Getting the Egypt out of Israel (and Us)

John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by John Martin (1852)

God exists or doesn’t, and everything takes shape accordingly. Our expectations should change given the reality of God or lack thereof – and our values.

Of course, most of the folks I know who think there’s probably no God also think quite Christianly. One of my best friends in early high school became an atheist after I introduced him to Marilyn Manson. The challenge Marilyn posed to our Bible-Belt Christianity was more than it could bear, and he jumped the boat, though I stayed nominal, for the most part. But damage done is damage done.

After Marilyn and company poked holes through his loosely enculturated religious mores, his politics changed as well. Fifteen-year-olds rarely nurse well-developed political convictions, but the inherited conservatism that he’d brandished uncritically up to that point evaporated and within a few years he was a progressive Democrat with a fairly robust social ethos. It took losing his grandma’s religion to come ’round to Christianity’s obstinate conviction that the measure of a society is its benevolence toward its poor. Our damnation will be that we churn out ‘destitutes,’ which Marx understood, and now so does my old friend.

Though I’m not to the left-of-center politically, those who are understand what most of us deny – that no culture that tramples the poor underfoot can be worth its salt; that the best of societies should be on guard for raining sulfur if their political machinations match what the prophet Ezekiel said about Sodom and Gomorrah:

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:48-50)

So if, perhaps, their policy proposals are hasty or uncreative, the progressives among us nevertheless have a significant overlap with Christianity’s social vision. I don’t, of course, mean that political progressivism is somehow synonymous with atheism, because it isn’t. It can’t be, actually, and I think something closer to the opposite is the case.

There is, rather, something inherently atheistic about most political Conservatism. This is not derogatory, but it is a diagnosis. Much contemporary Conservative thought begins with “There is no thread that runs through humanity, and I owe no one anything.” Consequently, underlying much mainstream Conservatism is the notion that the status quo, the power structure, is basically kosher. If God exists, that’s not true.

The book of Leviticus, for example, ought to be plenty evidence that, no, things as they are cannot be accepted, embraced, or even escaped – only redeemed. On the other hand, mainstream Liberalism is undergirded by the notion that progress/justice is natural, or somehow self-evident. Moses suggests it’s the opposite – namely, that what’s common is unclean and we’re all guilty, communally, for everything. Justice is unnatural and we’re called to it, together.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds as one peruses the strange middle book of the Mosaic saga. The sacrificial system itself is convoluted and many-splendored, and embedded at the halfway point of the Pentateuch – which, more than any other section of scripture, weaves an almost Dostoevskian yarn. The natural assumption to make if you’re a disinterested reader with a somewhat-less-than-cursory knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern cultures is that the Hebrew sacrificial system was chiefly an exercise in satiating an irascible deity, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, though you’d be close. What emerges on a close reading of Leviticus is God’s slow struggle to ‘desecularize’ nomadic Israel’s communal life and, gradually, to deEgyptianize the Hebrew consciousness.

All of this sounds rather ethereal, and it is. We are not used to reading what appears to be a laundry list of sacrificial regulations as a slow-burning sacrament whereby Israel translates the holiness of God into day-to-day life and, in doing so, inculturates the humaneness of God. “The idea of sacrifice was not unique to the Hebrews in the ancient world, as animal, grain, and drink offerings were common to the religious cults of Mespoptamia and Syro-Palestine,” writes Andrew Hill, “While the parallels between Israelite and ancient Near-Eastern sacrificial practices attest to the universal need for humans to placate the gods, the Hebrew sacrificial system was distinctive in that it was directed toward the goal of personal and community holiness.”

If the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ divide laid out in its pages seem arbitrary, it’s because it is. Offerings are made to impute ‘cleanness’ on things ‘unclean,’ and to ‘sanctify’ clean-but-‘common’ things and impute ‘holiness’ onto them. If a ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ thing makes contact with an ‘unclean’ thing, – a dead body, for example – it becomes ‘polluted’ and must begin again. I recall playground games that weren’t entirely different. It is tempting to assign moral weight to ‘uncleanness,’ but you’d only be half-right to do so, because ‘sin offerings’ are a different animal – pun regrettably intended. They were not, as it is sometimes assumed, a stand in for good character. Curiously, they seem to have done more to shape good character – or, even, to define good character to a people who consciences were being recalibrated – than anything.

They are never prescribed for premeditated wrongs. One could not, for example, set aside a choice animal on Tuesday to sacrifice on Thursday as recompense for his scheduled visit to the whorehouse on Wednesday. There is no sacrifice laid out for those who plan atrocities – which is interesting, because that leaves only ‘unintentional sins’ to be atoned for by sacrifice. This ought to jostle us at least a little bit, since most of us assume we can’t be held accountable for wrongs we didn’t even know we were participating in.

What this testifies to is that although the division of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods, and objects, and bodies may be arbitrary, the concrete division between cleanness and uncleanness is not. That is, to be declared ‘unclean,’ or ‘clean,’ is a formality to be abided by, but hardly the end-goal in itself. It is an exercise of sorts directed at awakening the Hebrews to something deeper: Namely, that ‘uncleanness’ is the norm. That long-discarded Augustinian trope, ‘inherited guilt,’ gets something right – that everything that is, is unacceptable by virtue of being. It is not, in truth, that the neighbor became unclean by waking up with his arms around his wife who died in the night. He was already polluted, because he is himself. We are not made unclean through carousing or debauchery, as though our default mode was ‘love thy neighbor.’ We are unclean because we are ourselves, and given time we will grow up into the mongrels we were born to be. We rarely sin on purpose, as Leviticus seems to realize, and we don’t need to. We victimize because we’re ourselves. It’s our nature.

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‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ the eighth Psalm goes. One is rightly confused when, in the middle of a quaint service at cozy bible church, this particular line is preached in such a way as to denigrate mankind, to imply that it is somehow surprising that God is mindful of humanity. We are what He made, after all, and He did not seem displeased at the outset.

The tone with which the verse is read affects the meaning more than one might imagine. If, for example, it were read from the pulpit as ‘What is man that You are mindful of him?” then our impression might be that the Psalmist cannot fathom why the God he addresses might treasure a humanity so dingy and commonplace. This is certainly the reading with which I am the most acquainted. If, however, the verse is read as such: “What is man, that You are mindful of him?” – then the meaning changes.

Not, of course, that some new doctrine arrives out of it. It only reinforces what is already well attested throughout the scriptures: We are, somehow, the image of the God who made us, which Jacob took to mean that when we see the face of our neighbors we really see the face of God. Calvinists of old took this to an extreme: We should not depict the Lord in any artwork, they said, not because He isn’t worth depicting, but because He has depicted Himself already – inerrantly, we might say, in Jesus of Nazareth, the ‘true Human,’ the ‘firstborn of many brothers’ in the ‘new Creation,’ who is, Himself, the ‘radiance of God’s glory, and exact representation of His being’ – but, also, in humanity at large. To make images of the Godhead is idolatrous, they believed, because it usurps not only the risen Jesus, but also humanity itself as the image we have been given of the Lord.

So when I say that we are polluted because we are ourselves, I do not mean this like the Gnostics mean it. Our body – ‘this mortal coil’ – is not the problem. Rather, we have bad souls in broken bodies and the product is disastrous. This is not by design; it is devilry. We bear the image of God in ourselves by virtue of existing, and not one inch of us does not exist to glorify the God whose face we see in one another. We are God’s glory and joy, overlaid with muck and mire so thick we’d be irredeemable if not for the insanity of the cross. We are exactly as repulsive, as we are, as we would need to be to move God to crucify Godself in a move to redeem what’s mad in us. We are precisely the sort of folks who would nail the incarnate Lord to a tree and sell his clothes for petty cash.

And, of course, we are ‘society.’ The ‘institution’ is us. We’re the stuff ‘the System’ is made of, and – not unrelated – we’re the stuff holocausts are made of. The decent folks down the street are well equipped to transform their city into a quiet dystopia, and, since we’re already suspending our disbelief, they already have, and you helped. We are unclean, and we are our cities. And our cities are unclean. And we are unclean, and we are the government, and we are the cops, and we are the prison system. We are the world you ought to expect given the fact of depravity.

Regrettably, white-knuckled denial of this fact is what underpins the better part of Conservative thought today. The norm, the structures, ‘the System,’ is fine, we are told, and whoever is trampled underfoot ought to reflect on how they went and got themselves underfoot. In any case, they’re certainly not entitled to anything like charity, we are told, or if they are, they certainly aren’t entitled to mine.

Well, that may be. Assuming, of course, that there is no debtor’s thread that runs through the whole of humanity, binding us together and obligating us to see to one another’s wounds. If there is no such thread, it is because there is no God – such a thread could not emerge arbitrarily, or even be unfurled at random, suddenly enjoined at the whims of a ‘Lawgiver.’ If there is a thread of sorts that runs through humanity, indebting each one to her neighbor, demanding kindness, or empathy, or even something so flamboyant as dignity, it can only be that it emerges from the nature of the God upon whom the drama of existence plays out. It must be that, as beings, we participate in Being itself in part by carrying on with one another according to a moral thread that transcends our mores and flows out from the very nature of Being. And we cannot participate in Being if there is no Being in which to participate, nor can we be obliged to anything.

If, however, there is a God, then the thread is real, and I am bound to its demands simply by existing. Not, of course, that someone can be entitled to another’s income, or to their space, or property. But the God who ‘owns the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Ps. 50:10) certainly owns mine, and is free to distribute His property however he pleases. By participating in Being at all, I noose myself to everyone I know and do not know, and so become their debtor, and there is no end in sight – we owe everything, to everyone, forever, not least to work alongside them for their liberation from the cycle of oppression.

 

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Recommended Reading:

A House for My Name by Peter Leithart, 2000, Canon Press
A Survey of the Old Testament by Gleason L. Archer Jr., 1964 (rev. 2007), Moody Publishers
A Survey of the Old Testament by John Walton and Andrew Hill, 1991 (rev. 2009), Zondervan
The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, The Old Testament, and the People of God by John C. Nugent, 2011, Wipf and Stock
The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, 2013, Oxford University Press

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Originally published at Misfit Theology.

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‘Disinformation’ and the Death of Romulus

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All is not well as Paul and his cohort Silas write to their converts in Thessalonica. The churches into which they had formed have made quite the impression on their city, which is glorious enough, but the result has been blowback.

If every church is a microcosm, they’re a microcosmopolis, where Jew and gentile share bread and wine like brothers, and pool capital like countrymen, entombed beneath the concrete walkways of an empire that does not co-mingle and will not change. Their affront to the norm has not gone unnoticed. The gosh-dang world is upside down.

