Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 3—The Way of Weakness

 

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Finally, after a great deal of introduction in the previous two posts (here and here), we will begin to dig into the main body of the book, covering, in this review, chapter two, “The Way of Weakness” and in the next installment, chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation” (don’t worry, that installment will be a lot shorter than this one). In both of these, Jones has some hard words for contemporary American churches, hard words that recall us to crucial Biblical themes that we like to ignore.  My worry, though, comes with the question that must come next, after this realization: “How can I live my life differently so as to be a faithful disciple?”  I’m not sure we’re given enough in these chapters to start answering this question very clearly.  This is not because Jones fails to spell out all the specific concrete applications—indeed, to do so would prematurely stifle Christian liberty and in any case, be of little use because of the immense variety of circumstances in which Christians would be called upon to apply these principles.  Rather, my concern is that Jones does not give sufficient coherence to the concept of “weakness” and “renunciation” to enable earnest believers to determine with any confidence how to apply them.

For in these chapters, Jones challenges two of the great gods of our age, military power and wealth, both points on which conscientious Christians will find themselves challenged by myriad practical ethical questions: when and what is an appropriate use of force, if there exists such a thing?  How can I be a good steward of material wealth, or should I even think in those terms?  Of course, his points in these chapters are broader than that, and he has somewhat more focused discussions of each of these issues in chapters six and five, respectively, as well as returning to critique common Christian views of wealth in chapters 15 and 16 and “American Mars” in chapter 17.   Nonetheless, many of the fundamental ambiguities created in these two chapters will remain unresolved in those later discussions. 

So, while very helpful in undermining pathologies of the American Right, these chapters are not particularly useful in providing guidance for the Christian asking, “How shall I then live?”  This is particularly the case with the first, “The Way of Weakness.”  “Weakness,” after all, is a relative term.  “Weak” in relation to what?  One person’s “weak” looks awfully strong to another.  This ambiguity surfaces at the outset of the chapter, where Jones identifies weakness as an essential mark of Jesus’s kingdom, and, rather than coming into greater clarity as the chapter progresses and Jones provides an extended walk through the theme of “weakness” in Scripture, the ambiguities just loom larger.

Jones begins the chapter with rather damning, if typical quotations from Seneca and Walter Russel Mead on the importance, glory, and power of the Roman and American empires, respectively.  “Jesus,” he says, “instituted a vastly different kind of kingdom.  He called for a kingdom of weakness in contrast to the way of power and domination” (17).  One might, at this point, cry foul from the perspective of Protestant two-kingdoms thought, in which Jesus’s kingdom, properly speaking, is supernatural in its object, and not necessarily in rivalry with the concerns of politics.  We may have occasion to expound this line of objection in later installments, but it is not really helpful or necessary here.  For it is true that Jesus calls his followers to exercise humility and peaceableness, and renounce domination and aggression, in all their dealings, whether spiritual, personal, or political.  Jones is right, in fact, when he goes on to quote 1 Cor. 1:26-29, about how “God has chosen weak things for his kingdom” and criticizes us for “turn[ing] it into a claim about Christian ideas and how Christian ideas might seem foolish in a secular culture.” “Paul,” he says, “talked about actual people in Christ’s kingdom . . . they were drawn primarily from the underclass” (17).   Historically, this is a broadly accurate statement, and the large point that Paul draws from it—“God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” is one that we should not be afraid to read in a very concrete sense.

Indeed, I think it is a point that many of us as Christians instinctively grasp and internalize—this is why stories like those of Lewis and Tolkien resonate so deeply so deeply with us; as Elrond says, “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”  The great genius of the plot of The Lord of the Rings, as a number of critics have discussed, lies in how it juxtaposes the small, humble, weak actions of the hobbits against the great, grand, and powerful actions of the high and noble, and how at every point it is the former, not the latter, that are turning the wheels of history.  Likewise, in The Chronicles of Narnia, in every story it is mere children who are the protagonists and heroes, upsetting the seemingly better-laid plans of those who are much older, stronger, and smarter.  We love these stories because we realize that this is the way the world works, because this is the way that God works.  But, using examples such as these should alert us of the danger of a simple appeal to the superiority of “weakness.”

After all, if “weakness” were simply better, then we would presumably conclude that the very weakest was the best, that God would rather work through a penniless invalid who lacked both education and native intelligence, than through any other instrument.  And yet, this is rarely the case in Scripture. Such very weak people are of course not there to be trampled on; on the contrary, God calls us to care for them.  Jesus frequently ministers to them.

