Archives For Jason Micheli
I’m recovering from 3 plus days spent at my little nook of Methodism’s Annual Conference. Given that nearly a quarter of every dollar a United Methodist gives goes out the door of his or her congregation to the larger Church, there’s many structural and strategic critiques I could offer about how we spent our time (and I’ve already seen many of my younger clergy colleagues doing so on social media).
I won’t belabor the organizational beef. I do want to address what I took to be both a grave theological error and a personal one too. During the proceedings we debated- debated- a resolution recommending that we pray for the (gay) victims of the Orlando tragedy. We actually debated it. Christians debated praying. Full stop. For victims of murder. We eventually did so and in it we prayed for the victims and their families and, if I recall, there was verbiage spent on gun violence and gun legislation and hateful ideologies.
What was missing, I noticed immediately, was a prayer for the perpetrator. We didn’t prayer for the shooter. And that wouldn’t be odd in any other context except for a Christian one, for we are the people who believe the cross erases any meaningful distinction between victim and victimizer.
I noticed the lack in the prayer and in our debate about it, but I was too afraid to step up to microphone 10 to say anything about it. For that, I am ashamed. It’s little recompense but I offer this prayer here that I should’ve offered there:
Slaughtered Yet Risen Lord-
You forgive us from the cross with which we push you out of the world, invoking to the Father that we do not know what we are doing. Perhaps we know ourselves better than you know us, for surely we knew what we were doing.
And, we presume, Omar Mateen knew what he was doing too by murdering out of hate (and it seems self-hate too) by wounding just as many, and, in so doing, wreaking violence on his family and any who cared for him. We presume he knew what he was doing, and so not one of us has any natural inclination to forgive him or, even, to pray for him.
Actually, Lord Jesus, we’d rather pray for you to punish him. We’d prefer the assurance of his eternal torment, and we don’t know how to square that desire with the news that you’ve already suffered hell for us, once for all, and that you died- accursed- not for people like us but the wicked. Like Omar Mateen. We desperately do not want him to be counted among that ‘all’ for whom you died.
We don’t want to pray for him, Lord. Maybe it’s because we don’t think he deserves it, or maybe it’s because we suspect it will prove hard to hate someone for whom we pray. We don’t want to pray for him, but you queerly command us to love enemies and trespassers and to pray for them. So we do- not because it’s a strategy to make the world more peaceful and not because we believe that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. We do so, reluctantly, only because you commanded us, and as dumb and offensive as praying for him strikes us, you’re still the only one whose character God has vindicated by resurrection. And if you can raise the crucified from the dead, then perhaps you can raise up a People whose hates are not more precious to them than their faith.
So against our better judgment but towards our Easter hope, we pray for Omar Mateen and any and all who, in the mysterious complexity of life, loved him. We’re told he killed in the name of righteousness; help us not shirk your command to pray for enemies in the name of righteousness. Give us grace, Lord Jesus, that in the fullness of time we may see in him, and him in us, thieves welcomed by you undeservedly into paradise.
Help us to pray for Omar Mateen and those like him. Help us to believe the Gospel that its through such practices and the communities constituted by them that you have chosen to redeem this sinful and violent world. Amen.
If it’s true, as the many earnest and somber admonishments I’ve received in response to my recent infernal posts testify, that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?
Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?
Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question- and forget that it’s God we’re talking about- is God evil?
If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?
The panting sanctimony in my Inbox suggests that eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christian clergy, which, I confess, makes me suspect the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures. Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.
The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell led to the rise of voluntarism, a theological strain that insists there is nothing more determinative than God’s absolute, spontaneous exercise of his will. God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, voluntarists would speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.
Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.
A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.
Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.
God does not consign creatures to Hell.
God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.
God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.
Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.
Slavery to Sin and Death.
The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.
For the Church Fathers- indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.
It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
- Galatians 5
For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.
You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.
Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.
The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.
We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.
As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.
“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will.
- Thomas Aquinas
Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to
As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:
“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”
And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:
“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”
The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.
Captive still to sin.
If it’s true, as I’m told by clergy in all CAPS in my Inbox, that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.
For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.
This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.
