The Future of Protestantism: Online and at Biola April 29th

Future of Protestantism

There aren’t many events that could possibly drag me out of bed at 3 AM in the morning, but a rigorous and lively conversation among four thinkers who I have an incredible amount of respect for is among them.

I’m probably biased because one of the participants is a hero and friend of mine, but I couldn’t be more excited about seeing Fred Sanders, Carl Trueman, Peter Leithart, and Peter Escalante discuss the Future of Protestantism April 29th at Biola or, if you can’t be in the area, livestreamed into your computer or church through the joys of internet wizardry.

The conversation stems from Peter Leithart’s controversial essay on the same theme, and aims to extend that further.  I’ll be getting up at a ridiculous hour to watch live because…why wouldn’t I?

Seriously, look at that list of names again. Think about what fun this is going to be.  Sanders, Trueman, and Leithart are probably best known to readers of Mere-O…and in my opinion they represent about the best and most rigorous of Protestant though.  Peter Escalante is an astonishingly well read fellow whose work at the Calvinist International is newer to me, but I’m awed by his intellect and his knowledge of Reformational sources.

We’re Mere Orthodoxy, and while we skew Protestant (and evangelical) in our attention because of my own natural proclivities and interests, this is just the sort of conversation that I would hope any reader would be interested in.  It’s sponsored by the good people at First Things, who for years have had a reputation for being mainly a Catholic magazine.  That reputation isn’t really fair…as their sponsorship of this event makes abundantly clear.

And then there’s the Davenant Trust, the other co-conspirator, which has been started by (among others) my friend and sometime Mere-O writer Brad Littlejohn. They’re up to the right sort of mischief, what with this event, a convivium that I desperately wish I could attend, and a new center aimed at studying the Reformation.  It’s all so great that I’ll almost forgive them for housing it at New St. Andrews, rather than my alma mater Torrey Honors.  Almost.

I hope you’ll join the event online or in person, if you’re able.  It’s easy to sometimes be discouraged about the state of the Protestant churches, but this is an opportunity to hear directly from theologians at their best in an environment that is aimed not at wowing the crowds but ploddingly, patiently, and cheerfully taking on difficult questions in an irenic and constructive way for the good of the church.

Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

common objects of love o'donovanRecently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)

Alastair – I’ll kick things off.

My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.

I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).

But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

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Words for the Anxious Soul

I have been reading (and singing!) through the Psalms a good deal over the past year. One very valuable aspect of the Psalms is the way they give voice to a broad variety of human emotion. This is the inspired song book of God’s people, and it has a song for almost every mood. Here is one that has been very meaningful to me as of late:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation  and my God.

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me. (Psalm 42:5-7)

These images well describe the turmoil of a soul racked by anxiety and fear. Everyone, it seems, has to experience it to some degree. For most, it is the result of some daunting task, a change of home or job, or some other common challenge. For others, it is all-consuming, wrecking their life with a worry that touches on almost everything. Their nerves are always frayed; stressors that others could shrug off can knock them flat.

Each of these levels of anxiety is a real burden. Worry is wearisome, a weight on body and soul. We can desire to say, “I have calmed and quieted my soul,” (Ps 131:2) but to do so can be difficult. While anxiety is so common, still so much of what we tell ourselves and others only worsens the load. Worse still, even the techniques, behaviors, and mindsets that actually do help break the power of worry can readily be subverted in ways that only strengthen the anxiety.

I will here focus on two flawed responses: commands and maxims. The former are simple, short injunctions like, “don’t be worried”, “quit it”, or “stop fretting over that.” They restate the problem, offering neither mercy nor direction.

Anxiety and an exaggerated sense of guilt go hand-in-hand. A barked order easily fuels both. It doesn’t give the strength of will to climb out of the slough of despond. It only highlights the sense of weakness and inadequacy that comes with anxiety. It is like the terror of Law, except that it drives one further away from mercy and reconciliation.

The maxim hands out insight without wisdom. As I said in my post “A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts”, these simple statements are more of conclusions than starting points. They only make sense in light of practice, reflection, and shared struggle. They need more than only assent, but also to be worked down into the level of habit and inclination. The good words that speak most truly to anxiety and grief are also hard words. Make them soft, and they become ineffectual. It certainly is not a one-stop, quick-fix, one-time-only jump directly to a happy conclusion.

But how do you get yourself, or someone else, on to a better path? By actions and with patient endurance. Often one has to move down the path towards wisdom one weary, half-blind, halting step at a time. If you try to skip straight to the end, you say things that are often true (“You can do this,” “God has a plan,” “It’s always darkest just before the dawn”), but not helpful to the present need.

A good signal of a bad approach to helping an anxious person (whether yourself or another), can be found by an analogy with James 2:15-16:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that?

To say those words in that context is a form of callousedness disguised as compassion. It is an obvious refusal to do anything that is in your power to give practical aid. You might feel better after saying it, but nothing has changed.

