Grudem and Eternal Generation: Did I Bury the Lede?

Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:  Grudem, Wayne A.: 0025986517977: Amazon.com: Books

The inimitable Fred Sanders has reviewed the revised Trinity chapter in Wayne Grudem’s second edition of Systematic Theology. As per usual, Fred’s take is clear, measured, engaging, grounded in Scripture, well-versed in the tradition, and just the right amount of levity. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but the nub of the review is Fred’s attempt to move the conversation away from Grudem’s eternal functional subordination (EFS) to his affirmation of eternal generation, which signals a reversal from the first edition. It’s not that Fred ignores or downplays the problems that remain with Grudem’s insistence on EFS, not least its superfluity and awkward fit with the eternal relations of origin that Grudem now affirms. But Fred’s point is more of a hope and a prediction:

If it were in my power to divert attention and passion into the right channels, I would direct everybody to focus on the doctrine of eternal relations of origin in the triune God….I predict eternal generation will prove its vigor, and the persuasiveness of EFS will continue to fade.

As I noted at the beginning of my post the other day, Grudem’s new edition has made two or three noteworthy shifts: he now affirms eternal generation and the unity of the divine will and qualifies some of his speculations with the language of mystery. But the greater part of my initial response wrestled with the implications of Grudem’s continued commitment to EFS. Fred seems to disagree with this prioritization:

The doctrine of eternal relations of origin is so important that I can survey Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Second Edition, and say that of the two Trinitarian news stories –the addition of eternal generation and the double-down on eternal functional subordination– the former is by far the bigger story.  I don’t expect many people to agree with me in that estimation, but through a number of conflicts and confusions in the past decade, the strategic task of retrieving eternal generation has been the main objective worth striving for. Let me put it this way: By faithfully equipping his readers with the doctrine of eternal generation in this second edition (and cutting appendix 6!), Grudem has given his students the orientation they need to take their trinitarian theology further into the satisfying resources of the great tradition than his first edition encouraged. Let eternal generation have its patient, perfect work, and obviating the felt need for EFS will be among its lesser accomplishments.

I appreciate Fred’s attempt to be charitable in his critique. In the four plus years of the “Trinity controversy,” Matt and I have tried to find this same balance both in our online responses and in our published works (even hosting EFS perspectives on our own blog). In both public and private, I have defended EFS proponents against charges of heresy and punches from critics that felt below the belt. So, I am grateful for the model that Fred gives to us all here: be firm in your critique but be fair in your evaluation.

Further, I am sincerely heartened by Fred’s optimism. I hope he is right. The best-selling evangelical textbook on systematic theology now includes a clear affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son and has removed the appendix that cast doubt on it. I am still concerned with the narrow, proof-texting method that led Grudem to change his mind: it came down to a translation of one word in the Greek New Testament. As Matt and I have tried to demonstrate, one of major problems that led so many evangelicals to affirm EFS for so many years is a narrow biblicism: doing theology by collating verses of Scripture rather than attending to canonical patterns, doctrinal parameters, and the history of interpretation. Even if we alter some of the conclusions, if the hermeneutical and methodological problems remain, then we unintentionally leave ourselves open to heterodoxy. But maybe I should be more hopeful; maybe this influential author affirming the eternal relations of origin–these crucial, biblically-warranted synthetic doctrines–will tend to crowd out the more problematic holdovers from his previous work.

But I am not as convinced as Fred is that EFS will simply die a natural death now that eternal generation has won the day. Grudem still tries to dovetail his commitment to EFS with his newfound affirmation of eternal generation, and I suspect the multitudes who read Grudem will simply follow suit. Fred believes that “there will be more and more to say about [Grudem’s EFS] in a smaller and smaller community of discourse.” This may be true in some academic circles. In fact, I believe it is. The 2016 controversy was a real game-changer in that regard. But let’s be honest: Grudem’s influence and book sales dwarf whatever the more academic treatments have achieved. Pastors, students, and laypeople who read the new edition will still walk away thinking that the divine persons are eternally distinguished by relationships of subordination and submission. They will still be influenced by an idiosyncratic model of hierarchical “roles” and a divine will that that is “actualized” by the divine persons for different tasks in creation and redemption. In a sense, Grudem’s affirmation of eternal generation only makes makes matters more difficult for those wishing to correct the errors of EFS. The new affirmations give cover for an expanded and barely qualified defense of an eternally subordinate Logos.