Neither has it gone unnoticed by the Synagogue leaders who do not appreciate the threat these early Pauline communities pose to the continued livelihood of their faith community. None too pleased to lose a portion of their Jewish attendants and perhaps the bulk of their “God-fearers,” – (gentiles drawn to the monotheism of the Jewish religion who had attached themselves to the synagogue worship) – they found these egalitarian cultists troublesome. Worse, “not a few of the leading women,” drawn by the teaching of these new missionaries, departed from their assembly. Their influence and financial resources departed with them. The Pauline mission robbed the synagogues of attendants and hegemony, and power, and prestige.

Of course, none of these issues couldn’t be resolved with a smear campaign. Paul and his cronies had constructed a message, said the synagogue leaders, that would naturally appeal to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles. Like all theological novelties, they went on, it was really a ploy for financial gain. The missionaries who brought the message are, after all, chasing prominence and glory. And they fled the scene once they met opposition – hardly behavior that denotes sincerity.

Well, smear campaigns are never really about misinformation. The particulars of propagandist blather never really have to take root in order to undermine the stability of its target. And the synagogue leaders, having saturated the public square with slanderous accusations, at the very least destabilized what the missionaries had built. Misinformation is an understatement. This was disinformation. 

Unsurprisingly, their claims were baseless. In reality, the missionaries had come to teach in Thessalonica on the heels of ‘shameful treatment’ in Phillipi for having preached the same ingratiating gospel, having stirred up the wrath of some of the same ingrate Synagogue leaders. Someone is incapable of handling resistance, but it isn’t the missionaries – who, by the way, the Thessalonians may remember had insisted on working side jobs to support themselves during their stay. In truth, they didn’t make any demands on their converts, although they were certainly entitled to. If they’d been thirsty after renown, they would have acted a bit more like their interlocutors.

As the Thessalonians will also remember, they were “gentle among them, like a mother taking care of her own children,” or “a father with his children, exhorting each one of them.” They had been “holy and righteous and blameless in conduct toward them,” and the only explanation was that “being affectionately desirous of the Thessalonians, they were ready to share with them not only the gospel of God but also their own selves, because they had become very dear to them.” Having been “torn away” geographically, their hearts remained in Thessalonica. These new believers were their glory and joy.

So there was a different reason behind the opposition they had faced. The clergy isn’t what it was. Thoroughly domesticated by an empire that shuns them, this group of foolhardy prigs are the same sort that killed the prophets and crucified the Lord, and in “hindering Paul and Silas from speaking to all the gentiles,” they demonstrate their inability to envision gentiles as full participants in the coming kingdom to be established by the Messiah. Synagogues had amassed a large multitude of ‘God-fearing’ gentiles as partial participants in the life of the community, and they were happy with it that way. Behind their visceral opposition to the missionaries was a Jim Crowesque separate-but-equal-ism in which Greeks and the like, however devout, were best relegated to a second-class citizenship. These punks were at least as reprehensible as the hecklers at Galatia.

In any case, the missionaries had sent Timothy to serve as a temporary overseer, and were delighted to learn that although the new believers in Thessalonica buckled somewhat in response to the onslaught of their antagonists, they weren’t ‘bewitched’ like the Galatians had been.

So, concluding their prayer of exhortation, the missionaries entreat God to reunite them with the churches in Thessalonica, and to knit the new believers together in holy love, and to “establish their hearts blameless in holiness” so that they will be prepared for the return of Christ. They’ve issued a renewed call for holy living, a warning against disregarding God’s call to purity, and a command to remain “in the world.” Faithful as the Thessalonian Christians have remained thus far, one wonders why the missionaries thought this necessary.

As it turns out, the Synagogue leaders – horrified at the thought of losing their relative hegemony over Jewish practitioners and Gentile seekers – sought with some success to turn both the city-folk and government against them. Their brutal treatment of Jason and his household, recorded in Acts 17, was hardly an isolated incident:

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the synagogue leaders were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.

And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.” (Acts 17:1-9)

It would have been tempting for a relatively new Gentile believer to quietly slide back into her old habits to avoid meeting the same fate. Others, rather than buckling under the pressure of religious and governmental opposition, grew zealous to the point of withdrawing altogether from the life of the city. That the missionaries even needed to remind Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and mind their own affairs, and work with their hands…so that they may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” is amusing in hindsight. Timothy had encountered a number of well-intentioned believers who, overestimating the imminence of the second coming, had abandoned their jobs and become dependent, quite gratuitously, on the charity of others.

On top of it all, there was concern about whether those who had died would be included in the messianic kingdom at the coming of Christ. The missionaries typically drew out their instruction over the course of several days and weeks, and the religious elites had successfully driven them from the city before they could properly furnish the imaginations of newly proselytized with an accurate conception of how the resurrection of the Son of God would pave the way for their own resurrection.

Further complicating the matter, the proselytes had likely been connected to a strand of Judaism that placed minimal emphasis on the final Resurrection – or ignored it outright – so that when Paul and Silas were prematurely ejected from Thessalonica, the infant churches were left with an incomplete puzzle of sorts. In general, Palestinian Judaism was ‘earthier’ than the acutely Hellenized form that flourished in Alexandria and elsewhere, and whose general impulses would have trickled down into the synagogues of Thessalonica.

Hence, the form of Judaism in which the new converts were versed probably emphasized immortality over resurrection and downplayed the messianic hope, at least tacitly, on the grounds that “the dynamic personality of a messiah has no proper place in such a serene, eternally ordered world,” to quote the celebrated Jewish historian Salo Baron. Having been convinced by Paul and his team that Jesus was God’s messiah, they walked into the new faith carrying over anticipation of a coming “Golden Age, unrivaled in glory, when all peoples would abandon idolatrous practices and join the Jews in the worship of the one God in Jerusalem.” Yet untaught regarding the ‘final Resurrection,’ more than a few among them were concerned about whether those who had died already would be included in the ‘Golden Age’ established at Christ’s return.

As it turns out, they needn’t worry. Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, Paul insists, so also will those who have died be resurrected at His return. In fact, his whole gospel hinges on it. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” sooner or later, and “the dead in Christ will rise first.” For Paul, this meant the families he’d set ablaze at the height of his career in barbarism, and Stephen, from whose eyes he’d watched the vitality drain with the coats of his murderers strewn across his arms. For myself, it means my grandfather, Homer Chalmus Ellington, and Johnny Cash, to whom I’m supposedly related by marriage. After all this, says Paul, “We who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The imagery is strikingly reminiscent of a pivotal episode in the second book of Samuel:

“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd over my people Israel, and you shall be leader over Israel’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house. And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.” (2 Samuel 5:1-12)

That’s to say, when the Thessalonian Christians meet Christ in the air, it will be like the tribes of Israel ‘meeting’ David at Hebron. They will say, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh,” and welcome Him back for good – “and so we will always be with the Lord.” Soon enough, the fermenting churches will meet their loved ones afresh, and their Savior – no longer as an itinerant healer, but as the promised Messiah – King Jesus, come to take the blood bought world back for Himself.

One couldn’t be blamed for missing that emphasis, though. Two millenia after Paul, disinformation abounds – from the press, certainly, and the academy, probably – and, regrettably, the pulpit.

If you grew up Protestant in the United States of America, you might be under the impression that Paul and his colleagues applied for a grant from the Jerusalem council, built a medium-sized rectangular church building with an impressive white steeple, and prepped their converts with the basics of Christian theology to tide them over while they waited out the rapture. This is taught nationwide in pulpits occupied by Spirit-filled ministers with good intentions and poor theology.

In reality, these Pauline communities remade the world. Apparently his exhortation to live quietly and do honest work for honest wages was sufficient to rouse them out of their retreatist stupor because, together with the scattered Church the world over, the Christians in Thessalonica quietly ushered in the death of the old West where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were functions of power and little else, people were only acknowledged as human insofar as they were useful to the State and properly assimilated into the bloody machinery of imperialism, and the order of the cosmos endorsed a thickly stacked caste system whereby the poor and others were resources to be consumed by the nobility – as labour, or entertainment, or, more commonly, as sexual playthings to be brutalized and drank to exhaustion. It is hard to oversell how Paul’s gospel toppled the empire that Aeneas built, but it did exactly that, as generations of his disciples lived together in embodied glory – a communitarian compassion that enfleshed the bones of Moses in their midst. As it turns out, all Christian theology is ‘liberation theology’ if you understand where we came from and toward what we are continually blooming.

So the churches in Thessalonica were a counterculture, so to speak – one so thoroughly contagious that it spread through the streets of Rome like a ravaging disease and devoured the ethos of strength, of ‘manly vitality,’ and sowed the egalitarian spirit that continues in each generation to give birth to itself, each time more mature than before.

Depredation was the rule in the world that crucified the Son of God, and the ages were long, the norms static – it was a world that did not change. Armed with the gospel of the crucified God, the scattered church in Rome and abroad broke apart the pavements and tended the Edenic gardens buried well beneath. Consequently, they grew, albeit slowly, into the world that is, and as we, too, see to these gardens, they will grow, perhaps, somehow, into the world to come. And we will meet the Lord in the air, and say “We are your bone and flesh,” and we will always be with the Lord, because the Resurrection of His blood bought world cannot be undone.

The Omnipresence of Suffering (and the Image of the Bloodied Christ)

Anonymous Byzantine illustration: The pre-incarnate Christ speaks to Job.

One can rarely be sure how to go about paraphrasing Calvin. He’s an almost bottomless pit of nuance – so much so that it’s nearly impossible to summarize his thought without burying each sentence in qualifications. There is a tacit existentialism to him – especially in The Institutes – and he’s well-pleased when a thought stream grows dizzying and the fragile tensions he has drawn together become insufferable. The result is that Calvinism, in the broadest sense of the term, is a magnet’s coil – always, evidently, liable to burst at the seams, and yet, consistently, holding together. It’s ‘head in the clouds’ theology, to paraphrase a much-easier-to-summarize John Piper. The unfavorable appraisals that he has obtained in recent years seem, at best, reductive.

There’s a certain poetry to the disfavor into which he has fallen of late. Calvin spent his life swinging at enemies real and imagined. He is, in fact, a prime example of the demonic perils of demanding to be proven right. The man nursed an appetite for vindication. At every turn, his words were twisted by adversaries and misinterpreted by troglodytes. He longed, sometimes violently, to be understood. And now, more than ever, he isn’t.

