Our Last Christening

A year or so ago, I read through Marilynn Robinson’s novels, which was a treat for the most part. I read all of them except for Lila, but there I had the excellent excuse that it had not yet been released. But now it has been, so it comes to pass that I have now read it also.

Robinson’s descriptive powers remain as great as ever, and she does what every novelist dreams of, which is to hold your attention page to page. What she does not do, however, is provide a compelling case for universalism. Robinson specializes in exquisite descriptions of broken characters, but here her theology unwittingly becomes one of those broken characters, lame and blind, and with no one to help.

In universalism, the human is constant. He or she does things, and those things can be good or bad. Universalism focuses on those things, and wonders whether God is so arbitrary or so irrational as to be unwilling to forgive such things. And it is also pointed out that someone else has been forgiven for those very same things, and if one person is forgiven, then why not all? Meanwhile, the perpetrator is standing off to the side, a constant subject whose role is to have done a list of bad things without having been transformed by them.

For the universalist, the question is “why cannot God forgive these things?” The person is always underneath, constant, and sins are what you wipe off. For the Christian, our actions define and illustrate what we are becoming. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Damnation is the ultimate gollumization of a man, and salvation is our last christening. We become what we worship.

For the universalist, there might be a goodish bit of pushing and shoving on the playground, but when the bell rings all the kids are still just kids and they all come in for cookies and juice. Everything comes into perspective, especially during sharing time, when teacher speaks to us all in that soothing voice.

But we are not constant. We are all in the process of becoming something, and Jesus teaches us that there is a tipping point in that process of becoming. Hell is hellish for those who are there, but for a damned soul, Heaven would be a worse Hell. The prospect of being there with Him is utterly loathsome.

Souls that will be damned and souls that will be saved — the only kind you will ever meet — are all of them, every last one of them, in the bud. We are not there yet. We are not the constant. Only God is constant, and as we look at the face of His constancy, we will either see — forever — justice or love.

Baby Oil on the Bowling Ball

If I may, I would like to ask your permission to go up the stairs three at a time here. Great. Glad that’s all set.

What I mean by that is that I want to assert a number of things together in order to indicate a pattern. The argument for some of these things has already been presented in this space, and the argument for others is likely coming up some other time. So bear with me.

I take it as a given that orthodoxy requires an affirmation of the ontological equality of all three members of the Trinity. I also take it as a given that in the economic order of the Trinity, the subordination of the Son to the Father is the way it has to be — otherwise, the Son is not eternally the Son. Given an Incarnation, which member of the Trinity was going to become incarnate was not up for grabs. So the issue here is an affirmation of the absolute equality of the Son with the Father, coupled with an affirmation of the economic subordination of the Son to the Father. In short, authority is an ultimate reality within the Godhead. Prior to the Incarnation, the Son was equal to the Father (Phil. 2:6), and in consenting to the Incarnation, the Son was obedient to the Father (Phil. 2:7).

On a second point, the Bible teaches in numerous places that we become like what we worship. This principle works with idols, with false conceptions of the true God, and with true conceptions of the true God. Idolaters become deaf, dumb and blind, just like the blocks of wood they worship (Ps. 115:4-8), and we, who worship the true God are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).

There are two points to be derived from this. The first is that I cannot see any way for someone to deny the economic subordination of the Son to the Father and still retain an understanding of the role relationships that God has assigned between husband and wife. In the older, more faithful Christian order of weddings, the bride vowed to obey her husband, and the husband did not take a corresponding vow of obedience to her. This was fully biblical — first because the Bible calls wives to obey their husbands (1 Pet. 3:6; Tit. 2:5), and secondly, see above, in a Trinitarian economy obedience to another in no way subverts ontological equality.

But what happens if you remove that ultimate Trinitarian pattern and example? And further, what happens if you remove it in an era when enormous pressure is being applied to the church to abandon that older, out-dated stuff, and get with the feminist program? I will tell you what happens — we already see it happening all around us, all the time. There will be no answer to those who charge faithful Christians with denying the equality of women. And because the equality of women is something that all Christians accept (but for some only because the pagan world is not currently pressuring us to abandon it), then we must resolve the tension by accepting the charge that obedience entails a denial of equality, and then disobediently abandon the marital requirement of wifely obedience.

