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Ramiro Powell Re:Reform – …toward a radically Theocentric view of everything. bezeichnet eine planvolle Umgestaltung bestehender Verhältnisse, Systeme, Ideologien oder Glaubenslehren in Politik, Religion, Wirtschaft oder Gesellschaft.Das Wort erscheint schon in den Paulus-Briefen der Bibel, später auch in dem Zusammenhang mit der kirchlichen evangelischen Reformation zur Ramiro Powell.

Reformation Day Challenge 2013: Help Write the 95 Theses of the Re:Reformation

Posted on: October 31st, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams 14 Comments

October 31st is here—a sacred day for costume stores trying to justify their ongoing existence and dads looking to raid our kids’ plastic pumpkins for a sugar fix. It is also a very special day for those of us who love the Gospel. Why? Because October 31st is Reformation Day.

(You can watch my short video on Reformation Day HERE).

496 years ago on October 31st a young German theology professor carried a hammer and parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Church and hammered his 95 Theses into the wood. They were 95 points at which Martin Luther questioned whether the church of his day was living in synch with the Scriptures. With no Facebook or blog posts to get people thinking about life’s big questions, Luther, like many professors in his day, posted on the next best thing—a church door (Al Gore would not invent the internet for another 471 years!). Rather than opening an app and refreshing their News Feeds, people would congregate around Europe’s church doors to read and discuss the latest posts. Luther’s post got Wittenberg and (with help from the newly invented printing press) most of Europe buzzing with questions about where the 16thcentury church had veered off biblical course. The Reformation was in motion.

Here’s some samples from Luther’s world-altering post:

“Thesis 27: There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest…” (In response to John Tetzel selling indulgences with the catchphrase ‘”As soon as the coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs.”)

“Thesis 36: Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plenary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given him without letters of indulgence…” (Signaling Luther’s shift from understanding salvation as something that could be purchased to a free gift from a gracious God.)

“Thesis 62: The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God…” (Luther’s response to the Roman Catholic notion of a “Treasury of Merits,” a treasure chest in heaven full of the surplus good deeds performed by Jesus, Mary, and the Saints that the pope could allegedly reach into and credit to your spiritual account if you paid him.)

As we celebrate Reformation Day, let’s keep Luther’s tradition alive. He had the cutting edge, world-shrinking technology of his day—Gutenberg’s printing press—to help people seek biblical answers to church problems. We have an internet to do the same. He lived with a church in dire need of Reformation. We live with a church in dire need of Re:Reformation.

So allow me to welcome you to the Reformation Day Challenge 2012 to help fuel urgently needed conversations about God and His mission in the church world. Four quick guidelines:

  1. Let’s come up with at least 95 Theses for the Re:Reformation.
  2. The core question you should try to answer in whatever theses you contribute is: What ways has the 21st century church strayed most dangerously off course from God’s Word and how can we get back on course?
  3. Please post your thesis or theses (you are NOT limited to just one) in the comments sections under this post.
  4. Let’s keep ‘em biblical folks!

I’ll get our conversation started by offering a first Thesis of Re:Reformation:

RR Thesis 1: As Re:Reformers let’s strive by the Spirit’s power to make glorifying the enormously huge and incomparably worship-worthy God of the Bible our most fundamental and driving passion in all things! (See Ps. 96:8a; Eph. 1:3-14; 2 Thes. 1:12a; Rom. 11:36b.) We confess letting relevance to culture replace reverence for God at the center of our church systems.

Now it’s your turn. 94 Theses to go! I’ll close with the opening line penned by Luther over his 95 Theses. Luther began: “Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it…” So out of love for truth and with the goal of eliciting truth in how we do church in the 21st century, post away!

The Secret to C.S. Lewis’ Success

Posted on: October 18th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams 2 Comments

I recently watched a disturbing video. A camera caught the head of a certain political organization; we’ll call him Lucius, attempting to convince a packed auditorium about the reality of moral law. Specifically, Lucius appealed to a real moral law above and beyond culture to argue against a right to homosexual marriage. What struck me most was less of what he said and more how he said it. Lucius taunted the crowd relentlessly, hurling insults like hand grenades. People often argue against moral reality by appealing to moral reality (e.g., there can’t be absolutes because look at out how absolutely wrong the crusades and inquisitions were!). But there is an equal and opposite inconsistency, namely, arguing for moral reality while breaking the very morality we are defending (e.g., real morals like love your neighbor exist, you ignoramus!). In other words, Lucius’ problem was that he did not argue his worldview as if his worldview were actually true. No matter what he said, the way in which he said it made it seem like morals like love and respect were not to be taken seriously after all. The medium refuted the message.

A WINSOME RESONANCE

I pray for Lucius and those like him, and I have certainly been guilty of the same self-refuting dissonance between what I say and how I say it. As God moves to mortify the theological bully in my heart and conform me more and more to the image of His Son, I find myself bumping into the same truth: That, as Christians, there ought to be a beautiful consistency, a kind of winsome resonance between what we say and how we say it. In short: we ought to do our theology as if our theology is actually true.

Let me clarify: I believe at my core that Jesus is supremely reasonable, that as “the Truth” and “the Logos” incarnate His intellect is something worth mirroring (See my last Good Book Blog post “The Logic of the Logos” here). I also believe that Jesus is supremely passionate, not like those whom C.S. Lewis described as “men without chests,” but having a sizeable and strong-beating heart, full of what Lewis called “just sentiments,” emotions of joy, outrage, sorrow, and compassion that were in perfect synch with reality. I also believe Jesus to be supremely holy, with a unique moral splendor about Him; and supremely loving, enjoying a constant and intimate connection with His Father and painfully committed to maximizing the joy of others; and full of grace, bestowing undeserved favor on those who despised Him; and the Masterful Artist who thought up poetic parables, pink sunsets, different skin colors, the sublime spectrum of glowing gases in a space nebulae, the marble patterns in a human iris, etc. If I believe theologically that Jesus is all of those things (and more!), then the question is this: Do I do my theology reasonably, passionately, morally, relationally, graciously, and artistically? Is there that winsome resonance between what I believe and how I express those beliefs? Do I do my theology as if my theology is actually true?

THE SECRET TO C.S. LEWIS’ SUCCESS

Often times I don’t. I have a hard drive full of theological work that might reflect something of the reasonableness of Jesus, but with all the grace of an inquisitor, the love of a pit bull, and the creativity of a monkey. The extent to which my theology is not reasonably, passionately, morally, relationally, graciously, and artistically expressed is the extent to which, no matter what I’m saying, the way I’m saying it conveys on some primal level that I don’t really appraise those attributes of Jesus with enough worth to imitate them. When there is such dissonance between what is being said and how it’s being said, we appropriately cringe, like when an off-pitch note turns a beautiful song into a sonic trainwreck.

