The Obedience Boy W-w

Tim Challies leaves out a crucial piece of Reformed Protestantism when he describes The Utter Devastation of Sin:

But is even a tornado a significant enough picture of sin? A tornado is one big system that devastates and destroys, but quickly moves on. As much damage as that F4 tornado did to Ringgold, it lasted for just a few minutes and was gone. Sin is different in that a big sin seems to spawn a thousand little sins. So maybe we need to push the metaphor to near the breaking point to say that sin is like a big tornado that tears through town while spawning off hundreds of smaller tornados, each of which goes in its own direction, causes its own trauma, and leaves behind its own trail of destruction. One big sin is so awful, so evil, so sinful, that it generates a thousand little opportunities to compound the sin, setting off all those other whirlwinds. People can sin in their response—perhaps they try to cover it up or they try to downplay it. People can sin as they process it—perhaps they gossip about the people involved or they make prideful assertions. People can sin in their actions—perhaps they over-react or under-react, displaying either needless panic or thoughtless apathy. The possibilities are endless.

The fact is that sin is awful, unbearably awful. Sin is evil, horrifyingly evil. And sin begets sin. There are endless ways that sin invites sin, that sin promotes further sin, that sin invites the opportunity to sin more, to sin deeper, to spawn off into a massive all-consuming storm. Let this be just one more reason to put sin to death—to search it out, pray it out, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to root it out.

O, wretched man that he is, to borrow a phrase. Wasn’t this understanding of the pervasiveness of sin what drove Luther to the alien righteousness of Christ imputed by faith alone as his only hope? And wasn’t the pervasiveness of sin in his regenerate self what drove Paul to the freedom from the law that he found only in Christ? So why bring up the Holy Spirit and the quest for holiness apart from Christ?

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 7:21-8:4 ESV)

Without Christ, doesn’t putting sin to death place you on the same treadmill as your average Roman Catholic (not really given the soteriological security we see at Old Life from the ex-Protestant Roman Catholics)?

Faith in Christ doesn’t give us a clean slate to be holy now that past sins are forgiven. The active obedience of Christ is also imputed to us in faith. It lets us looking indwelling sin in the eye before turning to look in trust at Christ. Shouldn’t someone who identifies with Calvinism (even of a recent sort) know better?

A Gospel for the King Penguin

This is how providence works. The same morning that I finish an article by Jonathan Franzen on his trip to Antarctica (and birding), I finish an interview that Ken Myers did with Norman Wirzba. The latter is trying to help Christians think wholistically about creation and has written a book about (in part) about the language we use. If we call the world out there “creation” instead of “nature,” will we think about it differently, more in relation to the creator? And then, what happens if we remember that Jesus is not merely savior but also creator? Doesn’t that invite thinking of Jesus as savior of creation? At one point, Wirzba even spoke of a gospel for non-human creatures.

That’s when the jaws clenched and the pace (of the constitutional) quickened. I understand the appeal of thinking about creation in broader terms so that Christians might care about the environment. Heck, I’ve read and still admire Wendell Berry and believe that I should try to live in a way that shows some respect for the created order. But that prevents me from venerating or sacralizing it, the classic way that pietists try to make something more important or permanent than it really is. If we can turn a cause into something holy or sacred or redemptive, then we must support it. If it is great instead of merely good, then not to support it is wrong, wicked, undesirable.

Here’s where Franzen came in as the conversation partner Myers and Wirzba need to have. The birds he adores, king penguins, survive by eating krill:

Krill are pinkie-size, pinkie-colored crustaceans. Estimating the total amount of them in the Antarctic is difficult, but a frequently cited figure, five hundred million metric tons, could make the species the world’s largest repository of animal biomass. Unfortunately for penguins, many countries consider krill good eating, both for humans (the taste is said to be acquirable) and especially for farm fish and livestock. Currently, the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tons, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tons a year, and has begun building the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”

So what would Wirzba propose as the gospel for krill? How does Jesus or his followers “save” krill?

One way that Franzen suggests is by humans being less fertile (which poses a few problems for Christians — Roman and Protestant — who believe the chief function of marriage is reproduction):

It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children. It may also be true that nothing can stop the logic of human priority: if people want meat and there are krill for the taking, krill will be taken. It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children. They, too, deserve our care.

