In this second half of our conversation with Dr. Godfrey, we learn Rome’s understanding of tradition, the ambiguity of patriarchal-sacramental language, and just how Rome dances the Tiber Two-Step.
In this second half of our conversation with Dr. Godfrey, we learn Rome’s understanding of tradition, the ambiguity of patriarchal-sacramental language, and just how Rome dances the Tiber Two-Step.
The White Horse Inn store is now ready to ship copies of Michael Horton’s newest book Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctines for Christian Disciples. Before you head off to Amazon, know that they aren’t going to ship until February 5. Oh, and there is one other thing, only the WHI store will send you the book signed by Dr. Horton!
The 2011 award-winning publication The Christian Faith garnered wide praise as a thorough, well-informed treatment of the philosophical foundations of Christian theology, the classical elements of systematic theology, and exegesis of relevant biblical texts. Pilgrim Theology distills the distinctive benefits of this approach into a more accessible introduction designed for classroom and group study.
In this book, Michael Horton guides readers through a preliminary exploration of Christian theology in “a Reformed key.” Horton reviews the biblical passages that give rise to a particular doctrine in addition to surveying past and present interpretations. Also included are sidebars showing the key distinctions readers need to grasp on a particular subject, helpful charts and tables illuminating exegetical and historical topics, and questions at the end of each chapter for individual, classroom, and small group reflection.
Pilgrim Theology will help undergraduate students of theology and educated laypersons gain an understanding of the Christian tradition’s biblical and historical foundations.
Who is Jesus, and what was his ultimate mission? Some today say that he was a kind of philosopher or moral reformer who teaches us all to share our toys and behave on the playground of life. But these views presuppose that the human predicament is that we simply need a little advice or enlightenment, and not something drastic like eternal redemption from sin, death, and hell. On this edition of White Horse Inn the hosts will continue to unpack the first two chapters of John’s gospel and will point out the significance of Christ’s role as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
It’s been out for a while, but depending on how things go at the Oscars on February 24, Les Mis may be around for a while. We have a White Horse Inn interview on the movie here and a blog review here. But a long-time contributor (former editor) and pastor/professor Brian Lee has a slightly different take on the film. In keeping with our purpose of provoking good conversations, we’re delighted that Brian wrote this for our blog.
Almost a month has passed now since a new generation of audiences have experienced the musical production of Les Miserables on the big screen. I was among those who had long heard of the redemptive power of Victor Hugo’s story, yet had never seen or read the story. Going in, I was primed to be blown away by a lifetime of sermon illustrations about silver candlesticks.
And I was indeed blown away. The ample analogies of the Law and Grace have been ably catalogued elsewhere, including in the excellent White Horse Inn discussion. Being a good Calvinist, the story already had me at its portrayal of slavery and bondage… yes, the waterworks began in the opening number. But the gracious gift of the aforementioned candlesticks, offered to the ungrateful rebel in the place of a guilty verdict, packs a big punch. The gifted candlesticks travel with Valjean through the film; a life is transformed; grace resonates through the ages. The gift is even Christological, given by a representative of Christ and premised upon his passion and blood. The Law in Javert hounds. There are echoes of the substitutionary atonement, and the recurring question whether Valjean will identify with the Old Man, the criminal, or the New.
And yet, by the closing song I was nagged by the impression that much of what had been offered me by the one hand of grace had been taken back by the other. What really surprised me in the film (and this is not a plot spoiler), was the degree to which the themes of law and grace echoed equally through the personal transformation of Valjean and the political transformation of the Paris revolutionaries. (The political background of this conflation has previously been discussed on this blog).
As much as I was emotionally drawn into the plot of personal redemption, I was somewhat surprised by this confusion of the heavenly kingdom of grace with earthly utopia. When I heard, for instance, the orphan sing of a castle on a cloud: I know a place where no one’s lost, I know a place where no one cries, crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud… Well, I’m thinking of the Heavenly Zion, Jerusalem above, where every tear is wiped away. But in the finale the chorus sings on the barricades in Paris:
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies… They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord… The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
The heavenly city is an earthly Utopia. The transforming power of grace is an entirely immanent one. The sacrifice of fallen comrades in revolutionary battle is the transforming inspiration of grace that will ultimately overthrow the oppressors of the wretched, the law that demands its pound of flesh.
It was like hearing a solid Law-Gospel sermon that surprisingly closes by shifting the category back to guilt, leaving you with Law-Gospel-Law and asking, “What have you done for Jesus lately?”
Walking out of the theater, somewhat disappointed after all the build up, I wondered if I was picking nits. C’mon, man! It’s not a sermon, it’s a movie. Give your inner systematic theologian a break. There’s no such thing as a perfect analogy.
