Re-reading MacIntyre and Wilson

from Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: Univ of Notre Dame Press, 2007 (3rd edition). pp 1-2.

“Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally, a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all they possess are fragments; a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. None the less all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory, and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realises that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to understand what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.” (p. 1)

“What is the point of constructing this imaginary world inhabited by fictitious pseudo-scientists and real, genuine philosophy? The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, it not entirely—lost  our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” (p. 2)

from Jonathan R. Wilson. Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: From MacIntyre’s After Virtue to a New Monasticism, 2nd ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.

This book is written under the conviction that the church in Western culture is in grave danger of compromising its faithfulness to the gospel. Of course, such conviction is almost always present somewhere in the church. Nevertheless, because of the enormous changes that are taking place in our culture, such conviction takes on greater significance. This book is also written under the conviction that the changes taking place in Western culture present a wonderful opportunity for faithful witness to the gospel, as the church in the West reexamines its own life and witness and discovers once again the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to redeem humanity. (p. xiv)

“Jesus Christ calls the church to particular practices: making disciples, baptizing and teaching them…. [The] good news is an ever-present, unchanging reality: Jesus himself promises to be with us always…. [T]he redemption of Jesus Christ is a present reality that he is actively accomplishing in our world today. Therefore, the church’s responsibility is to participate in that redemption and witness to it. We are witnesses to Jesus Christ, ambassadors of God’s reconciliation which is being accomplished through Christ. This responsibility extends to all peoples, to bring the gospel to them and educate them in the practices of the gospel—baptizing and teaching—so that they may participate in this redemption and become its witnesses.

     “This gospel and the mission of the church never change, but the circumstances in which we witness to and live out the gospel do change. With changing circumstances comes the need to rethink how the church lives faithfully and witnesses to the gospel. Changing circumstances bring new opportunities for witness, but they also bring new threats to the integrity of the church’s witness.” (p. xv)

“[T]he church faces many threats to its faithfulness. Words are important here: the gospel is never threatened by changing circumstances—God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is being accomplished and nothing can hinder that. All authority has been given to Jesus Christ. However, what may be compromised is the church’s faithfulness to the gospel. Even here, the church may be made a witness to Jesus Christ by God’s judgment. That is, even an unfaithful church may be used to witness to the gospel by God’s judgment upon it. So what is at issue for us is not the gospel or our witness to the gospel, but the church’s faithfulness to the commission given by Jesus Christ.

     “This understanding of the mission of the church must be disciplined by the gospel and firmly grounded in the conviction that ‘relevance’ is an intrinsic characteristic of the gospel, not a demand of the culture. Otherwise, the quest for relevance becomes a quest for acceptance.” (p. xvi)

“We are in danger of failing to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ or of cloaking a nostalgia for the past in Christian language and mistaking its acceptance for acceptance of the gospel.” (p. xvii)

“Since changing circumstances bring new threats, the church must continually discern the characteristics of the particular culture within which it is called to faithfulness. This is true of the church in all times and places.” (p. xviii)

“Such confession and repentance requires an intentionally disciplined way of life that makes such practices integral expressions of life together with God and one another, not a marketing program or public relations ploy.” (p. xix)

“I pursue MacIntyre’s suggestion that we live in a fragmented world rather than a pluralistic world.” (p. xix)

MacIntyre’s story of the mainstream of morality in Western culture and show how the church has compromised its faithfulness by accommodating to that mainstream and how many current conceptions of the mission of the church continue that mistake. (p. xix)

MacIntyre argues that we live in a world in which morality exists only in fragments. These fragments give us only an appearance of morality, not its reality. What the church must learn from this is that our understanding of the gospel, our witness, and our discipleship are also deeply fragmented. We have only a semblance of the gospel, not its reality, at work in our life together. Consequently, “Christians” are deeply vulnerable to ideologies that will use the language of Christianity and make appeals to the gospel in order to co-opt the church for programs and purposes that are contrary to the gospel. We have no firm center in the gospel but are preoccupied with and distracted by peripheral matters that exploit our fragmentation.

