Church Discipline in the Reformation

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that for a brief spell last summer, I was churning out a number of posts related to Reformed views of church discipline in the sixteenth century.  Those were, as it were, the scraps on the cutting room floor from an article I was helping my friend Jordan Ballor write for the online journal EGO: European History Online.  After nine months of peer review and such, the article is finally up here.

While the topic may sound a bit arcane, it is in fact crucial to understanding the development of Reformed ecclesiology and political theology, topics near and dear to my heart, as they should be near and dear to yours.  Although our article is largely encyclopedic in intent (that is to say, to provide a broad overview of the whole topic, rather than advance a particular new argument), we do seek to challenge entrenched misconceptions at a couple points.

First, we argue that it is dangerous to do history too much in hindsight, starting from the fact of later rifts and reading those back into earlier periods.  Accordingly, we suggest that the  Zurich/Geneva dichotomy (Erastian vs. Calvinist models of church/state relations), a firm fixture of Reformation scholarship, while a clear reality of the post-1570 world, should not be overstated when we are talking about earlier periods.  The two models shared a number of key similarities amidst their differences, and neither side (particularly the Zurichers) insisted that theirs was the only right way of doing things.  Indeed, there were a number of hybrid forms in other Reformed cities and principalities, which combined elements of each vision.  Moreover, inasmuch as there were two models, it is somewhat inaccurate to see the second as the creation of Calvin and Geneva; to a large extent, Calvin developed his approach from those used in Basel and Strasbourg. Read More

The Late Great Natural Law Debate: Synopses and Reflections, Pt. 1

Time was, maybe 20 years ago, when “natural law” was a foreign notion to most evangelical Protestants.  “Isn’t that some crazy Catholic idea?  Or some outdated relic of the Middle Ages?” most might ask.  More thoughtful Reformed folks might have an arsenal of theological arguments against the concept—presuppositionalism and all that.  But for a variety of reasons, there was a rapid sea-change.  With the ascendancy of the Moral Majority, conservative Christians found themselves catapulted into the public square, and the more sophisticated were conscious that a raw and undiluted biblicism was not going to get them very far in public debates.  Finding themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with Catholic co-belligerents in the culture wars, evangelicals glanced over at the popish playbook and thought natural law looked like a pretty promising notion.  Accordingly, they took up the idea with gusto.

But now, scarcely a decade into this revolution, the twofold curse of evangelicalism has reasserted itself.  First, evangelicals are always at least twenty years behind; they only jump on the bandwagon of an idea when it is nearing the end of its life-cycle—tired, worn-out, and ready to be discarded by its earlier proponents.  Second, evangelicals are like the second group in the parable of the sower: “this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”  Having no roots in themselves, evangelical allegiance to a theological concept is often only skin-deep, ready to be abandoned as soon as difficulties and objections present themselves.

So it is beginning to prove now, particularly when it comes to the use of natural law arguments in what seems to be the Somme battlefield of the current culture wars.  Finding that natural law arguments are gaining them no traction in the current debate, evangelicals, and indeed many within the whole cobbled-together conservative coalition, were already wavering and considering withdrawal.  When Catholic and Orthodox stalwarts, then, under whose table we are so often picking up the theological scraps, sounded the horn for retreat, ranks break and a disorderly retreat to our ecclesial safe-havens begin.  

So it was when superstar theologian David Bentley Hart’s opined in an essay for First Things, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws” that natural law is not all that useful, nor all that natural.  The essay provoked a tide of responses and counter-responses in the blogosphere, which continues even now.  For Hart’s remarks went deeper than mere tactical recommendations for conservatives engaging in public policy debates, and struck at the root of the natural law tradition itself, the foundation upon which so much Christian political theory has been built over the centuries.

As the controversy has ended up expanding to incorporate a number of my friends or mentors (Doug Wilson, Peter Leithart, Steven Wedgeworth, Peter Escalante, and Alastair Roberts), as well as high-profile thinkers and commentators such as Edward Feser, Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs, and as it seems likely to rumble on a bit longer, it seems desirable to give something of a round-up for those who, like me, were somewhat late in listening in on the conversation, and want to be brought up to speed.  So I will seek here to provide a crash-course overview—I cannot be exhaustive, summarizing every contribution, of course, but I will try to take note of the more significant and helpful ones that have come to my attention, and will offer a few of my own thoughts about where the most important faultlines and unanswered questions lie (this is a considerably longer version of the synopsis I posted last week at the PT Blog).  

Although he began by claiming to agree with the basic metaphysical presuppositions of natural law (“a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate”), Hart expressed serious skepticism that this order could be rendered transparent to most people, as the natural law tradition claimed.  He characterized this tradition as “a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. . . . the natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation.” “This,” he concluded, “is a hopeless cause.”

