Faith Working by Love: A Critical Assessment of Dismissing Jesus, Pt. 5

PrintAfter spending two chapters, “The Way of Weakness” and “The Way of Renunciation” tearing down our idols of power, prestige, and possessions, Doug Jones turns in the next two chapters of Dismissing Jesus—“The Way of Deliverance” (ch. 4) and “The Way of Sharing” (ch. 5)—to provide their positive complement, attempting to give some sense of our mission as Christians.  This mission is a glorious one, in which we, like Christ, “preach the good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,” and in which we do this in real-world here-and-now terms, rather than spiritualizing all this into mere soul-winning.  It is a mission in which we are called to call none of our possessions our own, but to share sacrificially with all those in need.  Although I will press for greater clarity and specificity at certain points, I would agree that this is a central part of what it means to live as a Christian. But the important question is why? How should we understand what it is we are doing when we do this and why we are doing it?  I’m worried that the way Jones answers these questions will actually undermine the practical vision in profound ways.

Let me put this provocatively: I’m not at all sure that the themes of these chapters ought to be described under the heading of “the way of the cross.”  The cross is central to Scripture, yes, but it’s not all there is. It’s not even all there is to Christ’s work.  The cross is God’s “No” to sin, it signifies all of the brokenness and pain that sin involves and the great cost necessary to cast away that sin and bring healing and restoration; the cross is God’s wrenching rejection of everything that has distorted his good creation.  When we take up our cross and follow Christ, this is our sharing in this dying to sin, this is our painful renunciation of everything that stands between us and how we were meant to live.  While no Christian ethic, designed for sinful human beings, can afford to neglect this central moment in redemptive history, without which lives of Christian discipleship would be impossible, it should be clear at the same time that this moment cannot be in itself the ground of a Christian ethic.  To live as a Christian ultimately means to live as a true human, to live as God created us to live, following in the footsteps of our Head, the Second Adam.  Read More


Beloved, Let Us Love One Another

A prayer for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2013.
Text for the Day: 1 John 4:7-12, 17-21

God of love, we thank you for these words of challenge and encouragement from 1 John today, and for all that you have been teaching us through this epistle over the past few weeks.  We thank you for the fortuitous timing of these messages as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of your Son.  We have been exhorted over and over to “love one another” and, if we might be tempted to let familiarity breed contempt, to let the exhortation flatten into a platitude, we come, at the end of this series to Good Friday and Easter, when the true nature of love is on display: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  Lord, give us love such as this!  Or perhaps, Lord, some of us may have been tempted to be overwhelmed by John’s uncompromising exhortations to love our brothers and sisters, realizing how poorly we love.  As we look toward Good Friday and Easter, then, give us the peace and confidence that we are able to love, because he has loved us first.

Father, for the love you show to us in the beautiful gifts of creation, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the material blessings that sustain and enrich our lives, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the gifts of friends and family, a church to call home, we give you thanks.  But above all, for the love you showed us in the gift of your Son, for the love that is stronger than death and sin, we thank you with overflowing hearts.  Lord, send your Spirit and your Word throughout this world that people of every tribe and nation may hear and experience this love.

Lord, help us to love, as you have loved us first.  Strengthen our ministers with the self-giving love to teach and lead and pray and work on behalf of the community here at Ps and Gs, and give to each of those who serves here on the staff, or in volunteer leadership, the love to serve faithfully and patiently in their calling, not out of mere duty but care for one another.  Give those leading the Alpha Courses love for those they are teaching, a passionate desire to bring new hearts to Christ, and as the church considers new ways to minister to the homeless here in Edinburgh, give us prudence, but let it always be formed and directed by love.  Give to our missionaries, who have in love followed the call to serve you to the ends of the earth, fresh strength of love to sustain them in their demanding tasks; enable them to show the love of Christ to the lost, that your kingdom may be filled to overflowing.

Give parents among us love for their children, a love that expresses itself in dedicated concern and discipline, and patience amidst every provocation.  Give children among us love for their parents, a willingness to serve and obey, to honour and respect.  Give to husbands the faithfulness to love their wives as Christ loved the church, giving themselves sacrificially, caring for their every need, and to wives the faithfulness to love their husbands in turn, supporting, encouraging, enriching.   Help us to love all of the saints within our congregation at Ps and Gs; may our fellowship be constituted by sacrificial self-giving rather than the selfishness and competition that lies at the root of so many social relationships.  To the sick, the elderly, and the lonely in our congregation, help us to particularly show love, and may you pour out your own love upon them in their hour of need and despair.  Help us to love our neighbors, whom we may rarely meet or speak to, finding ways of shedding Christ’s light in our communities.  Help us to love our co-workers and employers, putting them before our own pride and our own interests, displaying the heart of Christ in settings where few may have seen what that looks like.  Help us to love the poor and needy whom we see and whom we do not see; do not let us deceive ourselves into thinking that love is something we need show only within our narrow circle of relationships, only to those with whom we feel comfortable, but even as you, O God, so loved the world, and Christ gave himself for all, give us the strength, in our own poor way, to love all whose needs you put before our path.

