I’m a huge C.S. Lewis fan. And yet I had never read one of his most enjoyable essays – until a seminary professor made me purchase Athanasius’ famous little book On the Incarnation for a class on Christology. It turns out that the English translation of Athanasius contains an introduction by C.S. Lewis, in which he makes his famous observation about the necessity of reading old books.

Below is the entire introduction. Enjoy!

C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) by St. Athanasius

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.

In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.

They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so.

Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne.

In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age.

It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation, the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly.

But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine. Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This is a good translation of a very great book. St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the “Athanasian Creed.” I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words “Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep.

The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. But this is not my immediate concern. I mention “the creed (commonly called) of St. Athanasius” only to get out of the reader’s way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression.

His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.

The translator knows so much more Christian Greek than I that it would be out of place for me to praise her version. But it seems to me to be in the right tradition of English translation. I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages. That is as much as the English reader will notice; those who compare the version with the original will be able to estimate how much wit and talent is presupposed in such a choice, for example, as “these wiseacres” on the very first page.

Church buildings are a polarizing possibility. Some people love buildings. Other people hate them. Having been mobile now for 13 years, most of Coram Deo’s congregation is bullish about the potential of permanent space. But in earlier years, our church had a strong “anti-building” sentiment. And both points of view are always present within any congregation. So when it comes time for a church to pursue property, leaders must lead wisely and strategically, grounded in theological conviction. Here are five cautions I’ve had to learn along the way.

Be careful of half-truths. “The church is a people, not a place.” This phrase has been a mantra of ours for years at Coram Deo. And theologically, it’s downright true (see 1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:24). Here’s the problem: by using this mantra over and over, we subtly communicated that place doesn’t matter. And as J.I. Packer puts it: “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes an untruth.” So we had to clarify: the church is a people, but that doesn’t mean place is unimportant.

Be careful of simplistic trade-offs. It’s tempting to justify a fundraising campaign with simplistic appeals: “The less we spend on mortgage interest, the more we can spend on church planting and missions.” Motivationally, that’s powerful. But missionally, it’s nonsensical. It reinforces an unbiblical dichotomy: “missions good; real estate bad.” The fact is: we need real estate to do mission. Every church planter I know spends a good portion of their budget on rent – that is, unless they’ve found an established church who owns a building and is willing to generously share it. Pastors need to train God’s people to see property ownership as part of a long-term mission strategy.

Be careful of short-range thinking. “Why spend $10 million on a really beautiful space when we can spend $2 million on a basic and functional one?” (The $10 million and the $2 million are just placeholders here: insert whatever numbers you want). Wise stewardship is good, and sometimes the less expensive option is the better one. But not always. And especially not when we’re thinking about the flourishing of the church and the city two or three generations from now. We Bible-believing Protestants tend to have a poor theology of beauty and a bad habit of trying to do things fast and cheap. There’s obviously an opposite extreme to avoid – ornate, lavish, decadent (St. Peter’s in Rome comes to mind). But it wouldn’t be crazy to aim for something in the middle.

Be careful of “early-church nostalgia.” Critics of building programs tend to idealize the early church, when the church met “from house to house” (Acts 5:42). But again, this is only half the story. The (mega)church in Jerusalem also gathered in the Temple (see Acts 2:41 and 46). And church history shows us that throughout the world, when new churches outgrow homes, they build buildings. The Christian home is crucial to the flourishing of the church – would that every Christian saw their home as a frontline of hospitality, ministry, and mission! And it’s true that the Gentile churches in Acts started out in homes (descriptive). But this does not mean that the church must always meet in homes (prescriptive), nor does it imply that churches may not own property or build buildings.

