Eschatology as the Church Suffering with Christ

passion scene

Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting aside in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, in which he suggests that eschatology and history, rather than centering around an “apocalypse-focused” theology (i.e. dispensational / rapture theology), should be centered, even structured around the church-as-suffering-with-Christ.

Balthasar suggests that the history of the church, and the church’s eschatological consummation, should be seen and structured in light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And what he means is that just as Christ’s life became more and more violent and ended in the cross and resurrection, so the church’s history, as Christ’s body, should be seen that way as well: growing in intensity, in violence, and consummating in a final persecution which ends in resurrection glory.

In other words, as Jesus goes, so goes the church, his body. Because Christ suffered, so the church must expect to suffer. The church’s destiny within history, is to die and rise with Christ. And this church-Christ connection is how Balthasar prefers to structure history. It is a progression of the church toward her ultimate end: death and resurrection with Christ. To him, this is what the final stage of history looks like!

What is interesting here, is that NT theology does seem to find a historical continuum of the church-as-suffering-with-Christ. Jesus himself says that suffering is a “norm” for the church. He also defines discipleship as being crucified with Christ: “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that suffering “with Christ” is a condition for final salvation (Rom 8:17). Paul even says that he rejoices in his sufferings, as they fill “up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). It would seem that persecution and martyrdom is an anticipated and even necessary experience for the church. Why? The church is the body of Jesus, growing into him through death and resurrection. In other words, the church suffers in and with Christ, as his body. This is her historic destiny.

More than that though, the NT also points to a final suffering, a final “dying-with-Christ”, if you will, where the church suffers in a more complete and eschatological sense. In Thessalonians, for instance, we find Paul teaching that persecution, although normal and expected (“mystery of godlessness… at work now“, 2 Thess 2:7), will grow to a climax at the appearance of a final “lawless one” (2:8, antichrist) whom Jesus himself will destroy. Revelation, of course, envisions a final persecution which will only end with the appearance of Jesus and glorification (Rev 19-20).

What Balthasar suggests is that the church, as the body of Jesus, is meant to experience Jesus’ sufferings. This is the destiny of the church: to be conformed into Christ. This experience of the church, this dying-with-Christ, is expressed in history, culminating in a final death and resurrection, after which she will be completed in glory. This is Balthasar’s eschatological center: the church as suffering with Christ.

Here is how Balthasar explains it:

A question may be asked at this point: Do the various periods in Jesus’ life shed light on the Church’s history and hence, indirectly, on world history? … [T]he destinies of Peter and Paul—according to John 21, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and 2 Timothy—are fashioned closely enough after their Lord’s. Should this sequence be applied to the Church’s history as a whole?…

[I believe we can draw a] parallel between Jesus’ progress toward his “hour” and the Church’s progress toward the eschatological tribulation. For, as we have shown, the Church comes from the Cross and is always heading toward it. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is sent to her on the basis of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, that she is equipped for discipleship, enabled to drink the Lord’s cup (Mk 10:39). Hence, in Paul, the baffling simultaneity of transfiguration and Passion: “For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11)… [And] indeed, it seems to be Paul’s view that the glory of the Lord actually shines forth in the disciple’s sharing of Christ’s sufferings: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10). “For we are weak in him [Christ], but in dealing with you we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)…

So we cannot avoid the question: Does world history give indications that [Christ’s passion has]… a universal effect? That is, does not world history show a theological structure, a christological structure, and can it not be demonstrated even to the nonbeliever? In such a case, world history and the Church’s history would be more interrelated than is commonly assumed; not merely in the sense of an external intertwining of Church and State (since Constantine), including modern absolutism with its ideal of “throne and altar”, but in a way that is more in accord with the gospel? (Theo-Drama: The Action, Part IV, A)

I believe that Balthasar truly has something here. The church as the body of Christ, suffers as Christ in history. And this history centers around that suffering, in which we shall die with Christ, and finally be raised (in the actual eschatological sense of the world!) with him.

Catholicism verses Protestantism: What’s the main difference?

difference

I have been studying Catholic theology lately, examining the major disagreements it has with my Protestant theology.

While there are major differences, things like the sinlessness of Mary, or the veneration of saints and icons, or papal authority, this was not the largest difference I saw. And to be honest, there are explanations for these practices that aren’t altogether outlandish (though I would still disagree).

