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Well, I know this blog has been dormant for many moons. Various reasons could be cited for that, but I'm not sure what any of them are. So I shall make no apology for that fact and simply forge ahead with the beginning of a long barrage of posts that are likely to continue for at least the next several weeks as I work through a continued back-and-forth discussion with Doug Wilson in the class he is teaching on Politics and the Christian Commonwealth, and also work on a massive paper on Romans 13 that I will be writing this term. There will probably be tidbits of Peter Martyr here too.
In short, it should be an absolute feast of sophomoric political theology, and I hope someone (or someones) will read and argue with me, because it's easy to think very highly of one's arguments when they are being eloquently delivered to a silent computer screen, but unless you get a bit of iron sharpening iron, you aren't likely to cut much.

Anyway, here is the first post, written in response to the first several of Wilson's recent blog posts on Violence and the Trinity.



In the current rage for Trinitarian thinking, it seems that some discussions of the proper Christian attitude toward violence sometimes get carried away into the lofty heights of Trinitarian theology and forget some of the fundamental anchors that are supposed to ground our theology. For example, Douglas Meeks, in his book God the Economist, tries to ground a Christian approach toward politics, violence, and economics in the nature of the triune God. In the process, he gives away way too much of the farm, insisting that Christian theology has been corrupted by an unhealthy Hellenistic authoritian unitarian conception of God, pretty much since the beginning. Meeks’s straw-man God is a rather incoherent hodge-podge of various errors…an autocratic dictator who imposes his arbitrary will after the model of…Aristotelian metaphysics? Eh? Various errors that Meeks is critiquing have indeed existed, but his genealogy of them is a rather patchwork job, and indiscriminately implicates the entirety of Christian theology in this supposed heresy. And, whatever the merits of Meeks’s idea of the Trinity, his doctrine has very little to stand on if we are really to suppose that 1950 years of Church history didn’t understand the Trinity until Meeks and his mentor Moltmann descended from on high to explain it to us.
The important features of Meeks’s Trinitarian doctrine are simply fundamental orthodoxy, and by pretending that he is saying something radical, he distorts the picture rather frequently. Against the supposed arbitrary autocrat God he must portray this Trinitarian God as a loving trio of hippies living together in relaxed harmony, with soft music playing inside the house and “World Peace” signs plastered over the outside. The triune God is a community of persons living in perfect harmony, equality, and mutual submission, seeking one another’s glory, giving honor to one another, never using force or claiming anything as their own, and therefore we should live thus with all men. Now, even granting that this picture of the Trinity is doctrinally accurate (and it is probably in need of some revision), this is obviously not the whole Biblical picture of God.
For the three Triune persons do not primarily reveal their character to us through how they act toward one another (which we can hardly see in any case, and which we only learn little hints about), but through how they act toward the world. And how the Triune God relates to the world is a much messier and more complicated picture, consisting of fiery displays of wrath and justice, and stunning acts of mercy and redemption, where God puts Himself on the line in place of unrighteous Israel and mankind. Meeks’s attempts to extend his picture of God to God’s actions toward the world are hopelessly vague and fluffy, as he speaks of a God who does not seek to rule and possess, but to suffer and sacrifice, to give rather than receive, who invites rather than condemns. While there is truth in all this, it is at best only part of the story. And so Meeks’s applications about how we, as God’s image-bearers, are to live and act in the world, are often unconvincing and dangerously ill-founded even when you want to agree with him.
Doug Wilson is thus right, in his series on Violence and the Trinity, to try to give us the other side of the picture. Our God is a great warrior, dividing and destroying, raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah and treading the nations in the winepress of His wrath. Whatever peace and harmony may exist between the Father and the Son, it certainly does not exist between the Father and Satan, or any of Satan’s followers. The problem with Wilson’s making this point is not the accuracy of his theology proper (that is, the picture he gives us of God), but is the application he draws from it: “therefore pacifists, who think we’re not to use violence, must be wrong.” The Bible shows us that God hates evil and uses violence against it, therefore, who are we to say that violence is wrong for us? We should let God define our standard of perfection for us, rather than imposing it on him, and if the perfect God is violent, then of course we cannot condemn violence, and indeed, we ought to condemn pacifists, who are trying to be more perfect than God. Even in the New Testament, he points out, God still shows wrath to the wicked, and as Revelation shows us and Hebrews warns us, he has no hesitation in destroying them. Therefore, even in the New Covenant era, we have no ground to condemn violence—violence is godly.
But there is obviously a huge hole in this argument, a huge, gaping omission of a key Biblical and theological anchor. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” is our Biblical anchor; our theological anchor is what Van Tillians like to call the Creator-creature distinction. God’s ways are not our ways. We are incapable of existing and conducting ourselves as he exists and conducts himself. Of course as his image-bearers we are commanded in many ways to imitate Him and become more like him, but quite clearly, that does not apply to everything. In very many ways, he remains God and we remain man, and we cannot presume to act as he acts and expect that everything’s hunky-dory. The authority on earth to forgive sins belongs only to God and those to whom he delegates it; we have no authority to condemn the unfaithful to hell, however much we might like to. If God wants to destroy ungodly Assyria, that’s great, but we’d sure better not try to, he warns through the prophets. The point is that both Meeks and Wilson have forgotten a very crucial point about how we as creatures relate to our Creator. Our Creator does violence, says Wilson, and therefore it’s OK for us. Meeks doesn’t want us to be able to do violence, and so he tries to crop and touch-up the Creator so that we can imitate a nice, fluffy God. In short, as nice as it is to be able to put a Trinitarian backing on everything, we need to be more hesitant about grounding our arguments about the righteousness and unrighteousness of violence in what we think the Trinity is like. Perhaps we are supposed to imitate the Trinity in such-and-such a respect, perhaps we are not. How are we to know? Are we left to wonder?
No, we must always ask, “Hath God said?” The serpent deceived Eve by trying to convince her to be more like the Trinity—“God is like this, don’t you think he’d like it if you were more like him and knew good from evil? Why not go ahead?” But the proper answer for her was clear: “I don’t care; God hath said, ‘You shall not eat’” Therefore, the only really important question for us in figuring out the rules for righteous and unrighteous violence is, “What hath God said?” Are we commanded to be violent or not?
And for this, the man Jesus Christ can be a great help. How are we to know what God hath said to us? “At many times and in diverse manners God hath spoken, but now he hath spoken to us through His Son.” Christ the Word is the most final and authentic word that God speaks to us to command us how we are to live. And in this case, we are legitimate, I think, in laying aside the Creator-creature distinction, because Jesus Christ, the Son took on our likeness that we might take on his likeness—he became a creature, and lived and served and was exalted as a creature, that he might become the firstborn among many brethren. We are commanded to follow in his footsteps, and this is not presumption.
But what do we find in his footsteps? This obviously needs to be answered with great care and at great length, but, in general, at least, the answer seems to be a renunciation of violence. In his life, in his death, and after his death, Christ taught and modeled a laying down of the sword, and faith in the Father’s power to vindicate those who patiently wait upon Him. Wilson points out that Jesus Christ is a fearful warrior, who rides out conquering and to conquer. This is true, Jesus Christ on earth was revealed as a conqueror, but one who conquers only by refusing the weapons of this world, not, as Wilson claims, by “superior firepower.”

3 comments:

In the future, paragraph breaks, please.

You said, "The authority on earth to forgive sins belongs only to God and those to whom he delegates it." I agree, of course. But I want elaboration on how the delegation of authority affects the Creator/creature divide. That seems to be key.

Sure, we're not God. Vengeance is his, and so is the power to forgive sins. But in a sense, as you've pointed out, certain men 'administer' God's forgiveness of sins. At TRC, Dr Leithart tells us every week, "Your sins are forgiven!" In the same way, perhaps certain men 'administer' God's vengeance. As per Romans 13. The Creator/creature divide is acknowledged and respected, nevertheless, men are acting as God. Isn't that what delegation means?

February 16, 2009 at 4:26 AM  

Yes, sorry about the paragraph breaks.

I agree with you about the relevance of delegation. Indeed, that's my point--the most important question in this is not what the Trinity looks like, but what the Trinity has asked us to do (which is to imitate it in some ways, and not in other ways).

As far as the questions of in what sense and to what extent God has delegated the execution of vengeance to men, I hope to begin to figure out in the big paper I'm writing on Romans 13. So, expect some more on this theme as my thoughts coalesce. But they're not quite there yet.

February 17, 2009 at 4:36 AM  

You've hit on an important distinction that is often overlooked by both sides of the "Trinity/violence" debate. Each side seems to be saying that their convictions regarding the human use of violence must therefore mean that God's very nature must likewise reflect that conviction. But as you've said, there are certain prerogatives that remain with God alone. There is also the issue of the difference between the Old and New Covenants. In the OC God allowed and even commanded His covenant people Israel to use violence to effect His will. In the NC, God, through Jesus Christ, seems to be commanding nonviolence as the norm while we sojourn until his return. That is not the same as a metaphysical pacifism though. This limited, covenantal, pacifism still leaves vengeance to the Lord, and even acknowledges that we will share in executing God's righteous wrath in the eschaton. But in the meantime, we are to follow in the way of Christ, which in His incarnation, was the way of selfless service and suffering. Besides, in the eschaton, we will not be stained in any way by our sinful nature, which I think is the reason we will be able to participate in God's vengeance. until then, we still see through a glass darkly even if we have also been given the annointing of the Holy Spirit so that we "know all things." Heady stuff! Blessings to you and you work in Christ.

February 22, 2009 at 12:29 AM  

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