Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth. All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional. But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.
I’ve had several recent conversations that converged on the same basic truth. It’s at once the very core of the Christian faith, and a drastically under-acknowledged and under-emphasized point in conservative circles. I don’t even know how to talk about it without setting off alarm bells among my colleagues.
But this is the truth that underlies the person/proposition discussion, and it’s something we need to discuss directly.
Here it is: the core of the Christian life, the very center of it all, is mystical union with Christ.
Paul talks of this in Romans 6: we are buried with Christ in baptism that we might be raised with Him to walk in a new life. He talks of it in Galatians 2: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” It’s how unbelievers become converted, according to Romans 10: “How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” (Note, the Greek does not say “of whom” — Paul is asking how they can believe in Jesus if they haven’t heard Jesus. Then he goes on to ask “How will they hear [Jesus] without a preacher?” In the faithful preaching of the gospel, the unbeliever hears Christ.)
It’s not just Paul, either. Jesus talks of it in John 17: “I do not pray for these [the 11 disciples] alone, but for all who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You….And the glory that You have given Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them and You in Me….”
I could go on with the proof texts, but you get the idea.
I figure I might as well out myself now: It’s taken me a long time to get to this point in my Christian life, but I’m now an unabashed mystic. Actual contact with the living Christ is the sine qua non of the Christian faith, and if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got anything. If you have got it, you can still be wrong about various factual matters — just like a man can be married to a woman for years and still not know the color of her toothbrush — but you have the relationship, and that’s what matters most.
Most of us know this instinctively. When a friend or loved one dies, or you lose your job and you can’t pay the bills, or your child is sick in the hospital, hovering between life and death — all your theological knowledge (in itself) isn’t worth ten cents right then. What you need is comfort, the personal comfort of a God who is really there. Certainly this can come through Scripture, but it’s not the ideas in the Scriptures that comfort you, but the God behind them, the One who says them to you. You hear His voice, and it is in trusting Him, in clinging to Him, that you make it through. If your Bible knowledge doesn’t help you toward that, you might as well have memorized the manual for your DVD player.
I remember once reading the testimony of a seminary professor who came to this realization when his child was ill. I thought it was an amazing, thought-provoking article, and recommended it to a friend. He was underwhelmed: “If he really believed what he taught, his theology ought to have been enough for him.” Sadly, many of us think that way, even under really trying circumstances. These are people who have managed to build the theological house of cards in their heads to the point that they can escape into it for hours, days if necessary, the way some socially awkward teenagers used to escape into D&D or an addict escapes into getting high for as long as possible. Sadly, their theology is enough for them. It is enough for them to think of the idea of God’s presence; they don’t actually need Him to be present. These same people tend to be a bit devoid of human feeling, and have stilted, awkward relationships as a result of their preoccupation with their own fantasies. If you’re going to be preoccupied with fantasies, I suppose theological truth is better than D&D — but not by a whole lot. Preoccupation with your own fantasy — any fantasy — still inhibits loving God and your neighbors, and the fantasy still becomes an idol.
Unfortunately, people mistake this fantasy-worship for faith, just because the theological house of cards has a great deal of propositional truth in it. The Pharisees had just as much propositional truth in their theological fantasies. What they lacked was actual relationship with God — and the problem is as real in the church today as it ever was in first-century Judaism.
I recognize that a lot of the things that have happened under the banner of mysticism are wrong. Conservatives are suspicious of anything with the label “mystical,” and not without reason. But we can’t allow the various abuses to stop us from seeing the truth. There is no substitute for actually walking with God.
Besides, the fact remains that we do need some word to describe the thing that the various proof texts above are talking about, the experience of actual contact with the living Christ. Jesus and Paul are not just building theological castles in the air. They are describing something that really happens, the real experience of actual Christians. How are we to describe this? Our fathers used the phrase “mystical union with Christ,” and if there’s a better term, I haven’t yet heard it.
It is a cherished dictum that as Christians, we are a community of faith and therefore our unity is based on doctrine. In fact, this very thing came up in a recent comment thread on another post here. I want to make it clear I’m not taking a shot at any of you who’ve discussed that matter here. I do, however, want to address the way this concept is often applied in the Christian world.
There’s an element of truth in the dictum, of course. But as generally applied, it is absolute bushwa, and if you can’t smell the reek of brimstone about it, then your spiritual sniffer needs a tune-up.
In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul writes:
Therefore I, the Lord’s prisoner, beg you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We guard the unity, but it is the Spirit who joins us to Christ, who baptizes us into His body, and therefore it is the Spirit who creates the unity we have. We just guard what the Spirit has already created.
Or rather, we don’t.
We pretend that the basis of our unity is propositions on paper, and then divide endlessly over every jot and tittle in the paperwork. And not only do we not regret such divisions, we respect them. We respect them so highly that when people in ministry have a personality conflict, they often find a doctrinal difference, fight about that, and then divide, ostensibly over the doctrine — and this procedure effectively makes the whole sordid affair immune to criticism.
“We had some doctrinal differences,” they say.
We nod sagely. “Well, the basis for our unity is doctrine.” We shrug and pat them on the shoulder. “What else could you do?”
What we’re missing here, of course, is God. Specifically, we have a common family as children of the same Father, we share a common redemption through the same High Priest, His Son, and we are baptized into a common body by the same Holy Spirit.
And we somehow think that with a 20-cent Bic pen and a sheet of notebook paper, someone that we know is a brother can scrawl out a bad proposition and sign his name to it, and that will overrule the sovereign grace of the Triune God.
What could we be thinking? I’ll tell you. God tells us that He has created unity, but in our heart of hearts, we don’t believe Him. We believe in the kind of unity we can document in triplicate.
We walk by sight, and not by faith — isn’t that what that verse said?
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.