Supersessionist Shrug

An apologist’s post caught my eye and led to an exchange that produced this assertion:

I did admit Rome’s problems, but I didn’t bother laying them out in detail because that wasn’t the point of the post. And as I pointed out in the post and have said over and over again in our exchange, they don’t really affect my conclusion one way or another. If my main argument were that Protestants don’t act like Christians and Catholics do, you would have a point. But I never said that and never would. Sure, Rome has a lot of ‘skeletons:’ the Catholic Church is the oldest and largest of the communions; it makes sense that there would be more crimes, sins, and failures in her past than in that of the others. What of it? A one-by-one comparison of the crimes of the different Christian churches, even if we agreed on what constituted a crime, would tell us nothing about which one among them had the best claim to being the church founded by Christ. Again, the evil done by the Church is accounted for by hypothesis: that of being a Divine commission entrusted to fallen humanity.

Imagine if Jeremiah had said that to the Israelites. Don’t worry about your sins, you go all the way back to Abraham:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: You have seen all the disaster that I brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Judah. Behold, this day they are a desolation, and no one dwells in them, because of the evil that they committed, provoking me to anger, in that they went to make offerings and serve other gods that they knew not, neither they, nor you, nor your fathers. Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’ But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods. Therefore my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, and they became a waste and a desolation, as at this day. (Jeremiah 44:2-6 ESV)

Too old to fail? Where would anyone reading the whole Bible come up with that?

But if the church is so different from Israel in a supersessionist way, then the lessons of Israel don’t apply to the church. And by the way, don’t bother reading the epistle to the Hebrews.

#NeverNebuchadnezzar

Have those who oppose Trump ever considered Jeremiah’s instructions to the people of God, namely, to submit to the rule of a pagan king?

“‘“But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the LORD, until I have consumed it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land, and I will drive you out, and you will perish. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the LORD.”’” (Jeremiah 27:8-11 ESV)

Wouldn’t that sort of Word of God prompt you to consider revising this?

Note that I didn’t say that Trump definitely is an existential threat. I don’t know that; nobody does. Hitler only rose to power because enough people believed that he wasn’t such a threat. There is no way of predicting in advance just how bad a President Trump would be. But if you’re an evangelical leader, this sets up a version of Pascal’s wager for you. If Trump turns out to be embarrassing but not all that bad, then your pride will suffer a bit, and you’ll have to say you were wrong to support Hillary. You’ll try to be wiser in the next election.

But if Trump turns out to be the “extinction-level event” that Sullivan predicts, and you fail to do everything in your power to stop him, then you will join a long line of evangelical leaders who have been on the wrong side of history – and judged harshly for it – at critical moments ranging from slavery to Jim Crow to abortion (in the early days of that debate). Your witness for Christ – our witness – will be diluted because we didn’t do everything we could to prevent this catastrophe. And there won’t be a next election to get it right.

Isn’t it possible that a politician could be God’s judgment on a nation’s churches (not that any of us has that kind of word from God)? And isn’t it possible that God’s plans go on even when his people and prophets go into exile as part of divine judgment?

That’s not a reason to support Trump the way Jeremiah endorsed Nebuchadnezzar. But it is a reason to be cautious as a minister of God’s word when talking about magistrates.

The Major Prophet Speed Bump

I have long wondered whether the reason why covenant youth don’t understand the sacraments comes from the placement of material in the Shorter Catechism. Many young people master well the ordo salutis, but fail to answer with any precision or comprehension the catechism’s teaching on baptism and the Lord’s supper. The reason for this, I suspect, is the intervening material between justification and sanctification and the means of grace, namely, a long section on the Decalogue.

Now having spent several weeks reading through Jeremiah with the missus I wonder if the major prophets are the hill on which read-the-Bible-in-a-year practitioners die. I mean, what do you do with relentless passages like these:

“Judah mourns,
and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
and cover their heads.
Because of the ground that is dismayed,
since there is no rain on the land,
the farmers are ashamed;
they cover their heads.
Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
because there is no grass.
The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights;
they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
because there is no vegetation.

“Though our iniquities testify against us,
act, O LORD, for your name’s sake;
for our backslidings are many;
we have sinned against you.
O you hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?
Why should you be like a man confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot save?
Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not leave us.”

Thus says the LORD concerning this people:
“They have loved to wander thus;
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the LORD does not accept them;
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.” (Jeremiah 14:2-10 ESV)

It tempts me to think I’d rather read Pope Francis on marriage:

243. It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity”.

But then Jeremiah brings me quickly back to reality:

And the LORD said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who prophesy in my name although I did not send them, and who say, ‘Sword and famine shall not come upon this land’: By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed. And the people to whom they prophesy shall be cast out in the streets of Jerusalem, victims of famine and sword, with none to bury them—them, their wives, their sons, and their daughters. For I will pour out their evil upon them. (Jeremiah 14:14-16 ESV)

Turns out those who claim authority (even infallibility) to speak for the Lord need to be cautious.

Between Abraham and Jeremiah

Carl Trueman thinks that we live in a time of exile (I generally agree but I think the conditions for it extend well beyond the sexual revolution — back to Peter’s first epistle):

The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.

For Christians in the United States, this is particularly disorienting. In Europe, Christianity was pushed to the margins over a couple of centuries—the tide of faith retreated “with tremulous cadence slow.” In America, the process seems to be happening much more rapidly.

Trueman also thinks that Reformed Protestantism has the spiritual resources for Christians facing exilic conditions, among them Psalm singing:

This recognition of exile and the hope we find in the Psalms permeate historical Reformed worship and theology in a way that is not so obvious in other Christian traditions, even Protestant ones. For example, the worship of the American Evangelical Church of the last few decades has been marked by what one might call an aesthetic of power and triumph. Praise bands perform in churches often built to look more like concert venues than traditional places of worship. Rock riffs and power chords set the musical tone. Songs speak of tearing down enemy ­strongholds. Christianity does, of course, point to triumph, but it is the triumph of resurrection, and resurrection presupposes prior suffering and death. An emphasis on triumph, often to the exclusion of lament, will not prepare people for life this side of resurrection glory. It will not prepare us for a life of exile. I fear we are laying the foundations for disillusionment and despair.

So much of this piece makes sense and I risk getting bloody (because no one wins an e-knife fight with Carl) only because of the way he handles the Puritans and Dutch. He glosses something that does not work out so well for Reformed Protestants who would live in exile:

It is this consciousness of civic responsibility—and of a firm place to stand in Christ—that frames Calvin’s Institutes and has served to make Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history, from the Puritans to Abraham Kuyper. There have certainly been excesses in the history of the Reformed Church’s engagement with the civic sphere, but Reformed theology at its best is no clarion call for a religious war or a theocratic state. It is rather a call for responsible, godly citizenship.

The thing is, if you wanted examples of Calvinists in exile I wouldn’t turn to the Puritans of the Dutch who were actually part of colonizing efforts and did not live like exiles with native populations in North America or Africa. The Calvinists who did live like refugees were the Huguenots and the German Reformed. They dispersed to places like North America and persisted in their enclaves or assimilated. But the English (and Ulstermen and Scots) and Dutch were engaged in a form of conquest and it is that transformational part of the English Puritan, Scottish Presbyterian, and Dutch Calvinist enterprises that inspires modern-day U.S. Calvinists to think about either taking every square inch captive (for Christ, of course — no self-serving here) or reaffirming America’s Christian origins. (If you want to see one of the odder parts of German Reformed history in the U.S., think about the exilic experience of these folks in Iowa.)

Instead of the Abraham option (transformationalism) or the Benedict option (withdrawal), Samuel Goldman (American Conservative, July/Aug 2014) recommends the Jeremiah option (sorry, it’s behind a paywall):

First, internal exiles should resist the temptation to categorically resist the mainstream. That does not mean avoiding criticism. But it does mean criticism in the spirit of common peace rather than condemnation. . . .

Second, Jeremiah offers lessons about the organization of space. Even though they were settled as self-governing towns outside Babylon itself, God encourages the captives to conduct themselves as residents of that city, which implies physical integration. . . .

Finally, Jewish tradition provides a counterpoint to the dream of restoring sacred authority. At least in the diaspora, Jews have demanded the right to live as Jews — but not the imposition of Jewish laws or practices on others. MacIntyre [read Benedict option] evokes historical memories of Christendom that are deeply provocative to many good people, including Jews. The Jeremiah option, on the other hand, represents a commitment to pluralism: the only serious possibility in a secular age like ours.

We might even call this the Petrine option, were it not for the last millennium of popes who fought infidels, patronized artists, ruled Christendom, and lost power only to speak on every single issue known to political economy and foreign affairs. After all, it was Peter who called Christians strangers and aliens. Were the French and German Calvinists more an inspiration to contemporary Reformed Protestants, Carl’s call to living as exiles would find a receptive audience. As it is, the lure of domination, even though gussied up with the mantra of Christ’s Lordship, that is far more the norm than it should be because it is a whole lot more inspiring to be on the winning side of history. (Who roots for the Cubs?) And for that reason, Carl’s call will likely go unheeded.

Update: Here‘s additional support for considering the French Reformed instead of the English or Dutch.