I come from within the Reformed tradition, and yet I write about John Howard Yoder, the most noted Anabaptist theologian of the last century (and perhaps of all time). What gives? Am I betraying the Reformed faith in advocating for many of Yoder's ideas? Isn't a Reformed position on numerous theological and ethical issues directly contrary to Anabaptism, and vice versa? In an article originally published in The Journal of Religious Ethics in 1989 entitled "Evangelical Ethics and the Reformed-Anabaptist Dialogue," Yoder and Richard Mouw highlight four commonalities between the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions. In that article, they argue that the differences between Reformed and Anabaptist positions are in fact "intra-family" debates. What follows is my summary and gloss on the points made by Mouw and Yoder.
Both Reformed and Anabaptist communities affirm that sin has greatly affected our ability to know and do what is good. For example, the Canons of Dort state that whatever light remains in humanity after the fall is suppressed and distorted. It's not just that we can't truly know God in our sinful state; we do not use the "light of nature" correctly "even in matters of nature and society." (Canons of Dort 3/4, art. 4) Reformed thinkers, however, often soften this blow with appeals to common grace, conscience, or the cultural mandate. Anabaptists are generally less likely to soften this blow, affirming a strong church-world distinction that highlights the need for special revelation in all matters. The line between Reformed and Anabaptist here, however, is not a hard and fast one.
The term "volitional" means a focus on the will. In other words, both Reformed and Anabaptist traditions focus on the need to repent, turn from sin and turn to God in faith. Surrender is therefore crucial to the Christian life. This second commonality is also connected to the first, in that both Reformed and Anabaptist focus on the primacy of Scripture as moral authority. That is, our wills and consciences are subject not to human reason or to our "natural desires," but to Scripture.
This past week a former theology professor, Mike Wittmer, reminded me via some of my current students that nothing I say is original. For theologians, that's a good thing, because our ultimate task is to bear witness to the Word without whom there would be no words. So I thought I would begin this blog by tipping my hat to my two main theological influences: John Howard Yoder and Kuyperian neo-Calvinism. These two influences, especially Yoder, stand behind the title of the blog, "With and Against the Grain."
Yoder crystallizes a great deal of his theology in his statement that "those who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe." This claim is counter-intuitive because the cross embodies going against the grain of the fallen culture, whether in the 1st or 21st century. Yoder's point is that when we participate in the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 4:13; Phil. 3:10; 2 Cor. 1:5), we are embodying our call to be God's image-bearers, called to serve, just as Jesus does. In this sense, moving with the grain, the Logos, of the universe often calls us to go against the grain of the fallen world. Importantly, we do not do this because we are against the world, but because we are for it. The church is called to be a set-apart people, not as an end in itself, but for the sake of mission. Yoder summarizes it this way: "For the people of God to be over against the world at those points where 'the world' is defined by its rebellion against God and for us to be in, with, and for the world, as anticipation of the shape of redemption, are not alternative strategies...Conversion and separation are not the way to become otherworldly; they are the only way to be present, relevantly and redemptively, in the midst of things." (Body Politics, 78).
Kuyperian neo-Calvinism likewise resonates with this notion of going both with and against the grain. By properly distinguishing between creation and fall, we can see redemption as creation regained, as Al Wolters puts it. There is continuity between God's intentions in creation and his work of redemption, so that salvation is properly understood as the restoration of all things affected by sin and the fall, including our relationship to God, to other humans, and to all creation. This "wide-angle Calvinism" (to borrow a term from Jamie Smith) seeks to understand how all of life stands under the lordship of Jesus Christ, whether it be education or exercise, preaching or pottery, fishing or photography. As Abraham Kuyper put it, however, this Reformed worldview takes an "abnormal" approach to our understanding of the world. That is, it recognizes that things are not they way they are supposed to be (see Cornelius Plantinga's book by the same name). Because sin affects all of life, Kuyperians recognize that the Christian's call is often to stand against those things that are anti-Christ. Although Reformed thinkers often champions the notion of "transforming culture," astute neo-Calvinists will recognize that this is not simply a rubber-stamping of the surrounding culture, but may in fact call for a profound rejection of certain cultural practices and structures. A culture of death, after all, is paradoxically not a culture in the true sense, as it neither worships God properly (culture) nor cultivates life properly.
So there you have a bit about the theological underpinnings from which I write. Now, a word about the site contents.
I will be using this blog to discuss everything from seriously scholarly material to exploring the largely-untapped genre of theological humor. In between, I'll address practical Christian concerns and use the page as a sounding board for experimenting with different thoughts. There is a page highlighting various articles and essays I've written, with links to those pieces where available. There is a page devoted to my book on John Howard Yoder's theology of culture. I would encourage you to check out that page for snippets from the Foreword by Richard J. Mouw and kind words of endorsements from other scholars. There is a page containing audio of some sermons that I have preached, some of which have PowerPoint slides that you can download in order to better follow along with the message.
About the blog
My thoughts on how following Jesus calls us to go with the grain of the universe and against the grain of the world. I love the Bible, theology, and philosophy and how they intersect with just about anything else.