There is the first half of our equation: what not to say and how not to say it. The question becomes, what approach should we use?

Paul gives a very direct answer. The first half of Philippians 4:6 says simply, “Do not be anxious about anything.” This seems like the “command” form at first, but context is, as always, key. Let’s back up and see how Paul got there. This is part of the conclusion of the letter, where Paul says words of general advice and encouragement:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything,

He tells us to be joyful, to be agreeable, and then not to be anxious. This is a set of exhortations to wise living. They are also words about how to live in community; recall that these statements come in the wake of Paul’s pleads to Euodia and Syntyche to “to agree in the Lord.”

So Paul means business. “The Lord is at hand;” God will take notice. But is this to be read as a stern word or as a word of fatherly advice, full of love and motivated by mercy?

What Paul says next is crucial:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The word about anxiety is couched not just in exhortations for godly living, but specifically suggests a responsive action to anxiety, and a different way of thinking.

The first part is prayer and supplication. Pray and plead to God over whatever is the source of concern. God is not simply our heavenly shoulder to cry on or some cosmic punching bag. He is the creator of the universe. Yet strangely, he apparently does want to hear our concerns and our requests. God asks us to approach him with confident reverence and reverent boldness. Nothing is too grand for God to comprehend, nor is anything too small.

But Paul suggests more. He counsels “prayer and supplication”, but “with thanksgiving.” This connects well with “rejoice in the Lord always” from two verses back. However large or small the concerns, however little of joy or gratitude our hearts can summon at the moment, it is always a fitting to frame our requests and our bold wailings with a measure of thanksgiving. Even if only for the very breath of life that one still painfully breathes in and out.

And what is the outcome? “The peace peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is not some callow, manufactured peace. This is not forcing a smile and repressing vigorously. It is a strong peace, stronger than what is within us, because it is a peace that can guard and protect. And it comes from a loving Father, by our joining with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This peace of God binds us to the One who became a human being like us.

So as we look to have our hearts and minds guarded in Christ Jesus, let us now look at the guidance that Jesus himself gives. The best go-to place is Jesus’ famous words about worry and toil in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This is calming and beautiful, and it calls us outside of ourselves in key ways.

First, Jesus refers to the beauty of the created world. The flowers are clothed more radiantly than Solomon in his splendor. (Without working a day in their lives!) The birds lack industriousness altogether. Yet they are beautiful and they well provided for. Be comforted, and know that God does not value you below wild plants and sparrows.

Jesus gently offers us a different way of thinking. We are not in control, and we cannot guarantee good results. Can you add an hour to your life? No, God has set that hour. I used to jokingly add (thinking it fit Jesus’ point), “In fact, you could subtract several hours by worrying!” But my former cleverness misses the point entirely. While my behavior and choices may be among the means God uses, He remains in control. I can plan with prudence but die in a freak accident, while some BASE jumper lives to retirement age.

Jesus bids us trust in the Father’s goodness. He loves us and gives us good things.  That is a hard truth and a blessed hope. We may not understand, but we can trust. More than that, we can have confidence that His promises will be fulfilled. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil. Or at least, start to fear less.

Jesus also points us to something greater. Right next to these comforting words, he points out where we should focus our attention: on God’s kingdom, and on God’s righteousness. This is not a prosperity promise. (I’m not asking you to send me a check, for starters.) Neither is this a claim that material poverty is the mark of a particular sin. It is a notice that focusing on God’s ends allows us to trust that our necessities will be provided.  C.S. Lewis gets close to this when he suggests that if we focus on Heaven, we may get Earth “thrown in”.

Jesus proclaimed very high standards. He denounced the falsely righteous with verve and vehemence. Yet Jesus also proclaimed mercy and forgiveness. As Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The same one appointed to bring justice is also the fountain of mercy. If we trust in Jesus, then God’s justice itself can be our relief, His faithfulness our protection, and His mercy our delight.

If you are facing the everyday anxieties and worries of life, I hope you take encouragement from these words of scripture. If you are suffering from a longer term anxiety that is keeping you from everyday functioning, please do seek help from someone who is trained to do so. There is a path through those dark woods, but it can be hard to find unaided.

Further thoughts on World Vision

There is much more that can be said about the recent turn of events with World Vision, who has now reversed course.  I took to Twitter last night at the goading of Sarah Posner to say a few things about it.  Sarah and I don’t agree on much (we learned we have 72% cacao chocolate in common!), but I enjoy disagreeing with her so much that I yielded.

And, let’s face it, I’m just a sucker for long-winded rants about anything.

And all the people said “amen” to that last one, no doubt.

You can see all the other tweets and conversation that went on after that.  I’m grateful for the kind words that many people gave the verbal ramble.

