Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Even the casual observer of mainline Protestantism in the United States knows that these denominations are suffering a decline in membership. But recent polls suggest that a vast majority of Americans believe in a “higher power” and that many identify themselves as Christian without claiming membership in a church body. What accounts for this disparity between acknowledgment of a higher power and church membership? In his most recent book, Before God, George Stroup suggests that the modern West is characterized by an eclipse of life before God rather than an outright rejection of God (p. 2). This eclipse casts its shadows over both the secular world and the life of the church. To address this problem, Stroup seeks to define life before God and to account for its decline in contemporary church and society (p. x).
That human life is lived before God is a basic presupposition of the Old and New Testaments. God created human beings to live before God and one another. God issues commandments to give structure to human life before God and neighbor. Sin in all its forms is a turning away from God resulting in the loss of life before God. Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, is the example of true humanity, of a life lived in word and deed wholly before God. Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace in Christ, through which sinners are reconciled to God and become a new creation. The only proper response to this gift of grace is gratitude, expressed as praise, thanksgiving, and renewal of life before God and neighbor. This gift of grace is central to understanding how life is lived before God. The gift of grace is the work of the Spirit, who works faith in the hearing of the Word and brings believers into Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. It is also the Spirit who sanctifies reconciled sinners, turning them back to God and outward toward the neighbor. Faith is inseparable from practice, from living a Christian life, the end of which is unceasing praise before God.
This brief synopsis of Stroup’s narrative demonstrates his indebtedness to the Reformed tradition. The structure of his argument is intentionally modeled on the Heidelberg Catechism, with its emphasis on the themes of sin, grace, and gratitude (pp. ix-x, 2). This debt to the Heidelberg Catechism also illustrates Stroup’s preference for the theology of the Reformation period, a preference that colors his method throughout the book. There is a historical dimension to Stroup’s central argument that the modern period is characterized by an eclipse of life before God. Each chapter follows a similar pattern. First, the theme of the chapter is traced to biblical texts in search of a basic definition. Second, each theme is presented in its Reformation form, especially in its Calvinist expression. Finally, Stroup shows how the themes have been altered in the modern period in such a way that contributes to a diminution of life before God. In each chapter the weakening of the central theme and the corresponding eclipse are traced to the Enlightenment and further developments of the 19th century.
Stroup is careful not to condemn these movements wholesale, as he does credit the Enlightenment for its contributions to human rights and political freedoms, for example (pp. 33-34). But in every case he can trace the eclipse of life before God to this period, particularly its rejection of traditional social, political, and intellectual authority (p. 33). The root cause of these rejections, he suggests, is the so-called “turn to the self,” which he equates with God’s removal from the center to the periphery of reality (p. 32). Stroup is certainly correct in his conclusion that the 18th and 19th centuries mark a major “sea change” in the history of theology (p. 32). He admits the reasons for such a sea change are extraordinarily complex, but he offers only a brief discussion of the Cartesian cogito (p. 32) to account for the “turn to the self.” What is missing is a sustained discussion of some of the major events in the modern period that contributed to such a fundamental shift, such as the religious wars of the 17th century and the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the rise of the empirical sciences as well as the science of history, the “discovery” of ancient religious and cultural traditions as a result of exploration and colonialism, and the suspicion of supernaturalism and claims for Christian absolutism resulting from a combination of these events.
Despite the lack of a sustained discussion of the historical and intellectual forces that shaped the modern period and their contributions to the weakening of life before God, Stroup’s theological conclusions remain valid. While he is at his best when defining his themes according to the biblical witness and Reformation theology, his proposals for retrieving life before God within the shadows of the eclipse are quite persuasive. The final chapter, entitled “Presence, Absence, and Beforeness” seeks to provide directions for living within these shadows.
Stroup asks whether life before God requires God’s abiding presence (p. 173). In light of the eclipse of life before God, he also asks whether this deterioration is the sole responsibility of humanity’s turning away from God or whether it is a result of God’s absence (p. 174). Stroup again turns to scripture and the Reformation for the answer. He notes that scripture attests to God’s absence as well as God’s presence and suggests that God’s hiddenness must not be understood as God’s punishment for sin (pp. 175-176). Rather, hiddenness is part of God’s nature. This hiddenness of God is a significant theme in Martin Luther’s thought as well, particularly in his theology of the cross. In light of the reality of God’s hiddenness, Stroup offers three reasons why life before God does not necessarily require the immediate presence of God. First, God is Trinitarian and eschatological. Second, God is still “coming” and Christians are always “on the way.” Third, God’s presence is always a gift of the Spirit (pp. 181-182). This gift of the Spirit especially characterizes the Lord’s Supper, but it also shapes the entirety of human life before God. Christians live before God only insofar as the Spirit works faith, brings them into God’s presence, and sustains them in their lives before God and neighbor with sanctifying grace.
The final section of this last chapter concerns Stroup’s proposal for living in the midst of the eclipse of life before God. What is needed is a comprehensive framework informing all aspects of the Christian life (p.196). The modern period, he suggests, is marked by a loss of this framework, a divorce of faith and practice. Biblical and theological illiteracy, even within the church, play an important role in the loss of this framework (p. 199). The problem in the modern church is precisely the dissolution of faith and practice. Many Christians no longer equate the language of faith with its corresponding form of life. Stroup, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, suggests that language structures activity. “Language games”, as Wittgenstein calls them, are communal, words themselves are tools that require knowledge of their proper use, and playing a language game requires participation in its particular form of life (p. 198). Stroup likens these language games to a “grammar” of Christian life, an overarching framework of meaning uniting faith and practice. Without this grammar or framework human life remains in the shadows and is not lived before God. Without this framework the unity of faith and practice dissolves, prayer loses its force, liturgy becomes ritual for ritual’s sake, worship becomes entertainment, and the language of the bible and Christian faith loses its power to form and guide life before God.
Extending this discussion of language games to life before God, Stroup suggests that the first step on the way out of the shadows is to learn the language of Christian faith, its texts, its stories, and its rituals (pp. 198-199). The second, more important step, is to live the Christian form of life that is shaped by this language, nourished along the way by Word and Sacrament, by the God before whom we live and move and have our being.
While one may take issue with Stroup’s historical arguments for the eclipse of life before God, his observations of the results are accurate and his proposals are compelling. His summons to renewed attention to the grammar of Christian faith and the corresponding form of life will serve not only pastors but also Christian educators and laypersons in the journey out of the shadows and into the light of a life lived with joy and thanksgiving before God.
Brent A. R. Hege
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING 2006, VOL. 6, #1.
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