Be careful of excarnation. “Excarnation” is Thomas Howard’s word for an overly spiritualized view of the world that neglects the implications of the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh and blood. He became material, corporeal, physical. When Christians see building ownership and maintenance as a “less spiritual” use of money than missions or mercy ministry, we are guilty of excarnation. It’s exactly the physicality of a church building – that wall that needs to be painted, that toilet that needs to be repaired, that HVAC unit in the children’s ministry wing that needs maintenance – that most vividly reflects our Christology. Because God became man, Christians care about parking lots and elevators and HVAC units. A good pastor will not let his congregation pit “spiritual” concerns against “less spiritual” ones, but will help them see the entire world as the arena of Christ’s redemptive activity. If you wonder why the Catholics own most of the beautiful church buildings in your city, it’s because they’re less Gnostic than Protestants on this point.

BUILDING A THEOLOGY OF PLACE

During our initial fundraising effort, I wanted the people of Coram Deo to know this pursuit wasn’t driven by sheer pragmatism (“we need some money”), but by a theological vision for ministry in the city. So I spent five weeks during our Sunday morning liturgy framing out a theology of place. These short mini-sermons were 3 minutes in length, but they helped to give our fundraising campaign a broader biblical framework. Here are a few excerpts.

December 4, 2016

During Advent, we remember the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the incarnation reminds us of the importance of PHYSICALITY. Christianity is not an abstract, disembodied religion; rather, it is concerned with the real, the material, the concrete. Because of the incarnation, matter… matters.

One of the early heresies in the ancient church was the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that matter was evil. The spiritual was pure and good and real; the physical was corrupt and tainted.

We’re in the midst of a campaign to raise funds with the goal of purchasing a permanent building. And perhaps even in your response to this campaign, there is some latent Gnosticism. A tendency to de-emphasize physical, tangible things like buildings. Buildings aren’t spiritual. Prayer and preaching and worship… these things are spiritual. But not real estate. Why does a church need a building?

Well, a church doesn’t need a building… as we’ve proven for the last 11 years! But if matter matters… then the physical affects the spiritual, and vice versa.

Imagine in your mind for a moment what you feel when you walk into a historic church building. As you enter, you sense: transcendence. Stillness. Beauty. That physical space creates a spiritual response. It is a concrete refutation of Gnosticism.

Now think about walking into this room on a Sunday morning. Not the same effect, right? Not bad; but not necessarily transcendent either.

As Christians who understand the connection between physical and spiritual, we are seeking a building of our own…

December 11, 2016

If you turn on the radio during this Christmas season, you’ll hear songs like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” This season stirs in us the LONGING FOR HOME. And that longing isn’t just holiday sentimentalism… it’s one of our deepest human aches. It’s the hunger for Eden, the desire to get back to a place where everything is RIGHT.

Now we know that as God’s people, our ultimate HOME is heaven. But knowing that doesn’t erase our longing for an earthly home. Abraham was looking forward a heavenly country… but he still journeyed to the promised land. David said his soul would be satisfied in God alone; but he still longed to build a house for the Lord. Nehemiah trusted in the Lord… but he still rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. It’s because of our heavenly home that our earthly homes have meaning. They are signs to us that remind us of our True and Eternal home.

And so it is good and fitting for us to long for an earthly home for Coram Deo Church. It’s good for us to pray with earnest hope and expectation that God will provide the building we desire. If we place our hope in that building alone, we may be guilty of idolatry. But if we hope for it as an earthly foretaste of our heavenly home, we are in good biblical company. And we can know the Lord welcomes our longing.

So let’s go before the Lord and talk to him about our LONGING FOR HOME. Will you pray with me?

December 18, 2016

At Christmas, we celebrate this fact: God loves broadly by loving specifically. God manifests his love for the world by focusing his love on one couple, Joseph and Mary, in one little town, Bethlehem, on one Holy Night that we’ve sung about for 2000 years since. God loves broadly by loving specifically.

Now: we are to love as God loves. Which is why we love the whole city of Omaha. We want to see the gospel change every zip code and every school and every neighborhood. Not only that, we want to continue planting churches across our region.

