January 16, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: August 23, 2015


Creation of Adam (detail), Michelangelo

A Facebook friend just asked me if I wanted to become a “fan” of Jonathan Edwards.

Too bad there’s isn’t a “NOT a fan” option, because I’m not a fan.

One of my consistent critics- who is also a respected friend- called to mind a statement I’d made in the past about the problem of being “too God-centered.” He was obviously wondering it, with time and reflection, I’d thought better of that phrase and wanted to repent.

Answer: No. It still concerns me. Not whether all things are centered in, related to, dependent on, destined for and exist to glorify God, but whether some expressions of Christianity can become so God-focused that the significance of what is not God- including all things in human experience- are devalued and even distorted to the point of confusion in the minds of God loving/God believing people.

I’ve sensed, as long as I have been around my intensely theological Protestant (mostly reformed and evangelical) brothers and sisters, a kind of clumsiness with the subject of the significance of anything in human experience. By clumsiness I mean that these matters are handled, but the constant pressure to be singularly God centered and God focused makes it difficult to handle both God and human life at once without one overwhelming the other.

I have felt this clumsiness and awkwardness throughout my life. For example, as a young Christian, I found myself at a post-citywide crusade prayer meeting with people involved in a James Robison crusade. Robison was speaking about the kind of prayer needed to bring revival to our city. He used a very dramatic illustration of having a vision of an open grave, where God asked him if he were willing to give the life of his child in order for revival to come. In highly emotional terms, Robison enacted this prayer where he laid his daughter in this grave, thereby signaling his willingness to sacrifice for revival.

I bring this up after reading, just today, an account of a sincere, God-loving Christian processing an incredible tragedy involving the loss of a child, and seeing the significance of the child’s death as a necessary requirement for God to bring the Gospel to many people who would otherwise not hear.

These incidents- and many more that I could tell you- seem to be clumsy, awkward, painful attempts to hold together the glory of God and the realities of human life: love, family, loss.

Regular IM readers will have heard me express my admiration for the book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer. Bouyer was a Lutheran convert to Catholicism. His assessment of Protestantism is amazingly generous, being founded on the idea that what Protestants value most is best expressed in Catholicism.

Bouyer commends the solas of Protestantism and especially the idea of soli deo gloria, but then he begins a detailed examination of Calvin and Calvinism’s focus on the singular significance of the glory of God as compared to anything else. Bouyer finds that Calvin’s focus on the glory of God reduced worship to a shred of its Catholic self, eliminated the significance of the eucharist, replaced everything in worship with scripture alone and made the significance of human life consisting solely of eternal worship. Following this track, Bouyer suggested, the glory of God becomes the only kind of significance that “weighs” anything in the experience of these Christians.

I was deeply affected by this insight, and I feel its impact in my own experience of evangelicalism.

For example, were it not for the work of N.T. Wright on eschatology (See Surprised by Hope), I would be approaching a point of despair with the evangelical “eternal praise and worship concert” view of the afterlife. Wright’s recovery of the doctrine of the resurrection and the connection of this world with the new world to come has been a sanity saver and a faith expander.

As I listen to evangelicals discuss the significance of the church, I can sense the exact process Bouyer described. More and more churches are now nothing but music and Bible teaching. Discussions of other forms of the church that embody community, encourage incarnational ministry or embrace servanthood are under deep suspicion among the heirs of Calvin. Why? Because the glory of God is at stake, the Bible is not being given enough emphasis and there are too many dangers in these human-level activities.

Many Evangelicals see a frightening and dark world. They are suspicious of art, music, literature and the imagination. Books are dangerous. Culture- be it high or low- is of little value. Those evangelicals who are not of that mindset know full well what the arguments are: How is this serving the glory of God? What is the value of this activity as compared to theology or worship? What is any of this when compared to God?

The reformed doctrines of depravity and corruption are applied to everything, and the only answer is God. But can the world of being human gain and keep its significance in and through the glory of God, or must it give way to the glory of God? That discussion seems to be going on in many different ways and places, with varying levels of helpfulness.

I am sad to say this, but there is a point at which the relentless God-centeredness of some believers makes them into the adversaries and almost the enemies of much that is good in human life. They become the enemies of normal, especially in the lives of young people, creative people and people who feel that life in this world is good and shouldn’t be devalued by religion. My recent experiences regarding the rosary at solamom.net are a perfect example. Soli deo gloria was the only reason anyone can have for anything at all, and that is not to GIVE significance, freedom, liberty and beauty, but to question the purpose for anything other than the constant study of God, God and more God.


  1. Full disclosure: I have not read Bouyer. But I have read Calvin. From my reading of Calvin, you can blame him for a lot of things, but having a low view of the Eucharist is not one of them. For that folly, and for the general trend of hyper-God-centeredness, I am more willing to blame the English Puritan heirs of Calvin, whom the modern neo-Reformed have read far more than they have Calvin. (Seriously – read their blogs and websites. They quote Purtians many times more than they do Calvin.)

    Another thought, and this is just sheer speculation on my part – I wonder if the general trend of science undermining a literal view of Scripture might also have something to do with it. That is “well, if studying the natural world leads to godless atheism, we’re gonna stick with Scripture from now on!” That would seem to undercut any view of nature and natural life as having any merit. That, and Pietism run amok, of course…

    • In regards to Calvin, agree. I’d also agree to put it more to English puritans and others pietists that followed.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I am more willing to blame the English Puritan heirs of Calvin

      They are all dead, and have been dead a long time.

      I blame the living breathing pastors leading churches today. I blame them 110%. Those alive are responsible for the actions and words of the living.

      Christian’s all to often respond to criticism with Historical Criticism.

  2. I think the older root problem was the Manichean Augustine who substituted “Sovereignty” for the Platonic “Perfect”. That creates an imbalance of Transcendence in opposition to Immanence.

    • The Incarnation locates the transcendent in the midst of the immanent. The “Death of God” theologians were onto something when they hovered around this idea; what they got wrong was thinking that it is merely God’s death that fulfills this transcendence-in-imminence, rather than Jesus’ death and resurrection to new life.

  3. Good re-post. Articles like this one were Michael Spencer at his best, helping us examine the healthiness of our Christianity not only within ourselves, but to those around us.

    Is it possible God wants us to interact with people without mentioning Him? There was a time in my early born-again years where I would’ve answered that with a resounding No! It was God and Jesus all the time, and people needed to know it!

    The last several years, though, I answer that question with a hesitant Yes. I love God and Jesus, mind you; I feel like talking about them is akin to someone sharing their love for golf, fishing or art. However, I’m also wary of the unhealthiness of talking about something someone else has no interest in. So if a get-together with non-believers progresses without an opening for me to talk about a topic I love, I’ll let it go.

    Ah…but you gotta love the tension of being in the world, don’t ya? We are in love with the Almighty, but foreigners in a land that doesn’t care a lick about Him…

    • Posts like this one got me over a lot of unhealthy Christian expressions years ago. Forever grateful.

      You can just be. And that’s so peaceful and wonderful.

  4. To paraphrase Syndrome from The Incedibles: when all conversations will be about God, none will be.

    Take everything I posted three days ago concerning vocation and pate it here. Thank you.

  5. It is dishonoring the image of God in other human beings that leads to all manner of horrors, because it leads into forms of “idolatry” that put concepts above people. The glory of God is served by loving and supporting other human beings, and God’s creation along with them, because God has immersed himself in these concrete, living realities, and imprinted his image especially in human beings, which means that he’s also especially present to and available in human community. To place the glory of God in opposition to the service and appreciation of humanity is to deny, or reverse in one’s thinking, the incarnation of Christ. This in turn leads to worshiping one’s own lifeless concepts instead of the living God, who may be found in ones nearest neighbor, and even in ones enemy.

    • I agree with this, and I have seen the “all-God, all-the-time” attitudes in some evangelical friends. One woman, an evangelical who deeply believes that the Rapture is upon us, is someone I have to bite my tongue around when terrible things happen (terrorists slaughter children; Christians beheaded by ISIS, etc.) and she says stuff like “Well, God tells us that these things will happen more and more as the End Times get closer.” She even said that about 9/11! It’s a very weird and disheartening attitude which, by extreme emphasis on the “first and greatest Commandment,” pretty much obliterates the “second which is like to it.”

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > “Well, God tells us that these things will happen more and more as the End Times get closer.”

        It is so convenient. It is really no different to responding to injustice with “that’s how the world is!” Or to political strife with “Yea, they are all crooks anyway”. Just wrapping paper for cowardice and apathy [which is a kind of self-interest]. Such attitudes, and the people who hold them, are poison in the blood of a community.

