Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck, Part 2

16 August 2009

As I concluded my previous post, I could fairly hear the deacons in the audience shouting, “Just because the hair on the back of your neck stands up, how do you know it’s right?”

That’s a good question.  There has to be some norm, some standard by which to measure.

There is.  It’s called the Bible, and one of the things it teaches us is this: who the hearer is will determine what he hears.  If this sounds subjective to you, that’s because in a sense, it is.  But it’s entirely biblical: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” as Jesus often said.  This saying teaches us that there is such a thing as having ears to hear, and such a thing as not having ears to hear.  The person with ears and the person without ears are both standing in front of Jesus, and both hear the same parable…but only the one with ears to hear really hears it, after all. The same propositional content for both, but one understands and the other does not.

Nor is understanding, or failing to, the full range of outcomes.  The same content can convey two opposite messages to two different people, as Paul tells us:

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

We carry the gospel on our lips and in our lives, and this bespeaks death to those who are perishing, but life to those who are being saved.  It’s the same content, but different messages are received because the hearers are different.  This is obvious with a little reflection: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” is gospel to God’s people, but chains and a rod of iron to those who will not kiss the Son.

This is to say that there is no substitute for walking with God and being conformed to the image of His Son.  As we do this, we will find that He makes us able to see and hear what would otherwise be invisible and inaudible to us.  All of which returns us to the question: how will we know when this is happening?

Two blind men are standing on a hill, looking out at a sunset.  Suddenly, one of the blind men is healed entirely, and the sunset bursts in on him.  “I can see!  I can see!” he shouts.

“How do you know?” asks his still blind companion.


Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck

9 August 2009

In 1999 Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho chose the theme “Poetic Ministry” for its annual minister’s conference.  The following is from the close of a talk entitled “Fruitful Labor,” delivered by Douglas Wilson at that conference (emphasis mine).*

…You will probably be accused at some point of advocating or compromising with postmodernism….You must guard yourself against any genuine relativism or postmodernism, but people will just oppose you and this is going to be a handy stick to beat you with….

And the reason for this – and this is why Christians get into legalisms, often times:  there’s the gnostic impulse in legalism, but there’s also the laziness impulse in legalism.  I cannot tell, by looking at a man, if he’s truly temperate.  I can look at him and say “is he temperate; is he balanced?”…I can’t tell by looking at him.  But I can tell if he’s got a can of Coors in his hand.  That’s easy.  So if I make a rule against drinking beer, then I can tell if he’s violating it, and I can tell if he’s violating it at a glance.  This is the lazy man’s way of identifying sin, of identifying a problem.   So if you’re looking for intemperance, you can’t tell that at a glance, so you make up an arbitrary and capricious rule.

Related to poetic ministry, there are many people—we might call them conservative, pro-Enlightenment Christians—who believe that the way to fight the left wing enlightenment — postmodernism — is by embracing the right wing enlightenment — various forms of conservatism, and so forth.  But we’re Christians; we should be operating in another category entirely.  Many people get sucked into the analytic tradition because it’s far easier to catch a bad logician than it is to catch a bad poet….  If you’re appealing to poetry, the biblical patterns and the biblical cadences of poetry, that is pretty slippery for a lot of people, and it would involve a lot of work distinguishing the right and the wrong and the wholesome and the unwholesome, and so forth and they just don’t want to do it, so they’ll just accuse you of postmodernism.

Third, if they finally see you, if they wake up in time, you will be understood by your enemies outside the church….and they will understand far more clearly than many of your friends—but your prayer should be that they will not understand, that they will not see you, until it’s far too late.

This is the dangerous territory we are going to have to enter, and there is no way to enter it by just learning a few propositions.  We are going to have to become different people, better people: people who can catch a bad poet.

this is another aspect of the personalism with which we are re-infusing our theology, and a very necessary one.  Not only is belief in the “saving message” belief in a Person, but it is also belief by a person, and this extends beyond the “saving message” to every act of interpretation.  Every interpretation is by a person, and it matters who that person is. If a reader is at all serious about allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, he quickly discovers that there are some aspects that don’t lend themselves well to propositional analysis: symbols, types, and other such resonances.  When these resonances occur in a passage, a reader with literary skill catches them, and realizes that their presence in the passage is not an accident.

If that reader is also a skilled communicator — say, a good pastor — he can retell the passage in such a way as to highlight the resonances, and a lot of people who wouldn’t have caught the connections on their own will be able to see them with his help.  So he gets up and tells the story to his flock, and all across the auditorium, people get chills and the hair on the back of their neck stands up as they see the connection for the first time.

But what is that pastor to do when someone just doesn’t see it?  Suppose one of his deacons comes up to him after the sermon and says, “Pastor, I don’t think I understand what you were talking about today.  Could you explain it again?”  He does, and the man still just doesn’t see it: “Pastor, I hear what you’re saying, but it just sounds pretty thin to me.  How could you prove that the author really meant for us to see those connections, and interpret them as tying back to that earlier story?”