However, when that beautiful harmony hangs between our medium and our message it can trigger not our gag reflex but our tear ducts. I think of Dr. Philip Johnson debating God’s existence with a famous atheist. Every time Dr. Johnson made a point of contention, the atheist pushed a button pulling up a PowerPoint slide of a giant cartoon bull, informing the audience that Dr. Johnson’s point was bull. Did Dr. Johnson return insult for insult? No. Right in the middle of the debate Dr. Johnson paused to pray publically and passionately for his atheist opponent’s sad battle with cancer. Dr. Johnson was not only saying that a God of grace, forgiveness, love, and power exists, he was saying it in a way that was beautifully compatible with that God’s existence.  We can hear the same compelling harmony in much of the Puritan literature that is all at once poetic and persuasively reasoned. This harmony between what is said and how it’s said, explains much of the profound and enduring impact of C.S. Lewis. The way Lewis wrote reflected consistently the reason, passion, love, creativity, and grace of the God Lewis was writing about. Lewis’ message shaped his medium, and hence his momentous impact.

YOU’RE WORTH IT!

Like these great theologians we must let the truth of what we’re saying infuse how we say it. Perhaps Johnson, the great Puritans, and Lewis thought very consciously about harmonizing what they said with how they said it. But I think there is something deeper going on too. The harmony of WHAT was being said and HOW it was being said was in large part reached because of WHO was saying it. In other words, there was something irrefutably Christlike in the characters of Johnson, the great Puritans, and Lewis that perhaps even subconsciously permeated how they said what they said. The WHO will, for better or worse, shape the HOW of WHAT we say. This means that character formation and doing good theology cannot be compartmentalized. The more and more we are conformed to the image of Jesus, in whom we find the most praiseworthy integration of reason, passion, holiness, love, grace, and creativity, the better and better we will become in expressing a theology worthy of Him. Putting the cart before the horse, however, seeking first and foremost to write good theology papers, preach good sermons, do good ministry, etc. we quickly become living contradictions to our own theology. The cultivation of Christlike character becomes the essential premise of writing, preaching, and modeling good theology. And, oh, don’t we all need more grace and character-shaping Spirit-power in that department!

Would you join me in praying: Sovereign God, make us more like Jesus in WHO we are so that a beautiful harmony can be heard between WHAT we say and HOW we say it. Make us the kind of theologians who express what we believe about You as if it’s actually true, because it is, and You’re worth it!

“Thou Shalt Wear Clothes in Public”: Does the Fact that We Learn Morality Prove That Good and Evil Are Just Social Constructs?

Posted on: September 26th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams No Comments

YOU ARE SOOOO GOOD LOOKIN’

In our last post, The Clash, we examined the common argument against real morals from apparent clashes between cultures about good and evil. In this post we examine another common argument people cite to reject the universality of morals, what I call the Nurture Argument. The big idea here is that morality has to be taught or nurtured into us, and must, therefore, be an artificial byproduct of our parents, churches, schools, etc. For example, some of us learn commandments like “Thou shalt wear clothes in public,” “Thou shalt not burp at the dinner table,” and “Thou shalt say ‘bless you’ (or ‘gesundeit’) when someone sneezes.’ Because we learn these commandments, there’s nothing transcendent or objective or universal about them. We might have just as well grown up in a nudist colony where burping is a gesture of thanks to the chef and we all say ‘You are soooo good lookin’ when someone sneezes. Unlike the Clash Argument, however, the focus on the Nurture Argument is not apparent moral differences between cultures, but the fact that we have to learn our morals, which, as the argument goes, proves that we invent rather than discover morality.

THE NON-SEQUITOR

Why, we may ask, would the fact that we learn something, whether from our parents, churches, or schools prove that something lacks objective truth value? We learn, for example, that the earth is (more-or-less) a sphere and not flat. We learn that two and two make four. We learn that Lincoln was assassinated. We learn all kinds of things that are objectively true, and the learnedness does not in any way steal away the truth-value of what is learned or reduce it to a mere social construct. Would we discount the truth that two and two make four on the mere basis that someone taught us arithmetic? Why then are we so quick to write off insights like ‘You shouldn’t take what’s not yours,’ ‘Play fair,’ ‘Tell the truth,’ and ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated’ from the mere fact that they are taught? The move from ‘x is learned’ to ‘x is nothing but cultural invention’ would serve as a helpful example of non-sequitor in any introductory text on logic. The conclusion simply does not follow the premise. We could add that most people who appeal to the learnedness of morals to write off their truth-value didn’t think up that view all by themselves. They most likely LEARNED it. If we let let consistency be our guide, then it follows that the view that morals are just a social construct and, therefore, not objectvively true, is itself a social construct and, therefore, not objectively true. The deconstructionist eventually deconstructs himself.

AN INCONVIENIENT TRUTH

The fact that we so often make this step when it comes to moral truths, but refuse to draw the same conclusions about other things we learn, suggests that something other than sound logic may be at work when we think about morality. There is something inconvenient about the morals we learn that can’t be said of the arithmetic we learn. If fudging the facts will land me the job, if badmouthing someone scores me social status points, if hating my neighbor makes me feel good, then all that learned arithmetic is no threat. I can do whatever I want and two and two making four won’t stand in my way. But all those learned morals soon sprawl out before me like one massively inconvenient obstacle course. I have to army crawl under the barbed wire of ‘Thou shalt not lie,’ and rope climb over the wall of ‘Treat people the way to you want to be treated’ in order to get wherever I want to go. If I can convince myself that the obstacle course is nothing but an artificial human construction, I can take a leisurely stroll around it and get wherever I want to go. In other words, we tend to interpret ‘It is learned’ as ‘It must not be real’ for moral instruction and not mathematical instruction less for consistency’s sake and more for convenience’s sake.

CALLING THE BLUFF

That all changes, of course, the minute I am the one lied to, badmouthed, or hated. We react as if some absolute, objective, universally binding moral law has been violated when we’re on the receiving rather than the giving end. We object when others bypass the moral obstacle course and do what they want to do without regard for the thou-shalt-nots that affect us. No victim of identity theft, looking over her credit card bill maxed out by a stranger, thinks, “Well, ‘you shouldn’t take what’s not yours’ was a learned moral and, therefore, a mere construct.’ When we write off morality as learned and, therefore, less-than-real, experience calls our bluff.

The Clash: Are Cross-Cultural Moral Disagreements Proof Against Universal Morality?

Posted on: September 24th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams No Comments

In my last post, ‘Did Disney Help Kill a Goddess?’ I argued for the existence of Venus, a metaphor borrowed from a Titian canvas, for the reality of universal morals, that goodness is not something we invent but something we discover (or as I’ll argue in a future post, Someone we discover). In this post, I briefly engage a very popular argument posed against the existence of universal moral reality. Let us call it “The Clash Argument.”

 

To Bathe or Not to Bathe?

The popular Clash Argument focuses on the fact that different cultures have different ideas of what’s good and what’s evil. A cultural anthropology textbook on my shelf, for example, tells the true story of an old woman from India who thinks that the Western idea of a bath is reprehensible. Sitting like a giant meatball in a warm, bubbly soup of your own filth didn’t seem like a good way to get clean from her perspective. Far better, she thought, was plunging into flowing waters, letting the sacred Ganges River wash your grime away. Many Westerners, by contrast, would see swimming in the chlorine-free cesspools of the Ganges, simmering in the germs of everyone upriver, as no more sanitary than brushing your teeth with toilet water. So isn’t it all just a matter of ‘different strokes for different folks.’ Don’t these cross-cultural clashes go to show that there really is no Venus, no real universal morality, just the do’s and don’ts that cultures make up for themselves?