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Here it is:
For the sermon this Sunday, I sat down with my good friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz, and the innocent man he got off of death row, Alfred Dewayne Brown. Dewayne is only the 13th exonoree from the state of Texas. Not only is it a story of Brian’s incredible challenge and the injustice done Dewayne, it’s also a story of the Church- both the big C Church that formed Brian into believing that the death penalty is unethical and our local congregation that sustained him during the decade he spent trying to free Dewayne.
Brian’s and Alfred’s story is told in Brian’s forthcoming book, Grace and Justice. Check it out on Amazon here.
Here’s the sermon:
Morgan has been hounding my ass for weeks for a review of his new book, How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity and I still have not done it. I’ve reviewed other books for other websites. I’ve written blog posts several times a week and composed sermons. But I haven’t been able to write a review of Morgan’s book. Since he sent me a galley of it this fall, his book became for me like the girlfriend you don’t know how to break up with because you don’t want to hurt her.
And by that, I don’t mean that his book sucks. It doesn’t.
I think it’s because I care for Morgan too much (and I respect him too much) to do a shitty job of it. I’ve had book reviewers block. And we have a history together that is more substantial than the rather spare amount of time we’ve spent together.
So it’s about time to do a quick review for you of Morgan’s book.
A handful of years ago I was asked by Beth Downs, the Ms McGonagall of the United Methodist Church, to lead a class on preaching to a group of ordination candidates. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in the classroom anymore than I do in the pulpit but I said yes. My first session, attempting to be too clever by half, before opening with prayer I opened with a scripture reading. An auspicious one: Numbers 22. For all these earnest preachers of the word, who elbowing each other out of the way to impress members of the Board of Ministry, I offered a reading where an ass- a donkey- is able proclaim a word from the Lord.
I was met with confused, silent, stares. Except one- a nasally sort of chuckle. I looked over towards it: ‘Morgan?’ I asked ‘Is that you?’
I first Morgan Guyton when we were first years- not freshman- at the University of Virginia during a gathering of the First Year Fellowship, which was a college extension of Young Life’s para-church ministry. I’d only become a Christian maybe 18 months before coming to college and, having found the local Methodist churches ‘sleepy’ at best, I’d decided to check out First Year Fellowship. Initially, it seemed awesome. It was on campus. Everyone was my age, looked like me, thought like me. It was led by a few charismatic older students armed with acetate overhead sheets, acoustic guitars, and Jesus in my pants praise songs.
In hindsight I can say that First Year Fellowship was a tribe of evangelical students of a particular Calvinistic strain but I did not have such categories at the time. I only knew after a few gatherings that I did not belong. The performance of my worship was not demonstrative enough. My certainty was short on such things as substitutionary atonement. My questions about unbelievers, my gay friends, and prayer were not welcomed. My pushback was push-backed. The Christianese slang and idioms felt ill-fitting on me. Having come to the faith in a United Methodist New Church Start, Woodlake UMC, a seeker sensitive church, I was not prepared for Christians who took their beliefs seriously enough to stigmatize other Christians.
The usually unspoken exclusion I felt at First Year Fellowship eventually kick started a long running commentary in my head that I was not a good enough Christian which inexorably led to unproductive and even shaming attempts on my part to justify myself before God rather than rest in Christ’s justification of me.
What I know now was that I was a victim of a form of toxic Christianity. And it was, toxic. It made me feel physically ill. It made me ashamed, physically and emotionally, of who I thought I was as a Christian.
I met Morgan at that First Year Fellowship- at a fall retreat, actually, in which we all went skinny dipping, and Morgan sports a bear suit underneath his clothes so you can imagine that left an impression- and my first impression of Morgan was how I thought he’s so completely different from me but the two of us are completely different from this group. The thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common with this gathering of Christians. Neither of us belonged.
I count it is a source of pride that, though Morgan and I agree on very little or, rather, we disagree on much, he and I were the only two disqualified by the Young Life Organization from being leaders of First Year Fellowship. Given my experience, I’m not sure why I applied- whether it was masochism or infiltration. I was blackballed because I would not concede to my interviewer that his deformed and useless hand had been ordained by God for a higher purpose.
