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, 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.

Seven Theses on Penal Substitution

Glancing around the Internet, I have recently noticed higher levels of interest than usual in the doctrine of penal substitution, and thought it might be worthwhile to set down a few basic principles concerning the doctrine. So here they are:

1. Penal substitution defined is the doctrine that the salvation of God’s people is secured through a propitiatory blood sacrifice that He provided for us, doing this through the death of Jesus on the cross. The holy wrath of an infinitely perfect God was propitiated in the death of Jesus Christ on that cross. We are saved from the wrath of God by the love of God as these two attributes of God collided in the agony of Jesus Christ. In that collision, the wrath was satisfied, and the love entered into resurrection joy. The wrath was punctiliar and the love is everlasting.

2. Penal substitution is human sacrifice, and is a scandal. Nothing whatever can be done about this, and it is sinful to try to undo or fix the scandalous aspects of it. God made it scandalous on purpose, in order to keep our number of refined theologians to a minimum.

3. Penal substitution can be badly represented by its friends. As with the Trinity, Sunday School illustrations of the doctrine can be dangerous. With the Trinity, the illustrations, if followed out, land us in the midst of various trinitarian heresies (e.g. ice, liquid, steam is modalism, etc.) But with illustrations of the atonement, the logic of them, if followed out, frequently will land us in heretical atrocities. The cross is a scandal, but not every scandal is the cross. If the illustration is using someone as a Christ figure who is not readily identifiable as an Adam, then it is an inadequate illustration.

Gilt Guilt

The Lord Jesus famously said that if we don’t forgive others, we ourselves are unforgiven. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15).

This seems like a bad bit of business, but only because we tend to think of forgiveness as a peculiar sort of double-entry bookkeeping. We think the moral universe runs in a quid pro quo fashion, and so we think God is telling us that if we do not perform action x, then He will most certainly not perform action y. We desperately need action y, but are still most reluctant to perform action x, and so we mutter about it for a while. But after haggling for a while in the flea market where clean consciences are heaped up, rumpled on the table there, we offer a grudging forgiveness to some undeserving schmuck as the price we must pay to get our flea market forgiveness. And that is what it is — rummage sale forgiveness, which is to say, no forgiveness at all. If it was not purchased with the blood of Jesus, then it was not purchased.

Statist Solutioneering

Wright’s last three chapters were really very good. They were “How to Engage Tomorrow’s World,” “Apocalypse and the Beauty of God,” and “Becoming People of Hope.” What I want to do is make a few brief comments about each, and then make two observations about the book as a whole, and Wright’s influence generally.

In these chapters, Wright is doing what he does best, which is declare the biblical basis for the ultimate lordship of Jesus Christ over all things — the resurrection — and then to insist that this lordship is not an airy fairy spiritual abstraction, but rather that it has nuts and bolts applications in the here and now.

“Our confidence is in Jesus and him alone” (p. 185).

“Jesus is lord of the world, so all truth is his truth; let’s go and explore it with reverence and delight” (p. 185)

He cites C.S. Lewis insisting that there is absolutely no neutral ground anywhere in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.

“Lewis was echoing the view of many Christian thinkers, going back to Abraham Kuyper and ultimately to Paul himself; but in doing so, he, and they, stand firmly against the great division that is come upon us in the West” (p. 187).

That great division is the idea that there is somehow a disjunct between actual facts and religious truth, or that truth itself can be divveyed up and placed in separate compartments. No, Christ is Lord of Heaven and earth, and we call it a universe for a reason.