Wednesday, August 05, 2015

New Daniels, New Nebuchadnezzars

Below is the continuation of the previous email to "Malcolm," my Lutheran pastor correspondent, and our discussion on Church and Politics.


You say, “Find me some words from Jesus that indicate that the church is supposed to transform government.” Your point being, I take it, that there are none. But then, in your very next sentence, you write, “Christians certainly should serve in government and allow their world view to influence the work they do…” Which is it? If we allow our world view to influence the work we do in government, this will “transform government” eventually. We know this for a fact: the faithfulness of the first, second, and third century Christians led to the transformation of the Roman government in the fourth. Further, it was that same faithful witness, even unto death, that led to the glorious (though of course imperfect) civilizations of Christian Europe and Byzantium. Those civilizations lasted more than a millennium, and gave the world some of the greatest cultural advancements in history: the university, modern science and medicine, the abolition of slavery, the glories of illuminated manuscripts and Gothic cathedrals, the literature of the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, Dante, and many more. Included in the blessings of Christendom are also the English Common Law, which, beginning with Alfred the Great, was inspired by the Mosaic Law (his code begins with the Ten Commandments), and which in turn provided the foundations of American liberty.
All this (and, as they say on TV, much more!) from the Church’s very first attempt at discipling the nations! I can’t wait to see what Christendom II has in store!

To more directly answer your question about “Find me some words of Jesus…” concerning how the church is to transform government, how about “you are the light of the world…you are the salt of the earth”? Oh, except in politics, of course. Right?

But as I said, I realize that you may only be saying, “The Church as the Church is not to transform politics, but individual Christians can.” That’s pretty fair, if so, but I still say (with Luther) that the Church, as the Church, has a role in this work, both in terms of being a prophetic voice to the secular authorities, and in teaching those individual Christians how a Christian ought to govern and make laws. After all, if these Christians, working in their political vocations, are allowed, as you said, to use their worldview to make a difference, that’s no different from saying they are bringing the Scriptures, including the Law, to bear on political systems, like Alfred, the Christian king, did. But if they do that faithfully, over the course of generations, we will see the nations discipled, including their politics. Would that be a problem, in your view?

You make an unnecessary assumption when you say the Church is “not given the sword.” I’m not arguing for an ecclesiocracy, and I accept the Christian distinction between Church and State (which came to America by way of Calvin and the Puritans, by the way). But this in no way implies a separation of God from the State, which I would argue is, not so much wrong (though it is that), as impossible: there is no neutral, secular ground where God has no claims of kingship. And Psalm 2 (and, again, Matthew 28), make it clear that the nations, as nations, have a duty to God, just as much as individuals.

You make a distinction between “baptizing and teaching” on the one hand and involvement in government on the other. But again, Jesus said we are to baptize and teach the nations (ethnicities, if you prefer, though that changes nothing). In time this must surely lead (as indeed history tells us it did) to the conversion of entire nations and their rulers. Surely such converted political leaders among the world’s ethnicities will have questions about how they ought to govern? Are we not to answer them? Historically, the Church, acting as the Church, did answer them, playing the role of wise Daniels to various converted Nebuchadnezzars. The Bible has a lot to say on the subject: should we muzzle the Word in order to keep clear of politics?

As Dorothy L. Sayers once said (appropriately enough, in the introduction to her play on Constantine), “If the Gospel was to be ‘preached unto every creature’, then Christianity must some day cease to be the cult of a minority, and the power of purse and sword must eventually come into Christian hands….” Again, this is Christians acting as individuals: neither I nor Sayers are saying the Church itself wields the sword. But we need to think Biblically (beforehand!) about how to handle being in power when it happens. Now it may be quite some time away, but it is folly to refuse to think about such a possibility, or to prepare for it, especially in light of the fact that it has happened before.

And it seems to me that you are saying just that: that we have no business thinking about, or preparing for, such a thing, for “There is no such thing as Christian politics” you say. Then the whole history of Christian reflection on politics is wrongheaded? The book of Esther is all about politics. Is it not part of God’s Word? I agree with you that our confessional standards are important: I would never want to walk away from the victories our forefathers gained for us in the Reformation. But I have in my library a publication of The Augsburg Confession that runs about thirty pages, and is about a tenth of an inch thick. Even if you take the Book of Concord itself (much of which is really a defense or exposition of Augsburg), the doctrinal matters contained therein cover probably about 1% of what is in the Bible. Unless we wish to follow Marcion in rejecting the Old Testament (and, really, much of the New), we have to admit that there is quite a lot in the Bible about politics, and many other matters that our confessional symbols don’t cover. Are we to reject all of this, or simply ignore it?

So as I said, I believe your theology is somewhat schizophrenic: there is no Christian politics, you say, yet Christians who work in that arena are to allow their world view to influence the work they do. How can they, if there is no such thing as Christian politics? Surely “Christian politics” is that politics that seeks to honor Christ, and obey His Word, pursuing justice (Biblically defined) and righteousness according to God’s Law. Would it really be wrong for Christian politicians, in a society of Christians (I realize we’re not there yet) to pursue such Christian politics?

In conclusion, I agree that we need “very open and kind discussions of these issues,” and I hope our small discussion here is an example of that. But I do want to close by asking you about your statement that “we are being co-opted by political ideology and in danger of exalting that ideology to the status of ‘Christian’.” 

If indeed this is the case, it’s worth asking: what if it is Christian?

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Politics

This week will mark the first presidential debate for the upcoming 2016 national elections, so it seemed a good time to begin this series of posts. My goal in this blog, among other things, is to publish all my otherwise unpublished writings here. That includes, in some cases, email conversations. This post begins a series of email exchanges I had exactly a year ago with a Lutheran pastor with whom I began to dialogue when we both left comments on an online blog post. I won’t be posting his emails, but as you’ll see, I often quote from them in my replies, so that should make things fairly clear. I have also changed the name to protect my correspondent’s privacy. As an homage (not a comparison) to C.S. Lewis' fictional Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, I have given my interlocutor the name Malcolm.

Below, then, are the first two emails in this exchange. Or rather, the first email, and the first half of the second: some of these are rather long, and I plan to split them up into separate posts for easier reading.

Those who are familiar with the writings of James Jordan and Douglas Wilson will recognize their influence in what I write, and the obvious debt to them is acknowledged.


Malcolm, with all due respect, I think that the Evil One wants us to leave the culture wars, so he can proceed without opposition. Or does God not care about human culture? Are politicians and political entities off the hook when it comes to obedience to God? I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to hear it! But Psalm 2 says that God will give “the nations” to the Son, and that the duty of political rulers is to “kiss the Son.”

You say “the church’s vocation is to make disciples” and I agree; but the passage you’re quoting (Matthew 28:18) actually says we are to “disciple the nations.” Sure, that includes the conversion of individuals and families. But it also includes nations, for that is what it says. The reason Jesus gives for this is what he says immediately before: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Note well: “All authority in heaven and on earth.” This certainly includes political authority. As I said in a comment on another thread, politics is no savior. But politics needs a savior, just like everything and everyone else in this fallen world.


Malcolm, thanks for your reply. It’s appropriate, and rather fun, to be discussing this on Independence Day. Hope you have a nice holiday.

I do differ with you in some respects, but I wonder if some of the apparent differences are only superficial: for instance, if you are saying that the Church, as such, does not have the power of the sword, and that the main work of reforming government should be done by individual Christians, as such, then that’s fair enough, and I don’t disagree. However, I can’t help but feel that your view is still a bit schizophrenic, for all that. Let me hit a few key points, and see if this helps.

You are correct that the Greek word is “ethnos” in Matthew 28. However, the passage does not merely say “go to” them, as you paraphrased, but “disciple” them, a word Jesus further qualifies by saying, “teaching them all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The distinction is important: this passage won’t allow us to think we’ve fulfilled our duty under the Great Commission if we simply go to the nations, and tell them about Jesus. That’s the first step, to be sure: but we are actually commissioned here to “disciple” the nations. I think the burden of proof is on you if you wish to suggest that politics is the one area of life somehow excepted from this commission, as if the Bible has nothing to say about it (surely “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” includes the whole Bible, not just the four Gospels?). More on this anon.

Further, I’m not sure how the emphasis on ethnicities helps your point. The word is translated “nations” repeatedly in many English versions, and for good reason. But my point is made once you acknowledge that the word refers to groups rather than just individuals: yes, we are to disciple the ethnicities of the world—we are not just to save a few people out of those ethnicities. We are not to stop until those ethnicities, as a whole, are baptized and discipled. If we are to disciple all the ethnicities of the world, then we are to teach those ethnicities “all things” that Jesus taught us in His Word. This includes God’s Law (of which Jesus said that not one jot or tittle will pass away while heaven and earth remain, Matt. 5:17–19), which has plenty to say about how a nation ought to be governed. Plus, imagine how the Apostles would likely have heard the Great Commission with their Jewish ears: “disciple the nations,” Jesus said. They’d read Exodus and Deuteronomy. They knew what a discipled nation looked like, and they knew that Israel’s mission from God was to be a light to the nations (Ps. 18:49, Ps. 96:3). This had always been part of God’s plan (Gen. 26:4; Deut. 4:5–6), and the Church was now to carry it on, and actually accomplish it.

You mentioned the Reformed Postmillennial view, which says, following Psalm 110, and I Corinthians 15, that the nations will be converted before Christ returns. Speaking of Christ’s current, post-ascension reign at the right hand of the Father, Paul says, “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This is in reference to Psalm 110, where we read: “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Note well the word “until.” So Jesus will not leave the Father’s right hand and return to earth until all his enemies are put under Him (implication: Christianized nations at the time of the Second Coming). But how are these enemies conquered? Paul reminds us that our weapons are not carnal (swords and guns) but spiritual (II Cor. 10:3–5). We conquer Christ’s enemies by preaching the Word of God to them and being faithful unto death. What will be the result? Psalm 22, a Messianic Psalm, says this: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.” This sounds just like what you said Postmillennialists believe: “nations themselves are to be converted.”

If these ideas are indeed “rejected by Orthodox Lutheran teaching,” that’s certainly worth considering: I believe confessions and creeds are vitally important. And I think it’s at least possible that Postmillennialism is contradicted by Article XVII of the Augsburg Confession, though no Postmillennialist that I’m aware of teaches that we will “annihilate all the godless,” except in the way that God “annihilated” Saul the Persecutor by transforming him into Paul the Apostle. But even more important is to consider whether these ideas are Biblical. That’s a discussion Lutherans need to have, in my view. 

Monday, August 03, 2015


Two years ago today, my Grandmother, the last of my grandparents, passed away, just a couple of weeks from her eighty-fifth birthday. We held two funeral services for her: one in North Carolina, where she lived the last forty-two years of her life, and one in Tennessee, where she was born, and where she was laid to rest. I was asked by my mother to provide a short eulogy at both services, and also, due to the out-of-state situation with the second funeral, to conduct the graveside service in Tennessee. I am a layman, but there was no available clergyman in Tennessee who knew Grandmother, so I was asked to fill in. Fortunately, the Church has ample resources for such situations, and I used the classic, familiar service for the burial of the dead from The Book of Common Prayer.

Grandmother invited my new bride and I to move in with her for a few months after we were married, and again for another few months the following year after coming back from a time in school out of state, before we settled in our own place. Thus she gave us, as a newlywed couple, our first home. Almost exactly twenty years later, I visited her at her home (with a few brief exceptions, she continued to live on her own until the end of her life). She clearly didn't feel well, had a headache, and was struggling to breathe that night, but she had these bouts from time to time, and she recovered fairly well before I left. I heated up a frozen microwave meal for her, though she didn't seem much inclined to eat. It would turn out to be her last meal in this life. The next morning, my Dad found her, unconscious, and called for an ambulance. Two days later, she was gone. 

What follows below is, first, my brief eulogy; then, the graveside service from the BCP. I adapted it slightly for our needs, but the only original element is the short sermon in the middle. I publish these here today in memory of Grandmother, with gratitude for her life and faith.


Grandmother, you knew this day would come. You hinted at it for years. We waved off the hints, less brave than you to face the beginning of the next chapter of your story. But it was more than a failure of courage: we simply couldn’t imagine anything, even death, outlasting you. You outlasted the Depression, World War, the early loss of a father, the early loss of a husband, and forty years of widowhood. You outlasted repeated assaults on the fortress of your flesh, coming home from the hospital time and again when the doctors said you wouldn’t; going back home to live on your own time and again when we said you wouldn’t. 

You loved me as your first grandson. You loved my wife as if she were your own flesh and blood. When marriage was just behind, you were happy to give us our first home. When death was just ahead, I was honored to give you your last meal. 

Through every change, you remained standing when the dust had settled. Breathing hard, with the effort of living, and with the pain of weakened lungs, but still standing. And when you could stand no more, we stood and sang around your bed, surprised that this day had come, surprised that you had not found a way to outlast once more. You fell asleep in the nighttime, and morning had not yet come. 

We will lay you to rest in Tennessee, your first, but not your final, home. From dust to flesh 85 years ago, and you were born into this earthly world, your first home. From flesh to dust now, and you are born into the heavenly world, your second home. But still not your final home. Not yet. For someday, dust will turn to flesh once again. One final change. Then you will have outlasted the last enemy, and you will breathe hard again, with the effort of living; but no weakness, no pain. Only joy. And I will see the old strength again, reawakened, and reborn. Dust to flesh. Then it will be morning.


The Order for 
The Burial of the Dead 

I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die. 

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger. 

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. 

De profundis. Psalm cxxx.

OUT of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord; * Lord, hear my voice. 
O let thine ears consider well * the voice of my complaint. 
If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is sinfully done, * O Lord, who may abide it? 
For there is mercy with thee; * therefore shalt thou be feared. 
I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him; * in his word is my trust. 
My soul fleeth unto the Lord before the morning watch; 
O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy, * and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel * from all his sins. 

Let us sing together the first and last verses of Amazing Grace. 

A reading from the fifteenth Chapter of the first Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. 

1 Corinthians xv.

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death...42 ...The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body...50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 

55 “O Death, where is your sting? 

O Death, where is your victory?” 

56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.

57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. 

Here follows the sermon.

“This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.” We’ve heard it often enough, and it is true enough. The heroes of the Faith in Hebrews 11 are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Heaven is the hope of the believer, the destination of the traveler, the comfort of the dying. To Heaven all who are in Christ shall surely go; when they close their eyes for the final time, they will awake in Heaven. We confess it, we believe it, it is true. 

But there is more to the story. And it may be that, in missing, or perhaps forgetting, the rest of the story, we have allowed a bit of confusion in our minds. I suspect that, if pressed, most of us would remember the rest of the story, but it seems we don’t talk about it much. So many songs and poems talk about Heaven as if it were the final destination. But is it? We remember that the Bible speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth.” And it is this to which the Bible, from beginning to end, looks forward: we begin, in Genesis, in the Garden; we end, in Revelation, in the Garden-City. We are told in Psalm 22 of a time when “all the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD.” The Bible sets forth a time of redemption for this world, not just an escape to another world somewhere else. 

Again, we do go to be with Christ in Heaven when we die; but God still has a purpose to redeem this world in the long run. When Paul says, in Philippians 3, that “our citizenship is in heaven,” he goes on to say, that we are waiting, not just to go to Heaven, but for Jesus to come from Heaven. And for what purpose? Paul says, in verse 21, that Christ “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”

And John looks for a day “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment." 

Thus, what awaits those who die in Christ is blessing, and peace, in the presence of God, but only as a temporary place of rest. In the Biblical story, history does not end with God’s people going to Heaven, but with Heaven coming down to Earth: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.” Thus John in Revelation 21. Notice that it is not that men go to dwell with God, but that God comes to dwell with men. 

The resurrection of the body: we will not live forever as disembodied spirits, but with real, physical bodies. Again, the dead will come out of their graves; God will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body. What was His glorious body like? He clearly possessed supernatural powers, but he also ate fish; and he said, “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And in the Scripture we read earlier, it is the body that is sown in corruption, dishonor, and weakness; and thus it is the body that is raised in incorruption, glory, and power. If you are in Christ, you will not be playing a harp on a cloud forever, like in the Sunday comics. You will have a glorified body, and you will live in an earth transformed by the presence of Heaven. 

There is, therefore, as one theologian puts it, such a thing as “Life after Life after Death.” Or as another pastor once said, “Heaven is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.” 

As we say farewell to Mary Russell, better known as Molly, as Mom, as Grandmother, we should think of her new life in biblical terms, for she has gone on ahead of us, and she, I am quite sure, understands all this far better than I do. Doubtless, if she could hear this weak attempt at explanation, she would laugh at some of my misunderstandings. But as we think of her, and what her life is like now, there are certain things we can be sure of: first, she is far better off. All weakness is gone, all pain, all sickness is over forever. Second, she is with Christ, for to be absent from the body, Paul tells us, is to be present with the Lord. Third, she is in a place where she will not remain forever: someday, her spirit, now with God, will be reunited with this same body that we today commit to the ground. And just as the bodies of God’s people will undergo death and resurrection, so will this world, which will be transformed into a new Earth, united with Heaven at last. 

This is the great hope of the Christian: that death will not have the final word. Death is an enemy, and even though we rejoice at Grandmother’s new life and joy, we feel the bitter wrath of that enemy as she is taken from us. But as we just read, death is the last enemy, and it too will be thrown down when Christ returns. If you are in Christ, you know the hope of life beyond the grave, with a resurrected body that will never know pain or death again. If you do not know that hope, I know that my Grandmother would want you to know it: to consider the truth of these promises made by the one who made the ultimate promise that He would rise on the third day after he had died; and the clear testimony of history tells us that he kept that promise. Grandmother would ask you to consider carefully and well the claims made by this man who changed the world by his death and resurrection.

Let us pray together as our Lord taught us. 

OUR Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil. Amen. 

O MERCIFUL God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life; in whom whosoever believeth, shall live, though he die; and whosoever liveth, and believeth in him, shall not die eternally; who also hath taught us, by his holy Apostle Saint Paul, not to be sorry, as men without hope, for those who sleep in him; We humbly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight; and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all who love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. Grant this, we beseech thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. Amen. 

UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. 

I HEARD a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labours. 

ALL that the Father giveth me shall come to me: and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. He that raised up Jesus from the dead: will also quicken your mortal bodies by the spirit which dwelleth in you.

Wherefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. 

Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fulness of joy: and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore. 

REMEMBER thy servant, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people, and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, she may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever, one God, world without end. Amen. 

GRANDMOTHER, unto God’s gracious mercy and protection we commit you. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and evermore. Amen. 

Go in peace.