Is Charity the Church's Job?

If you’ve ever talked to broadly conservative Christians in the US about politics, you’re likely to have heard the claim the title of this post refers to. Skeptical of government welfare programs, they often argue that charity—meeting the needs of the poor—is not the government’s job. The government has other duties, like justice and national defense. Charity is another job, for someone else. Specifically, many Christians argue that it is mostly the role of the Church. We shouldn’t need the government meddling in charity. Instead, that’s the Church’s job.
Admittedly, this sounds simple and reasonable at first. I’ve certainly thought it was correct in the past. But, thinking about it more, it now raises an important question.
What do we mean by “Church”?
There is more than one way to use the term “church.” To keep on topic, I’ll only highlight two possibilities here. When we speak of the “Church’s job,” we could mean either the people who make up Christ’s Body, or we could mean the assembled institutions, “churches,” which they form together. The mere existence of these two distinct possibilities drastically complicates the idea that welfare is “the Church’s job.”
If, by “Church,” we mean simply Christian persons, then it may be either true or false to say that charity is the Church’s job. It is true that we, as Christ’s people, ought to take care of the poor. But it would be wrong to say that it is our job especially or exclusively. Loving your neighbor as yourself, which includes charity, isn’t just for Christians. While we are the ones best equipped to rise up to this standard, since we have the Holy Spirit, the standard is universal.
This is a key point. Even though Christians are best suited to take care of the poor, and we as Christians can only hold each other accountable, the same ultimate standard applies to everyone. So, in this sense, the Church is responsible to care for the poor just like all humanity is. The only difference is that we have a special commitment and ability to do what God expects.
Now, what about the other possibility? When we’re talking about God’s people gathered together with an institutional form, is charity the “Church’s job”? The answer here seems to be a flat “No.” Throughout the New Testament, the concern of the institutional church is essentially ministry “by saints, for saints.” We come together, ordain people, and “do church” in order to worship corporately, to build each other up, and to meet each other’s needs, whether spiritual or physical. Like I said in another post, church is for the Church. The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes the institutional church’s need to care for its own, but never charges it with duties to the outside, except to be a faithful witness as necessary.
Now, this clearly doesn’t mean the institutional Church can’t do charity for outsiders. That would be a pretty radical notion. But the obligations extend only to church members. Deacons and elders and church ministries are only responsible as such for their fellow believers. If the people of a church wish to do more, by all means this is great to do. But it’s not their job per se.
So, is charity the Church’s job? While there is at least one sense in which this the answer is “yes,” it’s not the most helpful way of thinking about it. Charity is first and foremost a human job. Christians, of course, must take this especially seriously, since we are supposed to be the true humanity. But since it is a human job, it is a job we share with unbelievers. This means we, the people who are the Church, can and should work together with all people to do it. Whether we also work on the project as the institutional Church is optional.
But if, then, the apparent meaning of “Charity is the Church’s job” isn’t quite right, what does this say about the government’s role? Well, that could only be its own discussion. Suffice to say for now that, at least at the level of who and what the Church is, it’s a possibility. We can debate whether the government is really a good candidate for that work on other grounds. But it certainly wouldn’t be moving on the Church’s turf to do so.

Lewis on Atonement: Christ as Perfect Penitent

If you talk about C. S. Lewis in theological circles for more than 30 seconds, you are bound to run into talk of his views on the atonement. I myself have written an essay on the subject. But most of the material (my essay included) is about one of two things: either Aslan’s death in the Narnia series, or the following bit from Mere Christianity:

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make…If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense. On the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not.

To many, particularly Reformed Protestants, this causes plenty of consternation, or at least heated discussion. Some even tend to take this as a strike against Lewis’ orthodoxy (e.g. Kevin DeYoung’s treatment). I do not intend here to defend or attack these comments. (For the record, I think they’re quite defensible.) Rather, I would like to skip over them to address what many ignore in their shadow.
I found the rest of the chapter, though far less well-known, quite intriguing. After mentioning that there is certainly some sense in which Christ has “paid the penalty” or “footed the bill” for us, Lewis goes on to look into what kind of predicament we were in for Christ to come. He essentially starts by explaining total depravity. We were rebels who spent a lifetime training in rebellion. What we need is to repent. The only way out is “[l]aying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor.” But the problem is that we are too corrupt for that. To stop being wicked requires repentance, but repentance is too good an act for the wicked. Lewis puts it this way:

[I]t needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person–and he would not need it.

So, God could easily forgive us if we repented. That would be perfectly just. But repentance is itself a high, dark, and deathly task. It is a kind of death in itself. And it is a death too noble to be chosen by anyone but the best. No rotten sinner could ever do it.
Perhaps, if we need such goodness to repent, God in His goodness could help us do it. But another issue arises. How could a truly good God even teach the death that is repentance? He is immutable, perfect, timeless, impassible. Repentance is a thoroughly human act, not suitable to God’s divine nature.
This is where Lewis brings in Jesus. By the Incarnation, God is able to bring His goodness into the right human form to help us repent.

But supposing God became a man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.

