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Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Better Idea

My head is a tangle of ideas this morning, so let me set about trying to untangle them for you.

Thread One: Dr. Emidio Campi is convinced that “the Christian message of salvation becomes futile unless its implications are extended throughout the whole of human life, into political, social and international structures.”

Thread Two: John Calvin’s view of the Church, which provoked the aforementioned rather ecumenical outburst.

Thread Three: Psalm 80, an Asaphian meditation on the restoration of Israel.

Whew! How would you like a bowl of that for breakfast?

De-Campi-ing

Well, let’s start with Campi. The above quote about extending the implications of the gospel throughout human society comes from his Zurich address on the subject of John Calvin’s understanding of the Church and its relevance for the ecumenical movement. Campi uses Calvin’s own words to make the case that Calvin saw the church as a kind of synthesis of mother and school:
“Because it is now our intention to discuss the visible Church, let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’, how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels [Matth 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”
Hmm.

Let’s Just Think About That

I’ve never thought of the Church as “mom”, and I truly disliked school, so you can well imagine I’m going to balk at “mommyschool” as the defining metaphor for God’s heavenly people.

God does better metaphors than we do. Ours are always a bit too treacly, or forced, or trite.

That said, there are aspects of both images to be found in holy scripture. Arguably. The Christian mission is to “make disciples of all nations” and teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you”. To claim that doesn’t sound just a bit like school would be deliberately obtuse.

But getting to the genesis of the mother metaphor is tougher slogging.

Mama Mia

It’s a secondary image that arises out of mish-mashing together the symbolism of Hebrews 12 and Galatians 4. In Galatians, Paul says the “Jerusalem above” is our mother, in contrast to the legalistic slavery of Judaism symbolized in Hagar. Christians are children of promise and of the Spirit, not of the flesh and the Law. Getting “mother” to mean “the Church” here requires first reading the phrase “heavenly Jerusalem” in Hebrews 12 to mean “the Church” (not an obvious or undisputed conclusion), THEN equating the two expressions, THEN reading “the Church” back into the Galatians passage.

That’s a bit of a torturous exercise, and several bites more than I’m prepared to swallow without clearer evidence. If, in fact, “the Church” is metaphorically our mother, that image is by far the least developed and most tenuous of the various metaphors used of the Church in scripture (temple, household, body, etc.).

John Calvin’s Mother

Furthermore, per Campi, Calvin’s version of Mom is not merely the believer’s source or point of origin but a cultural force to be reckoned with, designed by God to impact “political, social and international structures”. As God’s school, the Church has the doctrine, and as mother the moral authority to impose her will on the world around her. In fact, should she be unable to do so, “the Christian message of salvation becomes futile.”

That’s a little dramatic for me. Suppose for a moment that the implications of the message of salvation touch only a few tens of millions of individual hearts and lives during the age of grace, transforming them, their families, and their circle of relationships. Is that chopped liver? I would argue it isn’t, and I suspect those so touched would agree with me.

Suppose that the harvest is the end of the age, and that there will be plenty of weeds among the wheat until then. Suppose — just suppose — that the geopolitical world awaits Someone Better Qualified to personally transform it?

God always has better ideas.

Calvin’s View of the Church

The most remarkable thing to me about Campi’s discourse on Calvin’s view of the Church is that it leaves out the part for which Calvin ought to be most notorious (and perhaps might have been if his view of scripture had not been quite so common in his day). In Calvin’s commentaries, the Church is not just mother and school, the Church is Israel. Or Israel was the Church — however you like it.

And this is where Psalm 80 comes in. Calvin’s commentary on the psalm uses the word “church” twelve times, though he follows Hammond and others in doing so. His introduction to the psalm reads as follows:
“This is a sorrowful prayer, in which the faithful beseech God that he would be graciously pleased to succor his afflicted Church. To excite him the more readily to grant them relief in their distressing circumstances, they compare these circumstances with the condition of the Church in her beginnings, when the Divine favor was conspicuously manifested towards her.”
The issue of when the Church began and who’s in it exactly are matters of long-standing theological debate, of course, and we needn’t belabor them here. But my point is that in this commentary at least, Calvin makes no distinction between national Israel and the post-Pentecostal congregation of the saints, blurring them into a single entity and failing to note the earthly nature of national Israel’s calling and promises in stark contrast to the heavenly and spiritual calling and promises of the post-national Church.

With this in mind, the logic behind Calvin’s conviction that Mother Church’s task includes transforming political, social and international structures becomes apparent.

But God had a better idea.

Finally He Gets to Psalm 80!

I prefer to see Psalm 80 as an appeal to God by the righteous remnant of Israel to restore their nation to its former glory. As much as I love the Church, I cannot find her here:
“Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted,
and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.

They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
Then we shall not turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call upon your name!”
The Messianic overtones in the psalm are subdued. What seems screamingly obvious to us with the benefit of two and a half millennia of hindsight may not have been apparent even to the Psalmist as he penned these words.

The writer has already used both “vine” and “son” as images of national Israel earlier in his psalm. I see no compelling reason to think the last six lines, including the reference to “the man of your right hand”, are consciously Messianic. I believe the writer is asking for the hand of God to rest favorably on the godly remnant, no doubt by blessing their current efforts on behalf of their nation. That sounds like the sort of well-intentioned prayer request I make all the time, with exactly the same sort of limited horizon.

Usually it turns out God has a better idea.

Metaphors Galore

Israel was a vine. That vine sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the Euphrates. In its heyday, Israel was a glorious and impressive nation. Its territory expanded. Its fame spread. But it ended ravaged by boars, burned with fire and cut down.

Christ is the true vine. He could declare this to his own people, the Jews, demonstrating his personal and moral superiority to the flawed “vine” the Psalmist bemoaned. Remarkably, we Gentiles too may enter into the blessing of Christ, the vine. If we abide in him we will bear much fruit.

Israel was God’s son, whom he had made strong. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

But Christ is the true Son, the “man of your right hand”, the Son of Man, the one who would not just save the nation but save the lost.

God had a better idea. He always does.

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