Archive for December, 2005

Reflections on Creation, Redemption, and the Christian Life

December 31, 2005

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what it means to live the Christian life. Read the two biblical statements below and ask yourself how they might lead to two completely different visions:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? — Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. — Luke 9:23-24

The first one sounds a bit like carpe diem, but the second sounds more like monastic asceticism. I think both interpretations are wrong.

This is another tension in the Christian faith, one that rests on the distinction between creation and redemption, between nature and grace. The doctrine of creation reminds us that everything God made is good and should be enjoyed. Good company, food, entertainment, art, the beauty of this world–we should savor them all. And yet, the Bible also warns of the danger of exchanging the Creator for the creature (Rom 1:18-23). Idolatry is not necessarily a preference for something inherently evil (in fact, since God created all things, nothing is inherently evil). Idolatry is, instead, a lack of proportion. A tree is a marvelous thing. It provides delight to the eyes, gives shade from the hot sun, absorbs carbon dioxide and expels oxygen, in some cases provides fruit or nuts for people and animals to eat, and on top of it all can be chopped down for its wood, which has thousands of uses. And yet, the ancient Israelites found it so easy to pervert trees by carving them into gods. Idolatry is just that: a perversion of something good, the unwarranted elevation of a created thing to the status of divinity. Pure carpe diem philosophy turns God’s good creation into an idol, because it rests all hopes not on God as revealed to us in Christ, but on God’s gifts to us in creation. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and it is our obligation to love and worship him in the midst of both (Job 2:20-21).

The doctrine of redemption reminds us that we live in a fallen world that can only be renewed in Christ. Whereas the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 commands us to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 directs us to make disciples of all nations. I consider the latter to be a subset of the former, but in this present evil age (Gal. 4:4), evangelism is the leading edge of redeeming human culture. It is not the only aspect, but it is the most prominent. This is why losing our lives is necessary. Theologies that fail to reckon with the dark reality of sin and the lost condition of mankind (those that lean more heavily toward the pole of creation rather than redemption) will soft-pedal the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations. Inclusivism (the idea that sincere adherents to other religions, and perhaps even atheists and agnostics, may be saved by Christ without knowing him) is already the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It has also been growing in popularity among Protestants as well, and it appears that emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren are keen on promoting it (see chapter 17 of A Generous Orthodoxy). All theologies that overlook the radical nature of sin will fail to uphold the antithetical nature of the gospel. In so doing, they will lead not to bold witness but to cultural accomodation. They will produce Christians who want to save their lives rather than lose them for Christ.

And yet, a perverted form of devotion to God could lead to another kind of idolatry:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. — Colossians 2:20-23

Asceticism is not a Christian virtue. When I was in the youth group at my home church, I tended to operate with something of a Neo-Platonic view of spirituality: only “spiritual” activities like prayer, Bible study, and witnessing were of real value to God. I have since learned how antithetical Christianity was in its early years to the Greek philosophies common at the time, many of which denied the value of the body or of physical things. In Athens Paul proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Christ, and it was at that point that his audience balked. And if Christ has redeemed us–body and all–then bodily pleasures like food, drink, exercise, and lovemaking cannot be worthless to God.

Still, there is one biblical text that deserves to be heard in this discussion:

If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — 1 Corinthians 15:19

Paul’s subject here is the resurrection of the dead. He is taking to task some who had claimed that there was no such thing. Were that the case, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, all hope is lost. It means that this life is all we have. Why, then, does Paul write “we are of all people most to be pitied” in that scenario? It is because Paul’s life would have been wasted if there is no eternal hope beyond it. Later he writes,

Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” — 1 Corinthians 15:30-32

Paul was not one who seized the day, if seizing the day means having as much fun as possible or doing the most daring or exciting thing you can think of doing. But he did seize the day in terms of giving himself completely in service to Christ, in spite of what it cost him. He could have had a wife and family. He was on track to becoming a highly respected and learned rabbi. So many nights he spent in strange lands or behind prison bars could have been spent enjoying meals with friends. Of course, Paul had many close friends who were members of his churches and who labored in ministry with him, and he knew how to enjoy their company. But the call of God often cut short their time together and sent him off to other tasks, the last one being the task of losing his head for bearing testimony to the Messiah. And yet, excepting that of Jesus himself, was ever a life lived any more to the fullest?

Of course, Paul was in a unique situation with a unique calling. He was an apostle and foundational member of the church. He was called by God to plant churches, which is certainly not for all of us. But I do think we can learn from his example. He was no ascetic, but he was not afraid to lose temporal pleasures for the sake of eternal gain. Ultimately, it was God who decided how much enjoyment Paul would get out of this world and how much pain would cause him to long for the next life. Paul’s responsibility was to submit to the divine purpose, whatever it involved. And I think that is where creation and redemption intersect for us as well. Wherever God places you, and whatever he calls you to do, do it with joy (Read 1 Corinthians 7 for an expansion on that sentence). In many cases that joy will derive in part from the blessings of creation. At other times, joy will look exclusively to the hope of eternity. At all times, it will be sustained by faith in Christ, who is both Creator and Redeemer of this world.