The idea, then, is that God becomes a man to suffer and die on sin’s account, so that Jesus can lead us to the death of repentance ourselves. But this is not a Pelagian view. Jesus is not just an example to follow. Instead, as Lewis explains here and elsewhere, Jesus gives us access to His perfect repentance by His Spirit. Through faith, using the means of grace, we receive Jesus’ flawless work that makes us true penitents after His image. He becomes the Author and Finisher of our faith. It’s like a father holding the hand of his son to teach him to write.
So Jesus’ death becomes something of a confession, a vicarious repentance. By it Jesus affirms the Father’s verdict against our sin and accepts the hell that it takes to turn us from sin back to Him, where we find forgiveness and new life. This is not for His own sake, but for the sake of damned sinners whose role He takes on. By taking on that role, He makes it possible for us, by the Spirit, to have His penitence take root in our own lives and turn us back to God, who freely forgives.
It’s an interesting idea. Not perfect, mind you. I think classical penal substitution has more going for it than Lewis seems to have thought. But added dimensions and perspectives like this are undoubtedly valuable, and this overlooked aspect of Lewis’ thought demands a closer look.

A Fantastic Saga Everyone Should Read

Fantasy, when done well, is one of the best genres of story. (Though when done poorly, it can be among the worst.) Some works of fantasy deserve to be read by almost everyone. But there is one particular series which I truly think everyone ought to read. Indeed, it would be of enormous assistance to their understanding of the world. Rather than provide its name here, I want to give the a summary of the introduction/prologue material.
In the beginning of it all, there is a single Creator. By free choice, he makes a whole world, with both visible and invisible realms within it. He fills the invisible realm with countless spiritual beings, a portion of whom make up a supreme council over which He reigns as King. He also fills the visible realm with countless creatures of many kinds, but chief of these creatures is a race designed specifically to be like children to him. As King, he made them to become royal heirs, princes and princesses. He also designed them to be his priests, serving his honor and filling the world with his worship and glory. By work and play, worship and gratitude, life and love, their job was to make everything beautiful to honor his beauty.
This race, however, was not ready for this job immediately. They had to learn, train, and grow up to wisdom and maturity. So the Creator put some of the spiritual counselors over them until the time was right. He also placed a symbol of wisdom and kingship in the center of the home he had made for them. When the time came, they would take hold of it and truly, fully become royal and priestly representatives of the Creator in the visible realm.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. One of their spiritual counselors, in fact the highest member of the council under the Creator himself, grew proud. He opposed the Creator’s plan, thinking himself wiser, and decided to strike out on his own way. So he tricked the first couple. With clever words, he poisoned their minds against the Creator’s command. He encouraged them to take the authority before their time, to become judges in their own time on their own wisdom. By deception, he confused the woman, and the man followed her lead. They broke their probation and found themselves in rebellion against the Creator. When the Creator found them, he stripped them of their privilege, cast them out into an unprepared world, and took away the immortality which belonged to his household.
Things only got worse from there. The next generation saw murder, and before long the world was filled with violence. This went so far as to involve the cooperation and even cross-breeding of the Creator’s invisible and visible enemies, turning the world even more deadly. So he wiped out everything except for a few who still obeyed him. The world was new again, and the race started over. But once again, over time, they turned rebellious. The Creator challenged their rebellion again and scattered them across the world.
Many of the spiritual beings in the Creator’s council had followed the chief when he turned against the Creator. They took advantage of their governing role over the Creator’s visible people. With supernatural powers and displays of strength, they encouraged the scattered peoples to worship and fear them. Over time, they were viewed almost as equals to the Creator, alternative deities who were more accessible. People began to seek all of their needs—food, rain, peace, fertility—from the treasonous counselors instead of the Creator.
Finally, the Creator took action for a more permanent solution to this rebellion. He chose one faithful man from an unfaithful city and promised him an inheritance. Land, blessings, descendants, even kings: the Creator would use these to make a secondary race, a race-within-a-race, who would be his people and fulfill the original purpose of his creatures. But it would be a long road, and the problems of both the invisible and visible realms would conspire to keep these people from being the witness to the Creator that he meant for them to be. The question from them on: how will the Creator preserve this people and use them to restore true balance, worship, and goodness to both the invisible and visible realms? What will he have to do? Just how close will he have to get into the fray?
In case it’s not blindingly obvious, this is a synopsis of the beginning of the true fantasy. This Creator is our God, this world our world, this race our humanity. This story is Genesis 1-16. Unlike fantasy as a genre of fiction, this is all real. All of this actually happened, and it’s the story we’re living in. But I like this idea of framing it as a fantasy series. It highlights aspects and aesthetic elements of the biblical story that we tend to miss when we’re on about our normal reading and preaching. So give it some thought. Try reading more of the Bible with this in mind. You may find it sheds new light on a few things.