     In these circumstances, we have much work to do to overcome our fragmentation and recover a coherent, more holistic practice of the gospel. To do this will require hard, persistent work by communities rooted in a provisional understanding of this fragmentation. This understanding must be provisional because the very character of fragmentation means that those whose lives are fragmented only perceive that fragmentation indirectly, through unease or an initially inchoate sense that something may not be quite right.

     With this provisional understanding of our fragmentation, these communities will then set for themselves an intentional commitment to a way of life that seeks greater coherence and congruence in their life of discipleship. This again will require hard work, a commitment to stable relationships over a long period of time, and a willingness to share life together (commune) in such a way that this shared life is centered in Christ so that the fragments are pulled together by the gravitational pull of this center. In all of this, these communities must acknowledge and celebrate the grace of God as a power that reveals and heals the fragmentation of our lives. (pp 14-15)

“If we lived in a pluralistic world with relatively intact multiple communities, then the recovery of Christian faithfulness would entail the strengthening and maturing of those communities. We would simply need to work with the social arrangements that we currently have to direct them properly.” (p. 15)

“If we live in a fragmented world, then we do not have relatively intact communities of discipleship in the church. Instead, we have fragments of discipleship in fragments of community. But we persist in the belief (and often the self-deception) that we have a good understanding of discipleship and good communities.” (p. 15)

“In other words, as we inchoately sense and vaguely see the fragmentation of the gospel in our lives, the recovery of wholeness in our understanding of the gospel and our life in Christ may be found in God’s gracious calling of [newly Gospel-oriented communities, thriving upon the environment of grace and the foundation of torah, or the divine application of God’s character to human experience]. (p. 16) *

* beginning with the word “newly” in the last sentence, these are my revision and my perspective on the idea suggested by J.R. Wilson’s words, which are, “…gracious calling of new monastic communities.

Religion & Liberty

But although the blessings are innumerable which God, with a liberal hand, has thus far poured out and this day pours out upon it [the city of Geneva]; yet there are two illustrious above the others which commend its dignity: religion, than which nothing is more holy, and liberty, than which nothing is sweeter.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), xxxiii.

The American Virus

“The American genius for getting things done quickly and easily with little concern for quality or permanence has bred a virus that has infected the whole evangelical church in the United States and, through our literature, our evangelists and our missionaries, has spread all over the world.”

– A.W. Tozer, The Incredible Christian. Harrisonburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1964, p. 23.

Spiritual Gifts

Spiritual gifts are nothing less than God himself in us, energizing our souls, imparting revelation to our minds, infusing power in our wills, and working his sovereign and gracious purposes through us. Spiritual gifts must never be viewed deistically, as if a God “out there” has sent some “thing” to us “down here.” Spiritual gifts are God present in, with, and through human thoughts, human deeds, human words, human love.

– Sam Storms, The Beginners Guide to Spiritual Gifts, p. 12

Antinomianism

WE ARE NOT SET FREE TO SIN

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he [Christ] is righteous. 1 JOHN 3:7

Antinomianism, which means being “anti-law,” is a name for several views that have denied that God’s law in Scripture should directly control the Christian’s life.

Dualistic antinomianism appears in the Gnostic heretics against whom Jude and Peter wrote (Jude 4–19; 2 Pet. 2). This view sees salvation as for the soul only, and bodily behavior as irrelevant both to God’s interest and to the soul’s health, so one may behave riotously and it will not matter.

Spirit-centered antinomianism puts such trust in the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. In the first 150 years of the Reformation era this kind of antinomianism often threatened, and Paul’s insistence that a truly spiritual person acknowledges the authority of God’s Word through Christ’s apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 7:40) suggests that the Spirit-obsessed Corinthian church was in the grip of the same mind-set.

