An Agnostic’s Appreciation Of An Evangelical Pastor

By her mid 30’s Marian Evans was a major player in Victorian intellectual circles, writing regularly for The Westminster Review and translating important works of Feuerbach and Spinoza into English. For various reasons she used a pseudonym  “George Eliot” when she undertook fiction writing. Born in 1804, she was raised in a nominal or “easy going” Anglican home, she had a period of deep evangelical Calvinistic conversion, but in the context still of the established Anglican church. By her mid 30’s she was an agnostic, but remained sympathetic to the Church at least in part. The following excerpt is from her “Scenes of a Clerical Life”. The book tells the story of three Anglican clergyman. The one mentioned in this passage is an establishment evangelical:

The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second, something to reverence. And this latter precious gift was brought to Milby by Mr. Tryan and Evangelicalism.

Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offence to feeble and fastidious minds, who want human actions and characters riddled through the sieve of their own ideas, before they can accord their sympathy or admiration. Such minds, I daresay, would have found Mr. Tryan’s character very much in need of that riddling process. The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes, of God’s making, are quite different: they have their natural heritage of love and conscience which they drew in with their mother’s milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work; but the rest is dry barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay. Their insight is blended with mere opinion; their sympathy is perhaps confined in narrow conduits of doctrine, instead of flowing forth with the freedom of a stream that blesses every weed in its course; obstinacy or self-assertion will often interfuse itself with their grandest impulses; and their very deeds of self-sacrifice are sometimes only the rebound of a passionate egoism. So it was with Mr. Tryan: and any one looking at him with the bird’s-eye glance of a critic might perhaps say that he made the mistake of identifying Christianity with a too narrow doctrinal system; that he saw God’s work too exclusively in antagonism to the world, the flesh, and the devil; that his intellectual culture was too limited—and so on; making Mr. Tryan the text for a wise discourse on the characteristics of the Evangelical school in his day.

But I am not poised at that lofty height. I am on the level and in the press with him, as he struggles his way along the stony road, through the crowd of unloving fellow-men. He is stumbling, perhaps; his heart now beats fast with dread, now heavily with anguish; his eyes are sometimes dim with tears, which he makes haste to dash away; he pushes manfully on, with fluctuating faith and courage, with a sensitive failing body; at last he falls, the struggle is ended, and the crowd closes over the space he has left.

George Eliot. Scenes of Clerical Life



Jerome on Double Imputation

Christ who was without sin is said to be made sin for us [2 Cor 5:21], because for our sins he died. Christ who knew no sin, the Father made sin for us: that, as a victim offered for sin was in the law called ‘sin,’ according as it is written in Leviticus, ‘And he shall lay his hand upon the head of his sin’ [e.g. Lev 4:29]; so likewise Christ, being offered for our sins, received the name of sin. ‘That we might be made the righteousness of God in him’: not our righteousness, nor in ourselves.

From Jerome (c.347-420), in Expositio in Primam Epistolam ad Corinthiios (PL 30:820)

Why Is It So Hard To Preach The Gospel From The Gospels?

Was re-reading Luther’s treatise on The Freedom of the Christian, and there are some interesting insights on preaching. Luther points out two specific problems with preaching the story of Jesus. The first is preaching the story of Jesus as a story which ought to be imitated and emulated:

I think it is made clear by these considerations that it is not sufficient, nor a Christian course, to preach the works, life, and words of Christ in a historic manner, as facts which it suffices to know as an example how to frame our life…

Luther also critiques another approach the preaching the story of Jesus:

There are now not a few persons who preach and read about Christ with the object of moving the human affections to sympathize with Christ…

This seems a little trickier to get a handle on, but I suspect it’s something like what we hear in the words of Albert Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

The Baptist appears and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

This is looking at Jesus not so much as one to imitate but to admire. Here is a great man, maybe the great man of history who takes the stage of human history and makes it his own.

Luther thinks the key to preaching the Gospel is seeing in it what has been wrought objectively for me:

Now preaching ought to have the object of promoting, faith in Him, so that He may not only be Christ, but a Christ for you and for me, and that what is said of Him, and what He is called, may work in us. And this faith is produced and is maintained by preaching why Christ came, what He has brought us and given to us, and to what profit and advantage He is to be received.