Why?  Because “Hume’s bluntly stated assertion that one cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is” happens to be formally correct.”  You cannot get from metaphysics to morality on reason alone, but only by “a belief about nature . . . a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way.”  Indeed, even if we succeeded in generating consensus that a particularly way of life in line with nature conduced most to happiness, a Nietzschean could still insist that the noblest act of human will was to defy nature.  In short, “as long as the will remains unconverted, and unwilling to consider conversion, reason is mostly powerless to change things.”  

In view of the ability of so many people to arrive at very different conclusions about what nature demands, or to scoff at the whole notion that nature imposes any moral constraints upon us, Hart concluded that “our concept of nature [and its moral implications], in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions.”

This essay clearly struck a chord with a cohort of American Conservative columnists, although their approaches to the issue differed somewhat.  Noah Millman went further than Hart in skeptically dismissing the philosophical integrity of the natural law tradition, as having little ground in nature understood scientifically.  His argument, however, highlighted a concern Hart voiced in his closing sentence: “And, in an age that has been shaped by a mechanistic understanding of the physical world, a neo-Darwinian view of life, and a voluntarist understanding of the self, nature’s ‘laws’ must appear to be anything but moral.”  If “natural law” claims to rest not merely on metaphysical foundations, but on physical foundations (as the classical natural law tradition clearly did; Aristotle took himself to be giving a scientific account of human nature), then we must contend with the fact that the reigning account of the physical universe today is very different.  Ordered teleology has been replaced with chaotic survival of the fittest?  If Darwinism is true, does that destroy the foundations of natural law?  Or can we argue, as Jean Porter does in her magisterial Nature as Reason, that the metaphysical foundations remain largely intact, whatever we concede to physical science?  In any case, as we shall see, Millman’s argument somewhat misses the mark, as most natural law accounts of morality proceed more from the starting point of the nature of human rationality and psychology than the nature of our physical environment.  (Of course, that just raises the question of whether, then, natural law theorists need to be more concerned about studies in psychology and the cognitive sciences.)

Rod Dreher’s response, however, drew considerably more attention than Millman’s angle.  Enthusing over Hart’s article, Dreher summarized:

“This is why I don’t have any faith in the natural-law-based arguments against same-sex marriage. It’s not that I disagree with them necessarily; it’s that a) they are hard for ordinary people conditioned by our culture’s modes of thought to grasp, and b) partly because of this, they (understandably) prompt a, “So what?” response. This is Hart’s point.”

But actually, that wasn’t really Hart’s point.  Or certainly not his main point.  Hart was not simply lamenting that natural law arguments, while formally valid, are hard to grasp for our society, that we’re trying to teach calculus to junior-high students, or noting that they are rhetorically ineffective, like trying to teach anything to students these days without PowerPoint.  Hart was saying, it appeared, that these arguments were formally invalid in the absence of a supernatural premise.  But Dreher’s concern, as he made clear again in a follow-up post, was less about the universal viability of natural law than its contingent viability within our particular cultural context: “we are in a world in which reason is far weaker than we think”; the majority of ordinary people have lost the ability or the willingness to distinguish between a reasoned argument and a mere assertion of opinion. To believe that sophisticated metaphysical arguments for ethical and political conclusions will get us far in the current state of public discourse is a silly fantasy.  

Dreher’s concerns about rhetorical effectiveness, and about the cultural conditioning that has undermined our society’s ability to reason, are important ones, and we encounter them in several other contributions to the discussion.  However, it is important to distinguish, as Dreher did not, between these practical concerns and Hart’s more theoretical question of whether natural law could be compelling to natural human reason as such.

Alan Jacobs seconded Dreher’s general concern, noting that Christians needed to recognize the importance not merely of proclamation, but of persuasion, in the public square, and that “arguments founded on the existence of natural law get no traction in the current intellectual climate.”  His concern went somewhat further, though (and this reveals that there is more connection between the contingent pragmatic claim and the universal theoretical claim than might have first appeared).  If we account for the ineffectiveness of natural law in the current climate by saying that natural law arguments work to those who are reasoning properly, and are only unpersuasive to those who aren’t really listening or thinking carefully, we have a problem: “The unpersuaded people are still there; the social or political problem you’re trying to fix is still there. Is it really the best we can do to say ‘You fail to meet my standards of rationality; therefore I refuse to debate with you further’?”

In part, Jacobs is just making the pragmatic point again—if we conclude that the problem is just that our opponents are irrational, we’re still, both as good Christians and good citizens, left with the responsibility to try and persuade them, and we need to find a compelling way to do so, a way that presumably does not resort to natural law reasoning; so Jacobs concludes,

“In the short term we need to find ways to commend our strongly-held views without recourse to natural law arguments; and in the long term we need to think about how the existence of natural law can be made both plausible and appealing to people who now see nothing in it. I don’t see a responsible way out of either pursuit.”