There is another issue that is related to all this, although not directly. One of Calvinism’s besetting sins is the temptation to go Unitarian. Looking over church history, one does not have to hunt very far before coming across Calvinists scattered across the landscape who would become Unitarian for two cents. Heidelberg in the 16th century, New England at the beginning of the 18th century, and so on.

A denial of economic subordination within the Trinity is, I am afraid, a proto-Unitarian move. It is three chess moves back, and the thing is complicated, but if there is nothing but mutual submission within the Godhead, I do not see how you can keep this from flattening all distinctions within the Godhead. And when you have done that, what can you do when someone — and you know that someone will — proposes a merger of the three?

If Unitarianism were a murky pond, and you were standing in the canoe of orthodoxy, holding the bowling ball of economic subordination over the water, a denial of that economic subordination is baby oil that somebody slathered all over the ball. Sometimes these metaphors just come to me.

The way we can keep track of all this is pretty simple though. Just pay close attention at the next wedding you attend. If the word obey has vanished from the vows, then the chances are pretty good that some Trinitarian funny business is going on.

Surveying the Text: Ruth

Introduction:

The book of Ruth seems like a quaint little story, off by the side of the road, but it is actually a crucial part of the story of the coming Messiah. The fact that these events were recorded long before the arrival of David shows the sense of expectancy that attends this story.

The Text:

“And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias” (Matt. 1:4–6).

Summary of the Text:

When we do research in our family tree, which is usually an innocent activity, we are not generally looking for the horse thieves. We like to find distinguished ancestors, like the great great-grandfather who held Robert E. Lee’s horse at Appomattox. But among the Jews it was different—their interest in genealogies was rooted in their desire to find a distinguished descendant. A good portion of the Old Testament consists of telling us the story of how God was narrowing down the options, leaning into the future. First, He chose Abraham (Gen. 12:1). Then from Abraham’s sons He chose Isaac over Ishmael (Gen. 21:12). After that, so that God’s sovereignty might be highlighted, He chose the youngest twin Jacob over his brother Esau (Gen. 25:23). Jacob had twelve sons, and one of them had to be “the one,” and it was Judah (Gen. 49:10). Tamar had twins by Judah, and Perez pushed out ahead of Zarah the firstborn who had the scarlet thread tied to his wrist (Gen. 38:30).

Achan was a great prince in Israel, who caused Israel to stumble by his covetousness (Josh. 7:1), and he was removed from the messianic line by means of execution, his whole household perishing with him. That house was cut off. A distant cousin to Achan named Salmon, a cousin from a rival house, was a man descended from Perez, and we should not be surprised when Salmon married Rahab, the woman who marked her household by means of a scarlet rope (Josh. 2:21). Salmon and Rahab had a son, whose name was Boaz.

And after Boaz married Ruth, we are still leaning forward, yearning for the Messiah to come. The thing to note about this is that messianic expectation is not something we project backward with the benefit of hindsight. They looked forward, with the benefit of promises.

What was the blessing given to Boaz through Ruth by the people of her city, and by the elders?

“And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the Lord shall give thee of this young woman” (Ruth 4:12).

And Boaz was like Perez, making his move in the back stretch.

“Now these are the generations of Pharez: Pharez begat Hezron, And Hezron begat Ram, and Ram begat Amminadab, And Amminadab begat Nahshon, and Nahshon begat Salmon, And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, And Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David” (Ruth 4:18–22).

So we have narrowed it down quite a bit further. We have now come to the one who would give his name to Jesus. Jesus was the son of David (Rom. 1:4), He was Jesus ben-David, or, as we would put it, Jesus Davidson. This is what the book of Ruth is about.