Finally, at the risk of overstaying my own welcome at my own blog, I want to excerpt a bit from a comment I wrote in the previous discussion.  I think it’s important for understanding some of the broader issues at stake in the conservative concerns about World Vision’s original decisions.  It by no means captures every nuance of the decision, but hopefully clarifies my thinking about this a little more.

“It’s not at all obvious to me that the decision to withdraw funding from World Vision entails that there is *more* concern for opposing homosexuality than for helping children. I bet we could find lots of reasons to think that’s just not the case among conservative Christians. For one, if we compared the aggregate donations that go to World Vision and other poverty-based organizations to those set up to deliberate oppose “gay marriage,” I suspect we’d see conservatives give FAR more toward poverty services.

Second, let’s remember that World Vision is as large as it is in part because the very people who now have qualms about continuing to give gave for years. That is, if nothing else, a prima facie sign of a serious commitment to ending poverty. To claim that conscientiously withdrawing support is a sign of no longer caring about children, etc. seems to single out one particular moment in their relationship with the organization and ignore that past history.

But thirdly, and probably most importantly, I think your claim about them caring more about gay marriage rather than children only goes through if they were to give up funding poverty relief COMPLETELY rather than transfer it to a different organization that does equivalent, even if not identical work. There may be reasons why people who started a funding relationship with WV should continue: but if they move to (say) Compassion, that is not a sign that they no longer care about the children they once supported.

In a hypothetical case, suppose that a person decided that Compassion was more effective than World and so transferred their funding. No one could possibly accuse that person of not caring about poverty relief. So the sheer fact that people are ending sponsorships with WV does not entail that they care *more* about stopping gay marriage than they do about poverty at all. I think, to be honest, the claim [that conservatives care more about doctrine than children] only goes through if World Vision is the only sort of organization that does what it does. But it isn’t.  world vision

The better understanding is, I think, the one I gave in the original post. People give to World Vision because they care about ending poverty *and* contributing to evangelistic work. The disagreement with WV is on the latter half of that formula, not the first half. And so switching organizations on grounds that they have reasons to believe that other organizations will meet both aims better than World Vision simply has no bearing on their commitment to the first half.

I would note that all of this means that I think if a person simply stopped giving money altogether rather than changing the recipient that would be a reason to think that [the interpretation that they care more about doctrine than people] is right. But given that these are people who have (in many cases) given freely and willingly for years, I’m highly dubious that people are going to give up their charitable contributions toward children in need altogether, rather than transfer them.

You can see the whole conversation here (including a rejoinder that I haven’t had a chance to respond to yet).  I’d also note that this comment was not meant to contradict my argument that conservatives can and in most cases should keep up support for the individual child they have forged a relationship with.  Rather, it is simply trying to show that the abstract claim that stopping support for a child entailed a prioritization of doctrine over children is faulty.

Again, that is by no means a comprehensive analysis.  I probably won’t put that together…ever.  But it’s a start toward clarity…I hope.

An Interview with Dan Siedell on Faith and Art

Last fall I had the chance to meet Dan Siedell, a fellow Lincoln native, when he made a trip back to Nebraska. (Dan teaches classes at both Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale and at The King’s College in Manhattan.) We were able to have lunch as well as organize a brief discussion night at my church on issues related to Christianity and art. After our time together, I had several questions I wanted to ask Dan based on his comments at the event. So Dan and I stayed in touch and over the next few months did a long interview about the relationship between art, worldviews, and the life of local communities.

JM: In an interview in Curator, you said that if your first introduction to modern art had been with Hans Rookmaker, the Dutch critic who influenced Francis Schaeffer so deeply, you would have been forced to either give up your art or your faith. Why is that?

DS: I came to Rookmaaker, like I came to Schaeffer, after I’d already completed my course work for a Ph.D. in the history of modern art, after I’d moved to New York to study with a critic, moved again to pursue doctoral studies. When I was writing my dissertation, I’d already been married for three years, had our first child, and so I already had considerable skin—and bone—in the game. I’d sacrificed so much and knew that I would be called on to sacrifice a lot more to pursue my passion for modern art. [Rookmaker's work] just rang hollow to me.

And I think it rang hollow for me because Rookmaaker’s and Schaeffer’s worldview focus was intellectual—it was about ideas and thoughts—and art was always just an expression of such things. For both [of them] there was a certain distance—art was kept at arm’s length, as it were. And that was not my experience. Now, I’ve had many people who studied with those two men tell me that they were passionate about it and encouraged their students to engage it. But their writing didn’t communicate that to me. I was converted to modern art through writing, through words, and so I’m very sensitive to my own voice and communicating a passion for my subject, a passion that encourages participation, not dismissal. Their work was also about a particular moment in which the “Christian artist” was a viable way to be faithfully present in culture. I don’t think that’s the case now.

