Disenchantment, Christian Style

Protestants get a lot of blame for removing the sacred canopy that covered Christendom with a sacramental presence. But when you know the history of religion maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, monotheistic faiths have regularly rejected those pieties or ideas that locate divine ways in ordinary affairs. Steve Bruce explains:

The religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia were profoundly cosmological. The human world was embedded in a cosmic order that embraced the entire universe, with no sharp distinction between the human and the non-human. Greek and Roman gods even mated with humans. Such continuity between people and the gods was broken by the religion of the Jews. As Berger puts it: ‘The Old Testament posits a God who stands outside the cosmos, which is his creation but which he confronts and does not permeate.’ He created it and he would end it, but, between start and finish, the world could be seen as having its own structure and logic. The God of Ancient Israel was a radically transcendent God. . . . There was a thoroughly demythologized universe between human kind and God. (God is Dead: Secularization in the West, 6)

Christians (should) get secularization honestly.

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22 thoughts on “Disenchantment, Christian Style

  1. Not so. YHWH was intimately involved with His creation. He formed it personally and rested with it. He walked in the cool of the garden with His covenant people. He provided atonement for their fall. He cut a covenant with with Abraham. He led his people by cloud and fire. He dwelt in the tabernacle and temple and sent His Spirit upon prophet priest and kings. The incarnation as well as all of his interactions with his earthly created matter show how far off his opinion is.

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  2. Michial, consider this from the post I linked to:

    ” (S)uch disenchantment follows from a rigorously monotheistic faith where God is completely other, except when he intervenes miraculously to reveal himself to his creatures. In between those breakthroughs, humans have no definite knowledge of what God is up to, or what developments in history or nature mean. Discomfort with a God who is beyond our ways and who only reveals himself in limited (though blessed) ways seems to be one reason why people are hostile to Calvinism (and may even explain why neo-Calvinists want to break down distinctions between the sacred and secular — they want the universe to be an obvious theater not of God’s grace but of Christ’s sovereignty).”

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  3. Michial,

    You are painting with a slanted brush. The OT has a far broader picture of God’s dealings with Israel and creation. God’s hiddeness was as much as an issue as his presence, his transcendence was as real to Israel as his immanence. The main feature, contra the ANE religions, was that in the Bible, God was distinct from creation, and we pick that up in spades right away in Genesis 1. Of course he is a historical actor on the stage of salvation history, but nowhere in the OT do we get the sense that his presence in creation or his actions on behalf of his people negate the fact that he is the transcendent I AM, creator of the cosmos and inscrutable in his being. The picture you paint looses this important distinction, and is in danger of relegating him to one god among many, when he most certainly is not.

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  4. Michial is correct. The Incarnation alone refutes Dr. Hart’s argument here.

    But when you know the history of religion maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, monotheistic faiths have regularly rejected those pieties or ideas that locate divine ways in ordinary affairs. Steve Bruce explains:

    The religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia were profoundly cosmological. The human world was embedded in a cosmic order that embraced the entire universe, with no sharp distinction between the human and the non-human. Greek and Roman gods even mated with humans. Such continuity between people and the gods was broken by the religion of the Jews.

    Historian Christopher Dawson:

    “For the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a
    theophany-a revelation of God to Man; it is a new creation-the
    introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens
    and transforms human nature into something new. The history of the
    human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives meaning
    to the whole historical process.”

    This new, world-transforming history overthrows its rivals,
    whether the Greek idea of an endless series of repeating cycles or
    the spiritless homogeneity of the “postmodern” era. The
    Incarnation gives shape to history and supplies a beginning, a
    middle, and an end: “the Christian view of history is a vision of
    history , an interpretation of time in
    terms of eternity and of human events in the light of divine
    revelation.”

    Dawson da bomb.

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/history/christopher-dawson-christ-in-history.html

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  5. Michial, actually the incarnation shows precisely why Bruce’s assertion is correct. The incarnation is unique. The divine is transcendent, that’s why God’s followers don’t worship stones or images. When Jesus comes the Jews want him dead partly because they know that God is transcendent. The incarnation is the exception that proves the point. The universe is not a sacrament and people say it is (and use the incarnation to say that) make the incarnation incredibly ordinary. Extraordinary!

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  6. DGH, Oakley’s latest is over $70 at Amazon. My local library is great at interlibrary loans, but you have to wait six months from the publication date. Hope you will review it here.

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  7. It’s also wrong to say that Christ united himself to some kind of generically existent human nature that all human beings partake in. His human nature was localized and remains localized and particular.

    Which is one reason why federal representation is correct…

    And given that the divine nature and the human nature in Christ each retained their own particularities, any idea of continuity between divine and human must be qualified so as all but to be obliterated. The incarnation did not obliterate the Creator-creature distinction. Christ’s creaturely humanity was still distinct from His deity, though united in His one person.

    This is something that the East and RCs seem to overlook.