 

The Happy Hunting Grounds

Let’s think through this argument with an example that is less about physical cleanliness and more about moral cleanliness.  Some (not all) Native American tribes once believed it to be a matter of moral cleanliness to practice parricide, killing off your parents once they cross a certain age threshold. Not only was parricide tolerated in these tribes; it was encouraged as a positive moral duty. Our culture, for the most part, does not endorse the moral dictum ‘Thou shalt kill your father and mother.’ So what we have here appears to be a serious cultural clash, a fundamental contradiction of moral visions, two competing and totally incompatible concepts for what counts as ‘good’ and what counts as ‘evil.’ This is not a superficial clash of whether to hop in a tub or the Ganges, but a deeper moral clash on the level of to kill-or-not-to-kill.

Allow me to defend what might strike us at first glance as an unthinkable thesis: that, contrary to first impressions, there is actually a very deep and very real moral universal shared between the parricide practicing tribesman and those who view parricide as evil. The man snuffing the life of his parents and the man safeguarding them from extermination are both, in a sense, Venusites; both believe in the same moral axiom. Their disagreement, upon closer analysis, lies not in the moral realm but in the realm of non-moral beliefs.

Here’s what I mean: The tribesman who commits parricide holds certain non-moral beliefs which you and I most likely do not share. Specifically, parricidal tribes believed in an athletic afterlife; namely, that after death you enter the ‘happy hunting grounds’ and you do so in the same body that you died in. Would you want to spend eternity chasing game through forests in a rickety ninety-year-old body? Me neither. Once this belief in the non-moral realm is in place, a certain precept follows: namely, that is not honoring your father and mother to not doom them to an eternity of arthritis, hobbling after spry bucks in never-ending geriatric pain. The moral precept to commit parricide only follows from the moral principle ‘honor your father and mother’ if we share those non-moral beliefs about how the afterlife works. Take away those non-moral beliefs about the happy hunting grounds, and the same exact moral principle—honor your parents—does not lead us to the precept of parricide. In other words, when we peel away the layers of clashing beliefs about non-moral questions, and at the core you find a fundamental agreement about big moral questions, shared recognition of the existence of Venus. What appeared, at first look, to be an argument against the existence of Venus, only serves to support her existence. What cultural anthropologists do not find is a tribe that says kill your father for fun or your mother for moose-hunting practice.

Agreeing (More Than We’d Like to Admit)

So again, the moral clashes often appealed to in order to argue against a universal moral code, are not moral clashes at all. They are clashes of non-moral beliefs that generate different moral precepts when we seek to apply our shared moral principles in real life. On the deepest levels of moral principle, we all agree much more than perhaps we’d like to think. This fundamental moral agreement, however, receives far less press than it deserves in our day, in large part because we find a brawl more entertaining than a group hug. A couple kisses in the halls, we turn our heads and keep walking; a fight breaks out and the crowds swarm with the battle chant ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ While beyond the scope of the present post, this reveals something else profoundly shared in the realm of morals: not only do we all share morality at very deep levels, we also all fail to measure up to our shared morality. We all know it, and we all blow it. And because we all live together in that vast gulf between what we know we should do, and what we actually do, the need for grace (and a whole lot of it) is just as universal.

Did Disney Help Kill a Goddess?

Posted on: July 9th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams 3 Comments

Take a look at the old painting above. Titian’s canvas from the mid-16th century has something massively important to say to us today about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. The artist has painted another artist, a musician in the creative process, writing a song on his lute. The young musician peers over his right shoulder to behold a reclining woman, wearing jewelry and nearly nothing else.

Was Titian trying to paint a literal event? Today art students look at live nudes when painting. Was there some strange 16th century custom of musicians gazing at women au naturale? Not that we know of. What we do know is that through the Renaissance many artists revived Greek and Roman gods and goddesses from the pages of antiquity to serve as visual symbols for whatever invisible values they wanted to capture with paint. Think of how, in our day, a blindfolded woman holding scales stands for justice, a large woman in a spiky hat holding a torch symbolizes liberty, or a naked baby with a bow and arrow represents romantic love. You can’t easily paint love or beauty. It’s much easier to paint a reclining nude deity named Venus who symbolized love and beauty. That is exactly what Titian has done in this work, appropriately titled, Venus and the Lute Player. As the great Dutch art critic Hans Rookmaaker recognized:

[Titian’s] was a world in which it was possible to speak of the reality of such concepts as beauty or love. They were realities outside man, and man in his life and work had to reflect them, to realize them by working according to them. Love and beauty were not just man’s feelings and man’s subjective taste; they were really there: if he did not follow them, hate and ugliness would be the result (Modern Art and the Death of Culture, 27).

So what does this painting have to say to us, in our search for meaning in the past and in the present? It says a lot. In our last post (read here) we saw how the Enlightenment thinking of David Hume essentially does to Venus what unbiblical religion did to heretics in earlier centuries: it incinerates her. Since she represents neither mathematical nor scientific truth, she is consumed in Hume’s flames. The lute player can now only look over his shoulder to a heap of ashes on a couch.

Once Hume’s arsons have done their work, where can the artist look for inspiration? He has three basic options:

Option 1: He can change jobs, sell his lute, and buy a microscope. After all, if beauty reduces to “sophistry and illusion” (Hume) then why waste your time with beauty-pursuing endeavors like art? As J.H. Randall observed, “It was no accident that the scientific age of the Enlightenment produced little that can rank with the world’s greatest art and poetry.”

Option 2: Second, our artist can stick to his profession, and look to the ash heap for inspiration. This was the option taken by many artists in the Modern Art movement. Many tried to capture the shocking absurdity and gaping emptiness of life in a universe where beauty and love no longer hold living value. ‘Venus is Dead (and here’s what the world looks like without her)’ would be an accurate title for a gallery show hanging Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Picasso’s Demoiselles’ de Avignon, Francis Bacon’s Head VI, and vast warehouses of other modern artworks.

But there is a third option our artist could take, an option that is much closer to how the cultural mainstream reacted to the death of objective values.

Option 3: Rather than look outside himself, where there are only ashes, he can turn within himself for inspiration. He can abandon his mission of finding and expressing bigger-and-beyond-himself beauty, and spend his time, instead, gazing inward and expressing whatever he finds within the confines of his own consciousness. The artist’s own subjective feelings now become the primary subject matter. Once we kill Venus it is only a matter of time until we resurrect Narcissus to take her place.

From Pinocchio to Small Potatoes

There are abundant examples that reveal this cultural turn from the objective to the subjective, from Venus to Narcissus, or what we could call the shift from Pinocchio to Small Potatoes. I was raised watching a small Italian puppet named Pinocchio strive to be a real boy in the famous Disney movie. Pinocchio’s world was like Titian’s world insofar as “love and beauty were really there: if he did not follow them, hate and ugliness would be the result.” When Pinocchio ignores his conscience (symbolized by a cricket in a top hat), he abandons his family for the fame and fortune of Stromboli’s stage. The result is lonesome imprisonment. When he lies the result is an ugly tree branch nose. When he shuns all moral responsibility for the reckless fun of Pleasure Island, Pinocchio becomes even less human, sprouting a tail, and ears, braying like a donkey. However, when the wooden boy synchs his actions up with the moral realities of love and courage, sacrificing his life to save his family from the vicious sea monster, Monstro, he is “resurrected” as a real boy. The message, even to my five-year-old self, was clear: Doing whatever you want is not the way to real boy-ness. We must live out realities like love and courage to really live. There were real goods that led to more authentic humanness and real evils that led to dehumanization. It is a tale that only makes sense if Venus is alive, if transcendent values are real.

