22 May 2007

Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology

The following is an extract from a written piece I'm working on, from which I've drawn and edited for this post in order to explain the name change of this site--a change which is probably not, at first sight, self-explanatory!

The two convictions fueling this site are, first, that authentic Christianity is for every person and for the whole person—head, heart and hands—and, second, that this does not characterize much of the Church today.

Christian truth, which we will refer to as doctrine or theology, is meant to spend time in the mind, but this was never intended to be its final destination. What we put in our head is meant to engage our heart, both of which in tandem fuel our hands. Though it is generally done unwittingly, many of us resist this holistic portrait of biblical faith—perhaps because of the way we’re naturally wired, or perhaps because we’ve been burned by a Christian or a church that has neglected one of these elements. Whatever the reason, today it is a tricky thing to cultivate a healthy, fully integrated walk with the Lord involving the head, the heart and the hands.

Take, for instance, the first two components just mentioned: head and heart. We must admit that our inclination, even as Christians, is not to naturally maintain a proper balance between the head and the heart any more than gravity naturally inclines a mountain climber to maintain his balance as he walks a narrow ridge with sheer cliffs plummeting down below him on either side. We tend to slide either one way or the other.

On one side, some of us tend to be deeply concerned with heartfelt emotion and worship. As long as we are experiencing God in a felt way, we consider ourselves spiritually healthy. This is the goal of our Christian life. Nothing could be worse than not sensing the felt presence of the Lord. When we look for a church, we seek a place where the palpable presence of God comprises the supreme value among the people on Sunday morning. When we read the Bible, we want mainly to get caught up in the drama of the Story and to hear God speaking words of comfort directly into our own soul. When we pick up a new book by a bestselling Christian author, we want to know mainly if it will help us experience God. And (between you and me) we are a bit leery of those Christians across the street who are so nit-picky about theological minutia that they may as well be dubbed the Doctrine Police and armed with hand-cuffs to quickly restrain the wayward saint who unthinkingly raises his or her hands in corporate worship.

This is a legitimate concern. The trouble here, however, is that if experience is all we focus on, to the neglect of the truth in which such experience is rooted, we will gradually become indifferent to biblical moorings and blown about wherever our free-sailing emotions take us. As our affections for God gradually lose their ties with biblical orthodoxy, we will begin to ask what purpose all the fuss about good theology serves, anyway. We will focus less and less on truth and seek only the experience, which will eventually result in seeking such experience first in extra-biblical ways and then in anti-biblical ways. And unbelievers will not ultimately see us as any different from them.

Others of us recognize this. And so, observing this pitfall, we tend to be deeply concerned with believing and defending right doctrine. As long as we are holding to historic orthodoxy rooted in biblical truth, we consider ourselves spiritually healthy. The goal of our Christian life is that we continually refine what we believe about God and sin and salvation and the world so that our worldview captures reality as accurately as possible according to Scripture. When we look for a church, we want only to discover a robust and exhaustive statement of faith. When we read the Bible, we are mainly panning for nuggets of doctrinal gold which will serve as theological ammunition for our next skirmish with (gasp) liberals or heretics. When we pick up that new book, we are concerned mainly to see plenty of Scripture sprinkled throughout and no theological error. And (between you and me) we are a little apprehensive of those Christians across town who are so experientially-driven and shallow that one wonders if they would know the deep end of the theological pool if they were drowning in it.

This too is a legitimate concern. The problem here, though, is that if this concern for doctrinal faithfulness dominates all others and is erected as the supreme measure of spiritual vitality, we will necessarily become brittle and proud, hardening over time like cooling lava. Because we gauge authentic Christianity by what one believes, we will judge ourselves to be superior to those who believe differently, this pride being exacerbated by the fact that heartfelt humility is not valued in the same way as one’s beliefs. Indeed, such belief which never engages the heart to ignite tender love and humility will, in the end, be no belief at all. It will be Pharisaism. And while unbelievers will certainly see us as different than them, they will want nothing to do with us.

The purpose of this blog is to help us all see not that these two—head and heart, theology and doxology, doctrine and delight—can coexist, but that they feed off each other. They are mutually reinforcing. Without one the other dies. Right doctrine fuels—not competes with—Spirit-wrought, joy-saturated, worship-igniting, obedience-producing experience. Our cognitive knowledge of God is meant to feed, not outgrow, our felt knowledge of him. And when our unbelieving friends see this, they will note that it is both different and attractive.

