I recently finished reading Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestseller, A Man Called Ove. It’s a well-written story about a man (called Ove, in case you were wondering) who is exactly as he seems, but not for the reasons you would think. Ove is a 59-year old man recently forced into retirement who stomps around his neighborhood all day enforcing the council rules and yelling at friendly, if a little inept, service people. He hasn’t spoken to his only friend Rune since Rune upgraded from a Volvo to a BMW.

Ove’s primary characteristic, it seems, is his devotion to his principles. This is at the heart of the story, since the people around Ove keep trying to get him to act contrary to his principles (like putting more money into the parking meter up front so he doesn’t have to go out to feed it every 15 minutes). Ove is who Ove is, and Ove won’t change who he is. He’s an entirely consistent character throughout the book.

As Ove’s backstory progresses, however, we learn that Ove is who he is because of the people in his life. His father, who died when he was 16, owned a Saab and taught Ove how to take it apart and put it back together again; so, Ove has never owned anything other than a Saab. Ove’s late wife Sonja was a loving and compassionate woman, and it is the memory of her that leads Ove to repeatedly help his somewhat clueless neighbors throughout the book, even though he sees them as helpless and moronic.

These two ideas—Ove’s strong and unyielding will on the one hand, and his character being formed by those he has loved on the other, seem at odds with one another. Are Ove’s choices ever his own, or does he act the way he does because of his influences?

I think Ove beautifully represents the reality of human willing as a caused reality, something I believe most Arminians are hesitant to admit. We act the way we act because of the people around us. This doesn’t take away the validity or dignity of human choice; it establishes it. For me to exist in the world as a real agent, capable of action, is for me to be able to act on others in such a way as to affect their decisions. I would argue that I cannot not influence the decisions of those around me. It follows that to say a “free” act of the will is therefore one in which the actor is uninfluenced and unmoved is actually to deny causality in the sphere of human willing.

Christian doctrine affirms that only God is from himself, and exists by virtue of his own life. Our life is derivative of and maintained by God’s life, ultimately, and by the lives of others, proximately. Only God is a se, existing by virtue of his boundless and uncaused life. We are who and what we are by the gift of God, a gift directly given by God himself through his Spirit and indirectly given by a multitude of forces and factors. But it is God as agent who uses these myriad causes to give us the shape of our lives. This is not inconsistent with will, but is, in fact, the foundation of it. Ove is not a se, but ab extra. This would be a problem if Ove were not a creature (which he is doubly), but both Ove and we ourselves are creatures. If our being and life are from outside ourselves, how can our willing be wholly interior and uncaused? The Arminian doctrine of free will is, I think, an unintentional denial of the uniqueness of God in reference to his willing as the One who is from himself, and the only One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Abraham’s Faith

One of my students brought this dilemma to my attention today: how can Paul say that Abraham “did not weaken in faith” (Romans 4:19) in considering his age and Sarah’s barrenness; that “no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God” (Romans 4:20); and that he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21), given Abraham’s record of faithlessness in the Genesis account? God makes a promise to Abraham concerning his offspring in Genesis 15. In chapter 16, he sleeps with Hagar—how is that not an instance of weakening in faith concerning “the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”? Then in chapter 17, he laughs at God’s promise of a son, citing his and Sarah’s advanced age as grounds for his doubt. In what way is this an expression of being “fully convinced” that God would keep his promises?

I see only a few options in understanding this apparent inconsistency. One, we could throw inerrancy out the window. Paul was either deceived, or he was lying, or his desire to make an example from Abraham made him whitewash history. In any case, it’s some kind of historical revisionism, and Paul was just wrong. Two, we can try to reinterpret the actions of Abraham in the Old Testament so it looks like he has faith. I’m not sure how some of these narratives could be interpreted to make Abraham look good, but it’s an option. Three, we could play the wild card of biblical interpretation and say that Paul had access to a greater knowledge of Abraham, somehow revealed to him by God. Paul says it, so whatever we think or see in Genesis, Abraham was a man of faith.

I’d rather look through door #4. I think understanding Paul’s evaluation of Abraham’s life of faith and not faith is a tremendous comfort for us in doubt. We have a clear picture of Abraham as a man who trusted God enough to leave his home, who believed God’s promise of a son, and who allowed his faith in God’s word and ways to shape his life profoundly. And yet, Abraham was a doubter. His doubt led him to lie repeatedly about his relationship with his wife, to seek to fulfill God’s promise his own way, and to laugh with disbelief when God made a clear promise about his near future. I don’t think Paul was ignorant of this, or sought to cover it up. And I don’t think he was flat-out wrong about his evaluation of Abraham.

