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.

Indestructible Joy

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014)

Nancy and I read through this together for our Advent reading this year. Solid, substantive, very good. Christmas is all about glory to God and peace for us, and the latter never thrives without the former.

Future Grace

The evangelical hinge is not whether sacraments accomplish the blessings they speak of. The issue is whether they accomplish every blessing they speak of.

The sacraments, like the Scriptures, like the gospel itself, like the very existence of the Church, are eschatological. The words of baptism are future-oriented — from that moment forward, the baptized person is to be reckoned my brother or sister. The words of institution at the Supper are future words. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). We baptize and we commune leaning forward. Every Lord’s Day we break bread toward the end of the world.

In the meantime, the Church is God’s salvation community in the world, and there are two ways to come into this community. The first is real conversion. When someone is truly converted, and he comes into the Church, he receives all that the Church contains, or ever will contain (which is to say, Christ). Faith — and only faith — enables a person to inherit this complete future. Listen to Paul talking about this very thing when speaking of the riches of a true heir — “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:22–23, ESV).

If I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, then everything is mine. That includes — in Paul’s express words — the future. This means that if my future is not salvation future, then at some foundational level, my present is not salvation present. From this simple reality, all evangelical theology flows.

New-fangled Christological Ideas

In this place my friend Tim Bayly takes my friend Peter Leithart to task for what he wrote here. What are we to take away from all this, besides “my, what interesting friends you have”? I read through Tim’s piece a couple times, and did the same through Peter’s, and here are a few preliminary thoughts on it all.

Tim is pretty severe with Peter, but if Tim is correct in his reading of what Peter is saying, then the severity is not misplaced. If Peter really is saying Calvin’s “maneuver” parallels Paul’s “maneuver,” and they are both equally suspect, then all Tim’s subsequent criticism rightly follows. At a minimum, I think Peter is confusing and needs to clarify whether Paul is an advocate of what he identifies as a problematic “atonement theology.” He also needs to clarify if the Pauline treatment of the events of Christ’s life really is a second order narrative.

In reading these posts, a possible defense of what Peter is writing occurred to me, and it is a defense that does rescue him from Tim’s censures. But in order for that defense to work at all, Peter has to be seen as abandoning our long-shared project of letting the Bible teach us how to read the Bible. In other words, there is a problem in both directions.

Peter says this:

“Allegorization of the Passion narratives isn’t a mistake. Paul does it, at least when he writes about our participation in the cross of Jesus. But one wonders if the allegory hasn’t moved too hastily from the literal to spiritual senses.”

Tim is reading Peter as saying that Paul has moved too hastily. Peter could reply that he explicitly says that Paul is making no mistake, but that followers of Paul (unnamed atonement theologians) do make that mistake. I will get to that shortly, but want to address another oddity first.
My initial concern is the idea that Christ dying for His elect is an “allegory.” Peter points to the fact that in the gospels, Jesus literally stands between the authorities and His friends, His disciples. If we come along later, as King Tirian did, and apply the death of Aslan for Edmund to a death that was for “all Narnia,” are we not adding a second layer to the text? Well, actually, no, not if Lewis wrote all seven books, not if all Scripture is breathed by God.

A Helicopter on the Front Lawn

This last week my friend Peter Leithart did some musing out loud about some problems that he identifies as resulting from an emphasis on the “legal status” of righteousness. One post, “How to Say, ‘I Am Righteous'” is here, and another related post on Luther and imputation/infusion can be found here.

In response I have some questions, some hesitations, some suggestions, some objections, and some exhortations. Here we go.

Peter argues that we hesitate to speak the way the psalmist sometimes does because of unbelief. Peter says that to say that I am legally righteous and existentially sinful is dualism — a dualism “fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the ‘legal me’ as righteous while consigning the ‘real, existential me’ or ‘my nature’ to the realm of sin.”

First, what is dualism exactly? I don’t think we can say that it occurs just because we have distinct nouns for distinct things. Sun and moon are two, as are heaven and earth, but do not represent dualism, and to affirm that God created mankind as male and female is not dualism either. So it seems that dualism occurs when two distinct things are put into an unbiblical relation to one another, or one thing that should remain as one is broken in two.

So justification and sanctification could be understood dualistically, just as a misogynist understands sex dualistically. But that is his rebellion, not a design feature. In a very non-dualistic way, the Westminster Confession sings justification and sanctification together in a very sweet harmony. It is certainly possible to differ with Westminster here (although I do not), but impossible, I think, to charge the Confession with dualism.

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2).

“This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (WCF 13.2)

This means that any Protestant preaching that consigns the “real me” to the realm of sin, to drown there in tubs of depravity, would be preaching that is, in addition to being unbiblical, radically unconfessional. As long as I have been Reformed I have been instructed on the distinction between reigning sin (which is no more) and remaining sin (which must addressed and dealt with by faith, in the whole man, on a daily basis). I have also been instructed, over and over, on the distinction between justification and sanctification, coupled with their inseparability. As I said before, this could all be wrong, but it seems to me that battalions of Reformed theologians have taken exquisite pains over the course of centuries to not be dualistic on the point.

But this leads to my central question. Having said all this, I do not dispute that Peter has seen the kind of disjunct that he describes. I don’t doubt that he has seen it because I have certainly seen it. There are more than a few Protestant preachers who wouldn’t recognize the Westminster Confession if it landed in their front yard in a helicopter. There is a functional dualism that is certainly out there. But what causes it?

Greg Boyd’s Demons

Someone has said that in politics a gaffe should be defined as accidentally speaking the truth. Another possibility that is not limited to the truth — or to politics, for that matter — is the option of someone saying what he actually thinks before anybody is quite ready for it yet. That is what Greg Boyd recently did — while walking through the meadows of peace and justice, he managed to step into a cow pie of certain inevitable consequences. I mean, that is what has to happen, right? If the cows of peace and justice eat all that grass, you are eventually going to get some cow pies.

With the concern that this particular metaphor is gotten away from me, let me come back around to the point. Boyd recently said this:

“As shocking as it is, this episode clearly suggests that Jesus regarded Elijah’s enemy-destroying supernatural feat to be ungodly, if not demonic.”

In response to this hootworthy sentiment, I have thus far said this and this.

Let us be frank. Greg Boyd is one of the cool kids. He is well-known pastor and writer, and his books sally forth from places like Baker and Zondervan. He is well placed in the evangelical firmament. He is adept at that unique talent that so many of his ilk — isn’t ilk a great word? — have, which is windsurfing the zeitgeist in such a way as to look like you don’t care about the wind at all. He is a hep cat of smooth jazz theology, lip-syncing the role of a wilderness prophet. This is admittedly an odd juxtaposition to pull off — lyrics about locusts and wild honey for dinner accompanied by finger snapping, gliding trombones, a high gloss floor, and a crisp snare drum — but it can be done. Think Mack the Knife.

But speaking of prophets, let us consider an actual one. John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, and people thought he had a demon too (Matt. 11:18). Men in the grip of a priori religiosity like Boyd have never liked prophets. Prophets are angular, and don’t play well with others. They say things that are disruptive, like the ax being at the root of the tree (Matt. 3:10), which was kind of hurtful. Demonic even. I hate that guy, Ahab said. He never prophesies nice (1 Kings 22:8).

Now someone might try to clean up Boyd’s comment by saying that all this is really about maturation, and had Boyd spoken that way, he might have had a point. The process from Genesis to Revelation is a history of ethical, social, and cultural maturation, and examples are certainly not hard to come by. We should consider things like polygamy in this category. The New Testament speaks this same way, in multiple places, which is a good reason for accepting it. Revelation really is progressive, and the progression includes ethics.

But change from demonism to godliness is not maturation — it is conversion. And we should also keep in mind that God is not one of the characters who needs to mature.

Beneath all this lurks the real culprit, which is the hermeneutic being employed by Boyd, and the view of Scripture which this hermeneutic reveals. It is not enough to say “that’s in the Old Testament.” God’s enemies do awful things in the Old Testament, God’s friends do heroic things in the Old Testament, God’s friends do shabby things in the Old Testament, and then God Himself comes into the picture to command things to be done, a number of which things offend Greg Boyd’s white bread sensibilities.

And it is this last category which brings us to the showdown of the ages — the view of righteousness held by the Ancient of Days, compared to the view of righteousness held by upscale pastors in St. Paul, Minnesota.

God says this: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them” (Deut. 7:2).

Greg Boyd offers a contrary view: “One could go further, as does C. S. Cowles, and argue that Jesus’ teaching on enemy-loving non-violence ‘represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.'”

And all I can think of to say in response to this is “you go, girl.”

On the most charitable reading, Boyd was saying that Elijah’s fire-from-heaven work was possibly demonic. And he was certainly saying that it was ungodly. Bad, bad prophet!

But we are now stuck with the cherry pickers’ hermeneutic. We not only can recognize that Bible characters were capable of sinning, which virtually every Bible teacher in the history of the world has known, but we now have a hermeneutic that shows us that one of the central characters who had a lot of growing up to do was God Himself. I mean, Moses didn’t come up with the genocide idea himself; he was told to do it. By somebody. And when Elijah was busy consuming companies of soldiers by fifties with fire from heaven, somebody up in heaven — note this carefully — was helping him. Somebody had to supply the fire.

But once we have begun cherry picking, we find that we need a standard for evaluating cherries. How do we know, for example, that the jubilee laws were Good and the genocide laws were Bad? We need a standard. Fortunately, we have the standard right here — what all us white liberals thought already. We listen to NPR and know what’s what.

We cannot slip off the point by saying that the sovereign God of the Bible used Satan to accomplish His ends. This is true, but also well beside the point. God used Satan to cause David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron. 21; 2 Sam. 24:1). God used Satan to accomplish His holy purposes in the life of Job (Job 1:12, 21). God in His sovereignty controls evil, which is not the same thing as blurring the line between good and evil. God uses false prophets every bit as much as He uses true prophets (1 Kings 22:22-23), but this does not mean that the true prophets are false prophets. Most of us are good Calvinists; we don’t find such passages appalling because the Bible teaches that the sovereign God uses evil creatures to accomplish His holy ends. But this is quite different than saying a holy man is an unholy man. It is entirely different than saying a man in the grip of the Holy Spirit of God is actually trafficking with demons.

So when a good man does precisely what God has required him to do, however much this grates with Boyd’s cool vibe, the good man who obeys is right where he ought to be. To obey is better than to parse and slice.

Neither can we find Boyd a way out by saying that he was simply “raising questions.” No, he was making assertions. I take him as meaning “clearly suggests” when he says “clearly suggests.”

My response to this has been to warn Boyd about the blasphemy of attributing the work of God to the devil. That’s a scary business, right there. But we cannot object to this response of mine as an unwarranted reading of Boyd out of the faith. No, actually, Boyd is the one who is reading people out of the faith on this issue. “For Jesus, embodying enemy-loving non-violence was the precondition for being considered a child of God.”

And I actually agree with him about this one. Boyd is at least right about one thing — whether the Holy Spirit is really holy or not should be a watershed issue.

No Servants With Flamethrowers

Sometimes the Bible tells us not to accept certain outrageous things, and we wonder to ourselves, “did churches really need to be told that?” The answer is yes, they did. So do we.

For example, Paul once said that no one speaking by the Spirit could say certain things. “Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3). This is a head scratcher. Did anybody in a Christian church ever think that you could call Jesus accursed?

Well, the father of lies is good at what he does. We are saved because Jesus became a curse for us, dying under the curse of God (Gal. 3:13). This substitution is the glory of our salvation, but if we substitute something else for that, something that might sound like it, we are blaspheming. And the Spirit of the Lord is not the spirit of blasphemy.

Another example would be how the church at Thyatira was misled by that woman Jezebel. A bunch of them had been dragged off into the “deep things of Satan” (Rev. 2:24), which would seem to be a bad place to be dragged, would it not? Didn’t anybody cover that in the new members class?