I’m not sure why Morgan was rejected, but I suspect it’s because, as a Christian, he can be hard to take. During First Year Fellowship gatherings, Morgan would frequently raise his hand and stand to share what Jesus had compelled him to do or say, or whom he was called to love, this week, or what he was wrestling with in the Spirit at present. Honestly, listening to Morgan in those moments was exhausting.
In other words, Morgan was the kind of guy that made you realize why people wanted to kill Jesus.
There’s only so much urgency of faith that sinners and almost Christians can tolerate before they respond with a cross.
If Morgan wears his heart for God on his sleeve, then there’s a piece of it on every page of his book, which is better understood by the title he originally gave to it Mercy Not Sacrifice, for Morgan’s refrain is the prophets’ own reminder that God does not desire the practices and gestures by which we try to ameliorate our situation vis a vis God rather God wants a beautiful, poured out life from us. In How Jesus Saves Us, Morgan uses his own story, revealing some of his own saddness, insecurities, and shame along the way, to expose the ways in which our piety and practices mask the very sorts of ideologies from which Jesus has already saved us.
I’ve no doubt that Morgan’s book will be life-giving because his oddness in a way all those years ago helped to save me from the self-loathing that self-justification inevitably begets. He was part of God’s antidote for me of the toxic Christianity which had infected my newly chosen faith.
If prophets are not welcome in their hometowns, it’s understandable that we’d be uncomfortable at times with them in our pulpits. I’m not sure I possess the truthfulness, spiritual energy, or courage of my conviction to ever want to be a part of Morgan’s congregation (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I’m grateful that Morgan is a leader in my Church with a capital C and that though this book his voice will afflict many with the right kind of nightmares.
Buy the book here.
I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.
Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.
To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.
When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.
Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.
For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.
Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.
Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.
Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.
Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.
As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:
“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”
God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.
God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.
Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.
It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.
Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.
Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.
I’m no aficionado of the Oxford Comma, as my friend Tony Jones knows, so I can appreciate, I suppose, the way a sober dose of grammatical clarification can provoke patronizing tones. Last week my post on how Paul, once he’s properly translated, believes it’s the faithfulness of Christ- not our faith in Christ- that justifies us before God, inspired many a breathless rebuttal. According to the many rejoinders I received, to place “too much stress” upon God-in-Christ as the acting subject of salvation leads to an “abyss of false teaching” where it becomes necessary to affirm that which the New Testament already (inconveniently) does; namely, that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.
“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4
Apparently, if my critics, clergy and lay, are to be heeded to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.
Their sanctimonious caveats took me aback, warning me that my logic- which is but the logic of the New Testament’s witness- “could lead down a slippery slope” to (gasp) “universalism.” It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by my teacher, David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 3 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.
47 vs. 3
What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.
A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence I daresay logic permits us to say more.
If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.
The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.
Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.
Consider the counter:
If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.
Evil would God.
Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.
Just days after the slaughter in Orlando, it’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include the shooter too.
To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32
Here’s the second installment of the Crackers and Grape Juice interview with NT Wright wherein Morgan delicately tries to ask him about gender binaries and homosexuality.
Here’s some of the nerdy text messages Morgan and I exchanged after we talked with him and with Fleming Rutledge:
So what do you make of the debate over apocalyptic?
I’ve never been convinced by NT Wright’s ‘this is what God was up to all along’ angle. I think it ignores, like Fleming said, the shock of the cross, and the theme of discontinuity in Paul. Wright too often brushes critiques aside by saying his critics or the reformers et al just don’t know 1st c Judaism as well as him.
I feel like he makes Paul into a default first century Jew
It’s stretches credulity to suppose that the fathers and reformers, and were completely wrong in all their impulses. Marcionism is a heresy obviously and the law wasn’t as bad as Luther made it out to be but still those sentiments are not without a textual grounding. It’s not a little thing, as Fleming Rutledge mentioned, that Paul doesn’t speak of the covenant- esp when NT would have us think that that’s the whole arc of scripture.
Yeah it was really eye-opening for me when Fleming said that because the whole reformed theological system is built upon covenant.
Of course, I freely admit NT’s criticism in his most book- that those who espouse apocalyptic do so bc it’ll preach in a way that doesn’t force preachers to be fundamentalists. That’s me I know.
How is that though?
