems to give them high praise. Paul talked about the cares of the world, and he said how great it is to be able to focus only on God’s business.
Despite verses like these, the Reformed tradition has always held that marriage is generally normative. Protestants from Luther on rejected the Catholic belief that celibacy is better than marriage. Often they said the reverse. Why? Can this be biblical?
I don’t plan on giving a full ethic of sex and marriage here, but as a test case, I want to address one particular passage. First Corinthians 7 is one of the most commonly used arguments for the superiority of celibacy. The whole chapter is important, but I want to quote the most relevant part:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote: It is good for a man not to touch a woman…I wish all people could be like myself [unmarried], but each one has his own gift from God, one in this way and another in that way…
For the present form of this world is passing away…But I want you to be free from care. The unmarried person cares for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But the one who is married cares for the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. And the unmarried woman or the virgin cares for the things of the Lord, in order that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. Now I am saying this for your own benefit, not that I may put a restriction on you, but to promote appropriate and devoted service to the Lord without distraction.
1 Corinthians 7:1, 7, 31-35
At first glance, this almost seems to prove that celibacy is superior. Paul says he wishes everyone could be single, like himself. He says that it’s good for a man not to touch a woman, and he mentions the split concerns of the married as opposed to the unmarried. It would seem the Reformed view is dead in the water.
The key to interpreting this passage, however, is found in verse 31. In it Paul gives a reason for his instructions: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” What does this mean? We are used to skimming by statements like this without much thought, but I would suggest this is the center of Paul’s thought on marriage.
Paul was deeply concerned with two impending changes to “the form of the world.” Two future events loomed in his imagination: the impending judgment on Israel and Jerusalem about which Jesus prophesied and the replacement of pagan imperialism with the nations confessing Jesus as Lord. These events were fulfilled in AD 70 and the eventual conversion of the Roman Empire, respectively. Together, the two events radically reshaped the ancient world and the place of the people of God within it. The process was intense and tumultuous. The churches would need to be ready for all kinds of changes. They would experience persecution and suffering. Families would crack. Loyalties would change. Jesus brought not peace, but a sword.
This meant that, until these events had passed, the Church would need to be vigilant and sit loose to the socio-political order. If Christians invested too heavily in the economy of the day, or the politics of the day, or any of the other systems and orders of the world, they were liable to suffer heavy losses. Paul obviously did not want this for his readers. The difficulty with marriage, then, is that having a family is harder to do without those kind of investments.
A family is not like an individual. An individual can move more freely. The single man or single woman is more flexible in almost every way, especially when it comes to survival. An individual only, at minimum, needs enough investment in any given social or economic order to survive himself, whereas a family involves the welfare of several people. The husband must love and protect his wife and children. The wife must serve and nourish her husband and children.
All of these entanglements tend to root families more deeply into a given social, political, or economic order. They depend more on the status quo than the unmarried and childless do. This makes things much harder when God is about to overthrow the status quo. Faith in a God who is going to judge everything that makes it possible for you to please your wife and feed your kids is much harder. There is more the temptation to give up, to rationalize, to compromise in the face of trouble and persecution along the way.
This meant that, in both Jesus’ time and Paul’s, marriage came with extra risks. Single people could easily flee cities, face suffering, and proclaim the Gospel boldly so long as they could love God just a little more than themselves. Marriage and family life was more complicated, adding an extra element to worry about. More wisdom would be necessary: how many risks do you take when you aren’t worried about your own life but the lives of your wife and kids?
For all these reasons, Paul thought it would be more helpful if Christians remained single. Then they would have maximum freedom, the most to gain and the least to lose, in their attempts to remain faithful to Christ amidst impending persecution and suffering. But he also knew that this wasn’t realistic. God gives different gifts to different people. No matter how hard things got for God’s people, for many people singleness would be harder still.
But all of this is contingent on the historical moment. Judgment was on the way. The ancient would was in for huge, tempestuous changes. The Gospel and pagan imperialism were in for a climactic clash. In our day, things are quite different. That clash is over. The whole world and age of that time has passed away. Now we face different challenges. The question for today is instead more like this: knowing that marriage and procreation are genuinely good and belong to human nature, how do they fit into challenges of God’s people today? Are they greater liabilities or greater assets than usual? Are marriage and family life more spiritually risky, or is singleness? What errors of the world do Christians need to stand against?