And to be sure, in  thus ministering to them, we ourselves are ministered to, as God uses them to teach us what love means, what humility means, and to remind us of our own weakness.  But implicit in this call to care for them is the fact that God calls upon those who are not wholly weak to help those who are.  So, to use the example of Tolkien, it is hobbits, yes, but particularly strong, hardy, courageous, and intelligent (each in their own way) hobbits that are the heroes of the story; their relative weakness is a recurrent theme, but so is their possession of a surprising strength.  The same goes for Biblical examples.  Perhaps the first to mind, when we think of God using the weak to shame the strong, is David vs. Goliath.  And yet David was, we are given to understand, an extraordinarily gifted young man, possessed of not only a powerful intellect and courage but impressive physical prowess as well.  He may not have fought in battle, but he had subdued lions and bears before single-handed.  We are surprised less by his actual weakness, than by his remarkable strength where we might have expected to find weakness.  Likewise, while he does not go against Goliath with shield and sword, he doesn’t go up against him with a feather, either.  He uses a weapon, one in which he is singularly skilled.

Likewise, if “weakness” were simply better without qualification, then it would follow that the weak ought never to enlist the help of the strong, appeal to the strong, or seek to bring the strong on God’s side, to use their strength for his purposes. Instead, the weak should studiously avoid and ignore the strong, and seek to remain as weak as possible.  Certainly, we have some examples like this in Scripture.  But we also have many quite the contrary.  One of the great Biblical tales of weakness triumphing over strength is Esther—a powerless woman who thwarted a great royal official and saved her nation.  But how did she do it?  By scheming (or rather, following her uncle Mordecai’s scheming) to position herself near power, and then boldly going to the greatest emperor on earth to ask him to intervene on behalf of her people.  Here, as many times throughout Scripture, and in our daily experience, weakness triumphed by showing an uncanny ability to persuade power.  In the New Testament, Paul himself could rejoice at how God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and yet in the book of Acts, he displays an obsession with getting to Rome, so that he can preach the gospel in the household of Caesar.

Related to this point, if “weakness” were simply better without qualification, it would follow that the weak ought never to want to become strong.  Clearly this is not Biblical, as we are promised that the humble will be exalted, the weak will be made strong.  Jones himself would be the first to insist that this is not merely an eschatological promise about some far future time, but a statement about what happens in history.  But what then?  If God lifts the weak up into positions of power, what are they to do then? Renounce that power, or use it? The story of Daniel suggests that the answer is, at least sometimes, the latter.

All of this could seem like mere nitpicking, but in fact, it is of the utmost importance, if we are to move from the point of nice-sounding exhortations—“Remember that God works through weakness, not through strength”—to practical discipleship. Should we flee or despise wealth, physical strength, political power, and influence altogether?  Should we treat those who possess them as “second-class citizens in the kingdom” (29) as Jones puts it?  Or should the Biblical theme of weakness serve rather to warn us against blind faith in power, reminding us to “put no confidence in princes,” since God moves in mysterious ways, working sometimes through established channels, but also raising up his heroes from unexpected places?  The latter, I think, most good teachers of the faith would tell you (although they, and we, are certainly prone to forget it, and need to be reminded often).  Jones seems to want to go further than that, but if it is the former he wants to say, he would seem to be going well beyond Scripture.

david-and-goliath-cut-off-his-headSo let’s turn with him to Scripture, and look at some of his Scriptural examples of “weakness” to see how clear of a picture emerges. Jones’s first major example is, surprisingly, Abraham.  “Often, we too classify Abrahm as a rich man in modern terms, but he wouldn’t have stood out that way in his time?” (18)  Um, really? What exactly is the biblical evidence for that?  When we are first introduced to Abraham, we are told, “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:4-5).  When God calls Abram, he is a man laden down with possessions and numerous slaves and servants.  In the next chapter, we are told, “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. . . . And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together, for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together” (13:2, 5-6).  In the next chapter, Abram sets out to rescue Lot from the forces of five petty kings, and we learn that he has no less than three hundred and eighteen “trained men, born in his house.”  Whoa.  That’s a pretty substantial private army.  For him to have had 318 trained fighters among the servants that had been born in his house, we can estimate that he had well over 1,000 servants in total, perhaps 2,000 or more.  In other words, this isn’t just your typical wandering nomad in tents.

