And now for a little intellectual history—my own, that is. This can be read by friend and foe alike with edifying pleasure. My friends can discover how I learned these wonderful things and my foes can discover what messed me up so bad.
First consider the base coat of my theological assumptions that were bequeathed to me by my parents. I was brought up by faithful evangelical parents who loved the Lord Jesus, and, more importantly, who lived with others as though they loved Him. Because of their straightforward and simple approach to gospel obedience, there were many things that are part of my unquestioned inheritance.
So the fact that the Bible was to be obeyed and followed has never been up for grabs for me. That was a given. But there is a difference between believing that Scripture has the right answers and having the right answers from Scripture. The fact that I had this wonderful inheritance did not mean that there was nothing to learn, or nothing to adjust. Within that received inheritance, from which I have never wavered, over the course of my pilgrimage, there have been four, count them four, basic adjustments. But calling them “adjustments” does not quite do it, in that some of them knocked me base over apex. All of them did, in fact.
The first paradigm shift was in the latter half of 1985, when I became postmillennial. I was reading David Chilton’s Paradise Restored at the time, which I enjoyed—although I did take issue with the extravagance of his exegetical approach to things. At any rate, there I was, reading along. I read a verse that he quoted, and I think that the verse had an impact on me quite distinct from what he was doing with it in his book. The verse was this: “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). At any rate, when I read those words, something snapped in my head, and a host of passages began to flutter together in my brain, assembling themselves into a jubilant worldview of evangelical triumph. Jesus has ascended into Heaven and He will remain there until all His enemies are under His feet, the last enemy death being the only exception. I have to say that this eschatological paradigm shift was quite simply a lot of fun.
I became Calvinistic in 1988. There was a combination of factors involved in this one. I had been struggling to answer the challenge of openness theism, and given my conservative Arminianism, I just couldn’t do it. And in the second place, I was starting to feel, given my weird adherence to postmillennialism, that something needed to be done about the rate we were going. What we clearly needed was revival with a capital R, and since years before I had walked away from the Finneyite approach to revival, I found myself turning to men like Edwards and Whitefield. The kind of fruit we needed was, historically, a fruit that grew on a particular kind of tree. To change the metaphor, I started to become convinced that the kind of engine that was needed to make postmillennialism blow down the road was the kind of preaching that existed a century before Finney. The heart of man was a stone that required the sledgehammer of John Henry, Bible open to Romans 9. And third, I had decided (for some reason) to preach through Romans. I remember telling one of our elders that I did not know what I was going to do when I got to “those chapters.” I really didn’t know what I was going to say until I got there, and determined, at the very last minute, that I would just say what the text said. I remember thinking something like, “what the hell” and letting fly. Not a very pious thing to think in the pulpit, but it was one of the more pious things that I have done there.
Paedobaptism had to wait until 1993. After I had become Calvinistic in my theology, it began to factor in my preaching, and word sort of got out. Various Reformed and Presbyterian types began to show up at church, which they never would have done before, as there were no other Calvinistic pulpits in our area. And of course all we got along famously, being swell to one another and all. But then—some of them were young marrieds—one of the families had a baby and they asked me to baptize it. My internal response was something along the lines of “are you crazy?” but I also realized that it was something I needed to study. I was already covenantal—having been taught by my father to believe the promises, whatever testament they were in—so that made it difficult for me to resist, if not impossible. I did manage to do a lot of twisting and yelling and so on, but a fat lot of good that did.
A Bit Different:
But the next big paradigm shift was, as I say, a bit different.
Remember what I said about the base coat of evangelicalism. The positions represented by the previous three paradigm shifts had all had a long history of consistent and happy interaction with evangelical theology. Postmillennialism, Calvinism, and paedobaptism have all had stalwart champions, over the course of centuries, who were bred-to-the-bone evangelicals. The net effect of each shift had done nothing but strengthen and reinforce my evangelical convictions.
There was one subset of the postmillennial option that a young traveler had to watch out for, and that was preterism. This is the teaching that many of the passages that are commonly applied to the end of the world are actually about the end of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. I had become a preterist as part of my postmillennialism, but the thing to watch out for is hyper-preterism—saying that absolutely everything had been fulfilled in the first century. If you apply this dandy method to every biblical prophecy, you find yourself an ideologue, and outside the boundaries of orthodox Christian faith. Over the course of two thousand years of church history, the universal voice of the church has agreed on only one eschatological truth, which is that hyper-preterism is wrong. “And He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
In this respect, the next big paradigm shift for me was like preterism. There was a lot to learn, but there was also a snare. So as you read about this next one, be sure to pay attention to the spooky music at certain parts of the soundtrack.
It’s All in Girard, Man:
As with some of the others, I had inherited from my folks bits and pieces of what would become an integrated system, but of course, I had no name for the bits and pieces. What happened next was on this wise.
