Returning Richly from Exile (Summer’s Here)

Well, after a two-month partially unintentional hiatus, I’m back. I had a great deal of work and writing to do for school these past many weeks, and combined with my other responsibilities I’ve had almost no time for blogging. Fortunately, I’ve now submitted the last of my papers for the semester, and I’m free to blog again.

At this particular moment, I don’t have any fresh things to post, but I will shortly. A number of ideas have been percolating since I last wrote, and most of them I imagine will find expression sson enough. In the meantime, I have retooled my Essays page on the top of the blog. It now includes PDFs of all my essays, except the informal ones, and is a faster load for finding things. Of particular note are the new batch of papers I’ve written for the semester. I’ll let you look at them on your own, but I’ll highlight my paper on regeneration for my Reformation theology class, as I think it turned out the best. Check out the other essays, too, though, to see if any pique your interest.

On another note, this is not truly my first post since I finished my papers. My real first post is on my other blog, Being in Christ, and is dedicated to a friend of mine who has received some fairly awful medical news. I mention it because she needs all the prayers she can have, and I imagine that perhaps someone else is struggling with similar terrors. So consider checking that out, too.

Big Changes (I’m Starting a New Blog, For Example)

I started this blog over three years ago now. A lot has changed since then, even though a lot has also stayed the same. But for the entire time, I have had to deal with a tension in my blogging style and content. I’ve been torn all this time between my desire to essentially write to my family, friends, and general church community—on the popular/lay level—and my desire to explore more technical and detailed theological topics in a more academic style. For the most part I have tried to balance these concerns, which has led to some major successes here and there. But it has also, I think, kept many posts from reaching their full potential, as I try to temper the depth of my more theological posts while still trying to remain interesting for the academically inclined.

After spending much time with this tension, I’m finally taking a new step to solve it. I’m splitting my blogging efforts into two blogs. This one, my old friend, will be entirely rebuilt and reoriented to fit my more technical and academic writing, and I’m launching a new blog, Being in Christ, to host my other, more popular-level stuff.

How all of this works and plays out will be seen soon. I don’t know exactly what effect this split will have, but I hope/expect it to improve the quality of both kinds of posts, and possibly the quantity as well. I can only pray that God will also use this to benefit both me and you guys, my readers. It’s been a fun run in my traditional format, but if you’re not so interested in my deeper stuff, feel free to replace your bookmark or email subscription with http://calebinchrist.tk.

Only God knows what’s in my writing future. But I’m ready to find out. God bless until then!

What Caleb Believes, If You’re Interested

For my two theology classes this semester, I had to write a 10-12 page paper in each detailing what I believe about a mostly comprehensive set of doctrines. Naturally, I was a little to elaborate and ended to with 33 pages between the two of them, but it was a very enjoyable and clarifying experience.

So, for the fun of anyone here, I’m posting the combined credo here. It will briefly summarize the basics of my beliefs on almost everything. Enjoy, and feel free to critique it or ask questions. It’s attached as a PDF.

I Believe: A Credo

Stop Hating on Worship

Theologically-minded people get cynical.

This is to our shame.

One of the worst places that this cynicism shows up is in corporate worship as we sing songs to God. I know because I experience this personally on a weekly basis. I get critical about what we sing, and I hear my friends talk about it, too.

But really, we need to stop.

Yes, there are reasons to dislike certain worship songs.

Yes, it is true that many songs are less than 100% theologically precise.

Yes, some songs even use apparently incorrect theology.

Despite all this, rarely does a song pop up with is legitimately dangerous or so wrong that it cannot be sung by a godly heart. The songs which make rounds in our average evangelical Protestant churches may not always be of the highest musical and theological quality, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to cringe at lyrics when we could be worshipping the Almighty God.

And honestly, I’m rarely convinced that the problems identified with certain songs actually have to be problems. More often than not, we let our idiosyncrasies distort the reality. We’re so smug and proud of our theological purity that we are immediately suspicious of wording that we might not have chosen, even if the actual meaning is perfectly innocuous. We would be better off suspending our judgment and trying to figure out if a line is really flirting with heresy or if maybe we’re reading it wrong.

