Fight: Book Review and Response

fightA right and a wrong way to Christian non-violence

I’m often less concerned with the position a Christian takes on controversial topic than I am with the way they arrive at that position. That’s the case with pacifism – or Christian non-violence. There are two paths, often taken together, that I strongly disagree with. The first of those wrong paths is to fail to take the Old Testament seriously, or to dismiss it outright. This view essentially relegates the entire Old Testament obsolete in regards to the question of violence. And, while there is discontinuity between Old and New this view fails to see that there is also an essential unity in the whole of Scripture. The second wrong path is to remove wrath, vengeance, and retributive justice from the character of God. But this fails to recognize huge chunks of Scripture, and does serious damage to the work Jesus does on the cross.[1] Whenever I speak to a proponent of Christian non-violence, I’m often on alert to how they arrive at their position.

Preston Sprinkle (Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence) gets there the right way. He takes the entirety of Scriptures seriously and doesn’t begrudge God his right to execute righteous judgment. Therefore, while I disagree with some of Sprinkle’s conclusions, I find that we agree a lot more than we disagree.

The Thrust of Sprinkle’s argument

Sprinkle argues that Christians, following the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and following His own example of nonviolent suffering should fully embrace nonviolence. He argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence. His book is broken down into three sections: Review of the Old Testament, Review of the New Testament, Q&A.

The Old Testament: Eden represents the ideal. In Eden, there was no violence. When sin entered the world, it became exceedingly violent. God, in establishing Israel, made provisions for them to use violence to enact capital punishment and engage in warfare. Yet, Sprinkle argues, Israel by comparison was a lot less violent and militaristic both in its laws and its warfare policy than the surrounding nations. By the time we get to the prophets, we see a continued movement away from the use of violence in order to move toward the Edenic ideal. In other words, God provided for Israel to use violence in limited circumstances for specific purposes, but this was not the ideal for God’s people.

The New Testament: Sprinkle argues that in the New Testament nonviolence is fully embraced. Jesus taught it on the Sermon on the Mount. He gave an example as he bore up under the suffering of the cross. The epistles command Christians to revoke vengeance and to follow the example of Christ. What about the violence in Revelation? Sprinkle acknowledges the violent images of God’s judgment on the earth, but he doesn’t see individual Christians taking part. Instead they conquer through their faithfulness to Christ and ultimate martyrdom.

Q & A: After reviewing the biblical material Sprinkle takes on some specific questions: What about if an intruder enters your house? (A: Find some other way to save yourself and your family) Is it right to use violence to save someone else’s life? (A: Tentatively gives voice to the lesser-of-two-evils argument) What about Christian participation in the military or the police? (A: Only if you can serve in a way that doesn’t require you to kill another person)

Response:

There’s a lot I agree with in this book: God’s people should be peace-loving and work toward achieving the Edenic ideal of nonviolence. Christians should bear up patiently under persecution following the example of Christ. Christians should not be enamored with militarism or military might. Christians should pursue other ways to resolve conflict that more closely achieve ideals of enemy love.

There’s a few areas I found interesting, but will need to reserve judgment until further study can be accomplished: I wasn’t convinced by his interpretation of the Canaan conquest, or by his interpretation of Revelation.

Then, there was the 10% I disagreed with: Sprinkle argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence, or does he? He addresses a hypothetical question later in the book. Suppose someone is about to kill an innocent person. The only way to save the innocent person would be to kill the aggressor. Would it be permissible to kill the aggressor? Through gritted teeth Sprinkles says, “probably.” That’s because saving the innocent person is the lesser of two evils. Love for that person is a “higher” love than love for the aggressor and this allows for the action to save the innocent (and kill the aggressor). On this account I agree with Sprinkle. I just argue that doing so should not necessarily be called evil.

We live in a world marred by sin and violence. We have not yet reached the Edenic ideal. So, while we pursue it, we don’t fully live there yet. This is recognized throughout Scripture. And, throughout Scripture, God makes provisions for using violence to hold back evil. He does it through Israel in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the authority to use violence is shifted to the civil government. And it appears that it will be part of the final judgment. Violence, then, is not always evil. (Sprinkle doesn’t say that it is, only that it’s wrong for Christians to use it).

Of course, Jesus overcame evil through the cross, through non-violent action. Christians, following after Jesus, revoke vengeance and aim to love their neighbors. In this way, the Christian community embraces the Edenic ideal now even though we live in an age of not-yet. We’re the early adopters. I agree that non-violence should be a mark of the Christian community.

But what about Christians in the police and military? God has allowed for some use of violence to restrain evil through the civil government and the use of this force (if used justly) is good. If this action is good then Christians can engage in it. What would be wrong for a Christian to do as a private citizen, isn’t wrong for them to do as an agent of the State, because God has delegated to certain agents of the State a certain moral authority not available to others. Why has God done this? In order restrain evil in a violent and sinful world. Sprinkle sees this as inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. I do not.

So, while I agree with a lot of what Sprinkle argues for in this book, I’m not ready to fully embrace non-violence as a rule with no exceptions. The pattern throughout Scripture allows for some use of violence to restrain evil. We aim for the Edenic future and we live there as much as possible, but a love for justice and a love for our neighbor sometimes makes forceful restraint a necessary though unfortunate (but not necessarily evil) response.

I’m thankful to Sprinkle for a well constructed argument and for challenging me to live a more Christ-like life.

[1] Brian Zahnd is an example of a pastor who comes to a pacifist position through these two paths (at least, based on everything of his that I have read).

Book Recommendation
Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

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On the #NashvilleStatement

What is the Nashville Statement?
The Nashville Statement is a doctrinal statement produced and signed by a number of high profile evangelical leaders regarding marriage, sexuality, and gender. The statement has generated a fair amount of controversy and confusion. This is unsurprising, given that this is such a hot-button topic in our culture and the historic Christian perspective is considered backward and hateful by many. Still, there is nothing in it that is outside the bounds of what Christians have been saying for two thousand years.

Furthermore, while the statement was written by CBMW (“The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”), there is nothing particularly “complementarian” about the statement.[1] Biblical egalitarians, while disagreeing with complementarians on gender roles within the church, could still agree with this statement.

If it’s what Christians have agreed on for centuries, what’s the point in saying it now?

One of the primary objections has been that this doesn’t need to be said, and that in saying it, evangelicals are elevating one sin over another. “Do these Christians talk as much about racism or greed as they do about sexuality?” That might be a fair question, but it misses the point. I suspect this statement was made now because this question is up for debate in Christian circles. Many Christians are, in fact, abandoning a biblical understanding of creation and God’s purposes for marriage and sexuality. This statement weighs in on this debate and call Christians to commit to a side. No one disagrees that greed is wrong, so while it’s a major emphasis in the Bible, a statement on greed isn’t necessary. It might win you some points, but it doesn’t need to be said.[2]

What about Article X?

Most of the controversy among evangelicals who would otherwise agree with this message is surrounds Article X. This article states that approving of “homosexual immorality or transgenderism” constitutes “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” And, it denies that this issue is a “matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”

This statement has been interpreted differently by different people. Some have understood this to mean “you’re not saved if you disagree with us.” Others have interpreted it to mean that “this isn’t just an area where it’s OK to ‘agree to disagree’ and that diverging from the biblical witness on this point constitutes real damage to the faith.” If it means the former – where agreement on this issue is a pre-requisite to salvation – then I would disagree with this article. The things you must believe is very small. But I don’t think that was the intention of the statement. I believe that the statement is saying that this set of doctrines gets at the core of who we are as humans and who God is as our Creator, and that the biblical witness is clear on these issues. Therefore, disagreement here isn’t just something we can say is unimportant.[3]

Is the moral authority of this statement undermined by evangelical support for Donald Trump?

Exasperated sigh.

The charge of hypocrisy is simply a common part of debate these days. It’s impossible for anyone to say or do anything without the charge of hypocrisy. Frankly, I tend to tune most of it out. Unfortunately, for me this time it has a ring of truth. My great fear during the 2016 election was that by supporting such an obviously immoral man, evangelicals would hurt their witness and lose their moral authority to speak out on these kinds of issues. And, while the charge of hypocrisy would certainly come up regardless, in this case it sticks.

On the other hand, several of the signers were, in fact, some of Trump’s most vocal critics (e.g. Russell Moore). Also, just because someone is hypocritical, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. While the charge of hypocrisy does stick in some cases, it doesn’t necessarily undermine the argument. That’s the case here.

Of course, wherever there is hypocrisy, and whenever it is rightly pointed out to us, we should respond with repentance.

Is the statement hateful?

Finally, the most common argument against the Nashville Statement is that it is hateful. This is a serious charge for Christians to consider given that we’re called to be known for our love.

It is possible that the statement could have included some level of repentance and that may have helped. It is possible that it could have had a more pastoral tone. But, after reading it a few times, I have failed to find anything in it that is mean spirited or harsh. Finally, and sadly, I’m sure it will be the case that some will use the Nashville Statement as a weapon against their neighbors, who they are called to love.

Yet, most people who find it hateful do so because of its content. If you take issue with its content, then you take issue with what Christianity (and other religions) have always believed. Many people do, of course, but there’s nothing especially different in this statement from what has been said throughout Christian history.

So, is Christian doctrine hateful? Space doesn’t allow me to fully and adequately address this question. But my short answer is that God is a loving God and that He gives us ethical commands for our good. His law is intended to lead toward human flourishing. Christians argue for biblical ethics and doctrine because we believe that it will lead to a more abundant and joyful life (though the path to abundant life inevitably leads through suffering). We are most free when we live within the created order, God knows the created order (because He created it), and following him leads ultimately to goodness, life, and freedom. Even if you disagree with this worldview, I hope that at least you will understand our motives.

[1] Article IV states “divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design” is a “complementarian” as it gets. While complentarians might disagree with what those differences are, they don’t disagree that there are differences. Furthermore, it’s clear from the statement (Article V) that these differences are in regard to sexuality and gender.

[2] A fair objection might be that while this needs to be said it should be done within the context of a church discussion, or at an ecclesial structure. What complicates this is that many churches do not have such a structure, or these structures are weak.

[3] For more on this, see Preston Sprinkle’s article “The Debate About Same-Sex Marriage is not a Secondary Issue” written before the #NashvilleStatement.

What is required for reconciliation?

Two Sundays ago my message on Ephesians 2:11-22 was about how Christ breaks down the walls of hostility between us and God, and between us and other people – seen most clearly in the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the Church – but with broader implications.

Our world is marked by hostility and hatred, by pride and division, and by false ideologies. The past couple of weeks have made that once again blatantly obvious. My Facebook feed has erupted with “hot takes,” and while I’m sure I could add a few of my own (regarding racism, the alt-right, violence in general, the danger of unhealthy backlash, etc.), and that they would have some value, I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t said before.

Instead, I want to look at the pre-requisites for reconciliation – for breaking down the “walls of hostility” in our world – in any and all circumstances. Here’s an uncomprehensive list:

Truth: I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read recently that I agreed with in spirit but which undermined their cause (and mine) by communicating in a misleading way. So much commentary that I read today plays fast and loose with the facts, overstates things, and leaves out important details. Rhetoric gets more “likes” than truth, but it only garners applause from those who already agree. If we’re going to commit ourselves to being peacemakers then we need to commit ourselves to speaking the truth, even when that truth doesn’t fit our narrative.

Seeking truth also means calling out sin. Reconciliation can’t happen until sin is exposed. Without that, reconciliation will be superficial.

Love: Our truth-seeking and truth-speaking should be done with love. Love means that we truly desire the best for others and then take action to secure that good. It’s not so hard to love people like us. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. And reconciliation is only needed when there are enemies involved.

Crossing boundaries: The sort of love needed for reconciliation, then, is not just brotherly love, but love across boundaries. Reconciliation won’t occur when people remain within their bubbles. If we only listen to and interact with people like us, we’ll feel justified in our opinions, but will only contribute to a more divided world. We need fewer people screaming at each other (though, there’s a place for public, peaceful, passionate advocacy) and more people who build bridges.

Humility: Pride is the enemy of bridge building. Pride is the mother of division. The second I place myself above my neighbor we are divided. I’m not arguing that everyone is the same, or that all sins are morally equivalent (President Trump’s morally equivalency argument was as sloppy as it was dangerous). But, we must admit that fundamentally we stand at the same level. If we can humble ourselves, we can begin to seek reconciliation. Until then, we’ll only seek to win.

Confession: The child of humility is confession. I confess my failure to speak the truth on many occasions. I confess my silence when I should have spoken, and my speech when I should have remained silent. I confess that I talk more about love than I act on it. I confess that I have failed to cross boundaries and find plenty of comfort remaining in my own insular community. I confess that even as I write this I am struggling with pride.

If we are to speak the truth about sin, we better speak the truth about our own sin. Speaking the truth about your own sin is called confession. And almost all of us have something to confess.

Justice: But sometimes it’s more black and white. Sometimes there’s the oppressor and the oppressed. In that case, we need more than love, humility, and confession, we need justice. Wrongs cannot be overlooked, they need to be set right. To the extent that there are injustices, those injustices cannot be left to continue, but should be exposed (truth) and dismantled (justice). Continuing injustice will only create more occasions for division and hatred. Again, peacemaking without justice leads to superficial reconciliation.

Mercy: And yet, a level of mercy is required. Why? First, because we all sin. If we fail to show mercy to others, we shouldn’t expect it to come back to us when we need it most. Second, because in our quest for justice we often overstep our bounds into the realm of vengeance. We need an attitude of mercy to temper the devils within us that make the backlash worse than the original offense. We’re tempted to return a slap with a punch. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. We’re tempted to return injustice with further injustice. Jesus tells us to go the second mile.

Jesus and Reconciliation:

All these ideas come together in Jesus. Jesus not only spoke the truth. He is the truth. He called out sin like no other, and his death on the cross exposes just how evil mankind can be. Yet Jesus loved the world so much so that he died for the world. He didn’t just tell us to love his enemies, he died for us while we were his enemies. His love crossed boundaries – the greatest boundary of all, that of Creator to created. His ministry crossed boundaries – between Jew and Samaritan, between men and women, between the “clean” and the “unclean.” He was humble, even though he didn’t need to be. He was God incarnate, yet washed his disciples’ feet. His death enabled both justice and mercy to be met in a single event. In it God could be just – since sin was atoned for – and he could show mercy by justifying many – since the penalty of their sin was removed.

The only one that doesn’t apply is confession. He had no sin to confess, yet took on the sins of the world. Yet his love leads us to confession since it shows us just how far we fall short.

The Church and Reconciliation:

And we fall so short. The church is the reconciled community. As followers of Jesus we are well positioned to lead the way in truth, love, boundary-crossing, humility, confession, justice, and mercy. But too often we (I) take a back seat. I wish I could make this last paragraph more positive. I’m not sure I can.

I would be nearly hopeless, if it weren’t for a few facts: 1) The Church has always been flawed, yet we are redeemed, and God continually works in his people for renewal. He’s doing a work now, even if unseen. 2) God’s Word is true. He has given us a task, and will be faithful to complete that task in us. 3) Our hope extends beyond this world and this age. It is this future which pulls us forward. We pray together: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. God is faithful to answer that prayer. And we must be faithful to His call to be a reconciled community which proclaims and demonstrates his reconciliation before the watching world.

How does C.S. Lewis’s moral argument stand up against evolutionary explanations of moral development?

My online book club (The Bookcaneers) is reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis as our first book. In the first part of the book Lewis presents the Moral Argument as a clue to the existence of God. Briefly stated, his argument is that the universality of a moral sense of Right and Wrong points us to a Lawgiver.

One question presented in the Book Club discussion was this one: How would Lewis respond to modern the arguments from evolutionary biology that say that our moral senses are the result of an evolutionary process – and thus do not point to something “outside” the system, like a personal God? 

Here was my take on the question:

First, our questions are not unique to our time, nor were they foreign to Lewis. During Lewis’s time, the idea that morality was the result of an evolutionary process was pretty common. In fact, he addresses this when he describes the “herd instinct” in book 1, chapter 2. The idea was that evolutionary development which helped the “herd” would be passed on and these evolutionary developments are what are identified as “morality.”

For a time, though, this idea fell out of favor among evolutionary biologists because of what is called the “free rider” problem. “Free riders” in the herd (the selfish, amoral ones) would take advantage of the goodwill of the herd it it would be those free riders that passed on their genes, not the “kinder” individuals. For biologists who argued that evolution was strictly individualistic, “morality” doesn’t arise because of an evolutionary process, but as result of social structures within society. As far as I am aware (via The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt) a significant number of evolutionary biologists, including atheist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), still hold to this view.

However, with the advent of “moral psychology” the “herd” theory is making comeback, and Jonathan Haidt presents a more complex version of this view in The Righteous Mind. He refers to it as the “hive” mind and contrasts it with the “primate” mind. The “hive” mind causes us to be more kind and compassionate, to care about fairness and freedom, to believe in the “sanctity” of things, etc. This “hive” mind wars against the “primate” mind which just wants us to be selfish.

First, I’m unconvinced by Haidt’s conclusions. He presents plausible explanations, but he in no way proves them. And he acknowledges that his view is a minority position.

But how would Lewis respond? Lewis acknowledges the possibility of “herd instincts” which arise out of some natural process, but he argues that these instincts are not what he is referring to when he talks about the Moral Law. He observes that we sometimes have multiple competing moral instincts, but that we do not blindly follow those moral instincts. Instead, we judge between those instincts. The Moral Law is not any one of those instincts, but is the judge between those instincts saying, “follow this instinct here” or “that instinct there.” In the language of Haidt, the Moral Law is what judges between the “hive” mind and the “primate” mind, or between the different “intuitions” of the hive mind (freedom, compassion, authority, sanctity, etc.)

In fact, this is exactly what we see Haidt do. He makes moral judgments between the instincts, but he isn’t able to justify his choice. He believes the moral sense to be disconnected from any true Right and Wrong, but he makes plenty of moral judgments. I see the Moral Law at work in his book, even though he would deny it. A description of our moral instincts can provide a plausible explanation for what is, but the Moral Law allows us to judge what ought, and this inescapable sense of the ought is what Lewis refers to as the Moral Law and points us to God.

Two more notes on the topic:

1) If we see Moral Law as only social convention, or the product of instinct, then at a minimum we have no way to really say that Nazi Germany was evil, at least in some objective sense. At a minimum, we could only say that we don’t like it, or that it causes suffering. But again, we can’t say that suffering itself is evil (for the simple reason that evil doesn’t exist).

2) Eminent biologist/geneticist Francis Collins (led the human genome project) discusses this in his book “The Language of God”. He himself was an atheist who came to faith in large part because of Mere Christianity. He argues that while evolution could account for some moral traits like “reciprocal altruism” (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) he doesn’t believe it can ever account for true altruism – such as Jesus’s commands to love your enemy, or to help those who have no possible way of helping you in return, etc.

Book Recommendations

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Mere Christianity

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

Walls, and how we try to overcome them

Separate, Excluded, Foreigners, Far away, Hostility

These are all words Paul uses to described a “dividing wall of hostility.” In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul is metaphorically describing the spiritual barrier which exists, first, between God and mankind, and second, between Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s aim is to demonstrate that now both Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled to God through the cross – apart from the law – and are subsequently reconciled to one another as they form one new humanity, body, building, temple, and household.

wall of separation

Sermon illustration representing the “wall of hostility” in Ephesians 2.

But even beyond the interesting, though now far removed controversy within the early church, Ephesians 2 tells a much broader story about how we can be reconciled to God and to one another.

Our age – like every prior age – is marked by separation and conflict, by walls of hostility. They exist between nations, social groups, and individuals. They exist in every institution: at work, in churches, in families, in governments and the like. The wall of separation goes by other names such as loneliness, alienation, or exclusion. The wall of conflict and hostility comes in many forms: division, slander, verbal and physical abuse, and malice.

Because these problems are so pervasive and damaging, different cultures have

sought to deal with them in different ways. I see three major ways in which our culture has tried to overcome these walls, with limited success.

Tolerance: One way to overcome some of the walls of hostility is through tolerance, or overlooking differences and offenses which might otherwise be a cause of conflict. Tolerance in many circumstances is a virtue. It is necessary for most interpersonal interactions. But some differences are too major to simply be “tolerated” and must instead be “resolved” in some other way. If you believe that there are systems of police brutality, those systems need to be overcome through justice, not tolerated. If you believe that your close friend’s course of life will lead to her destruction, you might need to bravely move beyond tolerance and into love, seeking what is best for her, even though your response may sound intolerant. In other words, while tolerance is appropriate in many circumstances, it needs to be practiced only within the broader virtues of love and justice.

Diversity: Another key concept in our pluralistic society is “diversity.” Diversity seeks to overcome hostility and separation by celebrating differences and intentionally bringing unlike people together. Again, I applaud many efforts at increasing diversity. Understood with a theological lens it means recognizing the image of God in each person, along with the differences in their creation and histories, their unique and edifying gifts and perspectives. Christianity is the most diverse… anything in the world. Heaven is a picture of diversity. But diversity is not a solution which solves all problems. For instance, it only deals in cases where external differences are obvious. But, even when all external differences are gone, when we’re dealing with a completely homogenous group, we still have a remarkable capacity for violence, division, isolation, and exclusion. Second, diversity by itself assumes amoral categories such as nationality, language, or recipes. But moral categories – or more specifically moral transgressions – such as lying, theft, and hatred, lie outside the bounds of diversity alone.

Radical Individualism: A third way to cope with the divisions amongst people is through a radical individualism. Essentially, I mean the response “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, I will be true to myself.” There are two important truths in this response we shouldn’t ignore. The first is that it is certainly possible to find all of our worth in other people’s opinions of ourselves. This is a reaction against that mindset. Second, each of us must “plot our own course” as it were, to live as individuals, and part of that means a certain integrity of self (though my definition of “true to yourself” is different from its common usage). However, while this attitude might make us care less about the wall of hostility, it doesn’t do anything to remove it, simply for the fact that it ignores the reality that we are social creatures who carry social responsibility. To say, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks” is to proclaim a lie – or to be a sociopath. We’re social creatures who simple must give attention to others. To say only, “I must be true to myself” is to risk ignoring the social responsibilities we all have. Sometimes those social responsibilities require me to say “no” to myself for the sake of others.

Each of these attempts at removing walls of hostility and separation – at least on the interpersonal level – can have a role to play. Many small offenses or differences can and should be tolerated. Diversity can be a cause for celebration and can overcome some hostility between differing groups. Personal integrity and caring less about what other people think can help us feel the pain of those walls less acutely. However, none on their own, or even those three together, can ever really bring about the lasting peace or wholeness we long for.

That’s because the root of this wall is a moral failure. And at the root of moral failure is a failure of our relationship with God. What must be dealt with first, then, is the wall of hostility – conflict and separation – which exists between us and God. Once the roots have been weakened, only then will we begin to see the branches start to fall off.

That leads us back, finally, to Ephesians 2:11-22, with Paul’s description of the wall of hostility, and his proclamation that it is dealt with in Christ on the cross. And, that, is the topic of my sermon tomorrow morning.

Are Christian Ethics Conservative or Progressive?

Coming to Terms:

First, I better clarify what I mean by “conservative” and “progressive.” I’m not referring to any specific set of policies as held by Republicans or Democrats, or even to politics in general. Instead, I’m referring to a view of ethics as it relates to history. When I ask if Christian ethics is “conservative” I’m asking if it primarily looks to the past, looking either to maintain or go back to an earlier ethic? When I ask if it is “progressive” I am asking whether it looks to the future, looking for a progression in ethics to some ideal state.

The Case for Conservatism

Most people tend to associate Christian ethics with conservatism, and there’s good reason why. The first leg of a conservative ethics is the doctrine of Creation. When God made the world, he made it in an ideal state. There was no human sin or suffering. We lived in a perfect relationship with one another and with God. A conservative ethic aims to help us understand what life was like before sin entered the world and then act accordingly.

The second leg of conservatism is revealed law. God has clearly revealed aspects of his moral will and he cannot lie. Therefore, we are not permitted to add novelty to these commands. We cannot “progress” pass prohibitions against murder or adultery or lying or theft. The laws were there from the beginning and they are bound up in the unchanging character of God. These immutable moral laws are thus worth “conserving.”

A conservative ethic is based on Creation, and assumes that God’s moral law helps us live rightly within that created order, or restrain sin so that less damage is done to it.

The Case for Progressivism

Whereas a conservative ethic is based on Creation, you might say that a Christian progressive ethic is based on the future Kingdom of God. Yes, God created the world, but we’re not going to get back to Eden. Instead, we’re asking God to bring the Kingdom of God – some future reality – into the here and now. The aim of the Christian progressive ethic, then, is to imagine what this future reality will be, and then act accordingly.

In terms of moral law, a person more bent towards the progressive view of history would notice that there are shifts within the law given throughout Scripture. Much of the Old Testament law was not so immutable after all. The sacrificial system found fulfillment in Christ (and being obsolete was done away with). Circumcision was replaced (either by baptism or faith, depending on your theological leanings). Dietary laws were likewise made null. Some laws seem to be given for a specific time and place, bound up either in the cultural context of the day, or in the theocratic nature of Israel. The question, then, is whether those progressions continue in light of the present and the future, and how much?

Some problems for both conservatives and progressives

Both strict conservatives and progressives as described here face some major challenges. Conservatives look back to creation, but outside of a few chapters in Genesis, that idyllic state is lost to us. The fact is that we live in a world sin, and even our own moral perceptions are marred by sin. Often conservatives choose some later development – perhaps ancient Israel, perhaps the early church, perhaps an earlier time in American history – as the point to which we should return. But the problem with this is obvious. Sin has been a constant force throughout history. There is no “ideal time” to which we could return. The only real historical developments are the way in which sin changes form. In terms of the written code, strict conservatives face two challenges: First, it is not exhaustive, so we must always attempt to correctly apply broader principles to current events. Second, what should we do with the “progressions” we see throughout Scriptures listed above?

But strict progressives face a similar problem. Less is known about the future than the past. Ideals of the Kingdom of God can only be perceived in its relation to Creation and the sin that has marred it. Furthermore, once allowing for a progression within the moral law (or within the written code), are we then left with moral chaos? If the past systems can always be overthrown, who is to say whether overthrowing it is a good or a bad idea? If you think a certain moral revolution is in order, on what basis is it good? If it’s based on some prior principle, haven’t you reverted to a conservative mindset after all?

Resurrection and Moral Order

resurrection and moral orderOliver O’Donovan’s thesis in Resurrection and Moral Order is that Christian ethics depends on the resurrection as the event which brings these two trains of thought together:

“In the resurrection of Christ creation is restored and the kingdom of God dawns. Ethics which starts from this point may sometimes emphasize the newness, sometimes the primitiveness of the order that is here affirmed. But it will not be tempted to overthrow or deny either in the name of the other.”

Again:

“From the resurrection, we look not only back to the created order which is vindicated, but forwards to out eschatological participation in that order.”

As O’Donovan sees it, the resurrection is God’s affirmation, or vindication of the created order. The created order is the reality with which all people need to reckon. In the resurrection God makes it clear that he is not abolishing this created order, but is affirming it. But in the resurrection God is nevertheless doing a radically “new” thing, a true novelty. Furthermore, in Christ’s resurrection we, through the Spirit, can look forward to our resurrection. Indeed, we participate in that resurrection now through faith, having been raised with Christ in a spiritual sense. The resurrection allows us to look backwards to creation, and forwards to new creation.

“The resurrection is God’s affirmation and vindication of the created order” –Click to Tweet

But the forward-looking aspect is not an overthrow of the past. The created order is not abolished, not are the laws of Israel or anything within the written code, but is fulfilled. They are not contradicted, but set within their proper context – both historical and theological. God does not “go back” on his previous word, but his word is clarified in light of the present and anticipated fulfillment in the future.

Because there is an unbroken relationship between creation and the kingdom of God, we see each other more clearly. We can understand creation more clearly because we see in Jesus the first fruits of the new creation. And we can see the future kingdom of God more clearly because we understand that what we are looking for is not demolition, but a redemption.

The test case of marriage

Helpfully, O’Donovan applies this concept to the concrete topic of marriage. A conservative ethic looks back towards Adam and Even in the garden as its template for marriage. But a progressive might point to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Does this mean that marriage can be radically altered beyond the creation mandate? Can we progress “beyond” marriage as understood in the first chapters of Genesis? O’Donovan understood it in this way:

“Humanity in the presence of God will know community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage. To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation. But the coexistence of the two within the Christian church did not mean the loss of integrity of either. Each had to function as what it was, according to its own proper structure. The married must live as married, the single as single. Neither would accommodate itself or evoke in the other an evolutionary mutation. Marriage that was not marriage could not witness to the goodness of the created order, singleness that was not singleness could tell us nothing of the fulfillment for which it was destined.”

In other words, in a Christian ethic based on the resurrection, marriage is affirmed as marriage, affirming the created order, and singleness is affirmed as singleness, pointing to a future transformation in the kingdom of God.

Book Recommendation:

Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics

Six observations from my silent retreat

slow down

I spent Thursday morning through Friday morning at The Hermitage, a retreat center just north of Three Rivers, MI. My days are filled with constant inputs and I wanted step back and spend time devoted to silence and prayer. My head is filled with content, but I need the help of the Lord – and time – to process that content in a meaningful way. I had no major insights, but the time was refreshing, relaxing, and instructive. Here are six observations from my retreat:

  1. The rule of the community is silence. I found it refreshing and relaxing. It provided a distraction free environment for me to quietly reflect and pray. However, meal times were hard. I have a hard time imagining a meal without conversation. I wanted to learn the stories of those who sat around the table with me, and I wanted to share mine. I love to leave space for silence, but a meal is made for conversation. I did love the way the director opened the meals: “Food is God’s love made edible.”
  2. I might have been the recipient of a minor miracle. I took a few hikes along the grounds. Foolishly, I really didn’t think about ticks. As I was walking through a field I had the sudden thought to check for ticks. I immediately looked down and there was a tick crawling up my bare leg. It had not bit down so I quickly brushed it off, none the worse. It’s possible I felt something or that something else triggered in my mind, but there had been lots of other bugs around me, so that seems unlikely. I’m inclined to interpret this event as God’s protection.
  3. I was deeply affected by Ephesians 2:10, particularly the idea that God has prepared good works in advance for us to do. It filled me with the anticipation that God has already gone ahead of me and prepared good works for me. This means that I can look for those opportunities and then act in obedience to God.
  4. Choice is not always freeing. As I reflected on possible futures, I discovered that I would gladly accept them if I were, by circumstances, thrust into them. But when I “get” to choose between possibilities, I feel paralyzed, or I feel like I’m being presumptuous. I’m not quite sure what to do with this realization yet.
  5. I spent time imagining “envisioning” a desired future – What would our church look like if it were thriving (more than it already is)? What would Sunday morning look like? What would a board meeting look like? What would it look like for members throughout the week? I tried hard not to just think in abstract, but to picture it with my mind’s eye. I found this to be a fruitful practice.
  6. Regardless of where the future leads, I need to continue to work on my inner life. That means a more robust prayer life marked by praise and confession. By God’s grace I have seen a resurgence in this area over the past month or so. And, while I’m now even more aware of the ways in which I am broken, inadequate, and guilty, I can also see steady improvement and growth.

Thank you all for prayed for me on this short retreat, especially to my wife Marj. I’m glad to be home.