To know Christ is to know his benefits:

This is done, when the Christian liberty which we have from Christ Himself is rightly taught, and we are shown in what manner all we Christians are kings and priests, and how we are lords of all things, and may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to Him. Whose heart would not rejoice in its inmost core at hearing [118] these things? Whose heart, on receiving so great a consolation, would not become sweet with the love of Christ, a love to which it can never attain by any laws or works? Who can injure such a heart, or make it afraid? If the consciousness of sin, or the horror of death, rush in upon it, it is prepared to hope in the Lord, and is fearless of such evils, and undisturbed, until it shall look down upon its enemies. For it believes that the righteousness of Christ is its own, and that its sin is no longer its own, but that of Christ, for, on account of its faith in Christ, all its sin must needs be swallowed up from before the face of the righteousness of Christ, as I have said above. It learns too, with the Apostle, to scoff at death and sin, and to say: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. xv. 55-57.) For death is swallowed up in victory; not only the victory of Christ, but ours also; since by faith it becomes ours, and in it we too conquer.

Ecclesiology as the Caboose To Grace

The Christian faith is thus ecclesial because it is evangelical. But it is no less true that it is only because the Christian faith is evangelical that it is ecclesial; that is to say, its ecclesial character derives solely from and is wholly dependent upon the gospel’s manifestation of God’s sovereign purpose for his creatures. The church is because God is and acts thus. It is, consequently, an especial concern for evangelical ecclesiology to demonstrate not only that the church is a necessary implicate of the gospel but also that gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows. Much of the particular character of evangelical ecclesiology turns upon articulating in the right way the relation-in-distinction between the gospel and the church-“relation,” because the gospel concerns fellowship between God and creatures; “distinction,” because that fellowship, even in its mutuality, is always a miracle of unilateral grace. It is this particular modality of the encounter between God and creatures-what Christoph Schwobel calls a “fundamental asymmetry’ between divine and human being and action-which I suggest is to characterize both the church’s constitution and its continuing existence.

Evangelical ecclesiology is concerned to lay bare both the necessary character of the church and its necessarily derivative character. Two consequences follow. (1) An account of the gospel to which ecclesiology is purely extrinsic is thereby shown to be inadequate. Much modern Protestant theology and church life has been vitiated by the dualist assumption that the church’s social form is simple externality and so indifferent, merely the apparatus for the proclamation of the Word or the occasion for faith conceived as internal spiritual event? Among some strands of evangelical Protestantism, assimilation of the voluntarism and individualism of modern political and philosophical culture has had especially corrosive effects, not only inhibiting a sense of the full ecclesial scope of the gospel but also obscuring much that should have been learned from the magisterial Reformers and their high Protestant heirs. “So powerful is participation in the church,” wrote Calvin, “that it keeps us in the society of God. Ecclesiology may not become “first theology”; that is, the ecclesiological minimalism of much modern Protestantism cannot be corrected by an inflation of ecclesiology so that it becomes the doctrinal substratum of all Christian teaching. In mainstream Protestant theology of the last couple of decades, this inflation has been rapid and highly successful: among those drawing inspiration from theological “postliberalism 4 among Lutherans who have unearthed a Catholic Luther and a catholic Lutheranism;’ or among those who describe the church through the language of “practice.”‘ The attempted reintegration of theology and the life of the church which stimulates such proposals is, of course, of capital importance; but, as we shall see, the underlying ecclesiology is commonly set out in such a way that it threatens to distort the asymmetry of gospel and church. Annexing much of its basic conceptuality from nontheological theory, it is often underdetermined by exegetical or dogmatic description, so that what is produced can appear more of an exercise in ecclesiality than an ecclesiology. A consequence (or perhaps a cause) is a rather immanentist account of the church which lacks strong interest in deploying direct language about God, since the church is the historical medium of divine action. A further consequence is heavy investment in the church as visible human communion. The derivation of the church from the gospel is, accordingly, rather remotely conceived; at best it forms a background affirmation, but one which exercises little critical or corrective force upon the way in which church practice is conceived. In short: Schleiermacher, not Barth.

John Webster, in Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier. The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology