John Calvin’s prolonged martyrdom

This week, I finished Bruce Gordon’s, Calvin, a highly recommended biography of John Calvin. While there is so much to learn from the book, I have found myself reflecting on one consistent theme from Gordon’s biography: John Calvin sacrificed his life to promote the Gospel. In fact, Calvin’s life was a prolonged martyrdom. We can’t imagine the focused and unrelenting work of the reformers.

John Calvin was a refugee, and he lived a life filled with great passion, political clashes, and endless theological disputes. Calvin did everything from writing biblical commentaries, theological treatises, and polemical tracts to delivering multiple sermons a week, teaching students, leading the Company of Pastors, and traveling to important conferences in Swiss and German lands.

The demands of Calvin’s life wore him down, and he required the assistance of his wife, brother, peers, and secretaries to maintain his productivity. Gordon speculates that Calvin’s work sent him to an early grave. Bruce Gordon, Calvin 339 (2011).

Calvin had the intellectual ability to do anything he wanted in his native France, but his conscience compelled him to flee from all that was known and comfortable. To his fellow Protestants who remained in Catholic lands, such as France, Calvin believed that there could be no compromise with Roman practices. True religion was to be maintained up to the point of exile or death.

While most of us would assume that death would be “Option B,” this sober and illuminating letter from Calvin suggests otherwise.

Believe me, I had fewer troubles with Servetus and have now with Westphal and his like than I have with those who are close at hand, whose numbers are beyond reckoning and whose passions are irreconcilable. If one could choose, it would be better to be burned once by the papists than to be plagued for eternity by one’s neighbors. They do not allow me a moment’s rest, although they can clearly see that I am collapsing under the burden of work, troubled by endless sad occurrences, and disturbed by intrusive demands. My one comfort is that death with soon take me from this all too difficult service.

As quoted in Bruce Gordon, Calvin 233 (2011).

What are we to make of this? Clearly, at that moment, Calvin viewed the demands of his life to be worse than burning. I don’t think that this was some passing lament. Calvin’s situation in Geneva was always tenuous, and his influence across Europe waxed and waned.

To Calvin, the Christian life is a prolonged martyrdom. All Christians must give up worldly comforts and live a life of service to God and neighbor. Some will perish quickly at the hand of the government. Others will pass away peacefully in old age after a long life of faithful service. In all cases, suffering is to be expected.

Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 24:43 is an illustrative example of Calvin’s heavenly disposition. Calvin wrote, “God does not bestow the honourable title of his children on any but those who acknowledge that they are strangers on the earth, who not only at all times are prepared to leave it but move forward in an uninterrupted ‘course towards the heavenly life.'” As quoted in Gordon, Calvin at 335. From Gordon’s biography, you get the sense that Calvin lived in anticipation of death and the life to come.

While it is foreign to us, Calvin’s perspective is not depressing or dour. Death is the fate of every living thing on the earth. To be a martyr for Christ in this life is a small sacrifice compared to the joy of eternal life. Calvin would instruct us to pity not the Christian martyr. Pity instead the man who lives for the insignificant and dies in the fog of his distractions.

Tweeting synodically (cynically?)

As you may have heard, the RCA’s General Synod and the CRCNA’s Synod are in full swing. The RCA is meeting in Holland, Michigan at Hope College. The CRCNA is meeting in Palos Heights, Illinois at Trinity Christian College.

Monday was a busy day for both synods. In fact, I expect proceedings to continue into the evening. Follow the hashtags #rcasynod and #crcsynod for comments and reactions. Here are some highlights.

How the CRC Synod Stole Christmas

No Christmas shoe boxes for you! I think this a referendum on Franklin Graham more than anything else. On the other hand, it’s possible that the CRC Synod does hate Christmas gifts.

RCA #StaleStream

The RCA stream is running on a 30-minute delay because of swear words and wardrobe malfunctions, obviously.

Do Justice [As Instructed by the Bible]

Classis Minnkota’s overture relates to denominational oversight of the Do Justice blog’s content. This overture caused much discussion and has not been resolved. I kind of want to be like Classis Minnkota when I grow up.

Minnkota to the United Reformed Church?

Dr. James K.A. Smith has had enough of your intransigence.

RCA Membership

The RCA does need to figure out what can be done to stop this nasty trend.
RCA Statistics

The RCA has always been the progressive older sibling of the CRCNA. Through its actions, such as elevating the Belhar Confession, the RCA has invited fights over social programs and political preferences. There are macro headwinds to be sure, but some decline has been self-inflicted.

Choose your own adventure: CRC or RCA or URC

Did you know that the CRCNA and the RCA will hold a joint session next year? Is this not the future? The conservative classes and churches remaining in the CRCNA and the RCA should join the URCNA, as suggested by James K.A. Smith, and the remaining classes and churches of the CRCNA and the RCA should merge. Do it.

Our blessings are complicated

Today, my wife and I will celebrate our 10-year anniversary.

I typically make our anniversary public with a sappy Facebook post and a profile picture update. That’s what we moderns do, right?

I should celebrate my marriage. It’s an incredible blessing. Aside from my life in the church, nothing is more central to my identity. I grew up with my wife. We figured out life together.

At the same time, I want to be thoughtful about the endless celebrations to which we are involuntarily subjected. The fact is that our public celebrations don’t always hit our friends at the right time. Our news feeds and timelines can be cruel.

My wife and I know what it is like to experience great loss. It can be difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice. Some social media posts strike at the most vulnerable sections of our hearts. Sanctification takes a lifetime.

I don’t know why God blesses some of us with supportive, Christian spouses.

I don’t know why God blesses some of us with loving Christian families.

I don’t know why God blesses some of us with many children.

I don’t know why God blesses some of us with great health.

I don’t know why God blesses some of us with an abundance of material possessions.

I do know that we don’t deserve any of it. This is a great mystery. 

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”

35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?”

36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11: 33-36 (NIV)

My life happened in May

My life happened in May

Review: The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher is the conservative author who wrote the book that started this great war.

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Well, it hasn’t exactly been a war, but the nasty tweets, reviews, and blog posts have been whizzing like bullets. The point of controversy is Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The episode has undoubtedly been good for traffic, sales, and small group discussions.

In some ways, the Benedict Option (“Ben Op”) controversy is surprising and unexpected. Dreher has been hashing out the Ben Op for a number of years now. If you’re unfamiliar with the Ben Op, I encourage you to read Dreher’s article “Benedict Option FAQ” from 2015. Dreher provides a succinct definition.  

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept [Alasdair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

If the Ben Op is about intentional Christian community, there isn’t much reason for a controversy here.

Why are some Christians choosing the Ben Op?

Rod Dreher answers this question in the first chapter of The Benedict Option. The opening chapter lacks nuance, but hits on the important points. Christianity and organized religion in general are losing market share. Dreher writes that “[h]ostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve.” Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation 9 (2017).

Furthermore, orthodox Christians have lost a significant amount of cultural sway and influence. See the short-sighted and desperate endorsements of Donald J. Trump. The barbarians aren’t just at the gates, they’re running our institutions, policing our culture, and creating Amazon Original Series. Whether we like it or not, according to Dreher, our kids are steeped in a framework that is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.

If you’ve read Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory or Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, then I don’t think Dreher’s diagnosis of our culture should surprise you. I’m nothing more than an armchair philosopher, but even I know that there are irreconcilable differences in our society. We protest because we can’t reason together.

What is good?

Dreher relies on MacIntyre’s definition of “emotivism” to describe our moral framework. MacIntyre defines [e]motivism as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but (emphasis in original) expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory Second Edition 11-12 (1984).

We’re all emotivists to some degree. When we hear someone talk in absolutist terms about morality or right living, our immediate reaction is to dismiss the speaker as terribly naive. Surely there is a defeater for every moral framework. At least, that’s what we’re taught. Don’t judge because your neighbor’s moral preference is just as valid, warranted, and true as yours. Emotivism is not found in orthodox Christianity, but we can’t avoid being influenced by our environment.

Chapter two of The Benedict Option tries to explain why we’re all emotivists. Dreher provides a tl;dr summary of 2000 years in the West. It’s what you would expect in a popular-level book. This chapter is fine if you want a partisan historical survey. If this sort of thing interests you at all, go read Charles Taylor.