Unchangingly Alive

“I the Lord do not change.” So declared God in Malachi 3:6. The doctrine of immutability, that God is completely changeless, has always been a staple of Christian theology. Unfortunately, like all such staples, it has made many enemies in the last couple centuries. More than a few theologians and philosophers like to argue that God does change in some ways. Sometimes it seems fairly harmless. They say that the Bible obviously shows God changing His mind, or His feelings, or His nature (e.g. by becoming man). But more than this, a few argue that a changeless God would actually be bad.
How does that argument work? The idea is that complete immutability is incompatible with life. Only dead things stay the same; living things constantly change and move. This often connects with the idea that God undergoes time. Changes happen in time, and some people argue, again, that a timeless God is static, trapped, and lifeless. A timeless, changeless God is a dead God.
This could not be further from the truth. The whole idea forgets two basic realities. First, it forgets what makes change good. Change in the created world is good because we have limits. The way God made us, we have enormous potential, but at any one time, we can only use so much of it. Time and change make it possible for us to grow and develop from potential to fulfillment. A college student learning French may not have time to learn fatherhood. That’s okay: time and change make both possible. A third-world missionary may have to leave behind his YouTube Bible studies, but both activities are part of his life over time. Time and change give tiny humans the chance to make the most of the abilities God gives them.
This is why people are tempted to connect changelessness with deadness. When a human stops changing, he stops fulfilling his unrealized potential. Maybe James could be a great explorer, but if he never leaves his mom’s basement, he stagnates. When someone dies, everything in their life that was in progress stops in its tracks. The end of change is, for created things with limits, the end of life.
We make a mistake, though, if we think of God the same way. The second thing people forget when they’re scared to have an unchanging God is that God is infinite. He has no unfulfilled potential, ever. With no limits of time or resources, God is always everything He can be at once. I may not have room to be a perfect father and a perfect writer at the same time, but God’s infinity means He fulfills all of His potential all of the time. This is why it’s so good to know that God never changes. For a Being who fully and completely expresses all of His perfections simultaneously, the only change could be to cut back and be less completely active. An unchanging God is a God who is at His highest and best at every moment without fail or exception.
This is the essential difference between finitude and infinity. If I become changeless, I lose myself. The moment I stop changing is the moment I stop growing as a husband, a father, an author, etc. But God is the opposite. He is always already the perfect Husband, Father, and Author. For God, the moment He starts changing is the moment He becomes less than everything He already was. He can never do this. If God was infinitely perfect before, He there is nowhere to go that would be different—a real change—except down.
So, for God, to never change is to be unchangeably alive. Our immutable God is not dead. The timeless Lord is not stagnant. He always and forever is and does everything He could and should be. Glory to Him!

Jacob I Loved, Esau I Hated

Not long ago, I was reading Malachi when I was struck by a verse commonly quoted in the Calvinist circle. In Malachi 1:2b-3a, God tells Israel, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” The Apostle Paul later cites this in Romans 9:13. Calvinists often deploy it as evidence of individual, unconditional election. It seems exactly the point: God chose to save Jacob and damn Esau of His own will.
However, the context in Malachi 1 suggested that this may not be the particular meaning of the verse. In Malachi 1, God begins criticizing Israel by reminding her of her election in contrast to her neighboring nation, Edom. Here, the argument certainly uses the two peoples in a corporate sense. Israel must remember her election in light of Edom, a people God is about to destroy.
The place of this reminder—”I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated”—sets up a comparison between the two peoples. God tells Israel to remember His electing love for them. Then He follow with a ruthless condemnation of their worship. Indeed, He seems to prophesy for them the same end as Edom. He ends His brief prophecy against Edom by claiming that Israel with see God’s greatness beyond her borders. Likewise, He repeatedly warns Israel that His name is great among the nations. A judgment day is coming. God will glorify His name to all people by punishing the wicked masses in Israel, just as with Edom. All this, despite the love for which He chose Israel.
How, then, does citing Malachi fit in the context of Paul’s argument? Paul is defending his claim that, post-Christ, God’s covenant people are defined by their faith in the Messiah rather than by old markers of Torah and descent. To many Jews, this seems unfaithful. How can God kick out people zealous for the Law and their ancestry while bringing in Gentiles? In response, Paul points out that God has always reshaped the limits of His people as He pleased. Ishmael was a child of Abraham, but the covenant continued only through Isaac. Esau was a child of Isaac, but the covenant continued only through Jacob.
At this point, Paul cites Malachi. “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” The connection should be apparent. In Malachi, God chose Israel, but since she was unfaithful, He would judge her like wicked Edom. Through this judgment, God would glorify His name among the nations. The context in Romans 9-11 is an excellent parallel. God chose Israel, but since she was unfaithful, ultimately in murdering God’s Son, He would judge her like wicked Pharaoh. Through this last judgment, God would glorify His name among the nations.
This all actually happened historically, just like in Malachi’s day. Once the Jews rejected the Gospel, God set aside much of the Israelite clay as vessels of wrath to reveal His power and glory to the world. It worked. After waiting patiently 40 years, God destroyed the vessels of wrath in AD 70. The vessels of mercy who escaped become lights to the Gentiles. The Gospel spread like wildfire, and within a couple centuries the surrounding nations submitted to Jesus Christ.
This reading of the way Paul uses Malachi is not, then, directly about individual election. Instead, it’s about God’s people and their dire situation in the face of impending judgment. I think this makes good sense in context and adds force to Paul’s argument. Note as well that this reading doesn’t oppose the Calvinist doctrine of election. On the contrary, it works with or without it. It is possible to keep an individual, unconditional election on other grounds even with this reading of Romans 9. Given how smoothly this reading integrates the Malachi quote, this option seems preferable.

