Thursday, September 29, 2016

Herman Bavinck on the Freedom of the Gospel

(Image in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Modern Christian apologists often present conversion in terms of a sort of cognitive leap, an intellectual assent to a set of saving doctrines or even to "the Christian worldview" as a whole. For example, take C.S. Lewis' (justly) famous autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy, which charts a path of descent from his childhood Anglican faith into a defiant atheism, his progression through interest in myth and the occult and into philosophical idealism, and finally his reluctant embrace of theism. This conversion of the intellect, reminiscent of Augustine's embrace of Neoplatonism in the Confessions, serves as a propaedeutic for Lewis' eventual embrace of traditional Christian doctrine full stop -- the incarnation, the atonement, etc. Don't get me wrong: Surprised is a very good book, but I do sometimes worry that Lewis' life story, if such taken as paradigmatic of the journey from from disbelief to faith, can foster a certain reduction of the gratuity and existential power of the Word who saves.

When I approach the work of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, by contrast, I find a more nuanced and, to my mind, more satisfying understanding of faith than that conveyed by Lewis' book. Moreover, the neo-Calvinist thinker articulates a perspective more in line with the early Protestant Reformers, and perhaps also perhaps also with the Dutch pietism of Bavinck's formative years. I'm not a Bavinck scholar; still, as I dip, now and again, into his impressive oeuvre, I'm finding a broad-minded, synthetic thinker who seeks to balance the affective and cognitive dimensions of Christian faith in the way that Calvin does -- successfully, to my mind -- in Book III, chap. 2, of the Institutes.

In that vein, I recently was struck by this passage from Bavinck's essay, "Calvin and Common Grace" (Princeton Theological Review, 1909). In this piece Bavinck draws a distinction between the rather formal (as he sees it) Roman Catholicism of the late medieval period and the existential, soteriological orientation of the Protestant Reformers. The tone is not as polemical as one might expect from an essay written a century ago; still, with our current ecumenical and historical sensitivities, we might wish to nuance his position.

At issue is the Roman conception of faith as cognitive assent to supernatural mysteries passed down through an authoritative church tradition, a definition that Bavinck, unsurprisingly, rejects. My concern here is not the accuracy of Bavinck's analysis of Tridentine Catholic dogma. Rather, I'm more struck by how contemporary this passage seems in the way it "existentializes" faith and, concomitantly, relatives notions of saving faith as voluntaristic, cognitive assent to doctrines. This, of course, doesn't make Bavinck any less of a theological realist concerned with the truth value of Christian doctrines, as a perusal of his Philosophy of Revelation bears out. But his comments in this essay give one pause before one posits intellectual assent to supernatural truths as the primary metric of who is and who is not an "authentic" Christian believer.

Bavinck writes:

When a helpless man, out of distress of soul, looks to the Gospel for deliverance, the Gospel will appear to him in a totally new light. All at once it ceases to be a set of supernatural, inscrutable mysteries to be received on ecclesiastical authority, with renunciation of the claims of reason, by meritorious assent. It straightway becomes a new Gospel, good tidings of salvation, revelation of God’s gracious and efficacious will to save the sinner, something that itself imparts the forgiveness of sin and eternal life and therefore is embraced by lost man with joy, that lifts him above all sin and above the entire world to the high hope of a heavenly salvation (p. 445).

Below I highlight what, for me, is the crux of the passage:

Hence it is no longer possible to speak of the Gospel with Rome as consisting in supernatural mysteries to be responded to by man in voluntary assent. The Gospel is not law, neither as regards the intellect nor as regards the will; it is in essence a promise, not a demand but a gift, a free gift of the divine favor; nay, in it the divine will itself through the Gospel addresses itself to the will, the heart, the innermost essence of man, and there produces the faith which rests in the divine will and builds on it and puts its trust in it through all perils, even in the hour of death (ibid.)

