Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jonathan Edwards Conference Reflections

For my study leave I recently attended a conference [technically a congress] about Jonathan Edwards at Ridley College. Overall I was struck by the usefulness of thinking through various contemporary debates through the prism of Edwards' expansive remarks. (A good summary of Edwards via Rhys Bezzant. "The last puritan and the first evangelical.") A few reflections on some of the keynote speakers and papers presented and a couple of the conversations over lunch.

'Edwards and the freedom of the will' by Chris Stead
How do we square Edwards' traditional understanding of providence with secondary causation without making God the author of evil? The Enlightenment was in full swing at the time of Edwards with it's growing focus on the independence of nature. Edwards was reacting (rightly) against the independent determination of 'natural philosophy.' He saw providence not as fatalism but as the personal decrees of God worked out in the world. He does this because he sees the glory of God everywhere. Stead suggests that because Edwards was a man of his time reacting to problems of his time  And so Edwards doesn't adequately explain the relationship between providence and secondary causes, particularly in the light of the complex interrelated nature of causation in the world.

'Being seen and being known' by Kyle Strobel
Strobel outlined Edwards' theological anthropology. Basically it's that people exist because God sees them, "God's perception upholds and defines reality." Edwards describes us in this way because of the "beatific vision", the internal delight, beauty and glory of God that then overflows into creation, redemption and restoration. Becoming a Christian is about seeing the Son, which is an echo of the way the Father gazing on the Son.
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Salvation is essentially then partaking in the life of God. We were created with the Holy Spirit, but then are barren after the Fall and the Spirit is restored in our salvation. Then there was a fascinating aside about humans as being more substantial than the reality around them. Also during question time Strobel commented that the doctrine of Justification is about Christ first and foremost and is applied to us because of our connection to Jesus.

'Christology in Conflict' by Corne Blaauw
This was a fascinating paper presented by a doctoral student looking at Edwards' Christology. Blaauw argues Edwards arrives at the right view with some peculiar reasoning and also observes that there's no scholarly consensus on Edwards' Christology. Blaauw's solution is to outline a more comprehensive Christology based on a wide variety of Edward's sermons and notes. I was struck by Edwards' description of Jesus' human nature "accommodating", in it's disposition, the glory of God. "Jesus Christ is the Shining forth of the Father's Glory"

'Jonathan Edwards: Christian Zionist' by Gerald McDermott
McDermott's thesis was the Edwards' theology sometimes sounds like supersessionism (the Church replaces Israel) but that he brings in a strong Christian Zionism through an eschatological back door. McDermott started by showing how Edwards arrived at his Christian Zionism with a brief theological and historical tour that started in the New Testament.  For example he noted the early church's participation in temple life and the Zionistic emphasis of the New Jerusalem, gates named after the twelves tribes. Although the early church fathers (Justin Martyr and Tertullian) were hostile to Judaism, they also surprisingly affirmed the restoration of the people of Israel to the land of Israel. Full blown replacement theology arrives with Origen. McDermott then traces some interesting themes of Christian Zionism from the notes of the Geneva Bible into Puritan theology (e.g. Brightman) and then into New England. Jonathan Edwards, reacting to the rising force of Deism and it's attendant anti-Semitism, argued for a strong degree of continuity between the Old and New Covenants. (We are saved by the trusting in the mercy of God in both.) Edwards, a Post-millennialist, thought that Calvin had adopted too much of Augustine's A-millennialism which over spiritualised things and didn't give enough attention to the bodily nature of redemption. McDermott closed by observing that Christian Zionism has an ancient pedigree and shouldn't be tied to the modern manifestation of dispensationalism. For Edwards he saw God's hand at work in history, and the Jewish people returning to their land as part of the glory of God being expressed in the world.

'Jonathan Edwards and the nature of imputation in Original Sin' by Heber Carlos de Campos
De Campos argued that Edwards' view of Original Sin is a Reformed expression of that doctrine. Campos' presentation was notable for his clear outline of how Original Sin is transmitted from Adam to us. Oliver Crisp argues that 'Edwards fused realism and representation.' Realism is an obscure way to say we're sinful therefore we have Original Sin, without clearly explaining how it makes that jump between Adam and us. So how is guilt transmitted? Generally there are two competing answers, guilt comes through personal corruption or guilt comes through representation. To help us navigate an answer through Edwards and more generally de Campos outlined six characteristics of the doctrine.
  1. Sin rightly understood is both a privation and perversion, not just a lack of original righteousness, sin is destructive.
  2. Original Sin encompasses both guilt and corruption, it's a two fold problem solved by the two fold work of Christ, justification and sanctification.
  3. Adam holds both a natural and a federal relationship with his posterity. Just Jesus is the legal or federal head of the Christian, so Adam is the legal or federal head of the sinner. Remarkably, we don't have a genetic or natural relationship with Jesus, so our union unlike with Adam has a mystical, Holy Spirit created nature. 
  4. God creates individual souls, there isn't a master 'soul blob' [my phrase for Traducianism] in Adam.
  5. The communication of corruption is to a degree mysterious, like the communication of holiness by the Holy Spirit through our union with Christ, mysterious.  
There is an important but neglected parallel with justification. We might argue that's it's unfair for God to credit Adam's guilt to us, but our righteous standing before God because of our faith in Jesus is also unfair. De Campos noted that modern interpreters sometimes struggle with the idea Adam being a representative because of our post Enlightenment emphasis on individual agency and responsibility.

'Hero or Herald? Agency and Authority in The Life of Brainerd by Edwards.' Rhys Bezzant 
As part of a larger project about how the famous people of Christian history mentored others, Rhys analysed the topic of evangelical leadership, through the lens of Edwards's biography of Brainerd. Brainerd was a missionary in the mid 1700's to the American Indians. Brainerd was relatively successful despite poor health and a lack of formal qualifications. Since then he's been held up as a heroic leader, boldly evangelising the Indians. Rhys opened by quoting Vishal Mangalwadi's observation that Christian leadership subverts the cultural norm of heroic superman with the model of  suffering servant.  However Edwards' biography of Brainerd is almost a hagiography which plays well in the modern evangelical climate of promoting entrepreneurial "big L leaders." Rhys then made the case that if you look closely you see in Brainerd a man who struggled and also willingly operated within a larger ecclesiology and framed his work eschatologically and not as "a big L leader." "We need heralds who are privately godly and not public heroes" in ministry argued Rhys.

Economics with Andrew Schuman
Over one lunch I asked someone doing a combined Theology-MBA degree at Yale for a Christian approach to economics. He suggested this:
  1. Against Quietism we say that we need to be involved in the political economy because an economy is made of people doing things, who both need the gospel and need to live out the gospel.
  2. Rather than adopting a partisan approach, outline a set of commitments Christians should have, eg Justice, care for the poor, freedom etc and encourage them to make specific economic decisions based on those commitments. 
  3. Finally economic involvement is a form of evangelism, by graciously expressing those commitments you begin a conversation about God's big story and you show the love of Christ for them by not adopting a partisan approach. 

Theodicy with Tim and Mark
Over another lunch I asked two pastors, Tim from Victoria and Mark from Perth (I didn't catch their their last names) about theodicy. This came out of one of the themes of the conference, did Edwards' emphasis on God's glory in creation and redemption make him the author of evil and what's a practical pastoral response? Together they suggested this mini framework.
  1. Delayed Judgement is a mercy
  2. God is able to act in spite of evil = an unnecessary statement if evil is part of God's glory
  3. God's Holiness and unResponsibility for evil = Just as we hold Jesus' divinity and humanity together without (we shouldn't anyway) artificially talking as though they were independent things, we should talk about these two aspects of God. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Trump, hypocrisy and the new paganism

The American election season is a fascinating blend of horse-race, train-wreck and theatre. It'd be funny if it wasn't that whoever gets elected gets to be leader of the free world. Anyway, Donald Trump, a kind of rumpled commercial Hugh Hefner character is causing a ruckus in the Republican Primary. Loud and brash, he is polling well because he presents the persona of breaking through the doublespeak of politics. This is why the fable of the nude Emperor is so effective. Bernie Sanders is doing something similar but in a different style over on in the Democratic primary. Sticking it to Hiliary Clinton with rumpled suits, word of mouth advertising, nerdy long stump speeches, boldly owning the "socialist" epithet as a badge of honour and inspiration.

What's interesting about Trump though is how emblematic he is of the New Paganism. The New Paganism, like all religions is highly moral. Although unlike Christianity and it's derivatives it lacks a core orthodoxy (even if it's a contested orthodoxy) and so morality is mediated by power. Commentators (for example here at the NYMag) liken Trump to a troll. A troll is the modern equivalent of the witch hunter, the moral whistleblower who "calls out" either the wrong doing of others or their alleged moral hypocrisy. Trump, just 'says it like it is', 'get out of the kitchen if you can't take the heat'. However the added twist that makes Trump interesting (to a degree) is that we are watching on a giant scale someone with enough power to challenge the doublespeak of the political system but who also flagrantly does what he pleases and resists explaining the disconnect of his own hypocrisy. To illustrate the same idea another way, Tony Abbot (and Julia Gillard to a degree, remember the no Carbon Tax thing) bends himself into pretzels in order not to be seen to break promises, yet you know and we know and he knows that we all know that he has and will break promises.

The only person who can effectively call out hypocrisy is Jesus, being the one without sin. We enjoy seeing the powerful squirm and respect (like one respects a large tattooed opponent) the artful appearance of morality but Trump reveals that in the New Paganism, as it has always been, morality is prized and hypocrisy despised, but if you're powerful enough you can be both while also calling out others on it!  The New Paganism lacks an ideological centre and so it is ruled by the iron law of power. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

'Suburban Captivity' by Tim Foster: an idiosyncratic review

There's a teacup sized storm surrounding Mark Earngey's review of Tim Foster's Suburban Captivity. A few remarks about the mini-controversy itself before focusing on two themes in particular, the Atonement and the Resurrection in Tim's book. There are a number of reviews, including a mildly critical Gospel Coalition one by Craig Tucker. The indefatigable Gordon Cheng, then posted Mark Earngey's review on his Facebook wall causing mini-ruckus about both Mark's very critical review and whether or not a critical review should be shared on Facebook. Tim then wrote this post on the Ridley page in response, emphasising that Mark's review misrepresented him.

Surely, public discussion (books, articles and social media) involves disagreement and the voicing of strong opinions. A tangent for a moment about disagreement amoung Australian Evangelicals. There was some more bad weather in a teacup when Michael Frost (a Baptist professor at Morling) attacked Murray Campbell (a baptist minister at Mentone Baptist) for being pleased about the unity expressed at the launch of Gospel Coalition Australia, "the end of tribalism". That thread quickly degenerated the way most online stuff does, into an ironic and bitter display of disunity. (I also felt as though Michael was stirring up the mob and should've reigned the commenters in.)  However I do wonder if as Evangelicals we're too quick to get bent out of shape when it comes to public disagreement about theology, is Murray's "end of tribalism" an unnecessary veneer that retards necessary public discussion of things that matter?

Anyway back to Suburban Captivity by Tim Foster. Tim's main focus is the middle-class, suburban "captivity" of Australian Evangelicalism. Tim wonders if the gospel message of Australian Evangelicalism has been contaminated by suburban values. Anecdotally, this seems like a true observation, for example it's not hard to find evangelical churches in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. But I wonder what a detailed study of modern Australian Christianity, in rural and urban contexts and across all classes would reveal? The sociological context of the gospel, especially when it comes to the powerful forces of class is often overlooked and I appreciated Tim opening this particular can of worms. I also liked the connection Tim observes between Kingdom and culture. The Kingdom of God is made of people who do 'cultural' things; make breakfast, ride to work, sing and dig ditches. I also like the way Tim described how people are part of larger narratives.

Although I'm agnostic about the suburbs, they like slums and lonely country hamlets have their downsides. But are they the evil incubator of middle class values that Tim is critiquing? They certainly are connected to particular assumptions surrounding prestige and pleasure.  Characteristics that are features of liberal western democracy, additionally the suburbs are often built with the worship of progress and prosperity as defining values. But we don't want to romanticize the wealthy, working or welfare classes either. As if their pristine un-evangelised jungles offer to flush out our middle class evangelical palates, tainted by years in the leafy suburbs. In sum Tim wants us to think about the larger narrative of the people we are ministering to and ask how the gospel connects to them in their particular context.

But I want to circle back to Tim's presentation of the gospel and his presentation of the Atonement and the Resurrection in chapter 1 of Suburban Captivity. Tim's gospel presentation focuses on the 'battlefield' (my term not his) atonement metaphor, he outlines three of its four main elements; the arrival of the serpent (Gen 3:1), the way in which Jesus binds the strongman (Mt 12:22-27) and how Jesus' death at the hand of his enemies actually brings peace and victory. However Tim oddly overlooks Jesus' observation in John 8:44 about how we have become the enemies of God by swapping the leadership of Adam for the leadership of Satan. "Sons of Satan" Jesus calls us. It's not a cosmic battle that involves us, we have created a cosmic battle through our rebellion! I'm not sure why Tim leaves this aspect of the battlefield metaphor out, it could an oversight but the 'Battlefield metaphor' is central to his gospel presentation.

Personally I find the idea of rival atonement theories unhelpful and misleading. The five atonement metaphors are complementary although some get more Scriptural airtime than others. So I'm sympathetic to Tim's thesis that the 'Battlefield metaphor' needs more attention. However I wonder why he pitches it against the "punitive", by which he means 'city-gate or legal metaphor' of the atonement ("punitive" is Tim's term, 'City-gate' is mine). This is where some of the heat surrounding Mark's review is. Tim writes:
"Jesus has assumed our punishment and free from the blight of sin, our relationship with God is restored. While there is a punitive aspect to this, the threat of God's wrath is not the problem that shapes the message, nor is it the only way in which the Bible understands Jesus' death."
Tim does not offer a clear rationale why the battlefield metaphor "better represents the Biblical narrative." Tim then goes on to pitch a gospel shaped around what some might call an 'over-realized eschatology' of the Kingdom: "there will be a new social and political order according to God's purposes." I'm not ofay with debates surrounding the nature of the atonement, so it would've been good to have some pointers from Tim describing if this "puntive-telic" tension of his is actually a scholarly 'thing' or just a rhetorical device for moving his particular presentation forward.

The problem with an over-realised eschatology, where "the new order is breaking into the present", is that our attention is taken off life after eternity. "The present implications of the gospel" are uneven, for some Christians the full-orbed benefits of Kingdom life are found here and now, for others, they have to live a scrappy and desperate existence. Surely the delight of the resurrection will be in, well the resurrection! While Tim's observation that the gospel is embedded in a larger culture narrative is true and worth consideration, but it's weakened by his favoring of a truncated version of the battlefield metaphor and weakened by focusing on the present as opposed to eternity. We live, says CS Lewis, in the shadowlands, these Narnian adventures set great things in motion, but the grand narrative opens after resurrection, salvation is a ticket into that larger story.