Monday, April 30, 2012

Truth, Goodness and Beauty in light of Common Grace (and Mario Puzo)

In discussions regarding Christ and culture the matter of how we are to approach literature is a must-consideration. Of course the extent of the fall and the idea of common grace (or as I prefer “common goodness”) must be considered in such an examination. A premise that arises, or is often assumed as axiomatic rather than one that is open for debate, is that unbelievers are actually capable of expressing “the true, the good and the beautiful.” This idea is closely related to the questions of whether fallen man is created in the "image of God" and what that phrase actually means.

Certainly there are some distinctions that all Reformed Christians draw with respect to how conversion impinges upon man as God’s “image bearer.” 1 Corinthians 11:7 declares that a man ought not to have his head covered since he is the image and glory of God. James informs us that men are made in God’s likeness. James 3:9 Notwithstanding, Scripture also informs that unconverted men have their minds blinded by the god of this world, which renders them not only incapable of seeing the light of the gospel but also blind to the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. It is Christ who is the image of God, and as Ephesians 4:24 teaches, it is through being re-created in Christ, the Second Adam, that man is restored as God’s witness to this glory. Man in Christ by the Spirit participates in true righteousness, holiness, and truth (as opposed to falsehood). Accordingly, the need to be restored in Christ presupposes, at least in some sense, fatal loss of the image Adam enjoyed. (I'm indebted to Robert Letham for these insights.) This radical antithesis is the basis for Van Til's insight, that although even the most mundane predication can resemble formal agreement between believer and unbeliever, there can be no agreement in principle. In principle, believer and unbeliever disagree over 1+1=2.

Christianity is too often considered only in soteriological terms. How can man be “saved?” To have such a narrow view of redemption is to pay precious little attention to the idea that Christ is not just the way back to the Father but the way back to the Father’s world. In this larger context we may ask - in what sense does the unbeliever, who does not embrace the Bible’s depiction of creation, providence and grace, communicate what the Bible has to say about truth, goodness and beauty? What does it actually mean that a fallen unbeliever is able to communicate the true, the good and the beautiful? For instance, is goodness merely a matter of external endeavor? Is to follow a set of rules, even the correct ones, sufficient for goodness, or does motive play a part (and if so, what quality of motive is in view)? Or, does all so-called “good” behavior accuse and condemn every man outside Christ? If so, then why? Is salvation judicial only, or does redemption include radical transformation, without which all good deeds remain filthy rags? Isaiah 64:6

In an effort to preempt a common objection I readily acknowledge that all of the believer’s works are tainted by sin. Notwithstanding, the Bible’s testimony is that only those who are converted by grace can attain unto any true virtue, which will always be a reality in the experience of the believer. Philippians 1:6; 2:13 Consequently, it is simply false to reduce man's ability to reflect truth, goodness and beauty to a matter of degree with respect to what the believer can mirror compared to the unbeliever. The gulf that exists between the two is as far reaching as earth and heaven, dust and glory.

Does the unbeliever have “half an orange” (Francis Schaeffer) or does he have an entire, rotten orange (Reformed view of the effects of the fall)? It is precisely because he only has the latter that believers often add to, rearrange and try to improve upon any secular attempt to communicate truth, goodness and beauty. This is why it is often said that “we must watch this play, or read that literary work, from a distinctly Christian perspective of redemption etc.” But after the story has been critiqued through the lens of Scripture, does it really resemble truth, goodness or beauty ? No, because the story itself needs to be redeemed from faulty notions and presuppositions. When the story is examined from a Biblical perspective, it should include the observation that what was depicted as good was actually a counterfeit good (all things considered), or a “counterfeit atonement” as was recently pointed out in my hearing. I am not suggesting that secular stories ought to be revised in the minds of believers but rather they be received and recognized for what they are and not something else. Any analogy to God's revealed truth must be seen as a false analogy. How, for instance, can biblical redemption be mirrored in the thoughts of an unbeliever?

In a last ditch effort one might wish to truncate a secular message pertaining to virtue by making such a qualification: "as far as the story goes, truth, goodness and beauty is portrayed." Yet such a caveat is aimed to abstract virtue from any biblical notion, portraying it as a standalone product without need of divine source or origin. What's more, it is to bear false witness against the story itself! It is to communicate things about truth, goodness and beauty that are not only the furthest things from the author’s mind but something he vehemently would oppose. So much for allowing the author's work to communicate the author's intent. After all, certainly the secularist rejects any notion that true virtue comes from God alone and that it can only be mirrored in man through the redeeming power of the gospel. For instance, in what sense does the Christian agree with Vito Corleone when in speaking with Johnny Fontane he instructs Sonny with these words on being a faithful husband and father, "A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man"? What is it to "spend time" and to be a "real man"? There can be formal agreement over the words while there is disagreement over principle regarding what would constitute a real man.

