Looking More and More Like Paul Wrote Romans around 1971 (A.D.)

On the way to church yesterday, I was listening to the latest episode of Mars Hill Audio and I swear I heard Ken Myers complain that modern thinkers do not consider human nature in the light of the incarnation and the resurrection. That would imply an understanding of human nature without sin since Jesus lived a perfect life and since believers who go to heaven will live lives in which it is impossible to sin. If the desire is to call people to live virtuous lives and leave behind the viciousness and debauchery that characterizes modern America, the appeal to something higher is understandable. But it also needs to be plausible. And that means taking sin and unbelief into account when thinking about personal and civic virtue. How much “goodness” is truly possible in a world distorted by sin?

And then at church we read an excerpt from Paul’s epistle to the Romans which made me think he must have been writing at a time when he was observing How (or Why) Liberalism Failed (even though the secular liberals at Columbia University set the date for the epistle around 57 AD):

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:20-32)

Is that a description of Times Square circa 1970 or of Trump’s America? Well, if Columbia University is correct, Paul was actually depicting the society of first-century Mediterranean world. And if Paul was writing about his own time, not the United States with its defective Lockean political theory, then maybe the problems we twenty-first-century Americans face are not the product of bad political theory but of bad people who live at all times.

Notice too, how Paul goes on in that epistle to advise about the remedy for such a sorry state. Is it to have a church that becomes a civilizing force among barbarian tribes? Is it more governmental programs that make two-parent families plausible? Is it reading Aliadair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor on the problems of secular modernity? No. All of these remedies might help to lessen the blows of our fallen estate. But the only solution is — wait for it — justification by faith (chs 4-6) and preachers who will proclaim the good news (ch 10). He doesn’t even invoke the Virgin Mary for help.

But what about politics? Paul even addressed that. Honor the emperor, you know, the one who was not very virtuous and didn’t seem all that interested in rolling back modernity.

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Christianity and Conservatism

Robert Merry thinks conservatism is in crisis:

In an influential 1957 essay entitled “Conservatism as an Ideology,” political scientist Samuel P. Huntington listed fundamental elements of the conservative creed, embraced by nearly all of its proponents: society is the organic product of slow historical growth, and existing institutions embody the wisdom of previous generations; man is a creature of instinct and emotion as well as reason, and evil resides in human nature rather than in any particular societal institutions; the community is superior to the individual, and the rights of men derive from civic responsibility; except in an ultimate moral sense, humans are unequal, and society always consists of a variety of classes, orders, and groups; the settled schemes of government based on human experience are always superior to abstract experimentation.

Thus, wrote Huntington, conservatism differs from other ideologies (except radicalism) in that it lacks any “substantive ideal”—a vision of the perfect society. “No political philosopher,” he said, “has ever described a conservative utopia.”

George W. Bush was a utopian. No other word adequately defines his vision of a Middle East culture in which the ancient Bedouin sensibilities are wiped away in favor of Western values and structures. His stated resolve to “rid the world of evil” demonstrated a lack of any conservative sensibility on where evil resides. He certainly didn’t manifest any understanding of society, particularly Middle Eastern society, as the organic product of slow historical growth. And he placed abstract experimentation over human experience in formulating this war policy rationale.

Why do Christians invariably side with Bush over Huntington? Why would they immanentize the eschaton (bring heaven to earth) when they are supposed to believe a perfect social order won’t come until Christ returns. Is it:

a) Christians are invariably Pelagian or Semi-Pelatian

b) Christians invariably reject amillenialism

c) modern Christians are inherently democratic

d) all of the above?

Following the apostle Paul or agreeing with Augustine certainly doesn’t require someone to be a conservative as Huntington defines it. But clearly, you have to reject important pieces of Christian orthodoxy to avoid conservatism.

Read This and Think Holy Plumbing?

All the benefits of Christ lead plumbers to see their craft in this text?

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1)

When you work with basin wrenches, everything looks like a mounting nut.

What’s a Mayor to Think?

This doesn’t sound transformationalizational:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5)

So is the mayor, or any elected or appointed official, supposed to turn to Abraham (Kuyper) rather than Paul?

What’s a Plumber to Think?

In which category, flesh or Spirit, fall washers and gaskets?

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8)

Does Cultural Christianity Advance the Gospel?

Missionaries tell us no. Convincing indigenous peoples that they don’t need to become western or American in order to trust Christ has been a chief insight of modern missions at least since 1900. But for some of the younger Calvinistically inclined folks, the push back against liberalism also now includes a defense of cultural Christianity.

Picking your spots for such a faith surely requires discretion since the riots in Philadelphia between nativist Protestants and Irish Roman Catholics had all the earmarks of cultural Christianity. Protestants expected the public schools to use the Bible to reinforce republican norms but Roman Catholics objected that the Protestant Bible was not neutral — it was not even the right one — the Douay version. Those riots were far more about politics and culture, but defenses of cultural Christianity tread gingerly around such episodes.