Knit your church together, so divided now in every place, in love for one another, and love for your truth.

Lord, we are oppressed on every side with fears—fears of violence, of material want, of insecurity and loneliness, of rejection and betrayal, of pain and loss, fears of inadequacy, and of being unloved.  Give us, O Lord, the perfect love which drives out all fear: fill us with the confidence of your love towards us, and in experiencing your love, may that love overflow within us so we have no room anymore to be preoccupied with ourselves.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is Love Incarnate, we pray.  Amen.

 


Love is Stronger than Death: A Review of “The Impossible”

Although its release has been strangely muted in the US to date (perhaps due to the already-overcrowded holiday movie schedule), Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible has awed audiences in Europe (becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all time in its native Spain) and established itself as one of the finest films of 2012, if not the last decade.  The true story of the Alvarez-Belón family’s harrowing tale of survival in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, The Impossible is one of those movies that leaves you dazed and emotionally eviscerated as you walk out of the cinema in silence, and then keeps on haunting you in the days that follow.  I’d heard going in that the film was a tear-jerker, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary emotional intensity, which had you choked up by 15 minutes in (if not sooner) and didn’t let that feeling subside until the end credits rolled.  Nor did it evoke tears in just one emotional key, whether of grief or sentimentality; rather, it pulled its viewers, along with the characters in it, through the full range of human feeling: horror, hope, fear, anger, grief, gratitude, love, loneliness, and joy. 

This is perhaps the greater feat because the audience, of course, already knows what is going to happen—you know when the tsunami is going to hit, you know it’s going to be bad; you know (if you’ve read any reviews whatsoever; so I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler) that this family of five will be separated from one another and in the end be reunited.  But once the wave hits, you suddenly realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen.  That, at least, was the case for me.  I must confess to taking a very naive and detached view of the tsunami in the past; yes, people died, but it was quick, right?  Never mind that drowning is a terrible way to die.  One does not really grasp, until one watches this film, how a tsunami is not a mere wall of water, but one that is quickly filled with a thousand objects that can cut, slice, bruise, and puncture; that it hits at a force that will dash human bodies like rag dolls into whatever object is nearby.  And the physical agony that is portrayed (though truth be told, with considerable restraint), is nothing to the emotional pain of fear and separation that follows, for families that have been ripped apart.  

 

The film’s power, of course, comes in large part from its compelling source narrative, and indeed the fact that it is based on a true story, so that there is no hiding from the awful reality it portrays.  For that reason, there are no doubt better films that have been made; films that required much more creative screenplay writing, more daring directing, more extraordinary displays of acting.  But this film certainly does not rest content with a good storyline, or else it would hardly succeed in drawing in the viewer so completely.  And indeed, the story is perhaps, when you boil it down to its constituent elements, a fairly thin and simple one: tsunami hits, mother (Maria) and oldest son (Lucas), are separated from father (Henry) and younger sons (Thomas and Simon); Maria struggles for survival in hospital, tended by Lucas, while father searches for them; in the end they are reunited.  What transforms this simple storyline into one of the most moving depictions of human fragility, love, and courage to appear on film is its unwavering, unrelenting realism, in which every detail—every image, every gesture, every facial expression, is pregnant with meaning.  This realism is underpinned by stellar acting and masterful cinematography.

The actors for all five members of the family put in fantastic performances (all the way down to the four-year-old son), but Naomi Watts’s performance as the Maria is particularly strong, and has earned her some Oscar buzz.  Of course, since she spends the majority of the movie lying on a bed near death’s door, her role probably does not have enough variety to win the award, but it remains a memorable performance.  Still more impressive perhaps was the young Tom Holland’s profoundly genuine portrayal of 12-year-old Lucas, who is forced all at once to grow from a boy into a man when he is suddenly responsible for his gravely wounded mother’s survival.  Although the screenwriting has been criticized as one of the movie’s weaker points, I was struck by how effectively the film succeeds in connecting us emotionally with its five main characters in the brief space of 15 minutes of film time before the wave hits.  We have to care about these people—just another handful of privileged white tourists taking a Christmas vacation in paradise—and to identify with them as people.  And by the end of 15 minutes, we certainly do.

