Holy and Just and Good

31 January 2023

An acquaintance in one of the theology groups I hang out in asked what a Christian’s view of the Law should be. I put a little time into a response, and it seems worth sharing here:

The Law is holy and just and good, just like the man said. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing that, and that’s a good occasion to pray for God to open my eyes, that I might see wondrous things in His Law.

The Law was the rule of communal life for Israel, and as a Gentile it compels me to come and marvel: Who has such wise laws as these? It’s an inspiration. As a voter with a voice in public policy in my Gentile nation, I can’t simply seek to bring Israel’s law over wholesale, but if I’m at the city council meeting or the voting booth asking WWJD?, how dumb would it be to ignore the one time God explicitly set up a civil law code?

The Law is principally for the sinner, not the righteous, but it’s also Scripture, and all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. The Law can sanctify in the sense that it set Israel as a nation apart from her neighbors (and that’s not nothing), but it can never sanctify in the sense of making me more like Christ. However, to the extent that I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, I will fulfill the Law truly, because Jesus leads me to love God and my neighbor, and in so doing, I cannot help but fulfill the Law.

Trying to use the Law in check-box fashion to gain God’s favor — either for admission to heaven or to gain his approval in this life — sets the Law against faith and against the Spirit, but faith is not against the Law. It’s faith that moves Paul to call the Law holy and just and good, faith that moves the Psalmist to meditate profitably on the Law, faith that allows me to participate in Christ, who fulfilled the Law for me and — through love of God and neighbor — fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law in me.

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She Didn’t Eat the Bark

22 December 2022

People who have command of an ideology wield a powerful tool for directing – if not possessing – the minds of other people. When the ideology is a theological system, the tool has usually been honed over generations, and whatever anomalous data the Bible presents has already been accounted for. The explanation may not be particularly compelling – especially to those not ideologically possessed by that particular theological system – but whatever the passage or objection, they’ll have an explanation already worked out, and it will work.*

*work = keep their adherents from dwelling on the problem passage

Experience, however, is another matter. It is one thing to ignore a verse that doesn’t quite make sense to you anyway. It is another thing entirely to ignore getting fired, being unable to conceive a child, losing a loved one. Major crises in life compel our attention: “God shouts in our pains” as C. S. Lewis said. 

For a leader who depends on his command of theology to order his world and his followers, reality is threatening, intrusive. A demand to base your theology on Scripture rather than experience is a way to throw pesky experiences out of court before they can be properly accounted for. 

That’s ridiculous on the face of it, since every experience you’ve ever had happens in God’s world under God’s control. The world and the Word do not contradict, and it is necessary to rightly interpret them both. But rather than exert the effort to properly interpret both, some people would rather insulate their poor interpretation of Scripture from falsification by disallowing God’s acts in the world as evidence. Jesus told people to believe the works, but some teachers would tell you otherwise. One wonders what they’re afraid of….

That’s bad, when a leader is running that game on you. But the really bad news is that a lot of us don’t need some nefarious cult leader to run that game on us; we’re busy doing it to ourselves. Having invested in learning a theological system that was supposed to make the world make sense, we refuse to consider anything that might upset the apple-cart and force us to revise our sense-making scheme, whether it’s a problem passage in Scripture or a problem event in life that falsifies our theology.

What should we do? Let’s go back to the Garden.

Eve looked at the forbidden fruit, and saw that it was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise. Three parts to her thought process. How did she know it was good for food? She’d never had fruit from that tree before. This is induction from experience, and if she’d been looking at any other fruit, she’d have been right. It was pleasant to the eyes – straightforward sense experience. Desirable to make one wise? That one she got straight from the serpent. 

We all know the story – on the basis of those three factors, she was deceived and she ate. What did she miss? The divine revelation. God had already told her that this particular fruit would kill her. The threat was imperceptible to her senses, which should have caused her to thank God for the warning. Instead, she was deceived and forgot the warning. 