Bavinck argues that the Gospel should not be seen as a veritas (truth) upon which gratia (grace) is superadded, but is, rather, both the revelation of God’s free grace and the instrument of the execution of the divine saving will. Would it be too much of a stretch to paraphrase Bavinck along the lines of a Luther or a Barth: The Gospel just is Jesus Christ himself, as we experience him in saving faith? Be that as it may, at the very least it seems that this essay -- and Bavinck's work more broadly -- deserves a closer look.


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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Christianity, Christendom, Kierkegaard, and America – once more with Mark Tietjen

Kierkegaard is known as a stinging critic of a “too easy” Christianity in which one finds oneself merely as a result of cultural context. The word we give to this assumed identity between Christianity and culture is “Christendom.” In his recent book on Kierkegaard, Mark Tietjen explains the Dane’s criticisms and also suggests how the might apply to the contemporary situation in the United States. Here’s what he has to tell us. May we have ears to hear. (As usual, bold is mine and italics are in the original.)

Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016).

Kierkegaard speculates that one reason why Christians of his day fail to view their faith as a path for them to walk themselves is rooted in . . . the argument from Christendom. The thinking goes as follows: given the enormously successful results of the Christian religion over nearly two millennia, we can assume the truth of the religion and gladly accept the beliefs that come with it. We can stand on the shoulders of giants—church fathers, saints, theologians, pastors, and spiritual mentors—and leave the spiritual heavy lifting to them. However, if the truth is the way, if being a person of Christian faith includes walking a certain path, then such an argument does not work.

. . .

[I]f the truth is the way as in Christianity, the way “cannot be shortened or drop out”—it is essential to the truth. One cannot substitute anything for following Jesus, with all the energy, hard work and time it requires. . . . If we think of Christianity merely as a set of true statements or facts about God that, once accepted, make us Christian, then the process of following Jesus that follows the belief is omitted. However, if we construe those truth claims as claims about and on our lives, then we must acknowledge that following Christ is an ongoing task undertaken throughout one’s entire life.

Kierkegaard’s thoughts here are undoubtedly tied to his cultural context, in which Christian faith was the default cultural and religious position, and one’s birth and baptismal certificates were more or less the same thing. Thus its relevance for American Christians may vary based on how culturally rooted Christian faith is in a given place. . . . Thus the advantages of living in a place that seems more friendly to Christianity might have the reverse effect of making the way of Christ-following all the more difficult to discern and carry out. Such are the ills of what Kierkegaard refers to as established Christendom. (119–120)

I think the application to the situation in the United States is very helpful. To augment that a bit: it is not simply a problem of being surrounded by “Christian culture” making it easier to think of oneself as being a Christian without involving the commitment necessary to live that identity in concrete praxis; it is also that being surrounded by “Christian culture” breeds the assumption that it is possible to be Christian / be saved / etc. on the basis mere intellectual assent to certain propositions. Then, over time, the particularity of those propositions are eroded. So now in our society we have hordes of people who believe in “God” (whoever that is…), in an afterlife, in certain “values” (whatever those are…), without any of the concrete content that the Christian tradition involves.

The point that I would push Kierkegaard on (and I noted in a previous post that I don’t know Kierkegaard that well – he may very well affirm what I’m about to say) is this: in the picture painted above, you could get the sense that for K the cognitive belief comes first and then you put that into practice as a second step, even if a necessary one. But what if true Christian faith has nothing to do with assent to “a set of true statements or facts about God”? What if the only sort of knowledge of God possible is a relational sort of knowledge that exists only as it occurs in the living-out of one’s life? What if it is not that a lot of folks in Christendom societies are bad Christians, but that they are not Christians at all?

P.S. Writing this post put me in mind of the following previous posts about Paul M. van Buren.


