Tag Archives: N.T. Wright

“Red Letter Reductionism” Expanded

Recently I received word that someone might be interested in publishing my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay that I first shared in 2013—if only I could reduce it a little.

So I expanded it from 23 pages to 31 pages. Then, with great effort and the judicious advice of a friend, I cut it down to 14 pages. Now I have two red letter reductionism essays:

  • “Red Letter Reductionism” (expanded version, 31 pages)
  • “Red Letter Reductionism and Apostolic Authority” (reduced version, 14 pages)

This is all rather expansive for an essay about reductionism, but I am thankful for the results.

I’m not sure I want to post my abbreviated essay until it has been published in print (trusting it will be). But here is the expanded version of the original essay:

Red Letter Reductionism

What is this essay about?

Red letter Christians are any Christians who in some way prioritize the words of Jesus over the rest of Bible, including over the rest of the New Testament. While the words of Jesus are indeed important, I think that elevating the Bible’s red letters over its black letters is a bad practice that can lead to bad results.

In this essay I explain why, focusing especially on the authority Jesus gave to his apostles, including his promise to speak through them.

From the essay introduction:

This essay is about red letter theology and red letter Christians. It is about the authority of the New Testament and the nature of the gospel. First, we need an introduction to red letter Christianity. Then we will ask whether it is harmless. To answer our question, we will consider the promise of the Spirit, the limits of pre-Pentecostal revelation, and the nature of apostolic authority. We will take a close look at Paul, examining his gospel and his apostolic claims. We will examine John 3:16 as a test case for red letter theology and then ask whether this theology paints a shrunken, two-dimensional Jesus. We will consider the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel and ask whether Anabaptists are truly excited about the gospel. Finally, we will consult Matthew’s opinion on red and black letters, then conclude with two clarifications and five suggestions for readers of this essay.

What is new in this edition?

First, I combed the entire essay, trying to improve clarity and weed out overstatements. Then I added significant new content.

I invite you to read the entire essay, even (perhaps especially) if you’ve read it before. Most paragraphs were tweaked at least a little.

But I don’t want you to miss some of the new material I’ve included, so I’ll share four excerpts here (minus footnotes).

1. On the term “the authority of Scripture”:

We must pause to examine what we mean by “the authority of Scripture.” First, following N.T. Wright, I believe that “the phrase ‘the authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’”[1] On the one hand, this definition prevents us from directing worship to a book rather than to its Author; on the other hand, it reminds us that reverence for Scripture as the word of God is not idolatry but essential fear of God. Second, the term authority is used variously to refer to both (a) the divine origin of Scripture and (b) the weight or influence that any portion of Scripture carries to shape our interpretations and behaviors. In this essay I am primarily addressing the question of the divine origin of Scripture, arguing that red and black letters alike are words from God and, in that sense, equally authoritative. But one question leads to another; those who question whether all black letters truly come from God will also not allow them to shape their interpretations and behaviors as strongly. So near the end of this essay I will briefly address the question of which passages of Scripture should rightly shape our interpretation of Scripture most directly and strongly.

2. On the self-awareness of the New Testament authors about the authority they exercised as they wrote:

At least some New Testament authors seem to have been aware of the authority entrusted to them as they wrote. Peter addresses his readers as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:1), declaring that what he had “written” was “the true grace of God” in which his readers must “stand firm” (1 Pet. 5:12). This self-identification as “apostle” is found at the beginning of many New Testament letters, and should not be missed. When an Old Testament prophet said “Thus says the LORD,” he was using a standard messenger formula—the same formula that was used by the herald of a king, who would preface his message by saying “Thus says king so-and-so.” This formula indicated that the prophet was on assignment, speaking God’s words.[1] A similar thing seems to be happening in the New Testament whenever an author claims to be an apostle. He is using this title to assert that he is God’s messenger—“the special envoy of Christ Jesus commissioned by the will of God.”[2]

…John… prefaces his prophetic visions with a blessing best reserved for the word of God (cf. Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:28): “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3a). At the end of Revelation, Jesus repeats this blessing on those who “keep” what John has written (Rev. 22:7; cf. 22:9), just as faithful saints elsewhere in the book are said to “keep” the commandments of God (12:17; 14:12) and the word of Jesus (3:8, 10).