He is know for his rigidity and supposed authoritarian bent. Fair enough. He was insufferably rigid. And rather heavy handed in governing Geneva. These facts are unremarkable. It shouldn’t surprise us that a 16th century intellectual was vociferously combative, nor that he ruled his Protestant theocracy with a half-clenched fist of iron. It should astound us that he was as remarkably flexible as he was – both as a theologian and politician. This flexibility makes him a complex read – not that any of his writings are terribly complicated, but his willingness to tease out possibilities and to take his readers along with him as he plumbs the depths of the transcendant beauty at center of the universe makes him an author who defies systematization. It is not that his thoughts are disorderly; they aren’t. And yet, no summary of Calvin has ever captured his many-layeredness. His nuances must be felt, not simply assented to. Calvinism is a lived-theology, and, as such, can only really be understood in hindsight, and from the inside.

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There are no good theodicies. As Austin Farrer observed half a century ago, nothing in the world can quite make up for the fact that the universe runs on suffering. There are also no pacifists. Not unless we so thoroughly restrict the term as to render it meaningless: Research has suggested that plants can feel pain and think thoughts, recognize relatives, and support one another by sharing photosynthesized sugars through a rather complex entangled-roots system. A rapidly multiplying group of animals have proven to be more nearly ‘sentient’ than we ever previously imagined. The boundaries between human and beast, and beast and plant are ever-narrowing. And no creature, human or otherwise, can exist without inflicting suffering on other creatures. One is reminded of a Noah and the Whale song:

When the baby’s born
Oh, let’s turn it to the snow
So that ice will surely grow
Over weak and brittle bones

Oh, let’s leave it to the wolves
So their teeth turn it to food
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive
Oh, its death helps life survive
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way

To understate: The classic ‘Problem of Evil’ is a bit passé. And in light of the sheer brutality of existence, so are theodicies. How can life be meaningful – or, even tolerable – in the face of such horrors? Can anyone stay sane who takes seriously the fact the the world literally runs on the suffering of creatures? It is not simply that unnecessary suffering pervades the goings-on of the current milieu. The ecosystem mainstains itself and adapts as creatures, some microscopic and others magnificent, fight and claw for resources. And there is no rest, no escape route: If creatures did not kill each other on purpose for resources, some would kill others by accident. Larger creatures would still crush smaller creatures by no fault of their own. Sizable creatures would still crush those too small to be seen by the naked eye. And worse yet, if creatures did not kill each other on purpose, even more would die than before. Plants are alive, but herbivores have to eat them. Trees feel the pain of losing bark to hungry herbivores – they emit an ultrasonic noise when feasted upon. Trees scream in horror when predators sink their teeth in and fungi drink them dry from the inside out. And even if plants did not think and feel and scream in pain, there would be unspeakable animal suffering if creatures stopped competing for resources. It is the bloody struggle for survival that guarantees that as few creatures die as is necessary. If they stopped killing each other, there would still be such a scarcity of resources that most of them would starve to death – a worse fate, even, than being mauled. No creature, anywhere, can exist, in any sense, without inflicting senseless suffering on other creatures.

How does one keep from going insane in this world? Interestingly enough, Calvin – who did not have access to the findings of modern science and had not read The Hidden Life of Trees – was remarkably in tune with the absurdity of the universe. I don’t, of course, mean that he grasped the particularly sordid depths of animal suffering. And yet, he grasped, long before it had become self-evident, that the world is precisely as fleeting, as cruelly indifferent, you might say, as Solomon had posthumously warned, and Job had (rather repetitively) chronicled. And yet – he was also the man who, long before Edwards, had declared that ‘there is not one blade of grass that does not exist for the glory of God.’ The world is a horrifying factory of barbarism that somehow, still, is an indefatigable repository of transcendant beauty. If you can accept it, the horrors that travel the veins of everything are a characteristic absurdity, which, though omnipresent, contradict the very fabrics of reality. God is love, and God is the Ground in which we have our being, and yet, to be at all is intolerably painful, and yet, the transcendent beauty at the bottom of everything beckons us onward into the absurdity in pursuit, we hope, of transcendence itself.

And so Calvin eschews theodicy, instead goading his readers on to something less clear and more satisfying. Endlessly qualified and characteristically dizzying, he says to the downtrodden – and, my paraphrase will be unsatisfactory here – ‘You will suffer, and often, perhaps unthinkably so, and others will suffer worse, too, unbearably. And God’s hand is in it, somehow – like all things, your suffering, seemingly needless, traces back to God’s eternal decree. And you have no grounds for protest, because He is the very Ground you stand on. But you can endure it and, by grace, find yourself hammered more nearly into the image of the bloodied Christ.’

Paul, on Moses (and the Scumbags Who Misquote Him)

The Lover’s Whirlwind, William Blake (1827)


“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, pederasts, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Tim. 1:8-11)

Paul is funnier than the folks who preach him. His first letter to Timothy opens with a pun: “we know, after all, that the Law is good – if you use it lawfully.” 

He’s getting at something, here. Depending on the context, says Lawrence Boadt, the term ‘The Law’ can refer to the Decalogue, – that’s the traditional name for the Ten Commandments – or the entire ‘Mosaic Law,’ – that’s shorthand for the whole 613 laws given throughout the Pentateuch – or, even, the Pentateuch itself – which is the traditional name for the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses. 

It’s not immediately clear which meaning of ‘Law’ he’s alluding to in this passage. It comes from a letter sent to his friend and ministry partner, Timothy, who was struggling to lead a group of churches in Ephesus while a troublesome pack of false teachers sought to lead his congregations astray. To be specific, they were trying to undermine the missionary work of Paul and others by reinterpretting the ‘Law’ to for their own ends. In Paul’s words, they “desire to be teachers of the Law” and were “devoted to endless myths and genealogies.” 

Apparently, fetishizing the Law didn’t do much to make them holier. They were as immoral, evidently, as your congressman (1 Tim. 1:13;15;19; 3:1; 4:2; 5:6;11; 6:5-10), and superstitious, too (1:4; 4:7). There were others, in and before Paul’s time, who were fond of ‘myths and endless geneologies.’ To heavily ‘allegorize’ the Old Testament, scholar W.D. Mounce noted, was to tap into a popular – and, probably, profitable – trend among certain groups of second temple Jews. There was a tendency within post-exilic Judaism to imaginatively retell “the pedigrees of the patriarchs,” writes J.N.D. Kelley. But whereas Philo and others taught from genuine love for God and faithfulness to the scriptures to creatively allegorize their content, – a practice soon after adopted by early Christian theologians – the charlatans stirring up trouble in Timothy’s congregations did so in reckless disregard for the holiness of God. Between their obsession with the more extravagant forms of rabbinic Midrash and their flagrant immorality, it’s unlikely that they meant well (1:7).

Their zeal for the Law led them to “wander away into vain discussion” (1:6) but did not prevent them from indulging in greed, sexual immorality, and divisiveness. They saw it, in other words, as a ‘roadmap’ to the ‘secrets’ of the ‘heavenly realm’ – think Left Behind, or Blood Moons. In much the same way that some modern teachers use the Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation as springboards from which to make dubious predictions about the end times but don’t heed their rather unambiguous ethical imperatives, so also the troublemakers at the churches in Ephesus allegorized the Pentateuch in an effort to uncover the “secret meaning” beneath the text and obtain “higher” knowledge (6:20). 

This wasn’t uncommon among post-exilic Jews, especially in Alexandria – but these false teachers went further. They were not just churning out the sort of helpful folklore found in extra-biblical works like Jubilees and Biblical Antiquities. They were indulging unfounded fantasies about the patriarchs with the ‘Law’ as their inspiration, but neglecting – or rejecting – its moral boundaries. In doing so, they side-step its primary function: to be a ‘restraint’ or ‘guardian’ for the people of God (Gal. 3:24-29). 

It wasn’t just the the 613 literal ‘laws’ that were meant to serve as a ‘guardian’ over the covenant community of Israel, but the whole Pentateuch. The whole Torah was meant to be their ‘guardian,’ their ‘restraint.’ So Paul’s indictment is against an abuse of the Pentateuch – especially the ‘law’ portions. There is not, after all, much material to allegorize in the Ten Commandments alone, and although it is possible to produce a system of ‘mystical allegorizations’ of the Levitical and Deuteronomical Laws, the product would, almost certainly, be of a distinctly ethical nature. The scumbags heckling Timothy and his churches were scumbags, though, whose allegorizations were little more than “irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7), so that’s unlikely. Since their error consisted in “false knowledge” in the form of mythical stories surrounding the patriarchs but not rigid adherence to an upright lifestyle, their more flamboyant allegorizations probably dealt with the narrative portions of the Pentateuch along with the more pointed “law” sections. In other words, they did damage to the whole of Pentateuch. 

But “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”  That’s essentially a wise-crack on Paul’s part, but it’s a remarkably rich one: noting the connection between v. 9 and Galatians 5:13-26, J.N.D Kelley suggests that the legal aspect of the Law “applies only to those who are under the influence of the flesh and who in their lives follow its promptings.” That’s why earlier, Paul says:

“Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made   . . .  before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:19-26)

So Paul’s insistence that “the Law is not laid down for the just but the unjust” assumes what he had previously taught in the epistle to the Galatians. There he writes that inclusion into the ‘covenant community’ of Israel precedes binding under the law (Gal. 3:9;17;18-19;21), and that the Law itself was, in fact, a gift to those who belonged to God’s covenant commumity of Israel (3:19-22). The argument would go as such:

‘Human nature is insatiably self-destructive (5:17) and, consequently, people have an inescapable bent toward enslaving themselves to sinful practices (4:3;8). The moral, ceremonial, cultic, etc. stipulations of the Law were intended, specifically, to enslave God’s covenant people instead to an ethical system consistent with God’s character (3:23;5:16;24-25). Communal adherence to the Law would, among other things, prevent God from having to pour His wrath out on the people whom He had rescued from Egypt for Himself. Although the Law was gifted to the covenant people of God for their protection, the redemption brought about in Christ means that the covenant people no longer need to be enslaved to the Law, but set free in Christ (4:1-7).’

So in Paul’s eyes the Law is good and holy, but must be used as it was intended to be used. It cannot be used as a means to enter God’s covenant – that is, following the Mosaic Law can’t save you, because the Law is only for the ‘already-saved,’ so to speak – or as a ‘pathway in to a higher realm of knowledge’ – that is, recklessly allegorizing the Mosaic Law (or the prophets, or Revelation) will not make you wiser, help you predict the future, or give you significant insight about the end-times, but it might turn you into a heretic.

Rather, the Law was given to people who were already in the covenant, it ‘protected the already-saved’ against becoming like the Canaanites again. Gleason Archer Jr. sums it up well: “grace reigned supreme in the Sinaitic covenant just as it truly did in the Abrahamic. The whole body of Law revealed to Moses and his people from this point on was a testament of grace, although mediated through a different economy from that of the gospel.” The legal portions of the Pentateuch, when originally given, were about ‘taking captive’ those who were already captive to sin. To put it another way, it was a glorious bit of divine pragmatism.

Now, though, in the ‘new covenant,’ the time has come to be set free from both ‘Law’ and sin. Don’t misunderstand – the Law is still for ‘new covenant’ people because it reveals the heart of Yahweh. When one has received the Holy Spirit, the Law becomes a tool in His hands to conform them into the image of Jesus.

A proper understanding of the Law was, in Paul’s mind, a non-negotiable component of that process. God gave the Law to Israel immediately after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. They were brought from the bondage of a cruel Pharaoh into the covenant bondage of a gentle Lord- literally, a feudal Lord, a suzerain – so that when the time would come, having been preserved by the grace of God by the boundaries set up in the Law, they could be set free from all bondage in the Spirit, whether to sin or to the Law.

So today, the violent need the Law because they are enslaved to their destructive appetites; the sexually immoral need the Law because they are slaves to their ‘animal urges’ – or, perhaps, their desire for approval or intimacy; enslavers need the Law because they themselves are enslaved to the human propensity to conquer and dominate. On this side of the Christ’s resurrection, the Law is ‘lawful’ when believers allow it to reveal in them what is not consistent with God’s heart for the world so that the Holy Spirit can recreate in them what has been broken.

Stewarding Creation Well, (and Other Things That Aren’t Negotiable)

A friend recently posed the question: “Should we be more focused on saving our Humanity or saving creation.”

He clarified what he meant: “By ‘humanity’ I mean, our civilization – our ability to be compassionate, to be kind, just, and peaceful. Our creativity, our expression, and our pursuit of truth. It seems like we are having a global ‘cultural’ crisis. We are also having a global ‘material’ crisis: the destruction of our planet. Which do we solve – or do we solve first? Or, which is the most important?”

Ellen Davis touches on the question in her book ‘Getting Involved With God.’ She offers a few relevant considerations:

First, the concept of ‘stewardship’ actually subordinates humanity to nature, in a way. We rule over it by serving it. Ignoring needs of the creation over which we were placed to steward is an abdication of our God-given responsibility. Our being stewards did not cease because of ‘the Fall.’ We should conduct ourselves – our families, and our churches – accordingly.

Secondly, our ‘subordinary’ rule over nature is woven into our humanity, and all the components of our humanity intersect, so embodying our role means integrating environmental and humanistic concerns. They both emanate from our role as stewards of God’s rule over the natural world. This is true of all humanity – again, we did not cease to be responsible for the well-being of creation because of the Fall. But it is especially true for those of us in the Church. Not only are we divinely charged with stewardship over creation, but we are actually aware that we are charged. 

That’s to say, irreligious environmentalists do instinctively what Christians ought to do out of obedience. How to properly care for the environment in an increasingly Globalized world is its own conversation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m tend to advocate for limited government, and the avenues that I would suggest toward more faithful environmental stewardship will inevitably reflect that. I’m under no delusions that GMO foods are inherently “dangerous,” and I’m far more interested in what the farmer who goes to church with me has to say about stewarding the earth than I am with the blogger from New York. There are, of course, others better suited than myself for making the case for one avenue over another. As an expositor of the Bible, though, my concern is pointing out that we do, indeed, have that responsibility. Complacency regarding the environment is a theological error.

To be specific, we are subordinate, by nature, to Christ. We serve Him as our King, our God. We ‘steward’ creation, together, as God’s image. That means that we subordinate our self-interest – say, industrial productivity, for example – to the needs of creation. It doesn’t mean that we are hierarchically subordinate to creation, or that we ‘serve’ it like we serve Christ. But it does mean that we serve Christ by ruling over nature in such a way that we care for its well being. And, there’s no way around it, stewarding creation faithfully has to take shape as protecting animals and environments threatened by certain human practices. In other words, ‘serving’ nature as its stewards, we serve Christ as His subjects.

The obvious contention – and a convenient one, might I add – that could be raised is that one day, we’re told in scripture, there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ – presumably, one without an ecological crisis – and so we don’t really need to worry ourselves with maintaining the creation over which God placed us as stewards. 

And the obvious response – and an inconvenient one, might I add – is that we don’t, in any scenario, have the right to disregard our role, given to us by God at our inception, simply because He’s going to fix it all one day anyway. Again: inconvenient, but painfully obvious. And, like a lot of problems that ravage contemporary Protestantism, it can probably be traced in some way to the antisupernaturalist liberalism that trickled down from Berlin in the 19/20th century. 

I can’t draw a direct connection, because the ecological crises we face today were, for the most part, unknown at that point. Contemporary research has illuminated the extent to which human civilization has debased the environment. We have made ourselves, in a way, antistewards. As recently as a century ago, this was not so clear (or pronounced). 

But now it is, and our response has been tepid, noncommital. More than a few have denied outright that we have any responsibilty to rectify it – either because they disbelieve in stewardship, or believe it amounts to a license to consume the earth’s resources however we desire, or believe that the eventual redemption of the cosmos gets us off the hook from having to obey God by seeing to the earth’s well being to the extent that we are able. In any case, this is likely the result of the classic liberal Protestant notion that, with the coming of Christ, we ceased to have concrete social responsibilities outside of the necessary practical concerns that occupy everyday life. This notion permeated every corner of Western Protestantism, as the dubious pronouncements of the European intelligentsia took hold both in elite metropolitan cathedrals and remote country churches. Consequently, when the data began to suggest that creation had been suffering under humanity’s antistewardship, we were umoved.

So it’s ironic that Ellen Davis, of all people, would best articulate what was, until fairly recently, quite obvious. As an Episcopal priest, she is a mainline Protestant. Her theological heritage is closely linked to the earliest forms of this particular theological problem. More than is the case for any ‘evangelical,’ she is, at least in theory, the intellectual grandchild of the 19/20th century liberalism that subtly conditioned modern Protestants to approach environmental issues callously. Kudos to her for being ahead of the curve – or, perhaps, mercifully ‘behind the times.’ 

She’s not, of course, the only one. Richard Bauckham, a conservative Anglican Priest, authored ‘The Bible and Ecology‘ wherein he suggests, similarly, that our given role as ‘stewards’ over creation is, to say the least, primarily a charge to conform our own communities to the needs and rhythms of creation. 

He is not, like Wendell Berry, advocating a kind of large-scale return to an agrarian economy. But he does suggest that we, as Christians, ought to understand ourselves as part of the community of creation, rather than as distinct from it. That is, we’re not quite the mediators between creation and God so much as fellow members of creation alongside whom there is only one Mediator: Christ. As fellow members of the community of creation, we have a special role. But our role, which has us ruling over creation as God’s images, renders us creation’s servants, so to speak. We’re made to be cultivators, not simply consumers. Our stewardship is more of an albatross than a license.

A happy albatross. That is, it is good that we are commisioned with caring for creation, not bad. It’s a joyous ball-and-chain. There is no freedom from the stewardship we’re charged with. There is only a satisfying faithfulness and a draining abdication thereof. As we’ll remember from the book of Haggai, God responds to our abdications by taking the joy away from the comfort and ease that comes with it. 

So, to quote Davis again, it would be in our interest to ‘get involved with God.’ One day, all the bad we’ve done – to each other, to ourselves, and to creation – will come untrue. In the meantime, our responsibility to care for the earth has not been retracted. Though I doubt we’ll ever produce a ‘scarcity-free’ world, nor will our efforts ever undo the effects of the Fall, I would be remiss to ignore the other large, looming reality that Haggai points to: that faithfulness is remarkably powerful. And, to answer my friend’s question, it would also mean retrieving at least one component of our humanness. Whatever corruption has been wrought by the Fall, and however voluminous the ecological crisis, the power of God to bring about a new heavens and a new earth is, as always, beyond the scope of imagination. 

The Old Testament Wasn’t a ‘Works Religion’

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Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich

The idea, ever popular, that the Old Testament was a ‘works religion’ but the New Testament is all about ‘your personal walk with God’ didn’t come from Luther or Calvin or Melanchton, or the old Baptists (or the Apostles). It does, however, show up in Adolf Harnack, a theologian that the churches teaching this nonsense probably have no love for. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with him. But he certainly helped popularize it, and it was a long time coming. The century leading up to his meteoric rise to prominence in the field of academic theology was a kind of seedbed for the growing hyper-individualism that overtook much of Western Christianity and produced the parched landscape in which we find ourselves.

Against their usual caricatures, it turns out that Luther’s a lot more nuanced about Law and Grace than is typically represented, and the Anabaptists/early Baptists found far more in the Old Testament than Law to be liberated from. Calvin, too, scoffed at the notion that the New Testament Religion was primarily about your ‘soul.’ The Patristic authors wrote often against an idea not unsimilar called ‘gnosticism’ (Google it for a fun afternoon). And the Apostles wrote the New Testament, which has an awful lot more on its mind than our ‘personal salvation.’

You do, however, see that idea fermenting in liberal academic circles throughout the 19th/20th century, and came to a head in pre-war Germany. At that point in time, mainstream theology trickled down from Berlin, alongside a few other elite academies. As goes the scholarship, so goes popular preaching, and both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestant churches were penetrated by the novel ideal that the Old Testament had brought about a ‘public’ religion, where people in a community work for their salvation in a shared domain of people separated from the rest of the world by God, but the New Testament had brought a ‘personal’ religion, where people were saved, either by assent to certain doctrines (as some ‘conservatives’ might have said) or by some sublime emotional experience of God (as some of the ‘liberals’ might have said).

Naturally, these are both wrong notions, because the ideology behind them is wrong. There is not a hard separation between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ testaments. Some early Church Fathers were concerned that separating them as such in the canon would create an unbiblical disjunction between them in the minds of future congregations. It turns out their concern was prophetic, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

Over the following century, the line between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestantism blurred. New denominations emerged, old branches withered away, Fundamentalism was born, and proved to be a powerful evangelistic force. But it soon splintered off and became so varied and diverse that it’s hard to identify any ‘one’ thing that ‘Fundamentalism’ might mean today. But amidst the diversity of contemporary Protestantism, there is at least one common feature that we share.

Namely, that ‘conversion’ is framed chiefly as an individual’s personal experience with God, which is inaugurated by an emotional rush and then cemented by an intellectual assent to a (varying) set of doctrinal standards. Modern Protestants didn’t invent conversion – the Holy Spirit did that – but we did invent the ‘conversion experience.’

Formerly, a convert was someone ‘grafted into the existent community of the risen Jesus.’ There was an extent to which the convert ceased to be simply themself and became instead a ‘member’ (read: appendage) of Christ’s ‘Body.’ This was true across denominational lines. The ‘Great Awakening’ and other primordial revivals were not, chiefly, about saving souls, but about grafting wild olive branches into the Tree of Life, so to speak. Of course it dealt with individuals. Of course, every woman or man was responsible to respond to the Holy Spirit with submission rather than rebellion, but it was unthinkable that this was all somehow part of a puerile scheme by which God was turning people from damned to not-damned by charging people to talk them into belief and inspire them into spiritual euphoria.

Revival, back then, was more like enlistment. Jonathan Edwards, who championed the Second Great Awakening, preached ‘Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God‘ not to people he hoped merely to turn into private believers, but to crowds of God’s enemies, whom, by grace alone, through faith alone, he hoped would be transformed through hearing the gospel word, into contagious gospel communities.

And they would, by carrying out the same mission that God’s people have always had, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to Nehemiah to Jesus’s disciples and their disciples and so on, multiply and fill the earth, as members of the ‘Redeemed’ community, so that over time, their neighbors would seek out the same Jesus in whose Resurrection they now found their life, and one day the whole world would look like love.

This fell by the wayside, however, because future ‘revivals’ were carried out under presuppositions unfortunately bestowed on us by liberal protestants from Berlin and Tübingen, and so on. Books like The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman have done some great work toward recasting the original vision, but as it stands, revival in the West would first mean changing the consciousness of an entire generation.

There was, it seems, a rather direct line from the hard separation of ‘Law’ and ‘Grace’ to the artificial distinction of the ‘public, works-based‘ religion of the Old Testament from the ‘personal, spiritual’ religion of the New Testament, to the strange and inorganic framing of conversion as ‘saving your soul‘ rather than ‘being grafted into the earthly body of Jesus, as exclusive subjects of His kingship, who (incidentally?) share in His inheritance.’

This article is filled with generalizations. It’s hard to cover large swaths of history and interact with broad concepts without doing so. History is always more nuanced than is apparent in the books, articles, and dumb blog posts. Generalizations have to be read as such, and that is what these are. But generalizations are only untrue if they’re untrue, and these are not. And to summarize the sweeping statements thus far: We have inherited the notion that there is a distinction to be made between our spiritual lives and the rest of our lives. It was not the old Baptists, nor Luther nor Augustine nor the Apostles who told us that Jesus came round to save our souls so we could carry on with business as usual in the knowledge that we’ll go to heaven when we die. That was some German liberals from back in the day. Adolf Harnack and friends didn’t mean to derail the Protestant church in the process, but they largely did. Today in the West, even if you fancy yourself a ‘fundamentalist’ or an ‘evangelical,’ liberals probably wrote your theology.

Most of Harnack’s colleagues didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Mercifully, they never did get religious conservatives to abandon that central doctrine of the ancient faith. But their theology did trickle down, not only to the towering Episcopal church on the corner of 4th and Dunmeier, but also to the Independent Baptist Church across the street. The result is that an awful lot of our churches carry on like the Resurrection didn’t happen, and Jesus isn’t King.

Because if the Resurrection did happen, and Jesus wasn’t just a spiritual guru, as Harnack taught, who died for our sins but left His throne unoccupied until the end-times, as too many to count have taught, then everything – literally everything – is different. If the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to His throne, then He rules the Church in a particular sense, even as He rules the world in a general sense. He said to Pilate, ‘You could have no authority over me that is not given to you’ (John 19:11), and Paul affirms as much when he exhorts the Christians in Rome to honor the Emperor (Rom 13:1-7). The rule of Christ over the whole earth is not expressed through political dominion. There can be no ‘Christian Nation,’ no legislated Christendom. He rightfully rules the whole world, but its thrones and dominions are occupied by usurpers. ‘David is anointed but Saul remains.‘ (1 Sam. 15 – 2 Sam 5).

And yet, Jesus is taking claim over the world that belongs to Him. Not from the throne, but from the trenches. He reclaims His world as He colonizes the countries of the usurpers – the gospel is taken from city to city, house to house, and people are grafted into His own ‘resurrection Community.’ They live on the terms of the Kingdom of God, together, in the midst of cities that cannot understand them. They don’t blend in to their surroundings, because their lives are strangely Jesus-shaped. The gospel has permeated every corner of them. Their politics are weird, because they serve a King who crucified Himself for His enemies. Their marriages are weird, because each member is married to a ‘Husband‘ who crucified Himself rather than retaliate against them. 

Their finances are weird, and their sex lives are different, because they worship a man who died a broke 33-year-old virgin (to paraphrase Derek Webb). They run their businesses strangely because they see the face of Jesus in every employee. And they make remarkable employees, because they work as though they work for Jesus Himself, rather than the CEO of Highland Ventures Inc. They haven’t simply had their ‘souls’ saved. They have, literally, become members of a ‘Body‘ other than their own, and the subjects of another Kingdom, who live out its principles in the midst of this one. And this one is passing away – not into nothingness, as though God were going to destroy the world. No, this world is passing away and becoming – slowly, painfully, and certainly – the kingdom on whose terms they already live. Half the work of an ‘evangelist’ is to live Christianly.

* * *

And so, to understate the point, Harnack and his colleagues were wrong. Long dead, he knows that now, and I like to think he’s happier for it. There has only ever been one mission of God, and Noah was a missionary, as was Abraham, and Moses. The ancient Law was not a pathway to salvation. The whole of scripture knows nothing of ‘works-based salvation’ – with the notable exception, perhaps, of some heretics in Galatia who didn’t understand their own Torah. The Law of Moses, perhaps counterintuitively, was a missionary endeavor. It carried forward the missionary work of Yahweh by shaping the already-saved‘ community of Israel around a ‘moral government‘ that reflected the unnatural compassion of the Triune God. Had they carried out their mission to the nations, they would have introduced world to the God who had chosen them, and waited together for the redemption that was to come.

The mission is not fundamentally different in the shadow of the cross. Abraham was saved through faith, if Paul is to be believed, and the ‘righteousness’ of Christ was ‘credited to him’ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:2-5) – and he was given a mission for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). We are saved through the same faith – our faith is Abraham’s faith, and vice versa – by the same grace, too. It was the Cross that saved the Israelites – time is linear, but grace is not.

What is different is that because all of us are included in the resurrection of Jesus, now we really are a royal priesthood. The Kingdom of God really is a kingdom of priests. That is to say, Jesus exercises both His royal and priestly functions on earth, today, through the Church. Scripture is the eyes through which we see the world – past and present – and we, the Church, are the hands by which Jesus writes the future.

There was no place for this in Harnack’s theology. He had faith in the world to work itself out. Religion, of course, was a good emotional crutch, so his Jesus needn’t do much more than abolish the old religion and instead create a new, ‘private’ religion, suitable for the modern man. Again, generalizations. Harnack and others were considerably more nuanced than I can do justice to here, but the point stands that we’ve absorbed more of him than is good for us, and it’s only stifled our usefulness as appendages in Christ’s body.

We would, conversely, benefit from relearning scripture. For too long, the lingering ghosts of German liberal Protestantism have haunted our preaching, writing, and discipleship. We will continue to self-marginalize if the modernist conception of New Testament faith is allowed to remain a very real fox in our imaginary hen-house. Conversion, irreducibly, is a transfer of citizenship. The Church is a kingdom of priests, overcoming the world as is by contagiously living on heaven’s terms in a world that foreshadows hell. The gospel doesn’t begin in Matthew, but in Moses. We share the mission of ancient Israel, because we’re the same Community.

There is help to be had here. The problematic trends  have described above are not true of all Christians everywhere. They are not even true of all Western Christians. Or even the American Church at large. These trends are prevalent in predominately white churches in the United States more than others. It has been less common, for example, in the black church. For whatever reason, they were less inclined to absorb the novel theological musings of the elite anglo-theologians working out of the European academy. (It’s almost like the heavy liberalization of the Ancient faith is a form of colonialism, or something.)

Of course, there’s no use romanticizing the black church. From what I’m told, they have problems of their own. But privatizing faith is not one of them, and a cursory study into the historic black church in America reveals, for one, a vibrant faith community that seeks to reconcile ever corner of itself to the gospel. Unlike the predominately white masses of mainstream American Christendom, they have not hammered a wedge between the private faith of the individual and the potent social force of the subversive gospel community. To put it another way, the black church is more ‘conservative,’ theologically speaking, even if their politics are more liberal.

Naturally, there’s nothing special about predominantly ‘white’ churches. We could disappear for centuries and the mission of God would not be threatened. But, you know, hopefully we won’t, and we would do well to learn from their example as a community of ‘gathered social engagement,’ ‘tightly-knit communal identity,’ and ‘deep scriptural engagement.’

Again, there’s no reason to paper over their own persistent ills. But they can remind us, for example, that Moses preaches the gospel. And part of Moses’s gospel is the transformation of society by the gathered community of Yahweh in the power of the Spirit. It’s part of Moses’s gospel because it’s part of Jesus’s gospel. Thanks largely to the corrosive influence of 19th/20th century liberalism on the white church, you won’t find much of that in the predominately Caucasian churches in the United States. We’ve been the ‘ruling class’ for so long that it’s ingrained in our psychology that this world doesn’t need to be turned upside down. Coupled with the trickle-down liberalism from Harnack and friends, this has rendered us a largely impotent force for the kingdom here. Again, generalizations have to be read as such. But these are not untrue generalizations. So we can learn from the black church what our own history has engineered us to forget: that the gospel turns the whole world upside down, and – as we ought to recall, but lately have not – that we are the ones to upend it (Acts 17:6).

Sin is a Hiding Place

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk By The Sea

His eyes welled up and the tears dripped into his coffee cup. “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”

I was concerned he might get loud and the other patrons of the cafe would take notice, before I remembered that it didn’t much matter. My friend was confessing.

“You know it’s–”

“It’s not okay.” He interrupted. “Don’t tell me that.”

