The Puritan Fetish

Why do Reformed Protestants think appealing to the Puritans settles it?

Why does Patrick Ramsey think John Ball’s view of justification is significant?

While denying the Roman Catholic doctrine that love is the life and soul of justifying faith, John Ball (1585-1640) strenuously affirmed that justifying faith cannot be without love. Faith and love are distinct graces which are “infused together” by the Holy Spirt at regeneration and “the exercise of faith and love be inseparably conjoined (Treatise of Faith, 45-46).” Where there is justifying faith there is love: “As light and heat in the Sun be inseparable, so is faith and love, being knit together in a sure bond by the Holy Ghost (pg. 38).

If faith and love are distinct yet inseparable, so it is sometimes argued, “then Faith alone doth not justify (pg. 56).” The presence of love at the moment of justification implies that it is along with faith a co-instrument of justification. Ball responded to this objection by appealing to a common turn of phrase regarding the role of faith in justification: faith alone justifies but the faith which justifies is not alone. Or as it stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

And why does William Evans think the Puritans founded America (tell that to the Virginians)?

America was founded by Puritans. They viewed themselves as in covenant with God, as a new Israel. They thought that the covenant promises made to Israel applied quite literally to them. They thought that if Americans were obedient God would bless our land, just as he blessed ancient Israel. That’s why many American Christians love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is where American exceptionalism, our notion of America as a special, chosen nation originates from.

But if Evans is right about the amillennialism, why don’t we abandon the Puritans (who were a tad preoccupied with being a chosen people)?

The point should be clear to us now—with the coming of the Messiah, the notion of the “promised land” is christologically defined. The promise of “land” is fulfilled concretely in Christ, who rules over the world as God’s kingdom, and his people. A principle of redemptive history is that when God takes something away, he replaces it with something much, much better.

All this should be a warning to us not to identify the Promised Land with any particular nation, or particular piece of real estate. The covenant promises of God regarding land do not apply to America as a nation in covenant with God, or as some sort of new Israel. God’s plans are not going down the tube because of America’s present unfaithfulness. We know that ultimate individual and collective transformation are God’s work that will not be completed until Christ comes again, and that, while real (albeit provisional) successes are at times realized today, this eschatological horizon implies that the ministry of the church is not going to usher in the millennium.

Sanctification: The Hollywood Version

I don’t mean to make light of a believer’s battle with sin, O wretched man and all that. But does anyone else find this account of holiness too much of a story-book ending?

As we grow in the Christian life we are challenged to fight such sin. The person who struggles with anger hears a sermon that teaches and applies “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). He sees his sin with new clarity, he calls out to God for help, and he goes toe-to-toe with the devil to put this sin to death. The person who skims a little off the top or takes it easy at work encounters these words in his personal devotions: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (4:28). He is cut to the heart, asks God for forgiveness, and searches God’s Word for what it says about a life of righteous honesty. The person who loves to gossip suddenly has these words come to mind during a time of corporate confession: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29). She understands that God himself is challenging her and she repents and commits herself to speaking only what edifies and heals.

Over time these people find that the battle grows easier. A day comes when she realizes it has been weeks since she has gossiped, a day comes when he realizes it has been months since he has had an angry outburst. But it gets even better than that. One day she is faced with the temptation to gossip and her first instinct is to reject the opportunity and instead to speak words that give grace to those who hear. One day he is presented with a golden opportunity to enrich himself at someone else’s expense, and without even thinking about it, he turns away, choosing instead to do his work well and to give with generosity. Both understand that this is a profound evidence of God’s grace—he has given them entirely new instincts toward sin. Where their old instinct was to indulge, their new instinct is to refrain. Where their old instinct was toward sin, their new instinct is toward holiness. They now delight to do what is right in an area that was once the source of so much sin and so much temptation.

I mean, once you think you’ve “got the victory” aren’t you all the more vulnerable to sin (at least the sin of pride)? And on the flip side, if I continue to struggle with sin and other believers don’t, doesn’t that suggest I’m not a believer?

What might Tim Challies’ account of sanctification look like if he watched a movie of a fellow Canadian, Atom Egoyan, whose film Ararat (skin alert), a movie about the legacy of the Armenian genocide for Canadian-Armenians living in twenty-first century Toronto, is all about the multiplicity of motives that fuel human beings? Of course, if you look at people as two-dimensional — serve God or serve Satan — then the diversity of loyalties and ambitions that people have are inconsequential. But if what people tell about the significance of the incarnation is true, that Christ assumed real bodily form and was subject to the political, cultural, and economic arrangements that went with being a first-century Jew, then shouldn’t a realistic account of sanctification look more like Egoyan’s characters than a children’s story book? In other words, isn’t it docetic (that Christ’s body was only an appearance) to deny the nooks and crannies of sanctification in a real-life human being?