Another difference that some might point out is how the Catholics view the sacraments. According to the Catholic Catechism, Catholics understand the sacraments to be “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving”. In other words, Jesus himself gives life to his church in the sacraments. So in baptism, Jesus himself effects regeneration. In confirmation, Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit. In the Eucharist, Christians quite literally are nourished by Jesus’ body. And this is because, according to Catholic theology, the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ. And through his body, in the sacraments, he saves his people. Nevertheless, Protestants, healthy ones at least, understand the importance of the sacraments, and that Jesus really does impart grace through them (although we would understand them differently of course).

I wouldn’t even see grace as the primary difference. All too often, Catholic theology is seen as works-based, religious, dry. However, every Catholic I know would deny that. In fact, grace is central to Catholic theology. The Catechism states that salvation “has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”. Who could disagree with that? Grace really is present in Catholic theology.

So then, what is the big difference? 

To me, the thing that makes Protestants and Catholics diverge; the rub, as it were, is what “justification” means. Justification means two different things in Protestant and Catholic theology — did you know that?

For Protestants, justification is the declaration that sinners, though they be sinners, are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Because Christ was obedient in our place, on our behalf, we are given, or imputed Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by the righteousness of another, not our own. As Luther says, justification is the gift of an “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith”. We are saved not because we are actually righteous (though we will be righteous in glory), but because Jesus is. So that is Protestant “justification”.

But Catholics do not see justification this way. Though they would still hold to justification, they would define it as the transference from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. And in this transference, rather than Christ’s righteousness being imputed, his righteousness is imparted, or infused within us. What they mean is that the merits of Christ are literally infused into our nature, thereby making us not legally righteous, but actually righteous. Andrew Preslar writes,

[J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source)

The Catholic Catechism writes, “justification conforms us to the righteousness of God”. This is very important here. Catholic theology rejects “legal… terms alone”, and says that justification is the act by which by God infuses the life of Christ in us, thereby allowing us to be righteous in the real sense of the word now.

Now here’s the important part: for the Catholic church, because the merits and righteousness of Christ are literally infused, it is now the role of God’s justified church to cooperate with God’s grace and live out a righteous life, thereby meriting eternal life. Final salvation, for the Catholic church, depends on us living out the righteousness of Christ infused within. This is why the sacraments are so important. The Eucharist is Christ giving us more grace to live out a righteous life. Confession is given to absolve any mortal sin which extinguishes the righteousness of Christ infused in us. Impartation or infusion of Jesus’ righteousness, means that we can now live out the law and merit eternal life.

Now let me be fair: this isn’t salvation by self-merit. In Catholicism, final salvation is not dependent on us living out our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ infused within. In this way, it is still grace-given righteousness.

However, as a Protestant, I can’t help but notice how the burden is truly on you. As the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

The Catechism clarifies, however, saying,

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace

While Protestants do have a robust doctrine of sanctification and perseverance, we will not say that growth is tied to our final justification. Justification and sanctification are not bound together in Protestant theology. But for Catholics, justification is a work that God begins freely in us by baptism, but is then merited through sanctification, or cooperation in Christ’s righteousness infused.

As Catholics would say, justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. It is by faith working through love, living out “the divine life” as sons of God.

So, Protestants say justification is imputation. Catholics say that justification is infusion. Small wording change, but to me, this creates the biggest difference in the end.

Want a Catholic’s perspective on the difference? Here is Robert Barron on the Council of Trent, which was created in response to the Protestant Reformation. To get the gist of it, skip to minute 8:45:

Roger Olson, James White, and the Problem of Old Testament Ethics

So a couple days ago I posted a critique of a recent debate over Calvinism vs Arminianism: Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism.

I ended my critique by pointing out that one of the debaters from the Arminian side, Brian Zahnd, clearly denied the inerrancy of the Bible, and therefore read his view of Christ into the scriptures. He denies the inerrancy especially of the Old Testament, because of it’s violent history. And of course, a violent God is in no way congruent with his idea of a peaceful Jesus. 

Recently, James White brought up this same problem with another theologian named Roger Olson. While I like much of Olson’s books, especially on church history, I think White hit the nail on the head. Olson denies inerrancy, and therefore denies much of the Old Testament’s “terror texts” (as he calls them, referring to violent texts he perceives God would never condone). It is the same issue I saw in Brian Zahnd, to a tee. White calls it a new form of Marcionism (which he will define).