Every other time she’d made that inductive judgment about a piece of fruit, she’d been right. And with any other tree in the Garden, she’d still have been right. But this tree was deadly, and because God is good, He’d warned her about it. 

The lesson here is not that we can’t trust our senses and reason. God made us for the world and the world for us; it is comprehensible to us. We can trust our senses and our reason, but we can’t trust them alone to get us to the truth. We also have to receive what God has told us. If we ignore divine revelation and try to go it alone based on sense data and reason – the Eve mistake – our grasp of the world will be fatally flawed.

It will be equally flawed if we expect to navigate the world with God’s word alone apart from the senses He gave us. Eve ate the fruit of the trees, not the bark.


“And such were some of you”

29 November 2022

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

There are two ways to abuse “…and such were some of you, but you were washed….”
1. think it’s an instant, automatic transformation
2. think that it doesn’t really happen

Both of these are mistakes. I’ve known no shortage of addicts who want to believe that #1 is their reality. God can really do that, and sometimes, He does. More often, He shows you the possibility of success, and then lets you walk it out the hard way. He doesn’t just want you off yoru substance of choice; He wants to make the non-addictive life a part of your character. He wants to teach you how to feel your feelings rather than numb them — and cast them on Him when they’re too much. Whatever the hungry darkness that waits to consume you, He wants you to know that He can walk you through it. Not theoretically; He wants you to know it in your bones. He wants to walk through it with you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, He is making you fit for the Kingdom of God, and He doesn’t care what it costs Him, or what it costs you.

The opposite error is to think that being a “Christian drunk” or a “Christian kelptomaniac” or a “Christian lesbian” is just who you are as a person, that that’s that. No, I have the worst–and best–possible news for you: you were washed. These things about you–nobody is saying they weren’t really true. But that was then; you were washed. There is nothing inevitable about your sins, not anymore.

What are we to do with this? Tell the truth, of course. If you fit the definition of a drunk, then there’s nothing wrong with copping to it, as long as you do it in a spirit of confession. “Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” may be true today, and you shouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth if it is. But when the Kingdom of God has fully come, it won’t be true anymore. Which is to say, that’s not who you are. Your identity is something else; “alcoholic” is a barnacle clinging to you. You will enter into the Kingdom; the barnacle will be scraped off in due time. You should be looking forward to it, not investing your identity in the barnacle.

If you pray “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it, then you need to admit the possibility that the barnacle could be scraped off sooner than later.

So call your sins out for what they are and really confess them. Nothing wrong with that. And then, having laid your sinful desires at the foot of the cross, don’t pick them back up. Don’t identify with them, because God says you were that, but you were cleansed from it. Confession isn’t the whole process; the next step is accepting the identity God has given you.


Functional Mysticism

19 November 2022

Here’s a Merriam Webster definition of mystical: “involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” Let’s start with that.

Does the Bible describe direct subjective communion with God? Yes, and this is not remotely controversial. Abraham met God and talked with Him. Moses conversed with God as a man speaks to his friend. Gideon argued with God; Jacob physically fought Him. Isaiah saw a vision that nobody else saw; God told John to look for the Spirit descending like a dove; Saul of Tarsus heard a voice where everyone else heard thunder.

What about today? Today, the Christian faith teaches that you can be a partaker in the divine nature. The Christian faith teaches that if you belong to Jesus, you have been born again spiritually, and are presently indwelt by God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith teaches that the indwelling Spirit comforts and teaches you (among other things). If these subjective experiences are actually happening in your life, then you have a direct, relational experience of God Himself. 

You might not like the word mystical to describe it, but…re-read that definition. If you have a real relationship with God, there it is. 

If those things are not happening in your life…well, then you’re not a practicing Christian. I’m not saying you’re not going to heaven; how would I know? You and Jesus can work that one out. But if you do not have an actual, real-life experience of the realities the New Testament promises to God’s people, if those things aren’t actually happening in your life, then you do not have a Christian spirituality.

