Work and Rest

As Americans, we’re obsessed with being busy. Even during a pandemic, we’re preoccupied with how much we’re getting done. Our culture fixates on and rewards efficiency and productivity, even at the expense of our own health and relationships. It’s even how we talk to one another. People always ask, “What are you doing this week?” or “What have you been busy with?” I’ve never once been asked, “Did you get nine hours of sleep last night?” … or “Did you get enough vacation time this year?” The reality of life is that we’re busy—we’re tired—and we simply don’t get enough rest.

But we know rest is important. Countless studies show that there are all sorts of mental, physical, emotional, and relational benefits to rest. Whether it’s getting the right amount of sleep, standing up from your computer every hour, using your vacation days, taking a recovery day from your workout routine, or simply breaking up the monotony of your work, rest is good for us. Forbes recently wrote, “You can only work so hard and do so much in a day. Everybody needs to rest and recharge.” Whether you work 9 to 5, work from home, stay at home, or are retired—we all need to rest!

Before we dive into this article, I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and just breath…. Enjoy a moment of rest…. Alright, that’s enough. Back to reading and thinking about rest.  Why? Because Scripture reveals that everyone was made for purposeful rest!

Purposeful Rest

How do I know? Well, in addition to the significant number of scientific reasons for rest, I know that we were made for purposeful rest because Jesus said so. As it turns out, Jesus was pretty good at purposefully resting. In the language of his day, he was a master “Sabbath-keeper.” The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew Shabbat, which marked the designated day of rest for God’s people. In Jesus’ time, the day of rest had become pretty ritualized. There were whole libraries of literature devoted to discussing how to rest on the Sabbath. In fact, the religious leaders of the day had determined there were thirty-nine kinds of work that were prohibited on the Sabbath.

It’s in that context that we hear from Jesus about rest—and that all of us were made for purposeful rest. In the words of Mark 2, One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath? He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions. Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.23-27, NIV)

So Jesus and his disciples work on the Sabbath, the religious leaders aren’t pleased with it, and what does Jesus do? He quotes the Bible to show that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is, human beings were not created for the explicit purpose of observing the holiness of the Sabbath day; rather, the Sabbath was created for our benefit. The day of rest is important—Jesus agrees—but the Pharisees forgot why it was important. They thought the Sabbath was a sacred day, something that was special because of itself. But Jesus says that the Sabbath is special because of what it provides for us: a time to stop and rest.

When God created humanity, He made rest part of the order of things. Indeed, the seven-day week is the only non-physical unit of time that we regularly use? Years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds—they’re all based on the sun, moon, earth’s rotation, or (in modern calculations) the rate of decay for two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom…. But not the week. The week doesn’t have a physical origin—it has its origins in scripture, which in the words of Eugene Peterson, says that every seven days we should take some “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.”

We Were Made for Purposeful Rest

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. We were made for purposeful rest. And both parts of that statement are important—that we were made for rest and that rest is meant to be purposeful.

In the desire to rid ourselves of the strict Jewish legalism about Sabbath-keeping, many followers of Jesus have actually gone too far: we don’t rest at all. Lauren Winner, who is a convert to Christianity from Judaism, writes that, “There is something in Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart….” Many of us simply don’t rest.

To be honest, that’s the way I am. Several weeks ago, I got toward the end of my work week and realized that I was only going to work 50 hours that week—and a wave of guilt washed over me for not working more. There was so much more to be done that I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll just work a little on my normal day off to get more done….” If that resonates with you—if you’re thinking similar things—you need to repent, you need to stop living and thinking that way. Because we weren’t made to work all of the time; we were made for purposeful rest.

Some of you are workaholics like me; and others of you are unequivocally not workaholics…. Rest is something that comes naturally to you; no one needs to remind you to clock out after your forty hours. No one needs to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. The lesson here for those folks is that they need to be more purposeful with their rest. Rest does not mean doing nothing—it doesn’t mean binging Netflix for 15 hours on your day off or watching whole seasons of Game of Thrones every weekend. No, the kind of rest that the Bible describes is more intentional than that.