(I would note in passing that there is no true persuasion that does not include an appeal to someone’s reason, and so, if persuasion is by any means possible, the very fact that we can appeal to someone’s reason in a matter of moral argument demonstrates the existence of some kind of underlying natural law.)  But Jacobs’s remark suggests that we have more than just a practical problem, but an intellectual one: are we really prepared to dismiss all our opponents as incapable of reasoning?  What are the consequences of doing so, and what, ethically speaking, does that entail about how we are obliged to treat them?  I will return to this below when addressing Samuel Goldman’s contribution to the discussion.  But let us move on on to the more philosophical/theological side of the debate for a bit.  

Hart’s essay had indiscriminately lumped together and rejected the two rather different theories of old natural law (a continuation of the Thomist-scholastic tradition) and new natural law (the Kantianized version offered by recent Catholic philosophers such as Germain Grisez and John Finnis), and representatives of both camps were understandably miffed.  While some pointed out that Hart had at other times and places spoken more favorably and more advisedly on the subject of natural law, his fellow philosophers and theologians were not about to let him off the hook for this particular utterance.

New Natural Law theorist R.J. Snell rejected the claim that natural law theorists violate the Humean dictum not to derive an ought from an is; on the contrary, the new natural law studiously avoids doing just that.  Instead of beginning with an account of nature grounded in speculative reason, and deducing from this duties of practical reason, they begin with the self-evident (in the sense of innate, underived, or basic) presence of moral first principles in practical reason, the awareness that “good is to be done and evil avoided.”  That is to say, they begin on the ought side of the divide, our experience of ought-ness, and stay there.  The derivation of particular moral precepts from this starting-point is an exceedingly complex and arduous task, and thus it is also a straw man for Hart to describe natural law as insisting “that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind.”  Nonetheless, Snell argued in a follow-up post that natural law reasoning is not useless, nor does it require total conversion of the will to be heard: “There need not be a fundamental change of metaphysical horizons, supernatural convictions, or religious beliefs; the only requirement is for persons of practical reason to meet themselves, perhaps for the first time, and to pay attention to what they are doing.”  Persuasion by means of natural law reasoning may be difficult, therefore, but it is possible within the horizon of the natural.

Old Natural Law theorist Edward Feser, in a blistering dissection of Hart’s essay, agreed with Snell’s accusation of “straw-manning.”  Indeed, Feser pointed out that it was “only by running together the two main contemporary approaches to natural law that Hart can seem to have struck a blow against either” and that Hart was “directing his attack at a phantom position that no one actually holds.”  For new natural law theorists, as Snell pointed out, grant the validity of Hume’s dictum, and accordingly self-consciously reconfigure their theory in such a way as to avoid violating it, whereas old natural law theorists refuse to grant the validity of the dictum, resting their case as they do on an allegiance to the Aristotelian concept of formal and final causes, “that is to say, in the idea that things have immanent natures or substantial forms and that in virtue of those natures they are inherently directed toward certain natural ends, the realization of which constitutes the good for them.” 

Indeed, says Feser, it is hard to see how Hart can coherently grant the validity of the Humean dictum either, since from this “it would follow that the purely theological ethics to which Hart seems committed, no less than natural law theory, cannot get off the ground.”  Feser likewise contends that Hart misses his target when he objects that natural law arguments depend on controversial metaphysical premises.  Of course they do, grants Feser, as in fact do all moral theories whatsoever, including secular theories.  Feser thus calls Hart’s bluff of conflating “supernatural” and “metaphysical,” and declares that “if its being controversial makes it ‘hopeless’ as a contribution to the public square, then every controversial position is hopeless.”  What is needed, then, is not an abandonment of natural law, but a recognition that if it is to be rendered convincing to our culture, we have a major task in philosophical education before us, as well as the theological task.

This might seem to bring Feser close to Dreher’s point—that natural law arguments might be valid, but few can follow them anymore—but, responding to Dreher in another post, Feser says that this “entails only that the work of the natural law theorist is more difficult than it would have been in previous generations, not that it isn’t worth doing.”  Indeed, it’s very worth doing, and one reason is “that the liberal, who claims to favor intellectual pluralism in the public sphere, needs constantly to be forced to put his money where his mouth is”—if we do not forthrightly argue unpopular convictions in the public square, we can hardly blame the public for dismissing us as lacking any rational arguments.

