Bible, Church, Theology

The Pleroma of the Son

Introduction

Sin unleashed nothingness into the world. The Edenic world was brim-filled and overflowing with the goodness, righteousness, and joy of God actuated by creation’s mediator, God’s only Son. The creation account speaks of “filling” the earth and its “abundance.” God-ness drenched everything (though, of course, not in a pantheistic sense). Sin introduced cosmic rebellion. One rarely recognized blight of this rebellion is nihilism: life is meaningless because the universe is meaningless. “The demonic is essentially meaninglessness,”[1] and when Satan offered Eve the knowledge of good and evil, he was promising the contra-creational ability to create her own meaning. To create one’s own meaning presupposes an absence of meaning. “Eve, you can get behind God’s universe of meaning to a void in which you can create your own conceptual universe.” To be as god is to drain (in one’s own mind) God’s meaning-full universe to fill it with your own.

A fascinating NT word is pleroma, usually translated “fullness.” Its meaning is actually hard to reduce to one word. It denotes abundance, leaving no unoccupied space (as in a ship). There is no available room to compete with that which fills it. Pleroma is a pivotal biblical word that describes the person and work of the Son.

The Pleroma of the Trinity

The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 2:9, “For in Him [Jesus Christ] dwells all the pleroma of the Godhead bodily.” This is an extraordinary claim. The entire fullness (pleroma) of Father, Son, and Spirit indwells the incarnate Son. This is not some sort of Christic Unitarianism, that God is only one person whose name is Jesus. God is one being in three persons. No, it means all that the Father and Spirit are is revealed in Jesus Christ. When you see his agony on the Cross, his fulmination against the Pharisees, his forgiveness of an adulterous woman, his joy, his weariness, his anger — you’re seeing also the Father and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is full of the Trinity.

Some Christians seem to have the idea that there is one God, and that Father, Son and Spirit are the three “parts” or expression of that one God. But that’s heresy. One reason we know this from the Bible is that all three fully dwell in the very body of the Son. Everything we need to know about God we could know by knowing Jesus Christ, which also means people could know much more about God after his Son’s incarnation. The Father and Spirit are equally persons, and equally God, but Jesus also bears them in his very body, since he is “the express image of His [God’s] person” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is stamped everywhere as God, even — perhaps especially — in his humanity. Jesus images God to man and to the rest of creation.

This means that being right with Jesus is being right with God — and that being wrong with Jesus is being wrong with God. Muslims and Hindus and orthodox ( = heterodox) Jews don’t love and serve the true God because the true God is in Jesus alone. It means we can’t “get behind” Jesus to get to the true God. “There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ”:[2] “He who has seen Me [Jesus] has seen the Father” (John 14:9). It means that to seek after God with all our heart is to seek after Jesus.

Jesus is the pleroma of God.

The Pleroma of the Church

But not just the pleroma of God. The church is the community of the redeemed, called out of the sinful world to be God’s peculiar treasure. But the church is more. As the body of Christ, it is the earthly receptacle of his pleroma, his fulness:

And He [the Father] put all things under His [Jesus’] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the pleroma of Him who fills (pleroo) all in all. (Ephesians 1:22–23)

Christ saturates his church, both in its Sunday liturgical cultic[3] expression as well as its weekday non-liturgical kingdom expression.[4] By all outward appearance, the church is often feeble, sinful, failing. In its Lord’s Day celebration, it looks much like any other gathering of people dedicated to some specific purpose. In its weekday kingdom life, it might look like just another “special interest group.” But appearances deceive. The church is not a merely human community. It’s equally a divine community. The church is the fulness of Jesus Christ. The post-ascension church, by the Spirit, is the presence of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17a).

What in this world is God doing? He’s extending his kingdom in his Son Jesus Christ. But the church is the pleroma of the Son. Our Lord doesn’t fill just our individual bodies. He fills a community, his church. And he fills his church in a way he doesn’t fill us as individuals. So, if you want to be filled by Jesus Christ, you can’t experience this filling all by yourself. You need the corporate fulness of the people of God. The church is full of Jesus. 

The Pleroma of the Cosmos

But Jesus’ fulness isn’t limited to the church.  Paul declares in Colossians 1:15–19 that the pleroma of the universe, all things created, both in the church and beyond the church, is Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus Christ pervades the universe. This didn’t start at his incarnation. It started at creation. This is why Paul writes in the same place that all things consist, or “hang together,” in him. The stars, the sun, the planets, gravity, the tides, cause and effect, morality  — all cosmic regularity is maintained by Jesus Christ. We sometimes talk about the sovereignty of God in his eternal decrees, but it’s even more relevant to talk about the pleroma of Jesus that is God’s sovereignty. Jesus is perpetually accomplishing God’s plan for the world.

For this reason, although we should be both heartbroken and angered by today’s sociopolitical chaos — Washington’s partisan bomb-lobbing, the LGBTQ++ genital mutilation agenda, and increasing talk of cultural civil war, we need not be anxious over any of it. This created order is sustained by Jesus Christ. Just as the earthly Jesus permitted storms on the lake in which his boat was rowing but rebuked the waves, so he won’t allow Satanic opposition to tip over into the destruction of creation.

This is God’s good world, which is to say, it’s Christ’s good world. He’s its pleroma. There’s no vacuum or recess or “white space.” He fills every inch of it.


[1] Allan D. Galloway, The Cosmic Christ (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 243.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, “The Atonement. The Singularity of Christ and the Finality of the Cross: The Atonement and the Moral Order,” Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 230.

[3] Organized, formal, public, corporate worship.

[4] Hendrik Hart, “The Institutional Church In Biblical Perspective,” International Reformed Bulletin, 49/50 [1972], 15–21.

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Bible

Recovering Regal Soteriology: Christ’s Kingship in Salvation and All of Life

Deeply entrenched ideas die hard, and this includes bad ideas, even (perhaps especially) bad ideas in Christian history. Examples abound, but one of the most prominent is the gradual shift from the cosmic soteriology (Jesus died and rose to redeem all creation) of the Bible to the individualized soteriology (Jesus died to save sinners) of the late patristic (early post-apostolic) church. In this way, it appropriated aspects of the Gnostic heresy that it formally condemned.

The Reformation recovered the biblical doctrine of grace alone in salvation, but it did not fully return to the Bible’s cosmic soteriology. It basically substituted accent on justification by faith alone for preoccupation with the sacraments as the means of salvation, but both sacraments and justification were interpreted in a highly individualized way.

Get the e-book here.

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Bible, Sanctification, Uncategorized

Some on Broken Pieces, by Salle J. Sandlin

Of the many hundreds of articles my late godly mother wrote, none has moved me as deeply as this one.

If you feel your life is an irreversible series of hardships and disasters, this article is for you.


“And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land.”Acts 27:44

It is possible for broken things in our lives to rescue us in the end.

Every time I read this story in the life of Paul the Apostle, as recounted by his companion and physician, Luke, the whole near-death experience comes alive in my imagination. I see it all: the storm and wind, the waves, the crumbling, fragmenting ship; I hear the cries of despair and anguish and the one, lone voice shouting, “Be of good cheer, for I believe God!” Luke says that miraculously all them reached land, by either swimming, hanging onto boards from the ship, or against all odds,” clutching only mere pieces of the ship. Can you imagine how terrifying that must have been? I can. A splintered piece of wood is not much to hang onto, but I would remind you again, they all reached land.

The Christian life has often been compared to a ship voyage in both song and verse. Paul talks about Christians who are “…tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine…” (Eph. 4:14). The great old gospel song, “Ship Ahoy” starts, “I was drifting away on life’s pitiless sea/And the angry waves threatened my ruin to be…” And I used to sing a rousing song of triumph by Ira Stanphill, that announced, “This old ship is tossing and turning/But I’m gonna make it through somehow.” It would seem to me, as in the story of Paul’s shipwreck, all reach that “heavenly shore” by the miracle of salvation through Jesus Christ, but some reach it clinging to broken pieces of their ship.

There are those who experience the ravages of broken health, so often the case in later life. At one time they were robust, vigorous, and untiring. Now they greet the nights with dread, and the mornings with foreboding. The normal winds and waves of life they handled quite well for so many years now seem unmanageable.

Others may suffer from a broken heart. Someone they loved was taken from them, either by distance or death. Or perhaps they were betrayed and cast aside by one in whom they placed great trust. The waves that sweep over them are filled with sadness and hurt; and they feel as bereft as Job, without family or friends.

Still others feel crushed with the aftermath of a broken reputation. They were sailing along in the breeze of praise and recognition, examples of usefulness and victory. Then came a gross “fall from grace.” Then the praise was turned to pity and the recognition to rejection, leaving only the sad epithet: “Their life is a shipwreck.”

Finally (and this is common after the last broken experience), there are those who suffer the agony of a broken faith, or a shipwrecked faith, as Paul refers to it in 1 Timothy 1:19. “What’s the use? Is any of it real? Once their faith was strong and their assurance complete, but now clouds of doubt sweep over their souls and minds. Disappointment in themselves and others has led to disappointment in God and mistrust in His love as well as His claims.

To all of these broken souls, I point us to our story, and the promise that they “escaped all safe to land.” God didn’t have to tell us that some reached there under better circumstances than others…but He did. I think He wanted those with broken health to know that God’s grace, mercy, and comfort of the Scriptures, would be enough to gently carry them the whole way home. He wanted saints with broken hearts to know they could cling to the Lover of their souls, who promised, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). And the baggage of a broken reputation can be thrown overboard in time, by repentance and forgiveness. Ask Rahab, Mary Magdalene, and Peter. Oh, and even broken faith can be revived and repaired! Don’t forget, Jesus referred to His own disciples at one point as “ye of little faith,” and even faith “as a grain of mustard seed” (Matt. 17;20) can move mountains!

There are those who seem to have a prosperous and sunny voyage all the way home, with few storms. But not many, I’ll wager. To the rest of us I say, those “broken pieces of the ship” in our lives are well able to buoy us all the way home to Glory.

Don’t lament them; latch onto them!

–Salle J Sandlin (1943-2017)

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Apostasy, Bible, Church, Culture, Theology

New Book — Defend the Faith: Christian Warfare for Our Time

The Christian life is a battle, and battles presuppose enemies. The chief enemy of Christians is Satan (and demonic spirits aligned with him [Eph. 6:12]), but a leading strategy in thwarting God’s earthly kingdom is his enlisting humans to assist him. This diabolical strategy started in Eden.

The Bible assumes that the true Faith will constantly be under attack in the sinful world and in the church. This doesn’t mean that we should invent enemies when there are none. There are enemies aplenty already.

Get the e-book here.

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Bible, Church, Eschatology

James White, Postmillennialist

Dr. James White is a Reformed Baptist theologian and apologist and founder and director of Alpha Omega Ministries who, formerly premillennial and amillennial, recently shifted his eschatology to postmillennialism. I decided to explore that shift a little more deeply with him.

PAS: James, what leading factors contributed to your move from amillennialism to postmillennialism?

JW: I should first make it clear that I have truly sought to avoid the eschatological debate realm for many years. I was raised dispensational pre-millennial, and I still have the books and charts to prove it. I remember so well when Thief in the Night came out, and we watched it at our church on New Year’s Eve before midnight. I am still freaked out by the sight of an unattended, running lawn mower.

Likewise, I remember clearly, sometime in my junior year in high school, around 1978 or so, using the glow from my cool Tritium digital watch to read the text from Matthew 24 to my friends in the dark at a lock-in at the mega Southern Baptist Church I was a member of, explaining the budding of the fig tree, how long a generation was, and how Israel had become a nation in 1948.  A few years later, as a dual Bible/Biology major in college (minor in Greek), I and some fellow Bible students plotted to buy Dr. Martin, our amillennial professor, a bunch of helium filled balloons and have them delivered to class with the note, “In case of rapture, hold on tight!”  We didn’t do it only because we were Bible college students and could not afford it.

But shortly thereafter I became convinced that the hermeneutical method I was using for my premillennial views was inconsistent, and hence I had to abandon that view.  However, not knowing about any other views to any depth, I became agnostic about the topic, calling myself a “panmillennialist,” as in, “it will all pan out in the end.”  I knew one had to have an eschatology proper, relating to judgment, the coming of Christ, resurrection, the final state, etc., but I had come to the conclusion that these debates produced far more heat than they did light, and I lost all interest.

Years after graduating from seminary I listened to a series of lectures from an amillennial lecturer on “this age and the age to come,” thought, “Hey, that makes sense, and is nice and simple,” and adopted the view.  I read a few more works on the topic, and adopted it mainly because I knew I could not speak and write on systematic theology while maintaining eschatological agnosticism.  But I still did not find the field compelling or interesting.  I had not yet seen how it is necessarily related to how one decides key issues about the church’s purpose and future.

When I moved to Apologia Church a few years ago I found myself more directly and openly surrounded by postmillennialists.  My fellow Pastor Jeff Durbin was preaching through Matthew, and hit Matthew 24 right as I became a member.  It was not long until I entered the eldership, and so the issue was more clearly a part of my thinking. I was asked to read Dr. Joseph Boot’s The Mission of God, as Apologia basically refers to it as a manifesto of sorts for the church. This led to further reading in other authors as well.

But the biggest factor was 2020, the year when it became clear that a global, purposeful movement headed straight into secular technocratic totalitarianism was on the fast march. The pandemic panic, combined with a CCP-style totalitarian mindset, was causing a rapid slide directly into a dark abyss, and I began thinking very seriously about what this meant to the faith, and, especially now as I have grandchildren, the oldest of which is heading into her teen years, how we can communicate the faith to the generations yet to come.

PAS: What specific biblical texts or theological constructions most contributed to your change?

JW: In my “coming out” sermon, I focused upon what had truly pressed me to take a stand on the topic.  Postmillennialism is a top-down theology.  It begins with over-arching themes that flow naturally and beautifully from Reformed theology. Instead of starting down at the bottom and trying to build up a system based upon interpreting symbols and apocryphal texts, postmillennialism starts with the over-arching purpose of God in Christ.  As I studied Psalm 110, Psalm 2, Isaiah 42, and saw how these texts are central to the Apostolic understanding of the church, time, and the future, I was forced to deal with the divine promise that Christ will triumph, not just in a spiritual sense, which all positions take as a given. The phrase in Psalm 110:2, “rule in the midst of Your enemies” struck me.  This is a command, an imperative, and it is not about ruling in heaven while Christ’s enemies hold full sway upon earth. Jesus did not say all authority in heaven alone had been given to Him.  And surely the promise of Psalm 2:8 must be fulfilled. Could Jesus fail to ask for the nations, and would the Father fail to sovereignly comply?  These, together with the key text in 1 Corinthians 15:20ff, came together to provide the over-arching intertextual themes and fulfillment that I had not found in any other understanding.

PAS: Has this shift altered your existential outlook on the church and society in any way?

JW: That shift was taking place due to my discussions with my fellow elders at Apologia, but certainly once I saw the incredible consistency of the biblical testimony at the highest level of the fulfillment of the purposes of the Father and the Son, seen prophetically in the Hebrew Scriptures and fulfilled in the New Testament, I could not avoid making my decision.

