From The Vault


From a March 2012 post entitled John Piper And The Meaning Of Tornadoes - it seems some things don’t change:

John Piper [has launched] into another round of attempting to explain disasters and why God would do/allow such things. This in turn reminds me of a quote I posted here a while ago:

“After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith.”

Piper, as well as some of critics who offer alternate explanations, is playing the role of the “theological friend” trying to find meaning in this cruel and seemingly random event. At least one observer points out that Piper is trying to offer completely contradictory reasons at the same time.

There’s a great temptation to go into all kinds of abstract discussion about why disasters befall us – especially in the YouTube age where we all have front row seats to every awful event. Is this type of thing profitable? Should we look at a massive impersonal event as divine punishment and/or testing when it chews up hundreds or thousands of lives in an indifferent fashion?

What happened when Jesus was asked questions along these lines? Asked about a blind man and whether he or his parents sinned, we all know Jesus said,

“[T]his happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”

That’s all the “meaning” there is in disaster. If Job says suffering is meaningless, and Ecclesiastes says pretty much everything short of obeying God is meaningless, here Jesus ascribes meaning only in the sense that suffering is an opportunity to do good – i.e.: it has no meaning in the category that most people want it to have meaning (ethical behaviour of victim).

To John Piper’s credit, the end of his tornado post does have a link to a Christian relief organization and suggestion that readers could help out, the problem is that almost everything he wrote before that was superfluous.

Enjoy Yourself

I wanted to tie together a couple threads that I see emerging here and see if they don’t fit into a paradigm that Zizek constructs about enjoyment:

The idea that the late capitalist superego injunction is “enjoy” is something that Zizek expands on elsewhere, suggesting that it further develops into something like “be true to yourself” or “be authentic” or something along those lines. Don’t believe me? How do we sell beer? Better taste? Status? No, it’s part of being true to yourself:

Go to the beach! Protest! Concerts! Break-ups! Badly-drawn graffiti! Riding across a bridge in the back seat looking sad! Make the most of your life some way or another, we don’t know or care how, but please associate our beverage with your authentic discovery of your own true self! (Or perhaps a promotional tool for “Stuff White People Like”)

Energy drinks are in on this too:

Once again, the taste of the beverage, it’s efficacy, it’s social status aren’t really relevant, it’s more with the injunction to go an be true to yourself and jump into space or go surfing or something else that will make you enjoy the experience of your own life.

Alain de Botton has pointed out that we live in a society where the official story is that anyone can grow up to be or do anything (this is false, by the way, but that’s the way it is imagined) and so if we are unhappy or unable to find satisfaction in our post in life our sadness or anger can only properly be directed back on ourselves. (It’s tempting at this juncture to ponder about the rise of pharmaceuticals for every kind of mood disorder, but that would be a digression.)

That someone in this social and economic system would want to give birth to animals or make up new gender-less pronouns suddenly seems not only plausible but almost expected as a sort of reaction to this command to enjoy, be true to one’s self.

Chronicles In The Abolition Of Man

A woman wants to give birth to a shark.

The prophet C.S. Lewis once wrote:

My point may be clearer to some if it is put in a different form. Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers’ is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may `conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because`Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Objective Good, Economics, And Politics

There is at least one fundamental tension between the thinking of some Austrian economics and some libertarian political philosophy, and classical Christian social thinking. Consider this excerpt from von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.

Mises stands within a long tradition of thinkers assuming Hume’s separation of value and fact, a repudiation of the premodern tradition (in which Christianity finds itself) which said there was such a thing as an objective good and evil for human action, and that it could be known by everyone. In participating in the modern tradition, Mises assumed the modernists’ rejection of formal and final causes in the world, and so left humanity without any objective good purpose toward which it was intrinsically directed. What is left in the vacuum is bare will, and perhaps the passions, to which Hume said reason was always a slave. Certainly, there is no objective good that can be rationally discovered by all people of good will.

And, of course, Mises and likeminded Austrians (and libertarians) are not alone amongst the economic and political schools of today in holding this view of ethics and human nature. But they are all clearly in opposition to Christian doctrine at this point.

Calvin as Lawyer and Reformer

Bruce Gordon, in his excellent biography of John Calvin, has this to say about the influence that the Reformer’s legal studies had on his later career:

Calvin’s rigorous legal training left its imprint on every aspect of his life. It sharpened his mind to interpret texts and form precise arguments based on humanist methods; it provided him with a thorough grasp of subjects, ranging from marriage and property to crime. He was taught to frame legislation, write constitutions and offer legal opinions, all of which would loom large in his Genevan career. But the legacy was also intellectual. It was from the law that he would draw some of his most fundamental theological concepts, such as the Holy Spirit as ‘witness,’ the nature of ‘justification,’ God as ‘legislator’ and ‘judge,’ and Christ as the ‘perpetual advocate.’ The philosophical and historical methods drawn from both de l’Estoile and Alciati would become the foundations of his biblical commentaries as he revolutionized the art of interpreting scripture.

Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 22.

Partial Review Of …And We Will Become A Happy Ending


This project has been sitting on my desk for a while, wagging its finger at me, demanding to know when it would be finished. But for quite some time, I have tried my best to ignore it, simply because I didn’t know how to complete it. And really, I’m not sure if I do.

Friends of mine, and formerly co-students at Tyndale University College, wrote a book (now, unfortunately, a while back) about the unique church plant they began in Sarnia, Ontario. I must say at this point that I have never been to this plant in person, though I’ve heard much about it through my friends and other channels. Whether this aids or harms me in my ability to helpfully discuss the book, I will leave those people who have both visited the church and read the book to decide.