This leads me to correct a possible misunderstanding of something I said just a moment ago about it being a tricky thing to maintain an appropriate balance between head and heart. For using the word “balance” is potentially misleading. While it is true that we all tend to gravitate toward one of these vital elements of Christian living more than the other, the solution to this tendency is not to strive to sustain a moderate amount of theological precision combined with a moderate amount of felt experience, in the hope that if we throttle back a bit on each we’ll juggle just the right balance. Just the opposite is the case. We must pursue doctrinal clarity and precision and depth for the sake of experiential fervor and happiness and enjoyment. The objective ignites the subjective. This is where my earlier analogy of walking a narrow precipice between two cliffs in the name of “balance” breaks down—for I am suggesting that we ought to take the plunge down one side of the cliff, and that is so doing we experience the thrill of the other side.

To the degree, then, that we curb the quest for doctrinal depth, we decrease our capacity for joy. We hurt ourselves with the very thing by which we mean to heal ourselves.

If the great historic truths of orthodoxy are true, then a certain response of glad obedience is not only possible, it is inevitable. Not only are we able to be happy and to live a certain way—what else could we do?

So I’m thinking of a strawberry-rhubarb pie. My guess is that few of us have ever baked a strawberry-rhubarb pie only to don a white lab coat, take out the microscope and Petri dishes, and proceed to deconstruct and examine the pie by means of scientific analysis. No, the pie exists to be eaten—to nourish and be enjoyed. That is what those of us preoccupied with doctrine must see. But that’s only half the point, to which we will return later. The point of this chapter is that those of us insistent on felt experience must see that the pie will only come out right—will only be able to be enjoyed—if we have the right recipe. It must be baked at a certain temperature, for so long, with so much sugar, and all the rest.

Now—what would happen if we substituted baking soda for the sugar called for by this recipe? Or chili powder for the cinnamon? Or cherry tomatoes for the strawberries? We might be able to catch a flicker of familiarity when we place the defective pie in our mouth. But it will hardly satisfy as it is meant to. We might legitimately call what we have tasted a “strawberry-rhubarb pie.” But it is not strawberry-rhubarb pie as it is meant to be. It is not what the recipe calls for. And we will not be able to enjoy it as we should.

This is a picture of the critical place of doctrine in the Christian life. I am suggesting that theology is of foundational significance. Foundational, not peripheral. It is not a hobby for some Christians. It’s not for smart people. It is a pursuit for all. For while we might be able to catch a flicker of familiarity when we place unbiblical doctrine in our hearts, it will hardly satisfy as it is meant to. We might legitimately call what we have tasted “Christianity.” But it is not Christianity as it is meant to be. It is not what the Bible calls for.

And we will not be able to enjoy it as we should.

Jonathan Edwards has helped me more than any other thinker outside our own time (which is often the best way to understand our own time) to see that both doctrine and emotion are fundamental ingredients to authentic Christian living, and that they feed each other. For now we’re focusing on the doctrinal element. Here’s an illumining statement of his from an essay entitled “Concerning Faith,” which explains the foundational importance of clearly articulated theology. Edwards says that

saving faith, whatsoever that be, is the grand condition of an interest in Christ, and his great salvation. And if it be so, of what vast importance is it, that we should have right notions of what it is! For certainly no one thing whatever, nothing in religion, is of greater importance, than that which teaches us how we may be saved. If salvation itself be of infinite importance, then it is of equal importance that we do not mistake the terms of it.

Jonathan Edwards steps back and views life as a complete whole and sees that the supremely relevant question is how a wretched sinner can be saved from the righteous wrath of a holy God. Indeed, because it lasts forever—forever, consider it!—salvation is “of infinite importance.” There is nothing we could possibly do today to more earnestly prepare for eternity that we will look back on in 10,000 years and regret. It is impossible to take salvation too seriously. Eternal joy hangs in the balance.

And if this is so, says Edwards, then it must be just as important “that we do not mistake the terms of it”—that we get our doctrine right. If life in the new earth will last forever, the doctrines explaining how and why we get there cannot be taken too seriously.

History is not the only place we see this emphasis on the critical importance of doctrinal accuracy. The Bible testifies to it again and again. In 2 John, for example, the Apostle John exhorts a sister in the faith by reminding her that everyone who “does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (v. 9). Here, surprisingly, John does not speak of abiding in love (as he does elsewhere: John 15:9-10; 1 John 4:16) but of abiding in “the teaching.” The key determining factor in knowing that one is living in true Christian faith (“has the Father and the Son”) is adherence to apostolic truth.

