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Jesu, Juva

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No, not one (2)

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Resorting to a psychological explanation [of Peter’s denial of Jesus] is less innocent than it appears. In refusing the mimetic interpretation, in looking for the failure of Peter in purely individual causes, we attempt to demonstrate, unconsciously of course, that in Peter’s place we would have responded differently; we would not have denied Jesus. Jesus reproaches the Pharisees for an older version of the same ploy when he sees them build tombs for the prophets that their fathers killed. The spectacular demonstrations of piety toward the victims of our predecessors frequently conceal a wish to justify ourselves at their expense: “If we had lived in the time of our fathers,” the Pharisees say, “we would not have joined them in spilling the blood of the prophets.”

The children repeat the crimes of their fathers precisely because they believe they are morally superior to them. This false difference is already the mimetic illusion of modern individualism, which represents the greatest resistance to the mimetic truth that is reenacted again and again in human relations. The paradox is that the resistance itself brings about the reenactment. (René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 20)

Written by Scott Moonen

June 4, 2017 at 8:42 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

No, not one

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When Jesus declares that he does not abolish the Law but fulfills it, he articulates a logical consequence of his teaching. The goal of the Law is peace among humankind. Jesus never scorns the Law, even when it takes the form of prohibitions. Unlike modern thinkers, he knows quite well that to avoid conflicts, it is necessary to begin with prohibitions.

The disadvantage of prohibitions, however, is that they don’t finally play their role in a satisfying manner. Their primarily negative character, as St. Paul well understood, inevitably provokes in us the mimetic urge to transgress them. The best way of preventing violence does not consist in forbidding objects, or even rivalistic desire, as the tenth commandment does, but in offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries.

Often we believe we are imitating the true God, but we are really imitating only false models of the independent self that cannot be wounded or defeated. Far from making ourselves independent and autonomous, we give ourselves over to never ending rivalries.

The commandment to imitate Jesus does not appear suddenly in a world exempt from imitation; rather it is addressed to everyone that mimetic rivalry has affected. Non-Christians imagine that to be converted they must renounce an autonomy that all people possess naturally, a freedom and independence that Jesus would like to take away from them. In reality, once we imitate Jesus, we discover that our aspiration to autonomy has always made us bow down before individuals who may not be worse than we are but who are nonetheless bad models because we cannot imitate them without falling with them into the trap of rivalries in which we are ensnarled more and more.

We feel that we are at the point of attaining autonomy as we imitate our models of power and prestige. This autonomy, however, is really nothing but a reflection of the illusions projected by our admiration for them. The more this admiration mimetically intensifies, the less aware it is of its own mimetic nature. The more “proud” and “egoistic” we are, the more enslaved we become to our mimetic models. (René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 14-15)

Written by Scott Moonen

June 4, 2017 at 8:33 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

Light

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Speaking of how the effects of the gospel can dissipate, René Girard writes:

All our resistance is turned against the light that threatens us. It has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us. We are wrong to appropriate it. We think we are the light because we witness it. (Girard, The Scapegoat, 205)

Written by Scott Moonen

May 27, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Religion and culture

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Peter Leithart opens his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, with the following observation:

No purely secular society exists or has ever existed. Define religion how you will: As a matter of ultimate concern, as belief in something transcendent, as the organizing master narrative for history and human lives, as a set of practices. However religion is defined, all institutions, structures and patterns of behavior have religious features. All cultures are infused with values and actions that have religious dimensions and overtones. Whether they name the name of a known God or not, societies and cultures are always patterned by some ultimate inspiration and aspiration.

By the same token, all religions have social aspects; they are all embedded in and rely on patterns of interaction among persons. Even the retreat of a solitary ascetic into the desert is a social act, since it is a retreat from social relation. And all religions deal with artifacts, symbols and rituals that might as well be called “cultural.”

Religion is not the “soul” of culture, nor culture the “body” of religion. Religions have bodies, and cultures have souls. It is rather the case that in dealing with any group of human beings, we are always dealing with socio-religious or religio-cultural entities. The common contemporary rhetoric of conflicts between religion and politics obscures the reality. Conflicts are never between politics and religion. Conflicts are always between rivals that are both religious and both political.

