Raised for our justification

Raised for our justification

The cross stands near the center of Christian treatments of atonement—and rightly so.

Paul famously proclaims that he resolved to know nothing when he came preaching to the Corinthians except Christ, “and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

But the cross is hardly the only aspect of God’s saving work; thus Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was

delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Romans 4:25 NIV

In this short post, I want to focus on the last part of the verse.

RESURRECTING JUSTIFICATION

By definition, justification involves the declaration that one has been officially granted the status of “righteous” with regard to God’s covenant. In lay terms, it’s a bit like the pronouncement of “Not guilty!” handed down in court.

Unfortunately, while evangelicals often have some answer for how the cross connects to justification (usually involving some notion of penalty-bearing on our behalf), many accounts of how the resurrection fits in are either unsatisfying or missing altogether.

For this reason, N. T. Wright claims that

There seems to be something about the joining together of resurrection and justification which some of our Western traditions have failed to grasp.

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 219

It’s not that evangelicals think the resurrection is unnecessary. We hear each Easter how if Christ had not been raised, we would still be stuck in our sins and to-be pitied for our misspent faith (1 Cor 15:17-18). It’s just that we rarely get around to addressing what exactly it means to say that Christ was raised “for our justification.”

GOOD ANSWERS TO DIFFERENT QUESTIONS

Instead of answering that question, accounts of the resurrection tend to run as follows:

Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own future resurrection.

True enough (1 Cor 15:20). But this doesn’t offer any explanation of how Jesus rising from the dead is connected to the declaration of us being righteous in the eyes of God.

Christ’s resurrection must be true, or our faith is based on a lie.

Also true. But if your only understanding of justification is that “Jesus paid it all,” then it isn’t clear why his resurrection is required.

After all, if someone paid my student loan debt by writing me into their will, it wouldn’t follow that their resurrection was also needed for my bill to be paid. In this scenario, a death is necessary, but resurrection isn’t.

So too in some evangelical treatments of atonement.

Christ’s resurrection is the vindication (or proof) that he is who he claimed to be, and that his work on the cross was effective.

Yep. But this point confuses the corroboration of atonement with the idea that the resurrection itself is necessary for our justification.

To use an imperfect analogy, that’s like assuming that the corroborating answers in the back of a math textbook are required for 2+2 to equal 4, or for your work in the front of the book to be accurate. (To be clear, I did need those answers—which is why I’m a theologian and not an engineer.)

If Paul had meant merely to highlight that resurrection vindicates Christ’s prior justifying work on our behalf, then he should have written Romans 4:25 differently.

In summary, each one of these answers is true. But each one also fails to explain how Christ was “raised for our justification.”

What is a better answer?

THE STATE OF OUR UNION

In a word, it has to do with “union” or “participation.”

For Paul, Christians have been raised up with Christ, and seated with him in heavenly realms (Eph 2:6) because we have been united with him in his death (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:5). Salvation therefore comes about by being “in Christ” by virtue of faith, as symbolized by baptism, and as brought about the uniting work of the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament highlights this saving union through a variety of metaphors—one of which is marriage. In this legal bond, the two become “one flesh” (Gen 2:24) so that what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. “But I am talking,” Paul says to the Ephesians, “about Christ and the church” (5:32). Insofar as we have been bound-together by faith with Christ’s broken body, his death is our own death to sin (Rom 8:3; Gal 2:20), and his resurrection is itself our justification. The logic here, however foreign to modern individualists (see here), is that of union.

Sadly, if all we understand about atonement is a sort of penalty-exchange, then we will never know what to do with Romans 4:25, and we will never understand the importance of the resurrection.

(To be clear, I spent just shy of a hundred pages in The Mosaic of Atonement arguing for a particular version of the idea that Christ justly bears the penalty for human sin on our behalf. So I can’t be accused of rejecting that biblical reality.)

But thankfully, there is more to Jesus’ saving work than penalty-bearing.

