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



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

Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom and Social Identity

From Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, ch. 5, “Freedom and Its Loss”:

“From an objective point of view unsociability can be described as a loss of order, from a subjective point of view as a loss of freedom.

“‘Freedom’ is a term with a range of meanings.  First and most formally, it is simply the power to act, that ownership of one’s behavior which distinguishes the intelligent agent from creatures of instinct.  Stripped bare of all social context, this is a power of individual human nature, which may usually simply be assumed.  The assertion of freedom in this form always belongs with some kind of individualism.  Here is the freedom-as-defiance of the existentialist, and of the teenager who refuses to get out of bed in the morning.  But freedom so conceived is abstract and unproductive.  To give the term a moral significance, we must understand it in terms of the orientation of the individual to social communications.

“And so there arises a second and more substantial sense of freedom: the realization of individual powers within social forms.  This is the sense in which we can say the the objective correlate of freedom is authority.  Authority (in the broadest sense, not political authority alone) attaches to those structures of communication in which we engage in order to realize freedom.  And this is the sense in which freedom may be lost.  Loss of freedom does not mean that the social orientation of human beings can be utterly thwarted.  But we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we can find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves effectively. . . . But what we can say of the individual in these circumstances, we can say equally of the society.  It is not free unless it can sustain the forms that make for its members’ freedom.

“Freedom is a term used almost exclusively to focus attention on the possibilities of its loss. . . . That is why it is no easy thing to construct a positive program around the idea of freedom.  Politicians who praise freedom too profusely in flourishing circumstances are viewed with understandable suspicion.  Yet when some concrete threat appears, whatever it may be, ‘freedom’ is the first word on all our lips.

“If freedom is the self-realization of the individual within social forms, the twin guiding lights of sociality and individuality mark the runway along which any discussion of freedom must get airborne, whether its flight path then turns in a socialist direction towards securing individual freedom by way of social structures, or in a liberal direction towards securing social freedom by way of individual liberties. . . . ‘Freedom’ speaks of a certain conformability of society to individuals and of individuals to society.  It is a measure of fit between the communications which the individual hopes for and those which the society sustains.  As such, it is a matter of more or less.  Even in the most oppressive circumstances it is not wholly absent.” (67-69)

. . . 

“Freedom, then, has to do with a society’s particular historical way of existing. Societies cannot be free if they cannot sustain their historical identities.”

“Social identity, then, is an important contributing element in the freedom of an individual.  There can be no ‘freedom’ in having many spheres to participate in, unless one can rationally conceive of a whole that connected those spheres together. . . . However, there is more to personal freedom than simple participation in a tradition. . . . It is an imprisoned self-knowledge that cannot distinguish one’s calling from one’s social identity. . . . There is an eloquent difference between the term ‘identity’, used both of societies and of individuals viewed objectively as members of societies, and the term ‘vocation,’ used only of ourselves as subjects. . . . ‘Vocation’ takes us beyond identity, to a fulfillment in service that is extended to us personally by God.  And this provides us with a third sense of the term ‘freedom,’ as the individual’s discovery and pursuit of his or her vocation from God.  It is to this that Christians have pointed when they have spoken of ‘evangelical liberty,’ the liberty of baptism.” (70-72)

“No Man Can Serve Two Masters”: Church and Academy in Tension

So, the Church needs theology.  We’re all agreed on that, hopefully.  And as I argued in the last post, that means not merely listening to its own inchoate voice, but seeking to let that voice be clarified by careful interrogation from theology as a discipline.  We’d go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we relied on nothing but experts, but we’d also go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we tried to get by without experts.  (Needless to say, “experts” here should not be taken to signify “those who have all the answers,” but merely “those who have learned (or at any rate begun to learn) how to frame the questions.”) 

Having defended the role of theology as a discipline, I will now offer a few thoughts on the deep problems currently afflicting the relationship between this discipline and the Church it is called to serve. 

First, I think that pausing to meditate on this word “discipline” can help us think more clearly about what we’re talking about.  Of course, the term carries academic connotations—we speak of an “academic discipline” of sociology, or applied chemistry, or English literature, or whatever.  And so one might think that when I speak of “theology as a discipline” I’m referring to “theology as an academic department,” theology as part of the university, perhaps with seminaries thought of as sort of hangers-on that can also basically claim to be part of the academy.  But of course, “discipline,” fundamentally, means “training to act in accordance with rules” or “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training” (to borrow from dictionary.com).  To say that we need theology as a “discipline” is to say that we need theology as a disciplined regimen of reflection, a trained skill of thinking.  That, of course, does not require institutional embodiment, and certainly not in the “academy” (whatever exactly that is), or the university.  