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God Become Man: Toward a Richer Theology of the Incarnation

For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. —St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A Mistake

It has been common these past few years to speak of “incarnational theology” as a way of describing the Christian mission to the world: we ought to “incarnate” Christ to the world as Christ “incarnated” the Godhead to us.[1] There is much to appreciate in this sentiment. It represents an appropriate recognition that humans are God’s image-bearers. It pays heed to the New Testament’s assertion that Christians are the body of and ambassadors for Christ. It takes seriously Paul’s shocking language of “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). It rightly points to the synthesis of missionary activity and social activism that represents the best of evangelicalism.

Yet for all that, I think that applying the language of incarnation to believers is a serious mistake. It is not that this way of speaking is wholly wrong but that it tends to blind us to the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Christ. God becoming man was an astounding event, a greater thing than any of our philosophers or poets had imagined. Thus Lewis wrote, “It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about” (Miracles). When we speak of ourselves “incarnating” Christ, we begin to blur out the sheer shock of the event. When Jesus came, God was here with us, but now we stand in the time between the times, waiting for him because he is not—not as he was, and not as he will be.[2]

Moreover, incarnational language is a hermeneutical failure: it is a misapplication of the New Testament “body” metaphor for the church. Whenever the apostles use bodily language to talk about the church, they do so to point to the unity of the people of God, not to the evangelistic impulse. The authors of the New Testament chose other images instead: fishermen, or servants working in the absence of their master, ambassadors and representatives to name just a few. Indeed, at no point does the Bible use the metaphor of the body describe Christian witness to the world. So we would do well to set aside the idea that we “incarnate” Christ. We do not incarnate him, because we cannot—the Incarnation was unique—but that does not negate the instincts of which the theology of the last few years has been an expression. It simply means that we need to do better in expressing those ideas.

Important as these semantic issues are, though, there is a much more significant problem: namely, how much we miss when our incarnational theology is about us instead of about Jesus.

On the Incarnation

I have come to tears in a class only once in my life—a few weeks ago, listening to my theology professor exult in what Christ did for us in the Incarnation. In evangelical churches, we often discuss Jesus’ death on the cross, and sometimes his perfect life or his resurrection.[3] Rarely, however, do we speak of the Incarnation. It usually only gets a mention at Christmas—usually when we talk about how the Virgin Birth was necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy, one of many confirmations that Jesus was indeed the foretold Messiah.

But the Incarnation means more than this. It always has. That God became a man is bigger than paying for our sins—marvelous though that alone would be. The language is there throughout the whole New Testament:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

—Luke 1:76–79

Zechariah’s prophecy includes salvation from sin, yes, but it points to something more: light coming into the world, death’s power ending, and peace reigning. How does Christ’s work accomplish those? It seems to be at least partly in his coming into the world.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

—John 1:11–18

John couples the Incarnation of Christ—not his death or resurrection, but his becoming flesh—to our becoming children of God once again. His description of the Incarnation points to our adoption.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

—Colossians 2:9–10

Paul goes on in Colossians to talk of the penal substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work in very definite terms—but he starts here by showing how we are filled in Christ even as the “whole fullness”[4] of deity dwells in him.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

—Hebrews 2:14–18

Hebrews shows us Jesus as propitiation for our sins—hallelujah!—and it also shows us his help for us because he has suffered under temptation just as we have. More: his death delivers us not only from the penalty from sin, but also from death and the power of the devil.

We could go on, and on, and on. The Incarnation matters, and it matters as more than a means of getting Jesus to the cross so that he could die for our sins. We evangelicals too often reduce everything to penal substitutionary atonement. Yes, the atonement is incredible and amazing. It is one of the central affirmations and joys of the Christian faith: our sins are paid for! Glory to God! But Jesus did more than that, and he is worthy of yet more praise. He did not stop at paying the price for our sins while leaving our bodies subject to corruption. He did not content himself with performing a judicial act while leaving our wills broken, certain to turn again to the same sin that led to our death in the first place.

Redemption is not less than substitutionary atonement, to be sure—but it is more, much more. Redemption is the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the cleansing from unrighteousness—not only from its guilt, but from its corrupting stain on our souls. Redemption is our wills being unchained from the power of sin. Redemption is partaking in the divine nature. Redemption is resurrection from the dead—not a rescuscitation from which we will only die again, but being raised to immortality. Redemption is the mending of our communion one with another. Above all, redemption is the restoration of fellowship with God: Jesus took up our flesh that he might unite humanity once again with the Triune Godhead.

As we were in the beginning, so shall we be again—but better.

Saint Athanasius said it best long ago:

For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father….

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery— lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for naught— He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours….

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father— doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

—Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation

If Christ did not unite every corner of what it is to be human with his divinity—without the Incarnation—we remain guilty, foolish, wicked, common, enslaved, indebted, dead. But with the Incarnation, we have everything. We have been transformed from guilt to innocence, folly to wisdom, wickedness to righteousness, commonness to holiness, slavery to freedom, debt to heirdom, death to life. All of that in the Incarnation, where the God-man remade us as humans-with-God. Hallelujah.