In the view of Michael Bird, Christ’s resurrection is his “justification”—not because Christ was a sinner in need of saving—but because it is the official declaration that he is, in fact, righteous.

Likewise, Constantine Campbell is right to say that

Believers share in the vindication of Christ’s resurrection by dying and rising with him; they are declared righteous by virtue of their participation in these events.

The Hope of Glory, 338

Union with Christ provides the foundation on which the language of justification and penalty-bearing make sense.

And it explains why Paul can say that Christ was not only “delivered over to death for our sins,” but also “raised to life for our justification.”


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New book alert!

New book alert!

Big news!

I haven’t written about this on the blog yet, but my next book now has its own page, and its first endorsement on the IVP website (here).

I was honored to receive these words from Matthew Bates:

“Perhaps a meadow exists between dogmatism and skepticism, a fruitful space for cultivating beautiful truth. Perhaps Origen, Augustine, and Edwards can converse there with Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps instead of rehearsing or debunking information, we can foster theological imagination. Perhaps Joshua McNall’s wit and wisdom has pointed the church toward a better future. Perhaps we should listen.”

Matthew W. Bates, author of Gospel Allegiance and associate professor of theology at Quincy University

Matt’s endorsement captures well the spirit my project.

In so many ways, our culture feels held hostage by the fringes: the shrillest voices on the Left and Right. And as we turn to questions of faith, that same polarization leaves many driven toward one of two extremes: On one side stands a yawning chasm of secular doubt, and on the other sits an increasingly angry religious dogmatism.

I’m not the first person to note this trend, but I hope my book sparks something of a renewed (and more gracious) theological imagination between pervasive skepticism and abrasive certainty. That’s what Perhaps is about.

It’s a strange book, because its fuses disciplines that are normally kept safely separate: It’s part fiction, part theology, part apologetics, and part cultural analysis.

Still, the big idea is summed up in this line from N. T. Wright:

To believe in providence often means saying “perhaps.”

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Here’s a brief snapshot from my Introduction:

The importance of what I define as “faith seeking imagination” increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism.

Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the “resounding gong[s]” (1 Cor 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say “perhaps.”

From the Preface

I’ll have much more to say about the book in weeks to come, but if you’re interested, here’s a few things you can do to help as I approach the September launch date:

  • Pre-order. You can pre-order the book on Amazon (here), or on the InterVarsity Press site (here).
  • Join my newsletter (here): Full disclosure… I’ve been terrible at keeping up this newsletter, so if you signed up and wondered if something went wrong, it did: I got too busy. That said… I’ll be offering some special perks through that email list to interested readers. Thanks!
  • Pray. Pray that this book blesses the church and is used by God to speak not only to academics (it is lightly academic) but to college students and churchgoers who feel spiritually homeless.

Oh, and one more thing: The unsung hero of Perhaps is a seven-hundred-pound Galápagos tortoise, named Wilbur. He’s important for the plot, but he’s also dedicated to my 3 yr old son, Teddy Brian.

How’s that for a teaser?

Grace and peace.


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My Favorite Books of 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

If there was a bright side of 2020, it was some extra time for reading amidst the homebound months of the pandemic.

Here are my favorites from the past year.

BIBLICAL STUDIES

Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020).

Who wouldn’t want a whole book on ancient Jewish views on genital discharges, corpses, and eczema-related skin conditions?

While the topic of ritual impurity may sound odd to some lay readers, Thiessen’s careful work sheds fresh light on Jesus’ ministry by showing how he upholds the Jewish Law and aligns himself against the forces of Death. In so doing, Jesus functions as a kind of “holy contagion” that removes impurity by healing its source.

See my prior blog post on the book (here), and look for my Outpost Theology interview with Matt to be released in January, 2021 (here).

THEOLOGY

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020).

My favorite theological works are rarely the ones I agree with most fully. And in this case, it’s not even a book I find intelligible at every turn.

In some places, understanding Sonderegger’s poetic prose and elusive argumentation is like trying to construct an elaborate piece of IKEA furniture by using a copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as directions.

“Just so.”

Nonetheless, this book remains the most interesting piece of theology I’ve read this year. Sonderegger crafts beautiful, opaque, surprising, and biblically-attuned reflections that cut against long-held assumptions about where we should to look to find the Mystery of the Trinity. Surprisingly, she finds pointers toward the triune processions in the Old Testament, through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the sacrificial rituals of Israel.

FICTION

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985).

Quite obviously, this book wasn’t written in 2020. But McCarthy’s dark, apocalyptic brooding fits well amidst the tone and tenor of this year. (Even if I technically started it in 2019 [see here].) Despite all the attention he rightfully receives for The Road, I think Blood Meridian is the work of greater genius.

McCarthy explores the rough edges of human depravity by mining (and expanding) violent events that actually transpired near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. Alongside shimmering descriptions of the desert landscape, the high point of the novel is the way McCarthy’s villain (the Judge) becomes a rumination on what Scripture calls “the Satan.”

Someday, when I am allowed to teach a combination literature and theology course on “atheist prophets,” this book will make the syllabus.

SCIENCE AND MEDICINE

Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World (Hachette, 2017).

If you want some perspective on our present pandemic, try going back a hundred years via Spinney’s treatment of the Spanish Flu. As I’ve noted previously (here), Spinney’s work in scientific history reminds us that pandemics are social phenomena as well as medical ones, and while history doesn’t technically repeat itself (Thank God), it does rhyme in all sorts of interesting ways.

BIOGRAPHY

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2005).

I’m tempted to feel embarrassed by this one: First, because I’m late to the party; and second, because I read it after watching the musical more times than I can count with my four young children. (Don’t criticize my parenting.)

Still, Hamilton’s story is so improbable, and so well told by Chernow, that it stands on its own merits, even amid all the hype of the musical.

Especially in 2020, when America’s political fortunes lurched daily toward the abyss, Hamilton reminds us why the Experiment is worth protecting. This book made me care about our beautiful and broken country, though the daily news cycle often made me feel ashamed.

HISTORY

S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010).

Despite residing in Oklahoma, I’ve been mostly ignorant of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and one of the more remarkable figures in the American West. Until this book.

Born to a famous White captive (Cynthia Ann Parker), Quanah bridges the gap both genetically and temporally between the old world of Comanche warriors, and the new world that was coming. (In some ways, this history book was the real-world doppelgänger of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but with the Native American narrative taking precedence.)

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the way it refused to fall into either of the two simplistic tropes regarding Native American warriors. The Comanches are detailed both in their nobility and bravery, and in terms of their horrific brutality, displayed especially in their attacks upon other Native American tribes across centuries.

If you haven’t read this one, pick it up.

CHURCH AND CULTURE

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020).

This year saw a number of books on racial justice shoot up the bestseller lists. And rightfully so. But McCaulley’s text is different in several ways.

Reading While Black is not a “Dear White people” book that attempts to explain the African American experience to outsiders. It is more a love letter to the Bible that has sustained the Black community through years of injustice, even while that same Holy Book was often used against Black Christians.

McCaulley reveals a tradition of African American exegesis that refuses to be weaponized or tokenized by EITHER White Conservatism or White Liberalism—and in that way, it has a prophetic word for all of us.

Listen to my interview with Esau (here) and pick up the book.

PREMODERN, PRIMARY SOURCES

Origen, On First Principles, A Reader’s Edition, trans. John Behr (Oxford, 2019).

Premodern texts often get left out of these lists. My favorite for the year is John Behr’s fantastic new translation of Origen’s On First Principles (Even if I couldn’t afford the two-volume critical edition).

The translation reads far easier than many other treatises from the period, and while Origen has often been derided and dismissed by orthodox theologians, a careful reading of On First Principles reveals a mind that is enraptured with Scripture, with God’s loving justice, and with questions that still plague us today–even if not all his conclusions are to be followed.