So what is Jones talking about?  Well, he says, “To be rich in Abraham’s time, you needed to have the power of permanence, the wealth to stay in one place, preferably with a giant pyramid.  The rich didn’t wander the Middle East like gypsies” (18).  Jones provides no citation for this claim, and I would be curious to know its basis. While it is true that in the Fertile Crescent, the wealthy generally lived in established settlements, there were certainly parts of the Middle East in which the lifestyle of the very wealthy nomad was a standard feature of society.  And the great powers of the region do not seem to have treated Abraham as a poor wandering gypsy; on the contrary, he is clearly highly enough esteemed as a man of high class that “when the princes of Pharaoh saw [his wife Sarai], they praised her to Pharaoh.  And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.  And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels” (Gen. 12:15-16).  In other words, the greatest ruler in the region treated Abraham as a classy foreign noble, from whom he could select a woman for himself, and offer in turn material gifts and favor.   A similar scenario plays out with King Abimelech.  In the end, all Jones can say about this is that Abraham was revealed as having “relative weakness” compared with powers like Pharaoh or the king of the Philistines.  But this would be like pointing out that Mark Zuckerberg is relatively weak next to Barack Obama (or, perhaps, the other way around—but you get my point).

Of course, this is not to say that there is not a huge theme of weakness in Abraham’s life.  Jones is quite right that there is.  His lack of a stable inheritance, a land that will be his descendants’ own, is a lack he wants filled.  More urgently, he lacks even an heir for much of the story, and in the weakness of old age, has to rely on God in hope that God will provide him an heir.  Certainly, if you were to take stock of the leading men of the Middle East in 2000 BC to predict whose progeny would fill the earth and shape the course of history, Abraham would not have been on the short list. So the theme of weakness is definitely there.  But the case of Abraham clearly highlights the question, “Weak in what respect?  Weak in relation to what?”  And if we are looking for practical guidance in today’s world, the case of Abraham would suggest that you can be “weak” for God’s purposes and still be, say, the CEO of a large company, or the governor of a state.  If you take Abraham as your starting point, the lesson would seem to be, “Even those who are relatively wealthy and powerful must recognize their utter dependence upon God and follow him in humility” which seems to be exactly the sort of pietistic message that Jones is out to oppose.

Much the same goes for the other patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.  Each was weak in certain respects, and had moments when they were in profound weakness, wholly dependent upon God for deliverance.  And yet each was also relatively powerful and wealthy; indeed, the last, Joseph, ascends to become arguably the most powerful man in the Near East.  Now, to be sure, you could retort that he gained this position of power not by clawing his way to the top, but by resting in faith on God, even when powerless. But if this is all Jones is saying, then it’s hardly anything new or striking—Christianity has always taught this (even if Christians struggle to live up to it).

What about Moses, the next big hero of weakness that Jones brings up?  Well yes, “His life began not in nobility but in a desperate bulrush basket.” But if weakness were always better than strength, then “the scheming of Moses’ mother and sister” to put him in Pharaoh’s household was a mark not of faith, but faithlessness.  True, “the Lord changed Moses from a privileged Egyptian elite into a shamed exile” (21), and yet it seems clear that his upbringing among the nobility and his close relations with the royal family were part of what fitted Moses for the task of confronting Pharaoh and leading the Israelites. Again, we see God using a curious, unpredictable mixture of strength and weakness to accomplish his ends.

This continues as we move on through the invasion of Canaan and the deeds of the Judges.  Yes, the Israelites were, we are told, weaker than the nations they subdued, and the Judges often won great victories with inferior forces (Gideon being the preeminent example).  Indeed, we learn that, when they did not depend on God and obey him, numerical strength was useless (e.g., with Achan and Ai).  However, it did not follow that they were simply to sit passively by and use no strength at all; in every case, God called on them to use the military power at their disposal, and trust him to bless it with victory.

When we come to the history of the kings, Jones has almost nothing good to say about them.  Indeed, he bases his whole assessment of Old Testament kingship on a one-sided reading of 1 Samuel 8, that leads him to discount everything positive that the Scriptures say about the kings, describing “the abject failure of the experiment with the kings.”  To be sure, the days of the kings were filled with injustice and idolatry, but they were better than the days of the Judges, during which we hear the lament, “In those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).  Indeed, although Jones quotes numerous prophets who rebuked the kings for not pursuing justice, this simply highlights the point that they were called to execute justice.  Jeremiah does not rebuke the king for existing, and for wielding power, but for failing to use the power in service of the office of justice to which God had called him.  Accordingly, those kings who did execute justice receive warm praises from God in Scripture.  Several of the psalms glorify the institution of kingship and rejoice in the favor God bestows on the king (eg. Pss. 20, 21, 45, 72). Of course, we can point out that even the best kings fell short of the described ideal, and so ultimately these psalms point to Christ, but the same can be said of all the fallible OT heroes who are types of Christ.

So, what about Jesus? In him, surely, we see the culmination of the way of weakness.  “Thou who was rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becamest poor.”  Jones’s main focus in this section of his chapter, however, is less about how Jesus epitomizes weakness, and more about his attitude toward the weak and non-weak.  Here he elaborates his description of the wealthy, mentioned above, as “second-class citizens in the kingdom” (29).  This raises the stakes somewhat.  The question confronted here is “Who does Jesus care about?”  And the answer Jones seems to flirt with giving is, “If you aren’t poor and weak, in quite a literal sense, Jesus doesn’t care much about you.”  To be sure, Jones in this section is reacting to a real problem, our instinctive preference for courting the well-to-do in our churches. He describes it:

In most of our middle-class denominations, when we want to plant a church, we generally find a nice, suburban place with enough middle-class families to support a full-time pastor.  In other words, we go directly contrary to Jesus’s pattern.  He went to the unhealthy first.  We ignore the weak. (29)

But Jones does not want to correct this one-sidedness by merely insisting that we actively seek out the poor and make them a central part of our communities.  Rather, he almost seems to want to shove the rich out of the door of the church onto the streets.

Jesus began his ministry with offensive claims.  He said he didn’t bring a universal message for everyone. His kingdom wasn’t going to focus on those who were ‘first’ in the eyes of the world.  He didn’t come to serve the so-called healthy and righteous. Jesus came to focus on the weak. (27)

Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak in terms of class differences
or to side with the weak and powerless. (28)

He intentionally avoided trying to minister to the wealthy and powerful.  They didn’t enter his interests much at all.  And when they did, he urged them to become second-class citizens in the kingdom, and let the weak and outcast fill the center (29).

(It’s important to note that Jones goes on to make clear that by “the rich,” which for Jesus clearly meant the upper classes, he includes “decent ‘middle-class’ folks” (29).  It is not until chapter 5 that he really seeks to justify this equation, by arguing that since the modern American middle-class is extremely well-off in historical and global terms, we can safely apply any Biblical statements about “the rich” to this class.  I will offer some comments about this move when we come to ch. 5.)

Of course, these last lines show that the wealthy are not excluded altogether, but what does it mean to say they are “second-class” or not at the center?  He says other things of this sort: “The rich and powerful might come along, too, though it would be very difficult for them to be happy in his kingdom on earth (Matt. 19:23)” (27).  But what does this mean?  What does it mean when he complains that “We insist that the gospel should go to everyone indiscriminately” (29)?  Does he really want us not to evangelize any but the poor? Or does he really want to have different classes of membership within the church?  On the contrary, the testimony of the whole New Testament points to the idea that the community within the church was to be characterized by equality—none were to consider themselves higher than others within the body of Christ.  This seems to be what James means when he says “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation” (Jas. 1:9, 10): the poor have been lifted up, the rich brought down, so that all are now at the same level.  And yet when Jones quotes this passage, he seems to want it to mean that the two have now switched places, so that the poor are on top and the rich below.

Jones makes many appeals to the sayings of Jesus as well, but the clearest way of reading these seems to be, first, to take somewhat at face value sayings such as “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31); the poor are the focus of Jesus’s ministry above all because they are in much greater need of his ministry.  Beyond this, it is true that the rich come in for special criticism and are less likely to be followers of Jesus, but this is not because the gospel is not for them too, but because they are too proud to recognize their need for it.  Those who do recognize their need, such as Zacchaeus or the centurion, are warmly welcomed by Jesus.  (Jones’s rendition of Jesus’s encounter with the centurion is something of a travesty: “He was kind once to a powerful centurion, loving an enemy, but the centurion didn’t afterwards follow Jesus around Palestine like the poor and sick did” (28).  Matthew’s description of that occasion poses quite a contrast: “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him,’Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’” (Mt. 8:10-11).)

We might sum up Jesus’s attitude to the rich well with his words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:17-18:

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

The problem is thus that wealth easily produces pride, which feels no need for the grace of God, not that the grace of God has nothing for the wealthy.  Perhaps Jones will say that this is all he meant to say, but if so, he could have said so much more clearly, without all the talk of “second-class citizens.”  Now of course, none of this is yet to address the question of what God demands of the rich who do come into his kingdom—this will be touched on a bit more in the chapter that follows, “The Way of Renunciation,” and a bit later in ch. 5, “The Way of Sharing.”