All of these questions are important. We will need to think them through as we discern a prudent approach for our own day. But I, for one, think our modern world has more than enough singleness and barrenness. The contemporary West is forgetting nature, forgetting responsibility, and forgetting the meaning of children, which is after all nothing other than the meaning of the human race. In a nihilistic, selfish, and sterile world, it seems in my opinion a much greater witness and more valuable strategy to witness to the goodness of genuine love, lifelong commitment, sexual propriety and fidelity, and humanity itself, continued generation to generation by the fruitful union of husband and wife.
Christianity doesn’t have the place it once did in the West. This has raised a lot of questions for Christians, particularly those who actually believe in the historic faith. Some people think Christendom was a bad idea to begin with, others think it was good in principle but worked out badly, and still others lament its fall as the worst of tragedies.
I recently participated in a discussion about this, and I responded to the claim that Constantine and the conversion of the Roman Empire marked a “fall” type event for the Church. What follows is a slightly adapted version of my longest post in that dialogue. It helps explain my overall view of eschatology, the norms for how God’s people live in the world, and how blessings in this life from obedience relate to the need to suffer and take up our cross. The initial context involves someone responding to my claim that the beginning of Christendom with Constantine represents a fulfillment of prophecy, the end to a period of suffering and waiting for the early church. They responding by mentioning Hebrews and saying that it suggests the waiting period ends with Christ’s second coming instead. Here it goes:
Biblical eschatology is not often about the final End, but about the many and occasional temporal endings in redemptive history. I wouldn’t place the eschatological horizon of Hebrews, for example, with Constantine. Instead, it’s the full establishment of the New Covenant with the passing away of the Old Covenant and the Temple. The main thrust of Hebrews is an exhortation not to apostatize to Judaism when the Old Covenant is about to pass away. Then early, struggling, persecuted church (at this time suffering primarily from Jews) will come into her own under the fullness of the transition to the New Covenant age.
In the context of Hebrews, the wilderness period is another 40 years like the original. This time it is the 40 years between Jesus’ resurrection and His public vindication in the judgment on unbelieving Israel. Of course, the way types work, there are other dimensions and layers for other times. Past the judgment in AD 70, there is something like another wilderness period as the Church waited to inherit the nations (though this was really more akin to Joshua’s conquest, but in this case the conquest of the martyrs).
As for whether Christians should expect temporal blessings, the answer is certainly a “yes.” Indeed, the Bible is full of that expectation. Proverbs is filled to the brim with it, and even Ecclesiastes concedes a limited but real temporal benefit to wisdom. The promises of Deuteronomy for Israel, as well, are not just bolted-on rewards. Rather, the blessings of godliness are woven into the fabric of creation itself. We experience the opposite only the wicked force and manipulate it, particularly from places of authority.
It is true, of course, that a servant is not greater than his Master, that Christ suffered, and that He said His followers must take up their crosses with Him. But it’s important to parse how this works differently in the different historical contexts God prepares for His people. Even David had a cross to bear, but he also took Israel to its penultimate height, gave prosperity and security to the land, etc. And even the example of Jesus Himself makes the point. He suffered for a short time, and then He was publicly vindicated and delivered by God in time and space before His ascent to heaven.
This brings me to the point of the cross as a model for Christian living. When sin runs rampant and sinful authorities (both spiritual and human) hold power, we find that we must give up genuine temporal goods that normally flow from following God’s design for human life for the sake of the primary and eternal end of all things, God Himself. But this is never meant to be a permanent situation, even within ongoing history. It should never been seen as a genuine surprise, either, since humanity is badly rotten and evil spiritual forces are quite real. These situations will definitely occur more often than we might hope or expect. Whenever they do, we must be ready to repudiate all temporal goods for the sake of the eternal and spiritual good, even though under more normal circumstances, pursuing spiritual good should produce temporal good.
This is definitely not to say there is no role for the cross under normal daily life. It matters even where we are not in the pressure of a corrupt order with impending judgment. There is a place for the basic idea of the cross, that of submitting our immediate pleasure and good to God’s will, in every facet of fallen life even under the best of conditions. Our desires will frequently veer from God’s will, and we will need to crucify the bad desires and chasten the disordered good ones. Even in paradise, without the fall, we would have to engage in a minimal process of self-denial. It’s like if Eve passed by the tree of knowledge, its fruit caught her eye as appealing, and she turned from its appeal to her commitment to God’s will instead. The ethical model of the cross, at its essence, is everywhere, even in a world that looks more like Eden than Golgotha.
