The R2K Crucifix Problem

Carl Trueman recently wrote A Church for Exiles for First Things, which you may read here. If you would like, a good response from Joel McDurmon can be found here. But my response to Carl will be a tad shorter than Joel’s — just enough to register a few basic concerns.

First, it is undeniable that exile is a strong biblical motif, and it is one that Christians do need to draw on. But in Scripture, it is always a paired motif — like salt and pepper, or ham and eggs. We find, all through the Bible, the patterns of death and resurrection, exile and return, cliffhanger and helicopter.

There is both a cross and a crown. Triumphalists are those who just want the crown. Defeatists are those who just want the cross. Trueman is a defeatist — for all his Reformed credentials, his faith is a crucifix faith. Note that both the defeatist and the triumphalist are partly right, but in such a way that their partial truths undo the point of the whole thing. “Jesus died” is true, but is not gospel apart from resurrection. And “Jesus rose” is meaningless nonsense if there had been no death.

Carl says this: the Reformed tradition “possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment.” I believe this is quite true. In fact, I agreed with many of the points that he made throughout the article — but he left out one crucial thing. Let me insert that missing element. “The Reformed tradition possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment, while preparing for our inevitable comeback.” Why? It is not just exile. It is exile and return. Nehemiah rhymes with Jeremiah after all.

The second problem is that Carl does want us to engage with culture, and be responsible citizens, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with the possibility of everything going terribly wrong, and we win or something. And he is enough of a church historian to know that things have gone wrong for us in just this way any number of times.

Like a Fist

As Iraq continues to spiral toward chaos, and is doing so in the Facebook era, the one thing we should want to avoid is directionless or aimless outrage. Anger under such circumstances is certainly appropriate and necessary, but like a fist, it needs somewhere to land. I am writing primarily about the treatment of Christians there by ISIS, but of course that cannot be at all separated from a host of other issues and circumstances. Let me start with the more important, and finish with a few related observations.

1. There truly are evil men in the world, and this is what imprecatory psalms were made for. This is why we have them. There are men who will grin for the camera over the prospect of beheading Christian children, and our response to them should be to pray the words of God back to Him.

“Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord” (Ps. 58:6).

“Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: Seek out his wickedness till thou find none” (Ps. 10:15).

Our psalter has this second example rendered as “O God, come down and break their evil arms.” In the face of the kind of evil that is abroad in the world, evangelical Christians need to stop filling up their worship services with sentimentalist treacle, and worship biblically in a very dark world. We are confronted with a great and growing evil, and we are discovering that we do not have the liturgical vocabulary to respond appropriately at all. When we sing or pray the psalms, all of them, there are two consequences that should be mentioned. One, we are praying in the will of God, and He hears such prayers. Second, we discover that praying and singing biblically transforms us. This really is the need of the hour.

We need to become the kind of people capable of standing against this kind of thing. Read Chesterton’s great poem about the battle of Lepanto, written one year shy of a century ago, and plead with God to raise up a fitting leader for our day. “But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.”

Playing Puritans and Lutherans

So this is a bit behind the curve, but I wanted to say a few things about this post by my friend Tim Bayly. He posted this just a week after I was there in Bloomington for their Salt & Light conference, and so you would not be far off if you thought my visit might have had something to do with it. And now it has something more to do with it.

Some of what I say here will simply reinforce what Tim is saying, and some of it will consist of “but what about this factor . . .?”

Good fences make good neighbors. Good labels can do the same thing, which is bad news for a generation that “hates labels.” Just as liberalism was a rot that got into every denomination extant, so the postmodern vibe is doing the same thing to us — largely through the death grip that academia has on pastoral training. Just as it was very difficult to tell the difference between a liberal Methodist and a liberal Presbyterian in the late fifties, even when the light was good, so also it is difficult now to tell the difference between a Kellerite soul patch and the other kind.

True ecumenism requires precision of thought, and precision of language, but we have gotten to the place where every attempt at careful definition is dismissed as a run up to war. Postmodernism does to theology what leaving a watercolor out in a downpour does to the painting. True ecumenism requires oil painting in the Mojave, where the blue stays blue, and the brown stays put.