Purposeful rest is rest that is God-focused and refreshing. It’s rest with intentionality, rest that’s restorative. It’s rest from work, but it’s also rest for work. Some of us have physically demanding jobs—maybe you’re a mechanic, plumber, or nurse. If so, at the end of your week, you need to refresh yourself by resting physically. When I was working as a handyman over the summers while I was in grad school, at the end of the week I needed a nap—I was physically exhausted. If that’s you, rest! Other work isn’t necessarily physically demanding, but is draining mentally, emotionally, or relationally. Perhaps you’re a teacher, counselor, or work in an office. Rest in those vocations may involve taking a nap too… but it may actually involve some physical exertion, like going to the gym or working on a project around your home. We are all made for purposeful rest—rest that is truly restorative for who we are and what we do.

Several Scriptural Suggestions for Successful Sabbathing

For the rest of this article, I want to share three ways to purposefully rest. Or, as the lead pastor at church might label them: “Several Scriptural Suggestions for Successful Sabbathing.” As we think about these practical ways to purposefully rest, I want to make clear that doing these things isn’t going to make Jesus love us any more—He already loves us! These are simply ways to live in love and obedience as a response to what Jesus has already done for us.

The first way to purposefully rest is to Plan to Rest. Whether you have trouble with resting or with being purposeful in your rest, it’s not going to happen without intentionally making the choice to purposefully rest. Every one of us has to decide when and how to Sabbath.

When God told Israel to Sabbath, he didn’t just leave it up to their whims, wants, and busy schedules. He actually gave pretty clear guidelines. Exodus 20 says, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. (Exodus 20.8-10, NIV)

Those are some pretty clear directions on when and how to rest. Notice how Israel was expected to set aside the time for Sabbath. Their rest was clearly planned.

My mom has always been a good example of planning her Sabbath rests. Even as a homeschooling mother of five kids who ran a farm, she would plan her life around rest and spending time with God. Mom would routinely get up at some ungodly hour of the morning to call and pray with her friends, to spend time searching the scriptures. She took intentional, restful time for herself and God amidst the busyness of her life. When my parents built their house, she actually had her closet specifically designed to be large enough to store her Sabbath-keeping books and journals. Mom didn’t just expect her resting to happen—she planned her Sabbaths and made sure they happened.

That’s what each of us needs to do as well: intentionally plan our rest. Years ago, I heard Pastor Eugene Peterson say that in order to make sure that he rested, he had to put it on his calendar. So that’s what I do. Months out, I schedule “rest” on my calendar. And then when something “important” comes up, I treat that scheduled rest like any other appointment or meeting—“Sorry, I’m not available then.”.

The second thing to do is Protect Your Rest. This goes hand in hand with planning our rest, because once we plan it, we have to protect it—that is, prevent it from being overrun by other seemingly important things.

In the Old Testament, there are some pretty serious protections placed around the Sabbath. Exodus 31.15 (NIV), for example, says For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. Sounds like the Sabbath is pretty important, huh? Similarly, Leviticus 23.3 (NIV) says There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

The Old Testament makes the significance of Sabbath rest quite clear—it’s something serious and needs to be treated as such. Likewise in the New Testament, the author of the letter to the Hebrews entreats followers of Jesus to continue observing the Sabbath: There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. (In other words, the Sabbath is still important, because God set the example of rest for us in his work of creation.) Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4.9-11, NIV) Let us make every effort to rest, the author of Hebrews writes. Let’s do whatever it takes to protect our rest.

The Practicalities of Rest

The world’s greatest fast food restaurant (don’t @ me) is a testament to this fact. Chick-fil-a is famously closed on Sundays. But few people know the explicit reason why Chick-fil-a is closed on Sundays. According to founder Truett Cathy, it’s so that “employees [can] set aside one day to rest and worship if they choose.” In other words, Chick-fil-a recognizes the importance of rest—so they protect that rest for their employees by simply not opening on Sundays.

We can all learn from Chick-fil-a on how to protect our rest. I have three really practical suggestions for how to do this.