At best, you’re an ideologue whose drug of choice happens to be theology. Maybe your doctrinal paperwork is all in order, and that’s great as far as it goes. As far as doctrinal paperwork goes, Jesus was a Pharisee (and so was Paul) so you see how far that gets you. 

Gentle Reader, I am confident of better things where you’re concerned — there’s lots of folks whose doctrinal paperwork ain’t caught up to what they actually do in real life. But that’s a problem, because that gap between your actual walk with God and the things you’re willing to affirm causes you to criticize people who are willing, not just to live, but to tell the truth. You need to update what you’re willing to say, so that it matches what you know in practice.

If you don’t, then you will push people into the arms of the enemy. When kids that grew up in the church go looking for a functioning spirituality at the coven down the street because all they ever saw at church was talk and moralizing, that’s on us. And it’s high time we quit talking like we don’t have the real thing, because we actually do.


Apostles: Just the Twelve?

1 November 2022

Some folks have an idea that apostleship died out in the first century; that it was just the Twelve, and no more. This is a theologically convenient (for some) stance that has no basis in exegetical reality. The attempt to limit apostleship to the Twelve by appealing to Acts 1:21-22 fails because of Acts 14:4,14, Gal. 1:19, 2 Cor 8:23, and (arguably) Rom. 16:17. The mere existence of Barnabas, James the brother of Jesus, and especially Titus as apostles is enough to blow the whole thing wide open: it’s plainly more than just the Twelve. Once we know that, we don’t have to resort to tortured explanations of passages like 1 Cor. 9:2 and Rev. 2:2, and those passages begin to make a whole lot more sense.

The broader usage gives us a hint at what apostleship looks like beyond the Twelve, and Paul gives us another one in Rom. 15:23. Paul says there’s no longer room for him to minister where he is. What is it that there is no longer room for? Certainly there are plenty of unbelievers to evangelize and plenty of believers to disciple. He’s an apostle, which is to say a spiritual arsonist. He gets the fire started; once it grows to a certain point, he hands it off to others to feed, and he moves on to start another one.

We still need those people today; they’re the ones that start new works of all kinds. Might as well give them the right name, and acknowledge their spiritual gift for what it is.


Far Better, and Far Simpler

11 October 2022

As simply as I can say it, the new birth is irreducibly relational; you are born again when you trust Jesus Christ to save you. There is no consistent reading even of John’s gospel, let alone the whole New Testament, that successfully presents a single proposition as the content of saving faith. The thing can be described in propositions to an extent, but it’s not actually a matter of subscribing to propositions. Propositions didn’t die for your sins; Jesus did.

Many people balk. “How does one have assurance?” they want to know. “What must I believe, to be sure that I am saved?”

Ah, my friend, if you’re thinking in terms of “what I believe,” you’re missing the point: it’s not “what,” but Who! It isn’t about “correct belief” or “fulfill[ing] the ‘belief’ condition.” The news is far better, and far simpler, than that.

This Jesus that we meet in (say) the pages of John’s gospel — He wants to save you, sacrificed everything to save you, and He means to see it done. You need not fret about fulfilling conditions or fussing about with propositions any more than you need fret about your insufficient moral merits. Rest assured, you are inadequate! Whether we’re talking about your morals or your theology, you are inadequate! The whole point is that Jesus met the conditions for you, and He will save you. He’s got you; your assurance comes from knowing that it’s Him that’s got you.

Theologically speaking, that’s sufficient. Practically, there’s another avenue as well. Eternal life just is knowing God (Jn. 17:3) and it’s not something you hope to get eventually, it’s something you have now (Jn. 5:24). Assurance naturally grows in the living of it. I have the paperwork to prove that Kimberly married me, but where do I get my day-by-day comfort and assurance that our relationship is what I think it is? Not from looking at the paperwork – what kind of relationship would that be? I am assured that I know Kimberly in the day-to-day living with her, and so it is here, because like a good marriage, eternal life is not having your papers in order; it is knowing a Person.


