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Transformative Posts and Social Networks… of the Reformation

The following article is from the December 17, 2011 edition of The Economist.

How Luther went viral

Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation

It is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.

That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.

Scholars have long debated the relative importance of printed media, oral transmission and images in rallying popular support for the Reformation. Some have championed the central role of printing, a relatively new technology at the time. Opponents of this view emphasise the importance of preaching and other forms of oral transmission. More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation.

Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate, namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.

New post from Martin Luther

The start of the Reformation is usually dated to Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517. The “95 Theses” were propositions written in Latin that he wished to discuss, in the academic custom of the day, in an open debate at the university. Luther, then an obscure theologian and minister, was outraged by the behaviour of Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was selling indulgences to raise money to fund the pet project of his boss, Pope Leo X: the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Hand over your money, went Tetzel’s sales pitch, and you can ensure that your dead relatives are not stuck in purgatory. This crude commercialisation of the doctrine of indulgences, encapsulated in Tetzel’s slogan—”As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs”—was, to Luther, “the pious defrauding of the faithful” and a glaring symptom of the need for broad reform. Pinning a list of propositions to the church door, which doubled as the university notice board, was a standard way to announce a public debate.

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. Sylvester Mazzolini defended the pope against Luther in his “Dialogue Against the Presumptuous Theses of Martin Luther”. He called Luther “a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron” and dismissed his arguments on the basis of papal infallibility. Luther, who refused to let any challenge go unanswered, took a mere two days to produce his own pamphlet in response, giving as good as he got. “I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel,” he wrote. “Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no scripture. You give no reasons.”

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. Contributors to the debate ranged from the English king Henry VIII, whose treatise attacking Luther (co-written with Thomas More) earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope, to Hans Sachs, a shoemaker from Nuremberg who wrote a series of hugely popular songs in support of Luther.

A multimedia campaign

It was not just words that travelled along the social networks of the Reformation era, but music and images too. The news ballad, like the pamphlet, was a relatively new form of media. It set a poetic and often exaggerated description of contemporary events to a familiar tune so that it could be easily learned, sung and taught to others. News ballads were often “contrafacta” that deliberately mashed up a pious melody with secular or even profane lyrics. They were distributed in the form of printed lyric sheets, with a note to indicate which tune they should be sung to. Once learned they could spread even among the illiterate through the practice of communal singing.

Both reformers and Catholics used this new form to spread information and attack their enemies. “We are Starting to Sing a New Song”, Luther’s first venture into the news-ballad genre, told the story of two monks who had been executed in Brussels in 1523 after refusing to recant their Lutheran beliefs. Luther’s enemies denounced him as the Antichrist in song, while his supporters did the same for the pope and insulted Catholic theologians (“Goat, desist with your bleating”, one of them was admonished). Luther himself is thought to have been the author of “Now We Drive Out the Pope”, a parody of a folk song called “Now We Drive Out Winter”, whose tune it borrowed:

Now we drive out the pope
from Christ’s church and God’s house.
Therein he has reigned in a deadly fashion
and has seduced uncountably many souls.
Now move along, you damned son,
you Whore of Babylon. You are the abomination and the Antichrist,
full of lies, death and cunning.

Woodcuts were another form of propaganda. The combination of bold graphics with a smattering of text, printed as a broadsheet, could convey messages to the illiterate or semi-literate and serve as a visual aid for preachers. Luther remarked that “without images we can neither think nor understand anything.” Some religious woodcuts were elaborate, with complex allusions and layers of meaning that would only have been apparent to the well-educated. “Passional Christi und Antichristi”, for example, was a series of images contrasting the piety of Christ with the decadence and corruption of the pope. Some were astonishingly crude and graphic, such as “The Origin of the Monks” (see picture), showing three devils excreting a pile of monks. The best of them were produced by Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach. Luther’s opponents responded with woodcuts of their own: “Luther’s Game of Heresy” (see beginning of this article) depicts him boiling up a stew with the help of three devils, producing fumes from the pot labelled falsehood, pride, envy, heresy and so forth.

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Luther’s enemies likened the spread of his ideas to a sickness. The papal bull threatening Luther with excommunication in 1520 said its aim was “to cut off the advance of this plague and cancerous disease so it will not spread any further”. The Edict of Worms in 1521 warned that the spread of Luther’s message had to be prevented, otherwise “the whole German nation, and later all other nations, will be infected by this same disorder.” But it was too late—the infection had taken hold in Germany and beyond. To use the modern idiom, Luther’s message had gone viral.

From Wittenberg to Facebook

In the early years of the Reformation expressing support for Luther’s views, through preaching, recommending a pamphlet or singing a news ballad directed at the pope, was dangerous. By stamping out isolated outbreaks of opposition swiftly, autocratic regimes discourage their opponents from speaking out and linking up. A collective-action problem thus arises when people are dissatisfied, but are unsure how widely their dissatisfaction is shared, as Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, has observed in connection with the Arab spring. The dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, she argues, survived for as long as they did because although many people deeply disliked those regimes, they could not be sure others felt the same way. Amid the outbreaks of unrest in early 2011, however, social-media websites enabled lots of people to signal their preferences en masse to their peers very quickly, in an “informational cascade” that created momentum for further action.

The same thing happened in the Reformation. The surge in the popularity of pamphlets in 1523-24, the vast majority of them in favour of reform, served as a collective signalling mechanism. As Andrew Pettegree, an expert on the Reformation at St Andrew’s University, puts it in “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”, “It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.” Although Luther had been declared a heretic in 1521, and owning or reading his works was banned by the church, the extent of local political and popular support for Luther meant he escaped execution and the Reformation became established in much of Germany.

Modern society tends to regard itself as somehow better than previous ones, and technological advance reinforces that sense of superiority. But history teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun. Robert Darnton, an historian at Harvard University, who has studied information-sharing networks in pre-revolutionary France, argues that “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet.” Social media are not unprecedented: rather, they are the continuation of a long tradition. Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

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Union and Imitation

“Why can’t you be like your brother?” We all know intuitively that guilt-driven comparisons like this don’t actually work, but sometimes our frustration gets the better of us as parents. We hear, and sometimes say, the same thing in church. Frustrated with the lack of serious discipleship, we turn more easily and naturally to threats. In sharp contrast, Jesus spoke of our being his younger siblings, living branches of his vine. “You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that would last” (Jn 15:16). As I point out below, Paul’s horizon was much deeper, richer, and broader than imitation of Jesus. Being like Jesus Christ has its place only if we are in Christ to begin with.

As G. C. Berkouwer reminds us, we are not moving from theory to practice when we turn from justification to sanctification. Even in our sanctification, we keep our eye on Christ and his all-sufficient righteousness imputed as the only basis for our growth in holiness. Separating justification from sanctification is as serious as confusing them, because it means that the latter is “cut loose or abstracted from justification.” When that happens, says Berkouwer, justification is easily seen as the gracious act of God, while sanctification becomes the result of human striving. Paul teaches that believers are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:2, 30; 6:11; 1 Thes 5:23; cf. Acts 20:32; 26:18). As Bavinck puts it, “Many indeed acknowledge that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ, but seem to think that—at least they act as if—they must be sanctified by a holiness they themselves have acquired.” Something close to this error seems to have been held by Paul’s opponents in Galatia (Gal 3:1-9).