Islamic terrorists kill themselves and innocent bystanders for overtly religious reasons. In response, the United States sends troops to the Middle East to make the world safe from terrorism, but also to sacrifice themselves to preserve and advance America’s values, freedom and democracy. To say that the terrorist and the Marine are both motivated by religious values is not to make a moral equivalence. But we misread the times unless we recognize that the war on terror is a religious war on both sides.

We think ourselves all secular, all grown-up, but we have our taboos, our pollution avoidances, our instincts of recoil and disgust. Not so long ago, many found homosexual sodomy disgusting. In a matter of decades, the disgust has turned inside out, and now those who consider homosexual conduct sinful and unnatural are outcasts, treated with contempt. The freedom to engage in any form of consensual sex is now considered a right, and a sacred one, as inviolable as the sacred precincts of an ancient temple. (Delivered From the Elements of the World, 11-12)

Written by Scott Moonen

August 1, 2016 at 6:49 am

Posted in Books, Quotations

Totus Christus

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I recently finished reading Sinclair Ferguson’s new book The Whole Christ, and appreciated it much. I had previously listened to his lectures on the Marrow controversy, and this book fleshes out his thoughts on the controversy and related issues at greater length.

In the introduction, Tim Keller summarizes one of Ferguson’s key ideas:

. . . the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. . . . It is a fatal pastoral mistake to think of legalism and antinomianism as complete opposites. Sinclair says that, rather, they are “nonidentical twins from the same womb.” He traces both of them back to the “lie of Satan” in the garden of Eden, namely, that you can’t trust the goodness of God or his commitment to our happiness and well-being and that, therefore, if we obey God fully, we’ll miss out and be miserable.

Because both mind-sets refuse to believe in the love and graciousness of God, they assume that any commands given to us are evidence that he is unwilling to bless us. They both fail to see obedience as the way to give the gracious God delight as well as the way to become our true selves, the people we were created to be. They participate in the same incomprehension of the joy of obedience—they see obedience as something imposed on us by a God whose love is conditional and who is unwilling to give us blessing unless we do quite a lot of work. The only difference is that the legalist wearily assumes the burden, while the antinomian refuses it and casts it off by insisting that if God is really loving, he wouldn’t ask for it. In order to salvage an idea of a gracious God, antinomians find ways to argue that God doesn’t require obedience.

Neither legalism nor antinomianism can account for the sentiments of Psalm 119, which are godly, Christian sentiments. Neither the legalist nor the antinomian can agree with Calvin’s statement that the third use of the law is its “principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end.”

Ferguson captures the Christian attitude well in a footnote where he makes analogy between God’s law and the laws of golf:

. . . the Rules of Gold, authoritatively issued by the United States Golf Association and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, are never regarded as “legalistic” by those who play golf. And to be an “antinomian” golfer and ignore the rules leads to disqualification. Fascinatingly, the governing bodies of golf publish a surprisingly large book giving guidance on the details of the application of the rules to every conceivable situation on a golf course—and to some that are virtually inconceivable! The rules, and their detailed application, are intended to enhance the enjoyment of the game. My edition (2010-2011) extends to 578 pages with a further 131 pages of index. The person who loves the game of golf finds great interest and pleasure, even delight, in browsing through these applications of the Rules of Golf. It should therefore not greatly stretch the imagination that the Old Testament believer took far greater pleasure at a higher level in meditating on and walking in the ways of God’s law. It is passing strange that there should be so often among Christians a sense of heart irritation against the idea that God’s law should remain our delight. Our forefathers from Luther onward grasped this principle, and, as a result, through the generations those who made use of the standard catechisms learned how to apply God’s Word and law to the daily details of life. It is a mysterious paradox that Christians who are so fascinated by rules and principles that are necessary or required in their professions or avocations respond to God’s ten basic principles with a testy spirit. Better, surely, to say, “Oh how I love your law!” It should be no surprise that there appears to be a correlation between the demise of the law of God in evangelicalism and the rise of a plethora of mystical ways of pursuing guidance, detaching the knowledge of God’s will from knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word.