 Some reviewers have commented that the strength of the movie is its myopia—its conscious, ascetic refusal to wallow in the sheer scale of the disaster, and instead to communicate it to us on a human scale, through the eyes of a single family.  (It is for this reason, among others, that it is hardly apt, and more than a little insulting, to refer to the film as part of the genre “disaster movie.”)  Nowhere is this more true than in the cinematography, in which Oscar Faura has recreated for us the family’s bewildering experience by only letting us see what they see.  We are trapped within their very limited perspective, disoriented by the chaos around us, unable to comprehend the big picture, unsure where we are or what’s happening next.  Only at a few key moments does the camera pan out to let us see the enormity of the catastrophe, to put into perspective this one small tale of suffering among tens of thousands of others, and because this wide-angle is used so sparingly, it is devastatingly effective when it is used.

 

Although I have frequently used words like “horror” and “awful” above, the dominant theme of the movie, believe it or not, is beauty.  The score, composed by Fernando Velasquez, is sublimely beautiful and moving, yet appropriately restrained in most of the film; Bayona and Velasquez, thankfully, are not among those who think the only way to elicit the requisite emotions from their audience is to subject them to a crescendo of melodious strings in nearly every scene.  In the first fifteen minutes, the cinematography pierces our hearts both with the physical beauty of the landscape, and the beauty of a family’s love for one another, made almost unbearably bittersweet in its ominous tranquillity—a particularly powerful and recurrent image is the placid sea, both before and after the tsunami, so beguilingly peaceful and apparently innocuous.  After the wave hits, our eyes are treated to little that is physically attractive (although we are still reminded on occasion of how little even the most horrible disaster can do to efface the beauty of creation).  Instead, it is the beauty of courage and of love that overwhelms us again and again.  This love is of course, above all, the love of a family for one another, and there have been few more eloquent odes to the love of a father for his son, or a mother for her son, of a husband for his wife, of a son for his mother, than this film.  Hard is the heart that comes away from this without being inspired to deeper gratitude and more fervent love for family, one of God’s most precious gifts. 

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that this film self-indulgently steeps itself in the sentimentality of one family to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands of others affected.  Just as in the cinematography, the myopia of the storyline serves ultimately not as a set of blinkers to insulate us from the enormity of the tragedy, but as a lens through which to come to terms with it.  Fundraisers have learned that the surest way to a human heart is through one compelling story of loss and need; if treated to a barrage of images and statistics about the thousands who suffer, our emotive capacities shut down, overwhelmed. But the one story can and should serve as a symbol, a proxy, for the thousands of others, by which we are moved with compassion for all.  So it is here. 

One insufferably snide and snobbish reviewer complained that what we are treated to is little more than the story of “a spoiled holiday,” which trivializes the deaths of 220,000.  One is tempted to wish upon this reviewer a similarly spoiled holiday, complete with impaled thigh and seaweed-vomiting.  We are given, indeed, a glimpse of what a mere “spoiled holiday” might look like, when we encounter an American couple, a few hours after the tsunami, griping that “no one seems to know what’s going on” and about how they “just wanna get out of here.”  When Henry staggers up to them, bloodied and desperate, and implores them to borrow their cell phone for just a minute, he is rebuffed, “Hey man, look around.  Everyone around here needs something.  I need this phone too.  So bug off.”  The suffering experienced by the family in this film is a far cry from a mere “spoiled holiday,” and yet we are never at any point allowed to forget that they are comparatively lucky.  In key moments of their own joy, we are treated to brief reminders of those around them for whom the search for loved ones will have no happy ending.  Most crucial is the final scene of the film, where, fortunate enough to be headed on a private plane to a Singapore hospital, courtesy of a well-dressed Zurich insurance agent, we and they are sobered by a glance out the airplane windows as it passes over the devastated coast. 

Nor do they themselves forget the plights of others in the midst of their own.  A key sub-plot of the film is Lucas’s transformation from the self-centered adolescent to a young man eager to help others in need.  The relative selflessness that comes with caring for his injured mother is just the first step in this: right after the wave hits, he is concerned only with getting her to safety, and refuses to stop to rescue a small boy calling for help; his mother insists, asking him to imagine what he would want another survivor to do if that boy calling for help was one of his younger brothers.  By the rescue of this boy, and by Lucas’s later acts of service, some of the other tragedies unfolding around them are transformed into happy endings.   

 

Refuting the PC Police

The sheer pettiness of today’s political correctness police was on full display in some of the reviews of The Impossible over the last month. We have already encountered the snide remarks of A.O. Scott for the New York Times, calling the film the tale of a spoiled holiday, but his review was glowing compared to the sniping of some critics.  Stephen Whittey, of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, opens by complaining, “Official estimates put the death toll at roughly 228,000 people, most of them children. Of the total number, roughly 9000 were European tourists, many of them on holiday in Thailand. ‘The Impossible’ is the first major movie to center on that disaster. And it ignores the Asian causalities to focuses strictly on the troubles of an upper-class British family of five,” before grumbling about how bourgeois and un-interesting the main characters are, how trivial their tragedy.  The Guardian, generally a fine publication except when it comes to predictably politicized film reviews, goes much further (to The Guardian‘s credit, they published a counterpoint here).  Critic Alex von Tunzelmann arranges the review under six headings: Nationality, Society, Disaster, Race, Fate, Verdict.  Under the first, she complains about the English nationality of the main characters, then under the second, about their financial means—”their elegant beach resort is so jam-packed with rich white people that it could be mistaken for the Republican national convention.”  Under the fourth, she rants,

“When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything. They take her to a hospital. En route, there are lots more wounded white tourists lying around in the road, some being tended to by yet more kindly Thais not saying anything. Both at the beach and in the hospital, almost all the victims of this disaster appear to be white.”  