Perhaps the dominant picture for sanctification in evangelical circles is the imitation of Christ. “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Do?) summarizes that orientation. Sure, there is talk of being “in Christ,” but the driving model is Jesus as model and example. This can take the form of a heavy emphasis on spiritual disciplines or on social outreach. Of course, it is true that there are New Testament calls to imitate Christ (for example, his humility and love for others, in Philippians 2); in fact, the idiom for the life of faith in the Old Testament is “walking after the Lord,” as a servant-king follows the Great King in a public recognition of the covenant. However, even these rest on a deeper, richer foundation of union and communion with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. For example, we are not “walking after the Lord” merely in inimitation, but as guilty and pardoned—indeed, justified—servants who are swept into the train of his royal favor and merciful act of liberating us from our oppressors.

Union with Christ is different from imitation of Christ. There are calls in Scripture to imitate Christ, but this is only possible because of that deeper reality of our being actually united to Christ through faith alone. The best analogy is marriage or adoption: in both cases, we grow more and more into “oneness” and, along with our different personalities, share the common family resemblances because we are legally and organically connected.

The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ, while the law still calls us to be like Christ on the basis of that gospel announcement. Because we are “in Christ,” we should make every effort to be “like Christ.” Reverse that order, or deny one of the clauses, and it’s trouble—not just in theory, but in practice. In other words, while sanctification finds its direction in the law, it finds its ground in the gospel. George Lindbeck reminds us that the proper category for discipleship and imitatio Christi is not the atonement or justification, but the third use of the law. Otherwise, the Christian life is reduced to a moralistic attempt to live up to Christ’s example rather than our living out of the realities of Christ’s saving work. “Jesus is not first Example and then Savior, but the other way around,” Lindbeck adds. Berkouwer is exactly right: “Hence Paul can say without a qualm that he is ‘under law to Christ’ (1 Cor. 9:21).”

This view puts to flight two perennial temptations: legalism and antinomianism. The law cannot heal; it can only pronounce a just sentence in view of the facts.

Basing sanctification on our imitation of Christ or following his commands can only yield self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and ultimately condemnation for having failed. Only when Christ steps forward as our law-keeping and curse-bearing Mediator are we no longer “under the law”—that is, subject to its demand, “Do this and you shall live.”

At the same time, this same gospel creates faith that bears the fruit of righteousness. Because of our justification, the law no longer can condemn us before God’s throne. Yet far from leading to moral anarchy, it is precisely on this basis that the deepest intent of the law—love of God and neighbor—is written on our hearts by the finger of God. I once hated the law because it only exposed my failures, but now it comes as the word of my Father who already accepts me as righteous in his Son. Ironically, the very thing that Israel sought (law-righteousness) has eluded it, while those who are justified apart from the law, through faith in Christ alone, are also judged as righteous (Rom 10:1-5). However, there is still more to the gospel. As a result of this justification, we actually begin to love God and neighbor—not only out of gratitude or all-consumming passion for God’s glory, but out of the magnificent fact that we are united to Christ. He has attained justification and glorification by his works and now sits enthroned, reigning over all his enemies. What he is, we will be. As goes the King, so goes the kingdom. However, we are not quite there yet. He is the firstborn from the dead, securing our resurrection and giving the Spirit as the security deposit. We are already fully new, yet this new creation is not fully revealed in us. We are justified and regenerated. Both are completed events for us in the past. Nevertheless, we do not yet see all things, including our own hearts, minds, lives, and communities free of temptation and sin.

Just as creation begin with a command, “Let there be….And there was…,” so too does the new creation originate in the womb of the Word. It is not something we attain by imitating Christ, but a gift that is given in union with Christ. The result is that second type of speech thatt we see in Genesis 1: “‘Let the earth bring forth fruit.’ And the earth brought forth fruit.” This fruit-bearing, too, is the work of the Spirit through the gospel. It is the law that defines what “fruit” is and it’s through the gospel that the Spirit produces it. The church is “a chosen race” and a “holy nation,” “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Although “the gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing…For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:3, 6). It is not surprising that Paul also thinks of justification (Rom 4:17-18) and the new birth (Rom 6) as analogous to ex nihilo creation (Rom 4:17-18). By speaking righteousness into a condition of unrighteousness, God brings into existence a new creation, which refers not only to justified and renewed individuals but to a living community: his church.

We can err on both sides of this eschatology of sanctification: either in the direction of a sort of “premillennial” under-realized kingdom or a “postmillennial” over-realized kingdom. Like the kingdom more generally, our own sanctification is “already” and “not yet.” We press on to take hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of us. We are grieved, but not surprised, when we still sin and fall short of God’s glory. Assured of our place “in Christ,” we see the imperatives to grow, to mature, to move on, to continue earnestly, to love, to struggle against indwelling sin, and so forth, no longer as threats or conditions of sharing in Christ and his kingdom, but as commands that we are called to obey and, because of the indwelling Spirit working through the gospel, can obey imperfectly.

We are liberated now to seek God’s moral will for our lives without fear. The law remains the standard for righteousness, but no more in sanctification than in justification does the law become the basis for our righteousness before God. Otherwise, we would place ourselves under a covenant of works again, fulfilling the conditions of justification, instead of the covenant of grace, with Christ as the fulfiller of all righteousness for us. We must always bear in mind throughout our Christian pilgrimage that the Christ who commands is already also the one who has taken care of our guilt for failing to keep them properly.

How can we despise that holy will of the Father that Jesus not only fulfilled for us out of duty but of which he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn 4:34)? How can we set aside God’s commands when Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptation with his submission to “‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mat 4:4)? How can we cherish those sins from which Christ has liberated us by his death and resurrection? Believers hate their sin and they love God’s law, longing to keep it not out of fear of punishment or hope of merit, but because they belong to Christ, who loved us and his law to the point of death on a cross.

So we must beware of seeking a balance between legalism and antinomianism. After explaining the justification of the ungodly, Paul anticipated the logical question: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1). The antinomian answers, “Yes!”—or at least imagines that one might continue in sin (i.e., under its reign) and yet be justified. One may make a decision for Christ and be therefore eternally secure, but become a “carnal Christian” who does not bear fruit and may not even still trust in Christ. The legalist replies to Paul’s question, “Not on your life! Don’t you know that if you still fall into sins—especially the same ones repeatedly, you either lose your salvation or never had it to begin with? If you do not obey, you will not be justified.”

Paul’s answer stands in sharp contrast to both. He does not even advocate balance between extremes. Rather, he turns again to the gospel: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized intto Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:2-4, emphasis added). No one can be united to Christ’s death, for the forgiveness of sin, without also being united to his resurrection life (vv 5-6). We have died (a completed act in the past) and now are alive. So instead of issuing an imperative with a threat, Paul proclaims an indicative with a promise. The answer to the antinomian and legalist alike is the gospel. The antinomian has too narrow a view of the gospel, as if it were mere fire insurance—cancelling our debt without actually marrying us to Christ—while the legalist turns the gospel into law. However, Paul returns to the gospel and simply announces that through our union with Christ by faith we have not only justification but sanctification. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v 11). It is impossible for a believer to be an unbeliever, under the domain of sin and death. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey its passions” (v 12). In short, you are not under the reign of sin, so don’t act as if you were! Instead of a double source (synergism), redemption is concerned with a double grace: justification and inner renewal. It is all the work of God, in Christ. In Lesslie Newbigin’s words,

The idea of a righteousness of one’s own is the quintessence of sin. Against this, therefore, against every trace of a holiness or righteousness which does not depend simply upon God’s mercy to the sinner, we have to set our faces as relentlessly as Paul did. But equally with Paul we have to recognize that if any man be in Christ there is a new creation, not a fiction but a real supernatural new birth, the life of the risen Christ in the soul.1

1 – Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of Faith (London: SCM Press, 1953), 128-129

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Historical Claims Concerning Union with Christ

“Union with Christ is finally getting its just place as a central dogma in organizing the Reformed view of how we are saved.” “Charles Hodge, among others, placed the forensic (especially justification) at the center, rather than union.” “Reformed paradigm: justification and sanctification have their source in union; Lutheran paradigm: minor role for union, if anything, and sanctification has its source in justification.”

