A Wrestling Match Over the Resurrection

Chris Gehrz thinks a belief in the resurrection will produce activist evangelicals (maybe even social justice types):

What would happen if evangelicals let the reality of the resurrection penetrate into our hearts and give us the vitality and power of Christ’s victory over death?

First, it would cause us to value life all the more. Yet many “pro-life” evangelicals seem to care little when their preferred presidential administration closes this country to those seeking refuge from war and gang violence. Or when it ignores the deaths of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico. Or when it leaves unaddressed (or worsens) problems with health care, drug abuse, poverty, and climate change that threaten the lives of millions.

Second, a living orthodoxy of resurrection would leave us evangelicals more hopeful and less fearful. Instead, as I observed in our book, “The same people who argue most strenuously for the historicity of the resurrection can seem the least likely to live as if Jesus Christ has actually conquered the grave.”

The resurrection as the basis for social policy and legislation — I have not seen that one before. But Gehrz thinks this corresponds with what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That is not the way I typically think about the resurrection, especially after what Paul writes just before that verse:

… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Instead of turning Christians into transformationalistizationers of culture, the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection would seem to teach believers that this world is inconsequential to the world to come, that as Paul writes elsewhere, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” We may not labor in vain. But we die and we receive glory, and that puts the affairs of this life in a different perspective, as it seemed to for Paul:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4)

Gerhz even seems to agree with this when he writes, “a lived belief in literal resurrection should lessen our fear of both literal and metaphorical death.” If true, then it would less our fears of inequality and injustice since Christians will have a life to come.

But by trying to appropriate the resurrection for social justice, Gehrz seems to be guilty of what Paul warned against:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Christian teaching on salvation transcends the politics and economics, which likely explains why Paul had so little to say about the social injustice of the Roman Empire. Christianity is an otherworldly faith because Christians await the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns.

Does this mean Christians should eschew politics of only vote for Republicans? Probably not on politics, it’s a free church when it comes to the ballot box. Which is to say that Christians have all sorts of material for sorting out the social and political problems that come with a fallen world.

We don’t need to baptize them in the miracles of redemption.

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Where Pietists and Presbyterians Differ on Christian Freedom

Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:

Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.

In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.

That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).

Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.

But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).

That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).

The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.

That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:

But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.

Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).

For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Dissecting Signers (cont.)

I wonder why John Fea and other signers of the “Open Letter” about racism and Confederate Monuments did not feel the pinch of Matthew Lee Anderson’s criticism of the Nashville Statement. Anderson wrote again:

While forming God’s people is a thoroughly laudable aim, I wonder: why then the website, the press release, and the signatories? The means of communication are not neutral, after all. They deliberately invite attention not just from evangelicals, but the world. If the form of such statements is part of catechesis, then why were Bible verses left off? And why were reasons for each of the affirmations and denials not given, or definitions of terms not supplied? Such additions would dramatically expand the statement’s length. But what does that matter, if the purpose is catechism and not the culture war?

And why is there not more attention to the pastoral dynamics of how these affirmations and denials are to be worked out in the context of local communities? For a statement signed by a heavy concentration of Baptists, its form and substance have little to do with congregational life. It is a “statement” by an evangelicalism that has left ecclesial communities behind in favor of trans-denominational, parachurch partnerships.

That could equally be said of the Christian scholars who signed the letter opposing Neo-Nazis. What about the means of communication? Where are the biblical citations? Why isn’t the “Open Letter” taking a side in the culture wars? One answer could be that the sins are so obvious. So why isn’t it possible to see the self-evident character of the sins enumerated in the Nashville Statement? Only some evangelical scholars are allowed to pontificate, only the smart ones?

When Fea writes that Anderson is observing what evangelical historians are seeing — “Anderson and Gerhz seem to be in agreement that the Nashville Statement reflects what we (and now many others) have been calling ‘The Age of Trump'” — that avoids partisanship?

