The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More


Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 2—Overview of the Way of the Cross

 

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I am spiritually blind.  Conservative Christian and blind. I am one of the many who followed the broad path and said to Jesus “I will follow you” but did “not sit down first and count the cost” (Luke 14:28). . . . I am the rich young ruler Jesus addressed.  I have a car, several computers, lawn sprinklers, a tiled shower, a full pantry, air conditioning, a nice outdoor deck, plenty of books, and I’ve spent years sincerely trying to figure out theological questions—“Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) (3).

So Doug Jones opens chapter 1 of Dismissing Jesus, “Overview of the Way of the Cross” (see Pt. 1 of my review here).  It is a jarring opening, but an effective one.  It shows us at that whatever this book is going to be, it is not going to be an arrogant diatribe, but a personal confession.  If we feel our consciences pricked along the way, then, we can infer, the author speaks from a pricked conscience as well, and we are anything but alone.

This is a good thing, since the language of “blindness,” which dominates in this first section of the book, would otherwise (and no doubt, still will) raise a lot of hackles. Now, while I have concerns about this language, it is clearly Scriptural.  As Jones points out, “But when Scripture addresses God’s people, it portrays spiritual blindness as rather normal.  It’s regular, common, cutting across Old and New Testaments. . . . [A series of passages are cited.] Blindness everywhere. God’s people have a high probability of blindness” (4).  Moreover, as Jones goes on to show
throughout, the very things that we American Christians have in abundance—wealth, power, security—are those things that most conspire to produce spiritual blindness.  And sometimes, the more convinced we are that we are not blind, the more likely we are to be. At the very least, the accusation of blindness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but should prompt us to sit up and listen, and take a good look at Scripture and our own lifestyles and attitudes.  Few of us should come away from the exercise without discovering massive blind spots, if not outright blindness. Read More


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


What is the Church Made of?

What is the Church made of?  There are lots of interesting debates we could have in answer to this question—do we define the Church by baptism or by faith?  By formal membership?  By those truly regenerate and known to God, or by outward profession only?  Here, however, I have a much more basic question in mind.  If asked to define itself, in an identity or mission statement, on a website, etc., many churches might begin with words like “Our church is a collection of individuals from all walks of life, united by faith in Jesus Christ…”  Hold on, stop right there.  Is it accurate to say that the Church is a collection, or a gathering, of “individuals”?  Well, at first glance, yes; this seems a theologically impeccable statement.  But for many evangelical churches today, as the identity or mission statement goes on in the same vein, something begins to ring false—”the church consists of individuals each endowed with unique gifts”; “we aim to support one another as individuals who are each loved and valued”; “we want to bring together individuals in a shared life of discipleship and worship together,” etc.  Sociologically, at the very least, something seems to be missing here.  After all, in most churches, unless made up of the very old or the very young, it is not primarily individuals who drive up to church, get out of the car, and come sit in the pew on a Sunday morning—it is families.  

Of course, in our society as a whole, this empirical fact is being steadily eroded, as families do fewer and fewer things together.  They don’t spend time together, they don’t eat meals together, they don’t participate in the same hobbies; as soon as kids reach driving age, they go to their own places on their own schedules.  This erosion has increasingly made itself felt in the church as well, as different family members do not even necessarily attend the same church, and if they do, they are quickly segregated off, not to see one another again until after the service.  The teenager goes to the youth-group, the ten-year-old to the ten-year-olds group, the six-year-old to the six-year-olds group, and the two-year-old to the nursery.  And of course, this is for those church attendees who are in fact families.  Reflecting broader cultural trends, churches are increasingly populated with folks well into their thirties who are still single.  Perhaps indeed it is now both theologically and sociologically accurate to describe the Church as a collection of individuals.