  • First, protect your rest by making it so you cannot work. Some of us need to turn our phones off, mute our text conversations, and make it so we cannot check email on the weekend. Leave your computer at the office; use the mute function on your phone. Give it a try sometime—make it so you can’t work. You’ll find that the world can go on without your constant work.
  • Second, protect your rest with accountability. Tell others when you’ve planned your rest so that they can help keep you accountable to that. One of the former elders at my church does a good job of this. He knows that my Sabbath typically takes place on Mondays, so he checks in with me from time to time about how I’m resting—and he very intentionally does not call, text, or email me on Mondays. Find a few people who can help you remain accountable to your plans for purposeful rest.
  • Third, protect your rest by encouraging rest in others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—especially when it comes to rest. Don’t always expect other people to always be working. Give people grace when they don’t immediately respond to your messages. Be understanding when people take time for themselves and don’t attend your social event. Encourage the people in your life—your boss, coworkers, spouse, friends, anyone—to be purposeful with their rest.

In her book, Breathe: Making Room for Sabbath, Priscilla Shirer writes that, “God always and eternally intended the Sabbath to be a lifestyle—an attitude, a perspective, an orientation that enables us to govern our lives and steer clear of bondage.” Protecting our planned times of purposeful rest is a crucial part of making God-honoring rest part of the fabric of our lives.

The final way for us to purposefully rest is to Rest in Jesus.  One of my favorite things Jesus says comes in Matthew 11, where He says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30, NIV)

Jesus knows that life is hard. He knows that we’re weary and burdened by our work. He knows that we need rest. So he invites us to follow him, to take up his yoke. In the ancient world, a yoke was a symbol of servitude—something that represented the hardships and oppressions of life. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that following Him will make all of our work or troubles disappear. Rather, when we follow Him we have our heavy burdens replaced: first with rest and then with the yoke of Christ—the expectations of following Jesus.

Amidst all our busyness and work, don’t forget to stop and rest. Because we were made for purposeful rest.

What about you: What are your patterns of rest and Sabbath? How do you make sure you’re getting enough regular rest?

Endgame and the End

A version of this post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Disney+ is something of a temptation, especially for those of us who are Star Wars and Marvel nerds. Want to binge your absolute favorite shows? Now, I don’t even have to find my DVDs–they’re right on my phone or TV in HD perfection. This had lead (as you might expect) to my watching (and re-watching) my favorite films from the MCU. I only saw Endgame once in theaters, but have probably watched it four or five times now.1

On each subsequent rewatch, something stands out quite clearly during the first half of the film: Endgame says quite a bit about the process of grieving. Many of the film’s other tropes and lessons have been rigorously discussed (often in concert with other MCU films), but I have yet to see any substantive discussion about what Endgame communicates about how people grieve and respond to loss.2 In this article, I want to explore what Endgame tells us about the end and the various ways that people respond to death and loss.

The OG Avengers and Grief

It’s well noted that the six original Avengers survive Thanos’s snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. While many of the newer rising stars of the MCU crumble into dust, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all survive the snap. Each of the original Avengers (along with some other, albeit lesser,3 members of the team) is left to pick up the pieces of their shattered world. In the aftermath of their revenge visit to Thanos and the realization that their friends are really gone, the behavior of each OG Avenger follows a grief-type.

Captain America, whom we first see facilitating a support group in New York, uses his pain to help others come to terms with what has happened. Cap casts the grief of the snap as an opportunity for redemption, encouraging people to do the hard work of finding their “new normal” amidst loss (although he privately confides to Black Widow that he’s personally struggling to follow his own advice).

Similarly, Black Widow throws herself into her work, although it’s less of a support group than mission control for those who are left.4 We are not given much insight into Natasha’s interior life, but her focus on the ongoing mission and her desire to fix things (even seemingly unfixable under-ocean earthquakes) suggests that she’s throwing herself into her work to keep her from fixating on what has happened.

Although we don’t see Hawkeye’s reaction until later in the film, once he appears we learn rather quickly that he has chosen the path of anger. Clint expresses his grief through murderous rage (though directed only toward cartels and organized crime). He has lost his family and, since he cannot fix that, he lashes out against those who have survived who were not worthy of survival.

In response to the snap and (especially) the loss of Peter Parker, Iron Man doubles down on his commitment to family, devoting his life to the family he has left. In what are undoubtedly some of the more touching scenes of an already-emotional movie, we witness his clear love for his daughter Morgan. Tony realizes that he’s lost someone important, and he’s (initially, at least) not willing to risk what he has left.