What is to be said in response to these charges?  Well, the first thing to be said is that no defense is really necessary.  The choice of rich Westerners was not some arbitrary politicized decision to make up a story about characters we could identify with.  Rather, a Spanish filmmaker encountered an extraordinary real-life story of a family of Spaniards, and decided that it deserved to be told.  The decision to use well-known English actors rather than Spanish actors speaking Spanish was an understandable decision to make sure the film had as wide a distribution as possible, so as many people as possible would be exposed to this extraordinary story.  Purists might complain, but the Alvarez-Belón family fully supported the decision, and judging by the film’s extraordinary reception in Spain, so did their countrymen.  As an English speaker, I’m certainly not going to complain, as the power of the film is easier to appreciate without subtitles.  In any case, a wealthy Spanish couple is every bit as much part of the global elite as a wealthy English couple, so this decision was not an elitizing move.  Bayona cannot pretend the family, and the other tourists, are not wealthy—why else would they be vacationing at a Thai resort?  And the fact that the preponderance of the victims in the Khao Lak area portrayed in the film are European is a simple submission to historical fact—this was the tourist area, and the majority of the dead and injured here were foreign tourists.  (That said, von Tunzelmann and others exaggerate in claiming that we almost never see any Thai victims—the hospital where much of the film takes place is a cultural melting pot if there ever was one.)  

Bayona found a good story, and told it just like it was, and there is no shame in that.  Both Scott and von Tunzelmann, unlike Whittey, acknowledge that this is a good story as far as it goes, but grumble that Bayona should’ve worked in the stories of some Asian victims as well.  But as mentioned above, precisely the effectiveness of the film is its resolution that “less is more.”  Trying to help us better grasp the scope of the tragedy by working in a few other tragic stories, and spreading our reserves of empathy over a dozen more characters, would have almost certainly made for a poorer film.  Again, as mentioned above, the narrow focus serves not to exclude other victims, but as a lens by which we may come to feel the pain of all.  Viewed this way, we may ask whether the film falls prey to Whittey’s objection: “Western movies always insist on seeing global disasters through Western eyes. It’s as if filmmakers doubt we can identify with anyone who doesn’t look or act exactly like us. Which insults us, actually, and hobbles cinema. One of the great powers of this emotional medium is that it easily encourages us to identify with people who look or act nothing like us.”  Whittey’s general point is true.  Films of third world tragedies usually make use of a first world lens.  Even in films like Hotel Rwanda, where the heroes are Rwandan, they are very Westernized Rwandans—which is why they survive, for that matter.  Blood Diamond needs Leonardo DiCaprio alongside Djimon Hounsou.  But this is not, I think, anything to be terribly ashamed of, or insulted by.  Rather, as powerful a medium as film is, it still has difficulty dissolving the immensely powerful barriers of culture and language.  I’m not saying it can’t be done; but it is difficult, and films that attempt it will rarely reach as wide an audience.  We accept the need for film to mediate between reality and ourselves, manipulating reality in the process in order that we might really be brought to experience it.  Real-life events do not have soundtracks playing in the background, yet few of us complain when films use music to help evoke in us the same emotions that the characters portrayed are feeling.  Similar mediation, reducing the otherness of a radically different culture, is often necessary if we are to come to terms with the Third World at all, rather than it continuing to feel wholly alien to us.  

This is, I’m afraid, especially true when it comes to portraying disasters.  We in the West have great difficulty relating to the suffering of the Third World poor; it is simply too much for us to comprehend.  The images and statistics send us into overload and cause our empathetic faculties to shut down.  When the Haitian earthquake killed 200,000, it felt like just another tragic chapter in the sad saga of that nation, a tragedy almost too deep to engage with emotionally.  The Japanese earthquake, although less tragic on the whole, was for this reason more moving for many of us.  Bayona’s film, then, might be seen as an attempt to help us come to terms with the suffering of all the victims of the Asian tsunami by giving us that suffering in a manageable dose, in a form we could begin to relate to; by this means, our emotional faculties would be trained in the empathy necessary to begin to comprehend the suffering of all the others—those who were not rich, white, and Western.

