The failure of eschatology

Here in Moscow, we live in a hotbed of postmillenialist Christians. The reformed congregations here (Christ Church and Trinity Presbyterian) both have prolific author/pastors who promote this particular flavour of future thinking. (That would be Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart).

Having grown up Baptist, I was spoon fed the exact opposite (premillenial dispensationalism) for many years. This included things like “The Late Great Planet Earth“, Left Behind, and the ilk.

It turns out there are lots of positions in the middle between these two as well. The primary ones being historic premillenialism (like pre-mil but without all the complicated prophecy charts and theories), and amillenialism (like post-mil but more vague).

Anyway, Josh S (a Lutheran) at the Boar’s Head Tavern had a spot on comment the other day about all this:

I wonder if any differences between dispensationalists and postmillennialists is more cultural than specifically theological.  The latter tend to be more educated, more historically aware, and more interested in premodern art and literature, and thus have more positive attitudes toward top-down political structures and the syntheses of church and state we find in the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, which tend then to be a subtext under the “kingdom” speak.  Dispensationalists tend to be right-leaning Americans with the attendant strong suspicion of exaggerated political power, especially the state imposing its will on religion, and a tendency to speak of the Bill of Rights in the same way that they speak of Scripture.

IMO, they’re both a little loony.  On one hand, you have the people who want to create the imperishable and ideal Christian society where Jesus reigns supreme.  On the other, you have the people who are predicting Jesus will come back some time in the next two weeks based on some sign or another.  Both projects have parallel, uninterrupted, 2000-year old histories of failure.

This observation reinforces my theory that the theology of a particular group of Christians is more determined by their own subculture than it is actual systematic arguments. So along these lines you have Leithart writing an essay titled For Constantine (which is still quite brilliant in many ways) and on the other hand back-woods preachers shunning all forms of environmental conservation and foreign-conflict resolution because “it’s all going to hell any day now” when Jesus comes back. Fascinating.

Approaches Christian apologetics

My wife was having a discussion with some friends online on how to go about proving the existence of God. One person was playing the devil’s advocate atheist to challenge the others. Many of the first replies were predominately accounts of people’s own life experiences and how they came to faith. The challenger complained that these were all completely subjective and therefore irrelevant. My contribution goes something like this:

I think faith has objective and subjective components. So, because others can’t actually relate to our own experiences (the holy spirit moving in us, Jesus appearing to us in a vision, “burning in the bosom” (the classic Mormon phrase), etc.), then apologetics is limited in it’s ability to turn people’s heart toward the Lord. Maybe you can describe these things in a way that is helpful, or can relate your personal experience to them in a way that is moving, but it’s 1/2 of the mystery of faith that can’t really transfer to the next person so well.

However, I think much of our faith, (the other 1/2 if you will, though it’s not a math problem), actually can be treated objectively. These things appeal to our rationality, logical intellect, and our God-given ability to think things through. So on THAT front, there is much that can be done. Articulating these things can be difficult though, even for people who are strong Christians. People who have had very strong subjective experiences, often don’t feel so much need for their faith to be reinforced (so to speak), but systematic arguments for the existence of God. Or other theology for that matter.

Romans 1:20 is a really good place to start with and one of the key verses here:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

There are a few different ways to approach this to the secular unbeliever. C.S. Lewis goes from the angle of morality. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Well, it had to come from somewhere. It’s built in. God built it in. And so on.

N.T. Wright, in his newer apologetic Simply Christian cuts a wider swath and in addition to morality (the longing for justice), brings up questions of relationships (there is something deep inside us that makes us not want to be alone), and also the desire for beauty (there is something that makes music, art, sunsets, etc. stir something deep within us.) These are “echoes of a voice” – the voice of our creator.

In both cases, the apologists don’t even bring up the idea of Christianity or Jesus until way later in the discussion. We are just trying to establish the possibility that a generic “god” is out there. And not just out there, but actually might care about the race of man on earth.

-1. I think it’s very hard intellectually to be a pure atheist. It’s an exercise in faith against what is hard-wired in our minds.

0. I think most people who “don’t believe in god” are actually agnostic. That’s a lot easier. There maybe is a god, but we can’t possibly figure it out, so it doesn’t matter.

1. The next step up is deism, which believe there probably was some higher power that made everything, but he’s distance and doesn’t actually interact in the affairs of man. He wound up the universe, and maybe it has some kind of purpose, but we can’t do much more than make up stories about what that might be. So again, it doesn’t matter.

2. After that, you start to wonder if this creator actually IS more involved in the actual lives of his creation. And there you have most religions. (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, tribal religions, etc.)

3, 4, 5…Only after all that do you take the step of saying God cared about his creation, and specially about a group of people called the Jews, and that he was directly involved in their history for hundreds of years, eventually incarnating himself in the person of Jesus do you get to Christianity. Whew!

There are a lot of steps of stuff to believe in between agnosticism and that. Good thing we have the Holy Spirit and that subjective experience to jump-start people. Arguing through all that stuff would be tiring!

Working to earn God’s favor

I think we fallen men (this includes me of course) have the hardest time parting with the idea of works righteousness. I mean, a REALLY hard time. Even if we settle our understanding on a solid reformed doctrine of salvation (we are saved by grace alone), that STILL does not protect us from living in a manner where

  • good works = favor with God
  • sinning = back in the dog-house

That is NOT the gospel. Not of works lest any man should boast. It doesn’t stop after your first repentance. I’m not advocating sin here folks. I’m not saying God doesn’t answer prayer or doesn’t delight in good fruit in our lives or doesn’t reward hard work. I’m saying there IS no works righteousness. There can’t be. It’s a sham. Stop living like it’s real.