But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie. Hugo uses the emotional power of Valjean’s story to drive home a political message. There is a certain degree of manipulation involved, made worse because it runs roughshod over biblical truth.
Ultimately, the political confusion at the end of the film led me to revisit the personal story of grace in Valjean’s life, which strikes a few troubling notes. The biggest warning sign here is that Valjean is still haunted by his past at the closing of the film. Am I forgiven now? Valjean asks in his closing scene.
Perhaps this is just the lingering doubt of a troubled soul, but there is a lurking sense in which the transforming power of the story’s gracious act is more driven by guilt, than gratitude. Valjean is ever a man on the run, hunted by the Law. The Law is never satisfied, but eluded, and deceived.
Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf. Valjean’s only hope of deliverance is by his transformation, and his own acts of kindness. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Hugo portrays the Law more powerfully, and more accurately, than the Gospel — at least the Hugo of the musical, I haven’t read the book. At the end of the day, there is no reconciling of grace and justice in Les Mis, and to the extent that Javert’s law grasps and grapples with Valjean’s grace, it is led to a place of utter despair. This insatiable force of the Law, it’s inability to take anything but it’s full pound of flesh, is essentially Roman Catholic in its understanding, which is not surprising given Hugo’s french context.
We tend today to think of images, and especially moving images, as a more effective medium of communication than mere words. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But as T. David Gordon points out, there are certain things that pictures can’t convey, like the gospel of justification through imputation by faith alone. This is why, in part, Paul tells us that “Faith comes from hearing.” While moving images may tug our emotions far more effectively, they lack the precision and clarity to convey saving words, the legal declaration of our covenant-making — not image making — God. Les Mis shows how emotionalism can miss the mark, and how any merely human story of redemption will tend to miss the mark.
This is not to say that the film is not great art. If you haven’t seen the film, take this criticism as an endorsement. But enjoy the film for what it is… a movie, a story. While it is natural for Christians to get excited about Gospel imagery in popular culture — and Les Mis has it in spades — we need to be aware of the limits of “redemptive” film, and preserve the category of entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the mania for redemptive cultural efforts (see this list of the Top Ten “Most Redeeming Films of 2012”), broadens the Christian concept of redemption to the point of which it is practically useless.
Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, DC
This month, we sat down with Dr. W. R. Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California and Teaching Fellow at Ligonier Ministries to talk about the ancient church, Roman supremacy, and the changing winds of Trent and Vatican II.
It’s probably the most famous book in the Bible. John’s gospel is portion of Scripture we often recommend first to new Christians, and it’s led more people to Jesus than just about any other document. But even though it so plainly sets forth Christ to the beginning reader of Scripture, its treasures can’t be exhausted throughout the course of any person’s life. For the next few months the hosts will be mining the riches from this amazing text, and through this study we hope to deepen your understanding of, and love for, the person and work of Jesus Christ.
As everybody knows, well-known biologist Richard Dawkins moonlights as a polemicist against religion. Yet recently a leading physicist described Mr. Dawkins as a “fundamentalist.” The physicist is Peter Higgs (as in Higgs Boson particle). Higgs is expected to win the Nobel prize after this summer’s discovery in Geneva supported his theory about how particles attain their mass.
Although Higgs says he is not a religious believer himself, he chalks it up to his secular upbringing. Science and religion are not incompatible, Higgs asserts, but religion needs to rethink some of its arguments in the light of contemporary science.
Recently I also had the opportunity to ask Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich about the religious implications—if any—of the Higgs Boson, which has been called “The God Particle.” He was kind enough to write up the following insights exclusively for our White Horse Inn readers.
The recent discovery of evidence for the elusive and short-lived Higgs boson stirred up a great deal of short-lived press coverage. My friends knew somehow that it was Very Important, without knowing quite why, nor why it was referred to as “the God particle.” Were there deep religious connotations in this discovery?
The discovery was long ago predicted (if everything was all right with the so-called “standard model” of nuclear particles), and thus long awaited. Already two decades ago Leon Lederman, sometime director of the Fermi Lab and Nobel laureate in physics, was frustrated by the difficulty of finding the particle, and he wanted to vent his frustration by titling his forthcoming book on the elusive boson The goddamned particle. This American idiom expressed his feeling perfectly and without religious connotations, but his publisher vetoed the idea, settling simply for The God Particle. Thus, unwittingly, the pot was stirred unnecessarily for religious connections.
