Archive for the ‘Christ’ Category

What is Best In Life?

Permit me a bit of amateur psychology. I think we in the Western world would have to try very hard to miss that a lot of us spend time seeking a handful of things. We pursue goods that are easy to reach. Food and alcohol, sex, contest, and music are the most obvious examples.

Food and alcohol do their work immediately, with the taste, and then with the feelings of satiety and/or relaxation.

Assuming one is not starving or dying of thirst, it is fairly common knowledge that the strongest of physical passions is the sexual. Basically everyone thinks sex is good. Just the thought of it can cause people to obsess, and even the lacking of it can satisfy in other ways (e.g., the feelings of having a “crush” can themselves be pleasant). We seek and give sex, broadly considered, in various ways. A good number of regular Western pastimes involve indulging in this, if not always with the intent of actually having sexual intercourse, then at least with the intent of enjoying the sensations that imagination brings. Romance movies generate “crush” feelings; pornography more directly aims at sexual titillation. Advertisements often play on one or both pleasures. The lyrics of much music uses these tropes. The general habits of the clubbing world are obviously all circling around this particular passion.

People also enjoy defeating threats. The hope of victory, the risk of failure, and the adrenaline rush that drives us to seek the first in the face of the second. The two most obvious instruments for creating this sensation are sports events and action films.

Then there’s the good of music. I’ve quoted Richard Hooker before on this blog on the power of music, but here he is again:

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.

Music is so beloved because it has the power to alter our moods in a very direct way. Though we may lack a certain good in reality, music can still make a chimera dance on our mind’s stage.  Pop music is certainly not an exception here. As Roger Scruton notes:

This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop—from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga—is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. … The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. … And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended.

This aspect of pop music might be one of its main attractions: in its common forms, it overwhelms with the passions. It forces people to feel. Of course, a great deal of it aims at producing one or both of the previously mentioned passions: sexual euphoria or something like what the Greeks would have called thumos.

These goods are the easiest to reach, and so become the highest end for many. As Wittgenstein said in another context, people are captured by an image, a picture of something within their grasp, and often lose desire for any others beyond their immediate reach. But there are other kinds of goods, ones that often have more of a slow burn than a quick sizzle. Yet these kinds of goods can provide a more deep and lasting enjoyment of life than the ones above.

Imagine accomplishing a difficult objective. You decide to do something that seems like a good idea,  you eventually face opposition from nature or other people, you persevere and reach the goal. How do you feel? Bored? Of course not. The experience is often more pleasant than it would have been had there been no resistance at all. The victory through struggle gives knowledge of self as adequate to overcome difficulties, and to know this is to know something good. Further, you will have the good you originally sought.

Another good difficult to reach, but which provides much deeper and lasting satisfaction, is friendship. Knowing and loving another human being in a significant way. Human beings are the height of creation. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, creativity, beauty, humour, quirkiness, majesty, and piety, both in combination and separately, when deeply appreciated, can bring much joy to the people who experience them. But these are things that can only be discovered with time and effort; one must decide to sacrifice time and comfort and, instead of seeking directly pleasurable pursuits, to endure boredom, awkward moments, moral flaws and injuries, weaknesses and insecurities, and any number of other things that make people unattractive. Yet when another person is deeply known and loved, the happiness is almost incomparable.

Then there are intellectual goods. The human capacity to understand reality abstractly, as a coherent whole, to ask and answer the question “why?”, is arguably what distinguishes us most from the kingdom of nature. And curious people fulfill this potential when they encounter an intriguing but difficult question, and then pursue the answer with determination. When they reach their destination, a deeper understanding of the “why?” produces a sensation that artists and poets have long compared to elemental forces of nature: fire, light, electricity, and even a kind of intoxication. To seek and to find wisdom is one of the most exquisite pleasures human beings know.

But the highest good is not any of these things in themselves. It is nothing other than God. The most pleasurable good that human beings can pursue is understanding of the Creator, the ultimate answer to “why?”, and friendship with this being, the one who contains every good quality in its most perfect form. But of all pleasures, this is the hardest one to reach, and it cannot initially be reached through the kind of effort to accomplish that I mentioned above. Indeed, Jesus taught that it was impossible unless God gave us a taste for it first: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” God rescues the soul by giving an experience of God’s goodness: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Once this gift has been given, effort to see it more clearly is also given, and when increased clarity is achieved, the root of joy sinks ever deeper. But that gift is laid on a foundation of the first one; to want to pursue God further one must first have seen why he is indeed worth pursuing. The darkened character of our intellects will prevent us from seeing this until God opens our eyes to do so. When he does, we will forever want to see things in the aura of his light.