I was in a conflict with a person, and it was the kind of conflict that made no sense to me. I could not get it to make sense. I was talking to a friend about it, and he suggested that I read The Scapegoat by Rene Girard. Always up for buying another book, I readily complied and began to read it. It made a lot of sense to me.
Fast forward a bit. It is now 2006, and there was a gent in our small town who was a Girard aficionado, if that’s the word I want. His son had begun attending Christ Church, and so the father thought he should come and check out what his son had gotten himself into. What he heard as he visited us was, according to him, some of the standard fundamentalist fare. But then, in one of the sermons he heard, there was a stretch of preaching that was straight out of Girard. Our visitor thought something along the lines of wut?
He made an appointment to see me, and at our appointment, he hauled out a stack of Girard books and gave them to me. This is the kind of appointment that brightens up your day.
So I began to read through them. The next one was I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, which I thought was glorious. I soldiered through the stack, reading some additional titles along the way, and gradually the pieces of this paradigm came all together for me. I met occasionally with my friend—still do—and we talk about what prevents me from becoming an all-in Girardian.
Remember that the benchmark is evangelical theology. Absolute commitment to an infallible and inerrant Bible, personal reliance on a substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins, and the absolute necessity of the new birth.
What I discovered was that Girard helped me see certain things in Scripture that were right on the surface of the text, but invisible to most Christians. This was about 80% true. But I also saw that if I went with Girard 100%, it would lead me like excessive preterism, right out of orthodoxy. Pure Girardianism winds up in a denial of a substitutionary atonement, which is the most serious flaw, but it also tends toward pacifism and some other eccentricities.
So why mess with any of it then?
Remember that commitment to Scripture is a hallmark of evangelicalism, and not just a belief in the substitutionary atonement. Girard points things out in the text, numerous things, which are God’s purloined letter. Hidden in plain sight. Once you see them there, you can never unsee them. Once you know, you cannot not know.
The Invisible Mainspring of Human Conflict
Girard points out that we are mimetic, reflective creatures. We come into conflict, not because of our differences, but because of our similarities. We collide, not over differences, but over shared desires. We are not stand alone individuals, we are “interdividuals.” We are woven together in complex relationships, and the nature of these complexities help us understand why we come into conflict with each other. It is not enough to say that “sin” makes us come into conflict, by which we mean the other person’s sin, because we have to ask why so many of our sins seem virtuous to us at the time. We have to ask if we ourselves are part of the toxic mix, in ways invisible to ourselves. It is an edifying question, and almost impossible to answer unless you grasp at least a portion of what Girard is so good at pointing out.
When we find ourselves in yet another conflict, wondering why we are in the conflict, we have to ask why we rarely turn to James 4 in search of the answer. That chapter begins with the question “what causes quarrels and fights among you?” (Jas. 4:1). We don’t want to go to James for the answer because James does not flatter us. James identifies the source of our church quarrels two thousand years before the substance or “matter” of the quarrel, viz. which accounting software to buy for the church, even existed. He could identify the origin of 21st century quarrels in the church because he knew that people were going to be involved in them. “No,” he says. “It’s not software. I don’t even know what that is. The problem is that this gentleman here covets and cannot obtain.”
We want the conflict to be about the “principle of the thing.” If two dogs were fighting over a piece of meat, we want it to be about the meat. But in our conflicts, the stated issue is rarely the real issue. The dispute on your elder board is not over doctrine x, but it is actually about turf, dominance, jealousy, father hunger, prestige, or whose wife is not prettier. Now of course, the danger of “thinking Girardian” is that it might make you want to impute motives when you ought not.
If you are maintaining that Athanasius was standing contra mundum because of a parking seniority dispute with Arius, then you have not quite grasped the concept. But what you have done is reveal that your disputings are likely an outworking of some such issue.
Or perhaps you have absolutized the concept, which is another way of not grasping it. That is one of the reasons I don’t go all in with Girard—I find him too valuable, and don’t want to lose his insights. Going full Giardian means ceasing to be Girardian. As C.S. Lewis points out somewhere, to see through everything is simply a way of saying that you cannot see anything at all. But seeing through some things, like windows, is a real blessing.
Imagine growing up in another country and knowing absolutely nothing about American football. You come over here and somebody takes you to a game. You see the plays run, you can make out that the ball advancing, but mostly what you see is senseless conflict. As someone once defined football—“committee meetings punctuated with violence.” It is not senseless conflict, but until you understand the rules and the kind of plays that are run, it will just seem like “clashes” to you.
Since I first read Girard, I have still gotten into conflicts. But I am not really mystified in the midst of them anymore. That’s not treachery out of the blue. That’s just a guard pulling.