These statements illustrate a type of exaggeration that I’d like to unpack very briefly, in part because there different nuances in this discussion that have pretty significant implications. Since my focus here is the historical claim about defining the Reformed consensus on this point, rather than exegesis.

  1. Union with Christ at the center

    Hunting down central dogmas that distinguish one tradition or school from others was a hallmark of 19th-century historians. Yet a host of specialists in Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy have shown conclusively that this is a wrong approach. It imposes our own constructs on historical views and, furthermore, there is no central dogma in Calvin, much less in Reformed theology. A central dogma is not just an important truth; it functions as a theory from which everything else is deduced.

    For Calvin and the whole Reformed tradition, Christ’s person is the source of everything and his work is inseparable from Christ himself. Christ himself, not any one of his gifts, is the center and object of our faith. (That’s Lutheran, too, by the way.) However, there’s a big difference between something being important—even in tying together other important doctrines—and something being a central dogma. Many are discovering union with Christ, and that’s great, but it has been there in our Reformed bloodstream all along. It is not something that was somehow buried after Calvin and then just uncovered recently in a particular school or circle of contemporary Reformed thought.

    Part of the danger is that some are using the “centrality” of union with Christ as a way of equalizing justification and sanctification or, in some extreme cases, to collapse both together with “union” as the whole. It’s treated in most of our major systems—including Hodge’s, though according to some he’s a “Lutheran” in his prioritizing of justification. I devote the first chapter in my discussion of the application of redemption to union with Christ, so I readily acknowledge its importance. It is wonderfully true that faith clings to Christ for both justification and sanctification together: the double grace. This marvelous union influences Reformed thinking on a variety of topics, including the sacraments.

    However, union with Christ isn’t treated as a distinct topic in any Reformed confession or catechism (including Calvin’s), while justification and sanctification are considerable attention. Calvin called justification “the main hinge on which true religion turns,” “the principal article,” and of “most importance” in our understanding of salvation. Union with Christ is a way of relating everything from election to glorification, but is not itself a deductive center of the system. If Calvin thought so much of union with Christ and also treated sanctification as having its source in justification, what’s all the fuss about?

  2. “Reformed: union with Christ; Lutheran: justification leading to sanctification.”

    There is so much debate—in my view, confusion—over the historical theology of the “Lutheran” vs. “Reformed” paradigm that one hardly knows where to begin. I certainly can’t do any justice to the arguments here. A lot of this goes back, I think, to the controversy in the 1970s at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, surrounding the teaching of Norman Shepherd.

    Rejecting the whole covenant of works-covenant of grace (i.e., law-gospel) scheme of federal Calvinism, and taught in the Westminster Standards, Dr. Shepherd also revised radically the confessional view of justification and justifying faith. Everyone who didn’t agree with his revisions (although they were departures from the Reformed confessions) was labeled “Lutheran” by him and his supporters. “Union with Christ” became a way of upholding that everything is from Christ while confusing justification and sanctification at crucial points.

    Dr. Shepherd did resign from his post, and many who emphasize union as a central dogma do not follow him all the way. However, there is still a lingering notion that even on this important question that most historical theologians believe to have united the churches of the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed views of justification are radically different. In the “Lutheran” paradigm, justification is the central dogma and sanctification flows out of it; in the “Reformed” paradigm, the mystical union has priority, with no logical dependence of sanctification on justification.

    If I may be so bold, this is an arbitrary construct that has no support in the primary sources. There is no point in a brief blog post to offer a syllabus of quotations, but everyone from Calvin, Vermigli, Knox, Bullinger, Zanchi, and Owen all the way to Berkhof held that while we receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, the forensic (Christ’s mediatorial work and forensic justification) is the source or basis of personal renewal and sanctification. Vos expressly says that this is the emphatic Reformed position: “In Paul, the mystical is always subordinated to the forensic.” Same as Berkhof, Hodge, et al..

    A case needs to be made for the new view that if we receive justification and sanctification together in our union with Christ, sanctification cannot have any relationship to justification. That case has not been made, in my view, but assumed. This means that any talk of sanctification being grounded in our justification is dismissed as “Lutheran.” Ironically, many who have followed Norman Shepherd (directly or indirectly) along this path have jettisoned justification altogether. The Federal Vision controversy springs to mind.

  3. “Union” a distinctive feature of Reformed soteriology?

    At the height of the “central dogma” era of historians, Lutheran historical theologian Mathias Schneckenberger argued that the central dogma of Lutheranism is…union with Christ. That’s right, union with Christ. In fact, the New Finnish School within mainline Lutheranism today goes so far as to dissolve justification in a version of union that is close to that of Osiander. (Osiander was a 16th-century Lutheran. Calvin devoted a whole section to refuting Osiander in the 1559 Institutes and Lutheran orthodoxy condemned his views.)

    Besides Paul, the medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux was a principal source of Luther’s emphasis on the “marvelous exchange”—union with Christ along the lines of the marriage analogy. When Calvin talks about union, he often quotes Bernard and Luther. So much for the central dogma thesis in the general and the odd contention that union with Christ distinguishes Reformed from Lutheran theology.

Like any new discovery of a wonderful and biblically-grounded truth, the doctrine of union with Christ can put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together, but it can also swallow the horizon. That’s true of justification as well, or sanctification, not to mention election and other precious truths. As wonderful and important as it is, this doctrine of union must not be understood as a way of relativizing the forensic basis of our salvation or of treating justification and sanctification as if they were related only to union but not also, within that union, to each other.

There are different nuances, emphases, and formulations between Lutherans and Calvinists, just as there are between representatives within these traditions. However, if our confessions are any indication, sharp contrasts, reductionisms, and exaggerations regarding “Lutheran” vs. “Reformed” paradigms is unhelpful, especially when they are often motivated by the old criticism of Reformation teaching, expressed by Schweitzer: “There is no motive for ethics in that system.” Creating caricatures of Lutheranism as the foil for distortions of Reformed theology hardly leads to understanding of the Reformed consensus; it just makes for “schools” of idiosyncratic interpretations.

So I join those who are impressed with the importance and implications of union with Christ. However, with all historical interpretations of an important truth, the motto holds: “Look before you leap.”

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Book of the Year

We’re pleased to announce that Mike Horton’s systematic theology, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan), was awarded Christianity Today’s book of the year award in the category of theology/ethics. The judges’ assessment of the book: “Averting his gaze from the kind of popular evangelicalism that is nondenominational in style and never quite confessional in ethos, Horton delivers the Reformed goods to a new generation.”

We’re also pleased to share in the joy of our good friend Tullian Tchividjian whose book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything won the award for Christian Living.

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Predictable Laws and Lucky Breaks: How Not To be a Control Freak in 2012

As the First World War pressed on, Greece’s King Constantine and his son, the Crown Prince, insisted upon neutrality.  A younger son, Alexander, openly favored siding with Britain, France, and the U.S. against Germany.  Deposed by the Allied Powers, Constantine and his eldest son had to yield succession to twenty-something Alexander.

As Alexander’s reign began, already there was great promise, even enlarging Greek territories on the Turkish mainland that had been part of the Greek empire.  Not long into his reign, though, the king was walking through his Royal Gardens when his dog was accosted by a diseased monkey.  Trying to save his dog, Alexander was bitten severely.  He died a few weeks later, on October 25, 1920, at only 27 years of age.

Allowed to return as King of Hellenes, Constantine promptly launched the Greco-Turkish War that left a quarter of a million casualties (civilian as well as military) and the newly annexed lands were lost.  The tragic episode led Winston Churchill to opine, “It was a monkey bite that caused the death of 250,000 people.”

Monkey-Bites and the Economic Crisis
I can understand why Plato didn’t like history very much.  It’s too messy; too much depends on factors over which we have no control.  As he himself said, historians study the lower world of mere appearances, ever-changing shadows, while the philosopher contemplates eternal and unchanging truths.  The author of The Republic was definitely a control freak.  But we all are, especially in a world in which we can be assured that a McDonald’s burger in LA will be just like one in Shanghai or Nairobi and our ATM cards will work anywhere.  We want to know the secrets of a rational, orderly cosmos—secrets that we can harness to secure ourselves from random accidents.

History is indeed messy.  Unlike logical truths (viz., a triangle has three sides), history throws lots of curve balls, like the monkey-bite that ended up causing the death of a quarter-million people.  Who could have predicted that?  And yet world history has been shaped by major events that no one could have predicted.

Like generals with our maps spread over large tables, we moderns like to imagine that we are masters of all we survey.  Life is rational, well-ordered.  There are predictable outcomes for routinized behaviors. Do x and y happens: it’s as sure as the law of gravity.  Some trust in the Market’s invisible hand, others in the benevolent State.

Just think back to 2008, as the subprime mortgage crisis spread like an aggressive cancer throughout the world’s markets.  The Market never was benevolent: everybody knew that; but at least it was rational, predictable.  On the eve of the crisis, priests of the Market assured the unnerved worshipers that all is well, prophesying peace and prosperity if we’d just trust the self-correcting mechanisms. Of course, there is always an irrational (emotional) fly in the ointment, because people are still involved, but the Whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The Market will prevail.  It will fix itself if we just let it.

Though already a target of public frustration, insurance companies were seeing as at least providing a safety net.  Especially when the massive Boomer generation is the one that has been hit hardest: right at the age when it needs its retirement accounts and medical insurance, anxiety makes it difficult to move in any direction.  The failure of all these rational processes to work in rational and predictable ways, so that we can literally bank on our future, is causing many to abandon the cult of the Market for the cult of the State.

I’m neither qualified nor commissioned to offer an economic or political statement of the problem.  However, there are deep spiritual and theological issues at stake in all of this.  Basically, idolatry.  Even though recent studies have shown that, on average,“experts” are no more successful at predicting the future than the average person, we still fasten onto their forecasts as if they offered the gospel truth.

From Scientific to Spiritual Technology
One thing we love about science is that it promises rational explanations and predictable formulas.  So when circumstances jar our faith in the ordinary ways of calculative reason, many in our culture today turn to witches—even in the name of reason and science.  When natural science doesn’t work, we turn to spiritual technology—but for preciselyt the same reason: namely, to control our future.  The language of New Agers and TV evangelists even appeals to a pseudo-scientific vocabulary.  Just learn the secret principles and you can control your future.  For preachers like Joel Osteen, aside from all the talk of miracles, the philosophy is basically deistic.  The Creator just built the world this way and if you learn and follow the principles he established, you get the outcomes you want.

It’s amazing how many intelligent people today concult psychics—basically, witches—and defend some mixture of astronomy and astrology, physics and psychics, science and superstition.  It’s all in an effort to control your own future, to get back that feeling of being able to map out everything and move the pieces on your map toward inevitable conquest (or at least security). French President Nicholas Sarkozy has reportedly frequented mediums. “An Anxious London Flocks to Psychics,” reports a recent article in TIME.   “‘I was in a state of anxiety,’ says a regular client, a financial trader, recalling her first consultation with Nina Ashby, one of nine practitioners who collectively constitute the eponymous Sisters. ‘Nina is very positive,’ adds the client. Originally from New York City and describing herself as clairvoyant, clairsentient and clairempathic, Ashby plies her rare gifts from a booth draped in a heavy velvet that can’t quite contain her high-volume buoyancy. ‘People come to me to be uplifted, not to be brought down,’ she says.”

All of this supports Cornelius Van Til’s generalization that pagan thought basically moves back and forth between rationalism and irrationalism—two sides of the same coin.  When one god fails, we switch to another, but for exactly the same reason: we want to be masters of our own fate, captains of our own souls.  We want to control our future, or at least to know it well enough that we can control as much of it as we can.

What (or Who) Is Lord?  Christ versus Elementary Laws
We picture idolatry as the worship of something evil.  However, most of our idols are good servants that we have made lords; gifts that we have confused with the Giver.  The gospel frees us from superstitious attachment to rationalism, with its utterly predictable laws, and irrationalism, with its surrender to fate and forces.

The phrase that the New Testament uses for this bondage is “the elementary principles of the world” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou).  This is the principle of yin and yang, karma, and “you reap what you sow.”  It’s not wrong as a generalization.  The problem is that we imagine that if we follow the right principles, we’ll live the good life.  There is a rational order in the universe and if you can just discover how the cosmos works, you can be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.  This is the core of that native religion of the fallen heart: works-righteousness.  The ancient Stoics identified God with Reason, the whole of which everything in existence is a part.  The divine principle of reason (logos) was shot through reality and and by learning these principles and elements, one could live in harmony with nature.  In this worldview, which I think is as modern as it is ancient, the messy realm of history is marginalized in favor of a divinized Nature that is not only itself perfectly rational and orderly but can be harnessed in such a way that we can live in a perfectly rational and orderly way as we link up with it.  By New Testament times, the phrase “elementary prinicples of the world” had a wider range, but the Stoic idea endured.

The Apostle Paul warned the Colossian church against being taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:7).  The term Paul uses here, stoicheion, means “basic principles or laws.”  It also came to refer to angelic (or demonic) forces that were identified with the fiery planets in the heavens (i.e., both rational principles and physical elements, as in Stoicism).  In Colossians, it’s probably connected with some sort of proto-Gnostic group that pursued a spiritual alchemy through knowing the secrets of the cosmic order.  Get the formula right, and you can control your destiny.  The specific rules or principles Paul goes on to cite indicate an ascetic mysticism.

Paul uses the term also in Galatians, but here it has a specifically Jewish—old covenant—context: “In the same way also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.  But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:3-5). If we look at Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3, we learn that Jews and Gentiles alike are “under the law,” “held accountable,” and “guilty.”  Whether written on the conscience or on tablets, the law shuts every mouth; it conemns sinners, but cannot justify them.

What’s so arresting, then, is that Paul says that those today who place their faith in their own obedience to the Mosaic law are no better off than Gentile pagans.  In either case, they are enslaved to “the elementary principles of the world.”  As Calvin reminds us, the moral law revealed in the Ten Commandments is the same as the natural law inscribed on the conscience of everyone (Inst. 1.3.1-3; 4.20.14-16).  This squares with Paul’s striking—even shocking—equation of natural law with the law of Moses as “the elementary principles of the world.”

In Galatians and Colossians, Paul uses this phrase negatively in his polemics—not because the stoicheia tou kosmou are evil in themselves, but because apart from Christ we are in slavery to the law.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days and months and seasons and years!  I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (Gal 4:8-11).

So here’s the argument, paraphrased:

You weren’t even Jews, but Gentiles who were enslaved to idols and the “basic principles” of natural law.  Christ freed you from that and now you want to be enslaved again to the “basic principles” of the Sinai law.  In either case, you have abandoned Christ.  You are slaves and you want to be slaves.

In Galatians 4, Christ is the liberator from the tyranny of the law because he was born under the law, fulfilled it, and bore its curse for us.  In Colossians 2, Paul warns believers not to be held captive by a philosophy that would return them to slavish devotion to controlling their destiny through ascetic legalism.  “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”  It is not a principle (i.e, Reason), but Christ, who is the Logos.  God has baptized us into Christ, “made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (vv 9-15).  So why would believers want to make themselves slaves again to ascetic principles?  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’…according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (vv 18-23).  Instead, they are to “put on Christ” (chapter 3).

Grace: A Lucky Break
So what does all of this have to do with the economic crisis?

Believers are alert (hopefully) to the obvious religious examples of works-righteousness.  However, in our daily lives, we surrender to the logic of the law.  (I’m not referring to the commands themselves, which are good and remain in effect, but to the law as a covenant for obtaining life.)  We crave a rational order, which is consistent with our creation in God’s image, but we forget that we live in a fallen world, disordered by our sin.

We also forget that the old pagan notion of “good luck” has been replaced in the Christian vocabulary by the doctrine of grace.  Of course, we do not believe in luck or chance as something that “just happens,” apart from God’s will.  However, just as there are some parallels between  the iron law of nature and the moral law revealed in Scripture, there are similarities between the idea of a “lucky break” and grace.  In both cases, something happens in history that cannot be explained in terms of the firm logic of rational law and order.  We speak of “luck” as something that happens contrary to our expectations.  If something goes wrong, in spite of our best planning and efforts, it’s “bad luck.”  A happy surprise we didn’t expect—and didn’t even plan on—is “good luck.”  Although “luck” is by definition something you can’t control, our craving for mastery over our future knows no bounds.  When law-like reason fails us, we try to control the forces of “bad luck” (or at least anticipate them) by horoscopes, “naming-and-claiming” formulas, or psychics.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and there are many now who say they foresaw the financial crisis, but many of the factors leading to our recent economic woes were beyond prediction according to market principles.  Referring to my story at the beginning, some economists call this “the monkeybite factor.”  It’s the odd and seemingly insignificant event that ends up having massive consequences.  Although King Alexander’s bad luck of a monkey bite led to disaster, the gospel announces a happy surprise.  Both, however, are beyond the ordinary factors that predictors rely on.

“People get what’s coming to them; follow the principles and you’ll get the right outcomes”: this we get.  And we like it.  We’re in control.  Those in the know, whether economists or preachers, pass along the right technology—the elementary principles of the world—for harnessing the cosmos for our purposes.  Joel Osteen makes obvious sense in this situation; Jesus and Paul confuse us.  Some might not turn to sorcery to regain their balance in trying to manage their future; some may turn even to a spiritual technology laced with biblical jargon.  The average Christian bookstore offers more guides to figuring out God’s secret will for your life (i.e., that which God hasn’t revealed) than guides to understanding his revealed law and gospel.  Again, we’re attracted to this because it is a way of harnessing God, of mastering our future.  The line between this sort of literature and visiting a psychic is thin indeed.

Grace is not rational.  I do not mean that the Christian faith, including the gospel, cannot be explained in reasonable terms with arguments and evidence for the claims.  I mean that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18).  By definition, grace is getting what you don’t deserve—even when you deserve the very opposite.  The gospel of grace throws our glory train off its tracks.  Instead of calculating, mastering, and determining, we find ourselves completely helpless, left with no option but to fall into the everlasting arms of the God who could consume us in his wrath but instead embraces us in his Son.  From God’s perspective, our salvation in Christ has bee predestined from all eternity, but from our perspective, it’s a lucky break.

For all of their differences, what these two concepts share in common is a recognition of the exception to the rule.  Adam and Eve could not have predicted the announcement of the gospel after they had sinned.  Who among us could have predicted that God would choose Israel among the nations, since it was not superior in terms of ethnic or ethical greatness (as Yahweh says explicitly in Dt 7-8). Who could have predicted that God would send his Son to bear the sins of his enemies—even while they hated him?  Indeed, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

Unlike the “elementary priniciples of the world,” the gospel is strange and disorienting.  It’s like the monkey bite, only with positive results for us.  Instead of a tower of glory, there is a cross.  Instead of principles and techniques for mastering ourselves and our world, there is good news about something that God has accomplished for us, that allows us to let go of our control-freakishness.  We cannot figure out what God has decreed about our daily lives, but God has revealed his saving work in Jesus Christ.

We may not know God’s will about where we should live or work, or whom we should marry.  We cannot predict with certainty the next four months in the Middle East.  Experts offer contradictory predictions about the fate of the Eurozone in the first quarter of 2012, much less the year.  Will there be another, perhaps deeper, recession?  Who knows?

And yet, we know that “God works all things together for good” for his people because of the cross and resurrection of our Lord.  How do we know that?  Because the gospel has the last word.  And how do we know that?  Because Jesus Christ has been crucified and raised for us.  None of this could have been read off the surface of history before it happened.  No one could have predicted that Caesar Augustus’ decree for an empire-wide census would have drawn Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in fulfillment of ancient prophecy.  No one could have predicted that right where Jesus hung in dereliction, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” God was reconciling the world to himself in his Son.  Not even the disciples really expected his resurrection on the third day, even though he spoke of it repeatedly.  We are saved by God’s choice, not ours; by his work, not ours; by his love, not ours.  Clearly, this is not a religion we would invent.  It catches us by surprise.  It is in that sense a grand exception—only in this case, a marvelous exception—to the rational, orderly, and law-like way things usually go.  It’s the biggest lucky break that the world has ever seen.

And when we are no longer slaves of “the elementary principles of the world”—even those rational and true laws of the market, morality, science and the cosmos—we are finally able to use them again as servants rather than lords.

When predictable mastery of the world doesn’t work, we don’t have to turn to sorcery to try to regain our security and management of our future.  “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1).  It doesn’t belong to the Market, or to the State, or to Nature, but to the Lord who created and redeemed it. No longer finding our identity in this present age, with its logic of supply-and-demand, what-goes-around-comes around, and the like, we are free to participate in these things, knowing that ultimately they are determined not by a rational order but by a sovereign God.

Secure in God’s fatherly care, we are free to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  No longer written in the upper-case, reason, science, the market,  morality, and logic are worthy of our respect precisely because we are no longer enslaved by them.  We know now that they are servants and that no matter how irrational and unpredictable God’s ways may be to us, he has revealed to us his electing and redeeming grace in Jesus Christ.  We are free to enjoy things we do not need and to give to our neighbors that which they do need for their daily sustenance.  We are free to look after our callings, to make wise decisions based on the common knowledge available to us.  We are free because we know that regardless of what God sends our way, which we cannot predict and over which we have no control,

I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.  He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my hed apart from the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 1).

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Immanuel: God With Us

Christmas is a time for celebration, but it’s also a time for sentimentality. It’s a time for returning to the greatest story ever told, yet precisely because of its magnitude in our history, tall tales attach themselves to the divine drama like sea mussels to the hull of a ship. In this situation, “God With Us” can easily become little more than a salute from afar, the way we send loved ones off on a trip with, “God be with you!”

God’s Tabernacle

We don’t really understand the significance of “Immanuel: God With Us” unless we crawl inside the story of Israel. From the very beginning, God created the world for the purpose of dwelling in the midst of it, particularly in the midst of the people he created in his own image for covenantal fellowship. The Creator had completed his work and entered his everlasting rest of royal conquest, and now his image-bearer was to follow this pattern. The earthly temple-garden of Eden was but a copy of the heavenly sanctuary, yet no less than the holy place where God promised to meet his viceroy in blessing. After completing the mission for he was anointed as prophet, priest, and king, Adam would be given the right to eat from the sacramental Tree of Life—not only for himself and for Eve, but for his posterity. Leading the whole creation in his train, Adam would enter the heavenly sanctuary, participating in God’s own everlasting Sabbath conquest, confirmed in everlasting righteousness and glory.

Of course, we know how it turned out. Instead of leading the parade to the finish line, Adam led a detour. Instead of listening to every word that comes from the mouth of God and embracing everlasting life by feeding on the sacramental Tree of Life, Adam demanded the food he craved. He sought an inner word that he could ratify by his own inner experience. Evicted from the temple, Adam and Eve were nevertheless given the surprising and wonderful announcement that Christmas was coming. With this gospel promise, a fissure was opened up in history for the progress of God’s redemptive work leading to Christ. The story behind the story, from Genesis to Revelation, would be the war between the serpent and the seed of the woman.

The fall did not change the determination of the Triune God to dwell in the midst of his people. However, it did mean that as long as the people were guilty as covenant-breakers, God’s dwelling in their midst could only be the most terrifying prospect. The mere advent of the Holy God in the midst of a sinful people would incinerate the camp. There’s no going back to Eden, especially to the Tree of Life. In fact, the cherubim were posted there to bar re-entry; for if Adam and Eve had returned and eaten from that Tree, they (and their posterity) would have been confirmed in God’s everlasting immortality, to be sure, but in a state of condemnation rather than righteousness.

So, understandably, when God calls his people to himself, the question arises, “Where can he be found in safety and peace rather than in danger and destruction?” This question doesn’t automatically come to 3 out of 4 Americans. God’s kind of like Santa. “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake,” but the worst that can happen is that he passes you by on Christmas Eve. It’s not, of course.

So Jews had a good reason to be a little concerned about God just showing up all unannounced. On one hand, they knew that they were nothing without God’s presence—that was the whole point of the covenant. On the other hand, they knew that God’s presence was not benign; it meant either unspeakable blessing or unimaginable destruction. So Moses took the risk, pleading with God to accompany his people on their journey from Sinai to Canaan after the golden calf episode; otherwise, how will the nations know that God had chosen, redeemed, and called them rather than liberating them from Egypt only to let them die in the desert as no-people? God acceded to Moses’ intercession. However, knowing the sinful inclination of his people, God mercifully added that he would only pitch his tent outside the camp, with the priest entering the tabernacle on their behalf.

It’s the delicate tension between this ultimate blessedness and ultimate danger of God dwelling in our midst that we observe throughout the biblical drama. The early Reformed theologian Wolfgang Musculus put a fine point on it: “So here we are, faced by terror of divine Majesty on one side and the need of our salvation on the other.” Only in this context are we ready to understand the significance of the Temple.

With the Tabernacle, God condescends to maintain his presence on the edges of the camp. It’s too dangerous to have God living in the neighborhood of sinners. But then there is also priestly mediation through the sacrificial system: the sacrifice’s blood dripping from the horns of the ark of the covenant that housed the broken law. After Israel thoroughly violated the covenant, no longer serving as a beacon to the nations pointing them to the coming Messiah, the Spirit of Glory evacuated his sanctuary and the holy place became as common as a baseball park. Without God’s presence, Israel was no longer a holy nation and the people were sent into exile by the covenant Lord himself. Once more, the cherabim sealed the gate to the sacramental Tree of Life.

Yet even in exile, God sent word through his prophets that he would keep history moving toward his Messiah in spite of his people’s treason.

God With Us: A Blessing or a Curse?

In his remarkable book, Sinai and Zion, Jewish scholar Jon Levenson points out that Sinai—standing for the covenant that Israel swore under Moses as mediator—represents everything temporal and insecure, dependent on the people’s obedience. However, “Zion represents the possibility of meaning above history, out of history, through an opening into the realm of the ideal.” It is not outside of history; this heavenly, inviolable, and gracious covenant enters history. Nevertheless, it is not dependent on what people do and how history evolves under its own steam. Zion represents the promise that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

The Temple was the focal point of biblical faith. It was both Law and Gospel. As God’s holy residence, it was a constant reminder of Israel’s sinfulness, but it also provided the way of salvation through cleansing and forgiveness. As God had made perfectly clear to Moses, God’s presence among his people was a dangerous thing, given who they were and who he is. But if the people, regardless of their sins, came by way of the washing and atonement he had provided on his holy hill, they could experience God’s presence as good news rather than disaster: “God With Us” would be a blessing and not a curse. Levenson explains, “Jerusalem and, as we shall see, especially Mount Zion, are a sign that beneath and beyond the pain and chaos of the realm we call history, there is another realm, upheld by the indefectible promise of God. Dynasty and Temple, the house of David and house of God, function within the order of history, but are rooted in that other order of things.” It’s a zone protected from the ravages of “profane time.”

Eden and “God’s holy mountain” are correlated in Ezekiel 28:13-14. The connection to Eden in that passage drives home also the allusion to Adam in the mysterious fall of the king of Tyre. “The equation of Temple mount and paradise, then, did not begin with Ezekiel,” says Levenson. For instance, it can be found in Psalm 36:8-10. “In short, the Temple is intimately associated with creation. It is, in a sense, the gateway to life as it was meant to be, unlimited by death, eternal life,…sacred time, always new, always just created.” Levenson quotes the sages: “Both [heaven and earth] were created from Zion.” So Zion takes on a cosmic, universal role that Sinai never did. Sinai represents a limited, provisional, national, and utterly conditional covenant that points to the everlasting promise but has no power to bring it about within history. The lampstand represents a cosmic tree atop a cosmic mountain, with branches reaches down, throughout the world, into the heavens above. “This tree was the central life-giving force for the entire creation (there is portrayal of such trees in Dan. 4; Ezek. 17; 19; 31).”

Yet here once again the deceiver lay in waiting, seducing the Israelites away from their God through the idolatry of their neighbors. “Like Adam, they broke the covenant” (Hos 6:7). “High places”—shrines established by religious whim to worship other gods—proliferated, including the sacrifices of firstborn children to Molech. Instead of being stairways to heaven, as many of their inscriptions advertised, they were actually gates to a hellish abyss. Like the avenging angel in the Passover, only this time striking the Israelites themselves, judgment moved steadily from Shiloh until it reached the Jerusalem Temple itself (Jer 7:11-12).

Israel and Judah were finally sent into exile, evicted like Adam and Eve, from the holy place of communion with God that they had corrupted. Evacuating the temple, the Glory-Spirit returned to the heavenly sanctuary, although he continued to keep the hope of the promise alive in the hearts of the captives in Babylon. In exile, God says, “yet I was a sanctuary for them a little while” (Ezek 11:16). In the end-time sanctuary, the Spirit will be present again: Hag 2:5; Zech 4:6-9—the latter an allusion to Ex 33:14-17, the Presence that goes with Israel. God promises “to make ‘the latter glory of this house…greater than the former’ (Hag 2:3-9).” In fact, Isaiah prophesies of the new temple, it will be beautiful (Is 60:1-20).

Although a remnant did eventually return to Jerusalem to rebuild its ruins, the people never experienced a sustained era of independence from foreign rule. Under Roman occupation, something occurred that was greater than the return of the Shekinah-Glory to the new temple under construction. “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

The prophets had already been given a glimpse of this new world-wide temple “made without hands,” especially in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 43-46). Here, once and for all, forgiveness of sins would come to God’s people “in one day” and the Spirit would fill all of them, making them witnesses to the ends of the earth. The typological sacrifices, rituals, and ceremonies of the temple would be fulfilled in the person and work of the messianic Son of David, who would unite in his person the offices of prophet, priest, and king.

So how can we climb Mount Zion? That becomes the key question of rabbinical theology after the remnant returned from exile, according to Levenson. Indeed, he adds, “For Jews, there is no greater voice than that of Sinai.” Even after so clearly pointing out the sharp contrast between the unilateral promise of grace in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants over against the conditional covenant of Sinai, Levenson maintains that that the messiah will come with “Israel’s observance of the stipulations of Sinai….” The Sinai legacy, according to Levenson, rather than being the “schoolmaster” to lead us to Christ, is to be perpetually renewed by each generation. When the remnant returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, they saw themselves in exactly the same situation as their fathers at Mount Sinai, swearing the oath, “All this we will do.” Levenson even notes that this is precisely where Judaism and the New Testament part ways: The former sees perpetual rededication to Sinai as the way to the resurrection of the righteous, while the latter sees the new covenant in Christ as rendering Sinai obsolete. “In fact, the Davidic theology is the origin of Jewish messianism and the christology of the church.”

The Temple Made Flesh

John’s Gospel begins with the eternal Word as God made flesh, pitching his tabernacle no longer outside the camp but in our midst. God would be with us, not only on the edges of the camp to avoid destroying his people in wrath, but “in our midst.” God came to our neighborhood. He became one of us, in fact. The most amazing thing about the first Christmas is that nobody died. Sinners gathered to behold the glory of the Creator of heaven and earth and lived to tell about it.

Jesus identifies himself explicitly as the Temple (Mt 12:6, 39-42) and the Sabbath rest (Mt 11:28-30), dispensing forgiveness directly without the mediation of the temple system. In fact, such actions arouse the greatest ire of the religious leaders, both because he is draining the temple of its significance and, by replacing it, is making himself equal with God: “For who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:18-26). Jesus takes the old sanctuary with him into the grave and on the third day exits the greater exile in a greater exodus once and for all.

In Galatians 4, Paul refers to two mountains that are definitive in redemptive history, especially in the Psalter and the prophets: Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. This side of Christ’s advent, however, these stand for the earthly Jerusalem in bondage as children of Hagar and the heavenly Jerusalem made up of the free children of Sarah. These represent “two covenants,” says Paul, a covenant of law (Moses) and a covenant of promise (Abraham). With Israel’s exile to Babylon as the curse for breaking the Mosaic covenant, the only hope for the future is the new covenant as the realization of the unilateral divine promise made to Abraham and David. This new covenant, says Jeremiah, will not be like the Mosaic covenant (Jer 31).

Levenson is right: Both Judaism and Christianity depart from the expectation of a future restoration of the temple and its worship as a necessary prerequisite for its identity. Yet the difference is crucial: Judaism teaches that circumcision and personal dedication to Torah now replaces the Temple and its sacrificial system, while Christians believe that Christ is the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the law. Where Judaism has spiritualized and moralized the prophetic anticipation of a future Temple “made without hands,” the gospel announces a materialization of that prophetic anticipation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God is now truly “haveable.” His presence is no longer a threat for all who dwell in the sacred precincts of the Holy of Holies, where Christ has entered with his own blood.

There is no going back to the shadows once the reality has appeared in the flesh. And that is good news for Jews as well as for the nations who stream into the Light that radiates from the Lamb. This means that there is not now and never will be any temple of God other than Christ and no holy land other than that which is within the sacred precincts of his body. In Christ, we are the people whom God has made a place—his place—forever. “The Word became flesh and pitched his tabernacle among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

Nor is there any going back to pagan Gentile philosophy, with its ethical or mystical ascent. And that is also good news, because, “There is no health in us.” While we were trying to rise from our flesh to the realm of spirit, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” Only the God of majestic holiness and wrath can be found when we look within ourselves. Jesus is not “God Within Us,” but “God With Us.” And this too is good news, because we need a safe meeting place, an Axis Mundi where we are assured of meeting God in peace and blessing rather than in judgment and disaster.

For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the command that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the slight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:18-24, 28-29).

Christ by highest heav’n adored

Christ the everlasting Lord!

Late in time behold Him come

Offspring of a Virgin’s womb

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with man to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing

“Glory to the newborn King!”

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T. S. Eliot reads “Journey of the Magi”

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Are We Required to Attend Church on Sunday?

The very fact that we have to address this question, even in evangelical circles, demonstrates the true measure of the church’s worldliness. It is not a superstitious attachment to days, but respect for the Lord’s generous service to us, that gives us one day in seven to be swept into the drama of redemption. When the holy day is reabsorbed into the common week, the church is bound to be reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream.

In the Old Testament, the weekly Sabbath is anchored in creation (Ex 20:8-11) and God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt (Dt 5:12-15). The apostolic church met on Sunday, “the first day of the week,” also identified as “the Lord’s Day” (Jn 20:19, 26; Ac 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10).

After the apostles, the twin dangers of antinomian neglect of the weekly assembly and “Judaizing” legalism already reared their head. Addressing the latter problem, Ignatius reminds the Magnesians, “If then, those who lived in antiquated customs came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s day—on which also our life arose through him and his death (though some will deny it), and by this mystery we received the power to believe…(Mag. 9:1). At the same time, the Lord’s Day continued to occupy its princely status in the weekly schedule. Constantine declared it an official day of rest in 321, launching a civil application of the fourth commandment that lasted even into twentieth-century Europe and the United States.

In the medieval church, myriad regulations—civil and ecclesiastical—had been attached to the Lord’s Day, along with a host of celebration, holidays, and rituals that Scripture does not authorize. The Reformers rejected this return to the shadows of the law. In fact, Luther tended to distinguish sharply between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Yet he called each Lord’s Day “a little Easter.” It is not the day itself that sanctifies, but the ministry of the Word. For that very reason, though, his Larger Catechism insists upon the regular participation in the weekly assembly.