 

On a related note, I would suggest that part of Bayona’s point is to emphasize the way in which such disasters radically level social and economic hierarchies.  When struggling for survival, we are all reduced to the same common denominator: human.  For many critics (interestingly, themselves all rich white Westerners, who perhaps enjoy tropical vacations from time to time), it was unconscionable that we should pause to lament the suffering of a rich white Westerner, who probably deserved what they had coming to them.  And yet such a reverse discrimination, a cultivation of cultural self-loathing, is no way to overcome the barrier between the privileged and the poor.  On the contrary, the recognition that we too can suffer, that we too can bleed, can be forced to struggle barefoot and barely-clothed through swamps in search of medical help, that we too can be subject to great forces of nature beyond our control, that we too can find our families torn apart by disaster, that vulnerability and suffering are not the sole prerogative of poor Asians and Africans—this is a powerful message of the film.  Indeed, not only does the tsunami result in a leveling, but in an inversion, as rich Europeans are thrown into a position of absolute dependence on the kindness of poor Thai villagers.  

This was the most bizarre of von Tunzelmann’s complaints, as she carped about the racism of depicting “kindly Thais rescuing white holidaymakers without saying anything” (for the record, they were saying plenty, but in Thai—presumably von Tunzelmann would’ve considered it less racist if they miraculously spoke English).  Exactly how is it racist to depict another culture as “kindly”?  Are we to demand rather that other cultures all grow up and learn to display the kind of callous self-absorption that we in the West have perfected?  Scott’s review perhaps clarifies the source of the complaint, charging that “these acts of selfless generosity are treated like services to which wealthy Western travelers are entitled.”  But it is difficult to see where on earth Scott and von Tunzelmann have concocted this impression from.  On the contrary, one of the most powerfully moving scenes in the film is one in which a Thai family, having dragged Maria to safety, bandages her wounds, puts her on a makeshift stretcher, and, in a wonderfully human gesture, puts a fresh clean blouse over her bleeding and partially exposed breasts.  Far from treating this like a “service” to which she is “entitled,” Maria is overwhelmed, and struggles to find a way to articulate her gratitude, weeping and croaking “Thank you” over and over again.  One could hardly ask for a more touching depiction of the kindred humanity we all share, regardless of wealth or nationality.

 

Theology

This review has grown overlong, so I will confine myself to a few brief remarks on the theological dimension.  The 2004 tsunami, of course, called forth a flood of reflections on theodicy in the weeks and months afterward, asking how a good God could cause or allow such suffering.  One of the most eloquent, but ultimately frustrating, responses was David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which rightly called out callous hyper-Calvinists for their presumption and lack of compassion, but failed to provide any convincing alternative to the bogeyman of Calvinism into which he lumped together so many of his opponents.  Bayona’s film avoids all such questions; indeed, is so staunchly secular and empty of God that it must be a self-conscious omission.  The film’s tagline is “Nothing is stronger than the human spirit,” and sure enough, the film’s characters find all the physical and emotional resources they need in themselves, never calling upon God either in anger or for aid.  It would be easy to pick on this humanism, and it is probable that Bayona is a doctrinaire secularist.  From a Christian standpoint, however, I think it is preferable to think of this silence about God as another dimension of the film’s self-imposed myopia, its “less is more” aesthetic.  (And after all, the Book of Esther reminds us that God does not have to be mentioned for us to recognize him as the chief Actor.)  By focusing its spotlight so resolutely and single-mindedly on the truly extraordinary power that is the human spirit, on the marvels of human courage and human love, I found that the film indirectly did homage to the One in Whose image humankind, and human love, were created.  As Richard Hooker argued, we give God the greatest honor not by denigrating His handiwork to focus on Him alone, but by honoring Him in His handiwork, of which we—and our capacity to love—are the greatest expression.  

This then indirectly suggests a theodicy of sorts.  It can sound tired, clichéd, and even callous to say that God allows tragedies and natural disasters to happen in order to make a more beautiful story.  Yet it was no exaggeration when I said above the the most prominent theme of this film is not grief, but beauty.  The beauty of human souls and human love, which is purified and given occasion by physical suffering, outweighs the worst ugliness that a fallen nature can inflict upon us.  Death provides the occasion for love, love which overcomes all death.  This cannot, of course, be the whole answer, or a fully satisfying answer, to the problem of evil and suffering (no answer can be), but it remains one we must not forget, and one that anyone who has seen The Impossible is not likely to soon forget. 