If you have not read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, you should. It is one of the most important books in the history of the church, and therefore in the history of the world. It is also short. Do yourself the great favor of getting a copy and reading it well. For my part, I have made a commitment to read it on March 25—the day on which the church has traditionally celebrated the Annunciation of Christ to Mary—every year for the rest of my life. I think it is that important.


  1. The use of the adjective as a verb is annoying, but perhaps tolerable in light of the lack of a suitable alternative.  ↩

  2. Yes, the Spirit indwells us, and yes, God is everywhere. But the picture we have in the consummation of all things is God with us in a deeper way—and we do not have that yet.  ↩

  3. Though we spend far too little time on either Jesus’ life or resurrection.  ↩

  4. What a phrase!  ↩

On whether Christians should keep supporting World Vision

World Vision USA has altered their employee handbook to allow them to hire members of committed same-sex unions.  As I noted on Twitter, I find their rationale incoherent, but not terribly surprising.

Of the various threads I could take up, though, I want to focus on the decision which many conscientious Christians who deeply disagree with World Vision USA’s decision now face:  should they continue on supporting the child that they had been, or should they send their donations elsewhere?  world vision

It’s important to note that the question is not strictly financial.  As with many organizations, the funds an individual contributes in support of a child do not go to that child directly.  They are “pooled” and sent to support the community which the child lives in.  Similarly, the contributions are used to justify additional grant money from governments that are thrown into the various pools as well, all of which provides help for the community and from which the child benefits indirectly.  This is not uncommon:  it allows World Vision to maximize the impact of the money by focusing on the structural issues within a community that contribute to everyone’s flourishing.

Obviously, the careful structure would make the “child support” rhetoric less punchy and useful for raising donors. But it also means that when an individual withdraws support, the community which had been the recipient incurs some financial loss, but that loss is spread across the whole of the community (rather than, say, a particular child no longer receiving a $35 check every month).  Of course, if individuals withdrew their support en masse a significant impact would be felt. But the effect of pooling funds means that responsibility is pooled as well.

I mention all that only so we are clear on what the decision is at stake.  There are other factors that matter, too, though. Most importantly, supporting a child frequently means establishing some kind of relationship with them through letters, gifts, and other communications that are meant to support a child’s well-being directly.  Sometimes these are quite robust, and can provide important emotional and spiritual levels of support to the child who is the recipient of them.  It is also here where many people will feel the dilemma the strongest:  regardless of whether the child might suffer any serious material loss (because of the pooling effect), there may be a serious loss and confusion that withdrawing support would introduce. And there may be a genuine loss of relationship and of instruction within the donor’s own home with one’s own children, and so on.  There may, in some cases, be a real loss of possibilities of evangelism:  the harvest may have been ripened due to years of sowing and watering, and walking away may remove one significant factor which may contribute to the eventual reaping.

It’s important to underscore how important this is for the decision:  to ignore it would be to reduce every bit of giving that had gone on to a strictly financial transaction.  But charity ought not be purely monetary.  To view it as such is to corrode the practice of giving for the giver, not just the organization who receives it.  It would undermine the entire logic, and would do harm to whatever organization the donations were transferred to, as the new relationship between the donor and the organization would be established on strictly monetary and utilitarian grounds.  Prioritizing the relationship with the child in the decision about whether to withdraw support or not locates the financial considerations in their appropriate position:  as important, but by no means all-important.

All this could be mitigated, of course, if World Vision USA opened up pathways for people to continue to correspond and send packages to children without sending money to World Vision USA itself.  Such a possibility would allow for many people to keep up the kind of support they prefer to give directly, without necessarily entangling them in supporting a ministry that they (rightly) think has made a decision that is deeply inconsistent with the Gospel it has taken upon itself to proclaim.  If made available, I would commend such a possibility without hesitation or reservation.  The loss of funding for particular communities might still leave them with fewer resources than otherwise–but directly supporting the child might offset some of the lack they experience.

But presuming that option is not available, there are other complicating factors for the decision.  Jonathan Chan pointed out to me on Twitter that WorldVision’s local support teams are dependent upon the country for their leadership, which means they have no structural relationship with the decision that WorldVision USA has made.  So World Vision USA’s decision may not have any material or substantive impact on the work they do elsewhere, or World Vision’s other branches faithfulness to the Gospel.

All this makes for a relatively thorny problem.  But one possibility that Christians should avoid, it seems to me, is simply ignoring the difficulties altogether on the pure grounds that World Vision USA saves lives.  Many organizations save lives, and the Christian who gives money to World Vision USA is unquestionably committed to doing so.  But they are committed to more than that, which is why they have chosen to give to World Vision rather than some other organization.  Indeed, it may be those additional motivations that prompts in some cases the giving to be genuinely sacrificial:  removing them alters the entire character of the giving for many Christians.  World Vision USA is good at what they do:  but they are not the only organization that is good at what they do.