Contrast the rich moral world in which Pinocchio’s quest occurs with a more recent Disney production, Small Potatoes. This animated Disney Jr. show originated in the UK and features tunes like “I just want to be me,” a potato sung punk anthem about self-expression and not letting anyone tell you who or how to be. Another episode teaches kids that, “art is something like freedom, you can do whatever you want with it.” The episode, “We’re All Potatoes at Heart” concludes with a talking potato telling a vast audience of impressionable minds, “I think it’s great to be different and unique because then everyone has their own different way of doing things and there’s no wrong or right answer for doing something.”

Over a hundred years before talking potatoes, Fred Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil. This philosophical tome argues that the idea of real right and wrong is an outmoded superstition of the religious “herd.” The secular “superman” quits looking beyond himself for such nonexistent values and instead does whatever he wants. For Nietzsche, “The human being who has become free spits on the contemptible type of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, females, Englishmen, and other Democrats.” “Egoism,” says Nietzsche, “is the essence of the noble soul.” In the 1960s Jean Paul Sartre argued that “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct… everything is permissible.” Carrying on their legacy, Richard Rorty, postmodern philosopher extraordinaire, celebrates America as “the first nation-state with nobody but itself to please — not even God… There is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of a free people can be measured.”

Cute potatoes now serenade our kids about freedom as the power to “do whatever they want” and that “There’s no right or wrong answer for doing something.” The death of Venus has reached children’s ears. Her ashes have flowed from the ivory towers into the cultural mainstreams where kids fill their cups. And as Augustine quotes Horace in The City of God (1.3), “new vessels will for long retain the taste of what is first poured into them.”

Hume’s Inferno: The Fiery Judgment of Secular Exclusivism

Posted on: June 28th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams 3 Comments

Religion has long been criticized for making one way of seeing things the only way of seeing things. Sadly, some religious exclusivity has led to some indefensible gnarliness throughout history (the kind of things that made Jesus’ guts turn and ought to have the same effect on us).  Yet as a certain brand of secularism points this finger at religion, it finds three fingers pointing back at itself. There is such a thing as secular exclusivism.

For example, one way of seeing a flower is through the botanist’s microscope, to see the chlorophyll that colors its leaves, the photosynthesis that fuels its growth, the pollen that powers its reproduction, and so on. Some would have us believe that once we’ve seen the flower in this one way we’ve seen all there is to see of the flower. Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, famously said that, “There’s more to the flower than the botanist can study.” To disagree with Wordsworth, secularism must claim for itself an exclusive access to reality in which science is not a way, but the only way of knowing anything about anything.

This exclusivism was enshrined by Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer in the early 20th century with such academic movements as logical positivism and emotivism. For Russell and Ayer, any statement that wasn’t a matter of science or math didn’t even rise to the dignity of being false. Any non-mathematical, non-scientific statement was instead deemed meaningless, emotional gibberish, no more worthy of the titles true or false than the caterwauling of a wounded cat. If you say, “That daffodil is beautiful” your statement carries no more truth-value than Fluffy’s “Mrrroooooow!” It is only if you say something like, “That daffodil stands ten inches and has yellow petals” that you’ve said anything more worthwhile than a feline.

The 20th century exclusivism of Russell and Ayer can be traced back to another Brit, David Hume, of the 18th century. Listen to Hume’s advice:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school of metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can be nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Do you understand Hume’s advice? Anything not math (“abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number”) or science (“experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence”) is “mere sophistry and illusion,” worthy of the flames.

Let us enter the library, take volumes in our hands, and apply Hume’s pyromanic advice to quotes below. Which statements survive math-and-science standards and which works must we cast into the sophistry-consuming furnace?

Let your hand represent fire, and lay it over the left half of your screen. The Analects of Confucius, The Bible, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “The Geneva Convention of 1949,” “The Hippocratic Oath,” “The Declaration of Independence,” “The Humanist Manifesto III,” and Coleridge’s poem, “Dejection: An Ode” now form one big heap of charred “sophistry.” (We can add to the ash heap Hume’s own book, Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding, since his statement above is neither math nor science). Now turn to the statements on the right, the science-and-math statements that survive Hume’s flames, and look for meaning, a reason to live. Really look.

The Anti-Trinity

Posted on: May 1st, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams No Comments

Immanuel Kant thought that, ”Taken literally, absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity” (The Conflict of the Faculties, 1798). I am convinced by Scripture and experience that the great German philosopher could not have been more wrong on this point. The one God who exists as three inter-loving Persons has everything to do with “the practical life.” The Trinity is a precious and practical doctrine, one that touches all of life—how we break anti-loving cycles in our hearts, how we pray, how we worship, how we do church, how we build relationships, etc.

Perhaps Kant’s assessment was informed by a failure of 18th century European churches to intentionally live out Trinitarian realities. As J. Scott Horrell laments, “We have done little to consciously express Trinitarian belief in our daily lives and in the community and mission of the church” (“An Ontology of Mission” in Global Missiology, Vol. 1 No. 6 [2008]). In other words, we need not only Trinitarian orthodoxy—correct doctrine of the Trinity—but also Trinitarian orthopraxy—correct practice that accurately reflects the reality of one God who exists as three inter-loving Persons. Jesus prayed for His church to form a kind of angled mirror, bonded together with the kind of love that directs the world’s gaze upward to behold the Triune God of love (Jn. 17:11-24). Are we reflecting the Triune God clearly, or do our churches often form more of a cracked mirror, fragmented shards with animosities and apathies caked like mud, refracting little light from above?

THE ANTI-TRINITY

We could list many reasons why churches fail to clearly reflect Trinitarian reality to the world. I’d like to focus, briefly, on just one reason that is rarely considered. I am convinced that one reason we often fail to reflect the Trinity is that we often do not have a robust enough doctrine of the anti-Trinity. Before sewing a scarlet H onto my tweed jacket, allow me to explain what I mean by “the anti-Trinity”:

Trinitarian heresies tend to focus on one divine Person or another while devaluing the other two. Arius from the 4th century upheld the Father’s divinity while devaluing the Son and Spirit. Many within today’s “Jesus Only” movement have done the same with the Son, at the expense of the Father and Spirit, and so on. A biblical view of the Trinity demands that our theology is not FATHER, son, and holy spirit. Or father, SON, and holy spirit. Or father, son, and HOLY SPIRIT. A biblical view exalts the one God who exists as FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT—all equally divine Persons, each worthy of worship, love, and awe.

Yet the Bible also reveals an unholy anti-Trinity—three destructive forces at work against the Triune Creator’s mission. Protestant Reformers, like Martin Luther, saw this three-headed monster accurately as the Devil, the Flesh, and the World. I call these three “the anti-Trinity,” not because they afford us with some kind of analogy of how one God could exist as three Persons (they offer no such analogy), but because the Devil, the Flesh, and the World are set directly at odds against the redemptive mission of the Triune God. We must not downplay the reality of any of these three destructive forces as we join the Triune God’s mission.

Biblically, just who are the members of the anti-Trinity?

