Mere Fidelity: On Sanctification

Update:  We are now on iTunes.  Download episodes and subscribe here. If you’re on Android or some other podcast streamer and need an RSS feed, you can get that here.

Two things of note:  first, we’ve been accepted into Soundcloud’s beta for an RSS feed and iTunes feed.  However, just after we were let in Soundcloud began having technical difficulties for it, so…we don’t have it quite yet.  I apologize for that, and if they don’t get it sorted early this week we’ll have a different plan in place for next week. 

Second: we’ve been talking internally about conversing about books and essays and the like in a way that will still be interesting for those who haven’t read them, but even more informative for those who have.  In two weeks, then, we’re going to start a discussion on the issues raised by Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?which turns 30 years old this year.

Yes, it’s an expensive book, especially since it clocks in at just 86 pages.  However, I’d note two things in its defense:  (a) it’s incredibly relevant and has the single-best theological analysis of trans-gender questions ever written, and (b) the fact that there are virtually no used copies available indicates how important of a book it is. You’ll own it your whole life.  So, join us.

This week:  we consider the doctrine of sanctification, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has been following the Christian blogging world.

As always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 



Mere Fidelity: Is there a ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

First things first: we have a new name.  Thanks to everyone who provided suggestions last week, and to my friend Jordan Ballor who came up with the one we decided on.  Our aim for the name was to make sure we have the long-term flexibility we need when Derek becomes a famous radio host.

Second, thanks to everyone who has asked about the RSS feed and iTunes feed.  The short answer is:  It’s coming, lo, as quickly as the Soundcloud gods approve us for it.  My apologies for the delay on that.  We weren’t sure whether this would turn into an ongoing project, but at this point we’re going for it.

Finally, this week’s conversation on moral orthodoxy takes its cue from Derek’s very smart post on the same subject.  If there’s something you would like us to discuss in the weeks to come…drop us a suggestion in the comments. 

As always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

The Ethics of Jayber Crow

riverIn The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.

But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.

In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost

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Casting Across the Pond: Do Calvinists worship another God?

Last week’s inaugural episode of “Casting Across the Pond” was so successful that Derek, Alastair, and Andrew turned around and did one again.

Two business items: first, we’re open to changing the name, if anyone has a better.  Put your suggestions in the comments below.  Second, many of you requested the ability to download them.  That’s now enabled for both episodes:  sorry for missing it the first time around!

This week’s conversation launches off from Zach Hunt’s open letter to John Calvin and Fred Sanders’s post at Scriptorium Daily.

As always, follow Derek, Alastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

A Conversation on Capital Punishment and the Old Testament

I’m pleased to introduce Casting Across the Pond, a conversation with three of my favorite young thinkers.

Alastair Roberts and Derek Rishmawy have both written for us here at Mere-O, and are well known in many parts of the blogging community.  Derek is one of the most irenic and thoughtful young writers I have read, while Alastair’s plodding and thorough approach to the world always turns up provocative thoughts and genuine insights.

Andrew Wilson first came to my attention several years ago for his epic and incisive conversation with Rob Bell, and since then has distinguished himself as one of the most astute theological observers around.  Having newly been justly awarded a monthly column in Christianity Today, Andrew is about to become a lot more well known to US audiences.

They recently gathered to have a chat about recent stirrings online about capital punishment and the Old Testament. The conversation is unadorned with bells and whistles, but full of good conversation.

Which, come to think of it, is precisely how we like it around these parts.

Some pertinent reading, for your ongoing education:  Brian Zahnd on Jesus and Biblicism, Andrew Wilson on the Jesus Tea Strainer, and Derek Rishmawy on how we relate the two testaments

The Future of Protestantism Full Roundup

Normally this would go up over at Notes, but we wanted to be sure that everyone sees the full roundup of responses (so far) to last week’s Future of Protestantism event at Biola. There figure to be more responses in the weeks to come so we’ll keep this piece updated as new responses are published.

Dr. Leithart wrote about some of the things he wished he’d said here. He then further clarified his views in three subsequent posts at First Things.

Dr. Trueman has written some brief reflections for Reformation 21 here and here as well as a lengthier piece for First Things here.

Dr. Sanders has written his own reflections on the event here.

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The Death of Jerry Umanos: Filling up what is Lacking in the Suffering of Christ

Jerry Umanos (along with two other physicians) was killed last week, murdered by a police guard in the very hospital where he worked. Dr. Umanos was a pediatrician who served at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago for many years before he began to divide his time between Lawndale and a CURE hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he not only cared for patients directly but was heavily involved in educating Afghan doctors, nurses, and midwives.

Dr. Umanos’ faith clearly informed the decisions he made about his vocation in ways that are applicable to all believers. His life and death are worthy of discussion not because we should all be teaching medical providers in Afghanistan (though more of us ought to), but because one does not need to be participating in a heroic vocation to be faithful Kingdom witnesses. In an age where followers, clicks, sales, and converts rule even Christian psyches, it is instructive for us to reflect upon a contemporary believer whose ambition was the glory of Christ among the poor and whose service to Christ cost his life.

While inner-city Chicago and Afghanistan are very different places, they are both in need of quality physicians. They also tend to be challenging and risky places for physicians to practice. Medical training in particular tends to make it very hard to commit oneself to a particular place; the intense competition for medical school and residency slots often forces trainees to move every 3 or 4 years as they progress in their education. Yet every institution that Dr. Umanos was involved with along the way spoke of his dedication and service– a clear example of a man making the most of every opportunity along the way to be a part of his formational institutions. Furthermore, though his service was divided between Lawndale and Kabul, his affinity for institutions committed to the empowerment of his neighbors is evident. Lawndale’s work in developing leadership among the urban poor is well-known, and training health providers is a growing field crucial to making inroads against enormous health disparities while advancing the Gospel. Dr. Umanos’ example shows just how powerful the relationships we form in our vocations can be when we are intentional and consistent.

This is not just a principle that is applicable solely to Christians who work in elite professional fields like medicine. Certainly the privileged have opportunities that allow them to produce more visible acts of charity– we might surmise that the man in Jesus’ parable who began with five talents had a greater chance of getting to ten than either of his counterparts. The challenge for every person who claims the name of Christ is relying on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to produce in us the discipline necessary to be fruitful in hard places. The lesson of Dr. Umanos’ life is not that he was a special Christian who did things no one else could accomplish, but that he chose to faithfully pursue things that few other people were doing in a manner that anyone who trusts in Jesus can.

Secondly, we can see that Dr. Umanos made calculated sacrifices for the sake of following Christ. This Washington Post article details how he asked for a residents’ salary when he started at Lawndale, which meant that he probably gave up about $60,000-100,000 per year that he could have earned working at a less difficult job. Yet he perceived a calling from God and an affinity to a mission that was worth far more than a few thousand dollars. Many other believers have given up far greater sums of money or larger percentages of their income to serve others– but the point is not about the money, but about the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of faithful ministry. This sacrificial spirit is foundational to our faith and should not be limited merely to finances (for some may even be called to make greater sums of money that they can give away or use for some other good purpose.) Rather, we should each reflect on the gifts that each of us have been given and consider how they might bless God and others if we gave of ourselves at a level that is costly.

Dr. Umanos made some intentional sacrifices but he also took some intentional risks. While we should avoid excessively fetishizing suffering or martyrdom, it is crucial to recognize that, as Bonhoeffer said:

“…It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man and his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his won will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” (from The Cost of Discipleship

Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of Heaven make clear the question of cost: following Him is worth far more than what we have, and in order to follow Him we must surrender all that we have. It is clear that there is a significant cost associated with the further proclamation of God’s Kingdom (masterfully exposited by John Piper):

” ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.’ Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world. His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.”

While for some the death that we are called to is primarily spiritual or emotional, we should not take lightly the weight of the testimony of either New Testament witnesses or millions of our worldwide contemporaries suffering physical and material loss for Jesus’ sake. By contrast, it is shallow to suppose that this is a call for all to go to Afghanistan or the inner-city (although, again, there are not nearly enough Christians in Afghanistan to give the peoples there access to God’s Word!) The sacrifice and risks we are called to are unique to each person who has tasted of new life in Jesus. We all must reflect on Christ’s incredible sacrifice for us and not shame ourselves with overwrought explanations for why we are avoiding the cross He calls us to bear with Him.