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  8. Beisner—Many of the Scripture passages on which the Federal Visionists rely for their theology of baptism use the term (or its cognates) to denote not the rite but the spiritual reality signified by it (for instance, Romans 6:1ff; 1 Peter 3:21). The nineteenth-century Presbyterian James Wilkinson Dale’s five-volume study on baptizo persuades me that in many instances the original readers of the New Testament would not have taken baptize or baptism to denote the rite at all. See Dale, Christic and Patristic Baptism: An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word as Determined by the Usage of the Holy Scriptures and Patristic Writers (1874)….

    Peter Leithart simply begged the question when he wrote, “Paul wrote that Christians have all been united to Christ in His death and resurrection because they have all been baptized (Rom. 6). Many preachers cannot take Paul at his word. ‘Baptism’ doesn’t refer to the ‘sign’ of water but to the ‘thing’ that the water symbolizes. Paul wasn’t referring to the baptismal rite itself. He wasn’t telling the Romans that they were dead and risen with Christ by baptism, but by that to which baptism points. [para] Which raises three basic questions: First, if he didn’t mean baptism, why did he say baptism? Second, how do these commentators know that Paul wasn’t referring to baptism? Third, and most fundamentally, what kind of assumptions about the world drive this interpretation? Why would anyone doubt that Paul is talking about water?”

    Beisner—. To answer Leithart’s questions: First, Paul did mean baptism–and the term baptism did not mean, primarily, a ritual application of water. Second, commentators argue in two ways that in Romans 6 baptism does not denote the rite: (a) consistent application of that sense in the immediate context would yield the conclusion (contrary to other passages of Scripture) that all, without exception, who undergo the rite are regenerate, converted, justified, sanctified, and finally glorified, and (b) Paul had already written in the same epistle that it was not the rite of circumcision but the spiritual reality designated by it that differentiated the true (inward) Jew from the false (outward) Jew (Romans 2:28-29)

    It stands to reason that he would affirm the same of baptism. The commentators do not, pace Leithart’s tacit implication, simply truck in their conclusion without reason. Third, the assumptions (if we may call them that) that drive that interpretation are founded on sober attention to Biblical teaching about the difference between rites and things signified), per, e.g., Isaiah 1:10-19; 29:13; Ezekiel 33:31; Matthew 15:8-9.

    p 324 http://www.ecalvinbeisner.com/freearticles/AATConclusion.pdf

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  9. Letham against the new pro-Torrance book by Marcus Johnson and John Clark—-“The authors oppose the idea that Christ took into union a nature like Adam’s before the fall. However, this is not the only alternative. Reformed theology has taught that Christ lived in a state of humiliation, sinless and righteous but with a nature bearing the consequences of the fall in its mortality, its vulnerability and its suffering—but not fallen. Furthermore, the NT witness is that the incarnation is a new creation, the start of the new humanity, not a re-pristinization of the old. Christ is the second Adam, not the first. In the position the book opposes I fail to recognize the classic Reformed Christology.

    The authors’ premise is that anything other than a fallen nature would diminish Christ’s identification with us in our humanity. However, a fallen nature is intrinsic to a fallen human being but it is not definitive of, but incidental to, a human being.

    Letham–“The book misses the repeated stress in the NT on atonement being achieved by the blood of Christ, his life laid down in death. Instead of “redemption by his blood” (Eph. 1:7) and reconciliation by the death of the Son (Rom. 5:9–10) these realities are established “within the being and life of our Mediator” (p. 128). In seeking to correct a problem the book is in danger of presenting, in a phrase of R. P. C. Hanson’s, redemption by a kind of sacred blood transfusion.

    There are sweeping references to “modern Christians” throughout the book—who have consistently got it wrong. The tone is strident. The historical positions are painted as heretical, versions of what Torrance called “the Latin heresy.” Yet the putative antidote is itself a modern idea. Attempting to correct a perceived imbalance the authors have set up one of their own.

    http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/the-incarnation-of-god-mystery-of-gospel-foundation-of-evangelical-theology

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  10. Karl Barth—“To speak of a continuation or extension of the incarnation in the Church is not only out of place but even blasphemous. Its distinction from the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Creator from His creature. Its superiority to the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Lord seated at the right hand of the Father. Hence it must guard as if from the plague against any posturing or acting as if in relation to world-occurrence it were another Christ, or a vicar of Christ, or a mediator of all graces, not only out of fear of God, but also because in any such behaviour, far from really exalting itself or discharging such functions, it can only betray, surrender, hazard and lose its TRUE INVISIBLE BEING, and therefore its true distinction from the world and superiority to world-occurrence. (3.2, 729)”

    http://dguretzki.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/incarnational-church-blasphemy/

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  11. “As Berger puts it: ‘The Old Testament posits a God who stands outside the cosmos, which is his creation but which he confronts and does not permeate.’”

    GW: Really? The God of the Bible is only transcendent but not immanent? The God of whom St. Paul said, “In him we live and move and have our being”?

