Governing Authorities as Servants

I found the following paragraph to be an especially helpful way of debunking the idea that Paul, in Romans 13, was telling Christians to obey the government absolutely. The author also hints at just how radical Paul’s notion of “governing authority as servant” was in his context.

Some Christians interpret Romans 13 to suggest that Christians are to give total and unconditional obedience to the state: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13.3:1). However, a closer understanding of the text suggests our obedience to the state is not unquestioning in nature. A few verses later Paul adds that government is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4). Thus in Romans 13 Paul recasts the prevailing understanding of the Roman political order by insisting that governments are servants—a fairly remarkable thing to argue at the time of the Roman Empire. Paul thereby relativized the Roman imperial order by refusing to accept the emperor as the ultimate authority and arguing that the emperor was under God—a servant with a particular task to do. Roman emperors (and government leaders more generally) were not gods, not lords, but servants; the emperor was not the only or the final sovereign entity.

Corwin Smidt, “The Principled Pluralist Perspective,” in Church, State and Public Justice. IVP Academic, 2007, p. 143.


A fabulous definition of sin…and grace

Barth isn’t generally known for saying something with an economy of words. But this sentence on the nature of sin seems to get it just right:

[S]in is that interchanging of God and man, that exalting of men to divinity or depressing of God to humanity, by which we seek to justify and fortify and establish ourselves.

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., 190.

As for grace:

Grace is the act of God by which the new man shall be and is, and by which also he is free from sin. Our negative, known, human existence, so little conformed to Jesus, is filled with hope by the positive and secret power of the resurrection.

Romans, 197.

Barth, Credo – “In God”

Karl Barth, “In Deum”  Credo, 11-18.

Barth begins his exposition of the content of the creed by paying attention to the phrase “in God” (Latin, In Deum). He argues that this first word of the Creed may also be understood as “the cardinal proposition of Dogmatics”  (11).

So what, then, does it mean to say, “I believe . . . in God”?

The main point of confession of belief in God is to indicate that the God confessed is not someone or something that is already generally known, to which the Creeds adds further information. It is not, Barth says, as if we already know God “in general” and need the creed to give us more details about what this God is like. On the contrary, to say “I believe in God” is already to confess that Who and What God is is entirely based on what God has given in his self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To say, “I believe in God” is to already to utter that God “is absolutely and exclusively He Who exists under these three names in these three modes of being, that is to say, absolutely and exclusively God in His revelation” (14).

Barth here is, not surprisingly, resistant to all forms of natural theology. Barth explains, “When Paul says (Rom. i. 19)  that what can be known of God (τό γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, cognoscibile Dei) is manifest to them, for God manifested it unto them, the whole context as well as the immediately preceding statement (Rom. i.18) shows that Paul sees the truth about God ‘held down’ among men, made ineffective, unfruitful. What comes of it in their hands is idolatry” (11). Consequently, even the “unknown God” of the Athenians of which Paul spoke, “was, to Paul’s view, an idol like all the rest. Only God’s revelation, not our reason despairing of itself, can carry us over from God’s incomprehensibility” (12)

What are the implications of this confession of belief in the God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Barth notes four:

  1. For a person to confess belief in God is to have “the ground of a general faith in God . . . taken away from under his feet in so far as he sees himself, in his confidence that man could of himself believe in God, confuted by God’s revelation. The very fact of God’s revelation signifies: Man cannot of himself really believe in God. It is because man cannot do that that God reveals Himself. What man of himself can believe in are gods who are not really God” (14). In other words, belief is of grace only: “He who believes lives by grace. He who lives by grace knows that he is forbidden to snatch at deity” (15). [I loved that line!]
  2. If general faith is taken away from under one’s feet, however, the person who “believes in God in the sense of the symbol has from God’s revelation absolutely immovable ground under his feet when he thinks of God, reckons with God, speaks of God, points to God, abides by the name of God, and proclaims this name to others. He certainly does not believe in a God whom he has chosen for himself” (15).
    [I find it fascinating that Barth removes all confidence in human reasoning on the one hand, arguing that it leads no where in regard to the knowledge of God, but on the other hand replaces it with a confidence, indeed, a certainty of reasonable faith. To confess belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives, as it were, objective certainty–not an objective certainty based on natural reason, but an objective certainty based on gracious faith. Grace enables a kind of certainty which is “certain in the teeth of all uncertainty” (16). What I think is important to note here is that Barth does not advocate for epistemological certainty (the idol of the modern age), but rather for a form of pistemic (“faith”) certainty.]
  3. Belief in God, in the sense of the symbol, is a thankful belief. It is thankful not because God has enabled or gifted us to figure Him out, but thankful because He has given Himself at all! Were God not a self-revealing God, we would know nothing of him. But thanks be to God, we do know him because he has given himself to be known!
  4. Finally, to believe in God, in the sense of the symbol, means to recognize that one stands under God’s commands. As Barth puts it, “That [man] resists [God’s commands], that he keeps transgressing them, that he fails to give honour to God and that he cannot stand his ground before Him, that is …true. But it is still truer that he stands under God’s commands, that in his total foolishness and wickedness he is claimed by God, God’s prisoner, that he must again and again make a fresh start with the commands of God, and return to them. . . [God’s word] continually judges him, but it also holds him” (17). In other words, to stand under the commands of God is to believe in God’s holiness. “Even God’s holiness is not a truth that can be ascertained as such by an observer…[but] is apprehended in the fight of faith, in the sanctification of the believer through God’s revelation” (18).