Listen to White’s commentary below from 40:30 on (keep in mind, White can be colorful!)…

 

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism – My Thoughts

debateheader

So recently, there was a debate between two Calvinists and two Arminians about the subject of predestination and God’s role in salvation.

The Calvinist debaters were Daniel Montgomery, pastor a Sojourn Church in KY, and Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Seminary. They recently published a book together called PROOF, which was a rehashing of the TULIP acronym. I read the book, and would encourage anyone to read it.

The Arminian debaters were Austin Fischer, recent author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. His partner was an odd fellow I had never heard of named Brian Zahnd. I have followed Fischer for quite some time, and have been fascinated by his very quick transition from Calvinism into a liberal type of Arminianism, following the likes of Roger Olson et al.

You can watch the debate here:

I will give a commentary about the debates below the video links

Strengths on each side?

I want to start by commenting on the strengths of each side, then the weaknesses. First, the Calvinist side clearly used much more biblical texts to back up their claims than their opponents. I mean, it was ridiculous how much scripture Daniel Montgomery brought into his arguments. Timothy Paul Jones did entire expositions of texts. This encouraged me, being a Calvinist myself. It was encouraging to see each of them not only mentioning texts, but also explaining and interpreting them for us.

However, the Arminian side had some strengths too; though they had less scripture, the Arminians had better rhetoric and responses. What I mean is that both Fischer and Zahnd were able to respond to and critique the Calvinist side in a very persuasive manner (of course, persuasion doesn’t make you right — but it helps!). Contrastly, the Calvinist side didn’t really respond much. Instead, they mainly posited their positions. And for a debate, you have to be able to critique, pick apart, and see the arguments behind the arguments.

Weaknesses on each side?

As I said above, I thought the Calvinist side should have responded and critiqued the Arminian side much more than they did. There were several times when Fischer would contradict himself, or say something wrong, which the Calvinists never picked up on. For instance, Fischer asserted that none of the early church fathers were Calvinistic. This is a sore overstatement. The theological nuance of the early church fathers is still debated today. However, neither Montgomery nor Jones critiqued Fischer for that. Also, Fischer asserted that the only way Calvinists can believe that God is both good and completely sovereign is to ascribe mystery to the doctrines instead of explaining how they work. However, when Fischer described his doctrine of synergism, he repeatedly said it was a mystery, and never completely explained it! This, to me, was a sore misstep for Fischer. But, the Calvinist side never picked up on that either. I think Montgomery and Jones should have been much more critical of both Zahnd and Fischer.

The biggest weakness I saw on the Arminian side was the lack of scripture used in their arguments. What I mean is that they never really explained any biblical texts in depth. They may have spouted out a few texts here and there, but they never really considered the meaning or the context. For instance, Fischer started the first video by denying pretty harshly that God decreed or predestined anything. But for all the time he argued against predestination, he rarely brought in scripture. Also, when Zahnd began critiquing the idea of predestination, he insisted that the doctrine was inconsistent with “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. To him, Jesus’ teaching, life and death, (all those red letters … getting it?) was a more sure word then the Bible (in fact, he pitted the Bible against Jesus, which Jesus himself never did). Soon into the debate, it became obvious that Zahnd either questioned or denied the infallibility of the scriptures. Of course, I do want to recognize, Fischer did quote some texts here and there, especially during his synergism explanation. But he never really got deep into the texts. It’s easy enough to spout out a few verses that sound like they support your position. It’s altogether different to do an exposition of those verses, which the Calvinist side did a few times.

The bottom line: who won?

Here’s the issue with a debate like this. At the end of the day, the Calvinists (with whom I agree) held to the biblical inerrancy of scripture. And because of this, they argued not only from the red letters, but also in the rest of the Bible. And so they brought in a myriad of texts which supported the idea that predestination was in fact true. They brought in texts from the Old Testament, New Testament, epistles, and so on. They brought the whole gambit. And for that, they had a doctrine that really was supported by all of scripture. In the end, the Bible was their primary source.

However, from the Arminian side, it became more and more apparent that the Bible was a secondary source for them. For them, the true and trustworthy source was “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. Over and over, you would hear, “The God of Calvinism is incongruent with God as revealed in Jesus Christ”. However, and here’s my rub with the Arminians, they never really dug into the texts to support this idea. They never in-depth scriptural support, especially from the Old Testament, that the God as revealed in Jesus Christ was Arminian. Instead, they imported their own understanding of Christ into the Bible. They never considered texts like John 6, 8, 10, 17, and others, in which Jesus himself teaches predestination. They never considered the fact that Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38), which presupposes that Jesus came to accomplish a predestined redemption. The Arminians never brought these texts up. They couldn’t. Instead, they continued to repeat, “the God as revealed in Jesus Christ is incongruent with Calvinism”. To me, that really weakened their arguments. And it’s because their understanding of Jesus came first, and the Bible second.

Brian Zahnd says this much in a very eye-opening post, in which he says outright,

“The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ”.

Do you see what he’s saying? It’s subtle, but here’s what he’s saying: If the Old Testament disagrees with your understanding of Jesus, reject it; it’s not reliable. Because after all, Israel made some bad “assumptions” along the way that we now know are wrong. Zahnd rejects the infallibility of the scriptures, and that affects his theology, including his theology of Christ and salvation. He imports an understanding of Jesus into the scriptures, picks and chooses what he likes from the Bible, and forms a theology from that. This is not healthy exegesis. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s another post by Zahnd where he allows his understanding of Christ to lead to an utter denial of substitutionary atonement.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the Calvinist side won, no problem. If you don’t use the Bible to form your doctrine, your doctrine will always inform the way you read your Bible. What’s at stake in this entire debate is the Bible, not simply Calvinism or Arminianism. And I’ll side with the Bible all day long.

Perseverance and the Gospel

proof cover

Timothy Paul Jones, co-writer of PROOF, articulates well why perseverance is a gospel issue. If a Christian can forfeit or lose or reject their salvation, then grace by definition is lost. Consequently, the gospel itself is lost.

Jones describes how many today perceive that salvation begins with God’s grace, but is kept by our own effort. He continues saying,

Seen this way, our salvation begins by God’s grace — but then it’s up to us to stay saved. Whether or not we remain in God’s good graces depends on our choices. Perhaps there are certain unpardonable sins that must be avoided or certain levels of growth that must be maintained or even religious rites that must be performed. Jesus starts it, but we finish it. But God, according to the scriptures, doesn’t only start our salvation; he plans it and guarantees it from beginning to end…It’s clear throughout the scriptures that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are working together at all times to sustain our salvation to the very end of time.

  • The Father plans our salvation to the end, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)
  • The Son promises to carry out our salvation to the end: Jesus is both “the pioneer and perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, Jesus doesn’t start our faith as the pioneer, but then leave us to finish the project. Jesus is the one who brings it to completion as “the perfecter” of our faith as well.
  • The Spirit guarantees our salvation to the end: God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22).

That’s good news for believers in Jesus Christ because it means you don’t have to keep up the payments on your salvation! If you’ve trusted Jesus, it’s not because you planed that faith in your fleeting and faulty wisdom. It’s because God set his heart on you from eternity past; God made this choice knowing everything about you — past, present, and future! As a result, nothing can change his choice to pour out his grace on you.

Not your sin.

Not our fears.

Not the darkness that gnaws at your heart that no one else knows about.

Nothing in your future.

Nothing in your past.

Nothing in all creation.

Nothing at all can separate you from God’s love.

God proved his love for you once and for all through the cross of Jesus and the empty tomb — and nothing can change his determination to save you by his grace. That’s the promise of forever grace. Forever grace means that God preserves us in his grace and that we persevere by this same grace. Both of these realities are rooted in God’s gracious work. Neither one is a work that originates in us, and both truths are essential. We can glimpse both of these truths at the same time in the same verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (that’s a command to persevere) “with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30) — that’s an assurance that you will be preserved… God’s planning never writes a check his power can’t cash!

What a comfort to know that if God has saved us in Christ, he will keep us in Christ. He will preserve us, and ensure that we will persevere until the end. As Douglas Wilson once said, Works-righteousness “is a barren mother; she will never have any children, much less gracious children. Grace is fruitful; her children are many, and they all work hard“.

Gluten-free Intolerant?

Here’s a fun little video to start the discussion found below…

This video is hilarious. And it really does represent a growing trend among people trying to eat healthier. There’s this thought that going gluten-free will somehow make you healthier. Gluten does not make you fat (although pastries with gluten can!). It’s a myth.

But this does not mean that all people who eat gluten-free are just ignorant foodies who’ve been duped by yet another diet trend. I want to be very clear: some people cannot eat gluten. And it’s not that they don’t like gluten. It’s not that they are just trying to be healthier. It’s that their body simply cannot digest it.