But in order to love that broadly, we must first love specifically. We have to narrow our focus in order to broaden it. And one thing that means for us right now is narrowing our focus to pursue a particular piece of real estate. A PLACE from which we can minister to the city at large.

And so, we’re in the midst of this campaign to raise funds so that we can purchase a church building…

(this is a re-post of an essay originally written in 2012)

This weekend, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Sadly, this day has become a convenient excuse for drunkenness and debauchery instead of an opportunity to pay homage to a heroic missionary leader. So this St. Patty’s Day, drink a Guinness… but do it while prayerfully honoring one of the greatest Christian missionaries in history.

St. Patrick was born in Britain sometime in the closing years of the 4th century. We don’t know the exact date, but 390 is a decent estimate. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world, including Britain. Patrick was born into a family which was ethnically British but culturally Roman (much like the Apostle Paul, who was ethnically Jewish but a citizen of Rome). Patrick’s father was an official in the local Roman government and a deacon in the local church.

At this early stage in church history, there was no Protestant church or Roman Catholic church; there was simply the Christian church. In fact, Christianity had only been a legal religion for 80 years, since the Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313. During those 80 years, the church had been plagued by heretics and false teachers and had been split politically into Western and Eastern factions. St. Patrick’s life overlapped the lives of both Augustine (354-430), he most influential preacher in the Western church, and John Chrysostom (345-407), the most influential preacher in the East. The weight of these two theological giants is still felt today. But where Augustine and Chrysostom are known for their theological legacy, St. Patrick is known for his missional legacy. Here’s how it began.

One night when Patrick was 15 years old, a band of Irish slave raiders attacked his family’s villa and kidnapped Patrick and some other able-bodied young men. They put the captives in chains, marched them to a boat waiting on the coast, and sailed them back across the Irish Sea to be sold into slavery in Ireland.

Ireland was a wild and mysterious place, known to most Romans only through stories. The Roman author Solinus wrote around the year 200 that the Irish enjoyed “draining the blood of their slain enemies and smearing it on their own faces.” St. Jerome, in the late 360s, wrote of meeting Irish savages in Gaul who would cut the nipples off of captured enemy soldiers. These accounts are probably exaggerated; but they were all Patrick would have known, and they were undoubtedly running through his mind during that voyage across the sea. He had been stolen away from everything that was familiar, at the hands of a people he would later call “the hordes of barbarians who live at the edge of the world.”

Patrick was sold to a farmer and spent the next six years of his life – from age 15 until age 21 – as a slave, shepherding sheep (a strangely providential task for a future pastor). God used those years of hard labor to bring Patrick to saving faithin Christ. In Patrick’s own words:

It was here in Ireland that God first opened my heart, so that – even though it was a late start – I became aware of my failings and began to turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God. For he looked down on my miserable condition and had compassion for me, young and foolish as I was… Day by day I began to pray more frequently, and more and more my love of God and my faith in him and reverence for him began to increase.

One night, as Patrick lay sleeping, he had a dream. A voice told him to flee his master and return home to Britain. So a few nights later, he escaped under cover of darkness and began a 200-mile journey to the sea. He secured a spot on board a merchant ship bound for Britain and was soon reunited with his family.

Patrick had been a teenager when he was kidnapped; now he was a young man, matured by hard work and strengthened by the afflictions of slavery. He was in every way a different person than he had been.

And the world was different, too. While Patrick had been in Ireland, a world-changing event had taken place: Rome had fallen. The golden age of Rome was about to give way to the medieval age of the Anglo-Saxons. Patrick was living at a turning point in history. Little did he know that he would help to write the next chapter.

Shortly after his return to his family, Patrick had another vision while sleeping. An Irish man named Victorinus was asking him to come back to Ireland and preach. He took this vision, along with 2 others which followed, as a clear calling from God to return to Ireland as a missionary. And so he began to prepare for that vocation.

