Category: Gospel and Kingdom

Gospel and ethics

January 3rd, 2012 — 10:36am

“Certain forms of belief in natural law or in the opposition of law and gospel make a virtue of denying that ‘Christian ethics’ in the strict sense can exist. Such theories may allow that Christian faith has a bearing on ethics indirectly, in that Christian spirituality promotes a heightened concern for the moral dimension of life and a strengthened ability to cope with it. But the substance of ethical questions, they hold, is not open to special illumination from the gospel; the believer is in no more favoured a position than the unbeliever when it comes to discerning the difference between good and evil. But we must observe what follows from separating faith and morality in this fashion: we become either moralists or antinomians. By ‘moralism’ we mean the holding of moral convictions unevangelically, so that they are no longer part of the Christian good news, and can, therefore, have the effect only of qualifying it, whether as praeparatio evangelica, as a ‘ministry of condemnation’ (as Saint Paul said of the Mosaic Law, 2 Cor. 3:9), or as a rule which is supposed to govern an area of life which Christ has not touched or transformed. By ‘antinomianism’ we mean the holding of the Christian faith in a way that expresses disregard, or insufficient regard, for moral questions. Once it is decided that morality is not part of the good news that Christians welcome and proclaim, believers will have to choose between being thoroughly evangelical and ignoring it, and respecting it at the cost of being only half evangelical. A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgments belong to the gospel itself; a belief, in other words, that the church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as a bearer of glad tidings.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 11–12)

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Different kind of power

November 12th, 2011 — 7:46pm

“The Son of God was the new Adam. He was both the actual presence and the harbinger of a new kingdom. Everything about his life, his teaching, and his death was a demonstration of a different kind of power – not just in relation to the spiritual realm and not just in relation to the ruling political authorities, but in the ordinary social dynamics of everyday life. It operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifested compassion concretely out of calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. In short, in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, p. 193)

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Uncritical assimilation

November 10th, 2011 — 10:12am

“For conservatives and progressives alike, Christianity far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time. What is wrong with their critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and the use of time in the final chapters of life – on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least. Even more, these assimilations arguably compromise the fundamental integrity of its witness to the world.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, pp. 184–85)

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Scribbles waiting for a cartographer

September 28th, 2011 — 4:33pm

In the opening chapter of his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, James K. A. Smith attempts to play, in his words, “the role of a cartographer,” mapping the landscape of a particular theological movement. I have come to wish that someone (who could it possibly be?) would draft something similar for the entire contemporary landscape known as “the Reformed faith.” What (in as much detail as possible, please) are the various consortiums, alliances, and movements within this landscape? (I think it’s safe to say denominational lines will supply little useful information to the cartographer at this point.) Where are the main centers of operation? What are the distinctive points and features of the competing manifestos? (Do let’s be candid about these manifestos: if they didn’t exist, wouldn’t we look just a tad more unified?) Where are the outlaw encampments (here, of course, the cartographer’s prejudices will inevitably color the map)? And so on.

While I wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting, let me offer an observation that I think may be cartographically significant. It was sparked (no surprise to those who’ve read my recent posts) by a paragraph in Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. He notes a lack of concern among 19th-century American evangelicals over “the [then-] present state of the churches in America” (p. 70); the reason for this, he says,

“was no doubt related to American evangelicals’ characteristic lack of strong views about the nature and authority of the church. Lacking direct experience with such doctrines, they had not formed a distinct concept of the church against which they might react. This general absence in America of a clear theory on the church reflected organizational structures that had developed more for reasons of circumstance than of ideology. Instead of ‘churches’ (in the sense of the official organized religion of a territory) or ‘sects’ (in the sense of separated groups of true converted believers), America had ‘denominations,’ which were sometimes churchly, sometimes sectarian, and usually both. The denominations were the product of a combination of European churchly traditions, ethnic loyalties, pietism, sectarianism, and American free enterprise. Often a denomination would advertise itself as the true church and speak in its own councils as if it were. At the same time the denominational system was really based on the premise that the true church could be denominated in many ways. Moreover, denominational structures were usually loose enough that revivals, reforms, Bible conferences, and schools could be promoted by members outside of denominational control. Hence the system allowed room for a practical sectarianism which often left denominational ties weak or nominal.”

So, if 19th-century American evangelicals (including many in Calvinistic denominations) had a weak doctrine of the church, and assuming this hasn’t improved much since (it’s not as if we’re becoming less individualistic with time), what might this have to do with contemporary Reformed cartography?

I observe two very significant and (to my mind, at least) laudable impulses in today’s Reformed churches. One impulse is toward what I will loosely call “covenant.” Churches under the sway of this impulse are all about the sacraments, Christian worldview, godly marriages, godly children, homeschooling and/or Christian education, family worship, and a thousand generations of those who love God and keep His commandments. This impulse doesn’t always lead to big churches, but it does tend to produce quite large, impressive families who take their Christianity seriously.