He wasn’t wrong. We’d been praying together for several weeks. Nobody breaks a porn habit in a day, and most folks don’t even break it in a lifetime. The previous week we had talked through how at least half the porn available on the web is there without the consent of the women in the video – stripteases sent to former boyfriends, and the like. It’s never okay to gratify yourself to the image of someone you’re not in it for the long haul with, but it’s especially grievous to use an image or a video that wasn’t meant for your eyes. That goes beyond lust and dives headlong into betraying the sexual autonomy of the woman involved. All sin, at some level, deconstructs into some form of dehumanization toward another human being who bears the imago dei. This heaps on an extra layer.

He had viewed one such video the night before. At the beginning, he said, the woman made an offhand comment that suggested it was a video previously sent to a significant other. It was not meant for him, or anyone, to see. If she knew it was online, she might be horrified. To watch this was to transgress her sexual autonomy and, by extension, the sexual autonomy of all women, everywhere. He watched it anyway. Our convictions melt when they stand in the way of something we want.

It was not okay, and he didn’t want to be lied to. And I didn’t lie to him.

“Why do you think you do it?”

He tried his best to look quizzical. He already had an answer, but it wasn’t fully cooked. I waited.

“It feels safe,” He half-whispered. “Porn feels like home. And I’m usually homesick.”

* * *

Sin is usually a hiding place. We retreat to it because it feels safe and natural. Indeed, it is “safe” inasmuch as it is familiar and unchallenging, and it is natural inasmuch as it comes as naturally to us as breathing. It is a safe haven that guards us from the bold and invading reality in which we find ourselves, where nothing is certain or sound, safety is not guaranteed, and the clamor of responsibility fills the silence and prevents us from drinking deeply of rest.

So indulging in sin is most often an act of sheer cowardice rather than simply licentiousness for its own sake. A man indulges in sexual sin, for example, not simply because he lacks morals or resolve, but because he lacks backbone. He’s lily-livered and yellow-bellied.

What would we do instead? To exist at all, frankly, is painful. Everybody goes somewhere to feel safe. You fish or you drink or you reach for the remote – et cetera.  But if we’re honest, either God is your hiding place or sin is.

In the latter case, you hide from reality because it’s painful to be anyone or anything, then you hide from God because you hid from reality by burrowing deep in your sin. And then you hide from you because you’re embarrassed that you’re who you are. And at this point you ought to be, really. And now you’re in a loneliness too deep for words – especially blog words.

If you read my own entries here with any regularity, you’re probably tired of hearing me say that we’re born communitarians. God’s a trinity – three persons, one substance – which is to say that God is a Community. As such, image bearers that we are, we are created for community. ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ is, at best, secondarily about marriage. We exist to relate to others, specifically, after the likeness of God’s own Trinitarian pattern of love and self-giving. We’re born communitarians. 

It goes deeper than that, though. We are created for community, and we are created for Community. Which is to say, we exist to relate to God. In a way, that is, to participate in the unbroken joy of the Trinitarian Community, each of us, as a community swallowed up by grace in the original Community. We were created for God. Which means that so long as we’re hiding from God, we’ll be haunted by a loneliness deeper than loneliness. There’s no longevity to it. The illusion of safety that sin promises betrays us, invariably. It’s a bad hiding place.

Instead, perhaps, we could take a posture in every situation that says, “I am glad to be here. The pain of this is real, and I am glad that I am here, to be hurt at times like these. I don’t want to escape the ‘shackles of reality.’ They are not shackles. I am free to exist. To be – whatever that entails. I do not want an outlet into which I might retreat to avoid my present troubles.”

I’m suggesting the impossible here. At least, so long as we’re individuals, carrying on as individuals among other individuals while the sun sets and rises and the second-hand ticks toward oblivion. As long as we’re subjects of a loneliness too deep for words, disconnected from the ancient Community out of whose strange creativity we were born, there is no taking this posture. Too much is at stake to risk foregoing satisfaction in favor of faithfulness. If we’re not participants by grace in the fullness of joy within the Trinity’s blessed community, we’re doomed to please ourselves till we die, to stuff our pockets full with whatever might quiet the stir of deep sadness that hangs over us. And yet, our pockets have holes.

* * *

That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full. (1 John 1:1-4)

John wrote the above paragraph, apparently, “so that you may not sin.” (2:1) When I was younger, I didn’t understand what was supposed to be helpful about it. Okay, I thought, Jesus is the ‘Word of Life’ that was with the Father from the beginning. The dots did not connect. This is Sunday school stuff. 

As I’ve grown, though, it’s become the passage I treasure more than any other. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” John makes explicit what the other New Testament writers assume: that to become a disciple means enjoying the glory of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, not only at a distance as an admirer, but from the inside. No human being becomes God – this is one of the distinguishing marks between Christianity and Mormonism, for example – but we are included, by grace, through faith, in the joy of the already-satisfied God.

In a later writing, John takes to calling Jesus the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,‘ (Rev. 13:8), which is interesting, because He wasn’t slain before the foundation of the world. The crucifixion can be dated rather precisely – it took place at most within a 10 year window – and it’s well after the cosmos was made. Here John is getting at something different: The crucifixion of the Son of God is precisely the condition on which the project of creation was carried out. John writes that ‘in Him all things were made, and apart from Him not one thing was made that has been made,’ (John 1:3). Coupled with the aforementioned passages, a clearer picture emerges:

The Father, Son, and Spirit, wholly satisfied as a self-contained ‘Community,’ needing absolutely nothing and absolutely no one else to complete their happiness or augment their joy, wanted to create a world of other beings that were not them, with whom their perfect satisfaction could be shared, simply for its own sake. They knew, however, that the result would be a humanity so sinful that hell would be a form of social justice. Together, they agreed that the Son would become incarnate as a human being, teach them how to be ‘human’ again, and be crucified, swallowing up the whole wrath of the whole Godhead, and overcoming the forces of Darkness to rescue them for Himself, and complete the project, begun at Creation, of multiplying their own unchangeable joy into the world of creatures they had made.

So the privileges we receive in salvation go further than simply ‘not going to hell;’ We’re invited, for all time, effective immediately, into God’s inner corridors. There is no more Temple, no more Tabernacle, because Christ is the Temple, and we’re invited in to fellowship, as John says, with God our Father and His Son, because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And there, in the deepest chambers of the Triune communion, is a joy that sin cannot compete with, because it’s thoroughgoing. Sin is sweet and toxic, noisy, enticing. But Mercy is thirst-quenching. We chase the ghosts of satisfaction our whole lives, but it lives in the innermost chambers of a Temple we’re invited into. Like I said earlier, nobody ever becomes God. Sin offers us something like godness. Mercy offers the opposite. We’re dethroned as we’re ‘deified,’ Athanasius would have said, because he liked confusing sentences. He didn’t mean that we become a deity. He meant that we become what we were always meant to be – glorious human images of the high and humble King, emphasis on the humble part.

So sin is a hiding place. That’s an awful lot of why you look at porn or bully your roommate or lie to your neighbors and so on. But it’s a bad one. Ineffective, at least. But prayer, daily communion with the whole Godhead, is not. It’s not a hiding place, either. Though it is safe. However therapeutic it may be, communing with God never ends at catharsis. Instead it transforms us.

As you commune with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, your appetites are changed and your capacity to understand yourself as the recipient of an unmerited grace widens. And it makes you weird. We realize there, daily, that we’re forgiven for all of ourselves, down to the marrow. Our self-image dims, in a way. We realize as we drink deeply from the fountain of grace that every kind of abuse we ever put a gay classmate through is abuse we put Jesus through. You realize there that your homophobia held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your racism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ That your sexism held Jesus on the cross. ‘It was our sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.’ And your porn. And your cruelty. And your negligence in not calling your mother every couple weeks. In communion with the Godhead, we’re each haunted by a million sins. It doesn’t crush us, but it’s certainly changing us into something we weren’t and always should have been.

Actually, this is probably why we stick with sin. Joy makes too may demands on us, while sin cathartically drinks us dry. So sin’s a bad hiding place, and you owe it no allegiance. John writes, ‘My little children, if any man does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’ (1 John 2:1-2). We’re forgiven for everything, forever, and brought back into the communitarian joy we were created for. When we grasp that, we’re furnished with enough to carry us through whatever nightmares await us between the cradle and the grave. That should be plenty of joy to run on, certainly enough that we needn’t hide from reality beneath the blood-stained sheets of sin.

Jesus Won’t Make You Not Lonely

Jesus won’t make you not lonely. He never offered to. That’s a false promise from your youth pastor or a kitschy blog post you read.

And yet He does promise to make you complete. Which, apparently, still means lonely. Because if the gospels are any indication, Jesus was plenty lonely. 

There was a time when He wasn’t. “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” (Jn. 17:5)

Jesus was and is God, even though He’s not the Father, or the Spirit, and in eternity past, they were complete together, and they weren’t lonely. 

And creating people such as ourselves had everything to do with multiplying their own mutual satisfaction into creatures that were not them. So there will be a day when we are like them in that we won’t be lonely. Every thing will be as satisfying as it ought to be. 

We won’t be God, but we’ll he like Him in all the right ways even as we’re unlike Him in almost every way, because we’ll be investing in each other without emotional deficits to fill.

Everything we’ll stand to gain from friendship will change because we’ll carry on with one another out of an over-abundance of satisfaction. We will not strip-mine one another for satisfaction.

But today we’re lonely. We wake up and the dread’s there, quiet or clamoring. This is what Jesus felt, too. And it wasn’t because He was single, which He probably was.

Say He’d married Mary Magdalene. After picking her up off the ground and dusting her off, He wraps His robe around her and walks to the courthouse asking for a Baptist preacher. James and John are witnesses to their union. Their mom, too, for good measure.

They have a courthouse wedding and build a life together. He’s a bottomless pit of patience and He helps out around the house. She cooks a mean fish and she knows things the other wives don’t know about, on account of her life of sin before she met Him. Pretty soon she’s teaching every wife in the neighborhood things they couldn’t have known and the husbands are grateful. Jesus is just happy He gets to be the guy who comes home to her every day.

It’s not an end to His loneliness, though. The dread’s still there. Maybe it was clamoring and now it’s quiet. But dread is dread and if it’s there it’s there. Any way we slice it, we’ve got a lonely God-man and that means our loneliness is as holy as His ever was because it’s part of the human experience, and the human experience is holy because the Triune God breathed life into it for His glory – even if the humans that experience  it are damnable. 

What isn’t so holy is what we do with our loneliness. One of the things that sets us apart is the desperation with which we endeavor to eat up the dread that haunts us. We won’t be subjected to it, and anything done in the name of shielding ourselves from its oppression is pardonable, or even praiseworthy, we say in our hearts. Remarkably, this does not appear to have been Jesus’s posture.