Is heresy a meaningful concept for Protestants?

[A recent post of mine on Reddit.]
Inspired by yesterday’s thread on heresies Christians can or can’t believe and u/peasantcore’s comment on it, I’d like to question the usefulness/legitimacy of the notion of heresy for Protestants.
Heresy usually is defined in terms of crossing a doctrinal boundary of a religion, in our case the Christian religion. But, at least for Protestants, this could mean one of two things:

  1. Heresy could pertain chiefly to church fellowship and discipline, so that it excludes heretics from church assembly without necessarily being about their salvation. (Though perhaps we may be able to make inferences about their spiritual state.) So heresy is about the borders of the visible Church.
  2. Heresy could pertain chiefly to the doctrinal content of saving faith, so that it refers to beliefs which always or ordinarily exclude a person from salvation. We might also excommunicate heretics, but the definition and nature of heresy is independent of church discipline. So heresy is about the borders of the invisible Church.

Now, both of these raise problems for Protestants in different ways.
The problem with (1) should be fairly obvious. People like to talk about orthodoxy and heresy as though the terms have some objective and binding force over all who claim the name “Christian,” but if (1) is true, then each church or denomination has its own set of orthodox and heretical doctrines depending on their rules for discipline. So I can call Nestorianism “heresy,” since my church might discipline in accordance with Chalcedon, but there is no reason for a member of a Nestorian church to care. We can debate all day over who is right, but charges of heresy on either side have no weight since neither is subject to the other’s standards of fellowship and discipline.
Some might try to make a modified form of (1) in which heresy can apply to “mere Christianity,” consisting of doctrines which would exclude one from the communion of all Christian churches, but this would have to beg the question regarding what counts as a Christian church. Just as Protestants reject the anathemas of Trent as defining the boundaries of the whole visible Church, so may Unitarians and Nestorians protest that the anathemas of Nicea and Chalcedon do not actually express the judgment of the whole Church.
Moreover, there is the problem of interpreting ostensible ecumenical standards. If a Lutheran church and a Reformed church each charge the other with violating Chalcedon, there is no one to say which, if either, is right about the boundaries of the visible Church. So not even an ecumenical approach to (1) seems possible.
It seems that without a central authority, we can’t use (1) to construct a notion of heresy that has any objective and normative force as on all who claim to be Christians. If one church calls them a heretic, they can always find another to judge them orthodox. Since under (1), heresy is actually defined by discipline, no one can judge between disciplinary practice, only in the truth or falsehood of the doctrines. We might be able to show that modalism is false, but to call it heresy does nothing except make modalists form their own churches.
But this brings us to (2), which has its own set of problems. On the surface, it seems to solve a key problem with (1) by making heresy an objective matter. Instead of referring to ecclesial judgments, which vary, it refers to an objective standard of what doctrines make saving faith impossible.
What, I think, is the most obvious problem with (2) is that, if such a universal standard exists, it cannot be sufficiently known. To say that a certain doctrine is damnable can only be done on divine authority, for which we need teaching from Scripture. But there are very, very few doctrines on which Scripture clearly teaches that salvation depends. Scripture tells us, for example, that salvation requires us to affirm God’s existence, justice, power, and faithfulness, along with Jesus’ being Lord and the Son of God. It requires belief in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the future resurrection. It also damns Galatianism and Docetism.
This list may seem impressive, but it leaves little of what we generally call heresy under the category of clearly damnable. Many Trinitarian errors, for example, can be disproved by Scripture, but it is more difficult to prove which ones will damn. I’m sure, for example, that lots of lay Christians ignorantly think of the Trinity in tritheistic, modalistic, or subordinationist ways, but it would be impossible to prove from Scripture that they are all going to hell. Likewise, you can prove from Scripture that Christ is God and man, but you can’t easily show that the monothelite view of how this works will bring on God’s wrath. So it seems that much of what has generally been judged heretical by the Church could not be proved to be so under the terms of (2).
One might also try to amend (2) to make exceptions for ignorance (not every lay person can be expected to know that it’s heretical to deny Christ’s two wills), but this raises questions about how it works in the first place. If saving faith needs a certain constellation of doctrines to be saving faith, then ignorance of one would seem hardly different from ignorance of the Gospel in general, and thus not excusable (unless we’re inclusivists). On the other hand, if a particular doctrine is not strictly necessary for saving faith, then we cannot call it heresy under the terms of (2).
I could also address the issue that (2) simply seems implausible inasmuch as there are good reasons to doubt that true faith necessarily depends upon certain intellectual affirmations, but I discussed this in yesterday’s thread.
So, given the issues with (1) and (2), it seems that the only way to maintain a concept of heresy which is both clearly definable and had universal normative force is to integrate the ecclesiological and soteriological conceptions of heresy, by making exclusion from the visible and the invisible Church the same thing, that is, to adopt a Roman view of the Church, Wich is obviously not permissible for Protestants. Otherwise we are either left with a definition of heresy that cannot be universally normative—it has no teeth outside a specific church—or one that is impossible to define with any certainty or precision.
This is not, of course, a relativistic conclusion. We could still speak of doctrines as being false, identify degrees of severity in false doctrine, and even have ecclesial standards for doctrine, but we would not have a useful place for the language of heresy against orthodoxy.
Thoughts?

Pleasure

I love the sensation of chocolate ice cream. Especially when it has chips and chunks and ripples. The more chocolate variety, the better. I am capable of consuming strangely large bowls of this delightful dessert. And the word for the experience: pleasure.
A lot of Christians generally have an awkward relationship with pleasure. We spend a lot of time, for example, warning against letting earthly pleasures get in the way of your faithfulness to God. On the other hand, we also affirm that all good things—including pleasure—are a gift from God. To some, the term “pleasure” itself has sinful connotations, whereas other hear the word as neutral or good. Marketing people like to use “sinful” as a positive adjective for pleasure, to show that something is really pleasurable.
God is, contrary to some beliefs, not anti-pleasure. After all, pleasure is His own invention. He made all things in this world that we enjoy and our ability to enjoy them. But there are lots of ways to misunderstand what that means for us. Recently, I’ve given some thought to basic kinds of pleasure and their role in the Christian life. Pleasures like food, alcohol, and sex tend to be important parts of life, for better or worse. So how exactly do we turn them for the better?
Honestly, my wisdom is limited. These are thorny topics that Christians (and other people) have been wrestling with for centuries. I can’t give all the answers. But a few things have occurred to me lately that seem to line up both with Scripture and what I see in the world around me.
Every pleasure has multiple purposes. Pleasure itself is one of the purposes, but usually God gifts pleasure to lead us to things that we need for other reasons. Food, for example, nourishes our bodies. Meals also tend to nourish our relationships with family or friends. People bond when they break bread. Eating points us to our dependence on God: since we can’t live without refilling our stomachs each day, we more easily remember that we rely on the One who feeds all creatures for our very existence. In a similar way, every kind of pleasure is designed for more than one end.
Pleasures are better perfected by serving more purposes, and they lose their worth by serving fewer. To go back to the food example, food is at its worst when it serves nothing but your tastebuds. Without the nutrition, the fellowship, and the gratitude to God, you have only gluttony. Or consider alcohol. Scripture tends to associate it with maturity, celebration, fellowship, royalty, and the like. A glass of wine at a royal wedding feast symbolizes the perfected pleasure of alcohol. On the other hand, a drunk youth pacifying his misery alone is alcohol at its lowest.
A, or the, highest end of any pleasure is love. This is why feasting, drinking, and sex are all tied biblically to relationships. Feasting is primarily for households or communities. Sex is for two people alone in the most intimate and exclusive of settings. But both belong in the contexts of those relationships. Feasting alone is gluttony, and sexual pleasure alone is pathetic. By keeping pleasures focused on the relationships to which they belong, we keep them oriented toward love. And love, of both the God who crafted all pleasures and the people with whom we share them, is what everything is about.
Finally, legalism is a bad idea. You should not take anything I wrote here as a checklist. I am not saying you should stop half-dressed at the bedpost to check with your wife if you’re fulfilling all of the purposes of sex. Just remember that pleasures are a gift from God, but they don’t exist solely for their own sake. There is a lot going on with any pleasure. Our job is simply to receive them with thanksgiving, enjoying them as we use them to serve as best as possible our neighbors and our God.

Other Nifty Blogs

In doing some minor site updates the other day, I noticed that my “Other Nifty Blogs” menu (currently located in a sidebar) was a bit out of date. Obviously, I had to immediately fix it. So now I have a more current blog list that better reflects what I read these days.
But today I decided that’s not good enough. I should also briefly summarize what each of these blogs is good for. That might be more helpful, so here you go:

  • Alastair’s Adversaria — Probably my favorite blog overall, I suspect Alastair Roberts is the best English-speaking theology writer out alive today. I say that with few, if any, reservations. He is thoughtful, balanced, reserved, careful, brilliant, insightful, wise, and a bunch of other dignified adjectives. There is probably no better source for Christian social analysis, and his handling of hermeneutics and biblical typology is solid, too.
  • Reformedish — Derek Rishmawy is a fairly normal human being (with a great beard) who loves Reformed theology and being level-headed about everything. He’s relentlessly amicable and balanced, and he’s great with puns. And while I don’t always read book reviews, his are almost always worth it.
  • Mere Orthodoxy — Mere Orthodoxy has a number of contributors, many of whom are one-off guests. But both the guests and the regulars contribute consistently high-quality reflections on theology, politics, and culture. They’re big on charity, nuanced thought, good-natured debate, and gentle but sharp admonitions.
  • Bradford Littlejohn — Brad Littlejohn is a great source for solid Reformation political theology. He works mainly with concepts common to the early Reformers and sometimes the wider historical Church. His specialties seem to be the two kingdoms, Richard Hooker, private property, and sharp analysis of contemporary political behaviors and movements.
  • The Davenant Institute Blog — The Davenant Institute is awesome, dedicated to retrieving the best and often forgotten riches of the classical Protestant tradition. Less flashy but theologically valuable Reformers like John Davenant, Richard Hooker, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Zacharias Ursinus, Martin Bucer, and more receive special attention. Expect to hear a lot about Reformed Thomism, classical theism, and other good stuff here. (P.S. Their president is Brad Littlejohn.)
  • The Calvinist International — The Calvinist International is partnered with and rather similar to the Davenant Institute. But they also have Steven Wedgeworth, an excellent thinker, and tons of good stuff on natural law, metaphysics, the early church, and more. A decent amount of material defends classical Protestantism against Catholicism, Orthodoxy, random haters, and some radical modern movements which claim to be Reformed.
  • Apologia Pro Ortha Doxa — I don’t visit here terribly often anymore, but it’s really interesting. Kabane52 (I believe the real name is Seraphim Hamilton) is an Orthodox blogger with a lot of love for the Protestant writers James Jordan and Peter Leithart. It’s hard to say how much I agree with, but you’re in for lots of stimulating reading about topics like biblical typology, creation, the essence/energies debate, the role of philosophy in theology, and more.
  • Think Theology — This blog is primarily run by Andrew Wilson, a member of the Mere Fidelity podcast with Alastair Roberts and Derek Rishmawy. He’s a British evangelical on the Charismatic side of things, and while he’s not my go-to for much, he’s smart, mission-minded, and fun.
  • Reformissio — This blog is all I would really recommend for Evangelical Calvinism reading, as I’m less and less convinced that many of these people have anything meaningful to say. But Jonathan Kleis is a missionary to heavily Catholic Italy, and the perspective that gives him is really worth reading.
  • P.OST — The mission of P.OST is to radically reframe the way we read the Bible to better correspond to the story the authors thought they were living in. It promotes a self-described “narrative-historical hermeneutic” which privileges the on-the-ground social, political, and historical events understood to be the primary subject of most of Scripture. There is a lot here to make evangelicals nervous (myself included), especially with Christology and the Trinity, but the trade-off is extremely close attention to the biblical narrative on its own terms. For all my concerns, Andrew Perriman has in many ways enhanced and enriched my understanding of what’s going on in the New Testament storyline.
  • Tales of Teretz — This is a project I occasionally work on when I’m bored. Don’t expect too much out of it.

The Two Kingdoms and Christian Politics: 5 Keys

Few topics are as controversial as politics. For Christians in particular, we sometimes argue almost as much about how, or even whether, we should be involved in politics as we do any specific views. Some Christians think that we need to fight political battles to stand up for the Bible. To others, politics is a demonic system that no child of God should have any part in. Some think it’s a distraction from the Great Commission, while others think that it’s part of the Great Commission. Many of these disagreements were especially vivid during the 2016 election. Two years later, a lot of Christians are still confused. Is there any way forward?
I don’t think anyone can directly answer everything. That said, I do believe in some basic principles. These won’t tell us exactly how to handle every situation, but they give us somewhere to start. We find these principles in the classical Protestant doctrine of Christ’s two kingdoms. These keys, I suspect, will unlock for us a world of wisdom, if we seek only to be faithful in our political witness.

Key 1: Christ rules in two ways

The doctrine of the two kingdoms sometimes goes by the “two governments,” and this is for good reason. It’s not really about different places or spheres in which Christ rules, but about the ways He rules. For Jesus, as we all know, is Lord. The Father has given Him all authority in heaven and on earth. But this authority comes on us in two fundamentally different ways. These ways are what we call the two governments, or two kingdoms.
On one hand, by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is always present with us. He is within is, and we are before Him. So everything we do is immediately in His presence, where He can judge, command, and put obligations on our conscience. At the end of it all, He is the only Lord to whom we are truly accountable. His authority can overturn any judgment proclaimed by mere earthly judges, courts, bishops, pastors, deacons, or churches. This is an inward and invisible kind of rule. It has no mediator, but instead is directly between a Christian and Christ. Our standing here is strictly by faith, apart from anything external, since He sees through it all and judges the heart. All of this describes the spiritual kingdom.
On the other hand, Jesus also is away. He reigns in heaven, separated from our visible time and space. So, within this visible realm, Jesus also rules through visible figures. He allows parents, teachers, pastors, kings, and legislators to represent His authority in our daily lives. Luther described these figures as “masks” which Christ wears. They wield authority over the outward and visible matters of life. Only Jesus’ own gaze can pierce your heart and see its trust or rebellion, but earthly authorities can make sure that, whatever the state of our hearts, we don’t cause much trouble. They might (should?) want and try to push your heart in the right direction, but their authority itself is only external. None of their commands or teachings have the full force of those from Jesus, so He remains a final appeal. These authorities, then, make up the temporal kingdom.

Key 2: The temporal kingdom is limited

When it comes down to eternity, what matters is our standing before God. This, as you will remember, is a matter of the spiritual kingdom. No one but Jesus has the final say, and His verdict cuts through everything visible to the depths of the heart. No earthly authorities have any power over the ultimate question: are you in the right with God? They can decide neither how God regards you nor how you regard God.
Because of this, the direct effects of authorities in the temporal kingdom are limited to earthly matters, the stuff of this life. The government cannot (i.e. it’s not possible) use its power to stop you from hating your brother, but a cop can restrain you from ending his earthly life. A pastor can’t use church discipline to bend a selfish, lustful heart into a pure one, but he can keep a womanizer from the Communion table. Now, the pastor may want to help such a man become pure in heart, but his authority can’t make it happen. He can only serve the truth of the Word, and then it is between the man and Jesus.
In addition to limited ability, the authorities in the temporal kingdom have limited authority. Since they cannot know and cannot do everything that matters, they cannot stand directly for Jesus. They only represent Him up to a point. They can’t make absolute demands except to repeat those of Christ. Their judgments are not unquestionable, since Jesus can overturn them. They cannot say, beyond what God Himself has revealed, that certain beliefs and actions will send you to heaven or hell. In short, they cannot bind your conscience. Only God can do that.