The years between Patrick’s escape from slavery and his return to Ireland are a mystery. All we know is that he eventually became a bishop, which was a rank of high honor. Historians surmise that the course of Patrick’s training followed a clearly defined pattern. He would have begun as a layman, serving within a local church. The next step would have been to become a deacon, assisting the priest with pastoral duties like visiting the sick, serving the poor, and baptizing converts. Next, he would have gained formal theological and biblical training under a bishop (there were no seminaries to attend). At whatever time the bishop considered him to be qualified, Patrick would have been ordained as a priest. This whole process of moving from layman to priest probably took the better part of a decade.

In the year 431, history tells us that Pope Celestine commissioned a man named Palladius as the first bishop to Ireland. Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431 and left shortly thereafter, because, according to one medieval writer, “the wild men of Ireland would not listen to his preaching.” Perhaps Patrick was one of the priests who accompanied Palladius on his journey; or perhaps Patrick was sent to Ireland as a replacement after Palladius left. Again, we don’t know exactly how Patrick got to Ireland. We simply know that he was finally sent there, and spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel among the Irish.

The culture of pagan Ireland was vastly different from that of Roman Britain. Britain was a Roman colony with a centralized, democratic Roman government; Ireland was a tribal society where rival kings ruled over their sovereign territories. Britain was largely Christianized; Ireland was steeped in Celtic paganism. In Britain, it would have been common for people to gather together to worship God in a local church. In Ireland, it would have been common for a tribe to offer a human sacrifice under the direction of a Druid priest in order to cast an evil curse on an enemy tribe.

Patrick engaged this unorthodox place using unorthodox methods. He regularly paid bribes to Druid tribal leaders in order to secure passage through their territory. When questioned about this practice, he defended it as a necessary measure in order to ensure the advance of the gospel. But perhaps the most unorthodox thing Patrick did was simply to STAY. He saw himself as a bond-servant, a slave to the calling God had given him. As he wrote in his Confession:

I came to Ireland to preach the good news… I have had many hard times, even to the point of being enslaved again, but I traded in my free birth for the good of others. If I am worthy, I am ready even to lay down my life willingly and without hesitation for his name. Here, in Ireland, is where I wish to live out my final days, if God will permit me.

 

I would love to go home to Britain and see my family… But even if I wanted to leave… I am bound by the spirit of God, who would object and condemn me. I can’t leave unfinished the work I’ve begun. Christ my master has commanded me to stay here in Ireland for the rest of my life.

It’s no accident that St. Patrick’s Day is identified with all things Irish. Within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was a Christian nation. One man gave his life to see a nation reached with the gospel – and today that nation still celebrates his influence.

As a fitting way of celebrating St. Patrick’s true legacy, I leave you with Patrick’s Creed: the profession of faith he taught to his Irish converts to summarize the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity.

We profess that there is no other God – there never was and there never will be. God our Father was not born, nor did he have any beginning. God himself is the beginning of all things…

 

And we proclaim that Jesus Christ is his son, who has been with God always, from the beginning of time and before the creation of the world – though in a way we cannot put into words. Through him everything in the universe was created, both what we can see and what is invisible. He was born as a human being and he conquered death, rising into the heavens to be with God. And God gave him power greater than any creature of the heavens or earth or under the earth, so that someday everyone will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. We believe in him and we wait for him to return very soon. He will be the judge of the living and the dead, rewarding every person according to their actions.

 

And God has generously poured out on us his Holy Spirit as a gift and a token of immortality. This Spirit makes all faithful believers into children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

 

This we proclaim. We worship one God in three parts, by the sacred name of the Trinity.

My purpose in this post is to assert that Christians should be conservatives. Or, to say it another way: that Christians who are not (political, social, cultural) conservatives are not living out the full implications of their religious principles. This essay, therefore, is sure to draw the ire of those Christians who would consider themselves “progressives.”

So, if I may call for a truce at the outset: I don’t intend this essay as a screed or a manifesto or a rant. Rather, I wish to make a sober, reasoned, and principled case for the thesis that convictional Christianity and conservatism go together – a case that welcomes critique, feedback, and disagreement of the civil and congenial sort. In the age of social media tirades, I realize this will be a tall order. But let’s try to rise above the fray together, shall we?