(Look for a section on Origen in my forthcoming book on the place of imaginative speculation in theology.)

Here’s hoping 2021 has even more time to read, but for different reasons.


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Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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Watching from the corner

Watching from the corner

Liberty University needs a new Board, not just a new President.

Despite appearances, this is NOT a post about the allegations of what Jerry Falwell did to witness and participate in a sordid affair between his wife and a former pool boy.

Instead, this is a post about what the Liberty board of trustees did for years in the face of Falwell’s other disqualifying actions.

Because those actions (Jerry’s and the board’s) are actually much the same.

The board at Liberty (or at least some members) did exactly what Jerry Jr. is now accused of doing: They sat and watched—for years—from the corner of the room, and they participated in sinful and degrading behavior by their acquiescent presence.

The Liberty board has long had a front row seat to Falwell’s racist comments, rude behavior, shameful tweets, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, late night clubbing, and shady business dealings–long before the latest bombshell.

The board watched for years as the reputations of Christ and their university were ravaged many times before this week. And while some board members surely had misgivings, the board as a whole did nothing definitive to stop it.

They watched.

So their sin is not unlike Falwell’s; it’s just less titillating.

For that reason, it’s not just Falwell that should go.

A NEW BOARD, NOT JUST A NEW PRESIDENT

As a professor in Christian higher education, I realize the relationship between a board and a university can be complicated. It is not the job of the trustees to micromanage an institution. And no single board member can oust a president—especially one as powerful and nepotisticly-connected as Jerry Falwell Jr.

Still, at what point during years of bad behavior should the Liberty board have stepped in?

At what point should the board have gotten out of their collective “corner” to stop a pattern that was happening in public long before Jerry posed and posted a photo with his pants unzipped?

Perhaps some tried. I know for a fact there are excellent people at Liberty University, especially amongst the faculty, staff, and students. Unfortunately, those people have had no power to change the university’s president. That authority resides only with the board.

WHEN WATCHING IS PARTICIPATING

This point brings up a broader problem that is relevant for all of us. It has to do with how sin, power, and the idol of “proximity” often collude in broken institutions.

Humans crave influence. And we tend to see that influence as magnified by our proximity to power. So when Christian leaders show themselves to be corrupt and un-Christlike, those called to hold them accountable face a difficult choice.

If they speak up, they could lose “proximity” and “influence.” Hence, the easy path is to rationalize one’s silent “watching” as if that does not make one part of the whole sordid affair.

CONCLUSION

That’s why a new president won’t fix Liberty. Only God can do that–and that same God can even redeem the Falwells. No one is beyond hope.

But for Liberty University, a crucial further step is this: Every board member that did not speak up against Falwell’s other disqualifying actions should also be replaced. And their replacements should come from the ranks of those who were brave enough to speak truth to power long before this week.

If Falwell’s latest scandal teaches anything, it’s that silently watching from the corner can itself be a form of complicit participation.


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The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.

But there’s a catch.

In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.

Divided by faith

For this reason,

well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.

RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”

When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.

Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.

BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE

Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.

And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.

TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN

In this post, however, I want to address two things:

  1. How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
  2. How that connects to racism in America.

First, sin.

In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.

Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.

What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.

As McCall rightly notes:

Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].

Structural sin is uniquely tied to power.

A great example exists in the 1986 and 1994 crime bills. (Though we could talk also of housing, hiring, or policing practices.)

For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.

By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.

More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.

Screen Shot 2020-07-14 at 10.43.45 AM
Links to individual studies here.

In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”

That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”

In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.

To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:

“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).

The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).

In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.

But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?

THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN

Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.

As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.

Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)

This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.

“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”

Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”

While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?

After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.

Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.

CONCLUSION

None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)

To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.

Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.

As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:

To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.

Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.

When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.

 


For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.