        • At risk of using a word that you, Adam, have said does not apply to the modern context, I believe that inhumanity is really what our tradition, in its halting and imperfect way, is referring to when it labels something as “idolatry.” “Idolatry” always leads to inhumanity, whether that idolatry is being practiced on a pagan heath or at the Temple in Jerusalem; alternatively, where humanity is being respected and supported, whether on a pagan heath or at the Temple in Jerusalem, no idolatry is being practiced.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Nah, I’d just call it “inhumanity”. 🙂 We have a new clearer term; otherwise I then have to explain what I mean by “Idolatry”… and the audience will say: “Then why didn’t you just say ‘inhumanity’ in the first place?”

          • If you’re speaking to a Christian audience, it might be useful to employ both terms, as a way of illustrating the connection between the first and second great commandments as Jesus gave them to us, and how Christian theology has sometimes veered over into an inhumanity rooted in an idolatrous adherence to abstract concepts.

          • It is an interesting point. Where there is inhumanity, there is a false understanding of the Divine. One of the prophets makes this point (Hosea, if I recall correctly).

      • I think this is a general religious tendency in human beings. It’s interesting that many Christians and People Formerly Known as New Agers sound almost exactly the same when providing their religious understandings and analyses of why bad things happen (whether at the personal or global level), if you plug in a few different words here and there in their respective explanations. It’s a religious knee-jerk reaction that Christians, progressive and conservative alike, should strive to avoid. The attempt to provide explanation where no good explanation is available often leads to inhumanity in service to the concepts that support that explanation, which to my understanding is really what idolatry consists of.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > I think this is a general religious tendency in human beings.

          I agree to an extent, but I do not believe it is a Religious tendency; having met plenty of completely secular people who espouse concomitant perspectives. Or it is religious if you mean creating an entirely imaginary Actor [as often The Great Incompetent, or The Great Sloth, as it The Great Satan] to act as a stand-in for knowledge and understanding [exempting the person from the obligation to read… anything].

          > It’s a … knee-jerk reaction that Christians, progressive and conservative alike, should strive to avoid.


          > The attempt to provide explanation where no good explanation is available often
          > leads to inhumanity in service to the concepts that support that explanation

          We disagree on the general motivation – I have adopted a general policy of aggression when such verbal sewage is launched in my direction – and the responses to confrontation are telling – it has nothing to do with a desire-for-explanation – it is a cheap claim to moral/intellectual superiority, it distances the claimee from the unpleasantness, typically creating an oh-so-convenient ‘them’. To them, in their imagination anyway, it is soooo clear that whatever happened would have been the outcome of X, everyone else is incompetent, crooked, ignorant, lazy, etc… Or in the Christian context just Damned [they themselves being Saved, of course].

          Fortunately, humiliating these acolytes of despair is rarely challenging. They, nearly universally, have no idea what they are talking about.

          • By calling it a religious tendency, I didn’t intend to exclude “completely secular people”. All the completely secular people I’ve gotten to know (quite a few) had religious tendencies, often manifesting as superstitions or other irrational behaviors and beliefs connected with what I have had to assume were unacknowledged metaphysical views.

            I understand what you mean about the power play for moral/intellectual superiority that is frequently involved when such statements are deployed. My experience with those who deploy them, however, suggests that they would be impossible to humiliate, so insulated are they in their irrational views that they are impervious to insult or argument; otoh, I have to say, I’ve never really tried to humiliate anyone holding such views: I tend to just walk away from them, if I see that they are not open to any argument against their views.

  6. It’s important to recognize, however, that churches that are focused on the Eucharist are not immune from dishonoring the image and presence of God in human beings, and devaluing the goodness of normal, “non-religious” human life. And there is plenty of bad art in Catholic churches; I’ve seen plenty of it.

    • Not to mention those hideous dashboard plastic statues of Saint Christopher. Quite a few members of my extended family had those scouting the trails in front of their cars.

  7. I don’t know. I’ve met quite a few evangelicals (non-Reformed, including from my wife’s family) who imagine eternal life as a place where they get to continue a more or less earthly type of existence, and engage in all the “wholesome” activities they enjoyed in this current life, with Jesus approvingly (almost idiotically) smiling on, and presiding over, everything. Why, I once heard the “Bible Answer Man” on his radio program talk about how he hoped one day to enjoy golfing in heaven (with a perfect resurrected body and a perfect swing and hole-in-one every time, I imagine).

    I think seeing eternal life as unending worship has a positive side, provided we see worship as a not merely conceptual activity, but an activity of the body and mind together, enjoying God in and through his created gifts. Part of it may be learning to see our ordinary lives as worship, and the ordinary events that occur daily around us as God’s graceful presence in our lives and in our world. And only the most egotistical artist would want us always to be thinking of and talking about her while we are looking at and appreciating her art. I really hope that God is not like an egotistical artist.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > with a perfect resurrected body and a perfect swing and hole-in-one every time

      If so, would it even be fun anymore?