A second impulse is toward what I will loosely call “culture.” Churches following this impulse are serious transformationalists: they want to see the world changed by the gospel through the enactment of the Great Commission. They, too, tend to be excited about Christian worldview. They are the “missional” crowd, deeply engaged with the surrounding culture (one finds them wrestling manfully with the problems of “contextualization”) and eager to build culture to the glory of God; they are deeply burdened for the sheep Jesus is still seeking, and for the coming of His shalom to all peoples of the earth.

[Let it be said in passing that plenty of Reformed churches seem to be under the sway of neither impulse. These churches are a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, study in their own right. It should also be noted that the impulses I’ve described aren’t mutually exclusive; certainly there are churches that manifest both.]

Now let me introduce some shading within the groups of Reformed believers in the covenantal and cultural “camps.” At one end of the “covenantal camp” are Reformed Christians who have an extraordinarily low view of the church: for them, family is where the really important action is; in the far extreme are those who even view the keys of the kingdom as belonging to the head of the Christian household. The insular family is on a mission, but this mission is not submitted to the higher and broader mission of Christ’s church.

Likewise in the “cultural camp,” on the far end are those who have an extraordinarily low view of the church. For them, the agenda(s) for God’s people are really set by the surrounding culture; they don’t accept that God’s kingdom is/has/demands a distinctive culture to be enacted among His covenant people (e.g., biblical rituals of worship). These brethren are deeply interested in contextualizing the gospel within agendas set by the surrounding culture; they appear much less interested in setting the agenda of the surrounding culture by the gospel through the church.

In both extremes, what is missing is the third point in an all-important triangulation of covenant, culture, and church. Biblically, there is a priority of church over the covenant family: the family was not given the Great Commission by itself, it cannot fulfill the Great Commission by itself, and a separatist family will eventually (as a close friend of mine has said) enact a wonderful life without any clear sense of what that life is for (the salvation of the world – HT: Jesus).

There’s also a priority of church over culture. We don’t start by trying to reach culture; we start by being the church, and the fruit is that we transform culture. To invert this order opens the way to all sorts of compromises.

Anyway, those are my scribbles. A real map would be a better aid in this sort of self-assessment, but I fear we’re a long way from having one at our disposal.

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Christianity and communism

September 27th, 2011 — 8:40pm

In 1966, Douglas Hyde penned these immortal words:

“If [a person] has grown up in Christian circles he will know that Christianity, like Communism, demands the whole man and that Christians were intended, and are expected, to change the world. That they, too, should be active; that membership of a church is not like membership of a club. That in theory, at least, the Christian should be relating his Christianity to his whole life and to the world about him, all the time, everywhere. Yet in practice, although Christianity has taught him that total dedication is something to be admired and something to which one should aspire in one’s own life, a Communist may be the first totally dedicated person he has met. Or, if that is putting it too harshly, the Communist may be the first dedicated person he has met who is not wrapped up in his own salvation but is devoting himself to the transformation of society and to changing the world.” (Dedication and Leadership, p. 37)

Nearly a quarter century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world still awaits the ideological successor of Communism (could it be radical Islam?). But when, oh when, will the Christian church rise to Hyde’s challenge?

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Step away from the mandate

March 2nd, 2011 — 10:34pm

I’m reading through David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and he keeps saying things that I think I must have misread, they’re so incredible to me. Our first father Adam, he writes, was given a royal task in the present world (the one you’re sitting on now while you read this), which task was to take dominion over the earth (p. 40). So far, so good; now here’s where things get a bit dicey. When Adam finished his royal task, the result was to be an immediate transfer to a new and entirely different “world-to-come” (or “new creation,” p. 40). That’s right: this “present creation . . . was never meant to be the final home of the human race” (p. 66), which was as true in Adam’s day as it is in ours. But that is not all, no, that is not all.

The means by which Adam was to finish his task in the world was his sustaining a probationary test of obedience in a particular garden, the garden of Eden (pp. 41–43, in which VanDrunen provides an exegesis of Genesis 2:15–17). Were Adam successfully to sustain his probation, he would immediately be transferred to the new (and totally different) creation or world-to-come, having “completed” his royal work on earth (p. 53). In VanDrunen’s words, “Adam was to have his entire obedience in the entire world determined through a particular test in a particular location [i.e., Eden]” (p. 50, emphasis in original).

[I should note parenthetically that this description of Adam’s task (take dominion), the intended outcome of his task (transfer to a different world), and the means by which his task was to be accomplished and the outcome attained (Eden probation), is based exclusively on VanDrunen’s reading of Hebrews 2:5–8. Whether his exegesis of the Hebrews text is accurate, and whether, if so, it can bear all the weight he wants it to, are questions I’m not prepared to address here.]

VanDrunen’s view of Adam’s task and the extremely circumscribed means by which it was to be “finished” leads to a particular view (which I must say I find utterly idiosyncratic) of Christ’s task as the Last Adam. Let’s begin with this:

“Before the second Adam no one accomplished the task of the first Adam, and after the second Adam no one needs to accomplish it. The last Adam has completed it once and for all.” (p. 50)

He goes on to assert that even as Adam’s obedience to the dominion mandate would have been exhausted in his sustaining his Eden probation, Christ’s obedience to the dominion mandate was exhausted when He finished His life of obedience (sustaining many temptations) and His work on the cross. There is nothing more now for Christ to do; His work (and the work given to the first Adam) is finished, once-for-all.