So what are we to make of this, that Paul and other New Testament authors use Abraham as the quintessential example of Christian faith? I think, as I said, that this grounds for incredible comfort. God knows that we are sinful, doubting little creatures. We are not strong in faith. He directs us to trust him, and is worthy of our faith, and is patient with us in our lack of faith. In fact, Sarah’s journey of faith is, I think, the same that we all make. First, we laugh (read: scoff) when God makes promises. It is hard to believe that God gives life and joy in the face of so much seeming evidence to the contrary. And when God makes good on his promises, we laugh again, but this time in relief and humility and joy. 

Abraham and Sarah were not perfectly faithful, but even in their unbelief, they were directed toward God. They struggled with God in belief and in unbelief. How often, I wonder, do we turn from God in shame or indifference because of unbelief, rather than use that doubt to turn to God as the One with whom we have to do in faith and in doubt? I think it is when we adopt the posture of the possessed boy’s father in the Gospel that we will be “children of faithful Abraham.”

A Dogmatic Exercise

One of the challenges in teaching theology is to help students to understand what they are learning as a comprehensive system, rather than a loose collection of unrelated facts. Christian theology has a center; it has rules of engagement; there is a proper order to its doctrines, and they fit into a certain hierarchy. 

A helpful exercise in driving this point home is to have students draft or identify a statement which sums up all Christian theology, and from which all the major doctrines of theology can be unpacked. Take, for example, Paul’s command in Romans 13: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” How can this phrase be used to expound Christian doctrine? Consider this brief outline:

  1. Theology. In the Old Testament, we are told that the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And yet Jesus, the One who worships the Father in the Spirit, is Lord. This one Lord, therefore, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. Creation. Jesus Christ is “Lord,” because he is one with the divine essence; however, the context of his Lordship in Paul’s command is both creation and redemption. The world and all that is within it belongs to the Lord Jesus because it was made by the Lord Jesus. It is the stage upon which the drama of redemption is to be played out, and is, therefore, ingredient in God’s plan of redemption, not accidental to it. Creation is both signal and celebration of Jesus’ Lordship. It shows his power, wisdom, creativity, goodness, grace, and love as this One who is Lord. It is the sphere of redemption and reconciliation, the place wherein we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
  3. Sin. The context of the command is that we need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and, as Paul continues, to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Why is Jesus the anointed Christ, the global fulfillment of Israel’s anointed priest, making atonement for the people, her anointed king, the one who leads the people in righteousness, and her anointed prophet, the one who calls attention to the people’s covenant-breaking and leads them to repentance before God? Because of the reality of sin’s penalty, power, and presence.
  4. Salvation. The good news of the gospel is not that we need an anointed savior, but that God has provided such a savior in the person of his own Son. And so Paul commands us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ; he does not despair at the impossibility of doing so, but implicit in his directive is the reality that we who have trusted in Christ can put on Christ. How? Only because it is the Lord Jesus Christ with whom we have to do.
  5. Church. Who does Paul instruct to put on the Lord Jesus Christ? He tells those who have been caught up in the redemptive purpose of God to put on the Lord Jesus, who is their Lord not only by virtue of being their Maker but by virtue of being their Christ, their anointed savior. By God’s saving action, we who trust in Christ are brought in. We are made new, and part of that newness is the creation within us of new desires (such as the desire to put on Christ) and new capacities (such as the ability to put on Christ). We are the society of those who belong to Jesus, and who are putting on Jesus.
  6. Last things. Paul’s command in Romans is set in an eschatological context: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13.11–12). The command to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, assuming as it does a point of past salvation and being a directive toward present sanctification, plots for us two points on a timeline which is not circular, but linear. The drama of redemption nears its end. That end has us clothed in Christ, completely remade in a world which has been similarly transformed to be fit for this new humanity. “And so we shall be forever with the Lord.”

Theology as a human action is moving always toward center, toward Jesus and faithfulness in him. We should always be seeking therefore to be more faithful, more accurate, more consistent in our thinking about God and Christ, and our speaking about God and Christ. “Exercise thyself… unto godliness.”

Creaturely Calling

Common to our evangelical vernacular is the language of call. We talk about what vocation God is calling us to or how we feel called to act in a certain way frequently. It’s just become a part of the shared conventions of our speech.

For a few years now I’ve been uncomfortable with that kind of language, because it seems to rely on a subjective inner experience of leading paired with a sort of ‘confirmation bias’ approach to interpreting circumstances, rather than on the objective revelation of God’s will in Scripture.