John’s prophecy ends with a most solemn warning (that may come from the lips of Jesus himself):

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19)

This warning adapts similar warnings found in the Law of Moses (Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32; 29:19-20), leading Oxford theologian Christopher Rowland to this observation:

In utilizing this prohibition from Deuteronomy John appears to regard his own revelations as being of equal importance with earlier communications from God given to Moses. There is no question here of this book being regarded by its author either as a series of inspired guesses or intelligent surmise. John believes that what he has seen and heard actually conveys the divine truth to his readers… John sees himself as the one who has been commissioned to write down the divine counsels for the benefits of the churches (Rev. 1:19).[3] 

3. On whether Paul undermines nonresistance:

Another reason some people are uneasy about Paul’s influence is because they fear he is not sufficiently clear on nonresistance. After all, a majority of Protestants historically have been all too quick to take up the sword and repay evil with evil. Does this endorsement of violence flow naturally from the Pauline Reformed theology that many of them embrace? More explicitly still, Romans 13 certainly has been and still is used by many Protestants to defend the Christian use of the sword. Isn’t it safest—even essential—to subjugate Paul’s ambivalent teachings on the sword to Jesus’ clear command that we must not resist evil?

Four brief responses can be given. First, Reformed or even Protestant theology simply does not explain most of the Christian use of the sword throughout history. Roman Catholics, too, have historically affirmed the Christian use of the sword, despite not being shaped by the Pauline theology of Luther which set the trajectory for Protestant doctrines. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics alike waged war and persecuted Anabaptists. And Christian just war theory is much older than the Reformation. It stretches back at least to Augustine (A.D. 354-430), was developed most significantly by the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274), and remains the official doctrine of the Catholic church to this day.

Second, Paul is not to blame for Augustine’s formulation of just war theory. Augustine believed that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor meant that Christians must normally not kill in self-defense. Yet, drawing explicitly upon Greco-Roman pagan thinkers—especially Cicero[1]—he made an exception for “just wars.” Romans 13 was not his “starting point,” despite the chapter’s later close association with just war theory by thinkers such as Aquinas and Luther.[2] Augustine concluded, as one scholar summarizes, that “‘times change’… pacifism was appropriate… in the time of the apostles [but] not… in a day and age when kings and nations have succumbed to the gospel” in fulfillment of prophecy.[3] Augustine was well aware of what both Jesus and the apostles taught, but concluded that new circumstances called for new behaviors. Augustine’s theology was too pagan, not too Pauline.

This leads to a third point: the influence of politics on theology. Catholics and Protestants alike developed their theology within the context of a Christendom that extended back to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to bear the sword in the name of Jesus. Political allegiances shaped the magisterial theology of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin, with each relying on the sword-bearing support of city councils or German princes. The Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, in contrast, counted the cost of losing political legitimacy at the time they chose believers’ baptism. Living as a persecuted minority, they were free of political entanglements that might have hindered them from following Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent enemy-love. Yet they developed their nonresistant theology, it must be noted, while also wrestling meaningfully with Paul’s teachings in Romans 13.[4] This influence of political power over our theology of the sword continues to this day, as Reformed theologian Preston Sprinkle has observed:

It’s fascinating (one might say disturbing) to see how each person’s political context or position shapes his or her understanding of Romans 13. Christians living in North Korea or Burma tend to read Romans 13 differently than Americans do… Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa. American Christian leaders did the same during the years of slavery and segregation.[5]

“Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far,” Sprinkle continues. “But only a bit.” He notes how Wayne Grudem has applied this chapter to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assuming that America is the good government and that Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad governments. “Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validate Afghanistan’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes on civilians,” Sprinkle suggests, “most Americans would see this as a misreading of Romans 13.”[6]

Which brings us to our final point: Paul is far clearer on nonresistance than many Christians, red letter or not, tend to acknowledge. In fact, Paul’s writings are in line with the entire New Testament, which “highlights Jesus’s nonviolent response to violence as a pattern to follow more often than any other aspect of his ministry.”[7] Paul “has the Sermon on the Mount ingrained in his soul,” Sprinkle observes, and most of “Paul’s litany of commands… in Romans 12… has the scent of Jesus’s Sermon.”[8] “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves… if your enemy is hungry, feed him… overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21). The clarity of Romans 12 and other Pauline passages should remove all doubt that when Romans 13 puts the sword into the hand of the third-person government (“he,” not “you”), Paul cannot be affirming Christian vengeance. After all, “Paul explicitly forbids the church in Romans 12 from doing what the government does in Romans 13.”[9]