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Friday, September 23, 2016

Your Own Political Jesus? (With a Hat-Tip to Stringfellow)

This has to be the most miserable and distressing Presidential campaign of my lifetime. The fact that both of the major candidates have been direct about their religious beliefs has scarcely assuaged the ickiness of the whole affair. It's little wonder, then, that many folks, believers and nonbelievers alike, would like to keep religious faith squarely behind Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state.

Ecce homo by Antonio Ciseri,
via Wikimedia Commons (PD-US)


For many years, the conventional wisdom in many churches in the United States has been that the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims and brings is apolitical -- and this even after the crucial role that religious people and institutions played in the temperance, abolition and Civil Rights movements, in particular. On the face of it, this seems to be the sense of Jesus' assertion to Pointius Pliate: "My Kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36, KJV). By contrast, a number of contemporary theologians and biblical exegetes have turned this statement on its head to retrieve a radically political Jesus: Biblical scholars ranging from N.T. Wright to Richard Horsley and constructive thinkers from Gustavo Gutierrez to Jacqueline Grant have promoted this trend.

A number of factors, I think, make it difficult to assimilate this paradigm more broadly in the North American religious context. Strong traditions situate theological concerns squarely within private religious experience, and the civic and legal heritage of separating church and state, perhaps, encourages believers to discern the work of the savior in spheres transcending the muck and mire of partisan politics.

What's more, I think many folks in the U.S. have a strong, visceral antipathy to the realm of politics per se. Several years ago, after we had just moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, my wife and I visited a neighborhood meet-and-greet for a man running to represent our ward on the City Council. After introducing myself, I asked him to share his overall sense of city politics. He hemmed, hawed and equivocated a bit, clearly discomforted by negative connotations linked to the very word "politics." Here was a politician, no less, and my question had been innocuous -- or so I thought. But this candidate's reaction perhaps bespeaks an interesting phenomenon in the United States -- our common penchant to reduce complex public matters to issues of personal character. For all that we have going for us, sometimes I wonder if we're one of the most naive electorates on the planet when it comes to understanding the social dynamics of power politics.

That said, I do understand the reticence to embroil Christ and his saving work within the often nauseating, obsequious and often just plain nasty sphere of politics. For my part, I try to avoid an unwholesome reductionism in the relationship of faith and theology to politics -- and I hope that is clear in what I've written on this blog under the rubric theo-politics. At the most basic level my programmatic statement is this: Jesus Christ and the Kingdom he proclaims and brings may be more than what can be reduced to the political sphere, but it certainly is not less than political.

One thinker who has particularly enriched and challenged my understanding of Jesus Christ and his saving work as inherently socio-political is the Episcopal lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow. He believed politics -- the way human beings live together in this world -- is central to the Gospel and thus to the mission of the church. He dubbed his project of interpreting and critiquing the institutional and corporate life of human beings (that is, the realm of the "principalities and powers") "biblical politics." In fact, Stringfellow insists that the proper sphere of the Gospel just is politics: That is to say, the message of the Gospel centers on God's concern for and activity within this world and this history, and thus the realm of the polis. Is this reductionism? On the contrary: I would argue that this move represents his own attempt to retrieve the doctrine of the Incarnation. In a future post, I hope to look in some more detail at Stringfellow's political reading of Jesus' life story.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Laudato Si', Extinction, and the Passenger Pigeon

In his historic encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes:

“It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons relating to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right." (33)

Extinction is a hard thing for us to get our heads around.

Its scope and finality so dwarf us as individuals that we have a hard time feeling it, grieving it, and (as our present situation requires) repenting of it.

As always, a particular story can help.

My wife Jenna and I recently visited Wyalusing State Park in Southwestern Wisconsin with my Uncle Kevin. We hiked in the serene old-growth forests, and even did a little cave exploration, where we happened across a sleeping brown bat (myotis lucifugus, itself a threatened species according to the Department of Natural Resources).