The question, by the way, isn’t whether or not the language of calling is legitimate; it’s what calling language refers to in the Scripture, and how we experience a sense of call (whatever it refers to) in our lives. Generally, though not always, the Scripture speaks of calling in terms of salvation, where we speak of it in terms of vocation.

So John Webster, as usual, has been so helpful in this point. In a Q&A session after a lecture he gave a few years ago at Covenant College, he said this: “God has already given me the shape of my life—that’s my calling. I don’t have to invent that for myself. I don’t have to make myself out of nothing, because God has already given me who I am. And so, what I have to do is enact the person that I’ve already been created to be. So that what I’m responsible for is the fulfilling of the calling that God has given me. I’m not responsible, however, to sort of generate the call out of my own resources, and to think that I must make myself. And that, it seems to me, is a very freeing thing, because it means I’m not in the business of inventing myself, which is a desperately hard and troubling business, to have to be your own creator. And it’s not very humane, to think of ourselves in those ways… God has graciously given us the gift of ourselves.”

In other words, Webster locates vocational calling within the context of creation, not revelation. God does not call us to certain vocations by hiding clues in our circumstances, or whispering in our hearts; he calls us to do what we do by creating within us certain creaturely capacities, and giving us the desire and the will to pursue the enactment of those capacities. He gives gifts, and the creaturely means to use those gifts. To discern your calling, therefore, is not to embark on a process of investigation or discovery, but to act in accordance with your (sanctified) nature.

I agree with John Webster, that this seems to be a freeing thing. I talk to a lot of young people who are trying to figure out what they should do, and it seems that they have some grasp of what they enjoy and are good at, but they think those realities have no bearing on their calling. So they try hard to pierce the dark veil of God’s secret will for their lives, guilting themselves into reading the Bible to look for that one ray of insight into the divine plan. Bleagh. I prefer Webster’s view of God (which is to say, the Scripture’s view of God): The God who, loving us and pouring out grace on us, bestows us with life in the giving us the gift of ourselves.

Pride of Pan Pt. 1

In the latest news, Union “Theological” can no longer tell the difference between a person and a petunia. Observe:

I’m honestly not sure where to begin. The personalizing of the created order? The divinizing of the created order? The thousand inconsistencies created by this tableau? The hypocrisy of men and women who glory in their shameful unbelief, sexual perversity, and role reversal confessing sin, not to God, but to a fern?

Perhaps I’ll just say this. When Adam was created (and given dominion over the earth, Union, by the way), one of his jobs was to name the creatures that the Lord God had made. This required him to be able to sort things into categories, to discern properties, to make distinctions. That’s why he didn’t end up buggering some animal before Eve came along—he knew the difference between a walrus and a woman. There was no process in the garden of partnering with plants, either. And later in the Old Testament, when creational stewardship laws were given (e.g. Deuteronomy 22.6), it was love to people that was at stake, not love to animals or plants themselves.

Of course, I don’t think this is ignorance. What we’re witnessing is straight-up rebellion. “No one would have blinked if our chapel featured students apologizing to each other,” Union says in defense of their Romans 1:23 workshop. Maybe not; but what if you asked your gay students to apologize to their childhood tormentors for the hate they harbor? What if you asked your students to apologize to their conservative parents for their disrespect and mockery? Apologizing to a plant has the advantage of being totally cost-free. No humility required, no heart-change, no restitution, no real vulnerability.

The unwillingness to make these distinctions does not bode well. Distinction is a priestly task, which is to say, a human task. Not knowing the difference between a plant and person, or a man and a woman, is a rejection of human capacities and therefore of human calling, of humanity in its fullest expression. This apologizing to plants only looks human from the waist up. Pan must be so proud.

The Wisdom of Deacons

The appointment of deacons in Acts and the subsequent story of Stephen is an interesting bit of Scripture.

In Acts chapter 6, Greek believers in the church found that their widows were not being looked after with the same care and frequency as Jewish widows. The twelve apostles thought that the task of looking after the needs of the church, while not being so important as to take them away from their task of preaching and prayer, was nevertheless so important it necessitated the creation of a new office in the church. You may think that the only thing needed in men who were supposed to hand out food would be a sense of honesty and the ability to count. But here is the job description the apostles give: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty (Acts 6:3). So let it be said, so let it be done. Seven deacons.