As a discipline, the task of theology represents a distinct (though not necessarily separate) calling from that of pastoral ministry and preaching.  We might be prone to wonder whether (as someone commented on the previous post) our problem started when we began to think that one could be a theologian without being a pastor, and perhaps that was the fault of the university.  After all, all the great early Church Fathers were churchmen—bishops, usually—occupied day in and day out with teaching, preaching, correcting, baptizing, and administration.  (Of course, even this generalization is too broad—think of Jerome.)  But the origin of the theologian-as-such did not come as the product of the universities, since the universities took over the task of theology by and large from the monasteries, which were the institutional context within which the discipline of theology was by and large nourished from the 6th century through the 13th.  Of course, the monastery was not necessarily detached from “church life”—from preaching and pastoral ministry.  There was a great deal of overlap and cross-pollination.  And certainly, the monasteries were a thoroughly liturgical context.  Nonetheless, it was possible to devote one’s life to study of the Scriptures and reflection upon God, without devoting one’s life to active Christian ministry. 

Of course, there are doubtless problems that can arise from this disjunction, but we would be foolish to deny that there are also benefits.  Clearly, when we think about the most important qualities in a good pastor or even a good preacher, rigor of theological reflection is probably not the highest.  Love, compassion, confidence, ability to communicate, perhaps authority—these are all essential qualities, and these are qualities that many a would-be-theologian does not have.  If we required, then, that all our theologians also be, or at the very least, first be, pastors, then we would be inflicting an awful lot of atrocious pastors on the Church.  But of course, many Christians who lack a superabundance of these relational gifts may possess intellectual gifts, or skill in written communication, as well as a passion to uncover the the depths of God’s truth and put it to the service of the Church.   They may be eminently qualified, in short, for the discipline of theology, and we would be unfairly depriving the Church if we insisted that none of these could engage in that discipline unless they were ordained ministers.  And of course, even for those gifted in both, there is the question of time; both tasks are enormously demanding, and there are few who can carry out both with consistent success.  Thus, we should speak of two distinct vocations (though of course it is quite possible that both may coincide in one person): the vocation of the theologian and the vocation of the minister. 

However, these are not simply two parallel occupations; there is a teleological relation.  The theologian is oriented to the service of the minister in a way that the minister is not to the theologian, because the task of theology is fundamentally to serve and build up the Church.  If philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, then theology is the handmaiden of ministry.  Of course, the minister is to serve every member of his flock and support them in all their lawful calllings, so to this extent he is to serve the theologian as well—but contingently.  The essence of the theologian’s task is to build up the Church, and therefore to help equip the minister (though of course also laypeople) in his task.  And this is where the question of institutional arrangement becomes pressing.  


In today’s world, the theologian occupies an odd position; he has a conflict of interest.  Whereas the carpenter’s task is to serve the architect, and so he relies on the architect for his paycheck, and the architect’s task is to serve the person who wants a new office building, and so he relies on this person for his paycheck, the theologian rarely makes his living off of the Church that he is called to serve.  He works in service of the Church, but he depends on “the academy” for his paycheck.  Whenever such a disjunction happens, it usually spells trouble (consider the current crisis of the healthcare industry, in which the doctor’s task is to serve the patient, but he relies on the insurance companies (or in most countries, the government) for his pay check).  We might think that this is only really a problem if people are being greedy, but this is not the case.  The theologian is rarely trying to get rich; he is just trying to make a living.  But to make a living, he has to please his employer, and his employer, therefore, will in large part set the agenda for what he does.  He may earnestly wish to serve the Church, and yet he has limited time and resources, so he can hardly let the Church set the agenda for his work if the academy is also doing so.  

Of course, “the academy” is a vague bogeyman if there ever was one, but perhaps we all have enough of an idea of what I mean for the following contrast to make some sense.  A theologian in service of the Church will be attentive to the needs of the church of which he finds himself a part, or the churches with which he finds himself connected.  He will ask what their urgent questions are, what serious confusions hamper their grasp of the Gospel and their witness to the world, what errors threaten their faith.  And then he will set himself the task of teaching and writing to answer these questions, clarify these matters of confusion, refute these errors.  He will teach and write in such a way, not necessarily so as to be understood by each and every churchgoer (indeed, how could that be possible), but at least in such a way that his contributions may be mediated to the church as a whole by its leaders and its most thoughtful and engaged members.  He will, moreover, seek to spend enough time immersed in its life and its discussions that he may not only clearly know the questions of its members, but also learn from their own insights and experiences.  How will the theologian engaged in this task fare in the academy?  He may succeed well—many have—but the minefield through which he has to navigate is not one through which the route to success is clear.   