Time was, quite recently, when conservative Christianity in the US witnessed a militant reaction against this trend, a determination to reclaim the family as the heart of the church and the society.  Groups like Vision Forum proclaimed an anathema against age-segregated activities at churches, and preached a gospel of salvation by family cohesion.  Homeschooling was of course part of the prescription, but for many it went further, as families were discouraged from allowing their children to be exposed to any unmonitored outside influences, or even leaving the parents’ sight for any extended length of time, until well into teenage years.  This pattern was even to be manifested liturgically, as fathers were invited forward to take servings of bread and wine to distribute to their families.  Such were the more extreme manifestations of the movement, but the broader ethos, one which can only be called a kind of “familyolatry,” proved very influential in many fundamentalist and Reformed circles.

This reaction has provoked, in turn, a counter-reaction, in which many Reformed folk, re-asserting the primacy of the Church over the family, have reminded us that Jesus described his kingdom as one that would dissolve all family ties, one in which we were all brothers and sisters within the one family of faith.  The Church, we were reminded, was the new community in which old social bonds are replaced, in which the water of baptism is stronger than the blood of kinship, in which the communion of the eucharist is the new family meal.  

This reaction, while rather more theologically reflective than what drives most evangelical churches, reminds us that the prevailing concept of the Church as “a collection of individuals” may be more than a mere capitulation to cultural trends; it may reflect in part a conviction that the New Testament calls us to a model of the Church in which we all stand as individuals in relation to the center that is Christ, rather than bound by the natural relationships that may pertain outside the Church.  From this standpoint, some see the Church as called in fact to accelerate the dissolution of traditional social hierarchies, of which the family and the distinctive roles it imposes is the most central. 

The prevalence of such thinking might help account for the widespread incredulity toward infant baptism, even among churches with a long tradition of this practice.

What are we to make of all this?  For those of us troglodytes still convinced that the family, with its intergenerational ties, its rhythms of life together, its relationships of subordination and authority, is still an essential building block of society, how are we to articulate its relationship to the church?  Can we avoid a familyolatry that privileges the nuclear family over all other bonds, including the bonds of brotherhood in Christ that we are called to?  Can we avoid making the family so normative that the vocation of singleness, so prominent in the New Testament, is driven to the disreputable margins of the Church?  Can we do justice to the passages in Scripture which speak of the relativization of all family bonds, without immanentizing the eschaton and acting as if marriage and child-bearing are passé?

The balance, admittedly, is a difficult one, but I think this might be another area where a two-kingdoms perspective could help us out.  The following is merely the barest sketch of how; I leave it to others to figure out further what this might actually look like in pastoral practice.

First, we can make a pretty sharp distinction, whether in visible/invisible terms—the church in its empirical expression of visible congregations is not identical to the church as known before God—or in eschatological terms—the church within history, within the limits of mortal life, is not identical to the church as it will be at the consummation.  Before God, the Church is quite clearly made up of individuals, in the sense that each believer is united to Christ directly and identically, not through the medium of her father or her mother or her brother. In the eschaton, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage; we shall not bear children, and parents will not need to teach or exercise authority over their children.  And yet now, in the empirical, historical church, we do marry and are given in marriage.  Children are born to Christians, and they are raised, by and large, by their parents, not by the church leaders.  Most of their teaching and training comes at home, through their parents, and it is these parents who are likely, from an empirical perspective, to be most responsible for the children’s coming to faith and participation in the church.  

Such clear distinction can help us avoid blurring together biblical passages that speak to the Church in these two different senses, or stages.  Paul can address the Church as a new family of saints in which there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, and yet can issue directives addressed to husbands, to wives, to fathers, mothers, and children, to master and slaves, each in their distinct earthly roles.  It can help us avoid an immanentization of the eschaton in which we try to treat the Church as if it ought somehow to be a community that has transcended natural limitations, that need not acknowledge the existence of families in its midst—a posture that will undermine the primary means by which the Church’s ranks are replenished with new members, and by which these members are trained in the faith.  

However, this distinction cannot be the whole answer, if it is to avoid treating these two perspectives as wholly separate, the church in history as unrelated to the church in glory.  Clearly, the former is to be a sign of the latter, a hint of what is to come appearing already in the present.  The vocation of celibacy, it seems, is to be one way in which this sign is attested in the community of the Church, as some members live lives directed wholly to God and toward their brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than directed toward the natural propagation of the species.  Any church that does not make room for, and value, this vocation, is a church that is not fulfilling its mission to be a sign of the new creation in the midst of the old.  Likewise, although most of us show up at the church doors as families, we become one family in worship, as we sing together, respond together, and partake of the Eucharist together, displaying our shared relationship to Christ and to one another.  Churches ought to find ways, while acknowledging their general dependence on the foundation-stone of the family, to witness to the eschatological reality in which our identity is found in Christ alone, and not in biological descent and natural social structures. 

On the other hand, we should be wary of embracing anything that seems “communal” as if it were somehow a manifestation of this eschatological life, an abolition of natural bonds in favor of spiritual ones.  We are apt to think, for instance, as if the sharing of earthly possessions that should characterize the church’s life together were a mark of a new eschatological community, a transcendence of natural loyalties.  Or we imagine that the fact that, in the church, we aid and support one another in the raising of children means that somehow the natural parental role has been transcended in a brotherhood in which we are all fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters to one another.  The latter presumption is simply a mark of how far we in the modern West have substituted the nuclear family for the full array of human social bonds which characterized most pre-modern communities, so that we now imagine anything that relativizes the nuclear family is a mark of eschatological inbreaking.  On the contrary, in many non-Western societies even today, it is common for the community as a whole, or extended family or clan networks, to display a shared responsibility for the care of one another, and the raising of children.  To this extent, the tightly-knit communities that churches seek to foster are merely the return to a more fully natural form of human sociality, rather than the oddly truncated form we have become familiar with.  

Likewise, even the willingness to share possessions that should characterize the church is in fact a picture of restored nature, not transcendence of it.  A strictly private view of property that has lost sight of the need to ensure common use of this world’s goods is not the natural state of things, which the visible church is called to replace with eschatological communism, but a deviant state of affairs, that does not understand the just administration of property.  Acts 2, then, is not evidence that the church is supposed to live the life of the age to come in the present, but evidence that the church is supposed to model the just patterns of natural life in the present.  But I risk veering off-topic.

The baptismal rite, it seems to me (or the infant baptismal rite, to be precise), seems to offer a rich, well-balanced picture of how these various dimensions are to intersect in the life of the visible church.  It is the parents who bring the child to be baptized, attesting the visible church’s reliance on the natural structures of propagating the species.  Not only the parents, however, but also the congregation as a whole, and (in many traditions) the sponsors or godparents, make vows to help raise and nurture the child in Christian faith.  This is a communal responsibility which perhaps pictures, in certain respects, the erasure of family distinctions in the eschatological body of Christ, but also simply reflects the natural order of human sociality, in which we are meant to care for and support one another beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family.  In the course of the liturgy, the parents hand the child over to the minister, who stands in the place of Christ, and the minister baptizes the child.  In this, the parents symbolically renounce the child to Christ, and put him in the same position that they themselves were in when they were first baptized.  In this moment, the child is revealed as a child of Christ, a brother to his parents, rather than their son, and equally a brother of all others who are in Christ.  But the liturgy does not end here; the minister returns the child to his parents with a charge, showing that for now, while we live within the bounds of mortality, he remains uniquely their responsibility to provide for and teach; he is the ward of his parents, not the ward of the church generically, or of the minister particularly.  For the minister is not Christ and does not wield his authority, even if he symbolically represents him for purposes of the liturgy.

