A Must-Read Must-Read

I’m really liking Jonathan Leeman. He humbly lets his gifts be sublimated to those of Mark Dever when the two chat on 9Marks Pastors Talk episodes, but when I read The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love and then went and heard his paper at the 2016 ETS—I saw that Leeman himself is really theologically and intellectually sharp. And doctrinally solid. This recent article by Leeman on gender roles at the 9Marks site is an absolute must-read.

His analysis of “broad” vs. “narrow” complementarians is very helpful; his graciousness is palpable. His wisdom is… Okay, I’ll stop gushing. Go read it.

My non-denominational, biblicist training might possibly have pushed me in a “narrow” direction, making my complementarianism focus solely on wives submitting to husbands and men taking church leadership roles. But my overall conservatism and, especially, my respect—and continual search—for “creational norms” put me clearly in the “broad” camp with Leeman. That is, I’m primed with him to see divine norms in biology and even in culture.

But Leeman helps people like me make sure not to find norms where they aren’t: that could lead to injustice. And it helps me remember not to be too firm about norms that required several judgment calls to arrive at.

And he cautions us all, on the other side, from putting ourselves in a position in which we are apologizing for the Bible. This is so true:

When churches hesitate to say what distinguishes men and women, God’s explicit precepts for the church and home begin to look arbitrary, even a little embarrassing. You can hear the Sunday school lesson now: “The Bible teaches that women should not be elders, but here’s what I really want you to hear: women can do everything else a man can do.” The tone or subtext is, “No, these commands don’t make a lot of sense because we all know men and women are basically the same. But he is God, sooo…”

And this is brilliantly simple and, in my opinion, profoundly true:

Wisdom issues an “ought,” as in “men ought” or “women ought.” But wisdom’s “ought” is a little different than the “ought” of law. Wisdom’s “ought” sounds like something from Proverbs (“a wise son hears his father’s instruction”). Law’s “ought” sounds like something from Exodus (“you shall not steal”). Wisdom’s “ought” comes with an “ordinarily.” Its opposite is folly (the father might be a fool, a thief, or a typical dad who gives mixed advice). Law’s “ought” comes with an “always.” Its opposite is sin. Yes, sin and folly often overlap, but not always.”

This has application beyond gender roles, but it surely applies to them.

I’m really jazzed about this article, if you couldn’t tell.

Must-read, must-read, must-read!

Wise Words from Lesslie Newbigin on Pluralism and Secularism

I’m listening to Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1988). My local library had it among their digital audio loans, and I thought it was high time I went through a Newbigin book. The book comes from lectures he delivered in Princeton’s Warfield lectures of 1984—and yet it sounds like things that didn’t hit the evangelical mainstream for a decade or more after that. Remarkable.

(Newbigin makes dismissive comments about fundamentalism,  particularly its supposedly blinkered view of science, but I’ve come to realize that the whole point of mentions of fundamentalism is dismissiveness. Outside of some scholarly works in which careful definition is attempted, “fundamentalism” only ever means, “The dummies to my right.” These dummies never get to speak, because presumably all they could say is “Bar, bar, bar.” Ah, well. The book is still packed with wisdom.)

This quote jumped out at me this morning:

Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology. But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all. They can never agree that there is one law for themselves and another for the world. They can never admit that there are areas of human life where the writ of Christ does not run. They can never accept that there are orders of creation or powers or dominions that exist otherwise than to serve Christ. Whatever the institutional relationship between the church and the state—and there are many possible relationships, no one of which is necessarily the right one for all times and places—the church can never cease to remind governments that they are under the rule of Christ and that he alone is the judge of all they do. The church can never accept the thesis that the central shrine of public life is empty, in other words, that there has been no public revelation before the eyes of all the world of the purpose for which all things and all peoples have been created and which all governments must serve. It can never accept an ultimate pluralism as a creed even if it must—as of course it must—acknowledge plurality as a fact. In fact, it cannot accept the idea … of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms. We know now, I think, that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society. Human nature abhors a vacuum. The shrine does not remain empty. If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.

These words made me think of none other than Stanley Fish, who said in an epochal First Things piece,

A person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch….

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

So, on the one hand, I’m not aiming for a theocracy. I can’t go around immanentizing eschatons all day. That’s not my job. I’m Awaiting the King; he will do that. I acknowledge the fact of pluralism. But I can’t accept that pluralism is a good, only a lesser evil—a lesser evil than coercing people’s consciences to confess belief in something they don’t believe in. I like the ad-hoc nature of the church-state relation suggested by Newbigin, because it seems to me that that’s what most Christians will get. They have to be able to live and think Christianly under any regime. But as Jamie Smith points out, sometimes prophets who stand athwart society get elected to high office; they’ve got to be able to get to the work of construction, of bringing change. They can’t cease to be Christians at that time and suddenly become convinced pluralists. I think that every day, and in every way, we push for whatever good we can get away with without doing any evil (like coercing consciences).