The key, however, is that the biblical authors never had a purely capital-E End view of reward, vindication, and blessing. They consistently expected, throughout both the Old Testament and New, that God would do these things regularly in history. There are many ends, many little apocalypses. In the time leading up to them, fidelity to God may be intensely difficult. It will often involve marginalization and suffering. In the aftermath, they will enjoy a limited amount of peace and blessing, though still always shy of the ideal because sin is still around. This is why, in a secondary sense, the wilderness period doesn’t ever conclude until the End. But there are shorter periods of wilderness, conquest, kingdom, division, exile, and restoration time and again all along the way.
So when the Roman Empire converted, it was a genuine fulfillment of promise and prophecy, a true blessing both to the Church and to the formerly pagan nations (massively so in their case). We still feel its benefits today, as most of the good things that have been developed since Jesus’ day depended on Christendom. But, as usual, we screwed it up. God’s people never do the best job of using His blessings, and when He fulfills His promises, they break theirs, and thus also themselves. So now we have exile and a crumbling Christendom. Maybe next time we’ll do better, just as Christendom was better than the kingdom of David and Solomon.
In our time now, we’re probably closer to the position of the early church than anyone has been since Constantine. The Christian order has crumbled and a new kind of paganism is taking over. We’ll need to be more like the early church, more attuned to suffering, exclusion, and the cross, than ever before. But we can also expect that if we are faithful in this, God will deliver and vindicate us. This won’t be just at the Big End but at the next end, and God will establish Jesus’ lordship over the nations once again.
In Screwtape’s second letter, he recounts the unfortunate development that the “patient” has become a Christian. We might think of this as their complete defeat. They don’t, however, see it that way. The demons maintain hope that they can destroy this man’s soul. Let’s put the question of eternal security to the side: we might imagine that the demons don’t know for certain the state of one’s soul. Lewis’ reflects here on the peculiar dangers and temptations that may face a new convert, whether genuine or false.
First, Screwtape mentions how useful the Church itself is. (He makes a great point distinguishing the invisible Church, in its eternal purity and glory, from the visible Church on the ground.) The demons wish to lead the man to Hell, and there are people in the Church who will help. For example, the Church contains weirdos, inaccessible liturgies, bad songs, and annoying neighbors.
Screwtape’s strategy for Wormwood, then, is to make the patient focus on these rough edges. Particularly, he highlights the people. The Church is filled with unfinished saints, not to mention hypocrites and people who are just a little strange. As a new convert, then, Screwtape expects Wormwood can distract and trip up the patient by focusing his attention on them. To quote:
Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
This is a perennial temptation. We come to the Church with the expectation of what Christians should act, sound, and, yes, even look like. When people don’t match it, we mentally demote them. We tend to view them as less genuine, not as wise or serious or whatever as ourselves. By this we learn pride, the most destructive of vices.
In this case, the pride and critical spirit have a particular goal. Screwtape encourages, “Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.” The goal here is to build up disappointment and disillusionment with the Church. The hope is that this will lead the patient to call it quits. They want to create the attitude, “If God’s people are not what I think they should be, perhaps God isn’t worth it either.”
This is important in our day. We see a lot of disillusionment with the Church. We see left and right, for example, young evangelicals frustrated with the Church’s history on this or that issue, whether on race or sex or economics or what have you. Others are disappointed by theological shallowness, emotionalism, or biblical illiteracy. Causes of disappointment abound. Many apostatize. But those who endure to the end will be saved.
There are two things to learn from this. First, repent of our own critical spirits. The Church is a work in progress, just like ourselves. Whatever faults we have with our brothers, they could have as many for us. As Screwtape also says:
All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is!
If we are to stay away from the deadly dangers of pride, we need to repent and remember Paul’s words in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge another’s household servant? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand, because the Lord is able to make him stand.” Don’t be overly critical. Don’t hate on the Church. Make peace, do your part, love the brethren, and correct what you can with humility.