Christ-centered antinomianism argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing. But 1 John 1:8–2:1 (expounding 1:7) and 3:4–10 point in a different direction, showing that it is not possible to be in Christ and at the same time to embrace sin as a way of life.

Dispensational antinomianism holds that keeping the moral law is at no stage necessary for Christians, since we live under a dispensation of grace, not of law. Romans 3:31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 clearly show, however, that law-keeping is a continuing obligation for Christians. “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law,” says Paul (1 Cor. 9:21).

Dialectical antinomianism, as in Barth and Brunner, denies that biblical law is God’s direct command and affirms that the Bible’s imperative statements trigger the Word of the Spirit, which when it comes may or may not correspond exactly to what is written. The inadequacy of the neo-orthodox view of biblical authority, which explains the inspiration of Scripture in terms of the Bible’s instrumentality as a channel for God’s present-day utterances to his people, is evident here.

Situationist antinomianism says that a motive and intention of love is all that God now requires of Christians, and the commands of the Decalogue and other ethical parts of Scripture, for all that they are ascribed to God directly, are mere rules of thumb for loving, rules that love may at any time disregard. But Romans 13:8–10, to which this view appeals, teaches that without love as a motive these specific commands cannot be fulfilled. Once more an unacceptably weak view of Scripture surfaces.

It must be stressed that the moral law, as crystallized in the Decalogue and opened up in the ethical teaching of both Testaments, is one coherent law, given to be a code of practice for God’s people in every age. In addition, repentance means resolving henceforth to seek God’s help in keeping that law. The Spirit is given to empower law-keeping and make us more and more like Christ, the archetypal law-keeper (Matt. 5:17). This law-keeping is in fact the fulfilling of our human nature, and Scripture holds out no hope of salvation for any who, whatever their profession of faith, do not seek to turn from sin to righteousness (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Rev. 21:8).[1]

[1] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993). pp. 178-180.

The Faith of Jesus vs. Faith in Jesus

I recently read an essay by David Flusser that I had not previously been familiar with; perhaps I had read it before, but for some reason it never struck me till now. Flusser writes,

“This scholarly digression has been necessary in order for us to arrive at an understanding of the dual nature of the Christian religion, which comprises both Jesus’ faith and faith in Jesus. The first aspect, that of Jesus’ faith, consists of the tenets of Christian love and ethics. These were a special development of the new Jewish ethical sensitivity that developed in the period of the Second Commonwealth, and while this aspect of Christian behavior and feeling stems primarily from Jesus’ own preaching, it was also influenced by contemporary Jewish ethics and theology. The latter aspect of the Christian religion centers around what is known as the charisma of Christ. The primary motifs of Christian messianism and Christology are also derived mainly from Judaism, and I would venture that their point of departure lay in the acute self-awareness of Jesus himself. As already stated, this latter belief in the metahistorical drama of Christ and especially in the idea of redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection became the cornerstone of Christian religious experience and until very recently was a kind of conditio sine qua non for calling oneself a Christian.”[1]

I agree with Flusser that both Jesus’ faith and faith in Jesus derive from (and indeed, remain) Jewish thought. I also believe, however, that it is a unique requirement of post-Yavneh Judaism to view Jesus’ faith and faith in Jesus as separate, and that Christian thought is correct in viewing them as rightly composite. Similarly, healthy Christian thought ought to view both the faith of and faith in Jesus as being essentially Jewish in nature. It is the truth, however, that redemption is through Christ’s death and resurrection, and this is a cornerstone of True Religion that at this point, Christianity uniquely holds vis-à-vis contemporary Judaism.

As Flusser rightly concludes:

“By its very nature, moreover, Christianity cannot really renounce offering its salvation to all [Jew as well as Gentile].”[2]

This observation follows faithfully in the footsteps of the Apostles, who felt it urgent to inform their Jewish brethren regarding the identity and the redemptive action of Yeshua mi Natzeret.