Liberal Education After the Fall

Must a student be baptized before pursuing the true, good, and beautiful? That questioned occurred after reading Fr. James Schall’s summary of Tracy Rowland’s lecture on Roman Catholic education.

For Rowland and Schall, the Trinity informs the study of everything and so Christianity is at the foundation of any genuine education:

…the basic Catholic approach to education is that there “exists a relationship between the human intellect, the theological virtue of faith, and the transcendental of truth; there also exists a relationship between the human will, the theological virtue of love, and the transcendental of goodness, and there exists a relationship between the human memory, the theological virtue of hope and the transcendental of beauty.” The transcendentals—one, being, good, true, beautiful—are predicates we can apply to everything that is. They reflect in our being the inner relation of the three persons within the Trinity.

It is possible to pass through schools, even at the graduate level, and not really learn much of truth or of what is important. This result can happen also in Catholic schools. Thus, we need graduates who actually have “Catholic intellects, Catholic wills, Catholic imaginations, and Catholic memories.” They need to be conjoined in a proper order of soul. We want to know the truth, to control our own disorders, to imagine what can enlarge our vision. A Catholic memory will know of its saints and their foibles, of glories and tragedies.

But I wonder why a Christian approach to education, one that takes Genesis 3 and the triumph of Augustinianism over Pelagianism seriously, wouldn’t first start with fallen human nature and the incapacity for those, either unregenerate or unbaptized (depending on your communion), to see the Trinity in the true, good, and beautiful because unbelievers are turned in on themselves. In other words, doesn’t a Roman Catholic view of education presuppose that professors and students are baptized and belong to the same communion?

Schall goes on to explain that Rowland acknowledges that not all students have the same intellectual capacities:

This is not an evil, but an aspect of a common good that makes it possible to participate in a broad range of goods and fruits of labor, and insights of others. Some will be more gifted intellectually than others. Some will have greater hearts, be more insightful, or possess skills or virtues that are good. Not everyone is a genius. Indeed, studies show that only about twenty percent of students are able to grasp subtle abstract points of knowledge. The teachers and schools must know and attend to the differences.

An educational egalitarianism that presupposed that all students have the same capacities, talents, and discipline will probably end by teaching very little to neglect the real needs and skills of actual students. Some students will be more attracted to truth, others to goodness, others to beauty, and still others to all sorts of practical and unexpected things. “Human lives can turn into narrative wrecks if educators produce people who can think at high levels of abstraction but are emotionally retarded or who lack sapiential experiences, or who conversely are emotionally sensitive but have no intellectual framework with which to make judgments about their inner life.”

But imagine the narrative wreck that comes with a failure to acknowledge that students can’t understand the Triune God without a prior work of grace, that all students try to suppress the truth in unrighteousness apart from God’s saving work.

If Christian education is going to be redeemed, doesn’t redemption need to be part of the conversation?

Lord, I Know Already, Help Me Do

What is the purpose of preaching? Is it to increase knowledge or provoke akSHUN? Randy Nabors thinks the latter:

We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information; we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

But what if the average Christian believer is someone who is prone to think either that sin, temptation, the devil, and the flesh have overwhelmed him the previous week? What sort of sermon does that person need? A call to obedience? Maybe. But can such a call make sense to someone who knows how sinful and weak he is? Might the person in the pew need to hear about God’s work in sanctification even if it is a tad didactic?

Or what about the average believer who lives life like a pilgrim, someone in exile, hardly in command of his affairs, but weak, frail, and in need of a reminder that God has saved him and controls all things?

In other words, Nabors seems to think of Christians as people who are in control of life and need simply to be hectored into living Christian lives. He doesn’t seem to allow that Christians come to church thinking that they believe, but are tempted to unbelief precisely when they take life and its duties into their own hands.

In the Larger Scheme of Things

Should the church engage in politics? John Allen answers, that’s a no-brainer:

And that ministry inevitably has a political edge. Yes, Jesus Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s,” which is a charter for church/state separation. However, Christ also said we will be judged for how we treat the least among us, which is a standard with a clearly political dimension.

Popes represent a tradition rooted in prophetic denunciations of injustice and abuses of power, and a Lord who chose to be born into a poor family in an occupied corner of the world’s leading empire of its day.

To insist, therefore, that popes remain apolitical would be to demand that they betray their office.

As if politics were all about finger-wagging. Lobbyists make lousy politicians.