And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever. My godmother had had a life like that, after her only child was killed. I remember the half-mad smile with which she once confided to me the dollar value of her Wedgwood china. But Fran had been nutty even before Gail died; she’d been obsessed with a biological replica of herself. Life is precarious, and you can crush it by holding on too tightly, or you can love it the way my godfather did. Walt lost his daughter, his war buddies, his wife, and my mother, but he never stopped improvising. I see him at a piano in South Florida, flashing his big smile while he banged out old show tunes and the widows at his complex danced. Even in a world of dying, new loves continue to be born.

The article makes perfect sense of the references to Franzen’s uncle here, a person who left the author enough money to splurge on a cruise to the South Pole and endure a long trip with very few young people (as the slide show on the last night of the cruise revealed).

The article also makes sense of a tragic dimension to creation that Wirzba’s inspiration neglects altogether. What if Darwin was right? What if nature is red in tooth and claw? And what if God created and sustained the world to run that way, not in a theistic evolution way, but in a way where critters survive on other critters? Even in a vegetarian world, plants die, humans cut down trees for warmth, and carnivores still eat critters. A gospel of creation does not fix that fundamental problem of survival. Granted, I’ve not read Wirzba’s books (reviews are here and here). But once again I am struck by the way people in the name of Christ blur fundamental distinctions (ecclesiastical-civil, sacred-secular, human-natural, redemption-creation) seemingly to transcend the very creatureliness they recommend.

Jesus Only Christianity

Since a new set of interlocutors has emerged of late I am going to persist with a contrast between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism that seems to be fairly crucial for considering the Reformation — namely, what to do about Mary. May seems to the month of our Lord’s mother, hence a number of posts at National Catholic Register (see what EWTN did there?) about Mary. To contrast the liturgical and national calendars, please keep in mind that for Americans May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month.)

Mark Shea persists with a defense of Mary’s immaculate conception and concludes that the church arrived at a two-fold doctrine of salvation (and we’re not even talking about God’s covenant with Jews — though since Mary was Jewish, I guess we are):

Jesus saves from sin in two ways just as a doctor saves from sickness in two ways: cure and prevention. Mary was prevented from contracting original sin in the moment of her conception by a singular act of grace through Christ. In her, we see, not the absence of Christ’s saving grace, but its fullest expression. Hence, she is “full of grace” and praises “God my savior” (Luke 1:47).

For confessional Protestants, that seems like a stretch since we believe in only one mediator between God and man. This implies that some persons can have a different relationship with God. If one has a unique relationship with God, why not a lot more? Why didn’t God simply reboot after Adam’s sin and “prevent” Cain and Abel from sinning?

Meanwhile, Dwight Longenecker tries to explain why Mary as Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix is not an offense but affirms the sole mediation of Christ:

Once we have recognized that Mary suffered with Jesus we should take a moment to try to understand the depth of that identification with her son. Remember she is linked with her son like no other Mother and her son is like no other Son. How often have we seen and experienced the deep identification between a mother and her child? The child suffers at school. Mama bear steps in for she has suffered too. The child experiences hardship and tears. The mother’s heart is broken too. Only when we understand the depth of Mary’s suffering and the depth of her unique identification with her son will we begin to understand the Catholic doctrines of Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix.

We should be clear that we are not saying that Jesus’ work of redemption on the cross was in some way insufficient. Neither is his work as mediator between God and Man inadequate. We acknowledge that his redemptive suffering on the cross was full and final and totally sufficient. We acknowledge that he is the only saving mediator between God and Man. So what do we mean with these titles for Mary?

What we mean is that she participates in the full, final, sufficient and unique work of Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world. She walks beside him and through his work she joins in that work. It is like Christ’s love and sacrifice is a fast flowing river, but Mary swims in the current of that river. Her work is dependent on his work. Her participation and co-operation could not happen without his work going before and enabling all that she does.

But again the question arises, why single out Mary? Aren’t all believers united to Christ? Don’t we all swim in the current of his work? And wouldn’t it be fair to say after a reading of the New Testament that the apostles (and prophets before them) participated much more directly in Christ’s work than Mary (who is on the sidelines for most narratives)? Why not at least call Peter a Co-Redemptrix? He is after all the original Vicar of Christ. And why appeal to a special relationship between mother and child when Christ himself said that his followers bore a special relationship to himself in ways that were closer than blood relations (“Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it'” [Luke 8:19-21].)

The point here though has less to do with some of the questions that Longenecker and Shea raise (even as they try to answer objections). It is instead this: what would Christianity lose if Mary was not understood the way these apologists conceive her? Would Christianity be somehow deficient without the immaculate conception or Mary as co-redemptrix?