Zeal for the Law:

One of the things we learn from this book is that David’s ancestors were pious and devout, even during a time when Israel as a whole frequently was not. The law was given to Israel, and we see how the law is honored by them. The laws concerning gleaning are honored by Boaz (Lev. 23:22). The laws about the kinsman-redeemer were honored (Lev. 25: 25, 47-49). The laws concerning inheritance are carefully followed (Lev. 25:23). The laws concerning solicitousness for the alien are observed (Deut. 10:18). Remember that zeal for the law is nothing other than zeal for love.

Empty and Full:

The book is about loss and restoration, about emptying and filling again. Bethlehem, the house of bread, suffers a famine. Elimelech and Naomi go to Moab. Their two sons marry there, but Elimelech dies as do his two sons. Naomi is left desolate, with two Moabite daughters-in-law. There is an ancient rabbinical midrash that says Ruth and Orpah were sisters, daughters of the Moabite king Eglon, the one assassinated by Ehud. There is no biblical warrant for this, but it helps us identify other assumptions we may have had about Ruth that are equally unsupported.

Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth, both of them with empty arms. But the barley and wheat harvests are good—a master image of abundance and filling—and their arms and hearts are filled, in ways beyond imagining.

The harvesters work gathering in the grain. Ruth works hard also, gathering in what she is able to glean. Boaz makes sure extra grain is available for Ruth, so that she may gather much. In addition, Boaz expresses the wish that God would gather Ruth under His wings (Ruth 2:12). Ruth echoes that language in the next chapter when she asks Boaz to spread his garment over her, gathering her in (Ruth 3:9). Boaz does so, but also gathers six measures of barley to give her. And at the culmination of the book, Naomi gathers Obed to her arms so that she might hold on her lap the grandfather of the greatest king Israel would ever have. Naomi, who had been bitter and empty, was now privileged to hold in her arms all the promises of God.

Fullness of Christ:

When we come to Christ as supplicants, we come with nothing. When we cry out for salvation, we are crying out for something we do not have. But notice how Boaz responds to Ruth’s request. Boaz is the kinsman-redeemer, and he does not put a mercenary construction on Ruth’s request. He is (probably) twice her age, and he could easily have interpreted her request as the move of a gold-digger. But he did not. “And he said, Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich” (Ruth 3:10).

The fact that we need to be saved by Christ alone does not mean that we might not be tempted to look for salvation elsewhere. When people try to save themselves, when people try to figure out for themselves what kind of help is most suitable for them, then they do what Boaz praises Ruth for not doing. She went where there was real help, not where there was apparent help—younger and good-looking help. Ruth was a woman who walked by faith.

The Axis of Regeneration

As the Old Testament saints looked forward into the future, as Abraham did, rejoicing to see the day of Christ, they were looking forward to the times of refreshing, the times of the regeneration. But we must not think of this regeneration simply as an event, or the arrival of an era. There is a sense in which that is true, but there is another element to it all. We need more than just a line of regeneration, descending from Heaven to cross the line of history.

We need an axis of regeneration. From the perspective of the older covenant, there was a time coming when God’s intervention was going to close off the times of unregeneration, and inaugurate the times of the regeneration. This is true. A time was coming when all the bodies in Ezekiel’s boneyard were going to come to life, and were going to stand and live, in accordance with the sovereign Word of the sovereign God. Israel was going to be born again.

But there was always another line, and always will be, equally established in the will of God, a line that ran down the middle of human history, including the middle of the historical church, the covenant people of God. This also was a line of regeneration, separating the sons of Belial from the sons of Abraham.

Now when you come to this Table, you are called to come in true faith. And when you come in true evangelical faith, this Table is, for you, the point of intersection on this axis of regeneration. On the one hand, God’s purpose for all history is slicing clean through it, from top to bottom. Christ is present, here. This Table is life in the regeneration. On the other hand, the fact that you are partaking sincerely separates you from all false and hypocritical professors. The fact that we are in the regeneration does not make being a son of Belial impossible. Far from it.

So come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.

