19 August 2015

Interview by Yago Martins

Yesterday I was interviewed by Yago Martins, a director at the Academia de Formação em Missões Urbanas in Fortaleza, Brazil, and a student at Sibima (Seminário e Instituto Bíblico Maranata), on the subject of political ideologies in the Brazilian context. The interview is posted here: Entrevista exclusiva com David Koyzis sobre ideologia política e o cenário brasileiro. Here is the interview in English:

Martins: Among Christians in Brazil the most popular view is that Christians do not need to think about or be involved in politics. Some religious groups even think that it is a sin to be a politician. Can we be politicized (or politicians) and still be Christians?

Koyzis: Many Christians in North America think the same thing, but during my lifetime their numbers have decreased. And that is a very good thing. This reflects the biblical understanding that those who are granted political authority have a high calling to govern according to God's laws, especially those laws mandating the doing of justice. For example, Deuteronomy 17:18-20 says:

When [the ruler] has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Furthermore, if you read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, you will see that the very last section of the book treats the civil magistrate, of which he speaks in unusually glowing terms: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent.” Politics is an important part of life, and our walk with God extends to the whole of life, including politics.

What is a political ideology and how does it differ from a simple political vision?

Everyone is animated by a vision of life, or what might be called a worldview (cosmovisão), which governs the ways they live out their callings before God. Even pragmatists, who claim to reject visions altogether, are living out a vision that privileges results over principles. We cannot avoid these visions, even if we fail to recognize them or admit their influence on us.

An ideology, as I see it, is a particular vision that fastens on to one element in life and improperly raises it to a position of preeminence above the rest. As such, an ideology is inescapably idolatrous. St. Augustine said that virtue is the right ordering of things loved. Those who are in Christ love God above everything he has created. But an ideology takes something good out of God's creation, e.g., individual liberty, national solidarity or popular participation, and effectively makes a god out of it. This leads to a distorted vision that is fundamentally out of touch with the realities of God's world. Such a vision may endure for a while, but eventually people lose their faith in it and seek something better. One hopes they will find the true God who is already seeking them, but they are just as likely to pin their hopes on another ideological vision. In other words, people tend to move from one idol to another.

As a young man I visited what was then called Czechoslovakia while the communists were still in charge. I quickly discovered that virtually no one believed in the official ideology anymore. So when the end came in 1989, I was not all that surprised. As soon as the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on the country, the people went their own way. But with what have they replaced the old idols? New ones, sad to say. That is good enough reason to pray for wisdom to see and love the truth, not only for Czechs but also for Brazilians.

In your book, you propose a supra-ideological perspective on politics. But is that really possible? Might not your critics say that you're proposing a christian ideology, but an ideology just like the others?

Yes, they could easily say this. It is certainly true that Christians have followed these distorted ideological visions, despite their faith. Animated by an idolatrous nationalism, for example, the Afrikaners in South Africa established the destructive apartheid policy between 1948 and 1994. And they did so for what they thought were good christian reasons. But, as the Bible says (Matthew 7:20), by your fruits you will know them. Apartheid led to obvious injustices against nonwhite South Africans and effectively destabilized the entire society.

There has never been a society which has followed a biblical way in its entirety. But I believe that there are at least two Christian traditions that have articulated an understanding of what I have labelled societal pluriformity, which, at least in principle, avoids the distortions of ideological thinking and practice. These are the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as set forth by Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II, and the notion of sovereignty in its own sphere as articulated by the great Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. The advantage of these approaches is that they recognize that the state is the state, the church is the church, the family is the family, and so forth. In other words, they recognize that the various communities cannot be reduced to the wills of individuals or to arms of the state or nation. They accept the legitimate diversity of God's creation, including his human creatures, and work with it rather than against it. 

Our politicians in Brazil are almost all Marxists in some sense, even if they don't explicitly appeal to Karl Marx's ideas. Our public and private universities, even our schools, are dominated by Marxists and adherents of the Frankfurt School. How can Christians behave in this political context?

It is not easy to have influence in a hostile political environment. Ideally, it would be good for Christians to organize for political purposes. A christian political party? It's been tried in some countries, such as the Netherlands. But in a country like Brazil, I think the best approach for now is probably to build a culture animated by the biblical story of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ. This would entail establishing and nurturing institutions to carry the story, to explore the implications of the story for the whole of life, and to see it handed down to the younger generation. This means that both education and evangelism must be top priorities for the christian community.