Then the story shifts to follow Stephen, who will be martyred in the next chapter. He’s described as being full of faith and the Spirit, full of grace and power. He speaks with wisdom and the Spirit, and he performs signs and wonders among the people. Naturally, therefore, the religious leaders snatch him.

When Stephen is falsely accused and stands before the religious leaders to make his defense, we see the wisdom that make him a candidate for deaconry in the first place. I see eight facets of Stephen’s wisdom in Acts 7:

  1. His respect. Stephen has just been falsely accused by some of the most notorious rats in history. I mean, the religious leaders were bad in the Gospels, but in Acts they’re downright skeevy. And when called upon to make a defense, Stephen addresses them as “brothers and fathers.” We know he has some choice things to say about them, and he gets there by the end of his speech, but he doesn’t insult where he doesn’t have to. That’s wise.
  2. His calm. Similarly, Stephen is calm and collected. I’m not sure what is meant by “his face was like the face of an angel,” at the end of chapter 6, but Stephen is certainly collected and in possession of himself in chapter 7. He doesn’t jump to his defense, or to counterattack. He respectfully begins to construct an argument, taking the time to develop a common understanding of the redemptive-historical narrative of which the present has become a part.
  3. His knowledge of the Bible’s facts. Wisdom isn’t limited to Bible facts, but it certainly is wise to have that knowledge to hand, just as it is wise to go camping with matches and a flashlight. Stephen has spent time learning the Bible, so that now, when he is called upon to speak, he can do so in an informed manner.
  4. His knowledge of the Bible’s meaning. More than facts, Stephen has an understanding of what the Bible means—what its major episodes are, and the salient features of those episodes for the point he’s trying to make.
  5. His knowledge of the Bible’s purpose. Going even further, Stephen that the Scriptures events and patterns point beyond themselves to Jesus Christ. He sees that Israel’s story points towards and is ultimately caught up in something far greater than Israel, and he is able to communicate that to his audience.
  6. His ability to interpret present events. Stephen is able to read the times and to see that what is happening now is downstream of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is what the entire Old Testament was pointing toward. He sees correlations between events in the Old Testament and his present and makes correct judgments about those correlations.
  7. His moral discernment. Having made his case from history, Stephen shows discernment in seeing through the veil of moral rectitude and superiority that the religious leaders have put up to the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy that characterizes them.
  8. His courageous and prophetic stand. Wisdom is right understanding wedded to right action, and Stephen’s wisdom goes beyond an ability to read people and the Bible. Having made his case, Stephen ends his speech by calling the religious leaders to account for their sin and their failure to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. He sticks it to them, not because he is angry or afraid or defensive, but because that’s what prophets do—they take God’s word and hold the world up to its standard.

Stephen was quite a man, and shows an incredible heart of wisdom, and he was a deacon. We still have deacons today in our churches, often, it seems, chosen because they’re good with a hammer or have a strong back. What would it look like if we sought deacons who not only had the ability to care for the congregation, but the wisdom to know when and how to best carry out that care?

Art as Discipleship Pt. 2

I tried to make the case last month that art, because it tells a story, has the ability to tell the Christian story. Christian art can, and should, tell the story of good creation, ruinous fall, gracious redemption, and anticipated consummation. By creating along this narrative arc, I argued, artists follow Christ, and lead others to follow Christ as well. I should offer some clarification on that point.

Art, unless it abandons all subtlety and, not to put too fine a point on it, artistry, doesn’t tell the gospel message. Art which attempts to do this (i.e. seemingly all Christian movies) usually ends up being laughably bad, for the simple reason that art isn’t supposed to be propositional. It doesn’t fill; it shapes.

So the way in which Christian art functions as a form of discipleship isn’t be reinforcing the truths of the Christian faith, but it’s patterns and textures. Christian art stands and looks. Where it stands and where it looks are incredibly important, as well as how it feels about where it is standing and looking. Art is commentary; Christian art should comment so as to make us feel the way we should about Christian realities. A Christian landscape should make us grateful to God for his gifts. A Christian break-up song (and why shouldn’t Christian’s write break-up songs? What else should Christians listen to when they’re going through a break-up?) should envision the new heaven and the new earth, where righteousness dwells. A Christian film should create an imaginative space for reconciliation and redemption. In doing so, Christian art creates the patterns which are filled by the propositional content of our faith.

Honestly, I think that when non-Christian art is honest, it can express a longing for redemption which is almost Christian (like this song and this song). As good as non-Christian art can be, however, it can only communicate the longing, never the finding. Only Christian art, having been through the door, can return to show us the shape of the world beyond.