This does not mean John denigrated the emotive side of faith. In fact, the two words that clearly stick out in when one reads this short letter as a whole are “love” and “truth,” joined inextricably together in places like verse 3: “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.” The apostle is not speaking, then, about a loyalty to truth devoid of love. Indeed, if any name in all the Bible is associated with love, it is the writer of this letter, who here and elsewhere makes clear the fervency of his conviction that love is central to the Christian life. Yet John, the beloved disciple, the one who makes love supremely central in his writings, evidently believes just as fervently that this love must be rooted in truth. A true Christian is one who abides in the teaching.

This prompts me to clarify exactly what we mean when we use the term “love.” Some of us have acquired quite unbiblical notions of just what love is. For many of us, our world around us—and this may even, regrettably, have been affirmed in our churches—has taught us that the word “love,” when read in the Bible, paints a picture mainly of niceness. We have come to believe that to be loving means to be as inoffensive to others as possible. We picture soft smiles, pats on the back, compliments, favors, and quietly spoken words.

Let me be clear. I am not against compliments. And no, believe it or not, I am not against smiles! I am against allowing love to be defined as the general disposition to back down. Please don’t misunderstand me. The Bible clearly teaches that we ought to live in a general atmosphere of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). John Calvin himself, contrary to widespread opinion, exemplified this character trait his whole life long.

But to love someone does not mean to strive, at all costs, not to offend them. I raise this because many in the Church equate the way of love with the way of theological compromise. We have all heard the stale refrain, “Doctrine divides!” True enough; I do not deny it. Yet here’s the problem. What if the doctrine which appears to be dividing so many of us proves to be, in the end, the critical criterion by which one is judged to be a Christian or not? What if a softly spoken word will confirm a person in his or her journey along the broad path that leads to destruction, while an offensive word may turn them from death to life? In this case, the most loving thing to do would be to fight—tenderly, humbly, compassionately, oh yes!—for truth. I reiterate: this does not mean we ought to be harsh rather than tender. Falsehood argued irenically is often more persuasive than truth argued acerbically. Yet falsehood is still falsehood. And, nicely though it be wrapped, it will kill.

Jesus did not consider tender words to be his best option when the spiritual PhD’s of his day turned the Temple into a Wal-Mart (John 2:12-17). And he didn’t compliment the Pharisees in the face of their numerous hypocrisies (Matt. 23:1-36). He spoke truth into their lives. He proclaimed to them what they did not want to hear, and yet what was needed to be said to help them see their wayward ways. My point in addressing what we mean by “love,” then, is that the promotion of biblical doctrine in clearly defined contours is itself an act of love. Yes, this must be done with gentleness and humility. But it must be done nonetheless, and at times no amount of gentleness or humility will diffuse vitriolic backlash from those who view such doctrinal precision as narrow and bigoted.

Free-floating, anchorless, doctrine-shunning “love” is not biblical love. It is niceness. And Christ did not come, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, to make us nice. He came to make us new.

I am suggesting, then, that doctrine is not only important but foundational to healthy Christianity. To put some flesh and blood on this, let’s take an example. Suppose we lived in an age when professing Christians began to question some truth held dear by the saints down through the ages—a truth, say, such as penal substitutionary atonement.

Those are three fancy words by which theologians refer to a basic Christian truth which theologian J. I. Packer helpfully defines this way: “Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory.” Breaking it down, “penal” means that by virtue of his holy wrath God punished Christ; “substitutionary” means this was in the place of sinners like you and me; and “atonement” sums the whole thing up, being derived from a combination of words still observable: at-one-ment. God and sinners are united again—at one place, so to speak—through the cross of Christ. Perhaps Peter sums it up best when he writes:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, (penal)
the righteous for the unrighteous, (substitutionary)
that he might bring us to God. (atonement) (1 Pet. 3:18)

How then might this be misunderstood? It seems straightforward enough. Nevertheless many leaders in the Church today are encouraging a softening of this truth. One writer communicates through his novels that Jesus’ death was not really necessary for God to forgive sinful people. Others are convinced the doctrine of penal substitution encourages violence. One such pair of writers describe this doctrine as “a form of cosmic child abuse,” believing that to view the cross as God the Father pouring out holy wrath on his own Son is completely contrary to, and irreconcilable with, the biblical declaration that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16).