Cut-Throat Christ

There’s a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk,
There’s a Christ for a pickpocket and a drunk,
There’s a Christ for every sinner, but there’s one thing there ain’t,
There ain’t no Christ for any cut-price saint.

James Fenton, Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011 (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).

Craig Keener on Miracles

Dr. Craig Keener is unarguably one of the world’s top scholars on the topic of miracles, and he recently delivered a lecture series on the subject that is well worth hearing if you want to get a fraction of his argument from his massive Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This will be of interest to cessationists, materialists, and those who are neither.

HT: Triablogue

The Minor Polytheism

Mumford & Sons, Doug Phillips, and Martin Luther all share some things in common. But beyond the superficial banalities, I want to note two in particular. Firstly, they are all examples of popular Christians. Perhaps not popular with everybody (who is?), but at least Christians who are known to be Christian and have a “following” of some kind (in the case of Mumford & Sons, “fans” would probably be better, though that’s a short form for “fanatics”).

Yet they also have something else in common. They have very public failings. Mumford & Sons was recently ejected from a burlesque establishment. Not only were they present, but they did something bad enough to get kicked out. Doug Phillips has just confessed to having a long term non-physical but “inappropriately emotional and affectionate” relationship with a woman who was not his wife. (It’s worth noting that his apology seems sincere.) Finally, Martin Luther wrote copious amounts of venomous anti-Semitic literature.

Now, as spectators, we could easily sit back at this point and condemn them from a vantage point of moral superiority. And, let’s be honest, it’s probably likely many of us would be morally superior to these individuals in specific ways. But that would miss the deeper lesson here.

Perhaps not ironically, it was Martin Luther who memorably taught us this lesson in recent history. One way of understanding his singular insight is as a recognition that the “inner” and “outer” of the human world can fail to match up. The believing poor are saved, while the unbelieving and proud rich and powerful are damned. The believer is united to Christ by faith in his heart, and yet continues to sin in his body. Furthermore, he recognized the imperfectability of human beings in the time before the consummation of the kingdom.

Or, in other words, we can never expect things to be just as they seem, and we can expect even the people on the highest pedestals to have real flaws. We should not identify the kingdom of God with any visible institution, since God does not work so infallibly through any such thing as to be identifiable with it. And this means we ought to kill in ourselves what some Muslims call the “minor polytheism”: the worship of man. All people, even Christians, are tempted to this sin, since human beings are often glorious in many ways. But when we fail to remember that these are just created beings, and that their glory derives from an uncreated Glory, we can begin to put our hope in those creatures. And this step will always be a catastrophic one to take, for human beings will always let us down.

What Is The Church’s Mission?


This question is being discussed continually these days, and not without reason. We are living in a time of great upheaval, both politically and ecclesially, and it is common for people in such times to step back and ask themselves, what exactly should we be doing here?

When it comes to Christians, at least as represented in the blogosphere, we have begun to ask ourselves the question found in the title to this post more frequently and fervently. And we have also begun to articulate very different answers.

You have the answer of neo-Anabaptists, who say that the church is called to form counter-cultural communities, living out a vision of pacifistic social justice. You have the answer of Westminster West, suggesting the church’s role is simply to preach Law and Gospel, and administer the sacraments, and that Christian faith has nothing to contribute to broader pursuits in society. And you have the answer of Radical Orthodoxy and other groups which suggest the institutional church’s role is to direct all of society.

What might the political theology and ecclesiology of the magisterial Reformers say to this question? I think their first response would be to divide the question, or ask a counter-query: What is the church you are talking about?

When we ask “what is the church’s mission?” are we referring to the institutional church, constituted as a visible fellowship surrounding the sacraments and the elders of the church? Or are we referring to the corpus christianorum, Kuyper’s “organic church”, the sum total of all believers as they exist in the world?

It seems to me that, if we are speaking about the institutional church, the Westminster West approach might be best on a general level. That is, it seems the institutional church’s mission should be to do what it is best equipped to do: preach, teach, baptize, celebrate the eucharist, and give general guidance to parishioners (including, if necessary, discipline of sorts, as well as general direction in how to live as a Christian in the world). If we are speaking about the organic church, then it seems that the best answer is Kuyper’s approach: each Christian should seek to do their work to the glory of the triune God revealed in Christ, and for the common good. They should seek, by the grace of God, to reorder their little corner of the fallen world, so that it reflects God’s original creative intentions, for it is this reordering that is God’s redemptive intention. Grace, after all, is meant to perfect nature. Arguably, too, the anabaptists and the Radical Orthodox preserve this point: both are concerned to stress that the Christian live his whole life in submission to Jesus as Lord, and to see all of reality in the light of the triune God’s creative love. This leads quite directly into a Kuyperian approach, if these views are shorn of their political and theological errors.

All of this is another way of saying: the answer to our major question should be inflected along the lines of vocation. Those given to spend most of their time ordering visible fellowships (i.e., pastors), should spend their time doing things that only pastors can do: expositing the scriptures, shepherding parishioners according to general scriptural principles and prudence, leading public worship.  Those who have been called to spend most of their time outside the institutional church should do what they are called to.

Conflating these two leads to crusader churches, Amish ghettoes, and lots of other mistakes. Preserving the distinction, on the other hand, gives us an institutional church devoted to excellence in being what it is, and Christian men and women doing their work in the world to the glory of Christ and for the good of their neighbours.

There is one major objection I can see to this perspective: the office of deacons. In this office we seem to have an institution in the visible church which is devoted to things outside the realm of preaching and sacramental activity. But I think it would be at least possible to argue that the office of deacon was created in the early church for strictly prudential reasons. That is, while human society in general, and the magistrate as representative of that society in particular, have a moral obligation to help the poor, unsurprisingly in many cases they do not. Because the corpus christianorum‘s mission is to restore nature, and this is inclusive of restoring the poor to a place within human society, the earliest members of that corpus determined a wise way to deal with this problem (especially the problem as it manifested within the corpus) was to create members of visible fellowships that would have a dedicated responsibility to address this situation. It might be at least arguable that in a society where these conditions were not present, the office would not need to be present. That is, if the corpus christianorum (or even just the society, or the state) were taking care of the poor sufficiently, the visible assemblies of the church would not need to.

Another objection to the above position might be: does this imply clergy can never speak of specific political or cultural issues? I think the answer is that they may, but then again, it would be a matter of prudence as to when these things should be done. For clergymen who are not trained on the specific issues that they might wish to speak on, their course of action should be restraint: only speak as far as you are trained to do so. When it comes to moral instruction, this might mean sticking to more general principles of morality and prudence presented in scripture and the created order, and leaving more particular judgments to people whose calling it is to determine such things.

Meditation on Beauty

Peter Leithart, at First Things, offers us a thoughtful meditation on beauty and the cross for this Good Friday. I suggest reading it. Here’s a quote:

Perhaps the cross so subverts beauty that it leaves us all suspicious modernists and expressionists who regard beauty as a superficial source of cheap pleasure. Perhaps the cross encourages a prophetic aesthetic where art shocks us from our complacency and complicity in the dehumanizing processes of modern civilization. Perhaps Francis Bacon, with his loud paintings of meat, is the paradigmatic painter after Calvary. In my judgment, this particular modernist path is closed for Christian aesthetics. John does not say that the cross evacuates the world of glory and fills it with ugliness. He says that the cross reveals a previously unimagined depth of glory.

The Christ Of “Commitment”

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante have an excellent essay placing the Reformed tradition’s teaching on Christology in the context of historical and contemporary debates, and along the way make some (in my opinion) insightful comments about the larger cultural forces at work in the contemporary issues especially. For example:

William Bartley, in his Retreat to Commitment, acutely analyzed the retreat from objective truth claims by mainstream Protestant theologians in the twentieth century, and their replacement by metaphorical “meaningfulness” and sincere “commitment.”14 This wasn’t simply an openly “liberal” move; a number of well-intentioned neo-orthodox went down this road too. By accepting a Kantian division between the objective, the world said to be only really knowable by scientism, and the subjective, the world of unverifiable values, these theologians would come to speak by preference of the “narrative” of the “faith community,” rather than the objective history of the acts of God and His elect people, and objective order of creation. This move makes the data of revelation “meaningful” (as opposed to objectively true)15 symbols of the faith community’s experience of the world. Modern academic theology mostly presumes this; hence, the constant attempts to make classical doctrine “relevant” or “meaningful” in every way other than the fundamental way in which it really is relevant. Notable examples are “social Trinitarianism” and certain modern neo-Patristic Christologies,16 which are used, in the place of reason, to symbolically solve social problems or epistemological anxieties, matters which properly belong to politics and philosophy, but which the new theologians think can only be resolved through new speculative syntheses.