Flusser also rightly observes, though this is MUCH more difficult to digest and to parse without falling off the precipice of supersessionism: “The authentic Christian interpretation of itself is that it is the true religion of Israel and that without faith in Christ no one can be redeemed….” (65). Of course, this conclusion is further complicated by Christianity’s large scale rejection of Torah (and in many circles of Israel herself). But we must wrestle with two equal and polar truths: theologically speaking (emphasizing its focus on Christology) Christianity is true, while theonomically[3] speaking Judaism is true.

Said another way, while we cannot conclude that God has two paths to salvation, we may truly state that Christianity can authentically declare to all, “You need the Savior,” while Judaism might with equal authenticity declare to all, “You need the Torah (way of life).”

It is these two parallel truths that grip me much more powerfully than any emphasis on distinction within the utilization of Torah, precisely because they are of primary importance. In other words, it is part of accepting Yeshua as Messiah to acknowledge that He is fully God and fully man, while it is also part of accepting Torah as prescriptive to acknowledge that the Torah contains within it distinctive commands relative to gender, ethnicity, time and place.

There are two great propositional battles in our day (there may be more, but these two have captured my attention), one within Christianity and one within Judaism. We must articulate a cogent reading of Scripture that at the same time acknowledges the Redemptive nature and necessity of Jesus Christ, and avoids supersessionism and anti-nomianism. Stereotypical Judaism denies the divine nature and requisite redemptive action of Messiah, while too much of Christianity denies the requisite relevance of Israel in the on-going redemptive plan of God and ignores the continuing necessity of God’s law in the process of sanctification.

It is clear that in our time the Holy Spirit is placing these two concerns upon the hearts of many believers. Unfortunately, to date the believers so energized have often split into various camps frequently equally critical of one another. All seem aware of both propositional battles, but emphasize varying approaches.

I wish that we could all begin by acknowledging our unity: we are one Body in Messiah, and He is both fully God and fully man. Furthermore, He did not come to replace God’s Law as delivered from Sinai, but to explain, apply, and fulfill its righteous demand. God’s Law then, remains prescriptive for all God’s children and in fine Jewish tradition, let’s allow it to be interpreted and applied variously across time, place, denominational and ethnic lines as the Holy Spirit seems to permit.

I’m sure, we will variously disagree on the manner of its application, but if we can agree on the divine identity and redemptive necessity of Messiah, as well as on the continuing necessity of the Law for the progressive sanctification of the believer, as being pivotal truths, I believe we will observe a wave of unity that will push before it a consistency in character and application not seen among the Body of Messiah since the first century of this era, which will in turn result in a similarly unprecedented lifting of the partial hardening that has been upon God’s Chosen People since the days of the Apostles.

My argument is this: unitatem in necessariis; in non necessariis libertatem; in omnibus caritatem – in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.[4] In other words, unity and peace require an agreement upon Truth, but secondary things like halakah (way of walking out God’s commands), can be left in the hands of the local inheritors of the authority of the Apostles to bind and loose, so long as the essentials are maintained.

I believe that any de-emphasis of the need of all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile to:

  1. believe in the divine nature and redemptive action of Jesus of Nazareth, and
  2. obey God’s law since it continues to be “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, and for training in righteousness”

will unnecessarily sacrifice essentials for sake of non-essentials and obstruct the Unity of the Body of Messiah.


[1] David Flusser. “Christianity,” in 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 61 (this quote from p. 63).

[2] Ibid. 65.

[3] For deeper discussion of theology vs. theonomy see http://jcstudies.com/resourceDetailFree.cfm?productId=570

[4] Often mis-attributed to Augustine of Hippo, Richard Baxter (who widely distributed it among English-speakers), or Philip Melanchthon, this phrase is first found in the writings of Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624), Archbishop of Split, in book 4, chapter 8 (p. 676 of the first volume) of his De republica ecclesiastica libri X (London, 1617).