Such a simplistic understanding of the biblical storyline, however, in which passages affirming God’s holiness are sacrificed on the altar of those affirming his love, result in a gospel which throws a life preserver to a man lying contentedly in a lawn chair by the pool. For extracting the solution (divine mercy) while leaving the problem (divine wrath) behind, it is a gospel that offers help where none is needed. For it is a gospel that blushes at the mention of the wrath of God. Yet it is precisely God’s righteous wrath that makes the gospel the treasure that it is (as well as assures us of the eventual justice to be brought down on all evil: see Ps. 9, 75, or 94, for instance). It is the holy wrath of Almighty God that illumines the wonder of divine grace.

Jonathan Edwards writes of the wrath we deserve with the kind of clarity absolutely essential to seeing the worth and beauty of equally clear views of the atonement. “It does not become the Sovereign of the world, a being of infinite glory, purity, and beauty, to suffer such a thing as sin, an infinitely uncomely disorder, an infinitely detestable pollution,” says Edwards. He then compares our pollution with God’s purity.

If we could behold the infinite fountain of purity and holiness, and could see what an infinitely pure flame it is, and with what a pure brightness it shines, so that the heavens appear impure when compared with it; and then should behold some infinitely odious and detestable filthiness brought and set in its presence: would it not be natural to expect some ineffably vehement opposition made to it? and would not the want of it be indecent and shocking?

The counterintuitive kindness of God’s wild and lavish grace is shockingly and wonderfully illumined in the light of his holy fervency to stamp out sin, just as a diamond shines brightest against a black velvet background. When we lift our eyes to the cross, in other words, we not only shudder at the vivid reality of the righteous wrath of God, but also—because of our shudders—find ourselves overwhelmed with the depth of God’s love as we see on the cross the horror of what our sin deserves, and God’s merciful provision of complete and final forgiveness.

There is more at stake in this debate, and others of its kind, than the retention of truth; human happiness hangs in the balance. As goes truth, so goes joy. “When people, burdened with a sense of guilt,” writes Iain Murray, “come to complete deliverance through faith in the atoning sufferings of Christ, and when the love of God fills the hearts of believers, then joy is irresistible. The clearer the knowledge, the higher will be the praise.”

To the degree that doctrinal lines are fuzzied, the potential for satisfaction in Christ is increasingly muted—and while none of us enjoys a crack in the front door that lets out the heat in December, it hardly makes sense to remove the back door from its hinges, lug it to the front of the house, and nail it over the crack to cover it up. That would only create a much bigger (and draftier) problem on the other side of the house. Similarly, it may seem that we are doing everyone a favor by melting doctrinal concreteness in the name of “love”; after all, it certainly does diminish the opportunity for the kind of silly theological quarrelling which is, in the end, unedifying. We have all been turned off by such repugnant bickering when it is done without love. But the losses outweigh the gains. By solving one problem we create a worse one. For while ugly arguing may diminish as doctrinal clarity diminishes, it is sand on which such doctrinal neutering builds.

And when the tempest rolls in, the house will fall. When the storms of life threaten—repeated lapses into sin, losses of loved ones, inexplicable bouts of depression—we will discover ourselves to be far less certain of what is really true about God and life. In the example we have been pursuing of penal substitution, we are robbing ourselves of the objective surety of permanent forgiveness, a forgiveness that does not wax and wane with our relative degrees of obedience. And if we continue to hammer holes in our own boat by softening doctrinal formulation, we will, eventually, drown.

Even if it is done with a disarming smile and endearing wit, to fuzzy the lines of what Christ did on the cross is not kind. It is not loving. It is cruel. If we trade the clear contours of doctrinal precision for a mess of theology-taming pottage, we release to the wind not only the needless bickering we all deplore but also the security, joy and depth we so desperately crave as thoroughly guilty people, and the cure will leave us worse off than the disease.

To soften the need for distinctive theological demarcation makes Christ more widely palatable but less gloriously satisfying, and—to return to our original metaphor—to get this wrong is to get a vitally important ingredient wrong. And the pie will not come out right.