4. On whether Matthew—the favorite gospel of many red letter Christians—promotes red letter theology:

David Starling addresses such questions in his recent book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.[1] First, Starling notes that both the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the six “antitheses” of Matthew 5 give Jesus’ own words a prominence that matches and perhaps even exceeds the law of Moses. Similarly, at the center of Matthew’s Gospel we find the mount of transfiguration, where God the Father exalts Jesus with an assertion (“this is my Son”) and a command (“listen to him!”). Starling suggests that “the assertion and command… (echoed by Jesus’s own assertion and command in Matt. 28:18-20a) are the twin foci around which Matthew arranges the material of his Gospel.” Thus, there are “five big blocks of red-letter content (chs. 5-7; 10; 13:1-52; 18; 24-25) in Matthew,” each underscoring “the identity and authority of Jesus as the Son of God.” Starling summarizes what this reveals about Matthew’s purposes as a Gospel writer:

The bulk and the prominence of these five blocks of teaching suggest that Matthew intended not only to narrate Jesus’ story but also to preserve and propagate his teachings, so that his disciples might learn and obey them. Evidently, according to the shape and content of Matthew’s testimony, the redness of the red letters in his Gospel is of no small significance to Jesus, to Matthew, and to God himself, and ought to be of no small significance to the Gospel’s readers.[2]

So far, so good for red letter theology. But Starling continues:

But what exactly is the nature of that significance? How does Matthew want us to understand the relationship between Jesus’s words and the words of the Old Testament Scriptures (and, for that matter, Matthew’s own words as the writer of the Gospel)?[3]

Starling answers by examining both Jesus’ words and Matthew’s words. The first words of Jesus recorded in Matthew (at his baptism) implicitly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 3:15). The next recorded words (at his temptation) directly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). The Beatitudes “are soaked in recollections of the Scriptures,” and “it is harder to imagine a stronger claim for the enduring importance of the Law than the language Jesus uses” in Matthew 5:18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”[4] As we continue reading Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words, the pattern of quoting and honoring the Scriptures continues. So Starling concludes:

The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel can hardly be interpreted as an attempt to wrest authority away from the black. Any notion we might have that Jesus’s words could replace or supersede the words of Old Testament Scripture is dispelled as soon as Jesus starts speaking.[5]

Matthew’s own words have a similar effect. Starling suggests that Matthew is teaching a way of reading the Scriptures. He does this by using a “constant interleaving of biographical narrative [about Jesus’ life], typological allusions [from the Old Testament], and scriptural citations [also from the Old Testament].”[6] Craig Keener explains:

Matthew has constructed almost every paragraph following the genealogy and until the Sermon on the Mount around at least one text of Scripture. He thus invites his ideal audience to read Jesus in light of Scripture and Scripture in light of Jesus.[7]

The references to the Old Testament continue throughout Matthew’s narrative, “so that we might learn to read Scripture, and to understand Christ, accordingly.”[8]

Starling ends his chapter with insightful and mature reflections, worth quoting at length:

The red letters of Jesus’s teachings do indeed… fulfill a particular function in the economy of Scripture. Christians who… attempt to read the Scriptures as a timeless, undifferentiated compendium of divine commands, may revere Scripture but can hardly be said to have understood its message: those who faithfully trace the lines of Scripture’s black letters must inevitably be led to the place where they become hearers (and doers) of the red.

But the relationship between the black letters and the red is not a one-way street; it is a recursive, reciprocal relationship. The black letters of the Old Testament prophecy and apostolic testimony lead us to Jesus and urge us to listen to him; the red letters of Jesus’s teaching, in turn, commission and authorize his apostles as heralds of the gospel and send us back to the Old Testament to learn its meaning and its implications afresh in light of his coming. The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel are joined to the black in an indispensable, mutually authorizing, and mutually interpretive relationship; what God has joined together no interpreter should attempt to separate.

For evangelicals in our own time, confronted with the claim that we must choose between two different kinds of Christianity—one defined by the red letters of Scripture and the other defined by the black—the Gospel of Matthew provides a timely warning against false dichotomies and needless schisms. It reminds “red letter Christians” of the indispensability of the black letters and reminds “black letter Christians of the centrality of the red (or, more precisely, of the one who speaks them).[9]

To this exhortation I say “amen”—adding only a little more precision by reminding us that it is actually the risen Jesus himself who is speaking in the black letters of the apostolic writings, as we noted above. In summary, Christians who try to use Matthew’s Gospel to create a more perfect red letter version of Christianity do dishonor to Matthew and to Jesus himself.

May God help us all read and honor his written word and his risen Christ more faithfully!

The original version of this essay was much improved by the feedback of some readers—including some very rigorous ones on the crashed-and-rebranded former Mennodiscuss.com. (Thankfully, I downloaded and saved much of that feedback!) I welcome your feedback here, too, in the comments below. Thank you!


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Thirty-Three Years: A Life [Poem by Mom]

Have you been impatiently waiting for the monthly poem from my mom? No, we have not forgotten. Here it is, just in time to help you remember the death and life of Christ.

God bless you as you read Mom’s poem and meditate on Christ.


I remember as a young girl, lying on the grass, gazing at the immense blue summer sky above me, and trying to grasp in the “grain of sand” that was my mind, the concept of eternity. As the clouds moved lazily overhead I pondered the puzzle of eternity past and eternity future, tried to envision the vast expanses of “time” implied, and wondered which would be more irrational, that God should have never begun—how could that be!—or that He should have a beginning—but then how and why could He have begun? I would try to stretch my mind across the eons of eternity from past to future until I felt my brain would explode.

G. K. Chesterton said that “poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea… the result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet desires… a world to stretch himself in… asks only to get his head into the heavens… the logician… seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head which splits.”

The Scriptures tell us it is “by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God…not…of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3, NKJV, italics added).

I was nearing fifty years of age when I wrote the following poem about Christ’s time on earth, and my brain felt no more adequate then of grasping the puzzle of Christ’s work of salvation than it was earlier with the concept of eternity.

The puzzle: Did Jesus come to live or to die for us? His death was only efficacious because of His Resurrection and because of His perfect life. His life alone could not have saved us. He needed a body for the very purpose of dying for us. Remission of sin demands blood shed, a death, a sacrifice.

Romans 5:1 says we are “justified by faith” in Him “who was delivered up [to death] because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25, NKJV, italics added).

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom. 11: 33, NASB)

In humble faith I celebrate and trust in the life and death and resurrection of my Risen Lord and Saviour as all-sufficient for my eternal salvation!

—Elaine Gingrich, March 1, 2016


THIRTY-THREE YEARS: A LIFE

He came to die, but first He came to live.
Not as some faceless, flat protagonist
Who dies in a pale story, never missed
By readers. No, our captured minds would give
The world to know this Man. The finest sieve
Can catch no fault in Him. Go down the list
From “healed a leper” to “by traitor kissed,”
Then watch Him die unjustly, yet forgive.

Here was a man to tower above men,
With strength to calm the stormy Galilee,
With touch more tender than a baby’s sigh.
Here was a man deserves to live again,
A man to love! We turn the page to see
The script. He lives! But first He came to die.

—Elaine Gingrich, May 2, 2000


While this was not her intent, Mom’s insight about the need to connect the life and the death of Christ has been the subject of some recent discussion in scholarly circles.

N.T. Wright, for example, wrote a book called How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright argues that evangelicals and other confessional Christians, influenced by the pattern of the ancient creeds, have tended to emphasize the virgin birth and the cross of atonement while skipping over the life of Christ with his radical kingdom teachings. Liberal theologians, however, influenced by post-Enlightenment critical scholarship and embarrassed by the miraculous elements of Jesus’ birth and death, have emphasized the exemplary power of his human life.

But true Christianity needs both—the kingdom teachings and life of Jesus on the one hand, and also his miraculous, saving death and resurrection. In Wright’s words, we need both kingdom and cross. (While I have not read this book, I have listened about three times to this lecture Wright gave on the same topic. Highly recommended.)