To bring to bear some of the points from the first part of this post, and to bring it all to a close, it’s worth again making the point about relative weakness.  It is simply not the case that Jesus’s ministry leads us to valorize the weakest only, and marginalize all the rest.  In fact, although it pains me to say anything positive about John Schneider’s book The Good of Affluence, he makes some fairly compelling arguments to the effect that Jesus occupied something like the middle-class of his day.  Yes, he was very poor from our standpoint, but as a self-employed carpenter, he hailed from the artisan classes, which were a sizeable step above the true poor of Palestine, the day laborers with nothing but their sweat to sell, who appear in the parable of the laborers.  The same is true of many of the disciples: James, John, Peter, and Andrew were fishermen who owned their own boats, more than could be said for many; Matthew had been a tax collector.  And, although Jesus said, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” we know that he spoke somewhat hyperbolically, as we frequently find him and his disciples enjoying the hospitality of reasonably well-off friends, relatives, and followers.  I don’t think any of this means that we can comfortably brush aside everything he says against wealth and the wealthy, as Schneider tends to do, but it highlights the point that despite the centrality of weakness in Scripture, neither Jesus nor the other biblical writers seem to want God’s people, ordinarily, to reduce themselves to a state of material powerlessness.

Nor, I think, is that what Jones wants in the end.  Maybe all he is saying that we need to think a lot more about the importance of the poor and weak in the kingdom, and stop putting so much trust in power and riches.  If so, I have no doubt that this is a message that, obvious though it may be, many American Christians urgently need to hear.  Perhaps Jones is just trying to emphatically drive home an old and familiar point that we have too often forgotten.  But if, then I can’t help but feel that that could have been said rather more clearly, with rather fewer stumbling blocks, and rather less fanfare.

 

8 thoughts on “Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 3—The Way of Weakness

  1. Matthew N. Petersen

    Regarding Abraham: Why do you take Abraham’s wealth and poverty to be signs for us, and what are they signs of? I think your disagreement with Doug may lie there (though he doesn’t seem to want to say it precisely like that).

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Copied from Facebook, where you asked the same question: Matt,I don’t think that’s what I’m doing, although it’s what Doug has tried to pigeonhole me as doing. Basically, there is a common conservative argument out there that says, "Heck, Abraham’s really rich, and he was a patriarch, so it’s obviously a good thing for Christians to be really rich." Doug is overreacting to that by trying to flip that around and say, "Au contraire, Abraham is weak and unrich, and he was a patriarch, so he’s more evidence for why Christians too should pursue weakness and un-richness."I’m trying to step in and say, "Really, guys, Abraham is both rich in some respects and weak in others, and prima facie, his example doesn’t really have much to contribute in terms of practical guidance for how Christians should relate to earthly power and wealth."

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      • Matthew N. Petersen

        Thanks for the answer.

        Even if it’s quite germane to your thesis, do you have an answer to why and how should Abraham’s life is a sign for us today? It seems Jones and the Evangelicals you mention think it is, but neither has articulated why, which may be the true locus of disagreement.

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      • Brad Littlejohn

        Well, I think the primary application of Abraham’s life is to the Church as such, not to individual Christians, and this is conditioned by the already/not-yet character of the Church’s current experience. Abraham is the head of the people of Israel, which are the type of the Church, so Abraham is a type of the Church. As a stranger and pilgrim seeking a lasting city, he prefigures the experience of the Church until the consummation of Christ’s kingdom—having here no continuing city, but seeking the one that is to come (Heb. 13:14; cf. 11:10). He sojourned among the nations, not yet himself a nation, bearer of a promise to be a blessing to the nations; thus does the Church in history. On the other hand, of course, Hebrews also contrasts our experience with that of the Old Covenant, saying that, "But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect"; that is, we have already obtained, on some level, the city for which Abraham waited; so the church has a security that Abraham did not yet have.

        In any case, though, I don’t see that Abraham’s material wealth and power (or lack thereof) has any particular ethical meaning for the Church today (beyond the fairly banal observation that he proves that possession of wealth is not in itself evil…but even this has to be qualified dramatically, since Abraham was a polygamist and slaveholder, things that while not automatically evil, are certainly not smiled upon from the standpoint of the New Covenant). Abraham’s significance, in short, is anagogical, not tropological.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Again, copying Doug’s response from Facebook and then my rejoinder:—–Thanks Brad Littlejohn for the third installment.