This post was not meant to be an apologia for infant baptism (although I would have no qualms about writing such an apologia), but perhaps it has ended there.  In a normal, healthy church, most baptisms should be infant baptisms, and the liturgy should teach us the right relationship between the church and the family; and yet in a healthy church, there should also be a good number of adult baptisms, which by displaying for us the entry of an individual believer directly into relationship with his Savior, ensures that we do not lose sight of the eschatological dimension of the church, its calling to be the sign of a new community, a new family, in the midst of time.  Churches that lack infant baptisms are likely to fall into an individualism or a kind of communalism that displays an over-realized eschatology; churches that lack any adult baptisms, or that practice infant baptism without godparents or otherwise picturing the active role of the whole congregation, are likely to fall into a rut of familyolatry, turning the church into nothing more than a gathering of families, and excluding singles from their fellowship.  


A Two Kingdoms Hart Attack

Over at Old Life Theological Society, Darryl Hart has been vigilantly policing the web for any criticism of Reformed two kingdoms theology, so I knew it was only a matter of time before my incessant provocations warranted a full-post response.  That response came on Monday, and although I hate the petty squabbling that so often characterizes blog debates, this may be a useful opportunity to clarify some of my critiques of VanDrunen and get a better idea of where R2K folks are coming from.  My main reply proved rather bulky for the comments section, so I’ve opted to post it here–Darryl’s excerpts in italics, mine in regular font:

“1) Christ has fulfilled Adam’s original task.

2) Therefore [Latin, ergo], Christians are not called to fulfil that task.

3) Christians do not need to earn eternal life by cultural labours; they already possess the eternal life that Christ has won for them.

4) Our work does not participate in the coming of the new creation–it has already been attained once and for all by Christ.

5) Our cultural activity is important but temporary, since it will all be wiped away when Christ returns to destroy this present world.”

Sounds pretty good to me (except for number 5 which is a bit of a caricature), but it also makes sense theologically since you wouldn’t want to argue the opposite of these deductions, would you? Do you really want to be on the side of affirming that Christians earn eternal life through cultural labours? 

First, I would ask how #5 a caricature?  This is certainly what VanDrunen appears to be saying in LGTK, but if not, I am glad to hear that, and would like to get a clearer explanation of what R2K eschatology looks like.

Second, why wouldn’t some want to argue the opposite of these deductions?  I would certainly dispute 2, as well as, in certain important senses at any rate, 4 and 5.  The only one that you really wouldn’t want to dispute is 3.  

But more fundamentally, my objection was that these do not constitute “deductions” but a string of assertions.  (3) simply does not follow from (1) and (2)–except on an idiosyncratic and unbiblical understanding of “Adam’s original task”, nor do any of the others follow from (3).  (3) is the odd man out here.   How does the statement “we do not merit redemption by our cultural labours” entail “redemption has nothing to do with our cultural labours”?  We are not justified by our cultural labours, of course.  But our sanctification does flow over into those cultural labours, as I will get to in a moment. 

 

We are united with Christ, ergo, we take part in redeeming the world? How exactly does that follow?

How does it not follow? We are united with Christ, therefore we reign even now with with him; we are made kings and priests, sharing in his dominion and intercession over all creation.  He is even now putting all his enemies under his feet, thus redeeming the world from the bondage of sin.  And by our union with him, we are made sharers in this task.  Lest this sound too triumphalistic, we must of course remember that we are united with him in his death, and called to share in his cross, which is how he overcomes the world.  I suppose it does not follow for the R2Ker because they insist that Christ is not enthroned over creation, but only over the Church; therefore, even if we do somehow share in his kingship, this means nothing for redeeming the world.  This is a whole ‘nother discussion, I suppose, though I have touched on it in previous posts on R2K Christology.

 

But to turn cultural activity into a part of redemption does take away from the all sufficiency of Christ or misunderstands the nature of his redeeming work.  You may understand the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ for saving sinners, but if you then add redeeming culture or word and deed ministries to the mix of redemption, you are taking away from Christ’s sufficiency, both for the salvation of sinners and to determine what his kingdom is going to be and how it will be established. Maybe you could possibly think about cultural activity as a part of sanctification where God works and we work when creating a pot of clay.