Ferguson’s other key idea is that we must not separate the benefits of our salvation from the savior himself:

The benefits of the gospel (justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption) were [in that day] being separated from Christ, who is himself the gospel. The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him.

. . . A major indication that such a separation has taken place is that one of the most prominent emphases in the New Testament becomes marginalized, namely, union with Christ. . . . If [being in Christ] is not the overwhelmingly dominant way in which we think about ourselves . . . it is highly likely that we will have a tendency to separate Christ from his benefits and abstract those benefits from him (in whom alone they are to be found) as though we possessed them in ourselves.

While I greatly appreciated the book, there are a few very minor areas where I felt it could have been improved.

First, Ferguson makes an interesting side remark about the so-called “covenant of redemption,” suggesting that Boston was concerned the notion would lead people to the wrong conclusion that the Father was less enthusiastic than the Son in pursuing our salvation. But this remark is so brief that it feels like a play to the cheap seats in recent controversies in the reformed world. Boston’s concerns as briefly stated by Ferguson could apply equally to traditional penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory, and Ferguson makes no immediate effort either to recognize that there are possible ways to address Boston’s concerns among those who hold to a covenant of redemption, or to show how PSA theory can adequately guard against this accusation (which I fully believe that it can).

Similarly, Ferguson treats the new perspective on Paul (NPP) with an overly broad brush. While I haven’t read primary sources, the folks I have read who are cautiously appreciative of the NPP would agree fully with Ferguson’s positive assertions, and yet he does not leave room for a kind of cautious reading of the NPP that might learn something new and helpful. I do not get the sense, contra Ferguson, that many are trying to vindicate either the first-century Pharisees or the Tridentine Catholic church; only trying to better understand the nature of their very real and obvious falls from grace. In other words, most on all sides would agree that the Pharisees were guilty of a kind of deadly spiritual pride (c.f., Rom. 11). The question is only whether the species of that pride was merit legalism or something subtly different. But that is not at all to deny that merit legalism is a genuine species of spiritual pride, only to recognize that such pride comes in many subtle forms, including both legalism and antinomianism, but extending beyond them as well. It is even possible to take sinful pride in possessing the true doctrine of grace.

I find it interesting that Ferguson does not treat another area of recent controversy, namely the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAOC). This is particularly surprising given that he is treating on both the topics of union with Jesus and legalism. As I understand it, those who differ with the language of IAOC do so precisely because (1) they believe that the language of union with Jesus much more comprehensively expresses what we positively receive from Jesus in our justification and how this takes place, and (2) they believe that IAOC can tend to a subtle erosion of the positive place of the law because it views it primarily as a measure of merit rather than a rule of life. Ferguson missed a great opportunity both to express appreciation and agreement with these concerns, but also to positively defend IAOC in light of them. Certainly Ferguson does argue forcefully both that righteousness and merit are not “things” that we possess apart from Jesus, and that the law is not intended as a source or measure of merit even as we approach it in Jesus: “Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Savior severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for us.”

Finally, I have a couple of reflections on practical ways this might impact the ordinary life of the church. First, it seems to me that incorporating corporate confession and absolution into the church’s liturgy would serve as a strong defense against both the errors of legalism and antinomianism: it would both affirm the ongoing validity of the law for the believer, while at the same time utterly denying its power to conduct a ministry of death to those who are alive in Jesus; it would regularly arm and re-arm the church with a kind of “gutsy guilt.” Second, it seems to me that requiring our children to produce intellectual expressions of faith before their participation in baptism or the Lord’s supper is sending a subtly legalistic message about the nature of the gospel, in just the same way that the Auchterarder creed and Marrow were trying to guard against. Jesus does not require our children to get either their moral or intellectual ducks in a row before they may appear before him.

Written by Scott Moonen

March 20, 2016 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

Current events

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Fit to Burst is free for Kindle this weekend. It’s not just for moms!

We’re extremely excited that Jamie Soles’s new album is almost ready!

At the moment there are still about 80 tickets remaining for the Andrew Peterson Christmas concert in Durham. You should join us there.