The question of whether we should be conservatives ultimately comes down to what we are seeking to conserve. Many young Christians fancy themselves “progressives” because they are seeking to move on from things which should, in fact, be left behind. For instance, I know a young woman who grew up in a fundamentalist church with a creepy hierarchical authority structure, a latent sexism, and a dark undercurrent of sexual sin – all of which was branded as “conservative Christianity.” When that whole mess has been labeled “conservative,” who wouldn’t want to be a progressive?

Hence, these matters are complex. The terms “conservative” and “progressive” are fraught with misunderstanding. So let’s think more deeply about these words and what they signify.

The word conservative looks backward. It envisions something which now exists, or has existed in the past, which we are seeking to conserve and protect. The word progressive necessarily looks forward. It envisions some end toward which we are progressing.

And therein lies the problem. Toward what are we progressing? Broadly speaking, modern progressives have no answer to that question. Or perhaps to be more precise: they have a thousand different and contradictory answers to that question, united only by the vague ideal of “progress.” As G.K. Chesterton wryly observed almost 100 years ago: “The word ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative… For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.”

Chesterton puts his finger on our modern confusion: “[In past ages], men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.” (from Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World)

To parse Chesterton’s observations another way: modern progressives agree on the verb (progress) but not on the noun (progress toward what?). And therein lies the major problem for Christians who wish to identify as “progressive.” Because the vague notion of “progress” is the only point of agreement, Christian progressives get co-opted into a whole universe of causes with which they cannot in good conscience agree. You wanted to champion and affirm women; but the Women’s March you attended also endorsed abortion on demand. You wanted to support government programs that help the poor; but your Bernie Sanders bumper sticker now has you aligned with a progressive whose vision of “progress” includes barring Christians from public office.

“But wait,” you object. “Just because I identify myself as a progressive doesn’t mean I share the viewpoints and opinions of the most radical progressives.” Well, of course you don’t, personally. But socially, you do. And to understand why, you must understand the impact of the French Revolution. (Sorry to go all history-geek on you, but this matters.)

In a recent issue of First Things (June/July 2017), former Creighton University professor R.R. Reno explains: “The French Revolution, which eventually implicated the entire West, exaggerated the importance of the political realm, deifying the modern nation-state… [and creating] an ideological atmosphere that subordinates everything to political and economic ideology.” In other words: modern progressivism exalts the nation-state. Since the French Revolution, ardent progressives have seen the state as the key agent of social change – and they’ve often seen the family and church as obstacles to a new social order.

Reno explains his own movement away from progressivism: “Although I started on the left, over time I came to see that progressivism, even the moderate progressivism of American liberalism, invariably seeks to increase the power of the state. The cultural wars of my lifetime – the war on racism, the war on sexual inequality, and the war on poverty – fell into the same pattern. The state needs to be empowered to make the world anew.”

Why is this a problem? Because the state is only one of three “necessary societies” instituted by God. The other two are the family and the church. “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order” (Pope Pius XI, as quoted by Russell Hittinger in First Things, June/July 2017, p. 20).

Which brings us back to the crux of our question: why must Christians be conservative? Because Christians are duty-bound to preserve and protect the authority of the family and the church. We are called by God to “conserve” these two societies against the ever-encroaching power of the state. It’s no accident that in the book of Revelation, “the beast” symbolizes political and economic power. The nation-state is good; but the nation-state is corrupt. And left unchecked, it will always encroach upon the authority of church and family.

Some have seen the modern movements to redefine marriage, sexuality, and gender as movements toward a more just and fair society. But in reality, they are movements to enhance the power of the nation-state over the church and the family. We are “progressing” toward a society in which the nation-state is all-powerful. We are failing to conserve appropriately the power of the family and the church. And when Christians fail to conserve those God-given institutions, we fail to obey the Lord.