Love, Law, and Christian Liberty

A couple of weeks ago, I tracked down a remarkable document which has been almost entirely overlooked by scholars, a set of “Propositions or articles framed for the use of the Dutch Church in London” on the subject of Christian liberty and related doctrines.  These articles were occasioned by a dispute over the use of godparents in baptism in the Dutch Strangers’ Churches in London, which raised fundamental questions about Christian liberty, adiaphora, and ecclesiastical authority and led ultimately to a schism.  The Dutch ministers therefore drew up a set of articles, attempting to express the magisterial Reformed understanding of these doctrines, and submitted it to the review of the leaders of Reformed churches in Heidelberg, Bern, Lausanne, Zurich, and Geneva.  After incorporating many of the suggested revisions, which were primarily of a stylistic, not a substantive nature, the resulting document was published under the auspices of Edmund Grindal, the Bishop of London with jurisdiction over the Strangers’ Churches.  It thus can lay claim to comprising a kind of pan-Protestant, or at least pan-Reformed, consensus statement on these issues, and encapsulates teachings that we find in Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Vermigli, Bullinger, and others.  

The key points of the Dutch articles may be summarized as follows:

 1. That Christian liberty is spiritual, which means, among other things, that it consists in a free submission to  constraint, not a freedom from all constraint.  This constraint may be that of divine law, which the Christian must follow, though as a result of rather than a means to justification, or, may be imposed by men, in things left indifferent by divine law.

(Art. I: “CHRISTIAN liberty is not a wandering and unruly licence, by which we may do or leave undone whatsoever we list at our pleasure; but it is a free gift bestowed upon us by Christ our Lord; by the which, the children of God (that is, all the faithful), being delivered from the curse of the law, or eternal death, and from the heavy yoke of the ceremonial law, and being endowed with the Holy Ghost, begin willingly of their own accord to serve God in holiness and righteousness.”

Art. IV: “Conscience is the feeling of God’s judgment, whether that a man be assured out of the word of God of that judgment, or that he make it to himself rashly or superstitiously. But whereas it is the duty of Christians to observe the commandments of their Lord, that indeed is properly called a right and good conscience, which is governed by the word of God. Whereby it cometh to pass, that every faithful man by that revealed word doth examine and weigh with himself, both what he doth, and also what he letteth undone, that he may judge of them both, which is just, and which is unjust.”)

2. Things indifferent are not void of moral content, therefore, but take that content from variable circumstances, and by virtue of those circumstances, exert a moral claim on us.

(Art. V: “Indifferent things are called those, which by themselves, being simply considered in their own nature, are neither good nor bad, as meat and drink, and such like; in the which therefore, it is said, that the kingdom of God consisteth not; and that therefore a man may use them well or evil: wherefore it followeth, that they are marvellously deceived, which suppose they are called indifferent, as though without any exception we may omit them, or use them as often as we list, without any sin.”)

3. There are two main ways in which this claim comes about—(a) the law of charity, by which we are bound to use adiaphora to the edification of our neighbor, and (b) human law, by which we are bound to use adiaphora in accord with the commands of civil or ecclesiastical authority.

(Art. II: “Therefore, sith that he which is the Son of God is ruled by the Spirit of God, and that the same Spirit commandeth us, we should obey all ordinances of man (that is, all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian), and all superiors, which watch for the health of our souls; yea, and that according to our vocation we should diligently procure the safeguard of our neighbour; it followeth, that that man abuseth the benefit of Christian liberty, or rather, is yet sold under sin, who doth not willingly obey either his magistrate or superior in the Lord, or doth not endeavour to edify the conscience of his brother.”

Art. VIII: “Generally, the use of these indifferent things is restrained by the law of charity, which is universal.”

Art. IX: “Specially, the use of these things is forbidden by ecclesiastical or civil decree.”)

4. By virtue of both of these, what is in itself free for the conscience becomes per accidens conscience-binding as an indirect command of God, since he commands us to love our neighbor and to obey the magistrate.

(Art. VI: “Things otherwise indifferent of themselves, after a sort change their nature, when by some commandment they are either commanded or forbidden. Because, neither they can be omitted contrary to the commandment, if they are once commanded, neither omitted contrary to prohibition, if they be prohibited; as appeareth in the ceremonial law.”

Art. IX: “For although that only God doth properly bind the conscience of man, yet in respect, that either the magistrate, who is God’s Minister, doth think it profitable for the commonwealth, that something, otherwise of itself lawful, be not done, or that the Church, having regard to order, comeliness, and also edifying, do make some laws concerning indifferent things, those laws are altogether to be observed of the godly, and do so far forth bind the conscience, that no man wittingly and willingly, with a stubborn mind, may, without sin, either do those things which are forbidden, or omit those things which are commanded.”)

5. However, to prevent tyranny, human authorities may not make laws in adiaphora arbitrarily, but only for purposes of edification, civil order, or ecclesiastical order.

(Art. XI: “They, which for any other cause either command or forbid at their pleasure the free use of indifferent things, than for one of these three, that is, neither for edifying, nor for policy, nor ecclesiastical order; and especially those which do rashly judge other men’s consciences in these matters; offend heinously against God and against their neighbor.“)

6. Conversely, because the conscience is bound only insofar as these purposes are at stake, the Christian remains at liberty if the circumstances giving rise to a law no longer pertain, and it can be disregarded without causing offence.