It should go without saying, but I want to make clear that my critique here is not “cancellation.” I am not calling for people to throw away their Grudem! He is a senior scholar who has had a profound and positive effect of hundreds of thousands (!) of Christians. I pray this new edition continues to have this kind of impact. And I sincerely rejoice that he (and some other EFS proponents) are shifting toward a more traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. But given the footprint of the “big blue (now white) book,” I had hoped for more than the formal addition of eternal generation (on narrow translation grounds) that rests uncomfortably with his broader treatment of the Trinity. Grudem may now affirm eternal generation. But EFS is still driving the train.

Is “Eternal Functional Submission” a Heresy?

Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:  Grudem, Wayne A.: 0025986517977: Amazon.com: Books

Wayne Grudem has just released a second edition of his best-selling Systematic Theology. While many of us have read Grudem with benefit, assigned his textbook in classrooms, and recommended it to others, some of us have also expressed serious concerns about his treatment of doctrine of the Trinity. So, one of the big questions surrounding this new release was whether or not Grudem would qualify any of his previous teachings on the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father. Having read the relevant portions of the revised chapter on the Trinity, it is apparent that Grudem has made a couple noteworthy adjustments/clarifications: he now affirms the eternal generation of the Son and admits (in some sense) that there is one divine will (although it’s difficult to see how these admissions cohere with his broader understanding of the Trinity). But rather than retract any of his former writings on EFS, he actually doubles down. He still believes the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father, not just in terms of his incarnate mission, but in the eternal life of God himself, even speculating (with only a little caution) that this relationship of subordination in function is precisely what distinguishes the persons ad intra. Because Grudem interacts with Matt’s and my critique of his position, we plan to write a more thorough response to the revised chapter. But for now, I wanted to say a few words about an important question that gets raised in this debate: is EFS heretical?

For starters, we need to acknowledge just how serious this question is. Heresy (from the Greek word hairesis, “choice”) denotes not just an ignorant or inadvertent false belief, but a high-handed, intentional departure from the clear teaching of Scripture on a cardinal doctrine of the faith as it has been understood by a consensus of Christians down through the centuries. Each aspect of this definition is important. Heresy is a deliberate choice and not an accidental mistake. It violates Scripture not on a minor doctrinal dispute but on one of the “big ones”: the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. And it departs from the consensus of the faithful not just in one parochial corner of the church but across time and place and the various traditions that make up the whole body of Christ. This is why heresy has most often, and rightly, been measured against the ecumenical creeds and councils–not because these documents supplement some deficiency in Scripture but because they faithfully summarize proper Christian interpretation of Scripture.

Furthermore, this question of heresy is so earnest because the doctrine of the Trinity is so central and so non-negotiable for Christian orthodoxy. It is interesting to see what evangelicals get really animated about these days. Social theories and political positions often get more scrutiny than teachings on core Christian doctrines. Perspectives on secondary or even tertiary issues are sometimes elevated in importance above primary doctrines. For many it seems, you can fudge on the Trinity as long as you vote for the right candidate and hold the right position on women in ministry! But in truth, the doctrine of the Trinity dwarfs every other belief in the system of Christian thought. Get this one wrong and the foundations are shaken.

So does EFS fall into this category of heresy? To answer this question fairly, we have to give a charitable reading of the explicit affirmations of EFS proponents. They tell us that they affirm the Nicene Creed–now with more explicit statements about the eternal relations of origin (Grudem was previously critical or at best ambivalent about these crucial doctrines and their biblical basis). They affirm the homoousios, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father (and the Holy Spirit). They are careful to place any submission or obedience at the level of function rather than substance or essence (though this distinction is problematic when we are thinking about the immanent Trinity). So, at the very least we need to acknowledge that at some level EFS proponents are not trying to depart from historic Nicene orthodoxy. But at the same time, many of us find it difficult to square these affirmations with the notion that there is a hierarchy of authority in the inner life of the Trinity. If God is one in essence, power, and will, then the submission of one divine person to another in the inner life of God is a category error and a significant one at that. We believe that Grudem has misread, not just a few obscure theologians in church history, but the ecumenical creeds as well and, most importantly, Scripture itself.

At this point, it may be helpful to draw a distinction between formal heresy and material heterodox implications of a particular doctrinal position. I have recently been reading Thomas Joseph White’s erudite treatment of the doctrine of Christ, The Incarnate Lord. In his treatment of Karl Rahner’s doctrine of the incarnation, White is eager to acknowledge that Rahner “affirms unambiguously” the truth of the traditional Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ. White notes a number of places where Rahner does this explicitly. Still, in his treatment of Rahner’s idiosyncrasies, White comes to the conclusion that Rahner’s position, in point of fact, actually implies a kind of “subtle” Nestorianism, though Rahner himself doesn’t quite acknowledge those full implications. It seems to me that White’s respectful but frank critique of Rahner serves as a helpful model for how we might approach EFS. It is most welcome that EFS proponents like Grudem wish to affirm their Nicene bona fides, but a close examination of their position along with a close inspection of the historic doctrine of the Trinity as it has been received down through the centuries lead many of us to conclude that while not formally heretical, EFS is materially, if subtly and unintentionally, heterodox in some of its implications.

Reading Scripture with the Communion of Saints

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There has been some controversy recently about the dangers of “standpoint epistemology.” I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with this exact term until I started seeing it all over the place on social media and other places online. Even though I teach hermeneutics and have read my fair share of philosophical treatments of the topic, my training is in systematic theology and New Testament, not in feminist theory, where the notion of standpoint epistemology shows up most prominently. My expertise is in the history of doctrine and, in particular, how Christians have appealed to Scripture in Christological controversies. So, I’ve got to be honest: my familiarity (and interest level, to be frank) is pretty low when it comes to contemporary feminist philosophy.

But what seems to be bothering folks is simpler than all that. The idea that has been criticized so fiercely of late is the notion that Christians can be helped in understanding the meaning of Scripture by listening to fellow Christians with different cultural perspectives and life experiences. The idea that white Christians might need black Christians or men might need women in order to discern the full meaning of Scripture is taken as a threat to the Bible’s objective meaning and as evidence of nefarious secular ideologies infiltrating the ranks of evangelicalism. The alternative approach is that Christians, regardless of their social or cultural location, when using the right interpretive tools, are perfectly capable of arriving at the text’s objective meaning. In this understanding, hermeneutics is seen as a science, like chemistry or physics, in which cultural perspectives are irrelevant; they give you no advantage or disadvantage in determining the singular, objective meaning of Scripture.

To be sure, there is some validity to these kinds of warnings. If someone is suggesting that differing cultural perspectives determine the meaning of Scripture or that the text of Scripture has no determinate meaning or that any particular culture is incapable of discerning the clear teaching of Scripture, then all orthodox Christians should oppose such a notion. But what I get from the evangelicals I have gleaned from hermeneutically (D. A. Carson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Todd Billings, Jeannine Brown, among others) and what I myself teach is something much different than those things. Instead, what I would suggest is that listening to different Christian perspectives–including those from different social and cultural locations–is a sign of hermeneutical humility. I don’t know whether or how others might use this term, but here’s what I mean by it: the truth of Scripture is inerrant and infallible and determined by the Divine Author who inspired it, but my interpretations are none of those things. The meaning of Scripture is objective, but my reading of it–not just the answers I provide but the questions I even think to ask or the elements that I emphasize–is always shaped by my own subjective perspective. None of us comes to Scripture as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. No, all of us have certain presuppositions and preunderstandings that shape how we read and what we see. That doesn’t mean we are stuck in a rut of our own presuppositions; we can approach the truth of Scripture with greater and greater clarity the more we study, the more we pray, the more we seek wisdom (D. A. Carson compares this increase in interpretive faithfulness to an asymptote in mathematics: a line that gets closer and closer to a curved function without ever touching it). This dynamic between the reader and the text and between its parts and the whole has been called the hermeneutic circle, or perhaps better, the hermeneutical spiral. But this is all old hat. It’s not evidence of some novel, acronymic ideology. Every evangelical textbook on hermeneutics of which I am aware acknowledges the role of presuppositions in the interpretive task.

So, because my perspective is limited, I am helped by listening to the perspectives of others: my pastor, my wife, my friends, my community group, good books and commentaries, the church’s creeds and confessions, the great theologians and exegetes of church history, and so on. As inheritors of Enlightenment philosophy, moderns tend to view interpretation as an individual endeavor. Pietism has often doubled down on this and spiritualized it: “All I need is the Holy Spirit!” But the historic Christian position is that interpretation is a communal practice: we read Scripture most properly in the context of the church and the communion of saints across place and time. The reading and hearing of the Word of God is, after all, one of the ordinary means of grace that we receive principally in the body of Christ. As Christian orthodoxy was being discerned in the early centuries of the church, there was a concern that interpretation and doctrine be ecumenical in the older sense of the word: worldwide, not local or regional, but universal, East and West.

But it’s not just different Christian individuals who can help us; it’s also those with different life experiences. It is not difficult to imagine that a person who has experienced a debilitating disease might read Jesus’ healings in a different light than someone who hasn’t. Or that a woman might read the story of Mary and Martha in a unique light. Or that an enslaved person in the antebellum South might have read the story of the exodus in a different light than his enslaver. Or that a Christian experiencing severe persecution might read the imprecatory psalms in a different light. In his excellent book, The Word of God for the People of God, Reformed theologian Todd Billings tells the story of teaching in Ethiopia and noticing how the Old Testament dietary laws struck his students there in a different way, given their cultural experiences, than they typically do Westerners. Different cultural perspectives and life experiences don’t create new meanings in the text; rather, they help us to see what is really there that we may have missed. Scripture’s meaning is determinate, but it is not flatly singular. Like all good literature, Scripture’s meaning is rich and thick, not meager and thin. Other perspectives aid us in discerning that richness.

None of this means that experience determines meaning or that a lack of experience puts up an impenetrable barrier to communication. But it does mean that our perspectives, even after careful study, are still finite and limited (not to mention fallen and biased). Reading widely and listening sympathetically to how Scripture has been read at different times and in different cultures can help to correct our blind spots and enrich our own encounter with Christ in Scripture. Most fundamentally, we read the Bible not as isolated individuals, but as members of the body of Christ. In this body, each member has its own unique gift to bear to the whole; and in the historic and global church, we have an embarrassment of interpretive riches. Different perspectives don’t produce their own discrete treasures; but they do give us distinct vantages on the one multi-faceted diamond that is the truth of Scripture. In short, I don’t believe in standpoint epistemology. “I believe in the communion of saints.”

Racial Reconciliation and the Catholicity of the Church

The Center for Baptist Renewal is a project that a few of us have been working on for the last several years. At the outset, Matt and I wrote a manifesto that sort of guides our work at the center. One of the articles addresses the topic racial reconciliation:

We affirm that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are created in God’s image and, if they have repented and believed in Christ, are brothers and sisters together in the one body of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Because of this shared imago dei and because of Christ’s saving work among all nations, peoples, and tongues, we believe that one major task of Baptist catholicity is to promote racial unity, especially within the body of Christ.

Over at the CBR blog, we wrote a commentary on each of the manifesto’s articles, including this one. We wrote it three years ago, but it’s as relevant as ever and we stand by every word of it. Concern for racial reconciliation is not a function of “wokeness” (a vague and unhelpful term anyway). For many of us, it’s a function of our fundamental creed: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The Christian’s ultimate citizenship is not to be found in any earthly city, but in coming the city of God, the church militant and the church triumphant: the multi-ethnic, multi-national body of Christ that spans space and time, earth and heaven.

The Boy Jesus in the Temple: A Brief Tropology

I went for a walk by myself in the cool of the late afternoon today. Meditations ensued. I started tropologizing the story of the boy Jesus returning to his temple.

A 15th-century page from a Book of Hours. Public Domain.

Here’s what I was thinking: We all, like Mary and Joseph, can lose sight of Jesus. We can assume his presence by relying on other caretakers. We can presume that someone else will remain with him. But we will find him again where he was always to be: in his Father’s house, attending to his Father’s business. It’s not mainly the church building that is the new covenant antitype of the old covenant temple. It is Christ himself and the people he is building into a spiritual house: the church. Perhaps you feel like you have lost sight of Jesus. We all do from time to time. But we will find him again in the place he has promised to be: in the preaching of the Word, at the Lord’s Table, and on mission with him, building his Spiritual temple.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Inspired by my blogmate Brandon, I decided to do a 2020 favorites list. I’ve expanded mine a bit beyond books, but that’s where I’ll start.

Favorite Book

The Day Is Now Far Spent by Robert Cardinal Sarah

The Day Is Now Far Spent: Sarah, Cardinal Robert, Diat, Nicolas:  9781621643241: Amazon.com: Books

This book was released in 2019 but I digested it slowly and finished it at the very cusp of the pandemic in 2020. The third in a trilogy of books by Cardinal Sarah, this one punches the hardest. It’s a jeremiad written by an African prelate against the various spiritual crises of the church in the West. I was near the end of the book before I realized that I had misidentified the scriptural reference in the title. I had assumed that Sarah was referring to Romans 13:12, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” which seemed appropriate given the contents of the book. But it’s actually an allusion to Luke 24:29 and the Emmaus disciples’ plea to the Risen Christ: “But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them.” The upshot of Sarah’s wakeup call: even if the church in the West is facing a new twilight, as long as Jesus abides with us, we have hope.

Favorite Movie

A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick

A Hidden Life (2019 film) - Wikipedia

This is Terrence Malick’s most linear, plot-driven film since Days of Heaven (1978). But it has all of the stunning cinematography, masterful editing, prayerful voiceovers, and deeply Christian content that we have come to expect from the reclusive filmmaker. A Hidden Life tells the story, inspired by actual events, of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer and devout Christian who became a conscientious objector to the Nazis during World War II and suffered the consequences. It offers a timely reminder that non-conformity for the sake of faith and conscience will be costly. One reviewer described the film like this: “The movie is cinema at its mightiest and holiest. It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses.” So turn off the kitschy, flat-footedly evangelistic movies that pass as Christian film. This is what Christian art looks like on a cinematic canvas.

Favorite Album

Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

Punisher (album) - Wikipedia

Phoebe Bridgers’ evocative sophomore album (after a couple of collaborative projects) is all the more impressive when you remember that she was only 25 when it was released in June. The title track, “Punisher,” is a reference to a particular kind of overeager fan who smothers a famous artist. But Bridgers isn’t looking condescendingly at her own fans; it’s actually self-referential. The song and the album as a whole are an homage to one of her major influences: the late indie icon, Elliott Smith. Like Smith, Bridgers offers up penetrating and confessional lyrics, inviting her listeners into the darkest corners of her own psyche. My favorite track on the album might be “Chinese Satellite,” which laments the fact that Bridgers wants to believe in something–religion, aliens, anything–but just can’t find her way to faith.

I want to believe
Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing
You know I hate to be alone
I want to be wrong

It’s an aching reminder of the restlessness and longing all around us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Some Brief Thoughts on the Image of God

Adam

True concern for God always, inevitably yields true concern for human beings, created in God’s image and likeness. The image of God picks out what is unique about humans among God’s creatures:

  • that we are possessed of reason and volition and moral responsibility
  • that we are capable of conscious, willful relationships with God and with each other
  • that we are commissioned to share God’s rule over the rest of creation
  • that we were designed after the prototype of humanity God eternally willed to assume in Jesus Christ.

God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11). Every human you meet, no matter how broken or corrupt or destitute, bears the image of the Infinite and Eternal One.

Every member of the human race is a divine image-bearer. There are no qualifiers. There are no concessive clauses to attach. It’s not, “no matter their race or gender or stage of development,” but, “precisely because of their race or gender or stage of development.” God delights in diversity. What binds us together is not uniformity, but the universal, shared image of God.

There is a corporate solidarity that all humans share in Adam (and that all believers share in the Last Adam). Injustice to one individual or one group is injustice to all. It is even a self-inflicted injustice on the one who commits injustice.  Doing harm to an image-bearer is dehumanizing to all. That’s why God hates sin so fiercely. Sin is so offensive to God, not because he is harmed by it but because we are. God is jealous for our obedience to his moral law, not because he is self-aggrandizing, but precisely because he cares for the flourishing of those he made after his own likeness.

There are no easy solutions to the racial problems that plague our nation. I don’t pretend to have the knowledge or expertise to craft policy or to suggest sweeping solutions. Surely something must change in the culture, training, and tactics of the police. Most certainly, attitudes need to change. Divisions need to be overcome. But whatever the path forward looks like, it has to begin with a far higher view of the dignity of the human person than we are accustomed to, even in the church. “You are gods,” the Scripture teaches us. Let’s start treating each other that way.

Redeeming Eastertide

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The following is a brief reflection I wrote on the season of Eastertide for our church’s newsletter.

The time-shattering event of Easter is too much to take in in only one Sunday. Indeed, there is a sense in which every Sunday is Easter. The reason the earliest church gathered on Sunday, what the apostle John called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10), was precisely to mark, both outwardly and inwardly, the new creation inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week. But in the historic church calendar, seven Sundays are especially designated as the season of “Eastertide,” from Easter Sunday to the feast of the Ascension forty days later (Thursday, May 21, this year), with one final Sunday as a capstone before Pentecost Sunday the following week. This liturgical rhythm mimics the forty days in which Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), and it provides an extended time for the church to reflect on the mystery revealed in the resurrection of the Son of God.

Christians can usually quite readily explain the meaning of Christ’s atoning death, but we often struggle to articulate the saving significance of his resurrection. We may understand its apologetic importance as the linchpin historical event holding the Christian faith together, but we don’t always grasp its theological importance: what saving benefits accrue to believers on the basis of the resurrection? Eastertide is an excellent opportunity for meditation on precisely this question. As a guide to your meditation, consider this helpful distillation from the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck:

According to Scripture, therefore, the significance of the physical resurrection of Christ is inexhaustibly rich. Briefly summarized, that resurrection is (1) proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13–15; 5:31; 10:42; etc.); (2) a seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3): (3) a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son (Acts 2:23–24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; etc.); (4) the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9; etc); (5) the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rum. 4:25): (6) the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12); (7) the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; etc); (8) the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor 15:12ff.). –Reformed Dogmatics, 3:442.

You might consider using the remainder of this Eastertide to reflect on these themes and Scriptures, either individually or as families.

A New Commandment

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John 13:1-17

Human cultures have always crafted symbols of power. In the past, we might think of crowns, regalia, or royal scepters. Today, power is often vested in official titles, political influence, financial portfolios, material possessions, technological gadgets, or social media followers. But in the kingdom of Christ, we find a very different symbol that represents a very different kind of ethical accounting: a towel and a water basin.

On the night that he was to be betrayed, the King of kings did not demand that he be served with the adoration that he most assuredly deserves. Instead, he took off his outer garments, girded himself with a towel, and washed his followers’ filthy feet in a basin of water. Here, we see on dramatic display the ethics of the kingdom. The first will be last and the last first (Matt 20:16). The one who would be first must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).

Peter is at first resistant. He seems to recognize the absurdity of this upside-down ritual: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” It’s not the first time that Peter (as a kind of stand-in for all of us) didn’t understand the radical reversal of the kingdom of Christ. He couldn’t understand how the Christ, the son of the living God, could undergo the disgrace of the cross (Matt 16:21-23). And here at the end, Peter still hasn’t fully arrived; he hasn’t become fully converted to the power dynamics of the kingdom. But Jesus assures him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” To be a Christian is to have the humility to receive. It is to recognize our filthiness and to submit to the Savior’s cleansing condescension. A refusal to receive has the appearance of humility. Shouldn’t we, after all, be washing Jesus’ feet? But in reality it amounts to a thinly veiled mask of pride. We imagine that the Christian life is what we do for Jesus, when all along it was the Son of Man who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

This day in Holy Week is referred to as Maundy Thursday. Its name is taken from the phrase mandatum novum (“a new commandment”) from the Latin version of John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The good news of the kingdom is first a gift and then a calling. We come to Jesus for cleansing: not just the once for all cleansing of our body in conversion (solemnized in our baptism) but the repeated washing of our feet through the ongoing, ordinary means of grace: the Word of God, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. And then we are commissioned to imitate Christ’s humble service: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

The symbolism of the towel and water basin stands in stark contrast to the symbols on display in the halls of worldly power. But now more than ever, the world desperately needs the counter-cultural message of the gospel. It needs Christians willing to risk absurdity, to risk the loss of political and social capital, to surrender life and limb and likability to serve the needs of others. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

This post originally appeared in a Holy Week devotional produced by the faculty of Anderson University.

Love in the Pandemic

WalkerPercy_TheThanatosSyndrome

During the lockdown, I’ve been reading Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome, his 1987 novel, set in Louisiana, about a psychiatrist who slowly discovers a mysterious, chemically-induced syndrome that gives people superior intellect but appears to be driving them mad. This diatribe from the part-paranoid, part-prophetic Father Smith seemed appropriate to share during this time:

You are a member of the first generation of doctors in the history of medicine to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind—and to do so without a single murmur from one of you. Not a single letter of protest in the august New England Journal of Medicine…

If you are a lover of Mankind in the abstract like Walt Whitman, who wished the best for Mankind, you will probably do no harm and might even write good poetry and give pleasure, right?…

If you are a theorist of Mankind like Rousseau or Skinner, who believes he understands man’s brain and in the solitariness of his study or laboratory writes books on the subject, you are also probably harmless and might even contribute to human knowledge, right?…

But if you put the two together, a lover of Mankind and a theorist of Mankind, what you’ve got now is Robespierre or Stalin or Hitler and the Terror, and millions dead for the good of Mankind. Right?

This pandemic has been an illuminating unveiling of people’s operational ethic–on the left and the right and everywhere in between. Christians everywhere should take care that we don’t lose even more credibility on the paramount issue of the dignity of all human life, from womb to tomb. And not just in the abstract, but in the concrete particulars of our lives and relationships.