Therefore, Christians must be conservatives… in the broad sense. We don’t all need to agree on the marginal tax rate, or on the precise approach to health care, or on the best candidates for political office. But we must agree on the God-given authority of the family and the church – and the responsibility we have before God to respect and conserve that authority.

To put it another way: it’s an issue of the Lordship of Christ vs. the Lordship of Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, we submit to the authorities he has instituted (family, church, and state, in their right and proper proportions). If Caesar is Lord, then we bow the knee to the power of Rome.

It’s not that Christians could never be progressives. If we lived in a cultural moment marked by broad agreement on the goal and purpose of human life (progress the noun), we could champion progress the verb. In fact, Christianity itself is a kind of progressivism: because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we know the entire cosmos is progressing toward the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

But in the here and now, we dwell in a cultural moment fraught with confusion on the most basic questions: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be male and female? What is freedom? What is virtue? And in such a moment, Christians must be (the right kind of) conservatives.

Since we planted Coram Deo Church twelve years ago, I’ve worked relentlessly to eliminate “insider language” from our vocabulary. I desire for every gospel community within our church – as well as our public worship on Sundays – to be free from Christian jargon that unnecessarily alienates and confuses non-Christians.

What are some examples of insider language? Consider this representative list of “Christian jargon” from Tim Keller’s book Preaching (New York: Viking, 2016, 105-106):

  • “Lukewarm”
  • “Backsliding”
  • “Seeing fruit”
  • “Spiritual warfare”
  • “…in my walk with the Lord”
  • “I’m praying for an open door”
  • “I’ve been released from that”
  • “That was such a blessing”
  • “That preacher really brought the word”
  • “It was a total God thing”

You’ve used some of these phrases, haven’t you? Me too. It’s so easy for Christians to slip into this alternate language without even thinking about it.

When we do, it’s a failure of hospitality. And the problem runs deeper than just using the wrong words. Keller goes on to explain:

The issue is far more important than generational or regional preferences or some sort of marketing-based concern that such vocabulary doesn’t test well with non-Christians. Language like this is used as a boundary marker, a way to tell others that you are in the tribe and they are not. Newcomers certainly get that message, whether you consciously mean to send it. Insider language is frequently also an enabler of hypocrisy, as it offers a shortcut to sounding spiritual without actually having a heart filled with love and delight.  

 We’ve all been on the other side of boundary-marker language: in high school, in our vocational endeavors, or in our social circles. Inevitably, we feel like outsiders: “These people all have something in common, and I don’t fit in.” That’s exactly what many non-Christians sense when they’re around church gatherings. And that’s the reason many churches and small groups aren’t meaningfully attracting non-Christians.

Occasionally I’ve stopped a gospel community gathering, or pulled someone aside in private, to challenge them about insider language. And the response is usually the same: “But we all know each other. There are no new people here this week. So why does it matter?”

Answer: because the way to get skeptics to show up is to talk like they are already there.

Imagine a woman in your gospel community – we’ll call her Sarah – has a skeptical friend from work who’s been asking questions about God. And Sarah is wondering whether your gospel community might be a good place to invite her friend to process those questions. If Sarah experiences your gospel community as a place where you have to “know the language” in order to fit in, she probably won’t invite her friend from work.

But if Sarah experiences your gospel community as an intentionally hospitable people… if she knows that every single week, the group expects non-Christians to be present (and talks like it)… if she knows that you care enough about outsiders to show it in your language… then she’s much more likely to bring her friend. And that’s how non-Christians find their way into meaningful Christian community – and eventually into the church.

So, if you’re serious about creating community that engages skeptics and outsiders… can I suggest you take a “language audit?” Which of the above phrases have you heard in your GC? Which have you heard yourself saying? What if you committed together to call “time out” every time you heard one of these phrases, for the sake of growing more aware of your speech habits? It’s a simple way to become more intentional about gospel hospitality.