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The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

Why call individualism a heresy and not just a bad idea?

While the first installment in this series dealt with a definition (and some examples) of what might be called a “toxic individualism,” the present post touches on some biblical and theological reasons for rejecting such a posture.

But first, a brief digression.

THE TWO EXTREMES

I wrote my PhD thesis on a British theologian named Colin Gunton.

In several works (but especially The One, the Three and the Many), Gunton ping-pongs between theology, Scripture, philosophy, and political theory in order to understand the nature of human and divine personhood.

In so doing, he identifies two ideological extremes in modern times: 

  1. Western Individualism, and
  2. Eastern (Communist) Collectivism.

IMG_1846 2.jpg
Like many of Gunton’s sweeping claims, this is more than a little oversimplified, but I still think it can be helpful.

His claim is that both extremes represent deficient understandings of God, humanity, and the nature of reality.

In his words,

The person is neither an individual, defined in terms of separateness from others, nor one who is swallowed up in the collective (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 13).

Building on a certain doctrine of the Trinity, Gunton writes the following:

To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others cut off from the them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship.

Being a person is about being from and for and with the other. I need you – and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others, and to the world from which they come (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 14; italics added).

PARTICULARITY AND PARTICIPATION

In contrast to Western individualism and Communist Collectivism, we might highlight the Christian concepts of “particularity” and “participation.”

Particularity speaks to the way we retain our distinct identities by virtue of our relationships, not in spite of them. To use an example: I am not my wife, but my relationship with Brianna makes me distinctly who I am in innumerable ways.

Particularity is important as it helps us see and appreciate differences rather than consuming others or homogenizing them with foolish and dishonest phrases like “I don’t see color.”

Particularity is beatified by participation.

Participation means that I am bound up with others in a way that baffles and and offends the individualist.

SOME BIBLICAL EXAMPLES

Scripture gives multiple examples of a shared existence that is very far from an isolating modern individualism, even if we struggle to understand what that means.

Salvation is being “in Christ” through a union wrought by the Holy Spirit.

The two become “one flesh” in marriage, which is an imperfect picture of Christ and the church.

Paul was crucified “with Christ” despite never having met Jesus in his pre-ascended state.

Jesus prays that his followers would “be one,” just as he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” him (John 17:21).

To show hospitality to the hungry, the naked, the immigrant, or the imprisoned is to welcome Jesus in disguise (Matt 25).

Romans claims that we can be united with Christ in his death (by baptism), and so also united with his resurrection life (6:5).

1 Corinthians says that “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (6:17).

Ephesians states that Christians “are all members of one body” (Eph 4:25).

Colossians claims that “all things” in heaven and earth hold together “in him” who is the Son (Col 1:16-17).

Hebrews says that Christ “shared in [our] humanity” when he took on human flesh (2:14-16).

And 2 Peter claims that humans may actually “participate in the divine nature” because of what God has done for us (1:4).

To unpack each of these references would require more time and wisdom than I have. But the overriding point is that personhood is porous: we are designed to be both distinct and yet united with others (both human and divine) in relationships of love and obligation.

Or as Paul writes, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19).

CONCLUSION

None of this makes any sense through the lens of Western individualism, wherein the highest value is independence. It is heresy. And that’s good news.

So while an apt description of current American culture might be that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; ESV), the biblical hope is more in-keeping with some marriage imagery from the musical Hamilton (I couldn’t resist…):

“To your union, and the hope that it provides.”

 


In the next post, I’ll tackle what Scripture has to say about the reality of “structural” or “systemic” Sin, as opposed to purely individualistic conception of transgression.


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The heresy of radical individualism (Part 1)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 1)
[*This is the first in a series of posts on radical individualism. In it, I hope to touch on questions of the common good, human responsibility, racial justice, and how Jesus saves.]

Tim Keller makes a point about the way we Americans sing our national anthem.