Some Thoughts on Some Thoughts on the Future of Christian Higher Ed

Alan Jacobs and Carl Trueman are probably right to fear that the sexual revolution will “annihilate” a number of Christian institutions of higher learning once discrimination for sexual orientation fully and officially becomes the new racism. But my alma mater survived the loss of its tax-exemption; I do think there are Christian parents who will be willing to send their children off to schools that are unaccredited. I was born to a pair, both of whom were college-educated and knew what they were doing. And I will do it. I will.

Call me a dreamer, but I wonder if the death of certain institutions and the compromise of others will actually galvanize the Christian community, causing them to view my alma mater—and any other school that will not bow the knee to unfettered Eros—in a new light. I don’t know. Darkness and low enrollment may continue for a night, but a “baby boom” of a freshman class may be coming in the morning, along with a lot of transfer students.

An alternative model I’ve recently heard involves churches putting together Bible colleges that complement the education being offered in secular institutions. This is not ideal; I’d rather ask my kids to “joyfully accept the plundering of their property” (Heb 10:34) through unaccredited degrees at “Benedict-Option” Christian schools in the hills than ask them to navigate the challenges of a capital-S Secular education during their formative years. I certainly wasn’t ready as a college freshman to withstand those challenges.

Christians Should Be the Most Gracious and Edifying People on Social Media

I like Alastair Roberts. Here’s some wisdom for you (emphasis mine):

Progressive versus conservative evangelical spats are one of the very worst things about Twitter, which is really saying something. Such arguments illustrate just how poor a medium Twitter can be for productive conversation, not least on account of its tendency to foreground some of the shrillest and most antagonistic voices on both sides and privilege reactive instinct over considered response. What results is generally more of a predictably polarizing exercise in group psychology than an illuminating exchange. The issues get lost behind the personalities, the party politics, the outrage-mongering, and the emotionality and, rather than making progress, we all end up that bit more alienated from and frustrated by each other.

This is extremely unfortunate, not merely because of the animosity it excites, but also because issues of no small importance become snarled up in the instinctive antagonisms and alignments of a crowd of people who really shouldn’t be in the same room. The form of historic communications media meant that participation in theological discourse was generally heavily restricted to people with extensive learning or significant qualifications, to people who were expected to be able to defend their claims without erecting human shields around them, and to people who were subject to a code of discourse. By contrast, the Internet gives prominence to people who lack either the learning, the self-mastery, or the character to engage in a calm and effective conversation. It gives the young, the popular, and the polarizing an unhealthily high profile. It also has the unfortunate tendency to bring out the worst in people who actually have something to say that is worth hearing.

Now this is awfully convenient. Guys with PhDs telling other people they shouldn’t speak because they don’t have the qualifications; they don’t have the right to express an opinion. But, no, it’s not like that. Alastair is bookoo smart, so there are many, many, many topics he can speak on with authority and profit. The list of topics I can speak to edifyingly is radically shorter than his. But I know I, and I am certain he, backs off of certain issues. I’m just not going to write an article about climate change or medicine or pretty much anything in the field of economics. I don’t really have a right to a publicly expressed opinion on those things. I wouldn’t want to dilute people’s trust in me by spouting off on them and putting my ignorance on display. It would be a folly and shame to me (Prov 18:13).

Proverbs 18:13 should, in fact, be a lens through which all Christians view social media. If you give an answer before you really hear the question, before you really grasp the issues, before you’ve listened to both or all sides, before you’ve taken time to drill down through your dirty prejudices (we’ve all got ’em) and come back out with some clean truth, God says it’s shameful.

If you or I do need to discuss an issue we don’t have great facility in, maybe just maybe we ought to be tentative and humble. Not that knowledge gives one the right to be proud, of course. But Christians, who of all people should know humility—because you can’t get into the club without admitting your depravity—should ideally be the most gracious and edifying people on social media.

Sigh.

Psalm 2 at Christmas

I was given the privilege of preaching briefly this morning at my church after our annual Christmas program, and I chose what might seem an odd passage for Christmas: Psalm 2.

During the time of year at which we are celebrating what is in one sense the beginning of Jesus’ story, the birth of the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah, it is appropriate for us to look to the end of Jesus’ story, too. And, interestingly enough, the end was predicted before the beginning.