You could even argue that Anderson’s diagnosis of the subtext and optics of the Nashville Statement apply across the board, even to celebrity Christian intellectuals, like Rod Dreher who is excited about the release of the French translation of Benedict Option. If the means of communication and the publicity machines are not neutral, if they capitulate to the economic structures, inequalities of late modernity, and the desires of consumers, then why not apply that to individuals as much as statements?

But when it comes to Tim Keller, nothing to see (not even the publicity machine, fundraising, digital networks, and fame trafficking that has attended the New York City star):

it isn’t fair to assign blame to a teacher when students do not live up to his standard, particularly in a case like this one where the “teacher” had virtually no personal contact with most of the students and has instead simply attracted a crowd of admirers via publications.

Indeed, if anything I think we should commend Keller for his stewarding of his position at Redeemer. They were very selective in what sermons they made freely available online, he waited a long time to start writing books, and he has put a far greater emphasis on church planting in NYC rather than simply growing his brand as a celebrity pastor. Given what has happened to Mark Driscoll and now Darrin Patrick, we should be profoundly grateful for men like Keller (and John Piper) who manage to be in the spotlight for so long and to do so with relatively little scandal.

I thought Anderson said that publications, lack of personal contact, and crowds of followers were not “neutral.”

The lesson is that the means of production behind the Nashville Statement are flawed. But the means of production behind Keller — well, he arrived ex nihilo.

Why I Wouldn’t Sign (if I were evangelical)

Would you sign this expression of empathy with people who are not citizens of the United States? Here is how it begins:

The United States has experienced a contentious election and post-election season marked by fear, polarization, and violence. The current political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, misogyny, nativism, and great economic disparity. As faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education who represent varying degrees of privilege and power (but who are not representing those institutions in this document), we, the undersigned, join our voices with those who are most vulnerable.

We affirm the dignity of every human being as created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). We submit to the sovereignty of Christ who humbled himself unto death. As members of his body, we strive to consider others above ourselves (Phil. 2:2–8); to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15); to serve one another in humility (Matt. 20:26–28); and to honor and steward God’s good creation (Gen. 1:28). As one body, if one member suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26); if one weeps, the body laments with them (Rom. 12:15); even creation groans in bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-23).

I wonder if these Christian faculty would be inclined to sign a man-made creed, say like the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord? I thought evangelicals were supposed to be anti-creedal.

Oh well.

Here‘s why Chris Gehrz signed (even though he admits he hesitated):

Indeed, I think most Christians would affirm them, whatever their theological, political, or other differences. While hardly an exhaustive list of Christian beliefs, these convictions are nevertheless foundational to Christian faith, community, and mission. And, as the statement goes on to explain, such commitments need to be restated and acted upon in a time when there is “falsehood that seeks to undermine truth and any propaganda intended to obscure it,” when a “large portion of our communities is weeping” and there is genuine anxiety and fear among many of our neighbors.

A concern for truth is obviously important for academics, whatever their religious beliefs and doubts. Why our role as Christian educators would compel us to acknowledge “pain and woundedness” and then “entreat Christian communities to seek healing, reconciliation, and justice” may be less evident.

Here‘s why his colleague, Ray VanArragon (what a Dutch-American name), wouldn’t sign:

First, the petition is unduly expansive, covering a range of topics that include racism, economic disparity, the environment, and our lack of neighborliness. At the same time it does not offer any recommendations for concrete responsive action.

Second, it employs language that tends to put off people who live outside of academic circles. It speaks vaguely about “structural injustice” and “degrees of privilege and power,” without explaining what those terms mean. It slyly suggests that Christians ought to share the priorities of the political left – a suggestion reinforced by the fact that, expansive as it is, it makes no mention of abortion. Right-of-center Christians, even well-meaning ones, may be inclined to dismiss the petition as pompous, disingenuous, and one-sided.

Here’s why I’m not.

This statement:

The current political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, misogyny, nativism, and great economic disparity.

Does not go with this statement:

we affirm our deep resolve to pursue truth, to reason carefully, and to rely on sound evidence.