This, in turn, leads to a very definite answer to the question whether Christians (those in Christ) are still bound by the original dominion mandate given to Adam. Let me offer two quotes to show how serious VanDrunen is about his answer to this question:

“If Christ is the last Adam, then we are not new Adams. To understand our own cultural work as picking up and finishing Adam’s original task is, however unwittingly, to compromise the sufficiency of Christ’s work. Christ perfectly atoned for all our sins, and hence we have no sins left to atone personally. Likewise, Christ perfectly sustained a time of testing similar to Adam’s: he achieved the new creation through his flawless obedience in this world. He has left nothing yet to be accomplished.” (pp. 50–51, emphasis in original)

In another place he puts it even more strongly:

“Those who hold a traditional Protestant view of justification consistently should not find a redemptive transformationalist perspective attractive. As some of the Reformers grasped, a two-kingdoms doctrine is a proper companion to a Protestant doctrine of justification.” (p. 21, emphasis in original)

[For those unfamiliar with this terminology, by the “redemptive transformationalist perspective” VanDrunen means the view that Christians are to fulfill the dominion mandate, redeeming all of human life and seeking to transform the world in so doing. The “two-kingdoms doctrine,” by contrast, is the view VanDrunen himself is propounding.]

Follow the logic: the entire dominion mandate was to be fulfilled in Adam’s sustaining his Eden probation; he failed, but Christ fulfilled the entire dominion mandate in sustaining His probation; to say that Christians are in any sense bound by the dominion mandate is to say we need to finish the work of Christ, which undermines the sufficiency of His work and the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification.

All rather breathtaking, is it not? But there’s one more piece:

“Christians do not pick up and continue the task of Adam. Thanks to the finished work of Christ, Christians should view their cultural activities in a radically different way from the way that the first Adam viewed his. We pursue cultural activities in response to the fact [note this] that the new creation has already been achieved, not in order to contribute to its achievement.” (p. 57)

Now I’m probably just being a simpleton, but this dichotomy strikes me as a wondrous false. Are these really the only two options: either we “contribute to achieving” the new creation (in some sort of meritorious sense), or it has “already been entirely achieved”? I mean, substitute the word “atonement” or even “justification” for “new creation,” and I’m all in: we don’t contribute to Christ’s atoning work or our justification, because His atoning work is finished once-for-all, and we receive justification in the empty hands of faith. But the new creation? Somehow I’ve always had this compromised notion that the new creation is neither something once-for-all achieved nor something we merit by our own works, but rather something Christ has inaugurated and which is gradually being unfolding in the world under His lordship. But that, obviously, gets back to the whole simpleton thing.

I have an awful lot I would like to say about pretty much every point of VanDrunen’s thesis. In case you’re still wondering, I don’t like it. Not one little bit. But I’m out of time presently, so I will leave it to you, gentle reader, to ponder.

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The church in the world

November 30th, 2010 — 11:06am

“The relationship that has to exist between the church and the world is in the first place organic, moral, and spiritual in character. Christ – even now – is prophet, priest, and king; and by his Word and Spirit he persuasively impacts the entire world. Because of him there radiates from everyone who believes in him a renewing and sanctifying influence upon the family, society, state, occupation, business, art, science, and so forth. The spiritual life is meant to refashion the natural and moral life in its full depth and scope according to the laws of God. Along this organic path Christian truth and the Christian life are introduced into all the circles of the natural life, so that life in the household and the extended family is restored to honor, the wife (woman) is again viewed as the equal of the husband (man), the sciences and arts are Christianized, the level of the moral life is elevated, society and state are reformed, laws and institutions, morals and customs are made Christian.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 4.437)

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At the right hand

September 15th, 2010 — 10:01am

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in order to enjoy a quiet vacation at the right hand of God, for, like the Father, he always works (John 5:17). He went to heaven to prepare a place for his own there and to fill them here on earth with the fullness that he acquired by his perfect obedience.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 3.474)

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Foolishness of the cross

August 14th, 2010 — 1:46pm

“From a pagan perspective the cross is a sacrifice in the ‘proper’ sense: destruction of the agent of social instability in the interests of social order, and the surrender of the particular to the universal; but the shape of Christ’s life, its constant motion of love, forgiveness, and righteous judgment, seems (from this same perspective) no sacrifice at all, but merely an uneconomizable force of disorder, an inversion of rank and judicious measure. The God who proceeds as he will, who crosses boundaries and respects no order – law, commerce, empire, class, nations, dominions, markets, death – except the order of love (the only infinite order), is a Word that disrupts the narratives that sustain the world as a reserve, a controlled expenditure, and a recuperation of power. It is expedient that such a Word be silenced, lest the nation perish.” (David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 353)

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Not of this world

August 12th, 2010 — 8:50am

The fact that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (ek tou kosmou toutou) does not mean that His kingdom is not in this world, or that His kingdom is not visibly manifested in the world, or that His kingdom will not come and prevail in the world.

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