Calvin saw a threefold purpose for the Sabbath institution: 1) as a sign of the final rest that would come with Christ; 2) to maintain church order, and 3) to offer relief for workers. Calvin’s view (Institutes 2.8.31-32) is essentially the same that can be found in Luther’s Large Catechism.

Both reformers argue that while the moral obligation continues, the ceremonial aspect of the commandment, including the rigorous restricts attached to it, are abolished in the new covenant. Like Luther, Calvin emphasized that every day believers receive Christ as he is given in his Word and that we would attend daily services if we were not so sluggish. Knowing our weakness, God sets aside one day for the ministry of Word and sacrament. The same view is found in the Heidelberg Catechism:

First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath (Q. 103).

In addition, our Church Order (originating at the Synod of Dort) states that although the consistory may call for other gatherings on special occasions, “Worship services shall be held in observance of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost…” (emphasis added).

The Westminster Confession embraced explictly the “one-in-seven” principle, anchoring the Christian Sabbath in creation, “to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.” There is no list of forbidden activities, but the general requirement to exchange ordinary “worldly employments and recreations [that] are lawful on other days” for “public and private exercises of his worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (Ch. 21). The Confession allows for public services “on special occasions,” but Puritans generally opposed the celebration of Christmas and other holy days. When one examines the ways in which these days were abused (not unlike today), this approach is quite understandable.

Reformed churches came to argue that Christ’s resurrection was sufficiently epoch-changing that it moved the weekly Sabbath to Sunday. Dutch Reformed theologian J. Douma warns, however.

The distortion of the Sabbath given in the casuistry of the Pharisees finds its mirror image in various casuistries related to what we may and may not do on Sunday. Every gospel—whether concerning the exodus from Egypt or concerning Christ’s redemption—can be made into a law.” This happened in the church, especially during the Middle Ages, “because the church no longer grasped the gospel of the fourth commandment. And this, after Christ’s own instruction about the Sabbath, is even more blameworthy” (121-2).

Paul warns against the superstitious attachment to holy days (Rom 14:5), particularly when people fail to realize that the old covenant Sabbaths and festivals were pointing to Christ as the reality (Col 2:16-17; see also Gal 4:10). This is the point, too, of Hebrews 4: an everlasting rest in Christ, that is signified by the various sabbaths under the old covenant. The Lord’s day is never said explicitly to be the Sabbath in the New Testament, but the fact that the former is set aside by the apostles singles Sunday out as the divinely ordained festival of Christ’s resurrection. As J. Douma points out, these passages clearly indicate that “the Jewish Sabbath has ceased” (136). He adds a comparison with circumcision:

Christ is the fulfillment of circumcision. The shadow has disappeared; but precisely for this reason, something else could replace the Old Testament sacrament, something which, just like circumcision, signifies and seals the covenant: baptism. Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. That shadow too has disappeared, but in its place something else could arise which, just like the Sabbath, commemorates liberation. Anybody wanting to maintain the fourth commandment without keeping time with the clock of redemptive history must stick with the Jewish Sabbath. But then such a person will catch no glimpse of the true, liberating intention off the fourth commandment…The shadows of circumcision, Passover, and Sabbath made room for the signs of baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Sunday (137).

The key to a Christian use of the Lord’s Day is not drawing up a list of what can and cannot be done, but to give the whole day to basking in God’s Word, loading ourselves up with the treasures of Christ. Churches themselves are making this more difficult, as they trim down the public worship to a single service of an hour or so. Some churches suspend worship on “Superbowl Sunday”; others incorporate the new holy day into the service. Yet even in “rightly ordered” churches, the question has to be asked, especially by pastors and elders: Are we preparing a feast each week or are we contributing to the trivializing of the Lord’s Day and then blaming the people for not taking it seriously enough?

The Puritans called Sunday “the market-day of the soul.” On this day, we come and buy wine and meat without cost. We set aside our ordinary activities and past-times; we are not primarily doers but receivers on this day, although there may still be works of necessity and mercy. What are we indicating about where our ultimate treasure lies when we give ourselves to sports, shopping and entertainment on this day? Has nothing changed with Christ’s resurrection from the dead? Is there no new creation and new family to which we belong, with Christ as its first-fruits and head? Are there no means of grace through which the age to come is breaking into this passing age? Is there no place on earth today, no time in our weekly routine, in which the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ, justifying and renewing them by his Word? It has become fashionable to pit “being the church” against “going to church,” but there is no church for us to “be” apart from the assembly that God is erecting in the wilderness by his Word and Spirit. We go to church to receive the means of grace, precisely so that we can be the church in the world.

There are Ten Commandments, not Nine. The ceremonial and civil laws attached to the moral law are no longer binding, but the moral law itself remains in effect forever. We can no more reject or treat lightly the fourth commandment because of legalistic distortions than we can dismiss the other commandments against murder, adultery, theft, and so forth. Charles Hodge observes, “The fourth commandment is read in all Christian churches, whenever the decalogue is read, and the people are taught to say, ‘Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law’” (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1946], 324). If God has commanded something, it is to be obeyed; abuse of the command doesn’t abrogate it. John Murray puts the question well: “Why should insistence upon Sabbath observance be pharisaical or legalistic? The question is: is it a divine ordinance? If it is, then adherence to it is not legalistic any more than adherence to the other commandments of God” (“The Sabbath Institution,” Collected Writings, Vol. 1 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976], 214).There is a wide spectrum of interpretation even in Reformed and Presbyterian circles today with respect to the Lord’s Day. As I’ve indicated above, that is nothing new. Calvin would not have countenanced the sort of sabbatarian casuistry exhibited in Puritan New England any more than Luther approved the lax observance of the Lord’s Day in sixteenth-century Germany. I have changed my own position in (The Law of Perfect Freedom), convinced now that the Lord’s Day is grounded in creation as well as redemption.

    Nevertheless, we should all be able to agree on the following points:

  • The New Testament prescribes the Lord’s Day as the weekly gathering of the Lord’s people for the means of grace and public worship;
  • The New Testament insists upon the regular attendance upon these public means of grace. We need a whole day to be bathed again in the powers of the age to come in the communion of saints;
  • The moral intent of the fourth commandment remains in effect, but the ceremonial and civil aspects are absolete;
  • The ceremonial aspects are obsolete because the types and shadows have been fulfilled in the reality, which is Jesus Christ. Any celebration of the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day that is not filled with this festive delight in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel is just another superstitious ritual.
  • The carelessness for the Lord’s Day is ultimately a carelessness for the means of grace and the communion of saints, which is part and parcel of the Gnostic and antinomian spirit of our age. Christ has not done away with forms, structures, and tangible means any more than he has surrendered his body to the grave. As B. B. Warfield expressed the point, “Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn” (“The Sabbath in the Word of God,” ed. John Meeter, Selected Shorter Writings—I [Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970], 319).

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Don’t Forget White Horse Inn!

Folks as you know this is the time of year we need your support. Please consider White Horse Inn in your year end giving!!


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Christopher Hitchens: a testimony to the Creator

Our friend and frequent contributor to Modern Reformation magazine has a great reflection on the death of Christopher Hitchens at his Old Life blog today.

From his conclusion:

Whatever these figures might say about God as redeemer, they do testify in important ways about God as creator, making is appropriate for Christians to give thanks for the incomparable product and productivity of these God deniers.

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