Even if a Christian decides that it is right to continue giving, they ought do so cognizant of the changes that have gone on and the potentially altered character of the organization which they are supporting.  And if they decide it wrong to continue giving (even for a temporary season), then their decision should not be construed as one that is necessarily unsupportive of children.  Publicizing the end of that giving seems to me both noxious and wrong:  but so then does publicizing the beginning of such a relationship as well.  We cannot take too seriously the danger that by broadcasting the goodness of our deeds we have our reward in full.  There is no harm in pursuing a good with sobriety, modesty, and quietness.

None of that, of course, answers the question of what a Christian should do given the competing claims and goods at stake.  There is a sense in which a pure claim to fidelity to the Gospel might impel them to quit giving immediately:  I think that response is understandable, but given the substantive conditions I’ve outlined above, not entirely warranted in every case.  If a person has only two months ago started sending money and corresponding, ending it would not nearly be as significant as someone who has corresponded with a child for six or seven years.

What, then, should a Christian who thinks World Vision USA has made a grave organizational error do?

The first thing to do is, of course, inform World Vision USA of your conclusion and the difficulty they have subsequently thrown you into.  Angry, belligerent emails and phone calls are not a Christian mode of response. But level-headed, patient, and clear reasoning can be.  It would be prudent to ask for World Vision to set up pathways for people who have decided they can no longer give to continue corresponding and supporting their child directly, as a sign of their willingness to help those who disagree with their new vision carry on those modes of communication that first and foremost make World Vision a Christian organization, even if it costs the organization a great deal of money and time to ensure that it can happen.  Opening up such pathways would convey World Vision’s commitment to unity of the right sort, namely that which respects and seeks to maintain lines of communication within and across real and substantive disagreements that it recognizes must be maintained.

Second, it seems to me that continuing to give in a situation where there has been a substantive relationship established with a child would be appropriate, at least for a season.  Given that education and formation happens at the local level, and that the other branches of World Vision are not beholden to World Vision USA’s decision, there is nothing substantive lost by maintaining support temporarily. The boundaries of a “substantive relationship” are, of course, somewhat fuzzy.  In the abstract, what sort of relationship qualifies is impossible to discern.  But some sort of differences are obvious, as I noted above, and those differences introduce genuine and substantive reasons for acting that must be accounted for in this case.

But I would add a qualification to this, if support continues:  I would notify World Vision USA that the continuing of support is for the purposes of the child alone, and that when the financial-support relationship comes to an end (as it does automatically at age 21, and at other ages for a variety of reasons) it will not be renewed or transferred to another child, but will be taken to another organization.  There would be two ways to look at this sort of communication:  either it could be seen as ‘holding World Vision hostage’ by threatening to remove financial contributions, or it could be a form of ‘informing World Vision USA of a decision so they can make alternate arrangements’.  Which description belongs may depend entirely on how the communication is given:  non-profits need to know how to project their finances, and giving them some advance warning that support would be withdrawn at least allows them to seek alternative means of funding in the interim.

But the effects of these sorts of organizational decisions are often slower moving than internet responses or commentary.  The  logic of the traditional marriage case depends upon a commitment to something like a “moral ecology”, but that means that the effects of certain decisions are not often known until several generations later.  Analogically, this sort of symbolic move will have a substantive effect on the moral ethos of World Vision USA, but the fruit in its own organizational life and in its relationship to the broader World Vision organization (the structure of which is not entirely clear to me) may not grow for a while. For those who are committed to supporting particular children, that delay is a benefit, as it allows support to continue while still expressing a fundamental disagreement and communicating to World Vision USA the reasons for such a disagreement and the end-point of any future support or help.  It’s a slow withdrawal, to be sure, but we are to be patient in doing good, even when doing good demands changing the recipients of our support.

Third, I would begin any new contributions with another organization and encourage those who ask to do the same.  Food for the Hungry, Compassion International, and others do similarly good work to World Vision.  Best of all may be your own denominational support structures, which presumably are accountable to the body where you worship.

There are doubtlessly other paths through, and unquestionably many people will object to various elements of what I have written above.  Some may claim I am either making too much of a trivial issue or compromising my fidelity to the Gospel.  But what we ought not do is ignore the various and complex issues at stake for many Christians.  Seeking the right here means remaining attentive not only to our sense of moral integrity, but to the good of World Vision USA, the child that we may have folded in some way into our lives, and the communities where they live.  Any counsel that does not attempt to bring coherence and unity toward those aspects is too stunted to be useful.

Hesitation about Rights and the Need for a Mutual Defense

Adam and Eve made for themselves fig-leaves, but God made for them coats of skins. If justice is the coat of skin with which God has clothed vulnerable and mutually aggressive postlapsarian humanity, rights are the fig-leaves with which they propose to clothe themselves. One difference between the two garments is that the coats of skins are more opaque, and so is justice. It does, indeed, defend us; but only when we allow ourselves to be clothed in it whole and entire; if our concern is with defence instead of justice, we will never achieve justice, and so will never achieve a sufficient mutual defence either.