In chapter three, Dreher recounts his visit to the Monastery of St. Benedict and describes Benedict’s Rule. The Benedictines do not live according to the harm principle. No, life in the monastery is strictly regulated.

By living out a life of order, prayer, work, etc., the Benedictines orient their lives around a specific telos and vision of the good. The Ben Op isn’t just about running away. It’s about forming character and thriving in Christian community. “The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.” Dreher, The Benedict Option at 77. The Benedictine community is not a Sunday morning social gathering.

What about the rest of us?

Dreher knows full well that most of us are not going to join a religious order as exacting as the Benedictine Order. Throughout the rest of the book, Dreher uses anecdotes to illustrate the practical application of the Ben Op by average, orthodox Christians in the United States.

I enjoyed the story of Lance Kinzer, a former state legislator, who focused on renewal at his church. Kinzer, a member of a PCA church in Kansas, taught a class on Augustine’s City of God and encouraged members to explore the riches of the Reformed tradition. Kinzer provided some prudential guidelines for Christian engagement in politics in the post GWB-Obama era.

Another practical way Christians live out the Ben Op is by sending their kids to Christian schools. Christian parents must face the reality that public schools are not a neutral public sphere. The fact that many public school children begin the day with the Pledge of Allegiance tells you all you need to know about the telos of government-provided education. Additionally, many Christian schools are just elitist versions of public schools with some Bible classes sprinkled in. Dreher argues that Christians should send their children to classical, Christian schools if at all feasible.

As a Dutch Reformed guy, I find Dreher’s point here entirely uncontroversial. The first one hundred years of the CRCNA is a case study in thick communities that connected culture, church, and school. I recently read J. Gresham Machen’s, Christianity and Liberalism. Machen, who was something of a libertarian, made a similar point about public education. Machen thought that public schools, and state laws that threatened alternative forms of education, were antithetical to liberty and Christianity.

One final point to mention here is how Christians pursue Ben Op living when it comes to sexuality. Dreher lists the sexual revolution as an epochal event in the West. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but our culture’s re-education project on human sexuality is insidious. Christians in the first and second centuries lived peculiar lives marked by a strict sexual ethic. This was part of the Christian witness. The Apostle Paul repeatedly listed sexual immorality among the public sins from which Christians must flee.

I think the critics who are scandalized by Dreher’s call to fight pornography with everything we have and to reject the world’s definition of sexual freedom are missing the point. The Christian witness on sex is not the gospel. Dreher himself would say that. Nonetheless, a peculiar and wholesome sexual ethic is an essential part of Christian living.   

Conclusion

The Benedict Option is not perfect. It’s true that the overall theme of the book focuses on the experience of white Christians in the West. In contrast, minority communities have been living out the Ben Op since, well, forever. As a retort to this criticism, I think Dreher would say that our current culture is more hostile to all Christian communities.

Additionally, you must account for the fact that Dreher comes from an Eastern Orthodox background. I wouldn’t have chosen a monastic order as the archetype of my book. I can’t follow Dreher everywhere because I affirm the Reformed confessions. Nonetheless, I agree with Dreher and Machen that Confessional Protestants, Orthodox believers, and Roman Catholics are bound together by core essentials. The book is written for small “o” orthodox Christians.

I enjoyed The Benedict Option, and I’m not very sympathetic to its critics. This is a book written to a general audience. There are many helpful anecdotes and strategies. I’m all for little Christian platoons and mediating institutions that focus on faith formation and Christian living. None of this takes away from the Great Commission to preach the gospel to all the world. In some respects, this is exactly the Dutch Reformed model. Dreher and Kuyper are allies, not enemies.

Dr. R. Scott Clark explains covenant theology on the Theology Gals podcast

Dr. R. Scott Clark is one of my heroes. If you have not yet read Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice, you’re really missing out. Dr. Clark also maintains an excellent blog.

Recently, Dr. Clark was interviewed by the Theology Gals for their weekly podcast. In the episode, Dr. Clark explains covenant theology, paedobaptism, covenant kids, and more.

Listen here.

