When looking at the question of God’s sovereignty vs. what we understand to be good and loving, we could do worse than looking to C.S. Lewis, who addressed the question briefly in The Last Battle, the final book in his Chronicles of Narnia series.
The argument advanced by the neo-Calvinist wing of the evangelical movement is that God being sovereign can act how he wants, and that those actions by default, regardless of how they are perceived by us mere mortals, are good and loving.
My response – and that of Rachel Held Evans and others – is that such an argument allows the subversion and redefinition of the very concepts of love and goodness. If God cannot be trusted to act in a way that comports to commonly understood definitions of love an goodness, those terms have no meaning. That doesn’t mean we should always be able to understand what God is doing, and I don’t doubt we may somehow misinterpret actions that really are loving and good if we knew the whole picture as God does. But it does mean we can and should question portrayals of God, in the Bible and elsewhere, that turn him into a genocidal monster or a bloodthirsty maniac or a capricious wielder of natural disasters.
In The Last Battle, the crafty ape Shift has coerced the confused donkey Puzzle into wearing an old lion’s skin and telling the other animals the donkey is really Aslan, Narnia’s creator and the Christ figure of the series. Shift then sells the animals into slavery to Narnia’s old archenemy Calormen, forcing the free talking animals to work for Calormene soldiers as they cut down the talking trees and float them downriver to the sea for trade.
When Narnian King Tirian and his old friend, a unicorn named Jewel, stumble upon two Calormene soldiers mistreating a talking horse, they lose their cool and kill the soldiers. After fleeing, they reassess the situation:
You might recall that way back, at the beginning of this blog, I compared the Old Testament to an embarrassing family member for whom one must frequently apologize. While I don’t feel that’s the case anymore, there remains a problem: How to teach it to children.
My wife and I have gone around this issue a few times since we had our first daughter more than four years ago, and our struggles have led us to Peter Enns, a biblical scholar we both respect for his willingness to both love the Bible and present it as it was intended to be read – as opposed to how modern-day Christians might like it to be read.
The problem as I see it with presenting the Old Testament stories to children is three-fold:
A lot of people have said a lot of great things about Advent, and I’m hesitant to add my voice. It seems this season on the liturgical calendar has been getting more of its due lately than it did when I was growing up. That’s undoubtedly a good thing; if there’s any one thing we need as 21st-century Americans, it’s a season to focus more on waiting and less on consumption, materialism and consumerism. The broader culture could use for Advent and less Christmas – or at least what Christmas has become.
The church could use it, too, because Advent focuses on the fact that we are in exile, awaiting the Savior of this world to set things right, just as God’s people were 2,000 years ago (plus a few). The American church doesn’t do lament very well, and Advent is a way to bring up, point out, even live within the fact that for many people, this holiday season will be filled with pain, grief, loneliness and heartache. As our preacher said yesterday morning, “Advent says there’s something missing in the world, and you can’t put a bow on it.”
So after saying I was hesitant to add my voice, I’ve written two paragraphs. Nevertheless, I prefer in this case to let those who have written far more poignant things take the lead. Specifically, a few hymn writers who get just right the notion of Advent and what incarnation means when light breaks through the darkness.
If you had been there, your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? Neither women nor children were spared. — Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127
Perhaps the most alarming single fact that I’ve learned about the First Crusade is that after the Christians breached the walls of Jerusalem and slaughtered all who had sought refuge in the Dome of the Rock mosque (Fulcher actually called it the Temple of Solomon), the soldiers went immediately to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine on the site believed to be where Jesus’ tomb had been, and gave thanks to God for the victory.
Has there ever been any series of events that were so strongly supported at the time of their occurrence only to be so thoroughly repudiated by later history? The crusaders believed so strongly in the divine support of their mission that they launched at least eight of them over the 180 years between 1096 and 1271.
As we’ve seen, the church began its life as an oppressed movement that forbade its members from even joining the army, in part because soldiers likely would be asked to arrest, torture or kill Christians. Power had changed much about the Christian comfort with soldiery and violence, especially violence in the name of God.
As recently as 1066, the famed Battle of Hastings that changed western civilization forever, the papal-backed soldiers of Normandy paid penance for the deaths they caused on the battlefield. Yet just 30 years later, Pope Urban II made a substantial shift in the relationship between killing and sin.
Last time in this series, we looked at the nationalization of the church in the era of Constantine and his successors, which led to a cozier relationship between Christians and all aspects of the state, including the military. After prohibiting soldiers from being baptized in the second century, military service was explicitly allowed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 – in fact, the council prohibited Christians from rejecting military service during peacetime.
We ended with Augustine, who in arguing against the ultra-rigorist Donatists, developed the notion of ex operate operatum, that sacraments like baptism are worked by the work – the baptism itself does the work of saving, not the person doing the baptizing. That worked well as a defense against throwing an unknown number of people out of the church because of the failings of an unknown number of priests.
But of course, doctrines that make sense in one context sometimes develop into something quite differently. Such was the case after the fall of Rome in the fifth century. The last Roman emperor – that is, the emperor based in Rome – was deposed in 476, although the Roman Empire itself continued in Constantinople for many centuries. Nevertheless, the decentralized collection of Germanic states that made up the former territories of the Roman empire led to a different understanding of the faith of Rome, which those states did eventually adopt.
Among those states were some small political entities, run by the pope himself, stretching across central Italy. The bishop of Rome as a political ruler led to entanglements with the various Germanic rulers, depending on the relative strengths of the personalities and offices involved. The first and most significant of these interactions was with Clovis, king of the Franks.
So how did the church move from prohibiting soldiers from being baptized in the early 200s to launching the Crusades 800 years later?
As with most major shifts in policy or doctrine, it happened slowly, but I think we can isolate a couple of key moments, the first of which featuring Constantine the Great.
In 312, as Constantine was fighting to take control of the whole empire, which had essentially been divided into four parts by Diocletian in an effort to end the succession battles that had been taking place, he purportedly saw a vision in the sky of the Chi Rho monogram, a combination of the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ that was popular with Christians at the time, followed the next day by an appearance from Jesus himself in a dream. Inspired to emblazen the Chi Rho on the shields of his army, Constantine in 313 issued the Edict of Milan, extending freedom of religion to “Christians and all others.” In 324, upon taking the reins of both the eastern and western halves of the empire, Constantine extended the edict to everyone.
Once upon a time, Christianity was very exclusive. How exclusive?
Well, enough that a third-century document, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus (though no one actually knows for sure who wrote it), listed out who could not be baptized.
The text consists of various guidelines for how Christians are to conduct themselves in church – how to do baptisms, ordain bishops, perform liturgies, etc. – and, as you can tell from the title, it claims that these rules date all the way back to the practice of the apostles (though, of course, they don’t). Chapter 16 is a fascinating paragraph that opens referring to the church leadership: “They will inquire concerning the works and occupations of those are who are brought forward for instruction.”
What follows is a series of sentences in the structure, “If someone is a … he shall cease or be rejected.” Some of the professions that fill in the ellipsis are as follows:
Sculptor or painter
Charioteer, participant or attendee of “the games”
Gladiator or otherwise affiliated with gladiator or wild-beast shows
Priest or attendant of idols
Enchanter, astrologer, diviner, interpreter of dreams, charlatan or maker of amulets