Some Reformed theologians have even been a little swept up in this, dismissing the sacred rationality of their predecessors as “Enlightenment rationalism,” a move which is really Bulverism on the one hand, and old-fashioned (and postmodern!) irrationalism on the other, and using undefined terms from the new Christologies in equivocal or mystifying ways, which are privileged by an appeal to mystery or their supposed transcendence of logic and rhetoric when challenged, but then do in fact get used to mean and do some very unmysterious and specific things. And too often, we find in these supposed correctives no close engagement with the classic Reformed tradition, the tradition purportedly in need of being urgently“reformed” in the direction of neo-patristic systems.

They also place the modern in the context of ancient debates:

16. One wonders whether the liberal beginnings of some of the neo-patristic Lutheran theologians haven’t played a role in inclining them toward a metaphysical rather than Biblical-historical Christology, and toward the allegorizing exegesis of the Alexandrians, as opposed to the more rigorous Antiochene tradition, which reaches full flower in the historical-grammatical method of the Reformers. Much of this theologizing is an antiquarian and theosophically inclined imaginary supplement to scientism, justifying itself over against scientism as legitimate subjectivity- irreducible meaning, faith-knowledge looking to trump science because, as is certainly true, natural science isn’t enough. But the problem is in accepting the postmodernist retreat from objectivity, and from history, in the first place. The neo-patristic Christologies are not really historically patristic; the “neo” really makes a difference. What they do have in common with certain Alexandrian-minded ancients is the aversion to history; but they do not actually share the thought-world of those people, since the goal of the moderns is to get human life back. They are inevitably Antiochene, so to speak, in that way; the lost object they’re after is creation. But since they have surrendered it to scientism, all they can get back is the “discarded image,” but without the ancient supposition that the image corresponds to an order of things, and thus, the “discarded image” is retrieved unnaturally detached from an order of things (which perhaps accounts for the appeal of “theological aesthetics,” a la von Balthasar)And metaphysical Christology, and its corollary versions of ecclesiology, are put to work in the service of that project, as the palette of tropes with which the picture will be painted. Nonfalsifiable, as data of “faith”, they thus make for a privileged imaginal supplement to the world of scientism and modernity, a supplement which does not challenge scientism nor redefines modernity. Nonfalfisiable and hypermeaningful- “infallible but not inerrant,” one might even say. In any case, the flight from history is the retreat to commitment, to subjectivism.

On The Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

One Reformational doctrine that has come under fire in recent years is the concept of the invisible church. There have been more criticisms than I could summarize briefly here, but one of the main arguments has come from Anabaptists, who contend that the doctrine undermines the distinct Christian identity (and the discipleship that goes along with it) of the church. If the real church is visible only to God, so the criticism goes, then the visible church no longer can provide a witness to a watching world.

Much could be written by way of response, but I have three thoughts for now.

(A) The doctrine of the invisible church is the only way one can preserve three important biblical facts: (1) being a part of the body of Christ seems to imply a state of heart that is positive towards God; (2) being a part of the body of Christ seems to imply performing visible practices (like Communion and Baptism, along with peacemaking, etc.); (3) only God can see the heart, and he does not judge by human standards, which can mistake participating in visible practices for possessing a humble and obedient heart toward God. That is, it is a reality of this life that people can go through the motions of (2) without the truth of (1) applying to them. This alone implies the validity of the invisible/visible church distinction.

(B) Affirming the distinction has some important benefits. On the ecclesiological side, it allows one to recognize that the church is a mixed community (see the parable of the wheat and tares), and thus requires one not to become perfectionistic with communal discipline, attempting to read hearts instead of just observed actions. It also takes any surprise out of the existence of apparently hypocritical Christians. On the political side, it can prevent justification for holy war and theocracy. Identifying the visible church with the invisible church has the danger of absorbing the authority of Christ over kings into the visible church itself, so that the church becomes an alternative polis bent on world conquest. The invisible/visible distinction also can remove a support in the overall case for pacifism (which, of course, is not seen as a benefit, but as a drawback, by Anabaptists). That is, if the visible church is not identical with the polis that is the kingdom of Christ, then all of its practices need not be taken as exemplary in every sense for the cities of the world. Rather, this perspective (affirming the distinction) recognizes that the visible church is something like a visible manifestation of an invisible city with an invisible king, and that in some respects it is not a city and not like a city. Instead, it is complementary with some aspect of the cities of the world, rather than being in intrinsic conflict with them. More specifically, its practices of peacemaking do not contradict role of judgment that cities have.