There’s always a multitude of angles to everything, and there’s plenty to be said about the how and why of Jesus’s sinlessness, but one angle is certainly this: sin is noise as much as it is anything else. Noise to drown out the cacaphony of dread. It doesn’t shrink our loneliness, but it does compete for our attention. It’s racket that muffles despair. Our career in sin is a humanitarian endeavor directed at ourselves. We’re nursing wounds.

Jesus, lonely and wounded like everyone else who’s ever lived, turned His dread into occaision for worship. He neither revolted against His loneliness nor resigned Himself to it. He sacrilized it. 

Amongst other things, being like Jesus means going and doing likewise – recognizing the sanctity of loneliness and protecting ourselves from the temptation to flee from it. The tyranny of trying to complete ourselves in other people is staggering, and the novelty of romance and sex and even platonic friendship turns on us when we heave the weight of our “wholeness” on it. To quote Derek Webb, “Jesus died a broke, thirty-three year old virgin for the sake of those of us with misplaced values.” Like Jesus, let the existential dread that accompanies being a human being on planet earth carry us to the altar to worship.

Spurgeon’s Witness and the Plight of Contemporary Evangelicalism: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 4)

sword_and_trowel_cover

Cover page of early Sword and Trowel Magazine, published by the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

And we’re coming to a close. Charles Spurgeon is by no means a flawless witness. The advent of fringe sects such as the “5-point Spurgeonists” (See: Pulpit and Pen, etc.) have demonstrated the futility of orienting whole theological systems off of the work of any single theologian or Church figure. “Calvinism,” with its variegated pool of sources, is less-than-susceptible to this particular crack-in-the-asphalt, although no one theological system is without blemish. Nevertheless, it ought to have been exceedingly self-evident throughout this series that a sustained, immersive study of his ministry and the underlying theological propositions that drove it would be in our better interest. The fault-lines in his theology are not ambiguous. His ecclesiology was insufficiently robust. Although he managed to transcend the hyper-individualism that held Victorian Britain in its oppressive grip, he nevertheless allowed it to influence him away from a more satisfactorily plain reading of the new testament vision of the Church—the list goes on. But those fault lines, substantial as they are, do not diminish what he has to offer.

Although propositional theology has waned in popularity over the last half century, Spurgeon stands as a walking indictment against those who have sought to snuff it out of contemporary Evangelicalism. All of the charges leveled against it—that it breeds a cold, unfeeling demeanor in those who hold it, that it shuts down all opportunities for ecumenical activity, that it inclines believers away from social action by needlessly occupying them with intellectual scuffles, that it kills community between Christians of diverse stripes, and, among other things, that it fosters coercive measures to suppress theological dissenters—are found dead on arrival when applied to Spurgeon. He was vociferously opposed to the what he considered to be the peripheral flamboyances of Roman Catholicism but regarded them as brothers and sisters and unabashedly sought guidance from Catholic devotional writers.

He espoused a warm, emotive gospel proclamation that beckoned any and all to the rest of God. The finer points of theology that furnished his proclamation were not extraneous; they were the substance of his proclamation. His Evangelical Calvinism, his devotion to the supernatural authority of scripture, etc. were not baggage that came along with an otherwise nondenominational message of comforting vaguery. They were his message, and they were more tangibly love-wrought than anything drawn from the fashionable obscurantism emanating from the modern Evangelical establishment.

We can learn from Spurgeon that the challenges of the post-modern age are best met with a robust orthodoxy. After years of thinning out the distinguishing marks of the Christian religion in an effort to render our gospel proclamation more palatable to an increasingly post-Christian culture, it has ironically turned out that we need what Glen Stassen calls “a thicker Jesus.” We’ve come to hold the letter of Paul in suspicion, based on the assumption the he was part of some DaVinci Code-esque theory to depoliticize Jesus by turning Him into a Greek god—or something along those lines. Spurgeon’s testimony reminds us that an unrelenting faithfulness to Biblical authority will render us subversive. If Spurgeon read his Bible right, Paul was the force that cemented the subversive Jesus into the memory of the Church and defended His memory against the amnesiac tendencies of Judaizers and proto-Gnostic hecklers.

Likewise, we have plenty to learn about the importance of integrative theology. One unfortunate by-product of higher criticism’s growing prominence throughout all corners of the Church has been an obsessive attention-to-detail at the expensive of the bigger picture. The most troubling of the conclusions at which our 19th century German forefathers arrived can be pretty well traced back to F.C. Baur’s lack of imagination. Theological trends tend to ebb and flow according to the intellectual climate of the age, and the 19th century proved to be discouraging time for Orthodoxy, not because the foundations of the ancient faith had eroded, but because the men and women (mostly men) to whom we entrusted the keys to the hermeneutical kingdom had a keen eye for details but a hopeless deficiency in the sort of imaginative qualities required to interpret details well.

These controversies only arose at the tail end of Spurgeon’s life, and in any case he was in no condition to approach them earnestly. The stand that he took against higher critical methodology has not aged well, and those seeking to identify as contemporary Spurgeons, waging brave battle against the modern downgrade bear little resemblance to their hero. As a people who live in the middle of a peculiar standstill within the Evangelical world between differing strands of inerrantists, we would do well to emulate Spurgeon’s remarkable aptitude for integrating diverse sources into a coherent theological synthesis. By all accounts, the prince of preachers bore the greatest similarities to the puritan tradition. But we would be remiss to neglect the very real influence of Madame Guyon upon his thought. His disdain for the extravagancies of Roman Catholicism did not prevent him from appropriating that which was truthful in the scholarship and devotional literature of his would-be opponents.

Had he been in a more able state when the so-called Downgrade Controversy, he might have been able to prevent the mass apostasy that took place. Were Spurgeon to have put his imaginative prowess to use in sifting through the admittedly dry literature coming from the higher critical machine, he may well have come to the conclusion that the broad majority of conservative Evangelicals now hold: that the tools introduced by Wellhausen and friends are actually pretty useful so long as you can reason through the data you happen upon. In any case, he did not, and the heated propaganda churned out by both sides probably played a big part in preventing him from doing so. But with his penchant for integrating new and often stultifying information into a coherent ‘big picture’ in view, we are well equipped to confront even the more controversial edges of contemporary biblical scholarship and integrating what is truthful there without making a shipwreck of our faith.

Finally, we have plenty to learn from Spurgeon about the sheer depth of our dependence upon Christ as the inaugurator and completer of our ministry efforts. You could fill Noah’s Ark with all of the books that have been written over the last several decades about the various methodologies employed by Spurgeon and his compatriots at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. These are often helpful but can only tell so much of the story. When surveying Spurgeon’s own comments about his success in ministry, what emerges is a radical dependence upon the Spirit of the Christ with whom He communed to actualize the ministries for which He had commissioned him and his church family.

If a substantial amount of the work undertaken by Evangelical churches today feels empty, it is likely because although we have strategically built our church staffs with the Meyers-Briggs team development methods in mind, and crafted our programs specially around the trends we have noticed in our own communities, and paid close attention to Pew Research statistics and Barna studies to familiarize ourselves with the mind of our friendly neighborhood unchurched Mary(s) and Harry(s), we have carried out our best laid plans with the Spirit of Christ as an afterthought at best. The old saying, “is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” is as cheesy as it gets, but it’s also poignant.

Divine unction arises out of radical desperation for the Spirit of God to carry out the work of God and a willingness to become tools in his invisible hands. This desperation is visible in every line that Spurgeon wrote, and until we surrender ourselves, along with our resources and our status in contemporary western culture, we will see nothing like the revival that God was pleased to bring about in the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Communion and Social Justice, or, How the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Turn Our Faces Toward the Reformation of Society: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 3)

brooklyn_museum_-_the_last_supper_judas_dipping_his_hand_in_the_dish_la_cene-_judas_met_la_main_dans_le_plat_-_james_tissot

Last Supper by James Tissot, between 1886 and 1894.

With a cursory understanding of the backdrop against which the ‘prince of preachers’ conducted his ministry in place, we can make real sense of him. In Spurgeon’s estimation, the established Church in England at the time could be generally characterized as lacking active communion with God – with the notable exception of the fairly small evangelical subsector therein. This was most clearly visible in what he considered to be the dry, mechanical way in which they went about celebrating the ordinance of Communion. He abhorred their practice of reciting pre-written prayers and carrying out elaborate rituals in tandem with the sharing of bread and wine. He once posed the rhetorical question, “can anyone see the slightest resemblance between the Master’s sitting down with the twelve, and the mass of the Roman community?” referring to the Catholic Mass, he appears to have held the same complaint against the ‘tractarians’ and nominalists in the Church of England.

Evangelical churches, as mentioned earlier, had gradually surrendered their identities as the movement lost cultural influence, leaving London in an awkward position. On the one hand, there was a Christless community of ‘whitewashed tombs’; on the other, a lukewarm community who possessed the gospel but were increasingly without unction. The struggles that Victorian Evangelicals were facing were not, in Spurgeon’s mind, because God was not in their midst. He was of the opinion that God had temporarily withdrawn His Spirit from London, and that He was preparing to stir up a revival unlike anything that had been previously seen. But He had no illusions that revival would come about as the result of innovative ministry methods or captivating preaching styles, although he eventually put both to use in service of the kingdom. Spurgeon’s vision for revival was centered on individuals experiencing radical spiritual awakening through communion with God.

This, for Spurgeon, was what Stanley Grenz calls an integrative motif. It is defined as “that concept which serves as the central organizational feature of the [theological] system, that theme around which the systematic theology is structured.” He explains that it is “the heart of the theological system [and] it focuses the issues discussed and illumines the formulations of our responses to these issues.” To name an example, although Martin Luther never produced a volume specially devoted to systematic theology, justification by faith can be clearly identified as the integrative motif in his framework. Likewise, the entire body of John Calvin’s work is oriented around the glory of God and is best understood when read with that motif in view. Friedrich Schleiermacher, to name one more, theologized around the integrative motif of human religious experience. Reading through Spurgeon’s voluminous writings, it becomes clear that experiencing ‘communion with Christ and His people’ was the heart of his theology. Everything that he said and did—his whole body of preaching, his public prayers, his social concern—was born out of that integrative motif.