The postmillennialism I am espousing recognizes God is fulfilling His purposes in time, and that includes judging nations and empires.  There have been very dark times since the resurrection.  As one who has taught church history for decades, I well knew there was no simple, straight line of “improvement” in the world from the first century until now.  And as we face a possible period of deep and prolonged darkness, I now look at the situation not in an escapist mindset, but in an endurantist mindset. What if secularism with all its related falsehoods amounts to the greatest challenge to Christ’s lordship ever seen?  And what if it is His intention to destroy these falsehoods with such power that they will never again afflict the minds of the human family?  And what if that means allowing them to hold sway for decades, even centuries, so that their full depth of emptiness can be known for all time?  Will we give up our hope even in such situations?  We cannot, and I now have a context in which to remain faithfully joyous and hopeful even in the darkest situation, for the same one who promised His holy One would not see decay (and hence brought about the resurrection itself) likewise promised ultimate victory to the One who must reign until every enemy has been put under His feet.

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Bible, Church, Holy Spirit, Sanctification, Soteriology, Theology, Uncategorized

Our Promissory God

Several decades ago a Canadian schoolteacher Everett Storms read the Bible through 27 times specifically counting God’s promises. The number he came up with is 7,487. We might dis‐ pute that number, but of this there must be no doubt: you can find thousands of God’s promises in the Bible. If you read nothing but divine promises in the Bible, you would be occupied for a very long time. If you removed the promises from the Bible, you would no longer have a Bible.

Listen here.

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Bible, Church, Sanctification

The Diabolical Disappearance of Answered Prayer

In 2020, it’s difficult to imagine a Christian college president anywhere writing such a bold, faith-drenched book. Such simple, fearless faith poses an embarrassment to the minds of many modern well-educated Christians deeply vested in Enlightenment rationalism and soft-core Christian deism, which sees God as so transcendent and aloof as not to be actively, eagerly, and continuously involved in his creation. Since God has given us his word by which to order our lives, and since he’s in complete control of the world, why pray with persevering, expectant zeal that he will change the status quo?

Read the rest here.

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Bible, Holy Spirit, Sanctification, Soteriology, Theology

Pessimism Is Not a Strategy

“Hope is not a strategy” — this is an increasingly popular adage. It means that we can be hopeful all we want, but unless we have a plan and strategy in place to accomplish what we’re hoping for, that hope will likely be dashed.

This adage is a gleaming example of commonsensical, contra-biblical, worldly wisdom. According to the Bible, hope is in fact a strategy, one of the greatest strategies of all.

Read the rest of the article here.

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Bible

Easter Against the Gnostics

The-Order-of-the-Gnostics-Tshirt

The earliest heresy afflicting Christianity was Gnosticism. The followers of our Lord, committed to the Bible, believed that God created a good world but that man’s sin had corrupted it, and yet God sent his Son in human flesh to die on the Cross for man’s sins and rise again to redeem man and all creation. We celebrate these latter momentous events this Holy Week.

Gnosticism Yesterday

The Gnostics had an entirely different worldview.[1] They believed that the Evil God of the Old Testament (the Demiurge), the God of law and cruelty and capriciousness, was countered by the good God of the New Testament, the God who sent Jesus Christ to deliver a fallen humanity from the Evil God and his evil world. Obviously, the Jesus of the Gnostics was (and is) not the Jesus of the Bible and of the Christians, and the Fall recorded the Bible is not the Fall as interpreted by the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed that the Fall was from spirit and secret knowledge (“gnosis”) into matter and the material world. Salvation is by knowledge by means of which man escapes the material world. Jesus, therefore, only appeared to be human, and his sufferings on the Cross were not physical sufferings. Man’s real problem is creation, and his body, not sin. Jesus brought the secret knowledge of liberation from the enslaving created order. The specific knowledge by which man is delivered is the knowledge of the true, inner person: the Gnostics “believed that if they could look into the best side of themselves, they [could] discover the nature of God and of existence.”[2] The Gnostics were the world’s first champions of “authenticity.”[3] Therefore, Jesus came to lead people to salvation by showing them their true selves, which are obscured by creation and by the human body.

Unlike other heresies, Gnosticism was not about this particular false doctrine or that. It was an entirely alien worldview. In fighting Gnosticism, Irenaeus and other early church fathers were preserving the Christian worldview against a false interpretation of reality.[4] Had Gnosticism won, Western culture would have been radically different from what it has been. Christian culture would never have developed.

The Gnostic heresy is at root an Easter heresy. If humanity’s great problem is creation and the body, then the central tenet of the Christian Faith, our Lord’s resurrection, is a farce. If creation is inherently evil, it does not need to be redeemed; it needs to be rejected and transcended. This is precisely what Gnostics believed. Gnostics must constantly war on Easter, and Easter must constantly war on Gnosticism.

Gnosticism Today

Gnosticism is alive and well in today’s culture.[5] It is a chief plank of the Leftist ideology, which sees material reality as a barrier to autonomous human imagination: “Nothing actual can be authentic” was the sentiment of Marxist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre,[6] and Leftists’ inner dreams of the perfect world intentionally bypass God’s created reality to impose their inner “authenticity” on it. A chief example is the entitlement of offspring for a same-sex “marriage.” Creation itself must bow before the dictates of the Gnostic dream of equality. Same-sex unions are just as entitled to children as opposite-sex ( = natural, God-created) unions. Since nature ( = creation) does not afford this possibility, technology must engineer the fulfillment of the Gnostic dream. Michael Hanby writes:

[W]e must first understand that the sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding. Just as feminism has as its practical outworking, if not its theoretical core, the technological conquest of the female body — “biology is not destiny,” so the saying goes — so too same-sex marriage has as its condition of possibility the technological mastery of procreation, without which it would have remained permanently unimaginable.

Pop culture is rife with the Gnostic dream of overcoming creation. The current movie Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, is about a woman whose body was saved from a horrific terrorist attack and whose brain is inserted in a hyper-upgraded cybernetic body for the purpose of serving in an anti-terrorism squad. Humanity must be reengineered to effectively combat terrorism.

In the 2014 movie Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, a brilliant technologist died but his surviving consciousness is uploaded to a computer and eventually allowed to impact the world and even create a utopian society via the Internet. The human body is disposable and man transcends creation to recreate himself and humanity. This is the ancient Gnostic dream adapted to technological culture. Creational reality is the enemy of human freedom.

In addition, Gnosticism afflicts today’s church. Note this quote by openly gay United Church of Christ (Norman, Oklahoma) pastor Dwight Welch:

I used to say no, I didn’t believe in the resurrection. And I still don’t believe that the laws of biology can be suspended in our favor, that a dead body can be physically resuscitated. I don’t believe religious faith can be the suspension of our critical faculties nor a requirement to believe things we know aren’t so. That is credulity, a form of magic, not an expression of faith.

But my answer has changed now. Today I do believe in resurrection. It is a kind of resurrection that happens when there is a transformation of our lives such that our old self dies and a new self, a more authentic and real self emerges….

When I consider my own coming out story, when I hear the coming out stories of others, the process is a kind of resurrection, an affirmation of life, one that struggled to be born against the odds, against the death dealing ways of our communities and those still in the grips of fear and prejudice.

This apostate clergy denies that God can sovereignly overrule his natural laws to raise his Son and his people from the dead, but he embraces resurrection (redefined) as a dream of ethical reengineering: God cannot govern man’s biology, but man may transform his divinely given biology and fulfill his inner dreams of escape from God’s external ethical standards: “[The] old self [this is, the God-given self] dies and a new self, a more authentic and real self emerges….” In short, God’s creation imposes limitations, but these limitations render man “inauthentic.” To be his authentic, “real self,” man must transcend the God-imposed limitations. He then is resurrected as the New Man, the Authentic Man, on whom nature, creation and God have no claim. One reason that even conservative Christians have been impotent to combat this heresy is that they, like the Gnostics themselves, have tended to separate creation from redemption.

Easter Yesterday, Today, and Forever

In radical contrast, Easter glories in creation. Creation fell under God’s curse because of man’s sin, but creation is not inherently evil. It is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Our Lord died and rose to redeem not just man, but all of creation (Romans 8:33). Whatever sin polluted, Jesus Christ redeems. Creation is not and never has been a barrier to man’s salvation. It is the resplendent arena of man’s salvation.

Despite what many Christians, tinged with Gnosticism, seem to believe, Jesus did not die to save us from creation. He died to restore man and man’s body and all of the rest of creation to its proper, God-honoring status. The popular idea that Jesus died to “take us to heaven” is more Gnostic than biblical. It is true that those who’ve trusted in Jesus Christ will be forever with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17), but we will be forever with him on a resurrected earth, an Easter earth, we could say, as the heavens descend and the Triune God lives eternally with his people (Revelation 21:1–4). We do not die and “go up to heaven.” God comes down to Earth to dwell with man and his creation.[7]

All attempts to transcend or bypass creation constitute a war on the created order, a war on God himself. Creation is already inherently very good, and to attempt to transcend creation is to try to overthrow God. Gnostics, both ancient and contemporary, are not satisfied with God’s created order. They’re convinced that their inner imaginative dreams are superior to creation. But this is a self-frustrating notion. If anybody knows about “human flourishing,” it is God. Since he is man’s Creator, he knows precisely the conditions under which man flourishes. He created those conditions. Man is most full of joy and peace and hope, indeed, holy revelry, when he conforms to God’s creational purposes in the Bible. The redemptive work of Jesus Christ is designed incrementally to restore man to those purposes.

This Easter, in celebrating our Lord’s bodily resurrection, we are not celebrating that we will go to heaven when we die. We are celebrating, in Michael Reeves’ memorable phrase, “a pinchable reality.”[8] It is true that we will forever be with the Lord and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31–39). We are, however, celebrating the life-bestowing, creation-renewing, world-affirming redemption accomplished by the Father in the Son 2000 years ago just outside Jerusalem. We are celebrating the fact that God’s verdict over the Fall is No!, and his verdict over creation is Yes!

We’re celebrating at Easter that in creation and in human life and in the future, Satan does not get the last laugh. God gets the last laugh.


[1] Martin Seymour-Smith, Gnosticism, The Path of Inner Knowledge (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
[2] Ibid., 9.
[3] On the authenticity rage today, see Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 81–97.
[5] For an introduction, see Peter Jones, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992).
[6] Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 83.
[7] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 104–106.
[8] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 43.
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Bible, Culture, Uncategorized

The Cultural Tail Wags the Political Dog

The text of a talk delivered at the CCL East Coast Symposium on November 23, 2013 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie titled Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro and Willie Nelson. It’s about a president who invents a crisis in the Balkans in order to divert attention from a sexual scandal at home. It came out after President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinski scandal. Coincidence? You do the math.

I suggest it’s an equally apt metaphor for the relation between politics and culture in Western Constitutional democracies like ours. It’s a metaphor that’s not self-evident.

The reason for this is that for decades the West has (ironically) purchased stock in the Marxist idea that all of life is politics (“the personal is the political”). Marx borrowed and developed this idea from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau made an ingenious offer to 18th century Europeans: I’ll offer you a plan to liberate you from every social authority that you deplore — family, church, guild, caste — as long as you give me an authority strong enough to crush these other authorities. Of course, that all-crushing authority was the state. Marxism bought that premise. In the Soviet Union and China and Eastern Europe and elsewhere it enlisted the state as a crushing authority to equalize all incomes and living standards. Many Western intellectuals and elitists gleefully went along for the ride.

In time, long after the rest of the world knew of the political horrors of Marxism, Western elites turned against this politically totalitarian Marxism (“Why, the Soviet Union is just as totalitarian as the United States!”). But they didn’t abandon Marxism. In fact, they expanded it. They adopted what is called “cultural Marxism” or “libertarian Marxism.” That is, they asked the question, “If what we want is total control over everything, isn’t it better to adopt a bottom-up strategy, so that people willingly embrace our views, rather than try to impose them politically? Why do we need a totalitarian state, when we can have a totalitarian culture?” In short, they turned their attention toward capturing culture: schools and universities, the law and medical schools. the arts, TV and radio and Hollywood, the major foundations and newspapers, prominent web sites, and playwrights and novelists. They’ve been dramatically successful. Their goal has been radical egalitarianism: flattening all differences, not just in the economy, but in sex (feminism, de-masculinization, homosexuality), in the environment (radical naturalism and dehumanization), religion (everything is “spiritual”), even in living existence (abortion and euthanasia and trans-humanism). Western elites never saw a hierarchy they didn’t want to topple — as long as they had a state strong enough to guarantee they could topple it.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: At about the same time that Western elites were turning away from political totalitarianism to cultural totalitarianism (in the 70s), conservative Christians were discovering politics. They wanted to take their country back from the pro-communist, pro-secular, anti-family, anti-biblical forces. They took their strategic cue from Western elites: “Let’s capture politics so we can restore our Christian values.” They learned their lesson in the failure of this strategy long after their enemies did, and many haven’t learned it even yet.

Just as conservatives and Christians were winning political victories — the Reagan revolution, a Republican-controlled legislature, and even a slight majority (sometimes) on the U. S. Supreme Court — they were losing their culture to same-sex marriage, ubiquitous pornography, religious pluralism, intentionally childless marriages, the gradual erosion of marriage altogether, the trivialization of the church, legal nihilism, collectivist health care, and on and on. They’re just learning, if they’re learning at all, that you don’t win cultures just by winning at politics. Quite the reverse is true.

Conservative Christians are often resistant to this stubborn fact. For one thing, political victories are a lot easier — you just need to elect somebody every 2 or 4 or 6 years. Or you simply need to pressure enough representatives to vote for a piece of legislation. For another thing, political victories are a lot more spectacular — what’s more dramatic than standing on the rostrum in a crowded Ritz Carlton ballroom late one election evening with all the major TV and cable news networks shining the camera and bright lights after you’ve just had a concession call from your political opponent? Talk about dramatic.

But these victories are illusory. They’re certainly not long-lasting, as we’ve learned much to our chagrin. It’s only as we grasp that culture is the tail that wags the political dog that we can might begin to turn our political defeats around.

If you want to make a long-term political impact, therefore, let me make some very boring, but very momentous, suggestions: Stay married. Love your spouse. Start a family. Educate your children in the Faith. Park yourself in a Bible-believing church. Immerse your life in prayer. Teach your younger children Christian songs and Bible stories. Expose your older children to TV programs like Blue Bloods and Longmire and movies like Lord of the Rings and The Patriot and books like C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Use your personal blog and FaceBook to articulate or share thoughtful Christian truths. Support (or start) sound Christian businesses. In conversation with friends and relatives, expound the virtues of Christian culture in law, medicine, entertainment, technology, economics, business, music, education, and so on. Send money to organizations that foster Christian culture, like CCL, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Jennifer Lahl’s Center for Culture and Bio-Ethics. There is a distinct place for more “top-down” cultural influence, and CCL supports that place, but most Christians will have a more modest, yet no less significant, role.

In a society that prizes autonomy from the Triune God and his Word, these are all culturally revolutionary acts. They are the acts that will produce massive political victories over time.

Am I advising we abandon politics? By no means. If nothing else, we have a vested interest in electing politicians and enacting policies that impede the continued growth of the omnivorous state. More importantly, politics is an area of culture, and we must work to redeem all culture, including politics, for the Lord’s glory.

Meanwhile, we must never forget the importance of culture. The political dog is out front, menacing and barking, but the hidden cultural tail is making it all happen.

I close with these incisive and sobering words from British conservative Theodore Dalrymple in his book Our Culture, What’s Left of It:

I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as of incalculable practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, authors, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it

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