    Here are some thoughts on Brad’s third installment:

    (1) In this installment, Brad raises several questions, as if they were criticisms (“Weak in relation to what?”), and then concedes them from the chapter itself (“Jones does say…”). Why frame something as criticism rather than merely expositing what the chapter itself says?

    (2) From another angle, Brad asks a host of questions not related to the particular aim of the chapter and then faults the chapter for failing to deal with all issues in one place, e.g., not offering practical answers or not giving a particular qualification (“these chapters are not particularly useful in providing guidance for the Christian asking, ‘How shall I then live?’”). But this is just to complain that a narrative approach isn’t a systematic approach. It’s to complain Scripture isn’t Berkhof. Wouldn’t it be more accurate and helpful for a reviewer to figure out what the very limited aim of each narrative chapter is, then ask if the author met that goal or not?

    (3) The goal of this chapter was simply to provide a pattern of evidence for Paul’s claim that God’s “strength is made perfect in weakness,” not, as Brad exaggerates it, “the grace of God has nothing for the wealthy” or we’re to “valorize the weakest only” or we must “reduce [our]selves to a state of material powerlessness” or we should “shove the rich out of the door of the church onto the streets.” Is it true that God’s strength is generally made perfect in weakness, or was Paul wrong? That’s the simple question. Or does God prefer to make his strength perfect through strength? God could have done much better than Abraham and Moses by siding with powerful Pharaohs and their more massive firepower. But that isn’t his way.

    (4) Brad also shares our Reformed tendency to flatten Old and New Testament examples to the same level, placing Abraham and the patriarchs, et al, on the same moral level as Jesus. For example, Brad says, “if we are looking for practical guidance in today’s world, the case of Abraham would suggest that you can be ‘weak’ for God’s purposes and still be, say, the CEO of a large company, or the governor of a state.” The same reasoning would get all men concubines like Abraham. But we’re not called to imitate Abraham or Moses or David. None of them is “the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3) as Jesus is. We follow Jesus’ way. Jesus inaugurated a new creation, a new way of life. The patriarchs are all bit players on the way to Jesus, getting some things right, some wrong. As I said in the book, “Did Abraham reach the levels of weakness that culminate in Jesus? No. Abraham was no homeless footwasher, like Jesus. But he pointed in the direction of Jesus. He was the beginning of a trajectory that gets clearer and clearer. God begins dealing with us as we are” (p.20). After Jesus, one could rightly be a CEO of a large company if everyone in the community had her needs met and joyfully lived in the spirit of – “whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 Jn. 3:17).

    (5) I know it’s an axiom within a subset of Reformed commentators to insist that Abraham was a powerful prince, but it’s hard for me to find that convincing anymore. If Abraham were so powerful, why was he such a wimpy prince early on? If Abraham was such a military presence and “a classy foreign noble,” why did he travel hundreds of miles to get food from a rich man, use trickery like an underling, and constantly fear for his life? Does Zuckerberg really seek food from Obama? Despite his wealth, Abraham acted from a position of weakness. Hebrews frames Abraham as one of the key “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Are strangers and pilgrims really examples of relative wealth and power?

    (6) Have defenders of a powerful Abraham ever wondered why they insist on it so much? What would they really lose if Abraham were relatively weak? The culture war? Imperial excellence? Would a strong Abraham confirm “my strength is made perfect in weakness”? Or is it just a Constantinian hope imposed on Abraham from the future?

    (7) Brad asks the favorite Moscow question: “But what then? If God lifts the weak up into positions of power, what are they to do then? Renounce that power, or use it?” Answer: They should wash feet. And when the poor get wealthy, tell them, he who has “two tunics, let him give to him who has none” (Lk. 2:11). We keep going until “nor was there anyone among them who lacked,” and so “the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt. 20:16). Start with a small and manageable community then add.