Travis Prinzi on the Boar’s Head Tavern illustrated this very well today with a quick rewrite of the parable of the prodigal son:

I’m going to get in trouble for this:

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best copy of the Scriptures and the prayer mat and send him into the chapel. I can’t hear him, and I refuse to pay attention to him, because he’s been sinning too much, and I’m not going to answer prayers of someone who has not been doing his duty.’ …

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard the sound of his brother turning the pages of the family Bible. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ’Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has commanded him to go pray and study the Scriptures.’ And the older brother said, ‘Good. I’ve been saying for years that father shouldn’t listen to sinners until they start doing their duty like me.’”

That entire mentality is built on the idea that we are received back to God by grace, but after that, we need to start behaving like the older brother in order to get God to listen to us. We become better than the prodigal, and God begins listening to us and answering our prayers. Sorry. Every single time I come to the Father, I’m the prodigal.

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Sola scriptura

Eric Raymond over at Irish Calvinist quotes James White in a clarification of the doctrine of sola scriptura. I think this really gets confused in a lot of people’s minds. Growing up Baptist and then charismatic in college, I always assumed a high and “only” view of the Bible. Nonetheless, both groups end up coloring the idea of “scripture alone” in various directions. That’s fine of course (to some degree) and to be expected. The reformed crowd appears to be shooting for more of a historical take on the doctrine. They are asking, “What did “scripture alone” mean to the early reformers?” It ends up being colored a reformed shade, but probably a little more carefully.

Anyway, the reason I think all of this is worth bringing up is because sola scriptura really IS very important to Christianity. When you marginalize it, you set yourself up for all sorts of trouble.

Sola sciptura is not a….

1. claim that the Bible contains all knowledge;
2. claim that the Bible is an exhaustive catalog of all religious knowledge;
3. denial of the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth;
4. denial that God’s Word has, at times, been spoken;
5. rejection of every kind of tradition;
6. denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church

A Summary of sola scriptura…

1. Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith.
2. No other revelation is needed for the Church.
3. There is no other infallible rule of faith outside of Scripture.
4. Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation.
5. All traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture.

Growing up baptist, sola scriptura was often used as a stick to beat up charismatics: “Look! The Bible is all we need! Prophecy is definitely not allowed.” It was also used to beat up the Catholics: Hey, the Bible is all we need! All those traditions you have are worthless and diluting the Bible. Apparently scripture alone implies a low liturgy.

In the charismatic circle I was part of, Smith Wigglesworth (an early 20th century evangelist) was held up as a hero. He ONLY read the Bible, owned no other books, and was credited with making people throw their newspapers away when he was around. This was seen as something to stand in awe of. Reading the bible daily was pushed really hard. (Which is great!) But reading much of anything else was thought to have little value. This is just part of the anti-intellectual atmosphere that appears to exist in most charismatic circles. We used to look at the reformed folks with their Bible sitting next to Virgil and Tacitus and just shake our heads. How can that other stuff possibly be of any use? Especially old pagan writers! Why don’t you just read the bible? (There is actually a decent answer to this.)

I think it’s most important to remember points #2 and #5 from above.

We don’t NEED anything besides scripture, but other things CAN be very helpful.

Everything we do (traditions, ideas, methods) are subject to the HIGHER authority of scripture.

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You can’t pin down God.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Throughout church history, Christian leaders have shown an impulse to pin everything down, to reduce behavior and doctrine to absolutes that could be answered on a true-false test. Significantly, I do not find this tendency in the Bible. Far from it, I find instead the mystery and uncertainty that characterize any relationship,l especially a relationship between a perfect God and fallible human beings. (p. 92)

He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Most heresies come from espousing one opposite at the expense of the other.

If there is anything I’ve learned since exploring the many branches of Christianity recently, it is the point expressed above. But what do you do with it? Well, let’s put some numbers on it:

1. Some fundamentalists don’t like this because it means that God can’t be adequately explained. They like to play up the importance of absolute truth (which IS important of course), but they aren’t sure what to do with mystery. So it either gets glossed over, or thrown out as being too (liberal, mystical, fill-in-the-blank).

2. Some Calvinists like to use this kind of material to draw attention to God’s sovereignty (which is great), but then do a u-turn by taking it a step further and trying to precisely define just how sovereign and mysterious and omnipotent and can’t-be-contained he is. They’ve got the Trinity measured down to a micrometer. Before you know it, you’re back to a staggering stack of true and false statements. Oops.

3. Some Charismatics will also appeal to the same idea, often saying, “You can’t put God in a box.” Well, of course you can’t. Yeah, that right! But wait. If I don’t speak in tongues then I can’t possibly have the holy spirit? If I’m sick and didn’t get healed, it MUST be because I didn’t have enough faith? And, prophecy is cool and all, but I’m not so sure about the stuff that one guy was saying yesterday. What, you mean I’m spiritually dead because I’m even questioning it? Huh? Looks like God’s still in the box.

I grew up in the company of #1, though the artist in me was never comfortable with it. For 5 years of college I hung with #3 (and still do sometimes). I have a drink with #2 sometimes and find it a secure and refreshing change. I’m just can’t buy the whole thing though.

Actually, I just can’t buy any of it.
So I guess I’ll take all of it. Woo hoo!