It allows room for God to be the acting agent, for the world to be a dark place, for the church to be a pilgrim people living according to a diff time…all without being literalists. Basically, Barth and Hauerwas.
Yeah I guess it seems to me like NT Wright over-historicizes his theology if that’s the right terminology.
It’s hard to put a finger on, but it’s def true that I don’t think he ‘preaches’ like Kasemann and Martyn. Nor do I think his own sermons are urgent enough but he is English so…
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Here it is:
I preached the local high school’s baccalaureate service yesterday afternoon.
There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me. The text I preached was from Genesis 12 and 15, the call of Abram:
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; And Abram journeyed on by stages and…the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, The Lord brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’
I don’t have the text of the sermon in a way that won’t elicit snarky comments about grammatical mistakes etc, so you’ll just have to listen to it below. If you subscribe by email, you may have to click on the link here.
The Crackers and Grape Juice Team interviewed NT Wright for a couple of hours. We wracked our brains to come up with good questions and in between stammered plenty to collect our thoughts. ‘Tom’ on the other hand spoke as though he were in his kitchen, making a sandwich, and had a ready-made recorded answer for any question we posed to him. The dude never said ‘Um’ once.
You should listen to him.
In a few hundred years from now, he’ll be a bold-faced term in a church history book.
For those of you not in the know, NT Wright is the former Bishop of Durham. He is the author of popular works like Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope as well as paradigm-shifting professional books like The Resurrection of the Son of God and the recent Paul and the Faithfulness of the God. Without exaggeration, NT Wright is the primary influence on preachers, mainline and evangelical, of the New Testament today. In this particular episode Wright eviscerates the ‘apocalyptic reading’ of Paul espoused by my paramour Fleming Rutledge in her new book The Crucifixion (see previous C&J Podcast episodes).
Not only that but he squashed (a few weeks too late) the premise of my Eastertide sermon ‘Bigger than Burning.’
Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.
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I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Galatians 2.11-21:
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Wait, is that the right way of putting it?
The entire evangelical Christian understanding of Justification by Faith Alone is premised upon a particular reading of Romans and this passage here in Galatians.
Justification by Faith Alone, in case you didn’t know, names God’s declaration of forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. For example, this grace hit Martin Luther had transformed him when he heard spoken to him in the confessional by a brother priest: ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven.’ It’s this declaration and our faith in it that justifies us before God. And nothing else (Romans 1-3).
That’s the historic Reformed/Evangelical understanding of Justification.
It also happens to be wrong.
Just because something’s historic doesn’t mean it’s right.
The Founders were wrong about slavery.
And Christian traditions have been wrong about what Paul is intending when he talks about faith and justification.
Exhibit A has to do with the (mis)translated line ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’
Almost everywhere that is written in English it is an incorrect translation. It is correctly translated by the King James version, but by virtually no other translations.
“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23,.
In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”
ek pisteos Iesou Christou
A little grammar:
It is in the genitive case. Now because it’s in the genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. That is, it’s like saying the Love of God. We’re referring either to our love for God, or the love that God has for us.
In one instance God is the object of our love. In other instance, God is the subject.
In Greek, ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ is also a subjective genitive, but it gets translated as an objective nearly all the time: ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’
Thus translated, it’s not long before we start talking about how it’s our faith in Christ (see how this now makes our ‘faith’ just another ‘work?’) that makes us righteous before God.
In Paul’s day, Jews called the Messiah, the Righteous One. In his letter to the Romans, Paul draws on the idea of The Righteous One to describe Jesus Christ, who reveals the righteousness of God through his faith. Not our faith.
You see, Paul’s whole argument in Romans/Galatians is that the Law does not justify anyone, not even Abraham was justified by Law, but by faith. And Paul sees Jesus as the Righteous One who was able to maintain faith to the end. Unlike Israel or any of us. Jesus was able to do through his faith what we could not. Jesus was able to trust the Father perfectly. Even unto a cross. That is why he is “The Righteous One who shall live by his Faith.”
Paul is making an argument in Romans is that God’s righteousness was revealed “from faith to faith.” God’s righteousness was revealed in and through the faith OF Jesus Christ, and was revealed to faith; that is, our faith as we receive him.