So let’s assume that all our discussions of these issues have the same understanding of Schaeffer’s “true truth.” We can draw straight arrows from the signifier to the thing signified. We really care about the truth, and we want to learn and affirm as much of it as we can. We have trouble being patient with those who say “no creed but Christ, no law but love” because what they just said is, when you come down to it, a very fine creed, and it isn’t Christ.

Making Seneca Crack Up

My friend Garry Vanderveen has been kind enough to suggest a side-by-side comparison of what Jim Jordan and I teach on the subject of regeneration, coming to the conclusion that we are not all that far apart. I commend that post to you, with the exception of whatever was going on when they justified the right margin. As Peter Leithart put it a couple years ago, everybody in the room is a high predestinarian, which surely should count for something.

I want to keep myself quite open to the possibility that what we are saying is not that far apart, and I certainly believe we are not as far apart as some might like us to be. And that said, however far apart we are — is it lettuce/arugula or is it lettuce/cabbage?) — I don’t believe these issues in themselves are issues of heresy.

But with that said, in this postmodern climate, heresy is never that far away from anyone who graduated from seminary in the last several decades, whatever the presenting issue might be. So don’t get cocky, kid. If you don’t believe that the laws of thought are attributes of God, then peril is crouched by your door like sin stalking Cain. To maintain that lettuce and cabbage are the same thing represents a profound capitulation to a view of the world that turns absolutely anything into heresy.

There are important issues here that require careful definition — catholicity and confusion should not be considered dialog partners. We can define things carefully, and distinguish things that differ, without slinging careless accusations about. But we have to debate like (charitable) 17th century divines who believed in absolute truth, and not like pomothinkers, whose softness of head is rivaled only by their hardness of heart.

So whatever you call this particular issue — lettuce/cabbage, amber ale/oatmeal stout, puritan/lutheran — keep in mind that we are distinguishing for the sake of maintaining good fences between good neighbors.

But if this in fact were the case, and Jim and I have been saying almost the same thing all this time, then I would be content to retreat from the discussion, fully abashed. Here I have been, pleading words and names and our own law, just begging Gallio to drive us away from his court. I never want to be the guy who hands Gallio a ripe story capable of making Seneca crack up at the next family reunion. I mean, who wants to be that guy?

But . . . and you knew that was coming, right?

Down Heaven’s Alleys

The Bible uses the word mystery in a particular way, it allows us to use it in another way, and forbids us to use it in a third. So everybody be careful out there! For those keeping track, this is a follow-up on my post about mystery and contradiction.

First, how is mystery used? In Scripture, mystery refers to a purpose of God that was once latent and hidden, but is later manifested and revealed. The great Pauline mystery, with the word used in this sense, was the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God.

“How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words . . . That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:3,6).

Another mystery revealed is the fact that this process of growing the church will culminate in the resurrection of the dead. What once was obscure is now plainly taught and revealed.

“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).

Of course, keep in mind the clarity of such statements will be made even more clear, marvelously clear, when the final reality pointed to by the statements comes to pass. The fact of the coming resurrection is plainly taught to us now — Paul says “I show you a mystery” –  but the day is coming when God Himself will show us the mystery, and the graves will open.

A four-sided triangle, with A having a stipulated value of 2.

A four-sided triangle, with A having a stipulated value of 2.

The second use, the allowable use, would have to do with things that are simply beyond us. Here we are using the word mystery in a way similar to the way the Bible uses it, and merely extended by analogy. God will always be infinite, and we will always be finite. As we spend our everlasting days going further up and further in, after every bend in the road, we will always be confronted with another whoa moment. And it will never get old.

All the Little Clickdevils

Not envious, just observant.

Not envious, just observant.

So I want to begin with an odd remembrance, an isolated lesson that got into my head for inexplicable reasons. I think our family first got a television when I was in the eighth grade or thereabouts. I believe this episode happened sometime before that because it was something I saw on somebody else’s set. It was in black and white, and I only saw a few minutes of it, and it was some Elvis movie. The gist of the clip was that whoever Elvis was being in that movie had made it big in whatever it was he was doing, and it had gone to his head, and somebody, not sure who, could have been a pretty girl and it could have been a surly uncle or it could have been somebody else, was letting him have it. How dast he forget his roots? Only they didn’t say dast.