As his paymaster, the academy will expect the theologian to demonstrate his ability to fruitfully engage with the vexing questions that preoccupy the academic discipline, his ability to contribute some new knowledge to their discussion.  The academy will not necessarily think much of his interest in the petty and naive questions that trouble ordinary churchgoers, it will not necessarily think much of his determination to draw on and preserve ancient wisdom, his reticence to say anything novel, or his engagement with un-respectable and unsophisticated interlocutors.  It will expect him to engage with academic secondary literature instead, and the more he is engaging with sources that the ordinary congregant would never so much have heard of, the better.  It will expect him to bring out some new and innovative opinion, rather than simply saying “to the law and to the testimony!”  It will expect him to invest his time in engaging and debating the most prestigious, sophisticated, and up-to-date scholars, not some podunk seminarian.  Attempts to ward off errors facing the church, if these errors lack academic respectability, will be seen as a waste of time.  He will be expected to spend his time attending conferences, reading articles, and writing articles, not chatting with pastors and parishioners, or attending Bible studies.  

The young theologian will find himself particularly lost in this minefield.  An established theologian, one who has secured his living and his reputation, has earned for himself a certain leisure devote himself to issues that are of concern to the Church, not merely the academy; perhaps even more importantly, he will be more able to see the whole big picture, and so to see how questions raised within ordinary congregations relate to questions that matter at the highest levels of academic reflection as well; he will find issues on which he can engage on both levels at once.  For the young theologian, however, who has not yet climbed high enough to see the whole lay of the land, this kind of perspective is difficult.  He must, it often seems, choose which set of questions he will address, and which audience he will address, and he only has the time and resources to address one; after all, he’d rather get through grad school sooner rather than later.  Financially threadbare and without an established reputation, he cannot risk investing time or resources in projects that will not help him climb the academic ladder.  He must consent, only temporarily he hopes, to set aside his larger dreams of serving the Church, and simply do his time in the discipline, closeting himself away in academic journals and academic conferences.  He looks for points of intersection, to be sure, but they are often hard to find, and his imagination is perhaps stultified by the narrow walls of the specialized sub-discipline within which he must work.

Once he has completed this regimen of training, although he may at last now have more leisure to return to the concerns that originally motivated his study of theology, he may find that the passion has been smothered, that he has become so habituated into this way of life that he has by now forgotten how to do theology in service to the Church.  He no longer can speak the language of ordinary Christians; even ministers seem hopelessly naive and provincial.  Engagement no longer seems even possible, much less profitable, and so his paymaster—the academy—wins in the end, and he devotes his life to its service.


This is a bleak tale, to be sure, and I do not pretend to say that this is a universal experience, or that the chasm between church and academy is yet so unbridgeable as this implies.  So much great work is still being done on the intersection between the two, and new ways of bridging them are being thought up all the time by Christian scholars and churchmen.  But we would be foolish not to recognize that we are in a predicament, if not perhaps quite yet a crisis, and some serious thinking by those on both sides of this divide is called for.

In a third post, I hope to at last move around to some possible solutions to this predicament.

C.S. Lewis, Just War, and the Locus of Authority

In a 1939 letter to the journal Theology, C.S. Lewis raises a very important, and too little discussed, question of just war theory: who is responsible to decide whether a war is just?  Too often, just war debates focus on the six traditional just war criteria, whether they are sufficient, and whether they have been fulfilled in a particular case.  But Lewis objects, “It is plain that equally sincere people can differ to any extent and argue for ever as to whether a proposed war fulfils these conditions or not.  The practical question, therefore, which faces us is one of authority.  Who has the duty of deciding when the conditions are fulfilled and the right of enforcing his decision?”  To this, Lewis offers a very interesting and uncomfortable answer.  To be sure, he grants from the start, no subject must obey a decision that he knows to be wrong and unjust; indeed, he must not obey.  But just how responsible is he to determine whether it is wrong or unjust?  Lewis is inclined to think that the ordinary citizen has, in fact, relatively little responsibility on this front.

