Saturday, September 24, 2011

Neuhaus 20 years ago on how theonomistic right is like the progressive left

The final consummation of history in the return of Christ and the establishment of his rule in the right ordering of all things is an article of faith for all orthodox Christians. For most Christians now and in the past two millennia, millennialism itself has not been that important. That is, the biblical references to a future millennium were viewed as an ambiguous metaphor for the eternal rule of Christ. From time to time, however, and usually along the margins of orthodoxy, there were Christians determined to cut through the ambiguity and read “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16) with greater specificity. The Puritan tradition, including such worthies as Jonathan Edwards, arguably America's greatest theologian, inclined toward a species of postmillennialism in which thoughtful people dared to believe that God was working out his purpose for the ages in the events to which they were party. The liberal Social Gospel movement that emerged in the latter part of the last century was emphatically postmillennial, and the afterglow of that movement is still discernible in sectors of oldline Protestantism. The kingdom is now, if we have the nerve for it, and when it is established Christ will be welcomed into his own. [emphasis added] Nor should we forget that species of Evangelicalism found on the left of the political spectrum (e.g., the Sojourners group) that is also convinced that there is in fact a “biblical politics” that can and should be implemented now by radically committed Christians.

Of course contemporary theonomists, who wish to think of themselves as conservative, resist the comparison with the liberal Social Gospel and with left-wing Evangelicals, not to mention liberation theology. But the analogies are inescapable. The policy specifics may be dramatically different, but the theological rationale is strikingly similar. [emphasis added] The different thing in theonomy is not its postmillennialism but its understanding of biblical law. Acts 15 describes the convening of what might be described as the first ecumenical council in order to answer the “Judaizers” among the early Christians who insisted that non-Jewish believers must be circumcised and instructed to keep the law of Moses, or else they would not be saved. That position was rejected by the apostles, who decided, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden that these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” The Judaizers of that time claimed that the gentiles, in order to be saved, must enter Judaism under Mosaic law; the theonomists of today claim that Mosaic law has departed Judaism in order to reconstruct, and thus save, the nations under the rule of “the saints.”

Now as a Protestant I differ in a few spots with where Neuhaus landed but as an amillenial partial preterist I agree with his critique of theonomistic thought and with the historical tendencies of postmillenialists in particular. A conservative theonomist in the 20th century and a liberal Protestant social gospel advocate from the 19th century both draw on postmillenialism as a rationale. Now of course they will cite that they have substantial differences on other theological issues and that would be true, but both sorts of Christians derive motivation from the conviction that they are called by God by dint of being the right kind of Christian to change the world for Jesus and, as it were, hand the world to Jesus at the end of the Age on a silver platter.

I'm in my later thirties and I have begun to notice that a lot of doctrinally conservative Christians my age and younger (not attempting to pick numbers here) have steadily leaned more toward a kind of libertarian position. They are in some ways less concerned about finding ways to compel the Christianisation of society than to check religious persecution or social injustice. As old school American conservative Protestants have been clucking, younger evangelicals have been embracing all this nonsense about "social justice" which is just old liberalism.

Neuhaus noted all the way back two decades ago that prominent Protestants such as John MacArthur and Charles Colson opposed Reconstructionist theology. If anyone was in a position to have some idea how the use of actual political power corrupts you'd think Colson would be the one, and his disagreement with Reconstructionism would seem relevant if not for a systematic theological perspective than for a "been there and done that" perspective. As Neuhaus put it, the failures of all attempts at a kind of Christian-engineered society of the sort Protestants have embraced should be instructive. J. I. Packer, in his lengthy presentation on the history of the Puritans available through Reformed Theological Seminary, said that the whole enterprise of the Puritans as a campaign to reform and improve the Anglican church was an endless failure (my paraphrase). That failure, however, spoke to the salience of their concerns.

There are movements within Christianity and Christian history that may be more important because they continually fail to obtain the earthly goals their advocates continually seek than because those goals were reached. As far as that goes (perhaps not far) I consider it useful to look at the other Calvinists of the past and consider how frequently "we" fail to accomplish the things many of our associates consider good things to pursue.