Before we left to head home, Uncle Kevin brought us to Wyalusing’s monument to the passenger pigeon. The monument is perched on a cliff overlooking the valley where the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers converge. We learned that flocks of migrating passenger pigeons once filled the skies there, numbering in the millions. They were the most abundant bird species in North America, thought to be a near limitless resource. But through unregulated commercial hunting and habitat destruction their numbers dwindled—and in 1914 the very last passenger pigeon died.

On a plaque, we found the following excerpt from the speech Aldo Leopold gave at the monument’s dedication in 1947. I’ve found myself thinking about it almost daily since.

See page for author [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
“We meet here to commemorate the death of a species. This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin. Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

It’s crucial that we hear these stories. As we hear them, may we feel the true cost of our narrow-minded and short-sighted economic activities. May we grieve for what we have taken and can never give back. And may we change our course.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.4: Different ways of being in the church

Fourth Question: Do unbaptized catechumens, the excommunicated and schismatics belong to the church? We distinguish.

Turretin is clear that discussion of this question is motivated, or “moved,” by engagement with the Roman church. And to tackle the question he makes a series of distinctions in true scholastic fashion. He begins by addressing the issue of catechumens, and it is here that he makes his primary distinction:

“The church can be regarded in two ways: either as to external state and visible form, or as to internal and invisible form.” (18.4.3)

This is your classic Augustinian distinction between visible and invisible church, and it has been used to solve many an ecclesiological problem throughout theological history. For Turretin, it makes it possible to speak of catechumens as members of the invisible church even if they have not yet undergone the sacrament of baptism to become part of the visible church. He offers three lines of argument in support of this conclusion. First, Turretin appeals to the “converted thief,” by which I take him to mean the thief who was said to be crucified with Jesus and responded positively to Jesus. Here is someone who was not baptized but who seems to have been included within the invisible church and therefore saved. Turretin also goes after Bellarmine here because Bellarmine says that catechumens are part of the church potentially but not actually. For Turretin, either you’re in or you’re out, and Bellarmine’s solution is no solution at all. Second, Turretin collects a number of biblical examples of folks who “were reckoned in the body of the spiritual people [of God / the covenant] and possessed the same blessings by faith” even though they had not received “the symbols of the covenant” (18.4.5): Melchizedek, Job, the eunuch in Acts 8, and “innumerable martyrs who died before they had received baptism.” As a note, the ancient church used to speak of such martyrs as having undergone a baptism of blood—Turretin doesn’t mention this terminology, so you’re welcome. Third, “baptism is not necessary absolutely to salvation” (18.4.6) since the early church recognized that desire for baptism or martyrdom suffices if the normal rite is unable to be performed. This clearly suggests to Turretin that inclusion in the external / visible church by way of its standard rites cannot be equated with membership in the internal / invisible church. Here are a couple nice quotes about baptism and the church:

“It is one thing to be gathered into the visible church, which is done by baptism; another into the invisible, which is done by faith” (18.4.8); “Baptism makes a Christian by profession, but not by internal truth” (18.4.10).

After addressing catechumen, Turretin turns to address those who have been excommunicated, and he makes another set of distinctions. Excommunication can be of three classes: “unjust,” “just and lawful,” and “absolute and total” (18.4.11). The first doesn’t matter because it is done in error; consequently, those excommunicate in this way may be put out of the external / visible church but they remain part of the internal / invisible church. The third doesn’t matter either because it is impossible given that excommunication only pertains to the external / visible church. Turretin comes up with a nice quote from Augustine as evidence for this view (18.4.14), and even brings in a quote that seems to demonstrate Bellarmine’s agreement (18.4.17).