Since that time, that small flickering image has represented for me the peculiar horror of taking God’s blessings for granted. Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked. And as Cotton Mather said, faithfulness begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother. The sheer ingratitude of taking blessings for our birthright due is the perennial temptation, and I have hated the prospect of getting beyond myself since I was a boy. A brief one word prayer that I recommend highly is don’tletmescrewitupamen.

Renunciation therefore has to lie at the heart of all Christian living, in every era, for every class, in every nation. It is necessary for every man, every woman, every child. But renunciation is not a game for simpletons, and this is why we have to take care to navigate between those like Demas, who love the world, and those who think that they can rid themselves of the world by crawling into a very small corner of it. The first group says renunciation remunciation, and the second group exalts the idea of renunciation in order to renounce all the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. The first group embraces the bling and the second group embraces the fling. Bling it on or fling it away. The first puffs out like an archbishop on parade with an umbrella drink and the second gets constant allergy panels done in search of more things to surrender to their Killjoy Zeus. With any luck we will discover our kids are all allergic to water and sunshine, and so must now spend their play times under their beds.

William James was the one who defined success as a bitch goddess, and the description, as far as it goes, is apt. But she is a persistent bitch goddess, and she will find you wherever you go. If segments from your life regularly show up at fail.com, she will be at your elbow, taunting you and provoking you to envy. Success ensnares many people who don’t have any. Mammon doesn’t have be in your wallet to have you by the throat. But if you retreat to Nepal to meditate in a cave, having renounced Facebook and all its little clickdevils, you will discover a certain smug pride in have renounced more, or sooner, or better, or more successfully, than the guy in the next cave. And if you pursue success straight up, then she becomes your deep interior decorator, lining the walls of your soul with mammon, or terminal degrees, or trophies, or trophy wives, or academic respectability, or a man cave with the full ESPN package. In short, you can run but you can’t hide.

Mystery and Contradiction

The other day I said this about logic: “if it is a wooly-mindedness that is embraced on purpose, it is heresy. This is because denying the law of non-contradiction is the royal gateway to every heresy imaginable.” Given the incoherent nature of the days we live in, I thought it was neccessary to unpack this a bit.

The law of non-contradiction says — and you would think says uncontroversially — that A cannot be not A in the same way, and in the same respect. It is not violated when Smith is a boy and then later is not a boy. That is not a contradiction because he is first a boy and then not a boy at different times. It is no contradiction.

The Trinity is a mystery, but not a contradictions. The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one God and three Persons. There would be no contradiction unless someone were maintaining that there were three Gods and one God, and the word God was being used with the same definition. Trinitarian theology does not invite us to say that one and three are the same. In fact, it requires that we not say this.

The Incarnation is a mystery — Jesus is fully God and fully man, and He is one person. But this would spiral into chaos and contradiction if we were to say that He is two persons and one person at the same time and in the same way. One is not two, or at least so it seems to me. We don’t have to be able to do all the math ourselves, but we must affirm that there is math to be done, and that it stays put while God is doing it. In this huge cosmos created by an infinite God, we have plenty of head room for mysteries to overwhelm us. We have no room at all for round squares.

C.S. Lewis says it this way in The Problem of Pain — “meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can.’ It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

Outside the Pearlies

Back at the second infamous Auburn Avenue conference, when representatives of “both sides” were trying to work something out, one particular clash came over the definition of heresy. The representatives of the TRs were taking any doctrine that was out of accord with the Westminster Confession as heresy. There are enormous problems with this, as I pointed out at the time.

If a minister subscribes to the Westminster Confession, but his views are better represented by Augsburg, or the London Baptist, this is not heresy. It might be dishonest, or cowardly, or subversive. It is “out of conformity” to the Confession. But it is not heresy.

Well, it is not heresy, depending on which part of the Westminster he is denying. If he is a liberal who denies the chapter on Scripture, he is a heretic. If he is a Socinian who denies the chapter on the Trinity, he is a heretic.

The early creeds of the church (I am thinking here of the Apostles, the Nicene, and the Definition of Chalcedon) sought to establish the line between Christian and non-Christian. This over here was orthodox, and that over there was not. As time went on, and Christians continued to set down their faith in statements or confessions, the time eventually arrived when these statements set the difference between this kind of Christian and that kind of Christian. The catholic era was gradually transformed into the denominational era.