What is especially perplexing about Stephen Wolfe’s defense of cultural Christianity is not simply how he might make sense of its darker moments in the past, but even how it measures up to the New Testament. For instance, he starts with this assumption:

We should first acknowledge that the civil recognition, establishment, and privileging of Christianity was the received and standard view for most of Christian history, amongst most major Christian traditions, including many Protestants, and only recently has it been rejected by a majority of western Christians.

That may be true after 350 AD, but imagine Peter and Paul thinking the privileging of Christianity was the air they breathed when they were receiving inspired and infallible revelations from the Holy Spirit.

Wolfe later asserts in a way that would have left Paul scratching his head:

Put differently, the civil and ecclesiastical are the twin species of the same genus, Christian communion. The people of God submit to these mutually supporting, separate and independent administrations because Christ is both the Creator and Ruler of creation and the Mediator of eternal life. The Christian communion is not coterminous with ecclesiastical membership, but is rather the same people submitted to both the civil and ecclesiastical.

Again, that might describe Christendom at some point, but how does it make sense of the apostle’s warning to Corinthians against going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. (1 Cor. 6)

If the civil and ecclesiastical are mutually supporting, why is Paul so incensed with the Corinthians for going to court? Might it be that Paul and the early church had no idea about the state reinforcing Christian norms? That’s what persecution means, I believe.

Calvin’s commentary on this epistle also suggests that he, even though living at a time before 1789 when expectations for Christendom were still in place for all Christians except the Anabaptists, was not as convinced of the easy harmony between church and state. The reason is that the magistrate is an avenger and the church is an instrument of God’s love and mercy:

Those who aim at greater clearness in their statements tell us that we must distinguish between public and private revenge; for while the magistrate’s vengeance is appointed by God, those who have recourse to it do not rashly take vengeance at their own hand, but have recourse to God as an Avenger. This, it is true, is said judiciously and appropriately; but we must go a step farther; for if it be not allowable even to desire vengeance from God, then, on the same principle, it were not allowable to have recourse to the magistrate for vengeance.

I acknowledge, then, that a Christian man is altogether prohibited from revenge, so that he must not exercise it, either by himself, or by means of the magistrate, nor even desire it. If, therefore, a Christian man wishes to prosecute his rights at law, so as not to offend God, he must, above all things, take heed that he does not bring into court any desire of revenge, any corrupt affection of the mind, or anger, or, in fine, any other poison. In this matter love will be the best regulator.

Of course, Calvin is no Anabaptist. He knows the legitimacy of the magistrate and even the competency of unbelieving civil authorities. But he also senses in ways that critics of modern secular liberalism do not seem to that the purposes of church and state are distinct. One implication is that they are not necessarily harmonious. Especially if upholding the Christian ideal of love.

Perhaps cultural Christianity aspires to such an ideal. But chances are what Christian societies produce when the church is established is more on the order of manners or politeness than the spiritual fruit that comes with sanctification.

You Can Make This Up

Father Z explains the old and new rules for becoming a saint after the Vatican’s recent expansion of the categories of beatification:

In the Church we have had the ancient teaching and tradition of “red” or bloody martyrdom for the sake of charity whereby the martyr dies giving witness in the face of hatred for Christ, the Church, the Faith or some aspect of the Christian life that is inseparable from our Christian identity. There is also a long tradition of identifying “white” martyrdom, coined by St. Jerome, whereby a person gives witness through an ascetic life, withdrawal from the world, pilgrimages involving great sacrifice, or who suffer greatly for the Faith but who do not die in bearing witness. Coming from another tradition there is a kind of “blue” (or “green”) martyrdom, involving great penance and mortifications without necessarily the sort of withdrawal from life that a hermit or a cenobite might live. Gregory the Great in his Dialogues, writes of different kinds of martyrdom, bloody, public martyrdom in time of persecution and secret martyrdom, not in time of persecution. He wrote that secret martyrs are no less worthy of honor, because they also endured sufferings and the attacks of hidden enemies, but they persevered in charity.

In principle I think that this is a good move… if we are going to stay on the course of so many causes for beatification, that is. Once upon a time, it was an extremely difficult process to investigate a life, gather proofs and organize all the documentation properly, and then study it thoroughly, etc. Now, with the modern means of travel and communication, that process is easier. Many more causes have resulted and, because they in fact corresponded to the criteria established, more causes have been successful. Also, it was the clear desire of John Paul II that there be more examples of Christians “raised to the altar” for our edification and imitation, so as to say, “Yes, it IS possible to be a saint!” I think that results have varied in that project. In a way, it is good to encourage people to aspire to sainthood. However, once the number of beatifications and canonizations multiplied, they seems less “special”.

Whatever happened to faith in Christ (doesn’t look like that Joint Declaration with the Lutherans on justification changed all that much the sufficiency of Christ)?

Meanwhile, for the rest of the church, beatification is not the end but purgatory:

Let’s start by reviewing what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1030-1032) teaches about Purgatory:

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

“The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. … The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire…”

“This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture…”

“From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God…”

“The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead…”

Is the lesson then that a hierarchical church produces a hierarchical plan of salvation? The saints and the rest?