Finally, Turretin addresses schismatics. He does so rather briefly, and I will quote it in full. Presumably he will discuss this issue at greater length elsewhere:

“To touch briefly upon schismatics, we readily grant that they who rashly and unjustly secede from the true church, by lacerating its unity, do not belong to the church. But we reject those who spitefully traduce us with this false name (because “[we] are unwilling to be in subjection to the Roman pontiff,” as Bellarmine has it) as being excluded from it.” (18.4.18)

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Terror at the Town Fair: A Theologian's Odyssey

The day seemed innocent and wholesome enough. We had just left church -- and what mischief ever went down in church? (Am I right, St. Augustine?) We headed up into the hills of Western Massachusetts for the annual fair in Heath, a quaint farming village that borders Vermont. The 700 or so residents of Heath are proud of their fair, which features a parade, horse-pull contests, local bluegrass and folk bands and the obligatory fried dough.

Photo of a horse pull, by Jassen (of Belchertown, Mass.)
Via Wikimedia.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Resurrection and Social Equality: A Sermon on Luke 7.11-17

I would like to start off this sermon by complaining. First and foremost about airplane pilots. I promise this will connect with the passage, but it requires some explanation. First of all, I just don’t trust the technology. You’re in this giant metal tube hurdling through the sky at hundreds of miles per hour and thousands of feet above the ground. And then you hit all this turbulence. And then you begin your descent to your destination airport. And all this time, I’m thinking “This is it. I’m dying. God is calling me home.” And it’s because the pilot doesn’t give me any reason to think otherwise until after it’s all over! It’s only after I feel the plane changing altitude or shaking uncontrollably that the pilot comes on the intercom and tells me we’ve hit a pocket of turbulence or we are preparing to land. And I’m just sitting there the whole time with my clammy hands and sweaty pits thinking “come on the intercom and tell me that before it happens so I don’t think I’m falling to my death!”

By Akash52525 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
I think this experience is similar to what’s happening here in this passage. This woman, this widow who just lost her only son, has been unwillingly plunged into a state of uncertainty; uncertainty about her own existence, about her own identity, about her next meal, about where she might find shelter. And she has no other reason to hope that her situation might be otherwise until someone gives her one. And this is where our story begins.

First, to understand this passage, we have to surround it with some cultural context. In this culture, men were the lifelines of women. It’s an unfortunate truth and an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless. A woman’s worth, economically and religiously, came from, 1) her being married and 2) her ability to bear children. This is why we have this law in Deuteronomy 22: 28-29 where Yahweh commands that if a man rapes an unbetrothed woman, he is commanded to marry her. This may sound extremely barbaric to our 21st century ears, but it was actually the opposite; it was offering the woman an opportunity at life. Without this law, the woman would be deemed unclean due to her loss of virginity and would not be able to marry. And in a society where men alone worked for monetary gain, owned property, and held an authoritative voice, this would be devastating to a woman, especially after her mother and father passed and could no longer support her. She would essentially be reduced to the social status of a beggar, marginalized and disregarded.

In essence, this is what is happening to the widow of Nain. Since she has been widowed, the responsibility of caring for her falls to her male children, of whom she only had one; this one, being carried out the city gate to be buried. This is the point in which she is likely beginning to understand that her son’s death might just mean her own.

Now apparently Jesus picked up some endearing fans as he was traveling, since the text tells us he’s accompanied by a large crowd. And as he’s walking up to the city gate, he sees the woman and the NRSV translation says "he had compassion for her.” The Greek word used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (transliteration: esplagknisthe). Try saying that ten times fast. This word carries a passive connotation. Jesus did nothing. It was what happened to him. This is a powerful image if only we consider it. There was no deliberation, no discussion of sociological ethics or pondering on whether she deserves compassion or not. It was something that simply moved through the person of Jesus, without him having any choice or say in the matter. This should cause us to pause and ponder, friends. This is the incarnate second person of the Trinity, silenced and moved to compassion by a person regarded as nothing in the eyes of those around him.