Bruce Banner, a.k.a The Incredible Hulk, takes the path of self-betterment following the snap. He remakes himself, creating through hard work and dedication his new life as the “Credible Hulk.” Banner becomes a mix of the best parts of his two personas, maintaining his appearance as the muscled Hulk without the accompanying personality of the enormous green rage-monster.

And finally, we have Thor. After decapitating Thanos in a fit of rage, the God of Thunder manifests his feelings of failure and loss by trying to escape reality, very nearly losing himself in gluttony, entertainment, and the abandonment of responsibility. Although much of the pop culture response to “Fat Thor” has been one of approval, the character is clearly teetering on the edge of self-destructive tendencies and tremendous grief.

Some Takeaways

Our OG Avengers thus respond to their grief through the paths of helping others, immersing themselves in work, anger, recommitment to what’s important, self-improvement, and escapism. These portrayals are far too clear to be unintentional; clearly, we are meant to learn that there are many ways forward through the grief journey that follows trauma and loss. Each of these approaches are real ways that people deal with loss, pain, grief, and death in real life. Our favorite superheroes stand in our places for a moment, but these are paths that each of us can choose when we face loss in our lives.

Of course, we are also expected to see that not every manifestation of grief is a positive one. Although there is little explicit explanation, values are certainly being communicated. Cap’s desire to help others and Tony’s commitment to family are clearly models to be followed. The Hulk and Black Widow follow paths that are largely positive, although they may veer too close to clichés to be a real help to most grieving people. Finally, the routes of rage and escapism taken by Hawkeye and Thor only lead to negative consequences—roads that even superheroes ought not walk down for very long.

There are, of course, many other lessons that we can take from Avengers: Endgame when it comes to grief, loss, and the healing process. For instance, one extremely significant lesson that the film’s time-hop unfortunately obviates is that grief takes time. Five years after the snap, some people are on the right track—but everyone is still bearing the scars of what happened. There are no magic “get over it” moments with grief. Loss is loss. Death is death. Heartbreak is heartbreak. Time helps, but it doesn’t fully heal.

Similarly, the way that our heroes emerge from their various grief journeys is telling, as it’s only together that they can make sense of what happened and do something to fix it. This is, of course, one of the major themes of the entire MCU and Avengers franchise: we should face challenges to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness together, whether that togetherness entails winning or losing. And it’s in their togetherness that the Avengers truly make their last stand against Thanos—one imbued with the power of sacrificial love. From the Marvel-Trinity of Cap, Iron Man, and Thor tag-teaming Thanos to the climactic moment of the critical final battle, where everyone has a role to play, everyone supports one another, and one hero makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of all the others, love for one another is what brings an end to the grief of the snap.

There’s a lesson to be learned there too; not that movies based on comic books can’t deliver truly meaningful lessons or messages to a complex and contentious world. Things like love for another other can make our world less complex, less contentious, and less grief-filled than they are today. Now, isn’t that a story worth thinking about?


Notes

1 For the sake of full disclosure, I have long been a fan of Marvel’s creative storytelling, from their early use of intertextuality (or inter-screen-ality) to their character development (for heroes at least), and from their encapsulation of important moral lessons to their pop culture hilarity. Others have said it better than I, but the MCU is truly an impressive technical, storytelling, and economic accomplishment.

2 Here I should note that I have trawled the depths of the internet for any possible source. Additionally, of course, we must note that Spider-Man: Far from Home is itself in many ways an extension of this reflection on grief, as a major trope of the film is how Peter comes to terms with Mr. Stark’s death.

3 Deus ex Captain Marvel not withstanding.

4 The “throw yourself at your work” approach also seems to be the preferred option of the non-core Avengers as well, as each prioritizes focus on their mission during the grief stage of Endgame.

On Baptism (Part II)

This post continues my reflections on baptism, focusing on the covenantal and sacramental aspects of Christian baptism.

