It is hard for non-believers to understand just why Christians are always so concerned with the idea of sin. Simeon Zahl, in an essay reprinted in Mockingbird (“Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin”) explains why, and why this is significant.
When I try to explain [to my students] that Christians have traditionally believed that human beings are deeply flawed from birth, and furthermore that God is profoundly unhappy about these flaws, I watch my students’ eyes grow skeptical. I watch their postures shift the way students always do when they disagree with what you are telling them. . . .
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My point is this: in the edifice of Christian belief, the doctrine of sin is a major load-bearing structure. It is not theologically optional. To lose it, or to downplay it, or to reframe it in terms that are less offensive to our sense of self-worth, is in the long run to render Christianity unintelligible to people.
This reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who made much the same point in his essay “God in the Dock”:
The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.
God in the Dock, 243–4 (1970).
Zahl goes on to offer some ways of thinking about sin which may communicate the truth about sin to modern people (like each of us) who have been trained to think in very different terms. He ends by saying:
It is only in our sickness that we recognize the Physician. It is our sin that makes Christ intelligible to us.
Worth the time.
Rachael Denhollander was interviewed by Christianity Today in the aftermath of her statement to the Court in the Nassar sentencing. (If you have not yet read “No True Grace Without Real Judgment” and her statement, please do that now.)
She talks bluntly about the tendency — which she feels is universal — for church leadership to protect the “the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ” rather than the victims of sexual abuse, when the abuse occurs in the church. It is an uncomfortable indictment.
Here is her conclusion:
“[T]he gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.
[And] that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.
As usual, I urge you to read the whole interview. Morgan Lee, “Interview with Rachael Denhollander,”* Christianity Today (Jan. 31, 2018) [link].
Ms. Denhollander has thought deeply, theologically, and prayerfully about these things.
*The actual title is “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.”
Rachael Denhollander to Larry Nassar:
“In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
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Continue reading No true grace without real judgment
Interesting article (and rebuke) by a Catholic writer about the tension Mr. Trump has created within what was once a more unified evangelical community:
Trump’s candidacy and presidency have bitterly divided . . . evangelicals of all stripes, all of whom continue to address each other in harsh tones and with dismissive rhetoric. It is curious to see communities formed by grace show so little of it toward fellow believers. Given their theological kinship and belief in a transcendent and knowable moral order, evangelicals have deep resources for modelling sound deliberation about the common good. Yet deliberation can take place only if evangelicals grant each other room to exercise the core political virtue of prudence. Prudence will not lead all believers down the same political path, but it is best demonstrated in deliberation rather than in incrimination and excommunication.
Darren Guerra, “Donald Trump and the Evangelical ‘Crisis,'” First Things (Jan. 5, 2018). He suggests that Catholics, Mormons, and mainline Protestants have been dis-stressed in much the same way, but have been less divided by the Trump phenomenon.
Let us strive to show grace even in politics.
We hate humiliation, but is clearly part of becoming Christ-like. 2 Cor 8:9; Php 2:8; Heb 12:2, etc., etc.
This dense paragraph from Karl Barth reminds me that humiliation is displayed by Jesus because it is in his divine nature. (This is pretty obvious, I guess, but I enjoyed remembering it.)
God does not first elect and determine man but Himself. In His eternal counsel, and then in its execution in time, He determines to address Himself to man, and to do so in such a way that He Himself becomes man. God elects and determines Himself to be the God of man. And this undoubtedly means . . . that He elects and determines Himself for humiliation. In so doing He does not need to become alien to Himself, to change Himself. The Godhead of the true God is not a prison whose walls have first to be broken through if He is to elect and do what He has elected and done in becoming man. In distinction from that of false gods, and especially the god of Mohammed, His Godhead embraces both height and depth, both sovereignty and humility, both lordship and service. He is the Lord over life and death. He does not become a stranger to Himself when in His Son He also goes into a far country. He does not become another when in Jesus Christ He also becomes and is man.
—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, 84 (thanks to Mark Galli).
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle — that is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
Brennan Manning (April 27, 1934 – April 12, 2013).
More careful irenic writing on the Wheaton College/Larycia Hawkins matter:
- Tracy McKenzie, “Academic Freedom in a Christian Context” Faith & History (Jan. 18, 2016) [link], and (of course)
- Alan Jacobs, “Once more on the Academic Freedom Merry-Go-Round” Snakes & Ladders (Jan. 19, 2016) [link].
Jacobs is more or less critiquing a response which McKenzie got to the original piece. Each writer is calmly thinking through the issues, which seems very appropriate, under the circumstances, and unusual, compared with the rest of the blogosphere.
Katharine Hayhoe is a Christ-follower and a believer in climate change. Apparently these are not contradictory positions.
I don’t think there are any churches that have “Thou shalt not believe in climate change” written in their actual statement of faith. However, I think it’s become an unspoken article of faith in many churches because of what we have been told. I’ve even had people tell me that I must not be a Christian because I think climate change is real. But you know, there’s nothing in the Bible that says that. The sad truth is that our thought leaders—many of them in the conservative media and politics—are the ones telling us this isn’t real, and we are believing them.
Ann Neumann, “God’s Creation Is Running a Fever,” Guernica (12/15/2015) [link].
Christian teachers and students alike can never forget that their views are not widely shared in the culture as a whole. We read a great many books written by people who don’t believe what we believe; we are always aware of being different. This is a tremendous boon to true learning, because it discourages people from deploying rote pieties as a substitute for genuine thought. No Christian student or professor can ever forget the possibility of alternative beliefs or unbeliefs. Most students who graduate from Christian colleges have a sharp, clear awareness of alternative ways of being in the world; yet students at secular universities can go from their first undergraduate year all the way to a PhD without ever having a serious encounter with religious thought and experience — with any view of the world other than that of their own social class.
Alan Jacobs,”Christian Education and ‘Intellectual Compromise’” The American Conservative (online post 12/18/2015) (link).
At this time of the year, it is well for Christian students and professors (and shouldn’t we all be both?) to recall that we are called to be “different.” “Different” does not (of course) mean angry, or rude, or insecure. It does not mean ignorant or lacking in humility. It means loving the world in truth, and that invariably means going out into the places where the world lives.
Much has already been written about the Wheaton professor who — perhaps trying to make a mainly human rather than mainly theological point — prompted a furor when she asserted that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The question is complex, and has been discussed profitably many times in the past.
Here is an excerpt from a thoughtful (and irenic) article by Timothy George, published in the aftermath of 9/11:
Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? The answer is surely Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is. He is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, of every person who has ever lived. He is the one before whom all shall one day bow (Phil. 2:5-11). Christians and Muslims can together affirm many important truths about this great God—his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Qur’an puts it, he is “the Living, the Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious” (2:256).
But the answer is also No, for Muslim theology rejects the divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit—both essential components of the Christian understanding of God. No devout Muslim can call the God of Muhammad “Father,” for this, to their mind, would compromise divine transcendence. But no faithful Christian can refuse to confess, with joy and confidence, “I believe in God the Father. … Almighty!” Apart from the Incarnation and the Trinity, it is possible to know that God is, but not who God is.
Timothy George, “Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus? Christianity Today (February 4, 2002) (link).