Archive for December, 2012
Clearly I have a lot of doubts on this subject! This is my last one.
It’s about rule and self-rule: in the Scriptures human rule and self-rule seem to be considered good things, rather than being the essence of sin. In fact, it seems that the human problem is that we are not ruling as we should be. And self-rule is our positive duty as believers in Jesus.
In Genesis 1 and in the garden of Eden God established us rulers over the creation:
Fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over it Genesis 1:28
Now that’s an invitation to rule if ever I heard one.
Our trouble was that we let the snake call the shots instead of doing it ourselves. Like King Edward VII, we abdicated our throne and abandoned our responsibilities. That was our sin.
The story of salvation history is preoccupied with issues of leadership and kingship – the very area where we went wrong. There is always the hope that a proper man will come along who can rule again. David looks good for a while, but ultimately proves weak. Finally Jesus comes and proves himself trustworthy, and is promptly given the throne.
But luckily for us, he does not take the throne alone. He takes it for and with us. When Jesus begins to rule, humanity is restored to our rightful place in the creation: lord.
Currently we don’t look much like lords. But our future in Jesus is sure:
If we endure, we will also reign with him 2 Tim. 2:12
Rule is our destiny as humans. And that destiny is restored in Jesus.
But that restored rule is begun already, within ourselves.
Self-rule is a virtue prized by the apostles. The word is enkrateia, which is a combination of en + krateia. Krateia is rule. en means inward. So enkrateia is inward rule, or self-rule. Or autonomy.
This self-rule is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). It is part of the gospel message Paul announced to governor Felix:
As Paul talked about righteousness, self–control and the judgment to come, Felix became afraid… Acts 24:25
It seems even a pagan ruler needs to repent, not of his excessive autonomy, but of his lack of self-rule. This virtue is essential if we are to ‘get a crown that will last forever’ (1 Cor. 9:25).
This emphasis on regaining autonomy makes sense in the Bible’s story-line, in which we lost control of ourselves at the Fall and became enslaved to evil powers. There is no future for us unless we get that rule back. And in Christ, we do.
But self-rule is only the warm-up, the preparation for ruling the cosmos in and with Jesus.
“‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ Luke 19:17
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” Luke 16:10
I’m going to stop describing the human fallen condition in terms of autonomy or self-rule. How about you?
My other main concern about the ‘rebellion’ story we tell people is that it doesn’t follow the story we find in the Bible.
In Scripture, sin comes in because Eve and then Adam were deceived, tricked by the serpent. In their ignorance, they were led astray from faith in God, and put their trust in a lie.
It’s true that in this story Adam and Eve are offered ‘you will be like God, knowing good and evil’. But it’s far from clear that this amounts to an invitation to topple God from his throne. At the least, Adam and Eve are tempted to acquire a wisdom which is similar to God’s. It is probably too much to read a full-scale rebellion into this.
But however we read that temptation, the context in which it comes is one of a masterful serpent who overwhelms and hoodwinks the first humans with his craftiness. This leads them into ruin and misery. Adam and Eve do not emerge as belligerents in this story. They do not shake their fist at God: they hide from him behind bushes. They make a pathetic picture.
No, the main story-line is not one of rebellion, at least not from the humans. It is one of defeat and enslavement. Sin crouched at the door, an aggressive, hostile force, ready to master them. And master them it did.
When we paint the big picture of human condition as one of sinful autonomy, of little gods vying for self-rule – I can’t help feeling that we’re in the wrong story.
My first doubt about our ‘self-rule’ theology is that it doesn’t ring true (see previous post). Another concern is on the level of psychology: I think this ‘gospel’ tends to make people proud when they should be humbled. Let me explain.
The ‘rebel’ view of sinfulness pictures people standing against God, trying to set themselves up as gods. That picture is way too powerful: some people might even be attracted to the romance, the heroism of it. The david vs goliath struggle and all that. Warriors in a cosmic battle.
But shouldn’t we be helping people see that sin has weakened and enslaved them,? We instead tell them it has made them strong and (kind of) free. How is that going to make them feel about themselves?
By telling people they have become their own master, we give them the idea that the alternatives are self-rule or God’s-rule. But the Bible tells us the options are enslavement to the evil powers of this world – Satan and his lot – or else the blessedness of serving the living God. That’s a very different pair of options. The biblical gospel does not encourage the dream that humans might themselves be Master. Yet I think our ‘autonomy’ message often does fuel just that fantasy.
The way the Bible tells it, sin has left us blind and deluded, hopeless and helpless, sick and broken, oppressed and harassed by dark powers. Nothing masterful or heroic about that picture. Nothing autonomous either.
That’s a message to bust up human pride: the self-rule message is more likely to bolster it.
It was Glen Scrivener who suggested this problem at his blog, and I think he’s right.
Around here we usually describe the human condition in terms of rebellion or sinful autonomy (see previous post). I have my doubts about this emphasis.
First, it doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t seem to describe the experience of ordinary people. Most people I know don’t seem to be running their own life their own way. Quite the opposite. I don’t think they’re shaking their fist at God either. Most of them don’t have a clear enough sense of God to be abe to shake their fist at him. And they don’t have enough control over their life to even start imagining they’re in charge of what happens.
Also, a lot of people do seem to like being told what to do. People like rules and laws. After teenage, the instinct to rebel generally settles down. Many people struggle to find the courage to assert themselves.
Also, plenty of people I know seem to have a positive feeling towards God and wish they were more sure about him, had more of him in their lives. I reckon most people in the world don’t long to be self-sufficient: they long to be connected, to have supportive relationships.
Also, most people I know don’t spend their time doing what suits them. They feel like life is a constant round of answering demands, doing what has to be done, what’s expected of them. It’s ridiculous to talk about young mums as ‘bent on doing what suits themself’. They just give and give and give for years, with hardly a minute for themselves.
I think above all this ‘autonomy’ view of human sinfulness doesn’t do justice to the human experience of weakness, futility and enslavement. Most people don’t appear to have a big agenda to take over the world: usually they’re just trying to cope with their day. So many people live each day feeling pushed around by forces much bigger than them, forces they can’t control. I think for many people, the idea that they are too ‘autonomous’ would be hard to connect with.
I’ll make a list of some of the people who would find it difficult to relate to our Sydney view of human ‘self-rule’.
- people in gaols
- people under mortgage or rental stress
- homeless people
- single mothers
- unemployed people
- kids – they spend their lives being told what to do by authorities
- the huge number of Aussies who feel trapped in depression or other mental illness
- people in abusive family situations
- people stuck in oppressive religions
- people stuck in miserable jobs with no prospect of change
- intellectually disabled people
- people plagued by fears, anxieties and stress
…and the list could go on and on.
These people experience every day being weak and powerless in the face of exterior forces which overwhelm and control them. Too much autonomy? Hardly.
Isn’t it a problem if our gospel message, instead of helping people make sense of their lives, actually seems far-fetched and foreign? Especially if the people it doesn’t ring true for are the needy and suffering ones – that should surely ring alarm bells for us. They’re the ones the gospel is supposed to be for, right? ‘good news to the poor’ and all that.
The description of the human condition in our popular courses (quoted in last post) might possibly be true for a small number of aggressive, white, professional males and a few others, who tend towards aspergers, with little talent for relationships and lots of disposable income. For the powerful elite, for the top 5% of the wealth-scale, this might possibly be a half-decent description of what their sinfulness looks like. I’m sure there are people who are a bit like this.
But for the rest of the world? Nah.
Who is it who’s writing these courses, again? And who are they writing them for?
Tomorrow: I have other doubts about autonomy too, some of them from the Bible.
I like evangelical theology. I grew up on it. I believe it. But we all have doubts from time to time. I personally have a great flair for doubting. One area where I find myself in doubt is in regards to what we say about the human condition and about sin.
Here in Sydney I’ve always been taught to think that the great sin was self-rule: our dream of being in charge of our own lives, independent, captain of our own ships. Sometimes this sin is called autonomy. In my mother’s milk I learned to think that this was the heart of my sinfulness. I am self-centred when I should be God-centred. I am my own idol, my own god. I am a rebel.
The popular Sydney course Introducing God describes the human situation under the heading “Our declaration of autonomy”:
Consciously and unconsciously, each of us writes our own rules, goes our own way and does our own thing without reference to God. This attitude is summarised in a quote that I read recently. “The only power I crave in life is to be able to live my life exactly the way I want to”. Our assertion of autonomy amounts to treason against God…
Another popular Sydney-based course, Two Ways to Live, describes us like this:
from the very beginning, men and women everywhere have rejected God by doing things their own way. We all do this. We don’t like someone telling us what to do or how to live—least of all God—and so we rebel against him in lots of different ways. We ignore him and just get on with our own lives…we shake our puny fists in his face and tell him to get lost.…we are all rebels, because we don’t live God’s way. We prefer to …run things our own way, without God. This rebellious, self-sufficient attitude is what the Bible calls ‘sin’.
The whole world is full of people bent on doing what suits them…We all act like little gods, with our own crowns, competing with one another…
In these accounts, humans appear as powerful, free agents pursuing their own wicked agendas.
Like I said, I’ve always been taught this. I’ve preached it, many times. Perhaps you’ve preached it.
But I have to confess, I’ve started to have doubts. I want to take another look at the whole thing. Join me?
Pedigree: I think this whole emphasis on autonomy is particularly found in the Sydney evangelical scene: I don’t find it as much on US websites like the Gospel Coalition. The Alpha Course doesn’t seem to take this line either.
I don’t know enough historical theology to be sure where this ‘autonomy’ theme has come from. The Greek fathers seem to regard sin as a product of our weakness and ignorance, not an assertion of our power. Augustine found ‘self-love’ (as opposed to the love of God) to be the essence of sin – that’s a bit similar to self-rule but not identical. Calvin sees ‘lack of faith’ as the root of human fallenness (Institutes, Battles p.245-6). Denying free will, Calvin emphasises sin as being-deceived, as blindness, enslavement, weakness, in which we are led astray. Self-rule is not Calvin’s focus: in his view humans are much more servile and pitiful than terms like ‘autonomy’ suggest.
Hegel is perhaps the closest match I’ve found: he saw humans becoming a self-conscious species, in which ego developed. Man makes this new-found self the centre of his desires, and so becomes selfish and evil. The heart of sin is then self-centredness. That sounds a lot like what I’ve been taught.
Apart from it apparently having this dodgy pedigree, I’ve got a few more specific doubts about this ‘autonomy’ view.
Tomorrow: my doubts
I’d like to have a prayer of confession that we can use in our service. I don’t like the traditional ones that make us sound like rank pagans. Or the modern toothless ones that stick to safe generalities. So I’m having a go at writing one myself. Here’s my first effort. You guys are my brains trust, I could really do with some feed back.
Holy Father, you sent your son into the world to save sinners,
So that we might become dead to sin
and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Sin is no longer our master,
yet we foolishly follow its desires.
Our hearts give way to fear and unbelief.
Through bitterness, anger and evil thoughts
we grieve your Spirit.
We close our hearts to the poor
and cling to what we have.
We judge others harshly.
We have freely received,
yet we do not freely give.
Father, have mercy on us.
Forgive us our sins
and establish us in your grace.
Renew us by your Spirit,
so that we might walk in love, and so fulfil your law.
May Christ be formed in us
until we display his goodness in our lives.
What will the message be at your church this Christmas?
I’m up to Matthew 2, the conclusion of his birth and infancy narratives.
The whole chapter is about the clash of two Kings, two rulers on earth. King Herod, and King Jesus. The incumbent, and the newcomer. In this chapter Herod’s style of rule, representing ordinary human despotism, is exposed. And Jesus’ new leadership is also introduced. The clash between the two is not only one of style: Herod mounts a complex, all-out assault designed to wipe out the new Lord.
famously murderous, his fit of anxiety has all Jerusalem trembling. When Herod gets upset, lots of people get hurt. His scheming mind hatches several plots at once. Plan A – get the Maji to find pretender to the throne, so Herod can deal with him. Plan B – if that fails, use a scatter-gun approach: destroy all the boys in the area of about Messiah’s age. Neither plan works. The only result is unspeakable suffering.
Unable to speak for himself, Jesus’s rule is witnessed to by the Maji and by the prophets. The Maji, finding the child, are overjoyed. They clearly believe that a new era has dawned, a reign of peace, heralded by the new star. And we are intended to think that they are right. Their obeisance and gifts express the dignity and honour of this new potentate. In their view the child is quite simply Lord.
The two prophets quoted, Jeremiah 31 and Micah 5, both speak of a shepherd who will bring the people of Israel back from exile. Exile is clearly where Israel still is, at this time. The shepherd will protect his flock, overcome all their enemies, and make them glorious in the midst of the nations.
To ram home the message, Matthew describes Jesus re-enacting the exile, as his family flees to Egypt, and later returns to the promised land.
The Two Kings Contrasted
The contrast could hardly be greater. Herod, a client-King of the Romans, is the embodiment of Israel’s exile experience. He is what happens to an unprotected Israel. Jesus’ arrival then spells the end of Herod and of all Herods. Their days are now numbered, their reign relativised. A new reign means the overthrow of the old one. The oppressed and fearful will be relieved and encouraged, the crushed will be healed and nurtured.
We are not meant to identify with Herod. Only the overweaning egos of rich westerners could imagine that they were serious contenders against the kingdom of Jesus. Few people in the world’s history have deluded themselves that they were in charge of their own lives.
No, we are not like Herod. Perhaps a little like the Maji, foreigners who want a share in the kingdom of Jesus, who rejoice with great joy to have found him. But the Maji are not a close fit for us little readers.
If we are intended to identify with anyone, it is probably with the poor citizens of Jerusalem, living lives of fear, their wellbeing threatened by the whims of a cruel Lord. Or the poor mothers of Bethlehem, their children taken cruelly from them and lost to death. Many, many of the first readers would have known such experiences, would know many stories of friends and family who had suffered in similar ways. In those violent, dangerous and oppressive times, and indeed for most of world history, this was the normal lot in life.
Would these people prefer Herod’s rule, or Jesus’s? That’s the punchline, the point of the comparison. No-brainer.
Most of us today are conscious of suffering under forces that enslave or trap us. Many people live in fear under the power of abusive family members. Or are trapped in poverty, or fear of death, or bitterness or depression, or unemployment, or employment, or any number of other powers that push us around and keep us in misery. We are not Herods, but rather those who suffer under Herods. This world is a cruel master.
For little people like us, the news of Jesus’ new reign comes as a breath of fresh air, a ray of hope in our darkness. We can get free of the harsh masters that make our life a hell on earth – and come under Jesus’ protection. We now have the hope that
we will live securely, for our Shepherd’s greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth. (Micah 5:4)