    Berger’s statement is clearly heretical from the standpoint of Scripture and the Reformed confessions.

    Yes, the God of the Bible is radically transcendent. He is the “I Am” who stands above and beyond creation and all created realities (such as time, space, and matter). But he also permeates his creation by virtue of Divine omnipresence, and he is intimitely involved in his creation by virtue of his ordinary Divine providence. All of God is present everywhere at all times, and by his Divine providence he upholds and governs, moment-by-moment, all things and all his creatures. As the answer to Shorter Catechism # 11 puts it, “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

    Yes, God is present with his covenant people in a special way, and his mighty acts of redemption (the exodus and Sinai, the Incarnation, the resurrection, Pentecost, etc.) are inbreakings of the age to come into this present age; and thus represent unique events of God’s special providence. But one can affirm these unique redemptive events without denying God’s radical immancence or his ordinary providence.

    A God who is only transcendent and “Wholly Other” is not the God of the Bible nor of the Reformed confessions, but an idol-deity of either Deism or Barthianism. Such a deity is certainly not the God of historic Christianity or of the “Reformed faith and practice” that Dr. Hart claims to profess.

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  12. “He created it and he would end it, but, between start and finish, the world could be seen as having its own structure and logic.”

    GW: Again, this statement from Berger shows his ignorance of the biblical doctrine of God’s ordinary providence, and fits better with the theology of Deism than with a theology of biblical Theism. It assumes that, while God created the world, he designed it to run on its own through impersonal “natural laws” (what Berger calls “its own structure and logic”). But from a biblical theistic perspective what we perceive as “natural laws” are simply manifestations of God’s ordinary providence, and are just as much manifestations of his eternal decree as are his mighty works of redemption.

    Scripture testifies that God through Christ moment-by-moment sustains and upholds all things in his creation by his powerful word. Of Christ, the Divine image of the invisible God, Pauls says that not only was he the Divine Agent of creation, but “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17, ESV). Scripture nowhere teaches that God’s creation “has its own structure and logic” or that it operates through impersonal “natural laws” untouched by Divine providence. This, of course, does not mean that creation itself is “sacramental” or “holy,” but it does mean that reality cannot be so radically “secularized” as to remove the immanent, providential presence of God from all realms and areas of life which exist outside of the sacred realm of the visible church/kingdom of God.

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  13. D.G. Hart: “So Geoff, how do argue against the universe being sacramental?”

    GW: Affirming God’s immanence (in addition to his transcendence), omnipresence, and ordinary providence is not the same thing as sacralizing the universe or arguing for a sacramental universe. One need not be a practical Deist to affirm 2K or the sacred/secular distinction, or to deny the universe being sacramental. It’s pretty basic Reformed theology.

    How do you square the Bruce and Berger comment you quote above approvingly with the teachings of Scripture and our own confessional standards on God’s ordinary providence and Divine immanence — teachings which you yourself have affirmed in your ordination vows as a Ruling Elder?

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  14. Geoff, I’m not going to claim Berger or Bruce are orthodox. But I do think they make a significant point about the people who complain that your religion (and mine) disenchanted the universe. You want an enchanted religion? Then go to the pagans (and the sacral monarchy of the papacy has paganish elements).

    I don’t deny providence, immanence or the like. I do think the Hebrew accounts of God — first commandment, burning bush, I am that I am — all point to a deity who’s ways are not man’s and are incomprehensible. That’s the point.

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  15. D.G. Hart: “I don’t deny providence, immanence or the like. I do think the Hebrew accounts of God — first commandment, burning bush, I am that I am — all point to a deity who’s ways are not man’s and are incomprehensible. That’s the point.”

    GW: We agree. And, no, I didn’t think you actually denied those doctrines. I understand the point you were trying to make about how our biblical faith has “disenchanted” the universe, and agree. I just question whether the Berger and Bruce quote was the best way to make the point.

    Sorry, I’m just a persnickety, doctrinalist, Type-A OPCer. (Are there any other kind?)

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  16. I am not agreeing when I quote Peter Leithart: “Calvin was wrong in suggesting that Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual. Calvin not withstanding, the redemptive-historical move that the New Testament announces is not from ritual to non-ritual, not from an Old Covenant economy of signs to a New Covenant economy beyond signs.” Against Christianity, p 80

    Leithart, p 75 — The Reformers had a spiritualizing reading of redemptive history. We still see this today. Listen to Terry Johnson: ‘When Jesus removed the special status of Jerusalem as the place where God was to be worshipped, he abolished all the material forms that constituted the typological OT system.’( p 157, in With Reverence and Awe, ed Hart and Muether).

    Leithart—Israel’s prophets inveighed against empty formalism, and some conclude that from this that the prophets condemned ritual as such. The Reformers brought privatization, religion as a matter of ideology, ideas and belief. They worried that public rituals can be faked, and that to tie religion to public rituals tempts us to be hypocrites.”

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