(It should be noted in passing, though I have no space here to develop or discuss it, that Thaddeus Kozinski, in response to Snell and particular Feser, offered a forceful philosophical and theological defense of Hart’s critique of both old and new natural law traditions.  This is well-worth digesting (and perhaps discussing another day), revealing as it does that, regardless of the sloppiness of Hart’s original argument, the matter remains considerably more complicated than pure ONL or pure NNL theorists would have us believe.)

Steven Wedgeworth at The Calvinist International weighed in to offer a Protestant endorsement of Feser’s overall argument, and condemned the writers at First Things for a capitulation to “modernist” presuppositions.  For many Protestants, still skeptical of natural law, it might seem odd why we would want to defend the idea that “objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition,” as Feser puts it—mustn’t revelation always be our foundation?  Wedgeworth seeks to explain the importance of something like Feser’s natural law theory:

“That tradition [of Christian philosophy] said that certain metaphysical truths were self-evident and necessary for all other rational discourse. ‘The contrary’ was, to borrow a phrase from other Christian transcendentalists, ‘impossible.’ Certain truths have to be the case in order for reason to be coherent, and since reason itself is necessary to dispute reason’s coherency, those truths’ existence is itself necessary or self-evident. Thus objective truth is itself self-evident and capable of being appealed to.” 

As Christians committed to the existence of objective truth and to the idea that God created man a rational being, naturally capable of knowing Him and the world around him, natural law is crucial.  

My friend Ben Miller seeks to eludicate this concern from a more biblical perspective in a post here, offering this excellent closing observation:

“If we surrender the metaphysical ground that man is made in God’s image and that as such he is (though fallen and in dire need of God’s Word and Spirit) both subject to and at some level aware of the moral order of the universe, we leave ourselves in a position where we can, in fact, only thump our Bibles – and worse, our biblically intelligent hearers will recognize that we have actually given up on what our Bible says. If they hear us cite the Bible, but see that we have no confidence that God’s moral order is operative within them and they within it, or that His moral order is known to them (in other words, if they see that we have accepted their moral autonomy as real), then we have yielded not just the authority of natural law but also the authority of the Bible.”


Meanwhile, however, the more practical and political sides of the question remained.  In response to Feser, Samuel Goldman at The American Conservative wondered just how much Feser thought that philosophical argument could achieve.  Does Feser think “that the metaphysical foundations of natural law theory can be demonstrated such that any rational and sufficiently attentive person would be compelled to accept them?”  Goldman is skeptical of such a strong claim.  In any case, if that is our claim, we are bound to find that, in point of fact, plenty of people are not “rational” or “sufficiently attentive.”  Accordingly, anyone who hopes to generate “consensus” is deluding themselves.   But

“fortunately, consensus is not the only good produced by public discussion. Participants can also clarify the premises and implications of their own intuitions, learn where others see things differently, and seek unexpected areas of  agreement. In short, they can learn to muddle through: agreeing where they can and tolerating when they must.”

Goldman’s brief post, like Jacobs’s, invites us to wrestle with the question of how we are to understand and handle moral disagreement.  This is a very serious question, because for many of us who have been attracted to natural law theory, coming out, perhaps, of an evangelical biblicism or a belligerent Reformed presuppositionalism, its attraction lies in its potential to replace war with dialogue.  From the standpoint of the various fideisms that dominate the conservative theological landscape, moral disagreement is not at all surprising, or difficult to account for.  “Well, of course they hold to nonsense and wickedness,” we say; “after all, they’re sons of Belial.”  Outside of faith in Christ is only darkness of the mind and hostility toward truth, and only conversion or conquest (and regrettably, the two are often rather blurred together), not persuasion, can be our answer.  We thus find ourselves trapped in a situation where we are confident, a priori, that we will not find common ground with the world around us, and this conviction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Of course, quite clearly, Scripture leads us to believe that on many points, this is precisely the case—the unbelieving mind is enmity against God; you are either for Christ or against him.  

But both the Catholic natural law tradition and all the more so the Protestant one, founded on the two-kingdoms foundation, assert that this cannot be the case for all of life.  If it were simply the case that our rational faculties were destroyed by sin, then grace would not perfect nature, but would replace it.  Scripture would have to tell us everything whatsoever, which it clearly doesn’t; or rather, even this would not work, because we would be deprived of the rational apparatus needed to grasp and apply Scripture (one of Hooker’s key arguments).  Immediate revelation by the Spirit would be our only guide, and since each person’s revelation would be immediate and interior, there would be no possibility of rational discourse among believers.  (A bit of a straw man, maybe, but this is the logical trajectory of a rejection of natural law.)  Therefore, our epistemic paralyzation must apply only within a certain realm, or at any rate, must be total only within a certain realm and limited in its effects elsewhere.  To be sure, the tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, has generally asserted that within the realm of ethics, the Fall has more severely affected our faculties than it has in more abstract and impersonal areas of inquiry.  Indeed, neither Aquinas nor Hooker, for all their reputed optimism about the powers of reason, was under the impression that we could get along just fine in moral and political matters without divine aid.  James Chastek pointed this out with regard to Thomas and from Hooker, we could cite this passage, from among many:

If then it be here demanded, by what means it should come to pass (the greatest part of the Law moral being so easy for all men to know) that so many thousands of men notwithstanding have been ignorant even of principal moral duties, not imagining the breach of them to be sin: I deny not but lewd and wicked custom, beginning perhaps at the first amongst few, afterwards spreading into greater multitudes, and so continuing from time to time, may be of force even in plain things to smother the light of natural understanding; because men will not bend their wits to examine wherewith they have been accustomed be good or evil.

. . . . Unto this . . . somewhat besides may be added.  For whatsoever we have hitherto taught, or shall hereafter, concerning the force of man’s natural understanding, this we always desire withal to be understood; that there is no kind of faculty or power in man or any other creature, which can rightly perform the functions allotted to it, without the perpetual aid and concurrence of that Supreme Cause of all things.  The benefit whereof as oft as we cause God in his justice to withdraw, there can no other thing follow than that which the Apostle noteth, even men endued with the light of reason to walk notwithstanding ‘in the vanity of their mind, having their cogitations darkened, and being strangers from the life of God through the ignorance which is in them, because of the hardness of their hearts.” (LEP I.8.11)

The natural law theorist, need have little difficulty accounting for the fact that in our society today, natural law seems to have so little traction.  Perhaps we have fallen victim to “lewd and wicked custom”; perhaps we have caused God to withdraw the light of reason from among us.  Perhaps, then, we are in something like the situation that the belligerent biblicists assume our culture is in—estranged from the truth, incapable of reason.  And if this is so, then aren’t we right back in a culture-war mentality?  That is to say, it’s all well and good to explain what sort of moral reasoning a “rightly-functioning intellect” is capable of, but if this leads us to conclude that all of our interlocutors are simply irrational and immoral, we don’t seem to have advanced very far at all in our ability to engage in civil public discourse within a pluralist society, we have not advanced at all in retrieving the possibility of persuasion.  We seem to be back in a situation where we must simply give up on the rest of “irrational” society and retreat to our strongholds, or else aggressively assert the superiority of our own reasoning and call upon our opponents to subject their reasons to the yoke of Christ.  

Is there an alternative?  How can we still go about persuading, and in the absence of consensus, how may we still live together? 

I will attempt to explore and perhaps even address these questions in a second installment next week, by interacting with a second phase of the Late Great Natural Law Debate, one prompted by Peter Leithart’s First Things post, “Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination.”

God is Greater than Our Hearts

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh

Palm Sunday 2013 (March 24th)
1 John 3:18-24

Lord, we thank you for the blessing of your Word.  We thank you, as we enter into Holy Week, that through the death and resurrection of your Son we have confidence to enter into your presence, and receive from you anything we ask.  We pray that we would receive from you hearts open to your word, hearts free from condemnation and ready to hear your comfort, minds attuned to what John is trying to tell us here.  I pray that your Spirit would speak through me today, that I might speak truly about you, and that I would be able speak to the hearts of all those present.  In the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit we pray.  Amen.

When we were very young—around age 10, I think—my sister and I went through a period of spiritual doubt.  Being a no-nonsense sort of guy, even at that age, it didn’t last too long or strike too frequently for me, but I recall that for my sister, it was something of a regular ritual.  We had picked up from somewhere—not from my parents, certainly, or even our church, but perhaps just from breathing the air in the Bible Belt—that we were supposed to “get saved” by “asking Jesus into our hearts” in a moment of prayer and penitence.  The mechanics were frustratingly vague, but the idea was that, if you prayed really hard and really meant it, that you would experience a sudden wave of peace, and confidence that Jesus was in you, and had saved you, and you now had a free pass that you would you get you to eternity, and needn’t worry again.  But of course, worry we did.  After awhile, we would wonder, “Yeah, but did I really mean it?  Did I say the words in the right order?  Did I really feel Jesus in my heart, or did I just think I did?  Maybe I should try again, to make sure.”  And so it would go, time after time.  I think my sister, being blessed with earnestness but cursed with a short attention span, must have gotten saved at least two dozen times.