One of the reasons I struggled with this review was that, in many ways, the book reflects real people, and not only that, but real people I know. It’s a book about a vision of a growing congregation for its own common life. Therefore, to be critical of the book may in some ways be a critical of real people. Yet, the reader can’t do much else, given the nature of the book.

Composed of various forms of art, quotations from writers from the fields of biblical studies, theology, philosophy, autobiography, and pop culture (if one can call that a field), the book works more like a cascade of thoughts and images than a carefully reasoned manifesto or proclamation.

And no doubt that was intentional. The community of The Story has taken various streams of postmodern philosophy and theology as helpful and correct, and the work they’ve produced here reflects that. We live in an age captivated by images and sounds engineered to produce certain types of feeling; this contrasts with past ages, like those around and after the Reformation, where a congregation might on some occasions stand to listen to a 5 hour sermon, or expect their preacher’s exposition to follow a logically structured outline. There is of course a structure to this book, and the author explains it in the introduction. But beyond that larger structure, the smaller parts are linked, it seems to me, more in the way people in a crowd are, than dominoes in a row. All of this to say, the book often is more aesthetically experienced than logically followed.

My assignment as a co-contributor to this blog was for the sections “Intro”, “Happy Ending”, and “Out of Order”. The latter two titles reflect a clever way of referring to the eschaton, and the eschaton as inaugurated in the visible communities of Christians. Because of the structure of the book, and perhaps also because I lacked the artistic perception to recognize deeper links within the material, my reflections on these chapters will be more thematic than systematic. Three themes jumped out at me as constant undercurrents: compassionate practice, uncertainty, and unconditional divine acceptance. I certainly am willing to receive correction at this point, but it seems to me the kind of vision the story holds out for itself is one where (a) deep questions can remain unanswered in community, where (b) the people of Christ focus significantly on helping to resolve the material problems of others, and where (c) followers of this vision are convinced of the universality of God’s love. The format of the book itself highlights, perhaps, a fourth value of the community: (d) creativity.

I would be misleading if I suggested I agreed with the vision at every point. Treating the last value first: I can’t say I have a problem with the use of artistic expression per se. And there are indeed many fine examples of artistic craft depicted in the book. Returning to the other three values in the order I listed them, I don’t have much problem with trying to establish economic and political justice both in the community of the church and in the wider commonwealth. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to abandon the traditional evangelical calling of seeking for the conversion of individuals so as to save them from the wrath of God. I also recognize the importance of allowing space for people to be uncertain and ask questions; yet, I have seen individuals and communities twist this intention for open space into a cover for changing the direction of a community. “Doubt” can really become a code-word for certainty that the old beliefs of the community are wrong. (This is not to say the Story suffers from this problem; but it is a danger their vision is open to when applied by any community.) I agree that God’s call goes out to all people, but for me this is consistent with a historic Reformed view of God’s sovereignty and providence, and with a non-universalistic eschatology.

(I am conscious as I look at the previous paragraph that I may sound exactly like the kind of thing the Story is trying to get away from. I’m not sure that that’s the case, but I could see an outsider looking at me that way. I’m responding to what is clearly a deeply personal and emotional expression by evaluating whether that experience is correct. Nevertheless, I don’t think I ultimately respect the content of this book if I treat it as merely art for art’s sake. The book really does make claims about reality, and so to treat it as it asks to be treated, I must engage with its ideas as well as its format.)

I don’t have much else to say about the book, except that I believe it’s an excellent living expression of the kind of faith that seems to attract many of the Millennial generation. That’s worth pondering, whether one thinks that means other churches ultimately ought to follow their lead, or not.

van Mastricht Translation

Our friends at The Calvinist International have brought to readers’ attention a new project of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society—the dogmatics of Petrus van Mastricht. Already they are publishing his work on preaching. This is as exciting as their work on Bavinck! I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

Hoselton on Augustine and Ethics

Ryan Hoselton, a ThM student at Southern Seminary, has a post at the Andrew Fuller Center blog about Augustine’s theology of moral reasoning that is worth reading. Here’s a sample:

The worship of God grounds not only justice but also true happiness and wisdom. When the saints inhabit the heavenly city, they experience supreme joy because they no longer serve other things. The “present reality without” the future hope of being righteous in God is “a false happiness, in fact, an utter misery” (XIX.20). The things humans serve in the earthly city will not only tend to evil but also to profound disappointment. True wisdom must direct “its just dealings with others” towards “that ultimate state in which God will be all in all, in the assurance of eternity and the perfection of peace” (XIX.20). If believers want to act morally wise in the present age, they must pattern their conduct on the heavenly city rather than the earthly city.

Read the entire post here.

Baptists as Puritans

The Anglican George Herbert Curteis (1824-1894) said the following about the Baptists in his Bampton Lectures of 1871:

Now all these three principles are closely connected together; and indeed they are all, fundamentally, one. And that one fundamental principle is—Puritanism. Yes; the Baptists are essentially … ‘Puritans;’ and—I think it must be honestly confessed—they, and they only, are really consistent and logically unassailable Puritans. If Puritanism is true, the Baptist system is right. If Puritanism is a grand mistake, and the most singularly unchristian of all the (so to say) ‘orthodox’ misapprehensions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then the Baptist system falls to the ground of itself.

George Herbert Curteis, Dissent, in its Relation to the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1872), cited in Garry Stephen Weaver Jr., “Hercules Collins: Orthodox, Puritan, Baptist” (PhD dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013), 98.

Morehouse on Immigration

Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies explains four bad arguments against immigration.

1) The Economic Argument – “They took our jobs!”

2) The Culture Argument – Protecting a nation’s cultural heritage.

3) The Welfare Argument – Immigrants and the welfare state.

4) The Safety Argument – Immigrants and criminals.

Finally, Morehouse gives this:

5) A Better Argument – Based on property rights.

Read the rest here.