Halloween… and the Cosmic Violence of the Gospel

This is the day that Evil gets festive press.  Halloween caricatures Evil, dressing it up rather innocuously in ghostly face paint, plastic masks, fake fangs.  This is the day when it is okay to play-act as the terrifying mythical entities that, as we rationally explain to our kids, do not actually haunt the closet space.  This is the day when the numinous darkness takes a celebrated position on the pop-cultural stage.

I am not a Christian crusader against Halloween.  I do not endorse judgment houses as an alternative way to spend the evening.  I take my kids trick-or-treating and I have a blast doing it.  But my Halloween began with a distraught 6-year coming into my bedroom at 3:50 am—”Daddy, I had a bad dream.” I can comfort him with this: “The Gospel is violent.”

The Gospel is violent.

The Gospel is about salvation… but it is also about destruction.  It is the royal pronouncement in the dank, seething dark of a totalitarian state that an unexpected King from distant shores has just appeared in full force at the city gates.  Ring the bells, bang the drums, blast the trumpets: a new Lord has arrived on the scene of supernatural tyranny.  The Gospel is the siren-blaring, bell-clanging announcement that Jesus is here to shake his fist in the face of draconian forces feasting on the living corpses of humanity.  With his divine arrival comes not only saving but also destroying, for although “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19.10), he also came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

The Gospel’s etymology derives from military imagery.  Two armies are waging fierce battle over the hillside while the citizens wring their hands and pray for deliverance from the invading force.  And then, there on the horizon, someone makes out a moving shape, the shape of a man running from the scene of war.  This is the runner, the one come to announce the awaiting fate of those who have sent their husbands, fathers and sons bearing swords and clubs in service of their embattled king.  “Gospel” is the news through heaving breaths and trembling lips that their king has triumphed and that the enemies have been defeated.

The Gospel of Jesus is not about physical violence.  Gospel-violence is directed toward cosmic forces of Evil.  As we find in Ephesians 6:12, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  So wrestle not with other humans, but we do wrestle… and we do so violently.

The Gospel announces God’s gracious reign.  But this Kingdom is not coming into a vacuum.  The Gospel is violent because the reign of God is an assault on other reigns, the reigns of Disease, Death, Darkness and the Death.  When Jesus cries out at his death in a loud voice in Mark’s Gospel, readers will recall some sense of familiarity with other scenes earlier in the narrative.  This raucous death-howl was the pattern by which the demons fled.  Like Jesus, their departure was with the crying out of a loud voice.  Something terrible and mysterious—something cosmic and violent—is at work when Jesus dies on the cross beneath swirling darkness.

But whatever is going on behind the celestial curtain at the cross, we know that a closed up hole in the ground was burst open on the third day.  This is from my book Faith Without Illusions on the (violent!) Resurrection of Jesus—

When the Messiah vacates his tomb, something is stirring.  Something new and wild.  Something against the establishment.  Death‘s establishment.  At the voice of the resurrected Lord, the cosmic superstructure of evil detects a virus in the system.  A wrench has been tossed into sin’s machinery.  The foundations start to pop with fissures.  It’s time to plug up the leak, to contain the fire, to reseal any open tombs.  Time for chaos to panic.  Time for Satan to go beserk.  Resurrection is God shaking his clenched fist in death’s face. Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death’s ears.

The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched.  The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave.  He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free—and returning at dawn.  [1]

Halloween can serve as a reminder to my 6-year old that the images of Evil and death that he sees in storefronts or on other kids’ face—however plastic and silly and caricatured—are the images of a fading empire.  Jesus has come to de-fang the secretive, beastly dragon whose breath stinks with human carnage.  And one day, from the seat of a Throne, he will oversee that monster’s binding and eternal imprisonment as the everlasting King.

[1] Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 210-22.