A Box in the Back

In the matter of giving and receiving, the church has responsibilities, just as the giver does. We have seen that God wants His people to refrain from giving financially when there are unresolved conflicts in the church. We have also seen that giving is a response of obedience over time, and not the result of an emotional warp spasm. But what responsibility does the church have?

The first is that the church is responsible to be teaching the people the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We are not to teach what the Bible says in bits and pieces, but rather are to gather it all up in a systematic whole. But this includes teaching the people what the church should do in the presence of the people, and not just what the people should do for the church.

When it comes to godly fund-raising, there are two basic methods employed in the Bible. When Paul puts the godly squeeze on the saints, it is for the sake of distributing practical relief to others (2 Cor. 9:2-4). Even there, there is a point made of having accountability (2 Cor. 8:18-20), but Paul does lean on the saints to dig deep and give . . . to the poor.

When it comes to building construction or reconstruction, the method we see in Scripture is the method of putting a box at the entry way of the sanctuary. This is how the Temple was rebuilt under Jehoash. “But Jehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in the lid of it, and set it beside the altar, on the right side as one cometh into the house of the Lord: and the priests that kept the door put therein all the money that was brought into the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 12:9). We also see that this is how donations were taken in at the Temple at the time of Jesus. The Lord watched as the widow woman put her two mites into the offering box at the entry to the Temple (Mark 12:42).

This is why, incidentally, we don’t pass the plate during the worship service. We present our tithes and offerings as part of our worship, but we don’t collect them that way. When we pass anything around, it is to distribute, to give. When we celebrate the Supper together, the elders send men out into the congregation to give, not to take. And when the Lord leads you to give, you may do so at the entry, and with no one looking over your shoulder.

So let the stones cry out.

Book of the Month/January 2015

This month the book of the month is a brace of books. You should get them together, and read them both. Together they address the central political issue of our day, one that rests underneath whatever the turmoil of the moment might be.

The doctrine of the lesser magistrates is one of our lost doctrines, an essential part of our civic heritage, but one which we have shamefully neglected and now are in desperate need of again. We are not going to get it back unless we resort to the reading of old books, and books that recover old doctrines. After urging you to get and read these two books, I will add a few thoughts of my own below.

Lesser Magistrates

The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew Trewhella is a very fine introduction to what was once a standard understanding among conservative Protestants. Calvin treats this doctrine in Book IV of his Institutes, and John Knox has a clear-headed treatment of it in his Appellation. In this book, Trewhella gathers together the basic questions that surround the doctrine, and answers them systematically. What is the doctrine? What are some historical examples? Can the doctrine be abused? And so on.

Magdeburg

A companion volume, The Magdeburg Confession, is a book that contains the testimony of some faithful Lutheran pastors in 1550, when they were facing down the attempted tyranny of Charles V. A very capable translation of their testimony is here rendered by Dr. Matthew Colvin, and it shows us that the perennial issues are indeed perennial. These were the men who withstood a siege of the city of Magdeburg for the sake of liberty of conscience, and anyone today who has ever enjoyed any measure of such liberty should render their thanks to God for these faithful servants. Chief among them was Nicolas von Amsdorff, a close friend of Martin Luther. These were the times when we had pastors with titanium spines — in distinction from what we have too much of today, which is pastors with spines molded out of saturated paper towels.
Here is the doctrine, in a nutshell.

“The primary duty of the lesser magistrates regarding the doctrine of the lesser magistrates is threefold. First, they are to oppose and resist any laws or edicts from the higher authority that contravene the law or Word of God. Second, they are to protect the person, liberty, and property of those who reside within their jurisdiction from any unjust or immoral laws or actions by the higher authority. Third, they are not to implement any laws or decrees made by the higher authority that violate the Constitution, and if necessary, resist them” (p. 15).

In short, this is civil disobedience by officials, acting in an official capacity. Moreover, it involves officials doing so with a clean conscience. When they interpose themselves between the people and the tyrannical power above them both, they are not acting lawlessly. Quite the reverse. They continue to act lawfully, even when the head has become lawless.