Key 3: Politics has a legitimate place in human (and Christian) life

Building on what we have already seen, we can work on the place of politics in the Christian life. First, it’s important to define “politics.” A lot of Christians (and other people) start off wrong about politics because they don’t get what it really is at heart. Politics comes from the Greek word politika, which in turn comes from polis, or “city.” Politika simply means the business of the polis, and polis can be broad enough to refer to any community or group of people.
So, basically, to quote Wikipedia, “Politics is the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.”
Politics is basically a bigger version of what a family does when they sit down to talk finances, chores, and schedules. Instead of one household handling its business, many households are working on their shared business. There can be roads that need repairs, crime that needs to be punished, or a famine that’s causing starvation. Some things in life affect more than one household. Politics is just a word for handling them.
Given this definition, Christians obviously need to do politics. This doesn’t mean we must jump in to every kind of politics, but every Christian household should work together their neighbors for everyone’s benefit. We can’t love our neighbors if we stay out of any issue that affect lots of them at once. Even if we decided to sit out, say, a national election, we should do what we can to help the people we see every day whose lives are affected by community happenings.

Key 4: Politics can only serve limited goals

Understanding the nature of the temporal kingdom should help us realize that politics’ legitimate role is also a highly limited one. Politics is entirely a matter of the temporal kingdom. It exists for the sake of this life, for earthly justice, order, and sustenance. The power of government is purely external, the power of the sword, and it as such it can only serve external purposes.
This should give us some clarity. When people argue for a separation of church and state, or point out that they don’t/shouldn’t advance the kingdom of God through politics, they have a point. Politics can’t change hearts. You cannot coerce faith by law and punishment. So we should not even think it makes sense to use politics for evangelism, or think that political activity can directly serve the Gospel. The power of the kingdom of God is the power of Word and Spirit, not the sword.
But this doesn’t mean politics is useless or opposed to Gospel work. By no means! Politics can serve the Gospel in an indirect way by sticking to its actual use: keeping human society in decent shape. Chaos, anarchy, crime, poverty, starvation, and the like are problems. They are obstacles to the tasks God has given us, like the cultural mandate and the Great Commission. And they are causes of suffering, which Christian love and mercy demand that we alleviate. Often they involve suffering caused by some person sinning against another, in which case justice also demands that the sword of government be used against the offender.

Key 5: Christianity explains the best ways to achieve earthly good

So, with this in mind, politics is good to use for the sake of earthly goods. You might suspect that this supports a strict separation of religion from politics, but that would be a mistake. See, even just on the earthly level, different people have different ideas about what is good for human flourishing. Many of these are simply wrong.
Hypothetically, anyone can know most of what is best for a human person with respect to our earthly lives by diligently studying human nature and our place in creation. This being possible at all is why almost all cultures agree on most of the basics. But, because of sin and our finite minds, every person and every culture gets some of it wrong. Some get a lot wrong. And getting this wrong in politics is like a surgeon with a confused picture of what a healthy human body looks like. It can only lead to disaster.
This is where, as Christians, we have something “special” to contribute. We have special revelation, the Scriptures. Scripture contains, among other things, infallible teachings about human nature and what is good for us. This includes our earthly good as much as it does heaven. And while we could theoretically learn nearly everything about our earthly good by reason, Scripture makes an impeccable “cheat sheet.” It may be hard, for example, for people accustomed to modern ways of thinking to discover by reason alone why we should limit sex to permanent, heterosexual marriage, but Scripture assures us that this is the case. We could learn the same thing by rationally studying human nature, but Scripture tells us in advance. Thus we have a trustworthy statement from the Architect of human nature.
The conclusion of this, then, is that Christians can unashamedly appeal to objective truth about human nature which we have learned from Scripture. (Not to mention the large body of developed social and political thought in the Christian tradition based on Scripture and reason.) We can use this truth for helping us do politics in way that will actually benefit our neighbors. If we leave this task only to people outside the Church, or check what we know from divine revelation at the door, then governments can only be blind guides. They try to operate on the body that is society despite serious misunderstandings of how that body works or what it looks like in good health.

Conclusion

The practical takeaway from this is actually pretty simple. Politics is a necessary work, and even can be a good one. It is also limited in power and purpose. Politics can and should serve earthly needs related to justice, order, and the overall well-being of our neighbors. Since our neighbors need these things, we as Christians should serve them in love. We can’t think that doing this is a kind of evangelism. Nor can we confuse it with the Gospel work of proclaiming the Word in the power of the Spirit. But for merely temporal concerns, we can use our privileged knowledge about human nature to do a better job keeping the affairs of this life in shape, simply because our neighbors need us to.

Was There Regeneration before the New Covenant?