Outrage is easy. So is moral posturing. Thinking carefully so that you don’t exhibit moral overreach is a challenge. I’d have thought educators would know this.

America is not America (part two)

Can we turn anywhere in the past for instruction about refugee and immigrant policy?

No, say the undergraduates at Princeton University:

Trump’s vision for the United States is perniciously fascist — incorporating elements of racism, xenophobia, jingoism, totalitarianism, and misogyny. Worst of all, Trump’s vision is indefinite: His actions have no bounds, and it is unclear when this nation will heal from his actions.

But this is not a departure from Americanism. There is nothing specifically un-American about Trump’s executive orders or rhetoric. The American Nightmare is an American Reality. Only when we realize that “living up to American values” is to sanction Trump may we wake up from this horrid dream.

Immigrant exclusion based on race, religion, or national origin is an American pastime. The Alien and Sedition Acts, arguably the first discriminating immigration act, were signed into law in 1798. Following this was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; in response to popular racist and xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment, the act “required the few nonlaborers who sought entry to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate.” The act was extended into the 20th Century with the Geary Act, and its effects were not effectively reversed until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is only one of many governmental measures to marginalize those deemed a “threat” to white civilization. Notably, the United States is guilty of genocide against Indigenous tribes. The Trail of Tears, perhaps the most infamous atrocity committed against an Indigenous tribe, resulted from Andrew Jackson’s abuse of presidential power to seize Native lands and force thousands into what is now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on the journey, with hundreds of others dying upon arrival. Trump’s executive orders in support of Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline is a continuation of the United States’ regnant disregard for indigenous peoples, not an anomaly.

Cold War policy isn’t much help either:

There was another way to become a refugee, an immigrant, and eventually a U.S. citizen. According to immigration law, if a migrant was on American soil, even if one had entered illegally, one could claim asylum, arguing that the applicant had a “well founded fear” of persecution if returned home. Only two thousand or so persons won asylum annually in the 1970s. For example, the government denied asylum to most of the Haitian boat people during the 1970s and deported them. After the 1980 refugee act incorporated the new UN definition of refugee status in place of the anticommunist one, and when the civil wars in Central America escalated, the number applying for asylum skyrocketed. More than 140,000 applied in 1995, for example, and by the end of the 1990s the backlog reached several hundred thousand. Haitians came by boat, but tens of thousands of Central Americans illegally crossed the border separating the United States and Mexico. The State Department and the INS insisted they were mostly illegal immigrants who should be deported. INS officials in Florida did modify policy slightly toward Nicaraguans. An official said that he could not deny asylum to Nicaraguans when the United States insisted that the government of that country was undemocratic and that the CIA-backed contras were trying to overthrow it. Nicaraguans still had difficulty in winning asylum status, but their approval rate was more than double that of their neighbors. In 1989, for example, 5,092 Nicaraguans won asylum, compared with 102 Guatemalans and 443 Salvadorans.

Friends of these contestants for asylum insisted that a double standard was being applied: Cubans merely had to get to the United States, but Central Americans had to win their claims on an individual basis. Many undocumented immigrant Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans did adjust their status due to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed in 1986. As noted, the law covered those in the United States before 1982, but for others fleeing violence in Central America after that date individual asylum was required, which was even more difficult to demonstrate when the civil wars in Central America ended in the early 1990s. Fewer than 10 percent of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans were granted asylum in 1999—up slightly from the rate of the 1980s but less than half of the general approval rate. Those who came after the IRCA amnesty were left in limbo, although minor modifications in immigration policy did permit some to remain. Moreover, once these Central Americans won asylum, they were eligible to adjust their status to that of regular immigrants and could then use the family preference system to sponsor their relatives. For example, in 1996 Haitian immigrants numbered 18,386, with 8,952 of these under the family preference system and another 4,815 coming as immediate family members of U.S. citizens who were exempt from the quotas. Comparable figures for Salvadorans were 17,903; 8,959; and 5,519. Data for Hondurans and Guatemalans were similar. The United States did permit Salvadorans and Hondurans the right to stay temporarily in the United States when earthquakes and hurricanes struck in the 1990s. These temporary stays, called temporary protected status (TPS), were not asylum; when TPS ended, the undocumented aliens were expected to go home.