This psalm, written probably at the time of King David, the ancestor of Jesus, is always relevant, because it describes the way the world always is. I want to take a quick trip through this psalm, stanza by short stanza.

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

There have always been rulers of the earth taking counseling together against the Lord and his Anointed. King Herod did it shortly after the first Christmas by trying to kill the Anointed one in a murderous purge of all the baby boys in that region.

Pontius Pilate took counsel against the Lord and against his Anointed years later by giving into the fear of a bloodthirsty crowd that wanted the adult Anointed One dead.

And many rulers of American society today take the same counsel together today, counsel against the Lord and against Jesus—who, if you haven’t figured it out, is God’s Anointed. Psalm 2 describes all history up to the present time.

I’m going to make a small stretch from the word “rulers” here to the word “influencers.” Today it is quite possible to be more influential than the top politicians in the country—we have more “rulers” of public opinion because of our mass media than any society could ever have had in the past. And one of these “rulers”—my favorite liberal, Nick Kristof—used his column in the New York Times yesterday in part to express his skepticism about claims the Bible makes about God’s Anointed.

[I] am…skeptical of…the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles [of Jesus] and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief [within Christianity], or can I mix and match?

So God’s word expresses truth claims about Jesus, and Kristof won’t accept them. He is trying to burst the bonds of truth that God laid on the world. He’s saying, “I don’t want God’s cords wrapped around my mind. Get ‘em off me! I’ve got my own thoughts!” He may not be a ruler, per se, but he’s doing the same thing Psalm 2 describes from a perch of influence few kings could have dreamt of in the past.*

How does God respond to these challenges against his rule and that of his Anointed?

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

God laughs at this opposition. And then he turns to the rulers of this world in fury and says something to terrify them: they have already been displaced by a greater ruler. “I have set my King on Zion.”

The first Christmas was the birth of that king. As the song goes—and I find it so interesting that so many non-Christians sing this every year,

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Mary had some idea, yes. And God the Father knew. The one who anointed Jesus to fill that role knew.

I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Jesus came to this earth to seek and to save the lost. He told us this himself, and he accomplished it at his first coming—the one he launched on Christmas day 2000-plus years ago.

But that first coming was never meant to be the final one. Psalm 2 predicted it: one day Christ will come and make all the nations his, possessing the entire globe—even though it will take great violence for him to do so. When God’s anointed takes up a rod of iron, the nations opposing him will be dashed in pieces like a ceramic vase on your kitchen floor.

One day Christ will “make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness.” And how do you think he’s going to do that? By fulfilling Psalm 2.

So Psalm 2 has counsel for the kings of the earth:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Come obediently and fearfully before this king—O, come, let us adore him. Rejoice at his coming, yes, but do so with trembling. The King of Kings salvation brings, yes, let loving hearts enthrone him—yes. But one day it will no longer be possible to do these things. His wrath will be quickly kindled, and some will perish.

Now this is a scary psalm, not a text normally turned to at Christmas time. But I get to end on a positive note, because the psalm does. During this era of opposition to Christ, it is possible to take refuge in him. The same ruler who will, yes, be dashing his enemies to pieces will have behind him a host of people whom he has rescued from among those very enemies. What the writer of Psalm 2 saw was far off in the future, and it may still be. What he did not mention is all the time in between, the time in which we all are permitted to “take refuge in him,” to be in a state called “blessed.”

When the Bible makes a claim—that Jesus was born of a virgin, that He rules the world with truth and grace, that he died for our sins, rose from the dead, and now sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us—when the Bible makes those claims, take refuge in him by believing them.

We live right now in rebel territory, the one tiny spot in all the cosmos that we know of that has been permitted to turn against its true ruler. Stars, I presume, don’t do this. They obey. Whole galaxies of stars likewise. But on our little blue planet, we think we can go our own way despite being upheld every moment by his hand. When you live in rebel territory but are loyal to the true king, and when that king is in a kind of exile, an exile that last a long time, it’s tempting to go with the flow and accept whatever illegitimate ruler is placed over you—from Baal to Napoleon to conspicuous consumption of material stuff. But Christians are exiles in our society, because we’re the ones blessed to take refuge in him even before he comes to set the world right.

Christmas was a down payment on the salvation of the planet. God broke into creation mightily and gloriously. He sent his Anointed King to earth as a tiny baby. Take refuge in him.

* I really like Kristof. A lot. I respect him, I really do. So I find it all the more funny and interesting that his objections to Christ’s virgin birth and Resurrection are so flimsy. He sounds like an unreconstructed theological liberal of the 19th century.