How many of you have seen the movie called The Sandlot? For the ones who haven’t seen it, I would encourage you to repent of your sin. Don’t worry; the blood of Jesus covers all. But until then, let me give you a quick rundown: Scott Smalls moves to California two weeks before summer vacation, leaving him no time to make friends for the summer until Benny Rodriguez invites him to play baseball with him and his friends at the sandlot, a small, makeshift baseball stadium. The team was weary of Scott until one fateful day. Behind the sandlot, however, lives Mr. Myrtle, “the meanest old man who ever lived” and “the beast: a huge gorilla-dog-thing that ate one kid already.” Both direct quotes. When the team loses a ball one day, Scott Smalls breaks into his step-father’s den and steals a baseball, signed by Babe Ruth and proceeds to ace it to the beast when he rips a massive home run over the fence into Mr. Myrtle’s back yard. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie for you as they try to retrieve the ball before Scott’s dad gets home, but in that moment, the new kid who was regarded as nothing in the eyes of those around him, was seen as worthy, accepted, and as part of something bigger.

The creator of the universe looks upon one lowly woman with compassion and yet we, his creation, routinely refuse to do the same. In this story we are often not the ones mourning with the woman, but the ones back behind the city gate, divorced from the fact that someone in our community is suffering. When Jesus resurrected the young man and gave him back to his mother, he was not just giving her back her son: he was giving her back an opportunity at something more than just subsistence. He was giving her worth. He was giving her dignity. We are the earthly-historical body of Christ. Because Jesus does this, we are to do this. And when we don’t, we aren’t the church.

We are inevitably left with the question: So what? What does this mean to us 2000 years later? What does it look like to give dignity and worth to human beings as the earthly-historical body of Christ? To proclaim that “God has looked favorably upon his people” in the 21st century? Shane Claiborne, a social activist and missionary currently based in inner-city Philadelphia, took a trip to work at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute in Calcutta. While he was there, he visited a leper colony where he met people whose job it was to make custom shoes for those who had lost parts of their feet due to the disease. And other people who took on the task of tending to others’ infected wounds. And others who fashioned synthetic limbs for those who required amputations. These are people who are acknowledging the humanity of those completely pushed to society’s fringes. They are giving them back their worth, their dignity. Now I know we don’t typically have people afflicted with leprosy here in the States, but just because we recognize one extreme, does not mean we can do away with the other: The people of color in our society who have been oppressed by systematic racism in our judicial system, the single mom applying for food stamps, and the homeless we see as we walk down New York’s 5th Ave.

We need to understand that the gospel has this amazing ability to shape-shift.

It doesn’t always look the same. It’s not always words on a page or the spoken “testimony” of a believer. To the hungry, the gospel looks like food. To the orphan, the gospel looks like community. Paul became “all things to all people” in order to win people to Christ. Jesus identified with the lowly and downtrodden of the world by identifying, first and foremost, with their struggles. Though we cannot absolve someone from all their problems or change their heart, we need only be obedient. Mother Teresa said "we are not called to be successful, we are called to be obedient." Her goal at the Home for the Dying and Destitute was not to keep everyone alive, but to allow them to die well and to die with dignity. We should approach the gospel the same way. Our goal should not be to fit the entire gospel into a single conversation or to expect someone to come to faith when we want or expect them to. We need only to obediently serve them and present the gospel in the way they need it. And we need not wander far to do this. Mother Teresa, again, said "there are Calcuttas everywhere if only you have the eyes to see. Find your Calcutta." Our local streets need love and compassion and only when we exhibit that to people might we earn the privilege to speak of our God. There's no reason for anyone to care about the Christian God if it's believed that he doesn't care about them. It's our job to merely show them that's not the case; show them, not just tell them.

How might we change if we actually believed in the resurrection? How might our lives change, individually and collectively if we really believed Jesus was raised from the dead, just like this young man? Jesus shows us that resurrection has real-world implications. Resurrection can change the world if we only let it. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And this includes the means of death: economic and physical, spiritual and material. On the day that the Son of God returns, God’s kingdom will rise up and death will finally be dethroned. But until that day comes, we are commanded ever more fervently to work toward it, to pray for it, and live as if it is already here.

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