    (8) Brad asks, “But what does it mean to say they are ‘second-class’ or not at the center?” Jones “seems to want it to mean that the two have now switched places, so that the poor are on top and the rich below.” But, as Brad knows, that “poor on top” language of “last will be first” isn’t mine, it’s Jesus’. He wants us to feel the pinch. In the end, it does deal with equality, but it’s not just a mental equality. Brad describes equality as “none were to consider themselves higher than others within the body of Christ” and then cites James. But James wasn’t dealing with mere mental inequality between classes. He talked in material terms about “gold rings, fine apparel” vs. “filthy clothes” (Jas. 2:2). And “you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?” (Jas. 2:5). Genuine biblical equality grows out of freedom and joy and hunger for justice. Where the Spirit works, no one has to be forced to make the last first. They would gladly become second class citizens to raise others up until all are without need.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks. I think I can answer these pretty quickly:1) and 3) I raise questions because I think clarification would be helpful. To the extent that we’re talking about pretty darn important issues, and your language could at times lead in a number of different directions, I think it’s important to prod here. I recognize that your basic goal is, as you say, simply to "to provide a pattern of evidence for Paul’s claim that God’s ‘strength is made perfect in weakness,’"; my point is that some of your remarks would seem to imply something like those exaggerations, and readers could have easily come away from the chapter somewhat confused. At no point do I try to detract from the main point that "God’s strength is generally made perfect in weakness"; I just insist that we be faithful to how Scripture itself uses these terms. So I’m not just trying to criticize; I’m trying to expound things more fully, to help myself and other readers understand better the shape of the concepts in question; to the extent that’s in line with your own intentions, so much the better.2) If this chapter isn’t going to try and give us some guidance on how we should live, then where are we to look in the book for that? The final three chapters only give us some brief suggestions; my understanding that the meat of "what discipleship looks like," what the "way of the cross" looks like, was supposed to be in these chapters. If not here, then where?4) No, I didn’t do that. All I said in that quote was that, judging from Abraham alone, this is the conclusion you would reach, which is relevant because you appealed to Abraham. Of course he’s not the whole story, and this conclusion was therefore presented only as a prima facie, revisable one. 5) I feel like I’ve dealt with this pretty thoroughly in the post. "Powerful prince" might be a bit of a stretch. But "relatively weak" at least from the standpoint of worldly wealth and power, is even more of a stretch.6) I’m not interested in being a "defender of a powerful Abraham." I have nothing invested in a "powerful Abraham." If Abraham were a poor solitary nomad, I would be fine. The only reason I spent a great deal of time on him was because you did, in a way that seemed to me unfaithful to the biblical witness.7) Great. But we haven’t yet gotten to that; you don’t really get to "what are the rich in the kingdom to do" in this chapter, and so I don’t go there yet in this review. Obviously, one of the ways we "wash feet" is by using resources to protect and care for the people of God—e.g., the wealthy in the New Testament who offered the use of their homes as places of worship. And although they do not appear within the pages of the New Testament, I think we should also expect the church to see examples like Esther—Christians in positions of political power who use it to protect the innocent. All of this is simply to say, God works through strength sometimes as well as weakness. I never said it was just about "mental equality." I agree that James is concerned about material inequality, and wants the rich to humble themselves by sharing their resources with the poor. Again, more on what this means practically when we come to ch. 5, but don’t straw-man.

      I get the feeling at several points here that you are doing a Bulverism of some sort—"Oh, you’re just saying this because you’re Reformed" or some such. But this is silly. I’ve broken ranks with my Reformed background and teachers on many of these questions in the past. I still disagree with them on many of them, and to the extent that I now agree, it’s because I have come to those points thoughtfully, not because I am coming from that standpoint thoughtlessly.

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  3. Hello Brad,

    I appreciate your interaction with this book, which I haven’t read but plan to. I also appreciate that you and Doug are interacting with each other. I hope that both of you are able to stay loving and kind in your interactions, acting like brothers who love the truth, love and want the best for each other, and above all love the Lord. Christian brothers can have some pretty stiff disagreements, and ought to if they believe truth is potentially on the line, but they should still look at each other as children whom the heavenly Father loves and gave his Son for. Not meant to be preachy, just encouraging two brothers whose writings I have learned from and who I care about.

    I think Doug’s language of "second-class citizens" in the kingdom of heaven must be coming from Jesus’ not infrequent sayings about what sort of actions would make someone "least" in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus often says that one’s way of life, ones actions, can make you either least or great in God’s kingdom. Scripture clearly speaks of God, in his final judgment through Christ, handing out different levels of punishment as well as different levels of reward in the kingdom when it comes in fullness. Is this what Doug is getting at with the "second-class" terminology?

    Also, in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul talks about Christians continuing to live the lives God has placed them in. I know he is specifically speaking about circumcision and being a bondservant, but there seems to be an overarching principle here (which Paul goes on to apply to the state of marriage as well). I wonder if you care to discuss how this might be brought to bear on the issue of Mammon and even "violence".

    My own studies on the term "Mammon" (admittedly limited) have lead me to conclude that Mammon is only symbolically personified as an idol in competition with God for our allegiance, as would anything be that we elevated to the level that only God ought to occupy in our lives (food, fitness, intellectual accument, asceticism, etc). Any thing can become a false god, in competition with the one true God. Any of these may become Satanic in so far as they claim our allegiance and draw us away from serving God. The term "mammon" means not only money but material things that money can buy, including the stuff we need, not just luxuries or excess. It is not wrong to posses mammon, only to love it and treat it as though we don’t have to obey Jesus in our stewardship of it.