As for the second lesson, we should learn to do what we can not to cause disillusionment. Listen to the disappointed. Watch out for common criticisms. Examine our hearts. We should not be causing our brothers to stumble. Be generous, be kind, be humble, be quick to listen, be slow to anger, be everything that you know an ideal Christian should be. By this light you may win your unbelieving neighbors and strengthen your fellow Christians. You might even keep them from giving up.
My children have two grandmothers. This is, of course, not remotely surprising. It is funny, however, just how different they are. Even the way my children distinguish them is a bit amusing. They both go by “grandma,” but my mom is “grandma with the pool” and my wife’s is “grandma with the goat.” If you knew you, you would probably think those names are pretty decent summaries.
However, the unique identifiers of my kids grandmas aren’t really the point of this post. I mention them because they both have brought a similar thought to mind recently. See, both my mom and my wife’s have certain, well, idiosyncratic loves. For my mom, it is violin music. It hardly matters where it came from or what it is. If violins are prominent, she enjoys it. This even applies to the violin dubstep you find in Lindsey Stirling (e.g. this work of art). Somehow it even applies to video game music, like covers of Skyrim or Zelda melodies. The details hardly matter. My mom loves the particular beauty of the violin. Even if she doesn’t realize why she likes a piece of music, she may at some point realize it’s because there’s a good violin part.
My mother-in-law has a similar and much more prominent fixation. She loves purple. On anything. All the time, if she talks my wife about something she saw or bought, or shows it to her, she figures out from my wife that its purple color was the appeal. Whether it’s a shirt or a mug or a pen, the mere presence of purple makes it delightful. Wherever she sees purple, she sees beauty. Even when she doesn’t notice that’s why.
Now, I don’t write this post to simply pick on the grandmas in my family. Instead, I want to reflect on this kind of idiosyncratic love. Many of us may laugh at it, but is it all that silly? I would like to entertain the notion that it’s not silly at all, actually. Instead, it might just be wiser than the discernment of connoisseurs.
See, here, as in so many things, the doctrine of creation is key. God made all things, as all Christians confess. But sometimes we forget just how much “all things” includes. “All things” is everything. That includes the color purple and the sound a violin makes. It even includes purple violins, if those exist.
Moreover, God created everything with a reason. Purple and violins aren’t just accidents. They didn’t show up merely as a byproduct of the way God threw the rest of the world together. Rather, every last atom and photon are God’s intentional design. God chose to make a world where you can find the royal brilliance of purple. God chose to make sound waves function so that violins make beautiful music.
The point I want to highlight is that every last crevice of creation is God’s revelation of Himself. God made the world to be a theater of His glory, as Calvin put it. As Calvin said elsewhere, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Every violet reflection and every stringed note is a message from God to us about His own beauty.
To think this way is to say that, if someone really loves purple, or someone is enchanted by the sound of every violin, it’s not a bug. It’s a feature. God made us to find and delight in every aspect of His glory. That includes purple mugs and Lindsey Stirling songs. All beauty is a picture of His own. When we develop a love for one aspect of it, whether a color or a sound or a place or anything else, we give special attention to one small but infinitely valuable expression of God’s own being, seeing Him in a way perhaps few others ever will. We find a nook in the being of God that seems specially carved for us to sit and enjoy.
To a certain extent, this reminds me of a G. K. Chesterton quote: “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” He’s right, because every subject is something God crafted from His own wisdom and creativity. We’re not all built to see God’s beauty equally in everything, but we can all learn from each other that it truly is everywhere. God is the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. Whatever we love for itself, we love as a tiny picture of Love Himself.
Of course, this is also the tragedy of love for the unrepentant. Such people love the pictures but reject the reality. They gaze at God’s light in the purple flower but flee from His light more personally revealed. They hearken to His melody on Spotify but close their ears to the melody of redemption. This ingratitude is the worst offense. We accept a tiny piece of God and try to cut if off from the whole Creator. This is folly, and it is no wonder we die in the process.
The better response, of course, is to remember the Creator of purple violins. Even their human artificers are working on His borrowing brilliance. He is the Alpha and the Omega; from Him and for Him and to Him are all things. And our chief end is to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Including the little facet of Him revealed in just one color of the spectrum.