I take this example concerning the atonement not only because it is hotly debated today, but because it is right at the heart of the gospel. It gets at the core of Christianity. Maybe at some point in reading this post you've thought, “I certainly believe it’s important to get the gospel itself right, but I can do without all the theology—all the doctrinal nitpicking. Give me Jesus, not doctrine. Just Jesus.”

There is something very right about this and something very wrong. It is right in that it is fueled by a sense that Jesus Christ is a person, not a set of propositions. I feel much empathy with those who react to the kind of dry orthodoxy which fails to exhibit both an attitude of humility and acts of kindness. For they are right! Jesus Christ is a person. He cannot be exhausted by words. As soon as we begin to describe him, we find ourselves frustrated in our awareness that all known language falls woefully short of ascribing to the Lord his due glory. No doctrinal system adequately captures the beauty of the person of Christ.

But such a sentiment is wrong because it overlooks an important question: which Jesus? If all we want is him, fine—but which one do we desire? The New Testament is clear that it intends to hand down to us in humanly-intelligible language an apostolic body of clearly demarcated truth by which we are invited to enter in and behold the God-man, Jesus the Christ (Rom. 15:4; 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6; Tit. 1:9; 1 Cor. 10:11, 15:1-5; Rev. 2:24-25). And the deeper we delve into this body of truth, the closer we come to the Person whom it exists to describe. And there we find joy. Theological labor generates the wages of spiritual nourishment. Sowing healthy doctrine leads to reaping maximum joy. It is “the sacred writings,” Paul tells young Timothy, that “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). The more fervent our resistance to theological precision, the less confident we can be that we are worshipping the God of the Bible.

My point is not that we can exhaust the person of God with our doctrinal statements about him. On the contrary, I heartily agree with those who critique Enlightenment thought and its offspring for over-rationalizing human knowledge of the divine. One cannot do justice to Mt. Everest with a photograph. One must get on a plane and see it for oneself. Nevertheless, a clearly focused photo of the mountain will certainly provide a more meaningful depiction than a fuzzy one. A blurry picture may quiet the arguments about the details of the picture, for which we will be grateful in the short-term. But we will not be able to enjoy the beauty of the mountain.

In twentieth-century London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon pastored what was at the time perhaps the largest church in the world, the Metropolitan Tabernacle. He has come to be known as one of the most powerful and effective preachers in the history of the Church. Along with his pastoral responsibilities, Spurgeon oversaw what he called the Pastor’s College, to which young men came for pastoral training.

Though he is famous largely for his zeal in the pulpit and imagery-saturated preaching, Spurgeon firmly believed in the importance of clear doctrinal instruction. One example of this is how he treated the atonement as he taught his students. Many of the lectures given at his Pastor’s College have been preserved for us in his well-known Lectures to My Students. On one occasion, we read, Spurgeon firmly declared to this group of young men that

there will be no uncertain sound from us as to the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot leave the blood out of our ministry, or the life of it will be gone; for we may say of the gospel, “The blood is the life thereof.” The proper substitution of Christ, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, on the behalf of His people, that they might live through Him—this we must publish till we die.

At another time he pressed his point home just as strongly: “Beloved brethren, we must be most of all clear upon the great soul-saving doctrine of the atonement; we must preach a real bona fide substitutionary sacrifice, and proclaim pardon as its result.” Spurgeon then explains why he is so adamant about this:

Cloudy views as to atoning blood are mischievous to the last degree; souls are held in unnecessary bondage, and saints are robbed of the calm confidence of faith, because they are not definitely told that “God hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” We must preach substitution straightforwardly and unmistakably, for if any doctrine be plainly taught in Scripture it is this.


Camille said...

Hi Dane,

I really enjoy reading your blog. You really put a fresh, clear twist on some difficult theological struggles. You've encouraged me to dust off the cobwebs and start studying theology again!

You really hit the nail on the head with the your take on heart and mind. I attend a large, "seeker friendly", mega-church and I find that it's all about the heart but not so much the mind. Even in our small group it's tough to get folks to really dig deep (which, according to the church is where maturation is supposed to be taking place).

I stumbled across your blog when trying to find your brother's contact info on-line (I went to Hillsdale with Eric) and have been back regularly to read.

Just wanted to let you know that someone somewhere is reading, learning and being encouraged!

ErinOrtlund said...

Interesting thoughts Dane! I'll have to mull it over, but I like the strawberry-rhubarb analogy! We actually have rhubarb in our garden, so I should go make some pie and sit down with a slice and some cup of tea to mull this post over further! :)