Not Theological Safecracking

4 October 2022

In the past decade and a half in one particularly small pond, a whole lot of folks have spilled a whole lot of ink on the question of what, exactly, one has to believe in order to have everlasting life. Some folks favor a focus on the promise of eternal life itself; others prefer to focus on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; there’s debate about whether someone has to understand the deity of Christ; whether repentance is required (and what exactly repentance would mean in that context), and so on. Stacks of arguments have been exchanged, and–more’s the pity–not a few anathemas.

But the presumption of the whole debate is that there’s a magical Stack ‘O Propositions somewhere in the platonic aether: believe all the propositions, and “Achievement Unlocked!” A trumpet sounds in heaven, angels dance, and you’re saved; miss one, and you’re not there yet. The whole debate is just about what’s in that stack.

The whole debate is fundamentally wrongheaded. Propositions are necessary, but they’re not stained glass; they’re plate glass. You’re not meant to look at them, but through them, at Jesus. The evangelistic passages in Scripture are a series of windows in the same wall, with Jesus standing outside on the lawn waiting for you to look and live. Does it matter which window you look through? Start anywhere; look through them all eventually. Certainly they’re all profitable — we should be interested in looking at our Savior from every angle we can reach.

He, not the propositions, is the object of your faith. However defective you may be, however defective your theology may be, if He is the one you’re trusting, you will be saved. Conversely, however flawless your propositions, if in the end you’re trusting your theological acumen for assembling the right set, you are failing to grasp the heart of the gospel. Eternal life is knowing a person, not theological safecracking.

Now, to some people, “knowing a person” sounds hopelessly vague and subjective. And you know what? It is subjective! Knowing a person can’t be purely objective; there’s no way to take the personal element out of personal knowledge. But it isn’t vague.

When you know a person, you know that particular person. When you know Jesus, it’s Jesus that you know: a particular person, the one that John baptized and that turned water to wine and that died for your sins and rose from the grave and ascended to the Father’s right hand where He intercedes for you — that one, not not Frank or Harry or Susan or Hay-zoos the taco truck guy.

“Ah,” says the proposition-meister, “but all those are propositions about Jesus.”

Well, let me be the first to say duh. Again, propositions are windows. You look at Jesus. He’s the one you’re knowing. Peter got some of those propositions wrong, once upon a time. Argued with Jesus about whether He was going to die. He still knew Jesus, didn’t he?

So why does this concept of knowing a person feel so hopelessly vague to some people? I’d suggest it’s because they have a prior commitment to a philosophical construct wherein faith is defined as persuasion of a proposition, and can’t be conceived of in any other way. From that vantage point, talking about faith in a person is at best shorthand for an implicit proposition, and at worst hopelessly vague.

There’s two problems with that view. The first is that the Bible regularly talks about faith in a person. We can’t be critical of how God actually says things. The second problem is that there’s not necessarily a good reason to concede that philosophical construct.

Moreover, if we follow the proposition-hunting to its logical conclusion, it necessarily leads down a particular road. If saving faith is nothing but faith in a saving proposition, then what’s the “saving proposition”? That question can only take us to one of two places. Either we conclude with Gordon Clark that there appear to be multiple saving propositions, any one of which will suffice (an option Clark seems to have found embarrassing), or we end up in a bitter fight over various options that can’t be ruled out. The latter option has been rather thoroughly explored over the past decade and a half, and I think we can safely say it sucks. If you end up down a road where there’s only two forks, and both of them are wrong, then you took a wrong turn a ways back, didn’t ya?

The wrong turn was taking faith as merely propositional. Faith is irreducibly personal; saving faith is trusting the right Person to save you. “Believe in Jesus” is the precise statement; the various “believe that” statements are looking at the same Person through different windows.


Here We Are, Debating It

20 September 2022

We looked last week at the practical contribution academic theology frequently doesn’t make to the church. This week, we’ll take a look at a thing that all too often happens instead.

Here’s a game people run. It’s not a game academics run, so much as a game that other movers and shakers run using academics. But a healthy level of skepticism for academics is necessary if you’re going to stay immune to this one.

