The Statement the World Needs Most

The Statement the World Needs Most

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers.  For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade  in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.

The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.

This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.

But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.

From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge.  Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask AlexaShe’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.

But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.

The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them.  Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.

There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.

It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.

This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.

According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.

The Bible says differently.

The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26).  Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral.  Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).

Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23)  The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways.  But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.

That work can only be done by Jesus.

Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender,  – as tools to divide and oppress.

Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.

For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.

And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?

 

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On Stumbling Over Statements

On Stumbling Over Statements

This morning on The Briefing, Al Mohler proposed that people’s responses to the Nashville Statement would fall into one of at least four categories:

  1. Those certain of its rightness, who would be committed to outspokenly supporting it.
  2. Those reticent about its rightness, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
  3. Those uncertain about its rightness, without yet knowing why, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
  4. Those certain of its wrongness, who would be determined to repudiate it.

I’d like to humbly propose adding a 5th, one that might change the way we consider the other 4:

  1. Those concerned that its rightness in some aspects, is so overshadowed by its wrongness in others, that it’s impossible to support, in its current form.

This is the group in which I find myself.

It’s important to note the variety of points of disagreement people in this group have raised, as well as the their number:

It’s also important to note how many of the people in the group offering up some, or all, of these points of concern, agree with the statement’s basic assertions about sexuality and marriage,and most essentially, with the affirmation and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ with which the statement ends. (No one that I know of in this group is offering up anything about Article 14 other than “Amen and Maranatha”.)

In other word, this group is not comprised of the usual suspects who drag their soapboxes out anytime the letters LGBTQ start trending on Twitter (although, yes, they’ve shown up this time as well).

These are faithful brothers and sisters of the household of God, whose collective public work, and personal testimonies, make their concerns worthy of consideration.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement asserts that Western culture is in a season of “massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” On this point, almost everyone, from the statement’s ardent supporters, to its angriest critics, are potentially agreed.

A statement that began there, then proceeded from it, could do much clarifying good.

But in its current form, the Nashville Statement seems to be the equivalent of a brick path that’s been unevenly laid down. When so many committed, thoughtful Christians are stumbling over it, it would be judicious to examine the way the bricks were placed, not just assume the only problem is that people aren’t looking where they’re going.

Towards a More Complete Bibliography

Of all the subjects I struggled with in high school, physics was the worst. My inability to comprehend even the basics of the subject crushed my pride, and drove me towards the humanities and English (where you could make words mean anything if you tried hard enough). Only years later did I discover the difference between theoretical and applied physics, and how each discipline helps you understand the other. My high school taught applied physics in a theoretical vacuum, believing that focusing on the so-called “practical” parts of physics would keep us engaged. A lot of my friends flourished with that approach (which no doubt accounts for my bruised ego). In my case, the opposite occurred. Unmoored from the “why” of theoretical physics, the “what” of applied physics was frustratingly difficult to understand.

Theological debates can function in much the same way. Some people – primarily theologians with lots of letters after their names, or those who aspire to be them – often default to the theoretical. Theologia in abstracto, as it were. Latin, Greek, and church history are totally their jam. Other, mostly the laity, prefer to default to so-called “practical” theology. They’re interested in how an argument is going to change their marriage, their parenting, or some other aspect of daily life (and if they don’t think it will, they quickly move on). Then there’s the lonely few in the middle, looking at both sides and wondering why we, er, I mean people, have to choose between the two.

For the last six weeks or so, the Reformed Internet has been abuzz with what, to some, might read like a theologia in abstracto debate on the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Several of the participants have tried to keep the debate tethered to its practical implications for inter-gender relationships. But for the most part, the controversy has centered on contemporary arguments over ancient creeds, and ancient and modern interpretations of the words and phrases therein.

This is not a bad thing.

In fact, I think it’s been a great thing. A lot of people are sort of shaking their heads like you do after an involuntary nap, looking around and saying, “What’s a Nicene Creed?” If that’s you, get thee to the Internet for a few minutes and read something about it, and how it came to be. It will help with the “why” and “what” of the current debate.

It might, though, still leave you scratching your head about the “so what” – the practical implications of what still might seem to be a pretty heady topic.

The now widely distributed and helpful Books At A Glance bibliography frames the debate timeline, and its participants, around three posts in June of last year, which review or comment on Bruce Ware and John Starke’s (no relation) book “ One God in Three Persons”, and Liam Goligher’s post at Mortification of Spin, published almost exactly one year to the day later, with back and forth responses flying multiple times per day thereafter. The approach and content of the posts, places them pretty squarely on the “theoretical” side of the conversation. A lot of Latin phrases, names and dates are deployed, and the focus of the argument is primarily on Trinitarian relations, albeit with a healthy sprinkling of allusions to the “practical” implications for complementarianism (as it is increasingly murkily defined).

But the years prior to the Ware and Starke’s book, and especially during and after the twelve months between those two sets of posts, have been far from silent on the “so what”.

Going back several years, there has been a separate (but not entirely so) stream of conversation going on at the (mostly) “practical” level, about increasingly troubling trends in the way practical applications of complementarianism have found their way into different types of Bible teaching, both in print, and on social media. About a year ago, an increased attempt was made to trace the origins of these teachings back to their theological source. As the study and conversation progressed, the root cause of the problematic teaching was found in a questionable perspective on the Trinity. Once identified, the logical next step was to try and raise the issue as a whole – the questionable doctrine, and its serious practical consequences – to invite more intentional thought and conversations amongst its proponents, and to offer an opportunity for reconsideration and correction.

After the debate ignited last month, many of those same writers continued their conversations, connecting higher level arguments to their ground level implications, not just in speculative scenarios, but in examples of living print, in places of ongoing influence in ordinary Christian pastors’, and pew sitters,  every day lives.

These posts are absent from the current bibliography, so that the debate might seem to have emerged from nowhere, now currently hovering over the Reformed Internet inside a bit of a scholastic theological bubble. I offer them up below, embedded into a subset of the ones referenced at Books at a Glance, in the hopes that they’ll provide some helpful context, and practical grounding, in how this debate came to be, and why some of us with only a few letters after our name are invested in it.

The more observant of my readers may note a chromosomal commonality shared by the authors of these posts, and be tempted to commence conspiracy theory-ing as to the reason for their exclusion. In the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13 forbearance, can I encourage you not to do that right now? Instead, in the spirit of this post (which, yes, I wrote, so that’s a little tacky, but to be honest I wrote it with women like Rachel Miller and Aimee and Wendy in mind), can I invite you just to read and consider what’s been written and argued, and how God wants you, personally, to respond?

SDG

————————————————————————-

March 10, 2009
Cynthia Kunsman

http://undermoregrace.blogspot.com/search/label/Against%20Subordinationism

March 13, 2013
Rachel Miller

http://theaquilareport.com/whats-wrong-with-biblical-patriarchy/

May 8, 2015
Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/true-woman-101-divine-design/

May 22 2015
Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/continuing-down-this-path-complementarians-lose/

May 28, 2015
Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/does-the-son-eternally-submit-to-the-authority-of-the-father/

August 17, 2015
Aimee Byrd

http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/john-pipers-advice-for-women-in-the-workforce#.Vd29QrxViko

August 25, 2015
Aimee Byrd

http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/recovering-from-biblical-manhood-and-womanhood#.Vd29y7xViko

8 MAY 2015

Fred Sanders, “Things Eternal: Sonship, Generation, Generatedness” (8 MAY 2015), on The Scriptorium Daily at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/things-eternal-sonship-generation-generatedness/ [accessed 23 JUN 2016].

22 MAY 2015

Stephen Holmes, “Reflections on a new defence of ‘complementariainism’” (22 MAY 2016), on Shored Fragments at http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7507 [accessed 23 JUN 2016].

1 JUN 2015

Fred Sanders, “Generations Eternal and Current” (1 JUN 2015), on The Scriptorium Daily at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/generations-eternal-and-current/ [accessed 23 JUN 2016].

September 2, 2015
Rachel Miller
Dr. Valerie Hobbs

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/09/02/the-subordinate-place-of-supreme-honor-response-to-douglas-wilson/

October 7, 2015
Rachael Starke

http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2015/10/when-submission-becomes-sinful.html

April 21, 2016
Aimee Byrd

http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/sanctified-testosterone

April 22, 2016
Wendy Alsup

http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2016/04/a-unified-field-theory-on-gender.html

April 24 , 2016
Wendy Alsup

http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2016/04/thomas-jefferson-headship-and-i.html

April 26, 2016
Rachael Starke

http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/housewife-theologian/listening-to-the-women

3 JUN 2016

Liam Goligher, “Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?”

(3 JUN 2016), posted by Aimee Byrd on Housewife Theologian at

http://www.mortificationofspin.org/mos/housewife-theologian/is-it-okay-to-teach-a-complementarianism-based-on-eternal-subordination [accessed 11 JUN 2016]

June 6, 2016
Persis Lorenti

http://triedbyfire.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-trinity-matters.html

June 13, 2016
Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson

http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2016/06/the-eternal-subordination-of-son-and.html

June 20, 2016
Persis Lorenti

http://triedbyfire.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-study-in-contrasts.html

June 22, 2016
Persis Lorenti

http://triedbyfire.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-practical-trickle-down-from-trinity.html

June 23, 2016
Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/06/23/the-grand-design-a-review/

June 30, 2016
Rachael Starke

https://thethinkingsofthings.com/2016/06/30/on-conversation-and-controversy/

July 7, 2016
Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/eternal-subordination-of-the-son-and-the-esv-study-bible/

July 8, 2016
Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/the-reformation-study-bible-esv-a-comparison-of-study-notes/

July 11, 2016
Persis Lorenti

http://triedbyfire.blogspot.com/2016/07/a-study-in-contrasts-2.html

Rachel Miller

https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/eternal-subordination-of-the-son-and-wayne-grudems-systematic-theology/

 

On “Conversation” and Controversy

When is a conversation not a conversation?

Even though many of us use the word “conversation” to mean “anything people are thinking about in a collective way”, the traditional definition involves people talking audibly, and in real time with one another. In the Internet age, the majority of our communication platforms – email, texting, tweeting, blogging – free us from those constraints, making communication faster and easier. That’s the theory, at least. But as anyone who’s ever gotten into a Facebook feud about politics will tell you, or who’s been caught in an ugly dustup at work after hitting “send” on an email a tad too quickly, or, say, engaged in an online debate about complementarianism and the nature of the Trinity, the chasm between communication and genuine understanding enabled by the digital world can sometimes make meaningful communication harder, instead of simpler.

In her latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation”, Sherry Turkle explores the effects of the growing ubiquity of digital interaction on our most basic relationships at home, at work, and in our communities, and how developing (or re-developing) and modeling habits that protect and promote real conversation can be beneficial – personally, professionally and societally. It’s a thought-provoking book for those of us who are pondering the effects of the Internet on our relationships, or our souls. And it’s replete with imago dei ideas. Her central argument boils down to this: the more machines and screens mediate our discourse, the thinner and less effective that discourse becomes.

With all of the recent referencing of the Nicene Creed in the latest round of Trinitarian debate, we haven’t spared much thought for seemingly minor details such as the significance of somewhere around three hundred Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire traveling for weeks to meet in one place and collectively agree. This was way before the days of Google Flights and Uber, don’t forget.  But in the spirit of the Apostle Paul himself, when the truth was at stake, and error was encroaching, nothing but face to face interaction would suffice to sort things out. The result? Almost seventeen hundred years later, the words of the creed written by some of the earliest Church fathers are ones around which followers of Jesus pursue the most elemental basis of their unity, or their division.

Sherry Turkle’s arguments about the critical role real conversation plays in our humanity came to mind as I was reading this concise recap of the debate by Steven Wedgeworth. It’s an almost perfect summary of the substance of the debate.* Wedgeworth earns Taboo-grade bonus points for addressing the “tone” issue without using the word, and extra bonus points for noting that “some contributors have invited open and spirited debate, but others have taken offense at the very idea.” The occasionally problematic and personal nature of the controversy, and the outspoken willingness of some to address the issue through direct debate, are complementary (oh yes I did) case studies  in both the problem Sherry Turkle identifies about the limits of online engagement and the relational deficits it creates, and the solution to those deficits, namely, a return to the pursuit of genuine conversation to foster real and lasting understanding.

You’ll understand, then, why the genuine feeling of rising hope in my heart at reading Wedgeworth’s next phrase:

“We would like to try our hand at clarifying the real issues under dispute, and we plan to carry out this conversation in ….”

dissolved into forehead-thudding-on-desk-level discouragement to see it followed by this:

“…a series of (blog) posts  over the next few weeks.”

The rhetorical tools Wedgeworth generously offers to employ to build a bridge of peace between the feuding factions, are the same tools the two factions have been using to beat each other up with. (In love. And earnest contention for the faith. Ahem.)

Sherry Turkle would be…disappointed. I can only guess what the Apostle Paul, or our brethren of the Nicene Council might say, were they not all blessedly and most gloriously otherwise occupied at the moment. I don’t know what the final taxpayer cost per participant worked out to be after Constantine counted up the final bill. I can only imagine the discomfort the bishops and their traveling companions endured as they made their way on camels and ships and on foot to an ancient Bithynian town. But if they were able to choose from any of the methods we have today that enable learned brothers from different parts of the world to debate and deliberate over the critical issues of our collective faith in the spirit of “Reformed irenicism” Wedgeworth advocates for,

I find it hard to believe protracted blog posts would be the method they’d pick first.

Should the major participants in the online debate thus far actually concede this point, the next step would likely be to decide who would be willing to participate in a real conversation, and then what the form and format of the conversation would be. In the spirit of Wedgeworth’s blogging partner Mark Jones’ exhortation that we name names,  Mark himself has been a major participant for the non-ESS side, and has stated publicly that he’d be willing to engage an ESS proponent such as Owen Strachan in a debate. Whether those two were to represent the two positions alone, or to be accompanied by other leading voices, might be for them to decide.

I just saw that Mark tweeted today that he’s written a post for Desiring God on the Trinity on which he hopes we can all agree. I can certainly hope that way too. If those hopes are realized, and one blog post is sufficient to bring unity and clarity where so many others seem to have done the opposite, that would indeed be a mighty example of the wonders our God mysteriously moves to perform. I look forward to reading it. But whether our hopes are realized or not, I hope all of us take time to consider the relative merits of continuing to pour the new wine of 21st century debates in what are now relatively old wineskins of social media engines like blogposts and Twitter threads,

forgetting that our faith centers on the Word who became flesh for us. and that that might have some significance about how his shepherds, and his sheep, engage with one another, for our greatest good, and His highest glory.

*Wedgeworth states that “The relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son in the godhead has been appealed to as an archetype for the submission of the wife to her husband within marriage”. As various women participants have noted, the actual archetype proposed is for submission of women to men ontologically as an expression of femaleness, and thus spreading across all categories of interaction, not just the covenant categories of marriage and church. Rachel Green Miller reviews a new book by two leading ESS proponents that makes this connection very strongly and distinctly. Aside from the usual egalitarian suspects, no one who rejects ESS (that I know of) rejects the classic complementarian arguments regarding the covenant boundaries of marriage and church incorporating submission of wives to their own husbands, and church preaching and oversight being confined to qualified and called men.

Of summer jobs and ontological submission

If you ask my fifteen-year-old daughter about her career goals, she’ll instantly tell you they involve “being invisible.” This isn’t just because she’s an introvert. It’s because she has a passion for technical theater and stage managing, which is, as simply as I can describe it, the art and science of doing the parts of theater that orchestrate what happens on stage, without requiring you to ever be on it. It involves a lot of pushing buttons, and plugging and unplugging cables, and wearing black from head to toe. But the biggest part of the job involves her broadcasting a constant, quiet stream of instructions to a team of light, sound and stage technicians via a headset. And so now I have a problem with her summer job.

Traditional complementarian teaching would consider my daughter’s aspirations to a vocation that involves being a quiet helper of others as commendable, even womanly. What could be more feminine than not wanting to be up front and center, but preferring to work quietly in the background, literally shining the lights on other people on stage? But the complementarianism attached to the latest iteration of the Trinity debate, while affirming my daughter’s natural reserve, would take issue with the requirement that she be giving orders to big burly stagehands about when they should be raising and lowering backdrops. Unless the burly stagehands are women. (But then, they’d take issue with the burly women stagehands.)

This is why challenging distorted theology about the Trinity and its attachment to gender definitions matters.

This is where it matters

Right here, today, as my eldest daughter is getting ready to start her first paid summer job as a stage manager for a local children’s’ theater.

According to the arguments for the stream of complementarianism outlined by the authors of “The Grand Design” (and the increasingly vocal leaders of an aspirationally and aggressively influential organization dedicated to it),

my daughter’s exercise of her emerging abilities to flawlessly orchestrate the actions of a team of men (and women) to bring Frozen to life on a community theater stage, will distort her femininity, the masculinity of every man she instructs, and the gospel.

According to CBMW, my fifteen-year-old girl needs to get a different summer job.

I’ll gladly take suggestions in the comments. But remember that lifeguarding is out, too. (Too much potential for more distortion of her womanhood because of all that yelling at men to get out of the water if she spots a shark).