A Demonic Adventure
A couple weeks ago I read C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters for the second time. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s an imaginary collection of letters from a demon named Screwtape to his “nephew” Wormwood. Wormwood has the task of destroying his “patient’s” soul, and the experienced Screwtape offers him advice along the way. C. S. Lewis creatively uses this format to show us the demonic, or at least generally wicked, influences in our daily lives. Rarely, you see, are most demons busy haunting people, hanging out with witches, or working on massive conspiracies. Instead, The Screwtape Letters encourages us to examine our own lives for the diabolical. Satan’s most effective tactics are not flashy. They work in the subtle recesses of our hearts and imaginations.
This creative format makes the book pack quite a punch. As demons discuss their plots to destroy us, we see ourselves. We see how this bad attitude or this unkind habit isn’t harmless. Rather, every fault in our hearts is a potential crumbling point. How we trivially treat our mothers, our friends, or selves can all lead toward either glory or ruin. So Lewis writes, in essence, as a wakeup call. As we read Screwtape suggest tactics to ruin a young man, we might spot our own weaknesses and pitfalls.
All of this, then, made The Screwtape Letters an unusually convicting book to me. For that reason I intend to blog through it, sharing some of my favorite insights. Whether in our duties toward God or duties toward each other, I’m confident that Lewis has something to teach anyone who might read this. I know he did for me.
Intro: The Problem with Reason
I do not plan in this one post to share all that much, since I’ve spent enough time just introducing this series. However, I do want to at least give a taste of the kinds of things you have to gain from following this. So I’ll start off with something Lewis points out in the very first chapter of the book.
The book opens with Screwtape’s response to Wormwood’s current strategy: have his “patient” read skeptical literature and hang out with a materialist friend. Screwtape acknowledges that this is well enough, but encourages Wormwood not to let the matter get overly intellectual. Why? A couple of reasons. For one, God is truth. To play the game of reason is to give God the homefield advantage. For another, reason is not always the most powerful motivator. People are often much more likely to believe things for reasons that have very little to do with rationally thinking they are likely true. To quote Screwtape:
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
A moment’s reflection should show how painfully true Screwtape’s point is. This is probably even more the case in our social media age than in Lewis’ day. Lots of adjectives that have nothing to do with reason and truth govern what people are willing to believe. For example, how many times have you heard “It’s 2019” used like it’s evidence for something? The year obviously has nothing to do with the truth, but often enough, it’s assumed that what people think today is automatically superior to what people used to think.
Other examples abound. Some beliefs are “toxic” or “bigoted.” Others are “progressive” or “inclusive.” Or, on the evangelical side, some ideas are “Gospel-centered” or others are “worldly.” In a Reformed context, “confessional” or “Catholic” can be the start and end of a conversation. Politics can be even worse, where an idea being “liberal” or “discriminatory” or “backwards” or “socialist” can immediately rule it out depending on the audience.
Lewis here reminds us of something he made a repeated point of elsewhere. What matters with any idea or belief is solely whether it is true. Whether we like or dislike it, whether it fits any particular agenda or sensibilities, or whether it is in favor or out of favor, truth is truth. Will we believe it? Will we let factors besides truth govern what we believe? Anything more than this is from the evil one.
In debates about penal substitutionary atonement, one of the occasional charges against the doctrine is that it fails to serve justice. Guilt, some argue, is not transferable. If an innocent man takes the punishment for someone who actually committed a crime, it isn’t justice. The criminal hasn’t paid his due. That the innocent man has suffered, even with the intent of substitution, doesn’t actually absolve the criminal. What good has it really done if an innocent man is now dead and the criminal is still a criminal who will never have to account for his actions? C. S. Lewis, in fact, made this point in Mere Christianity in explaining why he once found PSA to be absurd.
A common reply to this objection is to cast the legal metaphor in financial terms. While it may not be as clear why, say, if I take a beating for your crime, you should be free, it is very clear that if I pay the fine for your crime, then the fine is paid. You then owe nothing. And there is some biblical support for this. The guilt of sin is occasionally cast in terms of a debt owed to God (e.g. Matt. 6:12, 18:21-35). However, with the possible exception of Colossians 2:14, the Bible doesn’t seem to much favor financial metaphors for the atonement. In any case, it is not clear how well this really works, as financial penalties are usually understood only in terms of compensating before men and not translating directly into moral value.