Our theological pedigree in Calvinism and fashioning a society is full of a lot of failures. If God providentially permits that all "our" experiments in creating a more Christian society have ended in abject failure you'd think that "we" would become more cautious in assuming a theological rationale for a social and cultural experiment which has led to failure so many times in the past. If theological conservatives think this means one is acquiescing to "liberalism" that may just mean that theonomistic conservative doesn't realize he (and it's almost always a "he" here) has a heart in common with the social gospel liberal who thinks that he's entitled to and obligated to on the basis of "good" theology to make a "Christian society" that reflects his own likeness. It's easy for a conservative to say that a liberal is pursuing an over-realized eschatological ideal while overlooking this same error in himself. He thinks the real difference is those dividing points of "liberal" and "conservative" but the way he treats his neighbor may show in the long run that the core eschatological error which is a risk inherent in postmillenialism isn't any different.

One of the biggest early scuffles at Mars Hill was after Driscoll became a Calvinist (he wasn't one until somewhere between 2001-2002 as best I can recall. Well, as the church became young, restless and semi-Reformed a lot of guys about Mark's age began to get the idea that to be "really" Reformed meant embracing theonomistic ideas. Some guys began to parrot the bromides about pessimillenialism (which has always been idiotic). Other guys began to argue that it was the really Reformed thing to do. Driscoll and the other pastors repeatedly rejected these ideas. Driscoll, per Driscoll, began to think of members who were previously vital to the life of the church as being dead weight because of these kinds of theological differences. That was Mark being the kind of jerk he frequently is (and probably will be until he dies). But having said that, I agreed with (and still agree with) he decision to reject theonomistic theology and the political implications of that. Driscoll and I may not agree with my proposal that the problem with the theonomistic movement and the ostentatious Religious Right is that they're unwittingly repeating all the motivational errors inherent in the old Religious Left but we would agree that the theonomistic campaign has been proven to fail so many times in the last millenia that it is best to avoid that whole line of pursuit. Our prayer is to the Father that His kingdom would come and His will be done. We are not the ones who usher in the Kingdom. When Jesus said the kingdom comes without our careful observation this should be seen as a corrective both to dispensationalist premillenials as well as theonomistic postmillenials.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Practical Theology for Women: Theology of Spiritual Abuse

My friend Wendy over at Practical Theology for Women has started writing a bit about spiritual abuse. She mentions that there is something afoot in evangelicalism now surrounding the misuse of authority. I basically agree. I would get more specific and point out (as other bloggers have already) that one focal point for scandals and controveries and bad blood surrounding the misuse of spiritual authority is the young, restless Reformed world. The most recent case would merely be Sovereign Grace Ministries but it's not the only case. People will remember the pastoral firing cases at Mars Hill in Seattle from 2007. Other people will remember the fracas about R. C. Sproul Jr and the allegations about tax identification number fraud and the allegation of abuse of spiritual authority over there.

Still others will be mindful of Doug Wilson's alleged flip flop about how sexual predators should get the death penalty unless the convicted sex offender is someone he considers repentant and sufficiently valuable to keep in an important part of the Kirk. Then people got upset that it seemed Wilson was trying to have things both ways. If a person attempts to dismiss all of this as so much false accusation it's still perplexing that such a wide variety of groups in neo-Calvinist land seem able to land in controversy over even ALLEGATIONS of misuse of spiritual authority.

From Ezekiel 34
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.

The bad shepherd of God's people takes care of himself and his own interests. He eats the curds, clothes himself with the wool of the sheep, and slaughters the choice animals from the flock, but does not really take care of the flock. He does not strengthen the weak, heal the sick, or bind up the injured. He doesn't go bringing back the strays or looking for the lost. Those sheep are not valuable to him. He rules harshly and brutally and the sheep scatter because this shepherd is not really a shepherd and the scattered sheep then become food for wild animals.