In response to marxist hegemony, a lot of groups have popularized the thinking of the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, with men like Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek. Is this a good thing for Brazil? Can Christians embrace this political view as a christian approach?

The virtue of the Chicago/Austrian school is that it understands in some fashion the limits of politics. There are many things that the state simply cannot do, and if it tries to do so, it risks doing harm. On the other hand, the Chicago/Austrian school is not very good at understanding the normative character of the state as a political community of citizens and government under the divine mandate to do public justice. Like Marxists, libertarian economists tend to be anti-political and assume that economics drives politics. But the reality is more complicated than that. Here in Canada, for example, we have the recurring issue of Québec separatism, which does not fit comfortably into either a marxist or Chicago/Austrian framework. The separation of Québec from the rest of Canada does not make much economic sense, yet it is a political reality in that people in the province genuinely believe in it.

Moreover, the Chicago/Austrian approach is really a variant of the larger liberal ideology, which privileges the individual and his wants above all else. Consistent liberals wish to expand individual freedoms at the expense of the communities of which these individuals are part. They try as much as possible to reduce communities to mere voluntary collections of individuals. And these collections are to be governed by John Stuart Mill's famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This sounds good at first, but in the real world no society has ever operated on this principle. A society such as Brazil's or Canada's consists of multiple communities of all kinds, each of which has its own identity and standards for membership. There is a wonderful article by Douglas Farrow called “The Audacity of the State,” which shows how this libertarian principle, far from producing liberty, actually empowers the omni-competent state. This is something I address in my second book, We Answer to Another (which is only in English thus far). So, no, over the long term the Chicago/Austrian school is definitely not the solution. It simply tries to turn back the clock on the development of liberalism, but it does not break with the underlying assumptions of the larger liberal project.

It may be possible to make common cause with Chicago/Austrian libertarians on some issues, such as parental choice in education, but it would be most unwise to adopt their approach wholeheartedly. In the long term it will backfire on us.

In the end, do Christians need to abandon the identification with any political ideology to propose a true christian view of politics? In your book, you note that some conservatives have rejected ideologies. Should we then maybe propose a christian conservatism and be supra-ideological on this?

Here again we need to be cautious. Conservatism is too vague a label and can mean a variety of different things depending on context. If it simply means to stick with institutions and customs that have served us well over the course of history, then there is obviously much to be said for it. But traditions are multiple and contradict each other. We necessarily have to decide which traditions to maintain and which to modify or even abandon. And this means further that we need principles to enable us to choose wisely. This is what I try to articulate in my Political Visions and Illusions, especially in the final chapters.

We have a lot of protests taking place in many cities against our president, Dilma Rousseff. Her approval rate is now below 8%, the worst since the end of the military dictatorship. A lot of people are calling for her impeachment. Someone has called this a “Brazilian Spring,” which is, of course, a reference to the Arab Spring. What message can you bring to Brazilian Christians who are living through this moment in our history?

It is remarkable that Ms Rousseff has become so tremendously unpopular so soon after winning last autumn's presidential election. If this is indeed a “Brazilian Spring,” we can only hope and pray that it will not lead to the instability that has plagued so many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. As for a message to my Brazilian brothers and sisters, I suppose the place to begin is with the book of Daniel:

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding (2:20-21).

Moreover, a refrain repeated throughout Daniel tells us that, despite the troubles we see around us, God is still in charge: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (4:3, cf., 4:34, 6:26). This doesn't mean we don't have to work for justice in our political communities; we definitely must do so. But we do so as those whose ultimate hope is not in our fallible political leaders or even in our own purported wisdom, but in the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.