The answer is, he can’t, because what the deacon means by “prove” is approximately what Euclid meant by it, and stories don’t work like that.  There’s a subtle alignment, a sympathy with the author, that is called for here, and if you don’t have it, they you can’t see the thing well enough to see what the author wants you to see.  N. T. Wright** describes the problem like this:

One of the first insights I came to in the early stages of my doctoral work…was that when you hear yourself saying, ‘What Paul was really trying to say was…’ and then coming up with a sentence which only tangentially corresponds to what Paul actually wrote, it is time to think again.  When, however, you work to and fro, this way and that, probing a key technical term here, exploring a larger controlling narrative there, enquiring why Paul used this particular connecting word  between these two sentences, or that particular scriptural quotation at this point in the argument, and eventually you arrive at the position of saying, ‘Stand here; look at things in this light; keep in mind this great biblical theme, and then you will see that Paul has said exactly what he meant, neither more nor less’ — then you know that you are in business.

I’m not always a fan of Wright’s answers, but he’s describing the process very well indeed.  To bring it back to our struggling deacon, the problem isn’t that the deacon fails to understand the propositions of the argument; it’s that the hair on the back of his neck didn’t stand up when he heard the story told that way.  There’s no easy answer here; restating the argument isn’t going to help at all.

He’s already a good logician, but he needs to become a good poet.  This is less about training his mind than it is about training the hair on the back of his neck to stand up when it should — and that is going to take a lot of time, and a lot of work.

See Part 2 of this post.

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*For those of you who are aware of the Federal Vision controversy, a few words: Wilson gave this address anticipating significant resistance within his circles to the shift toward “poetic” ministry.  Undoubtedly there was some resistance, but it does not seem to have been a huge thing.  However, it seems to me that the Federal Vision battle that erupted just three years later is the anticipated controversy.

To my eye, what’s happened is this: the shift toward a poetic mode of operating is the root, and within a Reformed milieu, the Federal Vision is the predictable fruit.  Most of the FV opponents don’t understand the root and never did — hence all the accusations of lack of clarity — but they can see fruit that doesn’t mesh with their ideas of what good fruit should look like.  So they object to the fruit, and they still don’t really understand where it’s coming from.

**Wright, N. T., Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009) 51.


You Can’t Leave Out the Dirt

2 August 2009

In the preceding post, I concluded by claiming that an abstract proposition is not the story “boiled down to essentials” because God made the world ex nihilo, entered it Himself in a body, and will resurrect it all one day.

Why would I say that?

God made the world.  Created it all from nothing, spoke it into existence.  In that world, things happen.  God enters into the world He made and acts within it.  God put us in that world — this world — and we act within it.  This is what really happens.  The stories are accounts of what really happened.  The abstractions are short summaries or interpretations of what really happened — but it’s the happening itself that is the reality.

When we say that “by grace you are saved through faith” is the gospel, stripped down to bare essentials with all the extraneous information left out, we are saying that it’s the idea — make that Idea — that matters, and not the incarnational reality.  We are moving, in other words, from Yahweh’s world to Plato’s.

This is a problem, because Plato’s world doesn’t exist.

Yahweh made dirt.  The Word of Yahweh became flesh and dwelt among us, and got dirt under His fingernails.  In the resurrection, redeemed men will get redeemed dirt under their redeemed fingernails, and glory to God for all of it.

Abstractions, important a tool as they are, are not the thing itself.  They always leave out the dirt.


True Tales, Told God’s Way

19 July 2009

In the preceding post, I argued (contra Gordon Clark and various others) that the object of saving faith is the Person Jesus Christ, not merely a proposition or set of propositions about Him.  Among my theology-wonk friends — and there are many of them — this point usually provokes a particular response.  “So it doesn’t really matter what propositions I believe as long as I’m looking at Jesus?” they ask incredulously.

Well, of course it matters.  We’re talking about a particular person here, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David, supposed son of Joseph.  As with any particular person, not all things are true about Him.  He had a certain height, and not some other height.  Eyes of a certain color; hair of a certain length; born in Bethlehem and not in Gaza, born to Mary and not to Elizabeth, suffered under Pontius Pilate and not under Nero, and so on.  Certain claims about Him are true, and others false.

We are called to represent Him, and to do so according to His nature.  Because He is the Truth, we represent Him truly.  We must therefore be faithful to what we’re given about Jesus.  We must say of Him the things Scripture gives us to say.  We must tell the stories Scripture gives us to tell.  We must be true to the volume of material Scripture gives us to present.  When we don’t have time to tell the whole story — which, let’s face it, is almost all the time — then we try to summarize or tell a piece of it that’s particularly important for this person at this time.  There’s nothing wrong with that; Jesus Himself does it all the time, as do the apostles, and we have them for a pattern.