This bad shepherd feeds off the milk and milk products of the sheep. He shears the sheep for wool with which to clothe himself. He slaughters the choice animals once in a while. But this metaphor seems too simple to stretch for application, doesn't it? It couldn't be that there are pastors who value church members because they tithe regularly and for little more than that. It couldn't be that there are pastors who keep track of who has been giving and only make a point of counseling and helping the "faithful" sheep. It's not really likely that in the midst of a dispute about the use of power or the direction of a church on doctrine or polity that a pastor would slaughter the choice sheep in the flock just to prove a point. It's not as though pastors exist who decide that when the best sheep in the flock leave by hundreds or even thousands that they're just bad sheep and they can just get more who are more useful. And it's not as though when this happens that they would just decide to tell themselves that those old sheep just didn't have what it took to live sacrificially enough to be of service to the church.

Now God does address bad sheep who destroy the soil and devour the grass, who muddy the waters so that other sheep cannot drink clean water, but this blog entry is chiefly (and obviously) concerned with what the Lord says through Ezekiel about shepherds. The wicked shepherd sees the flock as something to be used and from which to extract profit rather than a flock to be served.

A commenter named Luma pointed something out over at Wendy's blog, not all spiritual authority is misused in formal church settings. Another kind of misuse of spiritual authority happens in the home. If parents use their spiritual authority inherent in being parents in ways like the bad shepherd this is still a misuse of authority, too. Yet there are Christian parents who would be alert to the misuse of authority in someone else who don't think twice about pulling rank in the absence of a truly compelling position.

Conversely, there are churches where their leaders speak swiftly to address what they consider spiritually abusive uses of authority by the parents or family members of church members but do not observe that they themselves employ the same kinds of tactics. I know of counseling pastors who could confidently tell church members their families were spiritually abusive and yet thought nothing of pulling rank, refusing to explain things, and assuming the worst about people ... those things they considered spiritually abusive in people who weren't members of the church. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck then if it's not a duck what is it? A spiritual authority who would say "a duck" for anyone else will, for himself, say that he's really a pheasant and that we must not misunderstand the reality of the God-given authority he has to serve us. Or so he may say.

A pastor once wrote that one of the peculiarities of sin in our lives is that an adulterer may denounce adultery in others yet rationalize his own philandering. There are kinds of Christians who would not hesitate to denounce a prosperity gospel in another preacher or teacher who think nothing of a de facto prosperity gospel in their own life and teaching. There are Christians who are keenly alert to a propensity to use authority (actual or presumed) as the basis from which to demean, belittle, denounce, and attack others coming from other Christians who habitually, even on an hour by hour basis, do the same kind of thing. This has been so commonplace that now the world expects every high profile minister who rails against perverted sex to be a sexual deviant himself. Ted Haggard was famous for speaking up against homosexual activity before he was caught with a male prostitute and purchasing drugs.

But one of the things that is not a scandal for conservative Protestants that should be a scandal is that we focus on sex scandals. Don't get me wrong, sex scandals and sexual sin are definitely bad ... but back in 2007 when the firing controversy happened a Christian once told me that at least the scandal wasn't one involving sex. True, but Jesus' polemic against the Pharisees was not that they were sexually immoral. He objected to their regard for money and the abuse of their power.

Power comes in a variety of forms and a form of power I hope to eventually address is the power of narrative. Yeah, no surprise there. If you know me and the brothers and sisters in Christ I've hung out with in the last ten years I'm keenly aware of the potential a narrative has to shape lives. I want to hold off on writing in detail about that until later. Leftists, Marxists, and their opponents all recognize the political and social power of a compelling story.

One of the things to keep in mind is that sometimes a misuse of power does not originate in any obvious political gaming but comes in the kind of story we tell about ourselves. In Jesus' harsh verbal confrontation with the Pharisees in John 8 this is the flashpoint, the Pharisees have lied to themselves about what the their true story is. Each step they take to affirm what they are certain their real story is Jesus confronts them about the lies they believe and they lies they have told themselves and others through their rejection of Him. The further they go in affirming that they are on the side of God and that God is on their side the more trenchantly Jesus declares that their real father is Satan.

I submit as some food for thought that misuse of spiritual authority among genuine Christians (and by extension all frauds) is a fraudulent narrative of the self and the self's group which becomes the basis for deceit, bullying, manipulation, and a consumeristic attitude toward the flock of the sort Ezekiel 34 denounces. We're in the "Great Recession" right now and now is not the best time for high profile pastors who have solid economic means to be saying anything about consumerism at all. Jesus condemned Pharisees for their love of money and their willingness to manipulate piety in a way to preclude helping impoverished family members. There may come a time when faithful Christian service is demonstrated by not tithing. I haven't tithed to a church in years because I've got no income. I've spared a few quarters and dimes, so to speak, but there are people in the church who are too poor to "give sacrificially" and if a church and pastoral leadership have no use for such people because they are not "faithful givers" or "good stewards" (i.e. because they're poor) then this is dangerously close to the consumeristic/abusive shepherd of Ezekiel 34.

But I've rambled enough on that topic for now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

HT Internet Monk: the irony of the anonymous kinsmen redeemer in the book of Ruth

A fascinating comment on the Internet Monk series about the book of Ruth. We are told that Boaz marries Ruth and takes up the task of providing heirs for the house of Elimelech. The kinsman redeemer declines to marry Ruth because in so doing he would ruin his own inheritance. Elimelech was the man who built the plan and left for Moab to secure the stability of his family and inadvertantly led the family into ruin. Boaz takes the remnants of this family into his household at the expense of his own estate. We are not given the name of the kinsmen redeemer who declines the offer Boaz makes. Commenter Nate writes the following.

Nate says:
September 21, 2011 at 11:57 am
A great nuance that was pointed out to me recently is that the kinsman-redeemer, who was seeking to protect his inheritance, his “name” so to speak, ends up nameless in the retelling. Boaz, who sacrificed his own security is the one whose name lived on into the present day.

In an irony twist the nameless kinsman redeemer declines to marry Ruth because he is concerned about preserving his own inheritance and legacy. Yet his legacy is to be mentioned without a name in the book of Ruth and his estate and legacy are unidentifiable now, if they could even exist. There is a point where the person who gives up whatever legacy he might have had himself for the legacy of displaying the kindness of God gains a legacy that is greater than the legacies that men cling to for which they avoid kindness.

Monday, September 19, 2011

about Mark Driscoll's comment that video games are stupid ...

If University of Washington researchers use a competitive video game to take advantage of the human mind's capacity for spatial reasoning to help network some new, if small, discoveries in HIV treatment research ... does Mark Driscoll still get to say that video games are stupid pursuits of vicarious victories that don't matter and don't leave a legacy?

Well, Driscoll would say video games are stupid anyway. A bunch of gamers got lucky and were building on the work of some other guy working to leave a legacy. Points noted, should Driscoll ever pay enough attention to AIDs research or gaming to notice any of the above-linked news. Yet even if the actual scientific discovery arrived at by competitive video gaming turns out to be modest the significant thing is that it happened at all. A small step forward in AIDs research is probably a bigger legacy and a victory that matters more than, say, baseball games.

Maybe playing video games is foolish and Driscoll can still consider himself wise to rant about how foolish they are. I'll confess that I'm not a huge fan of video games and there are times when I'm tempted to think they're stupid. But humility involves recognizing that what seems stupid to me may genuinely be some kind of vocation or legitimate activity to others. God knows I don't get why people waste their lives on baseball but I try to resist the temptation to say that watching baseball is the stupid pursuit of enjoying vicarious victories that don't matter.

And a certain statement from the apostle Paul has stuck with me.

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are ...

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up. Besides, if you don't humble yourself, He might do it for you by providentially using those stupid video gamers playing stupid video games to make a breakthrough in AIDs research while you're taking your kids to Little League games whose victories will no doubt, not make newspaper headlines.

latest installment of new series up at Mockingbird--Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire

Well, here's a link to part one of my latest set of essays in the DC animated universe. The title of the series--Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire is a bit maudlin but, well, we are talking about Batman here, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight.

There's a lot more where this came from and, honestly, I need to keep cranking out the material for it. In one of those weird, amusing but annoying ironies this set of essays has been very challenging to write.