15 August 2015

By what authority? The limits of Niebuhr's transformational Christianity

Apart from the Bible, I am reasonably certain that I have read H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture more times than any other single book. I read it first as an undergraduate and have kept coming back to it over the decades, as it lays out with great clarity the principal approaches that the various Christian traditions take to culture. Niebuhr's five types rang true to me and helped me as I was developing my own understanding of the role the Christian community has historically played in the shaping of culture. The categories are familiar to many of us, but for those who do not know them, they are worth repeating:
  • The adherents of “Christ against culture” view the Christian community as a permanent counterculture characterized by a set of principles at variance with the larger culture. Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy are the typical proponents of this view, as are, to update Niebuhr, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and those who see themselves as articulating and living a prophetic witness from outside the secular polis.
  • The “Christ of culture” position identifies the cause of Christ with everything that is good in the larger culture, as judged by that same culture. Niebuhr's examples include Peter Abelard, modern liberal protestantism, gnosticism (in its extreme form), and the German protestant theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
  • “Christ above culture” describes the synthetic approach of scholastic philosophy and theology. Proponents are neither for nor against the larger culture; they freely accept the philosophical paradigms of, say, Aristotle or the stoics, affirming that the latter can take us only so far in their use of unaided reason. Divine revelation is required to lead us the rest of the way—to truths that lie beyond what unaided human reason can grasp. Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas are the typical exemplars of this position.
  • The champions (if they can be called such) of “Christ and culture in paradox” approach the issue dualistically, holding in tension the demands of the Gospel and the imperatives of the larger culture. Christians are members of two kingdoms and owe loyalty to both. Certainly fidelity to the Gospel is paramount, but as sinful human beings we are still subject to the earthly powers that be, whose commands may nevertheless stand in considerable tension with the Gospel. According to Niebuhr, the Apostle Paul (though obviously not the Paul of the New Perspective), Marcion, Luther and Kierkegaard fit most comfortably into this category.
  • Finally, there is “Christ the transformer of culture,” whose followers aim at nothing less than the conversion of the world. For all their diversity, Niebuhr groups the author of John's Gospel, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards and the English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in this category.
As a young man I found all this tremendously exciting. Niebuhr had come up with what seemed to me to be an enduring typology that served to aid us in understanding why, say, one group of Christians were conscientious objectors while another willingly fought in the military when called upon to do so, why Christians in one tradition might eschew public life while those in another might take it up with enthusiasm.

It didn't take me long to place myself in the transformational camp. Yes, of course, Christ would have us transform the culture in his name and for his glory. It took me much longer to see the potential drawbacks in Niebuhr's approach.

First, it turns out that nearly everyone ends up identifying with “Christ transforming culture,” no matter which tradition is their own. And why not? Who wants to be accused of being satisfied with the way things are when the world is so obviously off kilter in many ways? No one would willingly admit to parking their ultimate commitments to the side while participating in the workplace or public life. The lure of a holistic life is too strong for most of us. We want to live lives of integrity and consistency, if only for the sake of our own consciences.

Second, Niebuhr is unclear about the authority for his vaunted transformational Christianity. He is not necessarily claiming it to be more biblical than the alternatives because he quite openly divides the biblical witness among them. As Niebuhr sees it, Paul's epistles support the paradoxical position, while certain passages in the Gospels, e.g., “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21), are more characteristic of the “Christ above culture” position. Similarly, First John might be said to manifest an attitude of “Christ against culture.” But if the biblical witness is really as divided as Niebuhr believes it to be, on what grounds does he choose the transformational position? Since he makes no claim to having received a private revelation, we are left to wonder whether this transformation is little more than a personal preference on his part.

Third, if the moral basis for transformation is really this thin, it is not particularly clear why anyone would sign on to the project. Every ideological vision has transformative aspirations, whether its followers claim the liberal, socialist, nationalist, or conservative label. Yet in a democratic polity proponents must content themselves to accept means and procedures taking seriously the objections of opponents. This means that it is unlikely that all of our aspirations will ever be entirely fulfilled or even if, through some miracle, most are, they may be subject to reversal at some point in the future. Why? Because political debate is never ending. Coalitions shift, public opinion changes, and plans often fall afoul of unexpected contingencies.

Fourth, if we are unclear as to the authority for our transformative efforts, we run the risk of being transformed ourselves by the very culture we hope to change. In which case, there will be little difference between “Christ transforming culture” and “Christ of culture.” Critics of the notorious Jesus Seminar have observed that the “historical Jesus” its member-scholars claim to have uncovered bears an uncanny resemblance to themselves, namely, western and educated, with liberal democratic sentiments. If such a Christ were to transform our culture, would we be able to tell the difference? Not if he does no more than to parrot the conventional wisdom of a late modern worldview, a distinct possibility if we remain unclear as to the ultimate authority for our knowledge of Christ. Niebuhr himself recognized that the “Christ who speaks to me without authorities and witnesses is not an actual Christ; he is no Jesus Christ of history” (pp. 245–246).