The above, from Oliver O’Donovan, is worth meditating upon in the context of disputes about what sort of stability and harmony our society should be pursuing.  I’ve not given up on the notion of “rights” as O’Donovan has–in case anyone wishes to dispute whether it is possible for me to disagree with the man–but the cautions that he notes have been working at me in a variety of ways the past few years, especially as the conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty seems to be proceeding apace.

But it is that last sentence that I find haunting, as it illuminates a peculiar kind of danger that comes upon us in the middle of conflagurations like those we’ve been through recently.  It is easy in the disputes over religious liberty for those with conservative instincts (like me) to shift into a mode that subtly shifts our first concern away from justice and toward the  preservation of a space where people are free–to be unjust. Yes, even that.  Not every wrong done demands the public recognition and legitimation that the law provides.

The preservation of such a space is its own kind of justice, to be sure:  we will all lose if every dispute over cakes ends up in the courts, even if we do not necessarily feel the loss.  But the danger of pursuing this strategy as a form of protecting a business owner’s particular rights is that it disposes us to be inattentive to the grievances that are being claimed.  The conflict between rights also potentially shifts the attention toward the bearers as individuals, rather than attending to what is done by those agents in a particular situation and judging accordingly.  Such a disposition may in fact increase the claims of grievance and the underlying hostilities at work.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek legal protections for business owners, or anyone else.  In doing so, we preserve a space for non-legal or political resolutions to disputes.  But we should be attentive to how our defense of the freedom to do wrong sits with the substantive questions of what is just, and how our first and primary concern must always be with the just so that we can ensure–as much as possible–that every citizen is a participant within it.

The Dangers of Appealing to Personality Types

Morgan Guyton recently posted a piece entitled ‘Why English Majors Make Lousy Fundamentalists,’ which was also crossposted on Jesus Creed. Within it, he begins by arguing that different readings of Scripture ‘may end up boiling down to different personality types.’ As an INFP—‘the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic’—Guyton believes that he brings certain instincts to the reading of the Bible that rub ‘fundamentalists’ up the wrong way.

INFPs, Guyton grants, are not unfairly characterized as those who ‘do not like to deal with hard facts and logic’ and ‘don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.’ The first representation certainly makes it easier to account for some of the unannounced yet crucial shifts in his post. The first of these is his conflation of the INFP type with the ‘English major’, a character that frames the rest of Guyton’s analysis in the post. The English major can pull academic privilege over others who lack his training in the reading of literature. Also, as he has associated his personality and sensibilities with that of the English major, the INFP can assume he possesses a sort of natural and peculiar affinity for the reading of Scripture. As God reveals himself in a literary form, and INFPs/English majors have a particular affinity for literature and sensitivity for its quality, they are the ones who should provide the ‘taste test’ of the character of God’s revelation and, by extension, of the sort of God that we find revealed within it:

As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.

A swift swipe of logic to the connections that Guyton draws between English majors, literary reading, and personality type would untangle a significant portion of the knotty mass of his argument. Not all INFPs are English majors and not all INFPs who are English majors are gifted at it. Nor do INFPs have a monopoly on the study of literature: many students of literature have quite different personality types.

We should not accept the fact that INFPs are currently more attracted to the study of English literature as sufficient proof of their greater aptitude in it. The field of literary criticism has undergone a number of significant changes over the last century. INFPs’ supposedly greater likelihood to be English majors may be little more than a result of the fact that they resonate more with the currently prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism and the wider culture of the discipline. A different array of personality types might pursue the subject if these prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism were dislodged and replaced by others. Guyton’s assumptions would then crumble.

I will forgive anyone who feels confused after trying to parse the logic of Guyton’s argument. The rest of his post is a bewildering muddle: he entangles the interpretative supremacy and prerogative of a certain personality type with the eminently sensible notion that we should bring honed literary instincts and tools to the study of the scriptures. Furthermore, he treats the mere invocation of methods of literary analysis as if it validated the inept manner in which they were deployed. ‘He must be a gifted exegete: look at all of the fancy tools in his toolbox!’

Guyton’s post exemplifies the growing popularity of personality typing in many Christian circles (I’ve been surprised to see how widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] is in the Church of England, for instance). Rather than presenting a comprehensive response to Guyton’s post, which will soon be forgotten, I want to highlight this particular feature of it. While many of us have written extensively about orientation and identity in the context of sexuality and gender, personality typing has quietly established a new form of identity and orientation discourse. It is high time that we paid closer attention to it.