But who cares about history? I know some evangelical historians who care but for some reason their historical perspective means moral disapproval (with a dose of self-approval).

Make Christianity Pretty Good Again

That is more or less the idea that Donald Trump (on America) inspired Chris Gerhz to ponder. Here is an indication of when Trump supporters thought/think the nation was greatest (compared to other voters):

In general, Republican respondents favored the Eisenhower and Reagan eras. Democrats looked to the much more recent past: the 1990s, or even later. 2016 was the second most popular choice among Democrats.

Even among Trump supporters, the year 2015 was one of the 10 most popular choices. But there was no discernible pattern: 1955, 1960, 1970, and 1985 were all mildly popular, and the single most common response (8%) was the year 2000.

And that was true in general for Americans, regardless of party or other variables. Sanger-Katz observed that “The year’s popularity may partly reflect people’s fondness for round numbers. But many voters explained their choice by referring to a greater sense of security. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred the following year.”

The vast majority of votes were cast for years since the end of WWII, and almost no one opted for a year before 1900. (1776 did get some support.)

So I’ll ask Gerhz’s question: when was the church at its best? I imagine Protestants will not select dates between 350 and 1515. I’ll also wager that Roman Catholics (who read here) will not choose dates between 1965 and 2015. But in light of recent discussions about Mary, will Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox pick a date when the virgin lived on earth. In the realm of sectarian Protestantism, I suspect that Orthodox Presbyterians will not choose from the 1936 to 2016 era but prefer instead the time of the Puritans, Westminster Assembly, John Knox, or John Calvin’s Geneva.

My own preference is the antebellum period (after 1837) when Old School Presbyterians was at its height. The church was pretty sound, liturgy was sensible, theologians knew to be on the lookout for compromise, and Presbyterians were not tempted by the status (and loss of independence) that comes with ecclesiastical establishment.

Have These Guys Never Heard of Bandwagon Jumpers?

Thanks to John Fea for a reminder of Chris Gerhz’s aid to the anti-hype cause:

I’d happily entertain attempts to persuade me that if Christians want “to have impact and effect on a society [they] must lead from the center of culture and not from the periphery.” I guess I’m wary of this “creeping New York-centrism” for several reasons. Just a couple:

• That — in the case of King’s and Metaxas — it’s so closely tied to a specific political and economic philosophy. In the student newspaper interview quoted above, Thornbury acknowledged the difference between Christianity and ideology, but immediately followed that statement with this: “But also, it is the genius of Christianity that has given inspiration to the animating ideals of what has been the best of the American traditions. What we regard as the key ideas of conservatism are all downstream from Christianity.”

Fine — but those waters have historically fed liberalism, socialism, and other ideologies as well. If politically progressive evangelicals come to New York looking to act as Hunter’s “faithful presence,” will their conservative neighbors seek out alliances with them?

• More importantly, privileging Christian engagement with culture at whatever serves for that blink of history’s eye as the “center of the universe” seems to have little biblical warrant. I suppose you could build such an elitist theology of cultural engagement around Paul’s conversation with the philosophers on the Areopagus or the apostles’ encounters with political and military officials, but I don’t see any indication that early Christians leaders (let alone Jesus himself, who talked about being salt and light while standing on a mountain in an obscure province) viewed such evangelism as having greater “strategic” importance than the spread of the Gospel on the “periphery” of that culture. (Or even that they believed in being “strategic,” since early evangelists were “scattered because of the persecution” that followed Stephen’s stoning or simply “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”)

From jumping on the New Calvinist bandwagon to bowing the knee to the Big Apple, you might think that folks who believe in divine sovereignty and Christ’s Lordship would be more skeptical about claims to greatness.