The issues involved extend down into matters of individual civil disobedience, to be sure, but one of the reasons resistance at that level is not as effective as it could be is that officials with actual resources for effective resistance do not interpose as they ought to.

There are many practical questions. Who decides? By what standard do they decide? Who decides if their decision was a good one? And so on. But the fact that godly resistance to tyranny generates many questions is not an argument against it. Submission to tyranny generates many more questions, mostly insoluble, and with no opportunity even to ask them.

This is a fallen world, which means that no human authority is absolute. All authorities must be checked and bounded, and a crucial part of the boundary for such authorities is found in the authorities beneath them. When evil rules, “I was only following orders” is not an adequate defense. But if it is not an adequate defense, then we have to go back to the practical questions listed in the previous paragraph.

Fortunately, we are not the first generation ever to face these particular dilemmas. We as a people have wrestled with these questions for centuries, and we have a well developed theology that addresses what we ought to do. This theology is found in books, and these are books we must read, and get others to read.

Constitutional freedoms are not kept alive on pieces of paper. They are kept alive in the hearts and minds of people who have been set free by Christ.

A Year of Fresh Outrage

Tomorrow a new year of fresh outrage begins, and so I want to take a few moments to encourage those Christian preachers, writers, thinkers, and bloggers who are, out of biblical principle, sailing contrary to all the prevailing winds. It is harder to sail this way, but when you are done, more that is worthwhile is actually done — as in, you have actually gotten closer to where you wanted to be.

“Thought is not, like physical strength, dependent upon the number of its agents; nor can authors be counted like the troops that compose an army. On the contrary, the authority of a principle is often increased by the small number of men by whom it is expressed” (Democracy in America, De Tocoueville, p. 182).

There are two approaches to leadership and cultural influence. Neither is necessarily sinful or automatically virtuous, and both require wisdom to know what is called for at what time. One is the consensus building approach. At its best, it searches out those who were already in biblical agreement, networks with them, and builds strength in faithful numbers. At its worst, because it has a finger in the wind constantly, it is unable to distinguish faithful numbers from unfaithful numbers because, hey, numbers are numbers.

The other is the contrarian approach. At its worst, it is against “it,” whatever “it” might happen to be. No matter what happens, the beleaguered fellow is always the last Elijah standing, and no sign of the 7,000 faithful anywhere.

But at its best, this contrarian spirit is willing for two things. It is willing to stand against all odds, in the first place, and second, going back to de Tocoueville, it is willing to win against all odds.

Speaking as just one contrarian blogger, let me just say that I never want this to be taken as the function of a personality defect, being against everybody and everything because “I just can’t help it.” Rather, a true-hearted contrarian knows that in the long run stupidity never works. In the long run, the contra mundum approach is the only thing that the world can ever really accept — because the zeal of the Lord of hosts intends to see to it that the world accepts it. We know the names of the martyrs, and we rarely know the names of those who “successfully” killed them. God knows what he is doing. I believe it was Herbert Schlossberg who said that the kingdom of God moves from triumph to triumph, with all them cleverly disguised as disasters.

The centerpiece move on God’s part was the cross of Christ — the betrayal of Jesus, the desertion of the disciples, the injustice of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice of Pilate, the nails in the Roman soldier’s pouch, which was, all of it, the salvation of the cosmos. Let us never forget this is God’s signature move.

So if you have been privileged to write good sense in times past, just keep doing the same thing in the year to come. It does not matter if the mainstream follies are gusting up to 60 mph. The Lord will do what the Lord has always been pleased to do. It is your job to be faithful, not successful. And having such a cavalier stand is the key . . . to success. Remember the wisdom of this saying — nothing much was ever accomplished by a reasonable man. And remember also Chesterton’s observation that the one glimpse of paradise on earth is to fight in a losing cause . . . and not lose it.

39 and Counting . . .

So today marks our 39th anniversary together. That is a long time to be married to the kind of woman who is, as my father put it the other morning at our Christmas breakfast banquet, “amazing.” I haven’t really gotten over it, but, on the other hand, why should I?

Nancy-Aisle