His theology, then, was a breath of fresh air at a time when the bulk of British Christianity was inconsequential. Although he bought in, at least on the surface level, to the prevailing Self-Help individualism of his day, the heart of his theology was relational. The two aspects of his character proved to be mutually modifying, and the end product was a deep concern for the souls of individuals, for the purpose of seeing them share in the joy of communing, first and foremost with Christ Himself as regenerate persons, and then consequently with His people as persons grafted into the community in whom His presence dwells. His fondness for the ordinance of communion makes sense is this light: it serves as a concrete reminder (Spurgeon often referred to it more emphatically as a “forcible reminder”) of the most unknowable mysteries of the Christian faith—most notably, of the atonement.

Thus, for Surgeon the value of the Communion ordinance was not respectful adherence to the ancient wellspring of Christian tradition, something with which he had a complex and uneven relationship, but instead the impossibility of separating the symbols of the bread and wine from the reality of the pierced flesh and flowing blood of the once wounded and eternally present savior. Here what Peter J. Morden has dubbed “Spurgeon’s convertive piety” was at work, and the frequent, attentive observance of Communion was an apt tool in the life of the believer to further cement their self-understanding in the concrete imagery of the gospel. Its effects on the community that observes the ordinance together are equally dramatic. It is in the daily “feasting on the Lord” in the form of spiritual disciplines and surrender to the guidance of the Holy Spirit that individuals are “conformed to the image of Christ; enjoyed together at the “Lord’s table,” individuals who are growing in godliness actualize the realities that define them as a community.

“Feasting on the Lord” together is, for Spurgeon, the most tangible discipline whereby a collective church community can commune with Christ. The intimacy with which they commune with God is illustrated by the intrusive nature of the ordinance: the elements are taken into the body, and so the Christ whom they portray is invited for all time into the whole person of the recipient. Receiving the elements into our persons together knits us to one another as brothers and sisters united by our common identity as people indwelt by Christ. Our kinship is more than skin deep. This likewise illuminates the experiential nature of Spurgeon’s theology. It is not merely a common adherence to an external tradition, but the common experience of the crucified Christ who is testified to in the elements that shapes us as a community. Thus, what initially appears to be a typically Victorian individualism proves, in fact, to be a humble reverence to the reality of experience. Whereas common Church practice, both among the establishment churches that sometimes derived harmony coercively through an imposition of the sacred rites onto individual believers and nonconformist churches that often lost their sense of Eucharistic identity in their zeal to distance themselves from sacerdotalism, Spurgeon’s robust integrative motif produced a clearly Evangelical understanding of the ordinance that, while nearly identical in substance to the traditional Baptist memorialist position, was decidedly more alive.

The same motif that formed his Eucharistic orthodoxy gave shape to his praxy. Plenty has been written about the seemingly tireless work that he would carry out on a daily basis. He was once asked, “how is it that you do the work of two men in a day?” He was reported to have wryly smiled and responded, “Have you forgotten that there are two men?” When his writings are closely examined, it becomes clear that this was not merely a clever quip. It was a summary of his whole attitude toward ministry. He was speaking in individualistic terms here, as the situation demanded, but it is also illustrative of his understanding of the ministry of the local church as well.

It should be noted early on that Spurgeon had a comparatively weak ecclesiological stance. He was indeed a fairly paint-by-numbers particular Baptist in regard to his congregationalism, but he approached ministries (such as the ordinance of communion) that were generally understood to be offices reserved for the local church with a looseness that was largely unheard of in Baptist life. Therefore, it is with his characteristic looseness that he espoused a paradoxically robust theology of ministry in which the Church labors away in the world as witnesses to the mercy of God as co-laborers with Christ. Informed largely by his Fullerite Calvinism, he conceptualized the Christ with whom believers commune not as an “absentee savior” but as an active worker in and alongside the Church whom He created. Although the nature of Christ’s labor alongside the Church was functionally different, it would have been inconceivable to Spurgeon to imagine that He was not actively working in the world to prepare hearts to meet Him and to prepare the way for His return.

For Spurgeon, this inevitably included the reformation of society. Although he was not a political radical, he saw the necessity of seeking relief for the suffering of those crushed under the heel of contemporary society’s protracted power struggles. This included slaves, underpaid laborers, the uneducated poor, indigenous natives of lands imperialized by the West, and soldiers wielded as disposable weapons by feuding governments. He felt he could not commune with Christ faithfully if he did not seek to live out the will of Christ in his own life and make it a reality in the lives of the downtrodden. It was, then, faithfulness to the principles of the gospel that Christ came to actualize that motivated Spurgeon to shepherd the church bodies over whom he had influence into unprecedented social concern. Sharing in the work of Christ was a concrete embodiment of the blood bought communion with him that believers enjoyed.

This led, as was mentioned above, to a multitude of different outworkings. The most relevant of these is The Pastor’s College a seminary aimed at preparing young, poor ministers for a future of ministry after Spurgeon’s own vision. It was not to create an army of minions who would then crowd out the London Church scene to give him a unique cultural hegemony. Rather, it was to extend the scope of his vision past the immediate influence of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Although the ministries in which they had involved themselves were going exceptionally well, there was an obvious need for fellow churches to join in the work. The need was not only practical but theological. Communing with Christ was not simply the business of the people of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but the business of the whole Church. Therefore, Spurgeon sought to pave the way for future ministers to take up the mantel that his congregation had thus far carried on its own.

It was an obvious outworking of his theology that the people who communed with God must commune with one another in the process of communing with God. This meant quite plainly that he had a responsibility to bring the mission of Christ within reach for other Churches. Although there was plenty to be done for and with stagnant churches during his life, he found his primary role in the process to be the training of low-income pastors. He was noted to have suggested that “If God has a preference for one group of people over others, it is the poor whom he favors … and we are blessed to favor them as well.” One of the requirements of The Pastor’s College was to live with a working-class family from the Metropolitan Tabernacle to become acquainted with the conditions of life faced by working-people. It was of no use to anyone, Spurgeon thought, if the clergy was to be composed entirely of cultural elites whose sermons are aimed at furthering their own respectability and whose personal concerns are at odds with the radical inclusiveness of the gospel message brought to the Church by Christ.

As a result, Spurgeon’s disciples made up the majority of Baptist church-planters by a wide-margin during the second half of his lifetime—congregations with a driving compassion for the working-class and a robust adherence to the Calvinistic doctrines of grace. In the troubling absence of lively churches with whom to share in the discipline of communing with Christ in mutual gospel labor, he prepared leaders to plant a whole slew, and in doing so recast the direction of nonconformism for future generations of devout Brits. Likewise, and equally important, the multiplying activity of the Metropolitan Tabernacle went a long way in overcoming lostness in Victorian London. As they colabored with Jesus against the evils of false religion, irreligion, and social oppression, souls were redeemed at an alarming rate. Throughout the entire process, he was sure to center the spiritual development of the students around his own integrative motif, often illustrating their collective identity as blood-bought people by celebrating the ordinance of communion after Friday lectures.

And he prayed for them. It was his conviction that the labor which they had been called to carry out alongside the tireless Jesus was possible only through continued mutual prayer support. Charles no more believed that he could accomplish notable things for Jesus on His own strength than that he could cross the Atlantic Ocean on horseback. The same was true, he reasoned, for all ministers. Therefore he urged his students and congregants to “pray [for him] without ceasing],” that he might be an effective minister of the gospel in their city and in the world. One of the many “possibly apocryphal” Spurgeon stories that I mentioned in the first entry of this series involved someone visiting the Metropolitan Tabernacle on one of the rare nights in which there was not an organized activity going on, having scheduled an interview with the pastor. When they arrived, they were greeted warmly and personally given a tour by his interview subject. “What is the secret to your church’s success?” They asked. He smiled thoughtfully and said, “follow me,” before taking them into a sequestered room that was filled with people praying together for the church, for Spurgeon, for missions, etc. Charles looked at them earnestly and insisted, “what you are looking at is the life-blood of our Church.”

In another, more easily verifiable instance, a vacationing Spurgeon was asked about his ministry strategy by a local pastor from Mentone. After stewing on it for a few moments, he replied, “my people pray for me.” Communing with Christ entailed spending time with Him in prayer in the same way that you would spend time with another person. It was not for Spurgeon merely a tool whereby God could be made to act in the believer’s favor, nor should it consist in what he saw as monotonous prewritten mantras lifted up to the heavens for the sheer sake of tradition. He saw prayer in largely the same terms as his American contemporary, E.M. Bounds: personal prayer was the most relational of all spiritual disciplines, given that it consists from beginning to end in intentional time spent basking in the presence of the risen Christ and sitting at His feet. Although its primary function is not the sanctification of the believer, it is the inevitable product. One cannot sit at the feet of Jesus without being changed by what He has to say.

Likewise, one cannot be delighted by the treasures of knowing Christ intimately without experiencing a fundamental change in the underlying desires that drive their decisions, both moral and practical. Prayer was God’s chief means of sanctification, and per His divine scheme, sanctification was the product of a sustained and soul-sustaining friendship with Jesus.

The sanctifying properties of prayer work horizontally as well as vertically. It was not merely devotional prayer that sustained the prince of preachers, but intercession that had been lifted up on his behalf. In Spurgeon’s theological framework, God predestined not only events but the petitions that brought them about. He saw no contradiction between his determinism and his steadfast devotion to prayer. He could therefore comfortably teach that nothing happened for the kingdom apart from the prayers of the saints while simultaneously teaching that God’s sovereignty covered every aspect of existence, including salvation history. The conversion of a single sinner, for example, could be attributed to the ceaseless prayers of his wife and mother on his behalf, which they lifted up because God had willed the man to be saved. His theology presupposes that God has established an order in which He rarely carries out His own will unless He is asked. Therefore, He metes out understanding to different individuals in the Church so that they might petition Him to carry out His desires. “God predestines our prayers,” Spurgeon was known to say.

This played out vividly in his understanding of ministerial success. As he grew more experienced, he placed a steadily increasing emphasis upon congregation-wide prayer meetings. It became his conviction that his preaching, however important, was of less concrete value than the mutual prayers off the people in his congregation lifted up for one another. He would preach to them sometimes five days a week, but he wanted even more desperately for them to pray for one another (and for him). In this way, communing with Christ in prayer did much of the work of bringing His people into communing with one another. It is not a stretch to suggest that the tightly-knit community that formed around the shared communion with Christ in these congregational prayer meetings became a catalyst for the groundbreaking work that God entrusted to them throughout the nearly four decades of Spurgeon’s pastorate. Indulging together in communion with Christ through prayer ennobled them to follow through in communion with Christ in the mission field and on the streets of London. The resultant church was a prophetic force to be reckoned with in a Christless culture that had hitherto come to justify its idolatry by posturing itself as Christendom.