But we should not confuse telling a small piece of the story with “boiling it down to essentials,” as though we could do without the rest of it.  If we’re to be faithful to what God actually gave us, then we’re going to overflow with stories, poetry, songs, parables, proverbs, and much more.  We’re introducing people to a Person, and that process proceeds by addition, not by subtraction. You don’t get to know someone by paring away all that is not essential to the person; you get to know someone by adding more and more: different situations, different angles, different facets of the personality.  Trying to do it the other way around is trying to live in a world God just didn’t make.  We can’t view the abstract proposition as “the essence of it all,” because God didn’t give it to us that way, and we must truly represent what God gave us.

Now God did, in some places, give us abstract theological propositions; they are also an essential part of communication — a point I will take up shortly.  But those propositions come in a cocoon of stories.  Apart from the story context that they elucidate and from which they take their meaning, the propositions are not even false so much as utterly useless, completely without referent in the real world.  Just try to explain “By grace you are saved through faith” without telling a story.  I dare you.


Salvation by Grace: Person or Proposition?

13 July 2009

For something over a year now, I have been saying that I needed to update my response to the Free Grace Food Fight.  But what with one thing and another, the controversy hasn’t been hitting my immediate fields of ministry in a way that called for a written response, nor has anyone bothered to attack me lately in a way that I felt compelled a response.  Other matters were more pressing, so here we are, a year later, and I still haven’t written anything.

Which is not to say that the time has been wasted.  In the interim, the controversy has been the subject of numerous private conversations, and in the lull in public activity, God provided me with time for some much-needed reflection and growth.

I still have some things to say publicly, but I’m much better equipped to say them than I would have been a year ago.  Those things, alas, will not all get said in this post.  But I’m going to make a start.

Let’s start with this:  Salvation is not by any form of works, including theological study, correctness, or acumen.

We are saved by a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.  God requires of us that we believe in that person, as we see in John 9 when Jesus talks with the man born blind:

Jesus heard that they had expelled him, and meeting him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”

He answered, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in Him?”

“You both have seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” Jesus said.

“Lord, I believe!” he said, and worshiped Him.

I used to say that “believe in” always boils down to some sort of proposition about the person, a position I adopted from Gordon Clark. While Clark went to some lengths to demonstrate this idea, and clearly held it strongly, it always got him into trouble.  Having argued that saving faith is faith in a saving proposition, obviously he needed to identify that proposition, and he couldn’t.  In a chapter toward the end of Faith and Saving Faith, Clark admits — with, it seems, some embarrassment — that there appear to be multiple saving propositions in Scripture.

Some Free Grace folks have correctly observed that John’s Gospel is addressed to unbelievers — and that it is the only such book in the New Testament.  This narrows the search a little bit.  Although we would not be surprised to find the saving proposition in, say, Romans (a book addressed to believers), we really want to see how the saving proposition is put to an unbeliever, and in John, God presents Jesus to an unbelieving readership.  It’s an ideal place to look for a saving proposition.

Only problem is, it seems to vary there, too.  Jesus tells the woman at the well that He is the Christ (but doesn’t mention “Son of God”); He tells the man born blind that He is the Son of God (but doesn’t mention “Christ”).  He often mentions eternal life — but not always.  Taking away sins is mentioned sometimes — but not always.  There’s a raft of “believe in Me” or “believe in Him” statements — woefully unclear!  Clark would be no happier with the multiplicity of answers that arise from John than he was with the multiplicity of answers arising from Scripture as a whole.

I have come to believe that the entire proposition-hunting endeavor is fundamentally wrongheaded.  When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he missed the whole point.  Truth is not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  And likewise for eternal life: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  To have eternal life is to have Jesus; to know the truth is to know Jesus, not simply a proposition.  The matter is irreducibly personal.

Don’t get me wrong.  Propositions are necessary in order to tell the story and introduce the person to Jesus.  But they’re tools to an end, not the thing itself.  The message is Jesus, the Living Word of God, and He can be introduced by a story, by propositions, but not reduced to a proposition.

Salvation is not a substance, a thing you can put in your pocket.  Salvation is living relationship with the Person Jesus Christ. Faith in the real Jesus, however defective in some of its propositional details, is saving faith. (We can see this with the disciples, who believed in Jesus, but doubted His death, and then His resurrection.)

On the other hand, faith in the correctness of one’s propositions, however accurate they might be, is a threadbare attempt to earn God’s favor through theological acumen, an attempt God will honor as much as He honors other salvation-by-works schemes: “Depart from Me, ye that practice lawlessness; I never knew you.”

We are meant to look through the propositions as through a window, and see the Person standing behind them. When we just look at the propositions — whichever propositions — we’re getting caught up in staring at the window glass itself, preoccupied with every bump and bubble and speck of dust.

To the extent that the big food fight is about which part of the window glass to stare at, there’s not much to pick from on any side.  And to the extent that anyone’s conduct shows hatred for his brothers and his neighbors — certainly not true of everyone, but there’s a lot of it going around — he is plainly not walking with Jesus, so why should anyone listen when he talks about Him?


Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
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It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?