    Back to the principle from 1 Cor. 7, is it legitimate to see this applying to mammon by saying that, if any of you are rich, do not seek to become poor but use your wealth to minister to the poor? And if any are poor, don’t specifically seek to become wealthy, but if you have the chance to improve your conditions, without compromise, do so (like the bondservant who is given an opportunity for freedom)? I suspect that is in large part what Doug is saying and that you would agree. I think you would also both agree that we don’t much see that happening in a very wealthy North American evangelical church. As Paul goes around taking up a collection from the Gentile churches to relieve the suffering and poverty of the church in Jerusalem (which he refers to in Philippians and 2 Corinthians and which we hear about in Acts…beyond that, I can’t recall). He doesn’t guilt the Corinthians into giving any certain amount but he clearly expects that they will give sacrificially (as the Philippians did) and cheerfully to their Jewish Christian brothers in need. In today’s world, we not only have a better ability to know the state of the world-wide church but we also have an improved ability to meet those needs. Our lack of cheerful generosity is an area of glaring disobedience.

    As to violence, I don’t see the NT specifically telling those who serve the civil authorities with arms being told to give it up. Jesus doesn’t tell the centurion to go and abandon his career as a soldier. Neither do we have the apostles telling Roman officers to lay down their arms. When soldiers specifically asked John what they must do to prepare for the coming of the Lord and the kingdom, John, in the same context as he teaches to share one’s food and clothes with those who don’t have them and for tax collectors not to collect more than they are by law required, says that soldiers are not to extort and they are to be content with their wages. God is clearly not a pacifist on principle (see Joshua) but he doesn’t seem to call people to arms nearly as often as we would like to resort to them. It seems from the examples we have in Scripture that there is a way to apply the 1 Cor. 7 principle to the use of force of arms as well (which is a better term than violence since, like mammon, it may be used either to glorify God or not – kings in the OT were called to defend the fatherless and widows and helpless. Presumably this included, when necessary, with force of arms). The way both Jesus and the Apostles treated soldiers seems to be along the lines that their vocation (or career) was legit, if they exercised their authority in just and God-honouring ways. They are not told to leave the army, though many others in sinful state are told to stop their behaviours instantly (like those uniting with prostitutes and those stealing, for example). At the same time, when their behaviours were not in keeping with a legitimate use of their power, they were told to stop.

    Anyway, blessings on your interaction. I pray we are all sharpenned. Dan Glover

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks for all these thoughts, Dan. I agree there is some Biblical precedent for making distinctions among the "least" and the "greatest" in the kingdom, but these passages are notoriously difficult to understand fully. Generally, they have been read as saying something about higher or lower positions within the eschatological reign of Christ, greater or lesser rewards in "the life to come." For me, at least, it’s always been a bit difficult to imagine what this would look like, although C.S. Lewis’s picture in Great Divorce helps a bit. But Jones seems to be talking not about future rewards, but about the present life of the church, which makes clarifying this question a matter of pressing practical significance. What would it mean, practically, to say that some Christians are relegated to the "margins" of the church while others are at the "center"?

      As for the rest of your thoughts, I basically concur. I think the 1 Cor. 7 principle is a helpful one to use. After all, the difference between bondage and freedom is a bigger difference than that between richer freemen and poorer freemen. And yet Paul does not think that the equal brotherhood of the church demands the erasure of this external difference. What’s crucial is an internal erasure of difference, a heart that recognizes the equality of the brother, and which thus uses one’s station for his benefit. Neither, of course, does Paul think that the external difference is totally unimportant; he would prefer that slaves be made free, though he recognizes this will have to be a gradual process. Likewise, he would prefer that the poor be empowered with their own financial means, but this doesn’t seem to mean that the rich divest themselves right away to ensure full external equality. What is crucial is that the rich recognize that the poor in the church have a claim on how the rich make use of their resources.

      You say, however, that you suspect this is what Doug is saying. Hm…well maybe. That would be one reading, but his remarks on the subject, particularly in ch. 5, "The Way of Sharing" (see the newest installment of this review, coming out tomorrow) point in quite a number of different directions.

      And he certainly does not seem to consider the vocation of soldier to ever be legitimate (see ch. 6, "The Way of Enemy Love").

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