CD VI.1 57-59

I have just finished reading 350 pages of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  That would feel like an accomplishment were it not for the fact that the entire work weighs out at 9000 pages.  So after the past week or so of slugging through Volume VI, Part 1, Sections 57 through 59, I have read less than %4 of Dogmatics

It was like wading in a thick, dense, soupy mass of the Gospel.  Really, that is the image that comes to mind.  The prose is tough to follow.  The logic sprawls and spirals all over the place.  But everything is seeped and soaked in the wonder, shock, and glory of the Gospel.  Christ’s undoing of sin’s undoing of humanity, the great Yes of God to our desperate plight, the aching dark of the cross and the awkward surprise at the empty tomb… these realities of our confession are explored in strange heights and depths.  Though reading Barth has been hard intellectual work, I found myself at certain moments reading with the alertness of a hungry soul in need of a divine word to strengthen and challenge.  I was not disappointed.

My evangelical intellectual upbringing has instilled within me a sense of dread and suspicion when it comes to 20th century German theologians.  Some of this is well-founded, of course.  But even though Barth is controversial in some aspects, I have to say that reading “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country,” “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” and “The Verdict of the Father” was like reading sophisticated—yet heartfelt—doxology rather than dry, theological palaver.  It is the reading of a preeminent pastor-theologian whose vocational disposition was that of a wide-eyed child spelunking and hiking in theological chasms and peaks that most of us are content to simply know are out there somewhere should an overly-interested explorer want to take up the trailhead.

I will keep following Barth along those high and deep paths, as I have maturity in mind and heart to do so.  I hope to expand the measly %4….

Any other Barth-readers out there?  What makes him controversial?  What about his work and life has challenged or helped you?  Curious….

The Church

I just received in the post a review copy of The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed by Matt Jensen and David Wilhite.  David and I attended seminary together at Beeson Divinity School—I trust him as a brother as well as a scholar, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to give the book a careful read.

The book’s topic brings up a conversation.  “Church” is surely one of the most evocative and provocative words out there.

“Church.”  Go ahead, say it aloud as you read.  What taste is left in your mouth?  Is “church” a term referring to “those people” in your own personal vocabulary?  Is it a word haunting you from your past?  Is it a word that haunts your future, as in, “Yeah, I should be going to church… I will one day.”

Maybe it is a word haunting you in the present.

“Church” brings up for some a lofty, abstract concept, that universal collection of believers who are sharing all over the world in the life of God.  But the theological concept of the global community of the redeemed is often an easier definition to deal with than the sociological reality of the local community of the allegedly redeemed.  It is nice to think about all the saints of God across field and forest, vale and mountain.  But “church” is a much more difficult conversation topic when you are dealing with the local manifestation of that glorious company… like the folks down the road with whom you rub elbows in the pews on Sunday mornings.

“Church.”  Yes, many of us are perplexed.  I will be reporting on David and Matt’s treatment of this messy and glorious topic as I work through it.

(I am grateful to T & T Clark / Continuum for the book.  The Guide for the Perplexed Series is really helpful if any of you want to check it out on the publisher’s website).

All of Christ for All of Us

Andy is across the pond, reading Calvin, drinking coffee and writing about it. I’ve enjoyed his posts immensely because I really like hearing Calvin from Calvin (which is often different than a macho, hearsay kind of Calvinism that floats around American evangelicalism, by the way…).

I remember being told that Calvin’s Institutes can be some of the richest devotional reading available. That might be hard to believe until you come across a paragraph like what follows. I came across it in another book and was glad that I did (and I was drinking coffee too!).

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.” If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.” II.16.19  [1]

I grew up in a Christian tradition that almost solely emphasized Christ’s death for me. I never would want to minimize anything about the cross of Christ. However, I’ve only recently come to understand the significance of all of Christ’s person and work for all of our need. Not just his cross, but his life, his humanity, his obedience, etc. is salvific for us. Our union with all of him is salvation for all of us.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 527.

Christian Leadership

Busby here. A quick post to stir your thinking.

I’ve finally picked up Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. I know I’m probably late to the party but I really appreciate this book already. It’s so countercultural to the Christian Leadership culture.