So, a while back, I was reading through Zacharius Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, and I stumbled on a section on this exact topic, answering the objection that it is unjust for the innocent to take the penalty of the guilty:
We reply to the major proposition, that the innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty, 1. Unless he willingly offer himself in the room, and stead of the guilty. 2. Unless he who thus voluntarily suffers, be able to make a sufficient ransom. 3. That he may be able to recover himself from these sufferings, and not perish under them. 4. That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend. 5. And that he be of the same nature with those for whom satisfaction is made.
Ursinus here gives five conditions necessary for an innocent man to satisfy justice for someone else. Many of these are straightforward and intuitive. He must make a voluntary choice, have the ability to satisfy the due punishment, be able to recover from any suffering endured (a topic worth looking into another time), and have the same nature as the offending party. This is all common sense. And then there is point #4, “That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend.”
This concept is what struck me. One of the conditions Ursinus specifies for the just efficacy of the atonement is that the innocent party, in this case, Christ, is able to stop the criminal from continuing to be a criminal. In other words, the guilt is still there unless the substitute lead the criminal to repent.
This idea, I think, is stunning because we get it. While PSA in the abstract can often feel counterintuitive, we understand this at a gut level. We see this in our art, in the stories we tell about villains who become heroes and jerks who turn a new leaf. Imagine in a story where a good man dies for the sake of a bad man, and the bad man changes. No one will continually insist that the bad man should suffer for his former crimes. Things have changed. Because a good man suffered what he deserved, he came to repentance. He is, in a sense, a new man, and the old man’s guilt is gone.
This, interestingly, creates some kind of connection between PSA and what I described of Lewis’ own explanation of the atonement, along with the views of John McLeod Campbell and the old moral influence theory of the atonement. Jesus is able to stop us from offending again. This itself is something He has done by dying for us. So His death for us really does serve justice. When He unites us to Him and we repent of our sins, there is legitimately no more condemnation. We were buried with Him through baptism into His death, the old man has passed away, and we are dead to sin. He who has died has finished with sin. Christ has died for us, and He has changed us. We are new people, free from the debts of our old selves.
Interestingly, this also connects to debates over limited atonement. One way some early Reformers distinguished between the sufficiency and efficiency of the atonement was this: the atonement includes within itself the purchase of repentance for the elect, but not for the reprobate. In one sense, the atonement can be said to cleanse the sins of the whole world. However, it also includes an element designed specifically to guarantee that the elect repent and receive the benefit. How this works is beside the point. What’s interesting is taking this notion together with Ursinus’ criterion for a just substitution. However it works that Jesus’ death brings about repentance in the elect, the fact that the reprobate don’t repent makes Christ’s death useless to them. Their guilt remains, because this vital fourth criterion for a just substitution doesn’t apply to them. Christ does not bring them to repent. They are still their old selves. They still must die, as their old selves have not died in Christ.
[An essay I wrote for a contest on Reddit.]
Introduction: Doctor Who?
“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” is not a theological statement. Nor is much else in a television series about a time-traveling alien who changes his face every few years. Nonetheless, in its 56 year history, Doctor Who has from sometimes touched on deep questions. These have not usually been well-executed or profound (it is a sci-fi show). There have been, however, many threads which carry less explicit theological import. Perhaps no one meant to create these (sometimes they obviously did), but these subtle pieces are often the most thought-provoking elements in the show. Noteworthy among these is the characterization of the Doctor himself.
Throughout the show’s long history, it has characterized the Doctor in various ways. He has been a mystery, a silly grandfather, a madman with a box, a noble warrior, an antihero, a messiah, and a lonely god, among other things. These last two roles, however, are of most interest here. In portraying the Doctor in divine terms, the show assumes certain notions about the divine. These, this essay shall argue, to some extent resonate with Reformed views of God’s character and activity. Specifically, when the Doctor is planted firmly on the side of the good, he is also clearly not safe, not exactly what is expected of the “good guy,” and prone to deeds that befuddle or even shock the viewers, all without ceasing to be a worthy protagonist. In order to give these themes due consideration, it will first be necessary to zoom in on how and when the Doctor has been characterized this way.
The Lonely God
While the motif the Doctor wearing God’s shoes has been explored numerous times in Doctor Who, it is not equally associated with every incarnation of the character. As a Time Lord, the Doctor regenerates a new body and personality at death, up to twelve times (normally). Today the Doctor has had 14 incarnations. Some, like the frivolous Second Doctor or the nearly amoral Sixth Doctor, hardly express such themes at all. Others show this more clearly, probably none moreso than the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant. He is one of the few to be directly described with divine imagery. A prophecy named him “the lonely god,” and a Roman family worshiped him as the “god of time” after he rescued them from Pompeii’s destruction. To understand this motif, it will be best to focus on this incarnation and his most godlike moment.
The Tenth Doctor is a proper good guy. This is obviously an overstatement for someone like him, but the story general portrays him in positive terms. He is one of the most sacrificial, bears the most regret for the conclusion of the Time War (in which he destroyed the entirety of his own fallen race and the genocidal Daleks), and even plays with pacifism (though quite inconsistently). Yet he has also been a harsh judge, law-giver, and final authority wherever he goes. Sometimes the show portrays these things as mistakes, but only at times. Even when they are mistakes, the error is often one of confusion or well-meaning but finite judgment. Ultimately, the show usually stoically accepts that even his harsh judgments are righteous.
The Family of Blood
This dynamic is probably never more clear than the two-part story “Human Nature/The Family of Blood.” In these, the Doctor opposes the “Family of Blood,” creatures that steal people’s bodies in order to live forever. They caused death, destruction, and heartbreak for the Doctor and the citizens of a small village while trying to steal the Doctor’s regeneration ability. Given the extreme pains caused by their pursuit of eternity, one can only nod at the Doctor’s final decree, which was described by one of the Family as follows:
He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why. Why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he’d run away from us and hidden. He was being kind.
He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains, forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there forever.
He still visits my little sister once a year every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her…He trapped her inside a mirror, every mirror…As for me, I was suspended in time. And the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector.
We wanted to live forever, so the Doctor made sure that we did.
Here more than anywhere one can see “the kindness and the severity” of the Doctor. Indeed, “The Family of Blood” includes one bit that sums this perfectly. A young boy, Tim Latimer, saw directly into the Doctor’s essence, and he came away with the following description when asked why he was, for a time, afraid of him:
Because I’ve seen him. He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.
The picture here is as much like Yahweh as the Doctor ever comes. It calls to mind Mr. Beaver’s description that Aslan is good but not safe. Certain biblical passages also come to mind, such as Exodus 34:6-7:
Yahweh…a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love…forgiving iniquity…But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
Another biblical description that seems similar is Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and I create darkness; I make peace and I create evil; I am Yahweh; I do all these things.” The latter chapters of Job and a number of psalms also leap to mind. With faith in God the one who made, sustains, governs, judges the world, Christians see that God is wonderful and terrible, kind and severe, working in the dew from heaven and the slime from below. Some of this is often hard to accept, but the Doctor provides a puny, quite imperfect model for the Christian imagination to see in God the union of true goodness and dreadful decrees.
Not Quite All Things
While “The Family of Blood” is probably one of the clearest instances of the Doctor taking on characteristics which in some sense point toward the God of Scripture (not even counting its quasi-incarnation), other instances demand notice. The childlike Eleventh Doctor sometimes delivered the harshest punishments. Most incarnations of the Doctor took it upon themselves to be defenders of goodness and justice throughout the universe and often acted as though they were the highest authority to do so. The Seventh and Twelfth Doctors were prone to constructing elaborate, behind-the-scenes plans with much risk and even loss, only to wrap up in a sweeping victory. No one should make this too close an analogy to divine providence, but even so, what the Doctor accomplishes with his great but finite power does seem to palely reflect, in a way the imagination can digest, what John Calvin said of God’s power in providence:
Faith is comforted…in relation to God’s power. First, because it knows that he has ample ability to do good. Thus, in order to further the salvation of believers he puts forth his hand to rule and govern all things; heaven and earth are his possession and domain, and every creature depends on his goodwill. Faith is comforted in the second place because it finds ample assurance in his protection, since whatever might do harm is subject to his will, and the devil and his devices are restrained as by a curb. Everything, in short, which might impede our salvation is subject to his control.
Of course, Doctor Who does make it clear that the Doctor, for all his godlike qualities, is truly a mortal man. He may be a Time Lord from Gallifrey who can live millennia longer than a human and cheat limits of time and space, but he cannot know everything. He cannot save everyone, even those he wants to save. His judgment is fallible, and there are forces beyond him. He is vulnerable and has more than a few vices.