      > I really hope that God is not like an egotistical artist.

      It seems unlikely; he has a l-o-n-g precedent of letting people ignore him. An egotist would be more showy.

      • If so, would it even be fun anymore?

        Though I’ve never played gold and can’t imagine how it ever could be fun, I wondered the same thing.

        I certainly hope you’re right about God not being like an especially egotistical artist, because they are insufferable, and in eternity they would be eternally insufferable.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Though I’ve never played gold and can’t imagine how it ever could be fun,

          Neither have I [ever played golf], and I look upon it with the same Enjoyment Skepticism. But stand in X for Golf, and the same question remains. If a ‘perfect’ body exempts me from the physical challenge, or even just the exertion, of demanding actions… I wonder if I would even want it if I were seriously given the choice.

          > an especially egotistical artist… eternity they would be eternally insufferable.

          Matches my best description of a Lucifer/Satan and Hell.

    • i’ve met quite a few evangelicals (non-Reformed, including from my wife’s family) who imagine eternal life as a place where they get to continue a more or less earthly type of existence, and engage in all the wholesome activities they enjoyed in this current life, with Jesus approvingly smiling on, and presiding over, everything.

      Assuming our resurrection bodies are physical, and interact with the new world in similar ways that our current bodies interact with the current world, why the heaven not? 🙂 I think that, along with some of the other spirits, we need to learn to “Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you.” (Great Divorce, Ch. 6)

      • I don’t disagree with what you say, but I think a balance needs to be kept, because beyond a certain point we reach a level of absurdly serve-serving sentimentalism about the escahton that makes it seem like nothing but the ultimate wish-fulfillment.

      • Remember, in the Great Divorce, it hurtto walk on those blades of grass, or be caught in the rain, until one became acclimated to them.

        • That was a very thought provoking picture of both heaven and hell that Lewis portrayed in that book. To think that heaven might be a painful, dangerous, and even horrifying environment for those who refuse to let go of their fears and misconceptions — it’s both fascinating and terrifying in a way. I wonder how ghostly I would be in such a place. Would I press on toward the mountains to the call of “higher up and deeper in,” or would I run back to the bus?

  8. Isn’t Spencer in this post covering a lot of the same ground that Bonhoeffer traversed in his talk about “religionless Christianity”, “man-come-of-age”, addressing humanity at the center of its strength rather than only onthe periphery of its weakness, and the emptiness and meaninglessness of much traditional Christian language to the ear of modern humanity (and the consequent need for Christians to maintain a discipline of silence rather than talking about God at every opportunity)?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Bonhoeffer traversed in his talk about “religionless Christianity”

      Certainly there is overlap. But Spencer doesn’t use the nuclear term “religionless Christianity” that makes so many people’s heads explode; thus aborting the conversation about *the concept* and generating one in reaction to the term “religionless”.

      • Yes, it’s generally a good thing not to make people’s heads explode.

      • –>”Isn’t Spencer in this post covering a lot of the same ground that Bonhoeffer traversed in his talk about ‘religionless Christianity’…”

        Not sure if that’s meant as a criticism, but if it was I’d respond “So what?” Is there a need to reinvent the wheel? As Adam points out, there is overlap. (Maybe a lot of it.) To me, overlap and “same ground” isn’t a bad thing, especially when a universal truth is being shared. Ultimately, if our spirituality and discussion is God-focused and Jesus-centered, it should ALL overlap and cover the same ground.

  9. The definition of religion is important. For instance, religion can be the mask we put on to hide our true evil intentions. Conservatives champion a culture of life, but then viscerally attack Jimmy Carter after his press conference addressing his cancer. Conservatives love Donald Trump, who this week called on his supporters to beat up members of Black Lives Matter. This has really transcended hypocrisy; conservatives no longer see what they stand for has no connection to their so-called core values.

  10. David Cornwell says

    “Conservatives champion a culture of life”

    On a very limited scale perhaps. But I know quite a few who are very bloodthirsty and vengeful when it comes to a “culture of life”.

  11. Minor point, but what strikes me about the Robison illustration in which he was willing to sacrifice his daughter for revival to come is this: Why didn’t he go into the grave himself? If it had been me, I would have said “Please take me instead.” I think most normal fathers would share that reflex.

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