A similar situation has repeated over and over in seeking for the larger context of scientific findings. A particularly interesting case occurred following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Outcries that the book was antireligious brought a thoughtful response from the American botanist Asa Gray, who was a staunch Presbyterian but a serious supporter of Darwin’s evolutionary views. Gray ended his review by arguing that whereas a reader could use Darwin’s theory in support of an atheistic view of Nature, one could use any scientific theory in that way. Darwin, Gray wrote: “merely takes up a particular, proximate cause, or set of such causes, from which, it is argued, the present diversity of species has or may have contingently resulted. The author does not say necessarily resulted.”
Thus it is that cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, already known for his outspoken atheistic stance, captures the opportunity to call the Higgs boson “The Godless Particle.” It is no surprise to learn that his prior views find a confirming place for the particle in his philosophy. Likewise readers of my book, God’s Universe, will not be astonished to discover that I consider the Higg’s boson simply to be one of countless numbers God’s particles that make up the material universe. There are discoveries awaiting to be made that will surely give rise to thoughtful discussions with far more interesting philosophical issues than the discovery of evidence for the Higg’s particle. To name just one, the on-going Kepler mission, which continuously monitors approximately 150,000 stars for the brief dimming that results when a planet passes in front of one of them, has already found a couple thousand so-called exoplanets. Some of these will surely be earthlike, in the sense of being rocky bodies in just the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore possible environments for life. If we eventually find many of them, but with no evidence for life, this may support an argument for the rarity of life in the universe. On the other hand, if hints of primitive life are found, it will verify that the universe is designed to be congenial for life. Of course Lawrence Krauss will argue that the formation of life is automatic and therefore no big deal.
As we never tire of saying around here, God works through means. The Reformers emphasized that God’s glory isn’t lessened by the layers of creaturely means he uses to get something done. On the contrary, it shows just how involved God is at every level, in every event, even to bring good out of evil. Just as the Triune God works in saving grace through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism and the Supper, his common grace is evident in the layers of natural processes that his wisdom, goodness and love direct. In nature and in grace, everything holds together in Christ (Col 1:17). He is eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Even in this game-changing event, his miraculous conception was complemented by a natural gestation and birth, like that of any other baby.
In God’s economy, extraordinary means—miracles—play nicely alongside ordinary means. Sometimes God works directly and immediately, but most of the time he works through secondary causes. Even in Genesis 1 and 2, along with the direct fiat that creates “from nothing” (ex nihilo)—”‘Let there be x.’ And there was x.”—are interlaced descriptions of a more ordinary procedure: “‘Let the earth bring forth x.’ And the earth brought forth x.” This is not a recent theory to accommodate contemporary science; it’s one of many long-standing contributions of our older theologians to contemporary conversations. This distinction has always been helpful in better days, when science and faith were on friendlier terms.
The science-religion conversation is complex, far more so than religious and anti-religious fundamentalists imagine. Yet it may be that our greatest weakness in this discussion is not traditional arguments from the past, but the fact that we have largely forgotten what they were.
How do we respond to someone who dismisses your understanding of Scripture by saying, “Well, that’s your interpretation”? What should we say when a Bible study leader asks the question, “What does this verse mean to you?” How do we know if we are interpreting the Bible correctly? Is there even such a thing as a “correct” interpretation? The hosts will address these questions and more on this edition of White Horse Inn (originally broadcast Mar 25, 2007).
According to a host of recent indicators, sexual assault is on the rise, and unfortunately it appears to be occurring just as frequently inside the church as it is in the outside world. So how are we to deal with this growing challenge? More importantly, how are we to apply the gospel of grace to both victims and perpetrators of this type of abuse? On this program Michael Horton discusses this issue at length with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.
Reviews of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic Les Miserables shouldn’t be too miserable, right? Sadly, I may disappoint you in what follows—I do not provide much insight into the relationship between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, between the ex-con full of grace and the bulldog Law-man. For such discussions, please refer to the recent podcast with Dr. Horton and David Zahl.
Instead, I propose that we look at a somewhat underappreciated but enticing question raised by Hugo’s magnum opus: how do the micro-level interactions of individual characters (Valjean, Javert, the romantic revolutionary Marius, the street urchin Gavroche, etc.) and the macro-level concerns of government, rebellion, and peace coalesce in Les Mis?
So, here’s the de rigueur plot summary (with little to no spoilers): Les Miserables is a sprawling epic of early 19th-century France and the post-Napoleon French monarchy, focusing on the life of Valjean, who is released from a 19-year prison sentence and resolves to reform his life, enriching the life and prosperity of a small French town. Unfortunately, the strong arm of the law pursues him in the form of Javert, a police inspector. Valjean rescues Cosette, a dying widow’s daughter, from servitude and the pair seek shelter in the metropolis of Paris. A decade passes and anti-royalist sentiment grows. Hugo then depicts the rise and fall of the 1832 Revolt—for the rest, you’ll have to read or watch the movie!
