Saturday, January 23, 2010

This World That World: Living with Christian Paradox

What does it mean to be a resident alien, to live in this physical world, but anticipate the next--a "spiritual world," as it were? Moreover, how can Christians unify their existence, knowing the call of the kingdom of God in the here and now to make the world a better, healthier, more prosperous place, but at the same time, follow the injunction to "store up treasures in heaven" rather than here on earth? Do you ever wonder if life is really pointless if indeed there is a judgment day coming? I mean, in light of eternity, heaven and hell, the separation between the righteous and the wicked, doesn't that make life seem grossly insignificant? How do we deal with this very real paradox?

Maybe you've decided, "Well, at least I'm saved, so I guess I'll just live a normal life in light of that far ahead future time." That life you live could occur in one of two ways: You decide that life is meaningless and you seek to live in comfort and enjoyment. After all, you're saved: what else could matter? Or, you decide life is meaningless and live your life in terms of asceticism: you eschew "storing up treasures on earth" and live as a minimalist. Maybe you decide to "go into ministry" or "become a missionary." After all, there are souls out there who need saving, and it's "spiritual" work that matters most, anyway.

Herman Bavinck, the early 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian dealt with this tension as well. His paradox is ours. Bavinck's tension came to a zenith at the Leiden theological school because of its modernist approach to the Bible and theology, which basically means that the Bible was treated as a literary document to be analyzed from various scientific fields (anthropology, archeology, psychology of religion, & textual criticism--investigating the way in which texts form over time), rather than as an inspired document revealing God's plan of salvation for man in Christ. Nevertheless, Bavinck was the better for it. He writes, "Leiden has benefited me in many ways: I hope always to acknowledge that gratefully. But it has also greatly impoverished me, robbed me, not only of much ballast (for which I am happy), but also of much that I recently, especially when I preach, recognize as vital for my own spiritual life."

So, Bavinck was a man between two worlds, and dealt with a dualism common in all of us who claim Jesus as Lord, yet try to synthesize our earthly lives with our heavenly call. In other words, in light of one's future, eternal, fellowship with God and judgment day, how can one's life here on earth have any real meaning at all? Moreover, do our hobbies (for example), have any real meaning or significance? Do we even have the right to experience comfort, wealth and happiness while others suffer from tyranny and poverty? Bavinck wrestled with these important questions. One biographer writes of him, that he was a "Secession (separatist, pious) preacher and a representative of modern culture. In that duality is found Bavinck's significance. That duality is also a reflection of the tension--at times crisis--in Bavinck's life. In many respects it is a simple matter to be a preacher in the Secession Church, and, in a certain sense, it is also not that difficult to be a modern person. But in in no way is it a simple matter to be the one as well as the other."

This is the paradox which I feel as a Christian: it is to have one foot in heaven in and one on earth, as it were. It is to engage culture, but also to hold it at arm's length. It is to plant a garden and enjoy its food, knowing that the food that lasts is Jesus himself. It is to play a game with friends and laugh, knowing full well that true communion is with God himself. It is to enjoy life, but know that it will end some day. And that there will be a judgment day, too. This is a real tension that Bavinck feels as well. He says in this lengthy quote:

"Therefore, whereas salvation in Christ was formerly considered primarily a means to separate man from sin and the world, to prepare him for heavenly blessedness and to cause him to enjoy undisturbed fellowship with God there, Ritschl [a 19th century liberal Protestant theologian] posits the very opposite relationship: the purpose of salvation is precisely to enable a person, once he is freed from the oppressive feeling of sin and lives in the awareness of being a child of God, to exercise his earthly vocation and fulfill his moral purpose in this world. The antithesis therefore, is fairly sharp: on the one side, a Christian life that considers the highest goal, now and hereafter, to be the contemplation of God and fellowship with him, and for that reason (always being more or less hostile to the riches of an earthly life) is in danger of falling into monasticism and asceticism, pietism and mysticism; but on the side of Ritschl, a Christian life that considers its highest goal to be the kingdom of God, that is, the moral obligation of mankind [contrary to Ayn Rand & Frederick Neitzsche] and for that reason (always being more or less adverse to the withdrawal into solitude and quiet communion with God), is in danger of degenerating into a cold Pelagianism and an unfeeling moralism. Personally, I do not yet see any way of combining the two points of view, but I do know that there is much that is excellent in both, and that both contain undeniable truth."

You can see why Bavinck was and is considered a giant of a theologian. But notice the tension--the paradox that he feels between the social gospel of the 19th century liberal Protestant and his view that salvation means being free to live in this life, in vocation, in obligation to mankind for the greater good, for the here and now. On the other hand, Bavinck sees the truth in the historic, orthodox claim that salvation from sin means to separate humans from sin and "the world." The question is, how do we do both? Bavink answers brilliantly by bringing together an other-worldly pietism with a this-worldly modernism, through a synthesis that has at its heart a trinitarian worldview of Christianity and culture. The next post will be on how the doctrine of the Trinity serves in that capacity, along with the dominating principle of Calvinism, espoused by Abraham Kuyper, which he called "sphere Sovereignty."


Jonathan Erdman said...

Good post, Chris.

I'll be anticipating your next post.

For now, I will just say that I tend to side more with Ritschel's liberal Protestant viewpoint....that is, if I am forced to choose a side....but honestly, I don't feel this tension at a fundamental, soul level. Or even at an intellectual level. I don't mean to minimize a tension that many felt in the early twentieth century, but I suppose that my paradigm is just very different for processing this issue.

I tend to see salvation/deliverance as being something that occurs when one encounters this world. Perhaps this has led me to be far less concerned with a theology of justification and more preoccupied with grace, freedom, and love. Through grace we are set free to love ourselves and others. Through love, we learn to empty ourselves. The Son came in the form of of a servant, and so do we also serve. These are all one process, however. We can only be transformed through engaging others. That is, I don't see salvation/deliverance/sanctification as occurring in a vacuum, or being only the result of a decree of God. Salvation comes through our engagement with others. As such, I don't really feel the tension.


(I'll definitely look forward to interacting with your next post.)

chris van allsburg said...


Thank-you for your comments. I guess my question to you, since you are at home w/ Ritschl et al. is how you deal with the texts that are indeed about justification, the holiness and wrath of God against sin, etc?


chris van allsburg said...

and I guess the tension I feel has to come from the idea that salvation is deliverance from sin. Perhaps a more robust, comprehensive deliverance needs to be grasped, and I think that is certainly the solution.

Listening to U2's latest album and Bono's startling lyrics of submission to Christ reminds me of his labor for the poor, and Steven Baldwin's comments that Bono should be concerned about more important things like "the gospel" i.e. saving souls. I certainly disagree absolutely with Baldwin on this point. But I think therein lies the tension: fitting together the pieces of deliverance from this world, while being called to serve in it and rescue it. You catch my drift?

chris van allsburg said...


Laying aside my previous comments for a moment (if it's not too late):

My real dilemma here is the existential struggle of finding meaning in apparently "meaningless" things in lieu of the final judgment and eternity: does my creating a chair really matter all that much in light of that this world is going to be destroyed and reformed at the end of time?

This is why a postmillennial hope is more attractive to me, because, per Romans 8, we are part of the new resurrection era, and we create and form and "be" a new humanity, and form new selves, families, nations, peoples, cultures, and THEN Jesus comes back.

Sys said...

Good Post Chris

The phrases that popped into my head while reading was

"In the world, not of the world"

"Pray your life"

The manifestation of living your faith by praying your life can take care of some of the paradox can't it?

Jonathan Erdman said...


Hey there.

Yes, I think I might be able to get on board with the postmill perspective. At the very least, I can agree with your last comment about "being" the new creation and allowing that to usher in the reign of Christ.

So, with this common ground, let me elaborate my thinking.....we try to "be" the new creation. We seek to live in the liberty that comes through the Spirit, per Galatians 5, in particular. We read Galatians 5 and we see that the "fruits" of walking with (or living by/with) the Spirit are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Paul gives us a list of nine, the number of perfection (in those days). Significantly, he brackets his list with "love" (agape) and "self-control." I think this is a great place to start, in terms of talking about the new creation. It is also a good place to talk about a theology of the new creation because Paul ends his letter to the Galatians by saying that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of value, but "what counts is a new creation!" (The other use of the term by Paul is in 2 Corinthians with the famous "if anyone is in Christ s/he is a new creation!")

Now I have sketched a brief look (via Galatians 5) of the new creation. We might add or subtract a few things, nuance our viewpoint, etc., but the point is that living by the Spirit just is deliverance. I prioritize salvation through sanctification. In invert these things, theologically. Rather than saying that sanctification follows justification, I take justification for granted and suggest that our real spiritual deliverance is found when we engage the life of the Spirit. After all, how many people have we both seen who are justified and yet don't seem to be fully engaged with the Spirit (that is, they don't seem to be demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit)?

to be continued...

Jonathan Erdman said...

But let's say that you still want to stick with the theology of sanctification following after problem....we've still got common ground to build above comments about switching sanctification and salvation may have been a bit of a rabbit trail.

The postmill position is to "be" the new creation, which ushers in the kingdom. Let's build on that common ground.

It seems like the process of walking with the Spirit really "matters" to our personal salvation/deliverance in the here and now. But here's the thing: it is built into the very nature of the life of the Spirit that it is a very this-worldly life. To love others. To be good to others. To be faithful to others. To be kind to others. To be gentle with others. These things are things that change "this world" while at the same time working towards "that world", the vision for the day when Christ returns and reigns.

In this light, where is the tension? Our life by the Spirit is our salvation and deliverance, and it is also the salvation and deliverance of those around us who witness our testimony that the love of God is transformative.

You raised the example of making a chair. Why make a chair if it is of this temporal world that is "passing away"? I can think of many good reasons, but let's go back to the fruits of the Spirit. One of them is patience (makrothumia). Would taking the time to make a chair transform me by teaching me patience? If so, then that's one good reason to make a chair rather than to buy a cheap piece of sh!t from Walmart or Ikea. If I invest care into crafting a chair, might this make me more gentle? If so, then this is another great reason to be counter-cultural in a U.S. economy that has taken economies-of-scale to ungodly extremes. Might it not also be a loving thing to do, to resist buying products made in Asia, where workers are exploited? Might it continue to cultivate the Spirit-filled life of self-control, if I slowed down and invested myself in chair-making?

From my perspective, if I am engaged in activities that cultivate the life of the Spirit, this will by definition be of this world, related to this world. If this is the case, then maybe there really is no paradox. Maybe we are assuming too much when we create a dichotomy between "this world" and "that world." This seems especially true if "that world" is the reign of Christ, which is only ushered in when we are living out the fruits of the Spirit....but regardless of pre or post mill positions, if we live by the Spirit, we are both changing this world by loving it and "storing up treasures in heaven." Even the simply act of making a chair represents a "spiritual act of worship" that stores up treasures in heaven for the world to come.

chris van allsburg said...


I give a hearty "Amen!" to your comments on life in the Spirit. Bravo, my friend!

However, I wonder if your thoughts on chair-making are pragmatic: the chair-making is good because of the result: making me more patient, making me more counter cultural. These are good things, no doubt about it. Indeed, one reason I think people should read more books (for example) is because it breeds patience. But I'd like to talk about the essence of chair-making. Assuming one is filled with the spirit, is the chair-making process an inherent good, in light of the "world that is passing away"? And is not only the process, but the chair itself an inherent good? I think we have to say YES to both of those questions, otherwise we are back in pragmatic realms, and this can lead to legalism.

I wonder if, since we are in the spirit, that the act of creating, and the creation itself are goods? I think so, because of the doctrine of creation, that God said it was "good." Of course, creation is marred by sin, but we don't go with the Gnostics who say it is inherently evil. (I think most evangelicals view the world this way--wrongly).

But surely you are correct, that there is indeed a pragmatic aspect to our creating. Perhaps it's a triad:

1) the act of creating is good
2) the created product is good
3) it has good results.

If it doesn't fit these criteria, then it ain't no good!

Hmmm, the Trinity as a way of life.


chris van allsburg said...


(thanks for commenting on Vanallsblog!)

Yes, I think a life of prayer indeed helps us fuse together the two worlds, for sure.

See you in June!

Jonathan Erdman said...

How do you measure or evaluate whether something has "inherent good"?

chris van allsburg said...


Great question. I think we go back to Genesis. God originally called the world "good." And that means the "stuff" of the world is good. Now of course, we deal with the problem of sin and the curse. How extensive is the curse regarding the natural realm? In Genesis 3, when God says, "cursed" is the ground, he uses a different word than Genesis 8, and the context of chapter 8 indicates the God will not curse the ground by sending a flood again. So, the "curse" in Genesis 3 is not in contradiction to chapter 8. On that common ground, then, we still ask the question of how extensive the curse is?

Indeed perhaps the flood was a baptism of the earth, and there was a restorative aspect to the natural world. Hence, we can still say the stuff of the world is "good" because of the doctrine of creation.

God's law is good also (Romans 6 & 7; 1 Tim 1:8). And when we eat and give thanks, we do so because it is good, because God created it. "For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer" ( 1 Tim 4:4-5).

It seems to me that there are a number of ways in which something is declared good.
1) by virtue of God creating it
2) by virtue of God's law as a standard to judge it (wine is good (Ps 104:15), but it is evil to abuse it).
3) Scripture
4) Prayer