It goes like this: select the sin of your choice and induce some academics to ‘re-examine’ the tradition on the point, to ‘establish dialog’ around ‘these sensitive subjects,’ and so on. You might be able to do this on the cheap if you pick the right people, but spreading some money around really helps: fund some conferences and a few postgraduate fellowships, and you’ll find no shortage of academics excited to dive in. That research and academic writing produces a smattering of of journal articles and a few books arguing that, you know, perhaps we’ve been a bit hasty in condemning <whatever sin you’d like to justify>. Let’s call those articles and books Round 1.

Now of course there will be pushback, and that’s fine. You use that pushback around Round 1 to describe the issue as ‘controversial’ and ‘hotly debated.’ At this point, you are already winning. Your sin of choice used to be universally condemned, obviously beyond the pale, and now it’s “controversial,” perhaps even “debatable.” After all, here we are, debating it. See how that works?

But it gets better. Let the controversy rage for a little, then fund Round 2 of books and articles. You will call your Round 2 publications “the latest scholarship on this issue,” which you contrast to the obviously older (and therefore dangerously retrograde) positions of your detractors. The Round 1 works are now referred to as “Dr. Arnold’s groundbreaking article” or “the classic re-examination by Dr. Quisling.”

And then when people challenge you, and dare to point out the obvious big-E-on-the-eye-chart point (“It’s wrong!”), you sigh, and say — with great longsuffering, and a little sadness — that they’re plainly mired in old bigotries, and definitely not keeping up with the current best thinking on this issue. Then patiently explain that (while we realize an unfortunate few are lagging behind), we’re going to follow the scholarly consensus nonetheless, and trust that they will catch up in due time. Your bought-and-paid-for scholars and the cavalcade of transgressive idiots that are following in their train will definitely not yet constitute a consensus, but that doesn’t matter. You just claim consensus anyway, and move forward.

You can run this same playbook to justify everything from Marxism to race hatred to pedophilia — which is the next frontier — and it works the same way every time. With enough grant money, you can buy yourself a gaggle of academic whores willing to go all the way with the position of your choice. In this way you manufacture for your view something that the world is pleased to call ‘respectability.’ Execute the play well enough, and your scholarly opponents will not be able to treat your project with the contempt it deserves without getting drummed out of the scholarly guild themselves: after all, are there not peer-reviewed papers, conferences, respected scholars on your side? The mores of the scholarly community require that we take such things seriously.

Jesus never took such literally damned nonsense seriously, and neither should we.


What Academic Theology Doesn’t Do

13 September 2022

Academic theologians are often greatly rewarded for engaging questions that are unimportant in real life, and the things most vital in real life are often given perfunctory lip-service in the academy–if they’re addressed at all. The brutal truth is that the academy is a long way from real life, and deliberately so.

At its best, that distance gives academics the “time and space and air and light” to dig into ideas, histories, and lines of inquiry that aren’t immediately practical. The world God made being what it is, such inquiries “just to see what’s there” often lead to unexpected insight. Conducted properly, it can be a rich and rewarding pursuit. Unfortunately, too often that decoupling from the practical world can also lead to downright idiocy that never comes back down to earth.

But that’s not my real beef with academic theology. I have two reservations, one about its positive contribution and another about its negative contribution (about the latter, more next week). Positively, I have wrestled long and hard with the standard academic systematic theology categories, and I find them effectively worthless in the work of making disciples.  The contents of those categories are often vital, but the organizational scheme is actively harmful.

The academic approach divorces essential truths from the contexts in which their beauty and utility is readily visible, and embeds them in a classroom context where they appear abstruse and impractical. A counseling major in seminary remembers with a shudder the lectures on christology in his required theology classes, trying to keep homoousios straight from homoiousios, never learning that the precious truth the fathers preserved for him is the very heart of his life’s work. 