Without giving too much away (you need to read this!), Nouwen claims that the Christian leader must resist the temptation to be 1) Relevant, 2) Spectacular, and 3) Powerful.

I’m tempted by these 3 things in my ministry post all the time. I also live and minister within an evangelical subculture that tries to train you to be these three things.

I struggle. Any thoughts on this?

Barth: The Shock of the Cosmos at the Cross of Jesus

Karl Barth on the “reversing of roles” between us and Jesus on the cross that was such an unimaginable, inconceivable feat.  Read this slowly… soberly… yet also joyfully…

“…we may think of the darkness which we are told later came down at the hour of Jesus’ death (Mk 15.33), the rending of the veil of the temple (Mk 15.37), the earthquake which shook the rocks and opened the graves (Mt 27.51), as though—in anticipation of its own end—the cosmos had to register the strangeness of this event: the transformation of the accuser into the accused and the judge into the judged, the naming and handling of the Holy God  as one who is godless.” [1]

[1]  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics; ed. G.W. Bromiley, T.F. Torrance (vol IV.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation; tr. George W. Bromiley; London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 238-39.

Calvin & Coffee: Word — Spirit

[This is part of an ongoing series of posts I am calling “Calvin & Coffee”]


I just finished ch. IX in Book I of Calvin’s Institutes.  Here we see the insistence that Word and Spirit are conjoined in “an inviolable bond” [1].  Calvin has in his sights what we might would call “charismania,” an excessive emphasis on the Holy Spirit and supernatural phenomena to the neglect of orderliness, sound doctrine, and the honoring of Scripture (trends apparently associated with the Libertines in Calvin’s day):

For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter [2].

I have written about this sort of excessive emphases in Faith Without Illusions—the chapter on Experientialism required the greatest degree of sensitivity and precision in writing—spiritual gifts and the more mystical elements of Christian faith are such controversial topics.  I have friends who lean in opposite directions when it comes to experiential manifestations and emotional sensations in the life of the church… and Scripture itself demands a meticulous degree of balance.  Calvin’s own sensitivity and balance on the issue is impressive (and so also one of his successors in the reformed tradition, Jonathan Edwards).  His objective is not to demonize supernatural manifestations per se, but to address the alarming dissociation between the Word of God and the Spirit of God:

God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display , intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it.  Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word [3].

It is strange that Word and Spirit so often tend to become a dichotomy rather than a complementary and inseparable pair in the life and history of the church.

Here is a case in point.  A young pastor approaches the pulpit and then announces, “I was going to come with a detailed manuscript for this morning, but I think I just need to tear up my notes and go with the Spirit.”

Now, I acknowledge that sometimes God may indeed lead us modify our homiletical agenda in the moment of preaching.  But so often, so-called reliance on the Spirit can be justified to forgo the hard, meticulous work of exegesis, theological interpretation, and then the careful organization of the material and its crafting into a coherent message.  But when someone announces that they are scratching their notes or manuscript, it serves as an alert of sorts that now, now that the encumbrance of prepared material is out of the way, now the Holy Spirit is really about to speak.

But where was the Spirit in the preacher’s preparations?  Was He not guiding and stirring in those unseen hours, late and early?

Again, sometimes notes do need to be torn up.  Sometimes the manuscript is to be left in the pew.  But for the most part, this “inviolable bond” between Word and Spirit has to do, for the preacher, with hard, prayerful, cognitive labor; and it has to do, for the congregation, with the hard, challenging task of diligent listening.  Sometimes the most impressive feat accomplished by the Spirit in our midst may be the enabling of minds, hearts and ears to stay attentive to the presentation of the Word.  And every preacher surely knows the desperate need for the Spirit’s help while pouring over the Word in anticipation of Sunday.

So, Word — Spirit… any thoughts from you readers?  How do you see the union of the two in life and ministry?  What disciplines or practices might we employ in the cause of keeping them together?


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960),93.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid., 95.