Covenantal Theology

Those beginning an exploration of historic baptismal theology will almost immediately run into the concept of covenantal theology. As commonly defined, a covenant is a formal agreement made between God and humans, typically one that only God is capable of upholding in its entirety. Christians of various stripes will interpret covenants and their implications differently, but, generally speaking, if God makes a covenant with his people, there are expectations that this agreement will remain important and in effect for a significant length of time. While there are numerous covenants established in the Old Testament, central to the Christian proclamation from earliest times is that Jesus has both established a New Covenant and done something to the Old. Now, the early church did not always agree on precisely what Jesus did to the Old Covenants. Some (like Marcion) thought Jesus did away with the Old in its entirety, while others (like the Judaizers and Ebionites) seem to have thought that the Old remained wholly in place. Yet the Great Church (from Acts 15 until today) took a nuanced middle way, albeit one which has been harder to clearly define, with some even arguing that Christ functionally did away with some portions of the Old and retained others.

In my thinking, the best way to think about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants is that Christ and his covenant expanded portions of the Old Covenants to a new people group—the nations (Gentiles)—while maintaining the Old Covenants for the Jewish People of God. While this is not the place to offer a complete explanation of how the Old and New Covenants interact, this viewpoint means that what God says and does in the Old Testament remain important, particularly his continual emphasis on setting apart (making Holy) his people and their commitment to living out his character. Even if the specifics of the old covenants are no longer required for those following Jesus, belonging to the covenant (i.e., being a child of God) remains important. Accordingly, the Christian Church has emphasized the sacraments—the visible manifestations of God’s grace—as a means of participating in the covenantal family of God and growing in holiness. Two of the earliest and clearest expressions of this transition come in Galatians 3 and Hebrews 8, where Christ’s work is contrasted to that which came before and participation in the covenant of Christ furthers the effects of the Old.

When it comes to thinking sacramentally, from the beginning baptism has held an important place in Christian practice. One need look no further than Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) to see that baptism plays a defining role in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. No doubt building upon Jesus’ command to baptize, in Romans 6:1-14 Paul argues that baptism into Christ equals baptism into the new covenant of life. Furthermore, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 connect old to new, suggesting that Christian baptism into Christ was prefigured in the acts and covenants of old. As explained by the early Church, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the Old Covenant was circumcision, something that happened to Jewish males at eight days of age. According to the New Testament, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the New Covenant is now baptism.

Sacramental Anthropology

So how does baptism work? Only through the grace of Christ (Rom. 3:22, 6:3-11; Eph. 2:8). Fundamentally, we confess with Saint Ambrose that baptism is a mystery rooted in the work of Christ: “See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.”1 If baptism is founded in the work of Christ, the ancient principle of ex opera operato serves as an important qualification about how we explain how baptism works. If baptism is a working apart from the worker, the act of baptism does not depend on the one performing the baptism nor does it depend on the person receiving baptism. That is, the effects of baptism depend not on the pastor or priest performing the ceremony, those in attendance, or even the one being baptized, but rather the one who has commanded and enacts the effects of baptism: God Himself. Gregory of Nazianzus summarizes this thinking well, writing:

“Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…. We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship.”2

As a gift of grace, the effects of baptism rely not on our work or obedience, but on God’s benevolence. As Gregory says, we “bring nothing of our own.” Thus, a full understanding of baptism is not necessary for baptism to forgive sins, seal Christians, or mark us as members of God’s family. I have a friend who was baptized as a believer one year and then felt the need to be re-baptized the following year because they had a better understanding of their faith. This way of thinking overemphasizes our role in baptism at the expense of recognizing Christ’s work in our lives through baptism (and other forms of grace). Baptism transforms human beings because of the grace of God, not because of the purity of the one baptizing or the understanding of the one being baptized. From this theological vantage, we can straightforwardly see baptism as a mysterious grace which can rightly be bestowed on those who might not fully understand its meaning, be they children or disabled adults.3