To preach Romans or Galatians well requires out-Pauling evangelicals, who often champion Paul more so than the Messiah for whom Paul gave his life.
But there it is.
Most evangelicals are wrong about what they’ve made their central doctrine, Justification by Faith Alone.
It not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.
In other words, as Richard Hays puts it, it’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.
And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty- a line of thinking that only begets vile doctrines like double predestination.
No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.
And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.
In the traditional evangelical rendering in which it is our faith which sets us right with God, faith becomes another work, another work of the law, something we must do. That’s neither Paul’s argument nor good news. We can’t do anything ourselves, not even our faith, to improve our situation vis a vis God.
Not to mention, it only succeeds in reproducing Martin Luther’s original dilemma about the veracity of his suaveness and leads to the myriad number of Protestants who make repeated trips forward to the anxious bench or to the font for rebaptism.
The clause ‘we must (have faith/serve the poor/be inclusive/obey the commandments’ in order for God to _________can never be Gospel. It’s exhortation not proclamation. It reduces the Gospel promise to If/Then conditionality.
Paul’s Gospel is instead a Because/Now construction: Because we have been set right before God by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, now we are empowered, emboldened, set free to live for God.
Hot in my Inbox:
I received a message from someone whom I do not know- but the fact that they still have a hotmail address tells me plenty about them- who felt compelled (called, really: ‘God laid it on my heart…’) to tell em that God gave me cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.’
And no, the email was not from Donald J. Trump.
It’s an outrageous, offensive comment, but it’s the sort that’s really not distinguishable from John Piper’s contention that the 35W bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, killing 13, was “merciful” display of God’s sovereignty. The only difference is that Piper’s perspective bears the sheen of authority when delivered from the pulpit , his weathered edition of Calvin’s Institutes in his righteously angry hand. If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then how is God wreaking havoc in order to punish his sinful creatures any different than God doing so to display to his sinful creatures his awesome and manifold sovereignty?
My initial response to the message, which I will argue with anyone was the most authentically holy and Christian response, was to snarl in disgust at my inbox: ‘F@#% you.’
My second response, after I dug my finger nails out of the wood of my desk, was to think of the Gnostics, those most sympathetic and substantive of the early Christian heretics.
In an earlier post I ventured that Piper’s steroidal strain of Calvinism, which insists on seeing direct, causal 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every contingent event on earth, as a form of pantheism, for it renders the world nothing more than what it appears. Everything in the world, supposedly, in part and in toto, every tumor and every tragedy and every fortuitous parking spot and inexplicable story of survival, is the direct expression of God’s SOVEREIGN will. This is a kind of pantheism, I suggested, in that it collapses the will of God into the world so that they’re now inextricably linked and necessary for either to be intelligible, making creation no longer a gratuitous gift and God no longer good.
What’s remarkable, truly, about this dread sovereignty is the incredible distance which it has traversed beyond the the vision of the New Testament.
A world where every contingent event is the direct outworking of God’s will is, necessarily, a world exactly as God would have it be. In such Calvinism, then, there is no already/not yet gap of eschaton for if everything is God’s will everything is already already.
Quite apart from Piper’s rabid strain of Calvinism, both John’s Gospel and Paul’s corpus see with the Gnostics the world (cosmos) as it is as in captivity to the principalities and powers. The world, as both the Gnostics and the New Testament see it, is not as God would have it. They world is fallen, though Sin and Death have been defeated the vestiges of their power remain. Humanity, though redeemed and freed, lives as that old guy from Shawshank, still in rebellion and alienated from God. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.
How odd then that John Piper et al would attribute the misery of this world to the dread sovereignty of God rather than, as the New Testament does to the fallen cosmos in thrall the (defeated) principalities and powers. How odd that heretics like Gnostics understood, to an extent too far for orthodoxy, that the world of tumors and tragedies and bridges collapsing is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ direct sovereign will but a world still alienated from its redeemer, groaning in labor pains, insisting against its new birth.
Morgan, Teer, and I discussed this and more in our latest Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast.
For our latest Crackers and Grape Juice installment, Morgan, Teer, and I discuss and debate the latest Gospel Coalition video in which John Piper et al exult that God ordains tragedies in the world in order to manifest his sovereign glory. What an awesome god. Psych.
Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.
This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’
It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.
Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.
A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.
If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.
With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.
The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.
Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.
Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.
As DBH writes:
“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”
Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.
To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.
Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.
Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.
In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.
Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.
How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.
The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.
To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.
In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.
When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).
There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other. Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.
Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.
The Gospel Coalition, purveyors of a rather virulent strain of Old Perspective Calvinism, this week published a video wherein John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt joyfully exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.
Listening to Chandler describe the ‘good news’ of his cancer (of which in this construal God is the direct, efficient cause) keeping him from seeing his daughters’ weddings because it’s all a part of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy. Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.
Around a domestic dining room table, shot in the gray grains of German New Wave, Piper, Chandler, and Platt unwittingly provide me with Exhibit A for my argument in yesterday’s post about the repugnant heresy of nominalism.
Nominalism supposes that ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no correlation to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.
Instead God is a Being of absolute power and will- whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God (allegedly) did it.
By contrast, the ancient Christians believed that not even God can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.
In contradiction to the ancient Christians, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.
If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge (Piper has said that too, before), God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.
The offense of the Gospel Coalition video is muted somewhat by the fact that the speakers are all speaking out of their first person experience. They’re narrating their own experience of suffering. It’s hard to argue with someone’s story; however, the truly unholy nature of what they’re espousing (God collapsed the bridge on your kid to show you how awesome he is) becomes almost tactile when you think about how it would sound if their testimony turned into counsel. If they put their perspective on to some other sufferer and told them to feel the way they apparently feel.
My teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.
In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”
In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:
“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:
“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.
Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.
Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike John Piper, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’
Contra Piper et al
The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.
The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.
To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.
A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.
The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.
As Hart writes:
“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”
“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”
“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”
In other words, if there is indeed a reason for everything, there is no reason to worship God. Not because God does not exist but because he is not worthy of our worship.
I’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.
No, God cannot do whatever God wants.
The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.
The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.
As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’
Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.
Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.
Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.
And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.
The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.
They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.
What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.
If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.
If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.
For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.
As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.
The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’
In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.
God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.
If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.
If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?
If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.
According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.
It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.
Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.
God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.
And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.
Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:
Is something good because God says or does it?
Or does God say/do that which is good?
A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.
God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.
Earlier this month the United Methodist Church continued its decades-long impasse over homosexuality.
Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the United Methodist Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’
Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.
Our baptismal summons.
Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.
Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,
Barth reiterated the fact:
there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.
More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.
In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.
Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.
I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.
Too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.
We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.
We baptize to build an alternative polis in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.
What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.
This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.
Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.
Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.
This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.
If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.
I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.
I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.
Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.
Once we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’
“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”
Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.
When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.
But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.
“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”
“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.
Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?”
And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?
“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”
There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.
“Not that dress honey.”
There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.
“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.
Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.
It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.
It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.
So I didn’t answer their question.
Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.
When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.
So I never answered their question.
But I didn’t forget it.
I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.
Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.
And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.
And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”
If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.
It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.
To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.
Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.
As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.
War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.
Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.
Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.
Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.
If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.
People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’
This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?
When engaged couples tell me they plan to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions for which they might have to suffer.
How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?
But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?
Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.
Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.
Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.
It’s a lie that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’
And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.
And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.
The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.
It was a political word.
It’s a title: King.
The King who elects.
To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.
And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.
It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.
Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).
That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”
The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.
The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.
For the ungodly.
Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.
He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.
Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.
To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.
So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.
Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.
They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’
Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.
The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.
According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.
We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.
Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.
The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.
The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.
Before and After- Between the old age and the new.
Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.
Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.
The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.
So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.
And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.
And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.
If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.
The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.
Fleming Rutledge, if you don’t know her, is the best damn preacher in the English language. It’s most appropriate that she should be guest who breaks the Crackers and Grape Juice glass ceiling. I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…
Fleming recently published a magisterial book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I believe its the sort of book that every preacher must read and every lay person should read, both, if they do, will find themselves not only grateful but emboldened.
Teer and I enjoyed a long conversation with Fleming about preaching, the satan, what makes for a ‘good’ sermon, and inclusivity. Here’s the first part our conversation with her.
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