I absolutely love this quote at around the 35 minute mark. “We can’t take our American individualist view of salvation back into scripture because it isn’t there. In scripture, salvation is administered to groups.”

Dr. Clark goes on to say that Abraham is the father of all believers. Moses, meaning the law, is temporary. Abraham, meaning the promise of circumcision/baptism, is permanent.

This is the promise to Abraham. “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 (NIV)

We know from the New Testament that believers in Christ are the descendants of Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham is everlasting and unbroken.

Covenant theology is the foundation upon which the confessional Reformed church is built. Listen to the Theology Gals podcast and get a quick primer.

I believe in the resurrection of the body

“I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body.”

For centuries, Christians have confessed this belief when reciting the Apostles’ Creed. While it is possible for many of us to gloss over the belief statements in the Creed, the belief in the resurrection of the body is difficult to comprehend.

How can our earthly bodies, decayed and disintegrated as they might be, be raised and glorified at the final judgment? Aren’t we really hoping for some spiritual existence after death?

No.

The resurrection of the body is an essential doctrine. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15 that our faith in Jesus Christ is useless if there is no resurrection of the dead. For if there is no resurrection, then Christ himself could not rise from the dead. Our faith is built on this foundation.

The importance of the doctrine, however, does not make it easy to accept. John Calvin understood our doubt. He discussed the resurrection of the flesh in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[W]e are assured of the resurrection of the flesh, through which we enter into possession of eternal life . . . . This is something which is not only hard to believe but is utterly incredible when judged by human reason. Hence although many philosophers were not by any means ignorant of the immortality of the soul, not one of them had the slightest idea of the resurrection of the flesh. For who could possibly imagine that the bodies we have—of which some decay in the ground, some are devoured by worms, birds or other animals, and still others are burned to ashes—must at last be wholly restored?

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1541 edition, translated by Robert White, 287 (The Banner of Truth Trust 2014).

To help our unbelief, Calvin points us to the example of Christ.

The Lord, however, has very carefully averted this difficulty both by bearing very definite witness to the coming resurrection, and also by providing visible assurance of it in Jesus Christ. So what might otherwise appear incredible has been made plain for us to see.

Id.

Christ rose from the dead. Donald J. Trump is the president of the United State of America. These are statements of fact. Our doctrine springs from historical events. Christ’s death and resurrection actually occurred in the first century A.D.  It is reasonable, therefore, to believe in our own bodily resurrection because we know that Christ rose from the dead. We can believe it because he did it.

According to the Heidelberg Catechism, Christ’s resurrection benefits us in three ways:

First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he won for us by his death.

Second, by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life.

Third, Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.

Heidelberg Catechism Q45

The resurrection of the body is a difficult doctrine. It is dishonest to state otherwise. In times of doubt, look to Christ. His resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection. He is risen!

Judah & the Lion on being a “Better Man”

We are living in the golden age of the folk-indie-rock genre, which includes bands like The Lumineers, The Strumbellas, and Of Monsters and Men. It is a great time to be alive.

Lately, I have been listening to the raw and eclectic music of Judah & the Lion. While many of us are familiar with the hit single “Take it all Back,” I really love the song “Better Man” off the same album,  Folk Hop N’ Roll.

The members of Judah & the Lion are Christians, so it isn’t a coincidence that the lyrics of “Better Man” point to the profound mystery of sanctification. The second verse paints the picture of spiritual rebirth.

All my life that I would grow

Like a flower that comes up from a seed that’s sown

The spirit now to rise within

Reign over my carnal skin

Sanctification is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that enables believers to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God. The Holy Spirit frees believers from the slavery of their “carnal skin.”

Article 24 of the Belgic Confession states that “true faith, produced in us by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates us and makes us new creatures, causing us to live a new life and freeing us from the slavery of sin.”

The chorus, “oh, I just want to be a better man as I go,” is actually the cry of every Christian who grows exasperated with his own sins. Even as we live a new life in Christ, we constantly fall victim to the cravings of the carnal skin. We never stop striving “with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life.” Heidelberg Catechism Q32.

The final verse is a specific request for Christian living.

Oh my hands to serve and love

My eyes to see and not to judge

My spirit now to rise within

And reign over my carnal skin

“Better Man” is a beautiful song about sanctification and a prayer to live a better life devoted to service and love.

Machen on tolerance and liberty

I am ashamed to admit that until this weekend I had not read Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This book would have proven very helpful during my college experience. I found the Reformed confessions in my flight from social gospel fundamentalism. Machen was in my bones.

While I love Machen’s theology, there is also much to like about Machen’s political thought.

Machen deeply understood and valued freedom of association. Voluntary associations, such as confessional churches, must be free to set their own boundaries and definitions. This basic point is widely misunderstood.

For example, the “I Love German Shepherds Club” of Grand Rapids, Michigan must be allowed to accept or reject potential members based on the person’s pet preferences. Frankly, many people believe that freedom of association means that the cat lover should have the right to join the I Love German Shepherds Club. This is just flat wrong. If you love cats and not German Shepherds, the club must have the right to exclude you. Otherwise, the club is meaningless.

Machen outlines this argument in his chapter on “The Church.”

Involuntary organizations ought to be tolerant, but voluntary organizations, so far as the fundamental purpose of their existence is concerned, must be intolerant or else cease to exist. The state is an involuntary organization; a man is forced to be a member if it whether he will or no. It is therefore an interference with liberty for the state to prescribe any one type of opinion or any one type of education for its citizens. But within the state, individual citizens who desire to unite for some special purpose should be permitted to do so. Especially in the sphere of religion, such permission of individuals to unite is one of the rights which lie at the very foundation of our civil and religious liberty. The state does not scrutinize the rightness or wrongness of the religious purpose for which such voluntary religious associations are formed—if it did undertake such scrutiny all religious liberty would be gone—but it merely protects the right of individuals to unite for any religious purpose which they may choose.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism 142 (2009).

To put it simply: the state must be tolerant; the church must be intolerant. The alternative is that there is no liberty and no church worthy of the name.

Across two Marches

I was reminded this week that the blog has been live for one year. What an eventful year we have had. Thank you for following along. To those who have stopped me at church or other places to mention a post, I really appreciate the encouragement.

I want to use the occasion to review what has happened here. Let’s take a look at some stats and popular posts.

Stats

Posts 43
Views 3,114
Visitors 2,153

Not surprisingly, Facebook is by far the biggest driver of traffic to the site.

Popular Posts

What happened in Grand Rapids? 

In this post, I reviewed Trump’s election performance in Grand Rapids and Kent County. Trump’s vote totals were poor compared to other Republicans on the ballot and even Mitt Romney’s 2012 numbers.

In defense of short-term mission trips

I argued here that thoughtful and appropriate short-term mission trips will help you grow and provide a real benefit to those whom you are serving.

The allure of an old house

This post has two meanings. The literal meaning relates to my beautiful, mid-century home. The allegorical meaning is a plug for conservatism and our intellectual inheritance.

Welcome to Wasteland: Christian, don’t despair

How does one move forward when confronted with the cold, difficult, and unfair realities of life? This post was pure emotion. My only comfort is my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

What are you going to do with that?

The liberal arts are returning to favor. Kids, it is ok to major in history or Latin. Seek the good, true, and beautiful.

Across three Marches

Writing is a pure hobby for me. I’m not selling anything. I’m not running for any office. This is my golf.

My purpose here is not to yell “stop” at the rush of history. Rather, my cry is “wait, what are we doing?” Thoughtful reflection is the thankless task of every conservative. Everyone praises the chef for some exciting innovation, but nobody thanks the faithful laborers in the supply chain for preserving the essential ingredients that make the innovation possible.

In March 2016, I was concerned about the soul of the Republican Party and the unhelpful ideologies of MAGAism.  As the year progressed, events in my life spurred on an introspective streak. Matters of religion took their rightful place as my chief concern.

Sadly, cultural issues threaten to further divide the church in the United States. If Tim Keller has become too controversial for a seminary award, well, then, we are in a sad state of confusion.

In no branch of science would there be any real advance if every generation started fresh with no dependence upon what past generations have achieved. Yet in theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism 39 (2009). 

Over the next year, I plan to defend giants and foundations. I can’t think of a better use of my time. See you next March if the Lord wills it.

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