Wright is a scholar of the first rank, but his book above is written for a general audience. Pastors have also written on this subject, such as Tim Chester in his 2015 book Crown of Thorns: Connecting Kingdom and Cross. (I have not read this book, but am familiar enough with Chester to feel confident it will be a useful read.)

I am excited to see scholars and pastors grasp this insight. But understanding exactly how Jesus’ life and death relate together to save us and shape our lives is secondary to simply trusting and following him. So it’s okay if you identify with what Mom said after I shared some of the above with her:

You can develop the deep debates and I will stick to the simpler faith foundation. 🙂

I am deeply grateful to my mother for helping to keep my faith foundation firm, both in my youth and to this day.


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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The Arts, Biblical Theology, and Proof I’m Not a Complete Philistine

My last post generated some helpful feedback about the place of the arts in the Christian life. In that post I took an exegetical approach to the topic, examining one Scripture passage and challenging how it is sometimes used in defense of extravagant artistic investments. But most questions about Christian living are not decided by a solitary Scripture passage—and especially by a passage that isn’t directly about the topic at all, as I argued is the case with the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

So in this post I’d like to begin to set the topic of the arts within a larger biblical framework—thus doing what is often called biblical theology. (And if you persevere to the end, I even have a cute picture to share.)

First, here are some lines from the feedback I received:

Why do we have to have verses to justify everything that we do...

I don’t have a proof text for the arts

I’m not sure that I can supply a Biblical basis in support of the arts…

These comments are quite natural, given the relative silence in the New Testament about the kinds of activities we classify as “the arts.” So I agree: It’s pretty hard to point to one Bible verse, especially any verse written expressly as a directive to Christians, and say that we’ve found “a proof text for the arts.”

I suggest, however, that this lack of a proof text does not leave us entirely free to develop our own philosophical or emotional apology for our personal artistic preferences. Rather, our double task is to trace the big story that God tells us in Scripture and then to accurately understand our time and place within that story. (This is one of the tasks of the discipline of biblical theology—to consider theological themes as unfolding trajectories within the larger biblical narrative, rather than as the isolated observations of textual exegesis or the timeless conclusions of systematic theology.)

Some of the feedback I received hinted in this direction:

I’ve recently been wondering if a negative view of arts is a result of a “leave the earth, God’s going to destroy it anyway” mentality, instead of becoming part of God’s redemptive project on the earth, in which man’s signature counts…that is, he is by virtue of his very nature, his likeness to his Creator, creative

Here we see hints of some key plot developments in the story of our world: restoration (the return of Christ at the end of the age), redemption (God’s plan to rescue from sin), and creation (mankind created in the image of the Creator). And of course redemption reminds us also of the fall. This gives us all four of the plot movements commonly identified by Reformed theologians: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

(See here for verbal and visual explanations of each. And I have suggested that naming the final movement glorification might better reflect the fact that Christ’s return will usher in not merely Eden restored, but a new world where we will realize an eternal consummation of God’s vision beyond anything ever experienced in Eden.)

Another response also pointed to creation:

I would offer a defense based on the nature of man. Artistic expression is a part of every known culture, even cultures that make efforts to eliminate them. I suspect its just a part of who we are, like language. In fact, art IS a language. Attacking artistic expression seems dehumanizing...

Another response complicated these four plot movements a bit by mentioning Israel (as well as restoration):

As I read about the intricacy of the artwork that went into Solomon’s Temple, I have to think that this too was intended to honor and glorify God.
What about some of the scenes involving the musical art in Revelation, what was its prime purpose?

N.T. Wright’s biblical theological scheme might help us here. He suggests that the Bible carries God’s authority by telling the story of the world in five acts. He identifies them as follows:

(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Cor 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.

As Wright points out, understanding the Bible as a five-act play (or as a four-movement plot, if you prefer the Reformed system) has implications for our hermeneutics (paradigms for how we interpret Scripture and what it says to us today):

The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections…

The New Testament is written to be the charter for the people of the creator God in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus; the Old Testament forms the story of the earlier acts, which are (to be sure) vital for understanding why Act 4, and hence Act 5, are what they are, but not at all appropriate to be picked up and hurled forward into Act 5 without more ado. The Old Testament has the authority that an earlier act of the play would have, no more, no less…

The story has to be told as the new covenant story. This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation.