For all these qualifications on the Doctor’s goodness, he is usually presented as genuinely good. His righteous wrath and painful plans are never divorced from this goodness, even if he sometimes goes the wrong way. In principle, the Doctor is good and not safe, kind and severe, strong in weakness. That he does often does this impurely, mixed with different errors and sins, must only point up to the world’s need. The world needs a Greater Doctor, Healer and Warrior, Father and Judge, free from limitation and error, worthy of perfect fear and love, God blessed forever.
The Big Picture (Continued)
A New Exodus
With Jesus in the grave and the disciples scattered, times looked for dark for God’s people. Indeed, God’s entire plan seemed in disarray. How could God win back the nations? The Messiah was dead. How could God renew His people? The new leaders had run away. It was like everything had stalled, the people of God stood before an bottomless sea, doom was imminent, and Satan would soon catch up and destroy them.
Yet God was not done. Three days after Jesus died, God raised Him from the dead. And, of course, this was no ordinary resuscitation. Not only was Jesus alive, but He was more alive than before, glorious and immortal and brimming with new power. God had raised His Son from the dead, overturning the verdicts of the Jews and Romans. So the sinners had killed the sinless Son, and now He stood justified while they stood condemned.
Jesus made it through death and hell, accusation and judgment, and came out fully alive with all authority in heaven and on earth. So He began teaching His disciples even more. They thought it was time to restore the kingdom to Israel. They expected imminent deliverance and vindication, a great victory leading to a world where Jesus reigned over every empire. Something like this was coming, for sure. The whole world was now their promised land. However, He explained, the timing and the power would not be what they expected.
A New Conquest
After a 40 day training session, Jesus left the disciples. He then ascended to the heavenly throne to rule everything and left them as His ambassadors. Heaven was annexing earth, and the disciples would be the witnesses to its people and rulers about the new Lord. God promised the nations to His Son, and it was time to conquer them.
The new conquest, however, would need more power than anything God’s people had attempted before. Fortunately, Jesus made this possible. His death cleansed His people from their sins: He suffered the fate they had earned and led them though safely to the other side. By His blood they were purified for God’s presence. But rather than simply granting them access to a location where they could come to God, God came to them. He came to live in them by sending the Holy Spirit to make them a new temple. Full of the Spirit, God’s people would have the power and support they needed to conquer the nations.
Immediately, the war began. Armed with the Sword of the Spirit, the apostles and Jesus’ other followers began cutting into people’s hearts. Thousands died in blood and water, saved to new life in God. This started within Israel as people who didn’t previously understand abandoned their other plans to accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. But it soon spread even to Gentiles. Even pagans saw the light of God’s people newly empowered. They glorified the Father in heaven who rescued them through Jesus from slavery to cruel and rebellious spirits. Gradually the other “gods” were cast down, bound up, and taken captive. The new army exorcised demons. Idolaters converted. Yahweh was taking back His world. Now the name “Lord” was for Jesus, not for Caesar, any pagan ruler, or even Satan.
As bright as the future looked with Christ’s resurrection, there were shadows in sight. For one, Israel at large was still guilty. Though many Jews accepted their promised Messiah, many more did not, especially the people in charge. Under the Torah, which they loved so much, they still deserved to die. So in a generation, God would send the Romans to tear down the Temple, just as He had once sent the Babylonians to do the same. The whole city of Jerusalem would be violated. Pagans would slaughter thousands throughout the land. And those faithful to God in Chris need to prepare for their escape.
But God’s sights were sight on the nations. God intended to clean Israel up precisely so He could move on in calling every people back to Himself. This would have to mean a confrontation between Him and the pagan gods the nations already worshiped. Especially, this meant a showdown between Jesus and Caesar. Pagan Rome would die; the kingdom Jesus established would grow and live on.
Eventually, though, the world itself would need to change. God’s glory through humanity demanded a final stage, a supreme perfection. Death must go, and all sin. Evil needs to be discarded so that peace and righteousness can reign everywhere and always. Death needs to go so that there can be unbroken life in God’s image in fellowship with Him. If God truly wishes to fill the world to the brim with His glory, everything which clashes with Him must go, including all sin and death. Not even the universal allegiance of the nations can take us this far. There will have to be a final stage where everything is new. Then God will be all in all.