He uses the analogy of a hangman.  Assuming that a Christian may legitimately be a hangman, we will of course say that

“he must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent.  But will anyone interpret this to mean that the hangman has the same duty of investigating the prisoner’s guilt which the judge has?  If so, no executive can work and no Christian state is possible; which is absurd.  I conclude that the hangman has done his duty if he has done his share of the general duty, resting upon all citizens alike, to ensure, so far as in him lies, that we have an honest judicial system; if, in spite of this, and unknowingly, he hangs an innocent man, then a sin has been committed, but not by him.  This analogy suggests to me that it must be absurd to give to the private citizen the same right and duty of deciding the justice of a given war which rests on governments; and I submit that the rules for determine what wars are just were originally rules for the guidance of pinces, not subjects.  This does not mean that private persons must obey governments commanding them to do what they know is sin but perhaps it does mean (I write it with some reluctance) that the ultimate decision as to what the situation at a given moment is in the highly complex field of international affiars is one which must be delegated.” 

One can certainly feel the force of Lewis’s argument here.  To generalize it, surely we must acknowledge that the subject’s duty of determining the justice of laws to obey is not as thorough and comprehensive as the lawmaker’s duty of determining the justice of laws to enact.  Otherwise, every citizen would be his own lawmaker and there would be no authority.  And of course, this objection is not simply to protect authority, but to protect the subject from the awful, paralyzing weight of responsibility that he should have if he must thoroughly sift every judgment made by his leaders before going along with it.  If I should be guilty of sin every time I obey a law that should not, on the whole, have been made, then this would be a heavy burden indeed on every conscience, and an intolerable demand on each citizen’s time, since he must be forever researching the pros and cons of every decision.  

What Lewis draws our attention to here is perhaps the crucial, but often-neglected, dimension of authority–epistemological authority.  Although, within a suitably circumscribed sphere, authorities can make right what might otherwise be wrong, or make wrong what might otherwise be right, more importantly their job is to help decide for us what is right, in a situation where this determination is complex and very difficult to come by.  Submission to authority means, therefore, a willingness to suspend judgment, to defer to another’s conclusion, even if one cannot see all the reasons for it, even if, indeed, it may seem thoroughly unpersuasive at first glance.  Otherwise, again, we put unbearable burdens on each conscience, and reneder impossible any kind of collective action.  

 This much I think we must grant, despite our hesitation; to be sure, we must leave room for conscientious objection, for open debate questioning the law and the authorities, and yet these must be the exception, rather than the rule–most citizens, most of the time, will be justified in obeying political authorities without investigating all the ins and the outs.  But I expect we are likely to be far more hesitant about this principle when it comes to war, especially in a generation scarred by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  


But can we offer a rational defence of this hesitance, without demanding that every hangman be a judge?  Well, yes, I think.  There are a couple routes.  First of all, while adopting as a general principle that ordinary citizens do not have the same responsibility to determine the justice of political decisions as authorities do, we might well want to say that their responsibility is raised as the stakes are raised.  In ordinary mundane decisions, we can generally assume that the authorities are making reasonable calls and that we needn’t second-guess these decisions.  In life-or-death decisions, such as capital punishment, then, although we needn’t put ourselves in the position of the judge and the jury, we may want to prick up our ears and be especially attentive to make sure that justice is being done, and be ready to speak out if there are anomalies that suggest it is not.  In decisions involving the life and death of tens of thousands of people, and of whole nations, then we should be far more attentive, far more questioning.  As a people, we do incur a certain degree of guilt if so much blood is shed wrongly, and so we ought to be diligent in demanding a clear explanation of a just rationale for war.  We don’t demand to know every detail, but we can and should ask for a coherent account, and if one is lacking, we should suspect that something rotten is afoot.  

But there is perhaps a more basic problem with the hangman example.  For the closest analogue of the hangman in a time of war is not the ordinary citizen, but the soldier.  Like the hangman, the soldier has signed up for the job of doing the dirty work.  He has in a very special way submitted his own judgment to that of his commanders; the justice system cannot work if the executioner is forever demanding to see all the evidence, and the military system cannot work if the soldiers are forever cross-examining every deployment order.  I would suggest that, although they have a serious responsibility to determine the justice of the system they choose to serve before they sign on the job, once they have so signed on, the hangman and the soldier have in fact less responsibility to determine the justice of orders than ordinary citizens.  In a controversial court case involving the death penalty, I would suggest, ordinary citizens have more duty to be protesting what they see as an unjust decision than does the hangman.  So, when a war is undertaken, soldiers may have to stay silent when those on the home front raise foreceful objections.  I would suggest that we have to give a more complex account of vocation, then, than Lewis’s simple citizen/leader dichotomy.  Lewis asks, for instance, 

“What is the alternative?  That individuals ignorant of history and strategy should decide for themselves whether condition 6 (‘a considerable probability of winning’) is, or is not, fulfilled? — or that every citizen, neglecting his own vocation and not weighing his capacity, is to become an expert on all the relevant, and often technical, problems?”  