Of course, baptism is not some magical event that makes people sinless or removes the need for daily repentance. However, baptism does serve as a means by which our sins are forgiven and formally signifies our place in the Gathering of the People of God. This is true for both infant baptism and believer’s baptism, as both may rightly be understood as the process through which we covenant with God in Christ. Baptism marks us as members of God’s family, a belonging that ultimately depends on God’s gift of grace, bestowed on us through the power of the Holy Spirit and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Can we reject our baptisms? Certainly, in much the same way that we may accept or reject every instance of God’s grace. The first movement of all faith belongs to God (both in terms of the grace to make decisions as well as the grace of baptism); it is only subsequent to his gifting that we may respond. But we are asked to respond. Whatever our stage in life, we are called to accept and inhabit the grace offered us by God, whether that entails lifestyle change, identity formation, or both. Baptism presumes life in a community, along with its attendant accountability, maturation, and Christian service. This is true of believer’s baptism as well as infant baptism: no baptized person may live on their own or cease to confess the truth of Christ’s coming into the world as their savior. For those baptized before their teen/young adult years, this means going through a process of confirmation (the affirmation and acceptance of responsibility for their faith), manifesting the baptism of the Spirit. Baptized one-year olds, ten-year olds, and forty-year olds alike should view baptism as the beginning of the process of life in Christ, not its completion, and continue learning to love God and love people accordingly.

Conclusion

By the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, baptism marks Christians as members of the Triune God’s covenant family, affects the forgiveness of sins in our lives, and serves as a sign and seal of our salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-9; 1 Peter 3:18-21). Baptism should be extended to and recognized by all who belong to the family of God, whether by conversion or familial life, not just those with whom we stand in theological concord. For all followers of Christ, as Saint Irenaeus remarked, “Baptism is indeed the seal of eternal life.”4

O God, great Father, Lord and King!
Our children unto Thee we bring;
And strong in faith, and hope, and love,
We dare Thy steadfast Word to prove.

Thy covenant kindness did of old
Our fathers and their seed enfold;
That ancient promise standeth sure,
And shall while heaven and earth endure.

Look down upon us while we pray,
And visit us in grace today;
These little ones in mercy take
And make them Thine for Jesus’ sake.

While they the outward sign receive,
Wilt Thou Thy Holy Spirit give,
And keep and help them by Thy power
In every hard and trying hour.

Guide Thou their feet in holy ways:
Shine on them through the darkest days;
Uphold them till their life be past,
And bring them all to heaven at last.

~E. Embree Hoss

Many thanks to Joseph Prahlow, Samuel Prahlow, Benjamin Winter, and Nicholai Stuckwisch for their conversations and feedback with this article.


(1) Ambrose, De sacr. 2.2.6.
(2) Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 40.3-4.
(3) Here an objection based in history might be offered: should we baptize “pagans” against their wills? It seems here that a distinction should be drawn between baptizing those who are not (yet) capable of independent reflection and willing and those who are capable but remain resistant. Without delving too deeply into the longstanding debates over the human capacity to make choices pertaining to salvation (i.e., the predestination-freewill debate), there is an important functional difference between passive acceptance and active rejection.
(4) Irenaeus, Dem ap. 3:62.32.

MHT: Select Bibliography

Below is a select bibliography for the series I’ve been running for the past month on Method and Historical Theology. Any additional readings and resources that you have found useful would be appreciated.

Select Bibliography

Acton, John. “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History.” In Essays on Freedom and Power. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Berkofer, Robert. “The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice.” Pages 139-157 in The Postmodern History Reader. Edited by Keith Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. New York: Vintage, 1964. Continue reading

Method and Historical Theology: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Method and Historical TheologyThe perspective I have been outlining in this series does not to suggest that those who are not Christians cannot participate in historical truth, but rather the acknowledgement that wherever truth may be found is belongs to the Creator. Accordingly, all truly valuable work—be it academic scholarship, gardening, blacksmithing, or preaching—must stand in accordance with theological truth and be governed by it. The oft repeated dictum that theology involves “faith seeking understanding” is vital for this type of endeavor, for it reminds us that, although we make claims to the truth, the Truth is ultimately beyond our human capacities to fully understand. Conclusions, then, are necessarily tentative in the sense that the full Truth will only someday be revealed to us. Christians live in the tension of “already” and “not yet,” that Christ has come, but that He will come again in glory. Continue reading