[I found this chapter to be beautiful in its simplicity, even if jarring in its accusation of man’s (including theologians’!) tendency to toward idolatry. But I wish Barth would have been a bit more explicit about how this informs the “question of dogmatics.” It is as if the connection, which was more clearly spelled out in the first chapter, had almost been lost. Nevertheless, it is implicit throughout, I think, that Barth contends that the work of dogmatics, like the confession of faith, starts:
a) not with a general philosophical conception of God which is then “filled out” with revelation, but rather on the basis of an acknowledgement that our ability to speak of God depends wholly on the fact that God has first given himself to be known;
b) with gratitude to God rather than on a perceived sense of “personal mission” or on a sense self-fulfilment to be accomplished by our gifts and ingenuity;
c) with a clear sense of our subservience to God in the entirety of our work, a subservience that continually forces us to submit both ourselves and our work to be tested and judged by the standard of God’s own Word.]

Cut-out Cops

I fully expect that readers of Theommentary are an upright, law-abiding bunch of citizens. But speaking from a purely hypothetical perspective, would you be deterred from committing a crime in the presence of a cut-out cop–a life-sized cardboard replica of a police officer strategically located at gas stations, drugstores, or ATM machines?  Police administrators in the UK think so. In fact, they have spent over £20,000 (I’m guessing that’s about $40,000 CDN) to produce these fake cops. Frankly, my first reaction is: Just how dumb do they think people are? Or is there really something to it? Is there something deliciously subliminal or subconscious at work here? Is even the hope of an initial deterrance for crime intrinsically worth something?

From a theological perspective, I would say that people are rather resilient in their sin. Granted, the initial impression from even a perceivedpresence of the “law” might in fact cause the would-be criminal to think twice before snitching that Snickers, or sneaking off from the self-serve station without shelling out. But I’d bet it will be only be temporary reaction. Indeed, as Paul says in Roman 1:30, sinners are adept at “inventing ways of doing evil”–like stealing a cut-out cop for a neato rec-room prop.

So let’s do a little theological exercise here: Let’s suppose you were on the committee trying to decide whether spending a few thousand bucks to place fake cops in strategic places. What theological or ethical reasoning might you use to help persuade the rest of the committee one way or the other? Better yet, try to convince me that such a tactic is really a good use of tax payers’ money…

Praying with the Sick

A good friend of mine is taking the terrible journey through terminal cancer. He is not the first person close to me to have been attacked by this roaring lion of a disease. While some fend it off for a while, eventually, it seems, it often breaks through and attacks viciously and without mercy. Some miraculously escape, but the reality is–many do not. My mother-in-law, and my own father both died from cancer, and a nephew of mine came close (though we thank God that he was spared).

So how are we to pray for those brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering the attacks of serious illness like terminal cancer? I’m not the first to ask this question, and I certainly won’t the last. Who hasn’t struggled, as I do now, to know what to say and how to pray for my friend who is face-to-face with this ravaging disease? Sure, I email him once in a while, and give him a phone call, but even in those brief contacts, I’m usually at a significant loss for words. And to be frank, I’m not always much clearer in how to pray for him either. 

I am confident from Scripture and from the stories of God’s people that God can and will sometimes heal people of their illnesses, but I’m also very aware of the reality that he often doesn’t. When God does heal, we rejoice, realizing that healing in this present age is a sign of eschatological hope of the kingdom of God to come when these sicknesses will be finally over. But when God doesn’t heal as we wish, we lament and mourn, realizing that we still live in a world groaning under sin and awaiting its final redemption. So we try to give and take comfort in the promise that those who mourn will be comforted (Matt 5:4)–even if at the present time that comfort may seem so distant.  

