Quiddity

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 stopped speaking 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.

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.”

(Un)made

Last month I wrote about creaturely reception, and how the right embrace of our creatureliness can help us to act in accordance with our created nature, which is to say, in a godly manner.

Forget about the Fall for just a second. Adam wasn’t created as a tabula rasa. He had a nature, and concomitant with that nature was a set of ordered desires, an ordo amoris. His response to Eve, for example, was ordered, non-arbitrary, part of his design. Adam and Eve were, in the words of the Confession, “good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” This was a part of their essential makeup, their nature. In the Fall, that nature was injured, impaired, damaged, but not entirely changed. Adam’s desires changed, became disordered; what did not change was that he was made for holiness.

What I’m getting at is that this is still part of our makeup. Here’s what I said in that earlier post:

We have a nature, and we have ends. By embracing our creatureliness, we thrive, grow, flourish. By rejecting it, we betray our nature, and we will wither and die. To exist well is to exist as a creature.

If it is true that we have a nature, that human happiness and thriving depend on embracing that nature, and that holiness is attendant with that nature, then it must also be true that pursuing holiness is the way to human happiness and thriving. The flip side of this is that sin is necessarily contrary to our nature, and that sin can never make us happy or fulfilled. This probably sounds like I’m saying something simple and saying it in the most complex way possible, but I think there’s some benefit to this train of thought.

Remember the last time you sinned deliberately, because you really wanted what you thought sin would get you? Happiness, fulfillment, justice, significance? Can’t happen. Sin is an unmaking. It’s only ever destructive and ruinous. Sin is faerie gold, promising everything and giving nothing, and by the time you escape its lies (if ever), you’ve given the best of your years to the cruel.

If all this is true, then God is not arbitrarily demanding and callous in his forbidding certain actions and requiring others; just the opposite. Here’s how John Webster puts it:

The unholy is that which lies beyond the will of God. The unholy is the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God; it is, therefore, a way in which the creature– precisely by trying to cease to be a creature and to make itself– seeks to destroy itself. To this unholiness the holiness of God is implacably opposed.

John Webster, Holiness

When creatures sin, they attempt to enact their own unmaking. In redemption, we are not being torn away from our nature, and stripped of anything that gives us significance; we are being remade.

Heaven in the Real World

You know what's at the top of those stairs? One heckuva climb down.
You know what’s at the top of those stairs? One heckuva climb down.

“Why do we need a new earth if we’re all going to live in heaven anyway?” Someone asked me this question a short time ago, and it seems that there’s a sort of confusion among Christians about the final resting place of our final resting place– that is to say, will paradise be in heaven or on earth? Where will we actually spend eternity? Continue reading “Heaven in the Real World”