|by Douglas Wilson|
One of the problems with using Constantine as a marker is that there is a tendency to anachronism, attributing to him any subsequent malfeasance on the part of Christians in power. But the Constantinian settlement was, by and large, a tolerant one. Lactantius, the early church father who tutored Constantine's children, was an apologist for this kind of toleration, which, in his day, was a toleration of pagans.
But there is a distinction between toleration of the views held by others, and toleration as an absolute desideratum. The former is crucial to every form of civilized society, Constantine let pagans continue to be pagans, and to think like pagans, and he let them continue to serve in the army (for example), but at the same time, Constantine ended the pagan sacrifices -- a momentous step, and foundational to all religious liberty.
This distinction is necessary because at a certain level, the whole society has to decide whether to go this way or that way. For example, democracy does not mean that everybody votes for president, and the winner gets to be president 57% of the time, while the loser only gets to be president on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It is not like a custody battle. The public sacrifices for the whole society either have to be performed or not. The public square cannot be a pantheon -- for if it is, then the state is god, and that is idolatry. Calling it "secularism" doesn't fix it.
There must be a God over all. That God may tell us not to hassle the people who don't believe in Him, and that is precisely what the triune God does tell us. In this mere Christendom I am talking about (you know, the idyllic one, down the road), Muslims could come from other lands and live peaceably, they could buy and sell, write letters to the editor, own property, have that property protected by the cops, and worship Allah in their hearts and homes. What they could not do is argue that minnarets have the same rights of public expression that church bells do. The public space would belong to Jesus.
Our secular gods promised to do exactly this kind of thing, saying that if we kept this public space "neutral" (as they defined neutral), then all would be allowed to do our own thing on our own time. But this secularism is teetering, and is clearly displaying its hostility to the Christian faith. What I am saying here is that a Christian settlement would do a better job of protecting the true rights of Muslims and secularists, than secularists do in protecting the rights of Christians.
The argument goes this way. If I wanted Muslims to have the right to refuse baptism (which I would certainly want), then I would have to argue that case in the name of Jesus, and from the Bible. Obviously, I think that it can be done. But if I wanted to argue from the premises of secularism that all of us are anything more than meat, bones, and protoplasm, where do I go to make the argument? The implications of a godless universe have worked their way into the structure of our laws, and it is not too long afterwards that the darkness falls. And it won't be the kind of night that you can dance away.
When tolerance becomes a universal virtue, suspended upon its own air hook and nothing else, then you come to think you can't say no to virtually anything -- including those things which will issue a fatwa against your silly views of tolerance. The universally tolerant do say no to one thing, however, and that is to any idea of Christendom. If you mention sharia law, they will talk about the rich cultural diversity that is found in certain parts of Ohio. But if you mention biblical theonomy, as being perhaps more attractive in other parts of Ohio, you will find these folks with heads between their knees, breathing into paper bags, in preparation for writing a hysterial letter to the editor. This is because universal toleration is suicidal. In Proverbs, Wisdom says that all who hate her love death (Prov. 8:36), and they really do.
Our fin de siecle secularism is fully prepared to embrace that which will destroy it pronto, and to shun as a menace that faith which actually invented true toleration.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
There’s a particularly bad argument against those who accept the biblical prohibitions against same-sex sexual acts, and I think I’ve just realized something new about the argument. The Torah prohibitions on male-male sex acts are declared to be an abomination. There are those who want to reconsider how to interpret the biblical texts who want to minimize this statement. They point to the fact that eating shellfish is also an abomination in the Torah, which means it can’t be all that bad to be an abomination in the Torah.
Anyone who has thought for a little bit about the relation Christians see between the Mosaic law and the New Testament should see through such an argument, because the New Testament explicitly affirms the judgment of male-male and female-female sexual relations as bad while explicitly rejecting the dietary laws that the ban on eating shellfish was a part of. So that objection is pretty naive. Any Christian interpretive grid that seeks to minimize the Torah prohibition on same-sex sex acts can’t do so merely because we nowadays think it’s all right to eat shellfish, because there’s explicit allowance of that in the New Testament and explicit continuance of the harsh language about same-sex sex acts.