Well no, that’s not the only alternative.  We are to weigh our vocations.  And some private citizens have a particular vocation to ask questions of those in power, to investigate the truth of their claims, to weigh the consistency of their rhetoric and to sift expert opinions?  Journalists, for instance, ought to have a crucial vocation within a modern society to inform the citizenry and to ask questions of those in power.  So when it comes to the possibility of war, the stakes are high enough that we should ask questions, and some will have the vocation to do a lot of cross-examination.  Perhaps Lewis is right and our default, if we live in a generally just society, should be to trust our leaders, but if this cross-examination uncovers evidence that contradicts what our leaders have told us, then we should not.


If we cannot be discerning and critical at this point, before the shots have been fired, before loved ones have been killed and we’ve been hardened by the ubiquity of death, before the fog of war has engulfed us, then when will be critical.  Lewis, like Paul Ramsey, operates under the assumption that ius in bello should be much easier to discern, and much easier for Christians to witness consistently to, than ius ad bellum: 

“a clear Christian witness might be attained in a different way. If all Christians consented to bear arms at the command of the magistrate, and if all, after that, refused to obey anti-Christian orders, should we not get a clear issue?  A man is much more certain that he ought not to murder prisoners or bomb civilians than he ever can be about the justice of a war.  It is perhaps here that ‘conscientious objection’ ought to begin.”


The problem is that history, above all the six years of history that followed Lewis’s writing of this letter, simply does not bear out this rosy optimism.  On the contrary, it seems generally to have been much easier for governments to convince their people that a war is being fought justly than that a war is being entered into justly.  Civilian deaths can always be covered up, or else dismissed as accidents.  Or perhaps a people, sufficiently hardened by war, can be brought to the point where they just don’t seem to care, as was the case by 1945, when the US and UK engaged in airborne atrocities on a scale that almost defies imagination.  If we are to be vigilant witnesses against the injustice of war, we must start by doing so when a war is first proposed, not after it is well underway.  Otherwise, if we start by simply trusting that the authorities know what they’re doing, then it’s almost certain that once we’re in the heat of conflict, when the alternative can be portrayed as treason, we will continue so trusting them, no matter what they command us to do.  

Some Tasty Morsels of Blogdom

Is it just me, or has the blogosphere churned out some unusually fine fare over the past week or so?  Well, the narrow corner of it I sample certainly has.  Here’s some highlights you should check out:

Peter Leithart bucks the Moscow trend by offering a qualified endorsement at First Things of the recent growth of evangelical interest in social justice.  In particular, he turns to the Torah to confirm the importance of this concern, but also to critique facile equations of Christian justice with welfare statism.  If we want to care for the poor the way God wants, we should pay careful attention to the view of property and poverty enshrined in these laws, and the way they worked in practice, rather than simply appealing to vague “Jubilee principles.”  Any regular reader of this blog knows that this has been a prominent theme in my own thinking and writing for the past couple years, and that Leithart is my patron saint–so naturally, I was pretty jazzed about this essay.

Stewart Clem at Transpositions offers the finest reflection I have yet encountered on Tree of Life, a film of breathtaking beauty and theological depth which has occupied my thoughts daily since I saw it two weeks ago.  The gist of Clem’s reading–the film is not, in fact, about the dichotomy of nature and grace, as it seems to claim; rather, it teaches us that nature is graced, and it is only our fallen distortions of it that make us unable to recognize it.

Davey Henreckson, after a long period of comparative blogging dormancy, has erupted in the last week with a pair of fine posts on Annabel Brett’s new book Changing States.  The most recent of these, on the relationship of natural virtue and God’s law in early Protestant political theology, is right up my alley, even majoring on that oft-neglected but ever-fascinating Florentine, Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Finally, Jeremy Kidwell, having just migrated to a new blog home, www.domesticatedtheology.com, offers some provocative reflections on Protestantism, vocations, and intentional communities.  This post almost exactly echoed some thoughts that I recently shared with a friend, and that I’ve been continuing to reflect on; I never discussed them with Jeremy, but we did have a meal together that day…must’ve been some mental osmosis going on.