Simplicity is not always a good thing. But one way of reading the Reformation is as an effort to remove the clutter that had accumulated after a millennium of passing on the faith. Anyone who has changed residences knows the unenviable task of deciding what to do with the basement. Reformers did just that with the western church in the sixteenth century. Some might argue that they donated too many boxes with useful items to United European Charities, Inc. But if Longenecker really does affirm that Christ’s work was sufficient in and of itself (along with Christ’s Spirit, of course), why the attachment to Mary? What does her uniqueness profit the gospel or the Christian religion more generally?

And if Protestantism is really about trying to exalt the work of Christ — and doesn’t mind stepping on traditions that get in the way of seeing Christ’s sufficiency — why would it generate the hostility that it did from Rome?

Why Did Christ Die?

Was it because sin is so heinous or because humans need a cosmic flannel graph to illustrate God’s displeasure over sin (I don’t think he is weeping about it)? Machen thinks the former:

The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented sinners as righteous in God’s sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness before the judgment seat of God. But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin. The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life He brings those for whom He died. The Christian, on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, not only has died unto sin, but also lives unto God. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But what if God can change you apart from the death and resurrection of Christ?

In the midst of this crisis, (that went on for more than a year,) I came across the teaching of Martin Luther and his followers, who, when confronted with the same apparently insoluble problem, issued a ruling that was, essentially, against God. Human nature was hopelessly corrupt, top to bottom and god Himself has no power to alter it. They described the human soul as a dung heap, over which the grace of God falls like a deep covering of snow, that changes nothing of the underlying corruption.

This nauseating and plainly wicked doctrine – essentially nihilistic – so infuriated me that I realized in a flash that it was an insult, not to me in my failings, but to God’s infinite perfection and power. My very fury at this insult made me understand at last what the Church had always held: that it is not my power, but the power of God that will change me into this “perfect” new thing. This promise was true, and it had much more to do with Him than with me.

If God can change us, why would he need to send his son to die on the cross?

But if Machen and Luther are right about the extent of sin and the irredeemable character of fallen humans apart from an alien righteousness imputed to them and received by faith, then what incentives do people have to be good?

We cannot “earn” God’s love but, alas, too often we reject it. And it is up to us to use the gifts God has given to us—including our inherent rationality as well as the Church and the aids to faith and reason it provides—to orient ourselves to the good. Through hard work we can develop our character (habits of virtue or vice that go far toward determining who we are) such that we will recognize and say “yes” to God’s will. The saint does not achieve salvation through mere right conduct, but the saint’s conduct, both spiritual and physical, help him to surrender fully to God and do His will. In doing the right thing for the right reason we orient ourselves toward what is right and thereby recognize and accept God.

. . . Good works help develop within us habits that enable us to distinguish between good and evil; good works make it more likely that we will choose the good, even when it brings with it pain and death. This, I submit, is not some prideful claim to earning one’s own salvation, but rather a recognition of both the dignity and the weakness of the human person. We have within us an impulse toward the good, which we too often ignore. We have written on our hearts a knowledge of God’s will, which we also too often ignore. By both thinking and doing right we can embrace the good, opening ourselves to the grace offered by God—who is beyond our full knowledge but who has created within us a soul capable of recognizing His will.

If we have goodness, or an openness to the good within us, why exactly did Christ have to die?

Somethings don’t develop or change. Christianity doesn’t make humanism Christian.

What’s In Your Hymnal?

I am generally sheepish about singing Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts since both hymn writers knocked the Psalter off its congregational song pedestal and the former, Wesley, is a — well — Wesleyan. But on Sunday, when we sang, “Arise, My Soul, Arise,” the cold heart in this vinegary Calvinist warmed:

Arise, my soul, arise,
shake off your guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice,
in my behalf appears;
Before the throne my Surety stands,
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.

Chorus: Arise (arise), arise (arise), arise
Arise, my soul, arise.
Arise (arise), arise (arise), arise
Arise, my soul, arise.
Shake off your guilty fears and rise

He ever lives above,
for me to intercede;
His all redeeming love,
His precious blood, to plead;
His blood atoned for every race,
His blood atoned for every race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Five bleeding wounds He bears;
received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers;
they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”

My God is reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child;
I can no longer fear
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.

After attending a marriage service at a Roman Catholic parish this winter, I was surprised to learn that Christians in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome have Wesley and Watts available to them. But I can’t imagine any Roman Catholic who thinks he or she will wind up in purgatory singing “Arise, My Soul, Arise.” I know for some of the readers here, the sense of guilt and fear of condemnation that gripped Luther is not the sort of angst that full confidence in the magisterium, or papal supremacy, or 2,000 years of uncontested (really?) history yields. At the same time, sentiments like Wesley’s were the target for Trent’s condemnations of Protestant teaching on assurance.