It is only when our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our hearts satisfied by the delight of His love that we can look upon our very lives as worth risking for the sake of advancing His Kingdom. The only way to do this, of course, is through the slow and steady spiritual formation that takes places when we are learning from and giving to our local institutions, most especially our local churches. The life of Jerry Umanos demonstrates the effects of formation on someone who has been thus shaped, leading him to a place where even the risk of violent death was not enough to discourage him from proclaiming Christ in word and deed.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

On Church Membership and Theological Disagreement

“Port William repaid watching. I was always on the lookout for what would be revealed. Sometimes nothing would be, but sometimes I beheld astonishing sights.”

The lesson from that quote (from Wendell Berry) is that fidelity to a place, a people, or a tradition is often its own reward. This is because learning to actually see something takes a great deal of time. It is only through the virtues of patience and affection that we can come to truly know a place and find our home in it. Seeing these things properly is something that takes a great deal of time to do, and the longer you take at it the more apt you are to realize how much more there is to see. This was the thought I continued to have as I watched the Future of Protestantism event earlier this week.

jayber crow coverThe event seems to have been prompted by two things: The first, and more acknowledged, of the two was the discussion stirred up last year by Dr. Peter Leithart when he published his “End of Protestantism” piece for First Things. But the second point, which stood behind much of the discussion and was explicitly mentioned by Dr. Trueman on several occasions, is the increased trendiness amongst younger evangelicals of swimming the Tiber in hopes of finding a more historically informed, sacramentally-grounded church home. Recently on Twitter Alan Jacobs pointed out that the two trends he sees regarding Protestant-Catholic relations are that evangelicals are friendlier to Catholics while the Catholics are becoming ever more critical of the evangelicals. As a result, many younger evangelicals are (reputedly at least, we still don’t have any good data on this) crossing the Tiber as they become more interested in Rome and Rome develops a stronger polemic against their Protestant tradition. One day a curious evangelical college student decides on a whim to read Thomas and within a week they’re convinced that the Roman church is the only holy and catholic church.

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The Future of Protestantism Video

I am very pleased to pass this along to you for your careful consideration and attention.  There have been a few followup pieces as well to the discussion, which I encourage you to look at as well.  I’m sure there will be more to come, which we will direct you to by way of Mere-O Notes (subscribe).

First, I am very grateful that First Things and the Davenant Trust joined up to sponsor it.  I had some role in organizing the event, but it frankly wouldn’t have happened at all without my friend (and occasional Mere-O contributor) Brad Littlejohn of Davenant pulling together some of the key figures and getting Davenant’s backing.

Second, have I mentioned lately how awesome Torrey Honors is?  The office staff (Laurel!) and students were invaluable for making everything go smoothly.  And Torrey got behind the idea from the moment I pitched it to them.  Yes, I’m currently doing some consulting work for them. Full disclosure. But I only get really excited about the things I would do for free anyway, and these sorts of smart-but-accessible dialogues are among them.  I’m just grateful that Torrey and Biola gave us the resources we needed to pull it off.

Third, I am thankful for Carl Trueman, Fred Sanders, and Peter Escalante’s willingness to have the discussion.  But I cannot say enough about the graciousness of Peter Leithart, whose travel schedule was totally disrupted by airline failures, the tornadoes in Birmingham, and then weather in Chicago.  It was not a little stressful for us, which means I can’t imagine how taxing it must have been on him.  

Fourth, that just makes me realize how much of the ‘success’ of these sorts of things depends upon friends.  In the midst of making back-up plans to back-up plans in case Dr. Leithart didn’t make it, the brilliant Betsy Childs helped me connect with Beeson Divinity School to set up conferencing possibilities.  We didn’t end up needing them, thank goodness, but was it comforting knowing we had other options?  Yes, yes it was.  And I can’t even start listing the bloggers and friends online who helped me spread the word, as I have other work to do and need to get on with it.  But thank you to all of them, too.

On that note, too, follow Jake Meador.  I let him take over my Twitter account during the event, as I wasn’t sure how awake I was going to be, and he did a fantastic job.  I only hope he remembers us when he comes into his authorial kingdom, as he is a really sharp fellow who is doing great work.

Finally, I will note that I plan to leave the follow up discussion to others.  There are a variety of reasons for my decision, not least of which is a rather onerous academic term ahead of me and the burden of 25,000 words to turn out before mid-June.  But I am hopeful that the discussion will be one aimed at learning, at charity, and at deepening the unity which Christ exhorts his church to pursue.

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.