Written by Scott Moonen

November 21, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Books, Current events, Music

The objectivity of the church

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Brad Littlejohn writes the following about the objective existence of the church in history:

The most crucial and insightful work on [the question of church history] to come out of Mercersburg was Philip Schaff’s What is Church History? published in 1846. . . . At the outset, unsurprisingly, he insists on the intimate connection between ecclesiology and Church history:

In proportion, however, as the Church is thus brought into prominent and principal view, her History must also become for theologians an object of attention and inquiry. Church and History altogether, since the introduction of Christianity, are so closely united, that respect and love towards the first, may be said to be essentially the same with a proper sense of what is comprised in the other. The Christian Church is itself the greatest fact in the history of the world, by which the ancient order of life both Jewish and heathen has been overturned, and the way opened for a new course of existence altogether. Almost nothing has since occurred that can be counted great and important, which is not found to stand in nearer or more remote, friendly or hostile, connexion with the Church, and to acquire its true historical significance precisely from this relation. History, on the other hand, is the bearer of the Church; by whose means this last is made to possess a real existence, whereas, under any other form it could be nothing better than a baseless, fantastic abstraction, which for us who are ourselves the product of history, and draw from it all the vigour of our lives, would have no meaning or value whatever. (Schaff, What is Church History? 25-26)

In this quote, Schaff argues that the Church is, by its nature, visible and historical, and comes to maturity in history. Moreover, history, by its nature, is oriented by the Church. Therefore, not only is a proper understanding of Church history essential to any true idea of the nature of the Church, but it is necessary to give meaning to the lives of Christians today. The study of Church history, then, is as important as any area of doctrine, and those who neglect or abuse it endanger the project of Christian theology as a whole.

The inseparable relationship between Church and history follows directly from the Mercersburg view of the visible/invisible church distinction, discussed above. For Nevin and Schaff, the visible, historical Church is inseparable from the invisible, timeless Church—it is indeed its necessary manifestation. There is no concept of a true Church existing in a transcendent realm beyond time and space, of which the Church we see is merely some vague corollary. No, if the Church is to have reality at all, it must be a reality which actualizes itself in space and time. And of course, we will remember that this is so because the Church springs out of the Incarnation, in which God declared that His saving power must be something which was actualized in space and time. But more importantly, the Church must be historical because God has a historical plan for His creation. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation—the whole order of the world’s life flows forward, first as a degeneration toward death and separation from God, then after the Incarnation and Resurrection, as an eternal regeneration towards life and union with God. God has willed neither that the glorification of mankind take place in an instant, nor that man be divorced from time and the world to be clothed with his glorified state. For it is not just man who is to be redeemed; the God-man came for the life of the world, and through His saving power in the Church, the whole world must be transformed into a new creation, to the glory of God the Father. This story of transformation is the story of History, and it is thus through history that the Church becomes the Church and accomplishes her God-given task to disciple the nations.

This idea comes out in Schaff’s fondness for the scriptural image of the Church as the “kingdom of Christ on earth.” Just as any kingdom, it has citizens, it has a history, and it accomplishes its conquests in history, until it completes those conquests and history as we know it shall cease: “The church is in part a pedagogic institution, to train men for heaven, and as such is destined to pass away in its present form, when the salvation shall be completed.” Moreover, the Church is “the continuation of the life and work of Christ upon earth.” Therefore, because it is alive, animated by the life of Christ, “the church is not to be viewed as a thing at once finished and perfect, but as a historical fact, as a human society, subject to the laws of history, to genesis, growth, development. Only the dead is done and stagnant. All created life . . . is essentially motion, process, constant change.” Again, however the distinction between ideal and actual plays a key role in this concept of development: “the church, in its idea, or viewed subjectively in Christ, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, is from the first complete and unchangeable.” However, he says, we must distinguish from the idea of the Church its “actual manifestation on earth; from the objective revelation itself we must discriminate the subjective apprehension and appropriation of it in the mind of humanity at a given time.” This latter is necessarily gradual and progressive; the Church slowly grows to maturity through history. (The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity, 77-79)

Written by Scott Moonen

February 13, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Books, Covenant, Quotations