In Protestantism, all believers are saints. Even Paul knew that:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Cor:
1-2)

Would You Rather Be Honorable or Moral?

After reading H. L. Mencken and seeing the John Stott quote that Tim Challies turned into an infographic (yowza!), put me on the side of honor. I’ve seen too many obedience boys and girls who show not the slightest interest in being human when sanctity is the ultimate aim. But plenty of parents know they can’t apply high standards of conduct all the time. Sometimes you let the down the guard so you can win another day. Life is not a court of law. It’s a pilgrimage and honor aids dignity and relationships that may down the road help holiness prevail.

That’s why Mencken yet again shows uncanny insight:

In the face of so exalted a moral passion it would be absurd to look for that urbane habit which seeks the well—being of one’s self and the other fellow, not in exact obedience to harsh statutes, but in ease, dignity and the more delicate sort of self—respect. That is to say, it would be absurd to ask a thoroughly moral man to be also a man of honour. The two, in fact, are eternal enemies; their endless struggle achieves that happy mean of philosophies which we call civilization. The man of morals keeps order in the world, regimenting its lawless hordes and organizing its governments; the man of honour mellows and embellishes what is thus achieved, giving to duty the aspect of a privilege and making human intercourse a thing of fine faiths and understandings. We trust the former to do what is righteous; we trust the latter to do what is seemly. It is seldom that a man can do both. The man of honour inevitably exalts the punctilio above the law of God; one may trust him, if he has eaten one’s salt, to respect one’s daughter as he would his own, but if he happens to be under no such special obligation it may be hazardous to trust him with even one’s charwoman or one’s mother—in—law. And the man of morals, confronted by a moral situation, is usually wholly without honour. Put him on the stand to testify against a woman, and he will tell all he knows about her, even including what he has learned in the purple privacy of her boudoir. More, he will not tell it reluctantly, shame—facedly, apologetically, but proudly and willingly, in response to his high sense of moral duty. It is simply impossible for such a man to lie like a gentleman. He lies, of course, like all of us, and perhaps more often than most of us on the other side, but he does it, not to protect sinners from the moral law, but to make their punishment under the moral law more certain, swift, facile and spectacular.

By the way, honor is even key to the way Christians should regard the civil magistrate. Paul recommends honor in Romans 13, and Calvin agrees. But if you really want morality, say hello to the religious right and the permissive left.

Cool or Wretched: Which Kind of Christian are You?

Here is what one of the apostles’ successors says makes Roman Catholicism “cool”:

Guilt. Pundits and comedians make fun of “Catholic guilt,” often described as an overactive conscience that makes us think everything is a sin. For example, when forgetting to floss, or not finishing all the food on your plate becomes confession material. But while people make fun of Catholics for their scrupulosity, in fact, having a little guilt is a healthy habit. It keeps us from getting into trouble and inspires us to do the right thing. Our world today would benefit from a little “Catholic guilt.”

What happened to that sense of the penalty for sin that Paul agonized in Romans 7?

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 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.

Funny how a little bit of guilt goes a long way — all the way to the cross.

How can you be scrupulous and turn guilt into something by which to appeal to youth?

Human Bodies Waste Away But Cities Abide (psshaw)

One of yesterday’s sermons has me thinking: when will the neo-Calvinists ever do justice to the physical-spiritual dualism that legitimately arises in Paul’s teaching?

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ESV)

You can’t simply point at “all things” passages and make Paul’s understanding of life in this world go away:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

You can affirm both. Christ is preeminent and we are not at home until we are with Christ. But to use the Lordship of Christ as the basis for transforming cities or redeeming movies and rejecting the dualism between fallen bodies and redeemed souls as fundamentalist is not Pauline. Heck, it’s not even Calvinist:

The wicked, too, groan, because they are not contented with their present condition; but afterwards an opposite disposition prevails, that is, a clinging to life, so that they view death with horror, and do not feel the long continuance of this mortal life to be a burden. The groaning of believers, on the other hand, arises from this — that they know, that they are here in a state of exile from their native land, and that they know, that they are here shut up in the body as in a prison. Hence they feel this life to be a burden, because in it they cannot enjoy true and perfect blessedness, because they cannot escape from the bondage of sin otherwise than by death, and hence they aspire to be elsewhere.

As, however, it is natural for all animals to desire existence, how can it be, that believers are willing to cease to exist? The Apostle solves this question, when he says, that believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life. At the same time, the words express more than this. For he admits, that we have naturally an aversion to the quitting of this life, considered in itself, as no one willingly allows himself to be striped of his garments. Afterwards, however, he adds, that the natural horror of death is overcome by confidence; 515 as an individual will, without any reluctance, throw away a coarse, dirty, threadbare, and, in one word, tattered garment, with the view of his being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one.

Farther, he explains the metaphor by saying — that what is mortal may be destroyed 516 by life. For as flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, (1 Corinthians 15:50,) it is necessary, that what is corruptible in our nature should perish, in order that we may be thoroughly renewed, and restored to a state of perfection. On this account, our body is called a prison, in which we are confined.