Yesterday, on the r/Reformed subreddit, I was given the opportunity to participate in a debate on one of my favorite idiosyncratic topics: is regeneration new to the New Covenant? I depart from the standard Reformed view by saying it is. So for anyone who may, for some reason, be interested in my initial argument, I’m copying it here. If you also would like to see the rest of the debate, here’s the Reddit link.

Regeneration Is New to the New Covenant

My position: regeneration/the new birth is a blessing unique to New Covenant. This ties into several other topics, so I will start by citing the main biblical texts which have shaped my view, and then I will proceed to make clarifications and answer possible objections.
The Bible consistently associates regeneration with the coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant. Titus 3:4-5 speaks of how we received the washing of regeneration “when the kindness and love for mankind of God our Savior appeared,” which in context is a clear reference to Christ’s coming and work. Matthew 19:28 uses the term “the regeneration” itself to refer to kingdom era coming by means of His work. 1 Peter 1:3 tells us that we were born again “though the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” James 1:18 says that God chose to give us new birth so that we could be “first fruits of his creatures,” that is, part of the new creation which was established by Christ’s resurrection.
This evidence is also present in the Old Testament prophecies regarding the New Covenant. Ezekiel 36:26-27 prophesies a new heart and new spirit, God’s Spirit, in His people, with the clear (especially in context) implication that they do not have it yet. This prophecy is connected with return from Exile, clearly something that was still future at the time. Jeremiah 31 has the most explicit connection of regeneration with the New Covenant:

“Look, the days are coming,” declares Yahweh, “and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors on the day of my grasping them by their hand, bringing them out from the land of Egypt, my covenant that they themselves broke, though I myself was a master over them,” declares Yahweh.
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares Yahweh: “I will put my law in their inward parts and on their hearts I will write it, and I will be to them God, and they themselves will be to me people.”

Here the giving of regeneration, the new heart of the new birth, is promised as the New Covenant solution to the old problem of Israel’s repeated apostasy.
Given these texts, which make up in fact the majority of what the Bible explicitly says about regeneration, it seems there is a strong prima facie case that regeneration is new to the New Covenant. The idea that it is also present in the Old Testament relies not on the direct testimony of Scripture on regeneration, but on a handful of paper-thin inferences. These inferences usually start from a couple of false assumptions.
First, if regeneration is understood to refer to the act by which the Spirit elicits faith in the elect (as it is often defined), it obviously could not be new to the New Covenant, since faith existed even in the Old Testament. Either regeneration has been around as long as faith has, or OT believers actually had Pelagius power to come to faith on their own. But this identification of regeneration with the creation of faith is itself devoid of all biblical support. The Spirit is the one who brings forth faith, but this is not what “regeneration” refers to.
Next, John 3 is often appealed to as proof that regeneration existed in the Old Testament. If no one can enter the Kingdom of God without the new birth, then either regeneration has been around since nearly the beginning, or no one was ever saved until Jesus came along. But this, among other problems, misunderstands Jesus’ “Kingdom of God” language. To see or enter the “Kingdom of God” is not to go to heaven, or more generally to experience saving grace, or anything so general that applies to all of the history of the faithful. On the contrary, “Kingdom of God” is very explicitly something new in redemptive-history. Jesus said that the Kingdom was at hand, or coming soon, or now here, on numerous occasions, not that it had been here all along. The Kingdom of God is the part of redemptive history where God begins taking back His rule over the nations, which He had disinherited and left to other other gods at Babel. When Jesus says that no one will see or enter the Kingdom without the new birth, the point isn’t a point of general soteriology application to all times and conditions of believers, but rather a point about redemptive history, a point about who will enter the life in the Kingdom which Jesus was at that very time establishing.
This brings me to the next important point, namely that regeneration itself belongs more to the historia salutis than to the ordo salutis. It applies to both, but the primary reference is the new event and new reality of the new creation which was established by Christ’s work, particularly His resurrection. Israel, as Jeremiah had lamented, had been constantly falling into sin, idolatry, and all kinds of error. The solution to this was to give her a new birth, a new heart with the law written in living flesh rather than on stone. This living flesh is the flesh of Christ raised from death. By introducing a new ontology of eternal, indestructible life, the power of sin to lead into apostasy can be broken, enabling God’s reborn people to maintain a consistent and faithful presence until the Kingdom has fully come.
The personal, ordo salutis aspect of regeneration, then, is not the creation of faith, or even the tinkering with the soul to make it more godly, but the giving of the Spirit to dwell in the heart. As the prophecies cited earlier make clear, along with some other evidence in the New Testament, the new heart of the new creation in regeneration is closely associated with the new spirit, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit poured out by Christ. The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost gave Israel rebirth as the Church, and individual believer is born again when he receives the Spirit, who unites him to the risen Christ. This gives him a source of resurrection power, a new ontology that will climax in the resurrection of the body but in the meantime gives limitless energy toward sanctification and the renewal of his whole person in the image of Christ. The lack of this sealing Spirit, this down payment guaranteeing resurrection, is precisely what left Israel to fall repeatedly into apostasy, and the presence of the Spirit in the heart of the New Covenant believer is precisely what enables the Church and the Christian to persevere so that the gates of Hell will not prevail, and that all things will finally be renewed in Christ.