There’s vagueness going on here in the term “redemption.”  Redemption involves, if I learned my ordo salutis correctly in Catechism class, both justification and sanctification…not to mention glorification.  So yes, cultural activity is a part of sanctification–and therefore it is a part of redemption.  Redemption takes effect in a sanctification which lays hold of our entire lives, including culture.  Now here’s the cool part.  Although this cultural activity is an effect, not a cause, of our own personal redemption, it is a cause of the redemption of the world more broadly.  This of course gives VanDrunen and Hart the heebie-jeebies, so let me explain.  The fall, by warping our relationship with God, also warped our relationships to one another.  As we are sanctified, we are again enabled to live out these relationships rightly.  Our redemption thus takes effect (slow and ambiguous effect, to be sure) in the healing of distorted social structures, and indeed of creation itself (Romans 8:20-23).  And here is where my “not a zero-sum game” comes in.  Christ is the sole lord of the universe, the sole captain of salvation, the only one with power to redeem.  But he accomplishes the redemption of his creation through his people–by his grace, he redeems for himself a people, and in transforming them, enables them to work together with him in accomplishing the healing of his world.

But as I’ve said before, the fruit of the Spirit is not Bach, Shakespeare, or Sargent; if you turn cultural activity into redeemed work you need to account for the superior cultural products of non-believers compared to believers.

There are actually three categories to be considered, and you and VanDrunen collapse the latter two. First, there are actions carried out in relation to God–here, obviously, only believers saved by grace through faith are able to do what is good.  Then there are actions carried out in relation to other humans–this is the domain of ethics and politics.  Then there are actions carried out in relation to the creation–this is the domain of art, mathematics, technology, etc.   These are of course not iron-clad spheres (at least not the latter two), but useful distinctions.  Now, while in the third category, natural reason is sufficient for unbelievers to discover the laws of geometry or write glorious symphonies just as well as believers (although it is probably not a coincidence that music has developed so much further in the Christian West than anywhere else; if we were being really precise, we would treat humane arts here differently than physical sciences), it’s not quite this simple in the second category.  Unbelievers are not going to have the same insight into justice, into how husbands and wives should treat one another, how rulers should treat their subjects, how economic exchange should be carried out justly, as Christians.  They will have a lot of insight, sure (this is natural law, common grace, etc.), but do we really want to say that salvation doesn’t affect how you treat other people, and the Bible gives no instruction on how to treat other people?  I think not.  It is careless to lump together politics and music as “culture” and say that in all “cultural activities” believers have nothing distinctive to offer, and that the Bible doesn’t give us instruction about cultural activities.

 

Actually, VanDrunen supplies plenty of theological justification for his view of Christ and culture since he sees important layers of discontinuity between Israel and the church 

Sure, of course there are important layers of discontinuity, but there are also important layers of continuity, and I can’t find those in his account (more on this in an upcoming post).

It does not take much imagination to see that the Israelites, even the ones who trusted in Christ during his earthly ministry, were completely unprepared for the new order that was going to emerge after the resurrection…. But the new order of the church was completely unprecedented in the history of redemption to that point in time.

Well, yes and no.  I think N.T. Wright supplies very helpful categories for understanding this.  The gospel only makes sense as an unforeseen fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.  It is unforeseen in advance, but it is a fulfilment, and thus is in continuity that can be readily traced in hindsight.  I don’t see where those points of continuity are for VanDrunen–the history of Israel remains isolated and unintegrated into the sequence of redemptive history (again, more on this in an upcoming post). 

I see no reason why the next age of redemptive history will [not] similarly exceed any expectation that we have based on our experience of this world.

Absolutely.  But it will nonetheless be in continuity.  When I was a young child, I couldn’t begin to imagine what I would be like as a fully grown man (heh, I still can’t :-p)… but this is different from not being able to imagine what it would be like to be a peacock.  Again, I’m sure VanDrunen would claim that there is some kind of continuity between this creation and the new creation, but I’m not sure where it is, and his theology appears to repeatedly undermine it.