By now this seems a bit silly.  But we were, in our own little way, struggling with the problem that has tormented millions of souls through the centuries—the problem of assurance.  How do we know that we belong to the truth?  How do we set our hearts at rest before him?  In hindsight, it seems clear why we had so much difficulty gaining genuine assurance this way.  “Let us love in actions and in turth, and not with words or speech.”  This prayer was just talk, and so it seemed much too easy.  The momentary peace would pass, and we would ask, “Really?  That’s it?  Nah, that can’t have done the trick; I have to try harder.  There must be more to it than that.”  And in a way, we were right.  There is more to it.  To know that we belong to the truth, we have to live it.  To know that God’s love abides in us, we must abide in love.  When God loves us, and we receive that love, he makes us into channels of his love, pouring it out on our brothers and sisters.  By living out that love, John says, “we know that we belong to the truth.”  

But this leads to the opposite problem.  If we must love in actions and in truth, how can we ever be sure that we’ve loved enough?  Have we really loved as we should?  The best of us fail over and over again.  How then can we assure our hearts before him?  One man’s struggle with this question may be said to have changed the course of history.  Many of you probably know the story of Martin Luther, and how he spent years as a devout monk, fasting, praying, ministering, doing everything he could to “love with actions and in truth” in order to set his heart at rest, and finding instead that because of it he loved God less and less.  He later wrote, “But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”  For him, the moment of liberation came when he realized the meaning of the verse, “The just shall live by faith.”  “All at once,” he said,” I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.”  Actually, this experience helped Luther see this passage in 1 John in a different light, as we shall see in a bit.

So John, like any pastor really, finds himself having to address both types of people.  Some people think that following Jesus is easy, a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.  To them, John has stern words in this chapter: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  But he knows also that for others, these stern words will be a source of anxiety.  Some people are following Christ seriously, are abiding in God’s love, and yet worry that they’re never doing enough.  For these, he wants to offer comfort.  There are some of us here who probably need to hear each message—perhaps each of us, at different points in our lives, need to hear both.  How is John to fit both messages together?  John loves to speak in paradox and in poetry, and in this passage we find him at his richest, most elusive, and most paradoxical, as he seeks to show us that abiding in love, and having faith, are not two different things, but two sides of the same coin.  For even when he speaks of our “knowing” that we are of the truth based upon our acts of love—and John uses this sort of language repeatedly in the epistle—this kind of “knowing” turns out to be not an evidential knowledge, but an experiential knowledge, a knowledge of faith.

This theme of knowing is an obsession of John’s in this epistle.  This tiny letter contains 1/10 of all of the New Testament’s occurrences of the word for “know”—ginosko.  Another 1/4 of the New Testament occurrences occur in the Gospel of John.  Why this obsession?    Well, you may remember that the context of John’s writings, especially 1 John, is the appearance of “Gnostic” groups within the church.  The word “Gnostic” comes from ginosko, because the Gnostics claimed a special inner knowledge.  They had received true enlightenment, they had received certainty.  Because they had the right ideas, they knew that they were of the truth.  How could the other Christians know?  “By loving one another?” they sneered.  How could that ever give “knowledge”?  John wants to reassure his readers that by abiding in the love of God, they can know, but their knowledge is one that comes through the experience of loving and believing, not from mystical illumination or philosophical insight. 

John is also here intentionally recalling a passage from the Gospel of John—Jesus’s Last Supper Discourse in chapters 14-17—the words and themes from that passage appear over and over in these verses.  As we begin Holy Week, we should imagine what it was like for Christ’s disciples that night, when Jesus suddenly tells them that he is about to leave them.  Jesus begins his discourse there by saying “Let not your hearts be troubled” (14:1), even though, from now on, they will have to walk by faith and not by sight.  But how will they know that Jesus is with them?  How will they know they are still following in his footsteps?  They ask this question, the same question with which we struggle, several times, and Jesus never gives a direct answer.  He never gives them a scientific or philosophical proof.  “Believe” he says.  “Love” he says.  “Abide in me,” he says.  “Listen to the Spirit.”  John gives the same answers in this passage. 

He begins by saying that we can know that we are walking with Jesus if we love in actions and in truth.  (Even though in the NIV that some of you have there, it looks like verse 19 is beginning a new thought, John is more likely starting off by referring back to verse 18.)  Now John doesn’t mean that we earn God’s love by our love for one another, but that this is how we show it and experience the reality of it.  God’s love in us can’t help but overflow into our love of one another, and our love toward one another can’t help but overflow into love God.   We love, because he loved.  This is why John says that “by this we shall know that we belong to the truth.”  