What occurred to me today, when reading Christopher Wright‘s discussion of Deuteronomy 25, is that there’s a further problem with this objection. It’s not that the occurrence of eating shellfish lowers the negative judgment on homosexuality because an innocent enough act gets called an abomination. It’s the evil of eating shellfish and the other things that fall under this same term that go way up, and that includes the example Wright discusses from Deuteronomy 25 (cheating people in commercial ventures). Eating shellfish in the covenant context of God’s people called together to be separate from their neighbors is tantamount to deciding for yourself what you think God’s standards should have been when he instituted the dietary laws. We can’t read our acceptance of shellfish-eating into how serious eating shellfish would have been taken among those at the time.
The dietary laws were an important distinguishing feature of how Israel was to live in contrast to those around them. It reflected both abandonment of pagan worship practices and an affirmation of the things in nature that, in the Mosaic covenant, represented wholeness and unity among God’s people. It’s easy to lose sight of how serious it is to reject that when you think about how easily Christians eat shellfish today. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the cultural, indeed covenant, context of the Torah to think that the inclusion of shellfish as an abomination makes abominations not very serious.
Those who continue to hold to a high view of scripture, including the Torah, aren’t going to be able to dismiss the Torah pronouncements against abominations as easily as pointing out that we all eat shellfish now and don’t consider it an abomination. Any Christian does consider it an abomination to do something with the import of what eating shellfish would have been in that context. We just rightly don’t think eating shellfish in our context would have the same import. So any reconciliation of the prevailing secular view of homosexuality of our day with a high view of Christian scripture is going to have to look elsewhere. I don’t think it’s all that plausible that we should lessen how serious we take the Torah prohibitions on what it calls abominations to be just because it’s called an abomination to eat shellfish. We should instead increase our sense of the horror an ancient Hebrew would have had at the idea of eating shellfish.
Friday, September 17, 2010
In the early church Christians went through a rigorous discipleship process (notice the connection between disciple and discipline). Once you became a Christian you went through a three year boot camp. You were called a catechumen, derived from the Greek katechein, meaning “to teach” or instruct.” For three years your theology was shaped and scrutinized by superiors in the church. Did you get that? Three years. During this time your superior(s) mentored you through the faith. We see this illustrated in ancient church documents such as the Apostolic Traditions, the Apostolic Constitutions, the Canons of Hippolytus, and the Testamentum Domini. The church would not accept a new convert to the faith without this rigorous discipleship process. They took serious Christ’s command to “make disciples.”
From the Didascalia Apostolorum we read, “When the heathen desire and promise to repent, saying ‘We believe,’ we receive them into the congregation so that they may hear the word, but do not receive them into communion until the receive the seal and are fully initiated” (2.39).
This initiation did not come for three full years. Why? For two reasons. 1) The early church did not assume that a profession of faith was sincere, having seen many who once professed and then turned away either in doctrine or in practice. 2) They wanted to ensure the health and stability of the new converts belief.
Cyril of Jerusalem reflects on the importance of theological stability: “Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted” (Prochatechesis 11). This training provided a fail-safe that Christianity would be represented correctly and that the “believers” would truly believe, knowing what they were getting themselves into. In other words, they gave them an opportunity not to believe so that they might truly believe.
This process may seem extreme to us today, but consider where we are at. Once one becomes a Christian, the most they normally receive is a four week membership class that deals less with theology and more with church polity. But for the most part they don’t even get this. We tell them to ask Christ into their heart then we send them on their way with our blessing. In reality, we don’t know what has been created. At best, we have just placed a new born baby on the streets telling them to be filled and happy.
Is it any wonder that the church has such an epidemic for theological integrity? Should we really expect any different?