Take a couple of examples.

In “Holy Spirit” by Kari Jobe, I’ve heard people take issue with the line, “Holy Spirit, You are welcome here.” The usual response is, “Who do we think we are to tell the Holy Spirit where He is welcome? He can come and go wherever He wants!” But this is a silly objection. No one singing this line means to say, “Alright, Holy Spirit, in my personal sovereignty I give You, my humble Servant, permission to enter this room.” The real meaning is clear to anyone who is willing to give the benefit of the doubt: we are eager and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. We are praying for Him to act, saying that we are willing to listen and not resist.

“Good, Good Father” also gets a lot of flack, not just among theological types but even many others. I’ve seen some serious hate directed its way, such as here and here. And I’ll admit quickly that it’s a bit silly, certainly not quality music, especially in the first verse. But even so, I think the criticisms are mostly off-base. People complain about “You tell me that You’re pleased” as though the Father does not declare us pleasing to Him in the Son. One Calvinist complained about “I’m loved by You” as though Christians should remain skeptical about God’s love for them while worshipping Him. They hate on the mindless repetition, vague sentimentality, and lack of any distinctively Christian language. But really, really, what can you actually find in this song that explicitly contradicts Scripture and would be sung by your average worshipper in a way that turns them away from their heavenly Father? I find no such thing.

I won’t bother with any more examples for now. The point is clear enough. We need to quit with the snobbery, the arrogance, the hyper-particularity that distract our minds from the divine glory. Every once in a while we might stumble upon a song that is legitimately unacceptable, but most of the time we’re being picky, failing to apply the benefit of the doubt, and asserting our superiority over people who write and sing these songs. That’s not worship. So let’s leave this all behind and just focus on God. (And if the lyrics trip you up, be creative. I’m sure you can find an interpretative way to sing them with a meaning that fits your theology, unless your theology is a jerk.)

Wanting to Justify Himself

The statement that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan struck me recently. Here’s the account:

Just then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” He asked him. “How do you read it?”

He answered:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

“You’ve answered correctly,” He told him. “Do this and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

That last little line gave me pause. “Wanting to justify himself,” it says. This seems to be a constant, universal human urge. Our response to our sin, or even imagined sin, is almost always, “Let me justify myself. Let me defend my actions.” We are desperate to avoid accusation and condemnation. Our conscience’s jump in fright at any such happening, and we immediately pull up the defenses.

I know I am very guilty of this. Whenever I do wrong, or even if I haven’t done wrong but an accused of it, I drive into overdrive self-defense mode. I try to get myself off the hook with, if necessary, nothing more than a technicality. I’ll debate over semantics to avoid the greater judgment associated with certain labels for my actions. This is what the scribe did, nitpicking on the definition of “neighbor.” It’s what Bill Clinton did that put him at the butt of many jokes which continue today and annihilated any respect that some people had for him.

Of course, this is not acceptable. We have no right to justify ourselves. Most of the time we actually are in the wrong, and even when we are not we will usually end up there in the course of pursuing our justification. In fact, even when we are not in the wrong on the surface we often are still influenced by sin somewhere further down, behind the scenes. There is no justification for us, at least on our own terms or by our own efforts. 

In the end, we must look to Christ to handle this issue. In our lives, we must emulate Him. Though He was truly innocent and just, He did not attempt to justify Himself when accused of all kinds of crimes. He instead sat silent, content to await His justification from God which came at His resurrection. When we are truly innocent, we can and must rely on God to provide our justification, our vindication before those who accuse us. When we are not innocent, we also must rely on God in Christ. We must find our justification in the one who justifies the ungodly through Christ, and the only way to find justification in Christ is to confess that we are unjustified in ourselves.

So do not be like the scribe. Do not seek to justify yourself. Instead, entrust yourself to God, confessing your faults and waiting patiently in your righteousness. He will take care of your justification.

More Books Worth Reading

Quite a while ago, I mentioned a few books I thought might be good to share. If you missed that, you really should go back and read the suggestions. But now, over two years and many books later, I have some more to offer. The target audiences for these books might be somewhat diverse, so just go with it until you see something you like. So here’s what I got:

Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ

By Thomas F. Torrance
Amazon link
My rating: 4.5/5

T. F. Torrance, once a student of Karl Barth, was a minister in the Church of Scotland for many years, and he became an excellent theologian. After his death, several of his lectures were collected and published in two major volumes which represent the essence of his theology. They are Incarnation and Atonement, which respectively cover Christ’s person and His work. I’ve unfortunately not been able to read Incarnation yet, but Atonement is absolutely excellent. It is a thoroughly Biblical, creatively theological, and Christ-centered look at the what Jesus did for us in His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and even Pentecost! He connects this to absolutely every area of theology, from the Trinity to the Church to millennial views. It is not the easiest read you would ever try, but it is very worth it. Here’s a quote:

Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgement: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgement, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgement on evil simply by smiting violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.

The Mediation of Christ

By Thomas F. Torrance
Amazon link
My rating: 4/5

I apologize in advance for loading this list with two books by the same author so quickly, but putting the first one on here just reminded me of how good this one is. The Mediation of Christ is a somewhat earlier and much shorter work about the role of Jesus as the one Mediator between God and man and the role of Israel in mediating Jesus to the world. Both of these themes are very well discussed, and this book makes a helpful introduction to Torrance’s theology. It is not much of an easier read than Atonement, but as I mentioned it is nowhere near as long. If you do read this book, though, you will have a major head start in understanding Atonement. An epic quote:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.

Simply Jesus

By N. T. Wright
Amazon link
My rating: 4/5

N. T. Wright is a British historian and theologian, formerly a bishop in the Church of England. He is most well-known for his work on the historical Jesus and the Resurrection. Yet, having been a bishop for many years, he is also quite interested in getting across his thoughts to laypeople, which is basically the theme of Simply Jesus, a simple introduction to Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry. While he calls his vision “new,” this should not be taken as implying anything liberal or radical, but merely corrective against mistakes that have been made in Christian history. (And, to be honest, it’s not as new as he seems to imagine it is.) But it’s a great book, giving helpful perspective when reading the Gospels and understanding the theme of the kingdom of God. This is the easiest read of the bunch so far.

Here, then, is the message of Easter, or at least the beginning of that message. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, “It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.” No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. It doesn’t mean, “So there is a life after death.” Well, there is, but Easter says much, much more than that. It speaks of a life that is neither ghostly nor unreal, but solid and definite and practical. The Easter stories come at the end of the four gospels, but they are not about an “end.” They are about a beginning. The beginning of God’s new world. The beginning of the kingdom. God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God’s “being-in-charge” is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord. The title on the cross was true after all. The resurrection proves it.

Surprised by Hope

By N. T. Wright
Amazon link
My rating: 5/5

Okay, I’ll do one more author duplicate here. This is my favorite N. T. Wright book, and it is all about heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the Church, as its subtitle says. It, in a plain and readable style, argues vehemently against the quasi-gnostic views of life after death so popular in modern Christianity, instead emphasizing the reality of the coming physical new creation. Surprised by Hope is thoroughly Scriptural, offering a creative and exciting vision of what God has in store for us in the future, both life after death and, as Wright says, “life after life after death.” I don’t think any better work on this topic, at least at an ordinary reading level, exists. I’ll go straight to the quote:

I am putting up a signpost, not offering a photograph of what we will find once we get to where the signpost is pointing. I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there. I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that there will be in God’s recreated world, though I do remember Martin Luther’s words about the proper reaction to knowing the kingdom was coming the next day being to go out and plant a tree. I do not know how the painting an artist paints today in prayer and wisdom will find a place in God’s new world. I don’t know how our work for justice for the poor, for remission of global debts, will reappear in that new world. But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of his Spirit and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel

By Russel Moore
Amazon link
Rating: 4.5/5

Finally, we have something written by a Baptist, and this is the best Baptist reading I’ve ever found. In Onward Russel Moore examines how the American church is to move forward in light of everything that has happened to our culture (recently including Obergefell and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain). He covers the theology of the Church and its witness along with a host of issues related to our cultural warfare, and he urges us to embrace the “freakishness” of the Gospel. He believes and argues from Scripture and experience that the message and mission of the Church are necessarily radically different from and contradictory to all world systems and cultures, including both our present culture and the America of 60 years ago. He offers a devastating critique of the cultural Christianity we are losing, cheering its death and urging us to move on towards a new way of witness.