How then do these disparate characters come together as a whole? The answer lies in the omnipresence of Hugo as narrator. Hugo’s presence as narrator in Les Mis is more akin to the blatant power of a jackbooted thug than the subtle gossip of a Parisian salon: every other page reveals yet another authorial foray into historical, philosophical, social, or cultural analysis. On one level this is what you and I expect from a 19th century novelist—obvious and passionate social critique, coupled with rigorous descriptions of daily life. Hugo tries with all his detailed research and writing panache to force a revolution in the very hearts and minds of his readers—you and I are brought into the vivid story of Valjean, Marius, Gavroche, Mabeuf, and Cosette. Scene after scene evokes our compassion, breaks our hearts. We are compelled to see Hugo’s vision: the outcasts, sinners, widows and orphans of Paris and of France—along with a dollop of Progress and revolution, will fuse kindness and martyrdom to create a future heaven on earth. In a phrase, Hugo desperately seeks to instill the virtues, values, and mindset of “pure religion” (James 1:27) in his readers.
At another level, however, the Sisyphean efforts of Hugo to cause an internal insurrection evoke not the impassioned cry of disciples, but the sad image of an apocalypse gone bad. A picture of this desperation is found in Hugo’s revolutionaries (Marius et al): they allude constantly to ancient Rome and Greece, to Napoleon and Washington, to the past—yet they also speak of the oh-so-close future era when the July Monarchy will be destroyed and (republican) peace will reign forevermore. In other words, through these characters, Hugo narrows past, present, and future into one apocalyptic moment—the hopes and dreams of all the years. To speak theologically, Hugo is attempting to immanantize the eschaton, to bring about the consummate Utopia in the streets of Paris.
But the bloodstained cobblestones echo ghastly failure. The disappointment of the 1832 revolt ultimately speaks of deferred eschatology—Hugo himself knew that even the great revolutions of 1848 did not bring peace on earth. Yet he details the history of this Parisian riot, I believe, for one crucial reason—to spark not only passion, but also pity and virtue. And here is where the micro and macro levels combine, showing how Les Mis rends hearts asunder. For while Valjean’s grace-soaked success gives internal hope to all who read, the institutional failure of Marius and co. gives external pause. Hugo begs his readers to finish what he has started in their hearts, to complete the insurrection.
How best to respond to Hugo’s evocative plea? As we celebrate this Christmas Day, the answer should be clear. You and I are not les miserables in the story of a pillaging author, a tyrant whose rampaging words plunder our hearts and leave nothing but smoke and fire.
Rather, we are this day in the presence of the author-turned-outcast. The Incarnation resounds like a sonic boom around the world—the Creator has become the creature. Hugo may have eaten zoo animals during the Paris Commune, but he remained a celebrity, never coming near to Cosette’s orphaned state. The Lord Jesus Christ took on flesh in a way that Hugo could only dream, utterly fulfilling the command to love God and love his neighbor, yet cast out from Jerusalem, left to die as a convicted criminal. Neither saintly bishop nor Romantic rebel was there to save him. Is the death of Christ merely another footnote to add to Hugo’s list of failures? If so, where is the vaunted Utopia?
Reflecting upon the nature of rebellions, Hugo places an insightful line in the middle of Les Mis: “An insurrection may become a resurrection”. How right he is in his goal of new creation, yet Hugo’s resurrection would come about through internal swelling of virtue in our happy hearts, when the innate goodness of humanity rebelled against oppressive powers.
In sharp contrast, the insurrection of Christ does not speak of overthrowing political foes by barricades or sheer kindness, but of and by the vicarious death of the author. The revolution of Jesus does not advance through human grasping at heaven, but through the inbreaking of the Word into our sordid and miserable state. As brilliant as the story of Valjean is, we are plunged back into the miserable narratives of our own lives the moment we finish Les Mis. The true story of Christ is far more radical, imaginative, and effective—those who revolt against the Law are gunned down yet reborn by the Gospel. In short, Hugo’s vision is realized not in the Third, Fourth, or Fifth French Republics but ultimately in the church, in the king and citizenry of the New Jerusalem. At the end of the day, we are all royalists.
Paris is worth neither a Mass nor the masses. Paris, like New York or Los Angeles, like all that throbs with power, success, and privilege in our world, pales in comparison to the city whose builder and architect is God, whose king is neither impotent nor tyrannical, but who is gathering and will gather all his people, whether outcast or rebel, no matter their misery.
John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.