So because the Christian Faith is deeply precious, I have deliberately and consciously chucked the academic way of organizing and talking about it. There is another way of approaching the same material — still ordered, but it’s the order of a nursery, not a library bookshelf. It’s the order exhibited by the biblical literature itself, from the Torah to the church epistles — which are neither composed nor arranged like systematic theology texts. They’re history, liturgy, and theological reflection on both. If we simply study The Story of Our People, we will cover all the bad ideas, but we will encounter them in their historical context, as temptations rather than just bad ideas.


Crypto-Buddhist Christians

23 August 2022

I think of myself as having grown up on the slightly fundamentalist side of normie Evangelicalism, which is true as far as it goes, but I also grew up in a strongly renunciate household. My parents regularly told stories of praying fervently for some particular result, and continuing in prayer for weeks until they reached a point of surrender at which they said “Fine, Lord, I leave it in Your hands entirely. Whatever You choose to do is fine with me” — at which point, the prayers would finally be answered.

Now, those stories were true. This is a thing that God actually did. It was a running theme in both my parents’ lives, and there’s a good lesson to be had here. But the lesson I learned from those stories was seriously unbalanced.

The point — so I thought — was to extinguish my own desires as fast as possible, so that God could work in whatever way He chose. And you know what? Sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. It is entirely possible for me to want my own way so hard that I can’t (or won’t) see what God is really doing. But there’s more to it than that.

I was raised to see God as the boss, and His will as more important than my own — and that’s true, as far as it goes. I was missing the goodness of God, and the goodness of His creation. When I ask God to heal someone, I am asking for a good thing. I’m supposed to want that. When I ask God for the funds to pay a bill, or the wisdom to navigate a sticky relationship, or to save someone’s marriage, these are all good things. There may be a mismatch between God’s timing and mine, or what God wants to do may look different from the picture in my head, but that doesn’t change the goodness of the thing I’m asking for.

There’s a kind of crypto-Buddhist strain of thought that a really good Christian eradicates all desire. We’re typically very selective about where we apply this line of thinking, but in recent years it often rears its ugly head in the guise of accusations about “idolatry of marriage” and “idolatry of family.” These accusations generally come from barren couples, or single folk who object to the way the church centers and normalizes fruitful marriage and family as over against their (sometimes involuntary, but all too often chosen) lifestyle.

We wanted children and weren’t able, so I’m going to speak concretely in those terms. Anybody can turn anything into an idol, and that can be a real concern, but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. What we’re seeing here is a revolt against the way God made the world. Children are a good gift from a good God, and barrenness is an affliction. That is objectively true. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not a suggestion; it is a command, and even a cursory grasp of biology demonstrates that producing children is a major purpose — if not the purpose — of sex.

“But what if we don’t want children?” Doesn’t matter. If you cut off your own foot (rather than, say, losing your foot in an accident), you are just as lame, and lameness is still an affliction. Likewise, if the barrenness is self-inflicted, it is still an affliction. Legs are meant to have feet on them, and a penis and a vagina are meant to meet up and make babies, and designed to do so in a way that’s a lot of fun. These are objective realities that God made; they can’t be wished away by reframing them in the context of our own fallible desires.

So barrenness is like vertigo — if you have it, you ought to seek to rid yourself of it as quickly as possible, and by all lawful means. If it turns out that you can’t, you will have to find a way to live fruitfully despite the debility, but nobody needs to pretend that it’s somehow a good thing. You must submit yourself to God’s Providence, but eradicating your desires is a poor substitute for submission to your Father.

It is not only lawful, it is normal and healthy, to want the good things that God made. We aren’t supposed to be in the business of extinguishing our desires for good things. Buddhism is just wrong about this; desire is not the root of all suffering. Sin is the root of all suffering. The world is broken, and we sometimes have to make our peace with the way, in God’s Providence, that brokenness hurts us.

And so we trust God. We ask Him to end the affliction, and we keep asking, unless, as with Paul, God tells us to stop. And we don’t criticize the people who have — and love — the things that we lack. It is not idolatry to love God’s good gifts. It is idolatry to elevate our own perspective above the objective realities God made.