The problem was that…Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of “God and country” with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club.

Narnia and the Cross (An Essay for British Lit)

This is an essay that I wrote for my British literature class last semester. I figure someone might find it interesting. Or a good laugh. Either way.

I Lay Down My Life for Edmund: Atonement Theology in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

“When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (Lewis, ch. 15). With this sentence, every key element to C. S. Lewis’ atonement theology, as portrayed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is laid bare. Although sometimes derided for theological reasons, Aslan’s sacrifice for Edmund is a rich and beautiful scene which lends much power to the book as a whole. Moreover, while this narrative would not fit into anyone’s systematic theology, there are several themes present in Lewis’ atonement story which both shed light on Lewis’ thought in general and might provide some helpful corrective foci for broader evangelical understanding. In particular, the sacrifice of Aslan for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe brings together the essential mysterious, personal, and redemptive-historical dimensions of the atonement in a typology that impresses itself upon the heart in a way few stories can do. Taking note of these themes will not only enable the reader to better appreciate what Aslan did, but what Jesus did to which Lewis intended Aslan’s sacrifice to point.

Before looking at the actual key elements of this Narnian atonement, though, some analysis of what took place in the novel and how Lewis meant these events to be interpreted is probably in order. Anna Blanch in her article “A Hermeneutical Understanding of The Chronicles of Narnia” makes the case that allegory or metaphor is not the right way to understand the Narnia books and events, but rather that typology was Lewis’ intent. The differences are subtle, but the main point is to let the story point somewhere as a story, rather than each element in the story having a specific and consistent symbolic meaning. This was, she claims, how Lewis saw the dying-and-rising god myths leading up to Christ, as “types” that ultimately pointed to Christ the “True Myth.” With this in mind, the basic story is straightforward. After entering Narnia, Edmund ends up giving his allegiance to the White Witch. Eventually, because of his family and Aslan’s efforts, he returns to them and betrays her, which gives her a claim on his life based on “deep magic from the dawn of time.” Yet Aslan convenes privately with the Witch and offers his life in exchange for Edmund’s. The Witch kills him on the Stone Table, but the next day he returns and liberates her prisoners (whom she had turned to stone). Finally, Aslan and his freed creatures battle the Witch and her forces, eventually winning as Aslan kills the Witch. The climax to all of this is clearly Aslan’s death and resurrection, and the function of this event as a type of atonement provides many valuable insights, beginning with its mysterious nature.

Evident first in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the controlling fact of the atonement for Lewis is mystery. Aslan’s death and resurrection, just as Christ’s, does not save in any easily schematized way. Indeed, before his conversion the mechanism of the atonement was a major problem for him, the “how” question leading him away from accepting the reality. In the end as a Christian, mostly due to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien and another friend showing him the significance of “true myth” to his atonement approach, “Lewis remained reluctant to assume full working knowledge of the atonement, which he saw as wholly mysterious” (Vanderhorst 29). In Narnia, this reality comes across in Aslan’s cryptic and fundamentally magical explanation of why he was alive again after dying in Edmund’s stead:

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” (Lewis, ch. 15)

A magic deeper than “Deep Magic” is the clearest possible sign that Lewis is signaling away from the “how” instead to focus on the “what.” This also accords with what Lewis states about the atonement in Mere Christianity, namely that, just as one does not need to understand nutritional theory to be nourished by a meal, one needs no understanding of atonement theory to be saved by Christ’s work (55). Surely this is the case for Aslan and Edmund, since no one but Aslan himself understood anything about this deeper magic from before the dawn of time. This fixation on mystery, on an unexpected and inexplicable appearance of grace in self-sacrifice, makes for a brilliant story, and evangelicals would do well to learn from Aslan than the atonement must retain its essentially inscrutable character.

