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).