(See here for the source of these quotes and for fascinating suggestions about how God mediates his authority through the story told by the Scriptures.)

So, where are we in the story of biblical theology?

Using the traditional Reformed scheme, we are in the third movement: redemption. God is still busy redeeming this world from sin. We are living after the cross, but before “the time of restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21).

Using Wright’s scheme, we are in the final act, Act Five. We are no longer living in Acts One through Four. But we are also not yet living in the final scene within Act Five.

So, in either scheme, we are living in some tension, in a partially-redeemed state within a world that is not yet restored. We must not forget God’s creation purposes, yet we cannot simply live as if we are still in Eden. We must lay hold of God’s vision of restoration, yet we cannot live as if we are already on the new earth. This is still the time of spiritual warfare and of Great Commission living.

What does this mean for the place of the arts in the Christian life?

At minimum, this:

  • It means that pointing to our nature as creations who create is crucial, but insufficient.
  • It means that the artistic intricacies of Solomon’s temple are illuminating, but not determinative.
  • It means that the heavenly artistic grandeur described in Revelation awakens our hope, but does not define our current experience.

Artistic delight now is a reminder of Eden and a foretaste of Glory. It is a concert performed for soldiers who are on temporary leave from the front lines, healing their wounds before they return to battle. It is recess between classes at school. It is love-making between the duties of tilling the soil and raising the children.

Consider that last analogy further in light of Scripture. Let’s use the four Reformed movements to examine marriage through the ages:

Creation: God makes humans male and female. He declares “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The one-flesh union is blessed by God and humans are told to be fruitful and multiply.

Fall: Marriage is deformed in many ways post-fall, with polygamy and divorce permitted thanks to the hardness of man’s heart. Marriage is still the normal state, but normal marriage is not particularly normal. God does strange things like apparently blessing his kings with multiple wives and using a pagan beauty contest (that’s far too mild of a term for what actually happened) to save his people from genocide.

Redemption: God both uses marriage and operates beyond marriage to bring his Son into the world. His Son never marries. He blesses marriage, calling people back to God’s creation purposes. Yet he also blesses celibates—those are “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”—and says “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (See Matt. 19:10-12.)

Paul, likewise, paints a double picture. On the one hand, he paints a glorious picture of marriage as a type of Christ and the church. (See Eph. 5:22-33.) On the other hand, filled with passion “to secure… undivided devotion to the Lord,” Paul says that he wishes all were single as he is. Notice his appeal to our place within the big story that Scripture tells: “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none… For the present form of this world is passing away.” (See 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 29-38.)

And significantly, both Jesus and Paul suggest that both marriage and celibacy are gifts, given differently to different persons.

Restoration: In words that probably shaped Paul’s vision, Jesus noted that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30). Instead, we have the consummation of the eternal reality toward which earthly marriage points: the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9; 21:2, 9-11).

I think we can see parallels with the arts through the ages. Here are some tentative suggestions—I am certainly moving beyond exegesis into theological deduction:

Creation: I do think that the Bible blesses the image of humans as creations who create. We see hints of this in Adam’s naming of the animals and care of the Garden, or even in his poetic praise of his new bride. Some Anabaptists need to ponder this more. I’m thinking of those who bless quilting bees, agricultural arts, and a cappella four-part harmony but leave little room for photography, literature, or the performing arts.

Fall: The arts certainly go to seed post-fall. Consider idolatrous images, pagan hymns, or even the heavy taxation and slavery used to build Solomon’s temple. The latter example reminds me of how the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages siphoned off the wealth of Europe to build cathedrals and glorify the Vatican. Or consider the star-centered and commercialized nature of so much Christian art today. But should we also consider economic inequalities and indulgences closer to home?

Redemption: Little is said in Scripture about the arts in this movement; hence the need for discussions like this. Based on the marriage analogy, I offer a few suggestions.