The second essential element to the atonement captured in the Narnia story is personalism, i.e. the framing of the atonement as primarily a reality involving real and particular people, as opposed to abstract individuals or groups. While many evangelical presentations of the atonement take a personal shape (“Jesus died for you because of how much He loves you!”), few evangelical articulations do. The focus is usually on a financial or legal metaphor, which, as useful as such may be, cannot be truly personal. Yet Aslan’s sacrifice is deeply personal, as he steps up specifically to save Edmund by dying in his place. There is no abstract or behind-the-scenes soteriological rationale given. Edmund was going to be killed, so Aslan died in his stead. This was a personal sacrifice, which could not easily be separated meaningfully from the people intimately involved. Again, this theme could well be integrated not only into evangelical Gospel presentations, but into proper theological accounts of the atonement. For indeed, Paul seems to recognize precisely this personal aspect of the atonement when he says that Christ “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Gal. 2:20), just as Aslan loved Edmund and gave himself for Edmund.

The final theme in the Narnian atonement which has probably been mostly ignored in favor of other questions (such the resemblance to ransom theory) is the redemptive-historical function of Aslan’s death. While, as just mentioned, Aslan’s sacrifice was intensely personal, benefitting no more than Edmund directly, or perhaps the whole Pevensie family, Aslan’s death quickly leads to Narnia’s salvation. After his resurrection, Aslan is free to roam and work unhindered by the Witch, since she assumes he is dead. He can go to her castle and breathe new life on all of the creatures which have been turned to stone, and lead a mighty army back to defeat her. This is not the result of any arbitrary or abstract atonement concept, but rather the historical causal result of the atonement for Aslan’s followers. More than the other points, this redemptive-historical element has often been forgotten altogether in Christian atonement theology. Many atonement accounts treat Christ’s work as something which did or could have functioned out of context, by any death under any circumstances, since only an artificial and metaphysical role is involved. Yet, as with Aslan, Christ’s death paved the way for the survival of the people of God. By establishing the new pattern of suffering unto death without violence, and the advance guarantee of personal resurrection, faithful Jews who followed Him were able to survive the impending doom of Jerusalem and the Temple not just physically, but also religiously, as they had moved on to a new Way. Moreover, the rejection of Christ by the Jews historically pushed the gate open to new circumstances in which Gentiles could enter the people of God as Gentiles. In both the case of Aslan’s ransom and Jesus’ crucifixion, there is an irreducible historical core that grounds the benefits of atonement in actual, causal effect. This entire working is mostly forgotten in evangelical theology, but like these other themes might find recovery when the Christian imagination takes a romp through Narnia.

In the final picture, C. S. Lewis portrays a rich and varied view of the atonement in his typological treatment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Not easily identifiable too closely with any one theory, Lewis held open the mystery that the blood on the altar works because grace has provided it (Lev. 17:11). He painted a profoundly personal picture, a type which reveals the love of God in Christ for each person as a person, and quite significantly, perhaps without even realizing he did so, Lewis presented a clear analogy for the redemptive-historical function of atonement. These three elements, even aside from the more obvious and often analyzed themes of substitution and ransom, provide a helpful corrective to the lack evident in many atonement accounts of present-day evangelical theologians. All would do well to drink from this Narnian well, and to find in Aslan a beautiful and ultimately worship-inducing pointer to Jesus Christ.

Works Cited

Blanch, Anna. “A Hermeneutical Understanding of The Chronicles of Narnia.” Bible Society Australia, 2006. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Holy Bible: The Old & New Testaments: Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible, 2011. Electronic.

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia II: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Vol. 56. 2013. GoodBook Classics. Electronic.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

Vanderhorst, Ariel James. “Mere Atonement.” Touchstone: A Journal Of Mere Christianity 22.3 (2009): 27-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.