Reno on the real threat of Babel

I’ve been using R. R. Reno’s theological commentary on Genesis in my preparations for a sermon on the Tower of Babel this Sunday.  As a kid I remember thinking that God stops the building of the tower because he is somehow threatened by human ambition – as if human beings might have actually reached out from the top of the tower and grabbed God by the ankle, or something like that.   I’m sure that is how many people interpreted the story as children, and it is quite possibly how some still read it.  The confusion of languages, then, would be God’s way of protecting himself against humanity – limiting their ability to scheme together and take heaven by storm.

The story of the expulsion from the Garden is often taken in a similar sense: God sends Adam and Eve away because he’s worried they’ll eat from the tree of life, and therefore they’ll become divine.

Of course, this can’t be the meaning of either text.  Reno succinctly summarizes an orthodox theological interpretation:

“Faced with an accelerating project of prideful ambition on the plains of Shinar, God acts on the same rationale he gave for the expulsion of Adam and Even from the garden of Eden.  The LORD says, “ This is on the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).  We need to be sure readers here. It cannot be the case that human beings can make themselves divine by dint of their efforts, any more than the fruit of the tree of life and sheer deathlessness would give Adam and Even divine life – “like one of us” (3:22).  Nor can God be threatened by human striving, as if he were a vulnerable despot anxious to protect his prerogatives.  No, the temptation of the covenant of the lie is precisely the false promise that worldly abundance is enough to bring rest to human beings.

…Therefore, the danger that God identifies in both the tree of life and the tower of Babel is simple.  It is the limitless human capacity to live according to the covenant of the lie.  However impossible the pure negation of radical evil, we really can say an enduring “no” to the covenant of life. As “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19), we have a striking ability, day after day, to give ourselves over to sin.  God intervenes not to protect his power, but in order to protect us from the tenacious power of our own corruption” (R. R. Reno, Genesis, 132).

In other words, the confusion of languages is not God’s way of protecting himself from human beings, but it is his way of protecting human beings from themselves – it mitigates against the social corruption of sin.  It is an act of mercy-in-judgment.

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 3: A Therapeutic Understanding of Salvation

John Wesley’s theology of salvation is sometimes said to combine the best of both the Western and Eastern traditions, meaning he combines a forensic understanding of salvation with a therapeutic understanding of salvation.    Western Christianity has tended to focus on sin as a guilt problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of forgiveness (forensic/legal language).    The Eastern tradition has tended to focus on sin as a sickness problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of healing (therapeutic language).

Wesley was able to draw on both of these traditions by integrating the Western concern with guilt into an Eastern-influenced therapeutic understanding of salvation.   This meant that, overall, Wesley saw salvation as a dynamic, relational process of healing from all the sickness of sin, but included the classic protestant understanding of justification as an important aspect of this process.

Consider the following two quotes, illustrating these two aspects of salvation.

Forensic: Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.3

Justification is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and , what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God. The price whereby this hath been procured for us (commonly termed “the meritorious cause of our justification”), is the blood and righteousness of Christ; or, to express it a little more clearly, all that Christ hath done and suffered for us, till He “poured out His soul for the transgressors.” The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,” and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

Therapeutic: Sermon 57, “On the Fall of Man,” §II.8

Hath he not then, seeing he alone is able, provided a remedy for all these evils? Yea, verily he hath! And a sufficient remedy; every way adequate to the disease… Here is a remedy provided for all our guilt: He “bore all our sins in his body on the tree.” And “if any one have sinned, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” And here is a remedy for all our disease, all the corruption of our nature. For God hath also, through the intercession of his Son, given us his Holy Spirit, to renew us both “in knowledge,” in his natural image; — opening the eyes of our understanding, and enlightening us with all such knowledge as is requisite to our pleasing God; — and also in his moral image, namely, “righteousness and true holiness.”

The point of what I’m trying to say is that salvation, for Wesley, is  not found simply in being “declared” righteous (justification), but in being healed of all the corruption of sin, and conformed to the likeness of Christ.   Therefore, the salvation that God has prepared for us is something which begins now, but extends to the resurrection.  People sometimes speak of receiving forgiveness of sin as “being saved,” but this is not the whole story. Justification is one aspect of salvation, but properly speaking, salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.  These terms are ways of describing the initial, ongoing, and final deliverance from sin.

This has important implications for our understanding of the mission of God.  Mission is not simply about gaining “converts,” but also about cooperating with the Spirit’s healing work in people’s lives.   This also means that God’s mission is not only for those outside the church but for believers as well, who are currently experiencing the ongoing healing work of God in their lives.

In other words, mission is not only “outreach” but also includes the corporate life of the church.  Cultivating holiness, spurring one another on in our response to God’s ongoing work in our lives, teaching, catechizing, discipling – all these things which help to form people as disciples are part of the church’s mission

Wesley’s therapeutic understanding of salvation could be extended to other areas of “healing” (social, psychological, environmental), but I will leave that for another post.

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 2: Prevenient Grace

I began this series last week by talking about the importance of the image of God for John Wesley’s theology.    As an heir of the theological legacy of the protestant Reformation, Wesley also believed in total depravity.  This means, not that human beings are totally evil, but that sin has corrupted every aspect of the human person, such that there is no aspect of our existence which is not affected by the Fall.  Those who accuse Wesleyans of being “soft” on sin have misread Wesley’s theology at this point.

While it is true that Wesley was somewhat more “optimistic” about humanity, his optimism sprang not from a weak understanding of sin, but from a high view of grace – hence Wesleyans sometimes speak of the “optimism of grace” (more on that later).

In other words, while Wesley believed human beings to be completely depraved and helpless in and of themselves, he believed that God had not left anyone to merely fend for themselves.  God’s grace, for John Wesley, permeates all of creation, not only the Christian church.  As an unconditional benefit of the atonement, extended to all humanity, God’s Spirit is actively at work in all creation, drawing people to himself through his grace.   This is what Wesleyans call “prevenient,” “preventing,” or “preceding” grace – it is our experience of God’s grace “going before” us, enabling us to respond to God’s call on our lives.

The following quote from Wesley’s Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,”  §III.4, is illustrative of how Wesley used this concept:

… allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Every one has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.

Wesley used the idea of prevenient grace in “broad” sense to refer to the restraint of evil throughout the world (similar to the Calvinist idea of “common grace”), and in a more narrow sense to refer to grace drawing people to faith in Christ.

Because Wesley affirmed total depravity, he had to claim that any good action, no matter who performed it, must attributed to prevenient grace. In other words, “First. God worketh in you; therefore you can work: Otherwise it would be impossible” (Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” §III.3).

Again, we see the universal dimensions of God’s mission to the world shining through in Wesley’s thinking.  Just as all people were created in image of God and now suffer the debasement of that image by sin, so also God is actively pursuing all people by his prevenient grace.

This means that the church’s missional activity is always preceded by God’s prior gracious action.  God is already at work in the lives of every person we come into contact with.  The witness of the church remains essential, however, as God’s chosen means of spreading the message of salvation.

Prevenient grace also provides us with a way of affirming the good in people outside of the Church.   God’s grace is at work in all peoples, in all cultures.  Therefore we can affirm the good in people of other religions, without denying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only saviour; because whatever good is there is due to the grace of the triune God, and is ultimately a benefit of the universal atonement.

Prevenient grace therefore provides an essential piece of a Wesleyan theology of the mission of  God, which extends the hope of salvation to all people, not merely an elect few.

Holiness is not a state

Many of the problems with Wesleyan/Holiness understandings of sanctification come from the drive to define a “low water mark” of holiness, by which I mean, a line in the sand – a threshold which we can identify as the indication that someone has experienced holiness or been made holy.  This whole idea is built upon the presupposition that “holiness” is a state, a status, or a place where one can somehow arrive.   Some of the “second blessing” holiness teachers (such as Samuel Logan Brengle) explicitly define holiness as a “state,” and then go about the process of trying to identify the ways that one can arrive at this state, by God’s help.

If we look back further, John Wesley’s famous “redefinition” of “sin properly so-called” as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God” was part of his attempt to define the “low water mark” of Christian perfection.  Wesley would never say that anyone could reach a point in their Christian life where they did not constantly need the atoning blood of Christ.  While, in certain contexts, he used the above “redefinition”, he also believed in total depravity, which means that he believed that, as one journeys deeper into holiness of heart and life, one continues to find that sin “cleaves to all our words, and actions.” (The Repentance of Believers, §I.11)  Indeed, Wesley says of the children of God,

They are daily sensible of sin remaining in their heart, — pride, self-will, unbelief; and of sin cleaving to all they speak and do, even their best actions and holiest duties. [On Sin in Believers, §III.7, emphasis mine]

This is classic protestant teaching on total depravity, though I think later Wesleyans have, at least on a popular level, not always followed Wesley in maintaining this point.  The point is that even our “holiest” actions as Christians remain tainted by sin, possibly in ways we are not conscious of and don’t even understand.  However, Wesley felt that one could reach  a point of not voluntarily sinning, by becoming so overwhelmed by the perfect love of God that the intentions of one’s heart is made pure.   This was his “low water mark” of Christian perfection, though he never claimed it for himself.

It seems to me that this “low water mark” issue could be avoided if we simply made clear that holines is not a state.  There is no line in the sand of the Christian life which marks off “the holy” from the rest of us.  Holiness is a relative characteristic which all believers possess, to a greater or lesser degree.  From the moment of conversion we are being transformed, made responsive to the grace of God in our lives, and conformed to Christ’s likeness.   That is why Paul can address the Corinthians as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be holy.”

From a Wesleyan perspective, we can still maintain that it is not right for us to put a priori limits on the sanctifying grace of God.  That is, we cannot, in advance, say that any aspect of our lives will surely remain corrupted by sin.  What we can say, however, is that, as a relative characteristic, our transformation will always remain relative. Only God is absolutely holy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that later Wesleyans conflated Wesley’s category of “Christian perfection” with “holiness.”  While Wesley seems to fall into this “low water mark” trap I’m speaking of in relation to his discussions of Christian perfection, he nevertheless recognizes the fact that “holiness” is a relative characteristic shared by all believers.

Every babe in Christ is holy, and yet not altogether so. He is saved from sin; yet not entirely: It remains, though it does not reign. [On Sin in Believers, §IV.3]

Therefore, the answer to the question, “are you holy?” will always be “Yes” and “No.”  There ought always to be ways in which our lives reflect the holiness of God; and yet there will always be ways in which they do not.