(Art. X: “And sith these things are not ordained simply for themselves, but in respect of certain circumstances, not as though the things themselves were of their own nature unlawful things (for it belongeth only to God to determine this) in case those circumstances do cease, and so be that offence be avoided as near as we can, and that there be no stubborn will of resisting; no man is to be reproved of sin, which shall do otherwise than those ordinances: as it is plain, by the example of David, in a case otherwise flatly forbidden, when he ate the shewbread.”)


This, however, is to make things rather neater than they appeared in fact.  For in point of fact, a great deal of tension attached to the connection between the two laws mentioned above in point (3)—the law of charity and the law of authority.  Is the latter merely valid so long as it remains a subset of the former, as points (5) and (6) imply?  Moreover, although the Dutch articles could speak of “either ecclesiastical or civil decree” in adiaphora as essentially parallel, it was far from clear just how these two were to be correlated.  Both   In fact, these two problems are closely related, as shall readily appear.

Luther and Melanchthon, as Bernard Verkamp has noted, were keen to deny to ecclesiastical ceremonies not only a necessity of means (intrinsically necessary to good standing with God) but also a necessity of precept (necessary to good standing with God merely by virtue of being commanded by church authorities).  Accordingly, Melanchthon will not use the rather clericalist language of the Dutch articles, by which we have an direct obligation before God to obey the commands of ministers, just as we do of magistrates.  To be sure, we can be bound outwardly in ecclesiastical adiaphora, but this obligation proceeds only from the principle of charity, from the demands of peace, order, and edification—while the concrete nature of these demands may happen to be determined by the command of authority, the connection is contingent, rather than necessary.  Therefore, in ecclesiastical matters, Melanchthon will endorse the reasoning of point (6) above—that should the demands of authority and the demands of charity cease to overlap, the latter may be dispensed with, so long as peace can be maintained.  Interestingly, however, he will not take this tack when it comes to civil affairs, for it would seem to disrupt the fabric of human society far too much if individuals were allowed to judge for themselves when laws were no longer binding.  Accordingly, to the principle of charity, he adds what we might call the principle of wrath, which he finds in Rom. 13:5—that to disobey civil authority is to disobey God and risk His wrath: “These are clear words, showing that obedience is necessary, that disobedience hurts the conscience, and that God condemns it.”  Indeed, he sees no need to qualify the conscience-binding character of these laws as indirect, but attacks “many dreamers [who] have written that worldly commandments do not bind us to eternal punishment, for man can punish no one eternally!”  At other points, however, he suggests that there are certain civil laws which are only contingently or circumstantially binding, or else that if civil laws can never be safely disobeyed, it is because to do so will always disrupt peace and cause offense. If so, this suggests that in fact, even in civil laws, it is only the principle of charity that necessarily binds us to their observance. 

Nonetheless, Melanchthon did not satisfactorily resolve this ambiguity, and because of his heavy stress on the intrinsically conscience-binding nature of civil laws, maintained a discontinuity of sorts between ecclesiastical and civil laws, which he otherwise treated as essentially the same, as adiaphorous ordinances of the “civil kingdom.”  In this scheme, it remained ambiguous what was to be done with civil authorities made laws regarding ecclesiastical ceremonies, as in the Adiaphora Controvery and the Vestiarian controversies.  The republication of Melanchthon’s scholia on “Whether it be a mortal sin to transgress civil laws” as part of conformist propaganda in the Second Vestiarian Controversy, then, hardly resolved the fundamental question.

 

In his Institutes, John Calvin had tackled the problem more directly and clearly, denying that there was any fundamental difference in the way that ecclesiastical and civil ordinances related to the conscience, but some ambiguity remains.  Both, as Calvin makes clear in Book III, chap. 19, “On Christian Liberty,” are to be understood as matters of the civil kingdom or “external forum,” wholly different from spiritual matters that occupy the “forum of conscience.”  Calvin’s discussion of ecclesiastical laws in IV.10 shows him to be far from VanDrunen and other advocates of the “regulative principle,” who make the “forum of conscience” co-extensive with the institutional church and rule out man-made laws and ceremonies within it.  On the contrary, such ordinances are absolutely necessary, since any human society requires a “form of organization . . . to foster the common peace and maintain concord.”  The particular form, however, is widely variable depending on circumstances, and accordingly our obligation to obey such laws is not necessary, but contingent.  Calvin’s treatment of this issue is close to that given in the Dutch articles, which are almost certainly drawing on the Institutes here.  In their decree regarding meat sacrificed to idols in Acts 15:20, says Calvin, the Apostles do not lay down a new law binding on the conscience before God, but rather “the divine and eternal command of God not to violate love.”  This command is being specified into a particular requirement in present circumstances, and in those circumstances, the Christian is bound to obey; but the circumstances being changed, so that charity no longer concretely demanded these actions, the law could be disobeyed without sin.  