So for those Christians who put so much confidence in the papacy, what kind of hymns would they sing? How about the Pontifical Anthem?

O happy Rome – O happy noble Rome
O happy Rome – O happy Rome, noble Rome
You are the seat of Peter, who shed his blood in Rome,
Peter, to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given.
Pontiff, You are the successor of Peter;
Pontiff, You are the teacher, you confirm your brethren;
Pontiff, You who are the Servant of the servants of God,
and fisher of men, are the shepherd of the flock,
linking heaven and earth.
Pontiff, You are the vicar of Christ on earth,
a rock amidst the waves, You are a beacon in the darkness;
You are the defender of peace, You are the guardian of unity,
watchful defender of liberty; in You is the authority.

Pontiff, you are the unshakable rock, and on this rock
was built the Church of God.
Pontiff, You are the vicar of Christ on earth,
a rock amidst the waves, You are a beacon in the darkness;
You are the defender of peace, You are the guardian of unity,
watchful defender of liberty; in You is the authority.
O happy Rome – O noble Rome.

Or, how about “Long Live the Pope His Praises Sound“:

1. Long live the Pope! His praises sound
Again and yet again:
His rule is over space and time;
His throne the hearts of men:
All hail! the Shepherd King of Rome,
The theme of loving song:
Let all the earth his glory sing,
And heav’n the strain prolong.
Let all the earth his glory sing,
And heav’n the strain prolong.

2. Beleaguered by the foes of earth,
Beset by hosts of hell,
He guards the loyal flock of Christ,
A watchful sentinel:
And yet, amid the din and strife,
The clash of mace and sword,
He bears alone the shepherd staff,
This champion of the Lord.
He bears alone the shepherd staff,
This champion of the Lord.

3. His signet is the Fisherman’s;
No sceptre does he bear;
In meek and lowly majesty
He rules from Peter’s Chair:
And yet from every tribe and tongue,
From every clime and zone,
Three hundred million voices sing,
The glory of his throne.
Three hundred million voices sing,
The glory of his throne.

4. Then raise the chant, with heart and voice,
In church and school and home:
“Long live the Shepherd of the Flock!
Long live the Pope of Rome!”
Almighty Father, bless his work,
Protect him in his ways,
Receive his prayers, fulfill his hopes,
And grant him “length of days.”
Receive his prayers, fulfill his hopes,
And grant him “length of days.”

I’ll stick with the Wesleyan.

Grammatico-Historical Interpretation of the Constitution

Lots of posts out there about Antonin Scalia as the faithful Roman Catholic. But the man sure sounded like he learned how to read the Constitution from Protestants:

Nonetheless, there is no escaping a verdict on his influence on American jurisprudence, and that verdict is not affected by the fact that he was a good buddy to prominent liberals. He was an advocate of two judicial ideologies, neither of which is intellectually tenable and which conflict with each other. Originalism was Scalia’s core ideological commitment, the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was understood at the time of its ratification. He employed Originalism to question the idea that the Constitution is a “living document,” as liberal jurists held.

To be sure, there was a need for a conservative corrective after the high court starting snooping around the “penumbras” of the Constitution. As Justice Elena Kagan said in mourning Scalia’s death, “His views on interpreting texts have changed the way all of us think and talk about the law.” But, whether the Constitution is alive or not, the people whose government it intends to frame are most certainly alive and their circumstances change. Laws that cannot change with the lived circumstances of a people soon become disconnected from reality, and that disconnect will lead to the law being held in derision or ignored. . . .

Scalia’s other ideological commitment was to Textualism, the idea that the actual words must be interpreted in a kind of fundamentalist manner. This could conflict with Originalism. For example, an originalist would, like an historian, search for explanations as to what was intended by the drafters of a given text, to confirm that original intent and guarantee against latter day misinterpretations. But, Scalia famously loathed citations to legislative history. Textualism rests on the supposition that the Constitution is a self-interpreting text and if that were true, why would we need a Supreme Court? In practice, Textualism resulted in the conclusion that any given text meant exactly what Antonin Scalia thought it meant.

Of course, it’s not clear that Scalia’s hermeneutic was all positive. But it hardly sounds like it’s a product of deferring to the magisterium or to the development of dogma.

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.