But still, we worry, with Luther, that this answer doesn’t help us.  Because we often don’t experience ourselves as loving one another in actions and in truth.  Given that we are all sinners, how can we even begin to know we are of the truth based on our actions?  Here we get to see John’s witty word-play.  In verse 20, he says, “For whenever our heart condemns us”—the word for “condemn” there is kata-ginosko—literally, “to know something against.”  This is our problem after all, isn’t it?  Our consciences know us too well.  They know about that time that we did close our heart against a brother in need, that time when we hated our sister, that time when we refused to forgive our parents, that time when we envied our coworkers or spoke evil of our boss.  If we stop to ask ourselves, “Do we love in actions and in truth?” our hearts will rush forward like a crowd of tattling children, ready to accuse us before God, to remind us just how unloving we are.  We want to know that we are in the truth, that we abide in God, but instead, our hearts know too much against us.  No, we can’t be.  Maybe we’re just not cut out to be Christians after all.  

But what looks like humility here turns out to be pride.  In our pride, we refuse to listen to what God says about us, we refuse to hear the word of forgiveness.  Soren Kierkegaard speaks of “a pride too cowardly to submit to being helped, anguish for sin which shuns holy cleansing as disease shuns medicine.”  And in one of his books he has a great discussion of what he calls “the sin of despairing over one’s sin.”  When we do this, we may feel like we are hating sin more than anything, by recognizing how serious it is, but actually, we are giving ourselves over to sin.  We are listening to sin and to Satan (who is called “the Accuser” throughout Scripture) instead of to God.  When we do this, says Kierkegaard, sin “insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.”  When we do this, we often say, “I can never forgive myself.”  This is technically true, because indeed we have no power to forgive ourselves; only God can forgive sins.  But then we go further and say, “God can never forgive me.”  What is this but to set ourselves against God?  To tell him that he can’t do what he’s promised?  This is us pretending to be greater than God.  But no, says John.  You are not greater than God, whenever your heart condemns you.  “God is greater than our hearts, for he knows all things.”  Your heart may think it’s so clever and sophisticated and serious about sin, because it knows something against you, but guess what?  God knows all that and more.  God is greater.

John’s image here is like a courtroom, in which we are arguing with our conscience, trying to convince our heart of our innocence, despite everything it knows against us.   We are losing the battle.  Witness after witness is called in on the other side.  But then in steps God, and he has the trump card.  “I know everything,” he says, “and you need not fear.”  

But why should this be a comfort?  If God knows everything about us, shouldn’t we be more terrified?  If our heart knows something against us, and God is greater than our hearts, how much more must he know against us!  He knows every evil thought, and secret desire, every bad motive, from when we were conceived until now.  Actually, this is how most scholars had been reading this verse all through the Middle Ages.  You had better love in actions and in truth, because if you don’t, and your heart condemns you, God is greater, and knows more, and will condemn you all the more.  But Luther came along and said no, that is not what this verse means; that is not what John is trying to tell his readers.  “If you lack works, yet you should not lack faith.  Even if persuasion is lacking, yet faith and hope are greater.  Although we should consider ourselves unworthy, yet we should accept the grace that is offered and the Gospel.  Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still ‘God is greater than our heart.’  Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort.”  God knows all things, he knows everything we ever did, and yet he says that he loves us.  Our conscience rushes forward, ready to condemn, “But what about the time I did this terrible sin?”  But God does not need to listen.  God already knows about that.  

We see this over and over in the Gospels.  Early in his Gospel, John tells us, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”  This sounds ominous.  But then, how does it play out?  He comes to the woman at the well in chapter four, and “tells her everything she ever did,” as she puts it.  He knows that she has had five husbands, and is currently having an affair with a sixth man.  And yet what is his word to her?  “I will give you water springing up unto eternal life” (4:14).  In chapter 8, the Pharisees bring before him an adulterous woman.  He knows all about her sin.  And what is his word to her?  “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more” (8:11).  And in Luke chapter 7, there is “the woman who was a sinner,” as she is described, who comes in to a dinner party and anoints Jesus’s feet with oil.  The host, Simon, is appalled, and mutters, “If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know how wicked this woman was and wouldn’t let her touch him” (7:39).  But Jesus does know, he knows all about it, and what does he say to her?  “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  

See, God knows all things, which means he knows one thing certainly that we, in our sin, can never seem to get a handle on—who he is, what he is like.  He knows that he is a forgiving God.  More than that, he knows what Jesus has done, what he has done in Jesus.  This sacrifice, this forgiveness, is always before his mind, whereas we are prone to forget and doubt it.  There is a beautiful hymn that declares, “Between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.”  And that pretty much sums it up.  We are in a courtroom, our conscience condemning us, and we, powerless to defend ourselves, and in comes God, God who is greater than our hearts, and he holds up before the court a lamb, the lamb that was slain for us, and says, “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