Fifth and finally, although the hope of transformation is a heady one attractive to idealists and would-be social reformers, I myself have more recently been praying, not so much that we will be able to change the world for Christ, but that things will not get any worse than they are now. The many political illusions that have swept across the global landscape over the past two centuries have accomplished their own transformations, beginning with the French Revolution and leading up to the more recent sexual revolution. It is easy to lose heart in such a context, as evidenced in recent discussion amongst orthodox Christians of the “Benedict option” of communal withdrawal and regrouping.

This is perhaps where we need most to return to Augustine, whom Niebuhr placed in his transformational category. It may not be obvious that the Bishop of Hippo can be so easily claimed for this position, even if his own writings did contribute hugely to the creation of a new civilization in the wake of Rome's collapse. Nevertheless, he did recognize with particular clarity that the coexistence during the present age of the civitas Dei and the civitas terrena means that we cannot expect either city to score a definitive triumph prior to the return of Christ. This may be vexing to those of us impatient to see God's kingdom advance more quickly, but we may have to content ourselves with the biblical promise that, however strong the forces of evil may seem at the moment, they will not ultimately defeat his kingdom. Our own efforts may thus not amount to full transformation along Niebuhrian lines, but they will not be in vain either in so far as they keep alive a flicker of light in otherwise dark times—a light which, we are assured, will not be extinguished.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God and of Political Visions and Illusions.

11 August 2015

Liberalism and the church: how mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge

A century ago the Protestant churches in North America were divided between those who sought to defend the confessional integrity of their churches and those who believed that some form of compromise with the modern worldview was inevitable and desirable. The latter became known as liberal Protestants, and they would earn notoriety for denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. Typically they lauded the morality of the Gospels while denying anything that might conflict with a scientific approach to the world.

Yet liberalism in religion covers more than just the denial of the miraculous. A liberal Christian may be willing to affirm that Jesus literally walked on the water (Matt. 14:22–33) or rose from the dead, yet he still retains the right as an individual to accept only that which supports his own experience of faith. J. Gresham Machen, who was forced to combat liberalism within his own Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and 1930s, well understood the nature of this individualism and its impact on the larger Christian community. While liberals in his denomination claimed to accept the authority of Christ, it was a Christ remade in the image of the cultural prejudices of the day. According to Machen, “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience’ . . . truth can only be that which ‘helps’ the individual man.”

Of course, experience varies from one individual to the next, which is the principal difficulty with this approach. There can be no common faith professed by a community of Christians, each of whom retains for himself or herself the sovereign right to decide what he or she can manage to affirm within the larger deposit of the faith. From this comes the caricature of the eccentric and barely-believing cleric who crosses his fingers behind his back while reciting the Nicene Creed, confessing a shell of the faith while effectively denying its substance.

Is there a connection between this religious liberalism and political liberalism? There is indeed, and we see it already in the writings of the seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke famously asserts that political authority is rooted in a social contract among individuals, who establish a civil magistrate to protect their life, liberty and property. If this civil magistrate fails to live up to the terms of this contract, the people may take up arms against him in what Locke euphemistically calls an “appeal to heaven.”

Locke did not limit this social contract to the state but applied it to the institutional church as well. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke puts forth his own definition of the Church: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially those in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke's definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the Church as the covenant community of those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, who is its savior and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the body of Christ which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the Gospel to the world and especially to those who are in Christ.

Tellingly, the voluntaristic ecclesiology of liberalism is by no means limited to liberal Protestant denominations here in North America. Even evangelical churches claiming faithfulness to the Bible implicitly communicate to their members that their own expressed needs are sovereign and strive to meet them above all else. Drawing on a consumer model, such congregations will hold multiple and different styles of worship services each Sunday to appeal to the varying liturgical tastes of adherents. If this entails toning down confessional distinctives and mounting concert-style litur-tainment, so be it.

It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself. Just as the state is called by God to an irrevocable task of doing public justice, so also is the institutional church called by God to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, administer the sacraments and to ensure that its members are living up to their calling before the face of God, who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published in Christian Courier.

06 August 2015

‘You're not really pro-life because . . .' On the supposed hypocrisy of the pro-life movement

Readers following facebook and other social media will likely have run across this quotation by Sister Joan Chittister posted repeatedly in the wake of the release of the notorious Planned Parenthood videos:
I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
In recent days this sentiment has been echoed by many who apparently prefer to remain aloof from the controversy while implicitly appealing to the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's Seamless Garment, which attempted to create a consistent ethic placing abortion within a larger web of concerns, including capital punishment, warfare and poverty.

Bernardin's approach is one that I found deeply compelling three decades ago, and I thought it showed promise of breaking through the impasse between the two sides in the abortion debate. But this was not to be. In fact, since Bernardin's death in 1996, his consistent life ethic has been (ab)used more often to deprecate pro-lifers than to expand their apparently narrow horizons. Indeed, Sister Joan's remarks seem to be cited disproportionately by pro-choicers and opponents of the Republican Party.

But let's put aside for the moment the partisan purposes behind these citations and examine the inner logic of the statement itself. Is it true that one cannot be pro-life if one is not equally concerned for every item on the increasingly extensive laundry list with which detractors come up?

Consider this hypothetical case: While visiting the city pool one summer day, a young man manages to save a child from drowning after she accidentally falls into the deep end. The young man is commended for his brave deed by virtually everyone, except for a single contrarian who publicly challenges his heroic status. Where was his concern for the depth of water in the pool beforehand? Why wasn't he concerned that the child be taught to swim before being allowed to go to the pool? Where was he when the possibly incompetent lifeguards were being hired? If he had no previous concern for these factors, then his ostensibly heroic deed was really nothing of the sort. Why? Because he is addressing only symptoms when he should have been attempting to rectify the underlying causes of the near mishap. Thus his heroism is fatally compromised, and he is little more than a hypocrite.

Sound familiar? Let us return then to the pro-life movement. For the moment we can put aside the fact that many pro-lifers are deeply involved in establishing and maintaining crisis pregnancy centres and other services to assist mothers and their children through difficult circumstances. We might even grant, if only for the sake of argument, the pro-choicers' point that pro-lifers are not sufficiently attending to other legitimate issues, including those that might prompt a mother to end her pregnancy. Nevertheless, if we recognize the propriety of a division of labour in which people with limited energy and resources try to do some good while other people seek other goods, then those working to avert and perhaps eventually end abortion are still serving the cause of life and of justice. We might legitimately question their strategies, their methods and their timing, but in most cases the charge of hypocrisy simply will not stand up.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.

Cross posted at First Thoughts.

04 August 2015

In God's good time: awaiting the coming kingdom

The future's not ours to see, Que sera sera . . .
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, 1956

J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Christians have a complex relationship with the future. On the one hand, we recognize that the future is in God's hands. But on the other, we cannot see clearly what it holds for us. The historical-critical enterprise in modern biblical studies has taught us that the Old Testament prophets were not so much looking into the future as warning God's people of his judgement if they continued to abuse the poor, if they failed to let the land rest every seventh year and if they generally declined to obey his law. In other words, they were speaking truth to power, as the old expression has it, rather than predicting the future in the fashion of psychics or clairvoyants.

Nevertheless, if we take seriously the narrative structure of scripture, and if we recognize that the Bible tells a single story of redemption, then we cannot avoid the reality that this story must have an ending at some point in the future. This narrative is sometimes outlined in terms of three acts: creation, fall and redemption. Or sometimes four: creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The Bible does address the future, even as it discourages speculation on specifics (e.g., Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, Acts 1:6-7, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2). We are promised that Jesus Christ will one day return to complete his inauguration of God's kingdom.

Within the discipline of theology, eschatology is the doctrine of the last things as taught by scripture. Writing in this subfield can be hazardous, because it tends to bring to the fore notions with a thin biblical basis. But Richard Middleton's new book is a welcome exception to this tendency. Indeed I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best books on the subject to appear in decades. What does Middleton do here and what is his unique contribution?

Middleton attempts to demonstrate from the biblical record that the true hope of salvation for the Christian is not a disembodied soul survival in heaven after death but the resurrection of the fully-embodied person at the return of Christ to rule over a renewed earth. Redemption in Christ, moreover, covers not just individual human beings but the whole created order, which, as Paul tells us, is groaning in anticipation of the final consummation (Romans 8:22). Middleton grapples with the relevant biblical texts as he works through his argument, and he does so in a way that is persuasive and honouring to scripture's status as God's word. In so doing, he comes up with some conclusions that many will find surprising. For example, the ancient Hebrews appear to have had no firm doctrine of the afterlife, as indicated in several Old Testament passages (e.g, Psalms 6:5, 30:9, 115:17, Isaiah 38:18). Apart from vague references to Sheol as the abode of the dead, Middleton tells us, “one thing is clear: there is no access to God after death” (p. 133).