We should recognize certain analogies between personality typing and many of the other forms of orientation and identity discourse with which we are more familiar. Many Christians have started to treat personality type as a sort of ‘orientation’ within the world whose equality—or contextual superiority—must be recognized and for which various accommodations must be made. The personality type is fixed and integral to who we are as persons. The fundamental impulses, sensibilities, and instincts of the personality type cannot be called into question: they have the status of an untouchable sensitivity. We are tempted to treat our personality type as justification and explanation for our behaviour, rather than discerning appropriate forms of behaviour and desire from their relation to fitting objective ends. We should observe the measure of circularity that can be present here: in using our personality types as justification for our patterns of behaviour we can forget that our personality typing was derived in large measure from those same patterns.

The problem here is not so much with personality typing per se as it is the entitlement, privilege, and weight of identification that is increasingly coming with it. Personality typing such as the MBTI can be amusing and harmless and can even occasionally serve a heuristic purpose, provided that we do not take it too seriously. Although it is a fairly inexact tool—it arbitrarily splits spectrums of behaviour into binary categories and doesn’t adequately account for such things as the inextricable relation between thinking and ‘feeling’—it can occasionally help to illumine significant patterns and tendencies.

Everyone wants to believe that the mere possession of a particular personality type gives them some sort of privileged access to or claim upon reality, society, or set of skills. Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, closely associated with the MBTI, will assign you an identity on the basis of the result of your personality test. Here everyone’s a winner. It will designate you as an ‘inventor’, a ‘mastermind’, a ‘fieldmarshal’, a ‘champion’, a ‘healer’, or an ‘architect’ on no more sure of a basis than the fact that your personality skews in a particular direction. This is all entirely independent of anything that you have ever achieved or skill you have developed. ‘English major’ may not yet be one of Keirsey’s temperaments, but Guyton employs it as if it were. When I discover that I am an ESFP or an INTJ, I can enjoy a sense of an innate superiority, entirely independent of actual work and achievement, which the world must acknowledge and validate. I am here reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s remark concerning the piano in Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

Psychometric tests such as the MBTI promise to reveal deep truths about our personalities. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, through some mysterious alchemy, they will discern our true nature and assign us a named identity accordingly. The scientific basis of the claims of many psychometric tests such as the MBTI is highly dubious and their effectiveness probably has more than a little to do with such things as the Forer effect.

Nevertheless, personality typing can easily become powerfully constitutive of people’s sense of identity, as they start to think of themselves as their personality type in a fairly uncritical manner. The appeal of such tests is quite explicable: they offer a measure of resolution to the existential discomfort of the question ‘who am I?’, a question which is probably pressed upon us with greater urgency than ever before. While such a test may be an improvement on diverting online quizzes promising to reveal which characters I might be in various fictional universes, at least I do not go through life believing that Gandalf-likeness is a crucial key to my identity.

The cult of personality testing threatens to throw our understanding of the person dangerously off balance. I would suggest that it is here that we find its greatest dangers. Personality testing can foster and encourage the myth of the ‘rich internal self’ and the moral obfuscation that can so often accompany it. On the basis of a rudimentary quiz, a test such as the MBTI offers us a flattering image of who we truly are. It assures us that our personalities are healthy and natural. We are heroic figures—‘crafters’, ‘composers’, ‘protectors’, and ‘counselors’—and the world should learn to value us more. We don’t really encounter sin and fallenness in the world of such personality testing; even pathology does not make an appearance.

With its overemphasis upon healthy natural personality, this new pop psychology that is entering our vocabularies can subtly squeeze out Christian language of fallenness, sin, flesh, and separation from God, slowly dulling us to the extent of our brokenness. In addition to this, I fear that our new focus upon ‘personality’ will lead to a neglect of the category of ‘character’. ‘Personality’ is typically understood to be an innate given and a matter of self-expression, operating largely outside of the realm of morality, chiefly measured by its individuality, and possessing its own prerogative. ‘Character’, by contrast, must be formed and is a decidedly moral mode of regarding the individual subject. Rather than telling us that we are naturally and fairly indelibly what is revealed in the patterns of our behaviour, ‘character’ is something that is gradually formed in us as we faithfully devote ourselves to modes of behaviour that do not spring naturally from our personalities.

Guyton’s argument is a good example of the chaos that can result when personality usurps character in the area of scriptural interpretation. Contrary to Guyton’s emphasis upon personality, we become skilful readers of Scripture as the Spirit conforms us to the word he inspired through the dedicated and faithful practice of scriptural study. No one enjoys this skill merely by virtue of an innate aptitude of personality, nor does our possession of a particular personality type entitle us to approach God’s revelation on our own terms. God’s truth transforms its readers, it identifies expressions of our personality types as ‘sin’, and it makes demands of us that call us to act outside of type. It breaks us down and it builds us up again. I will not discover my true self through taking a personality test, but as I am conformed by God’s Spirit to the image of his Son: not as an act of analysis, but through a historical process of transformation. This is the truth in terms of which all other self-understanding must proceed. When viewed in this light, the personality test has a decidedly diminished capacity for determining my identity.

Alastair Roberts writes.  You can follow him on Twitter