Jesus was a carpenter, he told astounding stories, and he did sing hymns. To call him an “artist” might be stretching the evidence, however. There is no suggestion that he spent hours practicing on the harp or even that he led his disciples in multi-part choral works. He didn’t own a home and didn’t seem impressed by the grandeur of the temple, so architecture wasn’t high on his list of active priorities. I don’t think we read anything about him engaging in any visual arts besides writing in the sand. His mud pies were decidedly utilitarian, designed for healing eyes. Even his parables, magnificent as they are, were not staged performances as our artistic endeavors usually are, but rather woven into the fabric of everyday life.

And Paul? While he built tents, there is no indication he saw this as anything besides laborious commercial work. I certainly cannot imagine him investing the proverbial 10,000 hours to become an expert on an instrument such as the flute. He was too bent on the Great Commission to commission any works of art besides offerings for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

Yet the paradigm of “gifts” is also a clue. “Each has his own gift from God,” Paul wrote of marriage and singleness, “one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7). For over 10 years now, singleness has not been my gift. My prayer before I met my future wife was that God would lead me to someone with whom I could serve him better than how I could serve him alone. I believe God answered that prayer for me, at least for this season of my life.

Similarly, my artistic engagement has varied through seasons of my life. For several years while in college, I often achieved from 3/4 hour to 1-1/2 hours at the piano daily. Now I often play less than that in one week. I confess that, just as I am weak and have felt a “burning” need for marriage (1 Cor. 7:9), so I often feel a great need for the refreshment that is offered by the arts. Accompanying fellow musicians and performing for others has brought moments of ecstasy. Other times the only prayer I have been able to offer is to let my fingers wander over the piano keyboard, searching alone for the groans of the Spirit.

And often this refreshment comes through the artistic gifts God has given to others. When I was a youth, listening to Beethoven taught me on a deep heart level that joy is often found only after great struggle. Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 have been played at high volume to soothe my youthful (and sometimes not so youthful) angst. The poetry and song of Rich Mullins has stirred me to my depths. And Phil Keaggy’s song “Play Through Me” has been my prayer, too:

Up late again tonight,
I feel a song coming on…

Maker of all melody fill my heart with song,
Play how You feel, oh play thru me.
Healing can come through the song
Your own hands upon,
This is for real, no fantasy.

(And since I am “up late again tonight,” too, I better soon wind down the crafting of this post.)

Restoration: Given the symbolic language of much of Revelation, I think we can say little concretely about arts in the world to come. If we take the function of metaphor seriously, however, we must conclude that there is something similar-but-grander in the heavenlies to the very best of earthly art. While I admit the song “The Music of Heaven” is not among my personal favorites, I do anticipate that Jesus’ presence will bring a passion and fulfillment beyond anything I have experienced in the best moments of musical ecstasy here on earth.

So what is the conclusion of the matter? I think in this age of redemption, in these middle scenes of Act 5, we will rightly see traces of God’s good creation purposes among his people. Just as we rightly celebrate Christian marriages, so we can rightly celebrate Christian artists. (I’m not insisting here on a specifically “Christian art”; that is another discussion.) We will see and bless a diversity of both gifts and callings. There must be room for poets and painters and potters in our churches. Even banjo players. Artistic excellence does indeed show something of the glory of God.

But we will also recognize that here we have no abiding symphony. In this world we will have trouble staying on key. More than that, we will weigh our artistic desires, examining our hearts: are we getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” or pleasing “the one who enlisted” us (2 Tim. 2:4). We will remember the Great Commission mission of the church. We will ask ourselves hard questions: Am I worshiping the creature or the Creator? Am I serving God and my neighbor with my approach to art, or am I merely serving myself? (Sometimes our neighbors can best help us answer this question. And who is my neighbor?)

I think my previous post left a few readers worried that I was anti-art. I’m not sure if this post will help or not. In a last-ditch effort to redeem myself, let me sign off with a picture. Hopefully this proves I’m not a total Philistine. Tonight I put my middle daughter to sleep to the sounds of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Schumann. Hopefully she heard a faint echo of her Savior singing over her:

PianoShaniSleeping
Please forgive the exposed umbilical cord socket.

What do you think? How should we navigate the “already but not yet” tension surrounding the arts? Share your thoughts (preferably in sonnet form) in the comments below.


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