At sporting events or graduations, the cheering begins during the next to last line: “O’er the land of free…”—at which point, the singer invariably elongates the final word:

“…freeeeeee–eeee!”

The song finishes with a nod to “the brave,” but both the vocals and the cheering highlight individual freedom as what Keller calls “the main theme and value of our society.”

So, in the diagnosis of Jake Meador, “the solution to every problem is simple: more freedom.”

I’ve been thinking of this lately. Because whether it’s the debate over systemic vs. individual racism (future post), or a stubborn refusal to wear face masks, it’s clear that America is unique in its attachment to individualism.

You might say, we’re “exceptional.”

pandemic chart
We’re winning.

In extreme cases, even the smallest impositions for the common good are taken as tyrannical calls for freedom’s martyrs to live out the final scene in Braveheart.

Case in point: This was the result in a Florida City Council when elected officials voted unanymously to require face masks in certain public spaces. (Whatever your thoughts on masking, you have to admit this is, uh, a bit extreme.)

 

And you thought you’d have to wait till July 3rd to stream Hamilton.

So much exceptionalism.

THE UPSIDE OF INDIVIDUALISM

Of course, individualism has upsides.

It can be a safeguard against actual tyranny, an endorsement of universal human rights, and a means of encouraging democracy and meritocracy. All good. (It is also vastly preferable to a Communist Collectivism, that dumpster fire of 20th c. ideology.)

But for Christians, there is a reason why “individualism” has never been a heralded as a virtue. In many forms, it clashes sharply with the Kingdom of God: that undemocratic realm led by the “one” in whom we live and move and have our being.

DEFINING RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

But first things first: What is radical (American) individualism?

In his famous work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following in 1835:

“[American] Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of this fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”

De Tocqueville’s point is that one distinctly American form of individualism “leaves the greater society to look after itself” while I focus on “me” and “my circle.”

But of course, things have changed since 1835. More recently, Mark Sayers offers some hallmarks of what is called “expressive individualism.”

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows.

4. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

THE COMMON GOOD

In the end, the most obvious problem with radical individualism is how a stress on “my rights” and “my preferences” overshadows my responsibility for the common good.

This “freedom” is entirely negative.

Hence the Christian pastor and actual (non-Floridian) martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has this to say:

In the Bible, freedom is not something [one] has for [the self], but something [one] has for others … It is not a possession … but a relationship … Only in relationship with the other am I free.

For this reason, the apostle Paul writes that “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

CONCLUSION

In future posts, I’d like to ask how a biblical view of love and personhood may challenge certain individualist assumptions–even while it steers far clear of a collectivist homogeneity.

For now, however, my conclusion is this: Radical individualism runs contrary not only to the common good (and common sense), but also to the commonly held teachings of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 


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Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

It sounds strange, but I teach an entire course on the Apocalypse.

That’s the Greek word (apocalypsis) for the Book of Revelation.

To be clear, I’m not the kind of Christian who owns detailed charts on the “end times.” I don’t watch prophecy shows on Christian Cable (except for the hair and makeup). And I don’t have a backyard bunker filled with firearms, homemade scrolls, and MREs.

But I am a dad, and the threat of a coronavirus pandemic has made me a little nervous.

Last night, I foolishly read a blog post entitled, “The Pandemic is Coming!” and then dreamt that I had to protect our children from the viral equivalent of Season One of The Walking Dead. (I was Rick Grimes, in case you’re wondering.)

THE APOCALYPSE OF ANXIETY

One might think teaching a course on the Apocalypse would prepare me for such times. But alas, I can sometimes be as prone to catastrophizing as the next person.

When I walked through the Los Angeles airport last week, my wife smiled at me for holding a bottle of hand sanitizer like it were a vial of holy water.

Should the book of Revelation help with these anxieties?

Or is its function primarily to scare the holy Hades out of us?

Unlike some purveyors of Christian fan fiction, I do not think the Apocalypse is primarily a code to be cracked about the end of the world, a still-future “Antichrist” (a word that never appears in the text), the rapture, or the founding of the United Nations.

Revelation is written to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor, each wrestling with the affluence, idolatry, political upheaval, and (impending) persecution of the Roman Empire. (See here and here for an accessible introduction.)

John’s message is not that these churches will escape tumult, but that the way forward involves the posture of the Lamb rather than the way of the Dragon. Some parts of the book are scary, or just strange (Chapter 17 includes a drunken prostitute riding an amphibious assault beast tattooed with naughty names [vss 1–3]).

Although John isn’t taken physically “out” of the world of fire and plague, he is taken spiritually “up” to glimpse the heavenly throne. A powerful worship service ensues (ch. 4), but as the choruses conclude, John’s worry returns (sound familiar?). He weeps and weeps when confronted with a “scroll” associated with the events of the future:

no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it (5:3).

John’s anxiety is our anxiety—especially in times of global uncertainty.

We wonder what will happen next. Will peace be taken from the earth? Will the church be swayed by political idolatry, affluent pride, or the threat of persecution? Will kings and paupers be laid low?

Uncertainty over the future makes John weep.

Then comes an answer:

one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… (5:5–6).

DON’T WASTE THE APOCALYPSE

Many things in Revelation are unclear. Which prophecies were fulfilled “soon” after the book’s writing (1:1), and which ones await the future? The Apocalypse does not come with a decoder ring.

Still, I agree with Dennis Johnson, who authored an excellent introductory commentary on the book:

Our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people. If we could explain every phrase, identify every allusion to Old Testament Scripture or Greco-Roman society, trace every interconnection, and illumine every mystery in this book and yet were silenced by the intimidation of public opinion, terrorized by the prospect of suffering, enticed by affluent Western culture’s promise of “security, comfort, and pleasure,” then we would not have begun to understand the Book of Revelation.

Our only safety lies in seeing the ugly hostility of the enemy clearly and clinging fast to our Champion and King, Jesus.

To ignore this takeaway is to waste the Apocalypse–and to miss the forest for the flowcharts.

CONCLUSION

I have no idea, of course, whether fears of a global pandemic will come true, or whether this year’s flu will kill more people than the coronavirus. (Thankfully, it does seem that the mortality rate is not as bad as it could be.)

But if there is a benefit to teaching Revelation during times of global anxiety, it is the reminder that God’s people have been here before.

It is a modern myth that health and prosperity are guaranteed by science, medicine, prosperity, technology, and military might: Just ask Babylon the Great (18:2).

Regardless of the viral spread of fear and other pathogens, the overriding takeaway of Revelation is that the final “face covering” is not a medical mask but a wedding veil:

the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:1-2).

 


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“Looking comes first.”

“Looking comes first.”

Several months ago, I reread my old copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Christian imagination (Now submitted!).

Lewis’ tale is a creative recasting of heaven, hell, and purgatory—all couched in a dream sequence—that allows him to demur (though not entirely convincingly) that he has no intention of “speculating” on the details of the afterlife. (Nonsense; but I’ll save that for another time.)

One of the more convicting encounters in The Great Divorce involves a famous artist who visits heaven and responds with awe: “I should like to paint this!”

Unfortunately, it is precisely this desire (to depict heaven rather than experience it) that will cause him to depart willingly for hell.

Then the money quote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, deep down Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him (85).

I don’t know about poets, musicians, and artists—but this is darn sure true of preachers.

As proof, I found this note, scrawled in my handwriting from freshman year of college.

Great Divorce pic.jpeg

The command given to the ambitious artist is simple: “Looking comes first.”

There is nothing wrong with painting, describing, depicting Beauty.

Fine. Good. Do it.

But put down your brush, for a moment—Look first.

Let’s not be tour guides for a land we no longer inhabit.

The Kingdom has no need of expats trading legal residence for commentary and holiday excursions.

“…if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“At present your business is to see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

Amen.

 

 


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