But as a result of these two types of people, there’s been this mixed community of people that eat gluten-free. Some are fad-foodies that don’t even know what gluten is (much like the other food trends: low-fat, no-carb, etc). But others have been diagnosed by real doctors, have a legitimate issue, and / or need to eat gluten free.

And what I’ve noticed is that non-gluten-free people have begun to bash the entire gluten-free community because of the “food-fad” group. And while the aim of this “bashing” is toward the fakers, I’ve also noticed that people with real dietary issues have come under fire too. Some people legitimately cannot process / digest it, and it causes all sorts of problems with their bodies. And now they have to, because of no fault of their own, eat gluten free. Why must gluten-intolerant / celiac people come under fire because some within the group are fakers?

Here’s my point: if you have been bashing the gluten-free trend, you are not only accusing the fakers; you are also being intolerant toward those who are legitimately gluten-intolerant.

For instance, my wife is highly gluten-intolerant. When we were first engaged, if she ever ate gluten, she would turn pale-white, have flu-like symptoms, and be restricted to her bed for a day or two. She spent months going to doctors, trying to figure why in the world her body would react this way. Finally, after a myriad of tests, the doctors told her to take gluten out of her diet. There was a 100% difference in just a few weeks. As a result, it’s pretty clear she has real issues with gluten. And when you make accusations that gluten-free is just a fad, you are inadvertently being insensitive to her (and others like her) real struggles. This is why I’m so passionate about this. My wife is so much better simply because she stopped eating gluten. It turns out her body just cannot and will not process gluten. Why? We really don’t know. But I know that her strength is back, her symptoms are gone, and she has a normal life (apart from being gluten-free of course) because of it.

And here’s another thing. I simply do not understand why Christians are getting all up into arms about the gluten-free stuff. What does it matter? For instance, there’s this incredibly strange article telling all gluten-free dieters that they worship a false god. And while I can appreciate that the article is aiming to expose companies looking to make a pretty penny off of the gluten-free fad, it is still lumping gluten-intolerant people into the discussion. And to make it worse, the author downplays those who legitimately suffer from gluten-intolerance: “Celiac disease affects about one percent of Americans. Even the more murky ‘gluten sensitivity’ applies, at best, to six percent of the population”. This article ends saying, “we’re just being sold products…In truth, all we’re getting is something that looks like a bagel but tastes like false hope”. Wow — gluten-free false hope (well, except for 1% of the population). Or, just maybe, there are legitimate issues that people have with this protein called gluten? I think so. 

And as a Christian, here’s my rub. There are several instances where dietary issues and the like are addressed by Paul. And in none of these instances does Paul denounce any type of diet. While Paul does admit that all food is made by God and profitable for eating (1 Cor 10:26), he also tells Christians that some won’t want to eat certain foods for various reasons, and that it’s ok for them not to (Rom 14:6)! And this means that if someone wants to eat gluten-free, let them! Just because you realize that eating gluten-free is pointless for some doesn’t mean you should dictate their diet. In fact, Paul tells us that when it comes to dietary issues like this, Christians should neither judge nor despise their brother (Rom 14:10). Besides this, does it really matter if eating gluten-free really only benefits a small percent of the population? Aren’t we all free in the Lord with regard to conscience issues? What point are we really trying to make here?

Another passage that comes to mind with this whole thing is Matthew 13:24-30. This is a passage where Christ reveals that within the church there will inevitably be fakers; some professed Christians will simply be pretending. In the passage, Christ tells a parable, comparing the church to a field of wheat mingled with weeds. What makes it more complicated is that the weeds look all too similar to the wheat. In the parable, the farmers ask each other, “should we try to pick out the weeds amongst the wheat?”. To this question, another farmer says, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them” (Mt 13:24-30). I find so much wisdom in this parable. If we aim for the fakers, we will do harm to genuine. This is what I find happening so much in whole gluten-free debate. I know my wife (and others) has often been offended by people’s insensitivity to her real issue, simply because they are after the foodies.

I’m all for constructive critique of food fads. I myself get annoyed at all the low-fat foods I see all over the place. But I really want us, especially as Christians, to be sensitive to the real needs of gluten-intolerant people. If we aren’t sensitive to their needs, we easily compound the entire issue, and become gluten-free intolerant.