(C) Having said all this, I also want to argue that the distinction does not in fact undercut motive for discipleship. That is, the doctrine teaches that what is most essential is a humble and contrite heart toward God, and that God is not pleased with outward obedience absent inward love. It should be clear how this provides motivation for discipleship. And if it provides this motive, then participation in the visible community follows obviously: for being a lover of God implies doing what he wants, and in Christ he has revealed to us that that includes doing certain visible practices.

I think, sadly, the distinction is being rejected for facile or even misleading reasons, and that much will be lost if it is truly forgotten. Hopefully some of these thoughts might provide some cause to reconsider.

Oliver O’Donovan On The Antichrist

Though, sadly, he offers no insight on when Nicolai Carpathia will appear, O’Donovan offers some otherwise helpful thoughts on the nature and function of the Antichrist. From The Desire of the Nations:

Mission is not merely an urge to expand the scope and sway of the church’s influence. It is to be at the disposal of the Holy Spirit in making Christ’s victory known. It requires, therefore, a discernment of the working of the Spirit and of the Antichrist. These two discernments must accompany each other: to trace the outline of Christ’s dawning reign on earth requires that one trace the false pretensions too. One reason that the idealist language about the Kingdom of God in the late nineteenth century failed to avoid the trap of civilisational legitimation was that it never identified the false horizon, and could grasp social evil only as a regression from civilisation into barbarism. Recognition of the Antichrist is a recurrent theme in the doctrine of the Two. Gelasius observed it in the pretensions of imperial authority; Gregory VII in the involvement of kings in episcopal appointments; Wyclif and his successors paradoxically in the structure of papal administration which Gregory’s successors created. Yet there is a single theme which connects the varied warnings of Antichrist in different ages: the convergence in one subject of claims to earthly poltiical rule and heavenly soteriological mediation. John of Patmos found it present not in the Roman empire as such but quite specifically in the imperial cult. It was therefore not inappopriate to discern Antichrist even in the papacy, while it claimed universal juridical competence over political societies and wielded it in the name of mankind’s salvation. The rejection of Antichrist is the rejection of a unified political and theological authority other than that which is vested in Christ’s own person. That is to say, it is implied in the basic structure of the Two itself. (pp. 214-215)

We are tempted to think, perhaps, that the concept of Antichrist, capable of such shifting and contrasting applications from age to age, is useless for serious theological analysis; but it is not so. There is no one Antichrist; but in any period of history Antichrist may take shape as one thing, challenging the claims of God’s Kingdom with its own. Every candidate nominated for the role of Antichrist has passed away. That does not itself invalidate any attempt to identify it; for that identification is part of an age’s secret knowledge about itself, its interpretation of its own ‘today’ from the point of view of its today. Of course, those who never want to be out of date will never interpret their today; they will wait until they can read about it in the newspapers. But those whose business lies with practical reason cannot take their place among what P. T. Forsyth called ‘bystanders of history’. When believers find themselves confronted with an order that, implicitly or explicitly, offers itself as the sufficient and necessary condition of human welfare, they will recognise the beast. When a political structure makes this claim, we call it ‘totalitarian’. (pp. 273-274)

No Faith Without Struggle

A friend once said to me that modern evangelicalism basically consists of people intoning to themselves that “Jesus is my hamster“. It seems that Bavinck knew better; he knew the deep reality of struggle and doubt in the Christian life:

A Christian believes, not because everything in life reveals the love of God, but rather despite everything that raises doubt. In Scripture too there is much that raises doubt. All believers know from experience that this is true. Those who engage in biblical criticism frequently talk as if the simple church people know nothing about the objections that are advanced against Scripture and are insensitive to the difficult of continuing to believe in Scripture. But that is a false picture. Certainly, simple Christians do not know all the obstacles that science raises to belief in Scripture. But they do to a greater or lesser degree know the hard struggle fought both in head and heart against Scripture. There is not a single Christian who has not in his or her own way learned to know the antithesis between the “wisdom of the world” and “the foolishness of God.” It is one and the same battle, an ever-continuing battle, which has to be waged by all Christians, learned or unlearned, to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Here on earth no one ever rises above that battle. Throughout the whole domain of faith, there remain “crosses” (cruces) that have to be overcome. There is no faith without struggle. To believe is to struggle, to struggle against the appearance of things. As long as people still believe in anything, their belief is challenged from all directions. No modern believer is spared from this either. Concessions weaken believers but do not liberate them. Thus for those who in childlike faith subject themselves to Scripture, there still remain more than enough objections. These need not be disguised. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:441-442)

A recent study suggests that, after all, it is people who admit to this reality and work their way through it that remain Christian; conversely, then, people who ignore it presumably do not survive. Go figure.