Our pastor is continuing his series on Paul’s prayers, and this morning was preaching from the prayer found in Romans 15:5-6. Scripture there says,

 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

I had started writing this before the sermon, and though Pastor Blayne didn’t mention sickness per se, it struck me as I listened that it is precisely “endurance and encouragement” that the terminally sick brother or sister in Christ needs most. But the question is: How can we pray so that such endurance and encouragement might come? 

In the first place, it is vital that Christians struggling with sickness sense in our interactions with them that our words and our actions are done in the name of Jesus Christ (Cf. Col 3:17), in whom we are spiritually unified with that person. Let’s face it: In and of ourselves, we have nothing to offer. We cannot bring healing, we cannot enter the depths of the person’s heart and drive out darkness and despair. In fact, the words that we do say often slip off our tongues sounding so empty. Ministry must therefore begin with the theological realism of our human inadequacy. So as we haltingly enter into those situations where we walk alongside and pray for those who suffer, we must do so continually asking the Spirit to reveal to both sickand well person alike the unity we have in Christ. But why is this important?

Though I cannot speak from first hand experience of having gone through the valley of the shadow of death myself, I have sensed that critically, and especially terminally, ill people are constantly enshrouded in shadows–especially shadows of loneliness and helplessness.   Even if there are many people surrounding the sick person, terminal sickness tragically tends to isolate persons in their helplessness. Because neither sick person nor companion is able to “do” or “say” anything to change the situation, this helplessness may actually paradoxically result in an intensifying of the person’s loneliness and his overwhelming feeling of darkness. So even in the presence of friends and family, whose own helplessness is often palpable, the sick person can potentially end up feeling lonelier than ever.  Consequently, it at such times of loneliness and darkness that the reality of the unity the brother and sister in Christ has with the sick person is so vitally important to focus upon.  And though sickness may isolate, it is only as we pray for the Spirit of unity found in Christ alone that “endurance and encouragement” may come. 

But if the unity in Christ is the issue at stake, then we who are left to deal with the ever increasing realization that our loved one is fighting a losing battle are probably in need of a good dose of “endurance and encouragement” ourselves. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes we may leave the room feeling strangely encouraged by the spirit of peace mysteriously made manifest in the sick person. I saw some brief manifestations of joy in the last days of my mother-in-law’s life, and though I missed it with my Dad, my family tells me that this also happened with him in his last hours, even in the midst of his pain. And I know others have told me similar kinds of stories of saints gone home. Thus, perhaps we should not hesitate to interpret those brief moments, however fleeting, as a reminder that even in the face of death, the unity we have with the person in Christ is not broken. Death is still the final enemy to be conquered, but even death cannot rob the Christian of his or her joy. In fact, sick persons who have already come to the end of their own resources may sometimes sense in a more intense and acute way the presence of Christ more than well people ever could.  In such times, though it may be us who have come to minister to the person, we may find that we have to humbly accept being ministered to.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile, sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the Triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body.” (Life Together, 20) (This highlight as well that we must remember that theologically it is never us who ministers, but Christ who ministers through us. The fact that a sick person–even a sick person barely able to communicate to us–can actually minister to us is good evidence that ministry is finally the work of Christ).

But note secondly that Paul does not pray primarily for endurance and encouragement; rather, his primary request is that God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ might be glorified. Yes, we can pray for endurance and encouragement for the person who is sick, but in so doing, we may need to remember that these are by-products that arise as we sense and experience the unity of spirit in Christ and pray that God would be glorified. And so, though we may not be able to know what to say or do for the seriously ill, we can know how we can pray–that in the midst of sickness, whether through healing or even through death, that God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may be magnified in and through it all. After all, the final purpose of both the healed or sick Christian is one and the same: to witness to the glory to God. Whether we mourn in loss, or rejoice in the triumph of healing, it is all pointless and seriously misdirected if we do not direct both our mourning and our praise to the God of encouragement and endurance. 

So my practical pastoral advice for praying with the sick is this: First, when called upon to be with those in serious sickness, by all means, do not hesitate to remind the person that you are there not just as a friend or even family member, but first and foremost as a brother and sister in Christ. It is this bond which is the most important, even more than being a relative or even a spouse. Second, pray with the person–even if it is short. Remember: Ministry is Christ’s to accomplish, not ours, and Jesus is able graciously to take our stammering tongues and to use them for his purposes. So by all means, pray that God would restore the person to health if you feel so led by the Spirit. But in praying for that, don’t neglect to ask God for the greater thing, mainly,  that  the sick person might have a renewed sense of her or his belonging to the body of Christ. And third and most importantly, pray with the person that in all things, whether in life or death, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ would have the glory. By praying this way,  we can wait expectantly that God will come in his own way to give endurance and encouragement both to the person in his or her suffering, and to those of us praying alongside.