Now of course, it almost goes without saying that I have benefited all my life from the heathen’s efforts and I marvel, though surely not enough, at the mystery of providence in this regard. However, the benefits of what is commonly called "common grace" should not preclude one from recognizing the limits of such divine goodness as it pertains to what can be communicated in the arts in general and literature in particular. Again, there is no need to rewrite stories penned by fallen men to whom much has been given, but there is need, I do believe, to receive such works for what they truly are, recognizing in the process fallen man's unquenchable desire to be the would-be autonomous author of all that is true, good and beautiful. Recognize the ramifications of the curse as you digest man's efforts in the entertainment and stimulation it provides.

Van Til on Rome's influence:

An excerpt from Common Grace, by Cornelius Van Til, warns against the Roman communion’s notion of autonomous reasoning and its effect on Protestant, Reformed thinking as it pertains to conflating natural revelation with things pertaining to natural theology. 

 “If we are to witness to the God of Scripture we cannot afford to deny common grace. For, as noted, common grace is an element of the general responsibility of man, a part of the picture in which God, the God of unmerited favor, meets men everywhere. But neither can we afford to construct a theory in which it is implicitly allowed that the natural man, in terms of his adopted principles, can truly interpret any aspect of history. He seeks for meaning in the facts of this world without regarding these facts as carrying in them the revelation and therewith the claims of God….Now surely, you say, no Reformed person would have any commerce with any such view as that. Well, I do not think that any Reformed person purposely adopts such a view. But we know how the Roman Catholic conception of natural theology did creep into the thinking of Reformed theologians in the past. And the essence of this natural theology is that it attributes to the natural man the power of interpreting some aspect of the world [such as pertaining to “Truth, Goodness and Beauty?!”] without basic error… The Christians and non-Christians have, on this basis, a certain area of interpretation in common. They have common ideas in the sense that they agree on certain meanings without any difference… It is not merely that men are, all of them together, made in the image of God…. [or] as Kuyper stressed, all men have to think according to the rules of logic…All these things are true and important to maintain. But it is when in addition to these it is said there are common notions, common reactions, about God and man and the world to all this speech of God, on which there is no basic difference between Christians and non-Christians, that natural theology is confused with natural revelation.” Bold and bracketed emphasis mine. 
If one wants to maintain that fallen man is created in the image of God because he retains the faculty of choice and the innate ability to reason, then fine. I can allow for such semantic distinction. It's quite another thing to conflate the provisions men have through natural revelation with the possibility of an autonomous construct of any true, natural theology (one that would allow natural man to evaluate virtue, for instance). Truth, beauty and goodness are ideas with theological import; and sin corrupts man’s “notions” of what constitutes these things, which is part-and-parcel to the want of any “common reaction" between the two races of men to such qualities.

Now for some quotes from the Godfather trilogy, true literature worthy of man's consideration and deep reflection. 

"A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."

"Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever." 

Michael: "My father is no different than any other powerful man -- any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." Kay: "You know how naive you sound...senators and presidents don't have men killed." Michael: "Oh, who's being naive, Kay?"

"Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."

"Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day."

"...and if I ever need any guidance, who's a better consiglieri than my father?"

Godfather 2

"My father taught me many things ... keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."

"If anything in this life is certain; If history has taught us anything, it's that you can kill anyone."  

"To you she's beautiful. For me, there's only my wife..."

 "I don't--I never knew no godfather. I got my own family, senator"

"Whatcha go to college to get stupid? You're really stupid!"

"Don't you know that I would use all of my power to prevent something like that from happening?"

"Your father did business with Hyman Roth; Your father respected Hyman Roth; But your father never trusted Hyman Roth"

"We're all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator. But never think it applies to my family."

"Good health is the most important thing. More than success, more than money, more than power."

"Every time I put the line down I would say a Hail Mary, and every time I said a Hail Mary, I would catch a fish."

"Hail Mary, full of grace...." BAM! Fredo gets it.

"I didn't ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business."

Godfather 3 

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. [Our true enemy has not yet shown his face.]"

"Neri, take a train to Rome. Light a candle for the archbishop."

"All my life I kept trying to go up in society. Where everything higher up was legal. But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. Where does it end?"

"No, I don't hate you. I dread you."

"Politics and crime -- they're the same thing."

"This pope has very different ideas from the last one."

"Why was I so feared, and you were so loved?"

"Give me the order" [Michael:"You won't be able to go back... All my life I wanted out. I wanted my family out"] "Well, I don't want out. I want the power to preserve the Family. I'm asking for the order."

"Nephew, from this moment forward, call yourself Vincent Corleone."

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Two Thoughts For Struggling Wives (Or Husbands)

1. When trying to minister to couples in struggling marriages I have observed how it can be hurtful to a wife when her partner is willing to spend time with her only because God requires it. "What's the use?" or "How romantic?" she thinks.

Surely, when obedience to God is the only motivation for the husband to spend time with his wife it is easy to see how she might not receive her husband's attention with gratitude, or even become discouraged by her husband's efforts.

A word of comfort to the wife who has been understandably hurt in such instances should be that the best foundation to build our actions upon is faithful obedience to God's word. Conversely, if the main impetus for a husband to spend time with his wife is his desire for her, then what happens when she becomes less desirable to him? Although it might be more flattering if a spouse desires his or her partner because of the partner's qualities, shouldn't pride give way to the best foundation, a desire to please God?

The Lord may be pleased to grant once again the husband fond feelings toward his wife, but the Lord might first require the husband's faithfulness to Him before granting such feelings. After all, if the husband has turned away from his wife, then he must have turned away from God first. With that perspective in view it would seem fitting that the husband's repentance would begin with a turning back to God - indeed it must, which would in turn enable the husband to turn back toward his wife in a manner consistent with biblical repentance. (We should expect to walk through one door at a time so to speak.) So wife, don't be discouraged over what might appear to be your husband's feeble effort born out of obedience to God and not so driven by affection toward you. Keep in mind that you're in the predicament you find yourself because your husband's relationship with God has been severed; so naturally that healing must begin to take place if your relationship is to be truly restored - restored in the Lord that is. Your husband's external obedience to God's precepts might indicate a work of internal grace and the beginning of the Father-son healing process, and it is a process(!). So whatever you do, don't so much as breathe on the smoldering wick.

Keep in mind: (i) Pragmatically speaking, obedience to God is the most lasting foundation, so a wife, if she's in the marriage for the long haul, actually has occasion to be of good cheer by what she might be tempted to consider a meager, unsatisfying effort. (ii) As a matter of principle, faithful obedience to God is the marital foundation God requires in all spousal relationships; so wives, please try not to hold that, obedience to God, against your husband. At the very least, your spouse doesn't need your contempt but rather your respect, acceptance and encouragement, which may very well be the spark that God is pleased to fan into a flamed heart for you. No doubt, all of this will require that you die to yourself, if not even relinquish any earthly sense of justice that might linger in your fallen flesh. Don't give into temptation to be your husband's accuser. You are in a very real sense the high priest of your home at this juncture and as such, maybe you might consider your marriage-bliss a byproduct of your husband's relationship with the Lord. Encourage your husband in his Christian walk and expect the rest to just fall into place should he return to the Lord. Keep things on a spiritual level and make his pursuit of God, not of you, your highest priority.
2. If a husband is not spending time in God's word then the wife, whether she likes it or not, becomes the only epistle her husband reads.

Dear Struggling Woman,

What is your spouse reading these days? I pray he is reading the gospel.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Did the Second Person of the Trinity Die on the Cross or Just Jesus' Humanity?

I hear more often than not from knowledgeable Christians that although Jesus is God, God did not die on the cross – Jesus’ humanity did.

When bodies die they remain in the grave until resurrection but the soul remains conscious in the intermediate state doing what souls can do without a body. With that premise in view, how does the death of the Second Person of the Trinity impinge upon his divinity, authority, abilities or whatever? Was the death of the body sufficient to do away with Jesus’ sovereign rule over the universe? Was death even sufficient to stop the Rich Man (from Luke 16) from trying to correct God? One would have to ask how the Lord managed prior to the incarnation (when without a body) if we may not say that the Second Person of the Trinity truly died upon the cross.

In death Jesus was separated from his body but he was still conscious and active according to what he could do without a body. It is thought that if the incarnate Son died, then He couldn’t function as God, which is why I like to tease out that we believe in a conscious death, one that permits the person to operate on some level without a body. Christians are not annihilationists after all. In the case of the Son, Jesus operated most of his divine life without a body yet while ruling the universe. Accordingly, why not say he died and in that sense operated as before? I think some unwittingly impose an annihilation understanding of death onto their own thinking about the Savior's death, thereby not allowing the Savior-person to have truly died yet function as God while dead.

We must allow Scripture to inform us of what is possible. Christians should agree that if a divine person died on the cross, then death must be compatible with that divine person. The only question is why is the possession of the divine nature incompatible with the death of a person who possesses that nature? In other words, what would death of a divine person, who had assumed a human body and reasonable soul, prevent Him from doing or being? Obviously it would prevent him from doing physical things like walking but what else with respect to divine ability and ontology? In laboring the point we might note that death of a human person does not eliminate the human will and other things human, though it eliminates some things. Given that God does not require a physical body to function as God, why can’t the death of a divine person impinge upon the assumed physical properties of the person and not spiritual ones?

In the like manner, I’m willing to look at birth in such a way as to be compatible with a divine person coming forth from the Virgin's womb. Did Mary give birth to a divine person, or just a human nature? If birth implies the origin of someone new (a new person), then only humanity came forth in the virgin birth since the person born of the virgin always existed. However, Mary carried a person (and not just an embodied nature) in her womb, and after her water broke, she then labored to bring forth the person she had carried. In common parlance we call that giving birth. Since a divine person came forth, we must let that reality inform our understanding / definition of birth (rather then let our understanding of birth redefine what occurred in that manger in Bethlehem). Inception, let alone birth, need not precede the origin of a new person, precisely because the eternal Son of God, a person, was born of a virgin. When we start with Scripture apparent problems often go away. Question 37 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way, or rather it simply assumes the point when making another:
“How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man? Answer: Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her, yet without sin.” (emphasis mine)
It's a comfort to know that the Second Person of the Trinity died for sinful people. If only Jesus human nature died, then only your nature would be saved, which stops short of the salvation of individual and distinct persons since the one nature is shared by all.

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