MHT: Operating Assumptions

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Jesus - History and TheologyBuilding upon the methodological principles I have been outlining, I wish to briefly offer some of the operating assumptions of my work in historical theology. Historical theological study must always engage other voices and perspectives—there is no such thing as a “stand alone” presentation of the past. Engagement with other voices is generally most fruitful when assumptions and methodologies—those structures standing behind historical constructions—are engaged. History is different than the “lived past”, although historical theology can partially, perspectivally, and humbly speak about the past. The historical past, when invoked in the present, is always influenced by the purposes of the present. This is not to say that meaningful perspectives on the past cannot be offered, only that the context of the present influences any appeal to the past. Historical theology requires an ordered and academically rigorous approach, willing to investigate and engage truth claims of all types and origins, including those undertaking study of the Christian past. Texts remain the primary basis for historical theological work, and are to be considered within their broad historical, theological, social, linguistic, and literary contexts. Finally, historical theology must be understood as the integration of history and theology, the rigorous intellectual methodology of the study of the past—complete with its problematizations of language and context—combined with the humble practice of seeking understanding of a transcendent God and His action in the world. Continue reading

MHT: Applying Historical Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Apostolic FathersWhat does a methodology invested in both history and theology look like? First, this perspective suggests an examination of the past for the sake of the future. This means conceiving of historical theology as a tool box for investigating, understanding, and applying the points of connection between history, Biblical exegesis, and the traditions of the Church. Christian dogma cannot be justified by tradition, history, exegesis, or experience alone; instead, all these forces should converge to support the great mission of the Great Church.[58] Second, this method suggests that historical theology must become engaged with ecumenical concerns, not disregarding the boundaries of historic and current theological differences, but transcending those discussions for the sake of common causes. In particular, historical theology which affirms a dialectical interpretation of change may help differentiate between theological difference and theological error, allowing for divergences between Christian bodies to be understood as complimentary rather than contradictory.[59] Similarly, a historical theology rooted in history and theology has value for interreligious dialogue. For example, the theological similarities between Augustine and the Advaita Vedanta philosopher Ramanuja[60] offers rich opportunities for Hindu-Christian dialogue on conceptions of God and reality. Continue reading

MHT: Integration of History and Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

types-of-theology1A final—and supremely important—methodological point for the study of historical theology engages the relationship of history and theology. Existing scholarship often takes a historical or contextual approach to the study of history. And while there is nothing wrong with this approach, it lacks something, especially in situations where assumptions of philosophical naturalism critique how history cannot transcend a single person or perspective. As was indicated above, historical consciousness first arose within the context of Christian theology and history. After the Enlightenment, however, this influence of theology on the study of the past waned. The idea that history and theology are distinct and irreconcilable fields of study is challenged by a historical theological approach that takes seriously the methods of history and the invigorating influence of a God involved in human history. In this perspective, history comprises a cooperative agent in Christian theological study, and events and changes in the course of history must be examined and accounted for by both history and theology. History and theology are co-dependent in Christian historical theology, for Christian knowledge cannot distain history, nor can history reject Christian knowledge, but must acquire the “collective experience of Christ verified and realized in us.”[55] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Context

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Context is KingThe fourth important factor in the study of historical theology involves a wide investigation of contexts. While Berkofer somewhat problematizes a context furnished by “thick description,”[50] the type of context sought here does not involve the assimilation of historical contexts to recognizable patterns, but the engagement of the past—as much as possible—on its own terms, using its own language and grammar. This need for context applies not only to historical events, but also judgments and evaluations of history; in the words of Acton, historians themselves should be “guilty until proven innocent.”[51] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Order

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

OxfordThe third methodological foundation for historical theology incorporates aspects of an ordered approach to the study of the past. This is the great legacy of the Modern era on the study of history: a scientific approach to history should be consistently, broadly, and objectively (as possible) applied. History is not apologetics, though it may be employed for apologetic purposes. One should not fail to subject one’s own religious beliefs or practices to the consequences of historical methodology,[43] although, as Schaff notes, this is not quite the same thing as assuming that all viewpoints are equally problematized by historical study.[44] Especially important is nomenclature, which must be appropriately descriptive, adequately precise, and sufficiently flexible to address that which is being studied. Marc Bloch found that history often received its vocabulary from its object of study and that this phenomenon must be critically evaluated as another form of historical evidence to be weighed.[45] He points to the term “Middle Ages” as a prime example of this: the term clearly implies a form of judgment on the period between the wisdom of the ancients and the return to learning in Renaissance. Metanarrative tools should also be used in the study of history, not as universally informing worldviews, but as tools for observing and understanding history. Continue reading