J. Peter Nixon worries what happens when the church’s ministry becomes too oriented to this world:

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass. “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.

The answers to that question are complex and manifold. . . . I know enough men and women religious to realize the dangers of sentimentalizing their lives. Those without property can often become proprietary about their roles and responsibilities and unhealthy power dynamics can afflict any community of human beings. The spiritual risks of celibacy are well known, even if they are sometimes exaggerated.

The lives of ordinary believers and the lives of those called to practice the counsels should complement one another, embodying the tension between a Kingdom that is already present and yet still to come. In the past, the balance may have tipped too far in the direction of the latter, leading to the suggestion that the married state was somehow inferior to religious life. Over the last half century, however, we have tipped far in the other direction. Somehow, we must find balance.

The balance may not involve the monastic life, but it could include something like recognizing that this world, and even its attempts to right social wrongs, is not all there is:

So while politics is important business, there are strict limits to what we can achieve by political means. There are no limits at all, on the other hand, to what we can achieve by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; for that we have the Lord’s promise! We can revive our own faith, awaken the strength of our neighbors, and thereby accomplish what not even a presidential candidate dares to suggest.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” So wrote the most acute of all observers of our political scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. Perhaps the most appropriate “political” task for Lent would be to embark on our own private campaigns to make America good again, beginning with ourselves.

Of course, Protestants don’t believe we make ourselves good. But confessional Protestants do understand, in ways that challenge followers of the papacy, an institution fraught with power and political intrigue, that ministering the gospel does more good in the long run than making policy or running for office.

If Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God, Can't the Forgiven and Unforgiven Too?

The latest from Wheaton College is that Larycia Hawkins and the College have agreed to part ways. In the leaks that led to this apparently amicable determination was an email from Wheaton’s provost, Stan Jones, who apologized for his handling of the incident. According to Alan Jacobs, Jones wrote:

I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College…. I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.

But according to some of Jones’ critics, this apology doesn’t go far enough, as Jacobs explains, “because it does not acknowledge Wheaton’s history (and present) of structural racism and sexism.”

Jacobs then asks:

What if, when a brother in Christ apologizes and asks for forgiveness, one were to grant that forgiveness — instead of immediately criticizing him for not having provided a fully adequate account of the reasons he went astray?

I’d follow up with another question: doesn’t the spirit of Dr. Hawkins’ show of solidarity with Muslims provide an analogy for how Jones’ critics might reach out to Wheaton’s provost? I mean, if you can overcome the division between Islam and Christianity by donning a hijab during Advent, can’t you go without a latte for the month of February to show solidarity with Wheaton’s administration?

Jacobs concludes:

So to those who say that Provost Jones’ apology is inadequate, my answer would be: of course it is inadequate. Every act of penitence, including yours and mine, is inadequate.

That could also be instructive for those who think Purgatory is going to take care of residual human guilt. Once humans sin — think one little bite of a piece of fruit — can you ever go back to being acceptable inherently?

No hope without alien righteousness.

Where's Jesus?

Wouldn’t one of those answers that always work in response to any Sunday school question — the Bible, God, or Jesus — be the answer to the dilemma of God’s justice and divine mercy?

But when Pope Francis answers the question, he neglects Jesus and the cross, the ultimate confluence of justice and mercy:

“Sacred Scripture presents us with God as infinite mercy, but also as perfect justice. How are these two things reconciled? How can the reality of mercy be articulated with the need for justice?” the Pope said Feb. 3.

While these two characteristics can seem like opposites, “it’s precisely the mercy of God that brings the fulfillment of true justice,” Francis affirmed.

The Pope made his comments to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience. He recently began a new series of catechesis on the topic of mercy as it is understood in Scripture, in honor of the Jubilee of Mercy.

He said that when we think of justice, what might come to mind is an administration office where victims of an injustice appeal to a judge in court, asking that justice be done.
This, Francis noted, “is retributive justice, imposing a punishment to the guilty, according to the principle that each must be given what is due him.” While certain wrongs can be made right in this way, he said that it “still doesn’t bring true justice.”

Instead, it’s “only in responding with good that evil can be truly defeated,” the Pope said, explaining that this is what we find in the Bible

By helping the guilty person to see the evil done and by appealing to conscience, he can change. Such persons are able “to see their wrong and be open to the forgiveness offered,” Francis said, noting that this is also how families forgive each other, spouses and children included.

Might this be a window into the the problem of Roman Catholic laity not knowing church dogma? And don’t forget how the social justice designs of the mainline Protestant churches eventually made doctrine a trifle.