But we will still object.  How do we know this forgiveness is for us?  After all, it’s not for everyone, is it?  But John is speaking to us, us who have heard the word of life, who have heard Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness and his new commandment that we love one another, and who have tried to keep it.  This is why our heart condemns us, is it not?   If we didn’t even care about loving in actions and in truth, if we never bothered with the whole business at all, why would we find ourselves there, in an argument with our conscience?  Some people shut their hearts against their brother and against the love of God, and go their merry way.  But that’s not what John is talking about.  He is talking those who hear this command to love, and say, “Yes, I want to do that.  I want the love of God to abide in me.  But I’m just not doing good enough.”  “Aha!” says John, “Just what I needed to hear.  Come to Christ and hear his comfort. Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”

I love the story in the Gospels about a man who begs Jesus to come and heal his demon-possessed son.  “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” he cries.  Jesus replies, “If you can?  All things are possible to him who believes.”  The man answers “Lord, I believe.  Help thou mine unbelief!” (Mk. 9:22-24).  Isn’t this all of us?  How often do we find ourselves crying out this way to God?  “Yes God, yes, I believe, or want to believe, your promise.  Please help my unbelief.  I want to love you, please help my unlove.”   And who is it who helps us in our weakness?  It is the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promises to send in his Last Supper discourse.  And so we have the same promise here at the end.  How do we know that we abide in God and he in us?  How do we know that we are in Christ, that his love flows through us?  By the visible evidence of our love for others, yes, but that will not always be enough to convince our fickle hearts.  “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”

By this we come to the point where our heart does not condemn us, where we have confidence before him, confidence that we are in the truth, confidence that the love of God will make itself visible in our lives, confidence that we can come into the presence of God in prayer, and ask him whatever we want.  John says here “we receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.”  This sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Whatever we ask?  So, if I obey God perfectly (which I won’t do in any case), I could ask him anything, and he’d just do it?  He’d make my son sleep through the night?  No, this isn’t the idea.  John returns to this in chapter 5—”This is the confidence which we have before him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.”  But isn’t that just circular?  What’s the point of asking if it’s already according to his will?  God’s already decided what he’s going to do.  But this isn’t John’s point.  The point is that when we are believing in Christ and obeying his commandment to love, we are becoming like him—our own wills are becoming conformed to his.  We abide in Him and He in us.  For this reason, we learn to want the same things he wants, and to ask him for the things he wants to give.  As we grow closer and closer to him, we have greater and greater confidence that we are walking in his will, and hence, when we come before him in prayer, we will receive that which we are asking for.  And again, our guarantee in this is the Spirit within us, who, as Paul says, comes to help us in our weakness when we try and pray: “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

As we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we too should be turning, with John here, back to the words of Jesus in the Last Supper discourse.  “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said.  Why?  Because although he was going away, it was for our sake that he went away, to make a way for us to come before the Father with confidence, fearing no condemnation.  And he promises that we will not be left alone, in doubt and worry.  For after Good Friday and Easter come Pentecost.  “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Therefore, let us love in actions and in truth, let us love God whom we have not seen with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and let us love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen as ourselves.  And whenever our heart condemns us, let us listen not to the accusing voice of sin, but to the testimony of the Spirit, for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

May God give us the grace to listen to Him today.

Resident Aliens?

Having failed to find time to finish my expanded Late Great Natural Law Debate roundup (short version here), I offer in the interval some food for thought from the Epistle to Diognetus (mid-2nd century), which I went through with my Christian Ethics students yesterday.  It offers a very important take on the concept of Christians as “resident aliens”, a rather different understanding than that of Hauerwas and Co.:


For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.


To sum up all in one word: what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

Eschatology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday, March 19.

Much of Christian theology is driven by the concept of salvation.  But what does it mean to be saved? Although we have a special name for the doctrine of salvation, “soteriology,” all areas of theology relate to this question.  For we must ask why we need to be saved—that is, what we are saved from; how we are saved and by whom; and what the point of it us, that is, what we are saved to.  Our doctrines of creation and the fall, of theological anthropology, attempt to tell us why it is we need to be saved, what it is we are being saved from.  Christology, soteriology  and ecclesiology all address the questions of who it is that saves us and how.  This leaves us with the question of just what it is we are saved to, and that is what “eschatology” is about.

In much of the tradition of Christian theology, but perhaps especially in Protestantism, and perhaps especially especially in evangelicalism, there has been a tendency to think of salvation almost exclusively in personal/individual terms, and almost entirely as a matter of the afterlife.  To be saved means to be promised that I, as an individual, will have a happy afterlife in the presence of God.  Of course, we also have all this biblical language about the end of the world, about “the new heavens and the new earth,” but this has often been treated as something quite different.  Eschatology, then (literally, the study of the “last things”), has often been subdivided into two branches, one concerned with our individual judgments at death, and the other concerned with the end of the world. Read More