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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Church, Holy Spirit, Theology, Uncategorized

Prayer Changes Things, and Prayer Changed Me

A short autobiographical message on the power of prayer to change a life.

Listen here.


Also:

One striking difference between our Christian forebears and us is their repeated emphasis on prayer and our comparative de-emphasis of it. They prayed frequently and fervently. We pray infrequently and languidly. They called prayer meetings. We call staff meetings. They had revival and reformation. We have apathy and apostasy. A leading reason for these distinctions is that they were inclined to believe what God said about prayer. We are often less confident in God’s word when it comes to his promises about prayer. A blunter way to say this is: we commit the sin of unbelief. Prayer changes things. When we pray, we are asking God to change things. And when he answers our prayer, he does change things. This brings us to a most telling fact that we don’t often consider: if we are perfectly willing to accept the way things are as God’s unchangeable will, we will never be people of prayer.

Get the ebook here.


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Culture, politics, Theology

Cultural Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is an alleged mental malady in which one’s behavior is stamped by alternations of a period of euphoria, energy, and ecstasy, with a period of moroseness, withdrawal, and languidness. It is often treated by medications. Whether an actual clinical condition or not, all of us have known individuals suffering from what is termed bipolar disorder.

A. J. Conyers’ The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit[1] makes the intriguing suggestion that John Locke’s view of political and religious toleration that made such an impact on the modern West (not least on the United States) created a bipolar society that has led, despite his best intentions, to our present social disorder: a cultural bipolar disorder.

Two Poles: The State and the Individual

The two poles of society  are the individual and the state. This bipolar society was unprecedented before modernity. In most of the ancient and medieval worlds, society was comprised of individuals all committed to several interlocking and interdependent institutions, what we today term “civil society.” The most important were the family and church. Others included the guild and the local community. Individuals were also political citizens, of course, but the state was merely one institution among several, and in some ways the least important (though most coercive), since it was the only one that was artificially constructed.

The family, for example, was a given, a natural institution without which life was impossible. The church was a supernatural institution, created by the triune God as the indispensable public assembly of his blood-washed people. This means that individuals participated in numerous institutions concurrently, each of which fulfilled its own distinctive role and demanded its own loyalty of its members. Society was multi-polar, not bipolar.

Locke and others (including especially the French Romantic thinker Rousseau) believed that these pre-political institutions constituted a threat to social tolerance and stability since they demanded a devotion that conflicted with the devotion to other people’s families and churches. After all, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), fought largely between Roman Catholics and Protestants and in Great Britain also between High Churchmen and Puritans, had left its bloody carnage all over Europe.

Locke and other thinkers wanted to propose a society in which intensity of religious belief in particular was mitigated and the state was empowered to forbid religious persecution by remaining neutral in religion (an impossibility, since some religion, even if it be secularism, will prevail). This could happen only if the chief loyalty of individuals was reserved to the state. Individualism and politics would thereafter govern life. The state didn’t mind individual freedom as long it was expressed individualistically and did not vest too much devotion to the family and church.

Our Disordered Bipolar Culture

With hindsight we know  how socially pernicious this proposal has turned out to be. Almost every social factor of modern life conspires to dilute civil society and embolden the state, always under the guise of liberating the individual from the oppression of the family and church and other “private”[2] institutions.

Children are encouraged to circumvent parental love and authority and create a separate relation with the state, allowing girls to get abortion and both sexes to get vicious, violent “gender reassignment surgery” without parental approval.

Spouses can get a quick and easy “no-fault” divorce. Radical autonomy negates the marital covenant — what’s important is not “signatures on an old piece of paper” but my current desires and aspirations, which might not include my spouse. The state intervenes to collude in the elimination of the marital covenant. The state and the individual alone are the poles.

The church, in addition, is considered “non-essential” during draconian Covid lockdowns because the state insists on an unmediated relation to the health (or supposed health) of individuals. The church as an institution of safety and healing (including in some cases physical healing) simply doesn’t enter the bipolar cultural calculation.

At the heart of the bipolar society is “expressive individualism,” the widespread idea that The Good Life is about “following your heart,” getting plenty of “me time,” and “being authentic.” Before modernity, the good life was defined as knowing your place in God’s order and living there for his glory. Only those who did this could expect to be fulfilled, since the Creator alone knows how best to fulfill his image-bearing creatures.

We have lived to see, in Conyers’ words, “the long-term consequences of a society in which individuals come to think of themselves as free of every bond and every obligation except that of the state.”[3] A society plagued by divorce’s broken families, porn’s objectification of women, abortion’s slaughter of preborn children, homosexuality’s and transgenderism’s inversion of the sexual order, feminism’s purging the woman’s and man’s dignity, and Critical Race Theory’s inciting racism and racial strife exhibit the socially chaotic consequences of bipolar cultural disorder.

Conclusion

Rebuilding Christian culture demands restoring the multi-polar society. We must overturn statism, the notion that there is no social problem for which increased political control isn’t the best solution, that every social problem (poverty, drug addiction, uneducated youth, wealth disparities — or a viral epidemic) is really a political problem that just doesn’t know it yet. Christians in particular must implement and restore the pre-political society. The family and church must again meet most of the needs presently met (inadequately and oppressively) by the state.

For example, healthcare should be de-nationalized. Education should be returned to the family and church and “private” schools. There should be plenty of “social safety nets” — the net of the family and church and friends and neighbors, not the state. The reason those “private”-sector nets are so hole-filled today is that the bipolar cultural disorder resists all competitors; the state must marginalize any institution that competes for its loyalty. This hatred for civil society that so stamped Marxist regimes like the old Soviet Union is equally fierce in the benevolent social dictatorships like the United States.

But just as God exists in community (Trinity) so he created man to exist in community.

And that community dare not be limited to two poles: the state, and the individual.


[1] (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2001), 137–141. I’m grateful to my friend Dr. Roger Wagner for recommending this book several years ago.

[2] I place “private” in apologetic quotes to highlight the widespread semantic strategy of referring to politics as a “public” good and free markets as a “private” good, as though politics benefits everybody while the free market benefits only a few greedy people caring only for themselves. The opposite is more nearly true: free markets benefit everybody, while politics these days benefits the politically connected.

[3] A. J. Conyers, The Long Truce, 146.

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Church, Theology

Allegiant Baptism

Introduction

Few topics generate more theological debate with less  productivity than baptism. I observed recently a reignition on social media of the baptist-paedobaptist dispute; and as nearly always, it included unnecessary heat and very little light. I’ve been on both sides of that debate in my life, and I’ve rarely seen a different, more gracious and successful, conclusion. I’m convinced this issue won’t be solved entirely by appeal to specific biblical texts, because the theological and interpretive assumptions one brings to the texts will influence how he understands them. I’m not suggesting that extensive discussion of the baptist-paedobaptist disagreements is unwarranted, only that public debate might not be the best way to arrive at a defensible conclusion.

Allegiant Faith

But a crucial point on which all Christians should agree is that baptism is (among other things) a visible, public declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ. The reason this is necessary is simple: the Gospel necessitates allegiance to our Lord, and baptism is the initial public testimony to the reception of the Gospel. We speak of salvation by faith alone, but this is equivalent to salvation by allegiance alone, because faith at root is allegiance.[1] Faith in the Bible is a wholehearted, surrendering trust to Jesus Christ. It’s not identical to belief, when defined as intellectual assent. The devils believe and tremble (Jas. 2:19). A criterion for baptism is “[i]f you believe with all your heart” (Ac. 8:37) i.e., cast yourself on Jesus Christ in full submission.

We are baptized into the name of Jesus or the names of the members of the Trinity. This doesn’t require the administrator’s language “I baptize you in the name of….” Rather it means “under the authority of.” This is why in the great commission, baptism is identified as a chief step in discipling the nations. Similarly in Galatians 3:27 Paul writes:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

At baptism we are identified with Jesus Christ and his people and his kingdom. To be baptized into the Lord’s name is to be baptized into his/their authority. We swear allegiance.     

God takes the initiative in baptism just as he does in salvation. But also just as in salvation, man is not inert. Salvation by grace doesn’t mean salvation without obligation. When we trust Christ, we transfer allegiance to a new king (Col. 1:13), but at baptism, we swear this allegiance publicly. This is true whether one affirms infant baptism or adult baptism. The covenant representative pledges allegiance for the infant, and the adult pledges allegiance for himself.

Allegiant Ordeal

Another fact lends weight to this allegiance. Meredith Kline draws attention to 1 Peter 3:20–22, where Christian baptism is likened to the Noahic flood.[2] The floodwaters were the world’s judgment, which Noah and his family escaped only by God’s graceful provision. They went through the waters of divine judgment because they cast faith in ( = were allegiant to) God (Heb. 11:7). The waters of baptism signify not just cleansing, but cleansing by judgment. We are baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3). He bore God’s judgment for us. The condition for God’s deliverance, according to Hebrews, was faith, an act of allegiance.

Baptism, therefore, implies an oath of allegiance, and often it is required of the convert at its administration, such as: “Have you trusted Christ, and do you purpose to follow him all the days of your life?” That this latter provision is heard less and less at today’s baptisms shows the increasing antinomianism (anti-allegiance) of our churches.

Allegiant Visibility

Christians who deny baptismal regeneration (the idea that water baptism spiritually regenerates) wonder at those numerous biblical texts like Acts 22:16 (“Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord’”) that tie baptism inextricably to cleansing from sin. While other texts are incompatible with baptismal regeneration (notably those that make repentance a condition for baptism), a principal truth to grasp is that baptism is the visible component of invisible regeneration. That’s the intimate connection.

Paul writes in Romans 6:4 —

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

We might have thought that Paul would mention justification, or adoption, or regeneration as the path by which we’re raised to walk in obedience, but his accent is on visibility. Just as Christ was raised from the dead visibly from a tomb, so we are raised from sin visibly at our baptism.

Many of us have baptismal certificates. None of us has a born-again certificate. This isn’t because baptism is more important than the new birth, but because baptism is a datable, documentable, visible reality to which one (and others) can point. Allegiance to Jesus Christ begins in the heart but never ends there.

The postmodern world is high on inflamed hearts and low on sustained obedience. This is a fruit of 19th century Romanticism, which for the first time in human history replaced objective standards with subjective intentions as the criteria for valid choices[3] (“Darling, I don’t agree with the terrorists, but at least I can admire their well-intentioned hearts”). Christian baptism is an inherent repudiation of any attempt to reduce the Faith to our hearts. Baptism says, “I am now a child of the King, a follower of the Lamb, and you may judge my profession by my visible adherence to the King and Lamb’s Word.”

Conclusion

A leading reason for the futility of today’s church is its severance of allegiance from the Gospel. Christ died, it is thought, to take away our sins and give us hope and assure our eternal bliss with him. Correspondingly baptism is treated as a celebration of a saved sinner or a new church member. It is these, for sure.

But the meaning of baptism is at once more glorious and more severe. Glorious, because it signals a lifelong covenant devotion to Jesus Christ as risen Lord, and severe, because it’s a self-maledictory oath calling down new covenant curses if we turn our back on him (Heb. 10:29).

As a covenant, baptism is bilateral. God has a part, and we have a part. God’s part in the covenant is always more important and always comes first. At baptism he visibly pledges his love and care and protection, the blanketing blessings of his Lordship.

In response, we pledge our faith and fidelity (allegiance), acknowledging the never-ending claims of his Lordship. He tattoos us with his loving mark of ownership, and we bear that mark our entire lives.

Christianity is a serious faith that demands serious allegiance. Baptism is the vestibular, visible testimony to that allegiance.



[1] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 77–100.

[2] Meredith G. Kline, “Oath and Ordeal Signs (Second Article),” Westminster Theological Journal 28, 1965–1966, 3.

[3] Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).

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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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Theology

Brian G. Mattson on Classical Theism, Critical Race Theory, and N. T. Wright

Brian G. Mattson is a public theologian, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership as well as Adjunct Professor of Systematic and Public Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, has written several books, and lectures on theology and culture.

CCL: One of the hot theological topics the last few years among conservatives has been over the traditional attributes of God. All conservatives are classical theists in the broad sense, but some are convinced that a few attributes need “tweaked” to bring them more into like with the Bible’s picture of God. Example: “hard impassibility” (God’s creatures cannot affect him) or “soft impassibility” (man can affect God but not overthrew his will). What’s your general impression of this debate?

BGM: My impression is that this debate always exists; it may subside for a time, but then flares up with varying degrees of urgency. Talking about how an infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God (as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it) interfaces and interacts with a finite, temporal, and changeable world is bound to be a mysterious subject matter, in the very nature of the case. How can God be and act in space, time, and change without this being at the expense of his very nature?

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the concerns of the “hard” classical theists, as you describe them. Many modern attempts at expressing the God/world relation have sacrificed God’s transcendent Lordship in the interests of a more “involved” and/or “relational” Deity. I have in mind the basically pantheistic (or panentheistic) approaches of process theology, Open Theism, the Emergent movement, etc., which essentially deny that God is a se, “of himself,” having “a life and existence of his own” (Bavinck). God needs his creation in order to be God!

But pantheism is not the only danger. We must be careful that, stepping back from the pit of pantheism, we don’t stumble backward into the ditch of Deism, in which God is so transcendent and removed from the finite and temporal world that he is entirely “above it all.” I worry that some recent advocates of the classical view are veering into this territory when, for example, they understand “anthropomorphism”—God’s appearing to act in “human” ways (e.g., angered, grieved, relented, repented, etc.)—to mean mere appearance. It only looks like God was angry one moment and merciful the next. In fact, what happens in history—say, a sinner repenting—doesn’t affect God in any way at all! This strikes me as losing altogether the relationship between God and the world, in an (over)reaction to blurring the distinction between them. This is the Epicurean answer to the Stoics, and I fear that if it is carried out consistently to its logical conclusion we will lose much else of greatest importance. Who, exactly, suffered and died on the cross? To attempt an answer to that question is to realize that this stuff really does matter.

The Christian answer must be to get our understanding of what “transcendence” means and what “immanence” means from the Bible, not principles of pagan philosophy. It is paganism that constantly vacillates between a pseudo-transcendence or a pseudo-immanence, Deism or pantheism, Parmenides or Heraclitus, Epicureans or the Stoics. We ought to submit to how the Bible describes God’s transcendent Lordship of space and time and how he can—precisely because of that sovereignty—engage fully in his own story without sacrificing that Lordship. That is, it seems to me, the very uniqueness of the Christian message, over against all other philosophies and religions that vacillate on these very questions. The Word who was in the beginning, and who was with God, and who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us. And it is real.

CCL: Another big topic is whether the church can incorporate helpful aspects of Critical Race Theory without buying into its atheistic presuppositions. Your thoughts?

BMG: My thoughts begin with despair that this topic can be addressed with any light instead of heat. I am only barely kidding. Tim Keller wrote 40+ thousand thoughtful, nuanced, and often brilliant words on the topic and was instantly shuffled into whatever preconceived box people had already prepared for him—even when he didn’t belong in any of the boxes. So I’m not exactly hopeful that I can say anything helpful.

From the earliest centuries the Christian church has recognized that even pagans have great and beneficial insights, and the contemporary challenge with CRT is just our latest opportunity to wrestle again with that fact. How can an atheistic philosophy like Marxism (which is, in fact, the seedbed of CRT) have anything useful to teach Christians? There are a limited number of answers to this question.

         1) Marxism, actually, is great (so let’s listen and learn!)

         2) Marxism is godless philosophy (so let’s not listen and learn!)

         3) Marxism is a unstable mixture of good and bad (so let’s discern!)

Number (1) essentially denies the antithesis between faith and unbelief and devolves into worldliness. Number (2) emphasizes the antithesis, but knows nothing of “common grace” and devolves into otherworldliness (no unbeliever can say anything true!). Number (3) is the consensus approach in Christendom, but that isn’t saying very much because we need to discern what constitutes “good” and “bad,” and we need to figure out what roots are producing what fruits and why. Moreover, whether the fruits really do come from the stated roots, or whether they’re “borrowed capital” from elsewhere—i.e., “borrowing” a Christian fruit (e.g., racism is wrong) and transplanting it into foreign intellectual soil. This is all going to take both deep biblical reflection as well as worldview thinking. Both of which are in extremely short supply.

I think CRT makes at least one reasonable and biblical point: sinners (including those whose sin is racism) can construct systems that benefit themselves at the expense of others. What was the Jim Crow south but systemic racism? It was codified in law! So far, so good. Where we’ve been complacent about such systemic sins, we ought to repent of it and rectify matters (as we did with Jim Crow, for example, at gunpoint from the 101st Airborne, in one instance) no matter who brings the charge, Marxists or otherwise.

However, along with that legitimate observation comes a whole worldview that goes way beyond anything Christians can affirm. As far as I can see, CRT as a school of thought is fatalist, unfalsifiable, divisive, ungrateful, uncharitable, unforgiving, unsatisfied, often slanderous, often empirically wrong, apocalyptic, utopian, and bears all the hallmarks of a new kind of Gnosticism. Read Galatians 5 and you won’t see these characteristics in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit.

My main long-term worry about churches in particular is that our massively sentimental age uniquely exposes us to manipulation. Because we (rightly) know our own sin and sinful propensities, because we want to be quick to repent and respond in humility, we tend to lean heavily toward niceness and empathy. We affirm, affirm, and affirm, and rarely, if ever, call the Marxist worldview to account for its destructive, conscience-searing, soul-crushing spiritual and intellectual totalitarianism. I’m all for compassionate hearts. But they’re useless without spines.

Oh, and read Tim Keller’s work. I think you’ll find it helpful.

CCL: You were deeply impressed by N. T. Wright’s History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Why?

Because I discovered that the subtitle is misleading.

Yes, really. When I picked up the book I expected a renewed defense of “natural theology,” the idea that if people just reflect on the created order they can somehow reason their way up to God—well, “god,” at least, and then later supplement with some Bible stuff to really get to “God.”

This book is the published version of Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures, a luminous endowed lecture series held at Scottish Universities. The last New Testament scholar before Wright to give the Giffords was Rudolf Bultmann, a half-century ago. The series was endowed by Lord Gifford in the 19th century to explore the topic of Natural Theology, and Wright rather boldly and winsomely took his opportunity to undermine the whole project down to the roots. Natural Theology, as it has been practiced since the Enlightenment, is, he argues, a revived form of Epicureanism, a sort of Deism where God is far off, way up there, unconcerned and inaccessible to the way down-here realm of history, science, and fact. Our job is to intellectually work ourselves up to him as best we can using our enlightened intellectual tools.

But what if our intellectual tools aren’t enlightened? What if Lessing, Schweitzer, et. al. just blithely and wrongly assumed Epicureanism to be true at the outset? What if the world isn’t like that at all? What if God really is involved in history (see your first question!)? What if God, in Jesus Christ, has radically intervened in human affairs, died and risen again, and inaugurated a new kingdom that gives us new eyes to see?

I am not the only one to recognize that Wright isn’t engaged in “Natural Theology” at all. That’s why the lectures and the book got very little academic attention. He’s actually drilling down and demolishing the entire edifice of what “Natural Theology” means. Instead of rigging the intellectual rules with Epicureanism, why not instead step inside a biblical worldview, take a look around in the Jewish world of Jesus, where heaven and earth were meant to interlock and meet (Temple) and eternity and time to co-inhere (Sabbath)? Why not look at Jesus again, as if for the first time, and see that he is the true Temple and that he brings the eschatological Sabbath by his resurrection from the dead?

The book is a workout. I’m not entirely without criticism, but it is a tour de force. If I were to pithily summarize: only by humbly presupposing the truth of the biblical record can we see it for what it really is, and not by subjecting it to the acid of Enlightenment skepticism. And only by immersing ourselves in that story can we see everything else rightly. It’s a presuppositional argument, start to finish, and it made my heart sing and my mind rejoice.

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Eschatology, politics, Theology

Realized Religion : Victory Already, Before the “Not Yet”

“One of the most prominent errors in the history of the church is postponing massive blessings of creation and the gospel to the eternal state. If the liberal churches wish to re-situate all the blessings in the ‘already’ (since they have no actual eternal hope, and often turn to revolutionary politics for salvation), conservative churches tend to push most of the blessings off into the ‘not yet.’

“They are both wrong.”

Get the e-book here.

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Culture, Law, politics, Theology

The Degeneration into Political Soteriology

“This insurrection is sometimes called ‘conservative counter-revolution,’ but it never is. It claims to be restoring the moral order overturned by Leftists, but it is actually an attempt to reverse the new Leftist (dis)order after assimilating the revolutionary gains — and strategies — of Leftism. It is a variant of revolution whose eyes are hidden to this fact by its opposition to other specific tenets of Leftism. But its orientation to society is revolutionary; it adopts, usually unknowingly, the guiding tenet of Leftism.”

Read the rest of the article here.

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Church, Culture, Theology

Christmas: Excarnation Versus Incarnation

This Advent and Christmas season we celebrate the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Incarnation literally denotes enfleshment. The eternal Son of God assumed humanity as a babe in Bethlehem in order to grow to adulthood and die for the sins of the world. This death and subsequent resurrection, the source of our salvation, presuppose incarnation. Without incarnation, there can be no salvation.

Excarnation

The opposite of incarnation is excarnation, a word coined by Charles Taylor[1] to describe the modern inclination to limit all the significant issues of reality to the mind. The body and material world are simply vehicles for reason and imagination. Excarnation is indebted to ancient Gnosticism, the first and most dangerous Christian heresy that afflicts the church and culture down to this very day.[2] While the Bible located the world’s ills in human sin, Gnosticism blamed them on creation itself. An ignorant, malign deity (the Demiurge) broke from the true God and created matter, including the human body, contrary to God’s desire. The true God tried to foil the Demiurge by covertly inserting sparks of divinity into the human bodies. To the Gnostics, the Fall is not from righteousness into sin, but from spirit into matter; and salvation is escape from the body and reversion to pure spirit. This means the human body and the material world are a prison from which the enlightened must escape. Jesus came not to save from sin, but to deliver from ignorance and impart knowledge (gnosis), by which the illuminated learn of their true, excarnated destiny. For Christians, man is rescued by God’s Son becoming man in assuming (and dying and rising in) a human body. For Gnostics, man is rescued by escaping from his body, after which the divine spark is released to return to the heavenlies. Man becomes God. Excarnation is the process of man’s salvation. This heresy the antithesis of biblical orthodoxy.

Excarnation in Culture

Excarnation is increasingly a guiding tenet of Western elites. There’s nothing Christian about it. The Bible teaches that God’s norms are interwoven in the cosmos. These include gravity and thermodynamics. They include economic laws of scarce resources. Moreover, they include his norms for human sexuality. Today’s elites don’t simply wish the rebel against these laws. They want to circumvent and then abolish them. They have figured out the only way to do this is to bypass reality itself. Their vision of the Good Society is one in which all people are equal in condition, and the “marginalized” are resituated as the apex of culture. If this means redefining reality, so be it. If the human body as biologically male or female is an impediment to human imagination, sex-“reassignment” surgery is an option. If some humans are smarter, better looking, stronger, or cleverer than others, laws must be imposed that penalize their giftedness and reduce them to the level of their inferiors. Eventually, this means that their gifts must be eliminated to create true equality. If women are naturally superior nurturers and men naturally superior soldiers, men must nurture babies and women must serve in combat. TV and movies must depict lithe 120-pound women as martial arts devotees vanquishing muscular 200-pound male warriors. The ridiculousness of the idea is irrelevant; it’s the reality-bending social vision that matters. The body forbids the exercise of the rebellious imagination, so the body must be circumvented and, if necessary, abandoned. Reality doesn’t conform to the elite vision of society, so reality is irrelevant. The excarnation paradigm sees the body simply as a vehicle for the person, the “authentic self.” The person, the real you and I, is inside the body, the “ghost in the machine.” The body is like an automobile that carts us around. There’s a radical disjunction between the authentic, self-aware person, and his body. The body is simply a tool, like a screwdriver or a fork, though a highly complex one. This anthropology (view of man) has momentous implications. For one thing, it means that if the self is not fully developed, the body is unimportant. This means that there should be no barrier to abortion and euthanasia and mercy killing. After all, it’s the self that’s important, not the body. If there is no authentic self (or person on the inside), the body is disposable. Remember: the body is only there as a vehicle for the person. [3] This is the grim price we pay as a society for implementing the excarnation vision.

Excarnation in the Church

The Bible does not exalt spirit over matter; Jesus is Lord of the invisible and visible world (Col. 1:15–17). Yet ever since pagan Greek ideas of the inferiority of the material world infected Christianity, the church has battled with excarnation. Even as the church prays, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10), many Christians view the world outside the church — economics, politics, entertainment, education, and architecture — as inescapably “carnal” (fleshly) and unfit for Christian influence. So the church retreats to an excarnated spirituality. Prayer, interior dialogue, and contemplation of heaven are considered spiritual, while working to re-criminalize abortion, de-legitimize same-sex “marriage,” combat pornography, and reduce government theft programs in the form of confiscatory taxation are relatively unimportant and, in fact, a diversion from the church’s real, excarnated tasks. Escape from evil within the created order rather than confrontation with and victory over it is the excarnational agenda. Christianity is reduced to a “personal devotional hobby.”[4] But Advent stares us unflinchingly in the face with the truth that the present world, immaterial and material, is cursed by sin and is to be redeemed by the death and resurrection of our Lord. The most evil being in the universe is pure spirit, but Jesus was born and lived and died and rose from the dead and lives forever in a body. He is profoundly interested in the world, including the material world. He came healing the sick and exorcising demons from tortured bodies. To trust in the Messiah for salvation is to surrender oneself mind, soul, body — our entire self — to him (Rom. 12:1–2).  

TV and movies depict lithe 120-pound women as martial arts devotees vanquishing muscular 200-pound male warriors. The ridiculousness of the idea is irrelevant; it’s the reality-bending social vision that matters.

  He is as interested in purging sin from gansta rap and abortion clinics and fraudulent bond-rating agencies and Bauhaus architecture as he is from Christian hearts and families and churches. The cleansing power of the Gospel does not simply take souls to heaven; it transforms everything it touches.

Conclusion

This Advent season, relish the incarnational life and dismiss the excarnational vision. The body and the material world are not designed for our escape but for joy and victory. Jesus is Lord of all, and a God unashamed to be born into a barn amid farm animals is unashamed to care for and redeem every area of creation and culture presently under the dominion of sin. Christmas is a celebration of incarnation that made possible atoning bodily death and victorious bodily resurrection. Our future hope is not excarnation in a false medieval vision of angel babes and halos and harps in heaven but of the new heaven descended to a new earth purged from sin, where God will dwell eternally with us his people — on a profoundly material, but sinless, earth (Rev. 21:1–4).  


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Belknap, 2007), 288.
[2] Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism, Its History and influence (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England: Aquarian Press, 1983, 1989).
[3] Robert P. George, “Gnostic Liberalism,” First Things, December 2016, 33–38.
[4] Stephen C. Perks, The Great Decommission (Taunton, England: Kuyper Foundation, 2011), 20.
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Christology, Theology

The Post-Resurrection Gospel Presupposes the Pre-Resurrection Kingdom

The reason that the life and message of Jesus Christ portrayed in the gospel accounts, particularly the Synoptics, seem so far removed from the post-resurrection Gospel of Paul and the other apostles to our thinking is that we wrongly see a chasm between the kingdom of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The former is actually the foundation and presupposition of the latter.

Jesus the Messiah embodies the in-breaking of God‘s kingdom evidenced most graphically by healings and exorcisms, which dominate the Synoptics right up the passion narratives.

Jesus incarnates God’s good news of vanquishing sin in the world and rescuing sinners. “Trust in the crucified and risen Lord” is possible because of the message “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Paul’s message summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:1f. is the focused intensification of the broad, sweeping truth that in Jesus Christ God is reversing what man lost in Eden and bringing the entire world back into line with God’s holy purposes.

Never feel perplexed that the gospels are almost filled with accounts of healings and exorcisms, while Acts and the rest of the New Testament seem to go in an entirely different direction, with the stress on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

The latter is the result of the former, is the natural consequence of the former, and impossible without the former.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of the kingdom of God. No kingdom, no Gospel.

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Culture, Law, politics, Theology

CCL November 7 Symposium

2020 Vision for a Blurry Year

Topics:

  • The upsides of a downside year
  • Presidential election as chaos
  • The political ideology of the COVID-19 drama
  • Cultural Marxists in the streets
  • The Supreme Court battle and the assault on Amy Coney Barrett
  • Social justice goes to church — unmasked
  • The wokeness of sports

No screaming insults, no sophomoric one-liners, no cancel culture, no rude interruptions — just reasoned, respectful discussion, warm rapport, and delectable food.

Get full information here.

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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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