Who are we accountable to for our beliefs? When we get a wild hair about some theological issue, where do we turn? Better, where does this wild hair come from and who gave us the right to have a wild hair? “Wild.” Look it up in the dictionary and you will see that it means “undisciplined, unruly, or lawless.”
We need serious theological training. We need discipline. We need to be humiliated theologically. We need to know that we cannot do whatever we want with Christian belief and expect there to be so many lab rats available. If you have not been trained theologically, you need to be. This does not mean that you have read a book or two on theology, but you need to be in some sort of program that systematically, from beginning to end, takes you through the Christian faith, teaching you not only what to think and believe, but how to think and believe. We all need to be critiqued, disciplined, and humbled. We need more spiritual black eyes. We also need to be prepared to do the same with others.
Proverbs 11:14 Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
Proverbs 13:10 By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.
Proverbs 19:20 Listen to counsel and accept discipline, That you may be wise the rest of your days.
Proverbs 6:23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.
Proverbs 13:18 Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, But he who regards reproof will be honored.
Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
2. Worshiping a vague, truncated "God" who is generally awesome produces vague and truncated men with no definable sense of awe.
3. Worshiping a cosmic boyfriend produces girly, needy men.
4. Worshiping a "God" who needs ever-increasing gimmickry and hype produces jaded, unsatisfied men.
5. Worshiping a "God" whose presence alone isn't sufficient to attract worshipers produces irreverent men.
6. These all demonstrate the vital need to diligently monitor and evaluate the content of our songs, the structure of our services, and the focus of our outreach.
7. The weight and complexity of crafting these things is virtually impossible to overstate.
Friday, September 10, 2010
“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”
—Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.
“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.”
—J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” JETS 25 (1982): 414
“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.”
—Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?”
“There is rugged terrain ahead for those who are constitutionally incapable of referring to the paths marked out by wise and spirit-filled cartographers over the centuries.”
—Larry Woiwode, Acts (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
(HT: Michael Haykin for the first two quotes)
Thursday, September 2, 2010
When Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at the Harvard School of Divinity in 1838,
he delivered an address that should be required reading for evangelicals. Basically, Emerson exhorted these young clergymen to turn their backs on doctrine to explore unfettered the limits of the human soul. The phrase that is commonly attributed to Emerson is that doctrine is a set of bandages that blinds our vision. Anyone who knows what happened to the Harvard School of Divinity (and Unitarianism) in the subsequent decades knows that they did just that: placed doctrine on the sidelines, calling it quaint and narrow.
Unfortunately, I hear the same thing from too many young evangelicals, who say that they are tired of doctrine and would rather “be” the church. History, in their view, wastes our time and doctrine distracts our attention from the more substantial issue of changing our culture. I don’t wish to veer into politics, but some people, including Russ Moore, see this point as one of the concerns about current ascendancy of conservative cultural concerns that eschew doctrinal specificity.
For too many Christians, the faith is viewed as a living example of Buridan’s Donkey.
In the parable associated with Buridan (or more accurately to criticism of Buridan), a hungry donkey is chained between two tasty bales of hay that are equidistant from its nose and mouth. The donkey ends up starving to death because of its indecision over which bale to eat.
80’s music fans will recognize this from Devo’s classic “Freedom of Choice,” which substitutes a dog / bone for the donkey / hay).
Christians should not view their choice as one between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Pursuing either to the exclusion of the other is not the true faith; this is the message of Christ in Matthew 22:34-40: we are to love God (orthodoxy) AND love others (orthopraxy). Rightly understood, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are one and the same bale of hay, which must be taken in by the faithful believer. To invert Devo, freedom from choice is what you’ve got; freedom of choice is what you want. There is no decision to be made where orthodoxy / orthopraxy are concerned.
Instead of removing the bandages of doctrine from our eyes, I wish more people would place on their noses the spectacles of doctrine that help us to see the world aright. Perhaps it would help us to effect God’s will in our lives and in our culture.