Furthermore, he concludes that, while the Bible speaks of heaven as God's dwelling place, there is little evidence for the popular notion, often expressed from the pulpit during funerals, that the souls of the righteous join him there after death (pp. 211-237). Here is Middleton:

Having studied the relevant texts, I am surprised at how little evidence there actually is for an interim state in the New Testament, certainly less than I had expected. In the end, however, it does not matter. Authentic Christian hope does not depend on an intermediate state; nor do Christians need the Platonic notion of an immortal soul in order to guarantee personal continuity between present earthly existence and future resurrection life (p. 236).

But, some will protest, doesn't the apostle Paul express the desire to be absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8)? He does, but it is clear from the first verses of this chapter that Paul is in fact speaking of the final resurrected body in the redeemed earth. Does this mean there is no interim or intermediate state between death and resurrection? Possibly, but once again it may not finally matter much. Even F. F. Bruce suggested that “in the consciousness of the departed believer there is no interval between dissolution and investiture, however long an interval might be measured by the calendar of earth-bound human history” (p. 236). In other words, it could be that, after I die to this life, the next thing I will be aware of is my resurrection at the last day, never having missed the believers I left behind because, by God's grace, they too will be present on that day. That is a comforting thought.

I myself am open to the possibility of an intermediate state, largely because I am reluctant to break with what appears to be the historic consensus of the church on the matter. At the same time, it is true that the ecumenical creeds profess a belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” and not explicitly in the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, it is also true that belief in resurrection requires considerably more effort than does mere immortality. After all, the ancient Greeks whom Paul encountered in Athens had no difficulty with the latter concept, as they would have known it from Plato's writings, but they scoffed at the resurrection (Acts 17:32). Indeed our confidence is not just that we will survive death in disembodied form but that God himself will miraculously intervene to bring us back to life perhaps aeons after our bodies have dissolved into the earth. And that, to be blunt, is simply hard to accept. Yet this is what God has promised us in his word.

This is such a marvellous book that I am reluctant to point to weaknesses, but they do come towards the very end. In his final chapter, “The Challenge of the Kingdom,” Middleton warns of the dangers of combining two types of dualisms, namely, that between sacred and secular, and that between “us” and “them.” Unfortunately, because he discusses this rather too quickly and superficially, the relationship between the two dualisms may not be obvious to the reader. Furthermore, Middleton makes a derogatory, and to my mind wholly unnecessary, comment on the Tea Party movement in the United States (pp. 279-280), charging that its followers “are basically upset at the perceived loss of their own privilege; they are not angered by the injustice shown to others, especially not others who are different from them.” I am no fan of the Tea Party, whose understanding of the task of the state is severely deficient and which errs in assuming one can combat a decadent late liberalism by recovering an earlier form of the liberal project. Nevertheless, adherents are not wrong to point to the dangers of an overweening state, something which has taken on idolatrous proportions in so much of the world. Middleton similarly dismisses the so-called culture wars: “We need to extricate ourselves from these wars, which are predicated on an oppositional dualism of 'us versus them' (or 'in-group versus out-group'), since this dualism is antithetical to the gospel of the kingdom” (p. 280). Once again the connections are far from obvious in this statement. Another, and almost certainly fairer, view of the matter can be found in J. D. Flynn's “The One and Only Culture War.”

Nevertheless, despite these deficiencies, Middleton is correct to point to the link between eschatology and ethics. If we think we are on our way out of the earth to live eternally in an ethereal heavenly realm, that will have definite implications for how we treat the earth in the present. If it is ultimately to be destroyed and is destined to be discarded like an empty milk carton, then we can apparently abuse it with impunity, because, after all, God is preparing another place for us elsewhere. This, however, is not consistent with the biblical witness. “The earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Furthermore, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and intends to save his good creation from the power of sin and death. Our salvation has not yet arrived, but we await it patiently, confident that God's purposes will be worked out “on earth as it is in heaven.” For that we can rightly thank God.


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