Unlike Melanchthon, Calvin makes the same distinction of contingency and necessity with regard to civil laws, recognizing that Romans 13:5, if read the way Melanchthon and others appeared to, would threaten the principle of Christian liberty in ecclesiastical laws as well, seeing as both shared the nature of human law: “Moreover, the difficulty [of defining conscience] is increased by the fact that Paul enjoins obedience toward the magistrate, not only for fear of punishment, but for conscience’ sake.  From this it follows that consciences are bound by civil laws.  But if this were so, all that we said a little while ago and are now going to say about spiritual government would fall.”  Therefore, the same restrictions must reply to both: “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience.  For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.”  This “general purpose,” however, is not spelled out by reference to the law of love, but by reference to “God’s general command, which commends to us the authority of magistrate,” although like Melanchthon, Calvin would probably equate the two, arguing that love of neighbor requires subjection to the magistrate, who advances the common good.

 

While all parties acknowledged the value of a certain division of labor between ecclesiastical and civil authorities, given that ministers would be best placed to identify what edification and order demanded in matters pertaining to worship and church government, and magistrates better suited to judge in matters pertaining to more strictly civil affairs, the asymmetry we have just seen posed a problem.  For if the demands of charity, edification, and order in these two spheres clashed, the civil magistrate held the trump card: the divine testimony that to disobey the ruler (within his legitimate sphere) was ipso facto to violate the demands of charity.  Accordingly, we find an increasing tendency to suggest that even in adiaphorous matters, ecclesiastical authorities have an autonomous, divinely-given jurisdiction over church ceremonies and polity.  We see this in the second of the Dutch articles, where God’s command to obey “all superiors which watch for the health of our souls” is put on the same par as His command to obey “all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian.”  Later on, in article 23, they state explicitly that “It belongeth only to the Consistory, to be occupied in making new laws of discipline.”  Indeed, in article 20, the Dutch ministers imply a juridical authority for the clergy in their sphere that is equal to and separate from that of magistrates in their sphere: “In the Church of Christ, that is to say, in the house or city of the living God, the Consistory, or fellowship of governors, consisting of the Ministers of the word, and of Seniors lawfully called, sustaineth the person of the universal Church in ecclesiastical government, even as every magistrate in his commonwealth.”   

Such authority for ministers in making church laws, would seem to run flat contrary to the original anti-clerical impetus of the doctrine of Christian liberty, and could only be reconciled to it by emphasizing that this authority was not arbitrary, but closely bounded by Scripture.  Accordingly, we find the articles repeatedly emphasising that in making such constitutions, “judgment [must] be taken out of the word of God, what may or ought to be done, or not done” (Art. 8).  Of course, to emphasise this, as we have already seen, was to call into question their status as adiaphora in the first place.  Moreover, since all adiaphorists had admitted that divine positive law could in principle render a matter that otherwise would be indifferent (for instance, some aspect of church polity) to be in fact necessary, and therefore out of the discretion of the magistrate, it was possible to argue that divine law in fact required such an autonomous, Scripturally-regulated clerical jurisdiction.  In the wake of their failures in the Vestiarian controversy, it was just this that some of the English dissenters would begin to contend.

 

(This post is in lieu of a thorough analysis of and commentary on the articles which I have been planning to post on The Calvinist International, but which I have been prevented from finding time to write.  The above exposition will likely be part of chapter 2 of my thesis.)


Even if There Were No Hell…

Early in the Institutes, Calvin offers some eloquent and luminous insights on the relation of love and fear, and the difference between the righteous man’s fear of God and the unrighteous’s—passages pregnant with significance for political theology as well, as we consider the way that citizens relate to authorities, their earthly lords and “fathers”:

“For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.  And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself; furthermore, the mind always exercises the utmost diligence and care not to wander astray, or rashly and boldly to go beyond his will.  It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.  Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him.  Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.  Because it acknowledges him as Lord and Father, the pious mind also deems it meet and right to observe his authority in all things, reverence his majesty, take care to advance his glory, and obey his commandments.  Because it sees him to be a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness, it ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger. And yet it is not so terrified by the awareness of his judgment as to wish to withdraw, even if some way of escape were open.  But it embraces him no less as punisher of the wicked than as benefactor of the pious.  For the pious mind realizes that the punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory.  Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and revers God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord.  Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law….” (I.iii.2)

“A second sin arises, that they [hypocrites] never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance.  And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them.  This, since they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing.  That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone.  Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow.  Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment.  But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread.  And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion.  Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy laws of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness.  Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restraining it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit.  

This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow.  From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, which is instilled in the breasts of believers only.  And yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee.  For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices.  Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor.  Nay, more, with greeter license they sluggishly lie in their own faith, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.” (I.iv.4)

(italics mine)