THE DEVIL

The Devil cannot be allegorized away as some fictional villain, like Darth Vader or the Joker. In the Bible, Satan and his legions are really there and launch daily warfare against God. Whereas the Father—the first member of the holy Trinity—is our great “Justifier,” declaring us “not guilty,” (Rom. 3:26), a God who “never lies” (Tit. 1:2) and who “gives life” (Ac. 17:25), the first member of the anti-Trinity is the great “accuser” (Lk. 22:21; Jn. 12:31), “the father of lies” who “was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). We must prayerfully suit up with the armor of faith, truth, and the gospel, and fight back against Satan’s power with Scripture’s power (Eph. 6:10-18). If we ignore the first member of the anti-Trinity then we live out a kind of oxymoronical “Christian naturalism,” oblivious to invisible warfare, naked on the battlefield, duped by the Devil’s great trick of convincing the world that he isn’t real.

If, however, we stop with the “father of lies” then we become a kind of inverted mirror image of the Arian who limits His concept of God only to the Father. As Arianism keeps people from engaging in worship of the Son and the Spirit as they should, so limiting our concept of evil to the Devil keeps us from engaging in warfare against the Flesh and the World as we should. With such an inadequate view of the anti-Trinity, we end up with an unhealthy, superstitious fixation on the invisible world. We find Satan in every sniffle, fear demons in every dark corner, and blame Beelzebub for our own self-induced blunders. “The devil made me do it,” we may say, when in reality, “My own stupidity and addiction to the rush of sin made me do it.” We end up more preoccupied with “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44) than focused on “the Father of Lights from whom all good things come” (Jam. 1:17).

THE FLESH

The second unholy member of the Bible’s anti-Trinity was often referred to by Paul as “the flesh.” By “flesh” Paul did not mean our hundred-or-so pounds of carbon and H20. Rather by “the flesh” Paul referred to the sin nature, that deep drive within all of us to do things our own way, by our own power, for our own glory. It’s that force inside you like a giant invisible magnet pulling you back into those same old selfish sins. It is the force that the great Russian novelist (and notorious gambling addict), Dostoyevsky, knew so well when he observed that “in every man, a demon lies hidden.” Or as INXS sang, “Every single one of us has a devil inside.”

Narrowing our view of evil to demons out there causes us to ignore the the “demon” in here, the evil propensities within our own hearts, the fact that, in a sense, we are all “possessed” by that evil force Paul called our “flesh.” What are we to do with the second member of the anti-Trinity? Paul, again using warfare terminology, commands us to “kill” it prayerfully by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13). The Puritans used to call this sacred duty “mortification.” If we are not orthodox enough in our view of the anti-Trinity, if we limit our concept of evil only to the Flesh, then we may grow preoccupied with ourselves, morbidly introspective, and stray armorless into spiritual warfare against the Devil out there.

THE WORLD

The Bible’s third member of the anti-Trinity is “the world.” The Bible does not picture the 6.6 sextillion ton sphere of heavy elements spinning around the sun as some evil force (God called that world “good” when he made it). Rather, the World as an evil entity refers more to the “spirit of the age,” the social system that hails greedy consumption, radical self-assertion, constant pleasure-center brain stimulation, and boundless sexual exploration as seminal virtues (1 Jn. 2:16; Eph. 4:17-20; 2 Pet. 2:12-14). It is a system that measures people’s stature in terms of the cars on their driveway, the zeroes on their bank statement, and the notches on their bedpost. Friendship with this World system (again using the Bible’s warfare language) is to make ourselves “an enemy” of the God who wants so much more for His creatures (Jam. 4:4).

We are not commanded, however, to build cult compounds, stockpiled with guns behind high walls sealed off safely from this world. We are called to live in this world in a radically countercultural and redemptive way. We are to think of ourselves like Paul, as “crucified to the world” (Gal. 6:14), too dead and nailed to a cross to leap off and indulge in its falsely advertised, ultimately unsatisfying, and self-destructive pleasures. We are to be non-conformists against “the pattern on this world” (Rom. 12:2), refuting a system of self-exaltation with lives of irrefutable, self-sacrificial love.

Again, limiting our concept of evil to this member of the anti-Trinity, leaves us detrimentally imbalanced. We find ourselves on a self-righteous crusade against all the evil forces in culture, e.g., those socialist lefties out there, those God-hating pagans out there, those Christmas-banning secularists out there. We disregard the evils in here, the corruption in our own hearts. It is, after all, far easier to blame the unbelieving world than face ourselves squarely in the mirror. Is it any wonder with such an inadequate view of the anti-Trinity that the loudest spokesmen against culture’s evils are so often the same names making scandalous headlines with their own personal evils? In our battle against external evils it is all too easy to leave our internal evils unexamined and unopposed. Without a biblical awareness of the anti-Trinity, we become the very evils we are fighting.

WHICH ENEMY DO YOU IGNORE?

To echo my original thesis: one reason we often fail to reflect the Trinity well is that we often do not have a robust enough doctrine of the anti-Trinity. We reduce evil to the Devil, the Flesh, OR the World, when all three are daily at war against our joy in God and the joy of the nations. We must engage all three or we can expect no more victory than the Allies had they only fought one or two of Word War II’s Axis powers. Which malicious member(s) of the anti-Trinity do you most often ignore? On which battlefront does your soul stand unguarded? Which enemy are you not assaulting with prayer, truth, faith, and love? Do not be intimidated, overwhelmed, or discouraged. The anti-Trinity we face together is no match for a Triune God of love—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who alone can secure our victory against the Devil, the Flesh, and the World.

The Cure for Insomnia

Posted on: April 25th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams 0 Comments

Can’t sleep? Insomnia got you down? Announcing the cure: ReReform.com has added a brand new sermons page featuring a compilation of free streaming audio sermons. Simply click on “Sermons” on the menu bar and start listening. Where’s God when life hurts? What is biblical meditation? What’s the role of the church in redemption history? How do we help our utopian neighbors? How do we kill sin in our lives? How does the Trinity change everything?

Happy listening.

You will find none. You can scavenge every math and science tome in history, discover all kinds of fascinating facts about how things work, but you will never find an answer to the why questions of our existence.

This is the real tragedy of making one way of seeing things the only way of seeing things, the sad effect of secular exclusivism: It leaves our meaning-craving species wandering as in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which every possible answer to our nagging why questions has been incinerated. We trod through the ashes, reciting our times tables, machine-like and meaningless.

There is a better way.

 

What Does Nicea Have to Do With Geneva?

Posted on: April 25th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams No Comments

The Connection Between Biblical Trinitarianism and Relational Calvinism

When it comes to the debate about God’s sovereignty, there is a common caricature that goes something like this: Calvinists are all about God’s power while non-Calvinists are all about God’s love. Some scholars have even branded their non-Calvinism “relational theism” to set their loving God apart from the relationally challenged power-God of Calvinism. Sure Calvinists will also talk about God’s love, and non-Calvinists about God’s power. But wedged between them seems to be the question of which attribute of God is more ultimate—power or love? Must we side with either the power-God of Calvinism or the love-God of non-Calvinism?

Behind this caricature lies a widespread belief that love and power exist in an inverse proportion—the more you have of one the less you have of the other. Geddes McGregor puts words to this belief when he says that “love is the abdication of power,” and talks about God emptying Himself of power to make room in the universe for meaningful love relationships. In this line of thinking God’s love and power are something like oil and water in a full jar. They do not mix well and putting more water (love) in the jar requires emptying out some oil (power).

The fourth gospel shatters the jars of different theologies, those with more water and those with more oil, and mixes it all together on a giant canvas. The result is a masterpiece portrait of a God who is not powerful in spite of being loving, or loving in spite of being powerful. The God of John’s gospel is loving precisely because He is so powerful, and powerful precisely because He is so loving. How does John paint God’s power and love together? Throughout the twenty-one chapters of John’s story, God’s power to save human persons cannot be separated from God’s love as passionately expressed within the Trinity. John connects predestining power to intratrinitarian love in an astounding and worship-provoking way. Both non-Calvinists and many Calvinists have largely overlooked this connection. We have walked right by the masterpiece. So let us stop and really take it in.

Before “The Beginning” There Was Love

John’s opening line, borrowed verbatim from the opening line of the Greek Old Testament, reads, “In the beginning…” Whereas Genesis 1:1 whisks us to the beginning of “the heavens and the earth,” John takes us even further back. He ventures before the beginning. Before the beginning of the universe there was not some impossibly dense particle hovering in the middle of nowhere, or a quantum energy bathtub bubbling up multiverses, or “nothingness” (as physicist Lawrence Krauss has recently speculated). For John, our cosmic origins cosmos are far more personal than that. “In the beginning was the Word”—that is, the Logos. Greek philosophers (and the Stoics in particular) had their own concept of Logos. Theirs’ was a kind of impersonal rational principle that accounts for logical order in the universe. John’s Logos is not a principle but a Person.

The next breath of John’s prologue tells us that “the Logos was with God and the Logos was God.” Before the universe began there was not something, whether a dense singularity, an energy bathtub, “nothingness,” or an abstract logical principle. There was someone, and that Someone “was God.” Rather than picturing this divine Someone as a solitary deity who needed to create out of unbearable lonesomeness, John tells us that the Logos was also “with God.” There was relationship before matter and space and time began, relationship within the Trinity. John takes the relationship of the Logos “with God” deeper only a few verses later. By the fourteenth verse of his prologue, John no longer expresses Trinitarian truths with Logos language. Instead, he speaks of the “Son” (a personal and relational word the Greeks could not ascribe to their Logos). There is a reason that the Trinitarian formula was never Uncle, Nephew, and Holy Spirit, or Boss, Employee, and Holy Spirit, or President, Citizen, and Holy Spirit. None of these capture the magnitude of interpersonal love that exists between the divine Persons. “Father and Son” shows something of the vast and beaming love relationship of which even our best father-son relationships are only a small blurry reflection.

John returns again and again to the command “love!” Why? Because his entire worldview begins with a God who “is love,” a God who has loved within the Trinity long before there were people like you and me to love. The Logos was not “with God” in the way that you might be “with” strangers in a restaurant, but with the God in the sense that, “You loved me, Father, before the creation of the cosmos” (17:24). This loving with-ness is so important to Jesus that he desires that “the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31). As his narrative unfolds, John captures this intimacy by moving from the language of with-ness to the language of in-ness—“I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:11). In this way, John shines a spotlight on the creation account of Genesis, clarifying once cryptic details. The Creator God of Genesis refers to Himself in the plural—“Let us make man in our image.” From John we learn that the same Logos who “was God,” “with God,” “loved” by the Father, and “in the Father” created everything (1:3). Our universe was not spoken into existence by a lonely or bored deity seeking company or entertainment. It was a God already enjoying intimate interpersonal relationship who said “Let there be…”

Theologians have long talked about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, the Latin phrase signifying God’s creation of the universe “out of nothing.” God did not take some pre-existing stuff and rearrange it to make our universe, like a painter who needs pre-existing paint and canvas to create beauty. When God said, “Let there be…” things came to be that, prior to that creative command, were not. But we should affirm right along with creatio ex nihilo the doctrine of creatio ex amor (creation from love). Because John traces the genesis of the universe to the “with”-the-Father, “in”-the-Father,” “loved”-by-the-Father Logos, relationality is written into the very structure of creation. In many Kierkegaard poems the whole poem and each line within it find their meaning only in light of the poet’s passionate affection for his first love, Regina Olsen. Similarly, God’s poetic creation as a whole and the individual creatures, like lines of His poem, find their deepest meaning only in light of the Father’s first love for His divine Son.

Why “Loneliness is Such a Drag” 

Contrast John’s Trinitarian cosmology with the Greeks. Their Logos was not a Son in divine relationship—more of rational “It” than a relational “He.” With this starting point, the Greek vision of the good life hardly rises higher than the life of reason, wearing a toga with your fist on your chin in Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, Epicurus’ Garden, or Stoic’s Painted Porch. These four schools of antiquity, each with their own divergent themes, converge on the point that “reason more than anything else is man.” Whether the final destination is Plato’s state of a well-ordered soul (diakosune), Aristotle’s fulfillment of our built-in purpose (eudaimonia), Epicurus’ peaceful mind purged of fear (ataraxia), or the Stoic’s statuesque indifference (apatheia) the road sign always reads “reason.” The rational, not the relational, will save humanity.

John’s Logos is certainly rational (hence, worshipping God in “truth” and loving Him with our “minds” are essential to John’s vision of the good life). Yet John’s Logos is also relational. While big enough to contain sacred space for the life of the mind, John’s worldview leaves far more room than the Greeks could accommodate for the reality of love, the reality that we all know in our best moments is what makes life worth living. Let’s get specific. The rational and relational Logos of John’s gospel (rather than the merely rational Logos of Greek philosophy) explains…

…why, to quote the late great philosopher Jimi Hendrix, ”loneliness is such a drag.” There are old folks with no visitors beyond the talking images of a Matlock episode, ex-lovers who find themselves alone and withdrawn after a broken relationship, odd theologians who exert more effort on books than people. Why are these are all tragic figures? Because they are each created for relationship by a Triune God of relationship.

…why prisons punish with solitary confinement rather than restricted library access. Why is the hole, where relationships become impossible, a far more chilling punishment? Because prisoners are created for relationship by a Triune God of relationship.

…why the overwhelming majority of great songs, poems, and movies focus on the same grand theme. Love dwarfs all other creative themes, whether the invigorating power in, the yearning desire for, or the lamenting loss of it. The lyrical climax of Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” is not “the wonder of it all is that you just don’t realize how much I logically contemplate you.” The Beatles never sang the anthem “All you need is reason, do do do do do.” Elvis’ rewrite—“Think me Tender”— would have never made the pop charts. Even when love is confused with a serotonin rush to the brain (or a rush of blood to certain body parts with more nerve endings), these shadows reveal something of our thirst for the Substance. Why is love what artists attempt to express more than anything else (and what we want them to express more than anything else)? Because we are all created for relationship by a Triune God of relationship.

The Greeks’ Logos could not explain such experiences. Neither can the astrophysicist’s quantum singularity, the Muslim’s Allah who created in solitude, the Hindu’s Brahman as an impersonal force, or any other explanation of where we ultimately came from. In John’s relational Logos we find not only the explanation of love’s rudimentary place in the world, but also the realization of our deepest built-in longings to love and be loved.

III. A Love That Cannot Drop Bottles

If we look deeper into John’s portrait of God, we not only find our origin in the Triune God who has loved before the cosmos. We also find that this pre-cosmic love is an active love (This is one reason why, for John, reflecting the Triune God requires that we “love not only with word, but also with action” cf. 1 Jn. 3:18.). The Son expresses His love for the Father primarily through the action of obeying (tereo cf. 12:49-50; 14:31; 15:10; 17:4). The primary love-language by which the Father expresses affection for the Son is the action of giving (didomi). The Father “gives” the Son “life in himself” (5:27a), “authority to judge” (5:27b; cf. 5:22), “work” (5:36), “sheep” (10:29); “authority over all people” (17:2); “those … out of the world” (17:6; cf. 17:24), “words” (17:8), “the name” (17:11-12); “glory” (17:22, 24; cf. 13:31-32), and more.

It is in this expressive love exchange between the giving Father and the obeying Son that we discover John’s perspective on God’s power. Divine love and divine power are profoundly

intertwined around one specific gift. John 6:37 speaks of the Father giving the Son people. You, me, and every other believer are, in John’s view, living, breathing ‘I love yous’ spoken by a Triune God. Says the Son, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” Who “will come to” Jesus? “All that the Father gives” Him. The tenses of the two verbs in Jesus’ statement shed light on how John connects divine love and power. The Father “gives” in the present tense. People “will come” in the future tense. Grammatically, this is like saying, “All the majority votes for (present) will sing (future) in the next round,” or “All the governor pardons (present) will enjoy (future) freedom from death row.” The performers’ singing another round and the prisoners’ enjoying freedom rest on the prior actions of other agents (i.e., the majority’s voting and the governor’s pardoning). Similarly, if you have come to Jesus then you were not the prime mover behind that coming. Rather you came to the Son because the Father first gave you to the Son as an expression of His intense affection for the Son. The vocalist has the voting majority to thank for her singing in the next round. The convict has the governor to thank for his enjoying freedom. You have the Father to thank for your coming to the Son. Peer behind your decision to follow Jesus and you will find a Father generously in love with His divine Son.

Francis Schaeffer observes that, “love existed between the persons of the Trinity before the foundation of the world. This being so, the existence of love as we know it in our makeup does not have an origin in chance, but from that which has always been. According to John 6:37, not only does “the existence of love” in human makeup trace its origin to “that which has always been.” Any and all love we have for Jesus traces to that same ancient affection. Once it sinks in that our belief in Jesus originates because of the Father’s love for His Son, we can never again think of the Trinity as some kind of abstract, black-and-white, strange math equation where three somehow equals one. Rather, the doctrine becomes something precious and practical. It bursts with color. It becomes a cool ocean to plunge into after we have followed John’s map upstream from our rivers of faith and discovered their ultimate Source in the Triune God of love. Non-Calvinism cannot lead us to this ocean. Non-Calvinism reverses John’s verbs. All who come (present) to the Son [with their autonomous free power], will be given (future) by the Father. For John, however, we do not believe to become love-gifts; we believe because we are gifts. “All” the Father gives will come to the Son. For John it lies beyond the scope of possibility that anyone the Father wants to give His Son as a living, conscious, worshipping ‘I love you’ would not, in fact, come to the Son.

To see why all the Father gives will come, consider an illustration: Imagine a dad who wants to express His fatherly affection for his only son. Dad purchases a 24-bottle case of a certain rare, delicious beverage to enjoy with his boy. Let us assume, for the sake of illustration, that these bottles have the power to either remain in the case, and so be love-gifts enjoyed by the son, or spring out of the case and shatter themselves on the concrete. As the father makes his way to the son’s apartment, he hears the shattering pop of bottles on the sidewalk. By the time the father knocks on the front door a few bottles remain in the case. The son swings the door open to find his father offering a half empty case. Over the father’s shoulder, the son spots a sad trail of glass shards and brown liquid running into the gutters. The extent to which bottles have used their free power to opt out of the love-gift, casting themselves to the concrete, is the extent to which the father’s love has not reached its full, intended expression. Every bottle broken is a bottle not enjoyed by the son.

A similar mishap may occur in non-Calvinist theologies. If the Father’s giving depends on our first coming, then the Father’s love for His Son may not reach its full, intended expression. Every potential love-gift who uses her free power to say ‘no’ to the Son is one more bottle wastefully broken on the pavement rather than joyfully imbibed by the Son. This raises an important question. Calvinism debates typically focus on the question: Do humans have the power to thwart the will of a supremely powerful God with regard to their salvation? Calvinists answer ‘no,’ while non-Calvinists generally answer ‘yes.’ While this is an important question, let us re-frame the question in light of the Father-Son relationship in John’s gospel: Do humans have the power to thwart the will of a supremely loving, Triune God with regard to their salvation? Can we mar the full, radiant expression of God’s love within the Trinity? Can we leap from the case, leaving the Father blushing at the Son’s doorstep? Can we prevent the beloved Son from savoring every last drop that the Father wants Him to enjoy?

Secure in the Indestructible Grip

John helps us answer these questions. John 17 records one of many intratrinitarian conversations, a prayer of the Son to the Father. In that prayer, the night before Jesus’ execution, Jesus prays for the very love-gift introduced in John 6:37. This includes not only His first-century disciples, but also “those who will believe in me through their word” (17:20). The night before His murder, who was on Jesus’ mind? You, me, and every believer through the echelons of history. What did Jesus pray for us? Among other things, He expresses His “will” (thelo) that His love-gift may be with Him to see His glory (17:24). Jesus desires His complete personal gift to behold Him in all His glory. He wants every last bottle secure in the case when He swings open the door to eternity. So the Son asks His all-powerful and loving Father to fulfill this request.

In John 6 we see the Father in perfect alignment with His Son’s desire for the love-gift. The Father’s “will” (thelema) is that the Son would lose none of all that the Father has given Him, but that the Son would raise up the complete gift on the last day (6:38-40). Father and Son stand united in wanting not a single bottle to end up a heap of glass shards and gutter ooze. The Father puts it in His obedient Son’s hands to ensure that His “will” would reach fulfillment. Recall that the primary medium of the Son expressing love for His Father in the fourth gospel is obedience to His Father’s will: “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31 cf. 17:4). If we could resist Jesus with self-destructive finality, smashing ourselves on the sidewalk, then we could prevent the Son from doing His Father’s will. Do we possess such intratrinitarian love-blocking power? Says Jesus, “No one come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (6:44).

We have seen the Son ask the Father to hold onto His love-gift and the Father ask the Son for the same. This explains John 10:27-30 where Jesus declares that His love-gifts (identified as His “sheep”) are “given eternal life,” “will never perish,” and “cannot be snatched” both from “the Son’s hand” and “the Father’s hand.” The all-powerful Son holds us secure in the hollow of His hand as a loving response to His Father’s will. The Father then wraps His omnipotent fingers around the Son’s hand as a loving response to His Son’s will. Here in this loving and indestructible grip of a Triune God we can at last let go of any fears about which eternal destiny we are being carried toward. Our destiny rests not on our own wobbly and unreliable abilities, but on the steady and sure abilities of the Father and Son to carry out one another’s wills as they express intratrinitarian affection. You could no more fumble your salvation than the Triune God could fail to love Himself. Looking beyond our finite selves to this Triune God of infinite love, our binding anxieties turn to blessed assurance.

Non-Calvinism leads us away from this blessed assurance into troubled waters. If God’s will to the Son is that the He lose not a single love-gift (6:38-40) and we have the autonomous power to lose ourselves, then we can, in effect, keep the Son from perfectly fulfilling His Father’s will. What happens, then, to the beautiful substitution that happened at the cross? Biblically, the cross is where the Son who perfectly fulfilled His Father’s will takes the place of those who fall short of such perfect will-keeping. Not only does our egregious will-breaking (and the awful consequences it entails) become His; but the Son’s perfect will-keeping (and the extravagant rewards it entails) becomes ours. If, however, we can say ‘no’ to Jesus, shatter our salvation, break off the relationship with self-condemning finality, then we can prevent the Son from fulfilling His Father’s will that “none” of the love-gift “would be lost.” The cross would then become a place where we exchange our filthy rags for another set of soiled clothes. Imperfection is substituted for yet another imperfection. The Son’s failure to keep the Father’s will that “none would be lost” would be a failure credited to our account.

John’s gospel does not lead us to such hopeless conclusions. The Son says ‘I love you’ to His Father through a track record of impeccable obedience. We can, therefore, look up into the Father’s mirror and see ourselves radiant and dressed in white, without so much as a speck of lint. A soiled bride is not worthy of the divine Son. (I recall seeing my own bride floating her way past a standing crowd of smiling faces to meet me on our wedding day. I teared up. A burger grease stain down her white dress definitely would have taken something out of that moment.) Jesus kept every facet of the Father’s will, including losing none of His love-gift, ensuring that no stain could subtract a single iota of tearful joy as He watches His bride—the church—march to the altar. All the while, the Father-of-the-Groom looks on at His Son’s joy in His utterly spotless bride, and love triggers His own tear ducts with joy unspeakable. Can we, the approaching bride pristine in the Son’s perfection, lock eyes with the Father and Son and not ourselves feel overwhelming joy dance up our spine, pure awe at the privilege of being so loved, so cherished, so clean, so beautified, the celebrated member welcomed by the Triune God into the divine family. Oh, let us worship our Groom! Let us worship the Father-of-the-Groom! This is no shotgun wedding. The Father does not have the barrel at our backs forcing us to the altar against our wills. He has changed our wills, reformed our hearts so that we want nothing more than to come to the Son. We find Him irresistible.

From Biblical Trinitarianism to Relational Calvinism

It is against this backdrop of John’s Trinitarianism that Calvinism moves from a blurred black-and-white into vivid Technicolor, and it begins to shine as a truly “relational theism.” Why is election unconditional? Because if God’s choosing us is conditioned on our prior choice of Him, a choice we could easily make against Him, then the size of the Father’s love-gift to His Son could be drastically smaller than He wants it to be. Election is unconditional because the size of His intended expression of Trinitarian love is determined by the Gift-giver, not the gift. Why is the atonement effective in redeeming every sinner it is intended to redeem? Because otherwise the Son fails to fulfill His Father’s will. Every autonomous human agent who says ‘no’ to the cross prevents Christ from carrying out His commanded mission, impeding the full expression of God’s love within the Trinity. The atonement is effective because intratrinitarian love is not defective. Why is grace irresistible? Because if we could shun the Father’s grace as He draws us to worship His Son, then we have the power to thwart God’s expression of love within the Trinity. Grace cannot be resisted because His Trinitarian love cannot be frustrated. Why are the saints preserved to their state of glory? Because otherwise the Son would fail to fulfill His Father’s will that He would “lose none of all” of His love gift, and the Father would fail to fulfill His Son’s will that they would “behold His glory.” The saints are preserved because the Divine Persons perfectly fulfill one another’s will.

Remove the Trinitarian backdrop from behind these doctrines and the marvelous luster of love begins to fade from Calvinism. Without John’s Trinitarian understanding of predestination, we can all too easily bow before a God with a crown on His head and scepter in His hand but little love in His heart. A God of power who is not simultaneously a God of love is not the God of John’s gospel. He is an idol. Let us worship John’s God “in Spirit and in truth,” (14:6), a God who is powerful because of His love and loving because of His power. This biblical fusion of robustly relational Trinitarianism with Calvinism is one important step toward what so many of us long for in our generation—that is, a new Reformation, a Re-Reformation in the 21st century in which God is worshipped as He is.

There is a Love that is not powerless.

There is a Power that is not loveless.

Both, dear reader, are found in the

One God who exists as three Persons

And who draws us irresistibly to Himself.

[1] Perhaps this oil-and-water comes from our own relational encounters on the human level, where the more domineering someone becomes the more it seems that love is lost, e.g., a controlling spouse or parent whose constant demands choke the other’s personhood. We must be careful to not make our own human experiences the grid into which we squeeze God.

[2] William Shedd adds, “Here is society within the Essence, and wholly independent of the universe; and communion and blessedness resulting therefrom. But this is impossible to an essence without personal distinctions. Not the singular Unit of the deist, but the plural Unity of the Trinitarian explains this. A subject without an object… could not love. What is there to be loved?” (Preface to Augustine, City of God, 15).

[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 2nd Ed., tr. Terence Irwin, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1999) Book 10.

[4] The present-tense-followed-by-future-tense occurs elsewhere in John with the same implication (cf. 14:15; 16:13).

[5] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There,  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998) 124-125.

[6] The Father does not fail to give the Son any of the other gifts mentioned in the fourth gospel (e.g., “life in himself” (5:27a), “authority” (5:22, 27b; 17:2); “words” (17:8), “the name” (17:11-12); “glory, ” etc.). Are we to believe that the Father’s love-gift of people is the one exception to this rule because those people have autonomous God-resisting power?

[7] Jesus does not say, “I might raise him up on the last day,” or “I will give it my best shot, although human power could lead to broken bottles that I cannot raise up.” No. The Son “will” raise us up on the last day.

[8] If the Son fails to carry our His Father’s will “to lose none of all that He has given me,” then He fails to fulfill His Father’s will that He be a perfect substitute for that love-gift. It follows that if one love-gift is lost, then all love-gifts are lost. Why? Because the crosswork of Christ only succeeds in saving anyone if there is not a single slip of will-keeping on Christ’s part.

 

Don’t Settle For Us (FREE Download)

Posted on: December 30th, 2012 by Thaddeus Williams No Comments

 

I went out to meet you in the clouds at the beach. Each one held a sermon and the currents rose to preach. Clashing and inspired against the buzzing of the streets. They said, ‘Our beauty’s not from us. Our beauty’s not from you. Don’t confuse the windows for the wall you can’t see through. And if you think we’re humbling, majestic, and sublime, what if there’s a finger painting every moving line?

Don’t settle for us, don’t settle for us, don’t settle.

With His medium the spectrum and the molecules and time, follow every brushstroke ’til you reach the Painter’s Mind. We’re but a canvas who can’t love you or stretch our arms and die. Our beauty’s not from us. Our beauty’s not from you. Don’t confuse the window for a wall you can’t see through. If you think we’re humbling, majestic, and sublime, what if there’s a finger painting every moving line?

Don’t settle for us, don’t settle for us, don’t settle.

Resources:

Reremind’s site information

Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective.

Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume 1, Gustafson