An Excerpt and Some Reflections

December 16, 2005

From Doug Wilson’s critique of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (quotation marks indicate that he is quoting from the book itself):

“Perhaps this kind of pro-testifier would be better called post-Protestant, since the first definition is so dominant. Either way — this to me is truly wonderful — both Catholics and Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, too, can come together as pro-testifiers or post-Protestants now, because together we are reaching a point where we acknowledge not just ‘their’ failures, but ‘ours'” (p. 128). Post-protestant, ha!. This is yet one more example of what happens when a certain kind of protestant thinking goes to seed. It results in rabid individualism. Think about it for a moment. When we use prefixes like post, it makes sense when we have enough distance to make out a clear distinction that we then need a word for. This is why we have post-colonial eras, and post-Nicene fathers, and whatnot. But when an individual does this in order to describe his own personal identity, the result is just funny, on the same order as me personally seceding from the Union and establishing the Republic of Doug.

To describe yourself as a post-Protestant in a world still full of millions of regular old Protestants and regular old Roman Catholics is an attempt to wrap your personal thought preferences in the cloak of history — moreover in the cloak of history that hasn’t happened yet. I might just as well describe myself as an ante-Elizabethan writer (Elizabeth IX of the United Kingdom and Greater New England). At the end of the day, McLaren is just attempting to describe the thoughts in his head, and he is trying to make us feel like they are part of some larger historical necessity. But there is no reason for believing this to be true.

Wilson has voiced something that resonates with what I have been thinking for a long time. Every “emerging” person that I have ever met is a nice person who genuinely cares about others. I have heard the same about Brian McLaren, and I don’t doubt it for a second. It comes across clearly in his writings. (Of course, you know a “but” monkey is coming…)

BUT, while the emerging church, generally speaking and from my limited experience, demonstrates great humility in personal interactions (which is very important, and is something that I do not want to take away from them at all), it seems that their whole intellectual project could use a big dose of humility. The emerging church is, essentially, seeking to redefine almost everything about the Christian faith. They are almost trying to invent a whole new language (the way Tolkien did, only unlike Tolkien, they expect it to be used in the real world). They attach the word “post” to anything, and they think they have come up with a category that transcends the divide and moves us into a new era. As Wilson correctly points out, the “post” prefix doesn’t work that way. “Post” only gets attached to something after the fact, and by a consensus opinion of people who have the historical distance to evaluate the categories involved. It’s kind of like when George Costanza insisted that everyone should call him “T-Bone.” The problem was, nobody thought of him as a “T-Bone,” no matter how much he kept protesting (pro-testifying?) and protesting and protesting. As much as emerging leaders might deny it, the total effect of the language they use (“emerging church,” “emergent,” “new kind of Christian,” “generous orthodoxy” [implying that other orthodoxies are not generous?], “post-_____”) implies that their opinion of themselves is that they are the wave of the future, and that the church had better adjust to their concerns or be relegated to the dustbins of irrelevance. Even though they are late-comers, they have sought the place of honor at the banquet.

No doubt many of you think I am being unfair. But ask yourself whether or not this is true, that in spite of the genuineness and humility they present in personal interaction, emerging church leaders often make outrageous claims in print, all the while taking multiple swipes at the conservative/fundamentalist wing of the church. McLaren admits this himself in chapter 0 of AGO:

Beyond all warnings, you should know that I am horribly unfair in this book, lacking all scholarly objectivity and evenhandedness. My own upbringing was way out on the end of one of the most conservative twigs of one of the most conservative branches of one of the most conservative limbs of Christianity, and I am far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else. I’m sorry. I am consistently oversympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying–some would say ungenerous–way.

Of course, the fact that he brings this charge against himself disarms the reader and puts all of the elbowing in a lighter realm. But it doesn’t change the fact that McLaren does a lot of elbowing, and I am one of those who would say that many times it is ungenerous. It is much harder to spot because of his charming personality, his self-deprecating humor, and the obvious humility that he displays in person (from what I have heard). But it is still there, and as much as it sounds uptight of me to point it out, I think it is a warranted charge to make, and I am not the only one who has noticed.

What I am asking for here is for more, shall we say, “print humility.” This is the kind of humility that is demonstrated in published writings that are not aimed at anyone in particular. We know that the emerging church, in general, practices humility in personal interaction. I have not seen the same kind of humility in public statements that describe the emerging church and its mission. On the contrary, I have seen a young movement giving superficial attention to aspects of Christian heritage, directing a ton of criticism at its own background (Protestant evangelicalism), and proclaiming itself the new synthesis that will usher us into the future. You can have a seat at the table, but you’re not ready to run the meeting yet.

What Do Church Signs Say These Days?

December 15, 2005

Recently, as I was out driving around Louisville, I noticed several church signs and decided to take pictures. Amazingly, every church sign that I photographed had the same design, but they all had different messages. There are seven First Baptist Churches in Louisville, as you will see below:

First Reformed Baptist Church had this message:

First Emerging Baptist Church gave this important exhortation:

First Liberal Baptist Church had this message for passing drivers:

First Fundamentalist Baptist Church gave me a preview of this Sunday:

First Baptist Mega-Church had a very practical announcement:

You may not be aware of this, but Eugene Peterson has started pastoring again, in Louisville of all places. In addition, he converted from the Presbyterian church to the Baptist church. He now pastors First Baptist Church of Louisville (yeah, just the regular name), and this is what his church’s sign said:

First Baptist Church of the Social Gospel provided this helpful announcement: